Dreaming in Santa Fe

by Helen Currie Foster

Driving into New Mexico with my husband (favorite long-time travel companion) I peer anxiously out the car window—I won’t be happy until I spot the first antelope, tiny, almost invisible, bounding across vast pale green ranch pastures below a string of distant mesas. First I look for a white splotch (tell-tale antelope rump), then suddenly spot an entire flock, spread out in the grass. Then, where I-25 crosses the south-running Pecos River, we see the sinuous length of Rowe Mesa, all red rock and green conifers, running for miles to the west. At Ribera we exit south on State Road 3, then climb an impressively steep gravel road to the adobe house of my cherished college classmate friend and her husband. Their house sits in the lap of Rowe Mesa, looking across the broad Pecos valley at its companion, Bernal Mesa. The old house is formal, plastered white inside, with a beautiful ceiling of beams (vigas) supporting the roof. Sticks, or latillas, lie in a formal herringbone pattern between the vigas.

 

Walking across the property in the cool morning we spot chips from arrowhead manufacture. Our friends have found a spot far above on the edge of the mesa littered with many such chips, where centuries ago an expert sat under a piñon in the shade, “knapping” (flaking) stones to make arrowheads and points. We saunter along, picking up turquoise-colored pebbles from the played-out turquoise mine, reveling in the view across the valley. We hear nothing but the wind in the junipers and piñons and the occasional faraway buzz of a small plane.

My friend has taken us down along the Pecos to see the extensive adobe ruins of the Spanish customs office that once controlled the river crossing into Spanish New Mexico. Further down the river we see the irrigation ditches—acequias—feeding water into Pecos farm plots, before the Pecos narrows into a canyon.

We love this place. But Santa Fe is calling.

To celebrate the June 2021 publication of Ghost Daughter, we’re on Otero Street in Santa Fe, with beauty everywhere. Carved wooden beams over doorways. Intensely colored flower gardens in yards. Curved human-scale adobe houses. Blue sky above adobe walls.

Downtown, Santa Fe offers layers of history—Pueblo architecture, Territorial architecture. In 1920 City officials ordered that buildings in the city be built Pueblo-style. The warm tan of adobe and the cool greens and blue-greens of balconies and window-frames feel soothing, low-rise, solid. Art is in the air, in the gardens, in the architecture, in the shop windows. I double-dog-dare you not to take pictures. Plus there’s an appreciation of burros (which warms the hearts of my three burros).

Along Palace Avenue by the New Mexico Museum of Art, heavy bronze sidewalk plaques celebrate Santa Fe artists. Each plaque features a helmeted conquistador…which seems incongruous for celebrating, say, Georgia O’Keefe or my hero, Gustave Baumann, the German immigrant whose vivid woodcuts tantalize my protagonist Alice in Ghost Daughter. But maybe it’s not incongruous. Baumann says he was drawn by the powerful presence of intermixed layers of history when he jumped off the train in New Mexico in 1918. And the sheer beauty! Mountains and streams! Pueblos! Golden cottonwoods in fall! He left such contributions of art and joy to Santa Fe, with his spectacular prints and the beloved marionette shows in his living room.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i516sAlDgS0

In Ghost Daughter, Alice’s trips to Santa Fe were too fraught. Although she enjoyed El Rey Court, and a hurried lunch at Café Pasqual’s, she missed so much, including the room of Baumann prints in the Owings Gallery. So we go in her stead, riveted by Baumann’s precision and freedom, his intense colors so delicately layered. I want to see his old German printing press…but rats! It’s locked up and unavailable at the history museum.

After wallowing in the Baumanns, we console ourselves with ice cream, sitting in a shady corner by La Lecheria. It’s fun watching passersby. The solitary ones walking briskly by have unsmiling faces like eagles, alert eyes fixed straight ahead. What are they thinking about so intently? Where to lay the next brushstroke on a canvas? Memorizing lines for a play? Where are they going? Then the younger people swoop by with great style, dramatic clothes and makeup, hurrying to work. And of course tourists like us.

Santa Fe calls itself the “City Different.” I feel different here too. Somehow an invisible bubble over the city blocks my usual sharp-edged worries…children, work, the state of the world. At home, open-eyed at some awful hour, I sometimes find refuge in half-awake creativity, envisioning plot possibilities, imagining scenes, hearing characters say surprising things. I’m grateful for a midnight refuge which may (not infallibly, though) trigger ideas for the next day’s writing while distracting me from cares.

But  in Santa Fe, if I wake, I listen to the quiet, peer out at the moon and…go back to sleep. After days in Santa Fe, a place weighty with history, so vividly creative, so confident in mixing the very old and very new, the traditional and startling, I feel emboldened.

Thanks, Santa Fe! Like so many…I’ll be back.

***

Helen Currie Foster lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She writes the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series and is active with Austin Shakespeare and Sisters in Crime, Heart of Texas Chapter. Follow her at www.helencurriefoster.com, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/helencurriefoster/, and on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/s?k=helen+currie+foster

THE PLOT THICKENS! Or, Your Suspicions May Be True

by Helen Currie Foster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The notion that our genes are static? Maybe not!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

The Ones That Stick With You

by Helen Currie Foster

We read to learn, we read to be entertained.

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

The stories began, “Once upon a time…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Ghost Dog.

But mercifully, they were already dead.

