Barbeculinary Thoughts

by Helen Currie Foster

I know, you’re asking yourself what barbecue has to do with mystery writing, my other beloved topic. Barbecuing, like writing (see K.P. Gresham’s wonderful recent blog), is a solitary pursuit.

And a mystery. And we barbecuers want it that way. We have our little ways. We know exactly how those baby-back ribs should go limp when done, go kind of boneless, as did Trixie, the little girl in Knuffle Bunny, when her dad left her beloved bunny in the laundromat dryer.

We know precisely the color of mahogany-ebony-mesquite the brisket will achieve the moment we decide it’s time to begin applying the mop. Also, of course, we know the color of the mop, its ingredients, its smell, its virtue. We know precisely the heft and flexibility that a brisket should demonstrate when we pick it up in our silicone-gloved hands to test its doneness.

We know, and we’re not telling.

Like writing, barbecuing is a solitary calling. Sure, people will wander out, ask if they can help. But these terrace tourists don’t want smoke in their eyes, their hair, their clothes. Besides, the Barbecuer doesn’t want them. Doesn’t want suggestions, doesn’t want comparisons, doesn’t want recipes. So if you wander out to the Barbecuer’s sacred precincts, your only job is to ask if the Barbecuer would like something to drink.

The Barbecuer, alone on the captain’s deck, seeks perfection. [Yes, I’m rereading my favorite Patrick O’Brians.] Perfection requires concentration. Because the Barbecuer is engaged in a sacred ritual: preparing the offering for the people.

You may be thinking wrongly of the word “barbecue” as did famed food-writer Michael Pollan who admits,[A]s a Northerner, I’d already spent more than half of my life as a serial abuser of that peculiar word, which is to say, as a backyard blackener of steaks and chops over too-hot fires—over flames!—with a pitiable dependence on sauce.” Cooked, p. 45. That was before he saw the light on the road to whole-hog barbecue.

Barbecue is not the mere flipping of burgers or sizzle of a steak or blackening of hot dogs over a too-hot fire. Barbecue, while a gift, traditionally, to the gods, is a ritual offering to the gathered cohort. See the Iliad.

It is a ritual to be communally observed (not kibitzed at).

Think of the best barbecues in which you’ve participated. The Barbecuer completes preparation of the ritual gift and serves it forth. On a large and venerable cutting board, in sight of the waiting crowd, the Barbecuer slices the brisket, offers the pulled pork, displays the properly limp yet crispy-crusted ribs. This offering is accompanied by the ritual sighs and groans of the rapt crowd, holding plates and awaiting their turn.

Sure, it’s competitive. I mean, Achilles way outshines Agamemnon when it comes to barbecue, and that’s strategic. Achilles and his team nail it when Odysseus comes calling to beg (unsuccessfully) Achilles to make up his quarrel with that tyrant Agamemnon:

…Patroclus obeyed his great friend,
Who put down a heavy chopping block in the firelight
And across it laid a sheep’s chine, a fat goat’s
And the long back cut of a full-grown pig,
marbled with lard. Automedon held the meats
While lordly Achilles carved them into quarters,
Cut them well into pieces, pierced them with spits
And Patroclus raked the hearth, a man like a god
making the fire blaze. Once it had burned down|
and the flames died away, he scattered the coals
And stretching the spitted meats across the embers,
Raised them onto supports and sprinkled clean pure salt.|
As soon as the roasts were done and spread on platters,
Patroclus brought the bread, set it out on the board
In ample wicker baskets. Achilles served the meat.

Il. 9:246-259 (Robert Fagles’ translation).

See? “Lordly Achilles.” No way will Achilles lose that argument with Odysseus, despite the latter’s eloquence. I’ve always said that peace in the middle east could be achieved if both sides ––all sides––sat down to share really excellent barbecue, but that approach didn’t work for Agamemnon and Achilles.

Given the stellar role of the Barbecuer, alone there in the spotlight, one would think the Barbecuer would figure strongly in our literature. Here, Readers, I seek help. I’ve searched vainly for roles for the Barbecuer equal in stature to the best barbecue. (Though apparently—I can’t find where—Chaucer at least wrote “Woe to the cook whose sauce has no sting.” Readers?)

Some mysteries do involve barbecue, or use barbecue in the setting. My Ghost Next Door features murder of a food writer during (key word) the first annual Coffee Creek Brisket Competition. One contestant is even a suspect. But not a serious one, because…what self-respecting Barbecuer would leave the side of his or her barbecue, even if presented with a great opportunity for a secret silent murder? Can you imagine a Barbecuer taking the risk that the ribs would burn? The brisket dry out? The pork shoulder shrivel? Certainly not.

