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.

FOOD AND A GATHERING PLACE

by Helen Currie Foster

A critical tool for mystery writers is creation of a gathering place. We watch desperate clients rush straight to Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street lodgings––often the first place where we meet his client, learn what the client hopes Holmes will do, and encounter Watson, Lestrade, and various witnesses. A gathering place gives us––and the sleuth, whether amateur or professional––a place to meet characters, assess the social structure, and see investigation  in action. Sometimes it’s the crime scene itself.

A gathering place can provide the writer an opportunity to comply with one of the key rules (or guidelines) of the original 1930 Detection Club: “The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.” https://murder-mayhem.com/the-detection-club-rules We may not always meet or learn of the criminal at a gathering place, but it can provide a useful location for the author to make that first mention.

And we’re humans, so we appreciate gathering places that involve food and drink! We learn so much there, about our protagonist and key characters.

When we first meet Bruno, chief of police in a small town in the French Dordogne, the author immediately shows us the contents of Bruno’s police van, including: “one basket containing newly laid eggs from his own hens, and another with his garden’s first spring peas…Tucked neatly to one side were a first-aid kit, a small tool chest, a blanket, and a picnic hamper with plates and glasses, salt and pepper, a head of garlic and a Laguiole pocketknife with a horn handle and a corkscrew. Tucked under the front seat was a bottle of not-quite-legal eau-de-vie from a friendly farmer. He would use this to make his private stock of vin de noix when the green walnuts were ready…” Martin Walker, Bruno, Chief of Police (Book 1 of the series). Hmm: a resourceful and picnic-prepared detective.

Bruno routinely uses a couple of gathering places involving food, first and foremost his own farm above the Vézère River, in country humans have cherished for over 30,000 years. We learn of Bruno’s garden, his hunting, and the dishes he makes for guests. In the latest book, To Kill a Troubadour, Bruno demonstrates his omelet techniques and also carries six jars of his venison pâté to a village feast. (Martin Walker now has a cookbook.) But Bruno visits other gathering places, including his favorite bakery (Fauquet’s) where he buys his morning croissants—one of which he always feeds his puppy. The garden, the venison, the eggs, the wine opener, the bakery, the puppy, the croissants—they’re part of Bruno, and key to the setting.

Inspector Jules Maigret? His setting is typically Paris, where the Brasserie Dauphine delivers late-night sandwiches and beer to his office at the Quai des Orfèvres when he interviews a defendant. He and his colleagues must eat during investigations, of course—at the office and elsewhere. In Maigret Bides His Time he dines at the Clou Doré, a luxurious restaurant owned by a man Maigret suspects of jewel thefts. The waiter: “I recommend the paella this evening… To go with it, a dry Tavel, unless you prefer a Pouilly Fumé.” During the meal, Maigret “seemed to be concerned only with the food and the deliciously fruity wine.” But we readers know otherwise: he’s absorbing atmosphere, clues, little “tells.” In each book, Maigret finds a bar, a brasserie, a restaurant, which can serve as the gathering place where he assembles information that ultimately leads to a solution. Food and drink help create this distinctively French setting.

I do feel it’s unlikely that Four Corners policewoman Bernadette Manuelito would try Bruno’s venison pâté, and I’m not sure her husband, Jim Chee, would either. So far as I recall neither has visited France. They live and work in Navajo and Hopi land, in the series begun by Tony Hillerman and continued by his daughter, Anne Hillerman. In The Wailing Wind, Jim Chee and his former boss, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, “got a table at the Navajo Inn, ordered coffee. Chee would eat a hamburger with fries as always.” Leaphorn says, “I always have an enchilada.” In Anne Hillerman’s Rock with Wings, “Bernie asked Chee to order her usual, a hamburger and a Coke.” She can tolerate pepperoni pizza, but abjures salad. https://www.amazon.com/Rock-Wings-Leaphorn-Manuelito-Novel/dp/0062821733/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1663609808&sr=8-2

The Hillerman setting is not the Navajo Inn, not a particular bar, not a particular bakery. It’s the entire Four Corners, a vast arena of mountains and mesas sacred to Navajo and Hopi memory, with enormous views and laconic characters, careful in their speech, who drive miles to find gas or food. A garden of tender green peas? No. When he hikes into the mountains on a case, Jim Chee packs a bologna sandwich—not venison pâté. Food is essential, food is basic, and eating is often a solitary experience, while Bernadette Manuelito or Jim Chee are out in an arroyo, tracking a killer. The landscape feels too large for a single gathering place—although Jim Chee’s trailer, Captain Largo’s or Leaphead’s offices, or Bernadette’s mother’s house see occasional gatherings.

Coke and hamburger versus venison pâté or paella (French version) and Tavel? Famous cultural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote, “Cooking is a language… through which society unconsciously reveals its structure.” Also known—by mystery readers–as setting.

For her Richard Jury series Martha Grimes takes us to various venues in London and elsewhere, such as Brown’s Hotel (The Dirty Duck), and the Members Room at Borings (the club to which Jury’s friend Melrose Plant belongs) (The Old Wine Shades). She uses pub names as her titles, and the pub can serve as a gathering place, as it does in The Old Wine Shades. Another repeat gathering place is Melrose’s stately country home, Ardry End, which is subject to invasion by Agatha, his aunt-by-marriage, who greedily demolishes all the “fairy cakes” made by Melrose’s excellent cook, Martha. https://www.christinascucina.com/butterfly-cupcakes-british-butterfly-cakes/

Martha knows that when he breakfasts at Ardry End, Richard Jury lusts after her mushrooms: “Jury spooned eggs and a small pile of mushrooms onto his plate, then forked up sausages (a largish number), speared a tomato and sat down.” Shortly thereafter Martha reappears with “a steaming silver dish… ‘Mushrooms! I knew you’d be wanting more o’ my mushrooms!’” And he did. There’s something intimate about watching favorite characters have breakfast—possibly the most individually designed meal we eat. Right?

Grimes invents the Jack and Hammer Pub as the gathering place where Melrose meets his eclectic (nutty) village friends. At the Jack and Hammer we meet the cast of characters Grimes rotates through this series, and watch the friends (and Melrose) try to puzzle out the solution to the murder Richard Jury must solve. We learn the talents and deficits of these friends, their secret loves, and what they order from the bar.

