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.

Alice Almendarez Works with Texas Legislature to Pass New Law Designed to Help Unidentified Missing People and Their Families

–By Laura Oles

On March 18, 2021, Alice Almendarez, stood before the Texas legislature and testified in support of #HB1419, also known as John and Joseph’s Law. This new law would make it mandatory for all missing people and unidentified body reports to be entered into NamUS (The National Missing and Unidentified Missing Persons).

There are currently 1,660 unidentified bodies and 1,529 missing person reports open for Texas in the NamUS database. This means that there are more unidentified bodies than there are missing persons reports. In short, many families are without answers as to the where their missing loved one is, and this law could be the link that provides an answer. John and Joseph’s Law is named for Alice’s father, John, and Joseph, David Fritts’ son.

Alice understands all too well the pain these families endure. Her father disappeared after spending Father’s Day with her family in June of 2002. One moment he was with them, and then he was gone.

Alice went to the Houston police to file a missing persons report. She followed the instructions of what she was told to do, but adult missing persons cases can be challenging in many ways. Law enforcement officers explained that her father was an adult and that it wasn’t a crime to go missing. In her heart, she knew her father would never walk out on his family in such a way, but small doubts haunted her. What if he had left them? It is a horrible burden to carry as a child.

Alice searched for twelve long years before she would learn the fate of her father.

She later discovered that his body had been found a few weeks after his disappearance, just a few minutes from his childhood home. Early on, she had gone to the morgue asking if they had any bodies matching her dad’s description and was turned away, only to later find out he had been there during the time she was looking for him. The truth had been close, and she had no idea.

It is this trauma and heartbreak that Alice hopes to spare other families and is the driving force behind her working to have this important law passed.

John and Joseph’s Law would support the search in locating missing persons by requiring the use of the NamUS database. Alice explained, “If someone goes missing in Houston, Texas, and his body is found in Austin, Laredo, or somewhere in Louisiana, there is no way to currently make this connection. How would law enforcement in Louisiana know this person is missing if there is no paperwork outside of the missing’s home city?”

Alice makes an important point in that this law will link and share resources to the benefit of both the missing unidentified person’s family as well as law enforcement. She said, “This law will require that police reports like my father’s missing persons report be entered into the NAMUS database. They can then be linked to any of these unidentified bodies, since those, too, must be entered with this new law. Dental, DNA and other sorts of comparisons can then be made, and these reports can be viewed at any time.”

Alice’s personal experience with NamUs was one that gave her answers. “It took twelve years for me to find an answer. Once his information was entered into NamUs, a comparison was made in six months. This law can keep other families from the relentless trauma of searching for a loved one and not finding an answer. I don’t want any other families to endure what we did.”

One of the most remarkable things to note is that Alice didn’t learn about NamUs through any law enforcement agency. She discovered it while watching a television show. “Is this a real thing?” she wondered. She got online and learned that it did, in fact, exist.

Alice has spent the last several years helping other families navigate the fraught and difficult road of searching for a missing loved one. In 2015, Alice attended a missing persons event and realized that even an organized meeting didn’t cover a number of important issues. When she attends an event, she explains the process, including the importance of entering a loved one’s information into NamUs (there is a family section of the database for this purpose), and how critical it is to search outside of one’s own jurisdiction. She has personally assisted several families, including one whose sister had been missing for twenty-one years. After the NamUs entry and the DNA submission, this family, too, found their sister.

Todd Matthews, former Director Case Management & Communications and missing person’s advocate, told me, “I’ve seen Alice resurrect herself from total devastation into a powerful advocate for change. As a father myself – I am positive that her father would be prouder that she can even imagine.” He also added, “As Texas works to pass a state law that strengthens the procedure surrounding the missing and unidentified, there’s some important unfinished business. I want to help make it possible to return Alice’s father to his family for repatriation closer to his family.”

John Almendarez

This, too, is Alice’s continued effort—to have her father returned home. Next year will mark 20 years since his body was found. “He has only been dead in my mind for 6 years,” Alice told me. “This is the final step, and it has taken so long. I will get him moved to a respectable grave if it’s the last thing I do.”

When Alice went to the Texas legislature on March 18, 2021, to testify on behalf of passing this law, she felt the full weight of its importance. She said, “It was a bit overwhelming. There are thousands of familes waiting for help that were depending on us. I felt like I needed all the right words and God’s favor to prove to them there was no reason not to pass this law. I heard someone say this was long overdue. That was exactly what I needed to hear.”

Alice’s next step is working with state senator Carol Alvarado, who is sponsoring SB899, the companion bill to John and Joseph’s law. Alice will continue advocating for families and working with the Texas legislature to ensure that NamUs becomes a required part of the missing persons investigative process. Once this law is passed, the next step, Alice says, is to work on back logs. “This law will make it mandatory for cases of missing and unidentified to be entered only AFTER September 1, 2021. The bodies already waiting and reports from people who have lost all hope are still waiting. I plan to work on an amendment to this current bill for the 88th legislation to make all the unsolved missing and unidentified reports to be entered into NamUs. That is the only way we can help those 1,660 bodies left without a name. I can only imagine these families’ pain.”


Alice, in fact, knows their pain all too well, which is why she dedicates so much of her time and energy to supporting other families in their search for missing loved ones. Her future plans include starting a foundation to help families of the missing. “Once you’re in this world and you know your way out, you just can’t leave. I have the tools and knowledge to help, and I’m going to continue to do that.”


When I asked Alice how we, the public, can help support these efforts, she said, “Social media is very useful. Specifically, sharing our posts about John and Joseph’s Law. Also, there is a place to leave comments when there is a hearing. This kind of support is very helpful. Most important, share a missing person’s post or article—no matter how long they have been missing. We have power that can help families. Even if it just shows them their loved one has not been forgotten. Seeing one share of their loved one’s case gives hope.”

