When the holidays come around, I can’t help it. Sometimes I get so stressed I just wanna kill somebody. (On paper, of course!) It can be very cathartic.
But if my murderous muse isn’t singing, I turn to my favorite holiday crime novel, Holiday in Death, by the supreme, futuristic murder writer, J.D. Robb. (It irks me that some industry aficionados refer to this series as “romantic suspense.” Sure, it has a romance in it, BUT, this is a crime novel in every sense!)
Holiday in Death is the seventh in the now fifty-one book series about New York murder cop Eve Dallas and her devastatingly rich, handsome and techno-wizard husband, Roarke. Did you catch that? There are fifty-one books in this series, with the next, Faithless in Death, coming February 9, 2021.
But I digress. Here’s the scoop on my favorite Christmas mystery taken from its Publisher’s Weekly review 6/01/1998.
The year is 2058. Guns are banned and medical science has learned how to prolong life to well beyond the century mark. And man has yet to stop killing man. At Cop Central, it’s Lieutenant Eve Dallas’s job to stand up for the dead. So begins the seventh riveting installment in Robb’s (aka Nora Roberts) futuristic romantic suspense series (following Vengeance in Death). With Christmas only weeks away, Eve is stressing out trying to find the right gift for her new husband, Rourke, who “”not only had everything, but owned most of the plants and factories that made it.”” More to her concern is the latest serial killer who is using “”The Twelve Days of Christmas”” as a theme for his heinous rape and murder spree. The case touches Eve on a personal level, and while flash-backs from her abusive childhood are flinchingly repetitious, it defines Eve’s gritty, hard-boiled character and validates her obsessive determination to bring down the killer any way she can.
So if the holidays stress you out, grab a peppermint-schnapps-laced, hot chocolate, get in that comfy chair in front of the fireplace, turn on that Tiffany lamp that casts just enough light for you to read by, settle your animal on your lap, and crack open this great read.
Merry Christmas, everyone!
P.S. There is one story I like better at this time of year, just for the record. You’ll find it in the Bible’s new Testament. I usually start at Luke, chapter one.
Today we have a guest author, honorary AMW member, Scott Montgomery. He’s well-known in the Mystery community and is a book seller at Book People in Austin. His most recent work appears in The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes From The Panhandle To The Piney Woods anthology, which was nominated for a 2020 Anthony award. Available at Book People here.
When the pandemic hit, it affected the book world like the rest of society. Authors who had books out in the spring and early part of the summer got word of their work lost to book stores being down, publishers strategizing, and the plain fact people had other things on their minds. As a bookseller there were novels I was excited to promote. Two authors whose books I loved were scheduled to do an event on the first day we shut down. To hopefully get the word out some more, here are five books released during that period, you should go back and find.
1. A Familiar Dark by Amy Engel
If you are looking for a sunny novel to take you away from current troubles, look down the list. If you have the fortitude and interest for a truly bleak rural noir, grab this immediately. Engel follows a single mothers’ quest for answers and revenge when her twelve year old daughter is murdered along with her best friend and she struggles not to become like the person she most feared, her drug dealing mother. The story gets darker and darker, yet more empathetic, as each character’s secrets get revealed and it hits its gut punch of a climax.
2. Poison Flood by Jordan Farmer
This book has one of the best protagonists of the year, Hollis Brass, a hunchback musician who ghostwrites songs for his first love who has now become a popular American performer. To finance his own recordings, he meets up with the rebellious son of his Appalachian town’s chemical plant, to sell some of his music memorabilia. A storm breaks out, setting of a chain of events that lead to a chemical leak from the plant and a murder Hollis witnesses. Hollis deftly moves through this story, populating his book with broken characters in battle with thier angles and demons. The writer reaches out with understanding, sorrow, and hope for them all.
