A Post That Wasn’t Supposed to Be Posted

I was writing a book review when Lark Rise to Candleford, a television series I had runnin in the backround as a helpful distraction, suddenly hijacked my topic and required me to begin again.

I hate it when that happens. I hate it especially now, because when I finish this post, it’s going to sound like a fourth-grade book report.

But, as many of us have learned over the past six months, sometimes we just do what we have to do. So here’s my report.

Lark Rise to Candleford, adapted from a trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels by Flora Thompson, is set in the English countryside in the 1800s, and focuses on the lives of residents of the country hamlet of Lark Rise and the nearby town of Candleford. David and I watched it on PBS ten years ago. It’s sweet and sentimental, and we enjoyed it. The critic who called it “ham-fisted” can go jump in the lake.

The episode that caught my attention tonight begins at harvest time, when all the residents of Lark Rise take to the fields to help young farmer Al Arliss bring in the wheat crop. That’s all the residents. Women and children follow the men and gather the “leavings.” What they bring in will determine how much flour they’ll have for the rest of the year. Harvesting usually takes two weeks, but Al is determined to finish in twelve days–perhaps in ten. He pushes the others. By the end of the day, adults are exhausted.

But before it’s time to leave the fields, children are falling ill–with measles.

One Candleford child, postmaster Dorcas’ adopted son, has worked in the fields that day “for fun.” The next morning, when Dorcas realizes he’s sick, she closes the post office and quarantines with him in their house upstairs. She tells her employees to provide as many services as possible from the post office porch.

Teenaged Laura, the eldest of a large Lark Rise family, now a postal clerk in Candleford, assures Dorcas that measles is common in families. Mailman Thomas, who as a teenager lost several siblings to measles and reared the survivors after his parents died, agrees that it’s common but says some families are “very reduced” by it.

A journalist stopping by Lark Rise on his way to Cambridge tells Laura’s father, a stonemason who’s been in the fields with his wife and children, that there are measles in Oxford; he’s been covering the story for his newspaper. It’s newsworthy because for the first time, the city has set up contagion hospitals.

The disease is hitting harder this time, he says, because it’s past due. This isn’t just an outbreak. It’s an epidemic.

By the next day, every child in Lark Rise has measles.

But the wheat must be harvested. Every single person must work in the fields. For the next two weeks.

But children are seriously ill. Mothers can’t leave them.

Children die of measles.

But if the women don’t work in the fields, there will be no flour for the winter.

Children will die of starvation. So will adults.

The men of Lark Rise agree. It’s a problem. But there’s not a thing to do about it.

Except there is.

The journalist tells them, “Measles will not recognize the walls that separate you as neighbors.”

Do what they’ve done in Oxford: bring the children to one place so they can be cared for together. The Turrill home–Queenie Turrill, the community’s wise woman and healer, has been foster mother to children for over fifty years. Mothers of children with lighter cases go to the fields. Others stay as nurses. Thomas, who has spent years trying to forget the deaths of his loved ones, puts that sorrow aside and helps with  nursing–after all, he’s a committed Christian, and his wife has told him it’s the Christian thing to do.

And the shopkeepers of Candleford, many of whom look down on the poor, unsophisticated farmers of Lark Rise, show up en masse to work beside them and harvest the grain.

I watched that show ten years ago, and the only thing that stuck with me then was  the death of the farmer’s teenaged brother. It was sad. As usual, I cried. That was that.

Tonight I saw something entirely different. Every line of dialogue had new meaning.

Contagious disease. Past due. Epidemic. Life-threatening. No treatment. Voluntary isolation. Immediate action. Quarantine hospitals. Collapsing economy. No food for the winter. No money for rent. Essential workers. Essential services.

And people listening to reason, following the lead of the medical community in a major city, caring about one another, taking care of one another. Working together for the good of everyone. Loving their neighbors as they love themselves.

Sweet, sentimental, ham-fisted, I don’t care. It felt good to see a story about people facing terrible odds and doing the best they could. And doing it right.

It also felt bad.

End of book report. End of post.

***

Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. Her latest publication is the novella Stabbed, written with Manning Wolfe.

SETTING STORIES IN HISTORICAL FACTS By Francine Paino

Past, present, future. Measures of time. The future is uncertain, or at least cannot be seen by the finite minds of wo/mankind, but the past remains a blueprint to build on, to change to make better, providing we don’t try to hide or deny the past. We cannot escape our history—nor should we. Like the gorgeous butterfly that emerges from the shell of a caterpillar, out of ugly facts of history, come two beautiful stories that lift the soul.

  In Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens, and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See, we are invited into different worlds to experience beliefs and customs that we find unacceptable by 21st Century standards.

These fictional characters are intensely real and their stories grab the readers’ heartstrings as we walk alongside them and watch the painful development and evolution of the human soul, at the societal and personal levels.

Both books can be described as beautiful, agonizing, poignant, terrible, heartbreaking, joyous, and a beautiful testament to relationships and the triumph of the human spirit.

Where The Crawdads Sing draws us into a tale of betrayal, abandonment, and murder, through the life of Kya Clark and the backwater residents of Barkley Cove, who view her as “swamp trash” to be shunned, ridiculed and looked down upon.

The story begins with the 1969 murder of Chase Andrews, the townie playboy, and son of a respected Barkley Cove family. It then toggles back to 1952.  Six-year-old Kya watches her mother, the last of her dysfunctional family, walk away from their shack, never to return, leaving Kya alone to live with a drunken, physically, and mentally abusive father.

Kya is forced to dig deep and find the strength to make some semblance of a life with him, always afraid that he’d come home drunk, constantly hoping her mother would return.  Things seem to improve, but eventually, he leaves too, and Kya is left to survive or die, among the gulls, fish, and wildlife of the swamp.

Considered illiterate swamp trash, Kya is referred to as the Marsh Girl. After spending one humiliating day in school, she vows never to return and successfully evades the town’s truant officers’ half-hearted efforts. Only one man called Jumpin’, the gas station owner and his wife show her any kindnesses, until the day she encounters Tate, a boy who was once her brother’s friend – then her life changes.

Tate befriends her, and it’s through him that she learns to read and write. It’s with Tate that Kya builds her already extraordinary knowledge of the ecosystem of the swamp. Over time, Kya’s extraordinary knowledge of the ecosystem leads her to success as a published author, thanks to Tate’s encouragement. Her first book brings a royalty of $5,000, a great deal of money to Kya; despite her success, she never dreams of leaving the swamp’s safety, and the townspeople of Barkley Cove never see her as anything other than the “Marsh Girl.”

We live and learn through Kya’s determination and development as she overcomes enormous challenges for seventeen years until the past and present become one. Then Kya becomes the prime suspect in Chase Andrews’s murder and may face the death penalty.

Where the Crawdads Sing is a door to the beauty of the wetland ecosystems, and a window to many 1960s prejudices reflected by a backwater society’s discrimination and refusal to give a person like Kya a chance in life.

Delia Owens is a wildlife scientist who writes with the accumulated knowledge of 23 years of experience with animals and environments. In Ms. Owen’s words, Kya’s story shows that “we are forever shaped by the children we once were.”

