I’m a little out of practice being part of a crowd. This last year has taken me down some unforeseen roads, avenues that are only now leading back to some normal semblance of my daily life.
More on that in a minute.
Speaking of crowds, I recently attended Malice Domestic (a mystery readers and writers conference) and also served as a speaker at an event at a gorgeous library in the Texas Hill Country town of Kerrville. May has meant time talking with readers about the stories they loved, connecting with other writer friends whose work I admire, and basking in the joy that is having endless conversations about the nuances of storytelling, structure, and world building.
Yes, I’m still willing to have the plotter/pantser debate. Also, I’m pro Oxford comma.
As I get my groove back attending writing conferences and other book events, I realized something.
I missed these people.
Not only as a writer but also as a reader. Reading has always been an important lifeline for me, especially in my youth when I was moving almost every year to a new school as part of an Air Force family. But books were a particularly important part of my survival toolbox once 2022 kicked down my door. It was the works of many talented authors that supported me, in part, through this last year.
Let me explain with a small detour about a big topic:
My younger sister had a horrific beginning to 2022, starting with a perfect storm of medical events culminating in her experiencing (according to one of her many doctors) “too many strokes to count.” She then fought her way through an entire year of re-learning to do everyday things, learning to do some things differently, and keeping her razor-sharp sense of humor intact. I was grateful that I was able to spend weeks at a time with her during her hospital stays and then assisting in adjustments to being at home as she reclaimed her life. I’m sure I smothered her with too much attention and hovering, and I’m grateful that she trusted me enough to be a part of her recovery.
Did I mention that she was also pregnant at the time? As a surrogate? (The baby is, remarkably, completely healthy, and lovely.) And then she needed to have open-heart surgery? My sister is a fierce force of nature. Her recovery has been astounding, hard won, and also complicated in many ways. She has shared her story far more eloquently than I ever could—it’s her story after all. She’s also a gifted writer.
While many people have followed her incredible journey—and she has been so graciously open with the difficult details of her recovery—this is the first time I’ve been able to write about it in any format. For someone who makes a living with words, this last year left me speechless.
And then towards the end of 2022, I had my own health scare, which required tests, a biopsy and then surgery. My recovery was a good one, and I was able to enjoy the holidays with my family. At this point, I wanted nothing more than to see 2022 in my rear-view mirror. When I talked to my sister about how my scar would heal and how visible it would be, she told me, “Be proud of that scar. You earned it.”
During this last year of medical emergencies and the restless waiting of recoveries, my own writing simply wouldn’t come. I was immersed in traveling, caregiving and trying to keep myself together. I simply had no space for writing stories—I was too busy living this one—but I did find comfort in reading. I read short stories, novellas, and novels, grateful for these authors who gave me the gift of their created worlds. I needed a break from my spinning universe, and immersing myself in a book in the late evening hours gave me respite that, to this day, I know helped me through it all.
I started this year giving my calendar some serious side-eye, afraid to make any plans for fear of the next crisis to come. But then, while walking down a favorite stretch of beach in Port Aransas with my husband over New Year’s weekend, I spotted a beautiful shell. A lighting whelk, nestled in the sand. In my twenty-five years of walking that beach, I’ve never come across a shell so lovely. I took it as a sign that maybe it would be okay to consider better things would come, that being afraid of hope might be energy wasted. That shell sits on my desk as a reminder that the future holds promise as well as challenges.
I resumed making plans for the year, attending conferences, book events and celebrations. Part of me fears declaring such plans to the universe, but then again, if anything happens, I hope my writing community will wait for me until I can return. Until then, I’ll do the best I can with a book on the nightstand.
Sometimes, it’s the little things.
Laura Oles is the award-winning author of the Jamie Rush mystery series. Her debut mystery, Daughters of Bad Men, was an Agatha nominee, a Claymore Award finalist and a Killer Nashville Readers’ Choice nominee. Depths of Deceit, her second novel, was named Best Mystery of 2022 by Indies Today. She is also a Writers’ League of Texas Award finalist. Her work has appeared in crime fiction anthologies, consumer magazines and business publications. She loves road trips, bookstores and any outdoor activity that doesn’t involve running. https://lauraoles.com
What’s your favorite place to read? A certain chair? The one with a lamp that shines on your book, not in your eyes? Perhaps a ferryboat seat, where you glance up at the horizon, then down at your book? On a plane, or train?
When I was young our house had an elm tree in the back yard which was not only climbable, but offered two branches that stuck out at the perfect angle for a lounging pre-adolescent. Even better—the lounger was invisible from the house. I could scramble up, arrange myself, open my book—and be left unfound, undisturbed, for some time.
A later joy was climbing on the New Haven RR in Boston after final exams (Chaucer, Shakespeare), armed with the latest James Bond and the very biggest Hershey bar with almonds, and being rocked south for miles along the coastline. Uninterrupted.
And I confess to rereading books. I further confess to rereading children’s books. Maybe a more accurate word is: revisiting. At least every two years, I pick up Kipling’s Kim, finding my way to the part where Kim guides his Tibetan lama, who seeks a sacred river, on a pilgrimage into the high deodar forests of the Himalayas. I can almost smell the trees. There Kim steals the Russian spies’ notes––his own initiation into the Great Game. Even more satisfying? The long afternoon where, exhausted, he is “taken apart” by Eastern massage and finally stumbles out, recovered, to find his lama at the brink of—well, no spoilers.
Why this gravitational pull of favorite children’s books?
Maybe because the best children’s books feature enterprise, surprise, disguise. And—most important––the discovery of identity.
Consider The Sword in the Stone, where Merlin transforms Wart into various animals (badger, owl, fish) who teach him survival techniques (“put your back into it!”). And magic! Giants! Griffins! The Queen of Air and Darkness! (See volume below–griffin looming behind tree.) One favorite moment? When Merlin transforms Wart to a raptor—a small merlin––who must sit for desperate minutes during his formal initiation, near the maddened and perilous Peregrine. Why does Wart need Merlin’s special tutelage? Because of his identity, which he and we will finally discover.
Others I still pull off the shelf: The Wind in the Willows, especially Mole’s tearful return home, where he recognizes his true self.
Also Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising. Maurice Sendak’s Nutshell Library – memorizing all the poems. I sneak back to Harry Potter—a feast of enterprise, surprise, disguise, and Harry’s search for his own identity. Occasionally I return to Lord of the Rings––especially the battle for Gondor. You’ll note I missed out on Jack London and many others. But there’s always The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—remember that wondrous moment when Lucy slips through the back of the wardrobe, past all the mothballed coats…into magic? Into the snowy landscape where she meets Mr. Tumnus the faun? Into the realm where––as Lucy later discovers––she is Queen Lucy?
You have your favorites. So do our collective children and grandchildren. Bookstore shelves still offer children tales of enterprise, surprise, disguise—and characters discovering their own identities.
