You know those friends you haven’t seen in so long? The ones you really miss? And that feeling you get when you finally get to share company again? That’s what I’m feeling right now. We’ve been through some things together, seen some stuff, pulled through some tough times.
I should clarify that I’m talking about my imaginary friends.
Private investigator Jamie Rush, and her partner, Cookie Hinojosa, are back in Port Alene with a new case, and I’m thrilled to be back in their world. Deuce the wonder bulldog is still charming people wherever he goes (usually at the pub, pier, or beach), and Marty is keeping the drinks flowing at Hemingway’s. Erin’s booking business is hopping, and her clients are saltier than the Gulf Coast.
This new case, though? It’s going to change things in Port Alene forever.
It all started simply enough.
A small request from a family friend.
One Deadly Secret.
No Time to Lose.
PI Jamie Rush has her hands full with small-time skip-tracing and surveillance jobs in Port Alene, Texas. The work is steady, though she still struggles to make ends meet. But when her partner, Cookie, brings in a low-paying and potentially time-consuming case, Jamie takes it on out of loyalty.
Cookie’s childhood friend, Renata, needs to find her younger sister, Leah. As Jamie digs into Leah’s past, it becomes clear that the missing woman’s life was shrouded in secrets, the kind that could jeopardize those involved in the case.
To complicate matters, PI Alastair Finn has returned, and he’s willing to reclaim his town by any means necessary. Jamie has never been one to retreat, and Alastair enjoys a good fight. Sparks will fly.
A missing woman. Felonies. Finn’s return. Every twist reminds Jamie that she’s still an outsider in this town. Jamie must prove herself all over again, and the stakes have never been higher.
Pub Day for DEPTHS OF DECEIT is May 31,2022.
If you’d like to spend time with Jamie’s crew, you can pick up a copy for a special pre-order price here:https://amzn.to/3KvSUO
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 said to my critique partner this morning, The whole project is stinky it stinks it’s fatally flawed just nothing no hope.
She said, But Chapter 13 is so good so funny Molly is so funny it’s not stinky.
I said, Yes, the first part of chapter 13 and the last part of chapter 13 are funny and very very good but there’s still no middle of chapter 13 and what there is stinks and anyway the other 47,000 words stink except for a few hundred here and there.
And she said, But the middle could be revised and edited it has promise.
I said, But it won’t work because I have written myself into a hole and can’t get out so I have to trash that part and anyway the whole concept stinks.
And she said, NO you can fix it just keep going because I like Molly she’s so funny.
And that is why I go to critique group every blessed week.
Writing is a solitary activity, but most of writing isn’t writing. It’s rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting. And then it’s revising and revising. And editing editing editing. And rewriting again. And . . .
Sometimes it’s whingeing and complaining and eating peanut butter out of the jar with a spoon and buying larger clothes and telling Molly she’s a heartless ***** who doesn’t deserve one paragraph of her own, much less a whole book.
And it’s feeling like a fraud when you tell people you’re a writer and deciding you’d be happier if you gave up and dedicated yourself to French cookery or tatting or riding a unicycle.
But if you’re lucky, it’s also going to critique group and then going home and writing and writing and writing and . . .
Here’s the way Austin Mystery Writers work: We email first drafts, revised drafts, or final (almost) drafts, depending on where we are in the process.
We read all the week’s submissions, then sit around a table–or on one side of a table in front of a monitor displaying partners in little Zoom squares–and talk about what each member has written.
Criticism here doesn’t mean trashing. It means that each member points out what the writer has done well and what she might have done better. Sometimes we suggest examples of better–the “experts” say that’s not proper, but it works for us–and sometimes we simply say what we think doesn’t work so well without elaborating. Sometimes we disagree; one person doesn’t like a word or sentence or paragraph, while another thinks it’s fine. Sometimes we all chime in and discuss ideas.
Then we say, “Thank you.”
Because we’ve become friends during our association, we can say what we think and appreciate what the others say.
We encourage one another.
We also laugh a lot.
Because of AMW, I’ve published short stories and co-written one novella.
Because of AMW, I’ve become a better writer.
I posted “Why I Go to Critique Group” (one time I titled it “Why I Go to Critique Group and Can’t Afford Not To”) on my personal blog on July 9, 2010, when Gale Albright and I were members of the two-person Just for the Hell of It Writers, which was soon swallowed up by Austin Mystery Writers (a consummation devoutly to be wished).