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

What’s That Smell?

by Helen Currie Foster

In the back of the closet I recently unearthed my mother’s old Caswell Massey “Gardenia” bubble bath. The resulting bath held astonishing comfort and nostalgia. It smelled like her house.

Mystery writers can use smell to reinforce not only setting and character, but powerful plots. Here are strong examples from the first chapter of Lethal White, the fourth in Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series. Chapter one begins with the wedding of Strike’s former co-detective Robin Ellacott and her long-time (but insufferable) fiancé Matthew Cunliffe, arguing while the wedding photographer tries to get some decent shots. Strike has fired Robin, partly from fear she’ll be killed. Without her job, Robin’s miserable. Matthew’s furious because of the joy he saw on Robin’s face when Strike arrived for the ceremony, heavily bandaged from capturing a killer. And now, arguing with Matthew, how does Robin feel? “The sweet, ticklish smell of hot grass filled her nostrils as the sun beat down on her uncovered shoulders.” The hot smell matches Robin’s itchy misery as she second-guesses her marriage to Matthew.

The country hotel setting smells beautiful, in stark contrast to Strike’s emotions: “For a while he lurked at the end of the bar, nursing a pint…and then repaired to the terrace, where he had stood apart from the other smokers and contemplated the dappled evening, breathing in the sweet meadow smell beneath a coral sky.” Sweet meadow smell; miserable situation.

Robin finally reaches Strike on the stairs as he’s leaving: “They were holding each other tightly before they knew what had happened, Robin’s chin on Strike’s shoulder, his face in her hair. He smelled of sweat, beer, and surgical spirits, she, of roses and the faint perfume that he had missed when she was no longer in the office.” The scene is almost shocking in its sensory overload. We feel their powerful attraction. Galbraith (J. K. Rowling) brilliantly gives us not only the protagonists, but the pain of their predicament, using scent to remind us of Strike’s injury (surgical spirits) and the fact that he has missed her perfume because she’s no longer in the office.

We already know that Chet, the heroic detective dog of Spencer Quinn’s Chet and Bernie series, is a dog of admirable olfactory sensitivity. He feels sorry for his human partner, Bernie (who labors under the misapprehension that he, not Chet, is the detective), because Chet knows human limitations, olfactorily speaking.

Chet and Bernie search for lost young campers in Spencer Quinn’s The Dog Who Knew Too Much. Chet’s nose moves the plot along: I smelled ashes, plus chocolate, the way it smells when hot chocolate gets burned in the pot, and….the remains of a not-too-long-ago campfire. I knew fire pits, of course, went over and took some closer sniffs. Burned hot chocolate, yes. There’d also been Spam and something eggy. I stuck my nose just about right into the ashes. They were cold.” Oh, the advantages of a detective dog as protagonist.

Well, Chet, don’t underrate us. Research shows we humans can detect at least a trillion odors! Bill Bryson, The Body, at 90.

Furthermore, as Chet the dog already knows, we humans each have our own unique scent: “It’s like a fingerprint,” says Johan Lundström, a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, in “The Sense of Smell in Humans is More Powerful Than We Think, ” by Marta Zaraska–an interesting article.

Didn’t we already know we can identify the scent of the loved one? Mothers can recognize their newborns by smell (and vice versa). Bryson says olfactory information goes directly to our olfactory cortex, next to the hippocampus, where memories are shaped, which is why some neuroscientists think certain smells evoke memories. Oh, didn’t Proust mention that? Scent brings back the dead, if only for a second. In my Ghost Cat, after the death of his wife Holly, Russ confesses that when he walks in the house, he lifts his eyes and inhales: “I always hope for a little whiff of Holly.”

However––some odors fly under our radar. We may feel, but can’t always articulate, how certain smells arouse our emotions. We say fear is contagious but we haven’t known how. Zaraska cites research showing when we smell body odor from a stressed person, we ourselves become more vigilant. When we smell body odor of a close relative, per Zaraska, we can recognize family, and our dorsomedial-prefontal cortext can light up. Maybe some of this we’ve known without really knowing it.

Plus, we apparently have sensory radar for genetic information. For mating! A woman inhaling body odor of a potential mate senses how genetically related the two are––by sniffing a gene family that links body scent and the immune system, called the “major histocompatibility complex” or “MHC.” This capacity is useful: we like our mates to be related enough––but not too much. My protagonist Alice, lawyer and amateur sleuth in the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, is well aware how much she likes the way her love interest Ben Kinsear smells––he “smells good”––but she hasn’t put words to the smell the way Chet the dog has. He defines his own smell as “the most familiar smell in the world: old leather, salt and pepper, mink coats, and just a soupcon of tomato; and to be honest, a healthy dash of something male and funky. My smell: yes, sir.”

Could you define your own smell? With aromatic detail? Probably not. A loved one might be able to.

Smell can deepen a scene, define character, highlight plot. Ann Cleeves, in Dead Water (her Shetland series) describes the reception desk in the hotel, a key setting, as “all dark wood, with the smell of beeswax.” The sweet smell, the dark venue.

Elly Griffiths in The Crossing Places shows us her protagonist, archeologist Ruth Galloway: “Climbing the danksmelling staircase to her office, she thinks about her first lecture: First Principles in Excavation.” Danksmelling…excavation. Her job.

Louise Penny, in A Better Man, uses smell to reinforce the humiliating demotion of her protagonist, Quebec Inspector Armand Gamache. A former subordinate now bosses him. A giant ice storm with crashing ice flows and high water threatens Quebec. Worried the Champlain bridge will break, on the way to a police meeting, Gamache gets splattered with mud trying to see whether the dam will hold.

