Thanks to Hollywood and TV-land, most of us are tired of Christmas and we aren’t even in the official Advent season. The bombardment of mostly silly movies centered on Christmas themes that have little to do with this holy Christian holiday sucks the meaning out of Christmas and starts earlier every year.
Thus, it seems a good time to reprint Flights of Fancy and Imagination, reminding everyone that PBS television’s 2021 presentation of the musical production by Grammy, Emmy, and Tony Award winner John Mauceri: The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, written in 1816, is still available, and will be through December 13, 2024.
Mauceri conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, with Tony Award-winning Alan Cumming narrating this original tale in three parts..
The story, written by E.T.A. Hoffman, is about a young girl who saves a prince, contrary to Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White, where the prince rescues the girl. Perhaps Hoffman’s inspiration for this particular flight of fancy was the popularity of embellished nutcrackers, which appeared in Germany in the early 1800s.
The Nutcracker’s story begins with a young boy who stays home alone daily while his parents go to work. The little boy was lonely and afraid, so his father carved a special toy, a nutcracker in the form of a soldier with big sharp teeth and fierce-looking eyes, and told him that this unique Nutcracker would protect him while his parents were gone. It did the trick. The boy loved and enjoyed that Nutcracker and felt secure by its presence, so his father continued to carve new ones for him. When the boy grew up, he married and had a son to whom he gave all the nutcrackers made by his father.
Over time in early 19th century Germany, the lure of decorative nutcrackers grew, and so did a legend. They came to represent power, strength, and the protection of families from danger and evil spirits. Nutcrackers were given as gifts and keepsakes to bring good luck.
E.T.A. Hoffman was a prolific writer of gothic tales, fantasy, and the supernatural – most of them dark, including segments of his Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Alexander Dumas, the 19th-century French author, translated Hoffman’s work in 1845, propelling it beyond the written word. Mauceri explains that Dumas, the grandson of the French aristocrat and African Haitian slave, was drawn to the story because Hoffman concluded the tale with the girl growing up to become the queen of a land of tolerance and imagination. It was the Dumas version that Peter Illich Tchaikovsky adopted in 1892 when he composed the score.
While this production does not target children, it is appropriate for those youngsters who can sit still for a narrative without pictures or characters to hold their interest. Cumming reads the narrative with emotion and even injects moments of humor without straying from the story.
The orchestra gives a stirring performance. Bold and rousing where appropriate, mysterious, sensual, and nerve-wracking also when appropriate. In addition to the lush Tchaikovsky score, compositions from Tchaikovsky’s tone poems and orchestral suites, are included.
Mauceri’s reimagined Nutcracker and the Mouse King fill the mind’s eye with characters, places, and emotions generated by the performances of artists of the highest caliber. If you didn’t experience this fantastic flight of fancy and imagination last year, you might still enjoy it by accessing https://www.pbs.org/video/the-nutcracker-and-the-mouse-king-meabwt/.
Enjoy it for the first time, or once again, with friends, family, children, and grown-ups. And in the spirit of the upcoming season, I wish you all a truly thankful Thanksgiving, and in the true spirit of Christmas, I wish you all love, kindness, respect, and caring.
Writing communities are abuzz with NaNoWriMo preps, countdowns and first week updates. By my calculations, you should have 11.669 words down. How’s it going so far? Are you crushing your goals or is the weight of the word count catching up to you? Each year I struggle to decide if I’m going to try NaNoWriMo again for a new project. The organizer part of me wants to dive in with a plan, a schedule, and a competitive desire to write 50,000 words in 30 days. It’s a fun way to jump start a new project or to get into the habit of writing without worrying too much about arranging the right words in the right order, putting your inner editor on pause where she belongs.
It also doesn’t usually work for me. At least, not in the traditional structure.
In the past, I told myself that if I were more organized/committed/talented/all the things, I’d crush the 50k with extra words in my back pocket. Now at this stage in my writing career, I understand that not only is it okay for me not to put this kind of pressure on myself for a small block of time, it can actually backfire.
Also, Thanksgiving. Trying to stack an extra several hundred words daily to cover those days when I’m cooking and spending time with family just adds additional pressure during a time when 1) several things need to get done in addition to my current work and personal commitments and 2) I want to focus on the people around me and not the fact that I’m 432 words short for the day.
Don’t get me wrong. If this is your jam and you find that the traditional NaNo structure of 50k in 30 days is for you, by all means, set that keyboard ablaze with your fast fingers and quick fire ideas. I’m here rooting for you. But for those of us who’d like to enjoy some of the energy created by the challenge while being flexible with our own goals and daily lives, I’d like to offer a few suggestions that may work as alternative challenges.
A Page a Day: This is one of my favorite go-to strategies when my schedule has blown up shortly after getting out of bed. The best laid plans and all that. If I can just get one page a day down, it often leads to two, three or four pages. It’s usually the IDEA that I only need to write one page that helps push me out of that mental space of hitting a thousand or fifteen hundred words. Some days I write slowly and others I can hit two thousand. Some days I don’t write anything more than a grocery list. But, once I started shooting for a page a day, I find that I usually hit a higher count and I also write more consistently.
Get Up Early (or Stay Up a Little Later): I’m a morning person. I don’t mean that I jump out of bed with a smile on my face ready to take on the day. It’s more like I stumble out of bed and promise myself that a cup of coffee fixes all things (it fixes most things, right?). For those times when I have a deadline and a busy schedule, getting up early and going straight to my desk (yes to coffee but no to email and news) allows me to get a jump on the day and claim time before other responsibilities take over. A friend swears that after ten o’clock in the evening is the perfect time for her to write. She has always been a night owl and has structured her schedule to make this work for her. There is no right answer, only what works for you.
Outline or Brainstorm Ideas: “You don’t have writer’s block, you have preparation deficiency.” This quote from Adam Sternbergh rings true for me. If I’m struggling with a scene or a particular plot point, it’s often because I haven’t done the necessary work to get the words on the page. This is a signal to step back and ask deeper questions, to better understand what is unfolding in the story—and why. The words usually follow once I have the puzzle pieces in the right places.
Give It a Shot Anyway: One of the benefits of trying NaNoWriMo is that it often allows us to draft what the incredible Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts.” In Bird by Bird, she writes, “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.” I keep Bird by Bird on my desk because I need to be reminded that, with every book or short story I write, it’s okay to start with a messy draft. Just get the words down. They don’t have to be perfect. Most likely they won’t be. Mine rarely are. But there will be something to work with, a draft to edit and polish, and that’s a fantastic start. Words on the page. The number doesn’t matter as much as the fact that the words exist.
I also realize that our ability to tackle NaNoWriMo can change from year to year, depending on our circumstances, our commitments, our goals and countless other factors. Some years it feels like a great idea and other years I’d rather have a full day of dental work.
What about you? Do you participate in NaNoWriMo or use it to launch or expand a writing project? Why or why not?
