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 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!
“MARCH MADNESS”? In the Texas Hill Country, “March Madness” doesn’t only mean NCAA basketball. Its alternate form: Demented Spring Gardening. Too early, you say? Well, according to the snakes, spring’s already here.
Of course it’s not officially spring yet. Just three weeks ago, here north of Dripping Springs, Texas, the entire landscape—every tree, every leaf–was shrouded in solid ice. But this week, well before the equinox, beneath the oaks you’ll spot the amazing heartbreakingly beautiful fuchsia of the redbuds.
And roses! The tender yellow flowers of the Lady Banksia rose are cascading from the oak tree that serves as her trellis.
On other branches you can see the first luxurious pink buds of Souvenir de Malmaison, named for Empress Josephine’s rose garden, beginning to open.
In the garden the ineffably fragrant Zephirine Drouhin is performing her slow tease, loosening the green sepals, delicately unveiling her bright pink petals.
I’ve already planted two new and reputedly very fragrant roses––Madame Plantier, and Cramoisi Superieur. (What a name!) And I replanted Buff Beauty, which produces buff and yellow and apricot blooms. Still waiting for two more—Savannah and Sweet Mademoiselle, both promising strong fragrance. Seriously, a rose without fragrance? Isn’t it disappointing to lean forward into a rose, inhale…and…nothing? As Shakespeare points out in Sonnet 56:
The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem
For that sweet odour which doth in it live.
But for sheer fragrant spring bravado, tinged with peril, what about the ridiculous grape Kool-Aid smell of Texas mountain laurel? Intoxicating and loopy. The plant—sophora secundifolia–– isn’t called “Texas mescal bean” for nothing. https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=sose3: “The brilliant red seeds contain the highly poisonous alkaloid cytisine (or sophorine) – this substance is related to nicotine and is widely cited as a narcotic and hallucinogen.”
More symptoms of March Madness? The powerful, even uncontrollable, urge to fill your cart full of geraniums, dirt, mulch, annuals, perennials, unknown roses, tomato plants, new trees… Trudging a quarter mile from the local native plants emporium to your car, lugging a red wagon full of blue sage, lantana, and other plants hopefully accurate in describing themselves as “deer-resistant”… Other symptoms include impassioned online review of rose varieties, frantic ripping open of seed packets and daily watering of small unlabeled pots, then staring at tiny emerging seedlings and wondering—what are you? Is that the fennel or the Aji Crystal Pepper or the Mexican plum?
I’d never heard of Mexican plum until a friend gave me a jar of her amazing Mexican plum jam. She described the trees as small, with fragrant white blossoms. So I ordered seeds. The very small print on the seed packet required “stratification” in the refrigerator. Well, I tried. Every morning I peer at the still-empty pots of dirt… little plants, where are you? Can you live in the Hill Country?
Also—perhaps prematurely—we dragged hay bales into the garden and embarked on the great Haybale Tomato experiment:
Supposedly, according to our favorite local well-driller, this approach produces for one local rancher “the most beautiful tomatoes in the Hill Country.” Our donkeys kept sticking their muzzles through the fence, trying to eat the bales. Watch this space. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z2jjIHgmypM
Gardens can be perilous. Think of Eden. But how many murder mysteries are set in gardens, or involve garden poisons? If you haven’t already become a fan of Reginald Hill, you might try Deadheads. Dalziel and Pascoe solve virtually every murder presented to them in their Yorkshire police headquarters. In this one, roses abound, beginning on the first page. And rose culture. And… murder. bit.ly/3Fgce23
Texas author Susan Wittig Albert knows her way around poisonous plants, in Texas or elsewhere. I just finished her Hemlock, Book 28 in her China Bayles series. This mystery—impressively researched, and fast-moving–takes the reader to the Blue Ridge mountains and theft of a rare botanical book, with deft historical backstory. https://susanalbert.com/hemlock-book-28/
For more on Texas mountain laurel, its power and peril – see Ghost Dog, Book 2 in my Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. bit.ly/3YIotv5
The weather report threatens another cold snap this week—even (gasp!) a possible freeze. But right now it’s 74 degrees. Geraniums to plant. Blue sage. Tomatoes to water. Yes, it’s hubris, exposing these tender plants so early to the vagaries of Hill Country weather, but—I can’t help it. I just saw a big bud on Star of the Republic! I swear it wasn’t there yesterday. March Madness reigns!
