Characters We’re Drawn To

By Helen Currie Foster

Last week Big D hosted the Bouchercon book conference. Two sessions made me wonder why we’re drawn to particular book characters, and how key they are to readers.

At the Bouchercon “Success in Publishing” panel, a speaker said, “People read for character. Conflict turns pages.” A second speaker said she’ll re-read a writer’s submittal if, the next day, she remembers the characters.

Best-selling author Elizabeth George (Inspector Lynley series) told a spellbound audience (me too) that for a new book, before she starts writing anything else, she creates her characters and settings.

George designs her characters to “reflect the human heart in conflict.” Sometimes she’ll have as many as six characters telling the story from their point of view. She creates a character prompt sheet, deciding, for each, what is this character’s real need? She considers the character’s psychopathology: what would the character do under stress? If the character appears only once, what is the character’s agenda in
that scene?

George then decides, where does this novel begin? Only then does she start to outline the first ten scenes. Each must be causally related to another scene. She then writes a rough draft of those first ten scenes, and repeats the process for the next ten scenes. Nothing is set in concrete.

In the tug-of-war for primacy between plot and character, what gives a character “pull”? If we “read for character,” which characters really attract us––perhaps even more than a forceful plot? What does Elizabeth George mean––the human heart in conflict?

Each of you has your own list of favorite characters, some from favorite childhood books. Take Charlotte’s Web. I’m fond of the pig Wilbur, and the child Fern. I empathize with Wilbur’s terror when he’s being chased for the slaughter. But Charlotte…isn’t she the magnet? Aren’t we as fixated on her as Wilbur is? Using Elizabeth George’s approach, how is Charlotte’s spiderly heart in conflict? We know she’s determined to teach Wilbur how to survive. We know that a spider has no duty to befriend an orphan pig. Conflict? We know by the end that Charlotte has spent her last days using her remaining energy to teach Wilbur what he needs to know, while fully aware that her own end is nigh. We’re drawn to Charlotte’s generosity, her clever planning, her foresight, her perseverance: we admire her. Like Wilbur we hope for her approval. Do we empathize with her? Yes, when she’s working so hard on those webs. We feel her exhaustion! We too are swinging from one side of the web to the other! Wilbur has learned from Charlotte’s work, too. Perhaps he has learned gratitude? Awe? Aw.

We’re also drawn to childhood characters who learn. Think of that little sourpuss Mary in The Secret Garden. Readers can empathize with her lonely railroad journey to a place where she knows no one, but honestly, she is essentially unlikable: rude, willful, suspicious, unkind. Her heart distrusts the world. As the gorse bushes blossom and the downs bloom, as the children find their way to each other and into the secret garden, Mary slowly changes, slowly learns friendship, slowly learns generosity. We see from her eyes, hear with her ears, and experience her transformation ourselves.

What about Kim? This little orphan, footloose in the Raj, asks himself the great question: “Who is Kim?” Is he English? Hindu? Pathan? Who deserves his loyalty? I love Kim’s rapid costume changes, his effortless switches of vernacular as he deals with beggars, farmers with sick children, high-born old ladies in their palanquins. I itch for him in the woolen school uniform he must wear when sent off to a miserable English school, separated from the beloved Tibetan lama he has adopted. Kipling’s rich plot takes Kim (and us) across India and up into the high cool hills of the Himalayas, as Kim is initiated into the perilous Great Game of spying between the British and the Russians. Such a rich plot––secret messages, invisible ink, spies dressed as beggars, hypnotic jewel games––could dominate the characters. I don’t think it does. On one long day of healing after Kim finishes his exhausting trip from the high hills down to the plains, carrying the sick lama, we experience Kim’s discovery. The lama finds his long-sought river, and Kim begins to know who he is.

