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…
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.
At book groups I ask the beloved readers: “Why do we read mysteries?”
After a pause, for modesty, one honest person says: “We like to figure it out!”
Yes, we do. Why? Writer Patricia Cornwell, who created the forensic pathologist Kay Scarpetta, gives this answer as to why readers are fascinated by murder forensics: “To me, this goes back to our tribal survival instincts. If you can re-create a situation in your mind about what happened to someone, how that person died, there’s a better chance it won’t happen to you…[I]t’s part of the life force compelling us to look death in the face…We want to learn what happened…so we’ll feel less vulnerable about the same thing happening to us. It’s the kind of curiosity that propels us to study monsters.” https://amzn.to/3vQ3fPe
While survival provides an evolutionary purpose for curiosity, Livio points out, “One of the things that researchers still don’t have an answer to, is that we, as humans, seem to be much more curious than what is just necessary for survival.”
According to Livio, we have two basic types of curiosity that show up in two different parts of our brains during MRI scans. One type is “perceptual curiosity”—what we feel when something surprises or puzzles us. “It is felt as a sort of uneasiness, an unpleasant situation … like an itch you need to scratch…,” he says. Yes, that creepy feeling, the hair on the nape of your neck prickling, because something doesn’t feel quite right. https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/makes-us-curious/
The interesting thing about murder is that we seem convinced that ultimately, the murderer will be found out. At least as early as the 14th century, in The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400) knew readers were sure they could identify a murderer. “The Priest’s Tale” tells us, “Though it may skulk a year, or two, or three, Murder will out…”
In Hamlet (c.1602), King Claudius fears detection of his murder of Hamlet’s father. He confesses at prayer, “O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven; it hath the primal eldest curse upon it, a brother’s murder.” Act III, Scene 4. Hamlet has already announced in a soliloquy, “For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak with most miraculous organ.” Hamlet, Act II Sc. 2. Hamlet intends to play detective, sure that he himself can detect the king’s guilt by watching the king’s reaction to the play he has the actors perform: “I’ll observe his looks…if he but blench, I know my course.”
Literary agent Anne Tibbets says mystery readers insist on understanding what happened. We are outraged if the author dares hide or suppress clues: we want a fair shot at solving the murder. We evaluate each potential suspect; we note physical clues; we scrutinize alibis; we use our own human experience to test the strength of each suspect’s motives. But as readers, of course we depend on the protagonist asking the right questions for us, identifying the victim, interviewing witnesses, examining the crime scene, noticing every salient detail. Each murder mystery effectively presents us with a miniature history of a crime, and we must absorb, and dissect, that history in order to satisfy ourselves we know “what happened.”
Because we’re curious. Or, as Alice observes in her visit to Wonderland, “Curiouser and curiouser.” Lewis Carroll dubbed Alice “this curious child” and indeed, following Alice down the rabbit hole, we too want to know what the golden key will open and what’s behind the little door.
Alice is an indefatigable questioner. For instance, quizzing the Mock Turtle about his school days, she asks, “What else had you to learn?”
“Well, there was Mystery,” the Mock Turtle replied…”Mystery, ancient and modern, with Seaography…”
Mystery, for history, ancient and modern. The Mock Turtle is spot on. So much of history remains a mystery: no matter how many questions we ask, no matter how skilled and diligent the historian, no matter how thick the tome or how voluminous the footnotes, we never have all the documents, all the testimony, needed to understand everything that happened during, say, the great convulsions of history. Just think of the unknown moments buried during Reconstruction, or the Spanish Civil War, or the Russian Revolution, or…
Like Alice, mystery readers are “curiouser and curiouser.” The joy of being a mystery reader, after experiencing the miniature history within a good murder mystery, we reach the conclusion we’ve awaited. For once, at least, our curiosity is satisfied. We know “what happened.”
Author Helen Currie Foster lives and writes north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She writes the Alice MacDonald Greer mysteries, set in the small town of Coffee Creek, Texas, somewhere west of Dripping Springs and east of Fredericksburg. In Book 7, Alice finds herself in a lethal battle over hidden art and the victim’s will. Available on Amazon and IngramSpark, and at BookPeople in Austin.
