Are You Hungry? Food Idiosyncrasies and Local Flavor

by Helen Currie Foster

Why, exactly, do we take such interest in what our favorite detectives eat or what a character like Aunt Agatha grabs for first at teatime at Melrose Plant’s country house? (Answer: fairy cakes.)

Some say that cooking distinguishes humans from other speciesor at least played a role in our evolution.   (Apparently chimpanzees can learn to cook, though…)

If cooking’s a distinctive human trait, choosing which cooking to eat is an even finer distinction, one used to great effect in murder mysteries. The what, where and how a character chooses to eat can tell us a great deal. Mystery writers use food to develop characters, settings, and local flavor. Sometimes these seem to merge. (Here I’m discussing mysteries generally, not athe culinary mystery subgenre, or mysteries involving poisons including the thirty or so which Agatha Christie wrote.)

Consider, for example, that complex man Andy Dalziel, Detective Chief Inspector in Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series.

An ex-rugby player, nicknamed the “fat bastard,” he’s introduced in Exit Lines as he clambers out of bed with a morning hangover after a rough night:

And now, he told himself with the assurance of one who believed in a practical, positive and usually physical response to most of life’s problems, all he needed to complete this repair of normality was a platterful of egg, sausage, bacon, tomatoes and fried bread. Bitter experience had taught him in the years since his wife’s departure to eschew home catering. It wasn’t that a basic cuisine was beyond his grasp; it was the cleaning up afterwards that defeated him…only a beast would tolerate fat-congealed frying-pans. Fortunately the police canteen did an excellent breakfast. Gourmet cooking they might not provide, but what did that matter to a man who…affected to believe that cordon bleu was a French road-block? And a slight blackening round the edge of a fry-up was to a resurrected copper what the crust on old port was to a wine connoisseur––a sign of readiness.

Gosh. The classic English breakfast “fry-up”––Yorkshire version––served in a police canteen. We’ve just learned about Dalziel that he likes the classic and plenty of it, that his wife’s left him and he doesn’t like to eat alone at home, that he habitually tries to hide his sophistication, and that the police station’s his comfort zone. We know he’s no secret gourmet. Hill’s not interested in showing us his own food sophistication (we almost hope the “slight blackening around the edges” does not describe his own breakfast). Hill is not offering us food porn––far from it. He’s giving us a close-up of Dalziel, alone at home, getting ready to walk onstage at the police station.

A different sort of home cooking characterizes Donna Leon’s Inspector Guido Brunetti series, set in Venice. Here’s Brunetti in Death and Judgment, coming home to lunch, where he finds his wife Paola––professor of English, born into Venetian wealth, politically liberal––listening indignantly to the political news:

“Guido, these villains will destroy us all. Perhaps they already have. And you want to know what’s for lunch.” …

When he does ask, “What’s for lunch?” Paola responds:

“Pasta fagioli and then cotoletta.”

“Salad?”

“Guido,” she asked with pursed lips and upraised eyes, “when haven’t we had salad with cutlets?”

Instead of answering her question he asked, “Is there any more of that good Dolcetto?”

“I don’t know. We had a bottle of it last week, didn’t we?”

Imagine how they’d react if confronted with Dalziel’s fry-up? Of course they’ll have salad, because in Venice one always has salad with cutlets! How different this home is from Dalziel’s. Brunetti and his wife talk food, talk wine, insist on proper Venetian cooking. Brunetti’s apartment with Paola and his children is truly home base. In this scene Paola’s already asked him to look into a situation…and he’s about to tell her what he has found out. Fans of Donna Leon already know that part of Brunetti’s daily work challenge comes from the inherent corruption of the judicial system, which often sends him into despair. Yet he loves Venice. Leon uses scenes showing the happy comforts provided by Brunetti’s family and family meals, with correct Venetian cuisine, to explain how Brunetti keeps his emotional balance. Despite grim crimes, despite his city’s corruption, Brunetti won’t leave: he’s part of Venice.

Food preferences make characters both human (don’t we all have preferences?) and distinctive. Think of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, shut in his hermetic mansion where his Swiss chef Fritz Brenner provides favorite dishes prepared just so.

Think of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, with his eternal tisanes.

Think of the strong food dislikes of Anne Hillerman’s policewoman Bernadette Manuelito. According to her husband Jim Chee, in Cave of Bones, Bernadette “had never ordered salad at a restaurant,” never made one at home, and if he made salad for them, she would eat only the iceberg lettuce and eat around the other vegetables. Pizza? Only pepperoni for her. Bernadette is smart, brave, sensible…but not when it comes to vegetables.

