Today we have a guest author, honorary AMW member, Scott Montgomery. He’s well-known in the Mystery community and is a book seller at Book People in Austin. His most recent work appears in The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes From The Panhandle To The Piney Woods anthology, which was nominated for a 2020 Anthony award. Available at Book People here.
When the pandemic hit, it affected the book world like the rest of society. Authors who had books out in the spring and early part of the summer got word of their work lost to book stores being down, publishers strategizing, and the plain fact people had other things on their minds. As a bookseller there were novels I was excited to promote. Two authors whose books I loved were scheduled to do an event on the first day we shut down. To hopefully get the word out some more, here are five books released during that period, you should go back and find.
1. A Familiar Dark by Amy Engel
If you are looking for a sunny novel to take you away from current troubles, look down the list. If you have the fortitude and interest for a truly bleak rural noir, grab this immediately. Engel follows a single mothers’ quest for answers and revenge when her twelve year old daughter is murdered along with her best friend and she struggles not to become like the person she most feared, her drug dealing mother. The story gets darker and darker, yet more empathetic, as each character’s secrets get revealed and it hits its gut punch of a climax.
2. Poison Flood by Jordan Farmer
This book has one of the best protagonists of the year, Hollis Brass, a hunchback musician who ghostwrites songs for his first love who has now become a popular American performer. To finance his own recordings, he meets up with the rebellious son of his Appalachian town’s chemical plant, to sell some of his music memorabilia. A storm breaks out, setting of a chain of events that lead to a chemical leak from the plant and a murder Hollis witnesses. Hollis deftly moves through this story, populating his book with broken characters in battle with thier angles and demons. The writer reaches out with understanding, sorrow, and hope for them all.
3. That Left At Albuquerque by Scott Phillips
Scott Phillips was in the middle of his book tour after a hiatus from writing when the pandemic hit. He deserves new fans with his take on Southern California lowlifes trying to live the high one. When a drug deal he arranged blows up in his face, scheming lawyer Douglas needs money quick. He hatches an art fraud scam involving some very shaky folks including both his wife and mistress, a flaky forger, and an aging tv producer with fond memories of his casting couch days. Pillips matched a rich plot with even richer characters, poking at social mores and social climbing that occurs as people chase after their American dream by any means necessary. Scott Phillips once again finds that perfect apex where noir and comedy meet.
4. The Lantern Man by Jon Basoff
Jon Basoff created the most unique and ambitious thriller of the year of a dtective reopening arson-suicide case committed by Lizzy Grenier connected to the relationship with her other two siblings. Basoff tells much of the story through Lizzy’s journal, newspaper clippings, and photos, creating a meditation on family, media, and the elusiveness of truth.
5. Lost River by J. Todd Scott
This book creates an epic out of a dark violent day that entwines the lives of a Kentucky lawman, DEA agent, and EMT around a southern drug ring, weaving through a population of desperate characters pushed to the edge. Scott, a practicing DEA agent, gives a ground eye view of the opioid crisis. I put this up there with Don Winslow’s Cartel Trilogy at capturing the war on drugs.
I know, you’re asking yourself what barbecue has to do with mystery writing, my other beloved topic. Barbecuing, like writing (see K.P. Gresham’s wonderful recent blog), is a solitary pursuit.
And a mystery. And we barbecuers want it that way. We have our little ways. We know exactly how those baby-back ribs should go limp when done, go kind of boneless, as did Trixie, the little girl in Knuffle Bunny, when her dad left her beloved bunny in the laundromat dryer.
We know precisely the color of mahogany-ebony-mesquite the brisket will achieve the moment we decide it’s time to begin applying the mop. Also, of course, we know the color of the mop, its ingredients, its smell, its virtue. We know precisely the heft and flexibility that a brisket should demonstrate when we pick it up in our silicone-gloved hands to test its doneness.
We know, and we’re not telling.
Like writing, barbecuing is a solitary calling. Sure, people will wander out, ask if they can help. But these terrace tourists don’t want smoke in their eyes, their hair, their clothes. Besides, the Barbecuer doesn’t want them. Doesn’t want suggestions, doesn’t want comparisons, doesn’t want recipes. So if you wander out to the Barbecuer’s sacred precincts, your only job is to ask if the Barbecuer would like something to drink.
The Barbecuer, alone on the captain’s deck, seeks perfection. [Yes, I’m rereading my favorite Patrick O’Brians.] Perfection requires concentration. Because the Barbecuer is engaged in a sacred ritual: preparing the offering for the people.
You may be thinking wrongly of the word “barbecue” as did famed food-writer Michael Pollan who admits, “[A]s a Northerner, I’d already spent more than half of my life as a serial abuser of that peculiar word, which is to say, as a backyard blackener of steaks and chops over too-hot fires—over flames!—with a pitiable dependence on sauce.” Cooked, p. 45. That was before he saw the light on the road to whole-hog barbecue.
Barbecue is not the mere flipping of burgers or sizzle of a steak or blackening of hot dogs over a too-hot fire. Barbecue, while a gift, traditionally, to the gods, is a ritual offering to the gathered cohort. See the Iliad.
It is a ritual to be communally observed (not kibitzed at).
