Creating Multiple Identities: the Research Rabbit Hole

by N.M. Cedeño

Setting a story in the past requires the author to do research to make sure the details of the story are correct. For me, researching topics means risking falling down the research rabbit hole and discovering way more information than I need. This week’s research topic: how a character could create fake identities during the 1960s and 1970s.

My current work-in-progress, a short story, involves a character with a penchant for using fake identities in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I wanted to know how hard it would be for my character to have multiple bank accounts and jobs under different identities during that time period. This necessitated research into social security numbers (SSNs) and how they were issued in the past.

Creating a fake identity prior to 1974 took very little effort because laws regarding obtaining SSNs and starting bank accounts were lax. For instance, for my character to open bank accounts under different names was fairly easy. Social security numbers were not required for starting financial accounts at banks or other institutions until 1983. However, even if the banks had required SSNs, my character could have easily provided multiple SSNs for multiple fake identities.

Before April 1974, anyone could request a social security number by completing an application without providing evidence of their age, identity, or citizenship status. Electronic tracking of social security numbers, using a punch card computer system didn’t start until 1979. This ease in obtaining SSNs led to all kinds of irregularities and problems in the system that lasted for decades. As late as 2007, the Social Security Administration identified 4.7 million people who had more than one SSN. Most of those people had requested numbers before 1974 when the requirements for providing evidence of identity and age went into effect.

Why did so many people have more than one social security number? Was identity fraud rampant?  

No. Most of those people weren’t trying to commit any crime. After SSNs were introduced in 1936, not everyone understood how they worked. Some people thought they needed a new number every time they started a new job. If workers lost the card with their number on it, they simply applied for a new number. Other people applied for a social security number when the cards were first introduced. Then, when they started working a new job, they filled out paperwork provided by their employer to get another one as employers tried to make sure their employees had SSNs.

It wasn’t even unusual for more than one person to use the same SSN.

For example, in 1938, a wallet manufacturer in New York sold wallets in stores with a sample social security card inside to show the buyer how the card would fit in the wallet. That sample social security card had a number on it which many buyers of the wallet then adopted as their own. By 1943, at least 5,755 were using the sample SSN that came with the wallet. As late as 1977, twelve people were still using that same number.

Prior to the late 1980s, most people didn’t have to get a social security number until they got a job and had to pay taxes. A pilot program to get children SSNs at birth started in 1987. Before 1986, most kids didn’t need SSNs since they could be listed as dependents on tax forms without one. From the time the SSN was introduced in 1936 until the late 1980s, most people only applied for social security numbers when they reached a point in life where they needed one. Therefore, it was common for adults to apply for cards.

All of this means that the character in my story could easily have created multiple fake identities before 1974 by filling out applications for multiple SSNs. He could hold jobs under different SSNs and keep many unconnected bank accounts. But now, all of this research will be filed away, because I can’t use it in my story. I only needed to know that my character could indeed obtain documentation for multiple fake identities without getting caught immediately.

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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. Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter. Find out more at nmcedeno.com.

Note: All pictures by Pixabay.

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?

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Where Are We? Trowels Up!

by Helen Currie Foster

Try to imagine a mystery without its setting. What? You’re having trouble?

Open a mystery and be denied the setting. What? You’re getting irritated? Why?

We use our senses to smell, to see, to hear, to feel a setting. We LIVE in our own settings, with their dimensions of sight, smell, sound, touch, with plants to see and smell and touch, other humans to love or fear. We use all our senses to apprehend a setting, and we imagine with those senses when we engage in a mystery setting. A mystery without a setting? Our imaginations would feel so deprived.

And if we’re talking about a “regional” mystery without a setting—what’s the point? I read about Venice because I want to feel I’m there as well as follow Guido Brunetti around his favorite canals. If it’s one of Spencer Quinn’s  Chet and Bernie mysteries I want to ride with Bernie in his beat-up Porsche, with Chet in the front seat (his tongue hanging out of course), cruising through the Arizona desert.

Texas mysteries? Local color, please. Note that term “color,” that appeal to our senses! The color of eyes and landscapes, the sound of accents and music, the feel of dry wind or thunderstorms, the scent of salsa and barbecue, saddles and blankets, cedar and limestone, creek water and cypress trees. We want it all.

We mystery writers face so many decisions. Protagonist? Characters? Point(s) of view? Tenses? Oh yeah, the plot? But perhaps paramount? Setting.

At last year’s Bouchercon conference in Dallas, Elizabeth George told a rapt audience (including me) that in her Lynley series she begins with the setting. She described visiting various settings and how the characters emerged in her imagination—from the place.

Alexander McCall Smith agrees that in his novels, location is as important as the characters. “Place is often terribly important to us,” he said. “And to describe it is to describe our feelings for the world.”  Our feelings for the world! Or at least, for the world of that setting.