Thus in my view the role of murderer is contraindicated for a Barbecuer. Perhaps the writer could assign the deed to a mere Assistant, who might go AWOL and stab the buddy who forgot the beer, the aunt who forgot the devilled eggs, the guest who always volunteers to make coleslaw but chops the cabbage too big and uses way-old ranch dressing instead of Real Mayonnaise. The Assistant could even create an alibi—leave to buy more beer, to get more salt and ice for a guest making homemade peach ice cream, to help carry in the giant blackberry cobbler, to husk the corn.

But writer, you would sacrifice realism if you excused the Barbecuer from tending the ritual offering merely to move the plot forward. Even if the Barbecuer has the best thermometer, the most accurate timer…could slip out for a moment of mayhem…the responsibility’s too great.

Of course barbecue itself is a mystery. Here I reveal my own prejudices. Standing in my back yard north of Dripping Springs is a venerable Weber kettle. Like Knuffle Bunny it has lost some of its elegance, some of its youthful gloss (and a few knobs and vents). Relatives have Tragers they like. Green Eggs have appeared. But I love the old Weber the same way I love, say, the old Kitchenaid stand mixer in the kitchen. Both are old-fashioned, made of steel, curvy and solid. The old kettle adds greatly to barbecue mystery—no, there’s no automatic temperature sensor, indeed, no electronics whatsoever. It’s acoustic. Acoustic Barbecue. Just the meat, the coals, the mop—and time. Time to gaze solemnly at the developing crust, time to add just a few more coals to the “parsimonious little fire” on one side of the kettle, time to poke the meat to gauge whether it’s almost ready for the mop…

Still ahead lies the moment on the cutting board, the presentation of the ritual offering. Much like a book launch. But in the meantime, there’s the solitary work, the focused attention, the lone responsibility on the shoulders, of the Barbecuer.

A lot like writing.

***

Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. The latest in the series is GHOST CAT, available at Austin’s BookPeople and other independent bookstores as well as Amazon and Kindle.

Agatha Christie Wrote Paranormal Stories?

Do you enjoy books that make a chill dance down your spine by invoking the otherworldly or the supernatural?

As a teen, I read all of my mother’s Agatha Christie novels, which fixed Christie’s place in my mind as a writer of traditional mysteries. I somehow dismissed the short stories written by Christie that fall firmly into the paranormal category until I picked up a copy of The Last Séance: Tales of the Supernatural. This collection of Agatha Christie’s short stories was put together and republished in 2019 by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. I’ll try to review the paranormal stories presented in the collection without too many spoilers.

The Last Séance: Tales of the Supernatural contains 20 stories of crime, murder, and suspense. Some of the stories feature clearly paranormal elements: otherworldly beings, premonitions of danger or death, possession or other transference of souls, and the ability to call upon supernatural forces. Other stories in the collection involve criminals using technology, complex cons, or gaslighting techniques to create the illusion of the supernatural, or malefactors taking advantage of an atmosphere of superstition to suggest a paranormal cause for a crime they committed. These latter stories hardly count as paranormal since the supernatural element is faked by the criminal. One or two of the stories fall into both camps, with the crime being committed from a mundane motive, but with the suggestion that perhaps the criminal wouldn’t have acted except for the influence of evil in the atmosphere weighing upon them.

Ghost from pixabay

Of the stories that contain clearly supernatural components, premonition is the most common element employed by Christie. The stories The Last Séance, In a Glass Darkly, S.O.S., The Gipsy, Philomel Cottage, and The Red Signal use premonition, either via dreams or via a sixth sense that something is wrong, to build suspense. The characters recognize that they are in danger, but don’t know the source and aren’t sure if they should believe the bells of warning ringing in their brains. Some heed the warnings as best they can, but still fall into dangerous situations. Other characters dismiss the warnings until circumstances force them to pay attention. From story to story, the results of heeding or ignoring the warnings vary as the characters dance to Agatha Christie’s tune.

