FOOD AND A GATHERING PLACE

by Helen Currie Foster

A critical tool for mystery writers is creation of a gathering place. We watch desperate clients rush straight to Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street lodgings––often the first place where we meet his client, learn what the client hopes Holmes will do, and encounter Watson, Lestrade, and various witnesses. A gathering place gives us––and the sleuth, whether amateur or professional––a place to meet characters, assess the social structure, and see investigation  in action. Sometimes it’s the crime scene itself.

A gathering place can provide the writer an opportunity to comply with one of the key rules (or guidelines) of the original 1930 Detection Club: “The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.” https://murder-mayhem.com/the-detection-club-rules We may not always meet or learn of the criminal at a gathering place, but it can provide a useful location for the author to make that first mention.

And we’re humans, so we appreciate gathering places that involve food and drink! We learn so much there, about our protagonist and key characters.

When we first meet Bruno, chief of police in a small town in the French Dordogne, the author immediately shows us the contents of Bruno’s police van, including: “one basket containing newly laid eggs from his own hens, and another with his garden’s first spring peas…Tucked neatly to one side were a first-aid kit, a small tool chest, a blanket, and a picnic hamper with plates and glasses, salt and pepper, a head of garlic and a Laguiole pocketknife with a horn handle and a corkscrew. Tucked under the front seat was a bottle of not-quite-legal eau-de-vie from a friendly farmer. He would use this to make his private stock of vin de noix when the green walnuts were ready…” Martin Walker, Bruno, Chief of Police (Book 1 of the series). Hmm: a resourceful and picnic-prepared detective.

Bruno routinely uses a couple of gathering places involving food, first and foremost his own farm above the Vézère River, in country humans have cherished for over 30,000 years. We learn of Bruno’s garden, his hunting, and the dishes he makes for guests. In the latest book, To Kill a Troubadour, Bruno demonstrates his omelet techniques and also carries six jars of his venison pâté to a village feast. (Martin Walker now has a cookbook.) But Bruno visits other gathering places, including his favorite bakery (Fauquet’s) where he buys his morning croissants—one of which he always feeds his puppy. The garden, the venison, the eggs, the wine opener, the bakery, the puppy, the croissants—they’re part of Bruno, and key to the setting.

Inspector Jules Maigret? His setting is typically Paris, where the Brasserie Dauphine delivers late-night sandwiches and beer to his office at the Quai des Orfèvres when he interviews a defendant. He and his colleagues must eat during investigations, of course—at the office and elsewhere. In Maigret Bides His Time he dines at the Clou Doré, a luxurious restaurant owned by a man Maigret suspects of jewel thefts. The waiter: “I recommend the paella this evening… To go with it, a dry Tavel, unless you prefer a Pouilly Fumé.” During the meal, Maigret “seemed to be concerned only with the food and the deliciously fruity wine.” But we readers know otherwise: he’s absorbing atmosphere, clues, little “tells.” In each book, Maigret finds a bar, a brasserie, a restaurant, which can serve as the gathering place where he assembles information that ultimately leads to a solution. Food and drink help create this distinctively French setting.

I do feel it’s unlikely that Four Corners policewoman Bernadette Manuelito would try Bruno’s venison pâté, and I’m not sure her husband, Jim Chee, would either. So far as I recall neither has visited France. They live and work in Navajo and Hopi land, in the series begun by Tony Hillerman and continued by his daughter, Anne Hillerman. In The Wailing Wind, Jim Chee and his former boss, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, “got a table at the Navajo Inn, ordered coffee. Chee would eat a hamburger with fries as always.” Leaphorn says, “I always have an enchilada.” In Anne Hillerman’s Rock with Wings, “Bernie asked Chee to order her usual, a hamburger and a Coke.” She can tolerate pepperoni pizza, but abjures salad. https://www.amazon.com/Rock-Wings-Leaphorn-Manuelito-Novel/dp/0062821733/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1663609808&sr=8-2

The Hillerman setting is not the Navajo Inn, not a particular bar, not a particular bakery. It’s the entire Four Corners, a vast arena of mountains and mesas sacred to Navajo and Hopi memory, with enormous views and laconic characters, careful in their speech, who drive miles to find gas or food. A garden of tender green peas? No. When he hikes into the mountains on a case, Jim Chee packs a bologna sandwich—not venison pâté. Food is essential, food is basic, and eating is often a solitary experience, while Bernadette Manuelito or Jim Chee are out in an arroyo, tracking a killer. The landscape feels too large for a single gathering place—although Jim Chee’s trailer, Captain Largo’s or Leaphead’s offices, or Bernadette’s mother’s house see occasional gatherings.

Coke and hamburger versus venison pâté or paella (French version) and Tavel? Famous cultural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote, “Cooking is a language… through which society unconsciously reveals its structure.” Also known—by mystery readers–as setting.

For her Richard Jury series Martha Grimes takes us to various venues in London and elsewhere, such as Brown’s Hotel (The Dirty Duck), and the Members Room at Borings (the club to which Jury’s friend Melrose Plant belongs) (The Old Wine Shades). She uses pub names as her titles, and the pub can serve as a gathering place, as it does in The Old Wine Shades. Another repeat gathering place is Melrose’s stately country home, Ardry End, which is subject to invasion by Agatha, his aunt-by-marriage, who greedily demolishes all the “fairy cakes” made by Melrose’s excellent cook, Martha. https://www.christinascucina.com/butterfly-cupcakes-british-butterfly-cakes/

Martha knows that when he breakfasts at Ardry End, Richard Jury lusts after her mushrooms: “Jury spooned eggs and a small pile of mushrooms onto his plate, then forked up sausages (a largish number), speared a tomato and sat down.” Shortly thereafter Martha reappears with “a steaming silver dish… ‘Mushrooms! I knew you’d be wanting more o’ my mushrooms!’” And he did. There’s something intimate about watching favorite characters have breakfast—possibly the most individually designed meal we eat. Right?

Grimes invents the Jack and Hammer Pub as the gathering place where Melrose meets his eclectic (nutty) village friends. At the Jack and Hammer we meet the cast of characters Grimes rotates through this series, and watch the friends (and Melrose) try to puzzle out the solution to the murder Richard Jury must solve. We learn the talents and deficits of these friends, their secret loves, and what they order from the bar.

Reading what characters eat and drink enriches our feeling of presence in a book. It pulls our own senses and memories into what we’re reading. We can taste the paella, taste the hamburger, remember our favorite burger joint, our favorite restaurant. We begin to participate in the mystery’s setting. Bernie bites her hamburger; Maigret takes a sip; so do we.

Our reactions to food live in our memory, linked to our senses of smell—and taste. “Smell and taste are closely linked. The taste buds of the tongue identify taste, and the nerves in the nose identify smell. Both sensations are communicated to the brain, The taste buds of the tongue identify taste, and the nerves in the nose identify smell. Both sensations are communicated to the brain, which integrates the information so that flavors can be recognized and appreciated. Some tastes—such as salty, bitter, sweet, and sour—can be recognized without the sense of smell. However, more complex flavors (such as raspberry) require both taste and smell sensations to be recognized.” https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/ear,-nose,-and-throat-disorders/symptoms-of-nose-and-throat-disorders/overview-of-smell-and-taste-disorders#:~:text=The%20taste%20buds%20of%20the,without%20the%20sense%20of%20smell.