I periodically pull the piece out and repost it.
Because it’s important.
Has anyone noticed that the em dash (—) in my posts looks like an en dash (–)? I can’t help it. Sometimes I find an em dash on a grammar website (like now) and copy and paste into my post, but right now I’m just not in the mood. But I’d like picky readers, like myself, to know that I’m aware of the error and wish the platform would correct it,
Kathy Waller posts on her personal blog, Telling the Truth, Mainly, http://kathywaller1.com. She’s published the works pictured above, the first three with Wildside Press, the last, co-written with Manning Wolfe, by Starpath. She has finally decided the ancient pre-published book is not stinky and has hopes of finishing it one day. If her critique partners agree.
First off, the best job I ever had (short of writing mysteries) was teaching. And yes, I taught Middle Schoolers, which most people think is the worst possible teaching job you can have. Not me. I loved the students, and I loved my fellow teachers and staff. The kids were sponges. As long as you weren’t a jerk to them, they weren’t a jerk to you. And when they succeeded, both teacher and student won. The same could be said for all of us school employees who came to work every day to help those students become educated, excellent citizens.
What does that have to do with Sisters in Crime? Well, this time I’M the student, and my fellow chapter members and I are the sponges, learning as much as we possibly can to be better writers, readers and business people.
Sisters in Crime (SinC), both on the national level and the chapter levels, provides the teaching. The organization is based solely on helping readers and writers, women and men to learn their craft and sell their books.
SinC is the premier crime writing association focused on equity and inclusion in our community and in publishing. The association, founded in 1986, has 4500+ members who enjoy access to tools to help them learn, grow, improve, thrive, reinvent if necessary, and to share the lessons they’ve learned during their mystery writing experience.
4500+ members? That’s a whole lot of folks to learn from!
SinC National offers many resources to mystery readers and writers. They support a large international network of local chapter with grants, webinars, a central bank of crime-writing research, etc. They support local libraries and independent bookstores. National also provides a monthly newsletter called inSinC which is sent to every member.
Local chapters are where the meatiest teaching takes place. In the last year, our Heart of Texas Chapter centered in Austin, Texas, hosted a plethora of programs spanning the mystery writing need-to-know list. NY Times Bestselling author L.R. Ryan shared her secrets to plotting the blockbuster novel. Cathy DeYoung, a former LAPD CSI fingerprint analyst (and the inspiration for the character of Abby on the TV show, NCIS) walked us through the steps of exploring a crime scene. Mike Kowis, a mild-mannered tax attorney for a Fortune 500 company AND a fellow author, taught us the ins and out of the tax code for authors and other legal matters. Oh, and we were graced with a frank Q & A with the U.S. District Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.
Honestly. Why would a writer not want to learn from these experts?? And these incredible lessons all were brought together through the Sisters in Crime organizations.
Once you get past the realization that we kill people for a living (on the page, of course), crime writers and readers are a very supportive, very giving group of people. And Sisters in Crime is the best way to get to know them.
Well. Today I planned to get out of bed and be perfect. It didn’t work that way.
First I had a fight getting a certain video to embed properly in a certain site. It was a very nice video, and I was trying to help a friend, but the video began with an ad about a cure for toenail fungus, complete with pictures. That was not what I had in mind, and it was certainly not what my friend had in mind. The fight took longer than it should have. I’m afraid to look back to see if the cure–for the video, not the toenail fungus–is still working.
Then while I fought, my breakfast, thanks to a kind husband, sat on the table beside the recliner where I was working, and I looked up and saw Ernest the Cat had designs on it. Yesterday I found him stretching upward, his paw in my bacon. He’s never tasted bacon, but he’d like to. I rescued breakfast.
So now I’m sitting here in my Snoopy and Woodstock nightshirt, entirely inappropriate attire for a woman of my age and respectability, recovering from a major fume.
I knew I should have put on makeup as soon as I got out of bed. Yesterday I did so for the first time in ages–let’s face it, staying home for seventeen months straight changes one’s attitude toward personal grooming–and with makeup, the day went better.
I used a face cream, which I thought might be a night cream but didn’t have my glasses on and so couldn’t tell but risked it anyway. And it did wonders for the wrinkles around my eyes, filled them right in.
I put on enough blush that a ship on troubled seas would need no lighthouse to warn it away from perilous rocks, so I wiped some of it off. I used eye shadow, maybe too much, but I didn’t wipe that off because behind my glasses it’s invisible anyway. I applied lipstick.