3. That Left At Albuquerque by Scott Phillips
Scott Phillips was in the middle of his book tour after a hiatus from writing when the pandemic hit. He deserves new fans with his take on Southern California lowlifes trying to live the high one. When a drug deal he arranged blows up in his face, scheming lawyer Douglas needs money quick. He hatches an art fraud scam involving some very shaky folks including both his wife and mistress, a flaky forger, and an aging tv producer with fond memories of his casting couch days. Pillips matched a rich plot with even richer characters, poking at social mores and social climbing that occurs as people chase after their American dream by any means necessary. Scott Phillips once again finds that perfect apex where noir and comedy meet.
4. The Lantern Man by Jon Basoff
Jon Basoff created the most unique and ambitious thriller of the year of a dtective reopening arson-suicide case committed by Lizzy Grenier connected to the relationship with her other two siblings. Basoff tells much of the story through Lizzy’s journal, newspaper clippings, and photos, creating a meditation on family, media, and the elusiveness of truth.
5. Lost River by J. Todd Scott
This book creates an epic out of a dark violent day that entwines the lives of a Kentucky lawman, DEA agent, and EMT around a southern drug ring, weaving through a population of desperate characters pushed to the edge. Scott, a practicing DEA agent, gives a ground eye view of the opioid crisis. I put this up there with Don Winslow’s Cartel Trilogy at capturing the war on drugs.
This pandemic thing is getting really old. (A quote from Captain Obvious, obviously) But we writers have one thing in our arsenal that others don’t. We can create a world where we want to be.
Lori Rader-Day, National Sisters in Crime President and award-winning mystery author, spoke to our Sisters in Crime Heart of Texas Chapter last Sunday. Besides promoting her new book, The Lucky One (which is an incredible must-read psychological suspense mystery), she also talked about how the pandemic is influencing her writing.
Authors, in our stories we get to create whole worlds that we can completely control. Our characters must acquiesce to our every whim. The settings can be places we want to hang, RESTAURANTS we want to eat at, crowded parks where we can watch fireworks with friends and family, churches where we can go to worship. As Ray Bradbury said, “Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to get up for in the morning.”
This is a time where we can escape into our stories. Want to say something pithy in the real world? Act it out in your characters. Want to kill somebody? Do it on the page. (I can speak to this. It’s very cathartic.) The empowerment that comes by sitting down to the computer and writing just 250 words can produce those happy endorphins that’ll spark you right up. At least William Faulkner thought so. He said, “The right word in the right place at the right time can soothe, calm and heal.”
Full disclosure now. For the first two months of the pandemic I wrote absolutely nothing. Maybe I was too rattled, or just waiting for this pandemonium to pass, or in denial–bottom line I didn’t write one word. Then I got mad. I wanted to scream at the TV. I wanted to rant on Facebook, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” After a few more weeks, I finally realized that this angst had to be released or I’d go crazy. And then I remembered how I had released that angst at different low points in my past.
Oh, yeah. That’s right. I wrote.
So I offer that you give it a try. Sit down, create the world that you CAN control and say what you have to say. As Walt Disney wrote, “That’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.”
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 species—or 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.”
“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.
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 German–as 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.
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…?
The spring of 2020 has provided me with the opportunity to return to one of my favorite pastimes…and escapes.
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 Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Robert 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.
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!
For today’s blog post I’m interviewing writer Bonnar Spring. Her debut book, Toward The Light, has just been released and it’s already receiving great reviews!
VPC– Hello, Bonnar! First things first. Congratulations of your debut novel! And secondly, I’ve heard that you were raised in Texas. Where are you from? (As a Texan I’m obligated to ask that question. LOL)
Bonnar: I grew up in Beaumont, Texas, where my dad’s family has lived forever. He was a chemical engineer and so was his father. Until I was a teenager, I though all dads were engineers who worked at the refineries!
VPC– That’s so cute. It’s funny how our world views are formed when we’re young. So tell me about the book. It sounds exciting!
Bonnar– Luz Concepcion returns to Guatemala to murder Martin Benavides, the man who destroyed her family. Benavides rose from guerrilla leader to president, and now runs a major drug network. Assisted by the CIA, who has its own reasons for eliminating him, Luz gets a job as nanny to Benavides’ grandson, Cesar. Her plans unravel when she gets caught up in the world of drug traffickers and revolutionaries and falls in love with an expat who keeps as many secrets as she does—and with Cesar, a lonely boy whose world will be ripped apart if Luz succeeds in her mission.
