Review: Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own (A Public Service Repost)

by Kathy Waller

I wrote the following for my personal blog to answer a “challenge.” I intended to post it at the end of September 2009–yes, 2009. But I got all tangled up in words and couldn’t write a thing. Then I intended to post it at the end of October. I still couldn’t write it. I managed to write it after the October deadline.

In the middle of the “process,” I considered posting the following review: “I like Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own very very very very very much.”

But the challenge specified a four-sentence review, and I had hardly one, and I didn’t want to repeat it three times.

So there’s the background.

I must also add this disclaimer: I bought my copy of A Broom of One’s Own myself, with my own money. No one told, asked, or paid me to write this review. No one told, asked, or paid me to say I like the book. No one told, asked, or paid me to like it. No one offered me tickets to Rio or a week’s lodging in Venice, more’s the pity. I decided to read the book, to like it, and to write this review all by myself, at the invitation of Story Circle Book Review Challenge. Nobody paid them either. Amen.

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Review of Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own

I like Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own: Words About Writing, Housecleaning & Life so much that it’s taken me over two months and two missed deadlines to untangle my thoughts and write this four-sentence review, an irony Peacock, author of two critically acclaimed novels, would no doubt address were I in one of her writing classes.

She would probably tell me that there is no perfect writing life; that her job as a part-time house cleaner, begun when full-time writing wouldn’t pay the bills, afforded time, solitude, and the “foundation of regular work” she needed;  that engaging in physical labor allowed her unconscious mind to “kick into gear,” so she became not the writer but the “receiver” of her stories.

She’d probably say that writing is hard; that sitting at a desk doesn’t automatically bring brilliance; that writers have to work with what they have; that “if I don’t have the pages I hate I will never have the pages I love”; that there are a million “saner” things to do and a “million good reasons to quit” and that the only good reason to continue is, “This is what I want.”

So, having composed at least two dozen subordinated, coordinated, appositived, participial-phrase-stuffed first sentences and discarding them before completion; having practically memorized the text searching for the perfect quotation to end with; and having once again stayed awake into the night, racing another deadline well past the due date, I am completing this review—because I value Nancy Peacock’s advice; and because I love A Broom of One’s Own; and because I consider it the equal of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird; and because I want other readers to know about it; and because this is what I want.

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I’ve posted this review before both here and elsewhere. I consider the reposting a service to writers. The book is absolutely invaluable, and all writers need to know about it.

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I blog at Telling the Truth, Mainly. I write crime fiction–have published short stories and am working on a novel. My blog, however, doesn’t have much to do with crime. There I write about anything that comes along. I like to think it’s eclectic, but it’s really just a jumble.

Letters: A Velocity of Being

by Kathy Waller

The definition of reading readiness is the point
at which a child goes from not reading, to reading.
Sight and Sound Reading

But, Gwammy, I can’t wead.*
~ Jenny, five years old, after one week in kindergarten

 

When I was five, my Great-aunt Ethel gave me an ancient primer. She had found it in an old school building, abandoned when consolidation sent children in my hometown to a school two miles away, and then used only as a polling place. The primer had also been abandoned, and Aunt Ethel, election judge, liberated it and gave it to the youngest member of the family (youngest by about forty years; it was an old town).

My parents read to me almost from day one. The story goes that, as a toddler, I met my father at the door every evening when he got home from work, saying, “‘Ead a book, Daddy.” (Unlike Jenny, I had no pwoblem pwonouncing my ahs; I just dropped them.)

We didn’t have a library nearby, but I plenty of books: a Bumper Book, Little Golden Books, Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Andersen’s Fairy Tales, which I didn’t like, in part because they were dark (“The Little Match Girl”), but mostly because the end papers sported a hairy black thing with an ugly humanish face and enough long, winding legs to qualify it as a spider. Grimms’ tales were more pleasant.

When I received the primer, I already knew the alphabet. In fact, a year before, I’d written my name in red adhesive tape–the gooiest, stickiest adhesive I’ve ever come across–on the inside of the kitchen door. It stayed there for years.

Anyway, armed with the primer–a school book, for reading–I set about teaching myself. While my mother did housework, I trailed behind, spelling out words.

“T-h-e”

“The”

“m-a-n”

“man”

“s-a-i-d”

“said”

I don’t think I taught myself to read. But the next year, when I entered first grade–no kindergarten back then–I was ready. I took right off on the underwhelming adventures of Dick, Jane, and Sally (siblings who never had a decent disagreement) plus Spot and Puff, who came and ran a lot.

In second grade, I got a Little Big BookGunsmoke–that had one hundred pages. I read it on Saturday and reported the accomplishment in our Class News at school on Monday. Later I got a literary Little Big BookHuckleberry Finn. One sentence confused me: a dead man’s leg was stuck out at a strange angel. I was about thirty when I realized angel was really angle. I was also surprised when, in high school, I learned that the Little Big Book had been severely abridged.