Have you noticed that the roads diverged in a yellow wood?
So Frost was thinking of fall, in “The Road Not Taken” (1916). Leaves turn yellow—and not just in New England. I admit Texas Hill Country fall colors are a little muted. Bluestem bunch grass makes silvery seed-heads.
And our cedar elms turn yellow green, then yellow, and then madly fling golden confetti into the air.
Yellow leaves! When new roads appear and diverge, right? New fall clothes, perhaps (even with climate change) sweaters! New books, new subjects, new teachers, new classmates.
We awake with new ideas, new projects, new dreams. On weekends the parks fill up with soccer players. Football begins.
All our years of fall classes leave many of us with a compelling interior calendar. In September, two roads—at least two roads!—diverge. We feel energetic, restless. Do we seek the old ways again or do new roads beckon? Do we join the Master Naturalists? Take a photography class? Go for a master’s degree? We feel September’s time pressure, expressed as a desire to learn new things, tread new paths, move further into the world, even with the stultifying blanket of the pandemic heavy on our shoulders.
As Yogi Berra famously advised, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Because—as Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson put it—
No, when September hits, we haven’t got time for the waiting game. It’s the first day of nursery school…third grade…middle school…senior year. We can’t just stay home and watch the leaves turn to flame.
Now for Book 8. People ask about the “writing process.” It’s like standing at the crossroads in the yellow wood. Which path? But no time for the waiting game!
Book 8 began to take shape with wakeful nights, with a couple of strong images, where Alice must identify a body in the Aberdeen mortuary. Then a new character barged in, demanding time onstage. I’m always amazed at how characters insist on doing what I hadn’t foreseen, taking their lives in their own hands. The plot arc is there but further decisions will be made. I’m sending chapters to the critique group, and the manuscript’s got at least a provisional name. The future murder victim in Coffee Creek hasn’t yet learned her fate (sorry, honey). So it’s still wakeful nights, then pacing around the kitchen island, then sitting and writing, then pacing again, then sitting and writing, then more pacing.
Just a moment ago it was summer. But as Frost also wrote, “Nothing gold can stay” (1923). The fall equinox approaches on September 22. Following Yogi Berra’s advice, faced with all the decisions ahead––who lives? Who dies, and how?––I’m heading down the road, yellow leaves and all.
AUTHOR Helen Currie Foster lives and writes north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three inquisitive burros. Find her books at BookPeople in Austin, and at IngramSparks and Amazon.
Okay—Mom Genesis such a great title, it couldn’t not be used. But Abigail Tucker’s new book of that title doesn’t focus just on moms. Tucker, a New York Times best-selling science writer, dives deep into the burgeoning science examining parental behavior—genetic? hormonal? learned?
And you writers may find it a rich source for potential plots.
Moms will recognize Tucker’s description of the weird sensation of being kidnapped, of feeling like victims of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Not feeling quite yourself? In the first of a series of jaw-dropping recent research findings, Tucker reports, “Our children colonize our lungs, spleens, kidneys, thyroids, skin”—and brains. Far from being that familiar image of the one-way street, with mother’s blood, nutrients and even cells flowing into the fetus, the fetus also sends its own fetal cells into the mother. It’s “fetal microchimerism.” No wonder a burgeoning mom feels…she’s changed.
Tucker doesn’t dodge painful issues of maternal and paternal favoritism. “Some 80 percent of us allegedly … prefer one of our children to the others, and more than half of parents demonstrate so-called differential treatment toward various progeny.” The most striking predictor? “Moms appear to dote on their cutest kids.” Apparently “the components of infant attractiveness…are rigid and globally constant,” including big eyes, large forehead, small chin, and chubby cheeks. Tucker says this preference extends to nearly all baby mammals.
But dads apparently outperform moms on “child facial resemblance determination” – i.e., dads are more skilled at noticing whether a child looks like them. Indeed, one Senegal study found “kids grow up bigger and are better fed if they look and in fact smell more like their dads.” A different kind of favoritism…favoring the child which dad feels sure is his.