Louise Penny uses cooking to great effect in constructing the setting for her Inspector Gamache series, the quirky little Québec village of Three Pines. The village is isolated and rural, but has attracted exceedingly sophisticated residents—the poet Ruth, the sculptor Clara, Inspector Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie and others. This setting would seem quite improbable but for the role of the bistro, a place of style, comfort, warmth and great food. In the opening scene of A Better Man, “Clara’s and Myrna’s armchairs were pulled close to the hearth, where logs popped and sent embers fluttering up the field-stone chimney. The village bistro smelled of woodsmoke and maple syrup and strong fresh coffee.” Wouldn’t we all like a bistro like that, just across the village green? With really good coffee? Furthermore, the bistro, with its proprietors Gabri and Olivier, attracts other food artisans. When residents are desperately sandbagging the banks of the flooding river at Three Pines, these provide succor:

Gabri and Olivier were handing out hot drinks. Tea, coffee, hot chocolate, and soup. Monsieur Béliveau, the grocer, and Sarah the baker, were taking around trays of sandwiches. Brie and thick slices of maple-cured ham, and arugula on baguettes and croissants, and pain ménage.

The bistro is “home base” for this series. Inspector Gamache deals with crimes all across Quebec, but the inhabitants of Three Pines, glued together by the bistro, provide a vivid supporting cast and sometimes play leading roles in Penny’s series. I don’t think they’d stay in Three Pines if the food weren’t so good.

Like Louise Penny, Martha Grimes has created a character magnet in the village of Long Piddleton for her Richard Jury series: the Jack and Hammer pub. The Jack and Hammer serves as the central meeting point for the highly diverse supporting characters, including Jury’s noble sidekick, the wealthy Melrose Plant. Indeed, Grimes has named each book in the series for a pub, including The Old Success (2019). There’s usually a set piece in the books, always worth waiting for, where Melrose’s detested Aunt Agatha, angling for his fortune, invites herself to tea or dinner or invades his breakfast at Melrose’s manor house. During this scene in The Old Success we see Melrose, a little fussed because Ruthven the butler has not brought his usual egg cup, making “soldiers” as usual for breakfast––cutting his toast into oblongs and dipping them in his boiled egg.

“I always do,” Melrose said.  His breakfast habit cements Melrose in our minds as wed to his personal traditions…even though he currently eschews use of his title. Oh, and the butler Ruthven has brought his wife’s excellent cooking, including kippers and sausages, to the sideboard. Melrose’s house in Long Piddleton and the diverse village characters who meet at the Jack and Hammer form a solid home base regardless of how far (Africa, Europe, the Scillies) he and Jury range in solving the crime at hand, and how complex the crime. Sooner or later the threads may pull together at the Jack and Hammer.

Dance hall in Luckenbach, Texas, by WikiTryHardDieHard, CC BY-SA-3.0. Via Wikipedia.

I’ve used “the local” to create local flavor in the Alice MacDonald Greer series. The Beer Barn not only smells like local beer, and artisanal beer, but when Jaime’s in the kitchen, the Tex-Mex cooking is superb. The Beer Barn is meant to be the roadhouse/dance hall we all love in Central Texas. It’s where Alice meets enemies, hears a new singer in Ghost Dog, meets the reporter in Ghost Letter, tries to unravel a mystery with her best friend in Ghost Cat.

Texas dance halls still dot the back roads of the rugged Texas Hill Country with their own beer-infused local flavor, local dancing, local music from a dead-pan country band. The Beer Barn’s my dream institution.

Also a highly distinctive setting: the small town Texas coffee shop or cafe, with breakfast from the grill, mile-high pie and endless cups of coffee. And don’t forget the San Antonio ice house tradition. See K.P. Gresham’s series with its Fire and Ice House bar, beginning with The Preacher’s First Murder.  Local bars/diners/restaurants make great settings for murders, mysteries, and detectives. And to the joy of central Texans, many are still actually real…thank goodness.

Okay, what’s for lunch?

***

Image of traditional English breakfast by Peter Marks from Pixabay
Image of cup and saucer by M. Maggs from Pixabay
Image of maple trees by diapicard from Pixabay
Images of book covers from Amazon.com

***

Helen Currie Foster is author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery series. Her latest, GHOST CAT, was released in April 2020.

Alice Littlefield Residence Hall: Inspiration for a Ghost Story

“Alice’s ghost is rumored to haunt the dorm, but don’t worry, she’s a benevolent ghost. She likes to watch over students. Here is her picture,” said the tour guide escorting the new freshmen residents around the Alice Littlefield Residence Hall on the day I moved into the dorm at the University of Texas at Austin back in my college days.