In Snowflower and the Secret Fan, the lives of two very young girls in the Hunan Province of China, transport us back in time to a country on the other side of the world and immerses us in a different culture.

In 19th Century China, women were considered of little worth and had to be married out. They lived in almost total seclusion, and to make the best marriage contracts, young female children around six had their feet bound, to keep them as small as possible, the goal being five-inch long “golden lilies.”

The story is told through eighty-year-old Lily, who looks back on her life and asks the gods for forgiveness, realizes that the binding altered not only her feet but also her whole character. “By age forty,” she says, “the rigidity of that binding had moved from her golden lilies (tiny feet) to her heart, which held on to injustices and grievances so strongly” that she could no longer forgive those she loved and loved her.

We meet Snow Flower when she and Lily are six-years-old, and about to have their feet bound to make them more desirable. In the superstitious traditions of the time, the matchmaker and the diviner examine Lily and tell her family she is no ordinary child. Lily will have a favorable marriage contract, but she is also worthy of a laotong – a special relationship between girls.

For the Chinese of Hunan, the laotong or “old-sames” link was the strongest of all precious female bonds of friendship between women. It was more rare and formal, requiring a contract. A woman could only have one laotong, and it was unbreakable for life. The matchmaker negotiates a marriage contract for Lily and selects Snow Flower to be Lily’s “old-same.” The girls are taught a secret writing code called nu shu (women’s writing), and as laotong, they write their stories on fans or embroider them on handkerchiefs. It was a salve for their lonely hearts. The laotong understand one another’s souls.

These loveable young girls support one another through the torture of footbinding, they grow into women and marry. Lily’s fortunes change for the better. Snow Flower’s fortunes change for the worse, and still, their special relationship endures. They become good wives and adhere to the expected behaviors of wives and daughters-in-law. They celebrate one another’s sons, for nothing is as crucial for a woman’s standing in the family as bearing sons. As “old-sames,” they share their pain and fear through famine, plague and rebellion, but can their relationship withstand a serious misunderstanding?

This is author Lisa See’s ancestral history. She spares no detail in the horrific footbinding process that deformed millions of little girls’ feet until it was outlawed in 1912. Without rancor, judgment, or shame, she draws the reader in and we share the agony these children endured, sometimes unto death if infections set in when the bones finally break to keep the toes folded under the foot and retard its growth. The physical agony eventually ends, but these women never walk normally again. We watch them sway and find a different balance on stumps, never meant to carry the body’s weight. We meet the older women of their families. We are sad for many who end up with significant disabilities later in life, yet continue to inflict footbinding on the female children because traditions and societal expectations demanded it.

Neither story ignores, covers-up, condemns, or apologizes. Where there were prejudice and slurs, Owens wrote it. Where there was the breaking of bones to the point of destroying the body’s ability to function, Ms. See wrote it.

Although painful to read and admit, even as fiction, the characters make us think, admire the strength they discovered in the face of oppression, grieve for their suffering and loss, and celebrate the triumphs of their souls.

And The Finalists Are…

VP Chandler

 

 

by V.P. Chandler

 

Due to the Covid19 pandemic, writing conventions across the world are changing their tactics for the 2020 season, and that includes Killer Nashville and Bouchercon. While they will not be meeting in person, people have still been nominated for their outstanding writing. And three of our AMW family have been nominated this year! (I think this may be a record for us.)

K.P. Gresham, Laura Oles, and Scott Montgomery have all been nominated for awards!  Please scroll through the lists and look at the finalists. I’ve also enlarged the titles and names of friends whose works I recommend.

Enjoy adding many more books to your TBR (To Be Read) list!

And congrats again to K.P., Laura Oles (with Manning Wolfe), and Scott. Well done!

 

2020 KILLER NASHVILLE 

SILVER FALCHION AWARD FINALISTS

 

Mystery


A Dream of Death, by Connie Berry

The White Heron, Carl & Jane Bock

The Mammoth Murders, by Iris Chacon

Blood Moon Rising, by Richard Conrath

Fake, by John DeDakis

Lovely Digits, by Jeanine Englert

The Marsh Mallows, by Henry Hack

Murder at the Candlelight Vigil, by Karen McCarthy

Murder Creek, by Jane Suen

The Deadliest Thief, by June Trop

 

Thriller

Red Specter, by Brian Andrews & Jeffrey Wilson

All Hollow, by Simeon Courtie

Deadly Obsession, by Shirley B. Garrett

The Gryphon Heist, by James R. Hannibal

Low Country Blood, by Sue Hinkin

Hyperion’s Fracture, by Thomas Kelso

Rise, by Leslie McCauley

The Secret Child, by Caroline Mitchell

The Silent Victim, by Dana Perry

Downhill Fast, by Dana J. Summers

 

Suspense



Fade to the Edge, by Kathryn J. Bain

Below the Fold, by R.G. Belsky


Murder on the Third Try
, by K.P. Gresham

Queen’s Gambit, by Bradley Harper

The Strange Disappearance of Rose Stone, by J.E. Irvin

Revenge in Barcelona, by Kathryn Lane

The Daughter of Death, by Dianne McCartney

VIPER, A Jessica James Mystery, by Kelly Oliver

Downhill Fast, by Dana J. Summers

The Scions of Atlantis, by Claudia Turner

 

Action or Adventure



Westfarrow Island, by Paul A. Barra

The Measure of Ella, by Toni Bird Jones

Dangerous Conditions, by Jenna Kernan

The Best Lousy Choice, by Jim Nesbitt

Angel in the Fog, by Tj Turner

Cozy



Two Bites Too Many, by Debra H. Goldstein

A Sip Before Dying, by Gemma Halliday

Bad Pick, by Linda Lovely

The Fog Ladies, by Susan McCormick

Twisted Plots, by Bonita McCoy

 

Procedural or P.I.



Russian Mojito, by Carmen Amato

Apprehension, by Mark Bergin

The Things That Are Different, by Peter W.J. Hayes

Paid in Spades, by Richard Helms

The Dead of Summer, by Jean Rabe

 

Juvenile or Y.A.



