Writing Humor in Mysteries

by K.P. Gresham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Image by Joe Alfaraby from Pixabay

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

Her books in the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series include

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

Book Review: Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do; Edited by Meredith Maran

by Renee Kimball

Meredith Maran decided to write a book about writing to show her “gratitude to writers everywhere.”  To do that, however, she needed information from at least twenty best-selling authors.  Their responses would form basis for the book and a portion of the final profits would be donated to the 826 National literacy outreach centers promoting reading and writing in underprivileged areas.  She hoped this extra incentive would entice the “twenty” to respond.

While Maran’s greatest worry was whether the popular selling authors would even acknowledge or ignore her plea, she found her worries groundless—every author she contacted fully participated.  The responses were beyond Maran’s wildest expectations.

Along with their replies, the authors also included a bit of personal information and a plethora of sage advice for new writers.  The result of Maran’s inquiries became,  Why We Write 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do.

While you will need to read the book to enjoy of the wealth of information, below a few of the authors’ replies are highlighted.

 Isabel Allende

“I need to tell a story. It’s an obsession.  Each story is a seed inside of me that starts to grow and grow, like a tumor, and I have to deal with it sooner or later. Why a particular story?  I don’t know when I begin. That I learn much later.” (p. 4).

“It’s worth the work to find the precise word that will create a feeling of describe a situation. When you feel the story is beginning to pick up rhythm—then you know the book is going somewhere, and you just have to find it, and bring it, word by word into this world . . . (p.11-12).

David Baldacci

“If writing were illegal, I’d be in prison.  I can’t not write. It’s a compulsion.” (p. 16).

“When the sentences and the story are flowing, writing is better than any drug.  It doesn’t just make you feel good about yourself.  It makes you feel good about everything.” (p. 16).

“It can go the other way too. . . But actually, sitting there and conceiving story ideas and plotting—it’s the coolest profession in the world.  I’m paid to daydream.” (p. 16).

“Whether you’re writing a novel or a cover letter. . . shorter is always better.” (p. 23).

“The upside of the current state of publishing:  it’s a lot easier to self-publish than it ever was.  Publish on the Internet, or on demand, or self-publish in print—but whatever you do, if you want to share your story, publish it” (p. 23).

“Writing for your readers” is a euphemism for “writing what you think people will buy.” Don’t fall for it! Write for the person you know best: yourself.”  (p. 23).

Sue Grafton

“I write because in 1962 I put in my application for a job working in the children’s department at Sears, and they never called me back.  Seriously, I write because it’s all I know how to do.  Writing is my anchor and my purpose.” (p. 52).

“My best time as a writer is any day, or any moment, when the work’s going well and I’m completely absorbed in the task at hand.  The hardest time is when it’s not, and I’m not.  The latter tend to outnumber the former.  But I’m a persistent little cuss.  And I soldier on.” (p. 52).

“Most days when I sit down at my computer, I’m scared half out of my mind.  I’m always convinced that my last book was my last book, that my career is at an end, that I’ll never be able to pull off another novel, that my success was a fleeting illusion, and my hopes for the future are already dead.  Dang!  All this drama and it’s not even nine a.m.” (p. 53).

“Mystery writers are the neurosurgeons of literature.  Or maybe magicians.  We work by slight of hand.” (p. 57).

“There are no secrets and there are no shortcuts.  As an aspiring writer, what you need to know is that learning to write is self-taught, and learning to write well takes years.” (p. 60).

Ann Patchett

“I write because I swear to God, I don’t know how to do anything else.  From the time I was a little child, I knew that writing was going to be my life. . . I put all my eggs in one basket, which has resulted in a great number of eggs.” (p. 185).

“Don’t be afraid to make money writing the kinds of things you’d never write for the fun of it. There’s no shame in earing a living, whatever your write, even catalog copy or fluffy magazine articles, makes you a better writer.” (p. 192).

 Jane Smiley

“I write to investigate things I’m curious about.” (p. 206).

“A novelist’s job is to integrate information with the feelings and the stories of her characters, because a novel is about the alternation of the inner world and the outer world, what happens and what the characters fell about it.  There’s no reason to write a novel unless you’re going to talk about the inner lives of your characters.  Without that, the material is dry.  But without events and information, the novel seems subjective and pointless.” (p. 206).

“When I am writing, more than any other emotion, I feel excited.” (p. 209).

“Don’t write the book you think a publisher will want to publish.  Write the book you want to research and the book you want to read.” (p.215).

Maran’s small book is well worth reading and you just might find a kindred spirit within its pages.

Allende—obsession
Baldacci—compulsion
Grafton—writing is my anchor and my purpose
Patchett—can’t do anything else
Smiley—to investigate things

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*826 National is a nonprofit organization that provides strategic leadership, administration, and other resources to ensure the success of its network of seven—soon to be eight—writing and tutoring centers.