Okay, one last favorite character from that grand tale, Lonesome Dove. The question “which is your favorite character…?” occasioned great debate at our house. I opt for Gus. We meet him at the beginning, we see what he sees, hear what he thinks, we know just how he feels as the sun slowly––finally––sinks low enough in the first chapter that he can stalk out to the adobe springhouse to get his jug and have a swig in the dab of shade on the porch. We see other characters through his eyes. But I also admire Gus: I admire his taking care to help Lorena survive, his concern for Newt. I hate that Deets dies, that the little Irish boys die, but I can ascribe that to fate (as wielded by Larry McMurtry). Gus is different. Oh, yes, the author made me care for other characters on that long drive to Montana. But I personally experienced most of the book from Gus’s saddle, as if I were perched right behind him. I don’t want McMurtry to let Gus ride over that hill.… Gus, don’t go over that hill!

Oh, and let’s add A Gentleman in Moscow. Mmm, that tenacious Count Rostov.

My favorites share some qualities: generosity, intelligence, some humor. But in addition, despite their human hearts in conflict, they choose to take action, action potentially at odds with their own interests, despite personal danger and fear of loss. So, throw determination in there too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Thoughts on Smell in Literature, or The Dog as Watson

by Helen Currie Foster

An author can get great mileage by giving the point of view to a Watson sort of character. The Watson can be present for all events, hear all dialogue and see all clues—while not understanding them. The Reader feels clever for having grasped the significance of clues the Watson missed or smellmisunderstood. The Watson can admire Sherlock’s astounding mental feats while deploring Sherlock’s shortcomings (sometimes his manners, sometimes cocaine). Meanwhile the reader can identify with the Watson and can experience, perhaps, the feel and sound and… yes, the SMELL of a scene, while Sherlock is detecting or explaining arcana.

The best Watson I’ve met is…a dog. Yes, it’s Chet, the large (hundred-pounder!) companion and partner of detective Bernie Little in the Chet and Bernie Series. Spencer Quinn (nom de … plume? Or de tail?) of Peter Abrahams is the genius who most recently gave us The Heart of Barkness.

You say you won’t read a mystery told by a dog? I’m not a dog person, and that’s what I said too, turning my inadequate human nose up in the air. (I have donkeys, not dogs.)

Then I met Chet. Chet opened up the astounding sensory richness of the world that lies beyond human (that is, Bernie’s) detection, and, particularly, the world of smell.

Here’s a scene—a scent?—from The Dog Who Knew Too Much:

“Autumn didn’t mention your sense of humor.” Anya gave him a not-very-friendly look when she said that, but at the same time I picked up a scent coming off her—faint but unmistakable—that meant she was starting to like Bernie. Nothing about humans is simple: I’ve learned that lots of times in my career.

Here’s Chet using his ears as well, when Bernie is banging on the door of the RV where he hopes to find Lotty Pilgrim, the country-western star accused of murder In The Heart of Darkness:

Silence from inside. Then came footsteps, very soft, but there’s no such thing as footsteps too soft for my ears. Also I could hear breathing on the other side of the door. Plus there were smells of cigarette smoke, coffee, and perfume—and the specific smell of Lotty Pilgrim, which had an interesting milky quality. The door might as well not have been there.

At least in my case. Did Bernie realize Lotty was standing pretty much right in front of us? He raised his voice. “Lotty? Lotty?” Raised it to a level that meant the answer to my question was no.

No answer from Lotty. The milky smell changed, went the tiniest bit sour. I’ve tasted milk both sour and not, don’t like either kind. Water’s my drink. The best I ever tasted came right out of a rock, but no time to go into that now.

Right there, we see Chet’s astounding ears in action, and his nose. We learn exactly what Lotty could smell like to our human noses, if only the dadgum door weren’t in the way. We learn that Chet can detect that some emotion—fear?—has turned Lotty’s milky smell “the tiniest bit sour.” Then we may wonder whether our human noses could possibly notice, at a subliminal level, what Chet detects as smell? Is our human sense of smell so low-level (Chet’s opinion) that our minds can’t really register certain smells as smells? Instead, perhaps our minds register an emotion, a suspicion, instead of a smell. That is, if we’re on Lotty’s side of the door, which Bernie is not, at least here.

Bernie and Chet make a great team. Chet hears a faraway car sneaking across the desert toward Bernie, way before Bernie hears it. Chet tries to let Bernie know…but Bernie’s slow on the uptake. We readers know peril impends. Listen, Bernie! Pay attention! He won’t, but not until the last second, when Chet must leap into action.