Then I discovered comic books. They were more educational than most people think. From Scrooge McDuck, I learned that emeralds come from South America. Unfamiliar with physics, I pronounced Atom Cat as A-Tomcat. Seemed reasonable.

The next year, thanks to a Christmas present from my grandmother, I discovered Nancy Drew. Nancy had a blue convertible and drove around wherever she wanted, and her father never grounded her. I envied Nancy her freedom. I didn’t like her, though; she had a tomboy friend, George, who said, “Hypers, you slay me,” which was fine, but her other friend, Bess, was plump, and Nancy often referred to how much Bess ate. I presume in later editions, Nancy behaved better. But her treatment of Bess didn’t stop me from reading about her. I wrote letters to Joske’s Department Store in San Antonio: “Please send me one copy of The Hidden Staircase and one copy of The Clue in the Jewel Box. Please charge my account.” They each cost two dollars. My mother kindly signed the letters. It was her account.

I soon outgrew Nancy, but, like many other mystery readers and writers, I credit her for getting me hooked. I read a couple of Trixie Beldens–Trixie was sickeningly enthusiastic when her mother made her dust the living room before going out to solve mysteries, but she did manage to sneak out at night. I read some Kathy Martins. Kathy, a nurse, often suspected her (nice guy) brother for whatever (minor) crime had been committed, which I thought strange, but she was more mature and more realistic than other characters. No convertible, no sneaking.

Young Adult novels didn’t exist as a genre until the late sixties, when increased federal money became available to schools, and authors found a new audience. Born too soon, I moved from children’s books into adult fare: Zane GreyThomas B. CostainCharles DickensAldous HuxleyJane AustenHarper LeeDaphne DuMaurierRafael Sabatini (Scaramouche: “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”) Noticing that I read the classics, the bookmobile librarian, unasked, brought me a copy of the scandalous Madame Bovary. I was fifteen. He’s still my hero.

On the bookmobile, I rediscovered mysteries in the real thingSherlock Holmes. I cried and cried when he and Moriarty went over Reichenbach Falls. Nobody told me he would be back.

And another real thingAgatha Christie. Which led to Marjorie AllinghamNgaio MarshRobert BarnardJosephine Tey, Donna LeonKarin FossumElizabeth George, and so many others.

But enough about me. The point is that reading was, and is, important to me.

And that this week I’ve been reading A Velocity of Being: Letters to Young Readers, edited by Maria Popova & Claudia Bedrick. The editors compiled 121 letters from “scientists, musicians, artists, philosophers, composers, poets, actors, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor, Italy’s first woman in space, and many more remarkable humans whose splendor of spirit cannot be contained in the shorthand descriptors we often use to condense a person’s character and cultural contributions.” Each letter is paired with an illustration to “bring it to life visually.”

Many letters describe books as portals to the universe, to other worlds, to adventure, to curiosity and questions, to dreams, to logic and imagination; they’re boats and planes and magic carpets. Contributors write about hating book reports, and being hellions when they were little and refused to listen to Goodnight Moon at bedtime because they wanted dinosaurs, and being called antisocial when they preferred to read instead of play with friends.

But other contributors take the subject to a deeper level:

Author Alain de Botton writes, We wouldn’t need books quite so much if everyone around us understood us well. But they don’t. Even those who love us get us wrong. They claim to know what we need, but forget to ask us properly first. They can’t understand what we feel . . . That’s the moment to turn to books They are friends waiting for us, and they will always speak honestly to us. They are the perfect cure for loneliness. They can be our very closest friends.

Screenwriter Shonda Rhimes says, Reading saved me. When I was twelve, I spent most of my day trying to be invisible. The year before I’d been the new girl in school, and I’d spent a lot of time trying to be accepted. . . . The very desire to bend and twist to fit in–assures your rejection They did not like me. They hated me.
I spent a lot of time alone. I rode the bus alone. I spent weekends alone, I ate lunch alone. Except I was never alone. I always had a book in my hand. If you have a book, you don’t need to bend and twist to fit–you’re there. You are in. . . .
If you have a book in your hand, you can stop being invisible. Because you’re a little more invincible
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Venture capitalist Chris Sacca says that books are dangerous: If you keep reading, you might learn so much that you can take over for the adults and then you kids will be in charge! You all could be the journalists, entrepreneurs, artists, professors, authors, doctors, explorers, scientists, and even the leaders of our countries! Then what would the grown-ups do? Live in a world run by brilliant, interesting, innovative, and compassionate young people. Ugh. No, thank you.
So please stop reading before you become really smart, successful, and happy.

But seriously, books are dangerous. Holocaust survivor Helen Fagiwrites about life in the World War II Polish ghetto, where being caught reading by the Nazis meant anything from hard labor to death. But books were smuggled in, read by each person for only one night, and then, for the sake of safety, passed on. She stayed up all one night reading Gone with the Wind. Then she decided the children she secretly taught needed not dry information, but stories. And for one hour each night, she told them the story of Scarlett and Melanie, Rhett and Ashley; and for that hour they “escaped a world of murder.” Then “a knock at the door shattered our dream world.” Years later, she met one of only four of the students who survived. The woman called her “the source of my hopes and my dreams in times of total deprivation and dehumanization.”