Naming Characters: Steve Dauchy MacCaskill

I’m working on a mystery novel—I’ve been working on it for years, but now I’m working on itand am faced with dilemmas too numerous to whine about in only one post, so I’ll move along.

I will instead write about the one pleasure of the writing life: creating and naming characters.

My novel is set in a little town very like my own hometown. I don’t base my plot on real events, and I don’t use real people as characters—with one exception: Steve Dauchy.

Not Steve, but close

Note: One of my readers, Cullen Dauchy, knows more about Steve than I do, especially about his early life, and I hope he’ll feel free to correct any errors.

Steve Dauchy was a career blood donor at Katy Veterinary Clinic in Katy, Texas. On retirement he moved to Fentress, where he lived with his veterinarian-owner’s parents, Joe and Norma Dauchy. Joe and Norma lived next door to me; in local terms, next door meant that my house was on one corner, then there was a half-acre “patch” of pecan and peach trees and grass and weeds, then a street, and then on the next corner, the Dauchy yard and their house. The point being that when Steve visited me, he didn’t just walk across a driveway.

Joe was my dad’s first cousin, so I guess that makes Steve and me second cousins. I have a lot of cousins on that side of the family, although most are human.

Steve is a family name, with a story behind it. As I understand it, back in the ’20s or ’30s, my great-uncle Cull (Joseph Cullen) Dauchy, Sr., enjoyed listening to a radio program about a Greek character who frequently spoke of “my cat Steve and her little cattens.” Uncle Cull was so amused by the phrase that he named a cat—probably one of the barn cats—Steve. And ever after, he always had a cat named Steve.

Uncle Cull and Aunt Myrtle Dauchy’s house, home of the first Steves

So when the clinic cat became part of the Uncle Cull’s son and daughter-in-law’s family, he became the latest in a long line of Steves.

How to describe Steve. He was a fine figure of a cat: a big tabby, deep orange, with an expression of perpetual boredom. His reaction to nearly everything translated as, “Meh.” I’ve heard that’s common among clinic cats.

Once when Steve was standing on my front porch, the neighbor’s Great Dane got loose and charged over. I was frantic, shouting at the dog, shouting at Steve. But when the dog hit the porch, Steve just looked up at him. Dog turned around and trotted home.

Some would say Steve was brave, and I’m sure he was. But I believe his grace under pressure had their roots elsewhere.

First, he had experience. He knew dogs. In his former employment, he’d observed the breed: big, little, yappy, whining, growling, howling, cringing, confined to carriers, restrained by leashes, sporting harnesses and rhinestone collars, hair wild and matted, sculpted ‘dos and toenails glistening pink from the OPI Neon Collection. He’d seen them all, and he was not impressed.

Facing down a Great Dane, however, took more than experience. There was something in Steve’s character, an inborn trait that marked him for greatness: his overarching sense of entitlement. He was never in the wrong place at the wrong time. My porch was his porch. The world was his sardine.

Except for the kitchen counter. Steve thought kitchen counters were for sleeping, and Joe and Norma’s maid didn’t. Consequently, he stayed outside a lot. He took ostracism in stride and used his freedom to range far and wide. Far and wide meant my yard.

Steve’s house

At that time I had three indoor cats—Christabel, Chloe, and Alice B. Toeclaws—and a raft of outdoor cats. The outdoor cats started as strays, but I made the mistake of naming them, which meant I had to feed them, which meant they were mine. Chief among them was Bunny, a black cat who had arrived as a teenager with his mother, Edith.

One day Bunny, Edith, and I were out picking up pecans when Steve wandered over to pay his respects, or, more likely, to allow us to pay our respects to him. Bunny perked up, put on his dangerous expression, and walked out to meet the interloper. It was like watching the opening face-off in Gunsmoke.

But instead of scrapping, they stopped and sat down, face to face, only inches apart. Each raised his right paw above his head and held it there a moment. Next, simultaneously, they bopped each other on the top of the head about ten times. Then they toppled over onto their sides, got up, and walked away.

That happened every time they met. Maybe it was just a cat thing, a neighborly greeting, something like a Masonic handshake. But I’ve wondered if it might have had religious significance. Bunny was a Presbyterian, and Steve was a Methodist, and both had strong Baptist roots, and although none of those denominations is big on ritual, who knows what a feline sect might entail?

Steve had a Macavity-like talent for making himself invisible. Occasionally when I opened my front door, he slipped past and hid in a chair at the dining room table, veiled by the tablecloth. When he was ready to leave, he would hunt me down—Surprise!—and lead me to the door. Once, during an extended stay, he used the litter box. Christabel, Chloe, and Alice B. were not amused.

Distance Steve traveled between his house and mine. His house is way over there behind the trees.

Invisibility could work against him, though. Backing out of the driveway one morning, I saw in the rearview mirror a flash streak across the yard. I got out and looked around but found nothing and so decided I’d imagined it. When I got home from work, I made a more thorough search and located Steve under the house, just out of reach. I called, coaxed, cajoled. He stared. It was clear: he’d been behind the car when I backed out, I’d hit him, and he was either too hurt to move or too disgusted to give me the time of day.

It took a long time and a can of sardines to get him out. I delivered him to the veterinarian in Lockhart; she advised leaving him for observation. A couple of days later, I picked him up. Everything was in working order, she said, cracked pelvis, nothing to do but let him get over it.

“Ordinarily,” said the vet, “I would have examined him and sent him home with you the first day. I could tell he was okay. But you told me his owner’s son is a vet, and I was afraid I’d get it wrong.”

Although an indoor-outdoor cat, Steve did plenty of indoor time at his own house, too, especially in winter, and when the maid wasn’t there. One cold day, the family smelled something burning. They found Steve snoozing atop the propane space heater in the kitchen. His tail hung down the side, in front of the vent. The burning smell was the hair on his tail singeing. They moved him to a safer location. I presume he woke up during the process.