Then I used my curling iron. That’s problematic because something is wrong with my shoulders–no rotator cuff tears, but the arms don’t like to go up as far as they should, like to the top of my head, and I refuse to go back to PT and have a bunch of skinny infants tell me I’m doing the exercises wrong, when all I’m doing is executing them faster than prescribed because I want to get them over with and go home.
But anyway, I made the effort and used the curling iron, and then I even brushed my hair, and the day really did go better. I imagine my husband was relieved. He’s staying in self-imposed quarantine, too, and there’s not much visual variety inside. I’m probably the reason he spends so much time looking at the cats.
Anyway, I spent the next part of my better yesterday deciding that I spend too much time watching television. That wasn’t a difficult decision, since I’ve watched all the BritBox offerings at least three times. I like to watch TV shows and movies more than once; the more often I watch, the less attention I have to pay to know what’s going on. But it seemed time to unsubscribe. After all, I still have Prime and ROKU.
I also decided I wasn’t listening to enough music–I used to have music going all the time–so I upgraded Spotify in hopes it will play what I tell it to, like it used to, instead of what it wants to. I went all the way up to 99 cents a month. I’m not sure 99 cents is enough to do what I expected. I want Max Morath playing piano rags–he has the best touch I’ve ever heard. And Brian Stokes Mitchell, whose name I can rarely remember without prompting, singing a certain song from South Pacific, which I’m afraid is not in the repertoire.
But there’s an out. If I’m not happy, I can always go back to Acorn TV, which I subscribed to years ago. I watch mostly British programs. The accents are comforting.
Anyway, having progressed from cussing a certain website to discussing television, I’ll move into the main idea of this post, which my high school English teacher said I should do in the first paragraph, but I’m old enough to break the rules.
The main idea is TV shows I like–old TV shows. I’m always reading the backlist, so why shouldn’t I do the same for viewing?
Here they are, in no particular order:
Kavanaugh QC, starring John Thaw as a London barrister, a senior member of River Court chambers, who usually appears for the defense but sometimes prosecutes. The antithesis of Thaw’s former character, the irascible Inspector Morse, Kavanaugh is even-tempered and respected by both colleagues and opposing counsel. A family man, he is also, like many protagonists in crime fiction, a workaholic, but his character plays against type when his wife accepts a job with the European Union based in Strasbourg, and he must adjust his own life to accommodate hers. Some mild comic relief is provided by a snobbish colleague in chambers, Jeffrey Aldermarten, but Kavanaugh’s cases are serious, no comedy there. His goal is justice, which he often finds difficult to deliver, even when he wins his cases.
Wycliffe, based on W. J. Burley’s novels. Jack Shepherd stars as Detective Superintendent Charley Wycliffe, whose territory covers the coast of Cornwall. He is quiet, thoughtful, and good at his job, but not interested in advancement. He’s often at odds with his Deputy Chief Constable, who is concerned with budget restraints and with convincing Wycliff to run his division from the office rather than work cases himself. The Chief Constable and others often urge Wycliffe to apply for promotion–and to retire. He is assisted by two Detective Inspectors, Doug Kersey and Lucy Lane. Kersey is a solitary man, lonely, quietly and hopelessly attracted to Lucy. Lucy, as ambitious as Wycliffe is not, finds promotion is based more on sexual politics than on ability. Cases in this series are serious, but scenes of Wycliffe’s family life, while not comedic, sometimes lighten the intensity. Emphasis is on human relationships, not on just police procedure.
Line of Duty, another police procedural, which ran for six seasons and has received numerous awards, including being ranked third in a Radio Times 2018 poll of the best British crime dramas of all time. The series begins with a young Steve Arnott being transferred to the Anti-Corruption unit because he has refused to cover up a mistake made during a raid in which he took part. Corruption in the department goes deeper, however, than anyone suspects, and the lives of members of the unit are sometimes in danger, even from their own colleagues. Twists and turns abound; it appears that no one is completely clean–or they can be made to appear bent–and the viewer continually wonders whom he can trust, and even whom he can like. What makes the series especially satisfying is that the plot isn’t strictly linear–it circles around; events that seemed to be resolved in early episodes emerge as catalysts toward the end. Gritty doesn’t begin to describe Line of Duty. You’ll thank yourself for watching. I’ve seen it twice and might watch it again. And yet, I’m not sure I want to.
