31 October 2012

Zombie Jamboree

Don't forget you can still enter our contest for a free copy of David Dean's book.  Details are in his column, right below mine...

 Before we get to the main topic of today's lecture, a brief musical interlude.

Michael P. Smith, one of my favorite songwriters, released a new CD last  week, and what do you know?  The very first track, "Accokeek,"  is perfect for a mystery website on Halloween, involving both a murder and a ghost story.  I found this concert recording of that song  on Youtube.  Alas, the soundtrack is a bit fuzzy, but it is worth the effort.

Now then.  A happy, safe, and spooky Halloween to each and all.  And speaking of spooks....

At the university where I work a lot of the students have been engaged in an activity called Humans versus Zombies which is, as near as I can tell, a, elaborate and  humongous game of Tag. The players wear orange headbands or armbands depending on which team (species?) they are on, and race between points of safety.

Okay.  Makes more sense then streaking, which was popular on campus when I was a wee laddie.  So when I say I don't get it, I don't mean the game, I mean the current fascination with zombies.

The weird thing is that the world is dealing with, so to speak, two unrelated types of zombies.  The first are the revived dead persons we think of as a piece of Haitian folklore/religion, but which apparently originated in Africa.

Novelist Zora Neale Hurston, doing anthropological research in Haiti in the 1930s, was apparently the first to suggest there might be a pharmacological explanation for zombies; i.e. drugs that simulate death and/or controlled their will.

But zombies had already staggered into popular culture.  White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi had appeared in 1931.

And it is in movies that the second wave of zombies arrived.  George A Romero is credited (blamed?) for starting it with his 1968 hit The Night of the Living Dead.  And the odd thing about this, of course, is that the movie never calls the stumbling brain-seekers zombies.  But those are the ones that people have in mind when they use the term today.

People who think hard (maybe too hard) about society have suggested that we can learn something about the current world view by noticing which monsters are popular in a given time.  For example, see the movies in the fifties in which the monsters are the productions of mutations caused by nuclear weapons.  What were people worrying about then?  You bet.

Or consider the rash of vampire movies in then 1980s when AIDS made contact with blood a terrifying issue.

So what does it say about our society today that a prominent monster is the mindless, undead, seeker of brains?  Insert political joke here, I suppose.

And speaking of politics, our favorite federal government joined the zombie industry this year, with predictable results.

The illustration on the right is from a comic book created by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, using a character's dream of a zombie attack as an opportunity to explain how to prepare for an emergency.

I'm sure it seemed very cute and clever, but when, a few months later, some people were accused of doing nasty cannibalistic things the CDC was forced to issue a statement:  "CDC does not know of a virus or condition that would reanimate the dead (or one that would present zombie-like symptoms).”

As I have said before, if a government author thinks he is being clever and hip, he is probably making a tragic error.

Let's go out with some more music.  Do it Rockapella!...

30 October 2012

All Hallow's Eve

by David Dean
Before we begin I have a very important announcement: We here at SleuthSayers love our readers, so we are going to offer a special treat. We authors are going to give away copies of our books (or similar goodies), one a month, starting now, and continuing until we run out of gifts or readers. This month's prize will be a paperback edition of my book, "The Thirteenth Child", signed by yours truly. All you have to do is email us at Velma(at)secretary(dot)net by midnight, November 3. The winner will be selected at random. Please put the word "Contest" in the subject line. Best of luck...and now back to our regularly scheduled blog.

Halloween has always been one of my favorite days on the calendar. It falls during one of the most beautiful times of the year, involves costumes, the chance of being frightened (and hopefully nothing more), running around at night, and at the end, actual rewards--candy! What's not to like? Of course, some of those enticements are more meaningful when you're a kid, but I guess the spooky charm of it all has never lost its appeal to me--or my wife, for that matter.

When I was a boy growing up in Georgia, I thought it was the next best thing to Christmas. During that long-ago time and in that far-away place, we kids were allowed to pretty much roam at will for blocks in every direction during the daylight hours. It was generally understood that grown-ups would keep an eye on you wherever you went, and certainly report to your parents any code-of-conduct violations they observed. At least this was what we believed and trusted in at the time. But even with this almost unfettered freedom, we seldom ventured beyond our own neighborhood. I think we had a "Beyond this be dragons," philosophy as children. Halloween night, however, all this changed, if only for a few brief hours.