At night, he had his own bedroom, a little garden shed in the back yard. He slept on the seat of the lawnmower, snuggled down on a cushion. Except when he didn’t.

Once extremely cold night, I was piled up in bed under an extra blanket and three cats. About two a.m., I woke up to turn over—sleeping under three cats requires you to wake up to turn over—and in the process, reached down and touched one of the cats. It was not my cat.

I cannot describe the wave of fear that swept over me. It sounds ridiculous now, but finding myself in the dark with an unidentified beast, and unable to jump and run without first extricating myself from bedding and forty pounds of cat—I lay there paralyzed.

Unnecessarily, of course. The extra cat was Steve. He’s sneaked in and, considering the weather forecast, decided sleeping with a human and three other cats in a bed would be superior to hunkering down on a lawnmower.

Steve’s full name was, of course, Steve Dauchy. In my book, he will be Steve MacCaskill. MacCaskill was the name of a family who lived next door to my Aunt Bettie and Uncle Maurice. Their children were friends of my father and his brothers and their many cousins. They were a happy family.

“My family had to plan everything,” my dad’s cousin Lucyle Dauchy Meadows told me, “but the MacCaskills were spontaneous. If they decided they wanted to go to a movie, they just got into the car and went to a movie.” When Lucyle and the other girls helped their friend Mary Burns MacCaskill tidy her room before the Home Demonstration Agent came to examine it (I am so glad the Home Demonstration Agent didn’t examine rooms when I was a girl), one of the first things they did was to remove the alligator from the bathtub.

I heard so many delightful stories about the MacCaskill family that I decided they were too good to be true until my Aunt Bettie’s 100th birthday party, when my mother introduced me to Mary Burns MacCaskill, who had traveled from Ohio for the party.

So as an homage to that family, I’ve named my main character Molly MacCaskill. And when choosing a pet for Molly, I couldn’t choose a finer beast than Steve.

***

Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. She has published short stories, as well as a novella co-written with Manning Wolfe. She is perpetually working on a novel.

Left Brain/Right Brain- How Novelists Use Both

By

Francine Paino AKA F. Della Notte

Do we have one brain or two? Technically, we know we only have one, but then it’s divided right down the middle into two, right and left, with each hemisphere more potent for certain behaviors. The hemispheres communicate through a thick band of 200-250 million nerve fibers called the corpus callosum. A smaller group of nerve fibers, the anterior commissure, also connects parts of the cerebral hemispheres. Many learned opinions and schools of thought exist explaining whether or not either hemisphere of this highly complex organ is dominant and determines our strengths. Current neuroscience says the left- brain is responsible for specific functions such as logic, linear thinking, and facts. 

Who could be a better example of left-brain strength than Albert Einstein, the German-born theoretical physicist, recognized as one of the great physicists, known for his theory of relativity, the E=mc2. He also made important contributions to the development of the theory of quantum mechanics. Still, he was also an excellent violinist. He was known to perform impromptu concerts and step outside of his home with his beloved violin, Lina, to accompany Christmas Carolers. Not only could he appreciate the music for its mathematical properties, but his right brain heard and appreciated its beauty. 

Right-brained artistic genius, Marc Chagall, was considered the master of color. His artworks extended to stained glass and ceramic, but perhaps he’s best known for his canvases reflecting his Russian-French Jewish heritage and life in Vitebsk.  In Chagall’s own words, we see the dominance of his right brain.  

If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing.

                                                                                                          –  Marc Chagall

But can an artist such as Chagall, known for his cubist renditions of his profoundly folk-impressionist style, bring to life his flights of fancy such as La Mariee? (The Bride), without relying on left-brain analysis and calculations for size, space, and symmetry?

Like scientists and artists, novelists, too, use both hemispheres. Each writer has a different method. For some, the story unfolds with facts, figures, characters, and situations growing with almost mathematical precision, but not I.

For me, the story germinates like a movie reel in my head. Different scenery, locations, events, perhaps a piece of music can trigger these images. 

In the first book in the Housekeeper Mystery series, I’m Going to Kill that Cat, the story came to me one day while visiting my mother at her apartment in a retirement community. One of her frail, elderly neighbors -let’s call her Jill, screamed at the top of her lungs, “I’m going to kill that cat,” referring to another neighbor’s cat that goaded Jill’s dog, causing the poor doggie to yank the leash making Jill take a tumble. Her screams brought out all the residents, including my mother and me. Once we got the irate Jill up and determined that she wasn’t injured, the scene played in my head. 

What if two older women who had a long history were involved in a similar incident? The dog owner became Martha, a sad and bitter woman who lived alone with her two dogs on a limited income.

What if Martha’s nemesis, Velma, lived in the same community and attended the same church. Velma has it all. Wealth, position, and a feisty cat who loved to provoke Martha’s dogs, as Velma loved to needle Martha. 

What if Velma is found dead the following day, and an autopsy reveals it was murder by poison?  And what if Martha had a garden filled with plants of all kinds – some beautiful but deadly?

And what happens to Velma’s cat, LaLa?  

To solve the case, along came my conscientious and stand-offish Father Melvyn Kronkey, the pastor of the Catholic Church to which both ladies belonged. And, of course, such a devoted priest needs a highly competent assistant. She appears in the character of Mrs. B., a caring people person, or one might say nosy. 

The conflicts came together in my head like a movie that I set to words. The what-ifs, the characters, the settings, and the personalities became more precise and multi-dimensional as the left hemisphere began to analyze who, what, where, when, and why? How will events unfold logically, with real underlying factors? What was the problem between these women and who killed Velma?  

In book two of the Housekeeper Mystery Series, Catwalk Dead, circumstances draw Mrs. B. and Fr. Melvyn Kronkey into a theater murder and the Macbeth curse through her son’s ballet company. They work to unravel whether this was a crime, a curse or both.   While the story created itself in my head, I had to take the time to learn about the backstage craft, including set construction, catwalks, logistics, methods, and equipment, so vital to the story’s action.   

