WHEN WORDS BALK–TAKE A WALK. SOLVITUR AMBULANDO!

by Helen Currie Foster

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). 

According to Ariana Huffington, a number of writers agree about the benefit of walking, including Hemingway, Nietzsche, and Thomas Jefferson. She quotes the latter: “The object of walking is to relax the mind…You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk. But divert your attention by the objects surrounding you”.https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/bs-xpm-2013-09-03-bal-solution-to-many-a-problem-take-a-walk-20130830-story.html  Which reminds me of Collins’s wren.

“Solvitur ambulando” was the official mottol 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. https://www.amazon.com/Between-Woods-Water-Constantinople-Classics/dp/1590171667/ref=asc_df_1590171667/?tag=hyprod-20&linkCode=df0&hvadid=312149984830&hvpos=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=16660568066646091577&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9028233&hvtargid=pla-567490155062&psc=1

 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). https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2011/jun/10/patrick-leigh-fermor-obituary

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.

More…

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.

Review: Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own (A Public Service Repost)

by Kathy Waller

I wrote the following for my personal blog to answer a “challenge.” I intended to post it at the end of September 2009–yes, 2009. But I got all tangled up in words and couldn’t write a thing. Then I intended to post it at the end of October. I still couldn’t write it. I managed to write it after the October deadline.

In the middle of the “process,” I considered posting the following review: “I like Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own very very very very very much.”

But the challenge specified a four-sentence review, and I had hardly one, and I didn’t want to repeat it three times.

So there’s the background.

I must also add this disclaimer: I bought my copy of A Broom of One’s Own myself, with my own money. No one told, asked, or paid me to write this review. No one told, asked, or paid me to say I like the book. No one told, asked, or paid me to like it. No one offered me tickets to Rio or a week’s lodging in Venice, more’s the pity. I decided to read the book, to like it, and to write this review all by myself, at the invitation of Story Circle Book Review Challenge. Nobody paid them either. Amen.

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Review of Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own

I like Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own: Words About Writing, Housecleaning & Life so much that it’s taken me over two months and two missed deadlines to untangle my thoughts and write this four-sentence review, an irony Peacock, author of two critically acclaimed novels, would no doubt address were I in one of her writing classes.

She would probably tell me that there is no perfect writing life; that her job as a part-time house cleaner, begun when full-time writing wouldn’t pay the bills, afforded time, solitude, and the “foundation of regular work” she needed;  that engaging in physical labor allowed her unconscious mind to “kick into gear,” so she became not the writer but the “receiver” of her stories.

She’d probably say that writing is hard; that sitting at a desk doesn’t automatically bring brilliance; that writers have to work with what they have; that “if I don’t have the pages I hate I will never have the pages I love”; that there are a million “saner” things to do and a “million good reasons to quit” and that the only good reason to continue is, “This is what I want.”

So, having composed at least two dozen subordinated, coordinated, appositived, participial-phrase-stuffed first sentences and discarding them before completion; having practically memorized the text searching for the perfect quotation to end with; and having once again stayed awake into the night, racing another deadline well past the due date, I am completing this review—because I value Nancy Peacock’s advice; and because I love A Broom of One’s Own; and because I consider it the equal of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird; and because I want other readers to know about it; and because this is what I want.

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I’ve posted this review before both here and elsewhere. I consider the reposting a service to writers. The book is absolutely invaluable, and all writers need to know about it.

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I blog at Telling the Truth, Mainly. I write crime fiction–have published short stories and am working on a novel. My blog, however, doesn’t have much to do with crime. There I write about anything that comes along. I like to think it’s eclectic, but it’s really just a jumble.

The 2022 Writers’ Police Academy

by K.P. Gresham

I’ve just returned from the Writers’ Police Academy in Appleton, WI. The brainchild of retired cop, Lee Lofland, The Writers’ Police Academy (WPA) is a rare opportunity for writers to participate in the same hands-on training as the law enforcement officers, investigators, EMS, and firefighters.  Attendees drive patrol cars on closed courses, conduct traffic stops, participate in explosive building entries, shoot firearms, and much more.

Lee Lofland is a veteran police investigator who began his law-enforcement career working as an officer in Virginia’s prison system. He later became a sheriff’s deputy, a patrol officer, and finally, he achieved the highly prized gold shield of detective. Along the way, Lofland gained a breadth of experience that’s unusual to find in the career of a single officer. Oh! And as part of the latest Writers Digest Books Howdunit series, he wrote Police Procedure and Investigation: A Guide for Writers.

He’s a cop who wants writers to “get the cop thing” right—and he created this phenomenal conference to make that happen.

Highlights for me (this was my 3rd WPA) started right off the bat with the first morning session. A drunken driver accident was staged, and the ensuing response acted out. Cops were first on the scene, followed quickly by fire trucks and EMT’s. (Real ones. The only actors were the two people “injured” in the accident. Umm, the dead victim was a life-size practice dummy…I’m pretty sure…) Triage, jaws of life, on-scene field sobriety tests—all of it. Then came the Life Flight helicopter.  And an hour worth of Q & A with all the professionals. Awesome.

Next, I went to the Body Camera Session, which, if you pardon the pun, was an eye-opening experience. I learned that the body camera sees a whole lot more than the wearer can see. Two examples. The camera has a much larger field of vision than the human eye. Also, the camera has the ability to adjust its iris so that it can see in very dark conditions. Sometimes what we see on TV from the camera’s POV, the cop couldn’t see at all.