Proust was right about food and memory: “Odors take a direct route to the limbic system, including the amygdala and the hippocampus, the regions related to emotion and memory.” https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/02/how-scent-emotion-and-memory-are-intertwined-and-exploited/#:~:text=Smells%20are%20handled%20by%20the,related%20to%20emotion%20and%20memory

And why shouldn’t this be so? At least partly, cooking defines us as human. Humans apparently mastered fire and began cooking at least 500,000 years ago; possibly our human ancestors began cooking as much as 1.8 million years ago. No wonder food and memory are entwined in our brains. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/food-for-thought-was-cooking-a-pivotal-step-in-human-evolution/;

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/foodfeatures/evolution-of-diet/#:~:text=Our%20human%20ancestors%20who%20began,more%20fuel%20for%20our%20brains;

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/121026-human-cooking-evolution-raw-food-health-science

On that note, I’ve just finished the draft of Book 8 in my Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, Ghosted. The central gathering place? The Beer Barn, an iconic Texas Hill Country dancehall and roadhouse. Food? Critical. Luis’s enchiladas and Conroy’s barbecue? They call!

Helen Currie Foster lives and writes in the Texas Hill Country, north of Dripping Springs, loosely supervised by three burros. She’s active with Austin Shakespeare and the Heart of Texas Chapter of Sisters in Crime, as well as Hill Country Master Naturalists (still trying to learn those native grasses). Her Ghost Daughter, Book 7 in the Series,

was named 2022 Eric Hoffer Award Grand Prize Short List, as well as Finalist, 2022 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, and 16th Annual National Indie Excellence Awards.

Who Gets What? And Why? And Who Said?

by Kathy Waller

My mother used to tell me I should become a lawyer. “You’re analytical,” she said.

I think she meant I was argumentative, but that’s a different story.

I would like to be analytical in the way lawyers are, but I’m not. And I don’t think on my feet. If I were practicing criminal defense, my clients would be halfway to prison before I realized I should have said, “Objection!”

Nonetheless, though not a lawyer type, I decided back in Aught Three that I might make a fair-to-middlin’ paralegal after I retired from library work. So I registered for an eleven-month course in paralegal studies. And found myself back in the world of Saturday classes and papers and exams and quizzes and perpetual studying.

And perpetual remembering. Cases, statutes, ordinances. Codes, Codes, Codes. I’d been out of school for twelve years. I wasn’t accustomed to stuffing my head with–stuff–and spilling it back onto exams.

I’ve read that if you know 80% of the course material, you’ll be able to pass the tests. That may work for other students.

But I believe–I’m sure–that if I know 80% of the material, the exams will cover the other 20%. Consequently, the only thing to do is learn 100%.

And it’s such dry material. Drier than the Dewey Decimal System. No surprise, of course, but I longed for literature, novels just crying out to be torn apart, rummaged through, distilled to their very essence . . .

My memory needed story.

So, preparing for the probate exam, I wrote one–in the form of a mnemonic. It explained intestate succession–who gets what when a Texan dies without leaving a valid will–as laid out by the Texas Probate Code in force as of November 2003. One of our instructors had warned the class that students usually considered probate the most difficult section of the course.

Composing the memory aid took the better part of an afternoon. It required that I not only observe restrictions imposed by rime and meter, but that I strictly adhere to the provisions of the Code. There was no wiggle room. It had to be correct.

At the end of the day, I was pleased. Aside from a couple of rhythmic aberrations, all the lines scanned, the rime scheme was satisfactory, and the targeted provisions of the Code  were covered.

It was a pretty good song.

As a mnemonic, however, it lacked a lot. It was long and complicated. I could have completed an entire exam in the time it took me to sing (silently) down to the second chorus.

It was easier to just learn the Code.

Still, I was proud of my effort, so I posted the little flash of creativity on the class’s online bulletin board. My old biology classmates would have read it and applauded. My paralegal classmates looked at me funny.

Well, an instructor had also told us that paralegals aren’t supposed to display a sense of humor.

But funny looks don’t bother me. I spent years in education. I’m used to them.

At the risk of getting several more, I present a bit of law in verse.

DISCLAIMER

The content of the following composition was accurate as of November 1, 2003. The song does not reflect changes in the law since that date. Neither does it represent a legal opinion, nor is it intended to offer counsel or advice. Its appearance on this blog does not constitute practicing law without a license.

More specifically,

*The substance of the Texas Probate Code was codified in the Estates Code by the 81st and 82nd Legislatures, and for that reason, the Texas Legislative Council is not publishing it. If you would like more information, please contact the Texas Legislative Council.

In other words, the Texas Probate Code was swallowed up by the Estates Code, and “John Brown’s Intestacy” is no longer accurate. The author doesn’t intend to make it accurate. And she is still not attempting to practice law without a license.

********************

JOHN BROWN’S INTESTACY

By Kathy Waller

(To be sung to the tune of John Brown’s Body, 
aka The Battle Hymn of the Republic).

I.

John Brown died and went to heaven but forgot to make a will.
His intestate succession now the Probate Code will tell.
Was he married, was he single, do his kids sit ‘round the ingle?
Had he common prop. or sep.?

Glory, glory, Texas Probate!
Separate property Section 38!
Common property Section 45!
Make a will while you’re alive!

II.

If John’s married and he leaves a wife, no kids, or kids they share,
Then 45(a)1 leaves wife all common prop. that’s there.
But if he has an extra kid, wife ends up with just half
And the kids share all the rest.

Glory, glory 45(b)!
Don’t omit Section 43!
By the cap or by the stirpes,
Wife shares it with the kids!

III.

For separate prop., if he’s no wife, it goes to kids or grands.
If none of those, John’s parents halve the personal and lands.
If only mom or pop lives, the surviving one takes half.
John’s siblings share the rest.

Glory! Both John’s folks are deceased–
All his sibs will share the increase,
And if no siblings, 38(a)4 means
They’ll need a family tree.

IV.

If John has separate prop. and leaves a wife and kids or grands,
38(b)1 gives wife one-third of personal prop. at hand,
And a one-third interest just for life in houses and in lands.
Descendants take the rest.

Glory, glory 38(b)1!
It’s one-third/two-thirds division!
But if John leaves a wife but no kids,
Section 38(b)2 applies!

V. – VII.

John’s wife gets all his personal prop. and half the real estate.
The other half of real estate goes back to 38—
38(a), to be exact, and up the family tree,
Unless his gene pool’s defunct.

For if John Brown was an only child with parents absentee,
No brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, or cousins on the tree,
No grandparents or great-grandparents to grab a moiety,
His wife will get it all.

BUT if John Brown leaves this life with naught a soul to say, “Amen,”
The Probate Code’s escheat will neatly tie up all the ends:
The Lone Star State will step right up to be John’s kith and kin,
And Texas takes it all!

Glory, glory Texas Probate!
Slicing up poor John Brown’s estate!
Avoid the Legislature’s dictate:
Make a will while you’re alive!

*****

Image of statue by Gerhard from Pixabay

Image of woman studying by Jan Vašek from Pixabay

*****

Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. Her short stories appear in several anthologies and online. She lives in Austin with one cream tabby and one husband. She’s still working on that mystery novel.

She did work as a paralegal for 2.5 years. She found the work interesting and loved the job (mostly). When she resigned, her attorney said, “I think you’re quitting because you need to do something more creative. So much of the law is just drudgery.” She agreed with him.

Moonshine is Mighty Fine and ILLEGAL!

By K.P. Gresham

Still on the research kick, I’m in the process of learning all about moonshine. No, not how to drink it. How to make it. While plotting out my next book, Death Takes the Fifth, I realized moonshine (and by extension, moonshiners) would play an integral role in the story. Let’s be clear—making moonshine is a against the law in 48 states unless you’ve got a distributor’s license, so DO NOT make this stuff. And, for the record, the moonshiners in my book get in a lot of trouble for what they’re doing.

I got the idea from watching the TV show, “Moonshiners”, on Discovery TV. Yep, I’ve followed the cast through quite a few of their antics, whether it be finding a still site, constructing a still, what kind of water makes the best hooch, recipes for anything from whiskey to gin to absinthe, and how to escape the law (well, moonshiners try, anyway). I even bought a jar of (legal) moonshine marketed at a nearby liquor store to see how it tastes. I’m pretty sure the storebought version is lower in alcohol content and therefore has less of a bite than the real stuff, but I still saw a few fumes behind my eyeballs.

