Since you can read award-winning author Bruce DeSilva’s excellent review here, I won’t try to duplicate. Except to point out that—
DeSilva calls the Samuel Craddock series “genre-bending,” because the “author’s folksy prose and Jarrett Creek’s small-town ways . . . give the novel the feel of a cozy,” and yet the problems facing the town and Police Chief Craddock “give the novel the feel of a modern police procedural.”
With the term “genre-bending,” DeSilva hits upon one reason—perhaps the reason—for the series’ success. Shames joins elements of two very different genres—cozy mysteries and police procedurals—with skill and grace, into a seamless whole. That ain’t hay either.
As a reader, I enjoy Shames’ novels, but as a writer, I seethe with envy. If only I could do what she does . . .
At the bookstore, I fell in love with the cover. On page one, I fell in love with the book. Soon thereafter, I fell in love with a sentence. Here it is, underlined, in the paragraph quoted below—the words of narrator Samuel Craddock:
I head into the house for my hat and my cane and the keys to my truck. There’s not a thing wrong with me but a bum knee. Several months ago one of my heifers knocked me down accidentally and it spooked her so bad that she stepped on my leg. This happened in the pasture behind my house, where I keep twenty head of white-faced Herefords. It took me two hours to drag myself back to the house, and those damned cows hovered over me every inch of the way.
That’s what author Ernest Hemingway would callone true sentence. Cows are curious. They’re nosy. They like to observe. I’ve seen cows hover. That’s exactly the kind of thing my father might have said about his damn cows.
Shames gets it right. Every word in that sentence, and throughout the book, is pitch-perfect.
The night I read about the hovering cows, I wrote Shames a fan email telling her I loved the sentence.
But when I completed the novel and tried to write a review for my personal blog, I got tangled up in words. It came out sounding like this:
I love this book. It’s just so…There’s this wonderful sentence on the second page about hovering cows…That’s exactly what cows do…I can just see those cows…The person who wrote that sentence knows cows…It’s just so…I just love it.
That’s what happens when a reviewer lacks detachment. Wordsworth said poetry begins with emotion “recollected in tranquility.”So do book reviews. There’s nothing tranquil about that tangle of words.
So, with no review, I compromised. I posted the paragraph containing the beloved sentence and added a picture of white-faced Herefords.
Not long after, Shames spoke at the Heart of Texas (Austin) chapter of Sisters in Crime, and I told her how much I admired her work. A year later, in 2014, I heard her read from her second novel, The Last Death of Jack Harbin. And I’ve read all the books she’s published since.
From 2013 to 2022, that’s nine Samuel Craddock mysteries, each a great read, each just as good as—or better than—the one before.
But regarding Shames’ sentences—
It is a truth universally acknowledged that her hovering cows will always be Number One.
*Shames breaks the silly rule against “mixing” present and past tenses in narration. Samuel Craddock speaks the language spoken by men like him in real Jarrett Creeks all over Texas.
**The cow sentence isn’t really about cows. It’s about Samuel Craddock. But I am fond of white-faced Herefords, and the image Shames paints of them is so vivid that it obscures the man dragging himself toward his house. For me, at least.
***I took the photo of the cover of A Killing at Cotton Hill. The fur on the right side of the book doesn’t belong there, but it was easier to just take the picture than to move the cat.
Kathy Waller has published short crime fiction as well as a novella co-written with Manning Wolfe. For more info, and/or to read her posts on topics ranging from A to izzard, visit her personal blog, Telling the Truth, Mainly (http://kathywaller1.com). She also cross-posts her Ink-Stained Wretches posts at Austin Mystery Writers.
My mother used to tell me I should become a lawyer. “You’re analytical,” she said.
I think she meant I was argumentative, but that’s a different story.
I would like to be analytical in the way lawyers are, but I’m not. And I don’t think on my feet. If I were practicing criminal defense, my clients would be halfway to prison before I realized I should have said, “Objection!”
Nonetheless, though not a lawyer type, I decided back in Aught Three that I might make a fair-to-middlin’ paralegal after I retired from library work. So I registered for an eleven-month course in paralegal studies. And found myself back in the world of Saturday classes and papers and exams and quizzes and perpetual studying.
And perpetual remembering. Cases, statutes, ordinances. Codes, Codes, Codes. I’d been out of school for twelve years. I wasn’t accustomed to stuffing my head with–stuff–and spilling it back onto exams.
I’ve read that if you know 80% of the course material, you’ll be able to pass the tests. That may work for other students.
But I believe–I’m sure–that if I know 80% of the material, the exams will cover the other 20%. Consequently, the only thing to do is learn 100%.
And it’s such dry material. Drier than the Dewey Decimal System. No surprise, of course, but I longed for literature, novels just crying out to be torn apart, rummaged through, distilled to their very essence . . .
My memory needed story.
So, preparing for the probate exam, I wrote one–in the form of a mnemonic. It explained intestate succession–who gets what when a Texan dies without leaving a valid will–as laid out by the Texas Probate Code in force as of November 2003. One of our instructors had warned the class that students usually considered probate the most difficult section of the course.
Composing the memory aid took the better part of an afternoon. It required that I not only observe restrictions imposed by rime and meter, but that I strictly adhere to the provisions of the Code. There was no wiggle room. It had to be correct.
At the end of the day, I was pleased. Aside from a couple of rhythmic aberrations, all the lines scanned, the rime scheme was satisfactory, and the targeted provisions of the Code were covered.
It was a pretty good song.
As a mnemonic, however, it lacked a lot. It was long and complicated. I could have completed an entire exam in the time it took me to sing (silently) down to the second chorus.
It was easier to just learn the Code.
Still, I was proud of my effort, so I posted the little flash of creativity on the class’s online bulletin board. My old biology classmates would have read it and applauded. My paralegal classmates looked at me funny.
Well, an instructor had also told us that paralegals aren’t supposed to display a sense of humor.
But funny looks don’t bother me. I spent years in education. I’m used to them.
At the risk of getting several more, I present a bit of law in verse.
The content of the following composition was accurate as of November 1, 2003. The song does not reflect changes in the law since that date. Neither does it represent a legal opinion, nor is it intended to offer counsel or advice. Its appearance on this blog does not constitute practicing law without a license.
In other words, the Texas Probate Code was swallowed up by the Estates Code, and “John Brown’s Intestacy” is no longer accurate. The author doesn’t intend to make it accurate. And she is still not attempting to practice law without a license.
JOHN BROWN’S INTESTACY
By Kathy Waller
(To be sung to the tune of John Brown’s Body,
aka The Battle Hymn of the Republic).
John Brown died and went to heaven but forgot to make a will.
His intestate succession now the Probate Code will tell.
Was he married, was he single, do his kids sit ‘round the ingle?
Had he common prop. or sep.?
Glory, glory, Texas Probate!
Separate property Section 38!
Common property Section 45!
Make a will while you’re alive!
If John’s married and he leaves a wife, no kids, or kids they share,
Then 45(a)1 leaves wife all common prop. that’s there.
But if he has an extra kid, wife ends up with just half
And the kids share all the rest.
Glory, glory 45(b)!
Don’t omit Section 43!
