When the holidays come around, I can’t help it. Sometimes I get so stressed I just wanna kill somebody. (On paper, of course!) It can be very cathartic.
But if my murderous muse isn’t singing, I turn to my favorite holiday crime novel, Holiday in Death, by the supreme, futuristic murder writer, J.D. Robb. (It irks me that some industry aficionados refer to this series as “romantic suspense.” Sure, it has a romance in it, BUT, this is a crime novel in every sense!)
Holiday in Death is the seventh in the now fifty-one book series about New York murder cop Eve Dallas and her devastatingly rich, handsome and techno-wizard husband, Roarke. Did you catch that? There are fifty-one books in this series, with the next, Faithless in Death, coming February 9, 2021.
But I digress. Here’s the scoop on my favorite Christmas mystery taken from its Publisher’s Weekly review 6/01/1998.
The year is 2058. Guns are banned and medical science has learned how to prolong life to well beyond the century mark. And man has yet to stop killing man. At Cop Central, it’s Lieutenant Eve Dallas’s job to stand up for the dead. So begins the seventh riveting installment in Robb’s (aka Nora Roberts) futuristic romantic suspense series (following Vengeance in Death). With Christmas only weeks away, Eve is stressing out trying to find the right gift for her new husband, Rourke, who “”not only had everything, but owned most of the plants and factories that made it.”” More to her concern is the latest serial killer who is using “”The Twelve Days of Christmas”” as a theme for his heinous rape and murder spree. The case touches Eve on a personal level, and while flash-backs from her abusive childhood are flinchingly repetitious, it defines Eve’s gritty, hard-boiled character and validates her obsessive determination to bring down the killer any way she can.
So if the holidays stress you out, grab a peppermint-schnapps-laced, hot chocolate, get in that comfy chair in front of the fireplace, turn on that Tiffany lamp that casts just enough light for you to read by, settle your animal on your lap, and crack open this great read.
Merry Christmas, everyone!
P.S. There is one story I like better at this time of year, just for the record. You’ll find it in the Bible’s new Testament. I usually start at Luke, chapter one.
As you may know from past blog posts, I’m often late to the game when it comes to reading a new book. Although I have purchased several of the Hugo Marsten books, written by Mark Pryor, I finally got around to reading the first one, The Bookseller (2012)
(It was my turn to recommend a book for my book club so I was happy to recommend it. Two birds, once stone, and all of that. 😉 )
*WARNING, if you read this book, you will be craving French coffee and pastries!*
It starts with Hugo Marsten, head of security at the U.S. embassy, looking for a book at his favorite bouquiniste’s (bookseller’s) stall. These stalls are set up for tourists along the Seine. Pryor does a great job of explaining what these look like and describing the history of the bouquinistes without bogging the narrative down in details. As with many things in the book, I was interested in learning more. The bouquinistes have been in Paris for centuries. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bouquinistes
While Marsten is browsing and chatting with his friend, a nefarious-looking character approaches and Max, the bookseller, is kidnapped at gunpoint. The next day Marsten goes to the bookstall, hoping to see his friend, but a strange ferret-faced man is in his place. The man says he doesn’t know anything. Thus, starts the hunt to find Max. Marsten enlists the help of an old friend, semi-retired CIA agent, Tom Green and they uncover a myriad of dark secrets.
While searching for Max, they learn that Max was a survivor of the Holocaust and had been a Nazi hunter. Is his disappearance related to that? Soon other booksellers start to disappear and their bodies are found floating in the Seine. There is also a turf war in Paris among drug gangs who could be involved. And Marsten discovers that his new girlfriend has her own share of secrets. AND THEN, “…as he himself becomes a target, Hugo uncovers a conspiracy from Paris’s recent past that leads him deep into the enemy’s lair.” (description from markpryorbooks.com)
So there’s a lot going on in the novel, but Pryor is masterful at juggling all the pieces.
And I’m happy to report that my choice was a hit among my friends. We were all impressed that this was Pryor’s first novel! There are a few of us in the bunch who are fans of Sherlock Holmes and we liked the Holmesian touches that were peppered into the story. By the time we met, via Zoom, some had already read the second in the series. So two thumbs up for The Bookseller!
You can find more about the series on Mark Pryor’s website.
The Hugo Marston series has now been optioned for television / film by Ivan Schwarz at Like Entertainment, Inc.!