A Touch of Frost. I love this series, the early episodes of which are based on the novels of R. D. Wingfield. David Jason stars as William “Jack” Frost, an experienced detective with the Denton Police Force, who does everything his way. Superintendent “Horn Rimmed Harry” Mullet admires Frost’s abilities but would love to retire him, downsize him, generally get rid of him–Frost is famous for neglecting paperwork, which gets Mullet in trouble up the line, and for happily putting his foot in his mouth, with generally amusing results. But Frost is the Chief Constable’s fair-haired boy–he once subdued an armed man, was shot, and won the George Cross for bravery. Frost is a flawed individual, as the best characters are. Privately, the award embarrasses him, since his heroism was the result of his being drunk on duty–he’d just made up his mind to leave an unhappy marriage when his wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and he carelessly risked his life because he knew he had to stay with her. In the first episode, Frost is widowed; a series of relationships fail because his job always comes first. But he is loyal to his colleagues and becomes especially fond of a young man who serves as his assistant. And although he has no tolerance for crime, he often feels compassion and understanding for those who commit it. The series comes to an end that is both sad and satisfactory, like many of Frost’s cases. The popular series ended when David Jason retired, saying at sixty-eight he was older than any real police detective, and that he couldn’t imagine filming Frost in a wheelchair.
All of these mystery/thriller/police procedurals, and many others, are available on Prime as well as on BritBox and other subscription services.
Now I shall divest myself of my Snoopy shirt, don some regular clothes–also known as rags, but these days, only one human and two cats see them, and they don’t care–and apply makeup. Maybe I’ll wear enough blush to be a lighthouse. With the amount of rain we’ve been having, I might end up being useful.
Photographs of actors are television screenshots taken by me. Photograph of Snoopy and Woodstock was taken my my husband.
Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. Her stories are published in anthologies and online. Sometimes she works on a novel. Sometimes she doesn’t. She wants to re-read an old book by Rebecca West, but she can’t remember the title.
“Good cover design is not only about beauty… it’s a visual sales pitch. It’s your first contact with a potential reader. Your cover only has around 3 seconds to catch a browsing reader’s attention. You want to stand out and make them pause and consider, and read the synopsis.” ― Eeva Lancaster, Being Indie: A No Holds Barred, Self Publishing Guide for Indie Authors
Of course, the opposite is capsulized in a familiar quote, “Don’t buy the book by its cover.” BUT, if an author wants to sell their book, they’d better face some marketing facts.
A book cover sells the book. At least it’s the first thing to catch the readers’ gaze as they wander through the shelves of a bookstore, library or click through bookseller websites. Yes, of course the blurb on the back is incredibly important, but it’s the cover the buyer sees first. It’s the cover that makes that buyer turn the book over and read the blurb.
Think about it. If the cover grabs you, you’ll pick up (or click on) the book. If it’s blah, chances are you’re going to move on to the next book.
Now what exactly in the cover image grabs you? Does the cover tell you the genre? What to expect? Look professional? I’m a mystery writer, so I’m looking for a cover that not only says it’s a mystery, but what kind of mystery it is. Here are some examples.
Cozy Mysteries—The readers are looking for lightheartedness, as well as any of the tropes associated with cozies: animals, home-town-feel, food, maybe even a graphic image (cartoon) suggesting any of the above. They do NOT want to see brutality. For example, here’s the cover for Arsenic and Adobe by Mia Manansala. Note the cartoon-like quality, the dog, the happy homemaker and the bottle of poison. All of these elements tell the reader this book is a mystery, homey, and involves cooking. (And don’t forget the dachshund on the shoulder!) Cozy readers love these signals. Yes, they’re going to turn the book over to learn more about it.
Horror Mysteries–Here the prospective buyer is looking for dark, scary elements. The cover should promise there will be blood and violence in the book. Body parts are great. The titles alone should give the reader the chills. The Mosquito Man by Jeremy Bates is a perfect example. Yikes!!!