Composer Mohammad Fairouz shares a story that I cherish from my upbringing; . . . 1400 years ago in the deserts of Arabia, a meditative prophet named Mohammad had a vision of the Angel Gabriel who came to him with a message: “Read” . . . This was the first word of the Quran.
In the years following the prophet’s death, his followers built an empire where they contributed to every branch of knowledge, from algebra to optics and medicine to music. Countless things we have today would not exist without their contributions: that includes space stations, glasses, aspirin, your iPad.
They were able to do this because they were inspired to seek out the power that comes with being to read. You deserve the same power . . .

Years ago, I knew a young man who had never learned to read. I don’t know why; he just hadn’t. As an adult, he took a literacy class. He said that when he traveled for his work, he was always scared, because he couldn’t read road signs, and he was afraid he would get lost. At the most basic level, reading is power.

And consider: At one time in the American South, it was illegal to teach slaves to read. If they were literate, they might be able to read signs that would help them escape. They might also read some inconvenient truths: “. . .  that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness . . .” Inconvenient for their owners, that is.

Does reading fiction make better people? Research doesn’t give a definitive answer. But “at the Princeton Social Neuroscience Lab, psychologist Diana Tamir has demonstrated that people who often read fiction have better social cognition. In other words, they’re more skilled at working out what other people are thinking and feeling. . . .

“So the research shows that perhaps reading fiction does make people behave better. Certainly some institutions consider the effects of reading to be so significant that they now include modules on literature. At the University of California Irvine, for example, Johanna Shapiro from the Department of Family Medicine firmly believes that reading fiction results in better doctors and has led the establishment of a humanities programme to train medical students.

“It sounds as though it’s time to lose the stereotype of the shy bookworm whose nose is always in a book because they find it difficult to deal with real people. In fact, these bookworms might be better than everyone else at understanding human beings.”

Philosopher and professor Martha Nussbaum gives an example: The great African-American novelist Ralph Ellison said that a novel like his Invisible Man could be “a raft of hope, perception, and entertainment” on which America could “negotiate the snags and whirlpools” that stand between us and the democratic ideal. He’s referring here to Huck Finn and Jim, who got to know one another as full human beings, rather than just as a white man and a black man, when they traveled down the river on a raft together. On the raft, they had to look at one another, listen to one another’s stories. In our divided society, such encounters happen all too seldom in real life, and are fraught with mistrust when they do. Reading can create such encounters in the head, so that the ones that happen in the world are a little less crude, a little less deformed by fear and anger.

Huckleberry Finn has for years made the American Library Association’s list of most often challenged, banned, or restricted books–a novel that can teach us to be better people.

Design writer and educator Steven Heller extends the idea that reading is power and issues a challenge: Books are weapons in humankind’s battle against ignorance. I don’t mean like lasers and drones. I mean that knowledge is strength and the kind of knowledge you get from books is not the same as the quick fix that Googling gets you. What’s more, books can’t be hacked. But they can he censored, which means blocked or forbidden from being published. And this is why they are so valuable to us all. Often in fighting ignorance, the ignorant take books prisoner. If you don’t read books, then those that have been censored over the ages will be lost and forgotten. So kids, don’t let them down. Read them, savor them protect them. Don’t let others make books irrelevant.

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*Jenny soon learned to wead. And to pwonounce her ahs.

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I’ve gone on too long. If you’re still with me, thanks for sticking. And one more thing: Despite the title, A Velocity of Being isn’t just for young readers. It’s also for adults who need to be reminded to make reading part of their children’s lives.

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Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. Find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kathy.waller68. She’s published short stories and memoir and is working on a novel.

While writing this post, Kathy was watching/listening to an old TV series of Dorothy L. Sayers‘ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. Bless Youtube and all who post on her. (Opinion: Ian Carmichael was the best Peter Wimsey by far.)

Book Review: Benjamin Capps’ The Heirs of Franklin Woodstock

by Kathy Waller

George Woodstock received the peculiar phone call on his sixty-sixth birthday. . . He let the phone ring twice, then answered, “Woodstock Machine Shop.”

It was Helen’s voice. “Clara called, George.”

“Where is she?” 

“Your sister. She’s out at Woodstock where she always is. Your papa has escaped from the nursing home.” . . . 

“What in the hell does escaped mean? Did you ask any questions? . . .  Have they put up a fence for patients to climb over? Or did he tunnel out? Did he wound any guards? I thought Papa was in a nursing facility.”

“Please don’t be snotty, George. I’m only telling you what Clara said. I said you’d call back.”

According to Best Mystery Novels, mysteries must meet certain criteria: there must be a puzzle; a detective or protagonist who sets out to solve the puzzle; suspects; clues; red herrings; hidden evidence; gaps in information; and suspense.