By the cap or by the stirpes,
Wife shares it with the kids!
For separate prop., if he’s no wife, it goes to kids or grands.
If none of those, John’s parents halve the personal and lands.
If only mom or pop lives, the surviving one takes half.
John’s siblings share the rest.
Glory! Both John’s folks are deceased–
All his sibs will share the increase,
And if no siblings, 38(a)4 means
They’ll need a family tree.
If John has separate prop. and leaves a wife and kids or grands,
38(b)1 gives wife one-third of personal prop. at hand,
And a one-third interest just for life in houses and in lands.
Descendants take the rest.
Glory, glory 38(b)1!
It’s one-third/two-thirds division!
But if John leaves a wife but no kids,
Section 38(b)2 applies!
V. – VII.
John’s wife gets all his personal prop. and half the real estate.
The other half of real estate goes back to 38—
38(a), to be exact, and up the family tree,
Unless his gene pool’s defunct.
For if John Brown was an only child with parents absentee,
No brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, or cousins on the tree,
No grandparents or great-grandparents to grab a moiety,
His wife will get it all.
BUT if John Brown leaves this life with naught a soul to say, “Amen,”
The Probate Code’s escheat will neatly tie up all the ends:
The Lone Star State will step right up to be John’s kith and kin,
And Texas takes it all!
Glory, glory Texas Probate!
Slicing up poor John Brown’s estate!
Avoid the Legislature’s dictate:
Make a will while you’re alive!
Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. Her short stories appear in several anthologies and online. She lives in Austin with one cream tabby and one husband. She’s still working on that mystery novel.
She did work as a paralegal for 2.5 years. She found the work interesting and loved the job (mostly). When she resigned, her attorney said, “I think you’re quitting because you need to do something more creative. So much of the law is just drudgery.” She agreed with him.
Still on the research kick, I’m in the process of learning all about moonshine. No, not how to drink it. How to make it. While plotting out my next book, Death Takes the Fifth, I realized moonshine (and by extension, moonshiners) would play an integral role in the story. Let’s be clear—making moonshine is a against the law in 48 states unless you’ve got a distributor’s license, so DO NOT make this stuff. And, for the record, the moonshiners in my book get in a lot of trouble for what they’re doing.
I got the idea from watching the TV show, “Moonshiners”, on Discovery TV. Yep, I’ve followed the cast through quite a few of their antics, whether it be finding a still site, constructing a still, what kind of water makes the best hooch, recipes for anything from whiskey to gin to absinthe, and how to escape the law (well, moonshiners try, anyway). I even bought a jar of (legal) moonshine marketed at a nearby liquor store to see how it tastes. I’m pretty sure the storebought version is lower in alcohol content and therefore has less of a bite than the real stuff, but I still saw a few fumes behind my eyeballs.
After recovering from that bit of research, I started jotting down some of the facts I needed to make sure the moonshiners were correctly depicted in my book.
The most important ingredient in moonshine is the water. From what I understand, spring water loaded with limestone makes the best liquor. We have a lot of limestone in Texas. Heck, the exterior of my house is limestone. And there are plenty of springs around Austin for this to be a viable process. Once you have your water, it’s time to make the mash.
Oh. The mash. That’s the combination of grains (corn or barley or wheat, etc.), sugar (which brings up the alcohol level–can be anything from refined sugar to sugar beets), water, and aromatics (can be fruit or spices or herbs depending on what type of moonshine you want to make) and yeast. For example, if you want to make a gin moonshine, you must have juniper berries–which can taste pretty strong. The moonshiner might counter that with ingredients like cardamon pods, peppercorns, anise, lemon/orange peels, cinnamon—you get the drift. The mash is then sealed in a big tub (whiskey-aged barrels give it a real nice quality, I understand) and allowed to sit for seven to ten days for all of it to ferment.
By now, it’s time to find the location where you’re actually going to make the moonshine. Near a limestone spring is optimal. It’s also important that the site be away from hikers, hunters, and passers-by. You do not want anyone stumbling on to your still site and either stealing your stuff or calling the police. Again, it is ILLEGAL to make moonshine without the proper permits. Also, moonshiners like to find a spot where they can make a quick get-away if the revenuers come a-calling.
While the mash is doing its chemical thing, its time to construct the still. The folks on The “Moonshiners” tend to favor copper stills, but I’ve seen them make it out of empty beer kegs, old barrels, etc. I’ve inserted a diagram below describing the design of a rather simplistic still. Everything is welded together.
The mechanism on the far left is where the now fermented mash is poured and heated (to somewhere starting at 170 degrees Fahrenheit.) The steam put off by the mash is the alcohol. The steam goes through the cap arm into the thumper keg where it mixes with cold water, thus increasing the alcohol level. After going through the thumper, the now liquid alcohol goes into the warm box and spirals down to the spout. When the liquor’s ready, it comes out the tap or spout. To make sure the liquor doesn’t go everywhere, the moonshiner puts a (pardon the language) coon dick in the spout so the liquor pours straight into whatever container you’re putting the moonshine in. I’ve seen The Moonshiners use gallon glass jugs, plastic milk jugs, mason jars, etc.
About the coon dick. Yes, it really is a raccoon’s…umm…tally whacker. And yes, the aforementioned tally whacker on a raccoon has a bone in it that is perfect for keeping a steady stream of moonshine heading right into the waiting container. (I’m not making this stuff up.)
Now it’s time to see if the moonshine is any good. First off, the moonshine product should be clear. Next, the moonshiner usually uses a mason jar to test the alcohol level of the product. They fill the jar halfway, put the lid on tight, turn it on its side and shake the jar. The bubbles will tell the story. If the bubbles are large and pop pretty quickly, the alcohol level in the jar is high. If the bubbles are small and stay around a while, the alcohol level is low. And, of course, there’s the taste test.
I’ve had a blast learning about all of this, but then again, I love to do research. Between the TV show and the internet, I hope I’ve created some plot twists and characters that you will enjoy as much as I do.
The world has been a crazy place since the emergence of Covid-19. Although it’s still out there, I’ve begun to venture forth into the world and attend author events. It feels wonderful to get back into the world of books and speaking with other writers! I think the last event I went to was the Bullet Books event in February of 2020 at the Bosslight Bookstore in Nacogdoches. (Fellow AMW writers Kathy Waller, Helen Currie Foster, and Laura Oles are also Bullet Books authors.)
My first foray back into the public realm was a Noir At The Bar event in Dallas back in June. Of course, it was outside and still blazing hot even though it started at 7. But I had such a great time listening to the other authors that it was worth it! Not a dud in the bunch. We laughed at some stories and were creeped out by others. I read a short piece that I wrote a few years ago, Tutusuana. (“Tutusuana” is a Comanche word that’s explained in the story.) It was nice to see old friends and finally meet online friends in person. Loved the experience. I highly recommend The Wild Detectives bookstore/bar. This is a jewel in the Bishop Arts district in Dallas.
Now we travel to Book People. Yesterday, August 21, I went to my first Book People event since pre-Covid. Mark Pryor has a new book Die Around Sundown. This is the first book in a new series so of course I had to be there to cheer him on! I’m excited to read this book. It’s an historical mystery set in Nazi-occupied France. I enjoyed the book talk and, again, seeing friends in person that I haven’t seen in a while.