A drawing of Alice Littlefield by her niece, Sarah Harral Duggan, that hangs in Littlefield Residence Hall.

Littlefield Hall was built in 1927 and is the oldest residence hall, or dormitory, on campus. George Littlefield, a former university regent, cattleman, banker, and Confederate soldier[1], donated the money for the building’s construction, specifying that it should be named for his wife Alice and that it should house only women students, to give them a homelike environment while attending the university. Alice and George’s children didn’t survive early childhood, a common tragedy of the late 1800s, so they used their wealth to educate their 17 nieces and 12 nephews, paying for all 29 to attend the University of Texas. The Littlefields housed a revolving door of student relatives in their Victorian mansion on the edge of the campus. Perhaps this is why Alice is rumored to still be watching over students.

In my two years of residence in Littlefield Hall, I never saw any ghosts, but I could see how the age and character of the historic building could inspire ghost stories. At that time, the building still featured an ancient Otis elevator that required the user to manually close, first, a gate and, then, a door before it would operate. Residents were only allowed to use that elevator if injured or if they were moving something heavy to an upper floor. The dorm rooms themselves had original doors, with giant old-style keyholes and transom windows painted shut above the door. Utility pipes added in decades after the building was completed ran along the walls in the rooms. Windowsills were crusted deep with layer upon layer of ancient paint. Air conditioning units had been added to the rooms under the windows, which we were forbidden to open, but many girls opened anyway. The building had atmosphere and charm, and was very old: the perfect place to imagine ghosts.

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Exterior of Littlefield Residence Hall, photo by N. M. Cedeno

In fact, some of my fellow residents insisted that they had experienced something paranormal in the dorm. One girl described seeing her books move off her desk and fall to the floor. Another swore to me that she had seen a ghostly girl, wearing only panties and bra, standing in front of the mirror inside one of the two walk-in closets in her third-floor dorm room. When I visited the dorm recently, one of the residents told me that she had selected the building because it was the closest she could get to living in a Hogwarts dorm[2].

2019-DegreesofDeceit-eBook (1)Therefore, when I decided to set one of my Bad Vibes Removal Services paranormal mysteries at the University of Texas, I didn’t have to look very far to find inspiration. My former residence’s history and reputation for ghosts inspired me to use a fictional version of Littlefield Hall as the setting for my paranormal mystery novel, Degrees of Deceit. And, of course, my fictional dorm, called Dellonmarsh Dorm, is occupied by a benevolent female ghost, looking out for the residents as they are harassed by a malevolent prankster intent on disrupting the academic semester.

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

Footnotes:

[1] George Littlefield is a controversial figure. He was a generous philanthropist and supporter of women’s education, and a former slave-owning, proud Southerner with the attendant prejudices of that position. His heroes were Confederate generals, and he paid for their statues to be placed on the UT campus. Those statues were removed from campus several years ago. 

[2] The fictional Harry Potter school also known for its stately antiques and ghosts.

Beware, Sherlock Holmes!

 

By K.P. Gresham

The spring of 2020 has provided me with the opportunity to return to one of my favorite pastimes…and escapes.

READING!

And why not get back to my favorite sleuth, Sherlock Holmes?

I’ve spent the last few months catching up present-day iterations of the iconic and prolific Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle’s private detective first saw publication in 1887. Since then, authors (and screenwriters) around the world have given a go at their take on the famous detective.

My first selection was The Lady Sherlock Series by Sherry Thomas.  As its title suggests, Sherlock Holmes is actually a woman names Charlotte Holmes. This turned out to be a delightful read. Thomas creates a storyline that sounds far-fetched but pulls it off with insightful references to the original Doyle short stories. The mysteries she’s created don’t allow you to put the books down.

Next, I turned to Laurie King’s bestselling novel, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. In this book and those following in the series, an aging Sherlock is befriended by (or is it she who befriends him?) a highly observant, seventeen year-old woman who rivals his abilities in observation and deduction. She soon becomes his apprentice in the detective game, and then…well…the game’s afoot!

Anna Castle writes a delightful series, The Professor and Mrs. Moriarity Mysteries. In her incredibly believable way, Castle creates a world where Professor Moriarty is the good guy, and Sherlock Holmes is not. Not exactly, anyway.