After recovering from that bit of research, I started jotting down some of the facts I needed to make sure the moonshiners were correctly depicted in my book.

The most important ingredient in moonshine is the water. From what I understand, spring water loaded with limestone makes the best liquor. We have a lot of limestone in Texas. Heck, the exterior of my house is limestone. And there are plenty of springs around Austin for this to be a viable process. Once you have your water, it’s time to make the mash.

Oh. The mash. That’s the combination of grains (corn or barley or wheat, etc.), sugar (which brings up the alcohol level–can be anything from refined sugar to sugar beets), water, and aromatics (can be fruit or spices or herbs depending on what type of moonshine you want to make) and yeast.  For example, if you want to make a gin moonshine, you must have juniper berries–which can taste pretty strong. The moonshiner might counter that with ingredients like cardamon pods, peppercorns, anise, lemon/orange peels, cinnamon—you get the drift. The mash is then sealed in a big tub (whiskey-aged barrels give it a real nice quality, I understand) and allowed to sit for seven to ten days for all of it to ferment.

By now, it’s time to find the location where you’re actually going to make the moonshine. Near a limestone spring is optimal. It’s also important that the site be away from hikers, hunters, and passers-by. You do not want anyone stumbling on to your still site and either stealing your stuff or calling the police. Again, it is ILLEGAL to make moonshine without the proper permits. Also, moonshiners like to find a spot where they can make a quick get-away if the revenuers come a-calling.

While the mash is doing its chemical thing, its time to construct the still. The folks on The “Moonshiners” tend to favor copper stills, but I’ve seen them make it out of empty beer kegs, old barrels, etc. I’ve inserted a diagram below describing the design of a rather simplistic still. Everything is welded together.

The mechanism on the far left is where the now fermented mash is poured and heated (to somewhere starting at 170 degrees Fahrenheit.) The steam put off by the mash is the alcohol. The steam goes through the cap arm into the thumper keg where it mixes with cold water, thus increasing the alcohol level. After going through the thumper, the now liquid alcohol goes into the warm box and spirals down to the spout. When the liquor’s ready, it comes out the tap or spout. To make sure the liquor doesn’t go everywhere, the moonshiner puts a (pardon the language) coon dick in the spout so the liquor pours straight into whatever container you’re putting the moonshine in. I’ve seen The Moonshiners use gallon glass jugs, plastic milk jugs, mason jars, etc.

About the coon dick. Yes, it really is a raccoon’s…umm…tally whacker. And yes, the aforementioned tally whacker on a raccoon has a bone in it that is perfect for keeping a steady stream of moonshine heading right into the waiting container. (I’m not making this stuff up.)

Now it’s time to see if the moonshine is any good. First off, the moonshine product should be clear. Next, the moonshiner usually uses a mason jar to test the alcohol level of the product. They fill the jar halfway, put the lid on tight, turn it on its side and shake the jar. The bubbles will tell the story.  If the bubbles are large and pop pretty quickly, the alcohol level in the jar is high. If the bubbles are small and stay around a while, the alcohol level is low. And, of course, there’s the taste test.

I’ve had a blast learning about all of this, but then again, I love to do research. Between the TV show and the internet, I hope I’ve created some plot twists and characters that you will enjoy as much as I do.

Cheers, everyone!

K.P. Gresham, Author

Professional Character Assassin

K.P. Gresham is the award-winning author of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series as well as several stand-alone novels.  Active in Sisters in Crime and the Writers League of Texas, she has won Best Novel awards from the Bay Area Writers League as well as the Mystery Writers of America.

Click here to receive K.P.’s newsletter and a get a free short story!

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

Four Reasons to Die

MOTHERS, DAUGHTERS, AND SISTERS IN LOVE AND WAR

Francine Paino, AKA F. Della Notte

Relationships between mothers, daughters, and sisters, as they relate to one another as individuals and as a family unit, are complex. Now wrap them in the horrors, deprivations, losses, and dangers of World War II in Russia and France, and you have the foundations of two exceptional novels of mothers, daughters, and sisters in love and war. 

Authors Kristin Hannah and Karen Robards place their readers in the middle of two families of women with fractured relationships. For one family, the war is over and it’s the traumatizing memories that cause the drama. For the other, the family’s story takes place in the midst of World War II.      

In Kristin Hannah’s sweeping saga, The Winter Garden, World War II, specifically the siege of Leningrad, is the historical backdrop for the damaged Whitson family. The destructive tentacles of the past hold the emotionally scarred Anya Whitson in a stranglehold, impacting her relationship with her two daughters, Meredith and Nina, who were kept emotionally distant throughout their childhoods by their mother. Anya often expressed anger or indifference toward them, despite all attempts to please her. Sadly, the sisters believed their mother was a cold woman who did not love them. They had no idea of the past tragedies and secrets that had damaged Anya and created what seemed to be an impenetrable shell around her heart.  Over time,  a wall of pain and resentment developed between the sisters and lasted for decades, adding to the misunderstandings with their mother.  

As an adult, Meredith, the more traditional of the two, stays close to home, marries, and helps run the apple orchard. She raises two children but keeps her husband at arm’s length. The other daughter, Nina, is a world-traveling photojournalist, and she stays away from the family as much as possible until their father’s failing health forces her to return.  

On his deathbed, Evan Whitson demands a promise from his daughters. They are to get their mother to tell the entire fairy tale she’d partially told them as children, but after his death, Anya’s behavior becomes unbalanced. Again, they listen to the fairy tale about a prince and a peasant girl and remain confused, still unaware of the story’s significance.

One day, Meredith finds old papers with a letter from a Russian professor in Alaska addressed to Anya, stating that while he understood her refusal to tell her story, it would have been an excellent learning experience for others. Inspired by the professor’s words, the sisters take their mother on an Alaska trip, where they learn what had happened to her in Russia, the brutality of the German invasion, followed by the horror of life under Stalin. 

Anya’s story weaves through an unimaginable nightmare as she tells her daughters the truth about living through the almost 900-day siege of Leningrad. Things begin to make sense about their mother’s bizarre behaviors. In Anya’s deliriums, she’d envisioned herself back in Leningrad during the siege and tried to strip and boil wallpaper to make soup, as the starving populace did because wallpaper pastes were made from potato starches. They also learned the tragic reason for her emotional connection to the winter garden outside her house, and why she seemed detached from her girls. 

World War II is a past we only see through Anya’s tortured memories, but we suffer with her for what she’d endured, and we feel the pain of a mother and her daughters as they learn the truth and try to find forgiveness and love.  

In The Black Swan of Paris, Karen Robards drops us into occupied Paris in 1944, in a historical thriller that keeps us on the edge of our seats with unrelenting tensions and fears – as life must have been for the resistance fighters of France.

The main character, Genevieve Dumont, a celebrity singer, is adored by the Nazis. Her manager, Max Bonet, is Captain Max Ryan, British SOE (Special Operations Executive). Max recruits her after helping her through a deadly incident in Morocco, and she becomes a reluctant front for the British spying and intelligence gathering network, living in constant fear for her life. 

The French resistance cells are autonomous, keeping identities secret to increase their chances of survival. Thus, other cells don’t know of Genevieve’s double life and view her as a Nazi collaborator, but that cover is what gives her and her manager Max entry into the world of the Nazi hierarchy. But the Black Swan of Paris has deadly secrets of her own.  