Smith describes how he begins a book: “I mentally write the first paragraph and, on occasion, the last paragraph. With these two elements in place, all that remains is to write the bits in-between. The first sentence is very important. For me, that can set the whole tone of the book, and once I have the first sentence the task of writing proves relatively easy.”

His first sentence usually drops us directly into the setting, as in To the Land of Long Lost Friends (Pantheon Books 2019):

“Precious Ramotswe, founder of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, doyenne of private investigators in Botswana (not that there were any others, apart from her assistant, Grace Makutsi), wife of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni (garagiste and past chairman of the Botswana Motor Trades Association, citizen of Botswana)—that same Precious Ramotswe was sitting in the second row of chairs at the open-air wedding of Mr. Seemo Outule to Ms. Thato Kgwadi.”

The paragraph continues: “It was a hot day in October, a month of heat and unremitting thirst for the land and all that lived upon the land: the cattle, the wild animals, the small, almost invisible creatures that conducted their lives in the undergrowth or among the rocks, creatures whose very names had been forgotten now. They were all waiting for the rains…”

We know we’re in Botswana at an open-air wedding where we’ve learned of the sleuth, her partner, and her husband, but the rest of the paragraph tells us even more: it’s hot and dry October, a time of “unremitting thirst for the land and all that lived upon the land: the cattle, the wild animals, the small, almost invisible creatures that conducted their lives in the undergrowth or among the rocks…”

We’ve felt how the protagonist, Precious Ramotswe, lives and breathes awareness of her country, where all creatures—human and otherwise, even the invisible creatures whose names have been forgotten—are waiting for the rains. What an appeal to imagination! Maybe this setting has extra appeal for readers in central Texas who know all too well the unforgiving heat of August, its crunchy dry grass, cracks in the soil, and desperate deer, waiting for a rousing thunderstorm to refill dry water tanks and refresh even the “small, almost invisible creatures” that surround us.

So a mystery setting is much more than a GPS setting. Accuracy’s important, as Rhys Bowen emphasized in her presentation to HOTXSINC (Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime): the writer risks losing all credibility with mistakes in location or description. But the mystery setting must include how the characters feel about the setting—which reveals more about the characters.

Here’s the beginning of Josephine Tey’s To Love and Be Wise (copyright 1951; Scribner Paperback Fiction 1998), with her series protagonist, Alan Grant of Scotland Yard:

“Grant paused with his foot on the lowest step, and listened to the shrieking from the floor above. As well as the shrieks there was a dull continuous roar; an elemental sound, like a forest fire or a river in spate. As his reluctant legs bore him upwards he arrived at the inevitable deduction: the party was being a success.

“He was not going to the party. Literary sherry parties, even distinguished ones, were not Grant’s cup of tea. He was going to collect Marta Hallard and take her out to dinner…The roar of the party’s success came flooding out through the open doors on to the landing, and Grant paused to look at the yelling crowd asparagus-packed into the long Georgian room and to wonder how he was going to pry Marta out of it.”

Ever felt like that, dear reader? Ever dreaded having to walk into a “roaring success” of a party with a “yelling crowd asparagus-packed”? I’m betting most of us (with our share of introversion) have “reluctant legs” in such situations. On Tey’s first page we learn Grant’s a “presentable escort,” a Detective Inspector at Scotland Yard, and can “afford to dine at Laurent’s.” But his “reluctant legs” indicate how this privileged character feels about even a “distinguished” literary sherry party. By dropping us into this particular London setting Tey helps us identify with her protagonist by his reaction to that setting. We walk with his “reluctant legs” up those steps. We understand that he (probably like us) is there because he feels an obligation, and, despite his feelings, he’s a man who meets his obligations.

Setting’s critical for regional mysteries. “The setting may define the mystery: an Arizona book, a Missouri story, a Cape Cod [or a Texas] mystery. In regional mysteries, the setting is more than mere background. The setting influences the characters and plot. It drives the story.” (Emphasis added.)

Texas writer Tex Thompson pointed out in her recent presentation to HOTXSINC that one way to dial up the conflict in our mysteries is to dial up the contrast between the character and the setting.  For example, is the protagonist a fish out of water? In my Ghost Cat, the protagonist Alice practices law in a small Texas town but fears any firearm other than a flare gun and feels like a complete impostor on a horse.

One engaging archeological mystery dive is Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway Series set on the marshes of Norfolk, England. Ruth, a forensic archeologist, is often called to help local police when bones are found at construction sites. She feels many disconnects—unmarried mother of a daughter, slightly overweight, harassed by her university department head––but takes pride in her competence as a sharp-eyed and professional archeologist. She lives on a lonely road by the coastal saltmarsh, where water meets land, a liminal area with Bronze Age artifacts buried deep. Her love for this location drives the plot and enriches her character:

“Her favourite place. Beyond her front garden with its windblown grass and broken blue fence there is nothingness. Just miles and miles of marshland, sported with stunted gorsebushes and criss-crossed with small, treacherous streams…Ruth has absolutely no idea why she loves it so much.”