The ninth Hugo Marston novel, which is titled, THE FRENCH WIDOW, will be released on September 15, 2020.
Congratulations to Mark Pryor!
*I’d also like to add a reminder to please consider buying books from independent booksellers. The Bookseller, and other books, are available at IndieBound, a great resource for finding independent bookstores.
Lately I’ve been thinking about remarkable people who never got to see the significance of their work, regardless of its brilliance. People whose minds moved so fast their words didn’t compute, for most listeners. People whose contributions went unrecognized for many years. And if they hadn’t written down their ideas? Maybe eventually someone would have made the same discoveries, but when?
Here are just three.
I’d never heard of Simon Stevin until I read Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World (2014), on how modernity reached the shores of the North Sea. Stevin, born illegitimate in Bruges in 1548, worked as a book-keeper in Antwerp, and then enlisted at the liberal new Leiden University. He produced a book on double-entry book-keeping and another on figuring the interest on borrowed money, when publishing such hard-won information was a subversive revolutionary act. This “engineer, book-keeper, king of numbers,” per Pye, wanted to make math work in the everyday world.
Stevin tutored his student friend Prince Maurits in math, beginning a lifelong association. He made the prince a sailing chariot for the beach, with two sails, four great wheels, and flags flying. Stevin informed the prince the earth went around the sun. When Maurits became king, Stevin became an army engineer, devising, pumps, dredgers, windmills. He produced an influential treatise on fortifications and another on how to calculate longitude at sea. He wrote a book asking Dutch cities to adopt uniform money measures, suggested a decimal system, founded a mathematics curriculum at Leiden. And he wrote down these ideas! Stevin’s dream, that explaining practical mathematics would help his country thrive, eventually came true––though not necessarily in his lifetime.
You already know about the world’s first computer programmer? Another who did not live to see her work recognized is Countess Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter. At seventeen she began helping mathematician Charles Babbage with his “difference machine” for math calculations. In 1843 she published an article in an English science journal describing processes we now call computer programs, including how to create codes using letters and symbols as well as numbers. She died of uterine cancer in 1852, at 37. Her work came to public attention in 1953 when B.V. Bowden republished her notes in Faster than Thought: A Symposum on Digital Computing Machines. In 1980 the U.S. Department of Defense named a new computer language “Ada.”
“We’re still catching up with one of the greatest minds of the last century.” That’s Anthony Gottlieb, “The New Yorker,” May 4, 2020, on Frank P. Ramsey. Ramsey––a Cambridge (UK) scholar whose genial brilliance intimidated his professors when he appeared on campus at 18––died at only 26, in 1930. Economists, philosophers and mathematicians are still exploring the “Ramsey effect” on their disciplines. He was immediately taken up by Maynard Keynes, and refuted Keynes’s fuzzy notions of probability. He was tapped to translate Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” from German–as the only German speaker available who could not only understand what Wittgenstein was trying to say, but say it more clearly (he reportedly dictated his translation).In one paper he created two math theorems which, decades after his death, became part of the “Ramsey theory” analyzing order and disorder. (See video of a student working a Ramsey probability problem). Ramsey’s modesty about his astounding abilities made him appear almost offhand about his accomplishments.
Yes!–– at dinner with Maynard Keynes. “Ramsay [sic], the unknown guest, was something like a Darwin, broad, thick, powerful & a great mathematician, & clumsy to boot. Honest I should say, a true Apostle.” Keynes at least tangentially belonged, with Virginia and Leonard Woolf, to the Bloomsbury group, which included several members of the select Cambridge “Apostles” club (including Leonard Woolf). In 1927, Woolf published To the Lighthouse about a family she called the Ramsays, where Mr. Ramsay, a professor, fears that though he has reached Q, he lacks genius and will never be able to think his way past Q, that he’ll never reach R: “How many men in a thousand million, he asked himself, reach Z after all?” If Woolf had known then what we know now she’d have known Frank Ramsey could easily have reached R and zoomed on past Z.
Okay, I admit I took the Special Math Course for English Majors to get my math graduation credit. Yes, I did. Nevertheless I’m doggedly staggering through the first full biography of Ramsey, Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers, by Cheryl Misak (Oxford Press 2020), fascinated by his mind and especially his lightly worn “sheer excess of powers.” I might, even, try to find his 1926 paper about truth and subjective probability, where he said we should take account of people’s judgment of probability.”
