I live north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. I'm deeply curious, more every day, about human history and prehistory and how, uninvited, the past keeps crashing the party. I've loved the Texas Hill Country since my first sight of it as a teenager. Artesian springs, Cretaceous fossils, rocky landscapes hiding bluegreen water! bluegreen water in the valleys. After law school (where I grew fascinated with water and dirt) I practiced environmental law and regulatory litigation for thirty years––then the character Alice suddenly appeared in my life. I'm active with Austin Shakespeare and Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime. And I'm grateful to the readers who enjoy the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series!
Have you noticed that the roads diverged in a yellow wood?
So Frost was thinking of fall, in “The Road Not Taken” (1916). Leaves turn yellow—and not just in New England. I admit Texas Hill Country fall colors are a little muted. Bluestem bunch grass makes silvery seed-heads.
And our cedar elms turn yellow green, then yellow, and then madly fling golden confetti into the air.
Yellow leaves! When new roads appear and diverge, right? New fall clothes, perhaps (even with climate change) sweaters! New books, new subjects, new teachers, new classmates.
We awake with new ideas, new projects, new dreams. On weekends the parks fill up with soccer players. Football begins.
All our years of fall classes leave many of us with a compelling interior calendar. In September, two roads—at least two roads!—diverge. We feel energetic, restless. Do we seek the old ways again or do new roads beckon? Do we join the Master Naturalists? Take a photography class? Go for a master’s degree? We feel September’s time pressure, expressed as a desire to learn new things, tread new paths, move further into the world, even with the stultifying blanket of the pandemic heavy on our shoulders.
As Yogi Berra famously advised, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Because—as Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson put it—
No, when September hits, we haven’t got time for the waiting game. It’s the first day of nursery school…third grade…middle school…senior year. We can’t just stay home and watch the leaves turn to flame.
Now for Book 8. People ask about the “writing process.” It’s like standing at the crossroads in the yellow wood. Which path? But no time for the waiting game!
Book 8 began to take shape with wakeful nights, with a couple of strong images, where Alice must identify a body in the Aberdeen mortuary. Then a new character barged in, demanding time onstage. I’m always amazed at how characters insist on doing what I hadn’t foreseen, taking their lives in their own hands. The plot arc is there but further decisions will be made. I’m sending chapters to the critique group, and the manuscript’s got at least a provisional name. The future murder victim in Coffee Creek hasn’t yet learned her fate (sorry, honey). So it’s still wakeful nights, then pacing around the kitchen island, then sitting and writing, then pacing again, then sitting and writing, then more pacing.
Just a moment ago it was summer. But as Frost also wrote, “Nothing gold can stay” (1923). The fall equinox approaches on September 22. Following Yogi Berra’s advice, faced with all the decisions ahead––who lives? Who dies, and how?––I’m heading down the road, yellow leaves and all.
AUTHOR Helen Currie Foster lives and writes north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three inquisitive burros. Find her books at BookPeople in Austin, and at IngramSparks and Amazon.
Lately I’ve been thinking about remarkable people who never got to see the significance of their work, regardless of its brilliance. People whose minds moved so fast their words didn’t compute, for most listeners. People whose contributions went unrecognized for many years. And if they hadn’t written down their ideas? Maybe eventually someone would have made the same discoveries, but when?
Here are just three.
I’d never heard of Simon Stevin until I read Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World (2014), on how modernity reached the shores of the North Sea. Stevin, born illegitimate in Bruges in 1548, worked as a book-keeper in Antwerp, and then enlisted at the liberal new Leiden University. He produced a book on double-entry book-keeping and another on figuring the interest on borrowed money, when publishing such hard-won information was a subversive revolutionary act. This “engineer, book-keeper, king of numbers,” per Pye, wanted to make math work in the everyday world.
Stevin tutored his student friend Prince Maurits in math, beginning a lifelong association. He made the prince a sailing chariot for the beach, with two sails, four great wheels, and flags flying. Stevin informed the prince the earth went around the sun. When Maurits became king, Stevin became an army engineer, devising, pumps, dredgers, windmills. He produced an influential treatise on fortifications and another on how to calculate longitude at sea. He wrote a book asking Dutch cities to adopt uniform money measures, suggested a decimal system, founded a mathematics curriculum at Leiden. And he wrote down these ideas! Stevin’s dream, that explaining practical mathematics would help his country thrive, eventually came true––though not necessarily in his lifetime.
