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.

Submitting Short Stories: Part 2

By N. M. Cedeño

Previously, I wrote a post covering some of the basic rules for submitting short stories to anthologies, magazines, and contests. That information can be found here: Submitting Short Stories to Anthologies, Magazines, and Contests. Below are a few more tips for submitting your stories.

1. Persistence

The very last step in submitting stories is to continue submitting until you succeed. Persistence may be to the main key to success in the entire submission process.

by Pixabay

For example, one of my short stories was recently accepted for publication by Black Cat Mystery Magazine. The story will appear in the magazine’s Cozies issue early in 2022. As near as I can tell in my records, I wrote the first draft of this story sometime in 2011. It sat in a file on my computer for several years, forgotten, until I sorted through my old stories, reread it, tweaked the ending, and finally submitted it to a market in 2018. It was rejected, so I revised it again, and resubmitted it five more times, but it was rejected each time. I submitted it next to a market that looked open on their website, but they advised me they were closed and asked that I resubmit later. I waited and resubmitted, but never received a response, which, for some markets, is the equivalent of a rejection.

Eventually, I came across the BCMM call for cozies, which seemed like a good fit for the story. So, once again, I reviewed the story, changed a few words here and there, and submitted it. By my count, BCMM was my ninth submission of the story to a market.

And so, “It Came Upon a Midnight Ice Storm” has finally found a home and will be published in 2022. If I’d given up after the first or even the fifth rejection, the story wouldn’t be under contract to be published right now.

2. Response Times

Pixabay

How long does it take to hear back from a publishing market rejecting or accepting a story? Response times for short story markets differ dramatically. In the world of science fiction short stories, I discovered one market where I submitted the story after 5 pm and received a rejection by email at around 1 am the next morning. Receiving a rejection in eight hours or less is apparently not unusual for that market. At the other end of the spectrum is Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine which, based on the data on Submission Grinder, is currently taking approximately 350 days, almost a full year, to respond to submissions.

Some markets post on their guidelines page how long they expect to take to respond to your submission. Others do not give any information. Currently, I have a story submitted to an anthology call for submissions that did not provide any estimate for when they will respond with either acceptances or rejections. They’ve had the story for about three months. All I can do is wait patiently to for the editor to eventually respond. I won’t be surprised if I have to wait six months. Waiting months for a response to a submission is much more common than waiting only hours in the world of mystery short story submissions. However, I have seen mystery anthology editors reject stories within a matter of days.

3. Finding calls for submissions and open markets

Be on the lookout for calls for submissions and market opening dates. The Submission Grinder has a tab on their home screen labeled “Recently Added Markets.” New calls for submissions and updates on markets are posted there regularly. You can also find calls for submissions by joining groups that inform their members of new calls. The Short Mystery Fiction Society, for example, informs members of calls for submissions via an online group chat and a website market page.

To find markets that open and close on set dates throughout the year, use the search feature on Submission Grinder and uncheck the box eliminating temporarily closed markets. Then, when you search for markets, all the temporarily closed markets will appear in your search. Some of these magazines and e-zines only open for submissions for a week or two at a time in various months of the year. Unless you know when those dates are, you will miss your chance to submit to these markets.

Good luck with your submissions!

****

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter. Find out more at nmcedeno.com.

Naming Characters: Steve Dauchy MacCaskill

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

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

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

Not Steve, but close

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve’s house

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Left Brain/Right Brain- How Novelists Use Both

By

Francine Paino AKA F. Della Notte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what happens to Velma’s cat, LaLa?  

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick Your Poison–An Almost Perfect Crime

“All things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not a poison.” Paracelsus, Swiss physician (1493 –1541) (emphasis added)

“Poison has a certain appeal . . . It has not the crudeness of the revolver bullet or the blunt weapon. I have no special knowledge of the subject, if that is what you mean.” (Agatha Christie, They Do It With Mirrors, p.178)

The history of poison is an ancient one, and before the birth of forensic medicine in the 1920s, poison was virtually untraceable; it was almost the perfect weapon

 Socrates drank poisoned hemlock and died in 399 BCE (Eyewitness).  Cleopatra orchestrated poisonous experiments on her slaves and prisoners of war.  Concoctions made from “Henbane, Belladonna Strychnos nux-vomica” were used to isolate the most painful and disfiguring combinations (Quave).  Cleopatra ruthlessly searched for the quickest and least painful poison for her future self, should she need it. In the end, in 30 BC, she chose the bite of an asp to end her life (Quave).  