This Wednesday I plan to go to an author event at my local library. I haven’t met Michael Miller but since I live in a small town, I want to attend events and provide support. He’s a long-time university professor, presently at Texas State. And he is also a Presbyterian minister, serving La Iglesia Presbiteriana Mexicana for the last ten years in San Marcos. His book is The Two Deaths of Father Romero: A Novel of the Borderlands. Sounds interesting!
Then the next day I’ll be back at Book People, if the roads aren’t flooded. (We’ve been in a severe drought this summer, as much of the world has been too. I’m looking forward to the rain, but I hope it’s a slow, soaking rain and not a deluge.)
Our family’s favorite mystery quote (bolded below) appears in Strong Poison, by Dorothy Sayers, where detective Lord Peter Wimsey first meets novelist Harriet Vane. Vane’s on trial for murder, accused of systematically poisoning her former lover with arsenic.
Wimsey suspects the lover’s uncle, Norman Urquhart, but the uncle assures the police that he served a blameless dinner to his nephew. Wimsey sends the all-competent Bunter (his manservant and WWI batman), to winkle out secrets from Urquhart’s cook, Mrs. Pettican, and the housemaid.
Bunter ingratiates himself by means of crumpets:
“At half-past four…he was seated in the kitchen of Mr. Urquhart’s house, toasting crumpets. He had been trained to a great pitch of dexterity in the preparation of crumpets, and if he was somewhat lavish in the matter of butter, that hurt nobody except Mr. Urquhart. It was natural that the conversation should turn to the subject of murder. Nothing goes so well with a hot fire and buttered crumpets as a wet day without and a good dose of comfortable horrors within. The heavier the lashing of the rain and the ghastlier the details, the better the flavour seems to be.”
What a setting! I’ve never tasted a crumpet, but can feel the heat of the fire and inhale the smells of toasting and melting butter. And in contrast to (or fueled by) this warmth, this delicious comfort, the cook reminds us of the victim’s death: “A dreadful wicked woman she must ‘a’ been,” said Mrs. Pettican, “—‘ev another crumpet, do, Mr. Bunter—a-torturin’ of the poor soul that long-winded way. Bashin’ on the ‘ed or the ‘asty use of a carvin’ knife when roused I can understand, but the ‘orrors of slow poisonin’ is the work of a fiend in ‘uman form, in my opinion.”
So in our kitchen at buttery moments some family member will mutter, “If he was somewhat lavish in the matter of butter…” But this week I wondered, “What are crumpets?” I mean, with Bunter toasting them over a (presumably coal) fire, then lavishing butter on them, they sound wonderful, especially for teatime in a firelit kitchen, on a cold wet afternoon, discussing the horrors of slow poisoning.
Compelled by curiosity I found a recipe. https://www.daringgourmet.com/traditional-english-crumpets/ Huh. I’d imagined English muffins. No. Instead, the goal is a tender disc, yeasty but also leavened with baking soda, creating bubbled holes to absorb melted butter, jam, and other decorations. Problem: locating crumpet rings. Yes, I’ve ordered some.
Sayers wasn’t writing a culinary cozy, despite the crumpets and an intense discussion on the following page between Mrs. Pettican and Bunter about casseroled chicken. A scene beginning with toasting crumpets produces a triumph of setting and character, a comic but dread-inspiring description of the victim’s death, and clever clue placement. Sayers does not describe either the smell of the toasting, or the taste of the crumpets, but surely you, dear reader, imagined those? Didn’t you feel yourself right there in the kitchen, with the rainy day outside, the gossipy discussion of the lover’s death agonies, and a vivid depiction of Bunter’s character? Courteous, yet firm, he deftly extracts critical information not reflected in the police report—and yes, a clue you doubtless spotted. Maybe Vane will escape the hangman’s noose after all.
Despite the strong impact of smells on humans, writers’ references to smell often seem sparse. Part of the problem is the sheer difficulty of describing certain smells. Imagine trying to describe the smell of a beloved house. It’s a mysterious mix, isn’t it? If I try to describe my mother’s house, I can’t do it with just one word. Part of the remembered smell is a faint perfume—maybe a bath powder she used, like Caswell Massey’s Gardenia. But there are other ingredients as well—contributions from oak furniture, cotton sheets, old Christmas cards on a closet shelf… See, I can’t accurately describe the smell itself; I have to name things.
My grandmother’s house in Hill County delivered a similar mixture, varying by seasons. In summer, it smelled of cantaloupe from her garden; at Christmas, of a decorated cedar tree. But always the substrate included a hard-to-describe mixture of our grandfather’s Yardley English Lavender talc, kept on the kitchen shelf where he shaved; of the garbage chute in the kitchen; of oil and electric discharges from his ham radio rig; of the ancient living room piano (wires, wood, felt). How describe the totality of that smell, that amalgam of odors, so instantly recognizable to me, but unknown to you? And how describe it without a bunch of nouns?
Poets apparently run into that problem. I set out to locate poems incorporating odor and fragrance, grabbing poetry volumes from the shelves. Yeats? Gorgeous references to sight and sound, as in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”: “Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee, /And live alone in the bee-loud glade…” The poem is rich in sight, in sound, but not smell. We don’t smell the clay and wattles or honey.
Same for Wendell Berry’s A Small Porch—a volume of ideas, images, light and air. But I didn’t find smell. Nor did I find smell references in Chaucer or a number of Renaissance English poets, except that Michael Drayton gives us a wonderful line in “To the Virginian Voyage” referring to the much-anticipated Virginia landfall of seaborne English explorers: “When as the luscious smell/of that delicious land…” Of course Shakespeare mentions the “sweet odour” of roses (as in Sonnet 54): “Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made.”
Indeed, I had trouble finding references to smell in most of the poetry books I opened. There were some. In “Aimless Love,” “gazing down affectionately at the soap,” Billy Collins writes, “I could feel myself falling again/as I felt its turning in my wet hands/and caught the scent of lavender and stone.”
Marianne Moore, in “Enough,” from O To Be a Dragon, gives us this: “The crested moss-rose casts a spell; its bud of solid green, as well, /and the Old Pink Moss—with fragrant wings/ imparting balsam scent that clings…” Many readers will recognize balsam. Another from Moore’s “In the Public Garden”: “O yes, and snowdrops in the snow that smell like violets.”
Also readers may know the smell of violets. Charles Wright, in “Dog Creek Mainline,” gives more challenging references: “Dog Creek: cat track and bird splay,/Spindrift and windfall; woodrot; Odor of muscadine…” If you’ve played around wild grapevine you know the odor of muscadine––maybe woodrot too.
Try the experiment yourself. Pull some poetry off the shelf. Don’t most poems rely on sight and sound, and rarely odor? Because a particular smell can be very hard to describe.
“The way the brain deals with smells is very different to how it deals with other senses, such as seeing and hearing. For example, we can identify the different instruments playing in a band, or the different shapes and colours in a painting. But it is very hard for us to tell the individual parts of a smell mixture.” He goes on: “We can sense the smell of “orange” or “coffee” as a single thing, but have trouble identifying the many different parts that make up those smells individually. However, it is possible to get better at this with practice. Professional wine-tasters or perfume-makers can detect more parts of a smell mixture than most people.”