And fortunately, children’s books needn’t follow the 1930 Detection Club’s 10 Rules for Writing a Mystery. Rule #2: “All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.” Following Rule #2 would let out magic, of course, and its enormous space for imagination. (If you, like me, crave an occasional touch of magic for grown-ups, try Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt. amzn.to/44iIoVj)
As a mystery writer/reader I usually write about mystery. But thinking lately about the bibliophile’s favorites—favorite reading spots, favorite chairs, favorite characters––has sent me down a different path. Why reread? Wait––why revisit?
What is it about the end of Kim, or the plight of Frodo and Samwise in Shelob’s lair, or Harry Potter’s first moment on his broom, learning how good he is at Quidditch––that whispers, “read it again!”
I reread mysteries too. Have you reread a Dorothy Sayers, a Ngaio Marsh, a Sherlock Holmes? Or John le Carré? How many times have you read Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy, or Smiley’s People? (Come on, spy thrillers are part of the mystery-thriller-spy novel genre.) And why do we reread le Carré? One character in particular: George Smiley.
Smiley first appears on page 1 of chapter 1, titled “A Brief History of George Smiley,” in Call for the Dead, le Carré’s first book, published in 1961. Smiley’s marriage to the aristocratic Lady Ann Sercomb has ended when she abandoned him, and he’s described as follows: “Short, fat and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.”
We learn of his deep love of 17th century German literature, his success at Oxford, his recruitment by MI-6, his dangerous service abroad as a spy in WWII. Not a commanding figure, no. But le Carré allows us to glimpse his sharp mind, his penetration, his ability to absorb all he hears. Smiley’s work as an intelligence officer provides him “with what he had once loved best in life: academic excursions into the mystery of human behaviour, disciplined by the practical application of his own deductions.”
Smiley appears next in A Murder of Quality (1962), where Smiley’s solution to the murder rests on a scathing critique of the snobbishness of British public schools (le Carré despised his own experience at such a school).
By the time we reach Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), Smiley has been put out to grass at MI-6 under the new regime headed by Bill Haydon, who has seduced Smiley’s wife Ann and taken over London Station after causing the bitter dismissal of Control as its head.
In Tinker, Tailor, Smiley is plucked out of retirement to interview a somewhat dubious British agent who claims the Russians may have placed a mole inside MI-6. Here’s Smiley, listening to the agent’s tale:
“He sat leaning back with his short legs bent, head forward, and plump hands linked across his generous stomach. His hooded eyes had closed behind the thick lenses. His only fidget was to polish his glasses on the silk lining of his tie, and when he did this, his eyes had a soaked, naked look that was embarrassing to those who caught him at it.”
Le Carré’s letter to Sir Alec Guinness (3 March 1978) appears in A Private Spy / The Letters of John le Carré, at 213. He tells Sir Alec:
“Apart from plumpness, you have all the other physical qualities: a mildness of manner, stretched taut, when you wish it, by an unearthly stillness and an electrifying watchfulness. In the best sense, you are uncomfortable company, as I suspect Smiley is. An audience wishes––when you wish it––to take you into its protection. It feels responsible for you, it worries about you. I don’t know what you call that kind of empathy, but it is very rare, & Smiley and Guinness have it: when either of you gets his feet wet, I can’t help shivering.”
I love that “as I suspect Smiley is.” Does the author’s own speculation about George Smiley explain, in part, why we readers become so attached to this character? What drives us to Smiley’s side? Is it his apparent ineffectualness, his vulnerability, his stillness, his watchfulness, entwined with our certainty that he will somehow keep going?
Not until 1979 in Smiley’s People does Smiley achieve final vindication, catching the Russian master-spy who conceived the long set of steps that led to Haydon’s seduction and Control’s fall. At the climax, we (along with Smiley and his fellow spy Peter Guillam) await the possible arrival of the Russian in cold war Berlin, at the crossing point from East Germany. Will the spy make it across the bridge? Guillam asks what cover the Russian will use:
Smiley sat opposite him across the little plastic table, a cup of cold coffee at his elbow. He looked somehow very small inside his overcoat.
“’Something humble,” Smiley said. “Something that fits in. Those who cross here are mostly old-age pensioners, I gather.’ He was smoking one of Guillam’s cigarettes and it seemed to take all his attention.”
At book’s end, we are waiting with Smiley. It’s cold there by the Berlin bridge. I expect Smiley’s feet are wet. Like the author, “I can’t help shivering.” When we know a character’s vulnerabilities, we begin to perceive true identity.
For Smiley, for all the characters created by their authors with such vividness and such vulnerability that we seem to feel what they feel, for such characters–I reread. Yes, the better word is revisit: I go back just to be sure the characters are still there, still available, still waiting quietly on the shelf. And, yes, just as good as I thought they were.
I’d love to hear your favorites (reading spots, children’s books) and the favorite characters you…revisit.
Author: Helen Currie Foster
I live north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. I’m deeply curious, more every day, about human history and prehistory and how, uninvited, the past keeps crashing the party. I’ve loved the Texas Hill Country since my first sight of it as a teenager. Artesian springs, Cretaceous fossils, rocky landscapes hiding bluegreen water in the valleys. After law school (where I grew fascinated with water and dirt) I practiced environmental law and regulatory litigation for thirty years––then the character Alice suddenly appeared in my life. I’m active with Austin Shakespeare and Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime. And I’m grateful to the readers who enjoy the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series!
If you love reading short stories—or writing them—chances are you’ve come across John M. Floyd’s work. John is the author of over a thousand short stories in publications like AHMM, EQMM, Strand Magazine, Mississippi Noir, The Saturday Evening Post, and four editions of Otto Penzler’s best-mysteries-of-the-year anthologies. He is an Edgar finalist, a Shamus Award winner, a five-time Derringer Award winner, and the author of nine books. He is also the 2018 recipient of the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s lifetime achievement award.
I had the good fortune of sitting next to John at the Bouchercon 2019 anthology Denim, Diamonds, and Death: 50th Year signing. His story, “The Midnight Child,” precedes mine, “The Deed,” in the anthology, which meant we were also placed together for this event. Getting to know John was, for me, a highlight of the Bouchercon conference. This is a writer who loves the work. Below is our conversation about his career beginnings, his love of short form fiction and his advice to those with an interest in writing short stories.
LO: I’d love to start with your career at IBM as an engineer. Were you already writing short stories by then or did that come later?
JF: The writing bug bit me in the mid-1990s, while I was working for IBM. I was a systems engineer specializing in finance application (banking) software and traveling a lot, both here and overseas, and it was during some of those times spent alone in hotels, airplanes and airports that I started dreaming up stories. And once I started, I couldn’t stop.
LO: What drew you to the short story form? And to the mystery genre?
JF: I think my love for short fiction probably came from a childhood of watching those little anthology shows on TV like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Twilight Zone and One Step Beyond. They had different stories every week, were usually half an hour in length, and often had surprise endings. In a way, each episode was the visual equivalent of a genre short story, and I loved ‘em. As for the mystery genre, I’ve always liked reading and watching crime/suspense stories.
LO: I enjoyed discovering that you’re also a poet with an impressive collection in print. What drew you to poetry?