My love affair with Chet is not just his sheer joyousness. It’s his masterful specificity about smell. Here he is, on the job, searching a mountain campsite for traces of a lost boy camper:

When it comes to nighttime security, you can’t go wrong by sniffing around.

Nothing new to pick up, the scents of the boys still all over the place—although growing fainter—plus Bernie’s scent, Turk’s, and my own, the most familiar smell in the world: old leather, salt and pepper, mink coats, and just a soupçon of tomato; and to be honest, a healthy dash of something male and funky. My smell: yes, sir. Chet the Jet was in the vicinity, wherever that was, exactly.

Here’s a challenge for you dog people. Give us as detailed a description of your dog’s smell as Chet’s description of his own! Oh, okay, I’ll try to do the same for my donkeys. In November.

Last month I was bemoaning the stinginess of some of my favorite writers in using smells in their writing. Maybe Virginia Woolf—hey, she loved her dogs, wrote about her dogs, doubtless could have described their smells as well as Chet described his, if the times, or the Times Literary Supplement, had permitted—will rise to the challenge. Watch this space.

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Image of dog by CT70 via Pixabay
Image of man by StockSnap via Pixabay
Image of mink stole, public domain, via Wikipedia

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

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

THE SCENT OF A WOMAN…THEATER…SEA

by Helen Currie Foster

Even just thinking of certain smells can yank me straight back to childhood. Oil paint­­s? Mama working on her first portrait. Jello chocolate pudding mix? My sister standing on a chair, eyebrows level with the gas flame, stirring a saucepanful for us to share. A little chlorine? Joyous summer afternoon at Northwest Park pool.

Mindful that writers use sensory images to make a page come alive, I had a mission––locate smells. I pulled books off the shelf.

Of course I went first to my personal favorite, To the Lighthouse (1927), sure that the brilliant descriptions of the island, of time passing, would include smell. I found nothing until page 19 (the wind “drew from the long frilled strips of seaweed pinned to the wall a smell of salt and weeds…”). Finally, on page 33, Lily Briscoe describes William Bankes (“a widower, smelling of soap, very scrupulous and clean”). We know just from the soap that nothing will come of this relationship.

Lonesome Dove. Chapters One-Two: vivid visual images, great dialogue, descriptions of food (beans)––but no smell until Chapter Three when Lorena observes, looking across the river at Mexico, “…it didn’t look any more interesting than Texas, and the men stunk just as bad as Texans, if not worse.” “Stunk.” Not much, but it gets the point across.

Treasure Island (1882). Chapters One-Two: scary characters, scars, blood, cutlasses and rum––but no smell until Chapter Three when the captain “put his nose out of doors to smell the sea….”

Maybe Victorian/post-Victorian writers were loath to mention bodily smells. However, the smell of the sea seems to be all right. Considering how repugnant Virginia Woolf (at least initially) found Ulysses (1914) when it first appeared, I checked Chapter One and found Stephen Dedalus’s famous dream of his dead mother, who begged him to kneel and pray at her deathbed, but he refused:

Silently, in a dream she had come to him after her death, her wasted body within its loose brown graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, that had bent upon him, mute, reproachful, a faint odour of wetted ashes.

Well. That’s strong.

Kim (1901): thankfully, in Kipling’s colorful description of Delhi during the Raj, Kim meets the lama from the far-off Himalayas:

He was old, and his woollen gaberdine still reeked of the stinking artemisia of the mountain passes.

Now we see the lama, high above the plains, striding through the mountains. And we smell that artemisia.

The Sound and the Fury (1929). Faulkner gives us Benjy, waiting with his caretaker Versh for his big sister Caddy:

I couldn’t feel the gate at all, but I could smell the bright cold.

“You better put them hands back in your pockets.”

Hello, Benjy.” Caddy said.

She opened the gate and came in and stooped down. Caddy smelled like leaves.

Later Benjy adds “Caddy smelled like trees.” With all we later hear of Caddy, we won’t forget that she smelled like leaves, like trees.