Other authors have had their own way with Holmes. The Sherlock Holmes – Anthony Horowitz Series comes to mind as well as the Anna Elliott and Charles Veley series, The Sherlock Holmes and Lucy James Mysteries. Even Kareem Adbul-Jabar co-wrote a series based on Mycroft Holmes.

Now the warning. Reading all these Sherlock Holmes iterations (and binge-watching movies/series featuring Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey, Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch) puts one in a mood to eat. Apparently I’m highly suggestible when reading a good book. When the characters have tea, I want tea. And I’m not just talking about the beverage. I’ve been chowing down on tea sandwiches, scones, pastries, desserts–and I’m not even a sweets lover. And when a character in the book has had a shock or a close call, whiskey is handed out in short order. Now I don’t drink whiskey, but I manage to find my own libation. I hate to see a character drink alone.

So thanks to that lean, tall Sherlock Holmes, I have put on the extra pounds that he willfully sheds when he’s on the hunt for a villain.

Alas.

If you’re looking for a comfort binge in these difficult times, I suggest you give Sherlock Holmes a try. But remember! You’ve been warned that you might come away with more (weight) than you bargained for!

The Uses of Disguise

 

 

 

By Helen Currie Foster

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!

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Inspiration for My Short Stories

Sometimes, as an author I am asked where I get ideas for my short stories. I get my inspiration from books and articles I read, places I visit, and events in the world around me. The six new short stories in Arson Vibes and Other Tales, which came out recently, can all be traced to these sources.

ArsonVibesAZBThe story Victorian Vibes features my characters Lea and Kamika finding a gory, sealed room inside of a house under renovation. This story, which opens the collection, was inspired by a driving tour of Victoria, Texas, an old Spanish colonial town south of San Antonio. Victoria is home to more than 114 historic properties all listed on the National Register of Historic Places. These buildings are mostly restored architectural gems. A driving tour through town will take visitors past 80 of them. Creating a similar house with a haunted past and ‘bad vibes’ for my characters to explore wasn’t a difficult task.

Feline Vibes, the second story in the collection, features Lea and Patrick trying to solve a murder in which the police have made no progress. The story was inspired by the many scattered properties I’ve driven past in the Texas Hill Country on the way to Fredericksburg and Enchanted Rock State Park. The natural beauty of the area draws hikers and campers and people looking to escape the fast-paced life of city living. But the isolating hills, cactus, and long distances between neighbors also make a wonderful backdrop for murder.

abstract-2726482_1280Texas Frontier Vibes was partially inspired by reading the book Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S. C. Gwynne. The long and bloody battle between the Comanches and every wave of settlers that tried to take their land is fertile ground for ghost stories. In the story, a collection of arrow heads is bound to the ghost of the person who died being shot with the arrows. While the injuries sustained by the character in the story are drawn directly from history, the idea that the arrow heads could be haunted was inspired by my father’s inheritance of a collection of points, axes, scrapers, and other stone tools from his deceased brother who had been a lifelong collector of these items.

monument-89122_640
Monument to Columbia, by Pixabay

Space Shuttle Vibes owes its existence to my memory of the disaster involving the Space Shuttle Columbia when it came apart catastrophically over Texas in 2003. That accident led to the largest search and recovery effort ever carried out in the United States and is well-detailed and explained in a book that I read entitled Bringing Columbia Home by Michael Leinbach and Jonathan Ward. Sixty percent of Columbia remains lost in the swamps and thickets of East Texas. This fact inspired my tale of a man who dedicates his retirement and apparently part of his afterlife to finding and returning the pieces.

Museum Vibes, the story of a haunted living history pioneer farm, was inspired partially by my interest in all things historical, from gold-rushes and frontier life to the tuberculosis epidemic that plagued the world in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s also based on my many visits to pioneer farms with living history exhibits in the Dallas area and in the Austin area. What ghosts wouldn’t want to stay in a place that looked and felt like the time period in which they lived?

The final story in the collection, Arson Vibes, was inspired by a terrible fire that engulfed a lovely wood-frame church in a small community in Texas a few years ago. Texas has a number of famous, painted churches built by European immigrants in the late 1800 and early 1900s. The Painted Churches Tour in Texas is a great way to see a handful of them. While the fire in the real church was accidental, the one in my story is, of course, an act of arson which needs my investigative crew to solve it.  And old churches, with their adjacent graveyards, should come with a ghost or two, shouldn’t they?

These new stories in the collection Arson Vibes and Other Tales are on sale this week, May 4 to 11, 2020. At the moment the stories are only available on Amazon, later in the summer they will be available from other retailers. I would have the stories available everywhere, but the coronavirus and its attendant issues have put a crimp in my schedule at the moment.