In an online ad for her Master Class, writer Margaret Atwood (oh, what a magnificent face she has! Sardonic, wise, all-seeing…) declares this rule for fiction: “Hold my attention!”
Like Margaret Atwood, mystery lovers demand of mystery writers, “Hold my attention!”
I get tired of defending our genre. Mystery writers absolutely cater to their readers. They don’t publish exercises in personal navel-gazing–they know their readers could care less about the author’s navel. They know readers won’t give them the time of day–no! Won’t read more than a few pages!–unless all three components–interesting protagonist, vivid setting, challenging puzzle–are present.
Curious, I decided to revisit some of our first introductions to famous mystery protagonists. For example, in 1964 John D. MacDonald introduced Travis McGee–a character lucky enough to live on a Florida houseboat named the Busted Flush–in The Deep Blue Good-By (yes, that’s how the title reads on the cover). https://www.amazon.com/s?k=the+deep+blue+good-by+by+john+d+macdonald&crid=3B3DO804231N&sprefix=The+deep+blue+good-by%2Caps%2C153&ref=nb_sb_ss_pltr-ranker-10hours_2_21 As a teenager I was enthralled. Could you live on a houseboat? It seemed an impossible dream. In Chapter Uno, McGee studies tide maps while dancer Chookie McCall, metronome clicking, choreographs strenuous dance step, before persuading McGee to talk to one of her dancers who has mislaid a bunch of money and needs help getting it back. McGee describes his occupation as finding lost loot and keeping half as his fee. An amazing life. AND–on a boat! Plus, adding to his appeal, McGee shares his prejudices with readers. He’s wary of many aspects of contemporary culture, including “Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants…” So liberating, his list. MacDonald has McGee describe himself for the reader as “that big brown loose-jointed boat bum, that pale-eyed, wire-haired girl seeker, …that beach-walker, gin-drinker, quip-maker, peace-seeker, iconoclast…” He calls himself a “knuckly, scar-tissued reject from a structured society.” Looking in the rear-view mirror at 1964, McGee’s iconoclasm distances him somewhat…but not enough…from the decade’s sexist aspects (think of early James Bond).
Perhaps McGee’s wide-ranging rejection of staid norms presaged the “drop-out” scene just three years later in The Graduate (1967)–Dustin Hoffman driving away from “plastics” and other norms in his red 2600 Duetto Alfa Romeo. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061722/
Fast forward to 1970 when we meet Tony Hillerman’s Navajo cop Joe Leaphorn in The Blessing Way. In contrast to Travis McGee’s extensive self-introduction, we don’t really see Leaphorn in action until chapter 4. If you only read chapter 1 you might assume the protagonist is a depressed cultural anthropologist, Bergen McKee, who feels inadequate both as an academic and in his love life. McKee hopes Leaphorn can jump-start his academic career by introducing him to Navajos who still believe in Navajo witches. He joins Leaphorn’s search for Luis Horseman, Navajo suspect in a knifing, who has fled into the Lukachukai mountains. Horseman’s relatives quietly recount sightings of a Navajo wolf, a big man with a dog skin around his neck, the skull atop his head–a witch.
Leaphorn’s analytical solution to Horseman’s murder turns on the difference between Navajo and non-Navajo ways. We hear Hillerman’s Navajo characters softly sing their traditional morning song, or their chants against contamination by a dead body. Leaphorn feels there’s something “strangely un-Navajo” about Horseman’s death: “Navajos did not kill with cold-blooded premeditation. Nor did they kill for profit. To do so violated the scale of values of The People… Where, then, was the motive?” In this first mystery Hillerman gives us an unconventionally structured, but totally absorbing, introduction to the fascinating landscape and cultures of the Four Corners. I was, and remain, permanently hooked.
Donna Leon doesn’t let us meet Venetian police inspector Guido Brunetti until chapter 2 of Death at La Fenice (1992), Book 1 in her acclaimed series, when Brunetti leads a police team into the murder scene at the Venice opera house. We quickly find ourselves in Brunetti’s head: “It seemed, in this moment, that he had spent his entire life doing this to people, telling them that someone they loved was dead or, worse, had been killed.” And as he helps the victim’s wife away from the scene, “He was prepared for this, the sudden blow of reality that sets in after the first shock. It was this that knocked people down.” We learn Brunetti is humane, intelligent, and determined, from his scrupulous procedure, protection of clues, and humanity toward those bearing the sudden burden of a loved one’s murder. But he’s capable of wrath when death is not respected. When the bored ambulance attendants, overeager to move the body, cite union rules to Brunetti, he explodes: “You take him out of here before I tell you to, and you’ll be in jail the first time you spit on the sidewalk or swear in public…” In chapter 5 we meet his aristocratic bluestocking wife, Paola, in their fourth-floor Venetian apartment: “He opened the door, glad of the warmth and smell he associated with the apartment: lavender, wax, the scent of something cooking in the kitchen at the back…a mixture that represented…in a way he couldn’t explain, the existence of sanity in the daily madness that was his work.” Venice gives Leon a second weapon, a setting that–peopled by Brunetti and his family–is hard to resist. https://www.amazon.com/Death-Fenice-Commissario-Brunetti-Mystery/dp/006074068X/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1667252657&sr=8-1&asin=006074068X&revisionId=&format=4&depth=1
These days Ghosted, Book 8 in my Alice MacDonald Greer series set in little Coffee Creek, Texas, is nearing completion. As I finish each page I hear Margaret Atwood’s voice: “HOLD MY ATTENTION!”
Wait for it! Take that, Edmund Wilson!
Helen Currie Foster lives and writes in Texas Hill Country north of Dripping Springs, loosely supervised by three burros. She’s active with Austin Shakespeare and the Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime. Her Ghost Daughter, Book 7 in the series, was named 2022 Eric Hoffer Award Grand Prize Short List, as well as Finalist, 2022 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, and 16th Annual National Indie Excellence Awards.
Since you can read award-winning author Bruce DeSilva’s excellent review here, I won’t try to duplicate. Except to point out that—
DeSilva calls the Samuel Craddock series “genre-bending,” because the “author’s folksy prose and Jarrett Creek’s small-town ways . . . give the novel the feel of a cozy,” and yet the problems facing the town and Police Chief Craddock “give the novel the feel of a modern police procedural.”
With the term “genre-bending,” DeSilva hits upon one reason—perhaps the reason—for the series’ success. Shames joins elements of two very different genres—cozy mysteries and police procedurals—with skill and grace, into a seamless whole. That ain’t hay either.
As a reader, I enjoy Shames’ novels, but as a writer, I seethe with envy. If only I could do what she does . . .
