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.
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.
We’re always searching for a new adventure, a new love. Have you ever pulled a book from the shelf, glance at the back cover, then (with hope in your heart) the first page, and then pushed the book back on the shelf, sure this one won’t do? I have, so many times. Same drill at the library. We usually know from page one (or at most page two) if we’re going to like a new author. If we don’t like the setting, the protagonist, the voice, forget it. But if we do, if we give that book a chance and like it, we look for a series. Bonus points if we find a new series we like! A series is efficient: we already know the protagonist, the repeating characters, many details of the setting. We plunge straight into the story.
Yet sometimes—even when I really like an author’s book—they run together. I may find them exciting, may remember specific scenes, may like the ending. But often a week after I finish a book, even one in a series with a protagonist who enchants me, I can’t quite remember who died. Now that’s embarrassing. As a murder mystery reader, shouldn’t I remember the victim?
If the victim, stuck there on the page, could talk back, maybe he or she would say, “C’mon, reader, give me a break! Don’t you remember how my body was pulled from the [canal] [truck] [hidden grave]? Don’t you remember how hard I was to find? Don’t you remember how excited the [police team] [sleuth] was to figure out who killed me? Can’t you remember me for at least three minutes? I mean, I’m the one your beloved protagonist investigated! I’m the whole point of the book!” And then in a more querulous tone, “Aren’t I?”
Maybe not. We get caught up in the badinage between DI Dalziel and his sidekick Pascoe. They go off to a pub and suddenly we find we’ve opened the refrigerator. We want to be there with them, sitting at that table near the dart board, sipping beer. Or our protagonist is reviewing the grisly evidence while listening to Madame Butterfly, and we find ourselves humming the first phrase of the aria (the only one we know). Maybe we’re really more interested in a favorite protagonist than in the victim. Sorry, Victim. The Protagonist will be in the next book––but you won’t.
On the other hand, now and then, there’s a death that sticks. One that even haunts me, after the denouement, after the explanation, after I finish saying “aha, I spotted that,” or “Hmm, very tricksy.” After all the figuring-out, occasionally I’m still thinking about the victim.
I started wondering about the ones who stick this week when I read two mysteries from Donna Leon, who just published her 30th book, Transient Desires. The title puns on what Donna Leon terms the “Nigerian Mafia” which she describes as smuggling young African women into Italy, promising them jobs which will let them send needed money home to their families, but instead enslaving them as sex workers or—occasionally—taking their transport money while throwing them into the Mediterranean to drown. In Transient Desires, Leon introduces us first to a young woman who survived the sea crossing but is being driven mad by her enslavement. Then we meet a naïve young Venetian man, desperate to keep a job with his boat-owning uncle which allows him to support his mother. The young man is slowly being destroyed by what his uncle forces him to do. These two portraits stick in my mind.
I also read Leon’s 22d book, The Golden Egg, where her protagonist, Venetian Inspector Guido Brunetti, must determine whether a young deaf man committed suicide by swallowing his mother’s tranquilizers, or was murdered. Which? Brunetti is stunned that the Serene Republic of Venice, which keeps tab of virtually every aspect of every inhabitant’s life, has no record of this young man. He’s unaccounted for: no school, no paying job, nothing. Brunetti learns he toiled his life away ironing clothes in a laundry, unpaid, speaking to no one, with no one speaking to him. He was never taught sign language, never taught how to interact with people. He lived in Venice where people know and speak to their neighbors and shopkeepers…but no one spoke to him. Brunetti doggedly unearths the peculiar cruelty of the people who kept him alive but didn’t teach him to live…parents who never talked to him, never taught him, never allowed anyone to reach out to him. Even worse, if worse is possible, Brunetti discovers the boy had a rare artistic talent—appreciated only by the boy’s doctor—that the boy never knew was worthy of recognition. Donna Leon’s description of one of the boy’s drawings, one the doctor has on his wall, brings home to the reader the two-fold tragedy: that the boy never knew his creations were beautiful, and that the world was deprived of knowing the human being who created such beauty. He was trapped. And he died without ever escaping. That’s a victim I cannot forget.