Photos 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 and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.

More Than There Was Before

When you reread a classic
you do not see more in the book than you did before;
you see more in you than was there before.  ~ Clifton Fadiman

*

The first few years I studied Romeo and Juliet with my high school freshmen, when I was in my early twenties, I followed the Star-Cross’d Lovers school of thought: Romeo and Juliet, two innocents, their eyes meet across a crowded room, she teaches the torches to burn bright, he’s the god of her idolatry, he wants to be a glove upon her hand, she wants to cut him out in little stars—but the cruel world conspires to bring them down.

The way Juliet’s father tells her to thank him no thankings nor proud him no prouds, but get to that church on Thursday and marry Paris or he’ll drag her thither on a hurdle—what kind of father says that to a thirteen-year-old girl? Parents don’t listen.

The kids might be a little quick to act, and goodness knows Romeo should have waited to talk to Friar Laurence before buying that poison. But who can expect patience of such romantic souls? A sad story indeed.

When I hit thirty, and had several years of teaching under my belt, I shifted to the What Can You Expect When Teenagers Behave Like Brats? philosophy: Romeo and Juliet, a couple of kids in a hurry, he doesn’t even bother to drop in on his family, just runs off to crash Capulet’s party, proposes to a girl before the first date, insists on a jumped-up wedding, then gets himself kicked out of the city, and he still hasn’t been home for dinner.

She mouths off to her father, tells him what she will and will not do, and that’s right after he’s told her what a nice husband he’s picked out for her. I mean, if you were a parent and your daughter spoke to you in that tone of voice, would you pat her hand and ask what’s wrong, or would you remind her who’s boss here?

If Romeo had just gone home in the first place, like any decent boy would, instead of running off with his friends, this mess wouldn’t have occurred.

In fact, since Old Montague and Old Capulet had that very afternoon been sworn to keep the peace, they might have arranged a marriage between Romeo and Juliet–formed an alliance that way—and the whole of Verona would have lived happily ever after, and Montague would have been spared the expense of a gold Juliet statue. Paris might have been a little put out at being jilted, but he’d have gotten over it. Kids! They don’t think.

When I hit forty, however, I developed the dogma of the Meddlesome Priest. Friar Laurence has no business performing a secret marriage between two minors without parental consent. He says he wants to promote peace, but he isn’t a diplomat. His field is pharmacology.

Furthermore, when Juliet informs him she’s about to acquire an extra husband, why doesn’t he go right then to her father and tell the man she’s married? Capulet wouldn’t have been pleased, but he’d have gotten over it. Instead, the Friar gives Juliet a sedative and stuffs her into a tomb with a passel of relatives in varying stages of disrepair.

The man appears to mean well, but it’s also possible he intends to take credit for being the brains behind the peace accords. Bunglesome or corrupt—the end is the same. With role models like him, are we surprised that children run amok?

Soon after the last epiphany, I ended my stint as a classroom teacher. I’ve wondered what would have happened if I’d continued to study Romeo and Juliet year after year. Would I have had new insights? Developed new interpretations? Uncovered new layers of meaning?

How much more would I have discovered in Shakespeare’s words? How much more would I have shared with my students?

Would I have continued to teach them respect and reverence? Would I have led them down the primrose path of dalliance and left them mired in levity?

How much more would I have given my students?

How much more would I have seen in myself?

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Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. Her latest publication is STABBED, written with Manning Wolfe. She lives in Austin and is working on a novel.

Learning from Memoir–Surviving Catastrophe and Loss

by  Renee Kimball

Memoir – noun:  a narrative composed from personal experience  – Merriam Webster Dictionary.

Every memoir reminds us of the faraway and long ago, of loss and change, of persons and places beyond recall  –  Abigail McCarthy

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. –  Viktor E. Frankl

Thirty-five miles south of Austin Texas, is the small rural town where I have lived for over twenty years.  I am still considered an outsider—I was not born here, nor were my “people.”  In mid-January, local social community media posts were largely dismissive of the potential disaster headed our way.

The media had announced the first confirmed case of Covid-19 on January 19, 2020, in Snohomish County, Washington.  Central Texas was slow to acknowledge what was coming. *  Mid-February, stronger warnings in the air; March gusted full of tangy-tangible fear, and hoarding toilet paper became a joke-du-jour.

Then Central Texas’ Covid-19 cases mounted; Stay-At-Home orders followed.  The only entity that was prepared for the looming crisis was the Texas grocery chain H.E.B., and for that, all Texans must remain eternally grateful. ** One day it was garage-sale-car-wash-fund raising small-town normal, then just like that, the world melted.

Now mid-June, many seek an end to quarantine because we must save the economy, we are impatient, we are bored, the pandemic is a hoax, our liberties are being abridged, we are out of money, we can’t go on like this, this isn’t living, they say, people will die either way, a 1%-2% death rate is acceptable, or is it?