At the bookstore, I fell in love with the cover. On page one, I fell in love with the book. Soon thereafter, I fell in love with a sentence. Here it is, underlined, in the paragraph quoted below—the words of narrator Samuel Craddock:
I head into the house for my hat and my cane and the keys to my truck. There’s not a thing wrong with me but a bum knee. Several months ago one of my heifers knocked me down accidentally and it spooked her so bad that she stepped on my leg. This happened in the pasture behind my house, where I keep twenty head of white-faced Herefords. It took me two hours to drag myself back to the house, and those damned cows hovered over me every inch of the way.
That’s what author Ernest Hemingway would callone true sentence. Cows are curious. They’re nosy. They like to observe. I’ve seen cows hover. That’s exactly the kind of thing my father might have said about his damn cows.
Shames gets it right. Every word in that sentence, and throughout the book, is pitch-perfect.
The night I read about the hovering cows, I wrote Shames a fan email telling her I loved the sentence.
But when I completed the novel and tried to write a review for my personal blog, I got tangled up in words. It came out sounding like this:
I love this book. It’s just so…There’s this wonderful sentence on the second page about hovering cows…That’s exactly what cows do…I can just see those cows…The person who wrote that sentence knows cows…It’s just so…I just love it.
That’s what happens when a reviewer lacks detachment. Wordsworth said poetry begins with emotion “recollected in tranquility.”So do book reviews. There’s nothing tranquil about that tangle of words.
So, with no review, I compromised. I posted the paragraph containing the beloved sentence and added a picture of white-faced Herefords.
Not long after, Shames spoke at the Heart of Texas (Austin) chapter of Sisters in Crime, and I told her how much I admired her work. A year later, in 2014, I heard her read from her second novel, The Last Death of Jack Harbin. And I’ve read all the books she’s published since.
From 2013 to 2022, that’s nine Samuel Craddock mysteries, each a great read, each just as good as—or better than—the one before.
But regarding Shames’ sentences—
It is a truth universally acknowledged that her hovering cows will always be Number One.
*Shames breaks the silly rule against “mixing” present and past tenses in narration. Samuel Craddock speaks the language spoken by men like him in real Jarrett Creeks all over Texas.
**The cow sentence isn’t really about cows. It’s about Samuel Craddock. But I am fond of white-faced Herefords, and the image Shames paints of them is so vivid that it obscures the man dragging himself toward his house. For me, at least.
***I took the photo of the cover of A Killing at Cotton Hill. The fur on the right side of the book doesn’t belong there, but it was easier to just take the picture than to move the cat.
Kathy Waller has published short crime fiction as well as a novella co-written with Manning Wolfe. For more info, and/or to read her posts on topics ranging from A to izzard, visit her personal blog, Telling the Truth, Mainly (http://kathywaller1.com). She also cross-posts her Ink-Stained Wretches posts at Austin Mystery Writers.
Depth and realism. How do authors achieve it? Great writing, of course, but research into every aspect of character development, periods, and settings is essential. Readers often wonder how writers decide on the backdrop for their characters’ emotions and thoughts. Again, the answer is research.
Writers are intrigued and inspired by innumerable universes around them. Even routine occupations require thought, knowledge, and understanding. In the unusual story of The Maid by Nita Prose, the protagonist is a hotel maid, and the author’s knowledge of the inner workings of a hotel lends an authenticity that draws the reader in. In Stamped Out, a successful cozy mystery series by Tonya Kappes, the author credits the USPS worker who guided her through the inner workings of the post office. An essential ingredient to her series.
But there are the plots that require knowledge in areas not encountered routinely, or even known. In Kristen Hannah’s, The Winter Garden, a story of a mother and her daughters, she writes about the siege of Leningrad during World War II with such detail and realism a reader could believe someone who’d survived that nightmare wrote it instead of a person born in 1960.
Settings, periods, environments, climates, geography, and the list goes on forever. Writers are told to “write what you know,” but what we know isn’t nearly enough, for there are little universes around us where twists and turns take on different flavors and colors dictated by what we don’t know without examination and study.
A mystery or crime story involving police procedures written by someone who has never been a police officer requires learning the different rules, regulations, and methods that vary from one police department to another. Thus, the writer’s first determination is the city/state/town where the story takes place and how crimes are approached and solved. Even if the location is fiction, the writer will still need to communicate at least some recognized methods used to solve crimes unless they’re writing fantasy.
In non-fiction, Memo Book, by Lt. Retired Dan D’Eugenio, is an excellent source to understand how the complex New York City Police Department operates from the street level to the hierarchy of officers. His writing is clear, concise, and colorful as he leads us through police work in New York City, both above and below ground. He pulls no punches, describing the smells of decomposing bodies and garbage or the unexpected experiences, like falling through the rotted floors in abandoned tenements, or the stop, search, and question methods.
One of the most fascinating worlds is the backstage universe of live theater. Much of the magic the audience experience is directly related to the dramas and sagas behind the curtain, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York City is an example.
The Metropolitan Opera has a cast of thousands responsible for the front of the house and care of everything from ushers to box office staff. The run crew backstage is responsible for the sets and set changes. There is a wig shop and, of course, a costume shop.
In an eye-opening interview on the Met Opera Channel, Suzi Gomez-Pizzo, describes the fast and furious pace of being the wardrobe supervisor for female leads. In a New York Times article, The OperaWardrobe Diva, she conveys the challenges of being responsible for her singers, getting them into costume eight minutes before curtain—to avoid them sitting around in costume, and rapid costume changes between acts. She describes herself as the singers’ trusted constant. “They know that if they blow a note, the whole world hears it and that you’re the only constant they have.” And she reveals a Met quirks. Their costume shop never uses velcro. It might make those fast changes easier, but the Met costume shop is faithful to the operas’ original period and costume construction. In addition to her costume responsibilities, she feels a vital part of her job is to keep her singers happy and confident in her abilities to get them changed nack onstage in the allotted time. In a YouTube interview with Isabel Leonard, the Mezzo-Soprano star of the opera Marnie, Gomez-Pizzo and Leonard are shown making 15 costume changes in a small ‘pit-stop’ curtained-off area in the wings while the opera is in progress. “Trust,” agrees Leonard and Gomez-Pizzo, are the essential ingredient that makes it work.
The drama of the costume shop and its staff is worthy of its own legend and is used in Adriana Trigiani’s heart-wrenching saga, The Shoemaker’s Wife.
Trigiani’s heroine, Enza, is a young Italian immigrant in the 1920s living in New York. Her skills with needle and thread land her a job in the Met Costume Shop. As the tale of love, heartbreak, separation, and reunion of two Italian immigrants unfolds, the story also follows Enza’s climb from seamstress to a position of trust, fitting and caring for the costume needs of Enrico Caruso, one of opera’s greatest star.
Months of research were required to acquire the historical information that enabled Trigiani to give depth and realism to her story’s settings in Greenwich Village, NY, the Iron Range of Minnesota, and the Met Costume Shop. She is rightfully lavish in her thanks to those who assisted her researching Met Opera history, life in Italy, New York’s Little Italy community, and Minnesota.
