Waking or Sleeping?

by Helen Currie Foster

This week out here on the creek I was iced in, with no power.

I was sitting by the fireplace wrapped in a blanket, when I came upon an unfamiliar word: HYPNOGAGIA. “Hypnagogia is the transition between wakefulness and sleep. During this state, it’s common to experience visual, audio, or other types of hallucinations. It’s also common to experience muscle jerks and sleep paralysis.” https://www.healthline.com/health/hypnagogia#:~:text=Hypnagogia%20is%20the%20transition%20between,to%20hypnagogia%20to%20stimulate%20creativity

Some people purposefully try to induce to hypnagogia to stimulate creativity. Id. According to Allison Eck, Harvard Gazette (Autumn 2022), hypnagogia is “widely thought of as a sweet spot for creativity.” https://hms.harvard.edu/magazine/sleep/behind-veil-hypnagogic-sleep. Eck describes the experience of scientist August Kekulé in the mid 1800’s during his search for the structure of the compound benzene, as he dozed before his fireplace in Ghent. “[A]s he dozed, images hinting at its structure appeared in his mind’s eye. He later wrote that he saw dancing atoms beaded together along an invisible string, ‘twisting in snake-like motion.’ The atoms morphed into an ouroboros” (another new word for me: a snake eating its own tail). Kekulé realized benzene’s structure was a ring  of carbon atoms, each attached to a hydrogen atom.

Scientists and innovators like Einstein and Edison, and writers like Vladimir Nabokov, “have transited this cerebral pathway in search of solutions to problems.” Id.

Have you experienced hypnagogia? I think I have, a few times, in mystery-writing, most recently in my newest, Ghosted. https://www.amazon.com/Ghosted-Alice-MacDonald-Greer-Mysteries/dp/1732722927/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1675707798&sr=8-1

On each occasion I’ve gone to bed with my mind on a plot problem, or a scene that needs to take shape. Preliminary requirements appear to include being ensconced under the covers, on my left side, envisioning a possible scene as I slide into sleep—then watching the scene begin to unfold. I try to remind my brain to remember this solution. While most dreams fly away with sunrise, these solutions have come back in the morning. If I could make this happen whenever I want (so far, no dice), a book would get finished so much faster!

This occasional experience may be “lucid dreaming,” the state of being aware that you’re dreaming. “When you wake up from a lucid dream, you actually have a more positive mood in the morning,” writes researcher Michelle Carr, Department of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester, in Aeon. https://aeon.co/essays/in-sleep-the-body-is-a-channel-to-communicate-with-the-dreaming-mind. Carr describes herself as a dream scientist: “I want to uncover ways to repair nightmares and, in their place, engineer dreams for healing.”

Hypnogagia is a big topic these days. A team of engineers and scientists at the MIT Media Lab developed a glove-like tool to help decipher dreams. Researchers are testing whether the glove may allow people to manipulate their hypnagogic experiences, which could help sufferers from PTSD and nightmare disorders feel a stronger sense of control.  Again, as Eck puts it, “…[A]t the very least, drawing attention to our hypnagogic personas may bring us newfound ideas that we can act on when we wake.”  Id.

Charles Dickens, inveterate insomniac, walked the streets of London at night and used dream states in his books, including, famously, A Christmas Carol. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.700882/full

Could we term it “lucid dreaming” when Scrooge is shown visions—then decides to change the dreadful outcomes by his future actions? He begs the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, “Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life?” He promises, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future…” Then Scrooge sees the phantom’s hood and dress collapse into his bedpost, scrambles out of bed, repeating that last sentence––and heads out to buy the prize Christmas turkey for the Cratchits.

Vladimir Nabokov kept a dream diary, and in his autobiography, Speak, Memory, wrote about the procession of  what he called “hypnagogic mirages,” images he would see ‘just before falling asleep,” often accompanied by “a neutral, detached, anonymous voice which I catch…”

He emphasizes he is still aware during “the visions that pass before my closed eyes. They come and go, without the drowsy observer’s participation, but are essentially different from dream pictures for he is still master of his senses” (emphasis added). Lucid dreaming? https://www.loa.org/books/8-novels-memoirs-1941-1951?gclid=Cj0KCQiA54KfBhCKARIsAJzSrdotSuqt8CbUDCbTtegLG4hvxHker5ZZVuIwntp0lTzrNsY0PD5UeA8aAmQyEALw_wcB

Tolstoy’s notes show he envisioned characters in such visions. For a deeper dive, see https://ciaotest.cc.columbia.edu/olj/socsci/socsci_99pev01.html

(Side note––in Speak, Memory Nabokov also describes his synesthesia, where each letter of the alphabet appeared in its own color—depending on the language. In English a long “a” was the tint of weathered wood, but in French was polished ebony. Other letters were green, blue, yellow and so on. He also could not bear the sound of music. An unusual brain!) https://www.google.com/search?gs_ssp=eJzj4tLP1TcwTjMxr8gxYPQSKMtJTMnMzSxSyEtMys_OLwMAiy0J6w&q=vladimir+nabokov&oq=vladimir+n&aqs=chrome.1.69i57j46i131i433i512j0i512l2j46i512j0i512l3j46i512.8717j0j15&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

We mystery writers can mine hypnagogic moments for ideas on character and scenes––but the genre suggests a limit.

A good mystery offers the reader the chance to solve a puzzle. As set forth in the original rules of London’s Detection Club, “The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.” Nor can the detective solve by “an unaccountable intuition.” https://murder-mayhem.com/the-detection-club-rules

Meeting of the Detection Club in 1936.

 Indeed, is there anything more irritating to a mystery reader than the tardy mention of a clue? No! Mystery readers are entitled to all clues, as soon as that clue is found, and clues are facts. The mystery writer offers a collaboration to the reader, in which the detective and reader are on the same page—fact-wise. We readers want evidence. A character’s dreams may offer insight into a character—but not evidence.