What aboutThe Nine Tailors(1934), by Dorothy Sayers?. This classic tale, often called her best, has all the charming hallmarks of a carefully constructed village-and-vicar English mystery, including the peculiarly English tradition of bell-ringing. We’ve got it all here: stolen jewels, a letter written in cipher, and an unidentified male body with no hands. The setting: the fens of East Anglia, with drainage ditches, locks, and ever-shifting floodwaters, and the contrasting grandeur of the ancient fen churches whose spires, with their enormous bells, mark the landscape. On New Year’s Eve, with the great influenza raging, Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet Bunter wreck the car and become lost in a snowstorm. They’re rescued by the vicar of Fenchurch St. Paul, who proudly announces that his bell-ringers are going to ring in the New Year with “no less than fifteen thousand, eight hundred and forty Kent Treble Bob Majors”—nine hours of bell-ringing. When one ringer, Will Thoday, is struck down by influenza, the vicar begs Wimsey to take his place. Wimsey later finds a recently buried man with no hands. As to why the victim has no hands, and how he was killed—is it a spoiler to emphasize, reader, that you do not want to be tied up, unable to escape, in a bell-chamber just above those enormous thousand-year-old bells while they ring unceasingly for nine hours? That victim’s death has stayed with me. But also, the circumstances which led to in his entrapment in the bell tower resulted in such grief for three characters that their lives are changed forever. That stayed with me too. No happy Sayers-esque denouement here. Instead, characters are condemned to remember. As to the title, the Nine Tailors are the nine strokes of the tenor bell—three, three, and three more—rung to mark a death in the parish.
Fans of Tony Hillerman will remember The Wailing Wind, where NavajoDetective Joe Leaphorn is hired by Wiley Denton, a wealthy older man recently released from prison for shooting a man named McKay, who had promised Denton a map to a fabled gold mine. Denton wants Leaphorn to find out what happened years ago at Halloween to his beloved young wife, Linda. The convoluted plot takes the reader through numerous twists and turns, but the gold mine convolutions aren’t what I remember. Instead I remember that McKay, all those years ago, drugged Linda and left her in a locked bunker (one of hundreds of identical bunkers in an untravelled area on the vast grounds of Fort Wingate), hoping to use her as leverage to get the deal he wanted from Denton. Denton shot McKay, not knowing that McKay had hidden Linda. So she died, slowly mummified, in a bunker in the Arizona desert. Now that’s one that sticks with me.
I’ve been wondering why I found these particular victims so hard to forget. You’ll have noticed that all were trapped.Transient Desires involves economic entrapment—slavery, really. Both the young Nigerian and the young Venetian have no economic hope, no way to escape doing what they hate. The Golden Egg reveals a young man cruelly trapped by isolation, deprived of human communication, deprived of any way to express an enormous talent. In Nine Tailors and The Wailing Wind, the victim’s death by physical entrapment creates another trap: those involved are trapped by their memories.
I wonder if the rank injustice that Leon depicts is part of the staying power of Transient Desires and The Golden Egg. Particularly in The Golden Egg, Brunetti feels helpless, and we share his frustration, his horror, really, at the young man’s death, and at the society that allowed it to happen. To that extent I’m still identifying with Brunetti, not the victim.
I’ve hidden my murder victims in enclosed spaces. Ghost Cave.
Maybe we identify more with the victim when reading about a death caused by physical entrapment, whether the victim’s tied up in a bell-tower or locked in an isolated bunker, where no one can hear the call for help (the bells are too loud, or the bunker too soundproof). Doesn’t that reverberate with all of us? We’re generally confident we could escape from most situations, could chew off the ropes on our wrist, pick the lock, find a secret passage, get a message to our rescuers. Fool the witch and chop down the beanstalk. But what if there’s no one to hear? No one to help? No way to get out? End of story. Not comfortable. Awfully memorable. Awfully.
Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery series. Her latest novel is Ghost Cat. Read more about her here.
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.
Lately I’ve been thinking about remarkable people who never got to see the significance of their work, regardless of its brilliance. People whose minds moved so fast their words didn’t compute, for most listeners. People whose contributions went unrecognized for many years. And if they hadn’t written down their ideas? Maybe eventually someone would have made the same discoveries, but when?
Here are just three.
I’d never heard of Simon Stevin until I read Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World (2014), on how modernity reached the shores of the North Sea. Stevin, born illegitimate in Bruges in 1548, worked as a book-keeper in Antwerp, and then enlisted at the liberal new Leiden University. He produced a book on double-entry book-keeping and another on figuring the interest on borrowed money, when publishing such hard-won information was a subversive revolutionary act. This “engineer, book-keeper, king of numbers,” per Pye, wanted to make math work in the everyday world.