You already know about the world’s first computer programmer? Another who did not live to see her work recognized is Countess Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter. At seventeen she began helping mathematician Charles Babbage with his “difference machine” for math calculations. In 1843 she published an article in an English science journal describing processes we now call computer programs, including how to create codes using letters and symbols as well as numbers. She died of uterine cancer in 1852, at 37. Her work came to public attention in 1953 when B.V. Bowden republished her notes in Faster than Thought: A Symposum on Digital Computing Machines. In 1980 the U.S. Department of Defense named a new computer language “Ada.”
“We’re still catching up with one of the greatest minds of the last century.” That’s Anthony Gottlieb, “The New Yorker,” May 4, 2020, on Frank P. Ramsey. Ramsey––a Cambridge (UK) scholar whose genial brilliance intimidated his professors when he appeared on campus at 18––died at only 26, in 1930. Economists, philosophers and mathematicians are still exploring the “Ramsey effect” on their disciplines. He was immediately taken up by Maynard Keynes, and refuted Keynes’s fuzzy notions of probability. He was tapped to translate Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” from German–as the only German speaker available who could not only understand what Wittgenstein was trying to say, but say it more clearly (he reportedly dictated his translation).In one paper he created two math theorems which, decades after his death, became part of the “Ramsey theory” analyzing order and disorder. (See video of a student working a Ramsey probability problem). Ramsey’s modesty about his astounding abilities made him appear almost offhand about his accomplishments.
Yes!–– at dinner with Maynard Keynes. “Ramsay [sic], the unknown guest, was something like a Darwin, broad, thick, powerful & a great mathematician, & clumsy to boot. Honest I should say, a true Apostle.” Keynes at least tangentially belonged, with Virginia and Leonard Woolf, to the Bloomsbury group, which included several members of the select Cambridge “Apostles” club (including Leonard Woolf). In 1927, Woolf published To the Lighthouse about a family she called the Ramsays, where Mr. Ramsay, a professor, fears that though he has reached Q, he lacks genius and will never be able to think his way past Q, that he’ll never reach R: “How many men in a thousand million, he asked himself, reach Z after all?” If Woolf had known then what we know now she’d have known Frank Ramsey could easily have reached R and zoomed on past Z.
Okay, I admit I took the Special Math Course for English Majors to get my math graduation credit. Yes, I did. Nevertheless I’m doggedly staggering through the first full biography of Ramsey, Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers, by Cheryl Misak (Oxford Press 2020), fascinated by his mind and especially his lightly worn “sheer excess of powers.” I might, even, try to find his 1926 paper about truth and subjective probability, where he said we should take account of people’s judgment of probability.”
Now there’s a pungent topic for mystery writers. At every turn, our characters use subjective probability to make decisions. “Can I kill without being caught?” “Can I catch this villain without being killed?” “Have I examined all the what-if’s here?” “What are the chances anyone will recognize me?” Suspense lies in decisions made on subjective probability.
Okay, so Ramsey died without knowing that ninety years later University of Georgia students in hoodies, poised at the whiteboard, would be filming explanations of “Ramsey Theory.” Ada Lovelace died without knowing the Defense Department would name a computer language for her. If asked, would she have preferred Countess? Would she be fascinated by the world of hacking? Simon Stevin would drive our city streets, ready to opine on public transportation–would he recommend air-conditioned tubes, with moving sidewalks, to move people east and west across Austin? Or possibly a sailboat with wheels?
Now we come to you. Yes, you. How will we know what you thought?
Stevin, Lovelace and Ramsey at least published some of their work. You can go farther. You own your copyright as soon as your work is “fixed.” You can also provide notice of copyright by using the symbol or the word “Copyright” and your name and the year of first publication, and registering your copyright by paying the required fee and depositing required copy(ies) of your work, thereby creating a public record of your copyright claim. (See details and requirements here.)