Besides—while most of us are at least mildly interested in our own dreams, unless we’re also therapists we’re not usually too interested in the dreams of others. Do you remember your interest level the last time someone began describing a dream to you? I confess my eyes can begin to glaze. Of course it’s hard to convey dreams with the color and speed and power the dreamer experienced. But in the world of mysteries, we are greedy for facts. In Martin Walker’s “Bruno, Chief of Police” series, set in a small town in the French Dordogne, Bruno’s activities are fascinating––his cooking, his love life, his detection––and while we know he had a difficult military service in Bosnia, the author doesn’t dwell on Bruno’s dreams about those days. Instead he provides us with what we want: Bruno’s memories. Those contain facts, at least Bruno’s versions of facts, for which the reader is grateful. http://www.brunochiefofpolice.com/

So I’m cautious. In my Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, at least so far, Alice doesn’t share her dreams. For one thing, as observed in the New Yorker, “As for writing about them, even Henry James, who’s seldom accused of playing to the cheap seats, had a rule: ‘Tell a dream, lose a reader.’” Dan Piepenbring, “The Enthralling, Anxious World of Vladimir Nabokov’s Dreams” (February 8, 2018). https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/what-vladimir-nabokov-saw-in-his-dreams

The ice has melted! And Ghosted is out! Book 8 in the series is available now in paperback and also on Kindle via pre-order delivery on February 10, on Amazon. Also coming soon to Austin’s BookPeople!

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Shattering a Vase

by Kathy Waller

[The blogger having been rendered incapable of typing with more than five fingers, she repeats a post that appeared on Austin Mystery Writers in 2015.]

*****

. . . it was like taking a vase and setting it down
so hard it shatters . . .

~  Tracy Chevalier

When I taught secondary English, grading essays was my least favorite task. I was happy to read them, but assigning letter grades? I hated that.

I hated judging. I hated trying to determine the difference between a B and an A, or, worse, between a B-plus and an A-minus.

But the worst–the part that made me want to moan like Hamlet’s father’s ghost, “Oh, horrible, oh, horrible, most horrible!”–was listening to students who believed their work merited higher grades: “But I worked so harrrrrrrd.” 

Some had watched classmates complete an entire assignment during a lull in history class and then score A’s. It wasn’t fair.

“Harrrrrrrrrrd” was my signal to say that No, it didn’t seem fair, but that good writing involves more than time sheets and sweat. It’s the words on the page that matter.

Now, to my dismay, I often find myself slipping into student mode. For example, when I submit a chapter to my critique group, or a beta reader, or even a family member, and they find fault, or don’t even mention my genius, I have to restrain myself from wailing, But I worked so harrrrrrrd…

Each time it happens, I repeat to myself the old lecture about time sheets and sweat. I add that whingeing is the hallmark of the amateur.

And I meditate upon Tracy Chevalier.

Chevalier wrote the critically acclaimed historical novel Girl with a Pearl Earring. Her next novel began as a draft written in third person, with small sections in first-person voices of children. The completed manuscript disappointed her.

When I reread the first draft, she says,  I cried at the end. It was boring, dead weight, terrible. Then I looked it over and thought, there’s nothing wrong with the story except the way it’s told.

She found the solution in another contemporary novel:

I had the idea when, just as I was finishing the first draft in third person, I read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which uses five different voices beautifully. It’s a wonderful book, using multiple voices very successfully, and I thought, “Oh, that’s an interesting technique, I wonder if I should take the kids’ voices I’ve already written and have the three of them tell it.” It just felt right.

The revision was published as Falling Angels, an exquisite novel about a young wife and mother struggling to survive in the rigid, but rapidly changing, social structure of Edwardian England. The book is written in first person, from twelve perspectives, in twelve distinctive voices.

I came across Chevalier’s account when I was just beginning to write fiction and had become obsessed with the work. Writing an entire manuscript, setting it aside, starting all over—it had to be pure drudgery. I couldn’t imagine putting myself through that. 

Later, though, I reread the article and a different passage caught my attention—Chevalier’s description of the rewrite:

I took the draft, and it was like taking a vase and setting it down so hard it shatters, then putting the pieces back together in a different way. I rewrote the whole thing in first person with all these different voices.

That passage doesn’t describe drudgery. Shattering a vase, putting the pieces back together to make something new—that’s a picture of creation, of the excitement and the pleasure and the beauty that accompany it.

I love Tracy Chevalier’s novels and admire her talent. But, on a more personal level, I’m grateful to her for sharing publicly how Falling Angels made its way into print—for reminding me that hard work isn’t synonymous with drudgery, for implying that it’s okay to cry over a bad draft and that perceived failure can turn into success, and for showing that the act of writing itself affords as much pleasure as the spirit is willing to embrace.

And—for tacitly suggesting that no one really needs to hear me whinge about how harrrrrrrrd I work.

It’s the words on the page that matter.

*****

Note: I really do love Chevalier’s novels. In fact, I love Falling Angels so much that during library duty one Saturday morning, I was so intent on finishing the book—just racing toward the climax—that I unlocked the front doors but left the lights in the reading room off, and spent the next ninety minutes parked behind the circulation desk, reading, and hoping no one would walk in and want something. I’m not proud of what I did. It was unprofessional. But patrons were understanding. And I finished the book.

*****

Information about Tracy Chevalier comes from Fiction Writers Review.

*****

Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly, and with Austin Mystery Writers. Her stories have been anthologized in Murder on Wheels, Lone Star Lawless, and Day of the Dark, and online in Mysterical-E.

David Rosenfelt: Storyteller Extraordinaire

By K.P. Gresham

So there I was, getting ready to go on our Christmas cruise with my better half, Kevin, and our daughter, Bethany, and realizing that I didn’t have enough books for our vacation. My goal is to enjoy reading three books each cruise—I never have this luxury of time anywhere else. Most of the books I “read” now are on audio, which I listen to on my 3 mile walk with my Chihuahua, Tipper. But this was the night before our departure and I suddenly realized I only had two hard copy books: the latest J.D. Robb book and the eighth in the Sci-Fi Opera series, The Expanse by James S.A. Corey.

Off I went to the bookstore. Both already chosen books were kinda heavy (literally and physically), so I thought I’d look for something a little lighter. I saw a fun little Christmas book—had snow and a golden retriever puppy on the cover and I thought I’d read this little cozy looking book titled Best in Snow by David Rosenfelt.

This book was everything I love about reading. Yes, it had a golden retriever in the story, but this was not just a cozy. In fact, finding a category in which to fit this book is beyond my capabilities. It is a legal procedural, a comedy, suspenseful, and had a serious plot with more twists in it than a country road. The hero of the story, Andy Carpenter, has a self-deprecating humor that makes you want to have a beer with him, he loves sports, and he hangs out with a phenomenal group of characters. It had every element of a book that just makes me happy.

The craft that went into writing this book was top-notch. There was not one page written that didn’t make you want to turn the page. Every single word in the book was necessary; Rosenfelt’s writing was smooth, fast, and to-the-point.

