18 April 2015

Stranded Yet Again


by John M. Floyd



I consider myself a lucky man. I'm married to a great lady, my children (thank God) inherited her looks and brainpower and not mine, and although I'm no billionaire I'm not homeless either, at least not at the moment. And, with regard to my so-called writing career, these past few months have been especially kind to me.

Much of my recent run of good fortune seems to be linked to the folks at The Strand Magazine. (I've written about that publication in two previous SleuthSayers columns: "Stranded" in November 2011 and "Stranded Again" in July 2014. Which led to the brilliantly original title of this piece.)

Rewind to the morning of January 21, 2015. I was scheduled for a signing that day at a library about 100 miles north of here, so after stumbling out of bed and shoveling down my breakfast I loaded some books into the car and checked Google Maps to see exactly where I was going. I was still squinting at the satellite view of the Montgomery County Library when I heard the DING of an incoming message. I yawned, rubbed my eyes, clicked over to e-mail, and saw a note from my (former) SleuthSayers colleague Janice Law. Before I could open it, two more DINGs, from friends Terrie Moran and Bonnie (B.K.) Stevens. All three of them said, more or less, the same thing: Congrats on your Edgar nomination!

Believe me, there are few things that can wake a person up faster than that. One of my informants (Janice, I think) included a link to the announcement in the Los Angeles Times. Shellshocked, I hopped over there and was reading the article when my cell phone rang--the caller was Andrew Gulli, editor of the Strand. He didn't bother to identify himself--he just said "Have you heard the news?" He went on to tell me that one of my stories, "200 Feet," which appeared in the February-May 2014 issue of the Strand, was chosen as a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Short Story.

How in the world did one of my stories get nominated? I had, and have, no idea. But I assure you that that news made my road trip that day a lot more fun. If the folks in that Friends of the Library group wondered why I had a dopey (or maybe the word is dopier) grin on my face during my signing, they were nice enough not to mention it.

A few days after that, on January 26, I received more good news: the Strand sent me word that it would publish the latest story I'd submitted to them, called "Driver." It has since appeared in their current issue, February-May 2015, and its acceptance was especially pleasant--and surprising--because the story is fairly long, around 10,000 words. I think the magazine's guidelines say they prefer "between 2000 and 6000," and most of my Strand stories have been right in the middle of that range--around 4K. (I like to be as dateworthy a blind date as possible, when trying to woo editors.) I'm not sure why this particular story ran so long. Maybe because it's about a scandal in D.C., and features a limousineload of crooked politicians and their hired help. The crimes and attempted crimes include extortion, robbery, blackmail, and murder, and in this case it just took a lot of words and pages to get everything I wanted into the story.

The third good thing happened almost a month later, on February 19. I received an e-mail from Otto Penzler in New York, informing me that he and guest editor James Patterson had selected one of my stories, "Molly's Plan," for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2015, to be published this October. (That story was also from the Strand--their June-September 2014 issue.) I've been buying and reading the annual BAMS anthology for years, and although I've been fortunate enough to be shortlisted several times I'd never before made it into the book.

As I recently mentioned to another SleuthSayer, David Dean, this kind of occurrence is proof positive that many things in this writing business are unpredictable. We try to write a story as well as we can, mail (or e-mail) it off, and cross our fingers that it might achieve some level of success. That's all we can do.

Even though I continue to remain pitifully clueless as to which stories will be victorious when I send them out into the world--many of them die slow and painful deaths--I also continue to believe that if you try long enough and hard enough, some will be accepted, published, and occasionally recognized in a way that gives them new life afterward. If there is a key to all this, it's that we have to keep writing and keep submitting. In my case, as one of my old IBM buddies used to say, even a blind hog can root up an acorn now and then.

Will the rest of this year be as kind to me as these past several months have been? I hope so. But I can't help wondering if I have already found and used up all the four-leaf clovers in my 2015 lawn.

Even so, I'm seriously considering the purchase of a lottery ticket.

There might never be a better time.


17 April 2015

Dominica

by R.T. Lawton


Map created by Donny. Dominica is inside the red circle.
Christopher Columbus named the speck of land he found out in the Caribbean after the day of the week he discovered it. The day was Sunday, November 3, 1493. Sunday being Dominica in the dead language of Latin. At the time of his discovery, the Caribs were the owners of said island. Naturally, the Caribs knew where they were all that time and weren't really happy about being discovered by some Italian out on a cruise to find India for the king and queen of Spain. Due to the isolation of the island, plus the ferociousness of the Carib warriors, the Spanish left Dominica alone for several decades. France eventually established a colony, but ceded the island to Great Britain in 1763, Then from 1958 until 1962, Dominica belonged to the short-lived West Indies Federation before becoming an independent nation in 1978. Three years later, a conspiracy of mercenaries had their own plans for the island.

Mike Perdue of Houston and Wolfgang Droege of Ontario put their heads together in a plot to overthrow the government of Eugenia Charles. Their idea was to help ex-Prime Minister Patrick John and his Dominica Defense Force regain control of the island. In exchange for their services, the two mercenaries were supposed to have control over the future of Dominica's development: testimony presented at their subsequent trial said they were to have the island to use as a drug trafficking base.

Unfortunately for the conspirators, the FBI received knowledge of the attempted coup and thus Operation Red Dog was doomed to failure. The ship hired to transport the mercenary group never sailed from New Orleans as scheduled. Seems someone approached a journalist about an "exclusive story" and the journalist felt compelled to contact the police. Talk about your dumbest criminal of the year award. In the end, Droege and nine co-conspirators, to include white nationalist Don Black, were charged and tried. The entire fiasco was soon termed as the Bayou of Pigs and a book by the same name was written about the intended takeover of the island of Dominica.

A pod of snorkelers being tickled by warm volcano bubbles.
As for me, the only "hot water" I got into was during the Champagne Snorkeling Tour which had nothing to do with consuming the famous bubbling wine of France. Seems that Dominica is one of those islands created by volcanic activity and there is still heat coming up from the ocean floor. I quickly found myself swimming through a mass of multiple streams of small bubbles rising from the coral twenty feet below. And yes, the water was warm, not at all cool like the rest of the Caribbean Ocean.

Other than that, just be advised that the residents of Dominica get a little touchy if you confuse them with the Dominican Republic which is the old Spanish half of the old French island of Haiti. Both islands are in the Caribbean, just be clear when you book your travel ticket or you could end up with a surprise.

See you in Grenada in two weeks. Just so you know, that's the island in the Caribbean, not the city in Spain. To help you out, the island is pronounced Grenade-ah (as opposed to the Spanish city of Gra-na-da) and is the place Clint Eastwood (as Gunny Highway) invaded in the movie Heartbreak Ridge.

16 April 2015

Author Interview: David Corbett

by Brian Thornton

One of the benefits of working in crime fiction is that you get to meet a variety of true "characters". Most of them are terrific people, generous with their time and free with their advice. None more so than critically acclaimed author and writing guru David Corbett.