Jane Austen knew this. You remember that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, the parents in Pride and Prejudice, have different favorites? Mrs. Bennet favors beautiful Jane; Mr. Bennet favors sensible Lizzy (Elizabeth). Mrs. Bennet scolds her husband: “Lizzy is not a bit better than the others; and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good-humoured as Lydia. But you are always giving her the preference.”
Humans share mothering tendencies across species. Will you recognize yourself if I mention “left-handed cradling bias”? In a “near-universal” mothering behavior, “Something like 80 percent of right-handed women and, remarkably, almost as many left-handed women hold their babies automatically on the left.” Check out many paintings of the Madonna, suggests Tucker. This “lefty” preference extends to other mammals. Why? It may allow the infant to “view the more expressive left side of the maternal face.”
Tucker points out it’s not all about genes. Life experience also affects maternal behavior. She describes studies of new monkey mothers showing that, of those roughly treated by their mothers, “more than half of the maltreated monkeys became abusive mothers. All the well-tended infants matured as competent mothers.” But when the scientists swapped some babies, so the abusive monkey moms took charge of the offspring of outstanding monkey moms, “the monkeys grew up to match the behaviors of their adoptive mothers, not their biological mothers.”
Here’s another potential genetic component. Canadian scientist Frances Champagne wondered why mother lab rats from the same genetic strain, living under identical conditions, engaged in different “licking/grooming” of their babies. When Champagne swapped the rat babies, so high-licking moms raised the babies of low-licking moms, the babies of below-average lickers followed in their adoptive mom’s footsteps. Then other scientists found they could program a baby rat’s future licking behavior by stroking it with a tiny paintbrush. “The physicality of getting licked somehow shaped the females’ instincts and behavior.” According to Champagne, “I wanted to show that the care you receive leads to epigenetic changes in infancy, and that this could replicate.” Epigenetics focuses on whether and how bits of genetic code may be “expressed.” Champagne found well-licked baby rats “were more likely to express their genes for certain estrogen receptors…” which made them more likely to express genes for oxytocin receptors and to grow more oxytocin neurons in their brains.
So…parental behavior factors include genes plus life experience with hormones kicking into action to affect gene expression.
Back to favoritism! Harry Potter? Reluctant adoptive parent Mrs. Dursley can’t abide her own sister’s son. The internet is full of books and studies on why parents have favorites and how favorites impact families, including impact on sibling rivalry.
Being a favorite can be dangerous, as Joseph learned. “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children…But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him….” (Genesis 37.)
And I haven’t touched on what Tucker calls the “murderous tendencies of mothers,” citing Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s theories on infanticide in Mother Nature.
Tucker’s final chapters look at the impact of our own stressful society on parents. “Social-support deficits and perinatal depression are intimately linked.” Tucker reports that compared to Dutch mothers, American mothers appeared comparatively quite miserable, with high levels of unhappiness and worry, because they don’t get enough support in their health care or workplace. To transform this problem “would involve taking on some of the most grinding and deadlocked political issues of our day: not only income inequality, but also health care, education, and other topics that have consistently stumped our government,” including racism (citing pregnant Black women’s higher blood pressure and elevated risks of prenatal diabetes, preterm delivery and death).
Tucker visited Erin Kinnally, a scientist at the UC Davis California National Primate Research Center. “Kinnally rattles off the factors that can shape primate moms…age, number of births, genetics, her own mother’s rearing history, the baby’s sex and other characteristics, access to food and shelter and sundry other environmental factors.” But the most potent force is “social chemistry.” The low-ranking macaque moms at the primate center “have weaker immune system and other distinct traits…the lowest ranking moms had four times the amount of stress hormones in their blood.” “Low-ranking [macaque] moms grasp that they have to be vigilant at all times. Fascinating studies have shown that these moms are much more likely to try to shush their infants’ cries when higher-ranked animals are around, for fear that the fussing will draw unwanted attention and attacks.”
Hormonal impact? Stress can mean a baby gets more cortisol in breast milk. In monkeys, “these high-cortisol babies grow unusually quickly, ‘prioritizing’ growth instead of social exploration…”
Tucker, like Bill Bryson in The Body, respects her readers enough to include a serious index. Hers is excellent: for her assertions in each chapter, she includes detailed links to the research studies involved.
