Look out, there, you young whipper-snappers – (anyone under the age of 60.) Pursuing exciting and noteworthy activities like crime-solving isn’t limited to those more youthful people. Your elders are still learning and finding new avenues and adventures too. Here’s a surprise for you. You grow in wisdom exponentially when you pass the half-century mark, as we see in so many of the senior sleuths in today’s fiction.
There is a surging interest in books with senior sleuths that may be generated by those who have raised their children to adulthood, retired or are semi-retired from their vocations, professions, and jobs, and still have active minds and bodies. They enjoy reading about contemporaries in fiction with the same attributes of time, curious minds, and the inclination to fit puzzles together, and not just on a tabletop.
Or perhaps this new appreciation for exciting possibilities after Social Security and Medicare kick in is on the rise among the youngster (under age fifty) who want something to look forward to beyond the antiquated concept that life slows down after sixty. Then it’s all dreary golf, bingo, and blue plate specials – while you wait to die. The authors of the older sleuth mysteries squash that concept with humor and wisdom.
Our elderly protagonists may stumble in their quests to solve crimes, but it doesn’t faze them because they know making mistakes is part of growing older gracefully. They’re stronger for having experienced the fullness of life with pain, sorrow, joy, failure, accomplishment, and everything else that goes with it.
Unlike many Asian, Native American Indian, and African cultures where elders are considered people of greater wisdom to be respected and consulted, Americans, obsessed with the youth and beauty fetish, fear aging and often shun aging.
In Greece, ‘old man’ is not a derogatory term. In Greek-American cultures, old age is honored and celebrated, and respect for elders is central to the family.” The African proverb, ‘A village without the elderly is like a well without water, ‘expresses their cultural approach to old age.
The importance of older generations is emerging in our society as Americans continue living longer. As noted by Alison Bryant, Ph.D., senior vice president of research at AARP (a nonprofit organization focused on civic engagement for people 50 years and over), “As Americans continue living longer, society must redefine what it means to get older. It’s encouraging that most older adults feel positive about their lives…. But we have work to do to disrupt damaging negative associations around aging.”
We hope that America’s cultural view of the beauties and blessings of growing older is improving, and it’s feasible that the surge of interest in the senior sleuths of fiction will help. Life often does imitate art, and the adventures and lives of fictitious characters will help turn younger Western attitudes into a more positive recognition of all seniors have to offer.
In the Housekeeper Mystery Series, Mrs. B., the protagonist, is a feisty, energetic, strong-willed, and outspoken senior citizen who has raised her children to adulthood, battled and beaten breast cancer, then lost her beloved husband. In book one, I’m Going to Kill that Cat, on a lark, Mrs. B. answers an ad for a new housekeeper needed at St. Francis de Sales. She is invited to interview for the position and is hired by the pastor, Father Melvyn Kronkey. Thinking her new vocation was just the care and upkeep of the priests and the rectory, she could never have imagined the new life of solving crimes she’d be thrust into when she rang the doorbell of the rectory.
Below, I have included several links to a wide range of mysteries featuring senior sleuths, the motivations of the authors who wrote them, and information on cultures that deeply respect age.
And remember: We are older, but we are not dead. Not by a long shot!
I’m a little out of practice being part of a crowd. This last year has taken me down some unforeseen roads, avenues that are only now leading back to some normal semblance of my daily life.
More on that in a minute.
Speaking of crowds, I recently attended Malice Domestic (a mystery readers and writers conference) and also served as a speaker at an event at a gorgeous library in the Texas Hill Country town of Kerrville. May has meant time talking with readers about the stories they loved, connecting with other writer friends whose work I admire, and basking in the joy that is having endless conversations about the nuances of storytelling, structure, and world building.
Yes, I’m still willing to have the plotter/pantser debate. Also, I’m pro Oxford comma.
As I get my groove back attending writing conferences and other book events, I realized something.
I missed these people.
Not only as a writer but also as a reader. Reading has always been an important lifeline for me, especially in my youth when I was moving almost every year to a new school as part of an Air Force family. But books were a particularly important part of my survival toolbox once 2022 kicked down my door. It was the works of many talented authors that supported me, in part, through this last year.
Let me explain with a small detour about a big topic:
My younger sister had a horrific beginning to 2022, starting with a perfect storm of medical events culminating in her experiencing (according to one of her many doctors) “too many strokes to count.” She then fought her way through an entire year of re-learning to do everyday things, learning to do some things differently, and keeping her razor-sharp sense of humor intact. I was grateful that I was able to spend weeks at a time with her during her hospital stays and then assisting in adjustments to being at home as she reclaimed her life. I’m sure I smothered her with too much attention and hovering, and I’m grateful that she trusted me enough to be a part of her recovery.
Did I mention that she was also pregnant at the time? As a surrogate? (The baby is, remarkably, completely healthy, and lovely.) And then she needed to have open-heart surgery? My sister is a fierce force of nature. Her recovery has been astounding, hard won, and also complicated in many ways. She has shared her story far more eloquently than I ever could—it’s her story after all. She’s also a gifted writer.
While many people have followed her incredible journey—and she has been so graciously open with the difficult details of her recovery—this is the first time I’ve been able to write about it in any format. For someone who makes a living with words, this last year left me speechless.
And then towards the end of 2022, I had my own health scare, which required tests, a biopsy and then surgery. My recovery was a good one, and I was able to enjoy the holidays with my family. At this point, I wanted nothing more than to see 2022 in my rear-view mirror. When I talked to my sister about how my scar would heal and how visible it would be, she told me, “Be proud of that scar. You earned it.”
During this last year of medical emergencies and the restless waiting of recoveries, my own writing simply wouldn’t come. I was immersed in traveling, caregiving and trying to keep myself together. I simply had no space for writing stories—I was too busy living this one—but I did find comfort in reading. I read short stories, novellas, and novels, grateful for these authors who gave me the gift of their created worlds. I needed a break from my spinning universe, and immersing myself in a book in the late evening hours gave me respite that, to this day, I know helped me through it all.