Now there’s a pungent topic for mystery writers. At every turn, our characters use subjective probability to make decisions. “Can I kill without being caught?” “Can I catch this villain without being killed?” “Have I examined all the what-if’s here?” “What are the chances anyone will recognize me?” Suspense lies in decisions made on subjective probability.
Okay, so Ramsey died without knowing that ninety years later University of Georgia students in hoodies, poised at the whiteboard, would be filming explanations of “Ramsey Theory.” Ada Lovelace died without knowing the Defense Department would name a computer language for her. If asked, would she have preferred Countess? Would she be fascinated by the world of hacking? Simon Stevin would drive our city streets, ready to opine on public transportation–would he recommend air-conditioned tubes, with moving sidewalks, to move people east and west across Austin? Or possibly a sailboat with wheels?
Now we come to you. Yes, you. How will we know what you thought?
Stevin, Lovelace and Ramsey at least published some of their work. You can go farther. You own your copyright as soon as your work is “fixed.” You can also provide notice of copyright by using the symbol or the word “Copyright” and your name and the year of first publication, and registering your copyright by paying the required fee and depositing required copy(ies) of your work, thereby creating a public record of your copyright claim. (See details and requirements here.)
That’s at least a start. As for Aeschylus, only seven of his seventy to ninety tragedies remain intact. Sophocles? Only seven of over a hundred remain. Euripides? Eighteen of over ninety-five remain. Sappho? We have only two complete poems out of her nine books of verse, from the woman the ancients called “the tenth Muse.”
Will depositing your work at the Library of Congress––oh yes, you must––give us some assurance we can know your ideas, your writings, a century hence? The Alexandrian Library didn’t fare so well. Nor did the Dresden Sächsische Landesbibliothek which lost perhaps 200,000 volumes in the Allied bombing of the Dresden historic center. The 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Library burned 400,000 books.
No guarantees, but it’s a start. At least try to leave the world a copy. Even if you leave us too soon, even if fame has not yet arrived…you never know. A century from now, maybe…?
The first Anna Pigeon book that I read by Nevada Barr was Blind Descent, book 6 of the series, back in 1998. And I’ve read most of her books since then. I’m hooked!
Since the main character in the books is a park ranger, each story is set in a national park. I’ve learned so much about nature, each park, and its landscape and history. I particularly liked the history in Flashback, book 11. It was set in Dry Tortugas National Park. I didn’t know that that is where those who had been accused of Lincoln’s assassination were imprisoned back in 1865!
Here is the complete list of her books and where they are set.
As you’d expect, Anna has to solve mysteries and face all sorts of dangers in each book like mountain lions, bears, natural disasters, forest fires, and of course the most dangerous of all, people.
Boar Island starts away from the park with a case of cyber-bullying. You know what? Here’s the description from Barr’s website:
Anna Pigeon, in her career as a National Park Service Ranger, has had to deal with all manner of crimes and misdemeanors, but cyber-bullying and stalking is a new one. The target is Elizabeth, the adopted teenage daughter of her friend Heath Jarrod. Elizabeth is driven to despair by the disgusting rumors spreading online and bullying texts. Until, one day, Heath finds her daughter Elizabeth in the midst of an unsuccessful suicide attempt. She calls in the cavalry—her aunt Gwen and her friend Anna Pigeon.
While they try to deal with the fragile state of affairs—and find the person behind the harassment—the three adults decide the best thing to do is to remove Elizabeth from the situation. Since Anna is about to start her new post as Acting Chief Ranger at Acadia National Park in Maine, the three will join her and stay at a house on the cliff of a small island near the park, Boar Island.
But the move east doesn’t solve the problem. The stalker has followed them east. And Heath (a paraplegic) and Elizabeth aren’t alone on the otherwise deserted island. At the same time, Anna has barely arrived at Acadia when a brutal murder is committed.
While this does describe the setup, it doesn’t come close to describing the action and complex story that weaves together. Poor Anna! By the end I think she could totally commiserate with John McClane of Die Hard. She’s a physically fit character, but the injuries that she’s had in past stories still plague her at times. As they should! And the choices that she’s made, good and bad, also haunt her. She’s a life-like character that you can relate to.
Boar Island is a good book that will keep you turning pages. I sped right through it. Cyber-bullying, obsession, murder, feuds, high tech, and a harsh environment in a remote location, it’s got it all!