Our difficulty in describing smell is not that we humans can’t detect odors—we can, says Greg Miller, Science (November 11, 2014): “We humans have about 400 different types of receptors for detecting odorant molecules. That’s on the low end for mammals, but it’s enough, at least in theory, to allow us to distinguish a trillion different odors, one team of neuroscientists calculated earlier this year (although there’s been some controversy about that estimate).”
But, per Miller, we describe odors differently from sights and sounds: “When people—English speaking people, anyway—describe odors, what they are actually doing much of the time is describing the source of the odor. Orange-y. Smokey-. Skunk-y. This seems natural enough, but it’s fundamentally different from how we describe other sensory experiences. Words like “white” and “round” describe visual features of an object, not the object itself. It could be a baseball, or it could be the Moon. In the same way, a tone can be “high-pitched” whether it comes from a bird or a teakettle.” https://bit.ly/3JFFobV
Some studies suggest that our language is inadequate to the task of describing smell. Another suggestion is that other languages than English may be better at conveying odor.
But determined mystery writers find a way, because odor can make important contributions to a setting. In 1937, in Rex Stout’s fourth Nero Wolfe mystery, The Red Box, the detective lectures his cook, Fritz Brenner: “Do you know shish kebab? I have had it in Turkey. Marinate thin slices of tender lamb for several hours in red wine and spices. Here, I’ll put it down: thyme, mace, peppercorns, garlic…” https://amzn.to/3PahvKz
Can’t you smell those spices? And doesn’t that passage help round out (pun) our vision of Nero Wolfe, gourmet, gourmand, brilliant detective? We’re planted in the kitchen of Wolfe’s New York brownstone, the primary setting for all the mysteries. These few lines convey Wolfe’s insistence on sophisticated cuisine, and reflect the rigor he demands of every employee under his roof, including Fritz the cook; Theodore Horstmann, the keeper of his orchid greenhouse; and our narrator, his foot soldier, Archie Goodwin. A shish kebab recipe helps define the setting and Wolfe’s character as well.
Ngaio Marsh begins Night at the Vulcan (1951) with Martyn Tarne, a young New Zealand actress desperately seeking an acting role in London. One night, out of food and money, with no place to stay, she enters the Vulcan Theatre which has advertised for a dresser: “She was at the back of the stalls, standing on thick carpet at the top of the ramp facing the centre aisle…The deadened air smelt of naphthalene and plush.” The empty theatre lacks an eager audience, waiting for the curtain to go up. Instead Marsh gives us the “deadened air” of a closed theatre, where the plush seats are empty, and the air smells of naphthalene—chemical dry cleaning. Martyn starts to work: “As soon as she crossed the threshold of the star dressing-room she smelt greasepaint. The dressing-shelf was bare, the room untenanted, but the smell of cosmetics mingled with the faint reek of gas.” I don’t know the smell of greasepaint, but Martyn does; she’s in a setting she understands.
Mick Herron’s unputdownable Slough House series uses odor to create the key setting––the decrepit building which serves as center stage. Book 2, Dead Lions, describes entry to the building as follows: “No one enters Slough House by the front door; instead, via a shabby alleyway, its inmates let themselves into a grubby yard with mildewed walls….” Yecch, mildew. The building houses the “slow horses” who flunked out of MI-5’s headquarters in posh Regent’s Park, and are now under the tutelage of former Cold Warrior Jackson Lamb, a terrifying mentor. “Jackson Lamb’s lair,” the office on the building’s top floor, is described thus: “The air is heavy with a dog’s olfactory daydream: takeaway food, illicit cigarettes, day-old farts and stale beer, but there will be no time to catalogue this because Jackson Lamb can move surprisingly swiftly for a man of his bulk….” No question that odor is part of the setting. Lamb is an olfactory terrorist. https://amzn.to/3ppQsAJ
The century-old Beer Barn, a beloved road house in Coffee Creek, is where townspeople gather in my Ghost series. That includes lawyer and protagonist Alice Greer. Naturally the smell of beer is key. In Book 3, Ghost Letter, Alice invites a political reporter to the Beer Barn for lunch: “As they pushed through the Beer Barn’s tall swinging doors the fragrant haze enveloped them—incense compounded of hickory smoke from the wood-fired grill, chiles toasted on an iron comal, and thousands of bubbles popping in bottles and glasses, releasing the yeasty magic of beer to the air.”
Smells may be hard to define, but including the smell of a setting can enrich a mystery’s impact. Or, as Mrs. Pettican says, “Have another crumpet, do!”
Helen Currie Foster lives and writes north of Dripping Springs, Texas, loosely supervised by three burros jostling for roles in the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, set in the unique landscape of the Texas Hill Country. So far all three burros have made an appearance, though insisting on aliases. Book 8 is on its way…
I wrote the following for my personal blog to answer a “challenge.” I intended to post it at the end of September 2009–yes, 2009. But I got all tangled up in words and couldn’t write a thing. Then I intended to post it at the end of October. I still couldn’t write it. I managed to write it after the October deadline.
But the challenge specified a four-sentence review, and I had hardly one, and I didn’t want to repeat it three times.
So there’s the background.
I must also add this disclaimer: I bought my copy of A Broom of One’s Own myself, with my own money. No one told, asked, or paid me to write this review. No one told, asked, or paid me to say I like the book. No one told, asked, or paid me to like it. No one offered me tickets to Rio or a week’s lodging in Venice, more’s the pity. I decided to read the book, to like it, and to write this review all by myself, at the invitation of Story Circle Book Review Challenge. Nobody paid them either. Amen.
Review of Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own
I like Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own: Words About Writing, Housecleaning & Life so much that it’s taken me over two months and two missed deadlines to untangle my thoughts and write this four-sentence review, an irony Peacock, author of two critically acclaimed novels, would no doubt address were I in one of her writing classes.
She would probably tell me that there is no perfect writing life; that her job as a part-time house cleaner, begun when full-time writing wouldn’t pay the bills, afforded time, solitude, and the “foundation of regular work” she needed; that engaging in physical labor allowed her unconscious mind to “kick into gear,” so she became not the writer but the “receiver” of her stories.
She’d probably say that writing is hard; that sitting at a desk doesn’t automatically bring brilliance; that writers have to work with what they have; that “if I don’t have the pages I hate I will never have the pages I love”; that there are a million “saner” things to do and a “million good reasons to quit” and that the only good reason to continue is, “This is what I want.”
So, having composed at least two dozen subordinated, coordinated, appositived, participial-phrase-stuffed first sentences and discarding them before completion; having practically memorized the text searching for the perfect quotation to end with; and having once again stayed awake into the night, racing another deadline well past the due date, I am completing this review—because I value Nancy Peacock’s advice; and because I love A Broom of One’s Own; and because I consider it the equal of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird; and because I want other readers to know about it; and because this is what I want.
I’ve posted this review before both here and elsewhere. I consider the reposting a service to writers. The book is absolutely invaluable, and all writers need to know about it.
