THE PLOT THICKENS! Or, Your Suspicions May Be True

by Helen Currie Foster

Okay—Mom Genes is such a great title, it couldn’t not be used. But Abigail Tucker’s new book of that title doesn’t focus just on moms. Tucker, a New York Times best-selling science writer, dives deep into the burgeoning science examining parental behavior—genetic? hormonal? learned?

And you writers may find it a rich source for potential plots.

Moms will recognize Tucker’s description of the weird sensation of being kidnapped, of feeling like victims of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Not feeling quite yourself? In the first of a series of jaw-dropping recent research findings, Tucker reports, “Our children colonize our lungs, spleens, kidneys, thyroids, skin”—and brains. Far from being that familiar image of the one-way street, with mother’s blood, nutrients and even cells flowing into the fetus, the fetus also sends its own fetal cells into the mother. It’s “fetal microchimerism.” No wonder a burgeoning mom feels…she’s changed.

Tucker doesn’t dodge painful issues of maternal and paternal favoritism. “Some 80 percent of us allegedly … prefer one of our children to the others, and more than half of parents demonstrate so-called differential treatment toward various progeny.” The most striking predictor? “Moms appear to dote on their cutest kids.” Apparently “the components of infant attractiveness…are rigid and globally constant,” including big eyes, large forehead, small chin, and chubby cheeks. Tucker says this preference extends to nearly all baby mammals.

But dads apparently outperform moms on “child facial resemblance determination” – i.e., dads are more skilled at noticing whether a child looks like them. Indeed, one Senegal study found “kids grow up bigger and are better fed if they look and in fact smell more like their dads.” A different kind of favoritism…favoring the child which dad feels sure is his.

Jane Austen knew this. You remember that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, the parents in Pride and Prejudice, have different favorites? Mrs. Bennet favors beautiful Jane; Mr. Bennet favors sensible Lizzy (Elizabeth). Mrs. Bennet scolds her husband: “Lizzy is not a bit better than the others; and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good-humoured as Lydia. But you are always giving her the preference.”

Humans share mothering tendencies across species. Will you recognize yourself if I mention “left-handed cradling bias”? In a “near-universal” mothering behavior, “Something like 80 percent of right-handed women and, remarkably, almost as many left-handed women hold their babies automatically on the left.” Check out many paintings of the Madonna, suggests Tucker. This “lefty” preference extends to other mammals. Why? It may allow the infant to “view the more expressive left side of the maternal face.”

Tucker points out it’s not all about genes. Life experience also affects maternal behavior. She describes studies of new monkey mothers showing that, of those roughly treated by their mothers, “more than half of the maltreated monkeys became abusive mothers. All the well-tended infants matured as competent mothers.” But when the scientists swapped some babies, so the abusive monkey moms took charge of the offspring of outstanding monkey moms, “the monkeys grew up to match the behaviors of their adoptive mothers, not their biological mothers.”

Here’s another potential genetic component. Canadian scientist Frances Champagne wondered why mother lab rats from the same genetic strain, living under identical conditions, engaged in different “licking/grooming” of their babies. When Champagne swapped the rat babies, so high-licking moms raised the babies of low-licking moms, the babies of below-average lickers followed in their adoptive mom’s footsteps. Then other scientists found they could program a baby rat’s future licking behavior by stroking it with a tiny paintbrush. “The physicality of getting licked somehow shaped the females’ instincts and behavior.” According to Champagne, “I wanted to show that the care you receive leads to epigenetic changes in infancy, and that this could replicate.” Epigenetics focuses on whether and how bits of genetic code may be “expressed.” Champagne found well-licked baby rats “were more likely to express their genes for certain estrogen receptors…” which made them more likely to express genes for oxytocin receptors and to grow more oxytocin neurons in their brains.

Fascinating research discusses how different bits of our genes “express” themselves, particularly in response to hormones. For instance, various sorts of stress can result in hormonal effects on gene expression: “Physiological changes that affect mRNA stability occur during development, nutritional stress, hypoxia, inflammation, cancer, and aging.”

The notion that our genes are static? Maybe not!

So…parental behavior factors include genes plus life experience with hormones kicking into action to affect gene expression.