JF: Well, I’m one of those poets who isn’t really a poet (and I noet). The poetry I’ve written and sold has mostly been light verse, because I love humor and wordplay. My collection of poems, called Lighten Up a Little, is a book of 300 humorous poems published in places like Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Writer’s Digest, Grit, Writers’ Journal, Farm & Ranch Living, etc., and are designed primarily to make you smile (and maybe Laugh Out Loud). In the introduction to the book, I pointed out that if you’re searching for enlightenment, inspiration, or the Meaning of Life, you might want to look elsewhere.
LO: Many fellow writers marvel at your prolific ability to consistently create compelling tales that draw the reader in. Can you give us a peek inside your process? What does an average day and/or week look like for you?
JF: My process, such as it is, involves first thinking of a plot and then populating it with (hopefully) interesting people to make the story happen. Only when I have the plot in my head (beginning, middle, and end) do I start writing. Be aware, the storyline isn’t set in stone—it might change a bit once the writing starts—but I do like to have that structure firmly in mind before I begin. Then, once the story is on paper, I rewrite and polish it and send it to a market. On an average day I might write several pages, but even when I’m not writing I’m usually plotting stories in my head. The idea/plotting part usually takes a few days or a week, the writing itself takes a couple of days, and the rewriting several more. As soon as I’m done, I usually light a new story up off the butt of the last one, like a chain-smoker, and keep going—and have been doing that for almost thirty years now.
LO: Which short stories by other writers have you read and just thought, “That’s something special.” It would be madness to try to pick only one, but are there certain ones that stayed with you long after you finished reading?
JF: Yes. A few stories I especially like are “Man From the South” by Roald Dahl, “The Last Rung on the Ladder” by Stephen King, “Voodoo” by Fredric Brown, “The Green Heart” by Jack Ritchie, and “The Kugelmass Episode” by Woody Allen. Some of these are long and some very short, but all are great fun to read.
LO: What are you reading right now?
JF: I’m RE-reading a novel by Nelson DeMille called “Wild Fire.” Just before that I read “Blowback,” a political thriller co-written by James Patterson and our mutual friend Brendan DuBois. Both novels are excellent, but don’t tell Brendan—I think he’s already having trouble getting his old hats to fit.
LO: What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
JF: What’s spare time? Seriously, though, I like walking, movies, puzzles, and playing with grandkids (we have seven).
LO: What advice would you share with writers who would like to pursue writing short stories for publication?
JF: Read a lot of them, write a lot of them, and DON’T QUIT. I once heard that a professional writer is just an amateur writer who didn’t give up.
LO: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
JF: Yes: Try reading some short stories, especially those in places like Hitchcock and Ellery Queen and Strand Magazine. I love novels too, but there’s just something special about reading (and writing) the short stuff. You might find you like it.
John M. Floyd is the author of more than a thousand short stories in publications like AHMM, EQMM, Strand Magazine, Mississippi Noir, The Saturday Evening Post, and four editions of Otto Penzler’s best-mysteries-of-the-year anthologies. A former Air Force captain and IBM systems engineer, John is an Edgar finalist, a Shamus Award winner, a five-time Derringer Award winner, and the author of nine books. He is also the 2018 recipient of the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s lifetime achievement award. You can learn more at http://www.johnmfloyd.com
Believe it or not, the mystery novel is considered a “young” form of literature. Yep, that’s right. Mystery fiction didn’t exist before 19th century England. Many suggest two reasons why this was the case. First, the ability to read was now reaching “below” the upper class educated citizens. Farmers and factory workers and children were being taught to read. Secondly, back then, most towns relied instead on constables and night watchmen. No centralized police forces existed.
So what happened that caused the change in policing? The public’s morbid national obsession with murder.
Two cases in particular were instrumental in beginning this fixation on crime, according to Lucy Worsley, chief curator at the Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity responsible for maintaining the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace State Apartments, and more.
In her BBC four-part series, “A Very British Murder” (2013), Worsley suggests that the first murder, known as The Radcliffe Highway Murders, took place in 1811. Only a constable was available to the poor maid who realized something dreadful had happened when she returned to the home of her employers only to find the door locked, and a woman screaming inside. The newspapers hyped the crime, stirring the public into a frenzy.
Eventually John Williams was arrested and charged with the crimes. He committed suicide in his jail cell before the trial, though his trial was carried on without him. It was speculated that this was done to calm the public’s fear.
The second case, “The Red Barn Murder”, took place in 1826. Here a woman was found dead in a barn, apparently the victim of an elopement gone wrong. Again, the public fixated on the murder to the extent that a very macabre execution took place. On 11 August 1828, the convicted murderer, John Corder, was taken to the gallows and hanged shortly before noon in front of a large crowd. One newspaper claimed that there were 7,000 spectators, another as many as 20,000. But that wasn’t all. The body was taken back to the courtroom at Shire Hall, where it was slit open along the abdomen to expose the muscles. The crowds were allowed to file past until six o’clock, when the doors were shut. According to the Norwich and Bury Post, over 5,000 people lined up to see the body.
So now the British public was ripe to read anything that would feed their fascination with murder. All it needed was a writer to satiate their thirst.
Enter Edgar Allen Poe and his short story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” which was published in Graham’s Magazine in 1849. It has been described as the first modern detective story and featured the world’s first fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin. Though Baltimore-born Poe was known in America for his literary critiques (several of which named Henry Wadsworth Longfellow a plagiarist), he was much more popular in Great Britain where he became well-known as an author.
(It should be noted that two books are also considered early mysteries but had little following due to their foreign languages. The first may have been Voltaire’s Zadig written in 1747, and Das Fraulein von Scuderi by E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1819.)
And the floodgates opened. Wilkie Collins’ novel The Woman in White was published in 1860. Arthur Conan Doyle published his first Sherlock Holmes mystery, A Study in Scarlet, in 1887. Doyle’s series is credited with being singularly responsible for the huge popularity of the mystery genre.
Mystery novels have gone far beyond the private detective motif. The genre now covers romantic suspense, noir, cozies, thrillers, traditional, etc.: even comic books, graphic novels and web-based detective series now carry on the mystery tradition.
I read mysteries, watch mystery movies, (probably have most of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies memorized line by line), and write mysteries. However, I had no idea I was entertained by such a “young” form of literature.
So, whodunnit next?
Note: Sources for this blog included Lucy Worsley’s BBC’s four-part series, A Very British Mystery, and the Biblio Blog “What Exactly is a Mystery Book”.
K.P. Gresham, Author
Professional Character Assassin
K.P. Gresham is the award-winning author of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series as well as several stand-alone novels. Active in Sisters in Crime and the Writers League of Texas, she has won Best Novel awards from the Bay Area Writers League as well as Mystery Writers of America.
The world has been a crazy place since the emergence of Covid-19. Although it’s still out there, I’ve begun to venture forth into the world and attend author events. It feels wonderful to get back into the world of books and speaking with other writers! I think the last event I went to was the Bullet Books event in February of 2020 at the Bosslight Bookstore in Nacogdoches. (Fellow AMW writers Kathy Waller, Helen Currie Foster, and Laura Oles are also Bullet Books authors.)