That’s at least a start. As for Aeschylus, only seven of his seventy to ninety tragedies remain intact. Sophocles? Only seven of over a hundred remain. Euripides? Eighteen of over ninety-five remain. Sappho? We have only two complete poems out of her nine books of verse, from the woman the ancients called “the tenth Muse.”
Will depositing your work at the Library of Congress––oh yes, you must––give us some assurance we can know your ideas, your writings, a century hence? The Alexandrian Library didn’t fare so well. Nor did the Dresden Sächsische Landesbibliothek which lost perhaps 200,000 volumes in the Allied bombing of the Dresden historic center. The 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Library burned 400,000 books.
No guarantees, but it’s a start. At least try to leave the world a copy. Even if you leave us too soon, even if fame has not yet arrived…you never know. A century from now, maybe…?
So, did you dress up for Halloween? Did you buy a mask in New Orleans, or Venice, perhaps one with feathers? What would you wear to a costume ball?
“Man is a make-believe animal—he is never so truly himself as when he is acting a part.” William Hazlitt
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell the truth.” Oscar Wilde
Both statements have some truth. Maybe Oscar Wilde meant that when we can hide our faces, or adopt a disguise, we feel free to do what we want––without hesitation or regret. Yell “trick or treat!” Dance at the masked ball as a glamorous mystery person! Rob the stagecoach! Maybe writers understand Hazlitt: we’re at our best, writing, as we invent characters, invent parts for the characters, invent disguises. Yes, we’re at our best “acting a part…” and we act many parts as we write.
At my college there was a costume room where students could buy clothes from decades earlier. One year a group of us rummaged around and found remarkable outfits which we’d don sometimes for fun. For $1.50 I acquired a stunning long black silk evening sheath from maybe 1919, with black sequin trim under the bodice, slits in the sides of the skirt, and two long black “wings” attached to the shoulders that I could use like a shawl, or like… wings. When I put that dress on––SHAZAM! I wasn’t a young thing from Texas, I was the embodiment of glamour. (Where is that dress?) So, what’s the outfit you wear, or dream about, when you’re ready to put on that black cat-eyed mask from (New Orleans) (Venice) and enter the party? The disguise you’d choose? The disguise that would let you do what you want, learn what you want, go where you want?
Two genres especially abound in disguise: children’s literature, and mysteries.
Disguise lets us learn what may otherwise be unavailable. Think of T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, where Merlyn (White’s spelling) enchants Wart (the future King Arthur) by turning him into a perch in the moat. Wart learns to swim from a fish called a tench, who reminds him, “Put your back into it.” He’s taken to learn about power from the King of the Moat, a murderously hungry four-foot long fish: “The power of strength decides everything in the end, and only Might is right.” He learns from his night as a merlin, in the terrifying catechism imposed by the peregrine, that the first law of the foot is “Never to let go.”
Harry Potter, Hermione and Ron need information to foil the Dark Lord, and to raid Gringotts Bank and the Ministry of Magic. They resort to the invisibility cloak, or use Polyjuice Potion to look like Bellatrix, or Crabbe and Goyle.
But knowledge won by disguise carries peril. Wart barely survives the unscrupulous King of the Moat, having to dive “the heartiest jack-knife he had ever given.” The moment when Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak slips, when the Polyjuice potion wears off, threatens exposure and punishment.
Kim, in Kipling’s beloved novel, disguises himself to learn secrets as a child spy for the Company’s intelligence service in India. But Kim doesn’t see disguise as work. He revels in the sheer joy of successful impersonation. He rejoices in the walnut dye that lets him escape on a railroad journey to meet his lama, where he tries out various personae, explaining to the passengers “that he was assistant to a juggler who had left him behind sick with fever.” As the occupants of the train car change, “he varied this tale, or adorned it with all the shoots of a budding fancy…” This joyous talent becomes dangerous as he adopts Mohammedan garb, spying for Mahbub Ali, and priestly garb as he chases Russian spies across the Himalayan foothills.
Maybe Kim’s an exemplar of Hazlitt’s statement, that “man is never so truly himself as when he is acting a part.” When fate requires a disguise—or just for fun on the Indian railway––Kim uses all of himself to create that disguise, summoning memory, imagination, accent, intonation, clothing, gesture, posture. As actors do! Perhaps all these disguises are part of him…though not all of him.