Back to favoritism! Harry Potter? Reluctant adoptive parent Mrs. Dursley can’t abide her own sister’s son. The internet is full of books and studies on why parents have favorites and how favorites impact families, including impact on sibling rivalry.

Being a favorite can be dangerous, as Joseph learned. “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children…But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him….” (Genesis 37.)

And I haven’t touched on what Tucker calls the “murderous tendencies of mothers,” citing Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s theories on infanticide in Mother Nature.

Tucker’s final chapters look at the impact of our own stressful society on parents. “Social-support deficits and perinatal depression are intimately linked.” Tucker reports that compared to Dutch mothers, American mothers appeared comparatively quite miserable, with high levels of unhappiness and worry, because they don’t get enough support in their health care or workplace. To transform this problem “would involve taking on some of the most grinding and deadlocked political issues of our day: not only income inequality, but also health care, education, and other topics that have consistently stumped our government,” including racism (citing pregnant Black women’s higher blood pressure and elevated risks of prenatal diabetes, preterm delivery and death).

Tucker visited Erin Kinnally, a scientist at the UC Davis California National Primate Research Center. “Kinnally rattles off the factors that can shape primate moms…age, number of births, genetics, her own mother’s rearing history, the baby’s sex and other characteristics, access to food and shelter and sundry other environmental factors.” But the most potent force is “social chemistry.” The low-ranking macaque moms at the primate center “have weaker immune system and other distinct traits…the lowest ranking moms had four times the amount of stress hormones in their blood.” “Low-ranking [macaque] moms grasp that they have to be vigilant at all times. Fascinating studies have shown that these moms are much more likely to try to shush their infants’ cries when higher-ranked animals are around, for fear that the fussing will draw unwanted attention and attacks.”

Hormonal impact? Stress can mean a baby gets more cortisol in breast milk. In monkeys, “these high-cortisol babies grow unusually quickly, ‘prioritizing’ growth instead of social exploration…”

Tucker, like Bill Bryson in The Body, respects her readers enough to include a serious index. Hers is excellent: for her assertions in each chapter, she includes detailed links to the research studies involved.

We’re all from families; we’re all affected by our genes and our experiences, by how we were parented (and, indeed, how those who parented us were parented, and so on back up the long chain of humanity). Mom Genes confirms what writers already suspect: plots abound!

***

Helen Currie Foster lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She writes the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. Ghost Daughter, Book 7 of the series, was published June 15, 2021. Helen’s active with Austin Shakespeare and Sisters in Crime – Heart of Texas chapter. Find out more at www.helencurriefoster.com.

Tipper: My Manager Extraordinaire

by K .P. Gresham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming Soon (Thanks to Tipper)!

Four Reasons to Die

The 4th Book in the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series

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

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

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

***

Where to Find Me

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

Email: kp@kpgresham.com

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

https://austinmysterywriters.com/

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

Books by K.P. Gresham

Three Days at Wrigley Field

The Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series

The Preacher’s First Murder

Murder in the Second Pew

Murder on the Third Try

“Quaint and Curious”

by Kathy Waller

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

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

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

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

#

The Man He Killed

By Thomas Hardy

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

12 best historical fiction books set during World War II

9 Mysteries Set in the Immediate Aftermath of WWI

9 Murder Mysteries Set During Wartime

The Best Historical Mystery Series

Five Novels of Mystery, Intrigue and Suspense Set in WWII

Foyle’s War (Television series)

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

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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.

SIDEKICKS

Francine Paino AKA F. Della Notte

Almost every great detective has a great sidekick. Leading the pack, of course, is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s with his team of Sherlock and Watson. 

hOLMES AND WATSON

In the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Dr. John Watson is Sherlock’s sidekick and the narrator. The character created by Doyle to support Holmes is modest and intelligent—but not as smart as Holmes. A former military doctor wounded in India, Watson is far from dull. Still, like most readers, he doesn’t share Holme’s detecting capabilities, powers of observation, and lightning-swift reasoning, which is a blessing for readers, for it’s Watson who explains and shows the readers Holme’s admirable characteristics through his narrative and descriptions. 

