Tipper: My Manager Extraordinaire

by K .P. Gresham

I suspect most of us have our secrets about how we survived the Pandemic of ’20-’21. Video games, binge-watching movies, reading like a fiend–you get the idea.

My secret was my dog, Tipper. Or should I say my manager. Tip’s a fifteen-pound rescue dog of the Chihuahua meets Terrier variety. Nobody wanted to adopt him because he has bad knees. Really? I’ve had two knee replacements and nobody ever threw me out on the street. Tipper came home to live with me and my better half, Kevin, that very day. 

Now, eight years later, it is my dog who has rescued me. Or should I say bosses me around. Thanks to him, I have the next installment of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series, Four Reasons to Die, later this summer. 

This is the schedule Tip put me on from the pandemic’s git-go. First, he begins his slow process of waking–this entails laying beneath the bed covers for at least a half hour after Kevin and I are already up, then he slowly rises like a ghost from the grave because the sheets trail after him as he fights his way out of bed, and finally, he spends another half hour under the bed to avoid the rising sun. His last half hour of officially waking iup is spent in my lap while I finish my morning pot of coffee.

And then he jumps down from my lap, game face on. Enough lolly-gagging on my part. Time to get to work.

We start our day with a three-mile walk. Tip has decided this is the amount of time it takes for me to chew through the scene I have to write that day. When we come home, he demands breakfast, then shoos me upstairs to my office to get to work. No shower. No breakfast. It’s work time. To make sure I stay at it, he takes up residence on the small couch in my office and does not leave it until he hears my husband (who during Covid works in his office downstairs) making lunch. Then Tipper jumps down from the couch and scratches at my leg to tell me to take a break. But does he come downstairs with me? Oh, no.  He goes back to his couch where he waits for fifteen minutes while I make my lunch and put some tidbits in his bowl. THEN, he comes down.

I finally get my shower after lunch–remember, he doesn’t let me take it before since he’s sure I will forget what I’ve decided to write during our walk. Only then does he allow me to return to my office to get back to work.

At 4:00, Tipper believes our work for the day is done. This is the time when, pre-pandemic, my neighbors and I used to get together to watch Jeopardy. We couldn’t, of course, during the Pandemic, but Tipper never got the memo. At 4:00, we’re supposed to close up shop. I oftentimes decide to keep on working until Kevin was done with his day, and Tipper thinks this is sacrilege. He leaves his couch to sit by my feet and growls as I type away. He believes its against his contract to work such long hours and has threatened several times to call Animal Rescue to arrest me.

I didn’t understand how serious he was about his managerial duties until he started wearing a tie to work. And proofing everything I write. And working on his own stories.

Lord help me, they’ll probably be better than mine…

Thank goodness for my little Tipper. I wouldn’t have made it through the Pandemic without him.

Coming Soon (Thanks to Tipper)!

Four Reasons to Die

The 4th Book in the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series

 When Pastor Matt Hayden steps up to give the Texas Inaugural Ceremony’s benediction after the scheduled minister, Reverend Duff, disappears, he finds himself embroiled in a religious war, a political power-grab, and murder.

 The missing Duff, a progressive leftist, is locked in a bitter, public battle with the ultra-conservative Reverend Meade. Duff has also taken on U.S. Senator Womack, a far-right Presidential hopeful whose only love is himself.

 Matt joins the search for the missing pastor, but is he prepared to discover the true evil that threatens his family, including the new governor…and his beloved Angie?

***

Where to Find Me

Website: http://www.kpgresham.com/

Email: kp@kpgresham.com

Blogs: https://inkstainedwretches.home.blog/

https://austinmysterywriters.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kpgresham

Books by K.P. Gresham

Three Days at Wrigley Field

The Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series

The Preacher’s First Murder

Murder in the Second Pew

Murder on the Third Try

“Quaint and Curious”

by Kathy Waller

Today is Memorial Day, the last Monday in May, when we remember the men and women of the military to whom we cannot say, “Thank you.”

There are many stories about when and where Memorial Day, formerly called Decoration Day, began. Originally, it honored soldiers fallen during the Civil War, and was first officially celebrated in 1868.

Wikipedia, however, points to an earlier beginning: “On May 1, 1865 in Charleston, SC, formerly enslaved African Americans honored hundreds of Black soldiers who were killed in the Civil War but who were buried in a mass grave. They unearthed the bodies and gave each a proper burial and held a parade in the soldiers’ honor. This is the first major honoring of fallen soldiers that is believed to have begun the tradition.”

In honor of the day, I’ve chosen a poem by British poet and novelist Thomas Hardy.

#

The Man He Killed

By Thomas Hardy

“Had he and I but met
            By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
            Right many a nipperkin!

            “But ranged as infantry,
            And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
            And killed him in his place.

            “I shot him dead because —
            Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
            That’s clear enough; although

            “He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
            Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
            No other reason why.

            “Yes; quaint and curious war is!
            You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat if met where any bar is,
            Or help to half-a-crown.”

#

Wartime provides the setting for many books, movies, plays, and television films in the mystery genre. Among them:

12 best historical fiction books set during World War II

9 Mysteries Set in the Immediate Aftermath of WWI

9 Murder Mysteries Set During Wartime

The Best Historical Mystery Series

Five Novels of Mystery, Intrigue and Suspense Set in WWII

Foyle’s War (Television series)

My Boy Jack (Television film based on play by Daniel Haig)
(Link leads to complete film on Youtube.)
The title My Boy Jack comes from a poem written by Rudyard Kipling for Jack Cornwell, “the 16 year old youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross who stayed by his post on board ship during the battle of Jutland until he died.” The poem “echoes the grief of all parents who lost sons in the First World War. John Kipling was a 2nd Lt in the Irish Guards and disappeared in September 1915 during the Battle of Loos in the First World War.” His body was never found. (Wikipedia).  Haig’s play deals with Kipling’s grief at the loss of his son.

#

Kathy Waller’s stories appear in Murder on Wheels, Lone Star Lawless, and Day of the Dark, as well as online at Mysterical-E. She blog at Telling the Truth, Mainly.

The Ones That Stick With You

by Helen Currie Foster

We read to learn, we read to be entertained.

We begged at age three, “Tell me a story.”

The stories began, “Once upon a time…”

And Hansel fooled the witch and escaped. Jack chopped down the beanstalk and escaped.

We mystery readers read a vast number of mystery novels. Fifty percent of adults say their favorite book genre is mystery/thriller. In 2020 mystery e-book sales appear to have increased by13% and thrillers by 15%.

We’re always searching for a new adventure, a new love. Have you ever pulled a book from the shelf, glance at the back cover, then (with hope in your heart) the first page, and then pushed the book back on the shelf, sure this one won’t do? I have, so many times. Same drill at the library. We usually know from page one (or at most page two) if we’re going to like a new author. If we don’t like the setting, the protagonist, the voice, forget it. But if we do, if we give that book a chance and like it, we look for a series. Bonus points if we find a new series we like! A series is efficient: we already know the protagonist, the repeating characters, many details of the setting. We plunge straight into the story.

Yet sometimes—even when I really like an author’s book—they run together. I may find them exciting, may remember specific scenes, may like the ending. But often a week after I finish a book, even one in a series with a protagonist who enchants me, I can’t quite remember who died. Now that’s embarrassing. As a murder mystery reader, shouldn’t I remember the victim?