We’re all from families; we’re all affected by our genes and our experiences, by how we were parented (and, indeed, how those who parented us were parented, and so on back up the long chain of humanity). Mom Genes confirms what writers already suspect: plots abound!
Helen Currie Foster lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She writes the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. Ghost Daughter, Book 7 of the series, was published June 15, 2021. Helen’s active with Austin Shakespeare and Sisters in Crime – Heart of Texas chapter. Find out more at www.helencurriefoster.com.
We’re always searching for a new adventure, a new love. Have you ever pulled a book from the shelf, glance at the back cover, then (with hope in your heart) the first page, and then pushed the book back on the shelf, sure this one won’t do? I have, so many times. Same drill at the library. We usually know from page one (or at most page two) if we’re going to like a new author. If we don’t like the setting, the protagonist, the voice, forget it. But if we do, if we give that book a chance and like it, we look for a series. Bonus points if we find a new series we like! A series is efficient: we already know the protagonist, the repeating characters, many details of the setting. We plunge straight into the story.
Yet sometimes—even when I really like an author’s book—they run together. I may find them exciting, may remember specific scenes, may like the ending. But often a week after I finish a book, even one in a series with a protagonist who enchants me, I can’t quite remember who died. Now that’s embarrassing. As a murder mystery reader, shouldn’t I remember the victim?
If the victim, stuck there on the page, could talk back, maybe he or she would say, “C’mon, reader, give me a break! Don’t you remember how my body was pulled from the [canal] [truck] [hidden grave]? Don’t you remember how hard I was to find? Don’t you remember how excited the [police team] [sleuth] was to figure out who killed me? Can’t you remember me for at least three minutes? I mean, I’m the one your beloved protagonist investigated! I’m the whole point of the book!” And then in a more querulous tone, “Aren’t I?”
Maybe not. We get caught up in the badinage between DI Dalziel and his sidekick Pascoe. They go off to a pub and suddenly we find we’ve opened the refrigerator. We want to be there with them, sitting at that table near the dart board, sipping beer. Or our protagonist is reviewing the grisly evidence while listening to Madame Butterfly, and we find ourselves humming the first phrase of the aria (the only one we know). Maybe we’re really more interested in a favorite protagonist than in the victim. Sorry, Victim. The Protagonist will be in the next book––but you won’t.
On the other hand, now and then, there’s a death that sticks. One that even haunts me, after the denouement, after the explanation, after I finish saying “aha, I spotted that,” or “Hmm, very tricksy.” After all the figuring-out, occasionally I’m still thinking about the victim.
I started wondering about the ones who stick this week when I read two mysteries from Donna Leon, who just published her 30th book, Transient Desires. The title puns on what Donna Leon terms the “Nigerian Mafia” which she describes as smuggling young African women into Italy, promising them jobs which will let them send needed money home to their families, but instead enslaving them as sex workers or—occasionally—taking their transport money while throwing them into the Mediterranean to drown. In Transient Desires, Leon introduces us first to a young woman who survived the sea crossing but is being driven mad by her enslavement. Then we meet a naïve young Venetian man, desperate to keep a job with his boat-owning uncle which allows him to support his mother. The young man is slowly being destroyed by what his uncle forces him to do. These two portraits stick in my mind.
I also read Leon’s 22d book, The Golden Egg, where her protagonist, Venetian Inspector Guido Brunetti, must determine whether a young deaf man committed suicide by swallowing his mother’s tranquilizers, or was murdered. Which? Brunetti is stunned that the Serene Republic of Venice, which keeps tab of virtually every aspect of every inhabitant’s life, has no record of this young man. He’s unaccounted for: no school, no paying job, nothing. Brunetti learns he toiled his life away ironing clothes in a laundry, unpaid, speaking to no one, with no one speaking to him. He was never taught sign language, never taught how to interact with people. He lived in Venice where people know and speak to their neighbors and shopkeepers…but no one spoke to him. Brunetti doggedly unearths the peculiar cruelty of the people who kept him alive but didn’t teach him to live…parents who never talked to him, never taught him, never allowed anyone to reach out to him. Even worse, if worse is possible, Brunetti discovers the boy had a rare artistic talent—appreciated only by the boy’s doctor—that the boy never knew was worthy of recognition. Donna Leon’s description of one of the boy’s drawings, one the doctor has on his wall, brings home to the reader the two-fold tragedy: that the boy never knew his creations were beautiful, and that the world was deprived of knowing the human being who created such beauty. He was trapped. And he died without ever escaping. That’s a victim I cannot forget.