Think of the best barbecues in which you’ve participated. The Barbecuer completes preparation of the ritual gift and serves it forth. On a large and venerable cutting board, in sight of the waiting crowd, the Barbecuer slices the brisket, offers the pulled pork, displays the properly limp yet crispy-crusted ribs. This offering is accompanied by the ritual sighs and groans of the rapt crowd, holding plates and awaiting their turn.
Sure, it’s competitive. I mean, Achilles way outshines Agamemnon when it comes to barbecue, and that’s strategic. Achilles and his team nail it when Odysseus comes calling to beg (unsuccessfully) Achilles to make up his quarrel with that tyrant Agamemnon:
…Patroclus obeyed his great friend,
Who put down a heavy chopping block in the firelight
And across it laid a sheep’s chine, a fat goat’s
And the long back cut of a full-grown pig,
marbled with lard. Automedon held the meats
While lordly Achilles carved them into quarters,
Cut them well into pieces, pierced them with spits
And Patroclus raked the hearth, a man like a god
making the fire blaze. Once it had burned down|
and the flames died away, he scattered the coals
And stretching the spitted meats across the embers,
Raised them onto supports and sprinkled clean pure salt.|
As soon as the roasts were done and spread on platters,
Patroclus brought the bread, set it out on the board
In ample wicker baskets. Achilles served the meat.
See? “Lordly Achilles.” No way will Achilles lose that argument with Odysseus, despite the latter’s eloquence. I’ve always said that peace in the middle east could be achieved if both sides ––all sides––sat down to share really excellent barbecue, but that approach didn’t work for Agamemnon and Achilles.
Given the stellar role of the Barbecuer, alone there in the spotlight, one would think the Barbecuer would figure strongly in our literature. Here, Readers, I seek help. I’ve searched vainly for roles for the Barbecuer equal in stature to the best barbecue. (Though apparently—I can’t find where—Chaucer at least wrote “Woe to the cook whose sauce has no sting.” Readers?)
Some mysteries do involve barbecue, or use barbecue in the setting. My Ghost Next Door features murder of a food writer during (key word) the first annual Coffee Creek Brisket Competition. One contestant is even a suspect. But not a serious one, because…what self-respecting Barbecuer would leave the side of his or her barbecue, even if presented with a great opportunity for a secret silent murder? Can you imagine a Barbecuer taking the risk that the ribs would burn? The brisket dry out? The pork shoulder shrivel? Certainly not.
Thus in my view the role of murderer is contraindicated for a Barbecuer. Perhaps the writer could assign the deed to a mere Assistant, who might go AWOL and stab the buddy who forgot the beer, the aunt who forgot the devilled eggs, the guest who always volunteers to make coleslaw but chops the cabbage too big and uses way-old ranch dressing instead of Real Mayonnaise. The Assistant could even create an alibi—leave to buy more beer, to get more salt and ice for a guest making homemade peach ice cream, to help carry in the giant blackberry cobbler, to husk the corn.
But writer, you would sacrifice realism if you excused the Barbecuer from tending the ritual offering merely to move the plot forward. Even if the Barbecuer has the best thermometer, the most accurate timer…could slip out for a moment of mayhem…the responsibility’s too great.
Of course barbecue itself is a mystery. Here I reveal my own prejudices. Standing in my back yard north of Dripping Springs is a venerable Weber kettle. Like Knuffle Bunny it has lost some of its elegance, some of its youthful gloss (and a few knobs and vents). Relatives have Tragers they like. Green Eggs have appeared. But I love the old Weber the same way I love, say, the old Kitchenaid stand mixer in the kitchen. Both are old-fashioned, made of steel, curvy and solid. The old kettle adds greatly to barbecue mystery—no, there’s no automatic temperature sensor, indeed, no electronics whatsoever. It’s acoustic. Acoustic Barbecue. Just the meat, the coals, the mop—and time. Time to gaze solemnly at the developing crust, time to add just a few more coals to the “parsimonious little fire” on one side of the kettle, time to poke the meat to gauge whether it’s almost ready for the mop…
Still ahead lies the moment on the cutting board, the presentation of the ritual offering. Much like a book launch. But in the meantime, there’s the solitary work, the focused attention, the lone responsibility on the shoulders, of the Barbecuer.
A lot like writing.
Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. The latest in the series is GHOST CAT, available at Austin’s BookPeople and other independent bookstores as well as Amazon and Kindle.
Using a planner when so many of our plans, events, schedules, travel and conferences have been completely upended or downright cancelled? Have you lost your mind?
Six months in quarantine can do things to a person, which is why writing in a planner has proven to be more valuable than ever before. With so much out of my control, the daily practice of putting things down on paper, from tiny tasks to long term projects, has been an important grounding habit that has helped me through the last several months of uncertainty.
A few friends enjoy teasing me about my affinity for the printed agenda (winking at Valerie), but I love a good planner. There’s something alluring about a small, portable book that promises to bring order to schedules, ideas, and projects, especially now. While I depend on Microsoft Outlook for work-related meetings, deadlines and reminders, for me, nothing replaces putting pen to paper and visually seeing my week. Even if my weeks now look completely different than they had at the beginning of the year. Writing things down brings a clarity that I just don’t get from tech.