In the Southern states, the pandemic is not abating; the news says cases are rising.

People keep saying these are extraordinary times, we must be flexible and compromise, we must continue to stay home, the recovery will be slow, maybe after the summer.  Will schools be open in the fall?  No one knows for certain and people continue to sicken, and many, to die.

For some during times of stress, books offer comfort, friendship, and escape-they are a testament to survival.  Personal memoirs show how inner strength and perseverance can sustain the survivor.  Despite heartbreaking cruelty and immense loss for some, memoirs show that on the other side of great trauma, the sufferer can rise to thrive again.

Night by Elie Wiesel (1956).  Elie Wiesel was an adolescent when his Jewish family was forced by the Nazis to take their fatal trip to the death camps.  Wiesel’s mother, father, and sister all died there.  Elie survived both Auschwitz and Buchenwald.  Night is the first of several books by Wiesel about the Holocaust, known as the Jewish Shoah.

In 1986 Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize for his life’s work.  After living a full life of grace, love, and generosity, Wiesel passed away at the age of 87.  He is still quoted and revered today for his singular, razor-sharp intellect and life-long activism on behalf of Jews, Israel, and the oppressed everywhere.

“. . . Convinced that this period in history would be judged one day, I knew that I must bear witness. . .I had many things to say, I did not have the words to say them. . . Hunger—thirst—fear—transport—selection—fire—chimney; these words all have intrinsic meaning, but in those times, they meant something else.” (Night, p. viii)

“. . . I remember: it happened yesterday, or eternities ago.  A young Jewish boy discovered the Kingdom of Night.  I remember his bewilderment; I remember his anguish.  It all happened so fast. . . The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed.” (Night, p. 118)

“. . .And now the boy is turning to me. “Tell me,” he asks, “what have you done with my future, what have you done with your life?” And I tell him I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.” (Night, p. 118).

“. . .And then I explain to him how naïve we were, that the world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.  We must take sides. . .” (Night, p. 118).

Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl (1985).  Unlike Wiesel, Victor E. Frankl was an adult with a medical degree when he was sent to the camps.  From his experience, Frankl derived his psychiatric theory of Logotheraphy, its foundational premise–man’s search for the meaning of life.

“. . . I had wanted simply to convey to the reader by way of a concrete example that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions even the most miserable ones.” (Frankl, p. 12).

“. . .This story is not about the suffering and death of great heroes and martyrs. . .nor well-known prisoners. . .Thus it is not so much concerned with the sufferings of the mighty, but with the sacrifices, the crucifixion and the deaths of the great army of unknown and unrecorded victims. . .” (Frankl, p. 17).

“   In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen.  Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain . . .but the damage to their inner selves was less. . .” (Frankl, p. 47).

“. . .In the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was not the result of camp influences alone.  Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually.  He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. . .” (Frankl, p. 75).

Childhood by Jona Oberski (1978).  Oberski’s story is fictional, but drawn from his real-life Holocaust experience.  The narrator of Childhood is a four-year-old Jewish boy who lives in a concentration camp with his mother.  In life, Oberski was sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at four years of age and released at age seven.  Both of Oberski’s parents died in the camps.  After liberation, a friend of his mother’s took Oberski to Amsterdam, where he was adopted.  The success of Childhood is the narrative’s sparseness, the childlike focus and intensity of his experience.

. . .His mother’s voice, “Don’t be afraid. Everything’s all right. I’m right here.” (Oberski, p. 1).

“. . .My father took me with him to his office.  My mother had sewn a yellow star on my coat. She said, “Look, now you’ve got a pretty star, just like Daddy. . .” (Oberski, p. 15).

“. . . A man was shouting, I woke up.  The door of my room was pulled open.  Somebody stomped in. . . . “Hurry, hurry, “the man yelled. “We’ve got to go; I have my orders.” He slung his gun over his shoulder and left the room. The gun banged against the door.” (Oberski, p. 15).

“. . .Then we had to go outside.  All along the street there were people in black coats.  We had to follow them.  And behind us there were still more people. . .We go into the train. . .” (Oberski, p. 19).

“. . .Now listen carefully,” my mother said. I’m going to show you something without using my finger.  And you mustn’t point either.  And you mustn’t look that way too long.  Just do exactly as I say.  Look over my shoulder.  Do you see the watchtower?
“. . . That hut is the watchtower.  There’s a watchtower on every side of the camp. Didn’t you know that? (Oberski, p. 41).

Survival in Auschwitz The Nazi Assault on Humanity by Primo Levi (1947).

Levi was 25 years old, a trained chemist, and a member of the Italian Resistance when taken prisoner by the German Reich.  Transferred numerous times, he landed in Auschwitz, staying there almost a full year before liberation.