Other things I learned? The choreography used by SWAT teams to secure a room; that breed means everything in K9 dog selections; (from personal experience using virtual reality scenarios) that when threatened, a person’s stress reaction is to focus specifically on the threat. Sounds logical, but when my “gun” was pointed at the guy with a knife coming toward me, I never saw a different guy walking up to my side. I was completely focused on what I perceived was the immediate threat.

Boom. I’m dead.

Special shout out to Jason Weber, the Northeast Wisconsin Technical College Public Safety Training Coordinator. He recruited all the instructors, police officers, county sheriff officers, chiefs of police, municipal judges, and fire science instructors to be our teachers, as well as coordinating all the physical needs for our instruction.

And then there’s the fellow writers who attend WPA. We eat, travel, and learn together. The ability to be in the company of folks who understand the importance of research, the plotting, the writing, the marketing, the self-doubt, the exhilaration of putting a good scene on paper is overwhelming. I treasure these people, and I feel treasured by them—we are kindred spirits.

The conference ended with the 2022 WPA Guest of Honor, Robert Dugoni, the critically acclaimed New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and #1 Amazon bestselling author of the Tracy Crosswhite police series. Dugoni spoke to us about why we write. In my heart I felt a re-awakening of the passion for what I do.  Thank you, Mr. Dugoni.

And thank you, Lee Lofland and all of your crew. I’ll be back next year at WPA to learn more!

Books by

K.P. Gresham

Three Days at Wrigley Field

The Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series

The Preacher’s First Murder

Murder in the Second Pew

Murder on the Third Try

Four Reasons to Die

Getting Texas Wrong in Fiction- Details Matter Y’all

Anyone who lives in Texas knows that Hollywood’s version of Texas and the actual Texas are very different places. Mostly, we Texans roll our eyes and dismiss the errors, but it’s difficult to ignore errors when they yank us out of whatever story we are trying to enjoy. Recently I watched a movie set in Texas and read several stories that were set in Texas or that featured Texan characters. However, as a Texan, I could tell the director of the movie didn’t care about getting the setting details right, and I could tell the authors of the stories didn’t understand Texan speech patterns. Errors distracted me from the plots in both the movie and the stories.

From Pixabay

On someone’s recommendation, I watched the Tom Hanks movie News of the World. I learned quickly that the director favored filming sweeping vistas and that the background and environment were essential to the plot. The director, unlike the author of the book on which the movie is based, clearly didn’t care about getting the setting details right. The movie got Texas disappointingly wrong, which distracted me from the story line several times.

The same standard holds true for literature as it does for movies. If you don’t get the details right, no matter how great your plot is, you can lose the reader. For example, in some stories I read recently featuring characters from Texas, the author used regional speech incorrectly. Specifically, the authors used the word “y’all” wrong.

A Word on the Meaning of “Y’all”

Lots of people are aware that Texans, and a lot of Southerners, say “y’all” as a term for the second person plural. And we do. “Y’all” is a contraction of “you all” which means “all of you people.” No Texan would ever call a single individual “y’all.” Not ever. It’s a reference to a group, not an individual.

Word Cloud

Now, I may walk up to my brother and say “Y’all should come to lunch tomorrow.” He may be the only one standing there, but he will know from my usage of the word “y’all” that I’m including his wife and kids in the invitation. If I wanted him to come alone, I would say, “You should come to lunch tomorrow.”

Or one college student may say to another, “Y’all should come hang out at my place with us.” This translates to “you and your friends should come and hang out with me and my friends at my residence.” Only two people may be in the conversation, but the usage of the word “y’all” tells anyone listening that more people are involved than are present.

To reiterate: when a Texan says the word “y’all” to a single individual, they are referencing some group to which that individual belongs, and the individual being addressed will understand that group reference because the speaker used the word “y’all” instead of “you.”

Getting “Y’all” Wrong

Back to those stories I read that got things wrong: if a law enforcement officer in a story set in Texas walks up to a single suspect and says to that individual, “Y’all are under arrest,” then the author has failed miserably at using the word. That error will pull the Texan (and probably any Southern) reader completely out of the story.

From Pixabay

Or if a mystery author writes a story featuring a character who is supposed to be the only Texan in the story and has that character call an individual “y’all,” that author just created confusion. When I read the above instance in a story, I hoped the misusage of “y’all” was a clue that the character might be lying about her background. Alas, it wasn’t a plot point. It was an error by the author.

Details matter in story telling. When we get them wrong, we pull the reader out of the story, and, depending how egregious the error is, the reader may not come back.

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N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter and is a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Find out more at nmcedeno.com.

Colleen McCullough and the Roman Empire

by Renee Kimball

Reading is like swimming.  Sometimes a novel is like a wading pool, low-level, light, humorous.  Then there are others thattake you to the big pool but keep you in the shallow end–sitting on a cement step, water to your waist, but not really in the pool.  However, when a story takes you to the deep end and the water covers your head, and you tread water because your toes cannot touch the bottom, then that is when you sink or swim –it is either give up or keep going.   .

I found McCullough’s Masters of Rome series searching for information about the Roman Empire.  The series was highly reviewed, and although it was a commitment of several months to read the massive seven-book series, it was well worth the effort.  When I finished, was in awe of McCullough and wanted to know more about her and her work. 

McCullough was born in 1935, in Sydney, Australia.  She went on to become a neuropathologist establishing the department of neurophysiology at the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney.  She left after many years to become a researcher and teacher at Yale Medical School where she stayed for ten years.  McCullough left Yale, and moved to Norfolk Island, in the South Pacific, where she lived and wrote until her death in 1977 (Amazon). 