Every author can speak to their creative side, and the need for the problem-solving skills necessary to create conflicts, then bring them to logical conclusions. 

Neuroscience continues to learn more about how each section of the brain operates when confronting different needs and situations. Still, the entire brain must be engaged to create fascinating stories that are scintillating, coherent, valid and clear, and, most of all, satisfying to the reader. 

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.

###

Read more about Helen Currie Foster here.

William Bit Me. Again. And Jenny Kissed Leigh Hunt.

by Kathy Waller

I was preparing an update to my January 25 post about resolving to read all forty-seven of Anthony Trollope’s novels in 2021. I worked all day yesterday and all day today (with time out to play Candy Crush and Scrabble Online while waiting to think of the next word).

The post was intended to be both light-hearted and erudite—the erudite part was the reason for the Candy Crush time-outs, because although when I was in graduate school I was, at times, extremely erudite, I’m a little out of practice.

And it takes a lot of words to be erudite. The piece kept getting longer and longer, with no end in sight.

So I did what I do. I scrapped it in the interest of a post with no erudition at all.

It begins with a cat bite and ends with a poem.

William the Cat had dental surgery last month. He’s twelve years old and overweight and diabetic, and I spent the day before surgery crying because I was afraid he would be anesthetized and never wake up.

However, he woke up and came home looking just as disgusted as he’d looked when he left home. In the interim, he’d lost five teeth, but he didn’t seem to miss them. In fact, he was downright perky.

Before surgery, David had to lift him onto the bed, where he spent his days monitoring squirrels and sleeping. Now he trips right up those kitty stairs and plops himself down any time he pleases.

He pleases when he smells coconut oil. I rub it on my hands at night for a moisturizer. He licks it off my hands. Sometimes he chases me onto the bed. Sometimes he gets there first and I have to wrestle him out of the way.

Being catlicked feels icky, but he’s elderly and determined, and I tolerate it, up to a point. The encounter usually ends in his getting a head, ear, and throat rub, followed by a tummy rub, accompanied by a rumbling purr (his). Sometimes he then walks across me, threatening to crack a couple of my ribs, to get to the other hand before succumbing to the tummy rub. Then he leaves.

But sometimes he bites. He’s always been a biter—lunge, chomp, lunge, chomp—as part of play. My fingers are toys. But where coconut oil is involved, he becomes the foe—adversary, attacker, assailant. Backbiter.

I’m not talking nips or little love bites. I mean he’s going for a mouthful of flesh and possibly some bone to go with it. And a few puncture wounds.

That’s how I know he still has his fangs. And that they’re in good working order.

Fortunately, the recent dental cleaning has kept me from having to visit the urgent care clinic for antibiotics. A little Neosporin and band-aids have sufficed.

I know about cat bites. Years ago, a stray cat named Perceval (I’d sort of adopted him) bit me when I gave him a tummy rub (not his fault; he turned belly-up, and I thought he wanted a tummy rub, but he’d been down the street chasing other stray cats and was still hyper). I ended up with cellulitis up to the elbow. “My gosh,” said the doctor, “we used to put people in the hospital on an antibiotic drip for that.”

More recently (six years ago, to be exact), while being worked on by a vet tech, William scraped my arm with a fang. Within twenty minutes the scrape was surrounded by a red circle two inches in diameter.

I went to the urgent care clinic. Then I went home and did what writers do: I  wrote a poem about the experience.

But before I can talk about that poem, I must talk about another one: Leigh Hunt’s “Jenny Kissed Me.” It’s one of my favorites. To wit:

Jane Carlyle, wife of philosopher Thomas Carlyle, was a quiet woman. She did not show strong emotion. But one day when writer Leigh Hunt, who had been very ill, arrived for a visit, Jane jumped up from her chair, ran across the room, and kissed him. Surprised and delighted, Hunt memorialized the event in a poem.

Jenny kissed me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I’m growing old, but add,
Jenny kissed me.

James Henry Leigh Hunt

And that is how I came to memorialize the scrape William gave me at the veterinarian’s office:

William bit me at the vet,
Didn’t like the aide’s assistance,
Used his claws and fangs to set
On the path of most resistance.
Say I’m teary, say I’m mad,
Say that pills and needles hit me,
Say my arm’s inflamed, and add,
William bit me.

~ Kathy Waller

***

Image of cartoon cat by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Image of lion by Anja🤗#helpinghands #solidarity#stays healthy🙏 from Pixabay

Image of coconut by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

Image of Jane Carlyle by Samuel Laurence via Wikipedia

Images of Candy Crush screen  and of William by me

***

Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. Her stories appear in Murder on Wheels, Lone Star Lawless, and Day of the Dark. She’s working on a novel.

Phyllis Whitney’s The Ebony Swan – Francine Paino

Still a favorite and should never be forgotten.

 I was inspired to read The Ebony Swan, after reading Kay Hudson’s, Remembering Phyllis A. Whitney, a master of the mystery genre.

I’d forgotten how much I’d enjoyed her stories, years ago, and I hadn’t read all of her works, which added up to an impressive 77; the last three or four when she was in her nineties—Wow! What an inspiration to us all.  Her numerous works included 39 Adult mysteries; 4 On Writing; 20 in Juvenile Fiction, and 14 YA. 

Whitney was not only a prolific writer but also a force for advancing women’s recognition in the mystery genre. In the late 1980’s she wrote an open letter to Mystery Writers of America, admonishing them for their refusal to take women in the genre seriously. She pointed out that in their forty-one-year existence only seven women had been awarded the Edgar for best novel. Yes. It was time to become reacquainted with Phyllis Whitney.

I chose one of her last works, The Ebony Swan, a story that encompasses a subject dear to my heart: ballet.