Daughter Undisclosed, by Susan K. Flach

Speak No Evil, by Liana Gardner

The Clockwork Dragon, by James R. Hannibal

Kassy O’Roarke, Cub Reporter, by Kelly Oliver

This Dark and Bloody Ground, by Lori Roberts

 

Short Story Anthology or Collection



Couch Detective, by James Glass

Words on Water, by Harpeth River Writers

A Midnight Clear, by Lindy Ryan


Last Call, by Manning Wolfe and Laura Oles

The Muse of Wallace Rose, by Bill Woods

Science Fiction, Fantasy, or Horror

The Line Between, by Tosca Lee


A Single Light, by Tosca Lee

To the Bones, by Valerie Nieman

Moon Deeds, by Palmer Pickering

Dreamed It, by Maggie Toussaint


2020 ANTHONY AWARD NOMINEES for Bouchercon 2020

Best Novel

Your House Will Pay, by Steph Cha

They All Fall Down, by Rachel Howzell Hall

Lady in the Lake, by Laura Lippman 

The Murder List, by Hank Phillippi Ryan 

Miami Midnight, by Alex Segura

 

Best First Novel

 

The Ninja Daughter, by Tori Eldridge

Miracle Creek, by Angie Kim

One Night Gone, by Tara Laskowski

Three-Fifths, by John Vercher 

American Spy, by Lauren Wilkinson

 

Best Paperback Original

 

The Unrepentant, by E.A. Aymar

Murder Knocks Twice, by Susanna Calkins

The Pearl Dagger, by L.A. Chandlar 

Scot & Soda, by Catriona McPherson 

The Alchemist’s Illusion, by Gigi Pandian

Drowned Under, by Wendall Thomas

The Naming Game, by Gabriel Valjan

 

Best Critical Non-Fiction Work

 

Hitchcock and the Censors, by John Billheimer

The Hooded Gunman: An Illustrated History of the Collins Crime Club, by John Curran

The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women, by Mo Moulton

The Trial of Lizzie Borden: A True Story, by Cara Robertson

The Five: The Untold Stories of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold

 

Best Short Story

(Read each story for free by clicking the link in the title)

“Turistas,” by Hector Acosta (appearing in ¡Pa’que Tu Lo Sepas!: Stories to Benefit the People of Puerto Rico)

“Unforgiven,” by Hilary Davidson (appearing in Murder a-Go-Gos: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Music of the Go-Gos)

“Red Zone,” by Alex Segura (appearing in ¡Pa’que Tu Lo Sepas!: Stories to Benefit the People of Puerto Rico)

“Better Days,” by Art Taylor (appearing in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, May/June 2019)

“Hard Return,” by Art Taylor (appearing in Crime Travel)

 

Best Anthology or Collection

 

The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods, edited by Michael Bracken 

¡Pa’que Tu Lo Sepas!: Stories to Benefit the People of Puerto Rico, edited by Angel Luis Colón

Crime Travel, edited by Barb Goffman

Malice Domestic 14: Mystery Most Edible, edited by Verena Rose, Rita Owen, and Shawn Reilly Simmons

Murder A-Go-Go’s: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Music of the Go-Gos, edited by Holly West

 

Best Young Adult

 

Seven Ways to Get Rid of Harry, by Jen Conley 

Catfishing on CatNet, by Naomi Kritzer

Killing November, by Adriana Mather

Patron Saints of Nothing, by Randy Ribay

The Deceivers, by Kristen Simmons

Wild and Crooked, by Leah Thomas

ARE YOU HUNGRY? FOOD IDIOSYNCRASIES AND LOCAL FLAVOR

 

 

 

by Helen Currie Foster

Why, exactly, do we take such interest in what our favorite detectives eat or what a character like Aunt Agatha grabs for first at teatime at Melrose Plant’s country house? (Answer: fairy cakes.)

Some say that cooking distinguishes humans from other speciesor at least played a role in our evolution.   (Apparently chimpanzees can learn to cook, though…)

If cooking’s a distinctive human trait, choosing which cooking to eat is an even finer distinction, one used to great effect in murder mysteries. The what, where and how a character chooses to eat can tell us a great deal. Mystery writers use food to develop characters, settings, and local flavor. Sometimes these seem to merge. (Here I’m discussing mysteries generally, not athe culinary mystery subgenre, or mysteries involving poisons including the thirty or so which Agatha Christie wrote.)

Consider, for example, that complex man Andy Dalziel, Detective Chief Inspector in Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series.

An ex-rugby player, nicknamed the “fat bastard,” he’s introduced in Exit Lines as he clambers out of bed with a morning hangover after a rough night:

And now, he told himself with the assurance of one who believed in a practical, positive and usually physical response to most of life’s problems, all he needed to complete this repair of normality was a platterful of egg, sausage, bacon, tomatoes and fried bread. Bitter experience had taught him in the years since his wife’s departure to eschew home catering. It wasn’t that a basic cuisine was beyond his grasp; it was the cleaning up afterwards that defeated him…only a beast would tolerate fat-congealed frying-pans. Fortunately the police canteen did an excellent breakfast. Gourmet cooking they might not provide, but what did that matter to a man who…affected to believe that cordon bleu was a French road-block? And a slight blackening round the edge of a fry-up was to a resurrected copper what the crust on old port was to a wine connoisseur––a sign of readiness.

Gosh. The classic English breakfast “fry-up”––Yorkshire version––served in a police canteen. We’ve just learned about Dalziel that he likes the classic and plenty of it, that his wife’s left him and he doesn’t like to eat alone at home, that he habitually tries to hide his sophistication, and that the police station’s his comfort zone. We know he’s no secret gourmet. Hill’s not interested in showing us his own food sophistication (we almost hope the “slight blackening around the edges” does not describe his own breakfast). Hill is not offering us food porn––far from it. He’s giving us a close-up of Dalziel, alone at home, getting ready to walk onstage at the police station.

A different sort of home cooking characterizes Donna Leon’s Inspector Guido Brunetti series, set in Venice. Here’s Brunetti in Death and Judgment, coming home to lunch, where he finds his wife Paola––professor of English, born into Venetian wealth, politically liberal––listening indignantly to the political news:

“Guido, these villains will destroy us all. Perhaps they already have. And you want to know what’s for lunch.” …

When he does ask, “What’s for lunch?” Paola responds:

“Pasta fagioli and then cotoletta.”

“Salad?”

“Guido,” she asked with pursed lips and upraised eyes, “when haven’t we had salad with cutlets?”

Instead of answering her question he asked, “Is there any more of that good Dolcetto?”

“I don’t know. We had a bottle of it last week, didn’t we?”

Imagine how they’d react if confronted with Dalziel’s fry-up? Of course they’ll have salad, because in Venice one always has salad with cutlets! How different this home is from Dalziel’s. Brunetti and his wife talk food, talk wine, insist on proper Venetian cooking. Brunetti’s apartment with Paola and his children is truly home base. In this scene Paola’s already asked him to look into a situation…and he’s about to tell her what he has found out. Fans of Donna Leon already know that part of Brunetti’s daily work challenge comes from the inherent corruption of the judicial system, which often sends him into despair. Yet he loves Venice. Leon uses scenes showing the happy comforts provided by Brunetti’s family and family meals, with correct Venetian cuisine, to explain how Brunetti keeps his emotional balance. Despite grim crimes, despite his city’s corruption, Brunetti won’t leave: he’s part of Venice.

Food preferences make characters both human (don’t we all have preferences?) and distinctive. Think of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, shut in his hermetic mansion where his Swiss chef Fritz Brenner provides favorite dishes prepared just so.

Think of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, with his eternal tisanes.

Think of the strong food dislikes of Anne Hillerman’s policewoman Bernadette Manuelito. According to her husband Jim Chee, in Cave of Bones, Bernadette “had never ordered salad at a restaurant,” never made one at home, and if he made salad for them, she would eat only the iceberg lettuce and eat around the other vegetables. Pizza? Only pepperoni for her. Bernadette is smart, brave, sensible…but not when it comes to vegetables.