Suspense Mysteries–Again, we start with the fact the reader wants to KNOW this is mystery. Suspense is a tricky cover. How does one put the feeling of suspense on a cover? In a dramatic work, suspense is the anticipation of the outcome of a plot or the solution to a puzzle, particularly as it affects a character for whom one has sympathy. How do you put that in an image? There are different ways to achieve this in a cover. Location. Lighting. Showing action or giving a subtle clue; having the feel that there’s something risky going on. For this example, I’m going with Louise Penny’s, All The Devils Are Here. Here, the silhouetted building against a dark sky evokes mystery, and the Van Gogh-like swirls in the night sky suggest to the reader that there’s more to this book than simply being set in Paris. It suggests depth of plot.
These are only 3 basic categories of mysteries. Consider how the covers are created that show the true crime category? The thriller category? The paranormal mysteries category? Then study your own reaction when you’re checking out the mystery sections in your favorite bookstore or online. The only thing I can think of on a cover that would hook you more than the lay-out or artwork is the author’s name. If you have a favorite author (and yes, that for me is still J.D. Robb), I’ll buy the book without even looking at the cover. But like I said, that’s the only thing I can think of that would sway a buyer more than the visual impact of the cover.
So authors, beware! Readers are judging books by their covers! To our beloved readers, take your batch of three seconds, go book-shopping and buy some books!!!
K.P. Gresham, author of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery series and Three Days at Wrigley Field, is a preacher’s kid who likes to tell stories, kill people (on paper, of course!) and root for the Chicago Cubs. Born in Chicago and a graduate of Illinois State University, K.P. and her husband moved to Texas, fell in love with not shoveling snow and are 35+ year Lone Star State residents. She finds that her dual country citizenship, the Midwest and Texas, provide deep fodder for her award-winning novels. A graduate of Houston’s Rice University Novels Writing Colloquium, K.P. now resides in Austin, Texas, where she is the president of the Sisters in Crime Heart of Texas Chapter and is active in the Writers League of Texas and Austin Mystery Writers.
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.
In the back of the closet I recently unearthed my mother’s old Caswell Massey “Gardenia” bubble bath. The resulting bath held astonishing comfort and nostalgia. It smelled like her house.
Mystery writers can use smell to reinforce not only setting and character, but powerful plots. Here are strong examples from the first chapter of Lethal White, the fourth in Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series. Chapter one begins with the wedding of Strike’s former co-detective Robin Ellacott and her long-time (but insufferable) fiancé Matthew Cunliffe, arguing while the wedding photographer tries to get some decent shots. Strike has fired Robin, partly from fear she’ll be killed. Without her job, Robin’s miserable. Matthew’s furious because of the joy he saw on Robin’s face when Strike arrived for the ceremony, heavily bandaged from capturing a killer. And now, arguing with Matthew, how does Robin feel? “The sweet, ticklish smell of hot grass filled her nostrils as the sun beat down on her uncovered shoulders.” The hot smell matches Robin’s itchy misery as she second-guesses her marriage to Matthew.
The country hotel setting smells beautiful, in stark contrast to Strike’s emotions: “For a while he lurked at the end of the bar, nursing a pint…and then repaired to the terrace, where he had stood apart from the other smokers and contemplated the dappled evening, breathing in the sweet meadow smell beneath a coral sky.” Sweet meadow smell; miserable situation.
Robin finally reaches Strike on the stairs as he’s leaving: “They were holding each other tightly before they knew what had happened, Robin’s chin on Strike’s shoulder, his face in her hair. He smelled of sweat, beer, and surgical spirits, she, of roses and the faint perfume that he had missed when she was no longer in the office.” The scene is almost shocking in its sensory overload. We feel their powerful attraction. Galbraith (J. K. Rowling) brilliantly gives us not only the protagonists, but the pain of their predicament, using scent to remind us of Strike’s injury (surgical spirits) and the fact that he has missed her perfume because she’s no longer in the office.
We already know that Chet, the heroic detective dog of Spencer Quinn’s Chet and Bernie series, is a dog of admirable olfactory sensitivity. He feels sorry for his human partner, Bernie (who labors under the misapprehension that he, not Chet, is the detective), because Chet knows human limitations, olfactorily speaking.
Chet and Bernie search for lost young campers in Spencer Quinn’sThe Dog Who Knew Too Much. Chet’s nose moves the plot along: “I smelled ashes, plus chocolate, the way it smells when hot chocolate gets burned in the pot, and….the remains of a not-too-long-ago campfire. I knew fire pits, of course, went over and took some closer sniffs. Burned hot chocolate, yes. There’d also been Spam and something eggy. I stuck my nose just about right into the ashes. They were cold.” Oh, the advantages of a detective dog as protagonist.