“I see some of the crap thrown at you today on Twitter has stuck,” said the senior officer from the RCMP, gesturing at Gamache’s clothing.

Gamache smiled. “Fortunately, it won’t stain.”

“But it does smell,” said the Mountie, with a wry smile. “Helluva first day back on the job, Armand.”

A great metaphor for the smelly attacks on Gamache that have led to his demotion.

In A Cinnabar Sky’s opening scene, Billy Kring uses smell to build dread and suspense around the locked trunk his protagonist Hunter Kincaid and her companion Buddy are about to pry open. Buddy says, “Now the smell is more like a really bad swamp, right?” When they pop the trunk, it’s “like an abandoned slaughterhouse gone fetid and rotten in the summer heat.”

The “smells” article sent me to poetry. Back to the bookshelves. Poets, in their compressed genre, seem to convey scent by evocative words, words that already define a smell, name a smell. Wallace Stevens has only to say, “coffee and oranges in a sunny chair” in Sunday Morning and we smell them. Shakespeare has only to write “The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem/For that sweet odor which doth in it live” in Sonnet 54. He doesn’t have to define the “sweet odor”: he knows we know it. Coffee? Oranges? Cigar smoke? The word itself gives us the smell. Robert Frost, In Neglect: “I smell the earth, I smell the bruised plant…” We do too. Billy Collins, Canada: “O Canada, as the anthem goes,/scene of my boyhood summers,/you are the pack of Sweet Caporals on the table…” The smell of sneaked cigarettes of youth.

Wallace Stevens did try more extensive fragrant description in Approaching Carolina: “Tilting up his nose/he inhaled the rancid rosin, burly smells/Of dampened lumber, emanations blown/From warehouse doors, the gustiness of ropes,/Decays of sacks, and all the arrant stinks…” We sure know what he means. But is this too much? I wonder if he wondered.

In the upcoming Ghost Daughter, seventh in my series, Alice quizzes a young friend about a new boyfriend. Alice blurts, “So he smells good?” She realizes her own standards for a lifetime companion involve “someone who smelled right…” Probably you’ve all had that experience. Maybe that’s how humans perceive certain under-the-radar scents, as “right” or “not right,” as “good” or “threatening.” Based on Zaraska’s article I suppose “good” may mean “right” in terms of the mysterious “major histocompatibility complex.” Not sure that’s how I want to describe it, though.

I’ll keep working on aromatic pages.

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Read more about Helen Currie Foster here.

Where Are We? Trowels Up!

by Helen Currie Foster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

 

 

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

PLAIN OR FANCY?

by Helen Currie Foster

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

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

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

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

Oliver Strunk’s Elements of Style

The Wild Places: 9781783784493: Amazon.com: Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or Tony Hillerman’s first paragraphs in The Ghostway:

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

“Hosteen Joseph Joe remembered it like this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Barbeculinary Thoughts

by Helen Currie Foster

I know, you’re asking yourself what barbecue has to do with mystery writing, my other beloved topic. Barbecuing, like writing (see K.P. Gresham’s wonderful recent blog), is a solitary pursuit.

And a mystery. And we barbecuers want it that way. We have our little ways. We know exactly how those baby-back ribs should go limp when done, go kind of boneless, as did Trixie, the little girl in Knuffle Bunny, when her dad left her beloved bunny in the laundromat dryer.

We know precisely the color of mahogany-ebony-mesquite the brisket will achieve the moment we decide it’s time to begin applying the mop. Also, of course, we know the color of the mop, its ingredients, its smell, its virtue. We know precisely the heft and flexibility that a brisket should demonstrate when we pick it up in our silicone-gloved hands to test its doneness.

We know, and we’re not telling.

Like writing, barbecuing is a solitary calling. Sure, people will wander out, ask if they can help. But these terrace tourists don’t want smoke in their eyes, their hair, their clothes. Besides, the Barbecuer doesn’t want them. Doesn’t want suggestions, doesn’t want comparisons, doesn’t want recipes. So if you wander out to the Barbecuer’s sacred precincts, your only job is to ask if the Barbecuer would like something to drink.

The Barbecuer, alone on the captain’s deck, seeks perfection. [Yes, I’m rereading my favorite Patrick O’Brians.] Perfection requires concentration. Because the Barbecuer is engaged in a sacred ritual: preparing the offering for the people.

You may be thinking wrongly of the word “barbecue” as did famed food-writer Michael Pollan who admits,[A]s a Northerner, I’d already spent more than half of my life as a serial abuser of that peculiar word, which is to say, as a backyard blackener of steaks and chops over too-hot fires—over flames!—with a pitiable dependence on sauce.” Cooked, p. 45. That was before he saw the light on the road to whole-hog barbecue.

Barbecue is not the mere flipping of burgers or sizzle of a steak or blackening of hot dogs over a too-hot fire. Barbecue, while a gift, traditionally, to the gods, is a ritual offering to the gathered cohort. See the Iliad.

It is a ritual to be communally observed (not kibitzed at).

Think of the best barbecues in which you’ve participated. The Barbecuer completes preparation of the ritual gift and serves it forth. On a large and venerable cutting board, in sight of the waiting crowd, the Barbecuer slices the brisket, offers the pulled pork, displays the properly limp yet crispy-crusted ribs. This offering is accompanied by the ritual sighs and groans of the rapt crowd, holding plates and awaiting their turn.