Stevin tutored his student friend Prince Maurits in math, beginning a lifelong association. He made the prince a sailing chariot for the beach, with two sails, four great wheels, and flags flying. Stevin informed the prince the earth went around the sun. When Maurits became king, Stevin became an army engineer, devising, pumps, dredgers, windmills. He produced an influential treatise on fortifications and another on how to calculate longitude at sea. He wrote a book asking Dutch cities to adopt uniform money measures, suggested a decimal system, founded a mathematics curriculum at Leiden. And he wrote down these ideas! Stevin’s dream, that explaining practical mathematics would help his country thrive, eventually came true––though not necessarily in his lifetime.
You already know about the world’s first computer programmer? Another who did not live to see her work recognized is Countess Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter. At seventeen she began helping mathematician Charles Babbage with his “difference machine” for math calculations. In 1843 she published an article in an English science journal describing processes we now call computer programs, including how to create codes using letters and symbols as well as numbers. She died of uterine cancer in 1852, at 37. Her work came to public attention in 1953 when B.V. Bowden republished her notes in Faster than Thought: A Symposum on Digital Computing Machines. In 1980 the U.S. Department of Defense named a new computer language “Ada.”
“We’re still catching up with one of the greatest minds of the last century.” That’s Anthony Gottlieb, “The New Yorker,” May 4, 2020, on Frank P. Ramsey. Ramsey––a Cambridge (UK) scholar whose genial brilliance intimidated his professors when he appeared on campus at 18––died at only 26, in 1930. Economists, philosophers and mathematicians are still exploring the “Ramsey effect” on their disciplines. He was immediately taken up by Maynard Keynes, and refuted Keynes’s fuzzy notions of probability. He was tapped to translate Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” from German–as the only German speaker available who could not only understand what Wittgenstein was trying to say, but say it more clearly (he reportedly dictated his translation).In one paper he created two math theorems which, decades after his death, became part of the “Ramsey theory” analyzing order and disorder. (See video of a student working a Ramsey probability problem). Ramsey’s modesty about his astounding abilities made him appear almost offhand about his accomplishments.
Yes!–– at dinner with Maynard Keynes. “Ramsay [sic], the unknown guest, was something like a Darwin, broad, thick, powerful & a great mathematician, & clumsy to boot. Honest I should say, a true Apostle.” Keynes at least tangentially belonged, with Virginia and Leonard Woolf, to the Bloomsbury group, which included several members of the select Cambridge “Apostles” club (including Leonard Woolf). In 1927, Woolf published To the Lighthouse about a family she called the Ramsays, where Mr. Ramsay, a professor, fears that though he has reached Q, he lacks genius and will never be able to think his way past Q, that he’ll never reach R: “How many men in a thousand million, he asked himself, reach Z after all?” If Woolf had known then what we know now she’d have known Frank Ramsey could easily have reached R and zoomed on past Z.
Okay, I admit I took the Special Math Course for English Majors to get my math graduation credit. Yes, I did. Nevertheless I’m doggedly staggering through the first full biography of Ramsey, Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers, by Cheryl Misak (Oxford Press 2020), fascinated by his mind and especially his lightly worn “sheer excess of powers.” I might, even, try to find his 1926 paper about truth and subjective probability, where he said we should take account of people’s judgment of probability.”
Now there’s a pungent topic for mystery writers. At every turn, our characters use subjective probability to make decisions. “Can I kill without being caught?” “Can I catch this villain without being killed?” “Have I examined all the what-if’s here?” “What are the chances anyone will recognize me?” Suspense lies in decisions made on subjective probability.
Okay, so Ramsey died without knowing that ninety years later University of Georgia students in hoodies, poised at the whiteboard, would be filming explanations of “Ramsey Theory.” Ada Lovelace died without knowing the Defense Department would name a computer language for her. If asked, would she have preferred Countess? Would she be fascinated by the world of hacking? Simon Stevin would drive our city streets, ready to opine on public transportation–would he recommend air-conditioned tubes, with moving sidewalks, to move people east and west across Austin? Or possibly a sailboat with wheels?
Now we come to you. Yes, you. How will we know what you thought?
Stevin, Lovelace and Ramsey at least published some of their work. You can go farther. You own your copyright as soon as your work is “fixed.” You can also provide notice of copyright by using the symbol or the word “Copyright” and your name and the year of first publication, and registering your copyright by paying the required fee and depositing required copy(ies) of your work, thereby creating a public record of your copyright claim. (See details and requirements here.)