A couple of the stories feature ghosts or supernatural beings. The title story, The Last Séance, features a medium channeling the soul of a dead child for a grieving mother. The second story with a ghost, The Lamp, involves a family moving into a long vacant house. The house has stood unoccupied for years because the ghost of a child is haunting it. While The Lamp is a pure “ghost story,” The Call of the Wings and The Dressmakers Doll both deal with nonhuman, otherworldly beings. The Call of the Wings describes a man’s interactions with a pan-like creature and angels. The Dressmakers Doll revolves around a doll with a mind of its own.

from Pixabay

Reincarnation and the suggestion of lost supernatural knowledge from ancient civilizations appear in Christie’s stories as well. However, little can be written about these stories or the ones featuring possession or transference of souls without spoiling them. Christie’s use of these story elements can be easily traced to the author’s own travels in Egypt and interest in archaeology and to the Egyptian archaeological discoveries of the early 1900s which aroused public interest in ancient belief systems and mystical powers.

The collection The Last Séance: Tales of the Supernatural is a mixed bag of suspense stories, mystery stories with a crime that needs to be solved, and stories that feature no crime at all. Christie’s two main detectives, Miss Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot, appear in a few of the stories. Poirot takes the stage in The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, The Dream, and The Flock of Geryon. Miss Marple reasons her way quietly to answers in The Idol House of Astarte and The Blue Geranium. While the crime provides the mystery in some of the stories, in a few of the purely paranormal stories, the only mystery lies in the paranormal or supernatural event itself.

*****

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

Take Control of Your Life! Write!

 

by K.P. Gresham

This pandemic thing is getting really old. (A quote from Captain Obvious, obviously) But we writers have one thing in our arsenal that others don’t. We can create a world where we want to be.

Lori Rader-Day

Lori  Rader-Day, National Sisters in Crime President and award-winning mystery author, spoke to our Sisters in Crime Heart of Texas Chapter last Sunday. Besides promoting her new book, The Lucky One (which is an incredible must-read psychological suspense mystery), she also talked about how the pandemic is influencing her writing.

Authors, in our stories we get to create whole worlds that we can completely control. Our characters must acquiesce to our every whim. The settings can be places we want to hang, RESTAURANTS we want to eat at, crowded parks where we can watch fireworks with friends and family, churches where we can go to worship. As Ray Bradbury said, “Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to get up for in the morning.”

This is a time where we can escape into our stories. Want to say something pithy in the real world? Act it out in your characters. Want to kill somebody? Do it on the page. (I can speak to this. It’s very cathartic.) The empowerment that comes by sitting down to the computer and writing just 250 words can produce those happy endorphins that’ll spark you right up. At least William Faulkner thought so. He said, “The right word in the right place at the right time can soothe, calm and heal.”

Full disclosure now. For the first two months of the pandemic I wrote absolutely nothing. Maybe I was too rattled, or just waiting for this pandemonium to pass, or in denial–bottom line I didn’t write one word.  Then I got mad. I wanted to scream at the TV. I wanted to rant on Facebook, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” After a few more weeks, I finally realized that this angst had to be released or I’d go crazy. And then I remembered how I had released that angst at different low points in my past.

Oh, yeah. That’s right. I wrote.

So I offer that you give it a try. Sit down, create the world that you CAN control and say what you have to say. As Walt Disney wrote, “That’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.”

Take control of your world! Write!

***

K.P. Gresham authors the Pastor Matt Hayden mystery series. Her latest is MURDER ON THE THIRD TRY.

 

A Post That Wasn’t Supposed to Be Posted

I was writing a book review when Lark Rise to Candleford, a television series I had running in the background as a helpful distraction, suddenly hijacked my topic and required me to begin again.

I hate it when that happens. I hate it especially now, because when I finish this post, it’s going to sound like a fourth-grade book report.

But, as many of us have learned over the past six months, sometimes we just do what we have to do. So here’s my report.

Lark Rise to Candleford, adapted from a trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels by Flora Thompson, is set in the English countryside in the 1800s, and focuses on the lives of residents of the country hamlet of Lark Rise and the nearby town of Candleford. David and I watched it on PBS ten years ago. It’s sweet and sentimental, and we enjoyed it. The critic who called it “ham-fisted” can go jump in the lake.

The episode that caught my attention tonight begins at harvest time, when all the residents of Lark Rise take to the fields to help young farmer Al Arliss bring in the wheat crop. That’s all the residents. Women and children follow the men and gather the “leavings.” What they bring in will determine how much flour they’ll have for the rest of the year. Harvesting usually takes two weeks, but Al is determined to finish in twelve days–perhaps in ten. He pushes the others. By the end of the day, adults are exhausted.

But before it’s time to leave the fields, children are falling ill–with measles.