Sure, it’s competitive. I mean, Achilles way outshines Agamemnon when it comes to barbecue, and that’s strategic. Achilles and his team nail it when Odysseus comes calling to beg (unsuccessfully) Achilles to make up his quarrel with that tyrant Agamemnon:

…Patroclus obeyed his great friend,
Who put down a heavy chopping block in the firelight
And across it laid a sheep’s chine, a fat goat’s
And the long back cut of a full-grown pig,
marbled with lard. Automedon held the meats
While lordly Achilles carved them into quarters,
Cut them well into pieces, pierced them with spits
And Patroclus raked the hearth, a man like a god
making the fire blaze. Once it had burned down|
and the flames died away, he scattered the coals
And stretching the spitted meats across the embers,
Raised them onto supports and sprinkled clean pure salt.|
As soon as the roasts were done and spread on platters,
Patroclus brought the bread, set it out on the board
In ample wicker baskets. Achilles served the meat.

Il. 9:246-259 (Robert Fagles’ translation).

See? “Lordly Achilles.” No way will Achilles lose that argument with Odysseus, despite the latter’s eloquence. I’ve always said that peace in the middle east could be achieved if both sides ––all sides––sat down to share really excellent barbecue, but that approach didn’t work for Agamemnon and Achilles.

Given the stellar role of the Barbecuer, alone there in the spotlight, one would think the Barbecuer would figure strongly in our literature. Here, Readers, I seek help. I’ve searched vainly for roles for the Barbecuer equal in stature to the best barbecue. (Though apparently—I can’t find where—Chaucer at least wrote “Woe to the cook whose sauce has no sting.” Readers?)

Some mysteries do involve barbecue, or use barbecue in the setting. My Ghost Next Door features murder of a food writer during (key word) the first annual Coffee Creek Brisket Competition. One contestant is even a suspect. But not a serious one, because…what self-respecting Barbecuer would leave the side of his or her barbecue, even if presented with a great opportunity for a secret silent murder? Can you imagine a Barbecuer taking the risk that the ribs would burn? The brisket dry out? The pork shoulder shrivel? Certainly not.

Thus in my view the role of murderer is contraindicated for a Barbecuer. Perhaps the writer could assign the deed to a mere Assistant, who might go AWOL and stab the buddy who forgot the beer, the aunt who forgot the devilled eggs, the guest who always volunteers to make coleslaw but chops the cabbage too big and uses way-old ranch dressing instead of Real Mayonnaise. The Assistant could even create an alibi—leave to buy more beer, to get more salt and ice for a guest making homemade peach ice cream, to help carry in the giant blackberry cobbler, to husk the corn.

But writer, you would sacrifice realism if you excused the Barbecuer from tending the ritual offering merely to move the plot forward. Even if the Barbecuer has the best thermometer, the most accurate timer…could slip out for a moment of mayhem…the responsibility’s too great.

Of course barbecue itself is a mystery. Here I reveal my own prejudices. Standing in my back yard north of Dripping Springs is a venerable Weber kettle. Like Knuffle Bunny it has lost some of its elegance, some of its youthful gloss (and a few knobs and vents). Relatives have Tragers they like. Green Eggs have appeared. But I love the old Weber the same way I love, say, the old Kitchenaid stand mixer in the kitchen. Both are old-fashioned, made of steel, curvy and solid. The old kettle adds greatly to barbecue mystery—no, there’s no automatic temperature sensor, indeed, no electronics whatsoever. It’s acoustic. Acoustic Barbecue. Just the meat, the coals, the mop—and time. Time to gaze solemnly at the developing crust, time to add just a few more coals to the “parsimonious little fire” on one side of the kettle, time to poke the meat to gauge whether it’s almost ready for the mop…

Still ahead lies the moment on the cutting board, the presentation of the ritual offering. Much like a book launch. But in the meantime, there’s the solitary work, the focused attention, the lone responsibility on the shoulders, of the Barbecuer.

A lot like writing.

***

Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. The latest in the series is GHOST CAT, available at Austin’s BookPeople and other independent bookstores as well as Amazon and Kindle.

Are You Hungry? Food Idiosyncrasies and Local Flavor

by Helen Currie Foster

Why, exactly, do we take such interest in what our favorite detectives eat or what a character like Aunt Agatha grabs for first at teatime at Melrose Plant’s country house? (Answer: fairy cakes.)

Some say that cooking distinguishes humans from other speciesor at least played a role in our evolution.   (Apparently chimpanzees can learn to cook, though…)

If cooking’s a distinctive human trait, choosing which cooking to eat is an even finer distinction, one used to great effect in murder mysteries. The what, where and how a character chooses to eat can tell us a great deal. Mystery writers use food to develop characters, settings, and local flavor. Sometimes these seem to merge. (Here I’m discussing mysteries generally, not athe culinary mystery subgenre, or mysteries involving poisons including the thirty or so which Agatha Christie wrote.)

Consider, for example, that complex man Andy Dalziel, Detective Chief Inspector in Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series.