“Tell me a story about before you met me,” the lover entreats the loved one.
“Tell me the story about how you met,” we ask the new couple.
“Tell me the scariest moment,” the reporter demands of the returning explorer.
“Tell me a story,” we whisper to the books on the library shelf.
After an astounding career as master of detective fiction, P. D. James finished Talking about Detective Fiction in 2009, when she was nearly ninety. This small but hugely thoughtful book touches many topics: the history of detective fiction, authorial arguments over point of view and whether or not the murderer can be a protagonist, variants in the genre. Then James tackles the importance of setting, the importance of character, and the importance of plot.
As to setting: “If we believe in the place we can believe in the characters.” She notes that one function of the setting is to add credibility to a story. For James, credibility is particularly needed for crime fiction, which often offers not just dramatic but bizarre or horrific events. (This this immediately brought to mind Robert Galbraith’s (J.K. Rowling’s) Cormoran Strike series, including The Silkworm.) According to James, “My own detective novels, with rare exceptions, have been inspired by the place rather than by a method of murder or a character.” She says her Devices and Desires was born when she stood on a deserted beach in East Anglia, then turned and saw the vast outline of a nuclear power station.
Character: her characters “grow like plants” while she’s writing but still bring surprises, so that “at the end, no matter how carefully and intricately the work is plotted, I never get exactly the novel I planned.”
As to why people love this genre? For the story. For the story! Here she quotes E.M. Forster:
“‘We are all like Scheherazade’s husband in that we want to know what happens next. That is universal and that is why the backbone of a novel has to be a story….Qua story, it can have only one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. And conversely it can have only one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next.’” [E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel]
Our mystery genre has at its heart, of course, a mystery, and we know that by the end it will be solved, more or less. Of course, we readers relish solving the mystery, but, as James says of herself, if that were the only attraction, we wouldn’t reread our old favorites. Which many of us do.
Why do we reread? Not just for the solution, but for the story. Once upon a time there was [a character] who lived in [a setting] and one day, a [terrible awful amazing startling promising exciting bizarre weird shocking hilarious unexpected] thing happened. And what do you think happened next?
We can’t wait. Bring it on. Because we want a story, in a setting we believe in, even if surprising, so we believe in the characters, and––even when we’re re-reading an old favorite–– we want to keep turning the pages so we can know what happens next.
Thank you, P. D. James, for this rich small book, and for all your books with their settings, characters, plot intricacies…and story.
Okay, you already know I’m hooked on le Carré. Never did I think any of his characters would buy my allegiance more than George Smiley, the nearsighted brilliant cuckold, a scholar of German romantic poetry, capable of thinking many chess moves ahead. Smiley can spin a web to catch a traitor. Smiley’s heroic.
But now, Nat’s got me. Nat, 47-year old field man from the British secret service or “Office,” has returned to his London home from Europe, at loose ends. He has proudly served his Queen, his country, his Service. He’s a jock, loves running, loves to play ferocious strategic badminton at the Athleticus, a club near his home. He’s Club champion. He loves his wife Prue, who as his spouse actually served the Office when they were stationed together in Russia. Prue now handles big pro bono legal cases and Nat likes to drop in to watch her courteous destruction of the opposition. Nat, with his German-Russian-English-Scots background, speaks Russian like a native. Now he’s expecting to be made “redundant,” put out to pasture, offered dead-end private sector jobs in, say, security.
Meanwhile, at the Athleticus he is challenged by a tall, bespectacled, socially awkward guy, Ed Shannon, who demands a match with the Club champion. Nat assesses this approach:
And the voice itself, of which by now I have a fair sample? In the time-honored British parlour game of placing our compatriots on the social ladder by virtue of their diction I am at best a poor contestant, having spent too much of my life in foreign parts. But to the ear of my daughter Stephanie, a sworn leveler, my guess is that Ed’s diction would pass as just about all right, meaning no direct evidence of a private education.
How deft is that description? So deft. Part of le Carré’s genius is to compose sentences which effortlessly expand the characters and scenes he’s building. Here Nat describes himself using (italicized) info from his own employment file:
I possess rugged charm and the accessible personality of a man of the world.
I am in appearance and manner a British archetype, capable of fluent and persuasive argument in the short term. I adapt to circumstance and have no insuperable moral scruples.
What a great ploy, letting the narrator use other peoples’ descriptions to present himself. Nat’s voice is irresistible.