McCullough released her first novel, Tim, in 1974.  It was well received, but it paled in comparison to the response to the publication of her second novel, The Thorn Birds, in 1977.  McCullough became an overnight sensation. 

The Thorn Birds is an Australian romance novel.  The riveting characters, a young Australian woman and a Catholic priest, are caught between an illicit passion for one another and the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church.  The book eventually was turned into a miniseries, and McCullough’s path was clear; great things were expected of her for the future—and she delivered. 

McCullough is a versatile writer comfortable writing across multiple genres: contemporary novels, mystery series, and historical fiction.   It took ten years for McCullough to research and write the Masters of Rome series beginning in 1997 through 2007. 

Writing historical fiction requires accuracy, particularly when real-life characters and events are incorporated within the overall story.  McCullough’s scientific training as a neuropathologist is evident as shown by her meticulous detail of both historical events and characters drawn from ancient sources.  She brings her characters to life, people become real, not wooden historical abstractions. 

The timeframe of the Masters of Rome series begins in 110 BC with the rise of Gaius Marius as temporary dictator, the rise of Sulla his protégé/ dictator, and before the birth of Julius Caesar; the seven-book series ends with Caesar’s heir, Octavian, defeating Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII Philopator at the Battle of Actium 31 BC.  Octavian seizes power and is declared Augustus.  (Photo Wikipedia Commons).

McCullough’s series also includes her own hand drawn detailed maps of the Empire showing territories, various campaigns, as well as, multiple portraits drawn from actual classical statuary, and included within each volume a glossary of Latin terms. 

While McCullough published the last book in the Masters series in 2007, she went on to write a variety of detective/mystery and standalone novels till 2013.  McCullough passed away in 2015.   While she is primarily remembered for The Thorn Birds, I would argue, McCullough’s greatest achievement is found within The Masters of Rome novels. She is greatly missed.  

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References:

COLLEEN MCCULLOUGH BOOKS IN ORDER.  https://www.bookseriesinorder.com/colleen-mccullough/

Colleen McCullough. https://www.harperreach.com/authors/colleen-mccullough/

The Battle of Actium. HISTORY.  https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-battle-of-actium

Temple of Saturn, Rome – Views with other buildings. By Yair Haklai, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Image of swimmer via Pixabay.

Book 1, The First Man in Rome, photos courtesy of Amazon

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Publication Order of Masters of Rome Books

The First Man in Rome (1990)

The Grass Crown         (1991)

Fortune’s Favorites     (1993)

Caesar’s Women         (1996)

Caesar (1997)

The October Horse (2002)

Antony and Cleopatra (2007)

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A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are research, reading, writing, and animal advocacy [RK1] .  She is working on a novel set during the time of the Roman Republic.


 

Layers and Layers

by Helen Currie Foster – May 16, 2022

Cast your mind on the perfect croissant.

A perfect croissant may have hundreds of layers of dough + butter + dough + butter, made of a packet of dough enclosing a layer of butter, rolled out in a precise rectangle, folded, chilled, rolled, chilled (repeat until you have maybe 600 layers), rolled, then cut into squares which are rolled diagonally and baked in a perfectly hot oven until perfectly brown and the magic has happened. As the butter melts between the many layers, it creates steam which inflates the layers, creating not a single “loaf” of baked dough with a brown crust, but a perfect combination of crunch and tenderness: layers of crunchy brown butteriness, then the airy middle, still wafting yeasty buttery smells toward you. Bite. Let joy be unconfined. What’s your approach? Bite the end off? Peel off the outer layers, flake by triangular flake? Either way, you lay open the mystery of layers. https://www.mic.com/articles/180451/the-science-backed-reasons-why-croissants-always-taste-better-in-paris#:~:text=When%20it%20bakes%2C%20the%20butter,delicious%20flavor%20of%20the%20croissant.

When you bite into a croissant, crisp little layers flying everywhere, with the tastes of yeast, butter, magic, sorting themselves out on your tongue, do you too think of murder mysteries?

It’s the layers. Got to be. Oh, not just croissants. Think of mille feuilles… seven layer dip… your family’s best lasagna…baklava… chocolate mousse layer cake finished with butter cream frosting. Or, at the individual level, consider a perfect taco, precisely the way you like it, the perfect proportion of tortilla to filling to guacamole to sour cream to salsa to [supply your favorite ingredient here].

Layers take work. Think of seven-layer cake. Split the original cake layers, evenly, without bumps and tears. Apply filling. Stack without a disaster (such as uneven layers, sliding in wrong directions). Repeat, repeat, repeat. Carefully ice your beautiful cake. Let no one approach, much less jiggle or wiggle, your cake. Serve with care.

But layers, in the right proportions, create both variety and synthesis. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Back to your own favorite taco, a compilation of layers. When you decorate your taco to your own satisfaction, you bite into a creation that’s more delicious than any of its components. 

More is more. 

