An Interview with Elizabeth Buhmann, Author of BLUE LAKE

by M.K. Waller

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

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

BLUE LAKE does not disappoint.

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

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

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

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

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Where did you get the idea for Blue Lake?

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

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

Why the mid-century setting?

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

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

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

This book is very different from your first!

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

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

Always murder! Why do you write about murder?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ M.K. Waller

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

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

by Helen Currie Foster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, not really.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well-Rounded Thrillers? Naw…Really?

 

By K.P. Gresham

Sara Paretsky created quite a stir in the mystery writing community with her recent letter to the editor. (New York Times June 14, 2019). This actually surprised me a little.

For years the majority of U.S. publishers, editors and booksellers have preferred male-authored novels in the mystery thriller genre.  Let’s define our terms here. Thrillers are generally male-oriented in intended audience, protagonist sex, and author generation while cozy mysteries are intellectually gender-neutral and character- and puzzle-inclined) The New York Times published an op-ed that said female authors are finally breaking into this male-dominated genre. 

Sara Paretsky by Mark Coggins, licensed under CC BY-2.0, via Wikipedia

Ms. Paretsky’s point is that women have been writing thrillers for decades. She should know. She’s one of them. Author of the V.I. Warshawski crime novels, the most recent of which is Shell Game, Paretsky and other authors helped start Sisters in Crime—an international organization that brings women’s voices into print, and those voices to the readers.

Ah. The reader.  Please note, when I mentioned above who preferred thriller mysteries to be authored by males, I did NOT include the reader.

A Sisters in Crime article cited a 2015 Nielson study finding that more than two-thirds of the mystery/crime readership are women. Though a gender break has long been perceived in the mystery/thriller genre and the mystery/cozy genre, the fact is that women make up the majority of readers on the continuum between these two extremes. The 2015 Nielson study also found that another major factor in determining the mystery reader audience is age. 47 percent of the mystery/crime readers are 55 or older. Less than 20 percent of mystery/crime read by people under 30.

So more than 7 of 10 mystery buyers are women, and nearly 7 of 10 are over the age of 45. 

Yet despite the likes of Sue Grafton, Nevada Barr, Gillian Flynn, J.D. Robb and Sara Paretsky, women authors are often passed over as “crime” writers. Why? 

My theory is that thrillers are typically categorized as faster paced mysteries involving high stakes, using stronger language and/or a more sinister climactic event, a flawed heroine or hero, a sense of urgency and a threat level that never leaves high gear.

Women authors tend to include two added elements that slam them into the cozy category—and out of the publisher and bookseller consideration. We add well-rounded characters—folks you’d like to meet in person, or kill (whichever the case may be), and we allow the setting to become a character in the story.

From my perspective, adding these two elements to a book does not take it out of the thriller category, and the readers (the over 70 percent that are women and almost 70 percent that are over 45) understand that. It’s time USA booksellers should.

I recently read that booksellers in Japan have embraced marketing female-authored thrillers. Booksellers there are creating a “Four F” section in their stores. The four f’s stand for female author, female editor, female protagonist and female translator (into Japanese, obviously). Their marketing technique embraces the differences that women authors bring to the thriller table, and celebrates the appeal these writers have. Oh, by the way, the booksellers are making money.

Japan is known for setting new trends. How about we try this in the good ole U.S. of A? 

Well-rounded thrillers? Who knew.

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Image of crime scene from Pixabay.com

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K.P. Gresham, author of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery series and Three Days at Wrigley Field, moved to Texas as quick as she could. Born Chicagoan, K.P. and her husband moved to Texas, fell in love with not shoveling show and are 30+ year Lone Star State residents. She finds that her dual country citizenship, the Midwest and Texas, provide deep fodder for her award-winning novels. Her varied careers as a media librarian and technical director, middle school literature teacher and theatre playwright and director add humor and truth to her stories. A graduate of Houston’s Rice University Novels Writing Colloquium, I.P. now resides in Austin, Texas, where life with her tolerant but supportive husband and narcissistic Chihuahua is acceptably weird.

Watching the Watcher: Navigating Venice with Commissario Brunetti

 

 

My heart speeds up on news that Donna Leon’s got a new police procedural, because I love her Guido Brunetti. Not in a romantic way, of course—I must respect his deep fidelity to his wife Paola, an expert on Henry James and Italian cooking—but because it’s another blissful chance to follow Brunetti through Venice, watch him navigate the internal politics of the Venice Questura, and think with him as he solves a murder. Another murder.