Reading what characters eat and drink enriches our feeling of presence in a book. It pulls our own senses and memories into what we’re reading. We can taste the paella, taste the hamburger, remember our favorite burger joint, our favorite restaurant. We begin to participate in the mystery’s setting. Bernie bites her hamburger; Maigret takes a sip; so do we.

Our reactions to food live in our memory, linked to our senses of smell—and taste. “Smell and taste are closely linked. The taste buds of the tongue identify taste, and the nerves in the nose identify smell. Both sensations are communicated to the brain, The taste buds of the tongue identify taste, and the nerves in the nose identify smell. Both sensations are communicated to the brain, which integrates the information so that flavors can be recognized and appreciated. Some tastes—such as salty, bitter, sweet, and sour—can be recognized without the sense of smell. However, more complex flavors (such as raspberry) require both taste and smell sensations to be recognized.” https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/ear,-nose,-and-throat-disorders/symptoms-of-nose-and-throat-disorders/overview-of-smell-and-taste-disorders#:~:text=The%20taste%20buds%20of%20the,without%20the%20sense%20of%20smell.

Proust was right about food and memory: “Odors take a direct route to the limbic system, including the amygdala and the hippocampus, the regions related to emotion and memory.” https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/02/how-scent-emotion-and-memory-are-intertwined-and-exploited/#:~:text=Smells%20are%20handled%20by%20the,related%20to%20emotion%20and%20memory

And why shouldn’t this be so? At least partly, cooking defines us as human. Humans apparently mastered fire and began cooking at least 500,000 years ago; possibly our human ancestors began cooking as much as 1.8 million years ago. No wonder food and memory are entwined in our brains. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/food-for-thought-was-cooking-a-pivotal-step-in-human-evolution/;

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/foodfeatures/evolution-of-diet/#:~:text=Our%20human%20ancestors%20who%20began,more%20fuel%20for%20our%20brains;

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/121026-human-cooking-evolution-raw-food-health-science

On that note, I’ve just finished the draft of Book 8 in my Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, Ghosted. The central gathering place? The Beer Barn, an iconic Texas Hill Country dancehall and roadhouse. Food? Critical. Luis’s enchiladas and Conroy’s barbecue? They call!

Helen Currie Foster lives and writes in the Texas Hill Country, north of Dripping Springs, loosely supervised by three burros. She’s active with Austin Shakespeare and the Heart of Texas Chapter of Sisters in Crime, as well as Hill Country Master Naturalists (still trying to learn those native grasses). 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.

The Flavor of the Place

by Helen Currie Foster

August 8, 2022

Our family’s favorite mystery quote (bolded below) appears in Strong Poison, by Dorothy Sayers, where detective Lord Peter Wimsey first meets novelist Harriet Vane. Vane’s on trial for murder, accused of systematically poisoning her former lover with arsenic.

Wimsey suspects the lover’s uncle, Norman Urquhart, but the uncle assures the police that he served a blameless dinner to his nephew. Wimsey sends the all-competent Bunter (his manservant and WWI batman), to winkle out secrets from Urquhart’s cook, Mrs. Pettican, and the housemaid.

Bunter ingratiates himself by means of crumpets:

“At half-past four…he was seated in the kitchen of Mr. Urquhart’s house, toasting crumpets. He had been trained to a great pitch of dexterity in the preparation of crumpets, and if he was somewhat lavish in the matter of butter, that hurt nobody except Mr. Urquhart. It was natural that the conversation should turn to the subject of murder. Nothing goes so well with a hot fire and buttered crumpets as a wet day without and a good dose of comfortable horrors within. The heavier the lashing of the rain and the ghastlier the details, the better the flavour seems to be.” 

What a setting! I’ve never tasted a crumpet, but can feel the heat of the fire and inhale the smells of toasting and melting butter. And in contrast to (or fueled by) this warmth, this delicious comfort, the cook reminds us of the victim’s death: “A dreadful wicked woman she must ‘a’ been,” said Mrs. Pettican, “—‘ev another crumpet, do, Mr. Bunter—a-torturin’ of the poor soul that long-winded way. Bashin’ on the ‘ed or the ‘asty use of a carvin’ knife when roused I can understand, but the ‘orrors of slow poisonin’ is the work of a fiend in ‘uman form, in my opinion.”

So in our kitchen at buttery moments some family member will mutter, “If he was somewhat lavish in the matter of butter…” But this week I wondered, “What are crumpets?” I mean, with Bunter toasting them over a (presumably coal) fire, then lavishing butter on them, they sound wonderful, especially for teatime in a firelit kitchen, on a cold wet afternoon, discussing the horrors of slow poisoning.

Compelled by curiosity I found a recipe. https://www.daringgourmet.com/traditional-english-crumpets/ Huh. I’d imagined English muffins. No. Instead, the goal is a tender disc, yeasty but also leavened with baking soda, creating bubbled holes to absorb melted butter, jam, and other decorations. Problem: locating crumpet rings. Yes, I’ve ordered some.

Sayers wasn’t writing a culinary cozy, despite the crumpets and an intense discussion on the following page between Mrs. Pettican and Bunter about casseroled chicken. A scene beginning with toasting crumpets produces a triumph of setting and character, a comic but dread-inspiring description of the victim’s death, and clever clue placement. Sayers does not describe either the smell of the toasting, or the taste of the crumpets, but surely you, dear reader, imagined those? Didn’t you feel yourself right there in the kitchen, with the rainy day outside, the gossipy discussion of the lover’s death agonies, and a vivid depiction of Bunter’s character? Courteous, yet firm, he deftly extracts critical information not reflected in the police report—and yes, a clue you doubtless spotted. Maybe Vane will escape the hangman’s noose after all. 