Louise Penny uses cooking to great effect in constructing the setting for her Inspector Gamache series, the quirky little Québec village of Three Pines. The village is isolated and rural, but has attracted exceedingly sophisticated residents—the poet Ruth, the sculptor Clara, Inspector Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie and others. This setting would seem quite improbable but for the role of the bistro, a place of style, comfort, warmth and great food. In the opening scene of A Better Man, “Clara’s and Myrna’s armchairs were pulled close to the hearth, where logs popped and sent embers fluttering up the field-stone chimney. The village bistro smelled of woodsmoke and maple syrup and strong fresh coffee.” Wouldn’t we all like a bistro like that, just across the village green? With really good coffee? Furthermore, the bistro, with its proprietors Gabri and Olivier, attracts other food artisans. When residents are desperately sandbagging the banks of the flooding river at Three Pines, these provide succor:

Gabri and Olivier were handing out hot drinks. Tea, coffee, hot chocolate, and soup. Monsieur Béliveau, the grocer, and Sarah the baker, were taking around trays of sandwiches. Brie and thick slices of maple-cured ham, and arugula on baguettes and croissants, and pain ménage.

The bistro is “home base” for this series. Inspector Gamache deals with crimes all across Quebec, but the inhabitants of Three Pines, glued together by the bistro, provide a vivid supporting cast and sometimes play leading roles in Penny’s series. I don’t think they’d stay in Three Pines if the food weren’t so good.

Like Louise Penny, Martha Grimes has created a character magnet in the village of Long Piddleton for her Richard Jury series: the Jack and Hammer pub. The Jack and Hammer serves as the central meeting point for the highly diverse supporting characters, including Jury’s noble sidekick, the wealthy Melrose Plant. Indeed, Grimes has named each book in the series for a pub, including The Old Success (2019). There’s usually a set piece in the books, always worth waiting for, where Melrose’s detested Aunt Agatha, angling for his fortune, invites herself to tea or dinner or invades his breakfast at Melrose’s manor house. During this scene in The Old Success we see Melrose, a little fussed because Ruthven the butler has not brought his usual egg cup, making “soldiers” as usual for breakfast––cutting his toast into oblongs and dipping them in his boiled egg.

“I always do,” Melrose said. His breakfast habit cements Melrose in our minds as wed to his personal traditions…even though he currently eschews use of his title. Oh, and the butler Ruthven has brought his wife’s excellent cooking, including kippers and sausages, to the sideboard. Melrose’s house in Long Piddleton and the diverse village characters who meet at the Jack and Hammer form a solid home base regardless of how far (Africa, Europe, the Scillies) he and Jury range in solving the crime at hand, and how complex the crime. Sooner or later the threads may pull together at the Jack and Hammer.

I’ve used “the local” to create local flavor in the Alice MacDonald Greer series. The Beer Barn not only smells like local beer, and artisanal beer, but when Jaime’s in the kitchen, the Tex-Mex cooking is superb. The Beer Barn is meant to be the roadhouse/dance hall we all love in Central Texas. It’s where Alice meets enemies, hears a new singer in Ghost Dog, meets the reporter in Ghost Letter, tries to unravel a mystery with her best friend in Ghost Cat.

Texas dance halls still dot the back roads of the rugged Texas Hill Country with their own beer-infused local flavor, local dancing, local music from a dead-pan country band. The Beer Barn’s my dream institution.

Also a highly distinctive setting: the small town Texas coffee shop or cafe, with breakfast from the grill, mile-high pie and endless cups of coffee. And don’t forget the San Antonio ice house tradition. See K.P. Gresham’s series with its Fire and Ice House bar, beginning with The Preacher’s First Murder.  Local bars/diners/restaurants make great settings for murders, mysteries, and detectives. And to the joy of central Texans, many are still actually real…thank goodness.

Okay, what’s for lunch?

***

Image of traditional English breakfast by Peter Marks from Pixabay
Image of cup and saucer by M. Maggs from Pixabay
Image of maple trees by diapicard from Pixabay
Images of book covers from Amazon.com

***

Helen Currie Foster is author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery series. Her latest, GHOST CAT, was released in April 2020.

 

 

An Interview with Crime Writer Alexandra Burt

by Laura Oles

Reading a novel by Alexandra Burt means you must be prepared to ignore everything else because her stories will keep you captive until you reach the last page. Skilled in short stories, true crime and crime fiction, Burt delivers two fantastic reads this year. I asked Alexandra to share her thoughts on world building , true life haunts, and how she approaches the craft of writing suspense.

It looks like 2020 is a big year for you.  You have a new novel and a true crime story coming out this year.  Let’s start with your contribution to The Best New True Crime Stories.  What can you share about your story?

My contribution to The Best New True Crime Stories: Small Towns is a cold case that happened in my hometown in 1983. It was the height of the Cold War and at its core it is about the threats I faced, literally and figuratively. My hometown, Fulda, is a baroque town in central Germany located between the Rhön and Vogelsberg mountains. Seemingly plucked from Grimm’s fairytales, but Fulda has a dark history. Nothing about the rolling hills and farms dotting the landscape hints at Fulda as the place where Armageddon was supposed to happen. Fulda Gap, two lowland corridors, two obvious routes for a hypothetical Soviet tank attack on West Germany from Eastern Europe were the likely invasion route of Russia, the spot where U.S. and Soviet soldiers pointed hundreds of medium-range nuclear missiles at each other. The threats were ever-present. When I hiked in the marshes by the border, East German look-out towers with guards and spotlights stared back at me in the distance. 

In 1983, I happened to be close to the scene of a crime, a quarter of a mile, the way the crow flies. A child died and the killer remains at large, the case was never solved, the killer never apprehended. There’s the story of a life cut short, and then there’s my story. Thirty-seven years have passed and the Cold War summer of 1983 still clings to me like a second skin. I have raised a daughter and I write crime fiction but I have never forgotten the girl that lost her life before her life even began. I have made a life for myself in the Hill Country of Central Texas, in the southeast part of the Edwards Plateau that is not unlike the Hesse highlands of my childhood. But I never learned to trust the world with my daughter’s life. I’ve learned that a watchful eye is not enough, that a simple moment of inattention, a minute of carelessness, can turn into something that cannot be undone. And little girls don’t always make it home alive. And every day I don’t know what to do with the evils of the world, and so I write about them. 

Shadow Garden is your latest crime novel.  Tell us a bit about what inspired this story? 

My previous book The Good Daughter was released days after the election in 2016 and during that time I felt as if the majority of the country fell into a dark hole. Including myself. I had the urge to examine if the same was as stake for all of us, if people of wealth, power, and affluence deploy a different set of principles when confronted with crime. It started out as a moral thought experiment, wondering about all the complicated ways money messes with morals. We know wealth impacts our sense of morality, our relationships with others, and our mental health. Is it true that the more you have to lose, the harder you fight to keep it, whatever ‘it’ may be? Money, a reputation, a standing in the community? Is being rich inherently immoral and if so, but what are the consequences? I imagined Donna Pryor, a woman of humble beginnings, who has everything but the truth of what happened to her family. From there I allowed the story to unfold organically and I sat by and watched them get to the truth of who The Pryors really are. Shadow Garden’s initial title was “The Many Incarnations of Donna Pryor” and I mention it because the book had quite a few incarnations itself. It started out as detective novel, purely comprised of interviews, then it turned into a family saga spanning decades before and after a crime occurred, just to arrive at Shadow Garden, an estate at the end of a rural road and a life of privilege that begins to crumble and somewhere in the ruins is the truth.