In the second book of the Housekeeper Mystery Series, Catwalk Dead, Murder in the Rue de L’HistoireTheatre, is set in modern day Austin, Texas. Father Melvyn and Mrs. B. become involved in a theater murder when her son’s ballet company goes into rehearsal for Macbeth.
Extensive research into stagecraft, construction, and lighting was vital to developing the actions and dramas taking place in the theater. Additional knowledge about the history of prohibition, crime, and bootlegging in Texas was crucial, as it provided the backdrop for an old crime that comes to light in current times. None of this would have been possible without access to historical materials and the expertise of theater personnel.
Research opens the doors, turns on the lights, and cannot be overrated for the journey into unknown worlds.
A critical tool for mystery writers is creation of a gathering place. We watch desperate clients rush straight to Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street lodgings––often the first place where we meet his client, learn what the client hopes Holmes will do, and encounter Watson, Lestrade, and various witnesses. A gathering place gives us––and the sleuth, whether amateur or professional––a place to meet characters, assess the social structure, and see investigation in action. Sometimes it’s the crime scene itself.
A gathering place can provide the writer an opportunity to comply with one of the key rules (or guidelines) of the original 1930 Detection Club: “The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.” https://murder-mayhem.com/the-detection-club-rules We may not always meet or learn of the criminal at a gathering place, but it can provide a useful location for the author to make that first mention.
And we’re humans, so we appreciate gathering places that involve food and drink! We learn so much there, about our protagonist and key characters.
When we first meet Bruno, chief of police in a small town in the French Dordogne, the author immediately shows us the contents of Bruno’s police van, including: “one basket containing newly laid eggs from his own hens, and another with his garden’s first spring peas…Tucked neatly to one side were a first-aid kit, a small tool chest, a blanket, and a picnic hamper with plates and glasses, salt and pepper, a head of garlic and a Laguiole pocketknife with a horn handle and a corkscrew. Tucked under the front seat was a bottle of not-quite-legal eau-de-vie from a friendly farmer. He would use this to make his private stock of vin de noix when the green walnuts were ready…” Martin Walker, Bruno, Chief of Police (Book 1 of the series). Hmm: a resourceful and picnic-prepared detective.
Bruno routinely uses a couple of gathering places involving food, first and foremost his own farm above the Vézère River, in country humans have cherished for over 30,000 years. We learn of Bruno’s garden, his hunting, and the dishes he makes for guests. In the latest book, To Kill a Troubadour, Bruno demonstrates his omelet techniques and also carries six jars of his venison pâté to a village feast. (Martin Walker now has a cookbook.) But Bruno visits other gathering places, including his favorite bakery (Fauquet’s) where he buys his morning croissants—one of which he always feeds his puppy. The garden, the venison, the eggs, the wine opener, the bakery, the puppy, the croissants—they’re part of Bruno, and key to the setting.
Inspector Jules Maigret? His setting is typically Paris, where the Brasserie Dauphine delivers late-night sandwiches and beer to his office at the Quai des Orfèvres when he interviews a defendant. He and his colleagues must eat during investigations, of course—at the office and elsewhere. In Maigret Bides His Time he dines at the Clou Doré, a luxurious restaurant owned by a man Maigret suspects of jewel thefts. The waiter: “I recommend the paella this evening… To go with it, a dry Tavel, unless you prefer a Pouilly Fumé.” During the meal, Maigret “seemed to be concerned only with the food and the deliciously fruity wine.” But we readers know otherwise: he’s absorbing atmosphere, clues, little “tells.” In each book, Maigret finds a bar, a brasserie, a restaurant, which can serve as the gathering place where he assembles information that ultimately leads to a solution. Food and drink help create this distinctively French setting.
I do feel it’s unlikely that Four Corners policewoman Bernadette Manuelito would try Bruno’s venison pâté, and I’m not sure her husband, Jim Chee, would either. So far as I recall neither has visited France. They live and work in Navajo and Hopi land, in the series begun by Tony Hillerman and continued by his daughter, Anne Hillerman. In The Wailing Wind, Jim Chee and his former boss, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, “got a table at the Navajo Inn, ordered coffee. Chee would eat a hamburger with fries as always.” Leaphorn says, “I always have an enchilada.” In Anne Hillerman’s Rock with Wings, “Bernie asked Chee to order her usual, a hamburger and a Coke.” She can tolerate pepperoni pizza, but abjures salad. https://www.amazon.com/Rock-Wings-Leaphorn-Manuelito-Novel/dp/0062821733/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1663609808&sr=8-2
The Hillerman setting is not the Navajo Inn, not a particular bar, not a particular bakery. It’s the entire Four Corners, a vast arena of mountains and mesas sacred to Navajo and Hopi memory, with enormous views and laconic characters, careful in their speech, who drive miles to find gas or food. A garden of tender green peas? No. When he hikes into the mountains on a case, Jim Chee packs a bologna sandwich—not venison pâté. Food is essential, food is basic, and eating is often a solitary experience, while Bernadette Manuelito or Jim Chee are out in an arroyo, tracking a killer. The landscape feels too large for a single gathering place—although Jim Chee’s trailer, Captain Largo’s or Leaphead’s offices, or Bernadette’s mother’s house see occasional gatherings.
Coke and hamburger versus venison pâté or paella (French version) and Tavel? Famous cultural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote, “Cooking is a language… through which society unconsciously reveals its structure.” Also known—by mystery readers–as setting.
For her Richard Jury series Martha Grimes takes us to various venues in London and elsewhere, such as Brown’s Hotel (The Dirty Duck), and the Members Room at Borings (the club to which Jury’s friend Melrose Plant belongs) (The Old Wine Shades). She uses pub names as her titles, and the pub can serve as a gathering place, as it does in The Old Wine Shades. Another repeat gathering place is Melrose’s stately country home, Ardry End, which is subject to invasion by Agatha, his aunt-by-marriage, who greedily demolishes all the “fairy cakes” made by Melrose’s excellent cook, Martha. https://www.christinascucina.com/butterfly-cupcakes-british-butterfly-cakes/
Martha knows that when he breakfasts at Ardry End, Richard Jury lusts after her mushrooms: “Jury spooned eggs and a small pile of mushrooms onto his plate, then forked up sausages (a largish number), speared a tomato and sat down.” Shortly thereafter Martha reappears with “a steaming silver dish… ‘Mushrooms! I knew you’d be wanting more o’ my mushrooms!’” And he did. There’s something intimate about watching favorite characters have breakfast—possibly the most individually designed meal we eat. Right?
Grimes invents the Jack and Hammer Pub as the gathering place where Melrose meets his eclectic (nutty) village friends. At the Jack and Hammer we meet the cast of characters Grimes rotates through this series, and watch the friends (and Melrose) try to puzzle out the solution to the murder Richard Jury must solve. We learn the talents and deficits of these friends, their secret loves, and what they order from the bar.