 David has graciously agreed to sit for an interview about both his newest book and his career in general, beginning with his work as a private investigator. First a bit more about David:

David Corbett is a recovering Catholic, ex-PI and onetime bar band gypsy who’s written five novels, numerous stories, multiple scripts, and far too many poems. One novel was a New York Times Notable Book, another an Edgar Nominee. The latest, The Mercy of the Night, was published in April, 2015. Two of his stories have been selected for Best American Mystery Stories and his book on craft, The Art of Character, has been called, “A writer’s bible.” He lives with his adorable wife and insane dog in Vallejo, California, which really, truly isn’t the hellhole it’s cracked up to be. You can learn more at: www.davidcorbett.com

And now to the interview:

David, you're an experienced private investigator. Did you get into that line of work with an eye toward one day using it to inform your work in crime fiction, or were the two career choices made relatively independently?

I’ve often said I’m not a PI who became a writer, but a writer who became a PI. Actually, it’s a bit more involved than that.

In my late twenties I was studying acting and writing short stories, with about the same success in both fields: getting some nice attention, but nothing to crow about. I was realizing I needed to pick a lane, and went back and forth as to whether I should pursue writing or acting.


As it turned out, two of my friends in acting school were working for Palladino & Sutherland, a high-profile husband/wife PI firm that was beginning to attract attention because of its work on two Hells Angels cases and the DeLorean case, among other matters. (They also got a lot of press because they were the real-world equivalents of McMillan & Wife, a popular PI TV series during the mid-seventies.) My friends – who were working as a stringer and a receptionist, respectively – suggested that, if I wanted to write, I try to get a job at the firm. “You can’t beat this place for material.” This proved, as you can imagine, an understatement.

It took me nine months to land the job, and one of the reasons they ultimately hired me was because I was the most persistent applicant they’d ever had. I realized my work for the firm would be my “years at sea,” giving me the experience and worldview that would inform all of my writing. I didn’t specifically foresee a career as a crime writer, and I’ve always considered myself more concerned with character than crime per se, but the justice system and its inhabitants – both domesticated and otherwise – have provided me with my subject matter ever since.

How does your experience as a PI inform your work as in fiction?

Beyond the obvious element of subject matter, I learned several things that continue to serve me well.

First, since we often worked criminal defense I gained an intimate knowledge of the types of people who are accused of crimes – not just them, but their families, their friends, their classmates, their pet-sitters, their gardeners, etc. This helped me move beyond the usual “bad guy” clichés and see the people we call criminals as fully realized human beings.

Expanding that observation, I saw firsthand how everything in the justice system isn’t the result of abstract rules and ironclad principles: “the law.” It’s driven by people pursuing their self-interest and trying to serve the interest of their principles: their clients or the public.

Second, I worked with a lot of very tough, very smart lawyers, and I learned what it means to fight for someone’s freedom, livelihood – even his life in death penalty cases. This isn’t hypothetical to me. I’ve lived it, and that responsibility shaped me both as a writer and a person.

I also gained a profound appreciation for the criminal defense bar. I’ve remarked elsewhere that, contrary to popular opinion, many of the criminal defense lawyers I’ve known are some of the most decent, honest, committed men and women I’ve ever known. It’s a shame they’re almost always portrayed as scumbags and weaklings in film and TV. I’m hoping, with the new series, to rectify some of that. (I love Mike Connelly’s Mickey Haller series for this same reason.)


So tell us about the new series, and about your new protagonist, Phelan Tierney. Where did the idea for the series come from, and what was Phelan’s genesis like?

Wow. Well, that’s a lot of ground to cover, but I’ll try to be brief.

Despite my background, I had no interest whatsoever in writing a PI novel until recently. From what I could tell, readers expected their PI protagonists to be something akin to the plains gunmen in an urban setting, and that was as far from my own experience as imaginable.

For the most part – the part that would best lend itself to a crime novel – I was a cog in the justice system, a “people’s pig” who tracked down witnesses, debunked prosecution theories, and sifted through evidence on behalf of criminal defendants. And it became pretty clear in my reading through the genre (and listening to agents, editors, and readers) that when it came to crime no one much cared to hear from the defense table.

But then in conversations with Charlie Huston and Michael Koryta, I began to reconsider my anti-PI-novel agenda.

When I told Charlie my job hadn’t been that dramatic, he asked me to describe an average day. I said I was the guy who had to go the door of the family of a murder victim and try to find someone in the house who didn’t want the killer – my client – executed. Charlie replied simply, “I think that’s interesting. You should write about that.”

Michael, a former PI himself, thought I was turning my back on a goldmine of material. When I told him the rough idea I had for the next book (which would ultimately become The Mercy of the Night), he expressed genuine enthusiasm for the idea.

Also, by this time I’d read more in the genre and realized I’d given short-shrift to the suspense inherent in a good investigation – finding the truth is a tricky business, regardless which side you’re tracking – and I trusted my own instincts as a writer a bit more. I felt, at least, up to the task of trying.

But my first attempt at writing a PI faltered because I didn’t take the time I usually do with a character to flesh out the unique details of his life. I just assumed I knew the guy, which turned out to be a mistake. He came out flat on the page, and I realized I had to go back and start over, make my hero someone I recognized but didn’t fully understand, so I would have to discover him.
"You come at the king..."

And so I conjured Phelan Tierney – the oddity of the name alone made me wonder about him.

I made him a lawyer, not a PI, which also required me to raise my game. I’ve known a number of lawyers who’ve traded their bar card for a PI license, and most of them have done so for the simple reason they preferred interacting with people to shuffling paper.

But my own experience with lawyers (including my marriage to one) also made me aware of the distinct habits of mind they acquire. The best combine a bare-knuckle pragmatism with a capacity for abstraction that an algebraist would envy. That too engaged me in a way my bland cipher of a PI hadn’t, and it helped me avoid some of the classic tough-guy clichés that afflict too much PI fiction.

I also wanted to make him more of a helper and healer than a hunter or a fighter, though he can handle himself (he’s a former high-school and college wrestler). I just had an idea of him as a man who, after failing in a brief stint as a prosecutor (he “lacked a killer instinct when it came to putting poor people in jail”), then spending twenty years as a hotshot litigator specializing in construction defects, he wants to do something nobler with his life.

He’s a widower, and has had to put his life back together after some serious wreckage related to his wife’s death. He’s financially set, so he decides to walk away from being a hired gun. He wants to care for the wounded.

He carves out a unique niche for himself in the justice system. He knows what it takes to help people in trouble, and the unsparing honesty required from all concerned, even himself (especially himself). He has a special devotion to those who hope to turn their lives around, and for those who, for whatever reason, find they’ve become invisible, or voiceless.

That’s my take on a man who can walk the mean streets who is not himself mean.

Anyone familiar with your work, from The Devil's Redhead to The Mercy of the Night, knows you write about outsiders and underdogs, be they ex-cons, cops, Latino teenagers, or... musicians. What is it about these types of characters that causes you to gravitate toward them?