I did change planners. Gone is the rigid and elaborate full year calendar. After hearing so much about the Bullet Journal, I have moved to that format and have found that this open design is much more flexible in handling a year that makes you doubt writing anything in ink. All I need is a dotted journal (I love the Leuchtturm 1917 A5), a ruler, and a pen. I can create my own layout for the week (this takes 5 minutes), and create sections for projects, notes and research. It’s more forgiving for those times when I start out with a weekly plan that dissolves by hump day. And no more blank abandoned pages with days that have gone off the rails.
When so much is out of our influence—when and if our kids will go back to school (I have twin seniors who will be doing online classes this fall), job requirements (if we’re lucky enough to keep our jobs), and all the small ways we could once connect as a community being put on hold—writing things down helps me focus on what I can control and gives me space to explore how I can be of service to others in my community now and in the future.
So, I’ll keep writing and planning, even if it feels as though I’m drawing in the sand and waiting for the tide to come in. Each day is a new opportunity to listen, learn and put my energy towards my priorities.
This pandemic thing is getting really old. (A quote from Captain Obvious, obviously) But we writers have one thing in our arsenal that others don’t. We can create a world where we want to be.
Lori Rader-Day, National Sisters in Crime President and award-winning mystery author, spoke to our Sisters in Crime Heart of Texas Chapter last Sunday. Besides promoting her new book, The Lucky One (which is an incredible must-read psychological suspense mystery), she also talked about how the pandemic is influencing her writing.
Authors, in our stories we get to create whole worlds that we can completely control. Our characters must acquiesce to our every whim. The settings can be places we want to hang, RESTAURANTS we want to eat at, crowded parks where we can watch fireworks with friends and family, churches where we can go to worship. As Ray Bradbury said, “Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to get up for in the morning.”
This is a time where we can escape into our stories. Want to say something pithy in the real world? Act it out in your characters. Want to kill somebody? Do it on the page. (I can speak to this. It’s very cathartic.) The empowerment that comes by sitting down to the computer and writing just 250 words can produce those happy endorphins that’ll spark you right up. At least William Faulkner thought so. He said, “The right word in the right place at the right time can soothe, calm and heal.”
Full disclosure now. For the first two months of the pandemic I wrote absolutely nothing. Maybe I was too rattled, or just waiting for this pandemonium to pass, or in denial–bottom line I didn’t write one word. Then I got mad. I wanted to scream at the TV. I wanted to rant on Facebook, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” After a few more weeks, I finally realized that this angst had to be released or I’d go crazy. And then I remembered how I had released that angst at different low points in my past.
Oh, yeah. That’s right. I wrote.
So I offer that you give it a try. Sit down, create the world that you CAN control and say what you have to say. As Walt Disney wrote, “That’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.”
I was writing a book review when Lark Rise to Candleford, a television series I had runnin in the backround as a helpful distraction, suddenly hijacked my topic and required me to begin again.
I hate it when that happens. I hate it especially now, because when I finish this post, it’s going to sound like a fourth-grade book report.
But, as many of us have learned over the past six months, sometimes we just do what we have to do. So here’s my report.
Lark Rise to Candleford, adapted from a trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels by Flora Thompson, is set in the English countryside in the 1800s, and focuses on the lives of residents of the country hamlet of Lark Rise and the nearby town of Candleford. David and I watched it on PBS ten years ago. It’s sweet and sentimental, and we enjoyed it. The critic who called it “ham-fisted” can go jump in the lake.
The episode that caught my attention tonight begins at harvest time, when all the residents of Lark Rise take to the fields to help young farmer Al Arliss bring in the wheat crop. That’s all the residents. Women and children follow the men and gather the “leavings.” What they bring in will determine how much flour they’ll have for the rest of the year. Harvesting usually takes two weeks, but Al is determined to finish in twelve days–perhaps in ten. He pushes the others. By the end of the day, adults are exhausted.
But before it’s time to leave the fields, children are falling ill–with measles.
One Candleford child, postmaster Dorcas’ adopted son, has worked in the fields that day “for fun.” The next morning, when Dorcas realizes he’s sick, she closes the post office and quarantines with him in their house upstairs. She tells her employees to provide as many services as possible from the post office porch.
Teenaged Laura, the eldest of a large Lark Rise family, now a postal clerk in Candleford, assures Dorcas that measles is common in families. Mailman Thomas, who as a teenager lost several siblings to measles and reared the survivors after his parents died, agrees that it’s common but says some families are “very reduced” by it.
A journalist stopping by Lark Rise on his way to Cambridge tells Laura’s father, a stonemason who’s been in the fields with his wife and children, that there are measles in Oxford; he’s been covering the story for his newspaper. It’s newsworthy because for the first time, the city has set up contagion hospitals.
The disease is hitting harder this time, he says, because it’s past due. This isn’t just an outbreak. It’s an epidemic.
By the next day, every child in Lark Rise has measles.
But the wheat must be harvested. Every single person must work in the fields. For the next two weeks.
But children are seriously ill. Mothers can’t leave them.
Children die of measles.
But if the women don’t work in the fields, there will be no flour for the winter.
Children will die of starvation. So will adults.