Well, Chet, don’t underrate us. Research shows we humans can detect at least a trillion odors! Bill Bryson,The Body, at 90.
Didn’t we already know we can identify the scent of the loved one? Mothers can recognize their newborns by smell (and vice versa). Bryson says olfactory information goes directly to our olfactory cortex, next to the hippocampus, where memories are shaped, which is why some neuroscientists think certain smells evoke memories. Oh, didn’t Proust mention that? Scent brings back the dead, if only for a second. In myGhost Cat,after the death of his wife Holly, Russ confesses that when he walks in the house, he lifts his eyes and inhales: “I always hope for a little whiff of Holly.”
However––some odors fly under our radar. We may feel, but can’t always articulate, how certain smells arouse our emotions. We say fear is contagious but we haven’t known how. Zaraska cites research showing when we smell body odor from a stressed person, we ourselves become more vigilant. When we smell body odor of a close relative, per Zaraska, we can recognize family, and our dorsomedial-prefontal cortext can light up. Maybe some of this we’ve known without really knowing it.
Plus, we apparently have sensory radar for genetic information. For mating! A woman inhaling body odor of a potential mate senses how genetically related the two are––by sniffing a gene family that links body scent and the immune system, called the “major histocompatibility complex” or “MHC.” This capacity is useful: we like our mates to be related enough––but not too much. My protagonist Alice, lawyer and amateur sleuth in the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, is well aware how much she likes the way her love interest Ben Kinsear smells––he “smells good”––but she hasn’t put words to the smell the way Chet the dog has. He defines his own smell as “the most familiar smell in the world: old leather, salt and pepper, mink coats, and just a soupcon of tomato; and to be honest, a healthy dash of something male and funky. My smell: yes, sir.”
Could you define your own smell? With aromatic detail? Probably not. A loved one might be able to.
Smell can deepen a scene, define character, highlight plot. Ann Cleeves, inDead Water(her Shetland series) describes the reception desk in the hotel, a key setting, as “all dark wood, with the smell of beeswax.” The sweet smell, the dark venue.
Elly Griffiths in The Crossing Placesshows us her protagonist, archeologist Ruth Galloway: “Climbing the danksmelling staircase to her office, she thinks about her first lecture: First Principles in Excavation.” Danksmelling…excavation. Her job.
Louise Penny, in A Better Man,uses smell to reinforce the humiliating demotion of her protagonist, Quebec Inspector Armand Gamache. A former subordinate now bosses him. A giant ice storm with crashing ice flows and high water threatens Quebec. Worried the Champlain bridge will break, on the way to a police meeting, Gamache gets splattered with mud trying to see whether the dam will hold.
“I see some of the crap thrown at you today on Twitter has stuck,” said the senior officer from the RCMP, gesturing at Gamache’s clothing.
Gamache smiled. “Fortunately, it won’t stain.”
“But it does smell,” said the Mountie, with a wry smile. “Helluva first day back on the job, Armand.”
A great metaphor for the smelly attacks on Gamache that have led to his demotion.
In A Cinnabar Sky’s opening scene, Billy Kring uses smell to build dread and suspense around the locked trunk his protagonist Hunter Kincaid and her companion Buddy are about to pry open. Buddy says, “Now the smell is more like a really bad swamp, right?” When they pop the trunk, it’s “like an abandoned slaughterhouse gone fetid and rotten in the summer heat.”
The “smells” article sent me to poetry. Back to the bookshelves. Poets, in their compressed genre, seem to convey scent by evocative words, words that already define a smell, name a smell. Wallace Stevens has only to say, “coffee and oranges in a sunny chair” in Sunday Morning and we smell them. Shakespeare has only to write “The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem/For that sweet odor which doth in it live” in Sonnet 54. He doesn’t have to define the “sweet odor”: he knows we know it. Coffee? Oranges? Cigar smoke? The word itself gives us the smell. Robert Frost, In Neglect: “I smell the earth, I smell the bruised plant…” We do too. Billy Collins, Canada: “O Canada, as the anthem goes,/scene of my boyhood summers,/you are the pack of Sweet Caporals on the table…” The smell of sneaked cigarettes of youth.
Wallace Stevens did try more extensive fragrant description in Approaching Carolina: “Tilting up his nose/he inhaled the rancid rosin, burly smells/Of dampened lumber, emanations blown/From warehouse doors, the gustiness of ropes,/Decays of sacks, and all the arrant stinks…” We sure know what he means. But is this too much? I wonder if he wondered.