Unbeknownst to almost everyone, including Max, Genevieve was born Genevre de Rochford, the daughter of Baron and Baroness de Rochford, whom she’d disowned, along with her sister, Emmy, years earlier. Genevieve has no feelings for her parents or Emmy, or anyone else until she inadvertently hears that the Baroness de Rochford, now a member of the French resistance, has been captured by the Nazis. She learns that Max has been ordered to rescue the Baroness or kill her before the Nazis can torture information from her regarding the planned Allied invasion. This information shocks Genevieve and the familial bonds she thought dead surge to the surface. She doesn’t know what to do, but her sister Emmy, serving in another resistance cell, has kept track of Genevieve’s public career and finds her. Together, they put aside all past differences because somehow they must rescue their mother—but they need help from Max, the operative ordered to kill her.   

Both stories are rich with details that bring readers into the world of these characters, showing the importance of extensive research. World War II, the siege of Leningrad, life under Stalin, the occupation of France, and the French resistance, come alive through superb storytelling.  

One understands Anya’s behaviors through her tragic memories and feels the sense of powerlessness, the pain of losing loved ones, the physical pain of starvation, and the fear of what was to come by those who endured and survived the siege of Leningrad.  

In Paris, 1944, the French resistance waits for Operation Overlord while Genevieve Dumont walks her tightrope, which could snap and plunge her and her network into the hell of Nazi hands and possibly undo the planned Allied invasion. The reader experiences the pressure of the tremendous weight on so few shoulders and the unrelenting fear of being captured.

The depth of knowledge of those historical events, whether told in the sweeping family saga of The Winter Garden or in the historical suspense thriller The Black Swan of Paris, is used deftly and add details and layers to the stories, enhancing each novel’s authenticity.   

Book Review:  David and Goliath – Underdogs, Misfits, and The Art of Battling Giants

by Renee Kimball

“Giants are not as powerful as they seem
and sometimes the shepherd has a sling in his pocket.”

— Malcom Gladwell

David with the head of Goliath. Caravaggio. Public domain. Wikipedia.

Malcom Gladwell is not a “new author.”  He has been writing for the New York Times since 1996, and is the best-selling author of many books. But more than that, Gladwell is a one-of-a-kind writer–there is no one else like him.   “. . . Gladwell’s true genius lies here, in identifying common assumptions that lie just beneath the surface—beliefs that are so widely accepted, so taken for granted, that we don’t even know we believe in them.” (Adam Grant). 

Gladwell’s strength is taking the ordinary and making it interesting. (Adam Grant)

In his book David and Goliath -Underdogs, Misfits, and The Art of Battling Giants, Gladwell tests our presumptions by asking us to consider two questions:  When does an advantage (strong) become a disadvantage (weak)?  At what point does a disadvantage (weak) become an advantage (strong)?  

Gladwell shows why finding the answers is not as easy as it appears.  By the end of this book, the reader finds that their once comfortable presumptions have been turned on their heads. 

There is no better introduction for Gladwell’s, David and Goliath, than the story of David and Goliath – the most well-known underdog vs. giant story of all time.  It is much more than we thought– David was a lucky young man who delivered a one-in-a-million shot instantly slaying the giant.  David did do those things, but thanks to Gladwell, we now know there were other reasons that played a very large part in David’s victory.  

No one disputes the fact that Goliath was a giant of a man for his day.  He was a scary guy– overwhelmingly huge compared to others.  What was not known is that Goliath suffered from a debilitating growth condition, now known as “acromegaly, a benign tumor of the pituitary gland” (Gladwell).  Acromegaly caused Goliath’s unchecked growth and also impacted his eyesight–Goliath could not see well.  And because of his size, Goliath’s responses were delayed, and because of his disease, he was not only slow, he could not see clearly.   For this famous battle at least, these two facts substantially reduced Goliath’s chances of victory.

While Goliath was already a proven warrior, he was primarily successful engaged within hand-to-hand combat — traditional warfare.  Traditional hand combat mandated certain behaviors and dress. Combatants wore a heavily armored breast plate, needed the ability to carry and wield a large and heavy sword with alacrity, must have the ability to target and throw a javelin, and all this, while wearing a heavy metal helmet.

The fully dressed combatant was restricted both in movement and sheer weight.  Moreover, to be effective wielding the sword, the warrior must be very close to their opponent—face-to-face.  In this story, David was at the bottom of a ravine, while Goliath was standing at the top of a slope bellowing demands while walking in a downward direction towards David.  Unbeknownst to Goliath, the fight with David would not follow the familiar traditional rules of either dress, weapon, or combat, and there would be no face-to-face contact.  

Unlike Goliath, the young shepherd David had never worn armor, fought hand to hand combat, or a major battle.  David was small, lithe, unencumbered, and his only weapon a sling – and in that –slinging– he was an expert.  David refused an offer of armor because he knew it would weigh him down.  David approached the fight with excellent eyesight, a honed skill, unburdened by armor and no predisposed concepts of traditional warfare.  David would not be close enough for hand-to-hand combat, and he carried no sword.

“So here we have a big, lumbering guy weighed down with armor, who can’t see much more than a few feet in front of his face, up against a kid running at him with a devastating weapon and a rock traveling with the stopping power of a .45 caliber handgun. That’s not a story of an underdog and a favorite. David has a ton of advantages in that battle, they’re just not obvious. That’s what gets the book rolling is this notion that we need to do a better job of looking at what an advantage is.”  Malcom Gladwell (Interview, Inc.com)

We know the end of this story, and the underdog (weak) (disadvantaged) proves to be no underdog at all, and becomes in this situation the winner, (strong) (advantaged).  This type of scrutiny is where Gladwell shines, taking a subject, stripping away assumptions, turning it on its head–making the story something else entirely.

Gladwell’s precise and skillful analysis continues on throughout the book’s nine sections, all equally thought-provoking, and all dealing with preconceived assumptions of weak and strong, advantages or disadvantages.  In one of his more bewildering propositions, Gladwell questions the impact of certain types of disability and asks:  Can disability ever be desirable? (Gladwell).   A premise that at first blush, appears both jarring and indistinctly hopeful.  We answer we cannot imagine that there is an appropriate answer.

To structure his premise, Gladwell reviews the impact of living with dyslexia – “a learning disability that makes it difficult to read, write, and spell, no matter how hard the person tries or how intelligent he or she is” (LDOnline). The root cause for dyslexia is still being studied, however, so far what we do know is that the brain’s mechanical functions are unable to link the vital connection of essential neuron transmitters that allow an individual to learn, to read, to speak, and to write. 

Dyslexic individuals struggle every day, normal activities take a very long time and exhaustive concentration.  Gladwell suggests that for dyslexics, the harder it is to learn, the more they excel in adulthood. The premise —they excel because they have worked so very hard from the very beginning to cope, to fit in, to make it through daily life.  

This may seem improbable, but it has been found that “a high number of entrepreneurs are dyslexic” (Gladwell).  Within one entrepreneurial group studied, it was found that approximately one-third of those participating had some type of learning disability.   Which begs the question, would you want your child to have a disability?  It is a tough question and a harder one to answer (Gladwell).

*

I sat down with countless numbers of people who have been very successful in their fields who have dyslexia to ask them, ‘Did you succeed in spite of your disability or because of it,’ and every one of them said because of the disability. (emphasis added)

In other words, these were people who, because they could not read easily were forced to develop other skills and try other strategies that proved to be more advantageous in terms of their careers.”  Malcolm Gladwell, Air Talk.

*

The success stories of affected individuals winning over dyslexia exist because they were forced to compensate from a very early age and developed skills to overcome learning roadblocks—they were and are, flexible and adaptive and found a way to exist in a very cloudy and disorganized world.   Dyslexia forced them to learn to listen acutely, memorize large amounts of information, and develop a razor-sharp ability to read people, retain complex nuances and facts, not on paper, but in their minds.  So, under Gladwell’s premise, there are benefits to a disability – which may not be easily understood.   (Photo: Pixabay)

While there is much, much more within Gladwell’s stories, in the end, the reader must decide which speaks to them. Which story is the most relatable, plausible?   Gladwell writes simply; his premises, rebuttal, and results are presented in an easy to read format while challenging the reader to think deeply. 