What aboutThe Nine Tailors(1934), by Dorothy Sayers?. This classic tale, often called her best, has all the charming hallmarks of a carefully constructed village-and-vicar English mystery, including the peculiarly English tradition of bell-ringing. We’ve got it all here: stolen jewels, a letter written in cipher, and an unidentified male body with no hands. The setting: the fens of East Anglia, with drainage ditches, locks, and ever-shifting floodwaters, and the contrasting grandeur of the ancient fen churches whose spires, with their enormous bells, mark the landscape. On New Year’s Eve, with the great influenza raging, Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet Bunter wreck the car and become lost in a snowstorm. They’re rescued by the vicar of Fenchurch St. Paul, who proudly announces that his bell-ringers are going to ring in the New Year with “no less than fifteen thousand, eight hundred and forty Kent Treble Bob Majors”—nine hours of bell-ringing. When one ringer, Will Thoday, is struck down by influenza, the vicar begs Wimsey to take his place. Wimsey later finds a recently buried man with no hands. As to why the victim has no hands, and how he was killed—is it a spoiler to emphasize, reader, that you do not want to be tied up, unable to escape, in a bell-chamber just above those enormous thousand-year-old bells while they ring unceasingly for nine hours? That victim’s death has stayed with me. But also, the circumstances which led to in his entrapment in the bell tower resulted in such grief for three characters that their lives are changed forever. That stayed with me too. No happy Sayers-esque denouement here. Instead, characters are condemned to remember. As to the title, the Nine Tailors are the nine strokes of the tenor bell—three, three, and three more—rung to mark a death in the parish.
Fans of Tony Hillerman will remember The Wailing Wind, where NavajoDetective Joe Leaphorn is hired by Wiley Denton, a wealthy older man recently released from prison for shooting a man named McKay, who had promised Denton a map to a fabled gold mine. Denton wants Leaphorn to find out what happened years ago at Halloween to his beloved young wife, Linda. The convoluted plot takes the reader through numerous twists and turns, but the gold mine convolutions aren’t what I remember. Instead I remember that McKay, all those years ago, drugged Linda and left her in a locked bunker (one of hundreds of identical bunkers in an untravelled area on the vast grounds of Fort Wingate), hoping to use her as leverage to get the deal he wanted from Denton. Denton shot McKay, not knowing that McKay had hidden Linda. So she died, slowly mummified, in a bunker in the Arizona desert. Now that’s one that sticks with me.
I’ve been wondering why I found these particular victims so hard to forget. You’ll have noticed that all were trapped.Transient Desires involves economic entrapment—slavery, really. Both the young Nigerian and the young Venetian have no economic hope, no way to escape doing what they hate. The Golden Egg reveals a young man cruelly trapped by isolation, deprived of human communication, deprived of any way to express an enormous talent. In Nine Tailors and The Wailing Wind, the victim’s death by physical entrapment creates another trap: those involved are trapped by their memories.
I wonder if the rank injustice that Leon depicts is part of the staying power of Transient Desires and The Golden Egg. Particularly in The Golden Egg, Brunetti feels helpless, and we share his frustration, his horror, really, at the young man’s death, and at the society that allowed it to happen. To that extent I’m still identifying with Brunetti, not the victim.
I’ve hidden my murder victims in enclosed spaces. Ghost Cave.