*****

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

Tell Me a Story! P.D. James, Talking about Detective Fiction, 2009

 

by Helen Currie Foster

Tell me a story,” begs the child.

Tell me a story about before you met me,” the lover entreats the loved one.

Tell me the story about how you met,” we ask the new couple.

Tell me the scariest moment,” the reporter demands of the returning explorer.

Tell me a story,” we whisper to the books on the library shelf.

After an astounding career as master of detective fiction, P. D. James finished Talking about Detective Fiction in 2009, when she was nearly ninety. This small but hugely thoughtful book touches many topics: the history of detective fiction, authorial arguments over point of view and whether or not the murderer can be a protagonist, variants in the genre. Then James tackles the importance of setting, the importance of character, and the importance of plot.

As to setting: “If we believe in the place we can believe in the characters.” She notes that one function of the setting is to add credibility to a story. For James, credibility is particularly needed for crime fiction, which often offers not just dramatic but bizarre or horrific events. (This immediately brought to mind Robert Galbraith’s (J.K. Rowling’s) Cormoran Strike series, including The Silkworm.) According to James, “My own detective novels, with rare exceptions, have been inspired by the place rather than by a method of murder or a character.” She says her Devices and Desires was born when she stood on a deserted beach in East Anglia, then turned and saw the vast outline of a nuclear power station.

Character: her characters “grow like plants” while she’s writing but still bring surprises, so that “at the end, no matter how carefully and intricately the work is plotted, I never get exactly the novel I planned.”

As to why people love this genre? For the story. For the story! Here she quotes E.M. Forster:

“‘We are all like Scheherazade’s husband in that we want to know what happens next. That is universal and that is why the backbone of a novel has to be a story….Qua story, it can have only one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. And conversely it can have only one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next.’” [E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel]

Our mystery genre has at its heart, of course, a mystery, and we know that by the end it will be solved, more or less. Of course, we readers relish solving the mystery, but, as James says of herself, if that were the only attraction, we wouldn’t reread our old favorites. Which many of us do.

Why do we reread? Not just for the solution, but for the story. Once upon a time there was [a character] who lived in [a setting] and one day, a [terrible awful amazing startling promising exciting bizarre weird shocking hilarious unexpected] thing happened. And what do you think happened next?

We can’t wait. Bring it on. Because we want a story, in a setting we believe in, even if surprising, so we believe in the characters, and––even when we’re re-reading an old favorite–– we want to keep turning the pages so we can know what happens next.

Thank you, P. D. James, for this rich small book, and for all your books with their settings, characters, plot intricacies…and story.

***

Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. She earned a BA from Wellesley College, an MA from the University of Texas, and a JD from the University of Michigan.

Having grown up in Texas surrounded by books and storytelling, she taught high school English and later became a prize-winning feature writer for a small Michigan weekly. Following a career of more than thirty years as an environmental lawyer, the character Alice and her stories suddenly appeared in Foster’s life. In her writing, Foster explores the interaction between history and the present and the reasons we tell the stories we do.

Married with two children, she lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She works in Austin, and she’s active with the Hays County Master Naturalists and the board of Austin Shakespeare.

John Le Carré, Agent Running in the Field (October 17, 2019)

by Helen Currie Foster

John li Carre, by Krimidoedel, CC BY 3.0, via Wikipedia

Okay, you already know I’m hooked on le Carré. Never did I think any of his characters would buy my allegiance more than George Smiley, the nearsighted brilliant cuckold, a scholar of German romantic poetry, capable of thinking many chess moves ahead. Smiley can spin a web to catch a traitor. Smiley’s heroic.

But now, Nat’s got me. Nat, 47-year old field man from the British secret service or “Office,” has returned to his London home from Europe, at loose ends. He has proudly served his Queen, his country, his Service. He’s a jock, loves running, loves to play ferocious strategic badminton at the Athleticus, a club near his home. He’s Club champion. He loves his wife Prue, who as his spouse actually served the Office when they were stationed together in Russia. Prue now handles big pro bono legal cases and Nat likes to drop in to watch her courteous destruction of the opposition. Nat, with his German-Russian-English-Scots background, speaks Russian like a native. Now he’s expecting to be made “redundant,” put out to pasture, offered dead-end private sector jobs in, say, security.