As Proust famously pointed out, smells can stimulate memories. https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/2020/07/more-than-cake-unravelling-the-mysteries-of-proust-s-madeleine Smells can also trigger emotional reactions: “Your olfactory bulb runs from your nose to the base of your brain and has direct connections to your amygdala (the area of the brain responsible for processing emotion) and to your hippocampus (an area linked to memory and cognition). Neuroscientists have suggested that this close physical connection between the regions of the brain linked to memory, emotion, and our sense of smell may explain why our brain learns to associate smells with certain emotional memories.” https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-smells-trigger-memories1/

Despite the strong impact of smells on humans, writers’ references to smell often seem sparse. Part of the problem is the sheer difficulty of describing certain smells. Imagine trying to describe the smell of a beloved house. It’s a mysterious mix, isn’t it? If I try to describe my mother’s house, I can’t do it with just one word. Part of the remembered smell is a faint perfume—maybe a bath powder she used, like Caswell Massey’s Gardenia. But there are other ingredients as well—contributions from oak furniture, cotton sheets, old Christmas cards on a closet shelf… See, I can’t accurately describe the smell itself; I have to name things.

My grandmother’s house in Hill County delivered a similar mixture, varying by seasons. In summer, it smelled of cantaloupe from her garden; at Christmas, of a decorated cedar tree. But always the substrate included a hard-to-describe mixture of our grandfather’s Yardley English Lavender talc, kept on the kitchen shelf where he shaved; of the garbage chute in the kitchen; of oil and electric discharges from his ham radio rig; of the ancient living room piano (wires, wood, felt). How describe the totality of that smell, that amalgam of odors, so instantly recognizable to me, but unknown to you? And how describe it without a bunch of nouns? 

Poets apparently run into that problem. I set out to locate poems incorporating odor and fragrance, grabbing poetry volumes from the shelves. Yeats? Gorgeous references to sight and sound, as in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”: “Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee, /And live alone in the bee-loud glade…” The poem is rich in sight, in sound, but not smell. We don’t smell the clay and wattles or honey.

Same for Wendell Berry’s A Small Porch—a volume of ideas, images, light and air. But I didn’t find smell. Nor did I find smell references in Chaucer or a number of Renaissance English poets, except that Michael Drayton gives us a wonderful line in “To the Virginian Voyage” referring to the much-anticipated Virginia landfall of seaborne English explorers: “When as the luscious smell/of that delicious land…” Of course Shakespeare mentions the “sweet odour” of roses (as in Sonnet 54): “Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made.” 

Indeed, I had trouble finding references to smell in most of the poetry books I opened. There were some. In “Aimless Love,” “gazing down affectionately at the soap,” Billy Collins writes, “I could feel myself falling again/as I felt its turning in my wet hands/and caught the scent of lavender and stone.”

Marianne Moore, in “Enough,” from O To Be a Dragon, gives us this: “The crested moss-rose casts a spell; its bud of solid green, as well, /and the Old Pink Moss—with fragrant wings/ imparting balsam scent that clings…” Many readers will recognize balsam. Another from Moore’s “In the Public Garden”: “O yes, and snowdrops in the snow that smell like violets.”

Also readers may know the smell of violets. Charles Wright, in “Dog Creek Mainline,” gives more challenging references: “Dog Creek: cat track and bird splay,/Spindrift and windfall; woodrot; Odor of muscadine…” If you’ve played around wild grapevine you know the odor of muscadine––maybe woodrot too. 

Try the experiment yourself. Pull some poetry off the shelf. Don’t most poems rely on sight and sound, and rarely odor? Because a particular smell can be very hard to describe.

https://qbi.uq.edu.au/blog/2018/11/how-do-we-smell-things#:~:text=Whenever%20we%20smell%20something%2C%20our,easier%20to%20smell%20a%20smell. Per Rodrigo Suarez at the Queensland Brain Institute: 

“The way the brain deals with smells is very different to how it deals with other senses, such as seeing and hearing. For example, we can identify the different instruments playing in a band, or the different shapes and colours in a painting. But it is very hard for us to tell the individual parts of a smell mixture.” He goes on: “We can sense the smell of “orange” or “coffee” as a single thing, but have trouble identifying the many different parts that make up those smells individually. However, it is possible to get better at this with practice. Professional wine-tasters or perfume-makers can detect more parts of a smell mixture than most people.”

Our difficulty in describing smell is not that we humans can’t detect odors—we can, says Greg Miller, Science (November 11, 2014): “We humans have about 400 different types of receptors for detecting odorant molecules. That’s on the low end for mammals, but it’s enough, at least in theory, to allow us to distinguish a trillion different odors, one team of neuroscientists calculated earlier this year (although there’s been some controversy about that estimate).”

But, per Miller, we describe odors differently from sights and sounds: “When people—English speaking people, anyway—describe odors, what they are actually doing much of the time is describing the source of the odor. Orange-y. Smokey-. Skunk-y. This seems natural enough, but it’s fundamentally different from how we describe other sensory experiences. Words like “white” and “round” describe visual features of an object, not the object itself. It could be a baseball, or it could be the Moon. In the same way, a tone can be “high-pitched” whether it comes from a bird or a teakettle.” https://www.wired.com/2014/11/whats-up-with-that-smells-language/#:~:text=come%20up%20short.-,That’s%20because%20smells%20(which%20contribute%20heavily%20to%20what%20we%20commonly,brain’s%20olfactory%20and%20language%20systems.Some studies suggest that our language is inadequate to the task of describing smell. Another suggestion is that other languages than English may be better at conveying odor.

But determined mystery writers find a way, because odor can make important contributions to a setting. In 1937, in Rex Stout’s fourth Nero Wolfe mystery, The Red Box, the detective lectures his cook, Fritz Brenner: “Do you know shish kebab? I have had it in Turkey. Marinate thin slices of tender lamb for several hours in red wine and spices. Here, I’ll put it down: thyme, mace, peppercorns, garlic…” https://www.amazon.com/Red-Nero-Wolfe-Mystery-Book-ebook/dp/B004SOQ076/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2KTCNYSRFE27K&keywords=the+red+box&qid=1659993772&sprefix=the+red+box%2Caps%2C208&sr=8-1

Can’t you smell those spices? And doesn’t that passage help round out (pun) our vision of Nero Wolfe, gourmet, gourmand, brilliant detective? We’re planted in the kitchen of Wolfe’s New York brownstone, the primary setting for all the mysteries. These few lines convey Wolfe’s insistence on sophisticated cuisine, and reflect the rigor he demands of every employee under his roof, including Fritz the cook; Theodore Horstmann, the keeper of his orchid greenhouse; and our narrator, his foot soldier, Archie Goodwin. A shish kebab recipe helps define the setting and Wolfe’s character as well.