Like Kim, Sherlock Holmes (or Arthur Conan Doyle) loves disguise. Remember “A Scandal in Bohemia?” Disguises everywhere! First, a client sporting a “black vizard mask” seeks help from Sherlock Holmes. The client’s disguised as the Count von Kramm, a Bohemian nobleman, but confesses he’s actually King of Bohemia. He wants Holmes to “repossess” (snitch) a compromising photograph of the King and the famous beauty Irene Adler. Holmes himself then adopts disguises. First, to spy on Adler, he appears as “a drunken-looking groom, ill-kempt and side-whiskered, with an inflamed face and disreputable clothes,” so convincing that Watson “had to look three times before I was certain that it was indeed he.” Next he plots a disguise to gain entry to Adler’s house, where the photograph is hidden:
“He disappeared into his bedroom and returned in a few minutes in the character of an amiable and simple-minded Nonconformist clergyman. His broad black hat, his baggy trousers, his white tie, his sympathetic smile, and general look of peering and benevolent curiosity were such as Mr. John Hare alone could have equaled.”
Watson notes that it was not merely that Holmes changed his costume: “His expression, his manner, his very soul seemed to vary with every fresh part that he assumed. The stage lost a fine actor, even as science lost an acute reasoner, when he became a specialist in crime.”
But Conan Doyle fools us yet again. Holmes orchestrates a street melée whereby a crowd (of accomplices) carry the clergyman into Adler’s house. When Watson throws a fire rocket through the window, Holmes, as predicted, sees Adler rush toward the photograph’s hiding place. On their way back to Baker Street Holmes happily tells Watson about his ploy, but as he searches for his door key, he hears “Good-night, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” from “a slim youth in an ulster who had hurried by.”
Foiled again––Holmes, that is. Irene Adler, disguised as a boy, has followed him home and confirmed the “clergyman” was Holmes. The next morning Holmes and Watson discover her house is empty, the photograph’s gone, and his disguises were in vain. That’s “how the best plans of Mr. Sherlock Holmes were beaten by a woman’s wit,” says Watson.
Holmes does love a good disguise, and maybe that’s why he can recognize one. For another example of his Hazlitt-esque behavior, see “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” where Watson almost doesn’t recognize Holmes as an aged opium smoker, and Holmes susses out the (disguised) truth about the disappearance of a client’s highly respectable husband by (literally) washing clean the face of a notorious street beggar.
Josephine Tey teases us with disguise in Brat Farrar where the mystery turns on whether Brat Farrar, a young man who introduces himself as the long-lost heir to the Ashby family estate, is or is not Patrick Ashby, thought to have killed himself, leaving his minutes younger twin Simon as putative heir. Simon will be dispossessed if Brat Farrar is for real. The point of view is frequently in in Brat’s head, and we must decide if we like this disguised pretender as a protagonist, or not. He himself is ambivalent, arguing with himself about the whole scheme: On the one hand, he thinks, “But I’m not a crook! I can’t do something that is criminal.” But then: “All he could do was sit in the saddle and hope for the best. But at least it would be a breath-taking ride; a unique, heart-stopping ride. Danger to life and limb he was used to; but far more exciting was this new mental danger, this pitting of wits.” As he feels his way along, still in disguise, Brat slowly learns who did kill Patrick. That knowledge nearly kills Brat Farrar.
New Zealand’s Ngaio Marsh has the murderer disguise his or her true identity in both Photo Finishand A Clutch of Constables. In the first case, the murderer creates a new identity from whole cloth. He accidentally gives himself away to Detective Rory Alleyn in part when Alleyn overhears his soft-voiced use of a Mafia expression. In A Clutch of Constables, the murderer––a master of disguise––entirely steals another’s identity, including his butterfly-hunting expertise, for the duration of a cruise. He relishes his persona and manipulates the unwitting characters like chess pieces on the board of the plot––more in the Hazlitt manner, being most truly himself as he throws himself into the role.
Mystery writers disguise their murderers, their sleuths, sometimes their victims, sometimes their protagonists. I use disguise in my new murder mystery Ghost Cat. I’ll be interested in what you think. Happy reading and writing, everyone!