Meanwhile, at the Athleticus he is challenged by a tall, bespectacled, socially awkward guy, Ed Shannon, who demands a match with the Club champion. Nat assesses this approach:

And the voice itself, of which by now I have a fair sample? In the time-honored British parlour game of placing our compatriots on the social ladder by virtue of their diction I am at best a poor contestant, having spent too much of my life in foreign parts. But to the ear of my daughter Stephanie, a sworn leveler, my guess is that Ed’s diction would pass as just about all right, meaning no direct evidence of a private education.

How deft is that description? So deft. Part of le Carré’s genius is to compose sentences which effortlessly expand the characters and scenes he’s building. Here Nat describes himself using (italicized) info from his own employment file:

I possess rugged charm and the accessible personality of a man of the world.

I am in appearance and manner a British archetype, capable of fluent and persuasive argument in the short term. I adapt to circumstance and have no insuperable moral scruples.

What a great ploy, letting the narrator use other peoples’ descriptions to present himself. Nat’s voice is irresistible.

Nat’s at a turning point. Now at home, waiting for some assignment from the Office and wondering about his future, he suspects his college student daughter thinks dad’s job performance is mediocre, far outshone by Prue’s legal career. It grates that his daughter doesn’t even know what he’s done:

I’d like to have told her why I’d failed to phone her on her fourteenth birthday because I knew it still rankled. I’d like to have explained that I had been sitting on the Estonian side of the Russian border in thick snow praying to God my agent would make it through the lines under a pile of sawn timber. I’d like to have given her some idea of how it had felt for her mother and me to live together under non-stop surveillance as members of the Office’s Station in Moscow where it could take ten days to clear or fill a dead letter box, knowing that, if you put a foot out of place, your agent is likely to die in hell.

When Nat goes in for the interview where he expects to be put out to pasture, we get an eyeful and earful of the infighting and sharp elbows within the Office. To our pleased surprise, Nat seems well able to handle those elbows. Furthermore, Nat wins the badminton match against the importunate Ed. When they drink a beer later, and after subsequent matches, Ed inveighs passionately against Trump, Putin, and the parlous situation of post-Brexit Britain. Meanwhile, instead of being terminated, Nat is asked to manage the Haven, a London sub-station of the Office, including supervising an intense agent named Florence who’s pressing the Office to approve Operation Rosebud. Operation Rosebud would insert eavesdropping equipment into the lush English home of a Ukrainian oligarch with well-documented links to Moscow Centre and Putin. Here’s Nat’s description of Florence:

And in Florence, as Giles [whom Nat’s replacing] was at pains to inform me over a nocturnal bottle of Talisker whisky in the back kitchen of the Haven, Rosebud had found an implacable if obsessive champion…

With Operation Rosebud about to begin, a sleeper Russian agent––currently acting as a double agent for the Office­­––requests an emergency meeting with Nat. It may be possible, the agent says, for Britain to capture a very big fish…well, no spoilers. Nat travels to Karlovy Vary to meet an informant who can identify the fish. The informant grills Nat, in dialogue so sharp on current world politics it hurts:

“So what are you?”
“A patriot, I suppose.”
What of? Facebook? Dot-coms? Global warming? Corporation so big they can gobble up your broken little country in one bite? Who’s paying you?”

Like a set of Matryoshka dolls, le Carré’s plot holds secrets within secrets within secrets. Le Carré fans know his plots, in hindsight, seem prescient: he brought us big pharma in Africa and disaster in Chechnya before those issues hit the world stage. Now he zeroes in on the Europe of today’s news broadcasts, with Putin looming to the east, Trump to the west, and Britain bent on Brexit. I found myself wondering––fearing––how real the most treacherous plot in this Matryoshka might turn out to be.

Meanwhile, I know Nat’s got hidden depths. I’m rooting for Nat––and Prue––all the way.

*

John le Carre. Agent Running in the Field. Viking, October 2019.

Cover photo of Agent Running in the Field via Amazon.com

Image of Matryoshka dolls by Schwoaze, via Pixabay

***

Helen Currie Foster is the author of the five novels in the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery series, the latest of which is The Ghost Next Door.  A retired environmental lawyer, she lives with her husband near Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros.

The New Girl Will Scare You Stiff

by K.P. Gresham

 

I can’t put down THE NEW GIRL–Daniel Silva’s latest book, that is. I have long been a fan of Silva’s series featuring Gabriel Allon, art restorer and master spy. The New Girl (Harper Publishing, July 16, 2019) is the 19th book featuring Allon, and, in my opinion, the best. It’s a fast-paced, fact-filled, emotional, beautifully written suspense thriller, that mirrors the times we are living in.