As soon as I got off the cruise ship, I headed for my favorite audio book vendor. It turns out that Best in Snow was the 24th book in the “The Andy Carpenter Mystery Series.” I enjoy reading series in order, so I decided to go back to book #1, Open and Shut. It is now January 18th, and I just finished listening to book #7, New Tricks. And each one was better than the last.

So, here’s the skinny on this delightful author. David Rosenfelt graduated from New York University and then decided to work in the movie business. After being interviewed by his uncle, who was the President of United Artists, he was hired and worked his way up the corporate ladder. Rosenfelt eventually became the marketing president for Tri-Star Pictures.

Rosenfelt left the corporate treadmill and turned to writing novels. He has now authored over thirty-three books which include a different series and several stand-alones. In 1995, he and his wife started the “Tara Foundation” which has saved almost 4,000 dogs. He is a dog lover and supports more than two dozen dogs.

Hopefully this blog serves as bait for you to discover this author. If you like dogs, humor, nail-biting drama and a darned good story, a book by David Rosenfelt should be your next read.

K.P. Gresham, Author

Professional Character Assassin

K.P. Gresham is the award-winning author of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series as well as several stand-alone novels.  Active in Sisters in Crime and the Writers League of Texas, she has won Best Novel awards from the Bay Area Writers League as well as the Mystery Writers of America.

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Website: http://www.kpgresham.com/

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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

WHEN THE MUSE CALLS…

By

Fran Paino, AKA F. Della Notte

This was an odd morning. I got up, as usual at 4 a.m. (no kudos here – just my body clock), prepared to sit at the computer and work on my story. I walked into the kitchen. There,  perched on the corner of the table, with her cafe e latte in one hand, and waving a recipe for a Sicilian cake I’d printed out before Christmas in the other hand, was the muse. I took the paper and looked at the recipe again, captured by the bold, black font and pretty picture.

So, she commanded. Instead of worrying about plots, profiles, commas, apostrophes, nouns, and verbs, bake the cake

Immediately – after my first cup of coffee, I assembled the ingredients, including lemons, and squeezed out fresh juice, then shaved off the zest, as instructed. This particular recipe depends heavily on the bright yellow fruit, sometimes sweet, sometimes not, that often decorates my martini glass. Today, it would flavor and brighten the cake. The entire process of creating the batter was not difficult, and soon the cake was in the oven. But my muse was not content.  

Let’s talk about lemons, said she, a very Italian muse because we Italians, both human and spirit, do love our lemons, and off I went on a learning mission with the burning question at four a.m. Where in the world are the best lemons grown? 

 The answer varies depending on the website, but some of the best lemons are grown in Italy, on the Amalfi coast, just south of Naples. Beautiful varieties of lemons are also cultivated on the largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily.

Its Ionian coast was traversed by Odysseus on his ten-year voyage home from the Trojan War. Here he found his way to Aeolus, the god of winds who lived in a castle protected by a solid bronze wall on the island of Lipari – where my husband’s ancestors lived – but I digress. Back to the worthy subject of lemons.

Italian lemons are not to be confused with the expensive, succulent Meyer Lemons. That hybrid citrus originated in China and is a cross between “citron and mandarin/pomelo hybrid.”  

On the other hand, Italian lemons are as distinct as the areas where they grow. There are two types of Amalfi lemons grown on the Sorrento Peninsula — “the Sfusato Amalfitano and the Limone di Sorrento. Found in different parts of the coast, these are among the most highly prized lemons in the world. They are PGI-protected by the EU, which ensures they are produced only on the Amalfi Coast,” preventing substitutes or imitations.  The Amalfi coast provides fresh breezes off the ocean, which are trapped in the mountain valleys, creating the perfect ecosystem for the lemons to grow. They are protected from the northern winds to bask and mature in the coastal sunshine. Incidentally, the same is true for the oranges of this region. So special and fragrant are these fruits that Italians even reference their perfume in song.  

Traveling south to the island of Sicily, the Interdonato cultivar is a natural hybrid between lemon and citron grown along the Ionian Sea coast in Messina. Then there are the lemons grown along the volcanic coastal strip of Etna, in parts of Catania, differing in size, shape, and color. These are rich in essential oils and of high aromatic quality, which can be attributed to the fact that they are grown in an environment with specific volcanic soil and climate. 

Last but not least are the lemons from Siracusa (Syracuse), characterized by an intense fragrance and juiciness, which makes them particularly suitable for creating liqueurs, desserts, sorbets, and ice cream

         Which of these varieties did I use? Well, the only lemons available to me, and in my fridge, were from the good old U.S.A., most likely grown in Arizona or California, where 95% of our lemons come from. The other 5% are grown in Texas and Florida. 

         I’ve told you more than you ever wanted to know about lemons, while my cake cooled. One bite convinced me that it was well worth the detour inspired by my muse. So, when life gives you lemons, you can make lemonade or bake a Sicilian Olive Oil and Lemon cake. You’ll love it. I certainly do.

With my espresso, and a slice of the moist cake with its delicate lemony flavor, enhanced by the olive oil beside me, I return to my computer, content and ready to focus on writing, but remember, when the muse calls…pay attention. 

###

https://www.cnn.com/videos/travel/2022/10/07/sardinia-stanley-tucci-searching-for-italy-fregola-origseriesfilms.cnn/video/playlists/stanley-tucci-searching-for-italy/

https://www.italiarail.com/food/joys-amalfi-lemon

https://www.tasteatlas.com/most-popular-lemons-in-sicily

Assessments 2022 / Goals 2023

By N. M. Cedeño

We’ll start with assessments:

I started 2022 with the goal of getting short stories published. In aid of that goal, I set another goal: to submit an average of three stories per month to magazines, anthologies, or contests. That’s thirty-six submissions. Why choose an average instead of a fixed monthly goal? Because I knew with travel, family responsibilities, and holidays, some months would be more difficult than others. As expected, June and July had only two submissions each. December might be the same. Giving myself the flexibility to submit four stories one month to make up for months with only two stories submitted was a practical decision. I know how these things go, so I wasn’t going to shoot myself in the foot by making the goal too rigid to meet.

End results:

I met my goal. By December, I submitted thirty-six stories to various markets to be considered for publication. I also submitted five stories for consideration for awards or recognition that includes publication. If I count those five as additional “submissions,” then I blew my goal out of the water.

Publications:

During 2022, seven of my short stories were published or reprinted in various magazines, e-zines, and anthologies. This is nothing compared to the John Floyds of the world, but pleasing for someone who only decided to focus on short fiction publication in 2020.