Reading what characters eat and drink enriches our feeling of presence in a book. It pulls our own senses and memories into what we’re reading. We can taste the paella, taste the hamburger, remember our favorite burger joint, our favorite restaurant. We begin to participate in the mystery’s setting. Bernie bites her hamburger; Maigret takes a sip; so do we.
On that note, I’ve just finished the draft of Book 8 in my Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, Ghosted. The central gathering place? The Beer Barn, an iconic Texas Hill Country dancehall and roadhouse. Food? Critical. Luis’s enchiladas and Conroy’s barbecue? They call!
Helen Currie Foster lives and writes in the Texas Hill Country, north of Dripping Springs, loosely supervised by three burros. She’s active with Austin Shakespeare and the Heart of Texas Chapter of Sisters in Crime, as well as Hill Country Master Naturalists (still trying to learn those native grasses). Her Ghost Daughter, Book 7 in the Series, was named 2022 Eric Hoffer Award Grand Prize Short List, as well as Finalist, 2022 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, and 16th Annual National Indie Excellence Awards.
My mother used to tell me I should become a lawyer. “You’re analytical,” she said.
I think she meant I was argumentative, but that’s a different story.
I would like to be analytical in the way lawyers are, but I’m not. And I don’t think on my feet. If I were practicing criminal defense, my clients would be halfway to prison before I realized I should have said, “Objection!”
Nonetheless, though not a lawyer type, I decided back in Aught Three that I might make a fair-to-middlin’ paralegal after I retired from library work. So I registered for an eleven-month course in paralegal studies. And found myself back in the world of Saturday classes and papers and exams and quizzes and perpetual studying.
And perpetual remembering. Cases, statutes, ordinances. Codes, Codes, Codes. I’d been out of school for twelve years. I wasn’t accustomed to stuffing my head with–stuff–and spilling it back onto exams.
I’ve read that if you know 80% of the course material, you’ll be able to pass the tests. That may work for other students.
But I believe–I’m sure–that if I know 80% of the material, the exams will cover the other 20%. Consequently, the only thing to do is learn 100%.
And it’s such dry material. Drier than the Dewey Decimal System. No surprise, of course, but I longed for literature, novels just crying out to be torn apart, rummaged through, distilled to their very essence . . .
My memory needed story.
So, preparing for the probate exam, I wrote one–in the form of a mnemonic. It explained intestate succession–who gets what when a Texan dies without leaving a valid will–as laid out by the Texas Probate Code in force as of November 2003. One of our instructors had warned the class that students usually considered probate the most difficult section of the course.
Composing the memory aid took the better part of an afternoon. It required that I not only observe restrictions imposed by rime and meter, but that I strictly adhere to the provisions of the Code. There was no wiggle room. It had to be correct.
At the end of the day, I was pleased. Aside from a couple of rhythmic aberrations, all the lines scanned, the rime scheme was satisfactory, and the targeted provisions of the Code were covered.
It was a pretty good song.
As a mnemonic, however, it lacked a lot. It was long and complicated. I could have completed an entire exam in the time it took me to sing (silently) down to the second chorus.
It was easier to just learn the Code.
Still, I was proud of my effort, so I posted the little flash of creativity on the class’s online bulletin board. My old biology classmates would have read it and applauded. My paralegal classmates looked at me funny.
Well, an instructor had also told us that paralegals aren’t supposed to display a sense of humor.
But funny looks don’t bother me. I spent years in education. I’m used to them.
At the risk of getting several more, I present a bit of law in verse.
The content of the following composition was accurate as of November 1, 2003. The song does not reflect changes in the law since that date. Neither does it represent a legal opinion, nor is it intended to offer counsel or advice. Its appearance on this blog does not constitute practicing law without a license.
In other words, the Texas Probate Code was swallowed up by the Estates Code, and “John Brown’s Intestacy” is no longer accurate. The author doesn’t intend to make it accurate. And she is still not attempting to practice law without a license.
JOHN BROWN’S INTESTACY
By Kathy Waller
(To be sung to the tune of John Brown’s Body,
aka The Battle Hymn of the Republic).
John Brown died and went to heaven but forgot to make a will.
His intestate succession now the Probate Code will tell.
Was he married, was he single, do his kids sit ‘round the ingle?
Had he common prop. or sep.?
Glory, glory, Texas Probate!
Separate property Section 38!
Common property Section 45!
Make a will while you’re alive!
If John’s married and he leaves a wife, no kids, or kids they share,
Then 45(a)1 leaves wife all common prop. that’s there.
But if he has an extra kid, wife ends up with just half
And the kids share all the rest.
Glory, glory 45(b)!
Don’t omit Section 43!
By the cap or by the stirpes,
Wife shares it with the kids!
For separate prop., if he’s no wife, it goes to kids or grands.
If none of those, John’s parents halve the personal and lands.
If only mom or pop lives, the surviving one takes half.
John’s siblings share the rest.
Glory! Both John’s folks are deceased–
All his sibs will share the increase,
And if no siblings, 38(a)4 means
They’ll need a family tree.
If John has separate prop. and leaves a wife and kids or grands,
38(b)1 gives wife one-third of personal prop. at hand,
And a one-third interest just for life in houses and in lands.
Descendants take the rest.
Glory, glory 38(b)1!
It’s one-third/two-thirds division!
But if John leaves a wife but no kids,
Section 38(b)2 applies!
V. – VII.
John’s wife gets all his personal prop. and half the real estate.
The other half of real estate goes back to 38—
38(a), to be exact, and up the family tree,
Unless his gene pool’s defunct.
For if John Brown was an only child with parents absentee,
No brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, or cousins on the tree,
No grandparents or great-grandparents to grab a moiety,
His wife will get it all.
BUT if John Brown leaves this life with naught a soul to say, “Amen,”
The Probate Code’s escheat will neatly tie up all the ends:
The Lone Star State will step right up to be John’s kith and kin,
And Texas takes it all!
Glory, glory Texas Probate!
Slicing up poor John Brown’s estate!
Avoid the Legislature’s dictate:
Make a will while you’re alive!
Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. Her short stories appear in several anthologies and online. She lives in Austin with one cream tabby and one husband. She’s still working on that mystery novel.
She did work as a paralegal for 2.5 years. She found the work interesting and loved the job (mostly). When she resigned, her attorney said, “I think you’re quitting because you need to do something more creative. So much of the law is just drudgery.” She agreed with him.
Still on the research kick, I’m in the process of learning all about moonshine. No, not how to drink it. How to make it. While plotting out my next book, Death Takes the Fifth, I realized moonshine (and by extension, moonshiners) would play an integral role in the story. Let’s be clear—making moonshine is a against the law in 48 states unless you’ve got a distributor’s license, so DO NOT make this stuff. And, for the record, the moonshiners in my book get in a lot of trouble for what they’re doing.