Damned if I know. Sometimes I think you just come hard-wired with certain themes ingrained in you before you’re even aware of them.

That said, I was the youngest of four brothers, which pretty much sealed the underdog thing. And I was raised in a family where there was a “company line” that I never really bought into. I was also raised Catholic and pretty early on realized that word and deed often resided in parallel universes.

I had to fight my way home sometimes and developed a profound contempt for bullies (and I’ve experienced way too many people in positions of authority who qualify). I also had friends who got targeted by the nuns unfairly (one of those friends had a dad who was connected, which I didn’t know at the time – he was always great to me), and I just seemed to gravitate to “lost dog” stories.

Your novels have garnered all manner of awards/nominations/ critical acclaim, but what many people might not realize is that you're also an accomplished short story writer. (Full disclosure: David's short story "Returning to the Knife," a stream-of-consciousness take on a stabbing, appears in a crime fiction anthology I collected and edited a few years back) You've even published a collection of them. What do you enjoy most about writing shorter pieces? Is there anything different about your preparation/process when "writing short" as opposed to "writing long"?

I think of novels as being about a journey, whereas stories are about an epiphany. Short stories typically revolve around a potentially life-altering moment of awareness: What was I thinking? What have I done? What does this mean? So in staging a story I need to know what’s kept the character from the moment of awareness before, then break down whatever walls have kept him inside that box. The story ends when he sees the way out. In a novel, I’d let him leave, and wander around until he finds where he’s supposed to be headed. Or doesn’t.

A couple of years back you published The Art of Character, "a unique and indispensable toolkit for creating characters that come vividly to life on the page and linger in memory." Now, there are plenty of great writers out there who can no more explain their process upon request than a chicken can do long division, and yet you manage it nicely. That doesn't just "happen." Can you lay out for us some of the challenges in writing a "how-to," as opposed to "just doing it"?

I forget which writer friend it was that I had this conversation with, but after I mentioned I was writing a book on character, he asked why. I said it’s the thing I think I do best. He was dumbfounded. He said you never teach what you do well – because the fact you do it well means it’s probably instinctive. And the fact you do it instinctively means you’ll have a hard time analyzing what others need to do to get it right. And the process of analyzing it will gum up your own intuitive process.

Fortunately this didn’t prove to be the case, though I got his point. A lot of what I do in my character work I learned in acting school, so there was already a process to rely upon. And as I thought more carefully and deeply about the various problems we get into with our characters, I began to recognize what I was doing to solve those problems, even when I wasn’t fully aware of it. So the book in a lot of ways was just the result of my becoming aware of what I was already doing.


Now, like my friend said, that can be dangerous. Best way to fall off a bicycle is to pay too much attention to the pedals. Again, I’ve been fortunate that this isn’t the case. In fact I now look at character much more deliberately, and craft my characters in a more detailed, extensive way, precisely because of my own analysis as I wrote the book. And it’s paying dividends. I’ve had readers tell me that both the characters and the dialogue in The Mercy of the Night are the best I’ve written.

Well, I know a lot of teachers (go figure) and a solid majority of them would fundamentally disagree with the notion expressed by that friend whose identity has receded into the great beyond. Most teachers go with their strengths. I did encounter a guy once, a math teacher, who purposely chose math because he struggled with it in school, and when he did try to get help from his teachers, they were unable to assist him, because they had never struggled with math. The guy was a great teacher. That said, we’ve all struggled at something, and extrapolation from our experiences is something we as writers must practice on a fairly consistent basis. How do you square that with your statement above about your “years at sea.” Obviously there are some things you can’t fake, and so you must take the time and trouble to research/master them. Do you have a hard and fast rule when it comes to what you’ll BS on, and what is too important to leave to invention/extrapolation?

I generally try to avoid rules, because they’re almost always designed to protect you from something you’re scared of. I try to play to my strengths, but if you’re not risking anything in a book the reader will feel it.

I talk to a lot of people (one benefit of having been a PI, I’m not afraid to ask anyone anything) and do a lot of research so I can write with authority even about things I initially know little about. But in the end writing is a lot like a magic act – you’re creating an illusion, and indirection is often required, getting the reader to focus on what you do know so they don’t notice you’re bluffing your way through what you don’t.




 With your statement above you’ve proven all over again the old teaching axiom, “If you want to really master a subject, try to teach it.” That’s clearly what you’re doing with THE ART OF CHARACTER. It’s teaching. Any chance we’ll get more from you on this subject? And lastly, what’s next on the drawing board for you?

Anne Perry wants me to write a book on plot, because she liked The Art of Character so much. She’s an amazing woman, insatiably curious.

Actually, what I’d like is for The Art of Character to sell well enough we go into a second edition, because there are some sections I’d rework now that I’ve been teaching with the book as a guide.

But the most immediate task at hand is the next Phelan Tierney novel, which I’m currently researching and plotting. Beyond that, I’ll say no more. I never like talking about works in progress, because it tends to take away from the sense of urgency required to get the story down.

And that is a great note on which to wrap things up. Thanks so much for sharing your time and insight with us, David. As always, it's been a real pleasure!

Thanks for having me here, Brian. You’re a mensch.

*     *     *

If you'd like to read David Corbett's stuff (and I STRONGLY suggest you do!), why not just click here and let Amazon do the rest!



15 April 2015

Incident on the CTA

by Robert Lopresti

A couple of weeks ago my wife and I went to Chicago to visit our favorite offspring.  We knew it was going to be a late arrival, but it turned out to be later than we thought, because the plane that was supposed to become ours was delayed by a medical emergency.   After the paramedics got the person off the plane, and then everyone else deboarded, there was more of a wait while they replaced the medical equipment that had been used.

And as a crime writer, naturally I was wondering what happened to the poor soul.  Another story I will never know the end of.  None of my business, I know.

By the time we picked up our bags at O'Hare it was after 1 AM.  We climbed into a metro train and headed toward the kiddo's apartment.  A few stops later a man got on board.  He was in his thirties, leather jacket, looked like he might have Irish ancestry.  Ignoring the half dozen people in the car he sat down, flipped open his phone and made a call. 

"Yeah I'm on the Blue Line. Meet me at Addison. I had to take the train cause the law was circling around. I'm at Addison. I'm getting off. Meet me here."

And off he went.

Oddly enough, my first thought was not writerly, i.e. why is he running from the cops?  It was readerly: If this  was Detroit I would think I was in an Elmore Leonard novel  Boston: obviously George V. Higgins.  But who writes books from the criminal's point of view, set in Chicago?  Brian suggested Sean Chercover, but I have not had the pleasure.

My second thought was: Maybe this was that guy's elevator story.  If you aren't familiar with the concept, watch Peter Bogdonavich retelling what happened after he interviewed Alfred Hitchcock in a hotel in New York City.  