Another of the best-loved investigating pairs are Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.Wolfe is a New York City private investigator. His sidekick, Archie Goodwin, does the lion’s share of investigating because Wolfe doesn’t like to leave the brownstone, but it’s Wolfe who provides the keen intellect. Archie’s role is to bring wit and a fast-paced narrative to the reader. Rex Stout has published around 80 novels and novellas detailing their various cases. Wolfe and Archie are right up there with Dr. Watson and Sherlock. 

Contemporary author Faye Kellerman created the Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus team.Decker is a Los Angeles cop investigating crimes in a conservative Jewish community. His supporting character is Rina Lazarus, with whom he falls in love. He converts to Judaism for her, and they are married. Together they become involved in several mysteries in Jewish communities. Although she isn’t a police detective, she is vital to the investigations for her deep understanding of Jewish culture and faith. 

A little outside this norm is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marplewho seems to work alone. She is an independent woman of independent means. Elderly, and unassuming Miss Marple uses her advanced years and knitting needles to stay out of the limelight to observe without being noticed. She is a student of human nature and able to solve complex crimes not only because of her shrewd intelligence but because over her life living in St. Mary Mead, she has had the benefit of infinite examples of the nastier side of human nature. 

Her friends and acquaintances function in the role of supporting characters, and they are sometimes bored by her frequent analogies. Still, these analogies often lead Miss Marple to a more profound realization about the true nature of the crime. It isn’t until her later years that her companion, Cherry Baker, moves in and makes her first appearance as the sidekick in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. 

Perhaps one of the most unique and unexpected characters in a supporting role is M. Hercule Flambeaua reformed criminal in the Father Brown series by G. K. Chesterton. Flambeau is always amazed at how a priest could have such a depth of understanding and insight into the criminal mind. The good priest explains that while he must protect the sanctity of confessions and not give specifics, people reveal their sins and show the evil in the human heart. 

flambeau and father brown

In the first chapter of The Secret of Father Brown, the priest tries to explain that he doesn’t look at criminals scientifically from the outside. 

“I am inside a man. I am always inside a man, moving his arms and legs; but I wait till I know I am inside a murderer, thinking his thoughts, wrestling with his passions; thill I have bent myself into the posture of his hunched and peering hatred; till I see the world with his bloodshot and squinting eyes, looking between the blinkers of his half-witted concentration; looking up the short and sharp perspective as a straight road to a pool of blood. Till I am really a murderer.” 

Flambeau was a skilled and highly successful thief with an intellect equal to Father Brown’s. In The Secret of Flambeau, he reveals, “Have I not heard the sermons of the righteous?… Do you think all that ever did anything but make me laugh? Only my friend told me that he knew exactly why I stole, and I have never stolen since.”  

There are as many famous sidekicks as there are famous detectives, including Captain Hastingsin the Hercule Poirot books by Agatha Christie and Brother Eadulf in Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma series. In Dashiell Hammet’s The Thin Man, Nora Charlesis a glamourous sidekick to her husband, NickBut why do authors create these characters?

Like the supporting stage and film actors, the mystery book sidekicks have a vitally important role, both to the principal characters and to the readers or audience. 

A good sidekick is usually the polar opposite of the detective. Watson is kind, patient and loyal, and in many ways ordinary. The opposite of Holmes.  Like Watson, Captain Hastings, Hercule Poirot’s supporting character is also ordinary, loyal, and determined but lacks Watson’s military experience. 

The sidekicks showcase the detectives’ intelligence but cushion the readers from feelings of inferiority. The sidekick usually seems to be a rather ordinary person, with exceptions, like Flambeau, who is anything but ordinary.  

For the sake of storytelling, good detectives have quirks and personality flaws. They allow the sidekick to show opposite and balancing characteristics, provide an avenue for readers to understand what the main character is thinking, ask the readers’ questions, explain the detective’s reasoning and methods and any cryptic or scientific terms. Sometimes, the sidekick inspires the detective to look at a situation in a new way, which wouldn’t be evident without the secondary character’s input. This can provide a stalled plot with an escape valve, but most importantly, the sidekick can never be interchangeable with the main character. 

nick and nora charles

From the outset, Nora Charles is a Nob Hill socialite. Nick Charles is a retired detective who has been exposed to the seedier sides of life. This seemingly incompatible couple marry and combine wits to solve crimes.