Find Helen Currie Foster on Facebook or at http://www.helencurriefoster.com. The eight books of the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, including the most recent, Ghosted, amzn.to/3YrJBXf, are available at Austin’s BookPeople as well as on Amazon (Kindle and Paperback).
Some people purposefully try to induce to hypnagogia to stimulate creativity. Id. According to Allison Eck, Harvard Gazette (Autumn 2022), hypnagogia is “widely thought of as a sweet spot for creativity.” https://hms.harvard.edu/magazine/sleep/behind-veil-hypnagogic-sleep. Eck describes the experience of scientist August Kekulé in the mid 1800’s during his search for the structure of the compound benzene, as he dozed before his fireplace in Ghent. “[A]s he dozed, images hinting at its structure appeared in his mind’s eye. He later wrote that he saw dancing atoms beaded together along an invisible string, ‘twisting in snake-like motion.’ The atoms morphed into an ouroboros” (another new word for me: a snake eating its own tail). Kekulé realized benzene’s structure was a ring of carbon atoms, each attached to a hydrogen atom.
Scientists and innovators like Einstein and Edison, and writers like Vladimir Nabokov, “have transited this cerebral pathway in search of solutions to problems.” Id.
On each occasion I’ve gone to bed with my mind on a plot problem, or a scene that needs to take shape. Preliminary requirements appear to include being ensconced under the covers, on my left side, envisioning a possible scene as I slide into sleep—then watching the scene begin to unfold. I try to remind my brain to remember this solution. While most dreams fly away with sunrise, these solutions have come back in the morning. If I could make this happen whenever I want (so far, no dice), a book would get finished so much faster!
This occasional experience may be “lucid dreaming,” the state of being aware that you’re dreaming. “When you wake up from a lucid dream, you actually have a more positive mood in the morning,” writes researcher Michelle Carr, Department of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester, in Aeon. https://aeon.co/essays/in-sleep-the-body-is-a-channel-to-communicate-with-the-dreaming-mind. Carr describes herself as a dream scientist: “I want to uncover ways to repair nightmares and, in their place, engineer dreams for healing.”
Hypnogagia is a big topic these days. A team of engineers and scientists at the MIT Media Lab developed a glove-like tool to help decipher dreams. Researchers are testing whether the glove may allow people to manipulate their hypnagogic experiences, which could help sufferers from PTSD and nightmare disorders feel a stronger sense of control. Again, as Eck puts it, “…[A]t the very least, drawing attention to our hypnagogic personas may bring us newfound ideas that we can act on when we wake.” Id.
Could we term it “lucid dreaming” when Scrooge is shown visions—then decides to change the dreadful outcomes by his future actions? He begs the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, “Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life?” He promises, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future…” Then Scrooge sees the phantom’s hood and dress collapse into his bedpost, scrambles out of bed, repeating that last sentence––and heads out to buy the prize Christmas turkey for the Cratchits.
Vladimir Nabokov kept a dream diary, and in his autobiography, Speak, Memory, wrote about the procession of what he called “hypnagogic mirages,” images he would see ‘just before falling asleep,” often accompanied by “a neutral, detached, anonymous voice which I catch…”
We mystery writers can mine hypnagogic moments for ideas on character and scenes––but the genre suggests a limit.
A good mystery offers the reader the chance to solve a puzzle. As set forth in the original rules of London’s Detection Club, “The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.” Nor can the detective solve by “an unaccountable intuition.” https://murder-mayhem.com/the-detection-club-rules
Meeting of the Detection Club in 1936.
Indeed, is there anything more irritating to a mystery reader than the tardy mention of a clue? No! Mystery readers are entitled to all clues, as soon as that clue is found, and clues are facts. The mystery writer offers a collaboration to the reader, in which the detective and reader are on the same page—fact-wise. We readers want evidence. A character’s dreams may offer insight into a character—but not evidence.