If the victim, stuck there on the page, could talk back, maybe he or she would say, “C’mon, reader, give me a break! Don’t you remember how my body was pulled from the [canal] [truck] [hidden grave]? Don’t you remember how hard I was to find? Don’t you remember how excited the [police team] [sleuth] was to figure out who killed me? Can’t you remember me for at least three minutes? I mean, I’m the one your beloved protagonist investigated! I’m the whole point of the book!” And then in a more querulous tone, “Aren’t I?”

Maybe not. We get caught up in the badinage between DI Dalziel and his sidekick Pascoe. They go off to a pub and suddenly we find we’ve opened the refrigerator. We want to be there with them, sitting at that table near the dart board, sipping beer. Or our protagonist is reviewing the grisly evidence while listening to Madame Butterfly, and we find ourselves humming the first phrase of the aria (the only one we know). Maybe we’re really more interested in a favorite protagonist than in the victim.  Sorry, Victim. The Protagonist will be in the next book––but you won’t.

On the other hand, now and then, there’s a death that sticks. One that even haunts me, after the denouement, after the explanation, after I finish saying “aha, I spotted that,” or “Hmm, very tricksy.” After all the figuring-out, occasionally I’m still thinking about the victim.

I started wondering about the ones who stick this week when I read two mysteries from Donna Leon, who just published her 30th book, Transient Desires. The title puns on what Donna Leon terms the “Nigerian Mafia” which she describes as smuggling young African women into Italy, promising them jobs which will let them send needed money home to their families, but instead enslaving them as sex workers or—occasionally—taking their transport money while throwing them into the Mediterranean to drown. In Transient Desires, Leon introduces us first to a young woman who survived the sea crossing but is being driven mad by her enslavement. Then we meet a naïve young Venetian man, desperate to keep a job with his boat-owning uncle which allows him to support his mother. The young man is slowly being destroyed by what his uncle forces him to do. These two portraits stick in my mind.

I also read Leon’s 22d book, The Golden Egg, where her protagonist, Venetian Inspector Guido Brunetti, must determine whether a young deaf man committed suicide by swallowing his mother’s tranquilizers, or was murdered. Which? Brunetti is stunned that the Serene Republic of Venice, which keeps tab of virtually every aspect of every inhabitant’s life, has no record of this young man. He’s unaccounted for: no school, no paying job, nothing. Brunetti learns he toiled his life away ironing clothes in a laundry, unpaid, speaking to no one, with no one speaking to him. He was never taught sign language, never taught how to interact with people. He lived in Venice where people know and speak to their neighbors and shopkeepers…but no one spoke to him. Brunetti doggedly unearths the peculiar cruelty of the people who kept him alive but didn’t teach him to live…parents who never talked to him, never taught him, never allowed anyone to reach out to him. Even worse, if worse is possible, Brunetti discovers the boy had a rare artistic talent—appreciated only by the boy’s doctor—that the boy never knew was worthy of recognition. Donna Leon’s description of one of the boy’s drawings, one the doctor has on his wall, brings home to the reader the two-fold tragedy: that the boy never knew his creations were beautiful, and that the world was deprived of knowing the human being who created such beauty. He was trapped. And he died without ever escaping. That’s a victim I cannot forget.

What about The Nine Tailors (1934), by Dorothy Sayers?. This classic tale, often called her best, has all the charming hallmarks of a carefully constructed village-and-vicar English mystery, including the peculiarly English tradition of bell-ringing. We’ve got it all here: stolen jewels, a letter written in cipher, and an unidentified male body with no hands. The setting: the fens of East Anglia, with drainage ditches, locks, and ever-shifting floodwaters, and the contrasting grandeur of the ancient fen churches whose spires, with their enormous bells, mark the landscape. On New Year’s Eve, with the great influenza raging, Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet Bunter wreck the car and become lost in a snowstorm. They’re rescued by the vicar of Fenchurch St. Paul, who proudly announces that his bell-ringers are going to ring in the New Year with “no less than fifteen thousand, eight hundred and forty Kent Treble Bob Majors”—nine hours of bell-ringing. When one ringer, Will Thoday, is struck down by influenza, the vicar begs Wimsey to take his place. Wimsey later finds a recently buried man with no hands. As to why the victim has no hands, and how he was killed—is it a spoiler to emphasize, reader, that you do not want to be tied up, unable to escape, in a bell-chamber just above those enormous thousand-year-old bells while they ring unceasingly for nine hours? That victim’s death has stayed with me. But also, the circumstances which led to in his entrapment in the bell tower resulted in such grief for three characters that their lives are changed forever. That stayed with me too. No happy Sayers-esque denouement here. Instead, characters are condemned to remember. As to the title, the Nine Tailors are the nine strokes of the tenor bell—three, three, and three more—rung to mark a death in the parish.

Fans of Tony Hillerman will remember The Wailing Wind, where NavajoDetective Joe Leaphorn is hired by Wiley Denton, a wealthy older man recently released from prison for shooting a man named McKay, who had promised Denton a map to a fabled gold mine. Denton wants Leaphorn to find out what happened years ago at Halloween to his beloved young wife, Linda. The convoluted plot takes the reader through numerous twists and turns, but the gold mine convolutions aren’t what I remember. Instead I remember that McKay, all those years ago, drugged Linda and left her in a locked bunker (one of hundreds of identical bunkers in an untravelled area on the vast grounds of Fort Wingate), hoping to use her as leverage to get the deal he wanted from Denton. Denton shot McKay, not knowing that McKay had hidden Linda. So she died, slowly mummified, in a bunker in the Arizona desert. Now that’s one that sticks with me.

I’ve been wondering why I found these particular victims so hard to forget. You’ll have noticed that all were trapped. Transient Desires involves economic entrapment—slavery, really. Both the young Nigerian and the young Venetian have no economic hope, no way to escape doing what they hate. The Golden Egg reveals a young man cruelly trapped by isolation, deprived of human communication, deprived of any way to express an enormous talent. In Nine Tailors and The Wailing Wind, the victim’s death by physical entrapment creates another trap: those involved are trapped by their memories.

I wonder if the rank injustice that Leon depicts is part of the staying power of Transient Desires and The Golden Egg. Particularly in The Golden Egg, Brunetti feels helpless, and we share his frustration, his horror, really, at the young man’s death, and at the society that allowed it to happen. To that extent I’m still identifying with Brunetti, not the victim.

I’ve hidden my murder victims in enclosed spaces. Ghost Cave.

 Ghost Dog.

But mercifully, they were already dead.

Maybe we identify more with the victim when reading about a death caused by physical entrapment, whether the victim’s tied up in a bell-tower or locked in an isolated bunker, where no one can hear the call for help (the bells are too loud, or the bunker too soundproof). Doesn’t that reverberate with all of us? We’re generally confident we could escape from most situations, could chew off the ropes on our wrist, pick the lock, find a secret passage, get a message to our rescuers. Fool the witch and chop down the beanstalk. But what if there’s no one to hear? No one to help? No way to get out? End of story. Not comfortable. Awfully memorable. Awfully.

Naming Characters: Steve Dauchy MacCaskill

I’m working on a mystery novel—I’ve been working on it for years, but now I’m working on itand am faced with dilemmas too numerous to whine about in only one post, so I’ll move along.

I will instead write about the one pleasure of the writing life: creating and naming characters.

My novel is set in a little town very like my own hometown. I don’t base my plot on real events, and I don’t use real people as characters—with one exception: Steve Dauchy.

Not Steve, but close

Note: One of my readers, Cullen Dauchy, knows more about Steve than I do, especially about his early life, and I hope he’ll feel free to correct any errors.