In my Housekeeper Mystery Series, Mrs. B. is the leading amateur woman detective. She’s impulsive, willful, nosy, outspoken, likes people, loves to cook, and loves cats. 

Father Melvyn Kronkey is her boss and pastor of St. Francis de Sales, Roman Catholic Church. He is a good man and a devout priest who will serve as an anchor for the curious and impulsive Mrs. B. 

 Even our lovable and independent Miss Marple, who doesn’t have one sidekick, has a group of friends to whom she talks and explains. Still, she too takes on a supporting character, in the person of Cherry Baker, in later mysteries.   

An essential part of a mystery writer’s tool kit, the sidekick provides color, contrast, relief, and assistance to the reader. They often help the main characters grow, evolve, and sometimes change course altogether. 

father brown
peter decker and rina lazarus

Book Hangover

Tales of Matthew Shardlake, C. J. Sansom
and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall

by Renee Kimball

BOOK HANGOVER

Book hang-o-ver (hang-oh-ver) noun
1. The inability to start a new book because you are still living in the old book’s world
2. The inability to function at work/school because you were up all-night binge-reading
The Urban Dictionary

Is a Book Hangover a real condition? The answer: a resounding
“YES!”

Avid readers frequently suffer a feeling of despondency after the
ending of a riveting novel, and often refer to that despondency as a
“book hangover” (Urban Dictionary). Similar to a hangover from alcoholic overindulgence, a book hangover can be just as painful, and
last a lot longer.

What causes a reader to yearn to remain in the literary world of certain books, and what causes that thorny depression following the ending of an engaging novel?

Clare Barnett writing for Book Riot in 2020, found some answers to those questions in reading research focused on the “effects of reading on theory of mind and empathy,” conducted by Maja Djikic, PhD, Associate Professor and the Director of Self-Development Laboratory at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, (Barnett).

According to Barnett’s article while citing Djikic’s research, the despondent feelings felt at the end of an engaging novel might be a kind of “simple sadness” (Barnett). Sadness that the novel has ended, and the beloved characters and the world they inhabit are gone. Yet, the interior self won’t let go, and the reader enters into a type of mourning where ‘inside one’s psyche, . . .the reader wishes for more time to reflect and unravel whatever complexities still plague them.” (Barnett, Djikic).

For some readers, the loss is magnified, it blooms and stays. Djikic contends this might flow from two other sources, “emotional transportation and empathy.” (Barnett).

“Emotional transportation” is the reason most avid readers read. That wonderful feeling of getting “lost in a book,’ the one read through the night. The reader becomes unaware of the world around them, a feeling of lost time, all while the characters envisioned in their head are so present that they feel they are in the room (Barnett).

According to Djikic, “in reading psychology, the experience of losing reality is called “emotional transportation” (Barnett). Most obsessive readers readily relate to the concept of “emotional transportation”—that is the reason they read, to be transported away to another realm, another reality, the reality within the story.

The second source, “Empathy,” allows the book characters to feel like “. . .close friends because your brain processes feelings for them in much the same way as it does for real-life connections” (Djikic). Reading research found that “reading fiction activates empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”—a very good thing (Barnett) (emphasis added).

How intense and how long a book hangover lasts depends upon a variety of internal causes. Djikic believes that if the hangover is short, then possibly it is merely a simple sadness that comes at the end of an engaging story. While book
hangovers lasting longer, several weeks or more, could result from an inner need to rationalize and understand the actions and story line that struck a chord within the reader’s psyche. The story has brought to surface personal unresolved issues needing examination. Djikic offers that even this can be a positive experience that results in self-improvement, increased empathy, and promotes a deeper self-analysis establishing positive behaviors and awareness (Barnett).

Having a book hangover is uncomfortable, but it can also be an impetus towards a broader view, a need for more, a push towards research and more reading. A suggestion or need to delve deeper within one’s self. It is an evolutionary process: you start at point A and follow the “yellow brick road” to other universes–you become immersed and words, characters, and worlds become alive.