Besides—while most of us are at least mildly interested in our own dreams, unless we’re also therapists we’re not usually too interested in the dreams of others. Do you remember your interest level the last time someone began describing a dream to you? I confess my eyes can begin to glaze. Of course it’s hard to convey dreams with the color and speed and power the dreamer experienced. But in the world of mysteries, we are greedy for facts. In Martin Walker’s “Bruno, Chief of Police” series, set in a small town in the French Dordogne, Bruno’s activities are fascinating––his cooking, his love life, his detection––and while we know he had a difficult military service in Bosnia, the author doesn’t dwell on Bruno’s dreams about those days. Instead he provides us with what we want: Bruno’s memories. Those contain facts, at least Bruno’s versions of facts, for which the reader is grateful. http://www.brunochiefofpolice.com/
So I’m cautious. In my Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, at least so far, Alice doesn’t share her dreams. For one thing, as observed in the New Yorker, “As for writing about them, even Henry James, who’s seldom accused of playing to the cheap seats, had a rule: ‘Tell a dream, lose a reader.’” Dan Piepenbring, “The Enthralling, Anxious World of Vladimir Nabokov’s Dreams” (February 8, 2018). https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/what-vladimir-nabokov-saw-in-his-dreams
The ice has melted! And Ghosted is out! Book 8 in the series is available now in paperback and also on Kindle via pre-order delivery on February 10, on Amazon. Also coming soon to Austin’s BookPeople!
Why do we mystery readers read the next line? Turn to the next page?
Some writers have the knack of persuading us–for example, Tony Hillerman. His mysteries feature Navajo police Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee and Bernadette Manuelito. Never forget that Hillerman was a journalist before he wrote mysteries. I’m betting he excelled at attention-catching ledes that made you read his news articles. An early example of his getting us to turn to the next page occurs in The Dark Wind (1982), page 1:
“The Flute Clan boy was the first to see it. He stopped and stared. ‘Someone lost a boot,’ he said. Even from where he stood, at least fifteen yards farther down the trail, Albert Lomatewa could see that nobody had lost the boot. The boot had been placed, not dropped. It rested upright, squarely in the middle of the path, its pointed toe aimed toward them…”
Come on, you’ll turn the page, right?
For me, the same holds true for poetry. Untangling a new poem demands commitment. I confess the combination of the title and first lines can draw me right in. Masters of such trickery include Robert Frost and Billy Collins. Take for instance Frost’s “Mending Wall,” from North of Boston (1914): “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…” Well, I want to know what. Or “After Apple Picking”: “My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree/ Toward heaven still…” I won’t leave that ladder quite yet.
Billy Collins simply uses a one-two punch: first his title, then the first lines, and you’re hooked. From Aimless Love (2013), titled “Hell”: “I have a feeling that it is much worse/ Than shopping for a mattress at a mall…”
When that combination–title plus opening lines–arouses my curiosity, it’s because I feel I’m experiencing along with the poet. Where’s the poet going? I’ll follow to find out (and Collins’s self-deprecating humor keeps me reading).
Okay, we’re curious animals. We’ve been asking “WHY?” at least since we were two. Theories abound. Is it because we’re responding to our outside world? Or is it innate–instinctual? Genetic? Do we get a dopamine rush from capturing new information? “Drive theory” calls curiosity a naturally-occurring urge we have to satisfy–a reason we read mysteries and work crossword puzzles. Alternatively, “incongruity theory” suggests we tend to see the world as orderly and predictable, but we become curious when an external event doesn’t fit our perceived order. Do mystery readers experience curiosity falling within each category? We want to find missing information (Clues!)–drive theory. And maybe we want a satisfying conclusion (justice served, the murderer punished, motives revealed) –incongruity theory.
I suspect readers are like Leonardo da Vinci. Mario Livio asks, in Why: What Makes Us Curious (2017), what distinguished Leonardo from his predecessor anatomists, hydraulicists, botanists? “Leonardo had an unquenchable curiosity which he attempted to satisfy directly through his own observations rather than by relying on statements by figures of authority.”
Just like mystery readers. We insist on discovering each clue for ourselves. Woe betide the writer who cheats us–hides a clue, or packs the last chapter with explanations we had no chance to discover directly through our own observations. Not only cheatsy, but contrary to a key provision in the original Detection Club rules. https://murder-mayhem.com/the-detection-club-rules. A violation of our beloved genre!