Steve Dauchy was a career blood donor at Katy Veterinary Clinic in Katy, Texas. On retirement he moved to Fentress, where he lived with his veterinarian-owner’s parents, Joe and Norma Dauchy. Joe and Norma lived next door to me; in local terms, next door meant that my house was on one corner, then there was a half-acre “patch” of pecan and peach trees and grass and weeds, then a street, and then on the next corner, the Dauchy yard and their house. The point being that when Steve visited me, he didn’t just walk across a driveway.

Joe was my dad’s first cousin, so I guess that makes Steve and me second cousins. I have a lot of cousins on that side of the family, although most are human.

Steve is a family name, with a story behind it. As I understand it, back in the ’20s or ’30s, my great-uncle Cull (Joseph Cullen) Dauchy, Sr., enjoyed listening to a radio program about a Greek character who frequently spoke of “my cat Steve and her little cattens.” Uncle Cull was so amused by the phrase that he named a cat—probably one of the barn cats—Steve. And ever after, he always had a cat named Steve.

Uncle Cull and Aunt Myrtle Dauchy’s house, home of the first Steves

So when the clinic cat became part of the Uncle Cull’s son and daughter-in-law’s family, he became the latest in a long line of Steves.

How to describe Steve. He was a fine figure of a cat: a big tabby, deep orange, with an expression of perpetual boredom. His reaction to nearly everything translated as, “Meh.” I’ve heard that’s common among clinic cats.

Once when Steve was standing on my front porch, the neighbor’s Great Dane got loose and charged over. I was frantic, shouting at the dog, shouting at Steve. But when the dog hit the porch, Steve just looked up at him. Dog turned around and trotted home.

Some would say Steve was brave, and I’m sure he was. But I believe his grace under pressure had their roots elsewhere.

First, he had experience. He knew dogs. In his former employment, he’d observed the breed: big, little, yappy, whining, growling, howling, cringing, confined to carriers, restrained by leashes, sporting harnesses and rhinestone collars, hair wild and matted, sculpted ‘dos and toenails glistening pink from the OPI Neon Collection. He’d seen them all, and he was not impressed.

Facing down a Great Dane, however, took more than experience. There was something in Steve’s character, an inborn trait that marked him for greatness: his overarching sense of entitlement. He was never in the wrong place at the wrong time. My porch was his porch. The world was his sardine.

Except for the kitchen counter. Steve thought kitchen counters were for sleeping, and Joe and Norma’s maid didn’t. Consequently, he stayed outside a lot. He took ostracism in stride and used his freedom to range far and wide. Far and wide meant my yard.

Steve’s house

At that time I had three indoor cats—Christabel, Chloe, and Alice B. Toeclaws—and a raft of outdoor cats. The outdoor cats started as strays, but I made the mistake of naming them, which meant I had to feed them, which meant they were mine. Chief among them was Bunny, a black cat who had arrived as a teenager with his mother, Edith.

One day Bunny, Edith, and I were out picking up pecans when Steve wandered over to pay his respects, or, more likely, to allow us to pay our respects to him. Bunny perked up, put on his dangerous expression, and walked out to meet the interloper. It was like watching the opening face-off in Gunsmoke.

But instead of scrapping, they stopped and sat down, face to face, only inches apart. Each raised his right paw above his head and held it there a moment. Next, simultaneously, they bopped each other on the top of the head about ten times. Then they toppled over onto their sides, got up, and walked away.

That happened every time they met. Maybe it was just a cat thing, a neighborly greeting, something like a Masonic handshake. But I’ve wondered if it might have had religious significance. Bunny was a Presbyterian, and Steve was a Methodist, and both had strong Baptist roots, and although none of those denominations is big on ritual, who knows what a feline sect might entail?

Steve had a Macavity-like talent for making himself invisible. Occasionally when I opened my front door, he slipped past and hid in a chair at the dining room table, veiled by the tablecloth. When he was ready to leave, he would hunt me down—Surprise!—and lead me to the door. Once, during an extended stay, he used the litter box. Christabel, Chloe, and Alice B. were not amused.

Distance Steve traveled between his house and mine. His house is way over there behind the trees.

Invisibility could work against him, though. Backing out of the driveway one morning, I saw in the rearview mirror a flash streak across the yard. I got out and looked around but found nothing and so decided I’d imagined it. When I got home from work, I made a more thorough search and located Steve under the house, just out of reach. I called, coaxed, cajoled. He stared. It was clear: he’d been behind the car when I backed out, I’d hit him, and he was either too hurt to move or too disgusted to give me the time of day.

It took a long time and a can of sardines to get him out. I delivered him to the veterinarian in Lockhart; she advised leaving him for observation. A couple of days later, I picked him up. Everything was in working order, she said, cracked pelvis, nothing to do but let him get over it.

“Ordinarily,” said the vet, “I would have examined him and sent him home with you the first day. I could tell he was okay. But you told me his owner’s son is a vet, and I was afraid I’d get it wrong.”

Although an indoor-outdoor cat, Steve did plenty of indoor time at his own house, too, especially in winter, and when the maid wasn’t there. One cold day, the family smelled something burning. They found Steve snoozing atop the propane space heater in the kitchen. His tail hung down the side, in front of the vent. The burning smell was the hair on his tail singeing. They moved him to a safer location. I presume he woke up during the process.

At night, he had his own bedroom, a little garden shed in the back yard. He slept on the seat of the lawnmower, snuggled down on a cushion. Except when he didn’t.

Once extremely cold night, I was piled up in bed under an extra blanket and three cats. About two a.m., I woke up to turn over—sleeping under three cats requires you to wake up to turn over—and in the process, reached down and touched one of the cats. It was not my cat.

I cannot describe the wave of fear that swept over me. It sounds ridiculous now, but finding myself in the dark with an unidentified beast, and unable to jump and run without first extricating myself from bedding and forty pounds of cat—I lay there paralyzed.

Unnecessarily, of course. The extra cat was Steve. He’s sneaked in and, considering the weather forecast, decided sleeping with a human and three other cats in a bed would be superior to hunkering down on a lawnmower.

Steve’s full name was, of course, Steve Dauchy. In my book, he will be Steve MacCaskill. MacCaskill was the name of a family who lived next door to my Aunt Bettie and Uncle Maurice. Their children were friends of my father and his brothers and their many cousins. They were a happy family.

“My family had to plan everything,” my dad’s cousin Lucyle Dauchy Meadows told me, “but the MacCaskills were spontaneous. If they decided they wanted to go to a movie, they just got into the car and went to a movie.” When Lucyle and the other girls helped their friend Mary Burns MacCaskill tidy her room before the Home Demonstration Agent came to examine it (I am so glad the Home Demonstration Agent didn’t examine rooms when I was a girl), one of the first things they did was to remove the alligator from the bathtub.

I heard so many delightful stories about the MacCaskill family that I decided they were too good to be true until my Aunt Bettie’s 100th birthday party, when my mother introduced me to Mary Burns MacCaskill, who had traveled from Ohio for the party.

So as an homage to that family, I’ve named my main character Molly MacCaskill. And when choosing a pet for Molly, I couldn’t choose a finer beast than Steve.

***

Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. She has published short stories, as well as a novella co-written with Manning Wolfe. She is perpetually working on a novel.