I started this year giving my calendar some serious side-eye, afraid to make any plans for fear of the next crisis to come. But then, while walking down a favorite stretch of beach in Port Aransas with my husband over New Year’s weekend, I spotted a beautiful shell. A lighting whelk, nestled in the sand. In my twenty-five years of walking that beach, I’ve never come across a shell so lovely. I took it as a sign that maybe it would be okay to consider better things would come, that being afraid of hope might be energy wasted. That shell sits on my desk as a reminder that the future holds promise as well as challenges.
I resumed making plans for the year, attending conferences, book events and celebrations. Part of me fears declaring such plans to the universe, but then again, if anything happens, I hope my writing community will wait for me until I can return. Until then, I’ll do the best I can with a book on the nightstand.
Sometimes, it’s the little things.
Laura Oles is the award-winning author of the Jamie Rush mystery series. Her debut mystery, Daughters of Bad Men, was an Agatha nominee, a Claymore Award finalist and a Killer Nashville Readers’ Choice nominee. Depths of Deceit, her second novel, was named Best Mystery of 2022 by Indies Today. She is also a Writers’ League of Texas Award finalist. Her work has appeared in crime fiction anthologies, consumer magazines and business publications. She loves road trips, bookstores and any outdoor activity that doesn’t involve running. https://lauraoles.com
What’s your favorite place to read? A certain chair? The one with a lamp that shines on your book, not in your eyes? Perhaps a ferryboat seat, where you glance up at the horizon, then down at your book? On a plane, or train?
When I was young our house had an elm tree in the back yard which was not only climbable, but offered two branches that stuck out at the perfect angle for a lounging pre-adolescent. Even better—the lounger was invisible from the house. I could scramble up, arrange myself, open my book—and be left unfound, undisturbed, for some time.
A later joy was climbing on the New Haven RR in Boston after final exams (Chaucer, Shakespeare), armed with the latest James Bond and the very biggest Hershey bar with almonds, and being rocked south for miles along the coastline. Uninterrupted.
And I confess to rereading books. I further confess to rereading children’s books. Maybe a more accurate word is: revisiting. At least every two years, I pick up Kipling’s Kim, finding my way to the part where Kim guides his Tibetan lama, who seeks a sacred river, on a pilgrimage into the high deodar forests of the Himalayas. I can almost smell the trees. There Kim steals the Russian spies’ notes––his own initiation into the Great Game. Even more satisfying? The long afternoon where, exhausted, he is “taken apart” by Eastern massage and finally stumbles out, recovered, to find his lama at the brink of—well, no spoilers.
Why this gravitational pull of favorite children’s books?
Maybe because the best children’s books feature enterprise, surprise, disguise. And—most important––the discovery of identity.
Consider The Sword in the Stone, where Merlin transforms Wart into various animals (badger, owl, fish) who teach him survival techniques (“put your back into it!”). And magic! Giants! Griffins! The Queen of Air and Darkness! (See volume below–griffin looming behind tree.) One favorite moment? When Merlin transforms Wart to a raptor—a small merlin––who must sit for desperate minutes during his formal initiation, near the maddened and perilous Peregrine. Why does Wart need Merlin’s special tutelage? Because of his identity, which he and we will finally discover.
Others I still pull off the shelf: The Wind in the Willows, especially Mole’s tearful return home, where he recognizes his true self.
Also Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising. Maurice Sendak’s Nutshell Library – memorizing all the poems. I sneak back to Harry Potter—a feast of enterprise, surprise, disguise, and Harry’s search for his own identity. Occasionally I return to Lord of the Rings––especially the battle for Gondor. You’ll note I missed out on Jack London and many others. But there’s always The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—remember that wondrous moment when Lucy slips through the back of the wardrobe, past all the mothballed coats…into magic? Into the snowy landscape where she meets Mr. Tumnus the faun? Into the realm where––as Lucy later discovers––she is Queen Lucy?
You have your favorites. So do our collective children and grandchildren. Bookstore shelves still offer children tales of enterprise, surprise, disguise—and characters discovering their own identities.
And fortunately, children’s books needn’t follow the 1930 Detection Club’s 10 Rules for Writing a Mystery. Rule #2: “All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.” Following Rule #2 would let out magic, of course, and its enormous space for imagination. (If you, like me, crave an occasional touch of magic for grown-ups, try Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt. amzn.to/44iIoVj)
As a mystery writer/reader I usually write about mystery. But thinking lately about the bibliophile’s favorites—favorite reading spots, favorite chairs, favorite characters––has sent me down a different path. Why reread? Wait––why revisit?
What is it about the end of Kim, or the plight of Frodo and Samwise in Shelob’s lair, or Harry Potter’s first moment on his broom, learning how good he is at Quidditch––that whispers, “read it again!”
I reread mysteries too. Have you reread a Dorothy Sayers, a Ngaio Marsh, a Sherlock Holmes? Or John le Carré? How many times have you read Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy, or Smiley’s People? (Come on, spy thrillers are part of the mystery-thriller-spy novel genre.) And why do we reread le Carré? One character in particular: George Smiley.
Smiley first appears on page 1 of chapter 1, titled “A Brief History of George Smiley,” in Call for the Dead, le Carré’s first book, published in 1961. Smiley’s marriage to the aristocratic Lady Ann Sercomb has ended when she abandoned him, and he’s described as follows: “Short, fat and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.”
We learn of his deep love of 17th century German literature, his success at Oxford, his recruitment by MI-6, his dangerous service abroad as a spy in WWII. Not a commanding figure, no. But le Carré allows us to glimpse his sharp mind, his penetration, his ability to absorb all he hears. Smiley’s work as an intelligence officer provides him “with what he had once loved best in life: academic excursions into the mystery of human behaviour, disciplined by the practical application of his own deductions.”
Smiley appears next in A Murder of Quality (1962), where Smiley’s solution to the murder rests on a scathing critique of the snobbishness of British public schools (le Carré despised his own experience at such a school).
By the time we reach Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), Smiley has been put out to grass at MI-6 under the new regime headed by Bill Haydon, who has seduced Smiley’s wife Ann and taken over London Station after causing the bitter dismissal of Control as its head.