Ngaio Marsh begins Night at the Vulcan (1951) with Martyn Tarne, a young New Zealand actress desperately seeking an acting role in London. One night, out of food and money, with no place to stay, she enters the Vulcan Theatre which has advertised for a dresser: “She was at the back of the stalls, standing on thick carpet at the top of the ramp facing the centre aisle…The deadened air smelt of naphthalene and plush.” The empty theatre lacks an eager audience, waiting for the curtain to go up. Instead Marsh gives us the “deadened air” of a closed theatre, where the plush seats are empty, and the air smells of naphthalene—chemical dry cleaning. Martyn starts to work: “As soon as she crossed the threshold of the star dressing-room she smelt greasepaint. The dressing-shelf was bare, the room untenanted, but the smell of cosmetics mingled with the faint reek of gas.” I don’t know the smell of greasepaint, but Martyn does; she’s in a setting she understands.

Mick Herron’s unputdownable Slough House series uses odor to create the key setting––the decrepit building which serves as center stage. Book 2, Dead Lions, describes entry to the building as follows: “No one enters Slough House by the front door; instead, via a shabby alleyway, its inmates let themselves into a grubby yard with mildewed walls….” Yecch, mildew. The building houses the “slow horses” who flunked out of MI-5’s headquarters in posh Regent’s Park, and are now under the tutelage of former Cold Warrior Jackson Lamb, a terrifying mentor. “Jackson Lamb’s lair,” the office on the building’s top floor, is described thus: “The air is heavy with a dog’s olfactory daydream: takeaway food, illicit cigarettes, day-old farts and stale beer, but there will be no time to catalogue this because Jackson Lamb can move surprisingly swiftly for a man of his bulk….” No question that odor is part of the setting. Lamb is an olfactory terrorist. https://www.amazon.com/Dead-Lions-Slough-House-Book-ebook/dp/B008ADFIKQ/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2OWSNB20HLYMN&keywords=dead+lions&qid=1659990272&sprefix=dead+lion%2Caps%2C169&sr=8-1

The century-old Beer Barn, a beloved road house in Coffee Creek, is where townspeople gather in my Ghost series. That includes lawyer and protagonist Alice Greer. Naturally the smell of beer is key. In Book 3, Ghost Letter, Alice invites a political reporter to the Beer Barn for lunch: “As they pushed through the Beer Barn’s tall swinging doors the fragrant haze enveloped them—incense compounded of hickory smoke from the wood-fired grill, chiles toasted on an iron comal, and thousands of bubbles popping in bottles and glasses, releasing the yeasty magic of beer to the air.”

Smells may be hard to define, but including the smell of a setting can enrich a mystery’s impact. Or, as Mrs. Pettican says, “Have another crumpet, do!” 

Helen Currie Foster lives and writes north of Dripping Springs, Texas, loosely supervised by three burros jostling for roles in the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, set in the unique landscape of the Texas Hill Country. So far all three burros have made an appearance, though insisting on aliases. Book 8 is on its way…

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.

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

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.

blog reference
book

What Do We…Know?

By Helen Currie Foster

I knew so much in college. So much! I was after a solid liberal arts education. I knew biology—I’d dissected the largest dead cat ever delivered to a biology lab, possibly large enough to require a human-size body bag. I scrutinized bones and organs, ears, whatever. Articulated the brute’s vertebrae, sort of. But now…?

And geology! Of course I knew the earth had igneous and volcanic and sedimentary rocks and a solid molten core consisting mostly of iron. Didn’t we all? I was confident I could find north by following two stars in the Big Dipper down to Polaris, in the Little Dipper. But now…?

Human history? We all knew North Americans arrived via a land bridge from Asia around 10,000 years ago, based on dating the Clovis point. But now…?

Let’s not talk about physics. I hit the physics wall early, at news of a fourth dimension, and made a life decision to leave physics for the rest of you. That was a good decision, given that string theorists apparently wander among ten, eleven, sixteen, or twenty-six (or who knows how many) dimensions. “If string theory is the correct description of nature, and there are nine dimensions of space (plus one of time), what has become of the missing six spatial dimensions?” Eminent physicist Lisa Randall, in her aptly named Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions. https://www.amazon.com/Warped-Passages-Unraveling-Mysteries-Dimensions-ebook/dp/B002TS77Y8/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2QEGQZPDY1WX8&keywords=warped+passages&qid=1645480086&sprefix=warped+passage%2Caps%2C126&sr=8-1

In apparent sympathy for my inability to reach even the fourth dimension, fate gave me Joseph Malof’s Manual of English Meters, which has brought me deep joy for the rest of my life. https://www.amazon.com/Manual-English-Meters-Joseph-Malof/dp/0253336740/ref=sr_1_4?crid=SLBZZEC4NG3O&keywords=malof&qid=1645480007&sprefix=malof%2Caps%2C140&sr=8-4 Get in touch if you too need a lifeline.)

But now…

These Facts of Life, as we understood them…turn out to be wrong. Out the window. Over. So what should a mystery writer do about this?

Biology? Human history? Clovis points? So much we “knew” is out of date or just plain wrong. We’d heard of the double helix, but didn’t know the human genome could be replicated, leading to amazing genetic discoveries. While many of us hoped we’d inherited a gene from some favored forebear in family history, now we know we’re related to practically everyone, including villains and scoundrels. Bracing news. Ongoing analysis of ancient DNA now suggests humans were in North America by at least 16,000 -20,000years ago. So Clovis points were…much later. Think what this suggests about early peoples—all the languages, all the cultures, all the implications. A fabulous update on these debates: Origin, A Genetic History of the Americas, by anthropological geneticist Dr. Jennifer Raff.  https://www.amazon.com/Origin-Genetic-Americas-Jennifer-Raff-ebook/dp/B08B6F2YFX/ref=sr_1_2?crid=2I6NFU5M8KMC2&keywords=jennifer+raff&qid=1645458138&sprefix=jennifer+raff%2Caps%2C190&sr=8-2

Based on exciting research at the Gault Site we Central Texans got a head start on this news. Those immigrating forebears got here as soon as they could. https://www.gaultschool.org/

Geology? Plate tectonics only became generally accepted in the 1960’s, but it explained what we always suspected from staring at classroom maps… continental puzzle pieces should fit. https://www.iris.edu/hq/inclass/animation/plate_tectonic_theorya_brief_history