With a light touch, Whitney draws the reader into the worlds she creates. In the Ebony Swan, it is the lush backdrop of the Virginia Tidewater, where we meet Alexandrina (Alex) Montoro, now in her seventies, once a world-renowned ballerina. Alex was married to the late, distinguished author, Juan Gabriel Montoro; they had one child, Dolores. 

The mystery: Why was Alex’s daughter dead? Twenty-five years earlier  Dolores, died when she fell down a flight of steps, and Alex’s granddaughter, Susan, witnessed the tragedy at a very young age.  Ruled an accident,  Alex feared the unknown truth and remained silent.

Did Susan, in a fit of childish rage, push her mother? Juan Gabriel, still alive at

the time, was found unconscious on the hall floor above where Dolores’s body lay. Was he somehow responsible, or was there someone else in the house that day?

After Dolores’s death, the unspoken turmoil and competing passions in the Montoro family exploded. Susan’s father took her away from Virginia and forbade her to have any contact with her maternal grandmother, but after his passing, Susan found herself at a crossroads and decided to return to Virginia.

Despite her grandmother’s joy to be reunited with her only grandchild, Susan is not welcomed by all.  On the surface, her reception is friendly, but there is an undercurrent of fear and resentment. Could a return to the scene of her mother’s death jog Susan’s memory and what will she remember? Who is friend and who is foe, she wonders, while getting to know Alex?  

 A hint of romance adds another dimension, but anger, jealousy betrayal and danger drive the story as the impact of one deed crosses two generations. 

  Some say Whitney’s books start too slow for today’s reading public because she spends time and words immersing us in location, atmosphere, and historical data, making them relevant to her character’s lives and the story; for me, it was a breath of fresh air. Phyllis Whitney’s gift for spinning a yarn with gossamer threads that weave together in beautifully crafted storytelling is still compelling.  

If You Know Why…

By Helen Currie Foster

I don’t know where you are on this infernally cold day, but my husband and I have refugee’d to my sister’s place in Austin because her neighborhood has underground utilities. Yes, the underground power lines mean she’s thumbing her nose at all the ice hanging from every tree, shrub and bush.

In contrast, our sixty-year old abode in Dripping Springs is all electric. Rainwater system with a pump. Electric heat. Oh, sure, a fireplace and a charcoal grill. But the trees hang heavy with the ice…all along our dirt road the frozen cedars clutch the single power line.

So we flung bales of hay to the burros, dripped the faucets, fed the birds, hung a worklamp over the faucet to the washing machine, and left.We crept down Fitzhugh at fifteen miles an hour, flashers on. Hills that we ignore suddenly loomed large ahead of us. But we slithered up and down to my sister’s.

Which is where we wound up watching David Byrne’s American Utopia, filmed by Spike Lee. Okay, the Talking Heads got no attention from me––they seemed too urban and inward back in the day when I was living on tunes from Emmylou, Guy Clark, The Byrds, Joni Mitchell, Gram Parsons. Tender harmonies, accessible. Relatable. Now there’s a word. Maybe. When did it pop up everywhere? As a positive term, too. Cozy. Approachable. I identified with the characters in those songs. Not so much with David Byrne…he’s not “relatable” but he’s riveting.

Watching David Byrne, singing his disorienting lyrics while moving as one with his variegated carefully chosen ensemble, with their precisely rehearsed exact choreography, reminded me that genius also resides in those we don’t “get.” Those who insist on providing their ownlarge vision of their creation. Those who challenge us (like David Byrne does when he stares at his puzzled and entranced audience). Who make us look at their unique and unfamiliar vision and…buy into it.

Maybe now you’re also recalling how Amanda Gorman created her own new vision at Biden’s inauguration: her smile, her high and formal hair, her slender hands waving in the air, almost forming the words as she spoke her poem. A new way to say a poem, be her own poem, draw us forward into her poem.

So after watching American Utopia I’m thinking of artists who refuse to get stuck in their genre but keep moving ahead of us down the road, hoping we’ll “get it” sooner or later, while remaining––regardless––determined to achieve their vision.

Two from the last century come to mind. First, Picasso. He refusedto get stuck in a rose period, a blue period. Just as we’d learned to love his line drawings of figures from myth or commedia dell’arte, we found ourselves facing guitar collages and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, large Cretan eyes in all the wrong places. If he’d lived forever he’d still be shocking us.

Second, Virginia Woolf. She never wrote the same novel twice. She focused on that unique human trait, individual consciousness, and the mystery of our occasional interconnection. Her compulsive drive in her novels to capture life––moments of revelation––emerged in differentstructures. Orlando. The Waves. The “Time Passes” scene in my lifetimefavorite, To the Lighthouse; also, the incredibly satisfying moment whenLily Briscoe, the spinster amateur artist, cautiously applies a final brushstroke to her painting and senses its rightness. Lily has “had her vision.” In Woolf’s last effort, Between The Acts, she overlays the battle of the sexes, the gulf (occasionally bridged) between a husband and wife, on the annual village pageant unfolding at the ancient barn at their country house where all the villagers participate in a precis of English history.

Woolf was severely criticized, and deeply wounded, by a then-dominant critic, Desmond McCarthy. He sneered, “Of the drama of the will in action out of which stories are made …she knows nothing. What an extraordinary, what a fatal limitation…in a novelist!”

But hey, does anyone read Desmond McCarthy anymore? Take comfort, Virginia. You still challenge, you still astound us.

What does this have to do with mystery writers? Do such lofty goals––never becoming too formulaic or overly predictable––apply to mystery writers? Well, a mystery must have––mystery! Which means a writer can’t get stuck doing the same things over and over. Hence mystery writers do somersaults to stay fresh. Point of view? Proseoptions? Choice of detective(s)?