In Tinker, Tailor, Smiley is plucked out of retirement to interview a somewhat dubious British agent who claims the Russians may have placed a mole inside MI-6. Here’s Smiley, listening to the agent’s tale:
“He sat leaning back with his short legs bent, head forward, and plump hands linked across his generous stomach. His hooded eyes had closed behind the thick lenses. His only fidget was to polish his glasses on the silk lining of his tie, and when he did this, his eyes had a soaked, naked look that was embarrassing to those who caught him at it.”
Le Carré’s letter to Sir Alec Guinness (3 March 1978) appears in A Private Spy / The Letters of John le Carré, at 213. He tells Sir Alec:
“Apart from plumpness, you have all the other physical qualities: a mildness of manner, stretched taut, when you wish it, by an unearthly stillness and an electrifying watchfulness. In the best sense, you are uncomfortable company, as I suspect Smiley is. An audience wishes––when you wish it––to take you into its protection. It feels responsible for you, it worries about you. I don’t know what you call that kind of empathy, but it is very rare, & Smiley and Guinness have it: when either of you gets his feet wet, I can’t help shivering.”
I love that “as I suspect Smiley is.” Does the author’s own speculation about George Smiley explain, in part, why we readers become so attached to this character? What drives us to Smiley’s side? Is it his apparent ineffectualness, his vulnerability, his stillness, his watchfulness, entwined with our certainty that he will somehow keep going?
Not until 1979 in Smiley’s People does Smiley achieve final vindication, catching the Russian master-spy who conceived the long set of steps that led to Haydon’s seduction and Control’s fall. At the climax, we (along with Smiley and his fellow spy Peter Guillam) await the possible arrival of the Russian in cold war Berlin, at the crossing point from East Germany. Will the spy make it across the bridge? Guillam asks what cover the Russian will use:
Smiley sat opposite him across the little plastic table, a cup of cold coffee at his elbow. He looked somehow very small inside his overcoat.
“’Something humble,” Smiley said. “Something that fits in. Those who cross here are mostly old-age pensioners, I gather.’ He was smoking one of Guillam’s cigarettes and it seemed to take all his attention.”
At book’s end, we are waiting with Smiley. It’s cold there by the Berlin bridge. I expect Smiley’s feet are wet. Like the author, “I can’t help shivering.” When we know a character’s vulnerabilities, we begin to perceive true identity.
For Smiley, for all the characters created by their authors with such vividness and such vulnerability that we seem to feel what they feel, for such characters–I reread. Yes, the better word is revisit: I go back just to be sure the characters are still there, still available, still waiting quietly on the shelf. And, yes, just as good as I thought they were.
I’d love to hear your favorites (reading spots, children’s books) and the favorite characters you…revisit.
Author: Helen Currie Foster
I live north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. I’m deeply curious, more every day, about human history and prehistory and how, uninvited, the past keeps crashing the party. I’ve loved the Texas Hill Country since my first sight of it as a teenager. Artesian springs, Cretaceous fossils, rocky landscapes hiding bluegreen water in the valleys. After law school (where I grew fascinated with water and dirt) I practiced environmental law and regulatory litigation for thirty years––then the character Alice suddenly appeared in my life. I’m active with Austin Shakespeare and Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime. And I’m grateful to the readers who enjoy the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series!
This post doesn’t aim to inform, persuade, or entertain. It’s more of an observation, a meditation, a rumination, a mulling over, a puzzling. A rambling through recent events and old secrets. A mystery.
I. The Story
Crime fiction writer Anne Perry died in Los Angeles on April 10. She was eighty-four. A native of New Zealand and long-time resident of Scotland, she published her first mystery novel, The Cater Street Hangman, in 1979. Her latest, The Fourth Enemy, was published the week before her death. A final novel,A Traitor Among Us, will appear in September 2023.
In all, Perry published over a hundred books: the Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series (32 novels); the Daniel Pitt series (6 novels); the William Monk series (24 novels); the Elena Standish series (5 novels); the World War I series (5 novels); the Christmas Stories (20 novellas); the Christmas Collections (6 anthologies); a fantasy series (2 novels); the Timepiece series (4 novellas for young adults with dyslexia); standalone novels (7); and three volumes of nonfiction. She also contributed to and edited four short story anthologies. To date, over 26 million copies of her books have been sold.
In 2014, freelance writer Lenny Picker wrote in Publisher’s Weekly, “Quantity for Perry has not come at the cost of quality. She’s won major mystery awards, including an Edgar and two Anthonys, which demonstrate the esteem of fellow writers and fans alike.” At the 2009 Malice Domestic, she received the Agatha Award for lifetime achievement.
“Her belief in free will,” writes Picker, “allows Perry to hope for spiritual progress, both for herself and for humanity at large.”
He continues, “Perry’s writings are an effort to facilitate such progress. Through mystery and fantasy, she aspires to make a difference in her readers’ lives, by teaching them, in her words, ‘something of the human condition—a wisdom and compassion, an understanding of life that enables feeling empathy for people whose paths may be very different from our own.’”
Crime author Anne Perry, who, as a teenager helped murder her friend’s mother, has died aged 84.
The writer served five years in prison from the age of 15 for bludgeoning Honorah Mary Parker to death.
Perry died in a Los Angeles hospital, her agent confirmed. She had been declining for several months after suffering a heart attack in December. . . .
Her first novel, The Cater Street Hangman, was published in 1979. She went on to write a string of novels across multiple series, which collectively sold 25 million copies around the world.
Three major British writers of crime fiction die. They were contemporaries. They were prolific. Their novels received both popular and critical acclaim.
One major British news outlet reports the deaths. But the third report expends over 300 words before focusing on the author’s literary career–and then devotes only ninety-nine words to her books.
P. D. James lived an exemplary life, untouched by notoriety. The most serious offense I’ve found reported about Ruth Rendell is that on her first writing job, reporting for a newspaper in Essex, ” . . . she was forced to resign after filing a story about a local sports club dinner that she hadn’t attended. Her report failed to mention that the after-dinner speaker had died half-way through the speech.”