An ex-rugby player, nicknamed the “fat bastard,” he’s introduced in Exit Lines as he clambers out of bed with a morning hangover after a rough night:

And now, he told himself with the assurance of one who believed in a practical, positive and usually physical response to most of life’s problems, all he needed to complete this repair of normality was a platterful of egg, sausage, bacon, tomatoes and fried bread. Bitter experience had taught him in the years since his wife’s departure to eschew home catering. It wasn’t that a basic cuisine was beyond his grasp; it was the cleaning up afterwards that defeated him…only a beast would tolerate fat-congealed frying-pans. Fortunately the police canteen did an excellent breakfast. Gourmet cooking they might not provide, but what did that matter to a man who…affected to believe that cordon bleu was a French road-block? And a slight blackening round the edge of a fry-up was to a resurrected copper what the crust on old port was to a wine connoisseur––a sign of readiness.

Gosh. The classic English breakfast “fry-up”––Yorkshire version––served in a police canteen. We’ve just learned about Dalziel that he likes the classic and plenty of it, that his wife’s left him and he doesn’t like to eat alone at home, that he habitually tries to hide his sophistication, and that the police station’s his comfort zone. We know he’s no secret gourmet. Hill’s not interested in showing us his own food sophistication (we almost hope the “slight blackening around the edges” does not describe his own breakfast). Hill is not offering us food porn––far from it. He’s giving us a close-up of Dalziel, alone at home, getting ready to walk onstage at the police station.

A different sort of home cooking characterizes Donna Leon’s Inspector Guido Brunetti series, set in Venice. Here’s Brunetti in Death and Judgment, coming home to lunch, where he finds his wife Paola––professor of English, born into Venetian wealth, politically liberal––listening indignantly to the political news:

“Guido, these villains will destroy us all. Perhaps they already have. And you want to know what’s for lunch.” …

When he does ask, “What’s for lunch?” Paola responds:

“Pasta fagioli and then cotoletta.”

“Salad?”

“Guido,” she asked with pursed lips and upraised eyes, “when haven’t we had salad with cutlets?”

Instead of answering her question he asked, “Is there any more of that good Dolcetto?”

“I don’t know. We had a bottle of it last week, didn’t we?”

Imagine how they’d react if confronted with Dalziel’s fry-up? Of course they’ll have salad, because in Venice one always has salad with cutlets! How different this home is from Dalziel’s. Brunetti and his wife talk food, talk wine, insist on proper Venetian cooking. Brunetti’s apartment with Paola and his children is truly home base. In this scene Paola’s already asked him to look into a situation…and he’s about to tell her what he has found out. Fans of Donna Leon already know that part of Brunetti’s daily work challenge comes from the inherent corruption of the judicial system, which often sends him into despair. Yet he loves Venice. Leon uses scenes showing the happy comforts provided by Brunetti’s family and family meals, with correct Venetian cuisine, to explain how Brunetti keeps his emotional balance. Despite grim crimes, despite his city’s corruption, Brunetti won’t leave: he’s part of Venice.

Food preferences make characters both human (don’t we all have preferences?) and distinctive. Think of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, shut in his hermetic mansion where his Swiss chef Fritz Brenner provides favorite dishes prepared just so.

Think of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, with his eternal tisanes.

Think of the strong food dislikes of Anne Hillerman’s policewoman Bernadette Manuelito. According to her husband Jim Chee, in Cave of Bones, Bernadette “had never ordered salad at a restaurant,” never made one at home, and if he made salad for them, she would eat only the iceberg lettuce and eat around the other vegetables. Pizza? Only pepperoni for her. Bernadette is smart, brave, sensible…but not when it comes to vegetables.

Louise Penny uses cooking to great effect in constructing the setting for her Inspector Gamache series, the quirky little Québec village of Three Pines. The village is isolated and rural, but has attracted exceedingly sophisticated residents—the poet Ruth, the sculptor Clara, Inspector Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie and others. This setting would seem quite improbable but for the role of the bistro, a place of style, comfort, warmth and great food. In the opening scene of A Better Man, “Clara’s and Myrna’s armchairs were pulled close to the hearth, where logs popped and sent embers fluttering up the field-stone chimney. The village bistro smelled of woodsmoke and maple syrup and strong fresh coffee.” Wouldn’t we all like a bistro like that, just across the village green? With really good coffee? Furthermore, the bistro, with its proprietors Gabri and Olivier, attracts other food artisans. When residents are desperately sandbagging the banks of the flooding river at Three Pines, these provide succor:

Gabri and Olivier were handing out hot drinks. Tea, coffee, hot chocolate, and soup. Monsieur Béliveau, the grocer, and Sarah the baker, were taking around trays of sandwiches. Brie and thick slices of maple-cured ham, and arugula on baguettes and croissants, and pain ménage.

The bistro is “home base” for this series. Inspector Gamache deals with crimes all across Quebec, but the inhabitants of Three Pines, glued together by the bistro, provide a vivid supporting cast and sometimes play leading roles in Penny’s series. I don’t think they’d stay in Three Pines if the food weren’t so good.

Like Louise Penny, Martha Grimes has created a character magnet in the village of Long Piddleton for her Richard Jury series: the Jack and Hammer pub. The Jack and Hammer serves as the central meeting point for the highly diverse supporting characters, including Jury’s noble sidekick, the wealthy Melrose Plant. Indeed, Grimes has named each book in the series for a pub, including The Old Success (2019). There’s usually a set piece in the books, always worth waiting for, where Melrose’s detested Aunt Agatha, angling for his fortune, invites herself to tea or dinner or invades his breakfast at Melrose’s manor house. During this scene in The Old Success we see Melrose, a little fussed because Ruthven the butler has not brought his usual egg cup, making “soldiers” as usual for breakfast––cutting his toast into oblongs and dipping them in his boiled egg.