But wait, there’s more. Explorers dismissed tales from indigenous people about a huge tsunami in the 1700s along our northwest coast. Now we’ve heard of—and school districts are planning against–dangers posed by the Cascadian Subduction Zone off that coast. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/07/20/the-really-big-one

And that reliably solid molten core of our Earth? We now hear that “the inner core of the Earth is not a normal solid but is composed of a solid iron sublattice and liquid-like light elements, which is known as a superionic state,” and that this intermediate state between solid and liquid “widely exists in the interior of planets.”  https://scitechdaily.com/scientists-reveal-superionic-secrets-of-earths-inner-core/

Furthermore, moving magnetic blobs in our “superionic core” may explain the North Pole’s recent accelerated movement. Until the early 1990’s, the magnetic pole was drifting at about 9 miles a year, but now moves at about 30 to nearly 40 miles a year toward Siberia. What’s the hurry?  https://earthsky.org/earth/magnetic-north-rapid-drift-blobs-flux/#:~:text=Magnetic%20north%20was%20drifting%20at,km%20a%20year)%20toward%20Siberia.

Does our wandering pole mean Polaris won’t stay our North Star? (Sigh) Yes. By about 4,000 CE, due to axial procession, we humans will have to shift our North Star gaze to “Gamma Cephei, also called Errai, …a moderately bright star” in the constellation Cepheus. https://earthsky.org/brightest-stars/gamma-cephei-errai-future-north-star/

It feels like we’re rapidly having to revise our own mental frameworks, our own knowledge of the physical world. Climate change. Rising sea levels. https://www.npr.org/2022/02/15/1080798833/ocean-water-along-u-s-coasts-will-rise-about-one-foot-by-2050-scientists-warn

And I haven’t even mentioned Covid.

Does any of this matter to the mystery genre? Yes, of course. Many mystery lovers take refuge from current shocks in historical mysteries, enjoying Rhys Bowen’s period pieces set in London; Susan Elia MacNeal, with her World War II Maggie Hope series; Laurie King’s Russell & Holmes series, set in 1920’s England; and the late Anna Castle’s Francis Bacon mysteries. Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty have inspired writers to try follow-on mysteries. Authors of historical mysteries have an advantage: they know the “known facts” of the epoch they’ve chosen. They know Mary Russell was unaware of penicillin—and so does the reader. 

What about mystery science fiction? There, a writer can pick and choose which “facts” of 2022 to carry forward, and which to abandon. The writer can define new “facts” for the setting, without the fear of making a mistake.

But what a conundrum for mystery writers who choose the “present” as setting.

First and foremost, mystery writers cannot forget that mystery lovers relish learning about specific settings. Alexander McCall Smith told the Texas Book Festival that he “starts with the place.” Place is key. That’s one reason mystery reader rejoice when they find an appealing new mystery series, because it deepens our grasp of a setting—distinctive food, landscape, characters. The setting’s part of the experience. I certainly want readers to feel immersed in the Texas Hill Country in my Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series books, including book 7, Ghost Daughterhttps://www.amazon.com/Ghost-Daughter-Alice-MacDonald-Mysteries/dp/1732722919?asin=1732722919&revisionId=&format=4&depth=1

Often mystery writers keep the mystery’s timeframe somewhat vague, omitting overreliance on specific recent events. Mystery lovers are looking for a mystery. That doesn’t mean, of course, that authors won’t deal with tough contemporary issues. They can and do. But readers decidedly want a puzzle, want to use their own minds and life experience with the world and human nature to solve a mystery, involving motive, method and opportunity. Don’t we consider good mysteries “classics” when they can be read and re-read in subsequent decades? 

The writer may take a middle road, addressing one or more contemporary issues. In her Guido Brunetti series set in Venice, Donna Leon does not dodge the impacts of climate change (rising sea levels), pollution, and the desperate plight of African and Eastern European immigrants. But her Inspector Brunetti comforts us by his fierce adherence to traditional Venetian values (and cuisine).

But still, all this new knowledge (genomes! Fourth dimension! Cascadian subduction!) is exciting stuff. Now, perhaps a mystery about archeologists disputing whether or not that rock shard is a knife…or just a rock shard?

P.S. Not sure how it would work for a mystery clue, but did you know hummingbirds can see ultra-violet colors? How can that be? What would that look like? https://www.princeton.edu/news/2020/06/15/wild-hummingbirds-see-broad-range-colors-humans-can-only-imagine

Helen Currie Foster writes the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery Series north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She’s drawn to the compelling landscape of the Texas Hill Country, and the quirky characters who live there. She’s deeply curious about human prehistory and why, uninvited, the past keeps crashing the party. She’s active with Austin Shakespeare and the Heart of Texas chapter of Sisters in Crime.

How to Paint a Horse?

by Helen Currie Foster

Like many of you I’m fascinated by prehistory, always hoping for a chance to clamber up (or down) to visit incredible cave paintings. My first mystery, Ghost Cave, was inspired by climbing to cave shelters where the Devil’s River meets the Rio Grande. Ghost Cave’s cover? The famous White Shaman images. https://www.amazon.com/s?k=Helen+Currie+Foster+ghost+cave&crid=24J6S4P7832FF&sprefix=helen+currie+foster+ghost+cave%2Caps%2C129&ref=nb_sb_noss

In the Dordogne, in southern France, I heard the echo of the iron cover banging into place to close the entrance to the Pech Merle cave to prevent damage from outside air. Down the clanging iron stairs we went, along chilly stone tunnels, and then—the horses! Oh, the spotted horses, so real you could almost hear them breathe. They’ve been carbon-dated to 25,000 BCE. I’ve waited in line to see the famous Font de Gaume at Les Eyzies, also in the Dordogne, and hiked, shivering, to see the pictures deep in the Pyrenees cave at Niaux. I long to visit them all. Sometimes my companions balk.

Confronted by such artistry, such deft depictions, simultaneously spare and rich, like Chinese scroll landscapes or Picasso’s early drawings, haven’t you wondered about the artists? Why were they so deep in these dark, perilous caves? What was their life—or death—outside?