I blog at Telling the Truth, Mainly. I write crime fiction–have published short stories and am working on a novel. My blog, however, doesn’t have much to do with crime. There I write about anything that comes along. I like to think it’s eclectic, but it’s really just a jumble.
On April 2 I drove with my writing compadre D.L.S. Evatt (aka Dixie) to Houston to sign books at Murder by the Book. That renowned bookstore has sold mysteries for 42 years. Huzzah!
We’d launched our books–my Ghost Daughter, Book 7 in the series, and her Bloodlines and Fencelines–at our Honky-Tonk Book Launch on December 5, 2021, at venerable Sam’s Town Point, a South Austin treasure for decades. The owner, Ramsay Midwood, declared it was the “first book launch” for Sam’s. Before the band––Floyd Domino’s All-Stars––began playing, Austin Shakespeare’s Ann Ciccolella interviewed us. Her first question: “why have a book launch at a honky-tonk?”
Why? For all the right reasons—great beer signs, dance floor, pool table, and music. But the main reason: murder mysteries set in small Texas towns must have a place where townspeople meet, where news is exchanged and gossip is passed along, where people see friends and frenemies and fall in love, where the past isn’t forgotten but the present is very much in play.
For Alice Greer, the lawyer protagonist in my Ghost series, the century-old Beer Barn is that place. Artisanal beers, excellent Tex-Mex food, the requisite dance floor—and the mix of music that says “Texas Hill Country.” In Dixie’s Bloodlines and Fencelines, that place is Sara’s General Store.
Of course setting is crucial in mysteries. For a small town setting, a “town crossroads” becomes a useful dramatic tool, providing a place where the mystery’s protagonist runs into various characters and hears (and evaluates) their stories, slowly unraveling the truth of a murder. Have you ever lived or visited relatives in a small town? You may have identified potential locations that would work well in a mystery. In Itasca, Texas, home of my maternal grandparents (and the Itasca Wampus Cats), it might’ve been the church fellowship hall, or the one café that served breakfast and lunch, or (I keep returning to this thought) the frigid meat locker downtown where, like many families, my grandmother kept her side of beef, back before home freezers. I still remember the sharp cold vapor of the meat locker. Imagination stirs…
At any rate, Sam’s Town Point was perfect for a book launch. When we scouted Sam’s, Dixie took a look around and said, “There are stories in these floorboards.” So we wrote a song, “Stories in the Floorboards,” which premiered last month at our book event at the Austin Woman’s Club, sung by songwriter/actress Helyn Rain Messenger.
We asked John McDougall at Murder by the Book if he knew of other authors who’d written or commissioned a song for their book launch. He said, yes, Harlan Coben and Jeffrey Deaver had done so, and Lee Childs had commissioned an entire album. Well!
The notion of an album set me thinking of John Rebus, the crusty Edinburgh cop made famous by author Ian Rankin. Rebus, acerbic and brilliant, likes his music. In Black and Blue, he sticks a tape in his car cassette player – Robert Wyatt, Rock Bottom, then Deep Purple, “Into the Fire.” That title matches the heat of the fix he’s in at that point. (Later in the series, the cassette player becomes a CD player.) But at home, he still relies on the hi-fi.In Rather Be the Devil, set in his ways, now retired and older than dirt, Rebus knows he has an ominous shadow on his lung as he enters his apartment: “A glow from the hi-fi system that told him he hadn’t switched it off. Last album played: Solid Air. Felt like that was what he was walking through…” https://www.amazon.com/s?k=rather+be+the+devil+by+ian+rankin&crid=11GFHLFGLRGUT&sprefix=%2Caps%2C135&ref=nb_sb_ss_recent_1_0_recent
Rebus has stuck to his old technology. And now he’s ahead of the curve. Vinyl sales are up: “Left for dead with the advent of CDs in the 1980s, vinyl records are now the music industry’s most popular and highest-grossing physical format, with fans choosing it for collectibility, sound quality or simply the tactile experience of music in an age of digital ephemerality. After growing steadily for more than a decade, LP sales exploded during the pandemic.In the first six months of this year, 17 million vinyl records were sold in the United States, generating $467 million in retail revenue, nearly double the amount from the same period in 2020, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.”
Why? For some, vinyls are the new collectible. But maybe it’s about the additional experience involved in listening to a favorite chunk of music. Rebus, for instance, is not listening to streamed music, not asking Alexa to play music that “sounds like” some musician. No, he’s taking a number of steps, both mental and physical, before he begins to experience the music he’s after. He’s choosing an album, seeing the familiar cover again, sliding the fragile (yet powerful) disc from its jacket, and placing it on the turntable. The album represents an entire experience, not just one cover song. Then he’s lifting the arm, carefully lowering the needle, hearing the introductory hum and scratch and—there it is again, the music that lives in his memory and is playing out again right now, in his living room. He’s making music.
Moreover, he’s activating memories, and perhaps comparing the memories of the music with his present situation, as Rebus does here, thinking the song title—John Martyn’s “Solid Air”—“felt like … what he was walking through.” (A compelling description. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UikPQOaJpfU)
Writers use music in mysteries to add depth to the protagonist’s character. Inspector Morse, alone in his flat, listens to opera. Lord Peter Wimsey plays Bach on his baby grand; Sherlock Holmes plays the violin and attends opera. Rebus relies on the music of his time, has the albums, still has t-shirts from concerts he attended. Detectives need a listening ear, need to be able to discern the sound of a lie, hear the tremble in a frightened voice. What the sleuth chooses to listen to can almost make us feel we’re hearing background music. Music becomes the continuo, the bass line that we feel beating like a heart as a book comes to life.
Because—even if we don’t know the specific notes Holmes is fingering on his violin, or which Bach fugue Wimsey is toying with, or which Wagnerian album Morse has put on his hi-fi, or precisely what “Solid Air” sounds like, we do have a huge memory vault of similar music that bubbles up as we read a mystery. We may not quite create the same soundtrack the author had in mind, but our brains engage.
Book 5 of my series, Ghost Next Door, involves a murder at the Coffee Creek city park, the night before Coffee Creek’s first barbecue competition. My protagonist, lawyer Alice Greer, is part of the happy crowd under the stars, listening to keyboard geniuses playing varieties of boogie-woogie, a genre which may have begun in the lumber camps of East Texas and still flourishes in Austin. Early in the evening Alice hears “Right Place, Wrong Time,” presaging what happens next. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hf15HrUZ5Wk. The following night she and her romantic interest, Ben Kinsear, attend the Pianorama at the Beer Barn (Alice’s favorite client). Six piano players are trading licks, winding up with Freddie Slack’s “Down the Road A Piece,” with its rippling magic trick at the end, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OX8TPanPKzU, and ending with Slack’s haunting theme song, “Strange Cargo.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQM46xi031M
The crowd demands an encore, Alice listens as the theme grows “more complex, begins to create dreams, memories, ambitions.” The music reflects Alice’s emotions.
Music memory involves several different parts of our brain. “Different types of music-related memory appear to involve different brain regions, for instance when lyrics of a song are remembered, or autobiographical events are recalled associated with a particular piece of music.” https://academic.oup.com/brain/article/138/8/2438/330016
You already know this. Your personal music catalog—music from your past, your present, your childhood, your teenage years, and the new piece of music you just listened to—is with you, quietly ticking away in your brain, available and waiting. And there’s always more to add.