But Anne Perry was a murderer. In 1954, when she was fifteen, she helped to bludgeon her best friend’s mother to death. Convicted, she served five years in a New Zealand prison, was released under a new name and identity, joined her family in the United Kingdom, and worked for twenty years in what her New York Times obituary refers to as “less creative fields,” before becoming a writer. In 1994, forty years after the murder, and fifteen years after the publication of her first novel, her secret became public. She has since spoken about it in interviews. Although the Personal Biography on her official website omits reference to the crime, she has never claimed innocence. In the reporter’s judgment, Perry’s criminal past was of more import than her years as a literary superstar.
III. Social Media
Readers, too, judge. So do other writers.
Comments on Perry’s Facebook page express admiration for her and sadness at her passing. Elsewhere, however, reactions are mixed. A paraphrased and truncated sample of what I’ve seen on social media follows:
Perry was a gracious person and a brilliant writer. She should be remembered that way.
She was a murderer. She should have written in a different genre. A murderer shouldn’t write about murder.
Reading her books and knowing what she did–it makes me feel weird.
She didn’t celebrate murder in her books. She brought murderers to justice.
Can writers choose what they write? Choose what they’re good at? Perry tried writing historical fiction but didn’t succeed. Should she have refused to do what she did best?
She had to make a living.
It doesn’t matter what she was; it’s what she became that counts.
She served her time, paid her debt to society.
Five years isn’t enough to make up for murder.
She behaved badly at the trial. She laughed. She’s never expressed remorse.
Maybe bringing criminals to justice in her fiction was an attempt to atone.
It’s impossible to atone for murder.
What about redemption? Don’t you believe in redemption?
When you buy her books, you’re supporting her and condoning murder.
She made a major contribution to the mystery genre and to the culture.
She was a great person.
She read some of my work and offered advice. She was very helpful.
If she’d been a man who committed a brutal murder, would the public let her off so easily?
I love her books. I don’t care what she did before.
She was a murderer.I’ve never read her books and never will read them.
Her books raised awareness of social issues.
It’s a shame reporters dredge up all that business about the murder. That shouldn’t be her legacy.
Leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge
To prick and sting her.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interrèd with their bones.
All right–Shakespeare wrote those last two, and he didn’t post them on social media. But they’ve been looping through my brain over the past week, so I thought I’d throw them in.
IV. The Questions
The social media exchange is about more than just Anne Perry. It concerns how we view the relationship between artists and their art.
How do we separate writers from what they’ve written? Can we? Should we try?
And what do readers have the right to expect of writers, beyond words on the page? Do good writers have to be Good People? Just how good do they have to be? When people who’ve done bad deeds write good books, are we wrong to read them?
If writers and their books are inextricably linked, and reading is wrong, how much imperfection should we tolerate before we take those books off our To Be Read list? (Should books by Bad People be pulled from library shelves?*)
Or maybe reading isn’t the issue–maybe it’s money.
When we purchase books by writers whose past acts are abhorrent to us, and thus support them financially, do we condone their crimes? Money talks, but what exactly does it say?
Does time matter? What if a writer is dead, and the crime is long past, and our purchase instead supports heirs, publishers, booksellers–are we still enablers?
Is there a flip side? Do writers–artists–have a responsibility to the public? When they behave unacceptably–in Perry’s case, an understatement–should they expect the public to embrace their creations on merit alone?
Had Perry become a painter or sculptor, would the discussion be different?
Does Art stand on merit alone, independent of its creator?
Should there be a discussion at all? Are these questions a waste of time, gray cells, and energy, and not worth the pixels they’re written in?
Is Hamlet correct:
There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.
V. One Answer
To Perry, at least, the issue was more than academic. The New York Times obituary quotes from the 2009 documentary film Anne Perry: Interiors:
“‘In a sense it’s not a matter — at the end — of judging,’ she said in the documentary. ‘I did this much good and that much bad. Which is the greater?’
“’It’s in the end, Who am I? Am I somebody that can be trusted? Am I someone that is compassionate, gentle, patient, strong?’ She mentioned other traits: bravery, honesty, caring. ‘If you’re that kind of person — if you’ve done something bad in the past, you’ve obviously changed.’
“She concluded, ‘It’s who you are when time’s up that matters.‘”
Sources–And possibly a summing-up of everything that comes before:
Leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge
To prick and sting her.
William Shakespeare, Hamlet, I, v
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interrèd with their bones
– William Shakespeare,Julius Caesar, III, ii
Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is
nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it
so. – William Shakespeare, Hamlet, II, ii
*Librarians select books and materials based on their reading of multiple reviews published in professional journals, without regard to the Goodness or Badness of the authors. It’s a matter of professional ethics.
I’ve been reading quite a few headlines about the new Artificial Intelligence writing apps that burst onto the scene in November of 2022. Reviews have been mercurial. Some say is the end of our ability to think. Others say it is the savior of our intellectual future.
I’m a curious person, so I decided to give it a go. I joined ChatGPT via chatopenAI.com, and put in the following prompt:
“Compare books by K.P. Gresham and J.D. Robb.”
(Of course, I chose J.D. Robb—she’s my favorite author. Just once I wanted to see my name and her name in the same sentence!)
Here are excerpts from ChatGPT’s response:
J.D. Robb and K.P. Gresham are both authors who write mystery novels, but their books differ in several ways.
J.D. Robb’s books are primarily crime and suspense novels, featuring a recurring cast of characters led by the protagonist, Eve Dallas, a New York City police detective…
K.P. Gresham’s books, on the other hand, are typically set in small towns in Texas and deal with more personal, often domestic, crimes…
Another difference between the two authors is their approach to character development. J.D. Robb’s books are centered around a recurring cast of characters, including Eve Dallas and her husband, Roarke, who are well-developed and have complex backstories that are gradually revealed throughout the series. K.P. Gresham’s books, on the other hand, feature a different set ofcharacters in each novel, with some recurring characters that show up occasionally.
In summary… While both authors are skilled at creating engaging and suspenseful stories, their books differ in terms of genre, writing style, setting, and character development.
Okay! I’ll take that. But there was a hiccup in my info: I do not have a different set of characters in each novel. My mysteries feature Pastor Matt Hayden and his cronies in every book.