“When a ‘hangover’ evolves into a more continued emotion of discomfort – that usually comes from still pondering and struggling with some personally relevant issues that were brought up in the book – it could lead to a personal transformation. Fiction reading can be a powerful dysregulator of identity, allowing readers to ‘exit’ themselves, and be in a state that is more receptive to personal change or transformation.”
(Barnett- Djikic)

My Hangover. . .

Historical fiction is not for everyone but by chance, I was led to C.J. Sansom’s Tudor England and the inimitable Matthew Shardlake. Sansom has written a masterpiece of history and suspense, and it is a masterpiece, stretching through seven books and over 4100 pages – The Matthew Shardlake Series.

Shardlake is the character who held me through the series that resulted in a terrible book hangover. I only felt that lost after reading King’s Talisman in the ‘80s, and I was moved to tears when Wolf died. If you have read it, you will relate. I was bereft and miserable then, and felt the same after the last Shardlake novel. Mourning Shardlake, feeling empty and wanting more, led me to Hilary Mantel’s expansive Thomas Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and the Mirror and the Light—I am still reading.

What exactly is so riveting about Shardlake? Shardlake is no Columbo, he isn’t Jack Reacher or James Bond, maybe a bit of Sherlock Holmes, Perry Mason, and a Tudor MacGyver, generously spiced with Umberto Eco’s formulae found in
The Name of the Rose. Mostly, he is likeable and relatable.

In Sansom’s novels, Shardlake is forever deftly stepping into and away from threats-and his own imminent demise by means unfair and foul. While Shardlake tries his best to avoid Court intrigue, the Court and its powerful inhabitants find him, drag him back to face danger through seven volumes. Lawyer Shardlake is nobody’s fool. He always gets his man.

Reading Sansom, I am transported to Tudor England, I am there. Matthew Shardlake is all too human, questioning, doubtful, the favorite relative, cousin, uncle, that you remember with deep affection, who plods, pokes, and unearths the unimaginable.

Shardlake’s home is located in Chancery, London. A simple man from all appearances, Matthew is a brilliant tactician, astute, aware, and sadly, physically disfigured, he is a hunchback. He knows what it is to be made fun
of, shoved aside, set apart, and to face scorching loneliness. Yet, despite his deformity, he cares for others, even those who treat him with aversion. He is generous to the poor and disadvantaged, he is kind to people of every
station and kind to animals, he is empathetic and a gentle soul. Shardlake believes in courtly love, but he loves from afar –his love remains unrequited, he does not get his girl.

An honest lawyer, Sergeant Shardlake, is employed by Lord Cromwell to ferret out the evil doer, the thief, the immoral noble. Matthew’s successes cause him to become a much sought-after sleuth – he is tenacious in his dealings. In the first novel Dissolution, during the year 1537, a royal commissioner has been murdered at the Monastery of St. Donatus the Ascendant, Scarnsea, Sussex. Lord Cromwell directs Shardlake to leave London and investigate the murder. And so, with Dissolution, the first of the seven Shardlake books begins.

Book two, Dark Fire, takes place three years later in 1540. Again, Lord Cromwell demands Matthew leave the security of his private law practice and enter the fray of court politics. In Dark Fire, Shardlake must find an ancient missing formula for a fiery combustible liquid and the weapon crafted to handle and disburse the highly volatile liquid. The formula was created during the Byzantine era and lost for centuries, now, the liquid is in London and Cromwell must have it for the King. Murder, madness, and greed propel the plot forward, while Lord Cromwell loses favor and is eventually beheaded. Will Matthew now be able to live in peace or will his reputation draw him back? Book 3 through 7 along with more plots and near misses follow.

The setting for the Shardlake series is a time of high intrigue: Tudor England under Henry VIII, the dissolution of the Catholic Church, the unending wars between England and France, and of course, Henry VIII’s love life and merry-go-round of divorce, beheadings, courtships, children begot and dreamed of, and the wives! Henry the VIII’s court was stormy, unstable, and full of trickery– what a cast of characters!