Pick Your Poison–An Almost Perfect Crime

“All things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not a poison.” Paracelsus, Swiss physician (1493 –1541) (emphasis added)

“Poison has a certain appeal . . . It has not the crudeness of the revolver bullet or the blunt weapon. I have no special knowledge of the subject, if that is what you mean.” (Agatha Christie, They Do It With Mirrors, p.178)

The history of poison is an ancient one, and before the birth of forensic medicine in the 1920s, poison was virtually untraceable; it was almost the perfect weapon

 Socrates drank poisoned hemlock and died in 399 BCE (Eyewitness).  Cleopatra orchestrated poisonous experiments on her slaves and prisoners of war.  Concoctions made from “Henbane, Belladonna Strychnos nux-vomica” were used to isolate the most painful and disfiguring combinations (Quave).  Cleopatra ruthlessly searched for the quickest and least painful poison for her future self, should she need it. In the end, in 30 BC, she chose the bite of an asp to end her life (Quave).  

The Borgias of the Italian Renaissance, resorted to a wide variety of deadly formulas to eradicate obstinate Church officials and political rivals.  The Borgia’s parting gifts included combinations of “arsenic, strychnine, cantharidin, and aconite incorporated in drinks, clothes, gloves, book pages, flowers, and drugs” (Sage).  The deadliest poison in the Borgia arsenal, Cantarella, made with arsenic as a base was “so dangerous that the actual formula was destroyed after their deaths.” (Blum). 

“. . . Served in a goblet of wine at dinner, it had the reputation to function with time-clock precision. According to the desire of the murder, cantarella could kill in a day, a month, or a year. It was also believed that cantarella was so powerful that no antidote existed. . .” (Sage).

During Victorian times, married women frequently resorted to poisoning as the solution to a bad marriage, or to cash in on a spouse’s or relative’s life insurance policies.  Arsenic was so popular it was given a “nickname: the inheritance powder.” (Blum). 

In England, between 1857 and 1872, Mary Ann Cotton, a notorious female British serial killer and arsenic devotee, killed “eight of her own children, seven stepchildren, her mother, three husbands, a lover – and an inconvenient friend” before she was caught and hanged (Blum; Johnson; Murderpedia).  

Sometime between the 1880’s and 1908, in the United States Belle Gunness, known as “Lady Bluebeard,” is believed to have killed between “13 to 42” people,” including her own children.  (Murderpedia).  Using strychnine and/or bludgeoning to kill her victims, sometimes using both methods, Belle then butchered her victims and fed the body parts to her hogs. (Schecter; Murderpedia). 

Harold Schecter, who arduously documented Gunness’ murders in Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men, wrote that despite years of diligent attempts to find or identify Belle, dead or alive, she was never found.  The Gunness case remains unsolved. 

Murderers are not the only ones who are on the lookout for the perfect murder weapon.  Mystery writers, including the most famous of mystery writers, Agatha Christie, frequently used poison as a weapon in her novels.  An extensive study of Christie’s use of poison was analyzed by Anne Harrison, detailed in her article, “Poisons Used in Agatha Christie’s Books, Foul Toxins From the Queen of Crime” (2017).  Harrison’s research found Christie had used poison more than any other mystery writer of her era. 

“. . .More than thirty victims fall foul to a variety of toxins (while others survive attempted poisonings). Christie’s knowledge was extensive, a result of her work as both a nurse and a pharmacy dispenser during both World Wars.” (Harrison).  

Agatha Christie plaque -: Torre Abbey.jpg : Violetrigaderivative work: F l a n k e r, CC BY-SA 3.0 /, via Wikimedia Commons

Harrison’s research proved Christie had more than a simple working knowledge of poison and drug interactions. Harrison’s findings further revealed how proficient Christie was ensuring not only the correct toxin’s application but how she skillfully determined appropriate outcomes for each. Harrison noted that not all of Christie’s literary victims died; some recovered. 

Research confirmed the drugs/poisons Christie actually chose for her stories were actual drugs available and accessible at the time she wrote her stories.  Christie did not fabricate the names or kinds of drugs, or their effects, or the application, but used her real-life knowledge to enhance her storyline, which as we all know, it did.

Christie’s novels incorporate a plethora of toxins: “strychnine, cyanide, arsenic, thallium, taxine, coniine, bacillus anthracis, plant arsenic, Belladonna (also known as Deadly Nightshade, Devil’s Berries or Death Cherries), physostigmine, Morphine, Vernol (sleeping tablets), and physostigmine” (Harrison). 

In the real world, poison had always been hugely problematic for law enforcement –if used for murder, its detection was virtually impossible.  The cause of death was widely determined by a medical examiner who was politically appointed.  Frequently appointees had no medical training, scientific knowledge, or access to detection tests.  People died of unknown causes, unsolved murders rose, and murderers walked free. 

The rate of unsolved murders rose as industrialization encroached on cities and towns.  According to Deborah Blum, in The Poisoner’s Handbook – Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, “As industrialization encroached throughout the U.S., new chemicals and poisons appeared unregulated.  Frequently, these poisons were undetectable.” (Blum)

Blum wrote that it was not until the first pioneers of forensic medicine appeared and true scientific detection tools were created and tested, that medical examiners and their staff were finally able to detect certain poisons as a definitive cause of death.  

Some toxins widely used at that time: “Morphine went into teething medicines for infants; opium into routinely prescribed sedatives; arsenic was an ingredient in everything from pesticides to cosmetics. Mercury, cyanide, strychnine, chloral hydrate, chloroform, sulfates of iron, sugar of lead, carbolic acid, and more, the products of the new chemistry stocked the shelves of doctors’ offices, businesses, homes, pharmacies, and grocery stores. . . “(Blum).

In New York, public outcry demanded a qualified non-political appointee medical coroner, a knowledgeable physician.  After years of political stonewalling, a decision was finally reached, and in January of 1918, “Dr. Charles Norris …became the new Chief Medical Examiner of New York” (Blum). 

No long after his appointment, Norris hired the chemist, Alexander Gettler.  It was Gettler who would later perfect tests to detect wood alcohol poisonings, cyanide gas poisoning, and he work tirelessly to find tests able to detect various poisons.  Norris and Gettler established the first forensic standards, tests, and mandatory forensic protocols, and through their efforts saved thousands of future lives.

It is not possible to encapsulate the entirety of Blum’s “The Poisoner’s Handbook – Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.”  Blum’s history of poison, its insidious effects on the public, the rise of the first forensic department in New York and the United States, along with the discoveries of both Norris and Gettler, and the incredible people who worked with them, is well worth reading.

The public owes a debt to the unfailing dedication of both Norris and Gettler, who demanded scientific rigor in the detection of toxins, but who also paved the way for regulatory reform and laid the foundation of forensic medicine. 

Norris died in 1935, and although few knew, Norris had been financially supporting the Medical Examiner’s office with his personal resources since his original appointment.  Two years after Norris’ death, three members of his staff published a “comprehensive textbook on forensic science, Legal Medicine and Toxicology. . .it was dedicated to Norris.” (Blum)

Gettler continued to work, finally retiring at seventy-five.  “On the day he left office, he estimated that he’s analyzed more than 100,000 bodies.” (Blum).  A prodigious writer, Gettler produced numerous scholarly papers on various toxins, detection methodology, and forensics.  Gettler had also trained a legion of young scientists known as the “Gettler Boys,” who went on to become medical examiners working “from Long Island to Puerto Rico.” (Blum).  Gettler died in 1968.  

The story of poison is far from complete; it continues to morph and change; new toxins are created every day.  Their detection, however, is far more likely thanks to Harris and Gettler. 

The Poisoner’s Handbook – Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, became a best seller in 2010, and a PBS NPR American Experience series feature in 2016. 

If you are looking for the perfect murder weapon, before considering poison, a bit of research is recommended. 