VPC- Everyone asks authors this question, how did you get the idea for the story?
Bonnar: Yeah 🙂 . . . well, in my case, it’s sorta convoluted. Here’s the short version to give the idea and then, I hope, conclude before your readers’ eyes glaze over: Imagine a cocktail party years ago when the Middle East was in turmoil. (Okay, when is it not!) But this happened when a certain dictator was pushing all our buttons, and the conversation turned to a question much on our minds at the time of when/if was it acceptable to kill someone evil, someone who was the leader of another country (Yeah, could’ve been ripped right from 2020 headlines!).
Questions swirled: If you could you do something like that, should you? It started to feel like a personal, moral compass moment: What would I do? And then—how would I make decisions if I was in a situation where all my choices going forward were bad choices?
I’ve worked for many years with refugees and immigrants. In that time, I’ve heard countless stories about hardship, war, fear, family, and escape. I began to think about framing the idea as a story.
I know nothing more than I read in the news about the Middle East, so I transposed the setting to Central America, where I’ve often traveled. It has a similarly tumultuous history of strongmen, violent political factions, corruption, and drugs. The settings in Toward the Light are fictionalized versions of real places in Guatemala.
VPC– I’ve read that you’ve received some nice reactions to the book. It was on the list of Apple Books “Winter’s Most Anticipated Reads” list! I was also impressed that Hank Phillippi Ryan and Hallie Ephron have given it their stamp of approval. Brava!
Bonnar– You know, people say all the time how generous the writing community is. Hank’s and Hallie’s willingness to read the ARC and write a blurb are good examples. I’d met them a few times at MWA events, but it’s not like we were buddies or anything. So I emailed and asked – and both said yes. In fact, I think I sent out about 12 emails in total asking for early readers to write blurbs. Of those, all but 2 or 3 wrote back. A couple of authors were busy with life/books and begged off. The others, including several authors whose books I’d read and enjoyed but never corresponding with, also agreed.
Apple’s “Winter’s Most Anticipated Reads” – now that was a complete delightful surprise!
VPC– So now that it’s been out for about a month and you’ve been at book events, what has it been like? Any surprises? Anything you’ve learned? Any advice for other writers when they go on tour?
Bonnar– Setting up book events is still a little scary, but once I get to a bookstore or library and start talking, signings have been more fun than I expected. I’m not a very outgoing human. I’ve taught at the college level for many years, though, and have a ‘teacher’ persona I can dredge up when necessary. I was initially worried that wouldn’t happen with book stuff, because these events are all about my story, my characters, and me in a much different way than standing in front of a class and talking about gerunds.
Questions that have surprised me so far: Have you ever been to Guatemala? (Seriously? The answer is yes—I don’t know how else I’d have the nerve to write about it.)
And: How much money do you make? (I dodge that one/ The answer is “probably not much,” but I say, “I won’t know anything for months!”)
VPC- So I’ve heard that you’ve been very busy with more writing. You’ve written two more novels?
Bonnar– Yes, I have two other completed mss. One is another international thriller and the other is a mystery. Because I revise endlessly, it will be a while before either is ready to send out into the world.
VPC– Any other advice for writers of thrillers and mysteries?
Bonnar– Being asked to give advice when I’m still so new at this makes me smile. I learned early on what works for one person doesn’t necessarily fit all sizes!
That said, careful editing was invaluable for me in landing an agent and then a book deal. As I said a minute ago, revision is crucial to polishing a ms. It’s not ‘done’ the first time you type The End. Keep at it (put it down for a few months if necessary to return with fresh eyes) until you’ve smoothed out all those not-quite-right spots that nag at you, until the sequence of scenes and transitions is clear, until you’ve eliminated your “filler” words. Btw, my biggest offenders are just, actually, also, and somehow.
VPC– I’m always forgetting about my filler words. Thanks for the reminder! And thank you for granting my request for an interview!
Bonnar– I’ve enjoyed our virtual meeting so much, Valerie!