The last novel, Tombland, ends with an aging Matthew, now in his early sixties, holding a baby girl that he was in the process of adopting. The baby, who he had pulled out of the arms of her murdered parents and had refused to leave behind at the end of an especially long and bloody battle, is now safe in his London home. We leave Matthew looking out the window of his study in London late at night, baby in arms. Despite the war-torn setting of this last novel, the tale seems to end with a new beginning and much hope for the future–hope from his readers too, that C.J. Sansom will bring Matthew Shardlake back, and soon.

While mourning Shardlake and hoping Sansom will continue his legacy, I turned to other historical fiction authors in an attempt to remove my lingering book hangover.

My search found Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy of Thomas Cromwell’s ascendency and fall—it is another historical fiction masterpiece. Wolf Hall, the first book of the trilogy, introduces Cromwell while he was in the service of Cardinal Woolsey.

Cromwell, fiercely loyal to Woolsey must remove him from service to the King because Woolsey has failed to obtain a divorce from Catherine of Aragon and a dispensation from the Catholic Church. Henry’s push to divorce Catherine—his wife of twenty-five years — and his desire to marry Anne Boleyn destroyed Woolsey’s standing with the King. The Pope refuses to acknowledge the dissolution of Henry’s marriage nor will he grant dispensation, Woolsey becomes a scapegoat, is forced out, and eventually dies, alone and disgraced.

After Woolsey’s fall and death, Cromwell rises in the Court hierarchy. Cromwell’s rapid ascendency towards the King’s most trusted advisor and the accumulation of his immense administrative power are exhaustively
researched in both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Bring Up the Bodies, ends with the beheading of Anne Boleyn, her reign a short one. The third and last book in the Wolf Hall trilogy, The Mirror & the Light, begins where Bring Up the Bodies ended, a court without Boleyn and the King’s marriage to Jane Seymour.

Mantel’s writing is soothing, intricately woven, and psychologically deep. Mantel removes the secrecy surrounding the interior workings of the Court, the machinations of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and the multi-faceted psychology of Thomas Cromwell, a brilliant, driven man. Under Mantel, Cromwell becomes flesh, at times cruel, lonely, self-directed and self-controlled, but more than that, kind, concerned, aware of those outside Court, and loving to those who mean the most to him.

Like Mantel’s, C.J. Sansom’s writing is England’s historical voice. With Sansom, the reader is steeped in the sights, smells, and violence of Tudor England. His detail of the pageantry, clothing, colors, smells, and food are highly sensory – you see and taste and smell everything. Sansom realistically portrays the struggles of the everyday man, his despondency, his urges, his needs, his losses, the daily struggle to merely survive under Tudor reign. Stunning with brutal descriptions of war, blood and loss, as well as the intrigues of the court are bold and shockingly real, Sansom is a word master, it is “emotional transportation” at its finest.

So, while I will continue to hope for Shardlake’s return, I will read Mantel to the end. The plan going forward will be to complete one of many biographies of Thomas Cromwell. After all, Cromwell was a prime mover and shaker at the center of Henry the VIII’s Court, although sadly and eventually, its victim.

Maybe, just maybe, that book hangover will gradually disappear.

***

References
C.J. Sansom, The Matthew Shardlake Mystery Series. Books 1-6 and
Book 7: Tombland
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and The Mirror & the Light
Clare Barnett. “The Psychology of a Book Hangover.” Book Riot. Jun 9, 2020
https://bookriot.com/psychology-of-a-book-hangover/
Malcolm Gaskill. Man Is Wolf to Man. The London Review of Books. Vol. 42 No. 2 · 23 January 2020.

***

Images courtesy of Pixabay.com
Book covers from Amazon.com

***

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.

The Ones That Stick With You

by Helen Currie Foster

We read to learn, we read to be entertained.

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

The stories began, “Once upon a time…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Ghost Dog.

But mercifully, they were already dead.