That’s at least a start. As for Aeschylus, only seven of his seventy to ninety tragedies remain intact. Sophocles? Only seven of over a hundred remain. Euripides? Eighteen of over ninety-five remain. Sappho? We have only two complete poems out of her nine books of verse, from the woman the ancients called “the tenth Muse.”
Will depositing your work at the Library of Congress––oh yes, you must––give us some assurance we can know your ideas, your writings, a century hence? The Alexandrian Library didn’t fare so well. Nor did the Dresden Sächsische Landesbibliothek which lost perhaps 200,000 volumes in the Allied bombing of the Dresden historic center. The 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Library burned 400,000 books.
No guarantees, but it’s a start. At least try to leave the world a copy. Even if you leave us too soon, even if fame has not yet arrived…you never know. A century from now, maybe…?
So, did you dress up for Halloween? Did you buy a mask in New Orleans, or Venice, perhaps one with feathers? What would you wear to a costume ball?
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell the truth.” Oscar Wilde
“Man is a make-believe animal—he is never so truly himself as when he is acting a part.” William Hazlitt
Both statements have some truth. Maybe Oscar Wilde meant that when we can hide our faces, or adopt a disguise, we feel free to do what we want––without hesitation or regret. Yell “trick or treat!” Dance at the masked ball as a glamorous mystery person! Rob the stagecoach! Maybe writers understand Hazlitt: we’re at our best, writing, as we invent characters, invent parts for the characters, invent disguises. Yes, we’re at our best “acting a part…” and we act many parts as we write.
At my college there was a costume room where students could buy clothes from decades earlier. One year a group of us rummaged around and found remarkable outfits which we’d don sometimes for fun. For $1.50 I acquired a stunning long black silk evening sheath from maybe 1919, with black sequin trim under the bodice, slits in the sides of the skirt, and two long black “wings” attached to the shoulders that I could use like a shawl, or like… wings. When I put that dress on––SHAZAM! I wasn’t a young thing from Texas, I was the embodiment of glamour. (Where is that dress?) So, what’s the outfit you wear, or dream about, when you’re ready to put on that black cat-eyed mask from (New Orleans) (Venice) and enter the party? The disguise you’d choose? The disguise that would let you do what you want, learn what you want, go where you want?
Two genres especially abound in disguise: children’s literature, and mysteries.
Disguise lets us learn what may otherwise be unavailable. Think of T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, where Merlyn (White’s spelling) enchants Wart (the future King Arthur) by turning him into a perch in the moat. Wart learns to swim from a fish called a tench, who reminds him, “Put your back into it.” He’s taken to learn about power from the King of the Moat, a murderously hungry four-foot long fish: “The power of strength decides everything in the end, and only Might is right.” He learns from his night as a merlin, in the terrifying catechism imposed by the peregrine, that the first law of the foot is “Never to let go.”
Harry Potter, Hermione and Ron need information to foil the Dark Lord, and to raid Gringotts Bank and the Ministry of Magic. They resort to the invisibility cloak, or use Polyjuice Potion to look like Bellatrix, or Crabbe and Goyle.
But knowledge won by disguise carries peril. Wart barely survives the unscrupulous King of the Moat, having to dive “the heartiest jack-knife he had ever given.” The moment when Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak slips, when the Polyjuice potion wears off, threatens exposure and punishment.
Kim, in Kipling’s beloved novel, disguises himself to learn secrets as a child spy for the Company’s intelligence service in India. But Kim doesn’t see disguise as work. He revels in the sheer joy of successful impersonation. He rejoices in the walnut dye that lets him escape on a railroad journey to meet his lama, where he tries out various personae, explaining to the passengers “that he was assistant to a juggler who had left him behind sick with fever.” As the occupants of the train car change, “he varied this tale, or adorned it with all the shoots of a budding fancy…” This joyous talent becomes dangerous as he adopts Mohammedan garb, spying for Mahbub Ali, and priestly garb as he chases Russian spies across the Himalayan foothills.
Maybe Kim’s an exemplar of Hazlitt’s statement, that “man is never so truly himself as when he is acting a part.” When fate requires a disguise—or just for fun on the Indian railway––Kim uses all of himself to create that disguise, summoning memory, imagination, accent, intonation, clothing, gesture, posture. As actors do! Perhaps all these disguises are part of him…though not all of him.