The Borgias of the Italian Renaissance, resorted to a wide variety of deadly formulas to eradicate obstinate Church officials and political rivals.  The Borgia’s parting gifts included combinations of “arsenic, strychnine, cantharidin, and aconite incorporated in drinks, clothes, gloves, book pages, flowers, and drugs” (Sage).  The deadliest poison in the Borgia arsenal, Cantarella, made with arsenic as a base was “so dangerous that the actual formula was destroyed after their deaths.” (Blum). 

“. . . Served in a goblet of wine at dinner, it had the reputation to function with time-clock precision. According to the desire of the murder, cantarella could kill in a day, a month, or a year. It was also believed that cantarella was so powerful that no antidote existed. . .” (Sage).

During Victorian times, married women frequently resorted to poisoning as the solution to a bad marriage, or to cash in on a spouse’s or relative’s life insurance policies.  Arsenic was so popular it was given a “nickname: the inheritance powder.” (Blum). 

In England, between 1857 and 1872, Mary Ann Cotton, a notorious female British serial killer and arsenic devotee, killed “eight of her own children, seven stepchildren, her mother, three husbands, a lover – and an inconvenient friend” before she was caught and hanged (Blum; Johnson; Murderpedia).  

Sometime between the 1880’s and 1908, in the United States Belle Gunness, known as “Lady Bluebeard,” is believed to have killed between “13 to 42” people,” including her own children.  (Murderpedia).  Using strychnine and/or bludgeoning to kill her victims, sometimes using both methods, Belle then butchered her victims and fed the body parts to her hogs. (Schecter; Murderpedia). 

Harold Schecter, who arduously documented Gunness’ murders in Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men, wrote that despite years of diligent attempts to find or identify Belle, dead or alive, she was never found.  The Gunness case remains unsolved. 

Murderers are not the only ones who are on the lookout for the perfect murder weapon.  Mystery writers, including the most famous of mystery writers, Agatha Christie, frequently used poison as a weapon in her novels.  An extensive study of Christie’s use of poison was analyzed by Anne Harrison, detailed in her article, “Poisons Used in Agatha Christie’s Books, Foul Toxins From the Queen of Crime” (2017).  Harrison’s research found Christie had used poison more than any other mystery writer of her era. 

“. . .More than thirty victims fall foul to a variety of toxins (while others survive attempted poisonings). Christie’s knowledge was extensive, a result of her work as both a nurse and a pharmacy dispenser during both World Wars.” (Harrison).  

Agatha Christie plaque -: Torre Abbey.jpg : Violetrigaderivative work: F l a n k e r, CC BY-SA 3.0 /, via Wikimedia Commons

Harrison’s research proved Christie had more than a simple working knowledge of poison and drug interactions. Harrison’s findings further revealed how proficient Christie was ensuring not only the correct toxin’s application but how she skillfully determined appropriate outcomes for each. Harrison noted that not all of Christie’s literary victims died; some recovered. 

Research confirmed the drugs/poisons Christie actually chose for her stories were actual drugs available and accessible at the time she wrote her stories.  Christie did not fabricate the names or kinds of drugs, or their effects, or the application, but used her real-life knowledge to enhance her storyline, which as we all know, it did.

Christie’s novels incorporate a plethora of toxins: “strychnine, cyanide, arsenic, thallium, taxine, coniine, bacillus anthracis, plant arsenic, Belladonna (also known as Deadly Nightshade, Devil’s Berries or Death Cherries), physostigmine, Morphine, Vernol (sleeping tablets), and physostigmine” (Harrison). 

In the real world, poison had always been hugely problematic for law enforcement –if used for murder, its detection was virtually impossible.  The cause of death was widely determined by a medical examiner who was politically appointed.  Frequently appointees had no medical training, scientific knowledge, or access to detection tests.  People died of unknown causes, unsolved murders rose, and murderers walked free. 

The rate of unsolved murders rose as industrialization encroached on cities and towns.  According to Deborah Blum, in The Poisoner’s Handbook – Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, “As industrialization encroached throughout the U.S., new chemicals and poisons appeared unregulated.  Frequently, these poisons were undetectable.” (Blum)

Blum wrote that it was not until the first pioneers of forensic medicine appeared and true scientific detection tools were created and tested, that medical examiners and their staff were finally able to detect certain poisons as a definitive cause of death.  