After that, I admit I started thinking like a writer.  But I felt I didn't have enough background to build a story about it.  On the other hand, my friend Andi Mahala Schechter promptly suggested he was dropping off a ransom payment.  I dunno.  Felt like he more sinister than that.  My sister Joann Scanlon asked if I called the police.  And told them what, I replied.

The rest of the trip was uneventful, and I'm okay with that.  Have you ever felt like you walked into a novel?  By whom?


14 April 2015

Mariel– The Story, Part I

by David Dean

Some time ago I did a piece here on the writing of my story, "Mariel", which appeared in the Dec. 2012 issue of ELLERY QUEEN MYSTERY MAGAZINE. Finding myself overcome by events and coming up dry on the deadline for this month's entry in the SleuthSayers sweepstakes, I decided to make the story available (in two parts due to its length) to anyone who wants to read it. I hope that you will, if you haven't already, and that you enjoy meeting it's young heroine.

Mariel

THE NEIGHBOR watched Mariel approach through his partially shuttered blinds. She cruised down their quiet cul-de-sac on her purple bicycle, her large head with its jumble of tight curls swiveling from side to side. He thought she looked grotesque, a Shirley Temple on steroids. Mariel ratcheted the bell affixed to her handlebars for no apparent reason and stopped in front of his house. He took a step back from the window.

His house was one of three that lay along the turn-around at the end of Crumpler Lane and normally she would simply complete her circumnavigation of the asphalted circle and return to her end of the street. This time, however, Mariel’s piggish eyes swept across his lawn and continued to the space between his house and that of his neighbor’s to the north, who despised the child as much as he did, if that was possible. A crease of concern appeared on his freckled forehead and he took a sip of his cooling coffee.

Suddenly she raked the lever of her bell back and forth several times startling him, the nerve-wracking jangle sounding as if Mariel and her bike were in his living room. He felt something warm slide over his knuckles and drip onto his faux Persian carpet.

Hissing a curse about Mariel’s parentage, he turned for the kitchen and a bottle of stain remover. “Hideous child,” he murmured through clenched teeth, “Troglodyte!” What was she looking for? More than once he had chased her from his property after he had found her snooping around his sheds and peering in his windows. Though he had complained, her mother had proved useless in controlling the child. She was one of those ‘single moms’ that seemed to dominate the family landscape of late, and had made it clear that she thought he was overreacting.

He recalled with a flushing of his freshly razored cheeks, how she had appeared amused by the whole thing and inquired with an arched brow how long he had been divorced—as if the need for companionship might be the real motive behind his visit! He felt certain that on more than one encounter with the gargantuan and supremely disengaged mother, that he had smelled alcohol on her breath, cheap wine, if he had to hazard a guess.

But what now, he wondered? Usually, Mariel crept about in a surprisingly stealthy manner for such a large girl, but now she commanded the street like a general, silent but for the grating bell that even now rang out demandingly once more…but for what?

Forgetting the carpet cleaner, he set down his morning mug and glided stealthily back to his observation point at the window. He felt trapped, somehow, by this sly little giant so inappropriately named ‘Mariel’. What had her mother been thinking, he asked himself with a shake of his graying head, to assign this clumsy-looking creature such a delicate, feminine name? When he peeked out again it was to find Mariel’s bike lying discarded on his lawn, the girl nowhere to be seen. The crease between his eyes became a furrow and he rushed through his silent house to the kitchen windows.

Carefully parting a slat of his Venetian blinds, he looked on the path that led between his property and the next and on into the woods, a large head of curly hair was just disappearing down it and into the trees. A shudder ran through his body and beads of sweat formed above his upper lip like dew. ‘Damn the girl,’ he thought, feeling slightly nauseous as suspicion uncoiled itself within his now-queasy guts.

Unbidden, the image of the dog trotted into his mind, its hideous prize clasped between its slavering jaws. It had reeked of the rancid earth exposed by the recent torrential rains. He remembered with a shudder of distaste and a rising, renewable fury how it had danced back and forth across his sodden lawn, clearly enjoying its game of ‘keep away’. He remembered the shovel most of all, its heft and reach, the satisfaction of its use.

“That was her dog,” he breathed into the silent, waiting room, then thought, ‘Of course it was…it would be.’ His soft hands flexed as if gripping the shovel once more.



Mariel stood over the shallow, hastily dug grave and contemplated the partially exposed paw. The limb showed cinnamon-colored fur with black, tigerish stripes that she immediately recognized. She hadn’t really cared for Ripper, (a name he had been awarded as a puppy denoting his penchant for ripping any and every thing he could seize between his formidable jaws) but he had been, ostensibly, her dog.

Ostensibly, because as he had grown larger, his destructive capabilities, coupled with Mariel and her mother’s complete disregard of attempting to instill anything remotely resembling discipline, had resulted in a rather dangerous beast that had to be kept penned in the back yard at all times. Mariel had served largely as Ripper’s jailer.

As she couldn’t really share any affection with the dog, or he with her, they had gradually grown to regard one another with a resigned antipathy, if not outright hostility—after all, she was also the provider of his daily meals which she mostly remembered to deliver. It was also she that managed to locate him on those occasions when he found the gate to his pen unlatched (Mariel did this from time to time to see what might happen in the neighborhood as a result) and coaxed him into returning. This was the mission in which Mariel had been engaged this Saturday morning in early November. She saw now that she had been only partially successful, Ripper would not be retuning to his pen.

Looking about for something to scrape the loose earth off her dog’s remains, she pried a rotting piece of wood from a long-fallen pine tree and began to dig into the damp, sandy soil. Grunting and sweating with the effort, her Medusa-like curls bouncing on her large, round skull, Ripper was exposed within minutes. Whoever had buried him had not done a very good job of it and the slight stench of dead dog that had first led her to the secret grave rose like an accusing, invisible wraith. Mariel wrinkled her stubby nose.

Ignoring the dirt and damage being done her purplish sweat shirt and pants that matched her bicycle, she seized the dead creature by his hindquarters and dragged him free of the grave. Letting him drop onto the leaf litter of the forest floor with a sad thump she surveyed her once-fierce companion.

She thought that he looked as if the air had been let out of him—deflated. His great fangs were exposed in a permanent snarl or grimace, the teeth and eyes clotted with earth. She pushed at his ribcage with a toe of her dirty sneaker as if this might goad him back into action, but nothing happened, he just lay there.

She thought his skull appeared changed and squatted next to him to make a closer examination. As she brought her large face closer, the rancid odor grew stronger yet, but Mariel was not squeamish and so continued her careful scrutiny. It was different, she decided. The concavity that naturally ran between Ripper’s eyes to the crown of his skull was now more of a valley, or canyon. Mariel ran a finger along it and came away with a sticky black substance clinging to it. The stain smelled of death and iron.

Having completed her necropsy, Mariel stood once more and surveyed the surrounding woods. The trees had been largely stripped of their colorful foliage by the recent nor’easter, but her enemy was not to be seen. Though she did not truly mourn Ripper’s untimely passing, she did greatly resent the theft of her property and its misuse, and concluded with a hot finality that someone owed her a dog.