Leon invites us in by using Brunetti’s point of view, letting us share his reflections and observations.

Barely computer literate, he relies for key financial and personal investigations on the astounding internet skill of Signorina Elettra Zorzi, secretary to his adversary and boss, Palermo native Vice-Questore Patta. Brunetti thinks of Zorzi as “quick-witted, radiant—the other adjectives that presented themselves all suggested light and visibility.” Neither we nor Brunetti question how she manages to get her hands on such information. Leon amplifies the mystery of Zorzi’s improbable presence in police headquarters by Brunetti’s frequent observations of Zorzi’s clothes, which reflect her precision and elegance. But Brunetti’s observations also remind the reader that he’s a Venetian through and through, thus susceptible to and respectful of beauty:

Behind her desk, looking as though she was there only to meet the photographers from Vogue, sat Signorina Elettra Zorzi, today arrayed, as were the lilies of the field, in a white crepe de chine dress that fell in diagonal, but decidedly provocative, folds across her bosom. (Death and Judgment)

Or:

Her blouse, he noticed, was the colour of beetroot and had white buttons down the front and on the cuff. It fell with the liquid grace of silk. (The Temptation of Forgiveness)

On the dark side, we also see Brunetti’s adversaries at the Questura through his visual observations of the two Palermo natives, Vice-Questore Patta and Lieutenant Scarpa. Here’s the “universally despised” Scarpa:

Scarpa propelled himself away from the door jamb with a quick shove of his left shoulder. One instant he’d been lounging casually; the next he was upright and much taller. The speed with which he uncoiled his easy, limp posturing reminded Brunetti of snakes he’d seen in television documentaries: leave them alone and they lie coiled, still as death; make a sound and they become a whiplash unbraiding in the sun, multiplying the range within which they can strike.

We get it, Guido. Through your eyes we get Scarpa’s character completely, just as we do with the boss, Vice-Questore Patta. In the following scene Patta wants Brunetti to investigate a leak from the Questura that apparently reflects badly on Patta:

Uncertain how to respond…Brunetti returned his glance to his superior’s jacket and the hand-stitched buttonholes. Beauty was where you found it, and it was always comforting to see.

When Patta demands what Brunetti’s looking at, Brunetti responds honestly that he’s admiring the buttonholes. But when Patta insinuates that Brunetti must know about the leaks because his subordinates talk to him:

Hearing Patta’s suspicion relaxed Brunetti and told him that, though the subject might be new, the old, adversarial order had been restored. He tossed away his momentary warming towards Patta and returned to his native good sense.

His native good sense requires eternal caution as to Palermitans. In later books Leon makes Patta more layered, almost sympathetic—but Brunetti can’t drop his defenses:

“Ah, good morning, Commissario. Please have a seat, there’s something I’d like to discuss with you,” Patta said, giving a toothy smile that set Brunetti’s own teeth on edge.

“Yes, Vice Questore?” Brunetti inquired neutrally.

“Actually,” Patta began, his teeth now hidden behind his lips, perhaps being sharpened for their next appearance. “It’s about my…it’s about my wife.

“Ah,” was all Brunetti would permit himself. He decided it would be best to seek shelter, so placed a look of mild concern on his face and hid behind that. (Unto Us a Son is Given, 2019)

Leon similarly uses Brunetti’s interactions with his Questura allies to deepen their characters. In the same book, probing the possibility of a drug motive with his hard-working Inspector Vianello, Brunetti inquires about Vianello’s own experience with drugs:

Vianello laughed at Brunetti’s tone and said, “I try to keep some secrets, Guido.”

Just that laugh, that response, tells us the trust level between the two. We all know that how a boss interacts with subordinates exposes the boss’s character. Brunetti trusts his inspector, who returns the favor. Later, trying to respond to a plea for information from his own father-in-law, Brunetti asks Vianello to lunch:

When Vianello demonstrated no desire to discuss the varieties of religious experience, Brunetti thought he’d take further advantage of his friend’s good sense and said, “I’d like to have your opinion about something else, Lorenzo,” using his first name and thus signaling that this was a personal matter.