The Heirs of Franklin Woodstock  isn’t classed as a mystery.  It’s “general fiction.” Literary fiction. It isn’t shelved  in  bookstores and libraries amongst the Christies and the Hammetts and the Chandlers.

Author Benjamin Capps is famous for his award-winning historical fiction, realistic novels set in an Old West lacking the romance of pulp fiction. He didn’t write mysteries.

But based on the criteria laid out above, The Heirs of Franklin Woodstock is a mystery. On page one, the puzzle is laid out: ninety-one-year-old rancher Franklin Woodstock has “escaped” from the nursing home and is missing. And protagonist George Woodstock sets out on the three-hour drive from Fort Worth, northwest to the town of Woodstock, near his father’s seven-thousand-acre ranch, to find out what’s going on. (Clara, the sister who called, is known in the family as “a dingbat.”)

George’s investigation begins in chaos. The sheriff says they don’t usually find missing persons, just bodies they then identify by going through the files. He has two deputies out looking and will call in more searchers–George offers to help with expenses if necessary–but that’s about all his office can do.

At the Goodhaven Nursing Home, George asks the nurse at the front desk if she has a clue as to what his father might have been thinking in the days before he disappeared. She has a ready, and vehement, non-answer:

“I’m trying to bring the charts up for the next shift,” she said. ” . . . Now, sir, I would like to tell you what is charted again and again about Mr. Franklin Woodstock: Stubborn! Will not eat boiled and mashed carrots. Stubborn! Will not accept bath. Stubborn! Will not let aides assist in toilet. Stubborn! Tries to pinch aide or nurse. Stubborn! Will not lay as asked in bed. Stubborn! Pulls out feeding tube. Stubborn! Broke injection needle. Stubborn! Will not swallow boiled and mashed vegetables. Stubborn! Spits out pills.”

Asked the same question, the ward nurse sticks out a hand: “See that thumb? That knuckle! That’s  where a patient bit me. Just bit me on purpose.  . . .  She’s only got about seven teeth and she sunk every of them into my thumb.”

The Director of Nursing speaks more formally, but her only specific reference to George’s father is that a nurse was fired because she was discovered  bringing him food from home–ground broiled steak mixed with mushroom soup and thermoses of cold beer.

At the Woodstock ranch, George finds a haven in the person of Izzy, housekeeper, cook, compulsive gardener, canner, egg gatherer and churner of butter, and mother to everyone, although she’s probably no older than George. Izzy’s son Juan, who’s always gone by the name of Johnny Woodstock, is, as always, doing the practical–heading out on horseback with tenant-cowhands Buck and Slim to search for their employer. Johnny knows the ranch nearly as well as Franklin does.

Then the phone calls begin, and the six-hour round-trips to the airport in Fort Worth to pick up siblings and to try to keep his small machine shop afloat.

So the suspects gather. With plans. And motives.

Walter, a New York businessman with a degree from Harvard Business School, sees an opportunity to subdivide five thousand acres for an exclusive community, “no low-class people.” With his experience, of course, he’ll head up the project. That Chicano Johnny is good enough for punching cows but using a computer and managing a huge enterprise? Maybe he graduated from high school. Walter has also hired a private detective to find Papa, no matter how far he has to go or how much it costs.

Irma and her evangelist son Wilbur propose a different idea: The ranch will become Noah’s Ark, a combination religious retreat that will attract famous preachers, and a place of safety where every resident will be armed, a thousand rounds of ammo for each rifle, seeds, chainsaws, experts who can fix windmills and water pumps, animals two by two . . . because Russia, or somebody, is preparing to drop the Bomb. They’ve thought it out to the nth degree. Papa was a Born Again Christian and would have approved. Wilbur will probably be the first president, receiving a modest salary of $60,000. Irma had suggested $100,000.

Clara seems to want only to spoil her grandchildren, and Clarence, with a Ph.D. in literature and teaching in California, seems only to want to sit up all night with George, sharing several six-packs and talking old times. But Frank, his geologist son, believes the ranch sits on deep oil wells that could be profitable.

During George’s long drives between Fort Worth and the ranch, we learn a lot about Franklin Woodstock. He hasn’t always been “stubborn” or “Born Again.” He’s been a hard worker and a shrewd manager, starting with nothing and acquiring land and cattle, building “the Old Place” and later a large house, adding stock tanks and windmills, working alongside his hands in every endeavor. He has raised a family and sent his children to any school they wanted. When Clara’s grandson, Homer, who is “different,” is expelled from third grade for arguing unintelligibly with the teacher because he doesn’t want to sit down, and then (it is assumed) keeps breaking into the school library and stealing books (which are always returned), Franklin somehow smooths things over and starts building a library in his own home; the break-ins cease. Homer can’t read but seems to think if he could , he would understand what everyone else does.

Franklin Woodstock is the best man George has ever known.