I wonder if archeology offers a challenge to our own imaginations. Just north of Austin is an archeological site including the “Gault Assemblage.” Very careful long-term excavation and documentation of the site now reveal human occupancy up to 20,000 years ago—much earlier than traditionally thought. The dates for human habitation in North and South America keep moving further and further back. And why wouldn’t early people have chosen this area? It’s on water…there’s chert available to chip into powerful tools…the nearby plains furnished buffalo. Similarly, recent breakthroughs in dating Neanderthal tools have pushed back dates for their culture by several hundred thousand years. Most artifacts of that age are lithic (rock points, rock knapping), and it takes sustained imagination and examination to understand what our ancestors were up to. It takes human imagination, staring at a biface point, looking at a reassembled cobble, to see the chipping techniques our ancestors developed, to begin to grasp the complex reality of their daily lives—their setting. Rebecca Wragg Sykes, Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art.

 In a way mystery-writing is archeological. In our imaginations we excavate clues from the past—perhaps an imagined past—to recreate what happened, or could have happened. We recreate in our imaginations what our characters saw, smelled, heard, felt…and did. Maybe the more richly we imagine the setting, the more the characters can come alive.

Okay, trowels up. Back to the trenches. Well, not archeological—but fingers on keyboards, pens on paper.

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Helen Currie Foster is author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery series, her latest, Ghost Cat, was published in April 2020.  She is also author of The Bloody Bead, a Bullet Book Speed Read, co-written with Manning Wolfe.

Writing Humor in Mysteries

by K.P. Gresham

I recently appeared on a “Writing Humor in Mysteries” panel at the Pflugerville, Texas, Library along with fellow authors Kelly Cochran and Nancy West.  My first reaction was the old adage, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Unless you’re talking about the Pink Panther and Inspector Clouseau, one doesn’t usually think that humor and death work well as a pair.

Although the mysteries I write are serious, I find that interjecting comedy into the either the character or plot (or both) really moves the action along. It picks up the pacing, gives more depth to characters, and sometimes you just have to lighten the moment for the reader as the plot turns darker and darker.

I once read a blog by Zia Westfield (www.ziawestfield.com) and she outlined five elements that often appear in comedic mysteries.

      1. The Screwball Heroine (think “I Love Lucy”)
      2. The Wacky Secondary Character (obviously Ethel Mertz comes to mind)
      3. The Snowball Effect (Events become more and more out of control)
      4. Whatever Can Go Wrong, Make it a Hundred Times Worse (back to Lucille Ball)
      5. Snappy Dialogue and Word Choice (Here pacing is everything)

In more serious murder mysteries, however, to me it’s all about the characters. For example, it’s possible to have a series of homicides and a very serious detective, but a side character can provide the comedic relief. In The Preacher’s First Murder, an elderly woman has gone missing and is considered to be in danger. Very scary stuff for the family. Enter an idiot rookie “hunter” who didn’t know a rifle from a shotgun. His exploits provided the needed chuckle to break up the intense drama.

I’ve also found that putting my hero in a foreign place presents lots of opportunity for the hero’s inner dialogue to ponder this “new world.” Again, in The Preacher’s First Murder, the hero, originally from Miami, has moved to small town Texas. The first time someone says, “She makes a hornet look cuddly,” he realizes he’s not in…well, you know.

For me, the easiest way to write humor is in first person, and I’ve found it to be a lot of fun. Most stories come from experiences I’ve had, a belly laugh all over. “Write What You Know,” as they say. Perhaps it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway. It really helps to write humorous mysteries if you have a sense of humor yourself. Odds are that what makes you laugh will make others laugh too.

Anyway, feel free to check out the writing comedic mysteries at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Ur2gyXHEvM&feature=youtu.be

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Special thanks to Margaret Miller for the invitation to participate and awesome kudos to my fellow panelists Kelly Cochran and Nancy West!

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Image by Joe Alfaraby from Pixabay

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Check out more about K.P. Gresham at her website, http://www.kpgresham.com

Her books in the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series include

THE PREACHER’S FIRST MURDER
MURDER IN THE SECOND PEW
MURDER ON THE THIRD TRY

PLAIN OR FANCY?

by Helen Currie Foster

Mystery readers are tetchy. We want an interesting plot with a fair shot at noting each clue—but don’t want to guess whodunnit too soon. We’re prepared to care about the protagonist, the sleuth, perhaps the victim. We hope some characters will intrigue us; others should do their part and get offstage.