Had Vianello been a deer grazing in a forest, he could have been no more alert to the change in the normal sounds around him. He raised his head quickly from what he was eating, set his fork down, and gave his attention to his friend.

Here’s another of many examples of how Leon uses Brunetti’s point of view, his visual observations and reactions, to color the atmosphere of a mystery. At the beginning Brunetti has climbed the stairs to his office:

On his desk, Brunetti found what he did not want to find…He had last seen it, perhaps two months ago, when it had spent a week in his in-tray, resting there in the manner of a person a friend brings to dinner, who drinks too much, says nothing during the meal, and then refuses to leave even after the other guests are long gone. (The Temptation of Forgiveness, 2018)

What an image. We feel ourselves standing there with Brunetti, looking at a report we (and Brunetti) do not want to touch. But he’s obliged to deal with it. We feel how Brunetti values good manners and proper behavior, how he would distrust a breach of hospitality. We feel the shivery intrusion of murder just from the unwelcome sight of that sheet of paper in the in-tray, and Brunetti’s unwelcome recognition that he must pick up that paper.

Donna Leon uses other points of view as well—see the beginning of Acqua Alta, where she puts us in the heads of an opera singer and her partner describing the invasion of their apartment by two men who beat up the partner.

Still, I find Leon’s use of Brunetti’s point of view to build the characters of his compatriots and adversaries at the Questura succeeds in giving us one of the most satisfying cast of characters in police procedurals. Brunetti’s point of view, with his idiosyncratic observation of visual detail, provides a sense of immediacy. We practically breathe the atmosphere of the Questura and its inhabitants; at the same time we see into Brunetti’s own character. With good reason, Brunetti’s the man we love to follow through the streets and canals of Venice. As he walks along, allowing us to hear his thoughts, wonder what he’s wondering, and see what he’s seeing, we’re with him as he thinks his way to the solution. We trust Brunetti to lead us there, to finally unmask the murderer. We’re with him all the way.

Next time, thoughts on Fred Vargas and another commissario—Commissaire Jean-Louis Adamsberg of Paris.

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Helen Currie Foster is author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery novels, the most recent of which is GHOST NEXT DOOR. For more information about Helen and her books, see her website.

Author, Author: Josephine Tey–Occupying the Hinterland

by M. K. Waller

On his twenty-first birthday, Simon Ashby will become a rich man. He’ll inherit both his mother’s fortune and Latchetts, the estate left by his parents on their accidental death eight years ago. In the interim, his aunt Bee has, by skillful management, built Latchetts into a profitable farm and riding stable.

The other Ashby children—Simon’s sisters, nineteen-year-old Eleanor and nine-year-old twins Jane and Ruth—look forward to his  becoming master of Latchetts. Bee’s pleasure is marred only by the memory of Patrick, Simon’s twin, who shortly after their parents’ death disappeared, a presumed suicide.

Six weeks before Simon’s birthday, however, a stranger calling himself Brat Farrar appears and claims to be the long-lost Patrick. He looks like Simon, remembers everything Patrick should, has a reasonable explanation for his long absence, and—a striking distinction—knows and loves horses. Initially skeptical, Bee is yet open to the possibility of Brat’s being her missing nephew. The Ashbys might have a second reason to celebrate.

Except for Simon—because Patrick is the older twin. If Bee accepts Brat as an Ashby,  Simon will be displaced. Brat will inherit everything.

So far, author Josephine Tey has laid a conventional foundation for the mystery Brat Farrar.

But in the third chapter, Tey departs from the pattern by exposing critical information: Before the Ashbys have even heard of Brat Farrar, the reader knows Brat is an imposter, come “home” solely to take possession of Latchetts. The Ashby’s prodigal son is a fraud.

We readers, instead of wondering about Brat’s identity, focus on the Ashbys as they walk, unsuspecting, into a web of deceit. And, although we know  what they don’t, we walk right into it with them.

P. D. James liked mysteries, she said, because of their ordered structure—”in the end, the villain is caught and justice is done.” But here’s the rub: we don’t want Brat caught or justice done. We like him. We not only understand him, we cheer him on. We hope he achieves his goal. We don’t approve of criminal behavior, of course, but we want him to have Latchetts and the horses he loves.

Mystery writers often present their characters with moral dilemmas; here, Tey hands one to readers. She serves us up an exceedingly good read and makes us uncomfortable the whole time we’re reading.