Six of seven covers for 2022. Seven is an awkward number!
  1. January: e-zine, Black Cat Weekly #19– “A Reasonable Expectation of Privacy” (reprint)
  2. February: anthology, After Dinner Conversation: Season Five – “The Wrong Side of History” (reprint)
  3. March: anthology, Crimeucopia: Say What Now?– “Reaching for the Moon”
  4. April: anthology, Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties– “Nice Girls Don’t”
  5. June: e-zine, Black Cat Weekly #37– “Serenity, Courage, Wisdom”
  6. August: magazine, Black Cat Mystery Magazine #12– “It Came Upon a Midnight Ice Storm”
  7. December: e-zine, Black Cat Weekly #68– “Merry Library Murder”

Firsts for 2022:

For the first time, an editor approached me because someone else had failed to supply a story. This led to another first: I produced a story— from researching the historical background to submitting the finished product— in about three weeks. Was the final product as polished as I would have liked? No. But, in the end, the only issues left were minor.

For the first time, I had a story “featured” on the cover of a magazine. “Merry Library Murder” is the featured story in Black Cat Weekly #68, which was published the week before Christmas. Seeing that cover was a lovely surprise and a fabulous Christmas present.

For the first time, I submitted some of my stories for consideration in “Best of” mystery anthologies, which is a box checked on a list of professional goals. I wondered: Should I let the editors submit for me? Or should I submit my own stories? Many authors wait on this sort of thing and let others, like editors, decide. But, where is the wisdom in not putting your work forward, not ensuring it will be seen and considered? Just as work left in the drawer won’t be published, work never sent for consideration for awards won’t be recognized with awards.

Goals for 2023:

  • Increase my writing productivity.

During the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021, I was surprisingly (given the stress of those years) prolific. My writing output was steady. But 2022 did not go as well. My productivity in 2022 was much less than I had hoped. In speaking to other writers, I’ve heard many say that they felt like they hit a wall at some point in the last two years. They felt their energy levels plummet, and they felt like they didn’t have the emotional energy to invest in their writing. I too felt an energy drop this year. Instead of writing new material, I frequently focused on editing and submitting what I had already written. I kept working, but not always on new words. While I did produce new short stories, I didn’t write as many as in previous years. My creative batteries must have needed a recharge.

  • Keep submitting short stories.

I intend to keep my focus on short fiction for now. People keep asking when I will write another novel. I don’t know. Short fiction comes far more naturally than novels for me. I have always found novel writing to be a slog. Short stories are fun. So maybe I’ll focus on writing more stories than last year and submit three per month again? Or I could try for four submissions a month. Hmm. Things to think about. Decisions to be made.

  • Attempt to build relationships with more editors

As a wise editor told me: editors die or retire. Writers must build relationships with many editors to ensure a steady stream of story acceptances and publications.

  • Delegate when possible.

I’ve been elected president of my local SinC chapter again, starting in January. I’ve served on the chapter board in various capacities over the years: as vice-president, as president, as immediate past president. The position of president can be the equivalent of taking on a part-time job, or even a full time job, if I don’t delegate. People are very reluctant to volunteer right now. I may have to beg, plead, and twist some arms, which I hate to do. But I also hate to see something good fall apart for lack of volunteers. Wish me luck.

THE POWER OF THE QUESTION MARK

Why do we mystery readers read the next line? Turn to the next page?

Some writers have the knack of persuading us–for example, Tony Hillerman. His mysteries feature Navajo police Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee and Bernadette Manuelito. Never forget that Hillerman was a journalist before he wrote mysteries. I’m betting he excelled at attention-catching ledes that made you read his news articles. An early example of his getting us to turn to the next page occurs in The Dark Wind (1982), page 1:

“The Flute Clan boy was the first to see it. He stopped and stared. ‘Someone lost a boot,’ he said. Even from where he stood, at least fifteen yards farther down the trail, Albert Lomatewa could see that nobody had lost the boot. The boot had been placed, not dropped. It rested upright, squarely in the middle of the path, its pointed toe aimed toward them…”

Come on, you’ll turn the page, right?

For me, the same holds true for poetry. Untangling a new poem demands commitment. I confess the combination of the title and first lines can draw me right in. Masters of such trickery include Robert Frost and Billy Collins. Take for instance Frost’s “Mending Wall,” from North of Boston (1914): “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…” Well, I want to know what. Or “After Apple Picking”: “My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree/ Toward heaven still…” I won’t leave that ladder quite yet.

Billy Collins simply uses a one-two punch: first his title, then the first lines, and you’re hooked. From Aimless Love (2013), titled “Hell”: “I have a feeling that it is much worse/ Than shopping for a mattress at a mall…”

When that combination–title plus opening lines–arouses my curiosity, it’s because I feel I’m experiencing along with the poet. Where’s the poet going? I’ll follow to find out (and Collins’s self-deprecating humor keeps me reading).

Okay, we’re curious animals. We’ve been asking “WHY?” at least since we were two. Theories abound. Is it because we’re responding to our outside world? Or is it innate–instinctual? Genetic? Do we get a dopamine rush from capturing new information? “Drive theory” calls curiosity a naturally-occurring urge we have to satisfy–a reason we read mysteries and work crossword puzzles. Alternatively, “incongruity theory” suggests we tend to see the world as orderly and predictable, but we become curious when an external event doesn’t fit our perceived order. Do mystery readers experience curiosity falling within each category? We want to find missing information (Clues!)–drive theory. And maybe we want a satisfying conclusion (justice served, the murderer punished, motives revealed) –incongruity theory.

Scientists are currently wildly curious (sorry) about human and animal curiosity.https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/evolution/curiosity.htm.

https://www.psypost.org/2022/o7/new-psychology-research-reveals-a-dark-side-of-curiosity-63583

I suspect readers are like Leonardo da Vinci. Mario Livio asks, in Why: What Makes Us Curious (2017), what distinguished Leonardo from his predecessor anatomists, hydraulicists, botanists? “Leonardo had an unquenchable curiosity which he attempted to satisfy directly through his own observations rather than by relying on statements by figures of authority.”

Just like mystery readers. We insist on discovering each clue for ourselves. Woe betide the writer who cheats us–hides a clue, or packs the last chapter with explanations we had no chance to discover directly through our own observations. Not only cheatsy, but contrary to a key provision in the original Detection Club rules. https://murder-mayhem.com/the-detection-club-rules. A violation of our beloved genre!