The men of Lark Rise agree. It’s a problem. But there’s not a thing to do about it.
Except there is.
The journalist tells them, “Measles will not recognize the walls that separate you as neighbors.”
Do what they’ve done in Oxford: bring the children to one place so they can be cared for together. The Turrill home–Queenie Turrill, the community’s wise woman and healer, has been foster mother to children for over fifty years. Mothers of children with lighter cases go to the fields. Others stay as nurses. Thomas, who has spent years trying to forget the deaths of his loved ones, puts that sorrow aside and helps with nursing–after all, he’s a committed Christian, and his wife has told him it’s the Christian thing to do.
And the shopkeepers of Candleford, many of whom look down on the poor, unsophisticated farmers of Lark Rise, show up en masse to work beside them and harvest the grain.
I watched that show ten years ago, and the only thing that stuck with me then was the death of the farmer’s teenaged brother. It was sad. As usual, I cried. That was that.
Tonight I saw something entirely different. Every line of dialogue had new meaning.
Contagious disease. Past due. Epidemic. Life-threatening. No treatment. Voluntary isolation. Immediate action. Quarantine hospitals. Collapsing economy. No food for the winter. No money for rent. Essential workers. Essential services.
And people listening to reason, following the lead of the medical community in a major city, caring about one another, taking care of one another. Working together for the good of everyone. Loving their neighbors as they love themselves.
Sweet, sentimental, ham-fisted, I don’t care. It felt good to see a story about people facing terrible odds and doing the best they could. And doing it right.
Past, present, future. Measures of time. The future is uncertain, or at least cannot be seen by the finite minds of wo/mankind, but the past remains a blueprint to build on, to change to make better, providing we don’t try to hide or deny the past. We cannot escape our history—nor should we. Like the gorgeous butterfly that emerges from the shell of a caterpillar, out of ugly facts of history, come two beautiful stories that lift the soul.
In Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens, and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See, we are invited into different worlds to experience beliefs and customs that we find unacceptable by 21st Century standards.
These fictional characters are intensely real and their stories grab the readers’ heartstrings as we walk alongside them and watch the painful development and evolution of the human soul, at the societal and personal levels.
Both books can be described as beautiful, agonizing, poignant, terrible, heartbreaking, joyous, and a beautiful testament to relationships and the triumph of the human spirit.
Where The Crawdads Sing draws us into atale of betrayal, abandonment, and murder, through the life of Kya Clark and the backwater residents of Barkley Cove, who view her as “swamp trash” to be shunned, ridiculed and looked down upon.
The story begins with the 1969 murder of Chase Andrews, the townie playboy, and son of a respected Barkley Cove family. It then toggles back to 1952. Six-year-old Kya watches her mother, the last of her dysfunctional family, walk away from their shack, never to return, leaving Kya alone to live with a drunken, physically, and mentally abusive father.
Kya is forced to dig deep and find the strength to make some semblance of a life with him, always afraid that he’d come home drunk, constantly hoping her mother would return. Things seem to improve, but eventually, he leaves too, and Kya is left to survive or die, among the gulls, fish, and wildlife of the swamp.
Considered illiterate swamp trash, Kya is referred to as the Marsh Girl. After spending one humiliating day in school, she vows never to return and successfully evades the town’s truant officers’ half-hearted efforts. Only one man called Jumpin’, the gas station owner and his wife show her any kindnesses, until the day she encounters Tate, a boy who was once her brother’s friend – then her life changes.
Tate befriends her, and it’s through him that she learns to read and write. It’s with Tate that Kya builds her already extraordinary knowledge of the ecosystem of the swamp. Over time, Kya’s extraordinary knowledge of the ecosystem leads her to success as a published author, thanks to Tate’s encouragement. Her first book brings a royalty of $5,000, a great deal of money to Kya; despite her success, she never dreams of leaving the swamp’s safety, and the townspeople of Barkley Cove never see her as anything other than the “Marsh Girl.”
We live and learn through Kya’s determination and development as she overcomes enormous challenges for seventeen years until the past and present become one. Then Kya becomes the prime suspect in Chase Andrews’s murder and may face the death penalty.
Where the Crawdads Sing is a door to the beauty of the wetland ecosystems, and a window to many 1960s prejudices reflected by a backwater society’s discrimination and refusal to give a person like Kya a chance in life.
Delia Owens is a wildlife scientist who writes with the accumulated knowledge of 23 years of experience with animals and environments. In Ms. Owen’s words, Kya’s story shows that “we are forever shaped by the children we once were.”
In Snowflower and the Secret Fan, the lives of two very young girls in the Hunan Province of China, transport us back in time to a country on the other side of the world and immerses us in a different culture.
In 19th Century China, women were considered of little worth and had to be married out. They lived in almost total seclusion, and to make the best marriage contracts, young female children around six had their feet bound, to keep them as small as possible, the goal being five-inch long “golden lilies.”
The story is told through eighty-year-old Lily, who looks back on her life and asks the gods for forgiveness, realizes that the binding altered not only her feet but also her whole character. “By age forty,” she says, “the rigidity of that binding had moved from her golden lilies (tiny feet) to her heart, which held on to injustices and grievances so strongly” that she could no longer forgive those she loved and loved her.