We learn a lot about George, too: a surveyor with the CCC, a navigator who flew forty missions over the Pacific in World War II, an assistant engineer with the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, a machinist and tool-and-die maker. He’s a man  with a high school education who wants to work with his hands, and he’s good at it. His father respects that and has promised him $100,000 to expand his business–a loan, not a gift. But with nothing on paper, and no witnesses to the promise, George doesn’t know whether he’ll get the money. And he feels guilty for even thinking about it.

He’s also worried that his siblings are behaving as if Papa is already dead. Walter says they can have him declared so. Walter is determined. Who knows what the others will agree to?

Although the active characters are the heirs of Franklin Woodstock, the old man holds the novel together. He’s missing. Is he dead or alive? Will they ever know?

What happened to Franklin Woodstock? There’s the mystery.

There are, of course, clues, red herrings, hidden evidence, gaps in information, suspense–all of the other basic criteria. But it would be a shame to share too much here.

As they say in fourth-grade book reports, if you want to know what happens, you’ll have to read the book.

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A word about the author:

Benjamin Capps was born in 1922 in Dundee, Archer County, Texas.

At fifteen, he entered Texas Technological College in Lubbock but left after a year to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps and then as a surveyor in the U. S. Department of Engineering. As a navigator, he flew forty missions over the Pacific in World War II. He received two degrees in English and journalism from the University of Texas and taught at Northeastern State College in Oklahoma. But teaching didn’t allow him time to write and drained his creativity. He became a machinist and tool-and-die maker before becoming a full-time writer. He lived in Grand Prairie, Texas.

In “Benjamin Capps Papers: A Guide,” (University of Texas Arlington Special Collections), it notes that,

According to Capps, his writing’s aim is to be authentic and “to probe the human nature and human motives” involved in his stories. His works are painstakingly researched for historical accuracy and generally explore lesser known facets of the American frontier. 

Three of his books won Spur Awards from the Western Writers of America. One novel and one work of nonfiction received a Wrangler Award from the Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center. He was the recipient of numerous other awards.

Dundee, Capps’ birthplace, is nineteen miles from Archer City, where Larry McMurtry was born eleven years later. Capps never achieved McMurtry’s fame (or notoriety).

But he’s been counted among writers such as Walter Van Tilburg Clark and Conrad Richter for writing about the Old West with “compelling authenticity.”

James W. Lee, Director, Center for Texas Studies, University of North Texas, calls his Woman of the People “the finest novel ever to come out of Texas.” (Note: Lee is right.)

He also says “Ben Capps is the Texas author whose work will still be read a hundred years from now.”

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Kathy Waller has published short stories and one novella, Stabbed, written with Manning Wolfe. She blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly.

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Sources:

Benjamin Capps. The Heirs of Franklin Woodstock. Lubbock: TCU Press, 1989.

Spur Award for the Best Western Novel

Texas Archival Resources Online

Encyclopedia.com

Texas Escapes

Within Hours

Book flap and blurbs

Master’s class, “Literature and Lore of the Southwest,” Southwest Texas State University, taught by Dr. Dickie Heaberlin, 1984. Memory and informed opinions of Kathy Waller, student.

Cover image: Amazon.com

Sisters in Crime, Thank You!!!

By K.P. Gresham

First off, the best job I ever had (short of writing mysteries) was teaching. And yes, I taught Middle Schoolers, which most people think is the worst possible teaching job you can have. Not me. I loved the students, and I loved my fellow teachers and staff. The kids were sponges. As long as you weren’t a jerk to them, they weren’t a jerk to you. And when they succeeded, both teacher and student won. The same could be said for all of us school employees who came to work every day to help those students become educated, excellent citizens.

What does that have to do with Sisters in Crime? Well, this time I’M the student, and my fellow chapter members and I are the sponges, learning as much as we possibly can to be better writers, readers and business people.

Sisters in Crime (SinC), both on the national level and the chapter levels, provides the teaching. The organization is based solely on helping readers and writers, women and men to learn their craft and sell their books.

SinC is the premier crime writing association focused on equity and inclusion in our community and in publishing. The association, founded in 1986, has 4500+ members who enjoy access to tools to help them learn, grow, improve, thrive, reinvent if necessary, and to share the lessons they’ve learned during their mystery writing experience.

4500+ members? That’s a whole lot of folks to learn from!

SinC National offers many resources to mystery readers and writers. They support a large international network of local chapter with grants, webinars, a central bank of crime-writing research, etc. They support local libraries and independent bookstores. National also provides a monthly newsletter called inSinC which is sent to every member.

Local chapters are where the meatiest teaching takes place. In the last year, our Heart of Texas Chapter centered in Austin, Texas, hosted a plethora of programs spanning the mystery writing need-to-know list. NY Times Bestselling author L.R. Ryan shared her secrets to plotting the blockbuster novel. Cathy DeYoung, a former LAPD CSI fingerprint analyst (and the inspiration for the character of Abby on the TV show, NCIS) walked us through the steps of exploring a crime scene. Mike Kowis, a mild-mannered tax attorney for a Fortune 500 company AND a fellow author, taught us the ins and out of the tax code for authors and other legal matters.  Oh, and we were graced with a frank Q & A with the U.S. District Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.