I got the idea from watching the TV show, “Moonshiners”, on Discovery TV. Yep, I’ve followed the cast through quite a few of their antics, whether it be finding a still site, constructing a still, what kind of water makes the best hooch, recipes for anything from whiskey to gin to absinthe, and how to escape the law (well, moonshiners try, anyway). I even bought a jar of (legal) moonshine marketed at a nearby liquor store to see how it tastes. I’m pretty sure the storebought version is lower in alcohol content and therefore has less of a bite than the real stuff, but I still saw a few fumes behind my eyeballs.
After recovering from that bit of research, I started jotting down some of the facts I needed to make sure the moonshiners were correctly depicted in my book.
The most important ingredient in moonshine is the water. From what I understand, spring water loaded with limestone makes the best liquor. We have a lot of limestone in Texas. Heck, the exterior of my house is limestone. And there are plenty of springs around Austin for this to be a viable process. Once you have your water, it’s time to make the mash.
Oh. The mash. That’s the combination of grains (corn or barley or wheat, etc.), sugar (which brings up the alcohol level–can be anything from refined sugar to sugar beets), water, and aromatics (can be fruit or spices or herbs depending on what type of moonshine you want to make) and yeast. For example, if you want to make a gin moonshine, you must have juniper berries–which can taste pretty strong. The moonshiner might counter that with ingredients like cardamon pods, peppercorns, anise, lemon/orange peels, cinnamon—you get the drift. The mash is then sealed in a big tub (whiskey-aged barrels give it a real nice quality, I understand) and allowed to sit for seven to ten days for all of it to ferment.
By now, it’s time to find the location where you’re actually going to make the moonshine. Near a limestone spring is optimal. It’s also important that the site be away from hikers, hunters, and passers-by. You do not want anyone stumbling on to your still site and either stealing your stuff or calling the police. Again, it is ILLEGAL to make moonshine without the proper permits. Also, moonshiners like to find a spot where they can make a quick get-away if the revenuers come a-calling.
While the mash is doing its chemical thing, its time to construct the still. The folks on The “Moonshiners” tend to favor copper stills, but I’ve seen them make it out of empty beer kegs, old barrels, etc. I’ve inserted a diagram below describing the design of a rather simplistic still. Everything is welded together.
The mechanism on the far left is where the now fermented mash is poured and heated (to somewhere starting at 170 degrees Fahrenheit.) The steam put off by the mash is the alcohol. The steam goes through the cap arm into the thumper keg where it mixes with cold water, thus increasing the alcohol level. After going through the thumper, the now liquid alcohol goes into the warm box and spirals down to the spout. When the liquor’s ready, it comes out the tap or spout. To make sure the liquor doesn’t go everywhere, the moonshiner puts a (pardon the language) coon dick in the spout so the liquor pours straight into whatever container you’re putting the moonshine in. I’ve seen The Moonshiners use gallon glass jugs, plastic milk jugs, mason jars, etc.
About the coon dick. Yes, it really is a raccoon’s…umm…tally whacker. And yes, the aforementioned tally whacker on a raccoon has a bone in it that is perfect for keeping a steady stream of moonshine heading right into the waiting container. (I’m not making this stuff up.)
Now it’s time to see if the moonshine is any good. First off, the moonshine product should be clear. Next, the moonshiner usually uses a mason jar to test the alcohol level of the product. They fill the jar halfway, put the lid on tight, turn it on its side and shake the jar. The bubbles will tell the story. If the bubbles are large and pop pretty quickly, the alcohol level in the jar is high. If the bubbles are small and stay around a while, the alcohol level is low. And, of course, there’s the taste test.
I’ve had a blast learning about all of this, but then again, I love to do research. Between the TV show and the internet, I hope I’ve created some plot twists and characters that you will enjoy as much as I do.
Relationships between mothers, daughters, and sisters, as they relate to one another as individuals and as a family unit, are complex. Now wrap them in the horrors, deprivations, losses, and dangers of World War II in Russia and France, and you have the foundations of two exceptional novels of mothers, daughters, and sisters in love and war.
Authors Kristin Hannah and Karen Robards place their readers in the middle of two families of women with fractured relationships. For one family, the war is over and it’s the traumatizing memories that cause the drama. For the other, the family’s story takes place in the midst of World War II.
In Kristin Hannah’s sweeping saga, The Winter Garden, World War II, specifically the siege of Leningrad, is the historical backdrop for the damaged Whitson family. The destructive tentacles of the past hold the emotionally scarred Anya Whitson in a stranglehold, impacting her relationship with her two daughters, Meredith and Nina, who were kept emotionally distant throughout their childhoods by their mother. Anya often expressed anger or indifference toward them, despite all attempts to please her. Sadly, the sisters believed their mother was a cold woman who did not love them. They had no idea of the past tragedies and secrets that had damaged Anya and created what seemed to be an impenetrable shell around her heart. Over time, a wall of pain and resentment developed between the sisters and lasted for decades, adding to the misunderstandings with their mother.
As an adult, Meredith, the more traditional of the two, stays close to home, marries, and helps run the apple orchard. She raises two children but keeps her husband at arm’s length. The other daughter, Nina, is a world-traveling photojournalist, and she stays away from the family as much as possible until their father’s failing health forces her to return.
On his deathbed, Evan Whitson demands a promise from his daughters. They are to get their mother to tell the entire fairy tale she’d partially told them as children, but after his death, Anya’s behavior becomes unbalanced. Again, they listen to the fairy tale about a prince and a peasant girl and remain confused, still unaware of the story’s significance.
One day, Meredith finds old papers with a letter from a Russian professor in Alaska addressed to Anya, stating that while he understood her refusal to tell her story, it would have been an excellent learning experience for others. Inspired by the professor’s words, the sisters take their mother on an Alaska trip, where they learn what had happened to her in Russia, the brutality of the German invasion, followed by the horror of life under Stalin.
Anya’s story weaves through an unimaginable nightmare as she tells her daughters the truth about living through the almost 900-day siege of Leningrad. Things begin to make sense about their mother’s bizarre behaviors. In Anya’s deliriums, she’d envisioned herself back in Leningrad during the siege and tried to strip and boil wallpaper to make soup, as the starving populace did because wallpaper pastes were made from potato starches. They also learned the tragic reason for her emotional connection to the winter garden outside her house. And most important, why she seemed detached from her girls. World War II is a past we only see through Anya’s tortured memories, but we suffer with her for what she’d endured, and we feel the pain of a mother and her daughters as they learn the truth and try to find forgiveness and love.
In The Black Swan of Paris, Karen Robards drops us into occupied Paris in 1944, in a historical thriller that keeps us on the edge of our seats with unrelenting tensions and fears – as life must have been for the resistance fighters of France.