So, you could check out the line-up at Sam’s Town Point. Go Hear Floyd Domino’s All-Stars. Keep filling the music catalog…
Helen Currie Foster writes the Alice MacDonald Greer “Ghost” series, north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She’s fascinated by dirt and water law, as well as human history, and the way the past, uninvited, keeps crashing the party.
Ghost Daughter, Book 7, was named Semifinalist for the BookLife Prize for Mystery/Thriller (“an intriguing and complex narrative”). Book 8 is underway.
I said to my critique partner this morning, The whole project is stinky it stinks it’s fatally flawed just nothing no hope.
She said, But Chapter 13 is so good so funny Molly is so funny it’s not stinky.
I said, Yes, the first part of chapter 13 and the last part of chapter 13 are funny and very very good but there’s still no middle of chapter 13 and what there is stinks and anyway the other 47,000 words stink except for a few hundred here and there.
And she said, But the middle could be revised and edited it has promise.
I said, But it won’t work because I have written myself into a hole and can’t get out so I have to trash that part and anyway the whole concept stinks.
And she said, NO you can fix it just keep going because I like Molly she’s so funny.
And that is why I go to critique group every blessed week.
Writing is a solitary activity, but most of writing isn’t writing. It’s rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting. And then it’s revising and revising. And editing editing editing. And rewriting again. And . . .
Sometimes it’s whingeing and complaining and eating peanut butter out of the jar with a spoon and buying larger clothes and telling Molly she’s a heartless ***** who doesn’t deserve one paragraph of her own, much less a whole book.
And it’s feeling like a fraud when you tell people you’re a writer and deciding you’d be happier if you gave up and dedicated yourself to French cookery or tatting or riding a unicycle.
But if you’re lucky, it’s also going to critique group and then going home and writing and writing and writing and . . .
Here’s the way Austin Mystery Writers work: We email first drafts, revised drafts, or final (almost) drafts, depending on where we are in the process.
We read all the week’s submissions, then sit around a table–or on one side of a table in front of a monitor displaying partners in little Zoom squares–and talk about what each member has written.
Criticism here doesn’t mean trashing. It means that each member points out what the writer has done well and what she might have done better. Sometimes we suggest examples of better–the “experts” say that’s not proper, but it works for us–and sometimes we simply say what we think doesn’t work so well without elaborating. Sometimes we disagree; one person doesn’t like a word or sentence or paragraph, while another thinks it’s fine. Sometimes we all chime in and discuss ideas.
Then we say, “Thank you.”
Because we’ve become friends during our association, we can say what we think and appreciate what the others say.
We encourage one another.
We also laugh a lot.
Because of AMW, I’ve published short stories and co-written one novella.
Because of AMW, I’ve become a better writer.
I posted “Why I Go to Critique Group” (one time I titled it “Why I Go to Critique Group and Can’t Afford Not To”) on my personal blog on July 9, 2010, when Gale Albright and I were members of the two-person Just for the Hell of It Writers, which was soon swallowed up by Austin Mystery Writers (a consummation devoutly to be wished).
I periodically pull the piece out and repost it.
Because it’s important.
Has anyone noticed that the em dash (—) in my posts looks like an en dash (–)? I can’t help it. Sometimes I find an em dash on a grammar website (like now) and copy and paste into my post, but right now I’m just not in the mood. But I’d like picky readers, like myself, to know that I’m aware of the error and wish the platform would correct it,
Kathy Waller posts on her personal blog, Telling the Truth, Mainly, http://kathywaller1.com. She’s published the works pictured above, the first three with Wildside Press, the last, co-written with Manning Wolfe, by Starpath. She has finally decided the ancient pre-published book is not stinky and has hopes of finishing it one day. If her critique partners agree.
The definition of reading readiness is the point
at which a child goes from not reading, to reading.
~ Sight and Sound Reading
But, Gwammy, I can’t wead.*
~ Jenny, five years old, after one week in kindergarten
When I was five, my Great-aunt Ethel gave me an ancient primer. She had found it in an old school building, abandoned when consolidation sent children in my hometown to a school two miles away, and then used only as a polling place. The primer had also been abandoned, and Aunt Ethel, election judge, liberated it and gave it to the youngest member of the family (youngest by about forty years; it was an old town).
My parents read to me almost from day one. The story goes that, as a toddler, I met my father at the door every evening when he got home from work, saying, “‘Ead a book, Daddy.” (Unlike Jenny, I had no pwoblem pwonouncing my ahs; I just dropped them.)
We didn’t have a library nearby, but I plenty of books: a Bumper Book, Little Golden Books, Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Andersen’s Fairy Tales, which I didn’t like, in part because they were dark (“The Little Match Girl”), but mostly because the end papers sported a hairy black thing with an ugly humanish face and enough long, winding legs to qualify it as a spider. Grimms’ tales were more pleasant.
When I received the primer, I already knew the alphabet. In fact, a year before, I’d written my name in red adhesive tape–the gooiest, stickiest adhesive I’ve ever come across–on the inside of the kitchen door. It stayed there for years.
Anyway, armed with the primer–a school book, for reading–I set about teaching myself. While my mother did housework, I trailed behind, spelling out words.
I don’t think I taught myself to read. But the next year, when I entered first grade–no kindergarten back then–I was ready. I took right off on the underwhelming adventures of Dick, Jane, and Sally (siblings who never had a decent disagreement) plus Spot and Puff, who came and ran a lot.
In second grade, I got a Little Big Book—Gunsmoke–that had one hundred pages. I read it on Saturday and reported the accomplishment in our Class News at school on Monday. Later I got a literary Little Big Book, Huckleberry Finn.One sentence confused me: a dead man’s leg was stuck out at a strange angel. I was about thirty when I realized angel was really angle. I was also surprised when, in high school, I learned that the Little Big Book had been severely abridged.
Then I discovered comic books. They were more educational than most people think. From Scrooge McDuck, I learned that emeralds come from South America. Unfamiliar with physics, I pronounced Atom Cat as A-Tomcat. Seemed reasonable.
The next year, thanks to a Christmas present from my grandmother, I discovered Nancy Drew. Nancy had a blue convertible and drove around wherever she wanted, and her father never grounded her. I envied Nancy her freedom. I didn’t like her, though; she had a tomboy friend, George, who said, “Hypers, you slay me,” which was fine, but her other friend, Bess, was plump, and Nancy often referred to how much Bess ate. I presume in later editions, Nancy behaved better. But her treatment of Bess didn’t stop me from reading about her. I wrote letters to Joske’s Department Store in San Antonio: “Please send me one copy of The Hidden Staircase and one copy of The Clue in the Jewel Box. Please charge my account.” They each cost two dollars. My mother kindly signed the letters. It was her account.
I soon outgrew Nancy, but, like many other mystery readers and writers, I credit her for getting me hooked. I read a couple of Trixie Beldens–Trixie was sickeningly enthusiastic when her mother made her dust the living room before going out to solve mysteries, but she did manage to sneak out at night. I read some Kathy Martins. Kathy, a nurse, often suspected her (nice guy) brother for whatever (minor) crime had been committed, which I thought strange, but she was more mature and more realistic than other characters. No convertible, no sneaking.