Some toxins widely used at that time: “Morphine went into teething medicines for infants; opium into routinely prescribed sedatives; arsenic was an ingredient in everything from pesticides to cosmetics. Mercury, cyanide, strychnine, chloral hydrate, chloroform, sulfates of iron, sugar of lead, carbolic acid, and more, the products of the new chemistry stocked the shelves of doctors’ offices, businesses, homes, pharmacies, and grocery stores. . . “(Blum).

In New York, public outcry demanded a qualified non-political appointee medical coroner, a knowledgeable physician.  After years of political stonewalling, a decision was finally reached, and in January of 1918, “Dr. Charles Norris …became the new Chief Medical Examiner of New York” (Blum). 

No long after his appointment, Norris hired the chemist, Alexander Gettler.  It was Gettler who would later perfect tests to detect wood alcohol poisonings, cyanide gas poisoning, and he work tirelessly to find tests able to detect various poisons.  Norris and Gettler established the first forensic standards, tests, and mandatory forensic protocols, and through their efforts saved thousands of future lives.

It is not possible to encapsulate the entirety of Blum’s “The Poisoner’s Handbook – Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.”  Blum’s history of poison, its insidious effects on the public, the rise of the first forensic department in New York and the United States, along with the discoveries of both Norris and Gettler, and the incredible people who worked with them, is well worth reading.

The public owes a debt to the unfailing dedication of both Norris and Gettler, who demanded scientific rigor in the detection of toxins, but who also paved the way for regulatory reform and laid the foundation of forensic medicine. 

Norris died in 1935, and although few knew, Norris had been financially supporting the Medical Examiner’s office with his personal resources since his original appointment.  Two years after Norris’ death, three members of his staff published a “comprehensive textbook on forensic science, Legal Medicine and Toxicology. . .it was dedicated to Norris.” (Blum)

Gettler continued to work, finally retiring at seventy-five.  “On the day he left office, he estimated that he’s analyzed more than 100,000 bodies.” (Blum).  A prodigious writer, Gettler produced numerous scholarly papers on various toxins, detection methodology, and forensics.  Gettler had also trained a legion of young scientists known as the “Gettler Boys,” who went on to become medical examiners working “from Long Island to Puerto Rico.” (Blum).  Gettler died in 1968.  

The story of poison is far from complete; it continues to morph and change; new toxins are created every day.  Their detection, however, is far more likely thanks to Harris and Gettler. 

The Poisoner’s Handbook – Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, became a best seller in 2010, and a PBS NPR American Experience series feature in 2016. 

If you are looking for the perfect murder weapon, before considering poison, a bit of research is recommended. 

Other References

Lakeisha Goedluck. A Brief History of Women Putting Poison in Their Lovers’ Food.  

Chemical Safety Facts. Org.  “The Dose Makes the Poison.”

Photo Credits:

Book photo courtesy of Amazon.

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

What’s That Smell?

by Helen Currie Foster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll keep working on aromatic pages.

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Read more about Helen Currie Foster here.

Blending Sub-genres

By N. M. Cedeño

Do you write in more than one genre? Do you blend genres or sub-genres? I do. Some sub-genres seem to lend themselves easily to blending.

While I write mostly in the mystery genre, sometimes I veer into science fiction. A recent Writer’s Digest article entitled 114 Fiction Sub-Genre Descriptions for Writers allowed me to examine exactly how many sub-genres my stories fall into.

created by Wordclouds

My first published story could be classified as a private detective mystery, as a science fiction mystery, as hard science fiction, and as social science fiction, which I’ve also seen called sociological science fiction. Whatever you call it, the story, entitled A Reasonable Expectation of Privacy, features a private detective living in a future society in which all privacy rights have been eliminated because “only people with something to hide need privacy.” The detective, Pete Lincoln, is still adjusting to the ways society changed while he was recovering from a gunshot-wound-induced coma, making him something of a fish out of water. While I considered the story to be a mystery, it was originally published in Analog: Science Fiction and Fact, a magazine that focuses on hard science fiction.

In terms of blending genres, the classic mystery private eye trope of the outsider detective with his own internal compass working in a world where everyone else abides by a different set of rules blends well with sociological science fiction. The trope serves to ground the reader, putting them in comfortable, familiar territory even if the society around the detective is unfamiliar, otherworldly, or dystopian. So when my broke detective is sitting at his desk and a lady arrives in his office with a problem, the reader knows what to expect, even if the story is set in a future world with no privacy rights.