Donning masks, that today would be laughably simple and unfrightening, we gathered into packs with our friends, snatched paper grocery sacks, or old pillow cases, from our moms' hands, and tore off into the darkness--even if it fell on a school night! Besides being a genuinely scary sensation, this roaming through the night, it was also a race with consequences. Every other kid in the known world was trying to get the last of the candy at the next house along your way! An intolerable possibility! When we would begin our scavenging, porch lights winked like a vast constellation across the city, but within a scant few hours, those same lights began to vanish, one by one, returning the world to its previous drab and unmagical state--they had run out of candy. Intolerable, indeed.

This inevitable consequence would force us to race from house-to-house, and eventually to leave our neighborhood for parts unknown. There was no need to discuss our direction of travel, as only one direction made true sense--east. To go west was to cross Hamilton Road and venture into a vast shanty town of mill-workers and their very tough kids. As these same kids were running roughshod over our own neighborhood, their sheer numbers and determination an unstoppable force, Gothic in both number and consequence--we flew east ahead of them. A neighborhood called "Winchester" was our bountiful target. I think they viewed us kids from "Lester's Meadows" in the same fearful light we did the trolls from "Bealwood"--Beal as in Beelzebub. But no matter, we were swift and artful, and returned to our homes laden with booty!

Dumping all the goodies onto the floor we would sort through the takings, setting aside treats that did not suit our particular palate. Then, using these as barter, we would engage in furious trading sessions--you would have thought we were young Wall Street brokers--hard-nosed and keenly avaricious. It was a great night!

This was all vastly different from the true origins of All Hallows, or its earlier incarnation of Samhain. Samhain was an observance by the ancient Celts of Gaul and Britain commemorating the loss of the sun with the coming winter and celebrating its eventual return in the spring. Perhaps because of that descending darkness, this was also the night that the dead returned to walk among the living. Encounters with the dead were not generally considered a good thing, as it could signify that your own time amongst the living was at an end. As if this was not a frightening enough situation, the Celtic priests (Druids as they were called), made this a night of human sacrifice, piling prisoners-of war, criminals, and other undesirables, into a wicker framework designed to resemble a giant man, and setting them ablaze. By the light of this titanic, and gruesome, torch, everyone feasted and danced the night away. I often suspected the kids from Bealwood had similar plans for me and my friends. Even Julius Caesar, not known as a squeamish man, was affronted by this practice, which apparently he witnessed during his invasion of Britain in 54 BC. In a righteous fury he had thousands put to the sword--much better; more civilized certainly. When one pines for "the good old days" one should be specific...and careful.

With the coming of Christianity, and the adoption of the cross by various Irish, Scottish, and British (not to be confused with English) kings, things began to change--but not quickly. Old habits die hard as they say, and the Celtic belief that Halloween was a night when the spirits of the dead walked amongst the living, just would not die a natural death. Not wishing to alienate these new Christians, the Holy Roman Church did something smart--they just co-opted the occasion. Making the day after Samhain a church feast (Holy Day) to celebrate the unknown saints--All Saints (as opposed to a specific saint), the evening prior became All Hallows Eve, or in the vernacular of the day, Hallow e'en.

"It Is Dawn; We Go"
It only took a millennium or so, for the terror of Samhain to be tamed into the costumed trick-or-treating we know today. Treats were often left to propitiate wandering spirits, as well as ancient gods and monsters, and certainly my friends and I were often labeled little monsters even when out of costume. Failure to play by the appropriate rules would lead to tricks being practiced on the un-believers. A just arrangement, in my opinion. Costumes of demons and ghosts incorporated some of the darker elements of the earlier pagan practice; being also useful in avoiding identification as regards the aforementioned tricks, and therefore practical, as well.

So, from dark and bloody beginnings, children now cavort through the evening in the service of their sweet-tooth, their costumes giving them a sense of anonymity, and therefore, freedom, even as their parents trail mere paces behind ( a concession to a different, and once again, darker time). The night is filled with laughter, and not screams, or at least not ones as fearful as Caesar must have heard issuing from within the wicker man. The dark side is held at bay, even on the eve of its commemoration, and I, for one, am not sorry. Happy Halloween!

29 October 2012

Guest Blogger



Anyone who’s read a Callie Parrish Mystery knows I’ve never written a thirteenth chapter.  I’m not superstitious, but I, Calamine Lotion Parrish, have not and will not write a Chapter Thirteen.  It started with my first book when I thought about buildings with no thirteenth floor and why that might be. 