But enough about me. The point is that reading was, and is, important to me.
And that this week I’ve been reading A Velocity of Being: Letters to Young Readers, edited by Maria Popova & Claudia Bedrick. The editors compiled 121 letters from “scientists, musicians, artists, philosophers, composers, poets, actors, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor, Italy’s first woman in space, and many more remarkable humans whose splendor of spirit cannot be contained in the shorthand descriptors we often use to condense a person’s character and cultural contributions.” Each letter is paired with an illustration to “bring it to life visually.”
Many letters describe books as portals to the universe, to other worlds, to adventure, to curiosity and questions, to dreams, to logic and imagination; they’re boats and planes and magic carpets. Contributors write about hating book reports, and being hellions when they were little and refused to listen to Goodnight Moon at bedtime because they wanted dinosaurs, and being called antisocial when they preferred to read instead of play with friends.
But other contributors take the subject to a deeper level:
Author Alain deBotton writes, We wouldn’t need books quite so much if everyone around us understood us well. But they don’t. Even those who love us get us wrong. They claim to know what we need, but forget to ask us properly first. They can’t understand what we feel . . . That’s the moment to turn to books They are friends waiting for us, and they will always speak honestly to us. They are the perfect cure for loneliness. They can be our very closest friends.
Screenwriter Shonda Rhimessays, Reading saved me. When I was twelve, I spent most of my day trying to be invisible. The year before I’d been the new girl in school, and I’d spent a lot of time trying to be accepted. . . . The very desire to bend and twist to fit in–assures your rejection They did not like me. They hated me.
I spent a lot of time alone. I rode the bus alone. I spent weekends alone, I ate lunch alone. Except I was never alone. I always had a book in my hand. If you have a book, you don’t need to bend and twist to fit–you’re there. You are in. . . .
If you have a book in your hand, you can stop being invisible. Because you’re a little more invincible.
Venture capitalist Chris Sacca says that books are dangerous: If you keep reading, you might learn so much that you can take over for the adults and then you kids will be in charge! You all could be the journalists, entrepreneurs, artists, professors, authors, doctors, explorers, scientists, and even the leaders of our countries! Then what would the grown-ups do? Live in a world run by brilliant, interesting, innovative, and compassionate young people. Ugh. No, thank you.
So please stop reading before you become really smart, successful, and happy.
But seriously, books are dangerous. Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin writes about life in the World War II Polish ghetto, where being caught reading by the Nazis meant anything from hard labor to death. But books were smuggled in, read by each person for only one night, and then, for the sake of safety, passed on. She stayed up all one night reading Gone with the Wind. Then she decided the children she secretly taught needed not dry information, but stories. And for one hour each night, she told them the story of Scarlett and Melanie, Rhett and Ashley; and for that hour they “escaped a world of murder.” Then “a knock at the door shattered our dream world.” Years later, she met one of only four of the students who survived. The woman called her “the source of my hopes and my dreams in times of total deprivation and dehumanization.”
Composer Mohammad Fairouz shares a story that I cherish from my upbringing; . . . 1400 years ago in the deserts of Arabia, a meditative prophet named Mohammad had a vision of the Angel Gabriel who came to him with a message: “Read” . . . This was the first word of the Quran.
In the years following the prophet’s death, his followers built an empire where they contributed to every branch of knowledge, from algebra to optics and medicine to music. Countless things we have today would not exist without their contributions: that includes space stations, glasses, aspirin, your iPad.
They were able to do this because they were inspired to seek out the power that comes with being to read. You deserve the same power . . .
Years ago, I knew a young man who had never learned to read. I don’t know why; he just hadn’t. As an adult, he took a literacy class. He said that when he traveled for his work, he was always scared, because he couldn’t read road signs, and he was afraid he would get lost. At the most basic level, reading is power.
And consider: At one time in the American South, it was illegal to teach slaves to read. If they were literate, they might be able to read signs that would help them escape. They might also read some inconvenient truths: “. . . that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness . . .” Inconvenient for their owners, that is.
“So the research shows that perhaps reading fiction does make people behave better. Certainly some institutions consider the effects of reading to be so significant that they now include modules on literature. At the University of California Irvine, for example, Johanna Shapiro from the Department of Family Medicine firmly believes that reading fiction results in better doctors and has led the establishment of a humanities programme to train medical students.
“It sounds as though it’s time to lose the stereotype of the shy bookworm whose nose is always in a book because they find it difficult to deal with real people. In fact, these bookworms might be better than everyone else at understanding human beings.”
Philosopher and professor Martha Nussbaum gives an example: The great African-American novelist Ralph Ellison said that a novel like his Invisible Man could be “a raft of hope, perception, and entertainment” on which America could “negotiate the snags and whirlpools” that stand between us and the democratic ideal. He’s referring here to Huck Finn and Jim, who got to know one another as full human beings, rather than just as a white man and a black man, when they traveled down the river on a raft together. On the raft, they had to look at one another, listen to one another’s stories. In our divided society, such encounters happen all too seldom in real life, and are fraught with mistrust when they do. Reading can create such encounters in the head, so that the ones that happen in the world are a little less crude, a little less deformed by fear and anger.
Huckleberry Finn has for years made the American Library Association’s list of most often challenged, banned, or restricted books–a novel that can teach us to be better people.
Design writer and educator Steven Heller extends the idea that reading is power and issues a challenge: Books are weapons in humankind’s battle against ignorance. I don’t mean like lasers and drones. I mean that knowledge is strength and the kind of knowledge you get from books is not the same as the quick fix that Googling gets you. What’s more, books can’t be hacked. But they can he censored, which means blocked or forbidden from being published. And this is why they are so valuable to us all. Often in fighting ignorance, the ignorant take books prisoner. If you don’t read books, then those that have been censored over the ages will be lost and forgotten. So kids, don’t let them down. Read them, savor them protect them. Don’t let others make books irrelevant.
*Jenny soon learned to wead. And to pwonounce her ahs.
I’ve gone on too long. If you’re still with me, thanks for sticking. And one more thing: Despite the title, A Velocity of Being isn’t just for young readers. It’s also for adults who need to be reminded to make reading part of their children’s lives.
George Woodstock received the peculiar phone call on his sixty-sixth birthday. . . He let the phone ring twice, then answered, “Woodstock Machine Shop.”
It was Helen’s voice. “Clara called, George.”
“Where is she?”
“Your sister. She’s out at Woodstock where she always is. Your papa has escaped from the nursing home.” . . .
“What in the hell does escaped mean? Did you ask any questions? . . . Have they put up a fence for patients to climb over? Or did he tunnel out? Did he wound any guards? I thought Papa was in a nursing facility.”
“Please don’t be snotty, George. I’m only telling you what Clara said. I said you’d call back.”
According to Best Mystery Novels, mysteries must meet certain criteria: there must be a puzzle; a detective or protagonist who sets out to solve the puzzle; suspects; clues; red herrings; hidden evidence; gaps in information; and suspense.