We meet Snow Flower when she and Lily are six-years-old, and about to have their feet bound to make them more desirable. In the superstitious traditions of the time, the matchmaker and the diviner examine Lily and tell her family she is no ordinary child. Lily will have a favorable marriage contract, but she is also worthy of a laotong – a special relationship between girls.
For the Chinese of Hunan, the laotong or “old-sames” link was the strongest of all precious female bonds of friendship between women. It was more rare and formal, requiring a contract. A woman could only have one laotong, and it was unbreakable for life. The matchmaker negotiates a marriage contract for Lily and selects Snow Flower to be Lily’s “old-same.” The girls are taught a secret writing code called nu shu (women’s writing), and as laotong, they write their stories on fans or embroider them on handkerchiefs. It was a salve for their lonely hearts. The laotong understand one another’s souls.
These loveable young girls support one another through the torture of footbinding, they grow into women and marry. Lily’s fortunes change for the better. Snow Flower’s fortunes change for the worse, and still, their special relationship endures. They become good wives and adhere to the expected behaviors of wives and daughters-in-law. They celebrate one another’s sons, for nothing is as crucial for a woman’s standing in the family as bearing sons. As “old-sames,” they share their pain and fear through famine, plague and rebellion, but can their relationship withstand a serious misunderstanding?
This is author Lisa See’s ancestral history. She spares no detail in the horrific footbinding process that deformed millions of little girls’ feet until it was outlawed in 1912. Without rancor, judgment, or shame, she draws the reader in and we share the agony these children endured, sometimes unto death if infections set in when the bones finally break to keep the toes folded under the foot and retard its growth. The physical agony eventually ends, but these women never walk normally again. We watch them sway and find a different balance on stumps, never meant to carry the body’s weight. We meet the older women of their families. We are sad for many who end up with significant disabilities later in life, yet continue to inflict footbinding on the female children because traditions and societal expectations demanded it.
Neither story ignores, covers-up, condemns, or apologizes. Where there were prejudice and slurs, Owens wrote it. Where there was the breaking of bones to the point of destroying the body’s ability to function, Ms. See wrote it.
Although painful to read and admit, even as fiction, the characters make us think, admire the strength they discovered in the face of oppression, grieve for their suffering and loss, and celebrate the triumphs of their souls.
Due to the Covid19 pandemic, writing conventions across the world are changing their tactics for the 2020 season, and that includes Killer Nashville and Bouchercon. While they will not be meeting in person, people have still been nominated for their outstanding writing. And three of our AMW family have been nominated this year! (I think this may be a record for us.)
K.P. Gresham, Laura Oles, and Scott Montgomery have all been nominated for awards! Please scroll through the lists and look at the finalists. I’ve also enlarged the titles and names of friends whose works I recommend.
Enjoy adding many more books to your TBR (To Be Read) list!
And congrats again to K.P., Laura Oles (with Manning Wolfe), and Scott. Well done!
Why, exactly, do we take such interest in what our favorite detectives eat or what a character like Aunt Agatha grabs for first at teatime at Melrose Plant’s country house? (Answer: fairy cakes.)
Some say that cooking distinguishes humans from other species—or at least played a role in our evolution. (Apparently chimpanzees can learn to cook, though…)
If cooking’s a distinctive human trait, choosing which cooking to eat is an even finer distinction, one used to great effect in murder mysteries. The what, where and how a character chooses to eat can tell us a great deal. Mystery writers use food to develop characters, settings, and local flavor. Sometimes these seem to merge. (Here I’m discussing mysteries generally, not athe culinary mystery subgenre, or mysteries involving poisons including the thirty or so which Agatha Christie wrote.)
Consider, for example, that complex man Andy Dalziel, Detective Chief Inspector in Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series.
An ex-rugby player, nicknamed the “fat bastard,” he’s introduced in Exit Lines as he clambers out of bed with a morning hangover after a rough night:
And now, he told himself with the assurance of one who believed in a practical, positive and usually physical response to most of life’s problems, all he needed to complete this repair of normality was a platterful of egg, sausage, bacon, tomatoes and fried bread. Bitter experience had taught him in the years since his wife’s departure to eschew home catering. It wasn’t that a basic cuisine was beyond his grasp; it was the cleaning up afterwards that defeated him…only a beast would tolerate fat-congealed frying-pans. Fortunately the police canteen did an excellent breakfast. Gourmet cooking they might not provide, but what did that matter to a man who…affected to believe that cordon bleu was a French road-block? And a slight blackening round the edge of a fry-up was to a resurrected copper what the crust on old port was to a wine connoisseur––a sign of readiness.
Gosh. The classic English breakfast “fry-up”––Yorkshire version––served in a police canteen. We’ve just learned about Dalziel that he likes the classic and plenty of it, that his wife’s left him and he doesn’t like to eat alone at home, that he habitually tries to hide his sophistication, and that the police station’s his comfort zone. We know he’s no secret gourmet. Hill’s not interested in showing us his own food sophistication (we almost hope the “slight blackening around the edges” does not describe his own breakfast). Hill is not offering us food porn––far from it. He’s giving us a close-up of Dalziel, alone at home, getting ready to walk onstage at the police station.