Consider point of view. Think of Reginald Hill’s police inspectors Dalziel and Pascoe: sometimes one handles the case, sometimes the other. But in Arms and the Woman, Hill gave the point of view to Pascoe’s acerbic wife Ellie. Dorothy Sayers shifted point of view from detective Peter Wimsey’s manservant Bunter, to his love interest Harriet,to his Scotland Yard brother-in-law, Charles. Tony Hillerman uses a mixin his Leaphorn and Chee novels. The Dark Wind begins with omniscience: in chapter one we, along with “the Flute Clan boy,” and fellow Hopi kiva members, are the first to see the body of a Navajo, lying in the middle of the path where the kiva members are transporting sacred spruce branches for a desperately needed rain dance. In chapter two point of view shifts to the pilot of a night flight in the desert. Only inchapter three are we finally in the head of Navajo policeman Jim Chee. But the first two chapters set up the murder and create the powerful desert setting in which Chee operates.

Mystery writers also play with prose. Letters back and forth? Diary excerpts? Dorothy Sayers used both in Busman’s Honeymoon where she advances the plot and setting through the letters and diaries of the detective’s mother and manservant, as well as those of catty London socialites. (As you were about to mention, using such sources reveals the diarist’s/correspondent’s point of view too.) Emails? Reginald Hill used those as Dalziel’s source of information, when Dalziel’s confined to his hospital bed in A Cure for All Diseases. He even copied arial typeface for the emails (which actually I found quite irritating).

As mystery readers we settle comfortably into our favorite chairs fully expecting a murder. Yet sometimes the author teases the reader, providing comedy, but no murder, or granting us a body, but denying us a murderer. Georges Simenon occasionally had the indefatigable Inspector Maigret conclude that in fact there’d been death but no crime, as in The Late Monsieur Gallet. And what about the famous novelist’s death upstairs in the movie Knives Out?

For a real treat, take yourself back to 1913, and E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case. No spoilers, but the oh-so-clever, so artistic, so fluent, so utterly charming detective…screws up his solution. I won’t tell you how many times, I just recommend it as another mystery twist.

Sometimes the author puts the reader to work, possibly too hard. Inher Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries Eleanor Catton uses many narrators, some unreliable, leaving the reader to make leaps of logic as to which death(s) were murder, and if so, who the murderer might be. Which, admittedly, is a great deal like life itself: we’re always trying to explain events without having enough information.


In my Ghost Next Door a murder occurs and is solved. But characters also debate a long-ago death: was it, or was it not, a murder?I’m now finishing the last chapters in my seventh Alice MacDonald Greer murder mystery. Again the point of view belongs to Alice; the bigquestion she faces is finding the motive. Alice operates on the premise that “If you know why, you know who.” We’re at the point where she hasn’t figured out why.

I’ll keep you posted.

I Am Not a Moral Pauper

by Kathy Waller

“Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world.
I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.”
~ Mark Twain
(or possibly W. C. Fields, or . . . )

*

It seemed a valuable medical course, and I recommended it to a lady. She had run down and down and down, and had at last reached a point where medicines no longer had any helpful effect upon her. I said I knew I could put her upon her feet in a week. It brightened her up, it filled her with hope, and she said she would do everything I told her to do. So I said she must stop swearing and drinking, and smoking and eating for four days, and then she would be all right again. And it would have happened just so, I know it; but she said she could not stop swearing, and smoking, and drinking, because she had never done those things. So there it was. She had neglected her habits, and hadn’t any. Now that they would have come good, there were none in stock. She had nothing to fall back on. She was a sinking vessel, with no freight in her to throw over lighten ship withal. Why, even one or two little bad habits could have saved her, but she was just a moral pauper. ~ Mark TwainFollowing the Equator

*

So I decide to write about New Years’ Resolutions, and some I’ve made and why I don’t make them any more, and of course, to write about that, I must quote Mark Twain’s remark about smoking, and while searching for the quotation I wonder whether Mark Twain really said it, so I check other  [more reliable] sources and learn that he probably didn’t, and now I’m so fired up about errors in attribution–and errors in everything else–flying around the globe even as I type, that I’m too emotionally jangled to settle down and write about resolutions.

Isn’t that just the way?

Well, whatever. Back to resolutions.

I don’t smoke, never have, so I can’t give it up–well, when I was ten, I did try to smoke a section of mustang grapevine, which my grandfather had warned me would make my tongue sore, but I was afraid of holding a lighted match so close to And another time, three cousins and I–we were eleven or twelve years old–lit one of their mother’s Winstons and each took one puff. Then we decided we’d done something entirely too daring, and their mother was probably already on her way home from town, less than a mile away, so we put the cigarette out, placed the butt on a piece of shingle one of them dug up from somewhere, carried it with great ceremony and a lot of giggling to their burn barrel, and disposed of it.

I guess that means I have smoked but resolved to give it up. One resolution kept.

I am not, however, a moral pauper. I have not neglected my habits. I have plenty of freight I could throw overboard. And I’ve tried, how I’ve tried. But what I intend as jetsam floats back and attaches like barnacles, as it were, to my hull.

I’ve never lost ten, twenty, thirty-five, forty, or any set number of pounds; or completed grad school papers (or blog posts) with more than a few hours to spare; or abstained from chocolate; or organized my purse, office, car, house, or self; or left my keys, reading glasses, or shoes where I could find them; or reached any other goal listed on a December 31st contract.

I know I’m not alone. A proper Victorian girl, Louisa May Alcott was taught to strive for self-improvement but had difficulty following through. At ten years of age, she wrote in her journal “A Sample of Our Lessons”:

‘What virtues do you wish more of?’ asks Mr.L. I answer:—
Patience, Love, Silence,
Obedience, Generosity, Perseverance,
Industry, Respect, Self-denial.
‘What vices less of?’
Idleness, Wilfulness, Vanity,
Impatience, Impudence, Pride,
Selfishnes, Activity, Love of cats.