One Candleford child, postmaster Dorcas’ adopted son, has worked in the fields that day “for fun.” The next morning, when Dorcas realizes he’s sick, she closes the post office and quarantines with him in their house upstairs. She tells her employees to provide as many services as possible from the post office porch.

Teenaged Laura, the eldest of a large Lark Rise family, now a postal clerk in Candleford, assures Dorcas that measles is common in families. Mailman Thomas, who as a teenager lost several siblings to measles and reared the survivors after his parents died, agrees that it’s common but says some families are “very reduced” by it.

A journalist stopping by Lark Rise on his way to Cambridge tells Laura’s father, a stonemason who’s been in the fields with his wife and children, that there are measles in Oxford; he’s been covering the story for his newspaper. It’s newsworthy because for the first time, the city has set up contagion hospitals.

The disease is hitting harder this time, he says, because it’s past due. This isn’t just an outbreak. It’s an epidemic.

By the next day, every child in Lark Rise has measles.

But the wheat must be harvested. Every single person must work in the fields. For the next two weeks.

But children are seriously ill. Mothers can’t leave them.

Children die of measles.

But if the women don’t work in the fields, there will be no flour for the winter.

Children will die of starvation. So will adults.

The men of Lark Rise agree. It’s a problem. But there’s not a thing to do about it.

Except there is.

The journalist tells them, “Measles will not recognize the walls that separate you as neighbors.”

Do what they’ve done in Oxford: bring the children to one place so they can be cared for together. The Turrill home–Queenie Turrill, the community’s wise woman and healer, has been foster mother to children for over fifty years. Mothers of children with lighter cases go to the fields. Others stay as nurses. Thomas, who has spent years trying to forget the deaths of his loved ones, puts that sorrow aside and helps with  nursing–after all, he’s a committed Christian, and his wife has told him it’s the Christian thing to do.

And the shopkeepers of Candleford, many of whom look down on the poor, unsophisticated farmers of Lark Rise, show up en masse to work beside them and harvest the grain.

I watched that show ten years ago, and the only thing that stuck with me then was  the death of the farmer’s teenaged brother. It was sad. As usual, I cried. That was that.

Tonight I saw something entirely different. Every line of dialogue had new meaning.

Contagious disease. Past due. Epidemic. Life-threatening. No treatment. Voluntary isolation. Immediate action. Quarantine hospitals. Collapsing economy. No food for the winter. No money for rent. Essential workers. Essential services.

And people listening to reason, following the lead of the medical community in a major city, caring about one another, taking care of one another. Working together for the good of everyone. Loving their neighbors as they love themselves.

Sweet, sentimental, ham-fisted, I don’t care. It felt good to see a story about people facing terrible odds and doing the best they could. And doing it right.

It also felt bad.

End of book report. End of post.

SETTING STORIES IN HISTORICAL FACTS

By Francine Paino

       Past, present, future. Measures of time. The future is uncertain, or at least cannot be seen by the finite minds of wo/mankind, but the past remains a blueprint to build on, to change to make better, providing we don’t try to hide or deny the past. We cannot escape our history—nor should we. Like the gorgeous butterfly that emerges from the shell of a caterpillar, out of ugly facts of history, come two beautiful stories that lift the soul. 

  In Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens, and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See, we are invited into different worlds to experience beliefs and customs that we find unacceptable by 21st Century standards. 

These fictional characters are intensely real and their stories grab the readers’ heartstrings as we walk alongside them and watch the painful development and evolution of the human soul, at the societal and personal levels. 

Both books can be described as beautiful, agonizing, poignant, terrible, heartbreaking, joyous, and a beautiful testament to relationships and the triumph of the human spirit.

           Where The Crawdads Sing draws us into a tale of betrayal, abandonment, and murder, through the life of Kya Clark and the backwater residents of Barkley Cove, who view her as “swamp trash” to be shunned, ridiculed and looked down upon.

The story begins with the 1969 murder of Chase Andrews, the townie playboy, and son of a respected Barkley Cove family. It then toggles back to 1952.  Six-year-old Kya watches her mother, the last of her dysfunctional family, walk away from their shack, never to return, leaving Kya alone to live with a drunken, physically, and mentally abusive father.

Kya is forced to dig deep and find the strength to make some semblance of a life with him, always afraid that he’d come home drunk, constantly hoping her mother would return.  Things seem to improve, but eventually, he leaves too, and Kya is left to survive or die, among the gulls, fish, and wildlife of the swamp. 