                     When I was a child and went to Charleston or Columbia with Daddy, we rode in elevators, and he let me press the buttons. I didn’t realize there was no floor called the thirteenth.  I thought they just left out the number between twelve and fourteen because there was something evil associated with thirteen.  I believed the thirteenth floor existed, but it must have been a place of secrets.  That fascination with hidden doings behind closed doors and the slight fear triggered by those thoughts probably account for my enjoying horror stories along with the mysteries I’ve loved since my first Encyclopedia Brown and Nancy Drew books.

                     This time, I have a really good reason for being scared of thirteen and refusing to write a Chapter Thirteen.  I just finished reading The Thirteenth Child by David Dean.  I’m telling you:  When I got to the last fifty pages of that book and what happened on Halloween, I wet my panties.  I’m not kidding.  Problem was where I was reading.  In bed.  I was snuggled all cozy under the blankets reading when my bladder protested being full of Diet Coke, and I was  too scared to get up and go to the bathroom by myself.   
Big Boy

                     All one hundred and forty pounds of my full-grown dog Big Boy slept like a puppy on the rug beside the bed, but by the time I woke him up to go with me, it was too late.  Of course, then I had to go to the bathroom for a shower, to the kitchen to put the wet things in the clothes washer, and to the linen closet for dry sheets.  After we did all that, Big Boy wanted to potty, so I took him outside.  He thought we’d go for a walk, too, but I only let him hide behind the oak tree and do his girl-dog squat to tee tee like he always does.  Made him come right back into the house. Feeling a little guilty about refusing to walk him, I gave Big Boy a banana Moon Pie. His vet doesn't like for me to feed him my favorite--chocolate--so I have to keep two boxes in the cabinet at all times.

                     I’m not telling anyone why David Dean chose The Thirteenth Child as the title of his book.  Let ‘em read it, and find out for themselves.  I will say it was a good decision, and I’m going to visit  that book again.  I might read it in the bathtub next time so that I won’t have so far to go if it scares the—oops!  I’d better not go there.

NOTE FROM FRAN RIZER:  Thanks to Callie for blogging for me this week.  I thought with Halloween upon us, it would be nice to hear what she thought of David Dean's new book, but please excuse her references to bodily functions. I try to control Callie, but she says and does as she pleases.  There's a great Halloween scene in The Thirteenth Child.  Check it out, but you might want to read near the bathroom.  .

28 October 2012

A Non-iconic Writer

She came into my office like a gal out in the woods in one of those sexy movies, smiled at me, flowed across the room with fluidity of hot molasses, sank into the big leather chair opposite my desk, and crossed her legs slowly, gracefully, gently, as though taking care not to bruise any smooth, tender flesh.
… is how Hollywood PI Shell Scott, the sole owner of Shelton Scott Investigations, describes the lady who enters his office in “The Guilty Pleasure,” the first story in Richard S. Prather’s The Shell Scott Sampler. The lady turns out not to be a bimbo or floozy or dame or babe or gal, but a very rich, respectful lady asking for help.  

Richard S. Prather (1921-2007) introduced readers to his hardboiled detective, Shell Scott, in the 1950s. I don’t remember when I began reading his stories, but it was about the time I also discovered Hammett and Chandler. I liked his novels and stories best  because “he also saw the banana peel on the sidewalk. And then he dispatched his Hollywood private eye...to take a little walk” (thrillingdetective.com). It is the banana peel on the sidewalk that separates Shell Scott from the other hardboiled PIs. He doesn’t take life too seriously. Like all hardboiled detectives, He uses his fist, gun, and intuition to solve crimes and catch criminals. Though he’s always thinking about sleeping with which ever woman comes his way, he is no sexist.

“Eye Witness: Richard S. Prather: 1921-2007” an article by Kevin Burton Smith in Mystery Scene Magazine (No. 99, 2007) reminded me of how much I enjoyed the Prather stories. After reading the article, I exhumed from one of the boxes of books where they were buried the four books of Prather’s that hadn’t been lost in my move from California back home to Tennessee and put them in my to-be-reread box. I didn’t think of him again until I started reading Stephen King. They have nothing in common, except both are writers, and I can’t explain why reading King reminded me of Prather.

To revive my interest in this non-iconic writer, I reread the five stories in The Shell Scott Sampler. The best story is “The Guilty Pleasure” in which Lydia wants Shell to find out what the little thing she found under her bed is. No spoiler here, so I’m not saying what it was. Okay, I know some of you will guess.