At this point I’d concluded that despite all the big talk about writers appealing to our senses, smells are sparsely put about. Visual imagery: everywhere. Sure, Proust included taste, dipping his famous madeleine into tea. But smell? Well, it’s powerful when used…which seems sparing.

Except in some mysteries. Not every mystery. Take Dorothy Sayers. Her Gaudy Night begins with protagonist Harriet Vane, recently exonerated of murder charges in Strong Poison, setting out for an Oxford class reunion, and searching for her academic robe:

She dragged out an ancient trunk, unlocked it and flung back the lid. A close, cold odor.

I found little more, but that one phrase suggested Vane’s bitter history and, in a way, her take on the plot to come.

For more extensive use, consider Ngaio Marsh’s Night at the Vulcan (1951), where the theatre and some characters are rich with odor. Nineteen-year-old Martyn Tarne arrives by ship from New Zealand, hoping to act in London, but loses her travelers cheques. On a rainy evening, exhausted and hungry, she accidentally lands a job as dresser to Helena Hamilton, lead actress at the Vulcan, where Martyn’s permitted to spend the night:

She was at the back of the stalls, standing on thick carpet at the top of the ramp and facing the centre aisle…The deadened air smelt of naphthalene and plush.

She meets Helena Hamilton, her employer:

she was only vaguely aware of a fragrance in the air and a new voice in the passage. The next moment her employer came into the dressing room.

It took Martyn a moment or two to realize that this was her cue to remove Miss Hamilton’s coat. She lifted it from her shoulders––­­it was made of Persian lamb and smelt delicious­­––and hung it up.

Then she meets Hamilton’s actor husband, a middle-aged, handsome man with a raffish face. “He went out, leaving a faint rumour of alcohol behind him.”

As to the theater dogsbody, Jacko, to Martyn “he smelt of toothpaste and nicotine.”

Only a few of Marsh’s characters identify themselves to Martyn as distinctive fragrances. For instance, Helena Hamilton’s unique, expensive and “delicious” fragrance matches her talent. But scent is key to Marsh’s setting. Martyn’s encounters with the smells of the Vulcan––naphthalene and plush, dressing rooms with their banks of flowers, greasepaint and cosmetics­––make the entire building come alive for us.

Smells. They’re stored in our individual attics as powerful yet faint and fleeting memories of a specific moment, a specific place. Maybe smells are, and should be, used sparingly because of their immediacy. Marsh is stingy: Helena isn’t “tagged” with fragrance; it doesn’t appear and reappear, page after page. It’s shared with us as part of Martyn’s first impression of the character.

Writers repeat for characters their visual tags (the hat, the eyebrows, the frown) and their dialogue and voice tags (“Whatever you say, dear”). In contrast, in creating character and scene, perhaps smells call for restraint or subtlety. “Caddy smelled like leaves.” We know what that means, though we don’t know exactly what it smells like. We can supply our own memory there, our own leaves, and the sense of the smell belongs to us immediately.

Have you ever opened a box, a closet, containing the stored possessions of someone you love, and found that the first whiff reminds you…and then disappears? We can’t on demand repeat the impact of the stored memory of smell. Like a first impression, smells are permanently stored in the memory attic, but not reliably accessible. In fact, words can’t readily capture certain smells. I’ve tried and failed to put into words the tender memory of the smell of my mother’s house. Words haven’t yet captured it. Was it compounded of specific elements, like floor wax, bath powder, books, cooking? Naah. That doesn’t work.

Talking about this with my brother, he agreed that actual smells can be “keys straight into the lock of memory but are very difficult to describe unless they’re well known and simply identified: lavender, diesel exhaust, bacon.” He said, “I do like it when the writer tries, though!”

He added that one of his favorite smells is the smell of a child running in from play outside in the cool evening. Well, I can’t think of words to describe exactly what that child smells like, but the description––the child running in from play outside in the cool evening––opened a key in my own memory cabinet. I knew that smell when he described it.

Maybe writers are sparing with this, our most primitive and sensitive sense, because it’s hard to find the exact description for certain smells in, say, the writer’s memory cabinet. Yet it’s possible to convey the sense of that smell to a reader. And we do “like it when the writer tries”!