And if you stay the course to the end of the book, you will be given a glimmer of hope, because that is what Gladwell gives – hope.  Hope that despite incredible odds, things are not as they seem –there is always more.  Gladwell’s gift is to leave the reader questioning everything – and that is what Gladwell does better than anyone.  

***

References

Gladwell, Malcolm.  David and Goliath – Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Little, Brown and Company, 2013.

Underdogs, Misfits & the Art of Battling Giants. You Tube Online.  Microsoft Research. Published on Sep 9, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7RGB78oREhM .

Air Talk. http://www.scpr.org/programs/airtalk/2013/10/09/34085/malcolm-gladwell-cheers-on-the-underdog-in-david-a/  AirTalk® | October 9, 2013.

Maslin, Janet. “Finding Talking Points Among the Underdogs In ‘David and Goliath,’ Gladwell Explores Two Ideas.” Books of The Times https://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/03/books/david-and-goliath-by-malcolm-gladwell.html.  October 2, 2013.

Grant, Adam.  Linked In. Online. What Makes Malcolm Gladwell Fascinating. Published on October 7, 2013. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20131007120010-69244073-what-makes-malcolm-gladwell-fascinating

Dyslexia: What Brain Research Reveals About Reading. By: Society for Neuroscience. LDOnline.  http://www.ldonline.org/article/10784/.

Photo, Photo Credit: Caravaggio.  David with the head of Goliath. Creative Commons: Public Domain

Photo, Illustration, David and Goliath. By Majumwo – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45245327

Photo, Dyslexia Puzzle. Author Gerd Altmann. https://pixabay.com/en/dyslexia-learning-disorder-puzzle-3014152/

***

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, fosters and rescues both dogs and cats from shelters, and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.

The Flavor of the Place

by Helen Currie Foster

August 8, 2022

Our family’s favorite mystery quote (bolded below) appears in Strong Poison, by Dorothy Sayers, where detective Lord Peter Wimsey first meets novelist Harriet Vane. Vane’s on trial for murder, accused of systematically poisoning her former lover with arsenic.

Wimsey suspects the lover’s uncle, Norman Urquhart, but the uncle assures the police that he served a blameless dinner to his nephew. Wimsey sends the all-competent Bunter (his manservant and WWI batman), to winkle out secrets from Urquhart’s cook, Mrs. Pettican, and the housemaid.

Bunter ingratiates himself by means of crumpets:

“At half-past four…he was seated in the kitchen of Mr. Urquhart’s house, toasting crumpets. He had been trained to a great pitch of dexterity in the preparation of crumpets, and if he was somewhat lavish in the matter of butter, that hurt nobody except Mr. Urquhart. It was natural that the conversation should turn to the subject of murder. Nothing goes so well with a hot fire and buttered crumpets as a wet day without and a good dose of comfortable horrors within. The heavier the lashing of the rain and the ghastlier the details, the better the flavour seems to be.” 

What a setting! I’ve never tasted a crumpet, but can feel the heat of the fire and inhale the smells of toasting and melting butter. And in contrast to (or fueled by) this warmth, this delicious comfort, the cook reminds us of the victim’s death: “A dreadful wicked woman she must ‘a’ been,” said Mrs. Pettican, “—‘ev another crumpet, do, Mr. Bunter—a-torturin’ of the poor soul that long-winded way. Bashin’ on the ‘ed or the ‘asty use of a carvin’ knife when roused I can understand, but the ‘orrors of slow poisonin’ is the work of a fiend in ‘uman form, in my opinion.”

So in our kitchen at buttery moments some family member will mutter, “If he was somewhat lavish in the matter of butter…” But this week I wondered, “What are crumpets?” I mean, with Bunter toasting them over a (presumably coal) fire, then lavishing butter on them, they sound wonderful, especially for teatime in a firelit kitchen, on a cold wet afternoon, discussing the horrors of slow poisoning.

Compelled by curiosity I found a recipe. https://www.daringgourmet.com/traditional-english-crumpets/ Huh. I’d imagined English muffins. No. Instead, the goal is a tender disc, yeasty but also leavened with baking soda, creating bubbled holes to absorb melted butter, jam, and other decorations. Problem: locating crumpet rings. Yes, I’ve ordered some.

Sayers wasn’t writing a culinary cozy, despite the crumpets and an intense discussion on the following page between Mrs. Pettican and Bunter about casseroled chicken. A scene beginning with toasting crumpets produces a triumph of setting and character, a comic but dread-inspiring description of the victim’s death, and clever clue placement. Sayers does not describe either the smell of the toasting, or the taste of the crumpets, but surely you, dear reader, imagined those? Didn’t you feel yourself right there in the kitchen, with the rainy day outside, the gossipy discussion of the lover’s death agonies, and a vivid depiction of Bunter’s character? Courteous, yet firm, he deftly extracts critical information not reflected in the police report—and yes, a clue you doubtless spotted. Maybe Vane will escape the hangman’s noose after all. 

As Proust famously pointed out, smells can stimulate memories. https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/2020/07/more-than-cake-unravelling-the-mysteries-of-proust-s-madeleine Smells can also trigger emotional reactions: “Your olfactory bulb runs from your nose to the base of your brain and has direct connections to your amygdala (the area of the brain responsible for processing emotion) and to your hippocampus (an area linked to memory and cognition). Neuroscientists have suggested that this close physical connection between the regions of the brain linked to memory, emotion, and our sense of smell may explain why our brain learns to associate smells with certain emotional memories.” https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-smells-trigger-memories1/

Despite the strong impact of smells on humans, writers’ references to smell often seem sparse. Part of the problem is the sheer difficulty of describing certain smells. Imagine trying to describe the smell of a beloved house. It’s a mysterious mix, isn’t it? If I try to describe my mother’s house, I can’t do it with just one word. Part of the remembered smell is a faint perfume—maybe a bath powder she used, like Caswell Massey’s Gardenia. But there are other ingredients as well—contributions from oak furniture, cotton sheets, old Christmas cards on a closet shelf… See, I can’t accurately describe the smell itself; I have to name things.

My grandmother’s house in Hill County delivered a similar mixture, varying by seasons. In summer, it smelled of cantaloupe from her garden; at Christmas, of a decorated cedar tree. But always the substrate included a hard-to-describe mixture of our grandfather’s Yardley English Lavender talc, kept on the kitchen shelf where he shaved; of the garbage chute in the kitchen; of oil and electric discharges from his ham radio rig; of the ancient living room piano (wires, wood, felt). How describe the totality of that smell, that amalgam of odors, so instantly recognizable to me, but unknown to you? And how describe it without a bunch of nouns? 

Poets apparently run into that problem. I set out to locate poems incorporating odor and fragrance, grabbing poetry volumes from the shelves. Yeats? Gorgeous references to sight and sound, as in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”: “Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee, /And live alone in the bee-loud glade…” The poem is rich in sight, in sound, but not smell. We don’t smell the clay and wattles or honey.

Same for Wendell Berry’s A Small Porch—a volume of ideas, images, light and air. But I didn’t find smell. Nor did I find smell references in Chaucer or a number of Renaissance English poets, except that Michael Drayton gives us a wonderful line in “To the Virginian Voyage” referring to the much-anticipated Virginia landfall of seaborne English explorers: “When as the luscious smell/of that delicious land…” Of course Shakespeare mentions the “sweet odour” of roses (as in Sonnet 54): “Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made.” 

Indeed, I had trouble finding references to smell in most of the poetry books I opened. There were some. In “Aimless Love,” “gazing down affectionately at the soap,” Billy Collins writes, “I could feel myself falling again/as I felt its turning in my wet hands/and caught the scent of lavender and stone.”