She gently kicked Ripper’s poor carcass as a final farewell then turned to leave and find a wheel barrow in which to transport him home once more. She knew of several neighbors who possessed such a conveyance and almost none were locked away this time of year.

It was then that something within the dog’s recent grave caught her attention—something that twinkled like a cat’s eye in the slanted beams of daylight that filtered through the trees. Mariel dropped to her knees, thrusting her chubby hand into the fetid earth to retrieve whatever treasure lay within. When she withdrew it once more it was to find that she clasped a prize far greater than any she could ever have imagined—a gold necklace, it’s flattened, supple links glistening like snake skin and bearing a pendant that sparkled with a blue fire in the rays of the milky sun. Mariel had no idea as to what, exactly, she had discovered, but her forager’s instinct assured her that she clasped a prize worth having.

Without hesitation, she gave it a tug to free it from the grasp of Ripper’s grave, but oddly, found that her efforts were resisted. She snatched at it once more, impatient to be in full possession of her prize, and felt something beneath the dirt move and begin to give way. Encouraged at the results of this tug-o-war, she seized the links in both hands now and rocked back on her considerable haunches for additional leverage.

With the dry snap of a breaking branch, the necklace came free and Mariel found herself in full possession. The erupted earth, however, now revealed a yellowish set of teeth still lodged in the lower jawbone of their owner. Several of these teeth had been filled with silver and as Mariel had also been the recipient of such dental work, she understood that the remains were those of a human. A stack of vertebrae were visible jutting out from the dirt, evidence of the result of the uneven struggle, though the remainder of the skull still lay secure beneath the soil.

Mariel’s grip on the pendant never wavered as she regarded the neck of the now-headless horror that had previously worn the coveted necklace. With only a slight “Ewww,” of disgust, she rose in triumph to slip the prized chain over her own large head, admiring the lustrous sapphire that hung almost to her exposed navel while ignoring the slight tang of death that clung to it. She felt well-pleased with the day’s outcome, Ripper’s demise notwithstanding.

With her plans now altered by this surprising acquisition, Mariel dragged her dog’s much abused corpus back to the grave from which she had only just liberated him, tipped him in and began to cover Ripper and his companion once more. When she was done, she studied the results for several moments; then thought to drag a few fallen branches over her handiwork.

Satisfied with the results, she turned for home once more, pausing only long enough to slip the necklace beneath her stained sweat shirt. Mariel did not want to have to surrender her hard-won treasure to her mother, who would undoubtedly covet the prize and seize it for her own adornment. Besides, she had things she wanted to think about and did not want anyone to know of the necklace until the moment of her choosing, specially, the three men who occupied the homes on the cul-de-sac. It had not escaped Mariel’s notice that only those three had easy access to the path that led into the woods and passed within yards of the secret grave.



The neighbor watched her emerge from the trees and march past his house. He studied her closely but could read nothing from her usual closed expression. Other than her clothes being a little dirtier than when she went in she appeared the same as always and he breathed a sigh of relief.

It was silly, he thought as he saw her raise and clumsily mount her bike, how one unpleasant child could instill so much unease. It was because he was a sensitive man, he consoled himself—he had been a sensitive boy and with adulthood nothing had really changed. He had always resented the unfeeling bullies of the world, child or adult. Children like Mariel had terrified him when he had been a school boy and apparently nothing had changed in that respect either.

The sudden jangling of the bell caused him to gasp and his eyes returned to the robust figure of Mariel. She surveyed the surrounding houses with her implacable gaze, studying each of the three on the cul-de-sac in turn, coming at last back to his own. He shrank back from the window once more, his heart beating rapidly.

Then, with a thrust of a large thigh, her bike was set in motion and she pedaled from his sight with powerful strokes. “Damn her”, he whispered defiantly as his earlier concerns returned with such force that his blood suddenly roared within his ears.

Finding an overstuffed chair to settle into, he peered around the plush, dim room with its collection of his own paintings on the wall, while around him song birds began to chirp and sing from their cages as if to restore and calm him. He smiled weakly in gratitude at their effort even as Mariel’s imperious face returned to his mind’s eye with a terrible clarity. He closed his eyes against her, massaging his now-throbbing temples with his soft fingertips. If she had discovered anything in those woods, he asked himself, she would have come out screaming, wouldn’t she? He lowered his head into his sweaty hands, while a blood-red image of Mariel shimmered on his inner eyelids …wouldn’t she?



Mariel had no trouble engineering her encounter with Mister Salter. He worked on his lawn from early spring until the cold and snow of January finally drove him indoors. As long as there was any light she knew that her chances were good of finding him in his yard. So after she was delivered home by her school bus and enjoyed a snack of cream-filled cupcakes she pedaled her bike directly to the cul-de-sac and his property.

Salter watched her approach with a sour expression meant to ward her away, but Mariel was not troubled by such subtleties. She came to a sudden halt in his driveway causing a scattering of carefully raked gravel. She watched Salter’s expression darken at this, but he refrained from saying anything. He shut off the leaf blower he had been using and its piercing whine faded away. Man and girl observed each other from several yards apart as his corpulent Labrador waddled happily toward Mariel, thick tail wagging.

“Bruiser,” Salter warned menacingly.

The dog ignored him and continued on to Mariel, pleased to be patted on his large head. Salter’s complexion went darker yet.

“Can I do something for you?” he asked, his tone clearly inferring the opposite.

Mariel regarded him without answering, while fingering the necklace she had retrieved from its hiding place before going out. Salter fidgeted beneath her round-eyed stare. “Be careful of the dog,” he muttered hopefully, “he might bite.”

As Mariel had surreptitiously recruited Salter’s dog during her many secret forays, she knew this to be untrue. She often went into Salter’s garage where he kept the dog food and fed the animal while he was away teaching shop at the high school, Bruiser was always pleased to see her as a result. As if to emphasize their relationship, the dog laid its great head on her thigh, sighed, and stared adoringly into her eyes.

This was too much for Salter, who turned his wide back on her and went to pull at the cord that would start his treasured leaf-blower.

Mariel glanced at the well-worn path that led from Salter’s back yard and into the woods. “I have this,” she said, pulling the necklace from her shirt and allowing it to fall down over her plump stomach. The sapphire shone in the late day sun like a blue flame. Her eyes remained warily on Salter, even as her small mouth puckered into a smile of possessiveness.

Salter, glancing over his shoulder, halted, and turned slowly back. “Where the devil did you get that?” he managed. He took a few steps closer as Mariel backed her bike away an equal distance. Bruiser’s head slid off her thigh leaving a trail of saliva.

Seeing this, Salter stopped and studied Mariel’s prize from where he stood. “Did your mother say you could wear that?” he asked.