We need for the sleuth to ask the right questions. An Austin detective recently gave an absolutely riveting presentation to our Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime chapter, describing how to conduct an interview of a potential suspect (not under arrest) who’s been asked to talk to the police. He said the interviewer needs to be likable–should give the suspect no reason to dislike him. The initial greeting should create a sense of reciprocity but also mention the sleuth’s authority. The detective begins the interview in a calm, low voice, giving the suspect autonomy and building rapport: “Is it okay if I call you Alec?” “Tell me a little bit about yourself.” He elicits the suspect’s story, then goes over it, watching for nonverbal indications of uncomfortable areas (the suspect changes posture, etc.). He watches for signs of deception–easy to detect if the suspect lies, harder to detect if the suspect fails to answer the question completely or directly, or restates the question to avoid having to answer the actual query, During the interview, the sleuth must keep a neutral face even if the suspect confesses something disgusting or shocking: “The second the suspect senses judgment on your part, they won’t talk to you.”

The mystery sleuth–professional or amateur–must recognize key questions. Take Anthony Horowitz’s Moonflower Murders–a follow-on to his Magpie Murders, featuring a contemporary murder mystery again wrapped around an earlier mystery involving the fictional detective Atticus Pund. Protagonist Susan Ryeland asks: why did the waiter at the posh club drop the plates? And why did her boss’s assistant quit her job at the publishing company? I’ll leave you to find out. Ryeland’s dogged pursuit of the answers to these key questions nearly gets her killed. But she solves the murder.

For an entirely different creative use of the question mark, with a twist: study (or just enjoy) Richard Osman. His often comic Thursday Murder Club mysteries revolve around a group of retirees in a comfortable retirement village. The club’s purpose? Solving cold cases. The disparate characters contribute varied personalities and talents–a Zen-focused psychiatrist (Ibrahim), a vivacious widowed nurse (Joyce), a burly ex-union organizer (Ron), and the mysterious former spy (Elizabeth.

Osman brings these characters to life not by a predictable prosy description, but by the questions they ask and answer. In the club meeting on page 1 of The Man Who Died Twice, Joyce asks, “Do you think a dog might be good company?…I thought I might either get a dog or join Instagram.” Ibrahim: “I would advise against it.” The day’s topic is murder; but with such a Q and A, we begin to grasp the nature of this somewhat wacky group. We’re allowed to read Joyce’s diary, in which she comes across as convivial, a bit ditsy, and quite shrewd.

Osman extends this technique to other characters. When drug dealer Connie introduces herself to Chris and Donna, police officers who hope to engage in a sting and arrest her, we get this:

“What’s your eye shadow?” Connie asks Donna.

“Pat McGrath, Gold Standard,” says Donna.

“It’s lush,” says Connie.

Connie’s a murderous drug dealer. But hey! She’s also into fashion. And Donna? Same.

Osman also uses those hanging questions as hooks. At the end of chapter 17, we’re eavesdropping on Joyce’s diary. The daily entry ends, “I wonder if anyone else is awake?” Now turn the page to chapter 18: “Ryan Baird is awake. He is currently playing Call of Duty online. He is spraying machine gun fire at full volume while his neighbors bang on the walls.”

You’ll be glad to know Ryan will get his, but the clever Q and A hooks us into the next chapter and expands Ryan’s character.

Osman’s Q and A also deepens the relationship between two unlikely friends, Joyce and Elizabeth:

“What do you and I talk about, Joyce?” asks Elizabeth.

Joyce thinks. “It’s been mainly murder, hasn’t it? Since we met?”

Thank you, Richard Osman. This is fun.

Just in case you’re wondering whether you (or your friends and relatives) ask enough questions, or ask the right or wrong questions, or have no clue how to keep a conversation going, or (heaven help us) don’t know how to ask questions of a group, here are 450 suggestions. Unfortunately, this collection didn’t include a list of “ideal questions for solving a murder.” https://www.scienceofpeople.com/questionos-to-ask-people

But, like Leonardo, we readers will discover those questions “directly through [our] own observations.”

My next book in the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, Ghosted, will be out soon. Toward the end the protagonist, Alice, asks a key question. Watch for it! Happy Holidays!

Helen Currie Foster writes the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, set in the Texas Hill Country. She lives north of Dripping Springs, loosely supervised by three burros. She’s active with Austin Shakespeare, Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime, and the Hays County Master Naturalists (still trying to learn those native grasses). Her most recent book, Ghost Daughter, was named Eric Hoffer Book Award Grand Prize Short List Finalist, as well as Finalist in the 2022 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, and Finalist in the 16th Annual National Indie Excellence Awards.

FLIGHTS OF FANCY AND IMAGINATION

FRANCINE PAINO AKA F. Della Notte

Thanks to Hollywood and TV-land, most of us are tired of Christmas and we aren’t even in the official Advent season. The bombardment of mostly silly movies centered on Christmas themes that have little to do with this holy Christian holiday sucks the meaning out of Christmas and starts earlier every year.

Thus, it seems a good time to reprint Flights of Fancy and Imagination, reminding everyone that PBS television’s 2021 presentation of the musical production by Grammy, Emmy, and Tony Award winner John Mauceri: The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, written in 1816, is still available, and will be through December 13, 2024.

Mauceri conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, with Tony Award-winning Alan Cumming narrating this original tale in three parts..

The story, written by E.T.A. Hoffman, is about a young girl who saves a prince, contrary to Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White, where the prince rescues the girl. Perhaps Hoffman’s inspiration for this particular flight of fancy was the popularity of embellished nutcrackers, which appeared in Germany in the early 1800s.  

The Nutcracker’s story begins with a young boy who stays home alone daily while his parents go to work. The little boy was lonely and afraid, so his father carved a special toy, a nutcracker in the form of a soldier with big sharp teeth and fierce-looking eyes, and told him that this unique Nutcracker would protect him while his parents were gone. It did the trick. The boy loved and enjoyed that Nutcracker and felt secure by its presence, so his father continued to carve new ones for him. When the boy grew up, he married and had a son to whom he gave all the nutcrackers made by his father. 

Over time in early 19th century Germany, the lure of decorative nutcrackers grew, and so did a legend. They came to represent power, strength, and the protection of families from danger and evil spirits. Nutcrackers were given as gifts and keepsakes to bring good luck.  

E.T.A. Hoffman was a prolific writer of gothic tales, fantasy, and the supernatural – most of them dark, including segments of his Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Alexander Dumas, the 19th-century French author, translated Hoffman’s work in 1845, propelling it beyond the written word. Mauceri explains that Dumas, the grandson of the French aristocrat and African Haitian slave, was drawn to the story because Hoffman concluded the tale with the girl growing up to become the queen of a land of tolerance and imagination. It was the Dumas version that Peter Illich Tchaikovsky adopted in 1892 when he composed the score. 