Marianne Moore, in “Enough,” from O To Be a Dragon, gives us this: “The crested moss-rose casts a spell; its bud of solid green, as well, /and the Old Pink Moss—with fragrant wings/ imparting balsam scent that clings…” Many readers will recognize balsam. Another from Moore’s “In the Public Garden”: “O yes, and snowdrops in the snow that smell like violets.”

Also readers may know the smell of violets. Charles Wright, in “Dog Creek Mainline,” gives more challenging references: “Dog Creek: cat track and bird splay,/Spindrift and windfall; woodrot; Odor of muscadine…” If you’ve played around wild grapevine you know the odor of muscadine––maybe woodrot too. 

Try the experiment yourself. Pull some poetry off the shelf. Don’t most poems rely on sight and sound, and rarely odor? Because a particular smell can be very hard to describe.

https://qbi.uq.edu.au/blog/2018/11/how-do-we-smell-things#:~:text=Whenever%20we%20smell%20something%2C%20our,easier%20to%20smell%20a%20smell. Per Rodrigo Suarez at the Queensland Brain Institute: 

“The way the brain deals with smells is very different to how it deals with other senses, such as seeing and hearing. For example, we can identify the different instruments playing in a band, or the different shapes and colours in a painting. But it is very hard for us to tell the individual parts of a smell mixture.” He goes on: “We can sense the smell of “orange” or “coffee” as a single thing, but have trouble identifying the many different parts that make up those smells individually. However, it is possible to get better at this with practice. Professional wine-tasters or perfume-makers can detect more parts of a smell mixture than most people.”

Our difficulty in describing smell is not that we humans can’t detect odors—we can, says Greg Miller, Science (November 11, 2014): “We humans have about 400 different types of receptors for detecting odorant molecules. That’s on the low end for mammals, but it’s enough, at least in theory, to allow us to distinguish a trillion different odors, one team of neuroscientists calculated earlier this year (although there’s been some controversy about that estimate).”

But, per Miller, we describe odors differently from sights and sounds: “When people—English speaking people, anyway—describe odors, what they are actually doing much of the time is describing the source of the odor. Orange-y. Smokey-. Skunk-y. This seems natural enough, but it’s fundamentally different from how we describe other sensory experiences. Words like “white” and “round” describe visual features of an object, not the object itself. It could be a baseball, or it could be the Moon. In the same way, a tone can be “high-pitched” whether it comes from a bird or a teakettle.” https://www.wired.com/2014/11/whats-up-with-that-smells-language/#:~:text=come%20up%20short.-,That’s%20because%20smells%20(which%20contribute%20heavily%20to%20what%20we%20commonly,brain’s%20olfactory%20and%20language%20systems.Some studies suggest that our language is inadequate to the task of describing smell. Another suggestion is that other languages than English may be better at conveying odor.

But determined mystery writers find a way, because odor can make important contributions to a setting. In 1937, in Rex Stout’s fourth Nero Wolfe mystery, The Red Box, the detective lectures his cook, Fritz Brenner: “Do you know shish kebab? I have had it in Turkey. Marinate thin slices of tender lamb for several hours in red wine and spices. Here, I’ll put it down: thyme, mace, peppercorns, garlic…” https://www.amazon.com/Red-Nero-Wolfe-Mystery-Book-ebook/dp/B004SOQ076/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2KTCNYSRFE27K&keywords=the+red+box&qid=1659993772&sprefix=the+red+box%2Caps%2C208&sr=8-1

Can’t you smell those spices? And doesn’t that passage help round out (pun) our vision of Nero Wolfe, gourmet, gourmand, brilliant detective? We’re planted in the kitchen of Wolfe’s New York brownstone, the primary setting for all the mysteries. These few lines convey Wolfe’s insistence on sophisticated cuisine, and reflect the rigor he demands of every employee under his roof, including Fritz the cook; Theodore Horstmann, the keeper of his orchid greenhouse; and our narrator, his foot soldier, Archie Goodwin. A shish kebab recipe helps define the setting and Wolfe’s character as well.

Ngaio Marsh begins Night at the Vulcan (1951) with Martyn Tarne, a young New Zealand actress desperately seeking an acting role in London. One night, out of food and money, with no place to stay, she enters the Vulcan Theatre which has advertised for a dresser: “She was at the back of the stalls, standing on thick carpet at the top of the ramp facing the centre aisle…The deadened air smelt of naphthalene and plush.” The empty theatre lacks an eager audience, waiting for the curtain to go up. Instead Marsh gives us the “deadened air” of a closed theatre, where the plush seats are empty, and the air smells of naphthalene—chemical dry cleaning. Martyn starts to work: “As soon as she crossed the threshold of the star dressing-room she smelt greasepaint. The dressing-shelf was bare, the room untenanted, but the smell of cosmetics mingled with the faint reek of gas.” I don’t know the smell of greasepaint, but Martyn does; she’s in a setting she understands.

Mick Herron’s unputdownable Slough House series uses odor to create the key setting––the decrepit building which serves as center stage. Book 2, Dead Lions, describes entry to the building as follows: “No one enters Slough House by the front door; instead, via a shabby alleyway, its inmates let themselves into a grubby yard with mildewed walls….” Yecch, mildew. The building houses the “slow horses” who flunked out of MI-5’s headquarters in posh Regent’s Park, and are now under the tutelage of former Cold Warrior Jackson Lamb, a terrifying mentor. “Jackson Lamb’s lair,” the office on the building’s top floor, is described thus: “The air is heavy with a dog’s olfactory daydream: takeaway food, illicit cigarettes, day-old farts and stale beer, but there will be no time to catalogue this because Jackson Lamb can move surprisingly swiftly for a man of his bulk….” No question that odor is part of the setting. Lamb is an olfactory terrorist. https://www.amazon.com/Dead-Lions-Slough-House-Book-ebook/dp/B008ADFIKQ/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2OWSNB20HLYMN&keywords=dead+lions&qid=1659990272&sprefix=dead+lion%2Caps%2C169&sr=8-1

The century-old Beer Barn, a beloved road house in Coffee Creek, is where townspeople gather in my Ghost series. That includes lawyer and protagonist Alice Greer. Naturally the smell of beer is key. In Book 3, Ghost Letter, Alice invites a political reporter to the Beer Barn for lunch: “As they pushed through the Beer Barn’s tall swinging doors the fragrant haze enveloped them—incense compounded of hickory smoke from the wood-fired grill, chiles toasted on an iron comal, and thousands of bubbles popping in bottles and glasses, releasing the yeasty magic of beer to the air.”

Smells may be hard to define, but including the smell of a setting can enrich a mystery’s impact. Or, as Mrs. Pettican says, “Have another crumpet, do!” 

Helen Currie Foster lives and writes north of Dripping Springs, Texas, loosely supervised by three burros jostling for roles in the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, set in the unique landscape of the Texas Hill Country. So far all three burros have made an appearance, though insisting on aliases. Book 8 is on its way…

Tipping the Research Iceberg in Austin, Texas

By K.P. Gresham

In the process of writing the fifth novel in The Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series, I needed to find a venue for a fictional FFA Fundraising Gala at a revered, historical venue. My husband and I enjoyed going to such a place when we first moved to Austin, Texas, years ago.

Enter Green Pastures, a 6,000 square foot Victorian home built in 1895. The original structure was constructed with Louisiana pine, a naturally termite-resilient wood, and parts of the home, such as the staircase, banisters, and all of the fireplace mantels are still the original materials. Between its history, its delicious Southern meets French cuisine, and its wandering peacocks, the place was exactly what I needed for my book.

But that was only the tip of the iceberg. The more I read about Green Pastures, the more interesting it became.

For example, John Henry Faulk, an Austin judge, and his wife, “Mattie”, bought the home in 1916. They had five children, two of which figure prominently in Austin’s history.