Honestly. Why would a writer not want to learn from these experts??  And these incredible lessons all were brought together through the Sisters in Crime organizations.

Once you get past the realization that we kill people for a living (on the page, of course), crime writers and readers are a very supportive, very giving group of people. And Sisters in Crime is the best way to get to know them.

 

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Curiouser and Curiouser!

by Helen Currie Foster

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

We want to know. Who killed Cock Robin? Who killed the two princes in the Tower—was it really Richard III? https://www.medievalists.net/2021/02/new-study-strengthens-claims-richard-iii-murdered-the-princes-in-the-tower/

 Was Henry II complicit in his knights’ gruesome slaughter of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral? https://blog.britishmuseum.org/thomas-becket-the-murder-that-shook-the-middle-ages/ Curious humans still ask, who’s the guilty party?

Astrophysicist Mario Livio has been curious enough about curiosity to write a book on it: “Why? What Makes Us Curious.” https://amzn.to/3Gm7jLW

“Other animals are curious,” he says, “but only humans are worried and curious about reasons and causes for things. Only humans really ask the question, ‘Why?’” https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-08-27/why-are-humans-so-curious

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.

Find her online: http://helencurriefoster.com/ and

https://www.facebook.com/helencurriefoster/

Some Book Recommendations

by VP Chandler

VP Chandler

I’ve been reading this summer and wanted to share some great books with you!

The Blessing Way is book #1 of the famous Leaphorn and Chee series by Tony Hillerman. This series has been in my TBR (To Be Read) pile for years and I’m happy to say that I finally got around to it! I knew that it would be good because everyone I’ve talked to has loved these books. Even knowing that, I was pleasantly surprised. Leaphorn is interesting and has an inherent understand about people and what makes them tick. His internal dialogue also teaches the reader about his heritage and culture. I honestly found that aspect of the story to be entertaining and enlightening. It was also full of suspenseful action. There’s a seen where a character is stalked by something or someone in the night. That scene was the best in the book! It was chilling and creepy. I loved it. *happy chills*

I’m currently reading book #2, Dance Hall of The Dead and it’s just as creepy and suspenseful.

Good Reads description of The Blessing Way: Homicide is always an abomination, but there is something exceptionally disturbing about the victim discovered in a high lonely place, a corpse with a mouth full of sand, abandoned at a crime scene seemingly devoid of tracks or useful clues. Though it goes against his better judgment, Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn cannot help but suspect the hand of a supernatural killer. There is palpable evil in the air, and Leaphorn’s pursuit of a Wolf-Witch is leading him where even the bravest men fear, on a chilling trail that winds perilously between mysticism and murder.

The second book that I recommend is The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott. It’s also the first in a series, the Chris Cherry series. While it also has a landscape that’s remote, isolated, and vast, this book is quite different. The story is told in alternating chapters from different characters. It took me a bit to get the characters straight, but once I did that, it took off. Scott does an excellent job of capturing the feel of the west Texas landscape and its people, especially bullies in small towns. As most good books, there’s a showdown of sorts and my nerves were raw, waiting to see what happens. It’s not a small book but you’ll be turning pages.

Good Reads description: Seventeen-year-old Caleb Ross is adrift in the wake of the sudden disappearance of his mother more than a year ago, and is struggling to find his way out of the small Texas border town of Murfee. Chris Cherry is a newly minted sheriff’s deputy, a high school football hero who has reluctantly returned to his hometown. When skeletal remains are discovered in the surrounding badlands, the two are inexorably drawn together as their efforts to uncover Murfee’s darkest secrets lead them to the same terrifying suspect: Caleb’s father and Chris’s boss, the charismatic and feared Sheriff Standford “Judge” Ross. Dark, elegiac, and violent, The Far Empty is a modern Western, a story of loss and escape set along the sharp edge of the Texas border. Told by a longtime federal agent who knows the region, it’s a debut novel you won’t soon forget.

Recommendation #3 is South California Purples by Baron R. Birtcher. It’s set in 1973 and starts out with an easy feel of a typical traditional Western. Then rancher Ty Dawson gets conscripted into helping the county’s law enforcement, who seems to have no interest in dealing with the growing problem. When time after time Dawson doesn’t get help from the local cops, Dawson decides to handle matters as he sees fit. If you’re looking for a mix of hard-boiled with a Western, this book fits the bill. Biker gangs vs. cowboys. You know it’s full of action. *trigger warning- it does deal with rape*

From Good Reads: Cattle rancher Ty Dawson, a complex man tormented by elements of his own past, is involuntarily conscripted to assist local law enforcement when a herd of wild mustangs is rounded up and corralled in anticipation of a government auction, igniting the passions of political activist Teresa Pineu, who threatens to fan the flames of an uprising that grows rapidly out of control.