My first foray back into the public realm was a Noir At The Bar event in Dallas back in June. Of course, it was outside and still blazing hot even though it started at 7. But I had such a great time listening to the other authors that it was worth it! Not a dud in the bunch. We laughed at some stories and were creeped out by others. I read a short piece that I wrote a few years ago, Tutusuana. (“Tutusuana” is a Comanche word that’s explained in the story.) It was nice to see old friends and finally meet online friends in person. Loved the experience. I highly recommend The Wild Detectives bookstore/bar. This is a jewel in the Bishop Arts district in Dallas.
Now we travel to Book People. Yesterday, August 21, I went to my first Book People event since pre-Covid. Mark Pryor has a new book Die Around Sundown. This is the first book in a new series so of course I had to be there to cheer him on! I’m excited to read this book. It’s an historical mystery set in Nazi-occupied France. I enjoyed the book talk and, again, seeing friends in person that I haven’t seen in a while.
This Wednesday I plan to go to an author event at my local library. I haven’t met Michael Miller but since I live in a small town, I want to attend events and provide support. He’s a long-time university professor, presently at Texas State. And he is also a Presbyterian minister, serving La Iglesia Presbiteriana Mexicana for the last ten years in San Marcos. His book is The Two Deaths of Father Romero: A Novel of the Borderlands. Sounds interesting!
Then the next day I’ll be back at Book People, if the roads aren’t flooded. (We’ve been in a severe drought this summer, as much of the world has been too. I’m looking forward to the rain, but I hope it’s a slow, soaking rain and not a deluge.)
Our family’s favorite mystery quote (bolded below) appears in Strong Poison, by Dorothy Sayers, where detective Lord Peter Wimsey first meets novelist Harriet Vane. Vane’s on trial for murder, accused of systematically poisoning her former lover with arsenic.
Wimsey suspects the lover’s uncle, Norman Urquhart, but the uncle assures the police that he served a blameless dinner to his nephew. Wimsey sends the all-competent Bunter (his manservant and WWI batman), to winkle out secrets from Urquhart’s cook, Mrs. Pettican, and the housemaid.
Bunter ingratiates himself by means of crumpets:
“At half-past four…he was seated in the kitchen of Mr. Urquhart’s house, toasting crumpets. He had been trained to a great pitch of dexterity in the preparation of crumpets, and if he was somewhat lavish in the matter of butter, that hurt nobody except Mr. Urquhart. It was natural that the conversation should turn to the subject of murder. Nothing goes so well with a hot fire and buttered crumpets as a wet day without and a good dose of comfortable horrors within. The heavier the lashing of the rain and the ghastlier the details, the better the flavour seems to be.”
What a setting! I’ve never tasted a crumpet, but can feel the heat of the fire and inhale the smells of toasting and melting butter. And in contrast to (or fueled by) this warmth, this delicious comfort, the cook reminds us of the victim’s death: “A dreadful wicked woman she must ‘a’ been,” said Mrs. Pettican, “—‘ev another crumpet, do, Mr. Bunter—a-torturin’ of the poor soul that long-winded way. Bashin’ on the ‘ed or the ‘asty use of a carvin’ knife when roused I can understand, but the ‘orrors of slow poisonin’ is the work of a fiend in ‘uman form, in my opinion.”
So in our kitchen at buttery moments some family member will mutter, “If he was somewhat lavish in the matter of butter…” But this week I wondered, “What are crumpets?” I mean, with Bunter toasting them over a (presumably coal) fire, then lavishing butter on them, they sound wonderful, especially for teatime in a firelit kitchen, on a cold wet afternoon, discussing the horrors of slow poisoning.
Compelled by curiosity I found a recipe. https://www.daringgourmet.com/traditional-english-crumpets/ Huh. I’d imagined English muffins. No. Instead, the goal is a tender disc, yeasty but also leavened with baking soda, creating bubbled holes to absorb melted butter, jam, and other decorations. Problem: locating crumpet rings. Yes, I’ve ordered some.
Sayers wasn’t writing a culinary cozy, despite the crumpets and an intense discussion on the following page between Mrs. Pettican and Bunter about casseroled chicken. A scene beginning with toasting crumpets produces a triumph of setting and character, a comic but dread-inspiring description of the victim’s death, and clever clue placement. Sayers does not describe either the smell of the toasting, or the taste of the crumpets, but surely you, dear reader, imagined those? Didn’t you feel yourself right there in the kitchen, with the rainy day outside, the gossipy discussion of the lover’s death agonies, and a vivid depiction of Bunter’s character? Courteous, yet firm, he deftly extracts critical information not reflected in the police report—and yes, a clue you doubtless spotted. Maybe Vane will escape the hangman’s noose after all.
Despite the strong impact of smells on humans, writers’ references to smell often seem sparse. Part of the problem is the sheer difficulty of describing certain smells. Imagine trying to describe the smell of a beloved house. It’s a mysterious mix, isn’t it? If I try to describe my mother’s house, I can’t do it with just one word. Part of the remembered smell is a faint perfume—maybe a bath powder she used, like Caswell Massey’s Gardenia. But there are other ingredients as well—contributions from oak furniture, cotton sheets, old Christmas cards on a closet shelf… See, I can’t accurately describe the smell itself; I have to name things.
My grandmother’s house in Hill County delivered a similar mixture, varying by seasons. In summer, it smelled of cantaloupe from her garden; at Christmas, of a decorated cedar tree. But always the substrate included a hard-to-describe mixture of our grandfather’s Yardley English Lavender talc, kept on the kitchen shelf where he shaved; of the garbage chute in the kitchen; of oil and electric discharges from his ham radio rig; of the ancient living room piano (wires, wood, felt). How describe the totality of that smell, that amalgam of odors, so instantly recognizable to me, but unknown to you? And how describe it without a bunch of nouns?
Poets apparently run into that problem. I set out to locate poems incorporating odor and fragrance, grabbing poetry volumes from the shelves. Yeats? Gorgeous references to sight and sound, as in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”: “Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee, /And live alone in the bee-loud glade…” The poem is rich in sight, in sound, but not smell. We don’t smell the clay and wattles or honey.
Same for Wendell Berry’s A Small Porch—a volume of ideas, images, light and air. But I didn’t find smell. Nor did I find smell references in Chaucer or a number of Renaissance English poets, except that Michael Drayton gives us a wonderful line in “To the Virginian Voyage” referring to the much-anticipated Virginia landfall of seaborne English explorers: “When as the luscious smell/of that delicious land…” Of course Shakespeare mentions the “sweet odour” of roses (as in Sonnet 54): “Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made.”
Indeed, I had trouble finding references to smell in most of the poetry books I opened. There were some. In “Aimless Love,” “gazing down affectionately at the soap,” Billy Collins writes, “I could feel myself falling again/as I felt its turning in my wet hands/and caught the scent of lavender and stone.”