Back to murder mysteries. We readers prowl the pages, eyes narrowed, alert for each and every clue, determined not to miss a single one. By the end we’ve amassed layers of clues. Alert readers don’t forget the odd incident of the insecticide package in Reginald Hill’s Deadheads. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/671925.Deadheads And a good thing they didn’t. Wait for it, wait for it––! Did you see Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in Death on the Nile? No spoilers, but watch carefully for—oh, wait. Did you see it?https://www.google.com/search?q=branagh+death+on+the+nile&oq=branagh+death+on+the+nile&aqs=chrome..69i57j46i19j0i19l3j0i19i22i30l5.9073j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

A mystery requires characters, setting, plot. Each component requires detail. Characters, for instance: we want to know how the main characters look, some of what they think, whom they love. Maybe just a brushstroke to add what music they prefer, or hobbies, or food. Special tics that make them memorable? Of course. Give us what we need to remember each character. And writers are cagey. The cautious reader will wonder: is this new character critical to the plot, or just part of the setting? Is the kindly cashier at the village grocery just there to make the village feel safe and homey, or is he/she a witness to crime? The next victim? Or the criminal? But when a character demands too much page time, sometimes we readers hit the wall. We don’t need to know what the clerk at the village store is wearing. Stop it, we think. Get on with the story! Give us enough to fire our imaginations—we readers can and will supply more detail! 

To digress: maybe this imaginative work the reader does (without the author’s permission) is why it’s jarring when a favorite mystery we’ve read appears on television. If we’ve already imagined favorite characters, and the television versions don’t resemble what we now think of as their true selves, we’re faced with a difficult choice. Watch? or retain the original versions in our heads, rejecting the televised version? (This happened to me, but maybe not you, with the televised versions of Cormoran Strike and Robin. Thoughts?)

On the other hand, the WWI flashback at the beginning of the recent Death on the Nile (which is not in Agatha Christie’s original) adds to the character of detective Hercule Poirot—adds a new layer which enriches our understanding of not only his observational acuity, but his apparent emotional detachment. I now think of Agatha Christie’s creation in a more kindly light. Actually, I’ve become attached to Branagh’s version, whereas before I found him a little…tiresome.

Back to the question of how much detail is enough: the same warning holds for setting. Just right, please. English village? New York bar? Hill country town? We appreciate memorable details, but not a travelogue. We want enough detail, but not overkill, on characters and settings. 

But then comes plot. Mystery readers are puzzle-solvers, clue-collectors, memory banks. They anticipate that—like the detective—they may traipse down the wrong path. Of course that means there’s more’s to learn, that they aren’t yet in possession of all the facts. More clues to come.

How to tell clues from red herrings?

In The Five Red Herrings, master writer Dorothy Sayers places the ever-curious Lord Peter Wimsey in a Scottish fishing village popular as an artists’ venue. https://smile.amazon.com/Five-Herrings-Peter-Wimsey-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B008JVJHYM/ref=sr_1_1?crid=5R36N0IMZPY4&keywords=Five+Red+Herrings&qid=1652710332&sprefix=five+red+herring%2Caps%2C132&sr=8-1

One of the artists dies on the Minnick, a scenic Scottish stream much favored as a landscape subject, that lies below a menacing precipice. https://www.mindat.org/feature-2642439.html

No one likes the dead artist. Wimsey can count six suspects––hence, five red herrings. Wimsey must winkle out the true killer. But oh, the alibis. Train schedules! Missing sailors! A stolen bicycle! The famous artist who’s gone missing, face wrapped in gauze, leaving a tight-lipped butler and a baffled maid who saw—well, no spoilers here either. 

While clues point to the killer, red herrings baffle and divert the detective. But they can add layers of richness to a plot. Five Red Herrings would be less than a novella, only a short story, without the layers of red herrings which paint (excuse me) a vivid picture of this art colony—tension, distraction, jealousy, romance, hatred. Certainly the story would lack the puzzles demanded by mystery readers. Furthermore, red herrings affect our emotions. For example, we sympathize with Hugh Farren, the artist who, frustrated by his ever-so-prissy wife, hares off into the countryside, making a living by re-painting pub signs. We hope he’s not the killer, this man who sets up his easel outside a pub and explains to open-mouthed watching children how he’s making the pub sign funny on one side, scary on the other. It’s a great scene. Another layer to the mystery. And let’s face it, to persuade her readers to struggle with those complicated train schedules, Sayers has to keep us caring which artist is the killer.

The WWI flashback in Death on the Nile is neither a clue, nor a red herring. Instead, it offers us a layer of Poirot’s character that doesn’t solve the mystery, doesn’t identify the killer, but adds to our understanding of Poirot’s emotions, deepening, in a way, the impact of his solution of the mystery. 

Today I’m in Paris, Croissantland, I stopped in an old church where the Greek Orthodox service was being sung. It reminded me of the character Niccolo in Dorothy Dunnett’s eight-volume historical series (yes, it is really a murder mystery). https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/series/HON/house-of-niccolo-series

Niccolo’s mathematical and musical gifts, including his memory for Greek liturgy, came back to me as I listened to the sung service. Literature can bestow a gift that keeps on giving, a writer’s description of an event, a scene, that returns to the reader the smell of incense, the sound of voices, and the intensity of a moment imagined by the writer, but which becomes part of the reader’s own imagination. Dunnett’s scene isn’t integral to the plot, to the ultimate discovery at the end of the series of the murderer’s identity, but is a layer that adds to the protagonist’s character and the intensity of his psyche.

Such layers can make a story come alive.

Back to setting for a moment. Are you a Slough House addict? I am. https://smile.amazon.com/s?k=sloughhouse&crid=39CYYBHI8G99A&sprefix=sloughhouse%2Caps%2C131&ref=nb_sb_noss_1

I just finished Book 8 of Mick Herron’s unputdownable series and am pawing the earth for the next. But I mention it because Slough House (the name of the building where those who flunk out of MI-5 headquarters wind up), though technically Herron’s setting, functions almost as a character. And my fussing about “not too much detail” above? Inapplicable. Herron embarks on oratorios of detail about Slough House, and because its decrepitude, its slovenliness, its lonesomeness, its outdatedness, so reflect (and infect) the struggles of the changing spies in the building, that I say, bring it on! Herron also does star turns with London weather and landscapes. His treatment of setting is masterful––creating layers of texture, smell, sight, emotion, that become integral to the story.