The worst story is “The Cautious Killers” in which Shell has to find out who shot at him and why as he and his date and another couple exited a restaurant. Too much descriptive baggage surrounds an acceptable plot. More telling than showing, especially the descriptions of the women, which slows the action. I thought maybe Prather was writing to increase the payment for the story, you know, a penny or two per word. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed the story.

Shell seems more familiar to me than Hammett's Continental Op or Chandler’s Marlowe, so much so that I feel comfortable referring to him by his first name. Of all the hardboiled PIs, Shell is the one I would rather have drink with in a bar in Hollywood as I listened to his stories about his cases, provided I could keep his attention from straying every time a beautiful woman walked into the bar.

Dean Davis' excellent Prather web site appears off-line at the moment, but for more on Prather, try Eddie Stevenson's Gold Medal pages on Prather.

Warning to all writers of murder mysteries: do not plan any murders on Halloween. I have it on good authority that the victim will come back to haunt you. This authority also warned me not to use my computer on Halloween because the gremlins that cause so much frustration– frozen hard drives, lost files, missing fonts, etc.– become zombies and vampires and werewolves and attack the user– namely me.

You have been warned!

Have a 

27 October 2012

The Gifted Child

by John M. Floyd

Like most of my writer friends, I enjoy reading different genres.  In fact I read books and stories in almost all genres, except maybe romance novels--and now and then I even like a good love story.  As for authors, my favorites run from Bradbury to King to McMurtry to Cormac McCarthy, with a lot of offbeat writers in between.  One of my absolute favorites will probably always be Nelson DeMille--I love his novels and his style--and only a couple of years ago I discovered another great author, someone most crime/suspense readers have known about for a long time: Lee Child.

For some reason I didn't start reading his Jack Reacher series at the beginning.  I started with the twelfth installment, a novel called Nothing to Lose.  But after that one I was hooked.  I went on to seek out and devour every Reacher novel I could find (no Child left behind?), and I only recently finished the latest, A Wanted Man.  Unlike any other series I can recall, this one had not a single misfire; I enjoyed every one of these books.  Yes, some were better than others--I consider The Killing Floor, The Enemy, Die Trying, and The Hard Way to be among his best--but all of them are darn good.  Apparently a lot of readers agree.

If you don't know Jack . . .

Reacher is one of those rare characters that both men and women seem to like.  He's a former West Point grad and Army major who has since lost most of his respect for authority and conformity, and has a strict personal code of honor that sometimes reminds me of Robert B. Parker protagonists like Spenser and Jesse Stone.  Reacher is tough, smart, and resourceful; he owns nothing but a foldable toothbrush, an ATM card, and whatever clothes he happens to be wearing at the moment; he has no attachments, no home, no car, not even a driver's license; and he travels mainly via bus or hitchhiking.  Maybe that's why he's so appealing--he's nothing like the rest of us.  He also doesn't talk much.  One of the few criticisms I've heard of Child's writing style is that the sentence "Reacher said nothing" happens too often.  But, hey, Reacher often does say nothing.

The only drawback I've found to the series is that the titles usually aren't related at all to the content, which means I sometimes can't remember what title goes with what adventure.  And in the grand scheme of things, that ain't much to complain about.

Child psychology

The author, I'm told, is a native of England and a former television director--and I would guess that his background in TV probably influenced the entertainment value of his novels.  His books are always smooth, fast reads; there's a lot of action and excitement, and very few slow spots.  That's exactly what most TV productions strive for (although they don't always deliver), and is a perfect illustration of one of Elmore Leonard's famous Ten Rules of Writing: leave out the parts that people skip.

I think the best thing about Child's writing is that the stories themselves are fascinating, with plot reversals throughout.  I once heard that the creators of Cheers chose a Boston bar as its setting because in a neighborhood tavern different people would be coming in and going out all the time, thus there would always be stories available.  I would suggest that Lee Child made Reacher a drifter so that he could have limitless opportunities to run into interesting situations.

Short (?) subjects

As a movie lover, I must say a few words about the upcoming and long-awaited film adaptation of Child's novel One Shot, called (believe it or not) Jack Reacher.  I was a bit surprised by the casting of Tom Cruise in the lead role, mainly because Reacher's size--six-five and 200+ pounds--is, in the novels, a big factor in what he can accomplish and the impression he makes on the other characters.  I don't doubt for a minute Cruise's star power or his acting ability, but from a physical standpoint he does seem an odd choice.  (Russell Crowe isn't a giant either, but it seems to me he would've made a perfect Reacher.)  Having said that, I do understand that Child himself approved of the casting decision, and that helps dispel some of my doubts.  I suspect that I'll wind up enjoying the movie.