Marianne Moore, in “Enough,” from O To Be a Dragon, gives us this: “The crested moss-rose casts a spell; its bud of solid green, as well, /and the Old Pink Moss—with fragrant wings/ imparting balsam scent that clings…” Many readers will recognize balsam. Another from Moore’s “In the Public Garden”: “O yes, and snowdrops in the snow that smell like violets.”
Also readers may know the smell of violets. Charles Wright, in “Dog Creek Mainline,” gives more challenging references: “Dog Creek: cat track and bird splay,/Spindrift and windfall; woodrot; Odor of muscadine…” If you’ve played around wild grapevine you know the odor of muscadine––maybe woodrot too.
Try the experiment yourself. Pull some poetry off the shelf. Don’t most poems rely on sight and sound, and rarely odor? Because a particular smell can be very hard to describe.
“The way the brain deals with smells is very different to how it deals with other senses, such as seeing and hearing. For example, we can identify the different instruments playing in a band, or the different shapes and colours in a painting. But it is very hard for us to tell the individual parts of a smell mixture.” He goes on: “We can sense the smell of “orange” or “coffee” as a single thing, but have trouble identifying the many different parts that make up those smells individually. However, it is possible to get better at this with practice. Professional wine-tasters or perfume-makers can detect more parts of a smell mixture than most people.”
Our difficulty in describing smell is not that we humans can’t detect odors—we can, says Greg Miller, Science (November 11, 2014): “We humans have about 400 different types of receptors for detecting odorant molecules. That’s on the low end for mammals, but it’s enough, at least in theory, to allow us to distinguish a trillion different odors, one team of neuroscientists calculated earlier this year (although there’s been some controversy about that estimate).”
But, per Miller, we describe odors differently from sights and sounds: “When people—English speaking people, anyway—describe odors, what they are actually doing much of the time is describing the source of the odor. Orange-y. Smokey-. Skunk-y. This seems natural enough, but it’s fundamentally different from how we describe other sensory experiences. Words like “white” and “round” describe visual features of an object, not the object itself. It could be a baseball, or it could be the Moon. In the same way, a tone can be “high-pitched” whether it comes from a bird or a teakettle.” https://bit.ly/3JFFobV
Some studies suggest that our language is inadequate to the task of describing smell. Another suggestion is that other languages than English may be better at conveying odor.
But determined mystery writers find a way, because odor can make important contributions to a setting. In 1937, in Rex Stout’s fourth Nero Wolfe mystery, The Red Box, the detective lectures his cook, Fritz Brenner: “Do you know shish kebab? I have had it in Turkey. Marinate thin slices of tender lamb for several hours in red wine and spices. Here, I’ll put it down: thyme, mace, peppercorns, garlic…” https://amzn.to/3PahvKz
Can’t you smell those spices? And doesn’t that passage help round out (pun) our vision of Nero Wolfe, gourmet, gourmand, brilliant detective? We’re planted in the kitchen of Wolfe’s New York brownstone, the primary setting for all the mysteries. These few lines convey Wolfe’s insistence on sophisticated cuisine, and reflect the rigor he demands of every employee under his roof, including Fritz the cook; Theodore Horstmann, the keeper of his orchid greenhouse; and our narrator, his foot soldier, Archie Goodwin. A shish kebab recipe helps define the setting and Wolfe’s character as well.
Ngaio Marsh begins Night at the Vulcan (1951) with Martyn Tarne, a young New Zealand actress desperately seeking an acting role in London. One night, out of food and money, with no place to stay, she enters the Vulcan Theatre which has advertised for a dresser: “She was at the back of the stalls, standing on thick carpet at the top of the ramp facing the centre aisle…The deadened air smelt of naphthalene and plush.” The empty theatre lacks an eager audience, waiting for the curtain to go up. Instead Marsh gives us the “deadened air” of a closed theatre, where the plush seats are empty, and the air smells of naphthalene—chemical dry cleaning. Martyn starts to work: “As soon as she crossed the threshold of the star dressing-room she smelt greasepaint. The dressing-shelf was bare, the room untenanted, but the smell of cosmetics mingled with the faint reek of gas.” I don’t know the smell of greasepaint, but Martyn does; she’s in a setting she understands.
Mick Herron’s unputdownable Slough House series uses odor to create the key setting––the decrepit building which serves as center stage. Book 2, Dead Lions, describes entry to the building as follows: “No one enters Slough House by the front door; instead, via a shabby alleyway, its inmates let themselves into a grubby yard with mildewed walls….” Yecch, mildew. The building houses the “slow horses” who flunked out of MI-5’s headquarters in posh Regent’s Park, and are now under the tutelage of former Cold Warrior Jackson Lamb, a terrifying mentor. “Jackson Lamb’s lair,” the office on the building’s top floor, is described thus: “The air is heavy with a dog’s olfactory daydream: takeaway food, illicit cigarettes, day-old farts and stale beer, but there will be no time to catalogue this because Jackson Lamb can move surprisingly swiftly for a man of his bulk….” No question that odor is part of the setting. Lamb is an olfactory terrorist. https://amzn.to/3ppQsAJ
The century-old Beer Barn, a beloved road house in Coffee Creek, is where townspeople gather in my Ghost series. That includes lawyer and protagonist Alice Greer. Naturally the smell of beer is key. In Book 3, Ghost Letter, Alice invites a political reporter to the Beer Barn for lunch: “As they pushed through the Beer Barn’s tall swinging doors the fragrant haze enveloped them—incense compounded of hickory smoke from the wood-fired grill, chiles toasted on an iron comal, and thousands of bubbles popping in bottles and glasses, releasing the yeasty magic of beer to the air.”
Smells may be hard to define, but including the smell of a setting can enrich a mystery’s impact. Or, as Mrs. Pettican says, “Have another crumpet, do!”
Helen Currie Foster lives and writes north of Dripping Springs, Texas, loosely supervised by three burros jostling for roles in the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, set in the unique landscape of the Texas Hill Country. So far all three burros have made an appearance, though insisting on aliases. Book 8 is on its way…
This week I’ve been in the Land of Stuck. Walking in circles around the kitchen island struggling to come up with the missing scene. My next mystery’s nearly done, but… I’m stuck. Ever been there?
The poetry shelf offers a momentary escape. Billy Collins can always pull me into a poem. Often he’s going for a walk and I can’t help but feel invited. His “Aimless Love” begins:
He’s got me.
Or “The Trouble with Poetry,” which begins,
“This morning as I walked along the lakeshore,
I fell in love with a wren
and later in the day with a mouse
the cat had dropped under the dining room table.”
Well, of course there he’s got me. Then again:
“The trouble with poetry, I realized
as I walked along a beach one night––
cold Florida sand under my bare feet,
a show of stars in the sky––”
I feel that same cold Florida sand under my right arch, despite the Texas heat outside.
Another walking poet: Mary Oliver. In Blue Iris, She begins “White Pine” this way:
“The sun rises late in this southern county. And, since the first thing I do when I wake up is go out into the world, I walk here along a dark road.”