Bad Vibes Removal Services Series logo by N. M. Cedeno

My Bad Vibes Removal Services series, which currently includes 14 short stories and two novels, also falls into a couple of sub-genres. The stories all feature ghosts and some sort of problem that has to be solved, usually a crime, making them paranormal mysteries. However, the detective in my stories, Montgomery, and his employees, Lea, Kamika, and Patrick, use pseudo-scientific inventions to help them solve their cases. That puts the stories into the private detective mystery and science fantasy sub-genres as well. The Bad Vibes series felt like a natural blend of sub-genres to me. Like strawberries and chocolate, science fantasy pairs well with paranormal mystery.

My novel entitled All in Her Head is an amateur sleuth mystery, a romantic mystery, and also falls into the woman in jeopardy sub-genre. The story features a socially-isolated new college graduate who witnesses an attempted murder and then faces ongoing attacks as the perpetrator tries to remove her as a witness. She joins forces with and falls for the victim’s brother while trying to unmask the villain. Romance and mystery are a natural blend, with the heightened emotions created by the crime adding to the romantic tension.

In the novel For the Children’s Sake, I blended an amateur detective mystery and classic whodunit with what might be labeled a medical mystery or mystery science fiction since the medical condition featured in the plot doesn’t exist. In the novel, a priest who advocated on behalf of children with a rare and deadly-to-other-people genetic condition is murdered and his twin brother works to solve the crime. The medical mystery sub-genres which typically features a medical threat, blends easily with mystery science fiction since the writer can invent medical threats that don’t exist yet, making the story science fiction.

Looking at my unpublished stories, I’ve written cozy mysteries, police procedurals, historical mysteries, and spy thrillers, too. I like to challenge myself to try new things. I look forward to trying my hand at writing in some of the other sub-genres on the Writer’s Digest list.

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N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

William Bit Me. Again. And Jenny Kissed Leigh Hunt.

by Kathy Waller

I was preparing an update to my January 25 post about resolving to read all forty-seven of Anthony Trollope’s novels in 2021. I worked all day yesterday and all day today (with time out to play Candy Crush and Scrabble Online while waiting to think of the next word).

The post was intended to be both light-hearted and erudite—the erudite part was the reason for the Candy Crush time-outs, because although when I was in graduate school I was, at times, extremely erudite, I’m a little out of practice.

And it takes a lot of words to be erudite. The piece kept getting longer and longer, with no end in sight.

So I did what I do. I scrapped it in the interest of a post with no erudition at all.

It begins with a cat bite and ends with a poem.

William the Cat had dental surgery last month. He’s twelve years old and overweight and diabetic, and I spent the day before surgery crying because I was afraid he would be anesthetized and never wake up.

However, he woke up and came home looking just as disgusted as he’d looked when he left home. In the interim, he’d lost five teeth, but he didn’t seem to miss them. In fact, he was downright perky.

Before surgery, David had to lift him onto the bed, where he spent his days monitoring squirrels and sleeping. Now he trips right up those kitty stairs and plops himself down any time he pleases.

He pleases when he smells coconut oil. I rub it on my hands at night for a moisturizer. He licks it off my hands. Sometimes he chases me onto the bed. Sometimes he gets there first and I have to wrestle him out of the way.

Being catlicked feels icky, but he’s elderly and determined, and I tolerate it, up to a point. The encounter usually ends in his getting a head, ear, and throat rub, followed by a tummy rub, accompanied by a rumbling purr (his). Sometimes he then walks across me, threatening to crack a couple of my ribs, to get to the other hand before succumbing to the tummy rub. Then he leaves.

But sometimes he bites. He’s always been a biter—lunge, chomp, lunge, chomp—as part of play. My fingers are toys. But where coconut oil is involved, he becomes the foe—adversary, attacker, assailant. Backbiter.

I’m not talking nips or little love bites. I mean he’s going for a mouthful of flesh and possibly some bone to go with it. And a few puncture wounds.

That’s how I know he still has his fangs. And that they’re in good working order.

Fortunately, the recent dental cleaning has kept me from having to visit the urgent care clinic for antibiotics. A little Neosporin and band-aids have sufficed.

I know about cat bites. Years ago, a stray cat named Perceval (I’d sort of adopted him) bit me when I gave him a tummy rub (not his fault; he turned belly-up, and I thought he wanted a tummy rub, but he’d been down the street chasing other stray cats and was still hyper). I ended up with cellulitis up to the elbow. “My gosh,” said the doctor, “we used to put people in the hospital on an antibiotic drip for that.”