Today, with climatic violence the new normal, and new discoveries daily about human prehistory (including 23 and Me’s calculation of our personal percentages of Neanderthal ancestry), I’m more and more curious every day about our long-ago ancestors. The real question, of course: what is it to be human?

Welcome to  “The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity,” a tome by two Brits—David Graeber, the late professor of anthropology at London School of Economics, and David Wengrow, professor at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. “The Dawn of Everything”? Sounds ferociously ambitious—overarching, maybe overreaching. But my best friend from high school—Dr. Megan Biesele, distinguished anthropologist—said “let’s read and discuss.” Easy for her to say: the tome is 526 pages long, with 83 pages of notes and a 62-page bibliography. https://www.amazon.com/Dawn-Everything-New-History-Humanity/dp/0374157359

Graeber and Wengrow boldly challenge our “received understanding” of an original state of innocence and equality, followed by the invention of agriculture and higher population levels and creation of cities leading inevitably to the rise of hierarchy and inequality. They employ often hilarious section headings. Example: “How the conventional narrative of human history is not only wrong, but quite needlessly dull.” (At 21.) (For a shorter version, see their Fall 202 article: https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/democracy/hiding-plain-sight.)

“The Dawn” asserts that the ideas of individual liberty and political equality we cherish today weren’t an outgrowth of the European enlightenment, but inspired by Native American critiques of their European invaders. The relevant heading: “In which we consider what the inhabitants of New France made of their European invaders, especially in matters of generosity, sociability, material wealth, crime, punishment and liberty.” (At 37.) One French evangelist sent to the Algonkian Mi’kmaq wrote, “They consider themselves better than the French: ‘For,’ they say, ‘you are always fighting and quarrelling among yourselves; we live peaceably. You are envious and are all the time slandering each other; you are thieves and deceivers; you are covetous, and are neither generous nor kind; as for us, if we have a morsel of bread we share it with our neighbour.” This missionary was irritated that the Mi’kmaq would constantly assert they were richer than the French, who had more possessions, because they themselves had “ease, comfort and time.” Such records by missionary priests were compiled in 71 volumes of Jesuit Relations (1633-1673). 

I’d never heard of the Wendat tribe’s philosopher statesman Kandiaronk, reportedly a highly skillful debater, who during the 1690’s was invited to participate in a sort of salon, where he shared his devastating moral and intellectual critique of European society. Kandiaronk sounds amazing: one priest described him as “always animated, full of wit, and generally unanswerable.” His arguments were included in Dialogues (1703), published by an impoverished French aristocrat named Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce. Kandiaronk held that European-style punitive law, like the religious doctrine of eternal damnation, wasn’t required by innate human corruption but by a society that encouraged selfish and acquisitive behavior. Nor had I heard that Kandiaronk’s critiques were adopted by French Enlightenment figures during the 1700’s. I hadn’t realized that substantial origins of the French “enlightenment” were…North American. 

 “The Dawn” discusses the Huron concept called Ondinnonk, a secret desire of the soul manifested by a dream: “Hurons believe that our souls have other desires, which are, as it were, inborn and concealed…They believe that our soul makes these natural desires known by means of dreams…Accordingly when these desires are accomplished, it is satisfied; but, on the contrary, if it be not granted what it desires, it becomes angry, and not only does not give its body the good and the happiness that it wished to procure for it, but often it also revolts against the body, causing various diseases, and even death…” Apparently tribe members spent time communally trying to decipher the meaning of others’ dreams and, sometimes, trying to help each other realize their dreams. (At 23-4, 454-5, 486, 608 n74.) 

After this startling introduction to an unknown genius (I mean, I’d have loved to learn about Kandiaronk back in 10th grade…or any grade, really—and apparently his ideas can be found: https://books.google.com/books/about/Native_American_Speakers_of_the_Eastern.html?id=Fu1yAAAAMAAJ), Graeber and Wengrow provide extensive examples of our incorrect assumptions. They argue that the notion that humans inevitably moved from hunting and foraging to static agricultural lives (with inevitable hierarchy and inequality) isn’t borne out by current archeology. They point to many cultures which rejected “big ag,” opting instead to keep hunting and foraging, making occasional gardens, and spending winters in river lowlands, moving to highlands in the summer with their flocks. (This made me think of the French Pyrenees, where the “transhumance” –taking livestock to the hills—still happens.) They argue that cities weren’t inevitably hierarchical, and that many arose with populations that—even if they had kings—made their decisions collectively, not hierarchically.

“The Dawn” is unsettling. Are we “stuck” today in ideas that are not in fact “inevitable” aspects of human social organizations? Are we less creative, socially speaking, than our forebears? Well, I’ve only made it to page 486. I’ll let you know how this turns out. If I’m intellectually “stuck,” I hope not to stay that way.

But back to the caves and the art on those seeping limestone walls. My strong impression is that we frequently underestimate those who traveled before us. We assume that the ways of today’s world manifests “progress” over our past. Surely that’s true: we did manage at least temporarily to get rid of smallpox…one small victory. But apparently there’s a great deal we’ve lost, forgotten, or never known…I mean, what is the meaning of the White Shaman picture? Did the artists ride the spotted horses painted in Pech Merle? Or just admire the herds from a distance?

“The Dawn of Everything” offers fodder for that most delightful and enduring attribute of our species: curiosity. I’m still chewing on these ideas. One topic is the surprising variety of ways that societies treat—or eschew—wealth. Another that nags at me is the Wendat condemnation of our punitive habits. Dialogues reported that rather than punish culprits, “the Wendat insisted the culprit’s entire lineage or clan pay compensation. This made it everyone’s responsibility to keep their kindred under control.” Wow. Just one of the things I’ll be thinking about…

Meanwhile, a delightful book, beautifully written, which offers windows onto the 21st century culture of Kandiaronk’s relatives is the best-selling Braiding Sweetgrass by botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. https://www.amazon.com/s?k=kimmerer+braiding+sweetgrass&crid=J2LA9POFHIJK&sprefix=kimmerer%2Caps%2C244&ref=nb_sb_ss_ts-doa-p_1_8

I found Braiding Sweetgrass so touching, especially the chapter called Allegiance to Gratitude, describing the children in the Onondaga Nation school reciting the traditional Haudenosaunee “Thanksgiving Address,” the Words That Come Before All Else. Most sections of this Address end, “Now our minds are one.” Maybe this is a living example of a communal tradition that molds a society. I recommend this book.