As the past collides with the present, and hostility escalates into brutality and bloodshed, Ty is drawn into a complex web of predatory alliances and corruption where he must choose to stand and fight, or watch as the last remnants of the American West are consumed in a lawless conflagration of avarice and cruelty.

I hope this helps you find some new books. And remember, whenever possible, please try to purchase your books from local, independent bookstores. Thank you!

Judging a Book by Its Cover

By K.P. Gresham

“Good cover design is not only about beauty… it’s a visual sales pitch. It’s your first contact with a potential reader. Your cover only has around 3 seconds to catch a browsing reader’s attention. You want to stand out and make them pause and consider, and read the synopsis.”
― Eeva Lancaster, Being Indie: A No Holds Barred, Self Publishing Guide for Indie Authors

Of course, the opposite is capsulized in a familiar quote, “Don’t buy the book by its cover.” BUT, if an author wants to sell their book, they’d better face some marketing facts.

A book cover sells the book. At least it’s the first thing to catch the readers’ gaze as they wander through the shelves of a bookstore, library or click through bookseller websites. Yes, of course the blurb on the back is incredibly important, but it’s the cover the buyer sees first. It’s the cover that makes that buyer turn the book over and read the blurb.

Think about it. If the cover grabs you, you’ll pick up (or click on) the book. If it’s blah, chances are you’re going to move on to the next book.

Now what exactly in the cover image grabs you?  Does the cover tell you the genre? What to expect? Look professional? I’m a mystery writer, so I’m looking for a cover that not only says it’s a mystery, but what kind of mystery it is. Here are some examples.

Cozy Mysteries—The readers are looking for lightheartedness, as well as any of the tropes associated with cozies: animals, home-town-feel, food, maybe even a graphic image (cartoon) suggesting any of the above. They do NOT want to see brutality.  For example, here’s the cover for Arsenic and Adobe by Mia Manansala. Note the cartoon-like quality, the dog, the happy homemaker and the bottle of poison. All of these elements tell the reader this book is a mystery, homey, and involves cooking. (And don’t forget the dachshund on the shoulder!) Cozy readers love these signals. Yes, they’re going to turn the book over to learn more about it.

Horror Mysteries–Here the prospective buyer is looking for dark, scary elements. The cover should promise there will be blood and violence in the book. Body parts are great. The titles alone should give the reader the chills. The Mosquito Man by Jeremy Bates is a perfect example. Yikes!!!

Suspense Mysteries–Again, we start with the fact the reader wants to KNOW this is mystery. Suspense is a tricky cover. How does one put the feeling of suspense on a cover?  In a dramatic work, suspense is the anticipation of the outcome of a plot or the solution to a puzzle, particularly as it affects a character for whom one has sympathy. How do you put that in an image? There are different ways to achieve this in a cover. Location. Lighting. Showing action or giving a subtle clue; having the feel that there’s something risky going on. For this example, I’m going with Louise Penny’sAll The Devils Are Here. Here, the silhouetted building against a dark sky evokes mystery, and the Van Gogh-like swirls in the night sky suggest to the reader that there’s more to this book than simply being set in Paris. It suggests depth of plot.

These are only 3 basic categories of mysteries. Consider how the covers are created that show the true crime category? The thriller category? The paranormal mysteries category? Then study your own reaction when you’re checking out the mystery sections in your favorite bookstore or online. The only thing I can think of on a cover that would hook you more than the lay-out or artwork is the author’s name. If you have a favorite author (and yes, that for me is still J.D. Robb), I’ll buy the book without even looking at the cover. But like I said, that’s the only thing I can think of that would sway a buyer more than the visual impact of the cover.

So authors, beware! Readers are judging books by their covers! To our beloved readers, take your batch of three seconds, go book-shopping and buy some books!!!

   K.P. Gresham, author of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery series and Three Days at Wrigley Field, is a preacher’s kid who likes to tell stories, kill people (on paper, of course!) and root for the Chicago Cubs. Born in Chicago and a graduate of Illinois State University, K.P. and her husband moved to Texas, fell in love with not shoveling snow and are 35+ year Lone Star State residents. She finds that her dual country citizenship, the Midwest and Texas, provide deep fodder for her award-winning novels. A graduate of Houston’s Rice University Novels Writing Colloquium, K.P. now resides in Austin, Texas, where she is the president of the Sisters in Crime Heart of Texas Chapter and is active in the Writers League of Texas and Austin Mystery Writers.

Where to Find Me

Website: http://www.kpgresham.com/

Email: kp@kpgresham.com

Blogs: https://inkstainedwretches.home.blog/

https://austinmysterywriters.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kpgresham

Books by

K.P. Gresham

Three Days at Wrigley Field

The Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series

The Preacher’s First Murder

Murder in the Second Pew

Murder on the Third Try

Coming in 2021

Four Reasons to Die

Tipper: My Manager Extraordinaire

by K .P. Gresham

I suspect most of us have our secrets about how we survived the Pandemic of ’20-’21. Video games, binge-watching movies, reading like a fiend–you get the idea.