Like Kim, Sherlock Holmes (or Arthur Conan Doyle) loves disguise. Remember “A Scandal in Bohemia?” Disguises everywhere! First, a client sporting a “black vizard mask” seeks help from Sherlock Holmes. The client’s disguised as the Count von Kramm, a Bohemian nobleman, but confesses he’s actually King of Bohemia. He wants Holmes to “repossess” (snitch) a compromising photograph of the King and the famous beauty Irene Adler.
Holmes himself then adopts disguises. First, to spy on Adler, he appears as “a drunken-looking groom, ill-kempt and side-whiskered, with an inflamed face and disreputable clothes,” so convincing that Watson “had to look three times before I was certain that it was indeed he.” Next he plots a disguise to gain entry to Adler’s house, where the photograph is hidden:
“He disappeared into his bedroom and returned in a few minutes in the character of an amiable and simple-minded Nonconformist clergyman. His broad black hat, his baggy trousers, his white tie, his sympathetic smile, and general look of peering and benevolent curiosity were such as Mr. John Hare alone could have equaled.”
Watson notes that it was not merely that Holmes changed his costume: “His expression, his manner, his very soul seemed to vary with every fresh part that he assumed. The stage lost a fine actor, even as science lost an acute reasoner, when he became a specialist in crime.”
But Conan Doyle fools us yet again. Holmes orchestrates a street melée whereby a crowd (of accomplices) carry the clergyman into Adler’s house. When Watson throws a fire rocket through the window, Holmes, as predicted, sees Adler rush toward the photograph’s hiding place. On their way back to Baker Street Holmes happily tells Watson about his ploy, but as he searches for his door key, he hears “Good-night, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” from “a slim youth in an ulster who had hurried by.”
Foiled again––Holmes, that is. Irene Adler, disguised as a boy, has followed him home and confirmed the “clergyman” was Holmes. The next morning Holmes and Watson discover her house is empty, the photograph’s gone, and his disguises were in vain. That’s “how the best plans of Mr. Sherlock Holmes were beaten by a woman’s wit,” says Watson.
Holmes does love a good disguise, and maybe that’s why he can recognize one. For another example of his Hazlitt-esque behavior, see “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” where Watson almost doesn’t recognize Holmes as an aged opium smoker, and Holmes susses out the (disguised) truth about the disappearance of a client’s highly respectable husband by (literally) washing clean the face of a notorious street beggar.
Josephine Tey teases us with disguise in Brat Farrar where the mystery turns on whether Brat Farrar, a young man who introduces himself as the long-lost heir to the Ashby family estate, is or is not Patrick Ashby, thought to have killed himself, leaving his minutes younger twin Simon as putative heir. Simon will be dispossessed if Brat Farrar is for real. The point of view is frequently in in Brat’s head, and we must decide if we like this disguised pretender as a protagonist, or not. He himself is ambivalent, arguing with himself about the whole scheme: On the one hand, he thinks, “But I’m not a crook! I can’t do something that is criminal.” But then: “All he could do was sit in the saddle and hope for the best. But at least it would be a breath-taking ride; a unique, heart-stopping ride. Danger to life and limb he was used to; but far more exciting was this new mental danger, this pitting of wits.” As he feels his way along, still in disguise, Brat slowly learns who did kill Patrick. That knowledge nearly kills Brat Farrar.
New Zealand’s Ngaio Marsh has the murderer disguise his or her true identity in both Photo Finish and A Clutch of Constables. In the first case, the murderer creates a new identity from whole cloth. He accidentally gives himself away to Detective Rory Alleyn in part when Alleyn overhears his soft-voiced use of a Mafia expression. In A Clutch of Constables, the murderer––a master of disguise––entirely steals another’s identity, including his butterfly-hunting expertise, for the duration of a cruise. He relishes his persona and manipulates the unwitting characters like chess pieces on the board of the plot––more in the Hazlitt manner, being most truly himself as he throws himself into the role.
Mystery writers disguise their murderers, their sleuths, sometimes their victims, sometimes their protagonists. I use disguise in my new murder mystery Ghost Cat. I’ll be interested in what you think. Happy reading and writing, everyone!
Last week Big D hosted the Bouchercon book conference. Two sessions made me wonder why we’re drawn to particular book characters, and how key they are to readers.
At the Bouchercon “Success in Publishing” panel, a speaker said, “People read for character. Conflict turns pages.” A second speaker said she’ll re-read a writer’s submittal if, the next day, she remembers the characters.