Many who read your work comment on your ability to combine heightened suspense with fully drawn characters in a compelling setting.  Is there a certain aspect of word building that comes more easily to you?  Is there a part that’s more challenging?

First of all, that’s a huge compliment. Thank you. The beginning of a novel is a very long period of imagining the setting and the people and I don’t take notes nor do I examine plot but I create the characters’ world. There is nothing else for a while, the characters really live at my house and eat at my table and not until the first draft is complete are they allowed to huddle and regroup. I don’t struggle with world building since it is ground zero at the beginning of a new project and anything is possible. There’s huge freedom in the vast scope of a new project.  I am always very sure of the setting but the plot changes endlessly and often and the characters usually end up needing work. It’s a matter of having a great editor, which I have, and revising draft after draft, after draft. 

When I was younger I wanted to be a painter and I went to art school but then abandoned that path. There is still a lot of visual artist left in me. It’s the first thing I imagine in any project, novel or short story—what is the essence of it; a still-life in oil or a landscape in watercolor—and the setting becomes a place and then it becomes a world and a clock ticks in the background to give it pace and there is structure and meaning which turns into a theme. Long story short: once I commit, I’m all in for however long it takes to make that world come alive the best way I know how. 

Readers are often curious about their favorite authors’ habits.  What is your daily or weekly schedule like?  Do you ever get stuck?  If so, how do you find your way out?

Unfortunately I’m still struggling to keep a schedule and all writers are powerless to real life happening as they work. I take it day by day, keep my fingers crossed, and hope for the best. It’s a best-laid plans kind of thing; most days writing doesn’t turn out as well as one hopes. One should not expect for things to always turn out to plan. My daily schedule looks something like this: after a workout (more often than not a workout competes with falling into a two-hour social media hole), I sit at my desk and pick up where I left off the previous day. Sometimes there’s an abundance of oxygen for that task and I just kind of go with it, other days it’s just not flowing. Be that as it may, there are deadlines and word goals and I swear by something I have discovered a few months ago: focus music. It promises laser productivity and a boost in focus. Simply put, it is music void of both ultra-low and overly loud bass and high pitch sounds that tend to become annoying over time. There are no ruptures, no pauses, no breaks or major volume deviations. The type and number of instruments remains constant through hours of play and the music follows a particular pattern mimicking the brain waves present in a focused state and eventually the brain waves mimic the music. It’s my secret weapon. I will write and look up and realize three hours have passed. It may not be a way ‘out’ but it’s a way to remain ‘in’, if that makes sense? 

I do get stuck at times and I wish I knew of a magic potion but I kind of obsess about it and just keep my fingers crossed and hope to spot the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.  Sometimes all you can do is chip away at a problem and hope for the best and so far it’s served me well. Still wouldn’t mind some sort of a potion though. 

Alexandra Burt was born in a baroque German town in the East Hesse Highlands. She moved to Texas and worked as a freelance translator. Determined to acknowledge the voice in the back of her head prompting her to break into literary translations, she decided to tell her own stories. She currently resides in Central Texas. Remember Mia (2015) is her first novel. The Good Daughter was published in February 2017. Her third novel, Shadow Garden, is forthcoming in July, 2020. She is working on her fourth novel. She has contributed to Lone Star Lawless: 14 Texas Tales of Crime, and The Best New True Crime Stories: Small Towns. Her short stories have appeared in publications and literary reviews. 

I Won’t Kill the Governor!

 

by K.P. Gresham

 

The Texas Governor’s Mansion is the perfect setting for my next book in the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series. I’ve said it before, I LOVE doing research for my stories, and studying up on the Governor’s Mansion is a blast. Such rich history. So many anecdotes. I just had to share some of them with you.

First off, I am not a native Texan (though I’ve lived here for thirty-six years) so most of what I’ve learned is all new territory for me. To that end, I must credit The FRIENDS of the GOVERNOR’S MANSION who wrote The Governor’s Mansion of Texas, A Historic Tour, published in 1985, as well as the website https://gov.texas.gov/first-lady/history  for most of this information.

The Mansion’s history began with a $14,500 appropriation from the legislature roughly a decade after Texas became a state in 1845. Austin master builder Abner Cook was awarded the construction contract. This beautiful home has served as the official residence of Texas governors and their families since 1856.  (Governor Elisha M.  Pease and his family were the mansion’s first occupants.) It is the fourth oldest continuously occupied governor’s residence in the country and the oldest governor’s mansion west of the Mississippi River.

The mansion stayed pretty much in its original condition until after the Civil War when Governor Edmund J. Davis started a line of renovations in 1879 with an indoor lavatory installation. By 1915, there was running water, a telephone, electricity and wallpaper and more living space. I could go on, with more renovations, security installations, historic donations, BUT!

What makes this Mansion beloved are the stories of the people who lived there.

One of my favorites was the tale of Governor James Hogg (the first native Texan to become governor) and his rambunctious four children. To this day, the stair railings are still scarred  where Governor Hogg hammered nails to deter his children from sliding down the banister.

Another fave. Governor Joseph D. Sayers—the one who had electricity and wallpaper installed–owned a dog. Well, his dog must have appreciated all the modern improvements because when it was time for the Sayers family to move out of the house, the dog refused to leave. He stayed with the carriage driver the rest of his days—at the Mansion.

Then there was Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, the first female governor of Texas. She vowed to return to the Mansion after her husband was impeached, (yes, James Ferguson had served as governor and gotten the boot). She was elected and arrived in the same Packard the family used to leave in 1917.  An interesting aside: Mrs. Ferguson fought to end the Ku Klux Klan, passing an anti-mask law making it illegal to wear masks in public. Now isn’t that topical in this day and age?

So many stories, so little time. I haven’t even mentioned Queen Elizabeth’s visit, or the unsolved 2008 arsonist attack on the Mansion in 2008 or its more recent occupants. I mean to think about it. How could I describe Ann Richards in one blog?

To that end, I highly recommend the above mentioned book or a quick visit to the link I’ve shared above. Thank you to all who kept records of the history of the Mansion so folks like me can wonder and laugh and learn to appreciate just this one small piece of our Texas heritage. Think how much, much more there is to learn!

Like I said, I like doing research when I’m writing a book. And, I’ll even give you a hint about this, the fourth installment in the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series.

I don’t kill the Governor–but everyone else is game!

***

Image of Governor’s Mansion by skeeze from Pixabay

***

K.P. Gresham is author of the Pastor Matt Hayden mystery series. Her latest is MURDER ON THE THIRD TRY

MORE OLIVE OIL, PLEASE? Francine Paino

Over the past weeks of being locked down, I’ve read many beautifully written high-minded prose on self-reflection, and assessments of personal, social, and political attitudes in these tumultuous times. My question, however, is simpler. Will we emerge as a new nation of truly liberal thinkers who can share ideas, even ones that are contrary to our mindsets? Truthfully, I don’t know the answer. But having survived disasters, losses, injuries, and illnesses, I refuse to be beaten down now. For me, it’s “one foot in front of the other,” and march on.