Nat’s at a turning point. Now at home, waiting for some assignment from the Office and wondering about his future, he suspects his college student daughter thinks dad’s job performance is mediocre, far outshone by Prue’s legal career. It grates that his daughter doesn’t even know what he’s done:
I’d like to have told her why I’d failed to phone her on her fourteenth birthday because I knew it still rankled. I’d like to have explained that I had been sitting on the Estonian side of the Russian border in thick snow praying to God my agent would make it through the lines under a pile of sawn timber. I’d like to have given her some idea of how it had felt for her mother and me to live together under non-stop surveillance as members of the Office’s Station in Moscow where it could take ten days to clear or fill a dead letter box, knowing that, if you put a foot out of place, your agent is likely to die in hell.
When Nat goes in for the interview where he expects to be put out to pasture, we get an eyeful and earful of the infighting and sharp elbows within the Office. To our pleased surprise, Nat seems well able to handle those elbows. Furthermore, Nat wins the badminton match against the importunate Ed. When they drink a beer later, and after subsequent matches, Ed inveighs passionately against Trump, Putin, and the parlous situation of post-Brexit Britain. Meanwhile, instead of being terminated, Nat is asked to manage the Haven, a London sub-station of the Office, including supervising an intense agent named Florence who’s pressing the Office to approve Operation Rosebud. Operation Rosebud would insert eavesdropping equipment into the lush English home of a Ukrainian oligarch with well-documented links to Moscow Centre and Putin. Here’s Nat’s description of Florence:
And in Florence, as Giles [whom Nat’s replacing] was at pains to inform me over a nocturnal bottle of Talisker whisky in the back kitchen of the Haven, Rosebud had found an implacable if obsessive champion…
With Operation Rosebud about to begin, a sleeper Russian agent––currently acting as a double agent for the Office––requests an emergency meeting with Nat. It may be possible, the agent says, for Britain to capture a very big fish…well, no spoilers. Nat travels to Karlovy Vary to meet an informant who can identify the fish. The informant grills Nat, in dialogue so sharp on current world politics it hurts:
“So what are you?” “A patriot, I suppose.” “What of? Facebook? Dot-coms? Global warming? Corporation so big they can gobble up your broken little country in one bite? Who’s paying you?”
Like a set of Matryoshka dolls, le Carré’s plot holds secrets within secrets within secrets. Le Carré fans know his plots, in hindsight, seem prescient: he brought us big pharma in Africa and disaster in Chechnya before those issues hit the world stage. Now he zeroes in on the Europe of today’s news broadcasts, with Putin looming to the east, Trump to the west, and Britain bent on Brexit. I found myself wondering––fearing––how real the most treacherous plot in this Matryoshka might turn out to be.
Meanwhile, I know Nat’s got hidden depths. I’m rooting for Nat––and Prue––all the way.
As with many other books, I’ve been late on the scene with this series and author. A Dangerous Road made its debut in 2001 but I just discovered it recently. I was fortunate that my book club chose it. So not only did I get to read a great book, I got to read an intriguing mystery that kept me turning pages! And I got to discuss it with good friends.
I primarily write historical mysteries, usually Westerns, but this one takes place in Memphis in 1968. A turbulent time and place. There was a lot that I didn’t know about this time and I can tell that Nelscott did her homework. For example, there was a strike among the garbage collectors and trash began to pile up. The smell and inconvenience added to the tension of the story. The impending marches and the arrival of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., are churning up hostilities between the races, and among the races. Add to that a black male P.I. who has a white, attractive, female client, Laura Hathaway, and the tension mounts!
The mystery part of the story is about $10,000. Laura Hathaway demands to know why her mother would leave $10,000 to Smokey. He has no idea. He doesn’t know the Hathaways. Could Mrs. Hathaway have been the anonymous benefactor who left him $10,000 ten year prior? It seems like too much of a coincidence. And why would she do that? Laura decides to hire Smokey to find out about her family background, what secrets they were hiding and how he is involved in it, if he is.
That’s what kept me turning pages. I had no idea where it
was going to go!
The book starts with scenes from the premiere of Gone With
the Wind in 1940 in Atlanta. (I didn’t know that it premiered there! Did you?) It
takes a while until it becomes clear why this event was important to the story.
But it’s pivotal.