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

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

An Interview with Elizabeth Buhmann, Author of BLUE LAKE

by M.K. Waller

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When I began Elizabeth Buhmann’s BLUE LAKE, I was–I’m ashamed to say–afraid I would be disappointed. Her first novel, LAY DEATH AT HER DOOR, was so well constructed, clues so obviously placed, that I should have been able to predict the ending—but so deftly woven into the plot that the last chapter was a complete surprise. More than a surprise—a shock. That novel was so good, I knew BLUE LAKE couldn’t match it.

I was wrong. BLUE LAKE is different from its predecessor, of course, but just as well written and just as suspenseful.  And when I reached the end, I said, “I should have known.”

BLUE LAKE does not disappoint.

Buhmann hides things in plain sight—the mark of a good mystery writer, and the delight of every mystery reader.

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“Rural Virginia, 1945. The Second World War had just ended when Alice Hannon found the lifeless body of her five-year-old daughter, Eugenie, floating in Blue Lake. The tragedy of the little girl’s death destroyed the Hannon family.

“More than twenty years later, Alice’s youngest daughter, Regina, returns home after a long estrangement because her father is dying. She is shocked to discover, quite by accident, that her sister’s drowning was briefly investigated as a murder at the time.

“For as long as she can remember, Regina has lived in the shadow of her family’s grief. She becomes convinced that if she can discover the truth about Eugenie’s death, she can mend the central rift in her life. With little to go on but old newspapers and letters, the dead girl’s hairpin, and her own earliest memories, Regina teases out a family history of cascading tragedy that turns her world upside down.” 

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Where did you get the idea for Blue Lake?

A friend told me something about her family history. Her grandmother, who was born in 1910, had 12 children. By the time the last child came along, her oldest daughter was in her twenties, childless, and wishing she could have a baby. So that youngest child was given to her sister and grew up believing that her sister was her mother and her mother was her grandmother.

The way my friend told it, the situation played out without great trauma—the little girl learned that she was adopted in the usual sort of way. But to me, the possibilities for very deep emotional upheaval were striking, just depending on the circumstances. For my main character, Regina, being given to her sister was a disaster, and the feelings of betrayal, rejection, and abandonment are intense.

Why the mid-century setting?

Another friend, who read a very early draft of this story, said, “It’s great but the setting in time falls between contemporary and historical. Can’t you tell the same story set in present day?”

The answer is no. For two reasons. One: too many things that happen in the story could not happen now. Advances in forensic science, victim services, and child protection would be expected to change the outcome at nearly every stage. And yet I think that many of the old attitudes and assumptions—especially about female victims, racial prejudice, and the sovereignty of the family—are stubbornly alive today.

Two: There is a shape to that era—the twenties, the Crash, the Depression, World War II, emerging modernism—that is unique and still shapes our world experience. And I don’t think anyone disputes that the Old South continues to haunt us.

This book is very different from your first!

It is! LAY DEATH AT HER DOOR was a much riskier project, having a protagonist who was in so many ways also an antagonist. And it was contemporary. And although the crimes reached back decades, the truth about them was entirely accessible in the end.

In Blue Lake, the violence reaches back so far in the past, and in a time when the truth about an isolated incident could so much more easily slip out of reach forever, that it felt to me as though Regina would never be able penetrate the mystery. It was a challenge to lead her to the answers she so desperately needed.

Always murder! Why do you write about murder?

To me it is the ultimate drama, when human emotions result in one person killing another. I try to treat murder with respect, for the extreme and shocking act that it is for real. I love a good cozy mystery as much as the next person, but I cannot write one. Murder is a deadly serious topic—could not be more so.

I also read mysteries and thrillers that feature serial killers, though these are not my favorites at all. These murders are committed by people who fall well outside the realm of normal human emotional response. I am more interested in a murder that is understandable, so to speak.

I would not go so far as to say that we are all capable of killing another human being. I have no idea whether that is true—probably not? But I think we all recognize and experience emotions which, if we were tested to a limit and beyond, could make us really want to kill another person.

Laws are quite clear about issues such as self-defense and justifiable homicide, but our individual perceptions of these concepts, in extreme and highly emotional circumstances, can be quite elastic. And it may well be that anyone who murders has a deeply flawed character. But character flaws are universally human, too.