“Impersonation,” says mystery writer Robert Barnard, “has been at the heart of many detective stories, but it has seldom carried the emotional charge of Brat Farrar, and our sympathies are never in a mere puzzle so skilfully and so surprisingly manipulated.”

He points to this as a mark of Tey’s “essence,” her “brilliant storytelling: her varied, loving characterization; above all, her control of reader sympathies.” In Brat Farrar, Tey definitely has control.

And the storytelling is brilliant. Tey, says Barnard, “often reveals a sort of impatience with the rules and conventions of the whodunit.” Three of her mysteries—Brat Farrar, The Daughter of Time, and The Franchise Affair— occupy “that hinterland—often uneasy, but not in her hands—between the crime novel and the ‘novel proper.'”

The Daughter of Time, named in 1990 one of The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time, is a history lesson wrapped in a detective story. At the suggestion of actress friend Marta Hallard, Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant, hospitalized with a broken leg, passes the time by researching the life of Richard III of England. Studying material brought to him by several other friends and colleagues, he concludes that Richard was a good man, not a murderer, and that the image of the evil hunchback made famous by Shakespeare was merely Tudor propaganda. Colin Dexter’s The Wench Is Dead, an Inspector Morse mystery published in 1989, is an homage to Daughter.

My favorite of Tey’s books, The Franchise Affair, doesn’t feature a murder at all. The third in the Inspector Alan Grant series, it concerns a charge of kidnapping leveled against the Sharpes, a middle-aged woman and her elderly mother, newcomers whom the residents of the nearby village consider eccentric. A teenage war orphan accuses them of luring her to their house, demanding she do domestic work, and when she refuses, imprisoning her in an attic. The women claim they’ve never seen the girl. Robert Blair, the solicitor who responds to Marian Sharpe’s call for assistance—and who’s never handled a criminal case—finds them trustworthy and personable, and Inspector Grant dismisses the girl’s story as a fabrication. Within days, however, Grant is back with an arrest warrant, and as evidence against the Sharpes mounts, villagers believe the worst. Characters are so well drawn it’s easy to believe they have lives beyond the page; the plot is tight and suspenseful. Tey proves beyond doubt that murder isn’t necessary for a first-class mystery.

(The artist responsible for the cover pictured above either disagrees with my last assertion or failed to read the book—the body on the cover has no relation to anything inside.)

Tey, whose real name was Elizabeth MacIntosh, was a native of Scotland. Little is known about her personal life. “She lives,” writes Barnard, “by her works alone.” She wrote a number of historical plays under the pseudonym Gordon Daviot. She wrote only eight mysteries—six in the Inspector Grant series and two stand-alones—between 1929 and her untimely death in 1952, the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. But the quality of those novels establishes her as one of the great writers of British crime fiction, in the same league as Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Marjorie Allingham, and Dorothy L. Sayers.

I give the last word to Robert Barnard, who goes a step further in his praise:

“If Ngaio Marsh or Christie had died as young as Tey, we would have a good idea of what they could have gone on writing. We can guess that Tey would have written several more whodunits, but what she would have written is beyond our guesswork. That in itself is her best tribute.”

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A complete list of Josephine Tey’s mysteries is found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephine_Tey.

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Sources:

Robert Barnard’s fine introduction to the works of Josephine Tey, published by Simon and Schuster.

Barbara C. Sealock, “Queen of Crime: No Mystery in the Charm of P.D. James.” Chicago Tribune, March 31, 1985.

Wikipedia

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M. K. Waller’s short stories appear in Austin Mystery Writers‘ crime fiction anthologies, MURDER ON WHEELS and LONE STAR LAWLESS. She blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly.

Book Review: Phyllis Whitney’s The Ebony Swan

 

by Francine Paino

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.   

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Francine Paino, aka F. Della Notta, is a native New Yorker and a Texas transplant.  She loves learning about her new State and enjoys melding the cultures and characteristics of two cities: New York and Austin.

In 2018, writing as F. Della Notte, she created the Housekeeper Mystery Series in the tradition of the clergy amateur sleuths, with a 21st-century twist. The housekeeper isn’t a sidekick; she is the sleuthing equal of the priest. The second book in the Housekeeper Mystery Series, CATWALK DEAD, will be released in 2019.

Read more about Francine at her website.