So, on the lighter side, how do I pull myself back to center and regain control? I walk on the treadmill (ugh!), clean, and organize what’s gotten out of control during life before COVID (double ugh!). I catch up on DVR programs and read a mountain of books. While all of these are helpful, the number one activity that I find satisfying, refreshing, and restores my sense of control is cooking.

My entire childhood and a good part of my adulthood were spent in Corona, NY (nothing to do with the virus), an immigrant community where Italian cooking, reigned supreme. I remember the lively discussions, sharing of methods, and debates between my grandmother, my mother, and other relatives and friends about the finer points of preparing foods, even something as seemingly simple as making a marinara sauce.

Even my grandfather had opinions about good cooking, and his pet peeve was potatoes.  When not working 18-hour days in the business he built from scratch or tending his little farm, he took a hands-on approach, insisting that spuds be sliced precisely in the correct thickness and shape for each different recipe. Today’s cooks have the mandolin to help with that. The only mandolin he’d ever heard of was the kind that made music!

Then there’s Julia Child. “I don’t get the whole thing with Italian cooking,” she once said. “They put some herbs on things, they put them in the oven, and they take them out again.” To the revered American master of French cooking, Italian cooking was too easy.

Well, Ms. Child, I beg to differ, but first a little culinary history.

The development of French food reaches back to medieval times. During this era, according to the ECPI blog, “French cuisine was fundamentally the same as Moorish Cuisine,” and everything was served at the same time, service en confusion.

In time, presentation became very important, and great value was placed on rich and beautiful displays, utilizing consumable items such as egg yolks saffron, spinach, and sunflower for color. “One of the most elaborate dinners was a peacock or roast swan, which was sewn back into its skin and quills to look intact. The feet and nose were plated with gold to finish the exhibition.”

It was in the 16th century that French cooking received an infusion of new ideas. While the Renaissance flourished in Italy, the powerful Florentine Medici family married off their 15-year-old princess, Catherine, to Henri, Duc d’ Orleans. Off to France, the princess went, taking with her the chefs in her service and their advanced cooking skills. They were already creating dishes such as lasagna, and manicotti, which are still staples of Italian cooking today, as they experimented with truffles and mushrooms.

Even though these two culinary schools’ took distinctive and separate paths, the French owe much of their gastronomic advancements to the Italians, thanks to Catherine de Medici.

Over time, French cooking became revered for its Haute Cuisine, developed to entertain French royalty. Steeped in butter, fats, fancy crusts, and all sorts of disguises, still, one must guess or be told what they are eating, delicious though it is.

We Italians, on the other hand, don’t really like our foods disguised. We like to know what we are eating as soon as it’s on the plate – or at least as soon as we’ve taken the first bite.

Italian cooking has grown from centuries of learning how a few simple ingredients enhance each other. What evolved into today’s Italian cuisine began during the Roman Empire. Of course, then, as now, the wealthy could afford to buy and try the exotic and foreign. Thus, the most affluent Romans had cooks experimenting with foods from the lands they’d conquered: Spices from the Middle East, fish from the Mediterranean, and cereals from the North African plains. The majority of folk, however, relied on the “Mediterranean Triad:  vine, grain, and olive,” and two thousand years later, pure Italian olive oil is still a universal leader, for its purity of taste and clarity.

Most Italian cooking is, on the surface, simple – needing few ingredients, but the knowledge of how to use them is what makes the dishes shine. For example, the American habit of overwhelming pasta with sauce is un-Italian. Properly prepared, Italian sauces are intensely flavorful and should only coat the pasta, not drown it.

Contrary to Ms. Child’s belief, however, there are some very complicated Italian dishes for which one needs patience, time, and the willingness to try, fail, throw it away, and try again.

Homemade lasagna and manicotti, originating during the Renaissance, continue to be a labor of love. The Bolognese Sauce that is misrepresented in America as just a simple meat sauce takes hours to prepare. There are other delicacies such as the Pizza Grana, a traditional Neapolitan Easter pie. Years ago, my grandmother, my mother, and I made these every Easter. It was indeed a labor of love. There is a link below for the industrious who want a challenge. A word of warning, though. Do NOT use any prepared pie crusts. Part of the lusciousness of the recipe is the sweet crust (pasta frolla). If you read the recipe, you’ll understand why it’s limited to an annual preparation.

Then there is my favorite. Homemade pancetta and black pepper bread. I don’t bake it too often because my husband and I eat too much of it.

 

 

 

Vegetables are fundamental to the Italian diet, and here a word on olive oil is essential. Olive oils range from cooking quality to the more expensive finishing quality. They vary in flavor and weight from region to region, and those differences are especially significant for vegetables because heat alters the flavonoids that give the oil its flavor. Thus, I often use a less expensive oil to sauté broccoli, aglio e olio (garlic and olive oil), which can be served as a side dish (contorno), or as part of a first course, (prima piatta). Pour it over Orrechietti pasta, add a little grated cheese, and serve with a mixed salad. You have a meal.

String beans are one of my family’s favorite vegetables. Blanched for no more than one minute to retain vitamins, then cooled, and sprinkled with salt and high quality, cold-pressed, pure Italian Olive Oil, my grandchildren can and do eat green beans prepared this way by the pound.

As you can imagine, the volumes written about all cooking, including Italian cuisine, can fill bookstores. Cooking can be creative and imaginative. Take a basic recipe as I did with the pancetta and black pepper and add or change ingredients and invent something new. So, instead of allowing this upside-down, dangerous world to rob me of my peace and inspiration, I go to the kitchen where I feel free, refreshed, in control, and creative.

But it’s time to end my musings on the benefits of cooking. My grandchildren await me at the kitchen table, staring at the mountain of green beans, asking for, “more olive oil, please?”

As my favorite Italian chef, Lidia Bastianich, says, “tutti in cucina a cucinare.”

Everyone in the kitchen, to cook!

For detailed information on the evolution of French cooking, see the Brief History of French Cuisine: https://www.ecpi.edu/blog/a-brief-history-of-french-cuisine

The history of Italian food: https://www.lifeinitaly.com/food/history-of-food/the-history-of-italian-cuisine-i/

Pizza Grana Recipe http://blogs.poughkeepsiejournal.com/dishnthat/2009/04/13/pizza-grana-is-a-rich-easter-tradition/

 

PANCETTA AND BLACK PEPPER BREAD

Begin with a basic artisan bread https://www.thecomfortofcooking.com/2013/04/no-knead-crusty-artisan-bread.html

 

To make this into a pancetta and black pepper bread, before beginning the dough, sautee ½ – 1 lb chopped pancetta (I recommend Primo, Italian style diced) DO NOT COOK THROUGH. Allow it to cool.

Add the cooled pancetta in the first step of making the bread, along with 1-2 TBSPN coarse black pepper.