Levi writes that his account was not to be used to add to the list of Nazi atrocities already reported, but as a study in human nature.  His story starkly reveals how effective the Nazi methods were in the systematic dehumanization of prisoners.

After the war, Levi returned to Turin, Italy, resumed his post as a chemist, moved into management.  In 1977, Levi retired to devote full-time to writing poetry and novels, and became a well-respected author.  Levi passed away in 1987; his writings remain influential even today.

“. . .As an account of atrocities, therefore, this book of mine adds nothing to what is already known to readers throughout the world on the disturbing question of the death camps. . . it should be able, rather to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind.  (Levi, p. 9).

“Many people—many nations—can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that ‘every stranger is an enemy’.  For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason.  But when this does come about, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then at the end of the chain, there is the Lager. . .” (Levi, p. 9).

“. . .I have never seen old men naked. . . shaved and sheared. What comic faces we have without hair! . . .Finally, another door is opened: here we are, locked in, naked sheared and standing, with our feet in water—it is a shower room. . .” (Levi, ps. 22-23).

“. . .Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man.  In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom.  It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this, nor could it conceivably be so.  Nothing belongs to us any more. . .” (Levi, p. 27).

“. . .They have even taken away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains.” (Levi, p. 27).

“. . . The days all seem alike, and it is not easy to count them.  For days now, we have formed teams of two, from the railway to the store-a hundred yards over thawing ground. . .” (Levi, p. 42).

Endings and Beginnings

America is not the first country, nor this generation the first, to face a catastrophe of momentous proportions–weighty words.  Like Levi’s days, the Covid-19 days “seem alike, and it is not easy to count them.”

When this is over, and we look back to the time of Covid-19, will we be like Wiesel, Frankl, and Levi, finding our language incapable of describing what we saw, what we did, the horror, the shock of what we experienced?  In the future, when we speak of quarantine, masks, hand-sanitizer, ventilators or  Personal Protection Equipment, will our voices catch?

What can we learn from what is happening to our country, the world, and everyone around us?  What are our responsibilities now and going forward?  Will we rally for change in healthcare? Will we face our responsibilities to ensure that this doesn’t happen again or will we forget?  What is our duty to ourselves our country?  Do we know?  We do know that Covid-19 does not discriminate, everyone equally vulnerable, a potential victim.

Like Wiesel, we must speak out against injustice where we can, and when able, to help one another in whatever capacity we can.  There are many hurting now; there will be many after.  We have to find a way to ensure the greater good of all before anything else–somewhere that lesson has been lost to us as a nation.  If we are to save ourselves, we must earnestly help everyone else, even those who would fight against our helping others.

And as Frankl clearly explains, any time, but particularly now, is the time for self-reflection, a time when “. . . any man can, . . . decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually.” It is our time to build a rich inner life; if we are able, and are lucky enough, to shelter in place, or not, now is the time to look inward.  Ultimately, how we react, how we go forward, is up to each of us individually.

Lastly during this time of Covid-19, I give to each of you Levi’s words, if I know you or if I do not. . . To all of you the humble wish, That autumn will be long and mild.” (Levi, To My Friends).

(Italian) Benedizioni a te e alla tua famiglia  – Blessings to you and your family.

(Romanian) Binecuvântări pentru tine și familia ta. – Blessings to you and your family.

(German) Segen für Sie und Ihre Familie – Blessings to you and your family.

*

To My Friends 

Dear friends, and here I say friends
the broad sense of the word:
Wife, sister, associates, relatives,
Schoolmates of both sexes,
People seen only once
Or frequented all my life;
Provided that between us, for at least a moment,
A line has been stretched,
A well-defined bond.
I speak for you, companions of a crowded
Road, not without its difficulties,
And for you too, who have lost
Soul, courage, the desire to live;
Or no one, or someone, or perhaps only one person, or you
Who are reading me: remember the time
Before the wax hardened,
When everyone was like a seal.
Each of us bears the imprint
Of a friend met along the way;
In each the trace of each.
For good or evil
In wisdom or in folly
Everyone stamped by everyone.
Now that the time crowds in
And the undertakings are finished,
|To all of you the humble wish
That autumn will be long and mild.

– Primo Levi

***

References

Images “Toilet Paper Basket” and “Corona Virus” via Pixabay
Images of book covers via Amazon.com

“Our New COVID-19 Vocabulary—What Does It All Mean?”

*First Case of 2019 Novel Coronavirus in the United States

**“Inside the Story of How H-E-B Planned for the Pandemic” 

Logotherapy is a term derived from “logos,” a Greek word that translates as “meaning,” and therapy, which is defined as treatment of a condition, illness, or maladjustment. Developed by Viktor Frankl, . . logotherapy is the pursuit of that meaning for one’s life.

“Conavirus live updates”: Trump announces federal ‘blueprint’ for testing”

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

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.

***

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

***

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.