I’m working on Book 8 of my Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, so the “perfect croissant” of plot, setting and character occupies my waking moments. Alice, if you’ve met her, is a lawyer who by training and inclination wants every single fact. She hopes never to be blind-sided. She must decide whether fact A helps her defend her client, and whether her client needs a defense to fact B. She knows the compulsive joy of a new case—a new legal pad of notes, a new box of messy documents. She wants to plunge in, deciding what’s a clue, what’s a red herring. She knows that somewhere in the mess is a key fact, the fact that she knows instinctively will win the case for her client. She’s rooting through the layers, reminding many of us of a favorite poem. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/54897/the-layers Or a croissant.

Sounds like a murder mystery, right? Stay tuned.

Helen Currie Foster writes the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series north of Dripping Springs, Texas, loosely supervised by three burros. She’s fascinated by human history and by how, uninvited, the past keeps crashing our parties. Her books are available in Kindle, paperback and on Audible, from Amazon, Ingram Spark, and at various independent bookstores. The latest, Ghost Daughter, has been named First Runnerup for Mystery in the 2022 Eric Hoffer Book Awards. https://smile.amazon.com/s?k=ghost+daughter&crid=VHN5P2IYJCLZ&sprefix=ghost+daughte%2Caps%2C151&ref=nb_sb_noss_2

DON’T WALK UNDER A LADDER – BAD LUCK!

BY

Francine Paino AKA F. Della Notte

Lucky Ladybug. Lucky penny. Lucky horseshoe. Friday the 13th. Knock on wood. Hundreds of superstitions and rituals flow through our lives, although we smile at the mention of such things, like throwing a pinch of spilled salt over the left shoulder. For an Italian, never put only two coffee beans in a snifter of Sambucca—bad luck. 

Superstitions have been around since man stood up on two legs. Often they have been absorbed through family beliefs, traditions, and cultures. Some even began with common sense. I won’t walk under a ladder or open an umbrella in the house, but athletic and artistic pursuits are riddled with ritual and superstition.

Athletes and artists are more disposed to rely on them because the common ground they share is the pressure of constant uncertainty. Despite the advances in education, communication, and science, even without outside forces promoting superstition or rigid ritualistic preparations, one incident, one supposed object of good fortune, can immediately create a sense of security. Many psychologists believe that the dependency on ritualistic practices and superstitions, when observed devoutly, actually helps the individual feel more confident that they’ve done everything to keep the fates on their side.

No athlete, regardless of how gifted or trained, can be sure of the outcome of a contest. No artist, regardless of talent, training, and rehearsal if a performer, can know whether or not a show will be good or well-received. And worse, despite the athletes’ and artists’ best efforts, they have no long–term assurances. Will they be injured? Will they be picked up again after a contract expires? Will they be re-hired for another show or dance company? And added to these stresses is the pressure of the ticking clock. Most athletes and artists have a limited shelf life.

Baseball’s Wade Boggs had a five-hour pregame ritual of obsessive detail and ate nothing but chicken for twenty years. He even wrote Fowl Tips, a book on his favorite chicken recipes. And long ago, baseball legend Babe Ruth always stepped on second base on his way in from the outfield. 

Tennis superstar Bjorn Borg’s entire family maintained a complicated routine of pregame habits, and Borg never shaved once a tournament began. During tennis tournaments, one might notice that some players will wear the same outfit every day, especially if they’re winning. 

Then there are the superstitions that weave through the arts. 

In music, there is the Curse of the Ninth. For a long time, a rumor circulated that any composer who wrote a ninth symphony would die soon after, if not while actually creating a ninth symphonic masterpiece. The suspicion of a curse began with Ludvig Von Beethoven. After completing his ninth, he died at age 56, on March 26, 1827, of post-hepatic cirrhosis of the liver. Antonin Dvorak died not long after finishing his ninth, which he named and gave a different number, but the fates were not fooled. Dvorak died of a stroke at age 62, on May 1, 1904, after completing his New World Symphony, which was, in fact, his ninth. Perhaps the man who thrust this particular superstition into the public eye was Gustav Mahler.

It was well-known amongst Mahler’s colleagues that he was obsessed and paranoid about the issue of death after composing the ninth symphony. He did all he could to circumvent the curse by calling his ninth “Das Lied von der Erde – Song of the Earth, and almost immediately after its completion, he settled into writing his tenth but escaping the curse was not to be. Gustav Mahler died on May 18, 1911. He was 50 years young.

Of course, other composers wrote more than nine and survived. Mozart wrote 48, and he died in 1791. Franz Joseph Haydn wrote 101 and died in 1804, but they lived and composed before Beethoven’s fame.  

In the world of opera, while Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde is the earliest to have earned a reputation for trouble, it is Verdi’s La Forza Del Destino that had the most fatalities. The most dramatic of these is the tragic death of Leonard Warren. 

On stage at the Metropolitan Opera on March 4, 1960, in the middle of Solenne in quest ora, (Solemn in this hour), Warren collapsed onstage and died in the wings. More than any other opera, La Forza del Destino fills opera singers with superstitious fears. The late, great Luciano Pavarotti, who sang every other opera in the Italian repertoire, refused to sing Forza. 