Maybe we identify more with the victim when reading about a death caused by physical entrapment, whether the victim’s tied up in a bell-tower or locked in an isolated bunker, where no one can hear the call for help (the bells are too loud, or the bunker too soundproof). Doesn’t that reverberate with all of us? We’re generally confident we could escape from most situations, could chew off the ropes on our wrist, pick the lock, find a secret passage, get a message to our rescuers. Fool the witch and chop down the beanstalk. But what if there’s no one to hear? No one to help? No way to get out? End of story. Not comfortable. Awfully memorable. Awfully.
Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery series. Her latest novel is Ghost Cat. Read more about her here.
In the back of the closet I recently unearthed my mother’s old Caswell Massey “Gardenia” bubble bath. The resulting bath held astonishing comfort and nostalgia. It smelled like her house.
Mystery writers can use smell to reinforce not only setting and character, but powerful plots. Here are strong examples from the first chapter of Lethal White, the fourth in Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series. Chapter one begins with the wedding of Strike’s former co-detective Robin Ellacott and her long-time (but insufferable) fiancé Matthew Cunliffe, arguing while the wedding photographer tries to get some decent shots. Strike has fired Robin, partly from fear she’ll be killed. Without her job, Robin’s miserable. Matthew’s furious because of the joy he saw on Robin’s face when Strike arrived for the ceremony, heavily bandaged from capturing a killer. And now, arguing with Matthew, how does Robin feel? “The sweet, ticklish smell of hot grass filled her nostrils as the sun beat down on her uncovered shoulders.” The hot smell matches Robin’s itchy misery as she second-guesses her marriage to Matthew.
The country hotel setting smells beautiful, in stark contrast to Strike’s emotions: “For a while he lurked at the end of the bar, nursing a pint…and then repaired to the terrace, where he had stood apart from the other smokers and contemplated the dappled evening, breathing in the sweet meadow smell beneath a coral sky.” Sweet meadow smell; miserable situation.
Robin finally reaches Strike on the stairs as he’s leaving: “They were holding each other tightly before they knew what had happened, Robin’s chin on Strike’s shoulder, his face in her hair. He smelled of sweat, beer, and surgical spirits, she, of roses and the faint perfume that he had missed when she was no longer in the office.” The scene is almost shocking in its sensory overload. We feel their powerful attraction. Galbraith (J. K. Rowling) brilliantly gives us not only the protagonists, but the pain of their predicament, using scent to remind us of Strike’s injury (surgical spirits) and the fact that he has missed her perfume because she’s no longer in the office.
We already know that Chet, the heroic detective dog of Spencer Quinn’s Chet and Bernie series, is a dog of admirable olfactory sensitivity. He feels sorry for his human partner, Bernie (who labors under the misapprehension that he, not Chet, is the detective), because Chet knows human limitations, olfactorily speaking.
Chet and Bernie search for lost young campers in Spencer Quinn’sThe Dog Who Knew Too Much. Chet’s nose moves the plot along: “I smelled ashes, plus chocolate, the way it smells when hot chocolate gets burned in the pot, and….the remains of a not-too-long-ago campfire. I knew fire pits, of course, went over and took some closer sniffs. Burned hot chocolate, yes. There’d also been Spam and something eggy. I stuck my nose just about right into the ashes. They were cold.” Oh, the advantages of a detective dog as protagonist.
Well, Chet, don’t underrate us. Research shows we humans can detect at least a trillion odors! Bill Bryson,The Body, at 90.
Didn’t we already know we can identify the scent of the loved one? Mothers can recognize their newborns by smell (and vice versa). Bryson says olfactory information goes directly to our olfactory cortex, next to the hippocampus, where memories are shaped, which is why some neuroscientists think certain smells evoke memories. Oh, didn’t Proust mention that? Scent brings back the dead, if only for a second. In myGhost Cat,after the death of his wife Holly, Russ confesses that when he walks in the house, he lifts his eyes and inhales: “I always hope for a little whiff of Holly.”
However––some odors fly under our radar. We may feel, but can’t always articulate, how certain smells arouse our emotions. We say fear is contagious but we haven’t known how. Zaraska cites research showing when we smell body odor from a stressed person, we ourselves become more vigilant. When we smell body odor of a close relative, per Zaraska, we can recognize family, and our dorsomedial-prefontal cortext can light up. Maybe some of this we’ve known without really knowing it.