VPC– And I’d like to tell all of the people in the Austin area that if you’d like to meet Bonnar, she’ll be at Malvern Books on March 4, 7pm-9pm. Come on by and see her and buy her book!
Last week Big D hosted the Bouchercon book conference. Two sessions made me wonder why we’re drawn to particular book characters, and how key they are to readers.
At the Bouchercon “Success in Publishing” panel, a speaker said, “People read for character. Conflict turns pages.” A second speaker said she’ll re-read a writer’s submittal if, the next day, she remembers the characters.
Best-selling author Elizabeth George (Inspector Lynley series) told a spellbound audience (me too) that for a new book, before she starts writing anything else, she creates her characters and settings.
George designs her characters to “reflect the human heart in conflict.” Sometimes she’ll have as many as six characters telling the story from their point of view. She creates a character prompt sheet, deciding, for each, what is this character’s real need? She considers the character’s psychopathology: what would the character do under stress? If the character appears only once, what is the character’s agenda in that scene?
George then decides, where does this novel begin? Only then does she start to outline the first ten scenes. Each must be causally related to another scene. She then writes a rough draft of those first ten scenes, and repeats the process for the next ten scenes. Nothing is set in concrete.
In the tug-of-war for primacy between plot and character, what gives a character “pull”? If we “read for character,” which characters really attract us––perhaps even more than a forceful plot? What does Elizabeth George mean––the human heart in conflict?
Each of you has your own list of favorite characters, some from favorite childhood books. Take Charlotte’s Web. I’m fond of the pig Wilbur, and the child Fern. I empathize with Wilbur’s terror when he’s being chased for the slaughter. But Charlotte…isn’t she the magnet? Aren’t we as fixated on her as Wilbur is? Using Elizabeth George’s approach, how is Charlotte’s spiderly heart in conflict? We know she’s determined to teach Wilbur how to survive. We know that a spider has no duty to befriend an orphan pig. Conflict? We know by the end that Charlotte has spent her last days using her remaining energy to teach Wilbur what he needs to know, while fully aware that her own end is nigh. We’re drawn to Charlotte’s generosity, her clever planning, her foresight, her perseverance: we admire her. Like Wilbur we hope for her approval. Do we empathize with her? Yes, when she’s working so hard on those webs. We feel her exhaustion! We too are swinging from one side of the web to the other! Wilbur has learned from Charlotte’s work, too. Perhaps he has learned gratitude? Awe? Aw.
We’re also drawn to childhood characters who learn. Think of that little sourpuss Mary in The Secret Garden. Readers can empathize with her lonely railroad journey to a place where she knows no one, but honestly, she is essentially unlikable: rude, willful, suspicious, unkind. Her heart distrusts the world. As the gorse bushes blossom and the downs bloom, as the children find their way to each other and into the secret garden, Mary slowly changes, slowly learns friendship, slowly learns generosity. We see from her eyes, hear with her ears, and experience her transformation ourselves.
What about Kim? This little orphan, footloose in the Raj, asks himself the great question: “Who is Kim?” Is he English? Hindu? Pathan? Who deserves his loyalty? I love Kim’s rapid costume changes, his effortless switches of vernacular as he deals with beggars, farmers with sick children, high-born old ladies in their palanquins. I itch for him in the woolen school uniform he must wear when sent off to a miserable English school, separated from the beloved Tibetan lama he has adopted. Kipling’s rich plot takes Kim (and us) across India and up into the high cool hills of the Himalayas, as Kim is initiated into the perilous Great Game of spying between the British and the Russians. Such a rich plot––secret messages, invisible ink, spies dressed as beggars, hypnotic jewel games––could dominate the characters. I don’t think it does. On one long day of healing after Kim finishes his exhausting trip from the high hills down to the plains, carrying the sick lama, we experience Kim’s discovery. The lama finds his long-sought river, and Kim begins to know who he is.