I responded to the post: “I thought K.P. Gresham’s books feature Pastor Matt Hayden and his friends and family.”
Excerpts from ChatGPT’s Response:
You are correct, and I apologize for my previous response. K.P. Gresham’s books do indeed feature Pastor Matt Hayden and his friends and family. I was mistaken in my previous response, and I appreciate you bringing this to my attention.
“K.P. Gresham’s mystery novels, including “Murder in the Second Pew,” “Dying for a Change,” and “Murder in the Choir Loft,” are set in the small Texas town of Shady Grove and feature Pastor Matt Hayden as the main character…
Similar to J.D. Robb’s books, K.P. Gresham’s writing style is character-driven and creates a strong sense of place… K.P. Gresham’s books are centered around Pastor Matt Hayden and his family and friends.
In summary, K.P. Gresham’s mystery novels do indeed feature Pastor Matt Hayden and his friends and family, and the books are characterized by a strong sense of place, character development, and personal crimes that occur in the small Texas town of Shady Grove.”
Actually, this is great stuff—for the most part. Except I didn’t write Dying for a Change or Murder in the Choir Loft.
My response? “K.P. Gresham did not write Dying for a Change nor did she write Murder in the Choir Loft. She did write The Preacher’s First Murder, Murder in the Second Pew, Murder on the Third Try and Four Reasons to Die. Her stories do not take place in Shady Grove, but in Wilks, Texas, and Austin, Texas.”
Excerpts from Chat GPT’s Response:
Thank you for bringing this to my attention, and I apologize for my previous mistakes. You are correct that K.P. Gresham did not write “Dying for a Change” or “Murder in the Choir Loft” and that her novels do not take place in Shady Grove, but in Wilks and Austin, Texas.
“K.P. Gresham’s mystery novels, including “The Preacher’s First Murder,” “Murder in the Second Pew,” “Murder on the Third Try,” and “Four Reasons to Die,” are set in small Texas towns and feature Pastor Matt Hayden as the main character. Her writing style is character-driven, with a focus on creating a strong sense of place and developing the personalities and relationships of her characters…
Once again, thank you for correcting my mistakes, and I hope this response provides a more accurate comparison between the books of K.P. Gresham and J.D. Robb.”
That’s my glimpse of Chat GPT. It got the big, important stuff right (i.e. all the J.D. Robb information). When it came to little ol’ me, it needed some important corrections. (Important to me, anyway.)
My takeaway? If you’re using a writing AI, don’t count on it for lesser known info. As a writer, I take my research VERY seriously. I don’t think this technology shows enough promise to depend on everything it says. Is the AI teachable? Yes. Reliable? Not so much.
Stay safe by doing your own research. (Hey—next time I’m going to write a blog on making the “perfect” Old Fashioned adult beverage. Talk about enjoying your research!).
And, as always, keep on writing!
K.P. Gresham, Author
Professional Character Assassin
K.P. Gresham is the award-winning author of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series as well as several stand-alone novels. Active in Sisters in Crime and the Writers League of Texas, she has won Best Novel awards from the Bay Area Writers League as well as the Mystery Writers of America.
In novels, mystery often equates with danger. Whether in fiction or reality, it requires determination, dedication, and a willingness to face the unknown, which can be dangerous on many levels.
In The Fisherman’s Tomb, by John O’Neill, the quest to find the bones of the man Jesus appointed the first among the apostles, Simon, called Peter, upon which Jesus would build his church, became a 75-year search beneath the Vatican, and fraught with politics and dangers, including a world war. On a religious level, it was a courageous undertaking because, over the centuries, opinions proliferated about whether or not Peter ever entered Rome and whether or not he was crucified there. Was it fact or unsubstantiated legend?
John O’Neill was no stranger to archeology or Ancient Roman history. He had made a lifetime study of Roman Archeology, traveling throughout what was once the Roman World to visit sites and digs. An Annapolis graduate and lawyer, the author of the best-seller, Unfit for Command, and a former U.S. Supreme Court law clerk, it was when he became friends with the children and grandchildren of George Strake that he learned the story of this massive project and its discoveries. O’Neill felt it was a story that had to be told, and it became the book, The Fisherman’s Tomb.
The author acquaints us with the major players. George Strake, the man who financed much of the research. A quiet Texas oilman, and devout Catholic, Strake was the discoverer of the immense Conroe field in Houston. Two popes. Pius XII, “who, unlike some of his predecessors, saw science – particularly archeology- as an ally, not an enemy of Christianity,” and Paul VI, who brought in an outsider and women. Despite any misgivings or fears about the possibility that Peter was never in Rome and never crucified there, which would have changed and possibly destroyed the traditions dear to the hearts of the faithful, both popes encouraged and supported the search. The truth, they felt, was too important.
Pope Pius XII, began the project and was determined to keep it a complete secret except for George Strake. It began in earnest in 1939, with the death of Pius XI, who had one request: “to be buried under St. Peter’s Basilica in a simple grave.” To honor his request, an excavation team began to dig beneath the basilica. When a workman fell through the floor where they were digging, he found himself in a stunning and unknown world that had existed hundreds of years before. A city of the dead where both pagans and early Christians had been buried.
To understand the project fully, O’Neill tackles the ancient Roman world pertinent to the search. In those days, many pagan Romans delighted in blood sports, particularly involving Christians. Under Nero, the worst of all, “even hardened Romans like the historian Tacitus found his treatment of Christians extraordinarily cruel.” During Nero’s rule, two great leaders of the Christian Church, Peter, and Paul met their deaths. Paul, a Hellenistic Jew born in Tarsus and a Roman citizen was beheaded, but Peter met his death hanging upside down on a cross in Nero’s Circus at the foot of Vatican Hill in 64 A.D.
In 1939, Pius XII assembled a team that eventually ended up being led by Antonio Ferrua, a priest with a degree in archeology. He would remain in control until 1952, when Cardinal Giovani Montini, who would later become Pope Paul VI, invited a brilliant woman, archeologist, and epigraphist, Margherita Guarducci, to tour and study the excavation. And then the sparks began to fly. Margherita Guarducci, was an archeologist with an expertise in epigraphy. An Epigraphist, according to O’Neill is the Sherlock Holmes of archeology, which Guarducci showed she was. It was Guarducci, who linked and interpreted the signs and partial writings. Exceptional difficulty was added because many of the signs had meanings used for only a few decades.