Which gets me to what I admired most about the book. Not
only was it a mystery, but it deftly maneuvered through and around the worlds
of 1940 Atlanta and 1968 Memphis. Both eras are complicated. Dalton and the
black community have to constantly be alert and careful what they say and do.
And not all dangers are outside their own community.
Nelscott dances her way around and through the story, taking the reader with her. I was impressed with its complexity and how she was able to keep the tension throughout. I was not surprised to learn that it won the Herodotus Award for Best Historical Mystery and was short-listed for the Edgar Award for Best Novel.
This reader and writer will definitely be reading more of
the Smokey Dalton stories!
Back in September Daughters of Bad Men, by our own Laura Oles, was chosen as the book for the Murder In The Afternoon Book Club at Book People. Now if you’re an author, or even if you’re not, your TBR (To Be Read) pile of books is probably extensive. And if you’re an author, that pile includes books written by friends.
Laura and I hitting the road to go to Bouchercon in New Orleans!
So, since Laura’s book was chosen as a book club choice, that gave me an extra incentive to pull it from my shelf and delve in! Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it to the book club so I’m still brimming with the need to discuss it.
So right off the bat, I enjoyed it! It takes place in Port Arlene, Texas, a fictional tourist town near Corpus Christi. Since I grew up in CC, I was immediately interested. She captured the feel of a tourist beach town. I could smell the food, the salty air, and feel the gritty sand that invades everything. And while tourists are having fun eating, basking in the sun, and fishing, they aren’t aware of the seedier side of life that exists along with the plastic fish stuck in nets that are ever-present in the restaurants.
The antagonist is Jamie Rush who is a skip tracer. She also has an extra skill set because she grew up in a family of con artists. She can easily see a con a mile away and she knows all of the tricks that people use when they don’t want to be found. But instead of using her talents to con people, she’s chosen to help people, or at least earn her money honestly. And although she lives in the same area with most of her family, she’s distanced herself and has nothing to do with them.
So when her half-brother contacts her, she ignores his messages. The messages become more urgent when he explains that his daughter, Kristen, is missing. This still doesn’t raise a red flag with Jamie because her niece has pulled a disappearing act before. And Kristen usually has her own cons going on the side. But what if she’s truly in danger? Jamie wouldn’t be able to live with herself if something happened to Kristen and Jamie didn’t check it out.
Added to the mix of characters is Jamie’s trusty sidekick, Cookie, an over-sized, intimidating, tacky Hawaiian shirt-wearing, huggable, fiercely loyal friend. (Enough adjectives for you?) Another friend, a woman who runs a betting operation, who learned the ropes from her father. And another woman who comes from a violent organized crime family. (It’s very interesting to see how these daughters of bad men interact.)
Jamie begins digging in Kristen’s life and what she uncovers is a complicated web of love, revenge, and “just business”.
I thought that this story was going to be a typical “p.i. procedural”. I was lulled into a false sense of security by the laid-back pace of beach town life and then it accelerated non-stop to an incredibly satisfying ending. There were a few surprises in there that kept me turning the pages!
So, if you haven’t gotten this book, get it!
*Warning- Reading this book will also make you crave fried shrimp, cold beer, and the perfect fish taco. Don’t say I didn’t warn you! Seriously, now I need to take a trip to the coast for some fresh seafood and to hear the seagulls.
An author can get great mileage by giving the point of view to a Watson sort of character. The Watson can be present for all events, hear all dialogue and see all clues—while not understanding them. The Reader feels clever for having grasped the significance of clues the Watson missed or misunderstood. The Watson can admire Sherlock’s astounding mental feats while deploring Sherlock’s shortcomings (sometimes his manners, sometimes cocaine). Meanwhile the reader can identify with the Watson and can experience, perhaps, the feel and sound and… yes, the SMELL of a scene, while Sherlock is detecting or explaining arcana.
The best Watson I’ve met is…a dog. Yes, it’s Chet, the large (hundred-pounder!) companion and partner of detective Bernie Little in the Chet and Bernie Series. Spencer Quinn (nom de … plume? Or de tail?) of Peter Abrahams is the genius who most recently gave us The Heart of Barkness.
You say you won’t read a mystery told by a dog? I’m not a dog person, and that’s what I said too, turning my inadequate human nose up in the air. (I have donkeys, not dogs.)
Then I met Chet. Chet opened up the astounding sensory richness of the world that lies beyond human (that is, Bernie’s) detection, and, particularly, the world of smell.