Helen Currie Foster lives and writes the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series north of Dripping Springs, supervised by three burros. She remains fascinated by human prehistory and how, uninvited, our pasts keep crashing the party. Her latest is Book 7, Ghost Daughter. “An appealing sleuth headlines a solid thriller with panache” —Kirkus Reviews

….And Then What Happens?

By Helen Currie Foster

If you haven’t read Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club, or his latest, The Man Who Died Twice, fear not—no spoilers here. Oh, maybe a couple of teases, but that’s my theme today: curiosity as a driver of mystery novels.

https://www.amazon.com/Man-Who-Died-Twice-Thursday/dp/1984880993/ref=sr_1_1?crid=3LIAI6XFOMLFR&keywords=the+man+who+died+twice&qid=1638133704&s=books&sprefix=the+man+who+%2Cstripbooks%2C233&sr=1-1

George Saunders, in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, his boldly subtitled “master class on writing, reading and life,” recounts his experience submitting a short story to Bill Buford, fiction editor of The New Yorker. After receiving some “painful edits,” Saunders asked Buford what he liked about the story: “Well, I read a line. And I like it…enough to read the next.”

Saunders gives a short answer to why we keep reading: “Because we want to.” And why do we want to? “That’s the million-dollar question. What makes a reader keep reading.”

Back to The Thursday Murder Club. We meet the varied characters of an upscale home for the elderly in scenic Kent who meet weekly to solve murders—old and new. Some characters seem ordinary, like the new club member, Joyce, whose journal depicts her as sprightly and slightly ditzy. Some, like Elizabeth, are veiled in mystery. Is Bogdan just a dumb Polack? We begin to wonder what’s he hiding. Then we begin to wonder what each character’s hiding. We also desperately want to know who’s buried—no, who else is buried––in the nuns’ graveyard on the hill. We read in the bathtub. We sneak our Kindle into the examining room and finish another chapter before the nurse arrives. Same with The Man Who Died Twice: we keep reading the next line! Before beginning, I asked myself, how can Orman’s second book be as compelling as Thursday? Just hide and watch. For each character—whether detective or potential villain—a slow (but never too slow) reveal will move you, the reader, to keep reading the next sentence.

In my blog Curiouser and Curiouser I mentioned astrophysicist Mario Livio’s book, WHY: What Makes Us Curious. https://www.amazon.com/Why-What-Makes-Us-Curious-ebook/dp/B01M7WV0LV/ref=sr_1_4?qid=1638133468&refinements=p_27%3AMario+Livio&s=books&sr=1-4 Livio begins by discussing Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” a very short 19th century tale of a woman who has just received news of her husband’s death. Livio cites Chopin’s “singular ability to generate curiosity with almost every single line of prose.” He says she inspires “empathic curiosity,” driving the reader incessantly to ask “why?” and to try to understand the desires and thoughts of the protagonist. Chopin also uses the element of surprise—“a sure stratagem to kindle curiosity through heightened arousal and attention.”

The physiological basis for such heightened curiosity? When we encounter the unexpected, our brains assume we may need to take action. “This results in a rapid activation of the sympathetic nervous system” as we focus on the key issue, says Livio. He notes that when we’re surprised and have a fear response, both fast and slow brain pathways are activated. On the fast track, our thalamus sends sensory signals to the amygdala which directs our emotional response. But on the slow track, our thalamus sends signals to our cerebral cortex before going to the amygdala—allowing a “more thoughtful” response. 

And don’t mystery readers have highly developed cerebral cortexes? Of course they do. For starters, though, we request a protagonist who engages us, so our empathic curiosity can push us to the next sentence. Perhaps we need to care at least a little for the protagonist in order to want to know what happens next. All the great tales combine empathic curiosity and surprise. Will Kim and his lama find the River of the Arrow? Will Mr. Darcy ever propose a second time to Elizabeth Bennet? Will Gus and Call survive the cattle drive to Montana? Will Frodo make it to the Cracks of Doom? Will George Smiley figure out the mole’s identity? We want to know what happens next. Mystery readers beg their authors: make us want to know!

Livio highlights some remarkably curious humans. One is Leonardo da Vinci (described by art historian Kenneth Clark as “the most relentlessly curious man in history”). A look at Leonardo’s Notebooks shows as just one example of his curiosity his study of human physiology [186] and anatomy—skeleton, musculature, circulation.

Leonardo provides detailed drawings and descriptions of human limbs, and then moves on to how they work: “The walking of man is always after the universal manner of walking in animals with 4 legs, inasmuch as just as they move their feet crosswise after the manner of a horse in trotting, so man moves his 4 limbs crosswise; that is, if he puts forward his right foot in walking he puts forward, with it, his left arm and vice versa, invariably.” We come to believe Leonardo was not just trying for painterly accuracy: he wanted to know how bodies work (as well as why candle flame moves as it does, how screws and tempered springs work, how to depict perspective…).

It goes almost without saying that mystery readers are notoriously curious. We love to plunge into new or unique settings—Alaska (Dana Stabenow), Southside Chicago (Sara Paretzky), Scotland (Ian Rankin), the south of France (Martin Walker), the Four Corners (Tony and now Anne Hillerman)…and don’t forget Texas, big cities and small towns, the coast, the border, the Hill Country. We’re delighted with new worlds—paranormal mysteries. We’re curious about alibis—any holes? What exactly did the medical examiner say? Which facts point to a motive—or lack thereof? 

Another example of a “relentlessly curious” human is astrophysicist Richard Feynman: “Feynman’s genius and achievements in…physics are legendary…He became known to the general public as a member of the panel that investigated the space shuttle Challenger disaster…When asked to identify what he thought was the key motivator for scientific discovery, Feynman replied, ‘It has to do with curiosity. It has to do with wondering what makes something do something.’” [10]

“What makes something do something.” And what makes someone do something. The stuff of mystery.

Livio considers the drive for knowledge a deeply human characteristic, with curiosity a powerful force not just for childhood cognitive development, but for intellectual and creative expression later in life. [9] He says “perceptual curiosity” motivates visual inspection—for instance, when we see something novel, puzzling, or an extreme outlier. Opposite “perceptual curiosity” is “epistemic curiosity”—sheer desire for knowledge, which Thomas Hobbes called “lust of the mind” because it only leaves you wanting more. 