Huh. Walking as discipline? Every morning?
Walking’s not just for poets. St. Augustine is often credited with the Latin phrase Solvitur ambulando––“it is solved by walking” (which may have originally been a response to the 5th C. B.C. philosopher Zeno’s concept that we can never actually arrive at a destination).
“Solvitur ambulando” was the official motto of the Royal Air Forces Escaping Society, formed in 1946 to help those in former occupied countries during WWII who risked their lives to help RAF crew members escape. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solvitur ambulando (check out the terrific solvitur ambulando quotes in this article, from Lewis Carroll, Dorothy Sayers and others). I can’t imagine how high the blood pressure of those resistance heroes climbed during such episodes. Mine skyrocketed just reading A Woman of No Importance, Sonia Purnell’s description of the amazing work of America’s Virginia Hall in France during the resistance. Talk about tense moments. So, did the RAF Escaping Society adopt this motto because of the therapeutic value of walking, or because walking can trigger ideas, or solutions? Or both?
Bruce Chatwin (The Songlines, 1986) claimed he learned the phrase from Patrick Leigh Fermor. Fermor himself was quite a walker. He set out, in 1933, at age 18, to walk across Europe from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul and Greece. He tells the tale in Between the Woods and the Water, 1986.
I loved this book and Fermor is fascinating (check out his WWII heroics on Crete, including engineering and carrying out the kidnap of the Nazi commander).
The English provide walkers with such wonderful public walking paths. My husband and I recently walked the Thames Footpath for several miles along the Thames, over to Bray––yes! Home of the Vicar of Bray! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Vicar_of_Bray
In this charming village you can taste amazing smoked salmon at The Hinds Head (where you can read how many times the Vicar changed his denomination to keep his job, back in the religious flip-flops of England’s sixteenth century) and also at The Crown, a pluperfect pub. The Thames Footpath takes you through leafy woods, with views of the rivers, the fields, and occasional historic and mysterious signs (“Battlemead”). It provides boats to watch, ranging from kayaks and paddleboards to elegant near-yachts, festooned with banners for Jubilee, and one incredible ancient polished Chris Craft, casually docked by the restaurant at the Boathouse at Boulter’s Lock by two grizzled old salts. We tried but failed to overhear their intense lunch conversation. Just trying to eavesdrop was imagination-stirring. Where did they come from? Where were they going?
The footpath also led us to the village of Cookham, home of another surprise: the Stanley Spencer Gallery. Spencer, a WWI veteran and Slade School graduate, produced remarkable paintings, sometimes mixing nominally biblical subjects with contemporary life—for example, a resurrection study of Cookham housewives in aprons, climbing out of their graves with surprised faces. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/sir-stanley-spencer-1977.
I thought I remembered Spencer’s name from Virginia Woolf’s diaries and looked it up when we got home. She wrote on May 22, 1934, about Clive Bell, Vanessa Bell (Clive’s wife), Duncan Grant (Vanessa’s lover), and Quentin Bell (Vanessa’s son) “all talking at once about Spencer’s pictures.” In 1934 Spencer was showing six works in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition…about the time Patrick Leigh Fermor was off in the middle of his big walk.
Other poetic walkers? You’ve already thought of Robert Frost (“Two Roads Diverged…”) and Dante. Dante’s walks take the cake; I mean, the Inferno’s a hell of a walk.
So if walking calms the mind, allows creativity, reveals solutions, why am I revolving around the kitchen island?
Now that I think about it, some ideas have emerged. For instance, how much my extended family loves hiking in the Rockies, with (1) a destination; (2) a well-rounded lunch, including chocolate, in the pack; (3) plenty of water. How it feels to set off, hoping to see (1) moose, or (2) marmots, or (3) ptarmigan. How it feels to walk to the destination, grab a flat-topped boulder, warmed by sun, and have lunch, staring out at the view. Then to walk…downhill. No longer out of breath. Watching your fellow hikers dodging limbs, swinging around switchbacks. Triumphant walkers. And in the meantime, there have been discussions on the trail, conversations about this and that, switching from one companion to another. At the end of the trail, a sense of sleepy satisfaction.
So it’s time to get up early enough for a walk. Get up early enough to beat the Texas sun, and see if my neighbor’s front pasture includes a jackrabbit, or “jackbunny” as some call it. Cause a snort from the deer in the brush.
… Okay. Back from the walk. I think I’ve figured out that pesky bit about the last scene, except for a couple of details. So tomorrow, when the alarm rings—I’m going for a walk. Would you like to come too? I’d love it. We could talk.
Helen Currie Foster lives and writes north of Dripping Springs, Texas, closely supervised by three burros. She’s curious about human nature, human history and prehistory, and why the past keeps crashing the party. She’s currently finishing book 8 in the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery novel series. Book 7, Ghost Daughter, was named Grand Prize Short List in the 2022 Eric Hoffer Book Awards, and Finalist for Mystery, 2022 National Indie Excellence Awards. Her books are available on Amazon, Kindle, and Audible, and at independent bookstores.She loves to talk with book groups.
On April 2 I drove with my writing compadre D.L.S. Evatt (aka Dixie) to Houston to sign books at Murder by the Book. That renowned bookstore has sold mysteries for 42 years. Huzzah!
We’d launched our books–my Ghost Daughter, Book 7 in the series, and her Bloodlines and Fencelines–at our Honky-Tonk Book Launch on December 5, 2021, at venerable Sam’s Town Point, a South Austin treasure for decades. The owner, Ramsay Midwood, declared it was the “first book launch” for Sam’s. Before the band––Floyd Domino’s All-Stars––began playing, Austin Shakespeare’s Ann Ciccolella interviewed us. Her first question: “why have a book launch at a honky-tonk?”
Why? For all the right reasons—great beer signs, dance floor, pool table, and music. But the main reason: murder mysteries set in small Texas towns must have a place where townspeople meet, where news is exchanged and gossip is passed along, where people see friends and frenemies and fall in love, where the past isn’t forgotten but the present is very much in play.
For Alice Greer, the lawyer protagonist in my Ghost series, the century-old Beer Barn is that place. Artisanal beers, excellent Tex-Mex food, the requisite dance floor—and the mix of music that says “Texas Hill Country.” In Dixie’s Bloodlines and Fencelines, that place is Sara’s General Store.
Of course setting is crucial in mysteries. For a small town setting, a “town crossroads” becomes a useful dramatic tool, providing a place where the mystery’s protagonist runs into various characters and hears (and evaluates) their stories, slowly unraveling the truth of a murder. Have you ever lived or visited relatives in a small town? You may have identified potential locations that would work well in a mystery. In Itasca, Texas, home of my maternal grandparents (and the Itasca Wampus Cats), it might’ve been the church fellowship hall, or the one café that served breakfast and lunch, or (I keep returning to this thought) the frigid meat locker downtown where, like many families, my grandmother kept her side of beef, back before home freezers. I still remember the sharp cold vapor of the meat locker. Imagination stirs…
At any rate, Sam’s Town Point was perfect for a book launch. When we scouted Sam’s, Dixie took a look around and said, “There are stories in these floorboards.” So we wrote a song, “Stories in the Floorboards,” which premiered last month at our book event at the Austin Woman’s Club, sung by songwriter/actress Helyn Rain Messenger.