           Considered illiterate swamp trash, Kya is referred to as the Marsh Girl. After spending one humiliating day in school, she vows never to return and successfully evades the town’s truant officers’ half-hearted efforts. Only one man called Jumpin’, the gas station owner and his wife show her any kindnesses, until the day she encounters Tate, a boy who was once her brother’s friend – then her life changes.

            Tate befriends her, and it’s through him that she learns to read and write. It’s with Tate that Kya builds her already extraordinary knowledge of the ecosystem of the swamp. Over time, Kya’s extraordinary knowledge of the ecosystem leads her to success as a published author, thanks to Tate’s encouragement. Her first book brings a royalty of $5,000, a great deal of money to Kya; despite her success, she never dreams of leaving the swamp’s safety, and the townspeople of Barkley Cove never see her as anything other than the “Marsh Girl.”

We live and learn through Kya’s determination and development as she overcomes enormous challenges for seventeen years until the past and present become one. Then Kya becomes the prime suspect in Chase Andrews’s murder and may face the death penalty. 

Where the Crawdads Sing is a door to the beauty of the wetland ecosystems, and a window to many 1960s prejudices reflected by a backwater society’s discrimination and refusal to give a person like Kya a chance in life. 

Delia Owens is a wildlife scientist who writes with the accumulated knowledge of 23 years of experience with animals and environments. In Ms. Owen’s words, Kya’s story shows that “we are forever shaped by the children we once were.”  

In Snowflower and the Secret Fan, the lives of two very young girls in the Hunan Province of China, transport us back in time to a country on the other side of the world and immerses us in a different culture.

In 19th Century China, women were considered of little worth and had to be married out. They lived in almost total seclusion, and to make the best marriage contracts, young female children around six had their feet bound, to keep them as small as possible, the goal being five-inch long “golden lilies.” 

The story is told through eighty-year-old Lily, who looks back on her life and asks the gods for forgiveness, realizes that the binding altered not only her feet but also her whole character. “By age forty,” she says, “the rigidity of that binding had moved from her golden lilies (tiny feet) to her heart, which held on to injustices and grievances so strongly” that she could no longer forgive those she loved and loved her.

We meet Snow Flower when she and Lily are six-years-old, and about to have their feet bound to make them more desirable. In the superstitious traditions of the time, the matchmaker and the diviner examine Lily and tell her family she is no ordinary child. Lily will have a favorable marriage contract, but she is also worthy of a laotong – a special relationship between girls.

For the Chinese of Hunan, the laotong or “old-sames” link was the strongest of all precious female bonds of friendship between women. It was more rare and formal, requiring a contract. A woman could only have one laotong, and it was unbreakable for life. The matchmaker negotiates a marriage contract for Lily and selects Snow Flower to be Lily’s “old-same.” The girls are taught a secret writing code called nu shu (women’s writing), and as laotong, they write their stories on fans or embroider them on handkerchiefs. It was a salve for their lonely hearts. The laotong understand one another’s souls.  

These loveable young girls support one another through the torture of footbinding, they grow into women and marry. Lily’s fortunes change for the better. Snow Flower’s fortunes change for the worse, and still, their special relationship endures. They become good wives and adhere to the expected behaviors of wives and daughters-in-law. They celebrate one another’s sons, for nothing is as crucial for a woman’s standing in the family as bearing sons. As “old-sames,” they share their pain and fear through famine, plague and rebellion, but can their relationship withstand a serious misunderstanding?   

This is author Lisa See’s ancestral history. She spares no detail in the horrific footbinding process that deformed millions of little girls’ feet until it was outlawed in 1912. Without rancor, judgment, or shame, she draws the reader in and we share the agony these children endured, sometimes unto death if infections set in when the bones finally break to keep the toes folded under the foot and retard its growth. The physical agony eventually ends, but these women never walk normally again. We watch them sway and find a different balance on stumps, never meant to carry the body’s weight. We meet the older women of their families. We are sad for many who end up with significant disabilities later in life, yet continue to inflict footbinding on the female children because traditions and societal expectations demanded it.   

Neither story ignores, covers-up, condemns, or apologizes. Where there were prejudice and slurs, Owens wrote it. Where there was the breaking of bones to the point of destroying the body’s ability to function, Ms. See wrote it. 

Although painful to read and admit even as fiction, the characters make us think, admire the strength they discovered in the face of oppression, grieve for their suffering and loss, and celebrate the triumphs of their souls.