A different sort of home cooking characterizes Donna Leon’s Inspector Guido Brunetti series, set in Venice. Here’s Brunetti in Death and Judgment, coming home to lunch, where he finds his wife Paola––professor of English, born into Venetian wealth, politically liberal––listening indignantly to the political news:
“Guido, these villains will destroy us all. Perhaps they already have. And you want to know what’s for lunch.” …
When he does ask, “What’s for lunch?” Paola responds:
“Pasta fagioli and then cotoletta.”
“Guido,” she asked with pursed lips and upraised eyes, “when haven’t we had salad with cutlets?”
Instead of answering her question he asked, “Is there any more of that good Dolcetto?”
“I don’t know. We had a bottle of it last week, didn’t we?”
Imagine how they’d react if confronted with Dalziel’s fry-up? Of course they’ll have salad, because in Venice one always has salad with cutlets! How different this home is from Dalziel’s. Brunetti and his wife talk food, talk wine, insist on proper Venetian cooking. Brunetti’s apartment with Paola and his children is truly home base. In this scene Paola’s already asked him to look into a situation…and he’s about to tell her what he has found out. Fans of Donna Leon already know that part of Brunetti’s daily work challenge comes from the inherent corruption of the judicial system, which often sends him into despair. Yet he loves Venice. Leon uses scenes showing the happy comforts provided by Brunetti’s family and family meals, with correct Venetian cuisine, to explain how Brunetti keeps his emotional balance. Despite grim crimes, despite his city’s corruption, Brunetti won’t leave: he’s part of Venice.
Food preferences make characters both human (don’t we all have preferences?) and distinctive. Think of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, shut in his hermetic mansion where his Swiss chef Fritz Brenner provides favorite dishes prepared just so.
Think of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, with his eternal tisanes.
Think of the strong food dislikes of Anne Hillerman’s policewoman Bernadette Manuelito. According to her husband Jim Chee, in Cave of Bones, Bernadette “had never ordered salad at a restaurant,” never made one at home, and if he made salad for them, she would eat only the iceberg lettuce and eat around the other vegetables. Pizza? Only pepperoni for her. Bernadette is smart, brave, sensible…but not when it comes to vegetables.
Louise Penny uses cooking to great effect in constructing the setting for her Inspector Gamache series, the quirky little Québec village of Three Pines. The village is isolated and rural, but has attracted exceedingly sophisticated residents—the poet Ruth, the sculptor Clara, Inspector Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie and others. This setting would seem quite improbable but for the role of the bistro, a place of style, comfort, warmth and great food. In the opening scene of A Better Man, “Clara’s and Myrna’s armchairs were pulled close to the hearth, where logs popped and sent embers fluttering up the field-stone chimney. The village bistro smelled of woodsmoke and maple syrup and strong fresh coffee.” Wouldn’t we all like a bistro like that, just across the village green? With really good coffee? Furthermore, the bistro, with its proprietors Gabri and Olivier, attracts other food artisans. When residents are desperately sandbagging the banks of the flooding river at Three Pines, these provide succor:
Gabri and Olivier were handing out hot drinks. Tea, coffee, hot chocolate, and soup. Monsieur Béliveau, the grocer, and Sarah the baker, were taking around trays of sandwiches. Brie and thick slices of maple-cured ham, and arugula on baguettes and croissants, and pain ménage.
The bistro is “home base” for this series. Inspector Gamache deals with crimes all across Quebec, but the inhabitants of Three Pines, glued together by the bistro, provide a vivid supporting cast and sometimes play leading roles in Penny’s series. I don’t think they’d stay in Three Pines if the food weren’t so good.
Like Louise Penny, Martha Grimes has created a character magnet in the village of Long Piddleton for her Richard Jury series: the Jack and Hammer pub. The Jack and Hammer serves as the central meeting point for the highly diverse supporting characters, including Jury’s noble sidekick, the wealthy Melrose Plant. Indeed, Grimes has named each book in the series for a pub, including The Old Success (2019). There’s usually a set piece in the books, always worth waiting for, where Melrose’s detested Aunt Agatha, angling for his fortune, invites herself to tea or dinner or invades his breakfast at Melrose’s manor house. During this scene in The Old Success we see Melrose, a little fussed because Ruthven the butler has not brought his usual egg cup, making “soldiers” as usual for breakfast––cutting his toast into oblongs and dipping them in his boiled egg.
“I always do,” Melrose said. His breakfast habit cements Melrose in our minds as wed to his personal traditions…even though he currently eschews use of his title. Oh, and the butler Ruthven has brought his wife’s excellent cooking, including kippers and sausages, to the sideboard. Melrose’s house in Long Piddleton and the diverse village characters who meet at the Jack and Hammer form a solid home base regardless of how far (Africa, Europe, the Scillies) he and Jury range in solving the crime at hand, and how complex the crime. Sooner or later the threads may pull together at the Jack and Hammer.
I’ve used “the local” to create local flavor in the Alice MacDonald Greer series. The Beer Barn not only smells like local beer, and artisanal beer, but when Jaime’s in the kitchen, the Tex-Mex cooking is superb. The Beer Barn is meant to be the roadhouse/dance hall we all love in Central Texas. It’s where Alice meets enemies, hears a new singer in Ghost Dog, meets the reporter in Ghost Letter, tries to unravel a mystery with her best friend in Ghost Cat.