Other References

Lakeisha Goedluck. A Brief History of Women Putting Poison in Their Lovers’ Food.  

Chemical Safety Facts. Org.  “The Dose Makes the Poison.”

Photo Credits:

Book photo courtesy of Amazon.

###

A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading, writing, and animal advocacy. She fosters and rescues both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes. 

What’s That Smell?

by Helen Currie Foster

In the back of the closet I recently unearthed my mother’s old Caswell Massey “Gardenia” bubble bath. The resulting bath held astonishing comfort and nostalgia. It smelled like her house.

Mystery writers can use smell to reinforce not only setting and character, but powerful plots. Here are strong examples from the first chapter of Lethal White, the fourth in Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series. Chapter one begins with the wedding of Strike’s former co-detective Robin Ellacott and her long-time (but insufferable) fiancé Matthew Cunliffe, arguing while the wedding photographer tries to get some decent shots. Strike has fired Robin, partly from fear she’ll be killed. Without her job, Robin’s miserable. Matthew’s furious because of the joy he saw on Robin’s face when Strike arrived for the ceremony, heavily bandaged from capturing a killer. And now, arguing with Matthew, how does Robin feel? “The sweet, ticklish smell of hot grass filled her nostrils as the sun beat down on her uncovered shoulders.” The hot smell matches Robin’s itchy misery as she second-guesses her marriage to Matthew.

The country hotel setting smells beautiful, in stark contrast to Strike’s emotions: “For a while he lurked at the end of the bar, nursing a pint…and then repaired to the terrace, where he had stood apart from the other smokers and contemplated the dappled evening, breathing in the sweet meadow smell beneath a coral sky.” Sweet meadow smell; miserable situation.

Robin finally reaches Strike on the stairs as he’s leaving: “They were holding each other tightly before they knew what had happened, Robin’s chin on Strike’s shoulder, his face in her hair. He smelled of sweat, beer, and surgical spirits, she, of roses and the faint perfume that he had missed when she was no longer in the office.” The scene is almost shocking in its sensory overload. We feel their powerful attraction. Galbraith (J. K. Rowling) brilliantly gives us not only the protagonists, but the pain of their predicament, using scent to remind us of Strike’s injury (surgical spirits) and the fact that he has missed her perfume because she’s no longer in the office.

We already know that Chet, the heroic detective dog of Spencer Quinn’s Chet and Bernie series, is a dog of admirable olfactory sensitivity. He feels sorry for his human partner, Bernie (who labors under the misapprehension that he, not Chet, is the detective), because Chet knows human limitations, olfactorily speaking.

Chet and Bernie search for lost young campers in Spencer Quinn’s The Dog Who Knew Too Much. Chet’s nose moves the plot along: I smelled ashes, plus chocolate, the way it smells when hot chocolate gets burned in the pot, and….the remains of a not-too-long-ago campfire. I knew fire pits, of course, went over and took some closer sniffs. Burned hot chocolate, yes. There’d also been Spam and something eggy. I stuck my nose just about right into the ashes. They were cold.” Oh, the advantages of a detective dog as protagonist.

Well, Chet, don’t underrate us. Research shows we humans can detect at least a trillion odors! Bill Bryson, The Body, at 90.

Furthermore, as Chet the dog already knows, we humans each have our own unique scent: “It’s like a fingerprint,” says Johan Lundström, a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, in “The Sense of Smell in Humans is More Powerful Than We Think, ” by Marta Zaraska–an interesting article.

Didn’t we already know we can identify the scent of the loved one? Mothers can recognize their newborns by smell (and vice versa). Bryson says olfactory information goes directly to our olfactory cortex, next to the hippocampus, where memories are shaped, which is why some neuroscientists think certain smells evoke memories. Oh, didn’t Proust mention that? Scent brings back the dead, if only for a second. In my Ghost Cat, after the death of his wife Holly, Russ confesses that when he walks in the house, he lifts his eyes and inhales: “I always hope for a little whiff of Holly.”

However––some odors fly under our radar. We may feel, but can’t always articulate, how certain smells arouse our emotions. We say fear is contagious but we haven’t known how. Zaraska cites research showing when we smell body odor from a stressed person, we ourselves become more vigilant. When we smell body odor of a close relative, per Zaraska, we can recognize family, and our dorsomedial-prefontal cortext can light up. Maybe some of this we’ve known without really knowing it.

Plus, we apparently have sensory radar for genetic information. For mating! A woman inhaling body odor of a potential mate senses how genetically related the two are––by sniffing a gene family that links body scent and the immune system, called the “major histocompatibility complex” or “MHC.” This capacity is useful: we like our mates to be related enough––but not too much. My protagonist Alice, lawyer and amateur sleuth in the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, is well aware how much she likes the way her love interest Ben Kinsear smells––he “smells good”––but she hasn’t put words to the smell the way Chet the dog has. He defines his own smell as “the most familiar smell in the world: old leather, salt and pepper, mink coats, and just a soupcon of tomato; and to be honest, a healthy dash of something male and funky. My smell: yes, sir.”

Could you define your own smell? With aromatic detail? Probably not. A loved one might be able to.

Smell can deepen a scene, define character, highlight plot. Ann Cleeves, in Dead Water (her Shetland series) describes the reception desk in the hotel, a key setting, as “all dark wood, with the smell of beeswax.” The sweet smell, the dark venue.

Elly Griffiths in The Crossing Places shows us her protagonist, archeologist Ruth Galloway: “Climbing the danksmelling staircase to her office, she thinks about her first lecture: First Principles in Excavation.” Danksmelling…excavation. Her job.

Louise Penny, in A Better Man, uses smell to reinforce the humiliating demotion of her protagonist, Quebec Inspector Armand Gamache. A former subordinate now bosses him. A giant ice storm with crashing ice flows and high water threatens Quebec. Worried the Champlain bridge will break, on the way to a police meeting, Gamache gets splattered with mud trying to see whether the dam will hold.

“I see some of the crap thrown at you today on Twitter has stuck,” said the senior officer from the RCMP, gesturing at Gamache’s clothing.

Gamache smiled. “Fortunately, it won’t stain.”

“But it does smell,” said the Mountie, with a wry smile. “Helluva first day back on the job, Armand.”

A great metaphor for the smelly attacks on Gamache that have led to his demotion.

In A Cinnabar Sky’s opening scene, Billy Kring uses smell to build dread and suspense around the locked trunk his protagonist Hunter Kincaid and her companion Buddy are about to pry open. Buddy says, “Now the smell is more like a really bad swamp, right?” When they pop the trunk, it’s “like an abandoned slaughterhouse gone fetid and rotten in the summer heat.”

The “smells” article sent me to poetry. Back to the bookshelves. Poets, in their compressed genre, seem to convey scent by evocative words, words that already define a smell, name a smell. Wallace Stevens has only to say, “coffee and oranges in a sunny chair” in Sunday Morning and we smell them. Shakespeare has only to write “The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem/For that sweet odor which doth in it live” in Sonnet 54. He doesn’t have to define the “sweet odor”: he knows we know it. Coffee? Oranges? Cigar smoke? The word itself gives us the smell. Robert Frost, In Neglect: “I smell the earth, I smell the bruised plant…” We do too. Billy Collins, Canada: “O Canada, as the anthem goes,/scene of my boyhood summers,/you are the pack of Sweet Caporals on the table…” The smell of sneaked cigarettes of youth.