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Elizabeth Buhmann is originally from Virginia, where both of her novels are set. Growing up as the daughter of an Army officer, she lived in France, Germany, New York, Japan, and Saint Louis. She graduated magna cum laude from Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, and has a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh. For twenty years she worked for the Texas Attorney General as a researcher and writer on criminal justice and crime victim issues. Her first murder mystery, Lay Death at Her Door, earned a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and twice reached the Amazon Top 100 (paid Kindle). Elizabeth lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and dog. She is an avid gardener, loves murder mysteries, and is a long-time student of Tai Chi.

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BLUE LAKE: A Mystery is available at https://www.amazon.com/Blue-Lake-Mystery-Elizabeth-Buhmann-ebook/dp/B07SKJ1CF4/

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FTC Disclaimer: Elizabeth Buhmann is a friend and fellow writer. When we were both members of Austin Mystery Writers, I read the first chapters of BLUE LAKE in draft form and then waited impatiently for it to reach publication. The synopsis above is quoted from Amazon. I wrote the review. Nobody told me what to think or to say, and I posted it because I wanted to tell other readers of mystery and suspense about a book worthy of their To Be Read lists.

No reviewers were bribed, coddled, or coerced in the writing of this review.

~ M.K. Waller

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M.K. Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly.

PLAYING FOR PIZZA – by John Grisham

 

written by Fran Paino

The master of suspense took a break from his usual mystery, crime, and thriller books to write Playing for Pizza; a football story hatched as he researched settings for another novel.

Playing for Pizza tracks a third-string quarterback for the Cleveland Browns in what turns out to be a life lesson – the question is, will he learn?

Poor Rick Dockery. With only minutes left to play, in the AFC Championship game, Dockery comes in as Quarterback with a 17- point lead and snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. Rick ends up in a hospital, recovering from the concussion he suffered along with the loss. His agent, Arnie, and the duty nurse discourage him from remembering too much of what had happened, but eventually, poor Rick does remember and then learns that virulent Cleveland fans want to storm the hospital and dismember him – or at least run him out of town on a rail. In addition to the disaster, his agent informs him that the Browns have released him and no other team wants him – he is unemployable in the NFL, but Rick isn’t done with football – he can’t be; it’s all he knows.

Dubbed by an unforgiving and vicious press as “the greatest goat in the history of professional sports,” Rick has hit rock bottom. His agent suggests that it might be time to find another profession; Dockery, however, refuses to give up. Arnie is running out of patience and ideas, not to mention the fact that he isn’t making any money representing the disgraced Quarterback, yet he makes “one more call,” to an old buddy.

Coach Russo is looking for a QB for the Panthers—of Parma, Italy. They play at a Division 3 level – maybe. Russo wants an American QB to lead his team of tough Italians, whose professions range from truck drivers to airline pilots and everything in-between. These men hold full-time jobs and play for love of the game, and pizza! As one of the three Americans allowed on any team in Italy, Rick will be provided with a car, rent money and a very small salary – nowhere near the pay scale in the NFL.

With no other options available, feeling the pressure to get out of the States, filled with resentment and self-pity, Rick Dockery accepts the job. He flies off to a country he barely knows exists and a city he’d never heard of before.

The coach meets him at the airport and immediately realizes that Dockery is in for a few shocks. Coach Russo crash courses Rick in Italian football. The Panthers are on an eight-game schedule with play-offs and a shot at the Italian Super Bowl. At the same time, Rick must cope with stick-shift small cars, bumper-to-bumper parking, and the culture of food, wine, and opera– things about which Rick Dockery knows nothing. By his own admission, his education consisted of football, Phys. Ed., more football, and cheerleaders.

Rick begins the process of adjusting to his new circumstances and his new team. Secretly, he believes he would be hiding out in Parma for a while and would return to the States after other NFL teams forgot his humiliation and offered him a spot.

One vicious reporter from Cleveland, however, finds out where Dockery is and has no intention of allowing him any salvation in football. The reporter stalks him and reports back to the Cleveland Post on Dockery’s progress, turning anything Dockery does well into a series of “lucky breaks.”