We asked John McDougall at Murder by the Book if he knew of other authors who’d written or commissioned a song for their book launch. He said, yes, Harlan Coben and Jeffrey Deaver had done so, and Lee Childs had commissioned an entire album. Well!
The notion of an album set me thinking of John Rebus, the crusty Edinburgh cop made famous by author Ian Rankin. Rebus, acerbic and brilliant, likes his music. In Black and Blue, he sticks a tape in his car cassette player – Robert Wyatt, Rock Bottom, then Deep Purple, “Into the Fire.” That title matches the heat of the fix he’s in at that point. (Later in the series, the cassette player becomes a CD player.) But at home, he still relies on the hi-fi.In Rather Be the Devil, set in his ways, now retired and older than dirt, Rebus knows he has an ominous shadow on his lung as he enters his apartment: “A glow from the hi-fi system that told him he hadn’t switched it off. Last album played: Solid Air. Felt like that was what he was walking through…” https://www.amazon.com/s?k=rather+be+the+devil+by+ian+rankin&crid=11GFHLFGLRGUT&sprefix=%2Caps%2C135&ref=nb_sb_ss_recent_1_0_recent
Rebus has stuck to his old technology. And now he’s ahead of the curve. Vinyl sales are up: “Left for dead with the advent of CDs in the 1980s, vinyl records are now the music industry’s most popular and highest-grossing physical format, with fans choosing it for collectibility, sound quality or simply the tactile experience of music in an age of digital ephemerality. After growing steadily for more than a decade, LP sales exploded during the pandemic.In the first six months of this year, 17 million vinyl records were sold in the United States, generating $467 million in retail revenue, nearly double the amount from the same period in 2020, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.”
Why? For some, vinyls are the new collectible. But maybe it’s about the additional experience involved in listening to a favorite chunk of music. Rebus, for instance, is not listening to streamed music, not asking Alexa to play music that “sounds like” some musician. No, he’s taking a number of steps, both mental and physical, before he begins to experience the music he’s after. He’s choosing an album, seeing the familiar cover again, sliding the fragile (yet powerful) disc from its jacket, and placing it on the turntable. The album represents an entire experience, not just one cover song. Then he’s lifting the arm, carefully lowering the needle, hearing the introductory hum and scratch and—there it is again, the music that lives in his memory and is playing out again right now, in his living room. He’s making music.
Moreover, he’s activating memories, and perhaps comparing the memories of the music with his present situation, as Rebus does here, thinking the song title—John Martyn’s “Solid Air”—“felt like … what he was walking through.” (A compelling description. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UikPQOaJpfU)
Writers use music in mysteries to add depth to the protagonist’s character. Inspector Morse, alone in his flat, listens to opera. Lord Peter Wimsey plays Bach on his baby grand; Sherlock Holmes plays the violin and attends opera. Rebus relies on the music of his time, has the albums, still has t-shirts from concerts he attended. Detectives need a listening ear, need to be able to discern the sound of a lie, hear the tremble in a frightened voice. What the sleuth chooses to listen to can almost make us feel we’re hearing background music. Music becomes the continuo, the bass line that we feel beating like a heart as a book comes to life.
Because—even if we don’t know the specific notes Holmes is fingering on his violin, or which Bach fugue Wimsey is toying with, or which Wagnerian album Morse has put on his hi-fi, or precisely what “Solid Air” sounds like, we do have a huge memory vault of similar music that bubbles up as we read a mystery. We may not quite create the same soundtrack the author had in mind, but our brains engage.
Book 5 of my series, Ghost Next Door, involves a murder at the Coffee Creek city park, the night before Coffee Creek’s first barbecue competition. My protagonist, lawyer Alice Greer, is part of the happy crowd under the stars, listening to keyboard geniuses playing varieties of boogie-woogie, a genre which may have begun in the lumber camps of East Texas and still flourishes in Austin. Early in the evening Alice hears “Right Place, Wrong Time,” presaging what happens next. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hf15HrUZ5Wk. The following night she and her romantic interest, Ben Kinsear, attend the Pianorama at the Beer Barn (Alice’s favorite client). Six piano players are trading licks, winding up with Freddie Slack’s “Down the Road A Piece,” with its rippling magic trick at the end, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OX8TPanPKzU, and ending with Slack’s haunting theme song, “Strange Cargo.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQM46xi031M
The crowd demands an encore, Alice listens as the theme grows “more complex, begins to create dreams, memories, ambitions.” The music reflects Alice’s emotions.
Music memory involves several different parts of our brain. “Different types of music-related memory appear to involve different brain regions, for instance when lyrics of a song are remembered, or autobiographical events are recalled associated with a particular piece of music.” https://academic.oup.com/brain/article/138/8/2438/330016
You already know this. Your personal music catalog—music from your past, your present, your childhood, your teenage years, and the new piece of music you just listened to—is with you, quietly ticking away in your brain, available and waiting. And there’s always more to add.
So, you could check out the line-up at Sam’s Town Point. Go Hear Floyd Domino’s All-Stars. Keep filling the music catalog…
Helen Currie Foster writes the Alice MacDonald Greer “Ghost” series, north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She’s fascinated by dirt and water law, as well as human history, and the way the past, uninvited, keeps crashing the party.
Ghost Daughter, Book 7, was named Semifinalist for the BookLife Prize for Mystery/Thriller (“an intriguing and complex narrative”). Book 8 is underway.
I’ve been reading this summer and wanted to share some great books with you!
The Blessing Way is book #1 of the famous Leaphorn and Chee series by Tony Hillerman. This series has been in my TBR (To Be Read) pile for years and I’m happy to say that I finally got around to it! I knew that it would be good because everyone I’ve talked to has loved these books. Even knowing that, I was pleasantly surprised. Leaphorn is interesting and has an inherent understand about people and what makes them tick. His internal dialogue also teaches the reader about his heritage and culture. I honestly found that aspect of the story to be entertaining and enlightening. It was also full of suspenseful action. There’s a seen where a character is stalked by something or someone in the night. That scene was the best in the book! It was chilling and creepy. I loved it. *happy chills*
I’m currently reading book #2, Dance Hall of The Dead and it’s just as creepy and suspenseful.
Good Reads description of The Blessing Way: Homicide is always an abomination, but there is something exceptionally disturbing about the victim discovered in a high lonely place, a corpse with a mouth full of sand, abandoned at a crime scene seemingly devoid of tracks or useful clues. Though it goes against his better judgment, Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn cannot help but suspect the hand of a supernatural killer. There is palpable evil in the air, and Leaphorn’s pursuit of a Wolf-Witch is leading him where even the bravest men fear, on a chilling trail that winds perilously between mysticism and murder.