Be sure to have a cooking thermometer that goes up to 250 degrees. Generally, bread is cooked through at 200 – 210.

 

FOR A CRASH COURSE ON OLIVE OILS

https://www.wnyc.org/story/last-chance-foods-how-pick-best-italian-olive-oil/

JuliaChild:

https://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/10/magazine/remembering-marcella.html#:~:text=In%20a%20conversation%20shortly%20before,them%20out%20again.%E2%80%9D%20Exactly.

 

ILLUSTRATION AND PICTURE ATTRIBUTIONS:

Peacock: S T R A V A G A N Z A: WHAT WAS THE BEST MEAL IN HISTORY?

PizzaGrana: http://blogs.poughkeepsiejournal.com/dishnthat/2009/04/13/pizza-grana-is-a-rich-easter-tradition/

Italian bread – Francine Paino

Woman in kitchen: Pixabay

 

 

 

Please Take (a) Note!

 

by Helen Currie Foster

Lately I’ve been thinking about remarkable people who never got to see the significance of their work, regardless of its brilliance. People whose minds moved so fast their words didn’t compute, for most listeners. People whose contributions went unrecognized for many years. And if they hadn’t written down their ideas? Maybe eventually someone would have made the same discoveries, but when?

Here are just three.

I’d never heard of Simon Stevin until I read Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World (2014), on how modernity reached the shores of the North Sea. Stevin, born illegitimate in Bruges in 1548, worked as a book-keeper in Antwerp, and then enlisted at the liberal new Leiden University. He produced a book on double-entry book-keeping and another on figuring the interest on borrowed money, when publishing such hard-won information was a subversive revolutionary act. This “engineer, book-keeper, king of numbers,” per Pye, wanted to make math work in the everyday world. 

Stevin tutored his student friend Prince Maurits in math, beginning a lifelong association. He made the prince a sailing chariot for the beach, with two sails, four great wheels, and flags flying. Stevin informed the prince the earth went around the sun. When Maurits became king, Stevin became an army engineer, devising, pumps, dredgers, windmills. He produced an influential treatise on fortifications and another on how to calculate longitude at sea. He wrote a book asking Dutch cities to adopt uniform money measures, suggested a decimal system, founded a mathematics curriculum at Leiden. And he wrote down these ideas! Stevin’s dream, that explaining practical mathematics would help his country thrive, eventually came true––though not necessarily in his lifetime.

You already know about the world’s first computer programmer? Another who did not live to see her work recognized is Countess Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter. At seventeen she began helping mathematician Charles Babbage with his “difference machine” for math calculations. In 1843 she published an article in an English science journal describing processes we now call computer programs, including how to create codes using letters and symbols as well as numbers. She died of uterine cancer in 1852, at 37. Her work came to public attention in 1953 when B.V. Bowden republished her notes in Faster than Thought: A Symposum on Digital Computing Machines. In 1980 the U.S. Department of Defense named a new computer language “Ada.”

“We’re still catching up with one of the greatest minds of the last century.” That’s Anthony Gottlieb, “The New Yorker,” May 4, 2020, on Frank P. Ramsey. Ramsey––a Cambridge (UK) scholar whose genial brilliance intimidated his professors when he appeared on campus at 18––died at only 26, in 1930. Economists, philosophers and mathematicians are still exploring the “Ramsey effect” on their disciplines. He was immediately taken up by Maynard Keynes, and refuted Keynes’s fuzzy notions of probability. He was tapped to translate Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” from Germanas the only German speaker available who could not only understand what Wittgenstein was trying to say, but say it more clearly (he reportedly dictated his translation).In one paper he created two math theorems which, decades after his death, became part of the “Ramsey theory” analyzing order and disorder. (See video of a student working a Ramsey probability problem). Ramsey’s modesty about his astounding abilities made him appear almost offhand about his accomplishments.

As a student of Virginia Woolf, I blinked twice to find Ramsey appearing in her diary (February 1923).

Yes!–– at dinner with Maynard Keynes. “Ramsay [sic], the unknown guest, was something like a Darwin, broad, thick, powerful & a great mathematician, & clumsy to boot. Honest I should say, a true Apostle.” Keynes at least tangentially belonged, with Virginia and Leonard Woolf, to the Bloomsbury group, which included several members of the select Cambridge “Apostles” club (including Leonard Woolf). In 1927, Woolf published To the Lighthouse about a family she called the Ramsays, where Mr. Ramsay, a professor, fears that though he has reached Q, he lacks genius and will never be able to think his way past Q, that he’ll never reach R: “How many men in a thousand million, he asked himself, reach Z after all?” If Woolf had known then what we know now she’d have known Frank Ramsey could easily have reached R and zoomed on past Z. 

Okay, I admit I took the Special Math Course for English Majors to get my math graduation credit. Yes, I did. Nevertheless I’m doggedly staggering through the first full biography of Ramsey, Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers, by Cheryl Misak (Oxford Press 2020), fascinated by his mind and especially his lightly worn “sheer excess of powers.” I might, even, try to find his 1926 paper about truth and subjective probability, where he said we should take account of people’s judgment of probability.” 

Now there’s a pungent topic for mystery writers. At every turn, our characters use subjective probability to make decisions. “Can I kill without being caught?” “Can I catch this villain without being killed?” “Have I examined all the what-if’s here?” “What are the chances anyone will recognize me?” Suspense lies in decisions made on subjective probability.

Okay, so Ramsey died without knowing that ninety years later University of Georgia students in hoodies, poised at the whiteboard, would be filming explanations of “Ramsey Theory.” Ada Lovelace died without knowing the Defense Department would name a computer language for her.  If asked, would she have preferred Countess? Would she be fascinated by the world of hacking? Simon Stevin would drive our city streets, ready to opine on public transportation–would he recommend air-conditioned tubes, with moving sidewalks, to move people east and west across Austin? Or possibly a sailboat with wheels?

Now we come to you. Yes, you. How will we know what you thought?

Stevin, Lovelace and Ramsey at least published some of their work. You can go farther. You own your copyright as soon as your work is “fixed.” You can also provide notice of copyright by using the symbol or the word “Copyright” and your name and the year of first publication, and registering your copyright by paying the required fee and depositing required copy(ies) of your work, thereby creating a public record of your copyright claim. (See details and requirements here.) 

That’s at least a start. As for Aeschylus, only seven of his seventy to ninety tragedies remain intact. Sophocles? Only seven of over a hundred remain. Euripides? Eighteen of over ninety-five remain. Sappho? We have only two complete poems out of her nine books of verse, from the woman the ancients called “the tenth Muse.”

Will depositing your work at the Library of Congress––oh yes, you must––give us some assurance we can know your ideas, your writings, a century hence? The Alexandrian Library didn’t fare so well. Nor did the Dresden Sächsische Landesbibliothek which lost perhaps 200,000 volumes in the Allied bombing of the Dresden historic center. The 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Library burned 400,000 books.

No guarantees, but it’s a start. At least try to leave the world a copy. Even if you leave us too soon, even if fame has not yet arrived…you never know. A century from now, maybe…?

Beware, Sherlock Holmes!