As the girl did not reply, but only continued her unsettling scrutiny, he added, “Does she even know that you have it? For that matter, how the hell could your mom afford something like that…provided its real, of course?” Forgetting himself, he took another few steps, but Mariel was already turning her bike to coast down his driveway.

“I know that you’ve been coming onto my property,” he called to her as she picked up speed with each stroke of her powerful legs. “You’d better stop sneaking around here…it’s called trespassing you know, I could call the cops.” His voice grew louder as she added distance between them. “And maybe I will the next time,” he offered.

“Did you steal that?” he called out meanly as she disappeared around the curve.

Mariel only looked back as she sped up the street and out of sight of the cu-de-sac. A small smile played on her puckered lips. She scratched Mr. Salter off her list of suspects.



Mariel surprised Mister Forster in his own back yard. She had glided silently across his still-green lawn to roll to a halt at the back edge of his house. Forster had his back to her and was busily feeding and talking to his flock of tiny bantam hens. He did not notice her arrival. The hens themselves restlessly pecked and grumbled within the pen he had provided them and gave her no notice as Forster continued to scatter feed amongst them.

Mariel enjoyed watching these birds, and had several times in the past attempted to better make their acquaintance. On one such occasion, Forster had found Mariel within the pen itself attempting to catch one of his miniature chickens, feathers flying about in the air amid a cacophony of terrified squawking. He had been livid with rage at her incursion and had joined the ranks of other neighbors who had visited her home to complain to her mother. Mariel had learned to be more careful since that encounter and had not been caught since, but neither had she been successful.

“They’re funny,” Mariel lisped quietly.

Forster spun around scattering the remainder of the feed from the bowl he was using. “Oh,” he cried, as the small, black fowl swarmed his shoes and cuffs for the errant seeds. “Oh,” he repeated; then focused on his unexpected visitor. He brought a hand up to his heart and gasped, “You scared me half to death, Mariel. I didn’t hear you come up and you nearly scared me half to…” he caught himself. “You usually ring that little bell of yours,” he finished with a limp gesture at her bike.

Man and girl regarded one another across several yards of mostly grassless, churned-up soil…evidence of poultry. A worn path into the woods separated them. Mr. Forster set the metal bowl down and opened the pen door to come out. Mariel clumsily rolled her bike into a half-circle that left her facing in the direction from which she had come.

The older man appeared to note the child’s wariness and slowed his steps, easing himself leisurely through the door and taking his time in carefully closing and latching the wire-covered frame. When he turned once more to Mariel it was to find her holding out a large jewel pendant that hung about her neck from a gold-colored chain. She reminded him of the vampire-slayers in horror films attempting to paralyze and kill their undead foes with a crucifix.

“My goodness, Mariel that is some necklace you have there. It’s lovely. You are a very lucky girl to have that.”

Mariel continued to fix him with both her gaze and the pendant while her lips vanished into a grim, pensive line. Forster stared back uncertainly. “Was there something that you wanted?” he thought to ask at last.

The sapphire wavered in her grip and she slowly lowered and slipped it once more beneath her top. It appeared to have no power over this man either. As she puzzled over her lack of progress in her investigations thus far, Forster took two steps closer.

Forster was only slightly taller than Mariel and had no more than fifteen pounds over the ten-year-old, so she was not as intimidated as she might have been with other men in the neighborhood.

“It’s the hens, isn’t it?” he ventured. “You appreciate them like I do.” He glanced back over his shoulder at the chicken coop. “I was probably a little hasty last time you were here,” he continued. “I should have thought…but when I heard all that commotion and came out to find someone in the pen…Well, I should have realized that you were just as fascinated by them as I am.” He studied Mariel’s broad, unintelligent face for several moments. “Would you like to hold one?”

Mariel’s gaze flickered just slightly at this invitation. The thought of actually holding one of the softly feathered birds had become something of a Holy Grail for her and her breath caught at the idea.

Forster turned and retraced his steps to the coop and within moments returned stroking a quietly clucking hen. Mariel smiled and reached out both arms for the coveted bird, but Forster stopped a few paces short of her. Still running his hand over the bantam’s glossy feathers, he nodded contentedly at Mariel, and said, “Show me that necklace again, why don’t you? I was too far away to be able to see it well. How about another look…I won’t touch it; then I’ll let you hold Becky.” He smiled widely at Mariel and held the bird a few inches away from his chest to indicate his willingness.

Mariel quickly retrieved the necklace from within her shirt and held out the pendant for him to study, her small greedy eyes never leaving the near-dozing hen. Forster leaned forward onto the balls of his feet and studied the stone silently for several moments. Finally, Mariel heard him exhale and murmur, “You should be very careful with that, Mariel. That’s exactly the kind of thing that grown-ups will want to take from you.” He leaned just a little closer and asked, “Does your mother know you’ve got that?” And when she fidgeted and didn’t answer right away, added, “I wouldn’t tell her, if I were you…she’ll want to wear it…and keep it…for sure. Any woman would.”

Mariel stuffed the necklace back down her shirt and thrust her arms out once more for the agreed-upon chicken. Forster carefully placed it within her thick arms and smiled as Mariel’s normally glum face began to light up with the tactile pleasure of the silken bird. In her enthusiasm, she began to run her sticky hand down the hen’s back with rapid movements, even as ‘Becky’ began to squirm and protest volubly at the excessive downward pressure of her strokes. The contented clucking quickly became the frenzied cackles of a terrified chicken in the clutch of a bear cub.

Forster, seeing that Mariel’s technique required more practice and refinement, made to take the bird from the grinning school girl, but she turned away with her prize as if she meant to keep Becky at all costs. With that movement, however, the hen was given just the opening she required in which to free her wings. Becky began to flap them frantically in her rapidly escalating desire for freedom.

Startled, Mariel released the bird, which in a whirlwind of beating wings and flying feathers covered the short distance to her coop in awkward bounds only slightly resembling actual flight. Mariel was left with nothing but a few of the errant feathers and her hot disappointment.

With a frown of both disapproval and resentment, she pushed off on her bike and made for Crumpler Lane. Behind her, Forster called out, “They just take a little getting used to, Mariel. Come back when you want and I’ll teach you to handle them!”

After she had gone away, he turned to his precious coop to insure that Becky was returned and properly locked in for the night. Then, with a sigh, went up the back steps and into his house, turning on the lights in room after room as true darkness fell.



Mister Wanderlei was next on Mariel’s’ list and she was not long in cornering him. She found him that very Saturday as he was painting the wooden railing of his front porch.

Stopping at his mail box, she gave her bike bell several sharp rings to gain his attention. He glanced over his shoulder and smiled at her.

“Hello, Mariel,” he called, while lifting a paint brush in salute. “Another few weeks and it will be too cold to do this.”

Mariel could think of nothing to reply and so rung her bell once more. Mister Wanderlei set the brush carefully on the lip of the can and stood, wiping his hands on the old corduroy pants that he was wearing. “Is that a new bike?” he asked amiably.