Texas dance halls still dot the back roads of the rugged Texas Hill Country with their own beer-infused local flavor, local dancing, local music from a dead-pan country band. The Beer Barn’s my dream institution.
Also a highly distinctive setting: the small town Texas coffee shop or cafe, with breakfast from the grill, mile-high pie and endless cups of coffee. And don’t forget the San Antonio ice house tradition. See K.P. Gresham’s series with its Fire and Ice House bar, beginning with The Preacher’s First Murder. Local bars/diners/restaurants make great settings for murders, mysteries, and detectives. And to the joy of central Texans, many are still actually real…thank goodness.
Reading a novel by Alexandra Burt means you must be prepared to ignore everything else because her stories will keep you captive until you reach the last page. Skilled in short stories, true crime and crime fiction, Burt delivers two fantastic reads this year. I asked Alexandra to share her thoughts on world building , true life haunts, and how she approaches the craft of writing suspense.
It looks like 2020 is a big year for you. You have a new novel and a true crime story coming out this year. Let’s start with your contribution to The Best New True Crime Stories. What can you share about your story?
My contribution to The Best New True Crime Stories: Small Towns is a cold case that happened in my hometown in 1983. It was the height of the Cold War and at its core it is about the threats I faced, literally and figuratively. My hometown, Fulda, is a baroque town in central Germany located between the Rhön and Vogelsberg mountains. Seemingly plucked from Grimm’s fairytales, but Fulda has a dark history. Nothing about the rolling hills and farms dotting the landscape hints at Fulda as the place where Armageddon was supposed to happen. Fulda Gap, two lowland corridors, two obvious routes for a hypothetical Soviet tank attack on West Germany from Eastern Europe were the likely invasion route of Russia, the spot where U.S. and Soviet soldiers pointed hundreds of medium-range nuclear missiles at each other. The threats were ever-present. When I hiked in the marshes by the border, East German look-out towers with guards and spotlights stared back at me in the distance.
In 1983, I happened to be close to the scene of a crime, a quarter of a mile, the way the crow flies. A child died and the killer remains at large, the case was never solved, the killer never apprehended. There’s the story of a life cut short, and then there’s my story. Thirty-seven years have passed and the Cold War summer of 1983 still clings to me like a second skin. I have raised a daughter and I write crime fiction but I have never forgotten the girl that lost her life before her life even began. I have made a life for myself in the Hill Country of Central Texas, in the southeast part of the Edwards Plateau that is not unlike the Hesse highlands of my childhood. But I never learned to trust the world with my daughter’s life. I’ve learned that a watchful eye is not enough, that a simple moment of inattention, a minute of carelessness, can turn into something that cannot be undone. And little girls don’t always make it home alive. And every day I don’t know what to do with the evils of the world, and so I write about them.
Shadow Garden is your latest crime novel. Tell us a bit about what inspired this story?
My previous book The Good Daughter was released days after the election in 2016 and during that time I felt as if the majority of the country fell into a dark hole. Including myself. I had the urge to examine if the same was as stake for all of us, if people of wealth, power, and affluence deploy a different set of principles when confronted with crime. It started out as a moral thought experiment, wondering about all the complicated ways money messes with morals. We know wealth impacts our sense of morality, our relationships with others, and our mental health. Is it true that the more you have to lose, the harder you fight to keep it, whatever ‘it’ may be? Money, a reputation, a standing in the community? Is being rich inherently immoral and if so, but what are the consequences? I imagined Donna Pryor, a woman of humble beginnings, who has everything but the truth of what happened to her family. From there I allowed the story to unfold organically and I sat by and watched them get to the truth of who The Pryors really are. Shadow Garden’s initial title was “The Many Incarnations of Donna Pryor” and I mention it because the book had quite a few incarnations itself. It started out as detective novel, purely comprised of interviews, then it turned into a family saga spanning decades before and after a crime occurred, just to arrive at Shadow Garden, an estate at the end of a rural road and a life of privilege that begins to crumble and somewhere in the ruins is the truth.
Many who read your work comment on your ability to combine heightened suspense with fully drawn characters in a compelling setting. Is there a certain aspect of word building that comes more easily to you? Is there a part that’s more challenging?
First of all, that’s a huge compliment. Thank you. The beginning of a novel is a very long period of imagining the setting and the people and I don’t take notes nor do I examine plot but I create the characters’ world. There is nothing else for a while, the characters really live at my house and eat at my table and not until the first draft is complete are they allowed to huddle and regroup. I don’t struggle with world building since it is ground zero at the beginning of a new project and anything is possible. There’s huge freedom in the vast scope of a new project. I am always very sure of the setting but the plot changes endlessly and often and the characters usually end up needing work. It’s a matter of having a great editor, which I have, and revising draft after draft, after draft.
When I was younger I wanted to be a painter and I went to art school but then abandoned that path. There is still a lot of visual artist left in me. It’s the first thing I imagine in any project, novel or short story—what is the essence of it; a still-life in oil or a landscape in watercolor—and the setting becomes a place and then it becomes a world and a clock ticks in the background to give it pace and there is structure and meaning which turns into a theme. Long story short: once I commit, I’m all in for however long it takes to make that world come alive the best way I know how.