Alcott is famous for her industry, perseverance, and generosity, but also for wilfulness, impatience, and activity–and thank goodness she retained those “negative” characteristics. American literature would be in a sad state without them.*

Does breaking resolutions bother me? It used to. I have a broad streak of Puritanism. I want to do better. To get it right. When the Methodist minister inquired about me one Sunday morning and my mother told him I was at home trying to finish a grad school paper before slamming into the deadline, he asked, “Is she a perfectionist?” My mother said yes. “I thought so,” he said.

But that was then, and this is 2021. I’ve been at this resolution thing for a long time. A woman at my age and weight** knows how things work.

Contracts can be renegotiated. And when I’m the only party, I’m allowed to set new terms to suit myself. Or to say, “So what?”

Award-winning columnist Ellen Goodman*** wrote something about resolutions that has stayed with me for over ten years:

We spend January walking through our lives, room by room, drawing up a list of work to be done, cracks to be patched. Maybe this year, to balance the list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives … not looking for flaws, but for potential.

I like that. I think Alcott would have liked it, too. In fact, maybe that’s what she did all those years. She saw her own potential, got down to business, and didn’t let up.

That’s the trouble with potential–once you’ve found it, you have to do something about it. Like work.

I suppose the trick is to learn to love the work. Alcott and Twain must have loved what they did. Even when they hated it, they loved it.

Well. What got me thinking about resolutions that I don’t believe in making?

Anthony Trollope. I binge-watched the miniseries adaptation of his The Way We Live Now a couple of weeks ago, for the fourth time. And then I watched the adaptation of Dr. Thorne. And I’m looking for the adaptation of The Pallisers series–I believe it’s seventeen episodes, and I’ve seen it at least three times, but I’d love to watch it again. And The Barchester Chronicles, which is so funny, and I’ve watched it so many times, I’ve practically memorized the dialogue . . .

I love Trollope. I decided to marry my husband when he told me he’d read many of Trollope’s novels. He hadn’t asked me to marry him, but I decided. If he’d read Dickens, I might not have been so impressed. But any man who’d read that many of Trollope’s novels just because he wanted to had to be a man of substance.

If you look at the reviews of The Warden on Amazon, for example, you find, “boring… boring… boring… boring… long and boring…” And, “I couldn’t get into it.” (Good grief, people, it’s a Victorian novel. What did you expect?)

But that is a matter of taste. Some of us think his novels delightful. Satirical. At times, drop-dead funny. The Eustace Diamonds, in The Pallisers series, is a murder mystery.

Trollope wrote forty-seven novels, plus short stories, plus a ton of travel books. He set a writing goal for each day. When he finished one book, he immediately began another. In an autobiography published posthumously, he admitted to writing for money rather than for a Muse. (The admission led to a decrease in sales, because writing for money was considered crass. I don’t know what readers thought Dickens was writing for.)

And Trollope was a civil servant, worked for the British postal service, where he invented the mailbox. 

Now. My dirty little secret is that I’ve never read The Warden. I’ve read its sequel, Barchester Towers. But that’s the only Trollopian novel I’ve read. I have, like many writers of high school book reports, seen the movies.

So I made a resolution: In 2021, I’m going to read all the novels of Anthony Trollope.

If I read one novel a week, I’ll finish with two weeks to spare. My Kindle initially said I could read The Warden in 3 hours and 53 minutes, but a few pages later, it said I could be finished in 4 hours and 15 minutes. Beats me.

In the two weeks left over, I plan to read Brian Doyle’s Martin Marten, which was recommended by a former student, and something by Ann Patchett.

Furthermore, after looking for potential, I’ve resolved to finish writing my own novel. It’s been in the works for a while. Bits and pieces are stored in approximately 3, 508 files on my hard drive (and in the cloud).

I worked on it today, revising an ancient scene for the umpteenth time, and was stuck on whether an Afghan hound named Katie Couric should wear eau de lavender or eau de peppermint when I remembered I had to write this post.

By this time tomorrow I expect to have that issue solved and to have moved on to the next, which will probably involve a goat and a climbing rose.

I don’t write as fast as Trollope.

***

* I’m sure that if Louisa May Alcott stopped loving cats,  she had to do it thousands of times.

** The phrase “A woman at my age and weight” is an allusion to Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels, a little book in which a thirty-nine-year-old woman gets tired of taking care of her bachelor brother and takes off with the owner of a horse-drawn bookstore who made a door-to-door stop by the farm and invites her to come along. When the brother catches up with them, he blesses her out:

“Look here, Helen,” said Andrew, “do you think I propose to have my
sister careering around the State with a strolling vagabond? Upon my
soul you ought to have better sense–and at your age and weight!…” ~ Christopher Morley, Parnassus on Wheels

I read Parnassus about fifty years ago and thought that phrase funny, and have waited all this time for an opportunity to use it.

***I know Ellen Goodman said this because it read it myself in her column in The Austin American-Statesman. She was one of my favorite columnists.

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Images of authors from Wikipedia, public domain
Image of notepad by USA-Reiseblogger from Pixabay
Image of book cover from Amazon

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Kathy Waller’s stories appear in Austin Mystery Writers’ Murder on Wheels and Lone Star Lawless, and in Kaye George’s Day of the Dark. She is co-author with Manning Wolfe of the novella Stabbed. She blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly.

MURDER, MAYHEM, CRIME AND THE GRANDE DAMES OF MYSTERY

                                                                                         By Francine Paino

Overall, fiction provides a brief respite from the realities in our lives. In those few precious hours of distraction, we shut off the conscious minds’ worries and efforts to find solutions to problems or imagining worst-case scenarios. In the face of real-life crises, the subconscious needs to see an issue with fresh eyes and a different perspective, perhaps even finding a new approach. It seems that the most popular category for that escape in the U.S., as revealed by the Nielson Bookscan Services, is the mystery/thriller/crime novels, which beat all others by two to one. But if we seek to escape from real-life problems, why is this genre more popular than romance or comedy? 