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

Naming Characters: Steve Dauchy MacCaskill

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

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

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

Not Steve, but close

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve’s house

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Left Brain/Right Brain- How Novelists Use Both

By

Francine Paino AKA F. Della Notte

Do we have one brain or two? Technically, we know we only have one, but then it’s divided right down the middle into two, right and left, with each hemisphere more potent for certain behaviors. The hemispheres communicate through a thick band of 200-250 million nerve fibers called the corpus callosum. A smaller group of nerve fibers, the anterior commissure, also connects parts of the cerebral hemispheres. Many learned opinions and schools of thought exist explaining whether or not either hemisphere of this highly complex organ is dominant and determines our strengths. Current neuroscience says the left- brain is responsible for specific functions such as logic, linear thinking, and facts. 

Who could be a better example of left-brain strength than Albert Einstein, the German-born theoretical physicist, recognized as one of the great physicists, known for his theory of relativity, the E=mc2. He also made important contributions to the development of the theory of quantum mechanics. Still, he was also an excellent violinist. He was known to perform impromptu concerts and step outside of his home with his beloved violin, Lina, to accompany Christmas Carolers. Not only could he appreciate the music for its mathematical properties, but his right brain heard and appreciated its beauty. 

Right-brained artistic genius, Marc Chagall, was considered the master of color. His artworks extended to stained glass and ceramic, but perhaps he’s best known for his canvases reflecting his Russian-French Jewish heritage and life in Vitebsk.  In Chagall’s own words, we see the dominance of his right brain.  

If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing.                                                                                                          –  Marc Chagall

But can an artist such as Chagall, known for his cubist renditions of his profoundly folk-impressionist style, bring to life his flights of fancy such as La Mariee? (The Bride), without relying on left-brain analysis and calculations for size, space, and symmetry?

Like scientists and artists, novelists, too, use both hemispheres. Each writer has a different method. For some, the story unfolds with facts, figures, characters, and situations growing with almost mathematical precision, but not I.

For me, the story germinates like a movie reel in my head. Different scenery, locations, events, perhaps a piece of music can trigger these images. 

In the first book in the Housekeeper Mystery series, I’m Going to Kill that Cat, the story came to me one day while visiting my mother at her apartment in a retirement community. One of her frail, elderly neighbors -let’s call her Jill, screamed at the top of her lungs, “I’m going to kill that cat,” referring to another neighbor’s cat that goaded Jill’s dog, causing the poor doggie to yank the leash making Jill take a tumble. Her screams brought out all the residents, including my mother and me. Once we got the irate Jill up and determined that she wasn’t injured, the scene played in my head. What if two older women who had a long history were involved in a similar incident?

The dog owner became Martha, a sad and bitter woman who lived alone with her two dogs on a limited income.

What if Martha’s nemesis, Velma, lived in the same community and attended the same church. Velma has it all. Wealth, position, and a feisty cat who loved to provoke Martha’s dogs, as Velma loved to needle Martha. 

What if Velma is found dead the following day, and an autopsy reveals it was murder by poison?  And what if Martha had a garden filled with plants of all kinds – some beautiful but deadly?

And what happens to Velma’s cat, LaLa?  

To solve the case, along came my conscientious and stand-offish Father Melvyn Kronkey, the pastor of the Catholic Church to which both ladies belonged. And, of course, such a devoted priest needs a highly competent assistant. She appears in the character of Mrs. B., a caring people person, or one might say nosy. 

The conflicts blossomed in my head like a silent movie to which I set the words. The what-ifs, the characters, the settings, and the personalities became more precise and multi-dimensional as the left hemisphere began to analyze who, what, where, when, and why? How will events unfold logically, with real underlying factors? What was the problem between these women and who killed Velma?  

In book two of the Housekeeper Mystery Series, Catwalk Dead, circumstances draw Mrs. B. and Fr. Melvyn Kronkey into a theater murder and the Macbeth curse through her son’s ballet company. They work to unravel whether this was a crime, a curse or both.  

             While the story created itself in my head, I had to take the time to learn about the backstage craft, including set construction, catwalks, logistics, methods, and equipment, so vital to the story’s action.   

Every author can speak to their creative side, and the need for the problem-solving skills necessary to create conflicts, then bring them to logical conclusions. 

Neuroscience continues to learn more about how each section of the brain operates when confronting different needs and situations. Still, the entire brain must be engaged to create fascinating stories that are scintillating, coherent, valid and clear, and, most of all, satisfying to the reader. 

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.