Wallace Stevens did try more extensive fragrant description in Approaching Carolina: “Tilting up his nose/he inhaled the rancid rosin, burly smells/Of dampened lumber, emanations blown/From warehouse doors, the gustiness of ropes,/Decays of sacks, and all the arrant stinks…” We sure know what he means. But is this too much? I wonder if he wondered.

In the upcoming Ghost Daughter, seventh in my series, Alice quizzes a young friend about a new boyfriend. Alice blurts, “So he smells good?” She realizes her own standards for a lifetime companion involve “someone who smelled right…” Probably you’ve all had that experience. Maybe that’s how humans perceive certain under-the-radar scents, as “right” or “not right,” as “good” or “threatening.” Based on Zaraska’s article I suppose “good” may mean “right” in terms of the mysterious “major histocompatibility complex.” Not sure that’s how I want to describe it, though.

I’ll keep working on aromatic pages.

###

Read more about Helen Currie Foster here.

Blending Sub-genres

By N. M. Cedeño

Do you write in more than one genre? Do you blend genres or sub-genres? I do. Some sub-genres seem to lend themselves easily to blending.

While I write mostly in the mystery genre, sometimes I veer into science fiction. A recent Writer’s Digest article entitled 114 Fiction Sub-Genre Descriptions for Writers allowed me to examine exactly how many sub-genres my stories fall into.

created by Wordclouds

My first published story could be classified as a private detective mystery, as a science fiction mystery, as hard science fiction, and as social science fiction, which I’ve also seen called sociological science fiction. Whatever you call it, the story, entitled A Reasonable Expectation of Privacy, features a private detective living in a future society in which all privacy rights have been eliminated because “only people with something to hide need privacy.” The detective, Pete Lincoln, is still adjusting to the ways society changed while he was recovering from a gunshot-wound-induced coma, making him something of a fish out of water. While I considered the story to be a mystery, it was originally published in Analog: Science Fiction and Fact, a magazine that focuses on hard science fiction.

In terms of blending genres, the classic mystery private eye trope of the outsider detective with his own internal compass working in a world where everyone else abides by a different set of rules blends well with sociological science fiction. The trope serves to ground the reader, putting them in comfortable, familiar territory even if the society around the detective is unfamiliar, otherworldly, or dystopian. So when my broke detective is sitting at his desk and a lady arrives in his office with a problem, the reader knows what to expect, even if the story is set in a future world with no privacy rights.

Bad Vibes Removal Services Series logo by N. M. Cedeno

My Bad Vibes Removal Services series, which currently includes 14 short stories and two novels, also falls into a couple of sub-genres. The stories all feature ghosts and some sort of problem that has to be solved, usually a crime, making them paranormal mysteries. However, the detective in my stories, Montgomery, and his employees, Lea, Kamika, and Patrick, use pseudo-scientific inventions to help them solve their cases. That puts the stories into the private detective mystery and science fantasy sub-genres as well. The Bad Vibes series felt like a natural blend of sub-genres to me. Like strawberries and chocolate, science fantasy pairs well with paranormal mystery.

My novel entitled All in Her Head is an amateur sleuth mystery, a romantic mystery, and also falls into the woman in jeopardy sub-genre. The story features a socially-isolated new college graduate who witnesses an attempted murder and then faces ongoing attacks as the perpetrator tries to remove her as a witness. She joins forces with and falls for the victim’s brother while trying to unmask the villain. Romance and mystery are a natural blend, with the heightened emotions created by the crime adding to the romantic tension.

In the novel For the Children’s Sake, I blended an amateur detective mystery and classic whodunit with what might be labeled a medical mystery or mystery science fiction since the medical condition featured in the plot doesn’t exist. In the novel, a priest who advocated on behalf of children with a rare and deadly-to-other-people genetic condition is murdered and his twin brother works to solve the crime. The medical mystery sub-genres which typically features a medical threat, blends easily with mystery science fiction since the writer can invent medical threats that don’t exist yet, making the story science fiction.

Looking at my unpublished stories, I’ve written cozy mysteries, police procedurals, historical mysteries, and spy thrillers, too. I like to challenge myself to try new things. I look forward to trying my hand at writing in some of the other sub-genres on the Writer’s Digest list.

****

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

Revisiting Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet

by Renee Kimball

“Almustafa, the chosen and the beloved, who was a dawn unto his own day, had waited twelve years in the city of Orphalese for his ship that was to return and bear him back to the isle of his birth.

And in the twelfth year, on the seventh day of Ielool, the month of reaping, he climbed the hill without the city walls and looked seaward; and he beheld his ship coming with the mist. . .
. . .
“And he said to himself:
Shall the day of parting be the day of gathering?
And shall it be said that my eve was in truth my dawn? . . .

The Prophet

Born in Lebanon in 1883, Kahlil Gibran was the son of an erratic and abusive alcoholic father who forced Kahlil’s mother to flee with her four children to the United States; Kahlil was 12 years old.  Although they arrived in New York initially, they quickly relocated to Boston’s Southside, settling within a larger immigrant community.

Gibran’s formal education was interrupted fleeing Lebanon, again through relocation to Boston.  The small family faced obstacles of language and culture, yet, despite this, the mother opened a small store that allowed some income.  During Kahlil’s late teens, a sister and both brothers died from tuberculosis; shortly after, Gibran’s mother died from cancer.  As the remaining guardian of his youngest sister, Gibran continued working his mother’s store while pursuing painting and writing.

Prior to his mother’s death, Kahlil also began writing and translating various articles for Boston’s Arabic /Lebanese newspapers. Through the translation work, he established contacts within the Boston artistic community giving Kahlil the encouragement and patronage he desperately needed.  His mother, however, questioning his friendships with the Art Nouveau/Romantic community, sent him back to Lebanon for more education.  He found his father the same aggressive, angry alcoholic Kahlil had fled years before, and he quickly returned to Boston and his mother.

Gibran’s early attempts at art, similar in style to the Romantic William Blake, failed to find an audience, but his writings, generated a respectable following. This was still not enough to support his sister or himself, particularly after his mother’s passing.  It was during this time that Gibran established a pattern of behavior he followed for the rest of his life—first, seeking acceptance within a supportive artistic community and, second, befriending and securing patronage of wealthy older women.

Boston’s literary critics found Kahlil’s grammar stilted and his spiritual style hard to understand.  Acceptance in the larger literary circles remained out of reach but several years passed before Gibran, upon the advice of friends, relocated to New York.  Once there, Gibran’s prose poems and parable style writings established his reputation as a respected writer.

In 1931, Gibran died from causes related to alcoholism and cirrhosis of the liver. He was 48 years of age. His body was returned to Lebanon, where he was buried.

In these troubling times of COVID—confusion and radical change, Gibran’s gentle messages pose as a reminder of the importance of caring for your neighbor, giving without expectation of return, knowing yourself, and loving without judgment.  You do not have look hard to find the love in Gibran’s message, and I, for one, am in favor of more of love everywhere.

 

On Love

…When love beckons you, follow him,
Through his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north
Wind lays waste the garden.

. . .

. . .Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.
Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;
For love is sufficient unto love.
. . .
When you love you should not say, “God is in my heart,”
but rather, “I am in the heart of God.”
And think not you can direct the course of love, for love,
If it finds you worthy, directs your course.”

Of Children

 . . .Your children are not your children.
 They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you. . .

You are the bows from which your children as living
Arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with his might that His arrows may go swift and far. . .