In the upcoming Ghost Daughter, seventh in my series, Alice quizzes a young friend about a new boyfriend. Alice blurts, “So he smells good?” She realizes her own standards for a lifetime companion involve “someone who smelled right…” Probably you’ve all had that experience. Maybe that’s how humans perceive certain under-the-radar scents, as “right” or “not right,” as “good” or “threatening.” Based on Zaraska’s article I suppose “good” may mean “right” in terms of the mysterious “major histocompatibility complex.” Not sure that’s how I want to describe it, though.
When the holidays come around, I can’t help it. Sometimes I get so stressed I just wanna kill somebody. (On paper, of course!) It can be very cathartic.
But if my murderous muse isn’t singing, I turn to my favorite holiday crime novel, Holiday in Death, by the supreme, futuristic murder writer, J.D. Robb. (It irks me that some industry aficionados refer to this series as “romantic suspense.” Sure, it has a romance in it, BUT, this is a crime novel in every sense!)
Holiday in Death is the seventh in the now fifty-one book series about New York murder cop Eve Dallas and her devastatingly rich, handsome and techno-wizard husband, Roarke. Did you catch that? There are fifty-one books in this series, with the next, Faithless in Death, coming February 9, 2021.
But I digress. Here’s the scoop on my favorite Christmas mystery taken from its Publisher’s Weekly review 6/01/1998.
The year is 2058. Guns are banned and medical science has learned how to prolong life to well beyond the century mark. And man has yet to stop killing man. At Cop Central, it’s Lieutenant Eve Dallas’s job to stand up for the dead. So begins the seventh riveting installment in Robb’s (aka Nora Roberts) futuristic romantic suspense series (following Vengeance in Death). With Christmas only weeks away, Eve is stressing out trying to find the right gift for her new husband, Rourke, who “”not only had everything, but owned most of the plants and factories that made it.”” More to her concern is the latest serial killer who is using “”The Twelve Days of Christmas”” as a theme for his heinous rape and murder spree. The case touches Eve on a personal level, and while flash-backs from her abusive childhood are flinchingly repetitious, it defines Eve’s gritty, hard-boiled character and validates her obsessive determination to bring down the killer any way she can.
So if the holidays stress you out, grab a peppermint-schnapps-laced, hot chocolate, get in that comfy chair in front of the fireplace, turn on that Tiffany lamp that casts just enough light for you to read by, settle your animal on your lap, and crack open this great read.
Merry Christmas, everyone!
P.S. There is one story I like better at this time of year, just for the record. You’ll find it in the Bible’s new Testament. I usually start at Luke, chapter one.
Perfectly poetic, iambic hexameter: Last nightI dreamt I went to Manderley again.
Says Sarah Perry in the Irish Times, “Every novelist since has ground their teeth in envy: here is all the enchantment of a child’s story, with an irresistible melancholy hung about it.”
The rest of the novel isn’t bad either.
But so much depends on that first line.
Can you identify the books that begin with the lines below? And the authors who composed them?
Show what you know in a comment. (Searching the Internet is acceptable.)
Some may be a snap. Others, not so much. But each comes from a book by a major mystery author.
All will be revealed in a later post. Or, as they used to say, stay tuned.
On November the twenty-first, the day of her forty-seventh birthday, and three weeks and two days before she was murdered, Rhoda Gradwyn went to Harley Street to keep a first appointment with her plastic surgeon, and there in a consulting room designed, it appeared, to inspire confidence and allay apprehension, made the decision which would lead inexorably to her death.
In the corner of a first-class smoking carriage, Mr Justice Wargrave, lately retired from the bench, puffed at a cigar and ran an interested eye through the political news in The Times.
Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.
When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.
My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.
The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.
There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood.
It was as black in the closet as old blood.
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood.
It was five o’clock on a winter’s morning in Syria.
I feel compelled to report that at the moment of death, my entire life did not pass before my eyes in a flash.
I’ve always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person.
Miss Jane Neal met her maker in the early morning mist of Thanksgiving Sunday. It was pretty much a surprise all around.
There are two disadvantages to being a minor royal.
It was a mob, but not yet a full-fledged riot. Over a dozen retirees, dressed in housecoats and robes, had taken to the streets, demanding action at eight in the morning.