Here’s a scene—a scent?—from The Dog Who Knew Too Much:
“Autumn didn’t mention your sense of humor.” Anya gave him a not-very-friendly look when she said that, but at the same time I picked up a scent coming off her—faint but unmistakable—that meant she was starting to like Bernie. Nothing about humans is simple: I’ve learned that lots of times in my career.”
Here’s Chet using his ears as well, when Bernie is banging on the door of the RV where he hopes to find Lotty Pilgrim, the country-western star accused of murder In The Heart of Barkness:
“Silence from inside. Then came footsteps, very soft, but there’s no such thing as footsteps too soft for my ears. Also I could hear breathing on the other side of the door. Plus there were smells of cigarette smoke, coffee, and perfume—and the specific smell of Lotty Pilgrim, which had an interesting milky quality. The door might as well not have been there.
At least in my case. Did Bernie realize Lotty was standing pretty much right in front of us? He raised his voice. “Lotty? Lotty?” Raised it to a level that meant the answer to my question was no.
No answer from Lotty. The milky smell changed, went the tiniest bit sour. I’ve tasted milk both sour and not, don’t like either kind. Water’s my drink. The best I ever tasted came right out of a rock, but no time to go into that now.”
Right there, we see Chet’s astounding ears in action, and his nose. We learn exactly what Lotty could smell like to our human noses, if only the dadgum door weren’t in the way. We learn that Chet can detect that some emotion—fear?—has turned Lotty’s milky smell “the tiniest bit sour.” Then we may wonder whether our human noses could possibly notice, at a subliminal level, what Chet detects as smell? Is our human sense of smell so low-level (Chet’s opinion) that our minds can’t really register certain smells as smells? Instead, perhaps our minds register an emotion, a suspicion, instead of a smell. That is, if we’re on Lotty’s side of the door, which Bernie is not, at least here.
Bernie and Chet make a great team. Chet hears a faraway car sneaking across the desert toward Bernie, way before Bernie hears it. Chet tries to let Bernie know…but Bernie’s slow on the uptake. We readers know peril impends. Listen, Bernie! Pay attention! He won’t, but not until the last second, when Chet must leap into action.
My love affair with Chet is not just his sheer joyousness. It’s his masterful specificity about smell. Here he is, on the job, searching a mountain campsite for traces of a lost boy camper:
“When it comes to nighttime security, you can’t go wrong by sniffing around. Nothing new to pick up, the scents of the boys still all over the place—although growing fainter—plus Bernie’s scent, Turk’s, and my own, the most familiar smell in the world: old leather, salt and pepper, mink coats, and just a soupçon of tomato; and to be honest, a healthy dash of something male and funky. My smell: yes, sir. Chet the Jet was in the vicinity, wherever that was, exactly.”
Here’s a challenge for you dog people. Give us as detailed a description of your dog’s smell as Chet’s description of his own! Oh, okay, I’ll try to do the same for my donkeys. In November.
Last month I was bemoaning the stinginess of some of my favorite writers in using smells in their writing. Maybe Virginia Woolf—hey, she loved her dogs, wrote about her dogs, doubtless could have described their smells as well as Chet described his, if the times, or the Times Literary Supplement, had permitted—will rise to the challenge. Watch this space.
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When I began Elizabeth Buhmann’s BLUE LAKE, I was—I’m ashamed to say—afraid I would be disappointed. Her first novel,LAY DEATH AT HER DOOR, was so well constructed, clues so obviously placed, that I should have been able to predict the ending—but so deftly woven into the plot that the last chapter was a complete surprise. More than a surprise—a shock. That novel was so good, I knew BLUE LAKE couldn’t match it.
I was wrong. BLUE LAKE is different from its predecessor, of course, but just as well written and just as suspenseful. And when I reached the end, I said, “I should have known.”
BLUE LAKE does not disappoint.
Buhmann hides things in plain sight—the mark of a good mystery writer, and the delight of every mystery reader.
“Rural Virginia, 1945. The Second World War had just ended when Alice Hannon found the lifeless body of her five-year-old daughter, Eugenie, floating in Blue Lake. The tragedy of the little girl’s death destroyed the Hannon family.
“More than twenty years later, Alice’s youngest daughter, Regina, returns home after a long estrangement because her father is dying. She is shocked to discover, quite by accident, that her sister’s drowning was briefly investigated as a murder at the time. . . .