The main character, Genevieve Dumont, a celebrity singer, is adored by the Nazis. Her manager, Max Bonet, is Captain Max Ryan, British SOE (Special Operations Executive). Max recruits her after helping her through a deadly incident in Morocco, and she becomes a reluctant front for the British spying and intelligence gathering network, living in constant fear for her life.
The French resistance cells are autonomous, keeping identities secret to increase their chances of survival. Thus, other cells don’t know of Genevieve’s double life and view her as a Nazi collaborator, but that cover is what gives her and her manager Max entry into the world of the Nazi hierarchy. But the Black Swan of Paris has deadly secrets of her own.
Unbeknownst to almost everyone, including Max, Genevieve was born Genevre de Rochford, the daughter of Baron and Baroness de Rochford, whom she’d disowned, along with her sister, Emmy, years earlier. Genevieve has no feelings for her parents or Emmy, or anyone else until she inadvertently hears that the Baroness de Rochford, now a member of the French resistance, has been captured by the Nazis. She learns that Max has been ordered to rescue the Baroness or kill her before the Nazis can torture information from her regarding the planned Allied invasion. This information shocks Genevieve and the familial bonds she thought dead surge to the surface. She doesn’t know what to do, but her sister Emmy, serving in another resistance cell, has kept track of Genevieve’s public career and finds her. Together, they put aside all past differences because somehow they must rescue their mother—but they need help from Max, the operative ordered to kill her.
Both stories are rich with details that bring readers into the world of these characters, showing the importance of extensive research. World War II, the siege of Leningrad, life under Stalin, the occupation of France, and the French resistance, come alive through superb storytelling.
One understands Anya’s behaviors through her tragic memories and feels the sense of powerlessness, the pain of losing loved ones, the physical pain of starvation, and the fear of what was to come by those who endured and survived the siege of Leningrad.
In Paris, 1944, the French resistance waits for Operation Overlord while Genevieve Dumont walks her tightrope, which could snap and plunge her and her network into the hell of Nazi hands and possibly undo the planned Allied invasion. The reader experiences the pressure of the tremendous weight on so few shoulders and the unrelenting fear of being captured.
The depth of knowledge of those historical events, whether told in the sweeping family saga of The Winter Garden or in the historical suspense thriller The Black Swan of Paris, are used deftly andadd details and layers to the stories, enhancing each novel’s authenticity.
Our family’s favorite mystery quote (bolded below) appears in Strong Poison, by Dorothy Sayers, where detective Lord Peter Wimsey first meets novelist Harriet Vane. Vane’s on trial for murder, accused of systematically poisoning her former lover with arsenic.
Wimsey suspects the lover’s uncle, Norman Urquhart, but the uncle assures the police that he served a blameless dinner to his nephew. Wimsey sends the all-competent Bunter (his manservant and WWI batman), to winkle out secrets from Urquhart’s cook, Mrs. Pettican, and the housemaid.
Bunter ingratiates himself by means of crumpets:
“At half-past four…he was seated in the kitchen of Mr. Urquhart’s house, toasting crumpets. He had been trained to a great pitch of dexterity in the preparation of crumpets, and if he was somewhat lavish in the matter of butter, that hurt nobody except Mr. Urquhart. It was natural that the conversation should turn to the subject of murder. Nothing goes so well with a hot fire and buttered crumpets as a wet day without and a good dose of comfortable horrors within. The heavier the lashing of the rain and the ghastlier the details, the better the flavour seems to be.”
What a setting! I’ve never tasted a crumpet, but can feel the heat of the fire and inhale the smells of toasting and melting butter. And in contrast to (or fueled by) this warmth, this delicious comfort, the cook reminds us of the victim’s death: “A dreadful wicked woman she must ‘a’ been,” said Mrs. Pettican, “—‘ev another crumpet, do, Mr. Bunter—a-torturin’ of the poor soul that long-winded way. Bashin’ on the ‘ed or the ‘asty use of a carvin’ knife when roused I can understand, but the ‘orrors of slow poisonin’ is the work of a fiend in ‘uman form, in my opinion.”
So in our kitchen at buttery moments some family member will mutter, “If he was somewhat lavish in the matter of butter…” But this week I wondered, “What are crumpets?” I mean, with Bunter toasting them over a (presumably coal) fire, then lavishing butter on them, they sound wonderful, especially for teatime in a firelit kitchen, on a cold wet afternoon, discussing the horrors of slow poisoning.
Compelled by curiosity I found a recipe. https://www.daringgourmet.com/traditional-english-crumpets/ Huh. I’d imagined English muffins. No. Instead, the goal is a tender disc, yeasty but also leavened with baking soda, creating bubbled holes to absorb melted butter, jam, and other decorations. Problem: locating crumpet rings. Yes, I’ve ordered some.
Sayers wasn’t writing a culinary cozy, despite the crumpets and an intense discussion on the following page between Mrs. Pettican and Bunter about casseroled chicken. A scene beginning with toasting crumpets produces a triumph of setting and character, a comic but dread-inspiring description of the victim’s death, and clever clue placement. Sayers does not describe either the smell of the toasting, or the taste of the crumpets, but surely you, dear reader, imagined those? Didn’t you feel yourself right there in the kitchen, with the rainy day outside, the gossipy discussion of the lover’s death agonies, and a vivid depiction of Bunter’s character? Courteous, yet firm, he deftly extracts critical information not reflected in the police report—and yes, a clue you doubtless spotted. Maybe Vane will escape the hangman’s noose after all.
Despite the strong impact of smells on humans, writers’ references to smell often seem sparse. Part of the problem is the sheer difficulty of describing certain smells. Imagine trying to describe the smell of a beloved house. It’s a mysterious mix, isn’t it? If I try to describe my mother’s house, I can’t do it with just one word. Part of the remembered smell is a faint perfume—maybe a bath powder she used, like Caswell Massey’s Gardenia. But there are other ingredients as well—contributions from oak furniture, cotton sheets, old Christmas cards on a closet shelf… See, I can’t accurately describe the smell itself; I have to name things.
My grandmother’s house in Hill County delivered a similar mixture, varying by seasons. In summer, it smelled of cantaloupe from her garden; at Christmas, of a decorated cedar tree. But always the substrate included a hard-to-describe mixture of our grandfather’s Yardley English Lavender talc, kept on the kitchen shelf where he shaved; of the garbage chute in the kitchen; of oil and electric discharges from his ham radio rig; of the ancient living room piano (wires, wood, felt). How describe the totality of that smell, that amalgam of odors, so instantly recognizable to me, but unknown to you? And how describe it without a bunch of nouns?
Poets apparently run into that problem. I set out to locate poems incorporating odor and fragrance, grabbing poetry volumes from the shelves. Yeats? Gorgeous references to sight and sound, as in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”: “Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee, /And live alone in the bee-loud glade…” The poem is rich in sight, in sound, but not smell. We don’t smell the clay and wattles or honey.