Best-selling author Elizabeth George (Inspector Lynley series) told a spellbound audience (me too) that for a new book, before she starts writing anything else, she creates her characters and settings.
George designs her characters to “reflect the human heart in conflict.” Sometimes she’ll have as many as six characters telling the story from their point of view. She creates a character prompt sheet, deciding, for each, what is this character’s real need? She considers the character’s psychopathology: what would the character do under stress? If the character appears only once, what is the character’s agenda in that scene?
George then decides, where does this novel begin? Only then does she start to outline the first ten scenes. Each must be causally related to another scene. She then writes a rough draft of those first ten scenes, and repeats the process for the next ten scenes. Nothing is set in concrete.
In the tug-of-war for primacy between plot and character, what gives a character “pull”? If we “read for character,” which characters really attract us––perhaps even more than a forceful plot? What does Elizabeth George mean––the human heart in conflict?
Each of you has your own list of favorite characters, some from favorite childhood books. Take Charlotte’s Web. I’m fond of the pig Wilbur, and the child Fern. I empathize with Wilbur’s terror when he’s being chased for the slaughter. But Charlotte…isn’t she the magnet? Aren’t we as fixated on her as Wilbur is? Using Elizabeth George’s approach, how is Charlotte’s spiderly heart in conflict? We know she’s determined to teach Wilbur how to survive. We know that a spider has no duty to befriend an orphan pig. Conflict? We know by the end that Charlotte has spent her last days using her remaining energy to teach Wilbur what he needs to know, while fully aware that her own end is nigh. We’re drawn to Charlotte’s generosity, her clever planning, her foresight, her perseverance: we admire her. Like Wilbur we hope for her approval. Do we empathize with her? Yes, when she’s working so hard on those webs. We feel her exhaustion! We too are swinging from one side of the web to the other! Wilbur has learned from Charlotte’s work, too. Perhaps he has learned gratitude? Awe? Aw.
We’re also drawn to childhood characters who learn. Think of that little sourpuss Mary in The Secret Garden. Readers can empathize with her lonely railroad journey to a place where she knows no one, but honestly, she is essentially unlikable: rude, willful, suspicious, unkind. Her heart distrusts the world. As the gorse bushes blossom and the downs bloom, as the children find their way to each other and into the secret garden, Mary slowly changes, slowly learns friendship, slowly learns generosity. We see from her eyes, hear with her ears, and experience her transformation ourselves.
What about Kim? This little orphan, footloose in the Raj, asks himself the great question: “Who is Kim?” Is he English? Hindu? Pathan? Who deserves his loyalty? I love Kim’s rapid costume changes, his effortless switches of vernacular as he deals with beggars, farmers with sick children, high-born old ladies in their palanquins. I itch for him in the woolen school uniform he must wear when sent off to a miserable English school, separated from the beloved Tibetan lama he has adopted. Kipling’s rich plot takes Kim (and us) across India and up into the high cool hills of the Himalayas, as Kim is initiated into the perilous Great Game of spying between the British and the Russians. Such a rich plot––secret messages, invisible ink, spies dressed as beggars, hypnotic jewel games––could dominate the characters. I don’t think it does. On one long day of healing after Kim finishes his exhausting trip from the high hills down to the plains, carrying the sick lama, we experience Kim’s discovery. The lama finds his long-sought river, and Kim begins to know who he is.
Okay, one last favorite character from that grand tale, Lonesome Dove. The question “which is your favorite character…?” occasioned great debate at our house. I opt for Gus. We meet him at the beginning, we see what he sees, hear what he thinks, we know just how he feels as the sun slowly––finally––sinks low enough in the first chapter that he can stalk out to the adobe springhouse to get his jug and have a swig in the dab of shade on the porch. We see other characters through his eyes. But I also admire Gus: I admire his taking care to help Lorena survive, his concern for Newt. I hate that Deets dies, that the little Irish boys die, but I can ascribe that to fate (as wielded by Larry McMurtry). Gus is different. Oh, yes, the author made me care for other characters on that long drive to Montana. But I personally experienced most of the book from Gus’s saddle, as if I were perched right behind him. I don’t want McMurtry to let Gus ride over that hill.… Gus, don’t go over that hill!
Oh, and let’s add A Gentleman in Moscow. Mmm, that tenacious Count Rostov.
My favorites share some qualities: generosity, intelligence, some humor. But in addition, despite their human hearts in conflict, they choose to take action, action potentially at odds with their own interests, despite personal danger and fear of loss. So, throw determination in there too.