Mariel nodded her big head at this, then thought to add, “My Grandma bought it for me…I didn’t steal it.”

Wanderlei smiled and answered, “I never would have thought so.” He ambled down the steps in her direction.

Mariel fumbled with the necklace and only just managed it bring it out from beneath her top as he drew near. This caused Wanderlei to halt for a moment as he took in Mariel’s rather astounding adornment.

“Goodness,” he breathed at last. “That’s some necklace for a little girl. Where did you get that?” He ran a large knuckled hand across the top of his mostly hairless skull.

As she had done with Salter and Forster, Mariel realigned her bicycle for a quick escape should it prove advisable, one foot poised on a pedal. She remained silent.

Wanderlei fished a handkerchief from his pocket and set about wiping his face and near-naked pate. “Such things cause great temptation,” he said finally. “Of course, I know that you’re too young to understand what I mean exactly.” He glanced up and down the street; then turned his gaze onto her once more.

“Where I work, there are men who have killed for such baubles.” A slight frown crossed his face. “Do you know where I work, Mariel?”

In fact, Mariel did know, as one of her uncles had pointed him out to her during a visit between incarcerations. She nodded slightly.

Wanderlei studied her face with interest, then said, “Well, then you know that I’ve spent my life amongst a lot of very bad people.” His eyes had taken on a sparkle that was beginning to make Mariel uneasy. He took another step and she eased her rump upwards in preparation for escape.

“Are you Christian?” he asked gently. “Does your mother ever take you to church?”

Mariel frowned, unable to follow Mr. Wanderlei’s drift. Even so, she nodded involuntarily out of nervousness.

“Is that right?” he smiled, completely ignoring her necklace. “Really, what church would that be?”

“We go sometimes,” Mariel whispered, for some reason not wanting to lie outright to this man. “We’re Cat’lics.”

Wanderlei’s expression became one of disappointment. “Oh, I see,” he murmured. “That would explain the love of gold and baubles,” he said quietly, as if Mariel were no longer there.

Mariel rose up and pushed down on the waiting pedal, she had learned what she needed to know here.

Wanderlei looked up as she pulled away, his expression gone a little wistful now. “You and your mother are welcome to attend the services here at our house anytime that you want,” he called after her. “God accepts anyone that has an open heart. Do you have an open heart, Mariel?”



To be continued…

13 April 2015

Helping Hands

Jan Grape by Jan Grape

Mentor - my google dictionary says :

noun
  1. a wise and trusted counselor or teacher
  2. an influential senior sponsor or supporter

As much as I'd like to say that first definition is me, I really fit the second definition better. At least once a month or so, when someone finds out that I'm a published author I hear these words.

  • "I've written a five hundred page memoir and now I need to know what to do."
  • "I'm working on a children's book. Everyone in my family think it's great. Do you think you could take a look at it and tell me what you think."
  • "I have a great idea for a thriller. If you write it we could split the money."
  • "I'm working on a mystery and would you like to look at it and let me know if it can be published.

I always try very hard to be nice to questioners… they are potential book buyers after all. So for the questioners asking about the memoir and children's books. I compliment them on their work so far.

I explain that I honestly know nothing about writing memoirs or children's books. I tell them about the Writers League of Texas, which is located in Austin. Tell them it's an International Organization and they have great information so just go to their website and see what you can find that will help you.

The person who wants you to write the book and split the money. Explain that you have a folder full of ideas and your writing schedule is currently full. Then laugh and say that writing the book is 99.5 percent of the work so that's likely what the split would be. Also tell them this is their story and they should be the one to write it. I again refer them to Writers League. Also tell them that there is an International Thrillers organization and think it would be worth it to check with that group.

To the mystery writer I try to encourage them to check into Mystery Writers of America. That they have wonderful information that can help all along the way. Again, I refer them to Writers League of Texas or Sisters-in-Crime.

If I can determine from their conversation they are serious, I might suggest they go to their library and look up books on writing a novel or writing children's or mystery/thrillers. That there is so much information available in books, e-books, or online. If they live anywhere a community college is located to check and see if there is a writing program offered.

Then there is the person you know and like and actually might want to help. This is the time when I want to "pay it forward." I had so much personal free help when I was starting out. I often felt guilty because I could never repay them.

One day I was having a conversation with my good friend, Jerimiah Healy (now deceased) and we were talking about all the help we had received along this journey to publication. And I made the statement that I could never repay these mentors.

Jerry told me about having this same conversation with none other than Mary Higgins Clark after his first book was published. Mary said you pay it forward. Jerry told me to do the same. I had already been doing that because I had learned many years ago when you find you're having some success in any field that you will be happier when you reach back and help someone climbing the ladder behind you. That was priceless advice and I've tried to keep it in mind.

I doubt that I am influential helper or mentor, but I am senior and I am a supporter of anyone who is writing, especially if they are writing mysteries.

12 April 2015

Death and Mr Pickwick

Stephen Jarvis
Stephen Jarvis
Mention Sidney Paget or John Tenniel and aficionados of Sherlock Holmes and Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories recognise the original artists who illustrated the characters we know and love today. But bring up Robert Seymour and puzzled looks abound. A new author, Stephen Jarvis, intends to change that.

I’m not sure how I stumbled across Stephen Jarvis, although Velma claims credit. Once I realized he was writing about Charles Dickens and Pickwick, I had to know more. Indeed, we’ve written about Pickwick’s manservant, Sam Weller, and when I realised a mystery was involved, I asked Mr Jarvis to write an article for us. After you read today’s column, take a moment to read about Jarvis
 and his wife’s 2005 detective work discovering Robert Seymour’s tombstone.

Stephen Jarvis was born in Essex. After dropping out of graduate studies at Oxford University, he quickly tired of his office job and began doing unusual things every weekend and writing about them for The Daily Telegraph. These activities included learning the flying trapeze, walking on red-hot coals, getting hypnotized to revisit past lives, and entering the British Snuff-Taking Championship. Death and Mr. Pickwick is his first novel. He lives in Berkshire, England.

— Leigh Lundin

Death and Mr Pickwick


by Stephen Jarvis

Charles Dickens left behind two mysteries when he died: the well-known mystery of the ending to his unfinished last novel Edwin Drood, and the much lesser-known mystery of his illustrator Robert Seymour, who shot himself shortly after starting work on Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers. Why did Seymour kill himself? What happened when he and Dickens met? And what role did Seymour play in the creation of The Pickwick Papers? It is astonishing, when you consider all the thousands of academic papers, articles and books that have been written about Charles Dickens’s life and works – often on the most obscure subjects - that so little has been written about Seymour. For me, Seymour is THE key person in Dickens’s career; and in my forthcoming novel, Death and Mr Pickwick, which tells the story of the creation and subsequent history of The Pickwick Papers, Seymour is the main character.

But who was Robert Seymour?