While this production does not target children, it is appropriate for those youngsters who can sit still for a narrative without pictures or characters to hold their interest. Cumming reads the narrative with emotion and even injects moments of humor without straying from the story.

The orchestra gives a stirring performance. Bold and rousing where appropriate, mysterious, sensual, and nerve-wracking also when appropriate. In addition to the lush Tchaikovsky score, compositions from Tchaikovsky’s tone poems and orchestral suites, are included.   

Mauceri’s reimagined Nutcracker and the Mouse King fill the mind’s eye with characters, places, and emotions generated by the performances of artists of the highest caliber. If you didn’t experience this fantastic flight of fancy and imagination last year, you might still enjoy it by accessing https://www.pbs.org/video/the-nutcracker-and-the-mouse-king-meabwt/.

Enjoy it for the first time, or once again, with friends, family, children, and grown-ups. And in the spirit of the upcoming season, I wish you all a truly thankful Thanksgiving, and in the true spirit of Christmas, I wish you all love, kindness, respect, and caring.

First published December, 2021

Libraries and “Merry Library Murder”

By N. M. Cedeño

The fact that the victim in my upcoming story entitled “Merry Library Murder” is a librarian is not a sign of hidden hostility or wishful thinking. Rather, the opposite is true. I set the story in a library because I spend a lot of time in libraries. Most of my reading material comes from the library, and I am a long-term library volunteer.

Of the many volunteering opportunities available in my children’s schools, the one to which I always gravitate is the assisting in the library. At one point, when I had an elementary, middle, and high school student in the house, I volunteered in all three libraries on a rotating basis each month. I started volunteering in school libraries about fifteen years ago and am still volunteering at the local high school library.

While volunteering, I’ve labeled, weeded, discarded, scanned into inventory, removed from inventory, added genre stickers to, added series number stickers to, shelved, checked-in, checked-out, magnetized, and demagnetized books. The books I’ve inventoried probably number well over 100,000. I’ve unpacked boxes of new books, packed boxes of old books, and shifted books on shelves. I’ve helped rescue books from a termite invasion and assembled and mounted signage. I once went through almost every picture book in an elementary school library to place red stickers on the spines of the ones with reading tests available for them. That meant looking up every single book on the computer to see if it had an associated test before placing or not placing a sticker on it. In order to raise funds for libraries, I’ve operated registers at more Scholastic Book Fairs than I can remember.

Last year, I helped genre-fy the entire fiction section of a high school library. How does one genre-fy a library? One separates the books by genre and creates sections: adventure, horror, science fiction, mystery, suspense, supernatural, fantasy, realistic, romance, historical, sports, humor, and classics. Graphic novels get their own section and genres, as do the books in languages other than English. This process required me to shift all the non-fiction books to make space. Consequently, I may be the only one in the entire community who has held almost every single book in the local high school library in my hands. That’s over 30,000 books.  

By far the most painful library duty I’ve ever performed is weeding fiction books. Removing fiction books from the collection that have sat on a shelf for years, untouched and unread, is a sad thing to do. But it’s something that has to be done. Shelf space is limited and new books are coming out every day.

Weeding non-fiction books that haven’t been read in years is less painful. If the material in the book is obsolete, it deserves to be removed from the library to make room for more current material. Who wants to read “How to Build a Webpage” out of a manual written in 1996? Books on teen pregnancy resources from the 1980s aren’t likely to be helpful to anyone today either. The oldest books I pulled from the shelves were from the early 1950s. They may have been useful in an archive somewhere, but not a high school library. After a day of weeding books, my hands are usually black with grime from decades of accumulated dust.

So to reiterate: I love libraries. And librarians. And Library Assistants, too. Many thanks to all the library staff I’ve worked with over the years. Sara, Becky, Maureen, Sarah, Ronda, Charity, Christina, Carole, Alyson, and all the rest, you are the best!

However, the victim in my upcoming short story, entitled “Merry Library Murder,” is a librarian. And yes, she is murdered in her own library during her town’s holiday festival. But this story is a holiday who-dunnit. Which means that justice will be served. If you’re looking for a quick holiday mystery, watch for Black Cat Weekly #68, coming out in late December. Or subscribe to Black Cat Weekly and get great reading delivered to your inbox every Sunday.

*All pictures by Pixabay.

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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

When First We Met…

By Helen Currie Foster

October 31, 2022

In an online ad for her Master Class, writer Margaret Atwood (oh, what a magnificent face she has! Sardonic, wise, all-seeing…) declares this rule for fiction: “Hold my attention!”

Like Margaret Atwood, mystery lovers demand of mystery writers, “Hold my attention!”

I get tired of defending our genre. Mystery writers absolutely cater to their readers. They don’t publish exercises in personal navel-gazing–they know their readers could care less about the author’s navel. They know readers won’t give them the time of day–no! Won’t read more than a few pages!–unless all three components–interesting protagonist, vivid setting, challenging puzzle–are present.

Curious, I decided to revisit some of our first introductions to famous mystery protagonists. For example, in 1964 John D. MacDonald introduced Travis McGee–a character lucky enough to live on a Florida houseboat named the Busted Flush–in The Deep Blue Good-By (yes, that’s how the title reads on the cover). https://www.amazon.com/s?k=the+deep+blue+good-by+by+john+d.+macdonald&crid=3B3DO804231N&sprefix=The+deep+blue+good-by%2Caps%2C153&ref=nb_sb_ss_pltr-ranker-10hours_2_21 As a teenager I was enthralled. Could you live on a houseboat? It seemed an impossible dream. In Chapter Uno, McGee studies tide maps while dancer Chookie McCall, metronome clicking, choreographs strenuous dance steps, before persuading McGee to talk to one of her dancers who has mislaid a bunch of money and needs help getting it back. McGee describes his occupation as finding lost loot and keeping half as his fee. An amazing life. AND–on a boat! Plus, adding to his appeal, McGee shares his prejudices with readers. He’s wary of many aspects of contemporary culture, including “Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants…” So liberating, his list. MacDonald has McGee describe himself for the reader as “that big brown loose-jointed boat bum, that pale-eyed, wire-haired girl seeker, …that beach-walker, gin-drinker, quip-maker, peace-seeker, iconoclast…” He calls himself a “knuckly, scar-tissued reject from a structured society.” Looking in the rear-view mirror at 1964, McGee’s iconoclasm distances him somewhat…but not enough…from the decade’s sexist aspects (think of early James Bond).