Contrary to the Ferrua conclusions, Guarducci revealed the actual location of Peter’s tomb and identified the bones already in storage as belonging to Peter, and sadly the best, intentions and lofty goals of the project were then derailed by ego, and professional jealousy. Guarducci’s battle with the Vatican experts was epic, and after Paul VI’s death, her findings were almost obliterated by pride, sexist prejudices, and professional jealousy.
The Fisherman’s Tomb is not a dry textbook. It is a page-turner worthy of any well—written mystery novel covering all aspects of the project, from its accidental beginnings to the shift of monies and attention to saving Jews during World War II, and the amazing, and behind-the-scenes individual, George Strake. The book explains the lives of Christians in ancient Rome, the apostle Peter, and the Great Fire, probably started by Nero, who wanted land and a lot of it to build his palace. He then targeted the Christian sect as those responsible, enflaming the hatred and fears already in existence.
O’Neill addresses the Popes’ gamble in supporting the ongoing search, the archeological dig, and the super problems of digging under the structure of the Basilica and an existing city. The discoveries in the necropolis, and the interpretations of symbols, pieced together the meanings and identifications of the individuals buried there. It was accomplished by the unwelcome involvement of a woman, in a time when the fields of her expertise were dominated by men.
Guarducci’s story alone is worthy of a biography. The resentment of Ferrua, his revenge discrediting her brilliant findings, and her ultimate victory, which came long after her death, are powerful stories within the story of the search for the Fisherman’s tomb.
The hunt for Peter’s bones is a treasure hunt with twists, and turns, complicated by fears, politics, jealousies, revenge, and vindication. And ultimately, a confirmation of Peter’s presence and crucifixion in Rome.
A worthy note: O’Neill ends the forward by comparing the current slaughter and persecution of the Christian communities in the Middle East to the fates of their ancient brothers and sisters in faith and contributes all proceeds of this book to their relief.
If you love reading short stories—or writing them—chances are you’ve come across John M. Floyd’s work. John is the author of over a thousand short stories in publications like AHMM, EQMM, Strand Magazine, Mississippi Noir, The Saturday Evening Post, and four editions of Otto Penzler’s best-mysteries-of-the-year anthologies. He is an Edgar finalist, a Shamus Award winner, a five-time Derringer Award winner, and the author of nine books. He is also the 2018 recipient of the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s lifetime achievement award.
I had the good fortune of sitting next to John at the Bouchercon 2019 anthology Denim, Diamonds, and Death: 50th Year signing. His story, “The Midnight Child,” precedes mine, “The Deed,” in the anthology, which meant we were also placed together for this event. Getting to know John was, for me, a highlight of the Bouchercon conference. This is a writer who loves the work. Below is our conversation about his career beginnings, his love of short form fiction and his advice to those with an interest in writing short stories.
LO: I’d love to start with your career at IBM as an engineer. Were you already writing short stories by then or did that come later?
JF: The writing bug bit me in the mid-1990s, while I was working for IBM. I was a systems engineer specializing in finance application (banking) software and traveling a lot, both here and overseas, and it was during some of those times spent alone in hotels, airplanes and airports that I started dreaming up stories. And once I started, I couldn’t stop.
LO: What drew you to the short story form? And to the mystery genre?
JF: I think my love for short fiction probably came from a childhood of watching those little anthology shows on TV like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Twilight Zone and One Step Beyond. They had different stories every week, were usually half an hour in length, and often had surprise endings. In a way, each episode was the visual equivalent of a genre short story, and I loved ‘em. As for the mystery genre, I’ve always liked reading and watching crime/suspense stories.
LO: I enjoyed discovering that you’re also a poet with an impressive collection in print. What drew you to poetry?
JF: Well, I’m one of those poets who isn’t really a poet (and I noet). The poetry I’ve written and sold has mostly been light verse, because I love humor and wordplay. My collection of poems, called Lighten Up a Little, is a book of 300 humorous poems published in places like Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Writer’s Digest, Grit, Writers’ Journal, Farm & Ranch Living, etc., and are designed primarily to make you smile (and maybe Laugh Out Loud). In the introduction to the book, I pointed out that if you’re searching for enlightenment, inspiration, or the Meaning of Life, you might want to look elsewhere.
LO: Many fellow writers marvel at your prolific ability to consistently create compelling tales that draw the reader in. Can you give us a peek inside your process? What does an average day and/or week look like for you?
JF: My process, such as it is, involves first thinking of a plot and then populating it with (hopefully) interesting people to make the story happen. Only when I have the plot in my head (beginning, middle, and end) do I start writing. Be aware, the storyline isn’t set in stone—it might change a bit once the writing starts—but I do like to have that structure firmly in mind before I begin. Then, once the story is on paper, I rewrite and polish it and send it to a market. On an average day I might write several pages, but even when I’m not writing I’m usually plotting stories in my head. The idea/plotting part usually takes a few days or a week, the writing itself takes a couple of days, and the rewriting several more. As soon as I’m done, I usually light a new story up off the butt of the last one, like a chain-smoker, and keep going—and have been doing that for almost thirty years now.
LO: Which short stories by other writers have you read and just thought, “That’s something special.” It would be madness to try to pick only one, but are there certain ones that stayed with you long after you finished reading?
JF: Yes. A few stories I especially like are “Man From the South” by Roald Dahl, “The Last Rung on the Ladder” by Stephen King, “Voodoo” by Fredric Brown, “The Green Heart” by Jack Ritchie, and “The Kugelmass Episode” by Woody Allen. Some of these are long and some very short, but all are great fun to read.
LO: What are you reading right now?
JF: I’m RE-reading a novel by Nelson DeMille called “Wild Fire.” Just before that I read “Blowback,” a political thriller co-written by James Patterson and our mutual friend Brendan DuBois. Both novels are excellent, but don’t tell Brendan—I think he’s already having trouble getting his old hats to fit.