Same for Wendell Berry’s A Small Porch—a volume of ideas, images, light and air. But I didn’t find smell. Nor did I find smell references in Chaucer or a number of Renaissance English poets, except that Michael Drayton gives us a wonderful line in “To the Virginian Voyage” referring to the much-anticipated Virginia landfall of seaborne English explorers: “When as the luscious smell/of that delicious land…” Of course Shakespeare mentions the “sweet odour” of roses (as in Sonnet 54): “Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made.”
Indeed, I had trouble finding references to smell in most of the poetry books I opened. There were some. In “Aimless Love,” “gazing down affectionately at the soap,” Billy Collins writes, “I could feel myself falling again/as I felt its turning in my wet hands/and caught the scent of lavender and stone.”
Marianne Moore, in “Enough,” from O To Be a Dragon, gives us this: “The crested moss-rose casts a spell; its bud of solid green, as well, /and the Old Pink Moss—with fragrant wings/ imparting balsam scent that clings…” Many readers will recognize balsam. Another from Moore’s “In the Public Garden”: “O yes, and snowdrops in the snow that smell like violets.”
Also readers may know the smell of violets. Charles Wright, in “Dog Creek Mainline,” gives more challenging references: “Dog Creek: cat track and bird splay,/Spindrift and windfall; woodrot; Odor of muscadine…” If you’ve played around wild grapevine you know the odor of muscadine––maybe woodrot too.
Try the experiment yourself. Pull some poetry off the shelf. Don’t most poems rely on sight and sound, and rarely odor? Because a particular smell can be very hard to describe.
“The way the brain deals with smells is very different to how it deals with other senses, such as seeing and hearing. For example, we can identify the different instruments playing in a band, or the different shapes and colours in a painting. But it is very hard for us to tell the individual parts of a smell mixture.” He goes on: “We can sense the smell of “orange” or “coffee” as a single thing, but have trouble identifying the many different parts that make up those smells individually. However, it is possible to get better at this with practice. Professional wine-tasters or perfume-makers can detect more parts of a smell mixture than most people.”
Our difficulty in describing smell is not that we humans can’t detect odors—we can, says Greg Miller, Science (November 11, 2014): “We humans have about 400 different types of receptors for detecting odorant molecules. That’s on the low end for mammals, but it’s enough, at least in theory, to allow us to distinguish a trillion different odors, one team of neuroscientists calculated earlier this year (although there’s been some controversy about that estimate).”
But, per Miller, we describe odors differently from sights and sounds: “When people—English speaking people, anyway—describe odors, what they are actually doing much of the time is describing the source of the odor. Orange-y. Smokey-. Skunk-y. This seems natural enough, but it’s fundamentally different from how we describe other sensory experiences. Words like “white” and “round” describe visual features of an object, not the object itself. It could be a baseball, or it could be the Moon. In the same way, a tone can be “high-pitched” whether it comes from a bird or a teakettle.” https://bit.ly/3JFFobV
Some studies suggest that our language is inadequate to the task of describing smell. Another suggestion is that other languages than English may be better at conveying odor.
But determined mystery writers find a way, because odor can make important contributions to a setting. In 1937, in Rex Stout’s fourth Nero Wolfe mystery, The Red Box, the detective lectures his cook, Fritz Brenner: “Do you know shish kebab? I have had it in Turkey. Marinate thin slices of tender lamb for several hours in red wine and spices. Here, I’ll put it down: thyme, mace, peppercorns, garlic…” https://amzn.to/3PahvKz
Can’t you smell those spices? And doesn’t that passage help round out (pun) our vision of Nero Wolfe, gourmet, gourmand, brilliant detective? We’re planted in the kitchen of Wolfe’s New York brownstone, the primary setting for all the mysteries. These few lines convey Wolfe’s insistence on sophisticated cuisine, and reflect the rigor he demands of every employee under his roof, including Fritz the cook; Theodore Horstmann, the keeper of his orchid greenhouse; and our narrator, his foot soldier, Archie Goodwin. A shish kebab recipe helps define the setting and Wolfe’s character as well.
Ngaio Marsh begins Night at the Vulcan (1951) with Martyn Tarne, a young New Zealand actress desperately seeking an acting role in London. One night, out of food and money, with no place to stay, she enters the Vulcan Theatre which has advertised for a dresser: “She was at the back of the stalls, standing on thick carpet at the top of the ramp facing the centre aisle…The deadened air smelt of naphthalene and plush.” The empty theatre lacks an eager audience, waiting for the curtain to go up. Instead Marsh gives us the “deadened air” of a closed theatre, where the plush seats are empty, and the air smells of naphthalene—chemical dry cleaning. Martyn starts to work: “As soon as she crossed the threshold of the star dressing-room she smelt greasepaint. The dressing-shelf was bare, the room untenanted, but the smell of cosmetics mingled with the faint reek of gas.” I don’t know the smell of greasepaint, but Martyn does; she’s in a setting she understands.
Mick Herron’s unputdownable Slough House series uses odor to create the key setting––the decrepit building which serves as center stage. Book 2, Dead Lions, describes entry to the building as follows: “No one enters Slough House by the front door; instead, via a shabby alleyway, its inmates let themselves into a grubby yard with mildewed walls….” Yecch, mildew. The building houses the “slow horses” who flunked out of MI-5’s headquarters in posh Regent’s Park, and are now under the tutelage of former Cold Warrior Jackson Lamb, a terrifying mentor. “Jackson Lamb’s lair,” the office on the building’s top floor, is described thus: “The air is heavy with a dog’s olfactory daydream: takeaway food, illicit cigarettes, day-old farts and stale beer, but there will be no time to catalogue this because Jackson Lamb can move surprisingly swiftly for a man of his bulk….” No question that odor is part of the setting. Lamb is an olfactory terrorist. https://amzn.to/3ppQsAJ
The century-old Beer Barn, a beloved road house in Coffee Creek, is where townspeople gather in my Ghost series. That includes lawyer and protagonist Alice Greer. Naturally the smell of beer is key. In Book 3, Ghost Letter, Alice invites a political reporter to the Beer Barn for lunch: “As they pushed through the Beer Barn’s tall swinging doors the fragrant haze enveloped them—incense compounded of hickory smoke from the wood-fired grill, chiles toasted on an iron comal, and thousands of bubbles popping in bottles and glasses, releasing the yeasty magic of beer to the air.”
Smells may be hard to define, but including the smell of a setting can enrich a mystery’s impact. Or, as Mrs. Pettican says, “Have another crumpet, do!”
Helen Currie Foster lives and writes north of Dripping Springs, Texas, loosely supervised by three burros jostling for roles in the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, set in the unique landscape of the Texas Hill Country. So far all three burros have made an appearance, though insisting on aliases. Book 8 is on its way…