Throughout, we watch Dockery cope with the culture shock of a completely alien environment while melding with teammates who are unlike any he’d ever encountered in the States and somehow, play his best football.

Sometimes the story feels like a travel guide through northern Italy and a play-by-play in football, but it’s told through the eyes of a lost soul on a life journey. Dockery learns that in Italy, although “it (footfall) was just a club sport, winning meant something – commitment meant even more.”

By the end of Rick’s story, we see a man emerge from the immature self-absorbed, culturally deficient boy/man who’d arrived in a foreign country only a few weeks before. Moreover, if you are a football fan, the last game is a heart-stopper.

There’s no fairy-tale ending here. Dockery has choices to make, but he finds confidence, becomes comfortable in his own skin, and learns the real meaning of playing for pizza.

It’s not a new release, but it’s still a great summer read.

How Did She Think of That? And How Did Adamsberg Figure It Out?: Thoughts on Fred Vargas and her Policiers

by Helen Currie Foster

Fred Vargas by Marcello Casal/ABr, licensed under CC BY-3.0 BR. Via Wikipedia

Her sheer imagination, her complex and nearly crazy—yet convincing—plots, have won Fred Vargas three International Dagger Awards from the Crime Writers Association for her policiers, or police procedurals. Vargas is the nom de plume of Fréderique Audoin-Rouzeau, a French medieval historian and archeologist (born in Paris 1952) who worked at the Institut Pasteur. Vargas provides a vividly unusual police environment with her Paris-based Serious Crime Squad, headed by Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. I immediately fell for her idiosyncratic protagonist—Adamsberg is Pyrenees born, left handed, a water-colorist who paints in order to puzzle out murder inquiries, and who alternately frustrates and mesmerizes his staff through his unconventional thinking. Vargas has steadily added a cadre of interesting characters to Adamsberg’s team, each quite odd in his or her own way (not forgetting the large white cat which sleeps atop the copier and must be carried to its food bowl—a cat which demonstrates great heroism in This Night’s Foul Work) (tr. 2008).

Aside from some rare omniscient inserts, Vargas tells her stories primarily through the eyes of the police characters, primarily Adamsberg. We see Adamsberg’s chief lieutenant, Commandant Adrien Danglard, through Adamsberg’s eyes. Danglard is OCD, possessed of nearly photographic memory, a polymath with vast knowledge of science and history, subject to anxiety attacks. At the beginning of An Uncertain Place (tr. 2011) Adamsberg is racing for the Eurostar to meet Danglard and board the Chunnel for a conference in London when he gets Danglard’s text:

“Rdv 80 min GdNord Eurostar gate. Fckin tnnl. Have smart jkt + tie 4 U.”

In this abbreviated text Vargas telegraphs Danglard’s character and his relationship to Adamsberg. We instantly see that Danglard is clock-bound, controlling in his insistence on proper attire for Adamsberg (correctly predicting his boss’s over-casual packing), and terrified of traveling under the Channel.

Vargas develops her protagonist and his foil by giving us each character’s point of view on the other’s mental processes. In An Uncertain Place, Adamsberg sees Danglard like this:

Adamsberg imagined Danglard’s mind as a block of fine limestone, where rain, in other words questions, had hollowed out countless basins in which his worries gathered, unresolved. Every day, three or four of these basins were active simultaneously.

On the other hand, Danglard often despairs of Adamsberg’s unconventional mental processes:

It was less easy to seize hold of him when his mental equipment was dislocated into several moving parts, which was his usual state. But it became completely impossible when this state intensified to the point of dispersal…Adamsberg at such times seemed to move like a diver, his body and mind swooping gracefully without any precise objective. His eyes followed the movement, taking on the look of dark brown algae and conveying to his interlocutor a sensation of indeterminacy, flow, non-existence. To accompany Adamsberg in these extremes…was like swimming into deep water…

Indeed, the members of Adamsberg’s squad are split on his intuitive approach, which they call “cloud-shoveling.” Many in the squad would frankly prefer a more Cartesian, rationalist approach. An Uncertain Place begins with the discovery of severed feet (i.e. from corpses) lined up in pairs of French shoes at the entrance to Highgate Cemetery in London. (I told you the plots are wild.) Back in Paris, when Adamsberg eventually connects the severed feet to a Serbian legend tinged with vampirism, part of his squad rebels:

At this point, the antagonism which divided the members of the squad resurfaced: the materialist positivists were seriously annoyed by Adamsberg’s vague wanderings, sometimes to the point of rebellion, while the more conciliatory group did not object to a spot of cloud-shovelling from time to time.