Okay, one last favorite character from that grand tale, Lonesome Dove. The question “which is your favorite character…?” occasioned great debate at our house. I opt for Gus. We meet him at the beginning, we see what he sees, hear what he thinks, we know just how he feels as the sun slowly––finally––sinks low enough in the first chapter that he can stalk out to the adobe springhouse to get his jug and have a swig in the dab of shade on the porch. We see other characters through his eyes. But I also admire Gus: I admire his taking care to help Lorena survive, his concern for Newt. I hate that Deets dies, that the little Irish boys die, but I can ascribe that to fate (as wielded by Larry McMurtry). Gus is different. Oh, yes, the author made me care for other characters on that long drive to Montana. But I personally experienced most of the book from Gus’s saddle, as if I were perched right behind him. I don’t want McMurtry to let Gus ride over that hill.… Gus, don’t go over that hill!
Oh, and let’s add A Gentleman in Moscow. Mmm, that tenacious Count Rostov.
My favorites share some qualities: generosity, intelligence, some humor. But in addition, despite their human hearts in conflict, they choose to take action, action potentially at odds with their own interests, despite personal danger and fear of loss. So, throw determination in there too.
No matter what they tell you, Texas isn’t all cowboys and cactus and bullets and brush.
Texas is also BOOKS, and this weekend there’s proof: Today, the Texas Book Festival opened on the grounds of the State Capitol in Austin. Exhibitor tents and food trucks line N. Congress Avenue from Colorado Street, on the west side of the Capitol, clear down to 8th Street. An international slate of authors—John Grisham, Malcolm Gladwell, Sarah Bird, Elizabeth Crook, Alexander McCall Smith, and Terry Tempest Williams among them— are speaking, signing books, and appearing on panels. There are books for display and for sale.
BULLET BOOKS is the brainchild of Manning Wolfe, author of the Merrit Bridges, Lady Lawyer series. Each Bullet Book is co-authored by Manning and another writer of crime fiction. The books are short, designed to be read in two to three hours—the length of a plane or train ride, or an afternoon spent lying under an umbrella on the beach.
Twelve Bullet Books are being introduced. They range from mystery to suspense to thriller. Among the characters are spies, lawyers, terrorists, gun runners, trash collectors, and teachers. Settings range from courtrooms, to classrooms, to comedy clubs, to embassies. There’s something for mystery lover.
A trailer for each book appears on the website. Here’s a look at the trailer for Bullet Book #1, Bill Rogers’ KILLER SET DROP THE MIC:
Trailers for the other books can be viewed on the Bullet Books website (links below). Follow the link to Youtube if you’d rather watch there.
By the way, Bullet Books Speed Reads will meet an even wider audience next weekend at Bouchercon, the largest annual international convention of mystery readers and writers, which will take place in Dallas, October 31-November 3. Billy Kring, Laura Oles, Kay Kendall, Jay Brandon, Bill Rodgers, Manning Wolfe will participate in a Co-Authoring Panel, October 31 at 2:30 p.m.
Eleven Bullet Books authors will attend the convention. They’ll sign on November 2 at 3:30 p.m
If you’re anywhere near Austin this weekend, stop by the Capitol and see a side of Texas that doesn’t get nearly enough press.
And be sure to visit the Starpath booth and let Manning Wolfe and the other authors introduce you to Bullet Books Speed Reads.
Her sheer imagination, her complex and nearly crazy—yet convincing—plots, have won Fred Vargas three International Dagger Awards from the Crime Writers Associationfor her policiers, or police procedurals. Vargas is the nom de plume of Fréderique Audoin-Rouzeau, a French medieval historian and archeologist (born in Paris 1952) who worked at the Institut Pasteur. Vargas provides a vividly unusual police environment with her Paris-based Serious Crime Squad, headed by Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. I immediately fell for her idiosyncratic protagonist—Adamsberg is Pyrenees born, left handed, a water-colorist who paints in order to puzzle out murder inquiries, and who alternately frustrates and mesmerizes his staff through his unconventional thinking. Vargas has steadily added a cadre of interesting characters to Adamsberg’s team, each quite odd in his or her own way (not forgetting the large white cat which sleeps atop the copier and must be carried to its food bowl—a cat which demonstrates great heroism in This Night’s Foul Work) (tr. 2008).