It begins with the kidnapping of the Saudi Crown Prince’s daughter. Allon, head of Israeli intelligence, is directed by his Prime Minister to help the prince find the girl. The two become unlikely allies in a race against time to stop a Russian move to take control of the Middle East.

The book weaves fiction into the baffling aspects of Middle East intrigue in a way that actually helps explain what the heck is going on “over there”. Usually when I read such a book I spend my time wondering, how much of this is fiction and how much of this is fact. Luckily, I accidentally did something that provided a clear vision of where that line is drawn.

I mostly listen to audiobooks during my dog’s three miles walk every morning. (I tag along as company.) By mistake I played the end of the book complete with Mr. Silva’s acknowledgments and comments. I’m glad I did. I recommend this “oopsie” to those who pick up Mr. Silva’s book. He clearly sets out what is fact and what is not. This makes the reading of this suspenseful page turner even more meaningful because I could trust the author. He wasn’t trying to pull the wool over my eyes. He was trying to tell a good story, yes, and he was making it even more realistic by using facts to back up his plot line.

Full disclosure, because I enjoy a good night’s sleep, I wish the book had included fewer facts.

I love Bob Woodward’s quote about Mr. Silva’s book. “At times a brilliant novel tells us as much about the times we live in–and the struggles of the world, the global deceptions and tragedies–as or better than journalism. Daniel Silva’s The New Girl is such a novel.”

Pick up this New York Times (and USA Today and Wall Street Journal) #1 Bestseller. You’ll be enlightened.

And scared stiff.

The New Girl by Daniel Silva Amazon Link

***

 

K.P. Gresham

K.P. Gresham, author of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery series and Three Days at Wrigley Field, moved to Texas as quick as she could. Born Chicagoan, K.P. and her husband moved to Texas, fell in love with not shoveling show and are 30+ year Lone Star State residents. She finds that her dual country citizenship, the Midwest and Texas, provide deep fodder for her award-winning novels. Her varied careers as a media librarian and technical director, middle school literature teacher and theatre playwright and director add humor and truth to her stories. A graduate of Houston’s Rice University Novels Writing Colloquium, I.P. now resides in Austin, Texas, where life with her tolerant but supportive husband and narcissistic Chihuahua is acceptably weird.

Bouchercon: It’s All About Community!

No one else in my family writes novels. When I talk about plotting and pacing, my husband gives me the same blank stare that I give him when he goes into detail about software architecture and development. However, my husband has community and coworkers available to him for discussing the intricacies of his work. Sitting at home at my desk, I didn’t have that same community available because writing is generally a solitary occupation. Writers have to go out of their way to find other writers with whom to socialize and talk shop.

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Beth Wasson, Sherry Harris, and me (N. M. Cedeno) at the SinC table at Bouchercon 2019, photo by Molly Weston

Recognizing the need for colleagues who understood my work, I sought out a local organization that I could join. My search brought me to a chapter of Sisters in Crime, an organization created to support the work of crime fiction writers like me. My local chapter, the Heart of Texas Chapter, provides monthly meetings on topics related to crime fiction and writing and creates a place to meet and talk to other crime fiction authors. Suddenly, I had colleagues with whom to discuss my work. I had found my people.

What I didn’t immediately realize was the extent of the community that I had joined. While I knew that other chapters of Sisters in Crime (SinC) existed around the world, I didn’t consider the larger writing community as a whole. Comfortable with my local community, the world community’s existence escaped my attention.

Never having attended one, I knew nothing about large conventions. I have never been a fan-girl, anxious to meet and shake the hand of my favorite authors. If I thought about my favorite authors at all, I would have assumed they were sitting at home, writing, like I was, and sometimes going out to meet with other local authors. Sure, some of the top 5% go on book tours, and children’s authors visit schools. But, I’d never imagined what it would look like if mystery writers and readers from across the country got together to meet, talk about crime fiction, and socialize.

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Helen Currie Foster and Peter Lovesey at Bouchercon 2019, photo by N. M. Cedeno

Then, Bouchercon came to my state.

Bouchercon, the annual gathering of mystery writers and readers named after Anthony Boucher, a founding member of the Mystery Writers of America, celebrated its 50th Anniversary this year with a massive conference in Dallas, Texas. The importance of the event dawned on me as I began to receive notifications from Sisters in Crime about the events that they would be holding during the convention. As a local chapter president, I was asked to attend the chapter presidents’ meeting to be held after the Sisters in Crime Breakfast on a Friday during the conference. With an invitation to attend, vote on important matters, and discuss issues facing chapters, I registered for the conference and signed up to attend the SinC breakfast.