My secret was my dog, Tipper. Or should I say my manager. Tip’s a fifteen-pound rescue dog of the Chihuahua meets Terrier variety. Nobody wanted to adopt him because he has bad knees. Really? I’ve had two knee replacements and nobody ever threw me out on the street. Tipper came home to live with me and my better half, Kevin, that very day. 

Now, eight years later, it is my dog who has rescued me. Or should I say bosses me around. Thanks to him, I have the next installment of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series, Four Reasons to Die, later this summer. 

This is the schedule Tip put me on from the pandemic’s git-go. First, he begins his slow process of waking–this entails laying beneath the bed covers for at least a half hour after Kevin and I are already up, then he slowly rises like a ghost from the grave because the sheets trail after him as he fights his way out of bed, and finally, he spends another half hour under the bed to avoid the rising sun. His last half hour of officially waking iup is spent in my lap while I finish my morning pot of coffee.

And then he jumps down from my lap, game face on. Enough lolly-gagging on my part. Time to get to work.

We start our day with a three-mile walk. Tip has decided this is the amount of time it takes for me to chew through the scene I have to write that day. When we come home, he demands breakfast, then shoos me upstairs to my office to get to work. No shower. No breakfast. It’s work time. To make sure I stay at it, he takes up residence on the small couch in my office and does not leave it until he hears my husband (who during Covid works in his office downstairs) making lunch. Then Tipper jumps down from the couch and scratches at my leg to tell me to take a break. But does he come downstairs with me? Oh, no.  He goes back to his couch where he waits for fifteen minutes while I make my lunch and put some tidbits in his bowl. THEN, he comes down.

I finally get my shower after lunch–remember, he doesn’t let me take it before since he’s sure I will forget what I’ve decided to write during our walk. Only then does he allow me to return to my office to get back to work.

At 4:00, Tipper believes our work for the day is done. This is the time when, pre-pandemic, my neighbors and I used to get together to watch Jeopardy. We couldn’t, of course, during the Pandemic, but Tipper never got the memo. At 4:00, we’re supposed to close up shop. I oftentimes decide to keep on working until Kevin was done with his day, and Tipper thinks this is sacrilege. He leaves his couch to sit by my feet and growls as I type away. He believes its against his contract to work such long hours and has threatened several times to call Animal Rescue to arrest me.

I didn’t understand how serious he was about his managerial duties until he started wearing a tie to work. And proofing everything I write. And working on his own stories.

Lord help me, they’ll probably be better than mine…

Thank goodness for my little Tipper. I wouldn’t have made it through the Pandemic without him.

Coming Soon (Thanks to Tipper)!

Four Reasons to Die

The 4th Book in the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series

 When Pastor Matt Hayden steps up to give the Texas Inaugural Ceremony’s benediction after the scheduled minister, Reverend Duff, disappears, he finds himself embroiled in a religious war, a political power-grab, and murder.

 The missing Duff, a progressive leftist, is locked in a bitter, public battle with the ultra-conservative Reverend Meade. Duff has also taken on U.S. Senator Womack, a far-right Presidential hopeful whose only love is himself.

 Matt joins the search for the missing pastor, but is he prepared to discover the true evil that threatens his family, including the new governor…and his beloved Angie?

***

Where to Find Me

Website: http://www.kpgresham.com/

Email: kp@kpgresham.com

Blogs: https://inkstainedwretches.home.blog/

https://austinmysterywriters.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kpgresham

Books by K.P. Gresham

Three Days at Wrigley Field

The Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series

The Preacher’s First Murder

Murder in the Second Pew

Murder on the Third Try

The Ones That Stick With Us

by Helen Currie Foster

We read to learn, we read to be entertained.

We begged at age three, “Tell me a story.”

The stories began, “Once upon a time…”

And Hansel fooled the witch and escaped. Jack chopped down the beanstalk and escaped.

We mystery readers read a vast number of mystery novels. Fifty percent of adults say their favorite book genre is mystery/thriller. In 2020 mystery e-book sales appear to have increased by13% and thrillers by 15%.

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 DesiresThe 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 about The 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 Windwhere 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.

 Ghost Dog.

But mercifully, they were already dead.

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.

What’s That Smell?

by Helen Currie Foster

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 Whitethe 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’s The 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.

Furthermore, as Chet the dog already knows, we humans each have our own unique scent: “It’s like a fingerprint,” says Johan Lundström, a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, in “The Sense of Smell in Humans is More Powerful Than We Think, ” by Marta Zaraska–an interesting article.

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 my Ghost 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, in Dead 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 Places shows 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.

I’ll keep working on aromatic pages.

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Read more about Helen Currie Foster here.