 On Giving

Then said a rich man, Speak to us of Giving.
     And he answered:
     You give but little when you give of your possessions.
     It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.
     For what are your possessions but things you keep and guard
     for fear you may need them tomorrow? . . .
. . .
 It is well to give when asked, but it is better to give unasked,
through understanding;
      And to the open-handed the search for one who shall
receive is joy greater than giving.
     And is there aught you would withhold?
     All you have shall some day be given;
     Therefore give now, that the season of giving may be yours and not your inheritors’. . .

 ***

References

Gibran, Khalil. The Prophet. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (1926, 1970).

Naimy. “The Mind and Thought of Khalil Gibran.” Journal of Arabic Literature, vol. 5, 1974, pp. 55–71.

Pantucek, Svetozar. “ANALYSIS OF THE PARABLES OF GIBRAN KHALIL GIBRAN.” Quaderni Di Studi Arabi, vol. 11, 1993, pp. 139–147.

Poetry Foundation. Kahlil Gibran. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/kahlil-gibran

Images via Wikipedia. All are in the public domain. For more information, click on each image.

***

A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.

I Am Not a Moral Pauper

by Kathy Waller

“Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world.
I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.”
~ Mark Twain
(or possibly W. C. Fields, or . . . )

*

It seemed a valuable medical course, and I recommended it to a lady. She had run down and down and down, and had at last reached a point where medicines no longer had any helpful effect upon her. I said I knew I could put her upon her feet in a week. It brightened her up, it filled her with hope, and she said she would do everything I told her to do. So I said she must stop swearing and drinking, and smoking and eating for four days, and then she would be all right again. And it would have happened just so, I know it; but she said she could not stop swearing, and smoking, and drinking, because she had never done those things. So there it was. She had neglected her habits, and hadn’t any. Now that they would have come good, there were none in stock. She had nothing to fall back on. She was a sinking vessel, with no freight in her to throw over lighten ship withal. Why, even one or two little bad habits could have saved her, but she was just a moral pauper. ~ Mark Twain, Following the Equator

*

So I decide to write about New Years’ Resolutions, and some I’ve made and why I don’t make them any more, and of course, to write about that, I must quote Mark Twain’s remark about smoking, and while searching for the quotation I wonder whether Mark Twain really said it, so I check other  [more reliable] sources and learn that he probably didn’t, and now I’m so fired up about errors in attribution–and errors in everything else–flying around the globe even as I type, that I’m too emotionally jangled to settle down and write about resolutions.

Isn’t that just the way?

Well, whatever. Back to resolutions.

I don’t smoke, never have, so I can’t give it up–well, when I was ten, I did try to smoke a section of mustang grapevine, which my grandfather had warned me would make my tongue sore, but I was afraid of holding a lighted match so close to my face–one could get burned that way–so I gave up.

And another time, three cousins and I–we were eleven or twelve years old–lit one of their mother’s Winstons and each took one puff. Then we decided we’d done something entirely too daring, and their mother was probably already on her way home from town, less than a mile away, so we put the cigarette out, placed the butt on a piece of shingle one of them dug up from somewhere, carried it with great ceremony and a lot of giggling to their burn barrel, and disposed of it.

I guess that means I have smoked but resolved to give it up. One resolution kept.

I am not, however, a moral pauper. I have not neglected my habits. I have plenty of freight I could throw overboard. And I’ve tried, how I’ve tried. But what I intend as jetsam floats back and attaches like barnacles, as it were, to my hull.

I’ve never lost ten, twenty, thirty-five, forty, or any set number of pounds; or completed grad school papers (or blog posts) with more than a few hours to spare; or abstained from chocolate; or organized my purse, office, car, house, or self; or left my keys, reading glasses, or shoes where I could find them; or reached any other goal listed on a December 31st contract.

I know I’m not alone. A proper Victorian girl, Louisa May Alcott was taught to strive for self-improvement but had difficulty following through. At ten years of age, she wrote in her journal “A Sample of Our Lessons”:

‘What virtues do you wish more of?’ asks Mr.L. I answer:—
Patience, Love, Silence,
Obedience, Generosity, Perseverance,
Industry, Respect, Self-denial.
‘What vices less of?’
Idleness, Wilfulness, Vanity,
Impatience, Impudence, Pride,
Selfishnes, Activity, Love of cats.

Alcott is famous for her industry, perseverance, and generosity, but also for wilfulness, impatience, and activity–and thank goodness she retained those “negative” characteristics. American literature would be in a sad state without them.*

Does breaking resolutions bother me? It used to. I have a broad streak of Puritanism. I want to do better. To get it right. When the Methodist minister inquired about me one Sunday morning and my mother told him I was at home trying to finish a grad school paper before slamming into the deadline, he asked, “Is she a perfectionist?” My mother said yes. “I thought so,” he said.

But that was then, and this is 2021. I’ve been at this resolution thing for a long time. A woman at my age and weight** knows how things work.

Contracts can be renegotiated. And when I’m the only party, I’m allowed to set new terms to suit myself. Or to say, “So what?”

Award-winning columnist Ellen Goodman*** wrote something about resolutions that has stayed with me for over ten years:

We spend January walking through our lives, room by room, drawing up a list of work to be done, cracks to be patched. Maybe this year, to balance the list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives … not looking for flaws, but for potential.

I like that. I think Alcott would have liked it, too. In fact, maybe that’s what she did all those years. She saw her own potential, got down to business, and didn’t let up.

That’s the trouble with potential–once you’ve found it, you have to do something about it. Like work.

I suppose the trick is to learn to love the work. Alcott and Twain must have loved what they did. Even when they hated it, they loved it.

Well. What got me thinking about resolutions that I don’t believe in making?

Anthony Trollope. I binge-watched the miniseries adaptation of his The Way We Live Now a couple of weeks ago, for the fourth time. And then I watched the adaptation of Dr. Thorne. And I’m looking for the adaptation of The Pallisers series–I believe it’s seventeen episodes, and I’ve seen it at least three times, but I’d love to watch it again. And The Barchester Chronicles, which is so funny, and I’ve watched it so many times, I’ve practically memorized the dialogue . . .

I love Trollope. I decided to marry my husband when he told me he’d read many of Trollope’s novels. He hadn’t asked me to marry him, but I decided. If he’d read Dickens, I might not have been so impressed. But any man who’d read that many of Trollope’s novels just because he wanted to had to be a man of substance.

If you look at the reviews of The Warden on Amazon, for example, you find, “boring… boring… boring… boring… long and boring…” And, “I couldn’t get into it.” (Good grief, people, it’s a Victorian novel. What did you expect?)

But that is a matter of taste. Some of us think his novels delightful. Satirical. At times, drop-dead funny. The Eustace Diamonds, in The Pallisers series, is a murder mystery.

Trollope wrote forty-seven novels, plus short stories, plus a ton of travel books. He set a writing goal for each day. When he finished one book, he immediately began another. In an autobiography published posthumously, he admitted to writing for money rather than for a Muse. (The admission led to a decrease in sales, because writing for money was considered crass. I don’t know what readers thought Dickens was writing for.)

And Trollope was a civil servant, worked for the British postal service, where he invented the mailbox. 

Now. My dirty little secret is that I’ve never read The Warden. I’ve read its sequel, Barchester Towers. But that’s the only Trollopian novel I’ve read. I have, like many writers of high school book reports, seen the movies.

So I made a resolution: In 2021, I’m going to read all the novels of Anthony Trollope.

If I read one novel a week, I’ll finish with two weeks to spare. My Kindle initially said I could read The Warden in 3 hours and 53 minutes, but a few pages later, it said I could be finished in 4 hours and 15 minutes. Beats me.