LO: What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
JF: What’s spare time? Seriously, though, I like walking, movies, puzzles, and playing with grandkids (we have seven).
LO: What advice would you share with writers who would like to pursue writing short stories for publication?
JF: Read a lot of them, write a lot of them, and DON’T QUIT. I once heard that a professional writer is just an amateur writer who didn’t give up.
LO: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
JF: Yes: Try reading some short stories, especially those in places like Hitchcock and Ellery Queen and Strand Magazine. I love novels too, but there’s just something special about reading (and writing) the short stuff. You might find you like it.
John M. Floyd is the author of more than a thousand short stories in publications like AHMM, EQMM, Strand Magazine, Mississippi Noir, The Saturday Evening Post, and four editions of Otto Penzler’s best-mysteries-of-the-year anthologies. A former Air Force captain and IBM systems engineer, John is an Edgar finalist, a Shamus Award winner, a five-time Derringer Award winner, and the author of nine books. He is also the 2018 recipient of the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s lifetime achievement award. You can learn more at http://www.johnmfloyd.com
“MARCH MADNESS”? In the Texas Hill Country, “March Madness” doesn’t only mean NCAA basketball. Its alternate form: Demented Spring Gardening. Too early, you say? Well, according to the snakes, spring’s already here.
Of course it’s not officially spring yet. Just three weeks ago, here north of Dripping Springs, Texas, the entire landscape—every tree, every leaf–was shrouded in solid ice. But this week, well before the equinox, beneath the oaks you’ll spot the amazing heartbreakingly beautiful fuchsia of the redbuds.
And roses! The tender yellow flowers of the Lady Banksia rose are cascading from the oak tree that serves as her trellis.
On other branches you can see the first luxurious pink buds of Souvenir de Malmaison, named for Empress Josephine’s rose garden, beginning to open.
In the garden the ineffably fragrant Zephirine Drouhin is performing her slow tease, loosening the green sepals, delicately unveiling her bright pink petals.
I’ve already planted two new and reputedly very fragrant roses––Madame Plantier, and Cramoisi Superieur. (What a name!) And I replanted Buff Beauty, which produces buff and yellow and apricot blooms. Still waiting for two more—Savannah and Sweet Mademoiselle, both promising strong fragrance. Seriously, a rose without fragrance? Isn’t it disappointing to lean forward into a rose, inhale…and…nothing? As Shakespeare points out in Sonnet 56:
The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem
For that sweet odour which doth in it live.
But for sheer fragrant spring bravado, tinged with peril, what about the ridiculous grape Kool-Aid smell of Texas mountain laurel? Intoxicating and loopy. The plant—sophora secundifolia–– isn’t called “Texas mescal bean” for nothing. https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=sose3: “The brilliant red seeds contain the highly poisonous alkaloid cytisine (or sophorine) – this substance is related to nicotine and is widely cited as a narcotic and hallucinogen.”
More symptoms of March Madness? The powerful, even uncontrollable, urge to fill your cart full of geraniums, dirt, mulch, annuals, perennials, unknown roses, tomato plants, new trees… Trudging a quarter mile from the local native plants emporium to your car, lugging a red wagon full of blue sage, lantana, and other plants hopefully accurate in describing themselves as “deer-resistant”… Other symptoms include impassioned online review of rose varieties, frantic ripping open of seed packets and daily watering of small unlabeled pots, then staring at tiny emerging seedlings and wondering—what are you? Is that the fennel or the Aji Crystal Pepper or the Mexican plum?
I’d never heard of Mexican plum until a friend gave me a jar of her amazing Mexican plum jam. She described the trees as small, with fragrant white blossoms. So I ordered seeds. The very small print on the seed packet required “stratification” in the refrigerator. Well, I tried. Every morning I peer at the still-empty pots of dirt… little plants, where are you? Can you live in the Hill Country?
Also—perhaps prematurely—we dragged hay bales into the garden and embarked on the great Haybale Tomato experiment:
Supposedly, according to our favorite local well-driller, this approach produces for one local rancher “the most beautiful tomatoes in the Hill Country.” Our donkeys kept sticking their muzzles through the fence, trying to eat the bales. Watch this space. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z2jjIHgmypM
Gardens can be perilous. Think of Eden. But how many murder mysteries are set in gardens, or involve garden poisons? If you haven’t already become a fan of Reginald Hill, you might try Deadheads. Dalziel and Pascoe solve virtually every murder presented to them in their Yorkshire police headquarters. In this one, roses abound, beginning on the first page. And rose culture. And… murder. bit.ly/3Fgce23
Texas author Susan Wittig Albert knows her way around poisonous plants, in Texas or elsewhere. I just finished her Hemlock, Book 28 in her China Bayles series. This mystery—impressively researched, and fast-moving–takes the reader to the Blue Ridge mountains and theft of a rare botanical book, with deft historical backstory. https://susanalbert.com/hemlock-book-28/
For more on Texas mountain laurel, its power and peril – see Ghost Dog, Book 2 in my Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. bit.ly/3YIotv5
The weather report threatens another cold snap this week—even (gasp!) a possible freeze. But right now it’s 74 degrees. Geraniums to plant. Blue sage. Tomatoes to water. Yes, it’s hubris, exposing these tender plants so early to the vagaries of Hill Country weather, but—I can’t help it. I just saw a big bud on Star of the Republic! I swear it wasn’t there yesterday. March Madness reigns!
Find Helen Currie Foster on Facebook or at http://www.helencurriefoster.com. The eight books of the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, including the most recent, Ghosted, amzn.to/3YrJBXf, are available at Austin’s BookPeople as well as on Amazon (Kindle and Paperback).
Believe it or not, the mystery novel is considered a “young” form of literature. Yep, that’s right. Mystery fiction didn’t exist before 19th century England. Many suggest two reasons why this was the case. First, the ability to read was now reaching “below” the upper class educated citizens. Farmers and factory workers and children were being taught to read. Secondly, back then, most towns relied instead on constables and night watchmen. No centralized police forces existed.
So what happened that caused the change in policing? The public’s morbid national obsession with murder.