Readers are often curious about their favorite authors’ habits. What is your daily or weekly schedule like? Do you ever get stuck? If so, how do you find your way out?
Unfortunately I’m still struggling to keep a schedule and all writers are powerless to real life happening as they work. I take it day by day, keep my fingers crossed, and hope for the best. It’s a best-laid plans kind of thing; most days writing doesn’t turn out as well as one hopes. One should not expect for things to always turn out to plan. My daily schedule looks something like this: after a workout (more often than not a workout competes with falling into a two-hour social media hole), I sit at my desk and pick up where I left off the previous day. Sometimes there’s an abundance of oxygen for that task and I just kind of go with it, other days it’s just not flowing. Be that as it may, there are deadlines and word goals and I swear by something I have discovered a few months ago: focus music. It promises laser productivity and a boost in focus. Simply put, it is music void of both ultra-low and overly loud bass and high pitch sounds that tend to become annoying over time. There are no ruptures, no pauses, no breaks or major volume deviations. The type and number of instruments remains constant through hours of play and the music follows a particular pattern mimicking the brain waves present in a focused state and eventually the brain waves mimic the music. It’s my secret weapon. I will write and look up and realize three hours have passed. It may not be a way ‘out’ but it’s a way to remain ‘in’, if that makes sense?
I do get stuck at times and I wish I knew of a magic potion but I kind of obsess about it and just keep my fingers crossed and hope to spot the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes all you can do is chip away at a problem and hope for the best and so far it’s served me well. Still wouldn’t mind some sort of a potion though.
— Alexandra Burt was born in a baroque German town in the East Hesse Highlands. She moved to Texas and worked as a freelance translator. Determined to acknowledge the voice in the back of her head prompting her to break into literary translations, she decided to tell her own stories. She currently resides in Central Texas. Remember Mia (2015) is her first novel. The Good Daughter was published in February 2017. Her third novel, Shadow Garden, is forthcoming in July, 2020. She is working on her fourth novel. She has contributed to Lone Star Lawless: 14 Texas Tales of Crime, and The Best New True Crime Stories: Small Towns. Her short stories have appeared in publications and literary reviews.
The Texas Governor’s Mansion is the perfect setting for my next book in the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series. I’ve said it before, I LOVE doing research for my stories, and studying up on the Governor’s Mansion is a blast. Such rich history. So many anecdotes. I just had to share some of them with you.
First off, I am not a native Texan (though I’ve lived here for thirty-six years) so most of what I’ve learned is all new territory for me. To that end, I must credit The FRIENDS of the GOVERNOR’S MANSION who wrote The Governor’s Mansion of Texas, A Historic Tour, published in 1985, as well as the website https://gov.texas.gov/first-lady/history for most of this information.
The Mansion’s history began with a $14,500 appropriation from the legislature roughly a decade after Texas became a state in 1845. Austin master builder Abner Cook was awarded the construction contract. This beautiful home has served as the official residence of Texas governors and their families since 1856. (Governor Elisha M. Pease and his family were the mansion’s first occupants.) It is the fourth oldest continuously occupied governor’s residence in the country and the oldest governor’s mansion west of the Mississippi River.
The mansion stayed pretty much in its original condition until after the Civil War when Governor Edmund J. Davis started a line of renovations in 1879 with an indoor lavatory installation. By 1915, there was running water, a telephone, electricity and wallpaper and more living space. I could go on, with more renovations, security installations, historic donations, BUT!
What makes this Mansion beloved are the stories of the people who lived there.
One of my favorites was the tale of Governor James Hogg (the first native Texan to become governor) and his rambunctious four children. To this day, the stair railings are still scarred where Governor Hogg hammered nails to deter his children from sliding down the banister.
Another fave. Governor Joseph D. Sayers—the one who had electricity and wallpaper installed–owned a dog. Well, his dog must have appreciated all the modern improvements because when it was time for the Sayers family to move out of the house, the dog refused to leave. He stayed with the carriage driver the rest of his days—at the Mansion.
Then there was Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, the first female governor of Texas. She vowed to return to the Mansion after her husband was impeached, (yes, James Ferguson had served as governor and gotten the boot). She was elected and arrived in the same Packard the family used to leave in 1917. An interesting aside: Mrs. Ferguson fought to end the Ku Klux Klan, passing an anti-mask law making it illegal to wear masks in public. Now isn’t that topical in this day and age?
So many stories, so little time. I haven’t even mentioned Queen Elizabeth’s visit, or the unsolved 2008 arsonist attack on the Mansion in 2008 or its more recent occupants. I mean to think about it. How could I describe Ann Richards in one blog?
To that end, I highly recommend the above mentioned book or a quick visit to the link I’ve shared above. Thank you to all who kept records of the history of the Mansion so folks like me can wonder and laugh and learn to appreciate just this one small piece of our Texas heritage. Think how much, much more there is to learn!
Like I said, I like doing research when I’m writing a book. And, I’ll even give you a hint about this, the fourth installment in the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series.
I don’t kill the Governor–but everyone else is game!