In the two weeks left over, I plan to read Brian Doyle’s Martin Marten, which was recommended by a former student, and something by Ann Patchett.

Furthermore, after looking for potential, I’ve resolved to finish writing my own novel. It’s been in the works for a while. Bits and pieces are stored in approximately 3, 508 files on my hard drive (and in the cloud).

I worked on it today, revising an ancient scene for the umpteenth time, and was stuck on whether an Afghan hound named Katie Couric should wear eau de lavender or eau de peppermint when I remembered I had to write this post.

By this time tomorrow I expect to have that issue solved and to have moved on to the next, which will probably involve a goat and a climbing rose.

I don’t write as fast as Trollope.

***

* I’m sure that if Louisa May Alcott stopped loving cats,  she had to do it thousands of times.

** The phrase “A woman at my age and weight” is an allusion to Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels, a little book in which a thirty-nine-year-old woman gets tired of taking care of her bachelor brother and takes off with the owner of a horse-drawn bookstore who made a door-to-door stop by the farm and invites her to come along. When the brother catches up with them, he blesses her out:

“Look here, Helen,” said Andrew, “do you think I propose to have my
sister careering around the State with a strolling vagabond? Upon my
soul you ought to have better sense–and at your age and weight!…” ~ Christopher Morley, Parnassus on Wheels

I read Parnassus about fifty years ago and thought that phrase funny, and have waited all this time for an opportunity to use it.

***I know Ellen Goodman said this because it read it myself in her column in The Austin American-Statesman. She was one of my favorite columnists.

****

Images of authors from Wikipedia, public domain
Image of notepad by USA-Reiseblogger from Pixabay
Image of book cover from Amazon

Ray Bradbury on Writing and Life

 

by Renee Kimball

 

“Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way.”

                                                            ― Ray Bradbury

“. . . And what, you ask, does writing teach us? First and foremost, it reminds us that we are alive and that it is a gift and a privilege, not a right.  We must earn life once it has been awarded us.  Life asks for reward back because it has favored us with animation…Secondly, writing is survival.  Any art, any good work, of course is that.  Not to write, for many of us, is to die…”
                                                Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

Courtesy of Amazon.com

In 1994 , Ray Bradbury published Zen in the Art of Writing; he was 74 years old.  Bradbury began his writing life at twelve years of age and committed the rest of his life to writing one thousand words a day, if not more.

Only 176 pages, Zen is a succinct and instructive work.  The book deftly uses autobiographical material to lay the groundwork as a guidebook for writers; but more, it is an instructional manual for creating a rich, productive, and happy life.

Finding Bradbury’s Zen was an unexpected pleasure.  It is doubtful I would have known of it if it had only been available in hardback.  Because the electronic edition just “happened” to come up on my E-reader, I downloaded and began reading.  (Photo Courtesy of Amazon).

Courtesy of Amazon.com

Zen’s language is reminiscent of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, but that takes nothing away from his message.  In an interview with Futurism Magazine five years before his death in 2012, Bradbury had reached a pinnacle of success known by “living authors.”  Some critics have named him the “greatest science fiction author of all time” but he was more than a science fiction author; he was also a “humanist-philosopher” (Futurism).

Bradbury’s career began as a short story writer during the 50s.  He became a novelist, evolved into writing poems, as well as theatre and movie screenplays.

A collection of Bradbury’s short stories became the basis of his first novel, The Martian ChroniclesThe Illustrated Man followed in 1951, and Fahrenheit 451 in 1954, both still read in high school English classes today.  Bradbury is credited with bringing the science fiction genre into mainstream literature.  The move to writing television screen plays was a natural progression. Gene Roddenberry, Bradbury’s friend and the creator of Star Trek, invited Bradbury to write for the popular show.  Bradbury became the primary writer for the show for many years; the series became a monumental success, spawning sub-culture worship status still going today.

Engaging thoughts found in the slim volume of Zen:

The need to write every day. . .

“I have learned, on my journeys, that if I let a day go by without writing, I grow uneasy.  Two days and I am in tremor.  Three and I suspect lunacy. . .An hour’s writing is tonic. I’m on my feet running in circles. . . Zen (p. ixx).

 On writing with enthusiasm, and finding ideas:

“. . .If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer.” (p.4).

. . .But I wanted to show what we all have in us, that it has always been there, and so few of us bother to notice.  When people ask me where I get my ideas I laugh.  How strange—we’re so busy looking out, to find ways and means, we forget to look in.” (p. 35.

Bradbury’s “formula for writing”. . .

Courtesy of Pixabay.com

“. . .So, simply then, here is my formula. . .

 “What do you want more than anything else in the world? What do you love, or what do you hate?

“Find a character, like yourself, who will want something or not want something, with all his heart. Give him running orders. Shoot him off. Then follow as fast as you can go. The character, in his great love, or hate, will rush you through to the end of the story. . .” (p. 6).

When he was twenty-two, after ten years of struggling, Bradley finally wrote what he believed was his first good short story, “The Lake.”  He earned twenty dollars.  For years afterwards, “The Lake” was continuously published in a variety of magazines; while he was surprised, Bradbury was infinitely pleased.

President George W. Bush, Ray Bradbury, and Laura Bush at Bradbury’s acceptance of the National Medal of Arts , 2004. Wikipedia.

When reading Zen, if you are a certain age, the reader can believe that being with Ray Bradbury would be comfortable, undemanding, enjoyable—he is the model for a “good friend.”  Bradbury is the ultimate family man, devoted to his wife and four daughters.  He had strong life-time friendships —not only in business, but in life.  He writes about his gratefulness to his wife and his daughters and joy they brought him and the loving home they shared.  He never shies away from sentimental feelings of family and friends that seem to escape modern writing, he acknowledges his missteps and successes with humor and truth.

Bradbuy’s Wisdom

“Read poetry every day of your life.  Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough. Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition.  It keeps you aware of your nose, your eye, your ear, your tongue, your hand. . .” (p. 36).

. . .

“You say you don’t understand Dylan Thomas? Yes, but your ganglion does, and your secret wits, and all your unborn children. Read him, as you can read a horse with your eyes, set free and charging over an endless green meadow on a windy day… (p. 37).”

. . . “Read those authors who write the way you hope to write, those who think the way you would like to think. . .” (p. 38).

“. . . The constant remains:  the search, the finding, the admiration, the love, the honest response to materials at hand, no matter how shabby they one day seem, when looked back on…” (p. 41).

“. . . By living well, by observing as you live, by reading well and observing as you read, you have Your Most Original Self.” (p. 43).

In Zen, the reader will find a template for a full life, a joyful life. Bradbury did not just give advice, he lived what he told others to do: work with passion and creativity, write every day with enthusiasm, find joy in whatever you do, and nourish your inner self, your inner muse.  Read everything, and experience the wonder of the people in your life, the world around you, and most importantly sprinkle everything you do and say with Love—success will follow.

Courtesy of Pixabay

“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”

― Ray Bradbury

###

REFERENCES

Bradbury, Ray. Zen in the Art of Writing.
Bradbury, Ray. 1990. Zen in the art of writing. Santa Barbara, Calif: Joshua Odell Editions, electronic publication 2012, Amazon.com Kindle Edition.

Ray Bradbury. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ray-Bradbury

Full Cycle Publications. Interview with Ray Bradbury. 07.20.2019. https://www.fullcyclepublications.com/interview-with-ray-bradbury/

Goodreads. Bradbury Quotes.  https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/1630.Ray_Bradbury

###

A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.