We need for the sleuth to ask the right questions. An Austin detective recently gave an absolutely riveting presentation to our Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime chapter, describing how to conduct an interview of a potential suspect (not under arrest) who’s been asked to talk to the police. He said the interviewer needs to be likable–should give the suspect no reason to dislike him. The initial greeting should create a sense of reciprocity but also mention the sleuth’s authority. The detective begins the interview in a calm, low voice, giving the suspect autonomy and building rapport: “Is it okay if I call you Alec?” “Tell me a little bit about yourself.” He elicits the suspect’s story, then goes over it, watching for nonverbal indications of uncomfortable areas (the suspect changes posture, etc.). He watches for signs of deception–easy to detect if the suspect lies, harder to detect if the suspect fails to answer the question completely or directly, or restates the question to avoid having to answer the actual query, During the interview, the sleuth must keep a neutral face even if the suspect confesses something disgusting or shocking: “The second the suspect senses judgment on your part, they won’t talk to you.”
The mystery sleuth–professional or amateur–must recognize key questions. Take Anthony Horowitz’s Moonflower Murders–a follow-on to his Magpie Murders, featuring a contemporary murder mystery again wrapped around an earlier mystery involving the fictional detective Atticus Pund. Protagonist Susan Ryeland asks: why did the waiter at the posh club drop the plates? And why did her boss’s assistant quit her job at the publishing company? I’ll leave you to find out. Ryeland’s dogged pursuit of the answers to these key questions nearly gets her killed. But she solves the murder.
For an entirely different creative use of the question mark, with a twist: study (or just enjoy) Richard Osman. His often comic Thursday Murder Club mysteries revolve around a group of retirees in a comfortable retirement village. The club’s purpose? Solving cold cases. The disparate characters contribute varied personalities and talents–a Zen-focused psychiatrist (Ibrahim), a vivacious widowed nurse (Joyce), a burly ex-union organizer (Ron), and the mysterious former spy (Elizabeth.
Osman brings these characters to life not by a predictable prosy description, but by the questions they ask and answer. In the club meeting on page 1 of The Man Who Died Twice, Joyce asks, “Do you think a dog might be good company?…I thought I might either get a dog or join Instagram.” Ibrahim: “I would advise against it.” The day’s topic is murder; but with such a Q and A, we begin to grasp the nature of this somewhat wacky group. We’re allowed to read Joyce’s diary, in which she comes across as convivial, a bit ditsy, and quite shrewd.
Osman extends this technique to other characters. When drug dealer Connie introduces herself to Chris and Donna, police officers who hope to engage in a sting and arrest her, we get this:
“What’s your eye shadow?” Connie asks Donna.
“Pat McGrath, Gold Standard,” says Donna.
“It’s lush,” says Connie.
Connie’s a murderous drug dealer. But hey! She’s also into fashion. And Donna? Same.
Osman also uses those hanging questions as hooks. At the end of chapter 17, we’re eavesdropping on Joyce’s diary. The daily entry ends, “I wonder if anyone else is awake?” Now turn the page to chapter 18: “Ryan Baird is awake. He is currently playing Call of Duty online. He is spraying machine gun fire at full volume while his neighbors bang on the walls.”
You’ll be glad to know Ryan will get his, but the clever Q and A hooks us into the next chapter and expands Ryan’s character.
Osman’s Q and A also deepens the relationship between two unlikely friends, Joyce and Elizabeth:
“What do you and I talk about, Joyce?” asks Elizabeth.
Joyce thinks. “It’s been mainly murder, hasn’t it? Since we met?”
Thank you, Richard Osman. This is fun.
Just in case you’re wondering whether you (or your friends and relatives) ask enough questions, or ask the right or wrong questions, or have no clue how to keep a conversation going, or (heaven help us) don’t know how to ask questions of a group, here are 450 suggestions. Unfortunately, this collection didn’t include a list of “ideal questions for solving a murder.” https://www.scienceofpeople.com/questionos-to-ask-people
But, like Leonardo, we readers will discover those questions “directly through [our] own observations.”
My next book in the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, Ghosted, will be out soon. Toward the end the protagonist, Alice, asks a key question. Watch for it! Happy Holidays!
Helen Currie Foster writes the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, set in the Texas Hill Country. She lives north of Dripping Springs, loosely supervised by three burros. She’s active with Austin Shakespeare, Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime, and the Hays County Master Naturalists (still trying to learn those native grasses). Her most recent book, Ghost Daughter, was named Eric Hoffer Book Award Grand Prize Short List Finalist, as well as Finalist in the 2022 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, and Finalist in the 16th Annual National Indie Excellence Awards.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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).”
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…
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).
“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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?”
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.”
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
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…
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.
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…?
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/
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/
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 Daughter. https://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?
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.