Explanations are offered everywhere, even in psychology periodical. One reason for the popularity of murder, mayhem, and crime is that they allow a safe way to immerse oneself in high drama without the destructive aftermath touching the reader in reality. Another is that it is exciting to be emotionally flung about as if on an amusement park ride. Then there is the experience of entering the mind of the criminal—oh, horror—something we don’t get to see in real life—at least not before the evil deed is done. Readers can also figure out, see or at least suspect what will happen before it happens, and hopefully, by the end, there is the satisfaction of Yes. Makes sense. It was in the clues all along. Most often, that is not the case in life. These reasons help explain why this genre is the most popular, but why are stories with elderly sleuths so well-liked?

Unlike the many Mediterranean, Native American Indian, and Asian cultures, and despite the growing economic difficulties and stresses on those societies’ families, their elderly are respected; their knowledge and wisdom are put to good use, whereas in the U.S., youth has become a preoccupation. It has the mind of younger people so entrapped in worrying about maintaining youthful looks that they often miss the grace, wisdom, and knowledge acquired with age and experience.

 Aging in a culture that puts enormous emphasis on being young or appearing to be youthful creates a constant struggle for those susceptible to that fetish, and yet—interest in stories employing older people in mysteries is widespread.

 In mystery fiction, older protagonists have already made the mistakes that younger detectives haven’t yet experienced. Senior detectives, whether professional or amateur, see the world through more experienced and seasoned eyes. Thus, their mistakes are different and perhaps even more interesting. 

Neha Patel, writing for Book Riot, suggests several mystery thriller books starring older women, starting with the Grande Dame of Mystery, Miss Marple, who at age 70 solved the first of her 13 mysteries in Murder at the Vicarage, by Agatha Christie.  

Before She Was Helen, by Caroline B. Cooney, explores the dangers of confronting your own past life.

In Three Things About Elsie, by Joanna Cannon, the sleuth is 84-years-old, and in Partners In Crime, by Gallagher Gray, Lil is a feisty woman of 84, who considers herself “84-years-young,” and has a love of playing detective and Bloody Marys. (My kinda-gal!) 

A metaphysical mystery/thriller, Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh, has a 72-year-old widow coming across a haunting. The only clue is a note saying, “Her name was Magda.”

Writing for Early Bird Books, Paul Wargelin offers a list of feisty, intelligent, and frequently underestimated amateur sleuths over the age of 60, beginning with Grey Mask, by Patricia Wentworth, about a retired governess. Written two years before Agatha Christie’s first Miss Marple novel, Ms. Wentworth went on to write 32 Miss Silver mysteries.  

In Tish Plays the Game, by Mary Roberts Rinehart, Tish Carberry isn’t suited for retirement activities, preferring to use her idle hands and mind to solve mysteries.

Stephanie Matteson’s Murder at the Spa introduces Charlotte Graham, a successful actress who, after four-decades of screen and stage success, takes on the role of a sleuth in real life.  

“Does age really bring wisdom?” asks Rochelle Melander, writing that “Recent studies affirm this adage. Older adults…recover quickly after making a mistake and use their brains more efficiently than younger adults.” In Melander’s article Crime Fiction: Savvy Sleuths Over 50, she offers some fascinating crime stories featuring elderly sleuths.

In Celine, by Peter Heller, Celine is an artist and P.I. in her late 60s, and in Rage Against the Dying, by Becky Masterman, a fifty-nine-year-old, ex-FBI agent is haunted by the unsolved murder of her protégé. After an attempt on her life, she feels the need to unearth the truth. 

             Not to be accused of gender discrimination, here are two books starring elderly gentlemen. Don’t Ever Get Old, by Daniel Friedman, about an 87-year-old retired Memphis police officer, Buck Schatz, who learns that a Nazi officer who’d tortured him might still be alive with a stash of hidden gold. He teams up with his grandson, and together, they get more than they bargained for.

Summer of the Big Bachi, by Naomi Hirahara, is set in L.A. and Hiroshima. Japanese-American gardener Mas Arai, age 69, is hiding a secret. He finds himself facing bachi—the spirit of retribution when a stranger shows up asking about his old gambling buddy Joji Haneda. Joji is murdered, and Mas must try to make things right.

Perhaps one of the qualities that fascinate readers, and they may not even realize it, is that often the elderly almost disappear, even standing in plain sight. They are overlooked, leaving them free to move about, observe, listen, eavesdrop, and study circumstances without anyone even realizing what they’re doing. 

These, and many other senior Grande Dames and Grands Hommes of mystery, shows how being older does not mean life stops. There is still inquisitiveness, a desire for adventure, and the need to use one’s brain. There are still mysteries and crimes to be solved—and they do it with humor, grace, and aplomb.

Grab a bunch and enjoy!

For more on the subject of older sleuths, go to:
Wargelin, Paul. 16 Cozy Mysteries Starring Female Detectives http://earlybirdbooks.com/16-cozy-mysteries-starring-female-detectives 1/17/21
Patel, Neha, 10 Mystery and Thriller Books Starring Older Women. http://bookriot.com/mystery-and-thriller-books-starring-older-women/ 1/17/21
Melander, Rochelle. Crime Fiction: Savvy Sleuths Over 50. http://www.nextavenue.org/crime-fiction-savvy-sleuths-over-50 1/16/21
Evans, David. Do you Love Murder Mysteries? You’re Not Alone. Here’s Why. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/can-t-we-all-just-get-along/201904/do-you-love-murder-mysteries-youre-not-alone-heres-why  1/16/21
Bourbon, Melissa. Why Do We Enjoy Mysteries So Much? https://melissabourbon.com/for-writers/why-do-we-enjoy-mysteries-so-much/#:~:text=We%20learn%20about%20how%20others,world%20that’s%20captivated%20our%20imagination 1/17/21.