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Rhys Bowen at Bouchercon 2019, photo by N. M. Cedeno

Arriving at the conference, I realized I’d walked into an event that looked like my local Sisters in Crime chapter meetings multiplied a hundred-fold in scale. Instead of local authors getting together to discuss topics and socialize for an hour or two, mystery writers and readers from all over the world came together to talk and socialize for 4 days. And almost everyone was friendly. I found myself riding in elevators with world-renowned editors, discussing the schedule with best-selling authors, and sitting with critically acclaimed international authors at breakfast.

When I could make my introverted-self attempt a conversation, each and every author I spoke to was polite, interested in talking to me, and happy to pose for pictures as I documented the event for my chapter newsletter.

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Me (N. M. Cedeno) and Anne Hillerman at Bouchercon 2019, photo by Helen Currie Foster

After attending lunches, breakfasts, dinners, award ceremonies, and many panel discussions with mystery authors and readers from around the world, I came home exhausted, but extremely happy to have been welcomed into the larger mystery community. While I won’t be able to attend massive mystery conferences every year, simply knowing that they exist is a boost to my spirits.

I look forward to the next time I’m able to join the larger mystery community and talk to colleagues from around the country and around the world. In the meantime, I hope to infuse my local Sisters in Crime meetings with the welcoming spirit and sense of community that I found at Bouchercon.

New Mystery Series: Bullet Books Speed Reads at Texas Book Festival

No matter what they tell you, Texas isn’t all cowboys and cactus and bullets and brush.

Texas is also BOOKS, and this weekend there’s proof: This morning, the Texas Book Festival  opens on the grounds of the State Capitol in Austin.  Exhibitor tents and food trucks will line N. Congress Avenue from Colorado Street, on the west side of the Capitol, clear down to 8th Street. An international slate of authors—John Grisham, Malcolm Gladwell, Sarah Bird, Elizabeth Crook, Alexander McCall Smith, and Terry Tempest Williams among them— will speak and sign books, and appear on panels. There will be books for display and for sale.

And in Exhibitor Tent #4, a new mystery series will be launched: BULLET BOOKS SPEED READS.

BULLET BOOKS is the brainchild of Manning Wolfe, author of the Merrit Bridges, Lady Lawyer series. Each Bullet Book is co-authored by Manning and another writer of crime fiction. The books are short, designed to be read in two to three hours—the length of a plane or train ride, or an afternoon spent lying under an umbrella on the beach.

Twelve Bullet Books will be introduced today. They range from mystery to suspense to thriller. Among the characters are spies, lawyers, terrorists, gun runners, trash collectors, and teachers. Settings range from courtrooms, to classrooms, to comedy clubs, to embassies.

A trailer for each book appears on the website. Here’s a look at the trailer for Bullet Book #1, Bill Rogers’ KILLER SET DROP THE MIC:

Trailers for the other books can be viewed on the Bullet Books website (links below). Follow the link to Youtube if you’d rather watch there.

Bill Rogers – KILLER SET DROP THE MIC
Billy Kring – IRON 13
Helen Currie Foster – BLOODY BEAD
Mark Pryor – THE HOT SEAT
Kathy Waller – STABBED
Jay Brandon – MAN IN THE CLIENT CHAIR
Kay Kendall – ONLY A PAWN IN THEIR GAME
Suzanne Waltz – DANGEROUS PRACTICE
Scott Montgomery – TWO BODIES, ONE GRAVE
Laura Oles – LAST CALL
V.P. Chandler – THE LAST STRAW
Elizabeth Garcia – THE NEON PALM

The first twelve Bullet Books are available from Amazon in both paper and ebook formats.  Another thirteen volumes will be released in 2020.

Authors will sign their books at the Starpath Books booth 405 in exhibitor tent #4, this Saturday and Sunday, October 26-27.

By the way, Bullet Books Speed Reads will meet an even wider audience next weekend at Bouchercon, the largest annual international convention of mystery readers and writers, which will take place in Dallas, October 31-November 3. Billy Kring, Laura Oles, Kay Kendall, Jay Brandon, Bill Rodgers, Manning Wolfe  will participate in a Co-Authoring Panel, October 31 at 2:30 p.m.

Eleven Bullet Books authors will attend the convention. They’ll sign on November 2 at 3:30 p.m.

If you’re anywhere near Austin this weekend, stop by the Capitol and see a side of Texas that doesn’t get nearly enough press.

And be sure to visit the Starpath booth and let Manning Wolfe and the other authors introduce you to Bullet Books Speed Reads.