By K.P. Gresham

The spring of 2020 has provided me with the opportunity to return to one of my favorite pastimes…and escapes.

READING!

And why not get back to my favorite sleuth, Sherlock Holmes?

I’ve spent the last few months catching up present-day iterations of the iconic and prolific Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle’s private detective first saw publication in 1887. Since then, authors (and screenwriters) around the world have given a go at their take on the famous detective.

My first selection was The Lady Sherlock Series by Sherry Thomas.  As its title suggests, Sherlock Holmes is actually a woman names Charlotte Holmes. This turned out to be a delightful read. Thomas creates a storyline that sounds far-fetched but pulls it off with insightful references to the original Doyle short stories. The mysteries she’s created don’t allow you to put the books down.

Next, I turned to Laurie King’s bestselling novel, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. In this book and those following in the series, an aging Sherlock is befriended by (or is it she who befriends him?) a highly observant, seventeen year-old woman who rivals his abilities in observation and deduction. She soon becomes his apprentice in the detective game, and then…well…the game’s afoot!

Anna Castle writes a delightful series, The Professor and Mrs. Moriarity Mysteries. In her incredibly believable way, Castle creates a world where Professor Moriarty is the good guy, and Sherlock Holmes is not. Not exactly, anyway.

Other authors have had their own way with Holmes. The Sherlock Holmes – Anthony Horowitz Series comes to mind as well as the Anna Elliott and Charles Veley series, The Sherlock Holmes and Lucy James Mysteries. Even Kareem Adbul-Jabar co-wrote a series based on Mycroft Holmes.

Now the warning. Reading all these Sherlock Holmes iterations (and binge-watching movies/series featuring Basil RathboneJeremy BrettRobert Downey, Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch) puts one in a mood to eat. Apparently I’m highly suggestible when reading a good book. When the characters have tea, I want tea. And I’m not just talking about the beverage. I’ve been chowing down on tea sandwiches, scones, pastries, desserts–and I’m not even a sweets lover. And when a character in the book has had a shock or a close call, whiskey is handed out in short order. Now I don’t drink whiskey, but I manage to find my own libation. I hate to see a character drink alone.

So thanks to that lean, tall Sherlock Holmes, I have put on the extra pounds that he willfully sheds when he’s on the hunt for a villain.

Alas.

If you’re looking for a comfort binge in these difficult times, I suggest you give Sherlock Holmes a try. But remember! You’ve been warned that you might come away with more (weight) than you bargained for!

James Michener Didn’t Care

by Kathy Waller

When I was four years old, I took a pair of scissors and a roll of red, gooey adhesive tape and wrote my name on the inside of the kitchen door. It didn’t occurred to me I shouldn’t, and my parents never said a word. I’m sure they discussed it, but I wasn’t privy to that conversation.  The crooked red letters stayed on the door for years. When they were finally removed, a heavy red stain remained.

Pat Boone - PixWhen I was eight, my father gave me a ream of legal-sized paper. I produced a newspaper, one copy per issue, focusing on the social activities of dogs, cats, and horses in the neighborhood. I reported on the wedding of Mr. Pat Boone, my rat terrier, and Miss Bootsie, my grandfather’s evil gray-and-white cat. Miss Bootsie was really Mr. Bootsie, but even then I knew the value of poetic license. Mr. Tommy, my cousin’s orange tabby, married someone, too, but I don’t remember whom or what gender. Or what genus and species for that matter.

For years, I loved writing—the paper, the pencils and pens, the ink, the facts, the improved facts, and the outright fiction.

The feeling lasted until high school, when I began taking courses labeled English. Writing became torture. What will I write about, how many words does it have to be, I don’t know anything about that, I don’t have anything to say. Through high school and two  college degrees–in English–I produced the required papers but agonized over every word.

There were bright spots: writing the junior class prophecy, which made even the teachers laugh when I read it at the junior-senior banquet; composing a satire on life in the teachers’ lounge I hid in when I was a teacher, issued serially on an irregular basis whenever the Muse moved me.

Overall, however, my relationship with writing remained conflicted. I pretended it didn’t. After all, I taught English.

Things began to change when I told a therapist about my early love affair with words. He responded, “I think you’d better start writing.” He suggested I join the Austin Writers’ League.

“I can’t,” I said. “James Michener belongs to the Austin Writers’ League. I can’t belong to anything James Michener belongs to.”

James Michener

The next day, I joined. James Michener didn’t object. I took informal classes at universities. An instructor invited me to a Saturday-morning writing practice group. The next weekend, I drove fifty miles, parked in front of the café where it met, watched people carry notebooks inside, backed my car out, and drove home. It took another week to build the courage to pick up my notebook to join them and become a regular.

The result? Once again, I fell in love with writing. I also fell in love with a member of the writing practice group and, after a decent interval, married him.

And I published some short stores in anthologies and online, and one novella.

But my romance with writing hasn’t ended  happily ever after. I don’t have a long list of appealing topics. I don’t have a file of perfect first sentences. I still have to write to find out what I know and what I think. I always wonder what happens next (and understand why Hemingway, Faulker, and Fitgerald drank to excess). I’m still driven by deadlines—my brain doesn’t turn on till one is upon me—and I write furiously up until the deadline (or, as now, after it).

Starting any piece is difficult. But once I (finally) begin, the words flow.

I wouldn’t exchange that feeling for anything.

In fifteen years, I’ve come from I can’t join the Austin Writers’ League to I’m working on a novel, attending Austin Mystery Writers critique group, writing for publication, blogging, writing every day.

And, contrary to the moans I make when asked how the writing is going, I love every second of it. Mostly.

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The therapist actually said, “If you don’t start writing, you’re going to explode.” Since I took his suggestion, more things have changed. The Austin Writers’ League has morphed into the Writers’ League of Texas. The writing practice group that met at the cafe dissolved, and I joined another, Writing from the Heart, which met at BookPeople Bookstore; later it moved to various branches of the Austin Public Library. Now as 15 Minutes of Fame (More or Less), it meets online.

Invitation: 15 Minutes of Fame is free and all are invited to attend—no fees, no dues, no membership registration, no RSVP, no critique, no need write and spell as if your English teacher will scribble on your paper. No need to be a published author or to write “well.” Just have pen and paper or computer ready and show up. We do timed writings—choose a time, write, read aloud what we’ve written (IF we want to read; reading isn’t required), then do it all again. We meet from 10:00 a.m. to noon, on Saturdays; the schedule has been irregular recently but we’re in the process of getting back on track. When it’s stable, we’ll update the website, http://minutesoffame.wordpress.com If you’re interesting in writing with us, email kathywaller1 (at) gmail (dot) com.
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Bootsie had long gray hair and green eyes, was beautiful, and slashed both a little girl who tried to pet him every time she saw him, and her owner, my grandfather, who thought he was peachy keen. Pat Boone was mine, and one of the dearest dogs who ever lived.
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This post first appeared, with modifications, on Telling the Truth, Mainly.

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Image of terrier by kteri3565 from Pixabay
Image of cat by Lenka Novotná from Pixabay
Image of James Michener by Robert Wilson, public domain, from Wikipedia
Image of critics examining ratty drafts by me