The second book that I recommend is The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott. It’s also the first in a series, the Chris Cherry series. While it also has a landscape that’s remote, isolated, and vast, this book is quite different. The story is told in alternating chapters from different characters. It took me a bit to get the characters straight, but once I did that, it took off. Scott does an excellent job of capturing the feel of the west Texas landscape and its people, especially bullies in small towns. As most good books, there’s a showdown of sorts and my nerves were raw, waiting to see what happens. It’s not a small book but you’ll be turning pages.
Good Reads description: Seventeen-year-old Caleb Ross is adrift in the wake of the sudden disappearance of his mother more than a year ago, and is struggling to find his way out of the small Texas border town of Murfee. Chris Cherry is a newly minted sheriff’s deputy, a high school football hero who has reluctantly returned to his hometown. When skeletal remains are discovered in the surrounding badlands, the two are inexorably drawn together as their efforts to uncover Murfee’s darkest secrets lead them to the same terrifying suspect: Caleb’s father and Chris’s boss, the charismatic and feared Sheriff Standford “Judge” Ross. Dark, elegiac, and violent, The Far Empty is a modern Western, a story of loss and escape set along the sharp edge of the Texas border. Told by a longtime federal agent who knows the region, it’s a debut novel you won’t soon forget.
Recommendation #3 is South California Purples by Baron R. Birtcher. It’s set in 1973 and starts out with an easy feel of a typical traditional Western. Then rancher Ty Dawson gets conscripted into helping the county’s law enforcement, who seems to have no interest in dealing with the growing problem. When time after time Dawson doesn’t get help from the local cops, Dawson decides to handle matters as he sees fit. If you’re looking for a mix of hard-boiled with a Western, this book fits the bill. Biker gangs vs. cowboys. You know it’s full of action. *trigger warning- it does deal with rape*
From Good Reads: Cattle rancher Ty Dawson, a complex man tormented by elements of his own past, is involuntarily conscripted to assist local law enforcement when a herd of wild mustangs is rounded up and corralled in anticipation of a government auction, igniting the passions of political activist Teresa Pineu, who threatens to fan the flames of an uprising that grows rapidly out of control.
As the past collides with the present, and hostility escalates into brutality and bloodshed, Ty is drawn into a complex web of predatory alliances and corruption where he must choose to stand and fight, or watch as the last remnants of the American West are consumed in a lawless conflagration of avarice and cruelty.
I hope this helps you find some new books. And remember, whenever possible, please try to purchase your books from local, independent bookstores. Thank you!
Driving into New Mexico with my husband (favorite long-time travel companion) I peer anxiously out the car window––I won’t be happy until I spot the first antelope, tiny, almost invisible, bounding across vast pale green ranch pastures below a string of distant mesas. First I look for a white splotch (tell-tale antelope rump), then suddenly spot an entire flock, spread out in the grass. Then, where I-25 crosses the south-running Pecos River, we see the sinuous length of Rowe Mesa, all red rock and green conifers, running for miles to the west. At Ribera we exit south on State Road 3, then climb an impressively steep gravel road to the adobe house of my cherished college classmate friend and her husband. Their house sits in the lap of Rowe Mesa, looking across the broad Pecos valley at its companion, Bernal Mesa. The old house is formal, plastered white inside, with a beautiful ceiling of beams (vigas) supporting the roof. Sticks, or latillas, lie in a formal herringbone pattern between the vigas.
Walking across the property in the cool morning we spot chips from arrowhead manufacture. Our friends have found a spot far above on the edge of the mesa littered with many such chips, where centuries ago an expert sat under a piñon in the shade, “knapping” (flaking) stones to make arrowheads and points. We saunter along, picking up turquoise-colored pebbles from the played-out turquoise mine, reveling in the view across the valley. We hear nothing but the wind in the junipers and piñons and the occasional faraway buzz of a small plane.
My friend has taken us down along the Pecos to see the extensive adobe ruins of the Spanish customs office that once controlled the river crossing into Spanish New Mexico. Further down the river we see the irrigation ditches––acequias––feeding water into Pecos farm plots, before the Pecos narrows into a canyon.
We love this place. But Santa Fe is calling.
To celebrate the June 2021 publication of Ghost Daughter, we’re on Otero Street in Santa Fe, with beauty everywhere. Carved wooden beams over doorways. Intensely colored flower gardens in yards. Curved human-scale adobe houses. Blue sky above adobe walls.
Downtown, Santa Fe offers layers of history––Pueblo architecture, Territorial architecture. In 1920 City officials ordered that buildings in the city be built Pueblo-style. The warm tan of adobe and the cool greens and blue-greens of balconies and window-frames feel soothing, low-rise, solid. Art is in the air, in the gardens, in the architecture, in the shop windows. I double-dog-dare you not to take pictures. Plus there’s an appreciation of burros (which warms the hearts of my three burros).
Along Palace Avenue by the New Mexico Museum of Art, heavy bronze sidewalk plaques celebrate Santa Fe artists. Each plaque features a helmeted conquistador…which seems incongruous for celebrating, say, Georgia O’Keefe or my hero, Gustave Baumann, the German immigrant whose vivid woodcuts tantalize my protagonist Alice in Ghost Daughter. But maybe it’s not incongruous. Baumann says he was drawn by the powerful presence of intermixed layers of history when he jumped off the train in New Mexico in 1918. And the sheer beauty! Mountains and streams! Pueblos! Golden cottonwoods in fall! He left such contributions of art and joy to Santa Fe, with his spectacular prints and the beloved marionette shows in his living room. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i516sAlDgS0
In Ghost Daughter, Alice’s trips to Santa Fe were too fraught. Although she enjoyed El Rey Court, and a hurried lunch at Café Pasqual’s, she missed so much, including the room of Baumann prints in the Owings Gallery. So we go in her stead, riveted by Baumann’s precision and freedom, his intense colors so delicately layered. I want to see his old German printing press…but rats! It’s locked up and unavailable at the history museum.
After wallowing in the Baumanns, we console ourselves with ice cream, sitting in a shady corner by La Lecheria. It’s fun watching passersby. The solitary ones walking briskly by have unsmiling faces like eagles, alert eyes fixed straight ahead. What are they thinking about so intently? Where to lay the next brushstroke on a canvas? Memorizing lines for a play? Where are they going? Then the younger people swoop by with great style, dramatic clothes and makeup, hurrying to work. And of course tourists like us.
Santa Fe calls itself the “City Different.” I feel different here too. Somehow an invisible bubble over the city blocks my usual sharp-edged worries…children, work, the state of the world. At home, open-eyed at some awful hour, I sometimes find refuge in half-awake creativity, envisioning plot possibilities, imagining scenes, hearing characters say surprising things. I’m grateful for a midnight refuge which may (not infallibly, though) trigger ideas for the next day’s writing while distracting me from cares.
But in Santa Fe, if I wake, I listen to the quiet, peer out at the moon and…go back to sleep. After days in Santa Fe, a place weighty with history, so vividly creative, so confident in mixing the very old and very new, the traditional and startling, I feel emboldened.