The ballet world has its own list of rituals and superstitions. Never allow another dancer to put their feet in your pointe shoes. Dancers have an assortment of lucky charms and objects ranging from lucky dolls to stuffed animals. Rituals include lining up makeup and hairpins precisely, preparing for a show. And to wish good luck to a ballet dancer, there is only one acceptable word: Merde!  

The French word, literally meaning feces, began for practical reasons. Many centuries ago, horses were used backstage to help move sets and backdrops, and of course, the animals had droppings of their own. Dancers would whisper, merde, and point at the steaming lumps to help each other avoid stepping in the mounds. In time, the use of the word expanded because the horse-drawn carriages pulling up in front of the theatres also left calling cards – and the more calling cards, the better, since that meant they’d have a full house.  

In modern times, designer Coco Chanel was supposedly informed by a fortune-teller that her lucky number was 5. Hence, Chanel # 5 – her famed fragrance. She also liked to present her new collections on May 5 for good luck. 

Before every fashion show, Diane Von Furstenberg taped a gold twenty-dollar piece given to her by her father during WW II in her shoe. 

Artist Pablo Picasso kept his hair trimmings and fingernail clippings for fear that he’d be throwing away part of “his essence” if he discarded them. At the same time, Salvatore Dali carried around a little piece of Spanish driftwood to help “ward off evil spirits.” 

Charles Dickens always slept facing north and carried a navigational compass with him at all times to ensure his position, while Dr. Seuss kept a collection of hundreds of hats in his secret closet. When he had writer’s block, he’d go to his closet and choose a hat to wear until he felt inspired. 

Yoko Ono lit matches and watched the flame extinguish in a dark room to relieve the stress of sound and light. Later this private ritual became public with her performance called Lighting Piece.

In theaters throughout the world, many well-known superstitions reign supreme even today. Here are a few that have retained their power through the years. A bad dress rehearsal means the show will be a hitBlue should not be worn on stageThe ghost light must always be on when the stage is empty; Mirrors on stage are bad luck; Never whistle backstage; Say break a leg, not good luck; AND NEVER EVER say Macbeth in the theater unless it’s part of the script.

From this intriguing confluence of reason and ritual, science and superstition, come opportunities for creating more drama.

    In Book Two of my Housekeeper Mystery Series, Catwalk Dead, Murder in the Rue de L’Histoire Theatre, reason challenges superstition, curses, and rituals. When Mrs. B.’s son moves to Austin and becomes a partner in the Bernardi-Bono Ballet Company and Rue de l” Histoire Theatre, strange things happen. When the ballet company prepares for its world premiere of Macbeth,   Mrs. B. and Father Melvyn find themselves entangled in Shakespearean superstition and death. 

First, the stage manager disappears. Then his dead body falls from a light bridge. A prop breaks free of its wire during a rehearsal, nearly killing Mrs. B.’s daughter-in-law and injuring a young dancer, and the theater is temporarily shut down for a safety inspection. Still, the dancers and stagehands worry, wondering if it’s the Macbeth curse at work.    

As fears, and superstitions grow, can Mrs. B. and Father Melvyn use their powers of reason and deduction in time to unravel the mystery before anyone else dies and the Bernardi-Bono Ballet Company is ruined? Or perhaps there are other factors at work beyond human control.

###

RESOURCES:

Huggett Richard. Supernatural on Stage, Taplinger Publishing Company, New York, NY. 1975

Crawley, Peter. Break a leg Macbeth: why are actors so superstitious?

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/stage/break-a-leg-macbeth-why-are-actors-so-superstitious 1.2280338

Han, Isaac. Why Did Composers Write Only Nine Symphonies? Curse or Superstition?

https://torontopubliclibrary.typepad.com/arts_culture/2019/03/curse-or-superstition-that-is-the-question.html

Roberts, Maddy Shaw – What is the Curse of the Ninth – and does it really exist?

https://classicfm.com/discover-music/curse-of-the-ninth

Robinson, Mark. 13 Theater Superstitions.

https://broadwaydirect.com/13-theater-superstitions-halloween/

Weinsten, Ellen. The superstitious Rituals of Highly Creative People, from Salvatore Dali to Yoko Ono.

https://www.artsy.net/aqrticle/artsy-editorial-superstitious-rituals-highly-creative-people-salvatore-dali-yoko-ono

Submitting Short Stories: It’s Like Baseball

By N. M. Cedeño

Many of the stories I write aren’t accepted the first time I submit them for publication. The majority have to be submitted over and over again to find a publication home. The process made me think of a batter stepping up to the plate in baseball because I may strike out repeatedly before scoring a run.

Most of the time, I write stories with no specific publisher in mind. I write the story because I want to or because the only way to get it out of my head- and make it stop bothering me- is to put it down on paper. Then, after the story is written, I begin the process of looking for a place to submit it. “It Came Upon a Midnight Ice Storm” is one of these stories. I wrote it for myself because I like light-hearted mysteries stories set at Christmas.

I first submitted this Christmas story for publication in mid-2018. It was rejected, struck out, eventually a total of eight times. I put it through workouts, strengthening it several times between ‘at bats’. Then, I saw a call for submissions that I thought it might fit, a call for cozy mysteries. On my ninth submission, the story was accepted. It will appear in Black Cat Mystery Magazine in a couple months.

from Murderous Ink Press, 2022

Sometimes, I’ll write a story based on requirements for a specific call for submissions, and it’s not accepted. I strike out. If the call was general enough, I can turn around and resubmit the story elsewhere with no changes. It’s ready for its next ‘at bat.’ That was the case for my story, “Reaching for the Moon.” After being initially rejected, and then rejected again, I submitted it to Murderous Ink Press, where editor John Connor accepted it for inclusion in the Crimeucopia: Say What Now? Anthology.