More recently (six years ago, to be exact), while being worked on by a vet tech, William scraped my arm with a fang. Within twenty minutes the scrape was surrounded by a red circle two inches in diameter.

I went to the urgent care clinic. Then I went home and did what writers do: I  wrote a poem about the experience.

But before I can talk about that poem, I must talk about another one: Leigh Hunt’s “Jenny Kissed Me.” It’s one of my favorites. To wit:

Jane Carlyle, wife of philosopher Thomas Carlyle, was a quiet woman. She did not show strong emotion. But one day when writer Leigh Hunt, who had been very ill, arrived for a visit, Jane jumped up from her chair, ran across the room, and kissed him. Surprised and delighted, Hunt memorialized the event in a poem.

Jenny kissed me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I’m growing old, but add,
Jenny kissed me.

James Henry Leigh Hunt

And that is how I came to memorialize the almost-bite William gave me at the veterinarian’s office:

William bit me at the vet,
Didn’t like the aide’s assistance,
Used his claws and fangs to set
On the path of most resistance.
Say I’m teary, say I’m mad,
Say that pills and needles hit me,
Say my arm’s inflamed, and add,
William bit me.

~ Kathy Waller

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Image of cartoon cat by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Image of lion by Anja🤗#helpinghands #solidarity#stays healthy🙏 from Pixabay

Image of coconut by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

Image of Jane Carlyle by Samuel Laurence via Wikipedia

Images of Candy Crush screen  and of William by me

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Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. Her stories appear in Murder on Wheels, Lone Star Lawless, and Day of the Dark. She’s working on a novel.

Phyllis Whitney’s The Ebony Swan

 

by Francine Paino

Still a favorite and should never be forgotten.

 I was inspired to read The Ebony Swan, after reading Kay Hudson’s, Remembering Phyllis A. Whitney, a master of the mystery genre.

I’d forgotten how much I’d enjoyed her stories, years ago, and I hadn’t read all of her works, which added up to an impressive 77; the last three or four when she was in her nineties—Wow! What an inspiration to us all.  Her numerous works included 39 Adult mysteries; 4 On Writing; 20 in Juvenile Fiction, and 14 YA. 

Whitney was not only a prolific writer but also a force for advancing women’s recognition in the mystery genre. In the late 1980’s she wrote an open letter to Mystery Writers of America, admonishing them for their refusal to take women in the genre seriously. She pointed out that in their forty-one-year existence only seven women had been awarded the Edgar for best novel. Yes. It was time to become reacquainted with Phyllis Whitney.

I chose one of her last works, The Ebony Swan, a story that encompasses a subject dear to my heart: ballet.

With a light touch, Whitney draws the reader into the worlds she creates. In the Ebony Swan, it is the lush backdrop of the Virginia Tidewater, where we meet Alexandrina (Alex) Montoro, now in her seventies, once a world-renowned ballerina. Alex was married to the late, distinguished author, Juan Gabriel Montoro; they had one child, Dolores. 

The mystery: Why was Alex’s daughter dead? Twenty-five years earlier  Dolores, died when she fell down a flight of steps, and Alex’s granddaughter, Susan, witnessed the tragedy at a very young age.  Ruled an accident,  Alex feared the unknown truth and remained silent.

Did Susan, in a fit of childish rage, push her mother? Juan Gabriel, still alive at

the time, was found unconscious on the hall floor above where Dolores’s body lay. Was he somehow responsible, or was there someone else in the house that day?

After Dolores’s death, the unspoken turmoil and competing passions in the Montoro family exploded. Susan’s father took her away from Virginia and forbade her to have any contact with her maternal grandmother, but after his passing, Susan found herself at a crossroads and decided to return to Virginia.

Despite her grandmother’s joy to be reunited with her only grandchild, Susan is not welcomed by all.  On the surface, her reception is friendly, but there is an undercurrent of fear and resentment. Could a return to the scene of her mother’s death jog Susan’s memory and what will she remember? Who is friend and who is foe, she wonders, while getting to know Alex?  

 A hint of romance adds another dimension, but anger, jealousy betrayal and danger drive the story as the impact of one deed crosses two generations. 

  Some say Whitney’s books start too slow for today’s reading public because she spends time and words immersing us in location, atmosphere, and historical data, making them relevant to her character’s lives and the story; for me, it was a breath of fresh air. Phyllis Whitney’s gift for spinning a yarn with gossamer threads that weave together in beautifully crafted storytelling is still compelling.  