Perhaps McGee’s wide-ranging rejection of staid norms presaged the “drop-out” scene just three years later in The Graduate (1967)–Dustin Hoffman driving away from “plastics” and other norms in his red 2600 Duetto Alfa Romeo. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061722/

Fast forward to 1970 when we meet Tony Hillerman’s Navajo cop Joe Leaphorn in The Blessing Way. In contrast to Travis McGee’s extensive self-introduction, we don’t really see Leaphorn in action until chapter 4. If you only read chapter 1 you might assume the protagonist is a depressed cultural anthropologist, Bergen McKee, who feels inadequate both as an academic and in his love life. McKee hopes Leaphorn can jump-start his academic career by introducing him to Navajos who still believe in Navajo witches. He joins Leaphorn’s search for Luis Horseman, Navajo suspect in a knifing, who has fled into the Lukachukai mountains. Horseman’s relatives quietly recount sightings of a Navajo wolf, a big man with a dog skin around his neck, the skull atop his head–a witch.

Hillerman’s powerful setting introduces us to the dramatic weather of Navajo territory, stirring our senses: “McKee had been startled by the sudden brighter-than-day flash of the lightning bolt. The explosion of thunder had followed it almost instantly, setting off a racketing barrage of echoes cannonading from the canyon cliffs. The light breeze, shifting suddenly down canyon, carried the faintly acrid smell of ozone released by the electrical charge and the perfume of dampened dust and rain-struck grass… Then a splatter of rain hit; big, cold, high-velocity drops sent him running to the tent…” Sound, sight, smell, temperature pull us directly into the scene. https://www.amazon.com/Blessing-Way-Leaphorn-Chee-Novel/dp/0062821660/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2M4FSEIW6DUXU&keywords=The+Blessing+Way&qid=1667252978&qu=eyJxc2MiOiIyLjAwIiwicXNhIjoiMS4zMCIsInFzcCI6IjEuMTMifQ%3D%3D&sprefix=the+blessing+way%2Caps%2C218&sr=8-1&asin=0062821660&revisionId=&format=4&depth=1

Leaphorn’s analytical solution to Horseman’s murder turns on the difference between Navajo and non-Navajo ways. We hear Hillerman’s Navajo characters softly sing their traditional morning song, or their chants against contamination by a dead body. Leaphorn feels there’s something “strangely un-Navajo” about Horseman’s death: “Navajos did not kill with cold-blooded premeditation. Nor did they kill for profit. To do so violated the scale of values of The People… Where, then, was the motive?” In this first mystery Hillerman gives us an unconventionally structured, but totally absorbing, introduction to the fascinating landscape and cultures of the Four Corners. I was, and remain, permanently hooked.

Sue Grafton’s first Kinsey Millhone first appeared in A is for Alibi (1982). In contrast to Hillerman, Grafton introduces her sleuth on page one: “My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids.” We learn immediately that the day before yesterday, Kinsey killed someone, and “the fact weighs heavily” on her mind. We learn her housing and car preferences and that she has no house plants. Then she plunges into the tale. How can we not like that intro? https://www.amazon.com/Alibi-Kinsey-Millhone-Mystery-ebook/dp/B002HHPVBC/ref=sr_1_2?crid=AQ6U0I4W0F2P&keywords=Sue+Grafton+A+is+for+Alibi&qid=1667252584&qu=eyJxc2MiOiIyLjczIiwicXNhIjoiMi4xOCIsInFzcCI6IjIuMzYifQ%3D%3D&sprefix=sue+grafton+a+is+for+alib%2Caps%2C224&sr=8-2 Grafton died in 2017, ending her Alphabet Series at “Y.”

A big thank-you to Grafton who, along with Sara Paretzky (who also published in 1982 her first V.I. Warshawski Book 1, Indemnity Only). They helped found the national organization Sisters in Crime. https://www.sistersincrime.org/ Our own central Texas chapter, Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime, continues that work! https://www.sinc-heartoftexasaustin.com We’ll be signing books November 5 and 6 at our booth at the Texas Book Festival. Please stop by! https://www.texasbookfestival.org/

Donna Leon doesn’t let us meet Venetian police inspector Guido Brunetti until chapter 2 of Death at La Fenice (1992), Book 1 in her acclaimed series, when Brunetti leads a police team into the murder scene at the Venice opera house. We quickly find ourselves in Brunetti’s head: “It seemed, in this moment, that he had spent his entire life doing this to people, telling them that someone they loved was dead or, worse, had been killed.” And as he helps the victim’s wife away from the scene, “He was prepared for this, the sudden blow of reality that sets in after the first shock. It was this that knocked people down.” We learn Brunetti is humane, intelligent, and determined, from his scrupulous procedure, protection of clues, and humanity toward those bearing the sudden burden of a loved one’s murder. But he’s capable of wrath when death is not respected. When the bored ambulance attendants, overeager to move the body, cite union rules to Brunetti, he explodes: “You take him out of here before I tell you to, and you’ll be in jail the first time you spit on the sidewalk or swear in public…” In chapter 5 we meet his aristocratic bluestocking wife, Paola, in their fourth-floor Venetian apartment: “He opened the door, glad of the warmth and smell he associated with the apartment: lavender, wax, the scent of something cooking in the kitchen at the back…a mixture that represented…in a way he couldn’t explain, the existence of sanity in the daily madness that was his work.” Venice gives Leon a second weapon, a setting that–peopled by Brunetti and his family–is hard to resist. https://www.amazon.com/Death-Fenice-Commissario-Brunetti-Mystery/dp/006074068X/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1667252657&sr=8-1&asin=006074068X&revisionId=&format=4&depth=1

Mystery writers stand on the shoulders of giants, of course. One huge and hopeful lesson: writers can improve. Usually book 2 in any series is better than book 1. In 1945 American critic Edmund Wilson savaged Dorothy Sayers’s mysteries in The New Yorker: “Really, she does not write very well: it is simply that she is more consciously literary than most of the other detective-story writers and that she thus attracts attention in a field which is mostly on a sub-literary level.” https://www.amazon.com/Death-Fenice-Commissario-Brunetti-Mystery/dp/006074068X/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1667252657&sr=8-1&asin=006074068X&revisionId=&format=4&depth=1

Huh! I’ll bet Dorothy Sayers would win the “who’s still read today” sweepstakes. And I reject Wilson’s description of mystery fiction as “mostly on a sub-literary level.” https://www.christopherfowler.co.uk/blog/2019/06/18/who-killed-the-classic-murder-mystery-pt-2/ Of course, the man also reportedly called J.R.R. Tolkien’s work “juvenile trash.” You might also be interested in T.S. Eliot’s views on detective fiction. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/what-makes-great-detective-fiction-according-to-t-s-eliot