“I always do,” Melrose said.  His breakfast habit cements Melrose in our minds as wed to his personal traditions…even though he currently eschews use of his title. Oh, and the butler Ruthven has brought his wife’s excellent cooking, including kippers and sausages, to the sideboard. Melrose’s house in Long Piddleton and the diverse village characters who meet at the Jack and Hammer form a solid home base regardless of how far (Africa, Europe, the Scillies) he and Jury range in solving the crime at hand, and how complex the crime. Sooner or later the threads may pull together at the Jack and Hammer.

Dance hall in Luckenbach, Texas, by WikiTryHardDieHard, CC BY-SA-3.0. Via Wikipedia.

I’ve used “the local” to create local flavor in the Alice MacDonald Greer series. The Beer Barn not only smells like local beer, and artisanal beer, but when Jaime’s in the kitchen, the Tex-Mex cooking is superb. The Beer Barn is meant to be the roadhouse/dance hall we all love in Central Texas. It’s where Alice meets enemies, hears a new singer in Ghost Dog, meets the reporter in Ghost Letter, tries to unravel a mystery with her best friend in Ghost Cat.

Texas dance halls still dot the back roads of the rugged Texas Hill Country with their own beer-infused local flavor, local dancing, local music from a dead-pan country band. The Beer Barn’s my dream institution.

Also a highly distinctive setting: the small town Texas coffee shop or cafe, with breakfast from the grill, mile-high pie and endless cups of coffee. And don’t forget the San Antonio ice house tradition. See K.P. Gresham’s series with its Fire and Ice House bar, beginning with The Preacher’s First Murder.  Local bars/diners/restaurants make great settings for murders, mysteries, and detectives. And to the joy of central Texans, many are still actually real…thank goodness.

Okay, what’s for lunch?

***

Image of traditional English breakfast by Peter Marks from Pixabay
Image of cup and saucer by M. Maggs from Pixabay
Image of maple trees by diapicard from Pixabay
Images of book covers from Amazon.com

***

Helen Currie Foster is author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery series. Her latest, GHOST CAT, was released in April 2020.

Please Take (a) Note!

by Helen Currie Foster

Lately I’ve been thinking about remarkable people who never got to see the significance of their work, regardless of its brilliance. People whose minds moved so fast their words didn’t compute, for most listeners. People whose contributions went unrecognized for many years. And if they hadn’t written down their ideas? Maybe eventually someone would have made the same discoveries, but when?

Here are just three.

I’d never heard of Simon Stevin until I read Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World (2014), on how modernity reached the shores of the North Sea. Stevin, born illegitimate in Bruges in 1548, worked as a book-keeper in Antwerp, and then enlisted at the liberal new Leiden University. He produced a book on double-entry book-keeping and another on figuring the interest on borrowed money, when publishing such hard-won information was a subversive revolutionary act. This “engineer, book-keeper, king of numbers,” per Pye, wanted to make math work in the everyday world. 

Stevin tutored his student friend Prince Maurits in math, beginning a lifelong association. He made the prince a sailing chariot for the beach, with two sails, four great wheels, and flags flying. Stevin informed the prince the earth went around the sun. When Maurits became king, Stevin became an army engineer, devising, pumps, dredgers, windmills. He produced an influential treatise on fortifications and another on how to calculate longitude at sea. He wrote a book asking Dutch cities to adopt uniform money measures, suggested a decimal system, founded a mathematics curriculum at Leiden. And he wrote down these ideas! Stevin’s dream, that explaining practical mathematics would help his country thrive, eventually came true––though not necessarily in his lifetime.

You already know about the world’s first computer programmer? Another who did not live to see her work recognized is Countess Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter. At seventeen she began helping mathematician Charles Babbage with his “difference machine” for math calculations. In 1843 she published an article in an English science journal describing processes we now call computer programs, including how to create codes using letters and symbols as well as numbers. She died of uterine cancer in 1852, at 37. Her work came to public attention in 1953 when B.V. Bowden republished her notes in Faster than Thought: A Symposum on Digital Computing Machines. In 1980 the U.S. Department of Defense named a new computer language “Ada.”

“We’re still catching up with one of the greatest minds of the last century.” That’s Anthony Gottlieb, “The New Yorker,” May 4, 2020, on Frank P. Ramsey. Ramsey––a Cambridge (UK) scholar whose genial brilliance intimidated his professors when he appeared on campus at 18––died at only 26, in 1930. Economists, philosophers and mathematicians are still exploring the “Ramsey effect” on their disciplines. He was immediately taken up by Maynard Keynes, and refuted Keynes’s fuzzy notions of probability. He was tapped to translate Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” from Germanas the only German speaker available who could not only understand what Wittgenstein was trying to say, but say it more clearly (he reportedly dictated his translation). In one paper he created two math theorems which, decades after his death, became part of the “Ramsey theory” analyzing order and disorder. (See video of a student working a Ramsey probability problem). Ramsey’s modesty about his astounding abilities made him appear almost offhand about his accomplishments.

As a student of Virginia Woolf, I blinked twice to find Ramsey appearing in her diary (February 1923).