Of course, setting is key. We may want a mystery set in our own state—or on the far side of the world. We demand accurate detail; we’re slow to forgive mistakes. We want to feel we’re actually in the setting: riding the Cornwall train with an exhausted Cormoran Strike, in the basement of the Russian Club with Peter Wimsey, escaping from a southside Chicago industrial complex with V.I. Warshawski.

So for setting, how much description is too much? Do you find yourself sometimes turning the page, skipping the paragraph describing the view from the ski-lift, the row of shops in the village, the squalor of the factory yard?

Recall Oliver Strunk’s Rule 6, Do Not Overwrite (Section V, “An Approach to Style (With a List of Reminders”): “Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.”

Oliver Strunk’s Elements of Style

The Wild Places: 9781783784493: Amazon.com: Books

Yes, but sometimes a writer stops us in our tracks with beauty. Take Robert MacFarlane, The Wild Places (my favorite, describing hikes in Britain)or The Old Ways, or Landmarks. Contrary to habit I scribbled many quotes in the back of my copy of The Wild Places. He describes moonlight on a freezing night atop a mountain: “trillions of lunar photons pelting on to my face and the snow about me, giving me an eyeful of silver…”

An eyeful of silver! He writes of hiking an eroded old seabed, “We moved through dozens of weathers.” Of a frozen waterfall: “A hard portcullis of ice, beautifully mottled by dark figures of thaw.” Can’t you see it? Feel it? He quotes Stephen Graham on the rare moment when we feel part of nature: “‘As you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged by a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens.’”

The great door, that does not look like a door!

Maybe our sleuth lacks the time, is in too much peril, to describe moonlight “giving me an eyeful of silver,” or the moment when she or he, lying beneath a tree, momentarily sensed “the great door, that does not look like a door…” Too contemplative, when the sleuth has no time to contemplate.

A mystery setting has additional jobs besides painting the landscape. Ideally it draws us straight into the plot, shaping our view of the characters. Here’s the beginning of Sayer’s Strong Poison:

Mystery Monday: Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers | Ms M's Bookshelf

“There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood.

The judge was an old man; so old, he seemed to have outlived time and change and death. His parrot-face and parrot-voice were dry, like his old, heavily-veined hands. His scarlet robe clashed harshly with the crimson of the roses. He had sat for three days in the stuffy court, but he showed no signs of fatigue.

He did not look at the prisoner as he gathered his notes into a neat sheaf and turned to address the jury, but the prisoner looked at him. Her eyes, like dark smudges under the heavy square brows, seemed equally without fear and without hope. They waited.”

Already we’re caught, sensing the prisoner’s peril. Immediately we must turn to the next page.

Or Tony Hillerman’s first paragraphs in The Ghostway:

The Ghostway (Leaphorn & Chee, #6) by Tony Hillerman

“Hosteen Joseph Joe remembered it like this.

He’d noticed the green car just as he came out of the Shiprock Economy Wash-O-Mat. The red light of sundown reflected from its windshield. Above the line of yellow cottonwoods along the San Juan River the shape of Shiprock was blue-black and ragged against the glow. The car looked brand new and it was rolling slowly across the gravel, the driver leaning out the window just a little. The driver had yelled at Joseph Joe.

“Hey!” he’d yelled. “Come here a minute.”

Joseph Joe remembered that very clearly. The driver looked like a Navajo, but yelling at him like that was not a Navajo thing to do because Joseph Joe was eighty-one years old, and the people around Shiprock and up in the Chuska Moutains called him Hosteen, which means “old man” and is a term of great respect.”

Hillerman has us. Shiprock silhouetted against a sunset, the Chuska Mountains, Navajo tradition being violated––we’re hooked by this authoritative voice placing us where we wanted to be, in Navajo country.

Strunk has other words for us writers as well. His Rule 14, Avoid Fancy Words: “Anglo-Saxon is a livelier tongue than Latin, so use Anglo-Saxon words.” I checked: “word” itself is Anglo-Saxon. https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=word

This instruction helps mystery writers follow several other rules, such as not overwriting, and choosing powerful verbs and specific nouns. See page two of Hillerman’s The Dark Wind:

Amazon.com: The Dark Wind (9780062018021): Tony Hillerman: Books

Lomatewa glanced past the rabbit brush at the second boot. It matched. Beyond the second boot, the path curved sharply around a weathered granite boulder. Lomatewa sucked in his breath. Jutting from behind the boulder he could see the bottom of a foot. The foot was bare and even from where Lomatewa stood he could see there was something terribly wrong with it.”

Here he uses mainly (not all) Anglo-Saxon words, though some traveled from Latin through old French.

When I’m writing I’m always aware of Strunk’s strictures (uh-oh, late Latin). Indeed, I should probably reread him every week. But in working on this seventh mystery I also hope to discover “an eyeful of silver”, or “the smell of charred stone”, or move through “dozens of weathers,” or more.

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You can find more information about Helen Currie Foster at helencurriefoster.com