John Henry Faulk II (1913 – 1990) was an American storyteller and radio show host. His successful lawsuit against the entertainment industry helped to bring an end to the Hollywood blacklist. In 1955, Faulk earned the ill will of the blacklisting organization when he and other members took control of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists from officers who did not share his dedication to civil rights long before it was “hip” to fight racism. In reprisal, the now-deposed union officers labeled Faulk a Communist. He took the group to court when he discovered they had actively been keeping radio stations from carrying his radio show.

Faulk’s book, Fear on Trial, (1963) was made into an Emmy award-winning TV movie in 1975 by CBS television with William Devane portraying Faulk and George C. Scott playing Faulk’s lawyer. Other supporters of the blacklist struggle included radio pioneer, Parks Johnson, and reporter and CBS television news anchor Walter Cronkite.

Then there’s the story of his sister, Martha Faulk (1910 – 1996). When their father passed, he left the property to his daughter who was known as a socialite with terrific hospitality qualities. She and her husband, Chester Koock, opened a restaurant in the home in 1945 by converting the downstairs bedrooms into dining spaces while the upstairs remained private family space. This restaurant has a very special legacy of being inclusive and non-discriminatory towards people of all races and color prior to when the law required businesses to do so.

Though the restaurant went through several owners after she passed, they have stayed true to the history of the home and its reputation for excellent food. I know. I went their last night to do my research for my book. I found it very important to my novel’s authenticity to sample the milk punch, the fried green tomatoes and the “Mattie’s Fried Chicken” (which WILL appear in the book).

Finally, I’d like to mention the beautiful peafowl that roam the expansive grounds. Peafowl is the correct generic name of the majestic, plumed birds. Peacocks are just the male of the species; peahens the females, and peachicks are the babies. (Tho’ in Texas these are sometimes called chickpeas. Gotta love a Texas colloquialism 😊.)  The birds don’t belong to Green Pastures, but a friend of theirs who owns an exotic bird farm takes care of them.

What I needed was a venue, but I got a whole lot more. I love to “tip the iceberg over” when I do my research. And Green Pastures of Austin was a house with many stories to tell.

P.S. The restaurant’s fried chicken is delicious, and don’t forget to order the milk punch!

K.P. Gresham, Author

Professional Character Assassin

K.P. Gresham is the award-winning author of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series as well as several stand-alone novels.  Active in Sisters in Crime and the Writers League of Texas, she has won Best Novel awards from the Bay Area Writers League as well as the Mystery Writers of America.

Click here to receive K.P.’s newsletter and a get a free short story!

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

Four Reasons to Die

WHEN WORDS BALK–TAKE A WALK. SOLVITUR AMBULANDO!

by Helen Currie Foster

This week I’ve been in the Land of Stuck. Walking in circles around the kitchen island struggling to come up with the missing scene. My next mystery’s nearly done, but… I’m stuck. Ever been there?

The poetry shelf offers a momentary escape. Billy Collins can always pull me into a poem. Often he’s going for a walk and I can’t help but feel invited. His “Aimless Love” begins:

He’s got me. 

Or “The Trouble with Poetry,” which begins, 

“This morning as I walked along the lakeshore, 

I fell in love with a wren 

and later in the day with a mouse 

the cat had dropped under the dining room table.”

Well, of course there he’s got me. Then again:

“The trouble with poetry, I realized 

as I walked along a beach one night––

cold Florida sand under my bare feet, 

a show of stars in the sky––”

I feel that same cold Florida sand under my right arch, despite the Texas heat outside. 

Another walking poet: Mary Oliver. In Blue Iris, She begins “White Pine” this way:

“The sun rises late in this southern county. And, since the first thing I do when I wake up is go out into the world, I walk here along a dark road.”

Huh. Walking as discipline? Every morning?

Walking’s not just for poets. St. Augustine is often credited with the Latin phrase Solvitur ambulando––“it is solved by walking” (which may have originally been a response to the 5th C. B.C. philosopher Zeno’s concept that we can never actually arrive at a destination). 

According to Ariana Huffington, a number of writers agree about the benefit of walking, including Hemingway, Nietzsche, and Thomas Jefferson. She quotes the latter: “The object of walking is to relax the mind…You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk. But divert your attention by the objects surrounding you”.https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/bs-xpm-2013-09-03-bal-solution-to-many-a-problem-take-a-walk-20130830-story.html  Which reminds me of Collins’s wren.

“Solvitur ambulando” was the official mottol of the Royal Air Forces Escaping Society, formed in 1946 to help those in former occupied countries during WWII who risked their lives to help RAF crew members escape. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solvitur_ambulando (check out the terrific solvitur ambulando quotes in this article, from Lewis Carroll, Dorothy Sayers and others). I can’t imagine how high the blood pressure of those resistance heroes climbed during such episodes. Mine skyrocketed just reading A Woman of No Importance, Sonia Purnell’s description of the amazing work of America’s Virginia Hall in France during the resistance. Talk about tense moments. So, did the RAF Escaping Society adopt this motto because of the therapeutic value of walking, or because walking can trigger ideas, or solutions? Or both?

Bruce Chatwin (The Songlines, 1986) claimed he learned the phrase from Patrick Leigh Fermor. Fermor himself was quite a walker. He set out, in 1933, at age 18, to walk across Europe from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul and Greece. He tells the tale in Between the Woods and the Water, 1986. https://www.amazon.com/Between-Woods-Water-Constantinople-Classics/dp/1590171667/ref=asc_df_1590171667/?tag=hyprod-20&linkCode=df0&hvadid=312149984830&hvpos=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=16660568066646091577&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9028233&hvtargid=pla-567490155062&psc=1

 I loved this book and Fermor is fascinating (check out his WWII heroics on Crete, including engineering and carrying out the kidnap of the Nazi commander). https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2011/jun/10/patrick-leigh-fermor-obituary

The English provide walkers with such wonderful public walking paths. My husband and I recently walked the Thames Footpath for several miles along the Thames, over to Bray––yes! Home of the Vicar of Bray! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Vicar_of_Bray

In this charming village you can taste amazing smoked salmon at The Hinds Head (where you can read how many times the Vicar changed his denomination to keep his job, back in the religious flip-flops of England’s sixteenth century) and also at The Crown, a pluperfect pub. The Thames Footpath takes you through leafy woods, with views of the rivers, the fields, and occasional historic and mysterious signs (“Battlemead”). It provides boats to watch, ranging from kayaks and paddleboards to elegant near-yachts, festooned with banners for Jubilee, and one incredible ancient polished Chris Craft, casually docked by the restaurant at the Boathouse at Boulter’s Lock by two grizzled old salts. We tried but failed to overhear their intense lunch conversation. Just trying to eavesdrop was imagination-stirring. Where did they come from? Where were they going?

The footpath also led us to the village of Cookham, home of another surprise: the Stanley Spencer Gallery. Spencer, a WWI veteran and Slade School graduate, produced remarkable paintings, sometimes mixing nominally biblical subjects with contemporary life—for example, a resurrection study of Cookham housewives in aprons, climbing out of their graves with surprised faces. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/sir-stanley-spencer-1977.

I thought I remembered Spencer’s name from Virginia Woolf’s diaries and looked it up when we got home. She wrote on May 22, 1934, about Clive Bell, Vanessa Bell (Clive’s wife), Duncan Grant (Vanessa’s lover), and Quentin Bell (Vanessa’s son) “all talking at once about Spencer’s pictures.” In 1934 Spencer was showing six works in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition…about the time Patrick Leigh Fermor was off in the middle of his big walk.

Other poetic walkers? You’ve already thought of Robert Frost (“Two Roads Diverged…”) and Dante. Dante’s walks take the cake; I mean, the Inferno’s a hell of a walk.

So if walking calms the mind, allows creativity, reveals solutions, why am I revolving around the kitchen island?