Yes!–– at dinner with Maynard Keynes. “Ramsay [sic], the unknown guest, was something like a Darwin, broad, thick, powerful & a great mathematician, & clumsy to boot. Honest I should say, a true Apostle.” Keynes at least tangentially belonged, with Virginia and Leonard Woolf, to the Bloomsbury group, which included several members of the select Cambridge “Apostles” club (including Leonard Woolf). In 1927, Woolf published To the Lighthouse about a family she called the Ramsays, where Mr. Ramsay, a professor, fears that though he has reached Q, he lacks genius and will never be able to think his way past Q, that he’ll never reach R: “How many men in a thousand million, he asked himself, reach Z after all?” If Woolf had known then what we know now she’d have known Frank Ramsey could easily have reached R and zoomed on past Z. 

Okay, I admit I took the Special Math Course for English Majors to get my math graduation credit. Yes, I did. Nevertheless I’m doggedly staggering through the first full biography of Ramsey, Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers, by Cheryl Misak (Oxford Press 2020), fascinated by his mind and especially his lightly worn “sheer excess of powers.” I might, even, try to find his 1926 paper about truth and subjective probability, where he said we should take account of people’s judgment of probability.” 

Now there’s a pungent topic for mystery writers. At every turn, our characters use subjective probability to make decisions. “Can I kill without being caught?” “Can I catch this villain without being killed?” “Have I examined all the what-if’s here?” “What are the chances anyone will recognize me?” Suspense lies in decisions made on subjective probability.

Okay, so Ramsey died without knowing that ninety years later University of Georgia students in hoodies, poised at the whiteboard, would be filming explanations of “Ramsey Theory.” Ada Lovelace died without knowing the Defense Department would name a computer language for her.  If asked, would she have preferred Countess? Would she be fascinated by the world of hacking? Simon Stevin would drive our city streets, ready to opine on public transportation–would he recommend air-conditioned tubes, with moving sidewalks, to move people east and west across Austin? Or possibly a sailboat with wheels?

Now we come to you. Yes, you. How will we know what you thought?

Stevin, Lovelace and Ramsey at least published some of their work. You can go farther. You own your copyright as soon as your work is “fixed.” You can also provide notice of copyright by using the symbol or the word “Copyright” and your name and the year of first publication, and registering your copyright by paying the required fee and depositing required copy(ies) of your work, thereby creating a public record of your copyright claim. (See details and requirements here.) 

That’s at least a start. As for Aeschylus, only seven of his seventy to ninety tragedies remain intact. Sophocles? Only seven of over a hundred remain. Euripides? Eighteen of over ninety-five remain. Sappho? We have only two complete poems out of her nine books of verse, from the woman the ancients called “the tenth Muse.”

Will depositing your work at the Library of Congress––oh yes, you must––give us some assurance we can know your ideas, your writings, a century hence? The Alexandrian Library didn’t fare so well. Nor did the Dresden Sächsische Landesbibliothek which lost perhaps 200,000 volumes in the Allied bombing of the Dresden historic center. The 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Library burned 400,000 books.

No guarantees, but it’s a start. At least try to leave the world a copy. Even if you leave us too soon, even if fame has not yet arrived…you never know. A century from now, maybe…?

The Uses of Disguise

 

 

 

By Helen Currie Foster

So, did you dress up for Halloween? Did you buy a mask in New Orleans, or Venice, perhaps one with feathers? What would you wear to a costume ball?

“Man is a make-believe animal—he is never so truly himself as when he is acting a part.” William Hazlitt

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell the truth.”  Oscar Wilde

Both statements have some truth. Maybe Oscar Wilde meant that when we can hide our faces, or adopt a disguise, we feel free to do what we want––without hesitation or regret.  Yell “trick or treat!” Dance at the masked ball as a glamorous mystery person!  Rob the stagecoach! Maybe writers understand Hazlitt: we’re at our best, writing, as we invent characters, invent parts for the characters, invent disguises. Yes, we’re at our best “acting a part…” and we act many parts as we write.

At my college there was a costume room where students could buy clothes from decades earlier.  One year a group of us rummaged around and found remarkable outfits which we’d don sometimes for fun. For $1.50 I acquired a stunning long black silk evening sheath from maybe 1919, with black sequin trim under the bodice, slits in the sides of the skirt, and two long black “wings” attached to the shoulders that I could use like a shawl, or like… wings. When I put that dress on––SHAZAM! I wasn’t a young thing from Texas, I was the embodiment of glamour. (Where is that dress?) So, what’s the outfit you wear, or dream about, when you’re ready to put on that black cat-eyed mask from (New Orleans) (Venice) and enter the party? The disguise you’d choose? The disguise that would let you do what you want, learn what you want, go where you want?

Two genres especially abound in disguise: children’s literature, and mysteries. 

Disguise lets us learn what may otherwise be unavailable. Think of T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, where Merlyn (White’s spelling) enchants Wart (the future King Arthur) by turning him into a perch in the moat. Wart learns to swim from a fish called a tench, who reminds him, “Put your back into it.” He’s taken to learn about power from the King of the Moat, a murderously hungry four-foot long fish: “The power of strength decides everything in the end, and only Might is right.” He learns from his night as a merlin, in the terrifying catechism imposed by the peregrine, that the first law of the foot is “Never to let go.” 

Harry Potter, Hermione and Ron need information to foil the Dark Lord, and to raid Gringotts Bank and the Ministry of Magic. They resort to the invisibility cloak, or use Polyjuice Potion to look like Bellatrix, or Crabbe and Goyle.