Robert Seymour
Robert Seymour (1798-1836)
self portrait
Seymour was the most prolific cartoonist of his era, and he drew literally thousands of pictures. He was best-known for his political cartoons – even though Dickensians usually refer to Seymour as a “sporting artist”. Actually, his sporting pictures represented just a small fraction of his overall output. In his own time, Seymour was famous: he was called “the Shakespeare of caricature” and “the ubiquitous Seymour”. And yet today, Seymour is so little-known that I have been in shops that sell antique prints and even the proprietor has not heard of the artist. You would almost think that people deliberately want to hush up Seymour’s life – and indeed, there are some indications that that is so.

In the 1920s, an American called Dr Samuel Lambert came over to England, to investigate Seymour’s role in The Pickwick Papers. My opening statement about the two mysteries that Dickens left is a homage to Lambert, for that is what he said himself. Lambert approached the Dickens Fellowship in the course of his research – and soon discovered that the Fellowship was most unwilling to talk to him. What’s more, an attack on Lambert was published shortly afterwards, in the Fellowship’s journal The Dickensian, stating that the idea that Seymour had any significant role in the creation of Pickwick was “exploded long ago” and was not even worthy of serious consideration.

When I read that piece in The Dickensian, it sounded to me that the Fellowship was trying to steer people away from Seymourian research. A possible explanation is that Seymour may have been gay. In the 1920s, there were taboos about even mentioning homosexuality – and the idea of a gay man being associated with Dickens, and with the largely male cast of The Pickwick Papers, would in all likelihood have horrified Dickensians of that time.

Seymour’s wrapper design
for original serialisation
of The Pickwick Papers
But there is also the question of the role that Seymour played in the creation of The Pickwick Papers. At first, when I started doing research for the novel, I believed the statements that Dickens, his publisher Edward Chapman (of the firm Chapman and Hall, the publishers of Pickwick) and his biographer John Forster, made about the origins of Pickwick. In essence, they stated that Seymour had an idea for the adventures of a club of cockney sportsmen, called the Nimrod Club - but that Dickens overturned this idea, and that only vestiges of Seymour’s original plan remained, in the form of the sporting tastes of the character Mr Winkle. Moreover, Edward Chapman claimed that he was responsible for the visual image of the novel’s main character, Mr Pickwick, and that Seymour had followed instructions to base the image on the appearance of a man that Chapman knew. In other words, the role of Seymour was minimal. However, as I continued my research, I came to realise that this supposed origin simply could not be correct.

Contradictions started to emerge, and there was a complete lack of evidence for the statements made by Dickens and his associates. Also, contemporaries gave a rather different account of Pickwick’s beginnings – for instance, an engraver called Ebenezer Landells, who was working for Chapman and Hall at the very time Pickwick was published, said that Seymour created Sam Weller. The artist Robert Buss – who temporarily replaced Seymour as the Pickwick illustrator after the suicide – said that Seymour had created Mr Pickwick and the members of the Pickwick Club. Also, there were reports in the press that Dickens was “writing up” to Seymour’s pictures – the opposite of what Dickens later claimed. Nor were these simply wild allegations. If one looks at Seymour’s output, one can indeed find prototypes of the likes of Mr Pickwick and Sam Weller. And when I looked into the background of John Forster, I discovered firstly that he had written a number of historical works, and secondly that he had no reputation as a historian – he was quite prepared to fabricate material, and be fiercely partisan.

But what of the suicide? Most Dickensians simply deny that Dickens had anything whatsoever to do with Seymour’s death. They point to the artist’s suicide note, in which Seymour said he blamed no- one and that the suicide was down to his own “weakness and infirmity”. One Dickensian even said to me that Seymour “exonerated” Dickens in that note. Another distinguished Dickensian told me that “we must look elsewhere” for the causes of the suicide, not towards Dickens. What the Dickensians don’t point out, though, is that Seymour returned from a meeting with Dickens in a state of extreme emotional distress – and he immediately burnt his papers and correspondence about Pickwick.

Mr Pickwick Addresses the Club
by Robert Seymour
Another fact not usually told is the nature of the law surrounding suicide at this time. The law distinguished between suicide and felo de se, or self-murder: if an inquest decided that a suicide was a rational act, that is felo de se, then it would have the most terrible consequences for the victim and his family. In the first place, the victim would be denied a Christian burial, but also the victim’s family would instantly be reduced to destitution – because the Crown would take away all the victim’s property, leaving the wife and family to inherit nothing. So of course in a suicide note, Seymour wouldn’t blame Dickens - he would be unlikely to blame anyone at all – because if he had done so, he would be handing the inquest evidence that his death was felo de se, a rational escape from the problems of life. Seymour’s real feelings were communicated by the way he left his etching plates for his last drawings for Pickwick: He turned the plates to the wall, as though they disgusted him. And this was for a project which Seymour’s wife said was the artist’s “pet idea”. An idea which – until he came into contact with Dickens – was of immense personal importance to Seymour.

You will notice also that I said that Seymour returned from a meeting with Dickens. Not the meeting. For Dickens claimed that he met Seymour only once in his life. That, too, I believe to be a lie.

I am not trying to denigrate Dickens’s abilities as a writer. But I do say that he did not tell the truth about Seymour and he tried to pass off Seymour’s ideas as his own.

The Pickwick Papers catapulted Dickens to global fame and it went on to become the greatest literary phenomenon in history: it was the most famous novel in the world for almost a hundred years, with a circulation that was exceeded probably only by the Bible. And The Pickwick Papers would not have happened without Robert Seymour.

It is surely time to acknowledge Seymour’s great significance in the life and career of Charles Dickens. Death and Mr Pickwick sets the record straight.

Death and Mr Pickwick will be published on 21st May 2015 by Random House (in the UK) and on 23rd June by Farrar, Straus & Giroux (in the USA).

Further information can be found at DeathAndMrPickwick.com where there are also links to the publishers’ sites for pre-ordering.



Exciting news!

The publisher, Farrar Straus & Giroux, will provide two ARCs as prizes to SleuthSayers readers. ARCs are Advance Reader Copies, bound uncorrected proofs, available now in advance of the publishing release in May (UK) and June (US). Among readers, ARCs are considered collectors’ items. Not only are they rare and unusual and suggest you know someone who knows someone, they often give insight into the writing and editing process. For our readers, these come with a clever bookmark and a special address from the head of FSG.

Author Stephen Jarvis will magically select at random two non-SleuthSayers (I hear the sighs) from amongst the commenters. Here is where we need your help: Our blogging software doesn’t provide an invisible way for you to give us your email address without the risk of receiving spam offers for fake Rolexes, hangnail implants, and special financial deals from Nigeria. You must do the following so we can contact you from your comment:

  1. Under Choose an identity, select Name/URL
  2. Enter your name in the first field.
  3. Enter your email address with a ‘.’ (dot) substituted for the @.
    • For example, if we replace the ‘at’ symbol with a period/fullstop, Velma’s email address of Velma@SleuthSayers.org becomes Velma.SleuthSayers.org
Good luck!