But back to the question of improving. It’s true that Sayers’s first Peter Wimsey novel, Whose Body (1923), includes rather twee dialogue between Wimsey and the poor architect who found in his bathtub a man’s dead body, nude save for his gold pince-nez. “I’m sure it must have been uncommonly distressin’,” says Wimsey, “especially comin’ like that before breakfast. Hate anything tiresome happenin’ before breakfast. Takes a man at such a confounded disadvantage, what?” https://www.amazon.com/Whose-Body-Dorothy-L-Sayers/dp/0486473627/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1YFL5UVDLR7FZ&keywords=Whose+Body&qid=1667252724&qu=eyJxc2MiOiIzLjc0IiwicXNhIjoiMy4yMyIsInFzcCI6IjMuNDgifQ%3D%3D&sprefix=whose+body%2Caps%2C195&sr=8-1&asin=0486473627&revisionId=&format=4&depth=1

Wimsey, along with his aristocratic bearing, still suffers PTSD from his own WWI service. In the second Wimsey mystery, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Sayers takes on the dreadful impacts of nerve gas, trench warfare and classism, and, in some painfully realistic scenes, the economic difficulties faced by veterans. Remember, she’s writing this in 1928. https://www.amazon.com/Unpleasantness-Bellona-Peter-Wimsey-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B008JVJHRY/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

These days Ghosted, Book 8 in my Alice MacDonald Greer series set in little Coffee Creek, Texas, is nearing completion. As I finish each page I hear Margaret Atwood’s voice: “HOLD MY ATTENTION!”

Wait for it! Take that, Edmund Wilson!

Helen Currie Foster lives and writes in Texas Hill Country north of Dripping Springs, loosely supervised by three burros. She’s active with Austin Shakespeare and the Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime. Her Ghost Daughter, Book 7 in the series, was named 2022 Eric Hoffer Award Grand Prize Short List, as well as Finalist, 2022 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, and 16th Annual National Indie Excellence Awards.

Terry Shames’ Samuel Craddock Mysteries: A “Genre-Bending” Series and One True Sentence

Texas mystery author Terry Shames’ latest book, Murder at the Jubilee Rally, has been reviewed on ABC News.

To use a folksy phrase—Folks, that ain’t hay.

The ninth in Shames’ Samuel Craddock Mystery series, Murder at the Jubilee Rally focuses on conflicts residents of Jarrett Creek, Texas, experience when a motorcycle rally prepares to open outside of town—and the challenges Police Chief Samuel Craddock faces when murder follows.

Since you can read award-winning author Bruce DeSilva’s excellent review here, I won’t try to duplicate. Except to point out that—

DeSilva calls the Samuel Craddock series “genre-bending,” because the “author’s folksy prose and Jarrett Creek’s small-town ways . . . give the novel the feel of a cozy,” and yet the problems facing the town and Police Chief Craddock “give the novel the feel of a modern police procedural.”

With the term “genre-bending,” DeSilva hits upon one reason—perhaps the reason—for the series’ success. Shames joins elements of two very different genres—cozy mysteries and police procedurals—with skill and grace, into a seamless whole. That ain’t hay either.

As a reader, I enjoy Shames’ novels, but as a writer, I seethe with envy. If only I could do what she does . . .

Nevermind.

Now, for a broader view, I’ll turn from Shames’ ninth book to her first, A Killing at Cotton Hill, published in 2013.

At the bookstore, I fell in love with the cover. On page one, I fell in love with the book. Soon thereafter, I fell in love with a sentence. Here it is, underlined, in the paragraph quoted below—the words of narrator Samuel Craddock:

I head into the house for my hat and my cane and the keys to my truck. There’s not a thing wrong with me but a bum knee. Several months ago one of my heifers knocked me down accidentally and it spooked her so bad that she stepped on my leg. This happened in the pasture behind my house, where I keep twenty head of white-faced Herefords. It took me two hours to drag myself back to the house, and those damned cows hovered over me every inch of the way.

That’s what author Ernest Hemingway would call one true sentence. Cows are curious. They’re nosy. They like to observe. I’ve seen cows hover. That’s exactly the kind of thing my father might have said about his damn cows.

Shames gets it right. Every word in that sentence, and throughout the book, is pitch-perfect.

The night I read about the hovering cows, I wrote Shames a fan email telling her I loved the sentence.

But when I completed the novel and tried to write a review for my personal blog, I got tangled up in words. It came out sounding like this:

I love this book. It’s just so…There’s this wonderful sentence on the second page about hovering cows…That’s exactly what cows do…I can just see those cows…The person who wrote that sentence knows cows…It’s just so…I just love it.

That’s what happens when a reviewer lacks detachment. Wordsworth said poetry begins with emotion “recollected in tranquility.” So do book reviews. There’s nothing tranquil about that tangle of words.

So, with no review, I compromised. I posted the paragraph containing the beloved sentence and added a picture of white-faced Herefords.

IMG_2814

Not long after, Shames spoke at the Heart of Texas (Austin) chapter of Sisters in Crime, and I told her how much I admired her work. A year later, in 2014, I heard her read from her second novel, The Last Death of Jack Harbin. And I’ve read all the books she’s published since.

From 2013 to 2022, that’s nine Samuel Craddock mysteries, each a great read, each just as good as—or better than—the one before.

But regarding Shames’ sentences—

It is a truth universally acknowledged that her hovering cows will always be Number One.

_____

Notes

*Shames breaks the silly rule against “mixing” present and past tenses in narration. Samuel Craddock speaks the language spoken by men like him in real Jarrett Creeks all over Texas.

**The cow sentence isn’t really about cows. It’s about Samuel Craddock. But I am fond of white-faced Herefords, and the image Shames paints of them is so vivid that it obscures the man dragging himself toward his house. For me, at least.

***I took the photo of the cover of A Killing at Cotton Hill. The fur on the right side of the book doesn’t belong there, but it was easier to just take the picture than to move the cat.

***

Image of Murder at the Jubilee Rally cover from Amazon.com

Image of Hereford cow by Lou Pie from Pixabay

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Kathy Waller has published short crime fiction as well as a novella co-written with Manning Wolfe. For more info, and/or to read her posts on topics ranging from A to izzard, visit her personal blog, Telling the Truth, Mainly (http://kathywaller1.com). She also cross-posts her Ink-Stained Wretches posts at Austin Mystery Writers.