Revisiting Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet

by Renee Kimball

“Almustafa, the chosen and the beloved, who was a dawn unto his own day, had waited twelve years in the city of Orphalese for his ship that was to return and bear him back to the isle of his birth.

And in the twelfth year, on the seventh day of Ielool, the month of reaping, he climbed the hill without the city walls and looked seaward; and he beheld his ship coming with the mist. . .
. . .
“And he said to himself:
Shall the day of parting be the day of gathering?
And shall it be said that my eve was in truth my dawn? . . .

The Prophet

Born in Lebanon in 1883, Kahlil Gibran was the son of an erratic and abusive alcoholic father who forced Kahlil’s mother to flee with her four children to the United States; Kahlil was 12 years old.  Although they arrived in New York initially, they quickly relocated to Boston’s Southside, settling within a larger immigrant community.

Gibran’s formal education was interrupted fleeing Lebanon, again through relocation to Boston.  The small family faced obstacles of language and culture, yet, despite this, the mother opened a small store that allowed some income.  During Kahlil’s late teens, a sister and both brothers died from tuberculosis; shortly after, Gibran’s mother died from cancer.  As the remaining guardian of his youngest sister, Gibran continued working his mother’s store while pursuing painting and writing.

Prior to his mother’s death, Kahlil also began writing and translating various articles for Boston’s Arabic /Lebanese newspapers. Through the translation work, he established contacts within the Boston artistic community giving Kahlil the encouragement and patronage he desperately needed.  His mother, however, questioning his friendships with the Art Nouveau/Romantic community, sent him back to Lebanon for more education.  He found his father the same aggressive, angry alcoholic Kahlil had fled years before, and he quickly returned to Boston and his mother.

Gibran’s early attempts at art, similar in style to the Romantic William Blake, failed to find an audience, but his writings, generated a respectable following. This was still not enough to support his sister or himself, particularly after his mother’s passing.  It was during this time that Gibran established a pattern of behavior he followed for the rest of his life—first, seeking acceptance within a supportive artistic community and, second, befriending and securing patronage of wealthy older women.

Boston’s literary critics found Kahlil’s grammar stilted and his spiritual style hard to understand.  Acceptance in the larger literary circles remained out of reach but several years passed before Gibran, upon the advice of friends, relocated to New York.  Once there, Gibran’s prose poems and parable style writings established his reputation as a respected writer.

In 1931, Gibran died from causes related to alcoholism and cirrhosis of the liver. He was 48 years of age. His body was returned to Lebanon, where he was buried.

In these troubling times of COVID—confusion and radical change, Gibran’s gentle messages pose as a reminder of the importance of caring for your neighbor, giving without expectation of return, knowing yourself, and loving without judgment.  You do not have look hard to find the love in Gibran’s message, and I, for one, am in favor of more of love everywhere.

 

On Love

…When love beckons you, follow him,
Through his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north
Wind lays waste the garden.

. . .

. . .Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.
Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;
For love is sufficient unto love.
. . .
When you love you should not say, “God is in my heart,”
but rather, “I am in the heart of God.”
And think not you can direct the course of love, for love,
If it finds you worthy, directs your course.”

Of Children

 . . .Your children are not your children.
 They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you. . .

You are the bows from which your children as living
Arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with his might that His arrows may go swift and far. . .

 On Giving

Then said a rich man, Speak to us of Giving.
     And he answered:
     You give but little when you give of your possessions.
     It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.
     For what are your possessions but things you keep and guard
     for fear you may need them tomorrow? . . .
. . .
 It is well to give when asked, but it is better to give unasked,
through understanding;
      And to the open-handed the search for one who shall
receive is joy greater than giving.
     And is there aught you would withhold?
     All you have shall some day be given;
     Therefore give now, that the season of giving may be yours and not your inheritors’. . .

 ***

References

Gibran, Khalil. The Prophet. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (1926, 1970).

Naimy. “The Mind and Thought of Khalil Gibran.” Journal of Arabic Literature, vol. 5, 1974, pp. 55–71.

Pantucek, Svetozar. “ANALYSIS OF THE PARABLES OF GIBRAN KHALIL GIBRAN.” Quaderni Di Studi Arabi, vol. 11, 1993, pp. 139–147.

Poetry Foundation. Kahlil Gibran. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/kahlil-gibran

Images via Wikipedia. All are in the public domain. For more information, click on each image.

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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.