Adamsberg tries to convince the magnificent woman lieutenant, Violette Retancourt—a positivist irritated by Adamsberg’s vagueness—that there is indeed a connection:

“We’re not looking for a vampire, Retancourt,” said Adamsberg firmly, “we’re not going out into the streets to search for some creature who got a stake through his heart in the early eighteenth century. Surely that’s clear enough for you, lieutenant.”

“No, not really.”

Vargas highlights our variation in mental processes—how we each investigate, , how we think—in Have Mercy on Us All (tr. 2003), which draws heavily on Vargas’s own research into the Black Death and bubonic plague (published as Les Chemins de la peste or “Routes of the Plague”, 2003). Someone in Paris is drawing a symbol like a backwards number four on apartment doors in highrise apartments, leaving inside each apartment ivory envelopes which contain fleas, with messages inside that draw on medieval Latin texts about the plague’s arrival, first in Paris, later in Marseilles. And, yes, the fleas are nosopsyllus fasciatus, connected with the plague. These details draw us from Paris highrise apartments to the itching swollen bites in Danglard’s armpits and the image of the anglophile commandant leaping out of his I-love-the-English tweeds into déclassé black jeans and a baggy t-shirt—confounding the other members of his squad.

Meanwhile, dead bodies appear in the streets. Modern Parisians become terrified when news outlets report that the last arrival of the plague in Paris, in 1920, was hushed up by the authorities. Adamsberg vainly points out that the dead bodies being found were each strangled and the black splotches on their bodies are merely powdered charcoal. With the investigation stymied, he senses that he himself missed a step, missed a clue. He decides to spend the afternoon in a Paris square waiting for the local Breton newscaster—a former sailor named Joss whose gig is to read aloud to the waiting audience the “news” envelopes submitted by various listeners:

Adamsberg enjoyed listening to the harmless small ads in pale sunlight. An entire afternoon spent doing bugger all except letting body and mind wind down had helped him recover…He had reached the level of animation of a sponge bobbing about on a stormy sea. It was a state he sometimes sought specifically.

And at the close of the newscast, as Joss was announcing the wreck of the day, he jumped, as if a pebble had just hit the sponge hard. The bump almost hurt physically, leaving Adamsberg nonplussed and alert. He could not tell where it had come from. It was necessarily a picture that had hit him while he’d been drowsing with his shoulder leaning on the trunk of the plane—a fleeting frame, a split-second flash of a visual detail of some kind.

Adamsberg straightened up and scanned the whole scene in search of the lost image, trying to recover the sense of shock.

Haven’t we each sometimes waked up with the sense we missed something, something we heard, something we saw? And tried to retrieve it? No spoilers here as to what Adamsberg will recall.

Of course we need logic and intuition, visual and auditory memory, history and scientific analysis. Vargas’s hypercreative plots, often rooted in French myth and history, require not only Danglard’s enormous historical knowledge and ratiocination, but Adamsberg’s “swimming into deep water.” What initially looks like ordinary murder in Paris, or Normandy, becomes, at Vargas’s hands, a mythic quest, a trip down the rabbit hole where, finally, an unexpected mystery is solved. We think we’re just cloud-shoveling, but suddenly all the threads come together and we see the whole picture—far more complex than we’d dreamed—at last.

The Adamsberg books are a treat, but anyone who has ever been a grad student will also relish Vargas’s unlikely trio of graduate students and their roles in solving murders: The Three Evangelists (tr. 2006), Dog Will Have His Day (tr. 2014), and The Accordionists (tr. 2017). A new Adamsberg will arrive in August. More cloud-shoveling!

*

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

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

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