Plus, we apparently have sensory radar for genetic information. For mating! A woman inhaling body odor of a potential mate senses how genetically related the two are––by sniffing a gene family that links body scent and the immune system, called the “major histocompatibility complex” or “MHC.” This capacity is useful: we like our mates to be related enough––but not too much. My protagonist Alice, lawyer and amateur sleuth in the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, is well aware how much she likes the way her love interest Ben Kinsear smells––he “smells good”––but she hasn’t put words to the smell the way Chet the dog has. He defines his own smell as “the most familiar smell in the world: old leather, salt and pepper, mink coats, and just a soupcon of tomato; and to be honest, a healthy dash of something male and funky. My smell: yes, sir.”
Could you define your own smell? With aromatic detail? Probably not. A loved one might be able to.
Smell can deepen a scene, define character, highlight plot. Ann Cleeves, inDead Water(her Shetland series) describes the reception desk in the hotel, a key setting, as “all dark wood, with the smell of beeswax.” The sweet smell, the dark venue.
Elly Griffiths in The Crossing Placesshows us her protagonist, archeologist Ruth Galloway: “Climbing the danksmelling staircase to her office, she thinks about her first lecture: First Principles in Excavation.” Danksmelling…excavation. Her job.
Louise Penny, in A Better Man,uses smell to reinforce the humiliating demotion of her protagonist, Quebec Inspector Armand Gamache. A former subordinate now bosses him. A giant ice storm with crashing ice flows and high water threatens Quebec. Worried the Champlain bridge will break, on the way to a police meeting, Gamache gets splattered with mud trying to see whether the dam will hold.
“I see some of the crap thrown at you today on Twitter has stuck,” said the senior officer from the RCMP, gesturing at Gamache’s clothing.
Gamache smiled. “Fortunately, it won’t stain.”
“But it does smell,” said the Mountie, with a wry smile. “Helluva first day back on the job, Armand.”
A great metaphor for the smelly attacks on Gamache that have led to his demotion.
In A Cinnabar Sky’s opening scene, Billy Kring uses smell to build dread and suspense around the locked trunk his protagonist Hunter Kincaid and her companion Buddy are about to pry open. Buddy says, “Now the smell is more like a really bad swamp, right?” When they pop the trunk, it’s “like an abandoned slaughterhouse gone fetid and rotten in the summer heat.”
The “smells” article sent me to poetry. Back to the bookshelves. Poets, in their compressed genre, seem to convey scent by evocative words, words that already define a smell, name a smell. Wallace Stevens has only to say, “coffee and oranges in a sunny chair” in Sunday Morning and we smell them. Shakespeare has only to write “The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem/For that sweet odor which doth in it live” in Sonnet 54. He doesn’t have to define the “sweet odor”: he knows we know it. Coffee? Oranges? Cigar smoke? The word itself gives us the smell. Robert Frost, In Neglect: “I smell the earth, I smell the bruised plant…” We do too. Billy Collins, Canada: “O Canada, as the anthem goes,/scene of my boyhood summers,/you are the pack of Sweet Caporals on the table…” The smell of sneaked cigarettes of youth.
Wallace Stevens did try more extensive fragrant description in Approaching Carolina: “Tilting up his nose/he inhaled the rancid rosin, burly smells/Of dampened lumber, emanations blown/From warehouse doors, the gustiness of ropes,/Decays of sacks, and all the arrant stinks…” We sure know what he means. But is this too much? I wonder if he wondered.
In the upcoming Ghost Daughter, seventh in my series, Alice quizzes a young friend about a new boyfriend. Alice blurts, “So he smells good?” She realizes her own standards for a lifetime companion involve “someone who smelled right…” Probably you’ve all had that experience. Maybe that’s how humans perceive certain under-the-radar scents, as “right” or “not right,” as “good” or “threatening.” Based on Zaraska’s article I suppose “good” may mean “right” in terms of the mysterious “major histocompatibility complex.” Not sure that’s how I want to describe it, though.