The Heirs of Franklin Woodstock isn’t classed as a mystery. It’s “general fiction.” Literary fiction. It isn’t shelved in bookstores and libraries amongst the Christies and the Hammetts and the Chandlers.
Author Benjamin Capps is famous for his award-winning historical fiction, realistic novels set in an Old West lacking the romance of pulp fiction. He didn’t write mysteries.
But based on the criteria laid out above, The Heirs of Franklin Woodstock is a mystery. On page one, the puzzle is laid out: ninety-one-year-old rancher Franklin Woodstock has “escaped” from the nursing home and is missing. And protagonist George Woodstock sets out on the three-hour drive from Fort Worth, northwest to the town of Woodstock, near his father’s seven-thousand-acre ranch, to find out what’s going on. (Clara, the sister who called, is known in the family as “a dingbat.”)
George’s investigation begins in chaos. The sheriff says they don’t usually find missing persons, just bodies they then identify by going through the files. He has two deputies out looking and will call in more searchers–George offers to help with expenses if necessary–but that’s about all his office can do.
At the Goodhaven Nursing Home, George asks the nurse at the front desk if she has a clue as to what his father might have been thinking in the days before he disappeared. She has a ready, and vehement, non-answer:
“I’m trying to bring the charts up for the next shift,” she said. ” . . . Now, sir, I would like to tell you what is charted again and again about Mr. Franklin Woodstock: Stubborn! Will not eat boiled and mashed carrots. Stubborn! Will not accept bath. Stubborn! Will not let aides assist in toilet. Stubborn! Tries to pinch aide or nurse. Stubborn! Will not lay as asked in bed. Stubborn! Pulls out feeding tube. Stubborn! Broke injection needle. Stubborn! Will not swallow boiled and mashed vegetables. Stubborn! Spits out pills.”
Asked the same question, the ward nurse sticks out a hand: “See that thumb? That knuckle! That’s where a patient bit me. Just bit me on purpose. . . . She’s only got about seven teeth and she sunk every of them into my thumb.”
The Director of Nursing speaks more formally, but her only specific reference to George’s father is that a nurse was fired because she was discovered bringing him food from home–ground broiled steak mixed with mushroom soup and thermoses of cold beer.
At the Woodstock ranch, George finds a haven in the person of Izzy, housekeeper, cook, compulsive gardener, canner, egg gatherer and churner of butter, and mother to everyone, although she’s probably no older than George. Izzy’s son Juan, who’s always gone by the name of Johnny Woodstock, is, as always, doing the practical–heading out on horseback with tenant-cowhands Buck and Slim to search for their employer. Johnny knows the ranch nearly as well as Franklin does.
Then the phone calls begin, and the six-hour round-trips to the airport in Fort Worth to pick up siblings and to try to keep his small machine shop afloat.
So the suspects gather. With plans. And motives.
Walter, a New York businessman with a degree from Harvard Business School, sees an opportunity to subdivide five thousand acres for an exclusive community, “no low-class people.” With his experience, of course, he’ll head up the project. That Chicano Johnny is good enough for punching cows but using a computer and managing a huge enterprise? Maybe he graduated from high school. Walter has also hired a private detective to find Papa, no matter how far he has to go or how much it costs.
Irma and her evangelist son Wilbur propose a different idea: The ranch will become Noah’s Ark, a combination religious retreat that will attract famous preachers, and a place of safety where every resident will be armed, a thousand rounds of ammo for each rifle, seeds, chainsaws, experts who can fix windmills and water pumps, animals two by two . . . because Russia, or somebody, is preparing to drop the Bomb. They’ve thought it out to the nth degree. Papa was a Born Again Christian and would have approved. Wilbur will probably be the first president, receiving a modest salary of $60,000. Irma had suggested $100,000.
Clara seems to want only to spoil her grandchildren, and Clarence, with a Ph.D. in literature and teaching in California, seems only to want to sit up all night with George, sharing several six-packs and talking old times. But Frank, his geologist son, believes the ranch sits on deep oil wells that could be profitable.
During George’s long drives between Fort Worth and the ranch, we learn a lot about Franklin Woodstock. He hasn’t always been “stubborn” or “Born Again.” He’s been a hard worker and a shrewd manager, starting with nothing and acquiring land and cattle, building “the Old Place” and later a large house, adding stock tanks and windmills, working alongside his hands in every endeavor. He has raised a family and sent his children to any school they wanted. When Clara’s grandson, Homer, who is “different,” is expelled from third grade for arguing unintelligibly with the teacher because he doesn’t want to sit down, and then (it is assumed) keeps breaking into the school library and stealing books (which are always returned), Franklin somehow smooths things over and starts building a library in his own home; the break-ins cease. Homer can’t read but seems to think if he could , he would understand what everyone else does.
Franklin Woodstock is the best man George has ever known.
We learn a lot about George, too: a surveyor with the CCC, a navigator who flew forty missions over the Pacific in World War II, an assistant engineer with the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, a machinist and tool-and-die maker. He’s a man with a high school education who wants to work with his hands, and he’s good at it. His father respects that and has promised him $100,000 to expand his business–a loan, not a gift. But with nothing on paper, and no witnesses to the promise, George doesn’t know whether he’ll get the money. And he feels guilty for even thinking about it.
He’s also worried that his siblings are behaving as if Papa is already dead. Walter says they can have him declared so. Walter is determined. Who knows what the others will agree to?
Although the active characters are the heirs of Franklin Woodstock, the old man holds the novel together. He’s missing. Is he dead or alive? Will they ever know?
What happened to Franklin Woodstock? There’s the mystery.
There are, of course, clues, red herrings, hidden evidence, gaps in information, suspense–all of the other basic criteria. But it would be a shame to share too much here.
As they say in fourth-grade book reports, if you want to know what happens, you’ll have to read the book.
A word about the author:
Benjamin Capps was born in 1922 in Dundee, Archer County, Texas.
At fifteen, he entered Texas Technological College in Lubbock but left after a year to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps and then as a surveyor in the U. S. Department of Engineering. As a navigator, he flew forty missions over the Pacific in World War II. He received two degrees in English and journalism from the University of Texas and taught at Northeastern State College in Oklahoma. But teaching didn’t allow him time to write and drained his creativity. He became a machinist and tool-and-die maker before becoming a full-time writer. He lived in Grand Prairie, Texas.
According to Capps, his writing’s aim is to be authentic and “to probe the human nature and human motives” involved in his stories. His works are painstakingly researched for historical accuracy and generally explore lesser known facets of the American frontier.
Three of his books won Spur Awards from the Western Writers of America. One novel and one work of nonfiction received a Wrangler Award from the Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center. He was the recipient of numerous other awards.
Dundee, Capps’ birthplace, is nineteen miles from Archer City, where Larry McMurtry was born eleven years later. Capps never achieved McMurtry’s fame (or notoriety).
But he’s been counted among writers such as Walter Van Tilburg Clark and Conrad Richter for writing about the Old West with “compelling authenticity.”
James W. Lee, Director, Center for Texas Studies, University of North Texas, calls his Woman of the People “the finest novel ever to come out of Texas.” (Note: Lee is right.)
He also says “Ben Capps is the Texas author whose work will still be read a hundred years from now.”