Two cases in particular were instrumental in beginning this fixation on crime, according to Lucy Worsley, chief curator at the Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity responsible for maintaining the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace State Apartments, and more.
In her BBC four-part series, “A Very British Murder” (2013), Worsley suggests that the first murder, known as The Radcliffe Highway Murders, took place in 1811. Only a constable was available to the poor maid who realized something dreadful had happened when she returned to the home of her employers only to find the door locked, and a woman screaming inside. The newspapers hyped the crime, stirring the public into a frenzy.
Eventually John Williams was arrested and charged with the crimes. He committed suicide in his jail cell before the trial, though his trial was carried on without him. It was speculated that this was done to calm the public’s fear.
The second case, “The Red Barn Murder”, took place in 1826. Here a woman was found dead in a barn, apparently the victim of an elopement gone wrong. Again, the public fixated on the murder to the extent that a very macabre execution took place. On 11 August 1828, the convicted murderer, John Corder, was taken to the gallows and hanged shortly before noon in front of a large crowd. One newspaper claimed that there were 7,000 spectators, another as many as 20,000. But that wasn’t all. The body was taken back to the courtroom at Shire Hall, where it was slit open along the abdomen to expose the muscles. The crowds were allowed to file past until six o’clock, when the doors were shut. According to the Norwich and Bury Post, over 5,000 people lined up to see the body.
So now the British public was ripe to read anything that would feed their fascination with murder. All it needed was a writer to satiate their thirst.
Enter Edgar Allen Poe and his short story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” which was published in Graham’s Magazine in 1849. It has been described as the first modern detective story and featured the world’s first fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin. Though Baltimore-born Poe was known in America for his literary critiques (several of which named Henry Wadsworth Longfellow a plagiarist), he was much more popular in Great Britain where he became well-known as an author.
(It should be noted that two books are also considered early mysteries but had little following due to their foreign languages. The first may have been Voltaire’s Zadig written in 1747, and Das Fraulein von Scuderi by E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1819.)
And the floodgates opened. Wilkie Collins’ novel The Woman in White was published in 1860. Arthur Conan Doyle published his first Sherlock Holmes mystery, A Study in Scarlet, in 1887. Doyle’s series is credited with being singularly responsible for the huge popularity of the mystery genre.
Mystery novels have gone far beyond the private detective motif. The genre now covers romantic suspense, noir, cozies, thrillers, traditional, etc.: even comic books, graphic novels and web-based detective series now carry on the mystery tradition.
I read mysteries, watch mystery movies, (probably have most of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies memorized line by line), and write mysteries. However, I had no idea I was entertained by such a “young” form of literature.
So, whodunnit next?
Note: Sources for this blog included Lucy Worsley’s BBC’s four-part series, A Very British Mystery, and the Biblio Blog “What Exactly is a Mystery Book”.
K.P. Gresham, Author
Professional Character Assassin
K.P. Gresham is the award-winning author of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series as well as several stand-alone novels. Active in Sisters in Crime and the Writers League of Texas, she has won Best Novel awards from the Bay Area Writers League as well as Mystery Writers of America.
Mardi Gras! The wild celebrations and not-so-good behaviors that have come to be associated with Fat Tuesday take place on the last day before the solemn period of Lent begins for Christians around the world.
In the fourth century, when Christianity became recognized in Rome, church leaders incorporated the ingrained pagan Roman festival of Lupercalia, an ancient festival held every year on February 15 to purify the city, promoting health and fertility. The church fathers thought it an easier task to incorporate it into the new faith –than to abolish it – giving rise to excess debauchery that remains a common prelude to Lent even today.
In medieval Europe, the traditions of Mardi Gras changed and spread worldwide over the centuries, passing through Rome and Venice in the 17th and 18th centuries in the House of the Bourbons. And it came to North America from France in 1699, landing either in New Orleans or, some say, in Mobile, Alabama, in 1703. But the rapid spread of the eat, drink, and be merry tradition had a practical side too.
Lenten restrictions were stringent, and Christians were required to abstain from all meats and other foods that came from animals, such as butter, cheese, eggs, and milk, but there was no way to keep such foods from spoiling; thus everything in the larder had to be eaten, or it would rot and be thrown away. Hence a final feast-like meal the night before Ash Wednesday, the first day of the forty days of fasting and penance until Easter Sunday, became ritualized, but the good intentions of Mardi Gras the tradition also had and still has, a dark side.
As Lenten restrictions loosened, the seedier side of the festivities became more popular and disorderly. Unfortunately, the more solemn and spiritual reasons associated with this day have been pushed into the background, despite the ashes distributed on Ash Wednesday in churches worldwide. Crosses of ash are traced on foreheads as the priest or minister intones the warning, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
French customs that traveled to the States were eating pancakes, waffles, beignets, and crepes, and throwing beads and flowers from parade floats to people in the streets, but over time, the parades and floats in New Orleans took on another life. Sumptuous and sexy costumes became the rule, with characters on the floats shouting to women in the street “show me what you’ve got,” encouraging girls to bare their breasts to get cheap, plastic beads.
The Mardi Gras tradition in Italy is called Carnevale (from the Latin, Carne–meat; vale-goodbye), harkens back to their original intent. In Venice, there are genuine Renaissance costumes worn by city workers who must remain silent and stay in character when circulating among the revelers. Food, family entertainment, face painting, games, and the famed Venetian masks are everywhere.
Never meant to be a celebration for its own purpose, Mardi Gras also projects an atmosphere of secrecy. People can hide behind their masks, be who they want and do things they usually wouldn’t consider. It is a fertile setting for destructive behaviors and crime and the backdrop for the first book in the Housekeeper Mystery Series.
Traveling from Venice, Italy, to Austin, Texas, where the Mardi Gras celebrations are more along the lines of the original intent of stuffing oneself with food and drink, it is the underlying sense of something evil lurking that opens the story on Fat Tuesday in I’m Going to Kill that Cat. The following morning, Ash Wednesday, before ashes can be distributed in the church, abody is found in the alley next to the rectory. And now, on the first day of Lent, Father Melvyn and Mrs. B. are pulled into a murder investigation, forcing them to confront shocking old scandals and vengeance.