Well, isn’t that your basic mystery reader? The best mysteries leave us momentarily satisfied—we want to read each next line until we get to the very last line—but still wanting more. Where’s the next book?

Helen Currie Foster writes the Alice MacDonald Mystery Series, and lives north of Dripping Springs, supervised by three burros. Find the series at BookPeople, Amazon or IngramSpark and at various libraries. The books (Ghost Cave, Ghost Dog, Ghost Letter, Ghost Dagger, Ghost Next Door, Ghost Cat, and Ghost Daughter) include “Ghost” in their titles because an old sin, old love, or old death still hangs around…resulting in a new murder. Ghost Cat won “Semifinalist” for Mystery in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Kirkus says of Ghost Daughter, “An appealing character headlines a solid thriller with panache.” 

Follow her at http://www.helencurriefoster.com,

https://www.amazon.com/Helen-Currie-Foster/e/

https://www.facebook.com/helencurriefoster/

Curiouser and Curiouser!

Helen Currie Foster, October 25, 2021

At book groups I ask the beloved readers: “Why do we read mysteries?”

After a pause, for modesty, one honest person says: “We like to figure it out!”

Yes, we do. Why? Writer Patricia Cornwell, who created the forensic pathologist Kay Scarpetta, gives this answer as to why readers are fascinated by murder forensics: “To me, this goes back to our tribal survival instincts. If you can re-create a situation in your mind about what happened to someone, how that person died, there’s a better chance it won’t happen to you…[I]t’s part of the life force compelling us to look death in the face…We want to learn what happened…so we’ll feel less vulnerable about the same thing happening to us. It’s the kind of curiosity that propels us to study monsters.” https://amzn.to/3vQ3fPe

We want to know. Who killed Cock Robin? Who killed the two princes in the Tower—was it really Richard III? https://www.medievalists.net/2021/02/new-study-strengthens-claims-richard-iii-murdered-the-princes-in-the-tower/

 Was Henry II complicit in his knights’ gruesome slaughter of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral? https://blog.britishmuseum.org/thomas-becket-the-murder-that-shook-the-middle-ages/ Curious humans still ask, who’s the guilty party?

Astrophysicist Mario Livio has been curious enough about curiosity to write a book on it: “Why? What Makes Us Curious.” https://amzn.to/3Gm7jLW

“Other animals are curious,” he says, “but only humans are worried and curious about reasons and causes for things. Only humans really ask the question, ‘Why?’” https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-08-27/why-are-humans-so-curious

While survival provides an evolutionary purpose for curiosity, Livio points out, “One of the things that researchers still don’t have an answer to, is that we, as humans, seem to be much more curious than what is just necessary for survival.”

According to Livio, we have two basic types of curiosity that show up in two different parts of our brains during MRI scans. One type is “perceptual curiosity”—what we feel when something surprises or puzzles us. “It is felt as a sort of uneasiness, an unpleasant situation … like an itch you need to scratch…,” he says. Yes, that creepy feeling, the hair on the nape of your neck prickling, because something doesn’t feel quite right. https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/makes-us-curious/

The interesting thing about murder is that we seem convinced that ultimately, the murderer will be found out. At least as early as the 14th century, in The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400) knew readers were sure they could identify a murderer. “The Priest’s Tale” tells us, “Though it may skulk a year, or two, or three, Murder will out…”

In Hamlet (c.1602)King Claudius fears detection of his murder of Hamlet’s father. He confesses at prayer, “O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven; it hath the primal eldest curse upon it, a brother’s murder.” Act III, Scene 4. Hamlet has already announced in a soliloquy, “For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak with most miraculous organ.” Hamlet, Act II Sc. 2. Hamlet intends to play detective, sure that he himself can detect the king’s guilt by watching the king’s reaction to the play he has the actors perform: “I’ll observe his looks…if he but blench, I know my course.” 

Literary agent Anne Tibbets says mystery readers insist on understanding what happened. We are outraged if the author dares hide or suppress clues: we want a fair shot at solving the murder. We evaluate each potential suspect; we note physical clues; we scrutinize alibis; we use our own human experience to test the strength of each suspect’s motives. But as readers, of course we depend on the protagonist asking the right questions for us, identifying the victim, interviewing witnesses, examining the crime scene, noticing every salient detail. Each murder mystery effectively presents us with a miniature history of a crime, and we must absorb, and dissect, that history in order to satisfy ourselves we know “what happened.” 

Because we’re curious. Or, as Alice observes in her visit to Wonderland, “Curiouser and curiouser.” Lewis Carroll dubbed Alice “this curious child” and indeed, following Alice down the rabbit hole, we too want to know what the golden key will open and what’s behind the little door.

Alice is an indefatigable questioner. For instance, quizzing the Mock Turtle about his school days, she asks, “What else had you to learn?”

“Well, there was Mystery,” the Mock Turtle replied…”Mystery, ancient and modern, with Seaography…”

Mystery, for history, ancient and modern. The Mock Turtle is spot on. So much of history remains a mystery: no matter how many questions we ask, no matter how skilled and diligent the historian, no matter how thick the tome or how voluminous the footnotes,  we never have all the documents, all the testimony, needed to understand everything that happened during, say, the great convulsions of history. Just think of the unknown moments buried during Reconstruction, or the Spanish Civil War, or the Russian Revolution, or…  

Like Alice, mystery readers are “curiouser and curiouser.” The joy of being a mystery reader, after experiencing the miniature history within a good murder mystery, we reach the conclusion we’ve awaited. For once, at least, our curiosity is satisfied. We know “what happened.”

Author Helen Currie Foster lives and writes north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She writes the Alice MacDonald Greer mysteries, set in the small town of Coffee Creek, Texas, somewhere west of Dripping Springs and east of Fredericksburg. In Book 7, Alice finds herself in a lethal battle over hidden art and the victim’s will. Available on Amazon and IngramSpark, and at BookPeople in Austin.

https://www.amazon.com/s?k=Helen+currie+foster+GHOST+DAUGHTER&

Find her online: http://helencurriefoster.com/ and

https://www.amazon.com/Helen-Currie-Foster/e/

https://www.facebook.com/helencurriefoster/