But knowledge won by disguise carries peril. Wart barely survives the unscrupulous King of the Moat, having to dive “the heartiest jack-knife he had ever given.” The moment when Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak slips, when the Polyjuice potion wears off, threatens exposure and punishment. 

Kim, in Kipling’s beloved novel, disguises himself to learn secrets as a child spy for the Company’s intelligence service in India. But Kim doesn’t see disguise as work. He revels in the sheer joy of successful impersonation. He rejoices in the walnut dye that lets him escape on a railroad journey to meet his lama, where he tries out various personae, explaining to the passengers “that he was assistant to a juggler who had left him behind sick with fever.” As the occupants of the train car change, “he varied this tale, or adorned it with all the shoots of a budding fancy…” This joyous talent becomes dangerous as he adopts Mohammedan garb, spying for Mahbub Ali, and priestly garb as he chases Russian spies across the Himalayan foothills. 

Maybe Kim’s an exemplar of Hazlitt’s statement, that “man is never so truly himself as when he is acting a part.” When fate requires a disguise—or just for fun on the Indian railway––Kim uses all of himself to create that disguise, summoning memory, imagination, accent, intonation, clothing, gesture, posture. As actors do! Perhaps all these disguises are part of him…though not all of him. 

Like Kim, Sherlock Holmes (or Arthur Conan Doyle) loves disguise. Remember “A Scandal in Bohemia?” Disguises everywhere! First, a client sporting a “black vizard mask” seeks help from Sherlock Holmes. The client’s disguised as the Count von Kramm, a Bohemian nobleman, but confesses he’s actually King of Bohemia. He wants Holmes to “repossess” (snitch) a compromising photograph of the King and the famous beauty Irene Adler. Holmes himself then adopts disguises. First, to spy on Adler, he appears as “a drunken-looking groom, ill-kempt and side-whiskered, with an inflamed face and disreputable clothes,” so convincing that Watson “had to look three times before I was certain that it was indeed he.” Next he plots a disguise to gain entry to Adler’s house, where the photograph is hidden:

“He disappeared into his bedroom and returned in a few minutes in the character of an amiable and simple-minded Nonconformist clergyman. His broad black hat, his baggy trousers, his white tie, his sympathetic smile, and general look of peering and benevolent curiosity were such as Mr. John Hare alone could have equaled.”

Watson notes that it was not merely that Holmes changed his costume: “His expression, his manner, his very soul seemed to vary with every fresh part that he assumed. The stage lost a fine actor, even as science lost an acute reasoner, when he became a specialist in crime.”

But Conan Doyle fools us yet again. Holmes orchestrates a street melée whereby a crowd (of accomplices) carry the clergyman into Adler’s house. When Watson throws a fire rocket through the window, Holmes, as predicted, sees Adler rush toward the photograph’s hiding place. On their way back to Baker Street Holmes happily tells Watson about his ploy, but as he searches for his door key, he hears “Good-night, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” from “a slim youth in an ulster who had hurried by.” 

Foiled again––Holmes, that is. Irene Adler, disguised as a boy, has followed him home and confirmed the “clergyman” was Holmes. The next morning Holmes and Watson discover her house is empty, the photograph’s gone, and his disguises were in vain. That’s “how the best plans of Mr. Sherlock Holmes were beaten by a woman’s wit,” says Watson.

Holmes does love a good disguise, and maybe that’s why he can recognize one. For another example of his Hazlitt-esque behavior, see “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” where Watson almost doesn’t recognize Holmes as an aged opium smoker, and Holmes susses out the (disguised) truth about the disappearance of a client’s highly respectable husband by (literally) washing clean the face of a notorious street beggar.

Josephine Tey teases us with disguise in Brat Farrar where the mystery turns on whether Brat Farrar, a young man who introduces himself as the long-lost heir to the Ashby family estate, is or is not Patrick Ashby, thought to have killed himself, leaving his minutes younger twin Simon as putative heir. Simon will be dispossessed if Brat Farrar is for real. The point of view is frequently in in Brat’s head, and we must decide if we like this disguised pretender as a protagonist, or not. He himself is ambivalent, arguing with himself about the whole scheme: On the one hand, he thinks, “But I’m not a crook! I can’t do something that is criminal.” But then: “All he could do was sit in the saddle and hope for the best. But at least it would be a breath-taking ride; a unique, heart-stopping ride. Danger to life and limb he was used to; but far more exciting was this new mental danger, this pitting of wits.” As he feels his way along, still in disguise, Brat slowly learns who did kill Patrick. That knowledge nearly kills Brat Farrar. 

New Zealand’s Ngaio Marsh has the murderer disguise his or her true identity in both Photo Finishand A Clutch of Constables. In the first case, the murderer creates a new identity from whole cloth. He accidentally gives himself away to Detective Rory Alleyn in part when Alleyn overhears his soft-voiced use of a Mafia expression. In A Clutch of Constables, the murderer––a master of disguise––entirely steals another’s identity, including his butterfly-hunting expertise, for the duration of a cruise. He relishes his persona and manipulates the unwitting characters like chess pieces on the board of the plot––more in the Hazlitt manner, being most truly himself as he throws himself into the role. 

Mystery writers disguise their murderers, their sleuths, sometimes their victims, sometimes their protagonists.  I use disguise in my new murder mystery Ghost Cat. I’ll be interested in what you think. Happy reading and writing, everyone!

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