In other cases, the call for submissions may be in such a specific niche that I need to change the story in order to submit it elsewhere. Continuing the baseball analogy, I prepped the story to face a specific pitcher and have to make changes to face a new pitcher for the next ‘at bat.’

For example, my story “Serenity, Courage, Wisdom” was written for a very specific call for submissions for stories inspired by the music of a particular group and was rejected. In order to resubmit it elsewhere, I changed the title, which was originally a song title, and stripped out the details related to the song. Stripping those details left a hole, so instead of referencing a song, I settled on referencing a prayer that hung in my parents’ kitchen my entire childhood and that I have a copy of in my own kitchen.

After making these changes, I submitted the story to Black Cat Weekly, where the editor said the story needed a little work before he’d publish it and gave me some suggestions. In this case, I made a base hit, which requires more work on my part to make it to home plate. To get to home plate, I have to listen to the coach, aka the editor. I have to review the editor’s suggestions and work on the story with those suggestions in mind. If I don’t do the work, I get left on base and never make it home. If I do the work and send the story back to the editor, and he’s pleased and accepts the story, then I’ve rounded the bases to home plate and scored a run.

In this case, I did the work to earn the run. “Serenity, Courage, Wisdom” will be published in Black Cat Weekly #37 coming out in May 2022.

from Down & Out Books, 2022

Only one of my stories so far has been accepted on its first submission, which is the equivalent of hitting a home run. That story, “Nice Girls Don’t,” was written specifically for the anthology, Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties edited by Michael Bracken. I saw the call for submissions months ahead of the deadline and went to work researching material and writing the story. The anthology was published last week, debuting on April 11, 2022.

I have yet to retire any stories from the line-up. Eventually, I may have to set one aside, waiting to come out for the right call for submissions.

A Note: I’ll be participating in a panel discussion on mysteries, talking about my short mysteries, on Friday, May 13, at Hearth & Soul in Austin. Check the “Gather” tab on their website for time and location. Additional information will be posted soon.

****

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter and is a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Find out more at nmcedeno.com.

The Ardent Swarm by Yamen Manai

Translated by Laura Vergnand –A Book Review

by Renee Kimball

What started as a post about the use of “bees” as literary metaphor became something entirely different than I had first imagined.  I searched for information, but kept coming back to The Ardent Swarm by Yamen Manai.  More than metaphor, The Ardent Swarm stands as a statement about nature, life, human behavior and unwarranted invasion.

Bees have been in existence far longer than man, and as Joseph Campana states, “Without the Animal, there is no human” (2013).  So, it is not surprising that bees as literary metaphor is found in the Bible, the Quran, Shakespeare, by scholars of the Renaissance (14th -17th centuries), and the Enlightenment (16th-17th centuries), to name only a few.

The Ardent Swarm is the poignant story of one man’s devotion, loss, resilience, and persistence.  It is also a story of invasion, political unrest, and the power of nature to overcome.  Other reviewers have called it both an “allegory,” and a “parable;” it contains a layer of spiritual associations, much like The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, You feel the message between the lines; it gently leads the reader forward.  The reader is better for having read it.

The central character of The Ardent Swarm, Sidi, is a beekeeper, but he is substantially more; Sidi is a subtle thinker, a principled patient man, a devoted lover of bees.  Sidi’s hives are full of healthy honey-producing bees, bees Sidi calls “his girls”; they are his children.  If necessary, Sidi would give his life to protect his children, his bees (p. 9).  (Book cover photo, courtesy of Amazon).

The story begins with tragedy.  One of Sidi’s hives is destroyed, his beloved bees eviscerated, slaughtered, while inside the hive, the queen and soldiers lie dead, all the honey has been removed to the last drop.  Sidi collapses to the ground in overwhelming grief; he is beyond consolation.  In spite of the enormous loss, Sidi vows to find the perpetrator of this destruction.  There are answers waiting to be found, but for this story, there is no final solution; it is Nature or Spirit that will ultimately decide the outcome. 

Sidi resides near the remote village of Nawa, Qatar.  Qatar sits adjacent to the Persian Gulf, part of the Arabian Peninsula (World Atlas).  Qatar is a country comprised of many small remote tribal villages scattered throughout the country.  The villagers have no knowledge of formal government or politics; they have no running water or electricity.  The people come from ancient tribal roots; their lives are far removed from the modern world. 

Despite the villagers’ isolation, modernity comes in the guise of politics, world trade, natural gas, democracy, and empty promises; civil war soon follows. Qatar and Nawa are suddenly embroiled in political turmoil, outsiders breach the borders, the government is radically changed, and political parties fight for power; it is a terrifying time. 

The setting of the novel alludes to an actual event that occurred in 2010, historically named the “Arab Spring”.  During the Arab Spring, uprisings spread across the Arab states (Wikipedia).  The people joined together to overthrow the many centuries old regimes, and in doing so, created diverse political factions causing widespread destruction and death.  The fictional people of Nawa are also thrown into civil war, their way of life threatened by forces vying to control them.