Now that I think about it, some ideas have emerged. For instance, how much my extended family loves hiking in the Rockies, with (1) a destination; (2) a well-rounded lunch, including chocolate, in the pack; (3) plenty of water. How it feels to set off, hoping to see (1) moose, or (2) marmots, or (3) ptarmigan. How it feels to walk to the destination, grab a flat-topped boulder, warmed by sun, and have lunch, staring out at the view. Then to walk…downhill. No longer out of breath. Watching your fellow hikers dodging limbs, swinging around switchbacks. Triumphant walkers. And in the meantime, there have been discussions on the trail, conversations about this and that, switching from one companion to another. At the end of the trail, a sense of sleepy satisfaction.

So it’s time to get up early enough for a walk. Get up early enough to beat the Texas sun, and see if my neighbor’s front pasture includes a jackrabbit, or “jackbunny” as some call it. Cause a snort from the deer in the brush.

… Okay. Back from the walk. I think I’ve figured out that pesky bit about the last scene, except for a couple of details. So tomorrow, when the alarm rings—I’m going for a walk. Would you like to come too? I’d love it. We could talk.

More…

Helen Currie Foster lives and writes north of Dripping Springs, Texas, closely supervised by three burros. She’s curious about human nature, human history and prehistory, and why the past keeps crashing the party. She’s currently finishing book 8 in the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery novel series. Book 7, Ghost Daughter, was named Grand Prize Short List in the 2022 Eric Hoffer Book Awards, and Finalist for Mystery, 2022 National Indie Excellence Awards. Her books are available on Amazon, Kindle, and Audible, and at independent bookstores.She loves to talk with book groups.

Review: Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own (A Public Service Repost)

by Kathy Waller

I wrote the following for my personal blog to answer a “challenge.” I intended to post it at the end of September 2009–yes, 2009. But I got all tangled up in words and couldn’t write a thing. Then I intended to post it at the end of October. I still couldn’t write it. I managed to write it after the October deadline.

In the middle of the “process,” I considered posting the following review: “I like Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own very very very very very much.”

But the challenge specified a four-sentence review, and I had hardly one, and I didn’t want to repeat it three times.

So there’s the background.

I must also add this disclaimer: I bought my copy of A Broom of One’s Own myself, with my own money. No one told, asked, or paid me to write this review. No one told, asked, or paid me to say I like the book. No one told, asked, or paid me to like it. No one offered me tickets to Rio or a week’s lodging in Venice, more’s the pity. I decided to read the book, to like it, and to write this review all by myself, at the invitation of Story Circle Book Review Challenge. Nobody paid them either. Amen.

*********************************************

Review of Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own

I like Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own: Words About Writing, Housecleaning & Life so much that it’s taken me over two months and two missed deadlines to untangle my thoughts and write this four-sentence review, an irony Peacock, author of two critically acclaimed novels, would no doubt address were I in one of her writing classes.

She would probably tell me that there is no perfect writing life; that her job as a part-time house cleaner, begun when full-time writing wouldn’t pay the bills, afforded time, solitude, and the “foundation of regular work” she needed;  that engaging in physical labor allowed her unconscious mind to “kick into gear,” so she became not the writer but the “receiver” of her stories.

She’d probably say that writing is hard; that sitting at a desk doesn’t automatically bring brilliance; that writers have to work with what they have; that “if I don’t have the pages I hate I will never have the pages I love”; that there are a million “saner” things to do and a “million good reasons to quit” and that the only good reason to continue is, “This is what I want.”

So, having composed at least two dozen subordinated, coordinated, appositived, participial-phrase-stuffed first sentences and discarding them before completion; having practically memorized the text searching for the perfect quotation to end with; and having once again stayed awake into the night, racing another deadline well past the due date, I am completing this review—because I value Nancy Peacock’s advice; and because I love A Broom of One’s Own; and because I consider it the equal of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird; and because I want other readers to know about it; and because this is what I want.

*

I’ve posted this review before both here and elsewhere. I consider the reposting a service to writers. The book is absolutely invaluable, and all writers need to know about it.

***

I blog at Telling the Truth, Mainly. I write crime fiction–have published short stories and am working on a novel. My blog, however, doesn’t have much to do with crime. There I write about anything that comes along. I like to think it’s eclectic, but it’s really just a jumble.

Colleen McCullough and the Roman Empire

by Renee Kimball

Reading is like swimming.  Sometimes a novel is like a wading pool, low-level, light, humorous.  Then there are others thattake you to the big pool but keep you in the shallow end–sitting on a cement step, water to your waist, but not really in the pool.  However, when a story takes you to the deep end and the water covers your head, and you tread water because your toes cannot touch the bottom, then that is when you sink or swim –it is either give up or keep going.   .

I found McCullough’s Masters of Rome series searching for information about the Roman Empire.  The series was highly reviewed, and although it was a commitment of several months to read the massive seven-book series, it was well worth the effort.  When I finished, was in awe of McCullough and wanted to know more about her and her work. 

McCullough was born in 1935, in Sydney, Australia.  She went on to become a neuropathologist establishing the department of neurophysiology at the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney.  She left after many years to become a researcher and teacher at Yale Medical School where she stayed for ten years.  McCullough left Yale, and moved to Norfolk Island, in the South Pacific, where she lived and wrote until her death in 1977 (Amazon). 

McCullough released her first novel, Tim, in 1974.  It was well received, but it paled in comparison to the response to the publication of her second novel, The Thorn Birds, in 1977.  McCullough became an overnight sensation. 

The Thorn Birds is an Australian romance novel.  The riveting characters, a young Australian woman and a Catholic priest, are caught between an illicit passion for one another and the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church.  The book eventually was turned into a miniseries, and McCullough’s path was clear; great things were expected of her for the future—and she delivered. 

McCullough is a versatile writer comfortable writing across multiple genres: contemporary novels, mystery series, and historical fiction.   It took ten years for McCullough to research and write the Masters of Rome series beginning in 1997 through 2007. 

Writing historical fiction requires accuracy, particularly when real-life characters and events are incorporated within the overall story.  McCullough’s scientific training as a neuropathologist is evident as shown by her meticulous detail of both historical events and characters drawn from ancient sources.  She brings her characters to life, people become real, not wooden historical abstractions. 

The timeframe of the Masters of Rome series begins in 110 BC with the rise of Gaius Marius as temporary dictator, the rise of Sulla his protégé/ dictator, and before the birth of Julius Caesar; the seven-book series ends with Caesar’s heir, Octavian, defeating Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII Philopator at the Battle of Actium 31 BC.  Octavian seizes power and is declared Augustus.  (Photo Wikipedia Commons).

McCullough’s series also includes her own hand drawn detailed maps of the Empire showing territories, various campaigns, as well as, multiple portraits drawn from actual classical statuary, and included within each volume a glossary of Latin terms. 

While McCullough published the last book in the Masters series in 2007, she went on to write a variety of detective/mystery and standalone novels till 2013.  McCullough passed away in 2015.   While she is primarily remembered for The Thorn Birds, I would argue, McCullough’s greatest achievement is found within The Masters of Rome novels. She is greatly missed.  

***

References:

COLLEEN MCCULLOUGH BOOKS IN ORDER.  https://www.bookseriesinorder.com/colleen-mccullough/

Colleen McCullough. https://www.harperreach.com/authors/colleen-mccullough/

The Battle of Actium. HISTORY.  https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-battle-of-actium

Temple of Saturn, Rome – Views with other buildings. By Yair Haklai, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Image of swimmer via Pixabay.

Book 1, The First Man in Rome, photos courtesy of Amazon

***

Publication Order of Masters of Rome Books

The First Man in Rome (1990)

The Grass Crown         (1991)

Fortune’s Favorites     (1993)

Caesar’s Women         (1996)

Caesar (1997)

The October Horse (2002)

Antony and Cleopatra (2007)

***

A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are research, reading, writing, and animal advocacy [RK1] .  She is working on a novel set during the time of the Roman Republic.