In search of whatever or whoever destroyed his hive Sidi leaves the area for a brief time, traveling to the hills and mountains.  While Sidi is absent, Nawa, is suddenly visited by political canvassers who distribute pamphlets, aggressively shout promises, and distribute gifts of free food and clothing to amazed villagers (p. 29).

Unable to find any evidence, Sidi returns to his hives, believing the murderer would return to kill again.  Patient and steadfast, Sidi stands guard over the remaining hives, and his patience is finally rewarded. A giant hornet, black with red eyes, comes to the hive, then leaves.  Soon, a group of the same kinds of hornets appear, swarm the remaining hive slaughtering more bees before Sidi, in protective clothing, can catch and crush them one by one.  Managing to keep one hornet alive, Sidi carries the hornet into Nawa. 

Asking if anyone has seen this specimen before, Sidi finds one villager who confirms he has seen similar wasps not too long ago.  The villager takes Sidi to a shack that stores a shipping container; the crate’s labels say it was sent from Shaanxi, in Central China.  The crate was brought by the political canvassers; it held the free clothes that were given to the villagers. 

Unknown to everyone, a much darker gift came with the clothes–a large nest of Chinese hornets (also called Asian Hornets).  The nest was there all along, within the crate, hidden under the clothes.  When a curious villager opened the crate, several of the hornets flew out though the shack’s open window. 

By the time Sidi was led to the crate and discovered the nest, too much time had passed.  Exasperated, Sidi cut the nest open and found dried hornet larvae along with several hornet bodies, all dead and dried.  Sidi knew that the escaped hornets were already in the countryside, acclimating and making nests, a disaster would eventually follow (p. 105-106).  

Sidi had learned that nature could intervene, but in this case, he wasn’t sure.  He had crossbred wild country bees with his domestic bees to ward off illness and parasites.  He would find out more about these hornets, their habitats, and how they could be controlled and whether they could be crossbred to be less aggressive. 

While Sidi does find a solution, it was not easy and was very risky.  Without revealing the ending, suffice it to say the answer comes from Japan.  Whether the approach Sidi takes is successful remains up to Nature.  Like Sidi, we wait and hope for the survival of the hive.

The Ardent Swarm is more than a metaphor of bees and society torn by war; it is a metaphor for the destruction of Ukraine.  It is a metaphor for unanticipated, unwarranted destruction from an outside and aggressive source.  Just like Sidi’s hive, we wait and hope that Nature wins to modify the aggressive genetic makeup of the Asian hornet; with Ukraine, we hope the better nature of the world intervenes to stop Russia’s destruction of the Ukrainian people–we pray and we wait.

And thy Lord taught the Bee

to build its cells in hills

on trees, and in [men’s] habitations;

Then to eat of all

the produce of [the earth],

and find with skill the spacious

Paths of its Lord: there issues

from within their bodies

a drink of varying colours,

wherein is healing for men:

verily in this is a Sign

for those who give thought

Quran, “The Bee,” 16:68-69

Quoted from The Ardent Swarm: A Novel by Yamen Manai,

Additional Notes:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, through the National Invasive Species Information Center, identified the presence of the Asian Hornet (Scientific name: Vespa mandarinia, named by Smith, 1852) in 2019, in Washington State.  It is an invasive species that arrived in the U.S. through an unknown source.  Under “impact” assessment, the USDA stated the Asian Hornet can cause “the complete loss of Honeybee colonies” (National Invasive Species Information Center. U.S. Department of Agriculture). https://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/terrestrial/invertebrates/asian-giant-hornet

USDA’s Cutting-Edge Methods Help Deliver a Victory Against Asian Giant Hornet

Posted by Greg Rosenthal, Communications Specialist, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in Animals. Aug 16, 2021

https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2020/10/29/usdas-cutting-edge-methods-help-deliver-victory-against-asian-giant-hornet

“. . . After weeks of searching, Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) entomologists–—using a radio tag provided by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and a trap developed by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service–— have located and eradicated the first Asian giant hornet (AGH) nest ever found in the United States. For months, WSDA had been trying to find the nest they knew must exist near Blaine, WA, because of AGH detections in the area. But finding the nest proved extremely challenging since the hornets build nests in forested areas, typically in an underground cavity. . .”

References

The Ardent Swarm by Yamen Manai, Lara Vergnaud (Translator).  Originally published in French. Published February 1st 2021 by Amazon Crossing (first published April 11th 2017).

Campana, Joseph.  Manimals: Early Modern Animal/Human Interfaces.  The bee and the sovereign? Political entomology and the problem of scale. The Free Library. https://www.thefreelibrary.com/The+bee+and+the+sovereign%3F+Political+entomology+and+the+problem+of…-a0349721049

Arab Spring. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_Spring

Photo of book cover, courtesy of Amazon.

Photos of flowers, bees and nest, courtesy of Pixabay.

***

A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are research, reading, and writing.  She is working on a novel set during the time of the Roman Republic.

Music to Our Ears!

by Helen Currie Foster

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?”

Dixie and Helen

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.”

Moreover, it’s not retirees pushing this trend: “And while you might think it’s nostalgic Boomers or Gen Xers behind the renaissance of records, in fact surveys show it’s millennial consumers driving the rising trend in vinyl sales.” https://www.themanual.com/culture/why-vinyl-is-coming-back/

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

And it may be for that reason that music stays in our brains longer than many other memories. https://kids.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frym.2017.00005#:~:text=Our%20brains%20possess%20a%20remarkable,might%20know%20it%20by%20heart.

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…

https://www.samstownpointatx.com/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-cExlWpQTc

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.

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