Something else that's close to my heart is short stories.  There are now two shorts starring Jack Reacher: "Second Son" and "Deep Down."  Both are available on Kindle, and I heard that the paperback version of The Affair contains a copy of "Second Son."  Apparently there is also one more Child short story featuring Reacher, although not as the main character: "James Penney's New Identity."  I look forward to reading all three.

Reaching Reacher readers

Have any of you read Lee Child?  If so, do you like his work?  Which book in the series is your favorite?  Your least favorite?  Are you familiar only with his novels, like me, or have you read his short stories as well?  What do you think of the Reacher character?  If you were producing the new movie, who would you choose for the part?

For those of you who haven't read the novels, here they are, in order of publication:

Killing Floor
Die Trying
Running Blind
Echo Burning
Without Fail
The Enemy
One Shot
The Hard Way
Bad Luck and Trouble
Nothing to Lose
Gone Tomorrow
61 Hours
Worth Dying For
The Affair
A Wanted Man

Next up: Never Go Back

I can't wait.

26 October 2012

It Lives !!!

According to the old story written by Mary Shelley in the early 1800's, Dr. Victor Frankenstein stitched several body parts together in order to make his creation a whole being. Then to give it life in his laboratory, he jolted it with bolts of lightning on one dark and stormy night. At that pivotal moment (in the movies) as his creation began to stir, he cried out, "It's alive." How great to see one's creation live. Hey, it's five days to Halloween and I needed a theme, so hang in here.

I, for one, don't have a laboratory, only a study where I write. However, I have on separate occasions, in the not too long ago, taken two very dead short stories into my study and laid their little rejected carcasses out for autopsy in the dead of night. After much contemplation, and perhaps a jolt of Jack Daniels (sorry, but that's as close as I can get to white lightning in furtherance of this Frankenstein analogy), I went to work on resurrecting their possibilities.

The first corpse was a reject from Woman's World magazine. Because of the strict structure for these 700 word mini-mysteries, a second paying market is rather difficult to find for these creations. I poked it here, prodded it there, and tried to slide a whole new skeleton underneath the flesh of the story, but it just wasn't working. In the end, I left the old skeleton in place for the structure, massaged the body a little and spruced up the outside for appearance's sake. I then, surprise, surprise, sold it to an editor named Dindy at a little known market, Swimming Kangaroo, for the grand sum of $25. Yeah, I know, $25 is quite a come down from the $500 that Woman's World pays, but at least this was better than having the little monster running around loose in inventory. Amazingly, this editor liked the WW structure, plus I would now be published internationally. Think Dindy. Think Swimming Kangaroo. Had to be Australia. Right? I was gonna be an internationally published author! Time to get out the bubbly.

And then the check came. Turns out the return address was in Texas. So much for the international part. Even so, I was preparing to send Dindy another one of these resurrected mini creatures, when Swimming Kangaroo evidently lost a stroke (or had one) and went under.

My next attempt at bringing life to the recently deceased came when Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine rejected one of my standalone stories. It was one which Rob had critiqued approximately nine months earlier and had made some good suggested changes. I thought we had it made after my 2011 re-write, but nope, here it came back in a body bag during the middle of February 2012. It may have been cold outside, but the timing for the deceased' toe-tagging and autopsy turned out to be quite fortuitous.

A few months before, when the call for submissions to the 2013 MWA anthology came out, I had not been able to brainstorm any ideas for the anthology's theme of something mysterious in a box. And then at the last moment, right here on the autopsy table in front of me was laid out a corpse named "The Delivery." Oddly enough, it was about something mysterious in a box, a story written long before MWA's call for submissions. Kismet was obviously knocking at my door. Who was I not to answer?

I gave my dead creation another jolt. It stirred, so I packed it up along with five of its clones and shipped them back to New York City just before deadline. And waited. And waited. And waited, just like any anxious mad scientist would whose creation had gone off to the Big City.

At last, notice arrived back through the ether. My creation had been accepted. It was then that I knew for sure and cried to the heavens, "It lives, it lives!"

Coming to a book store near you, the Mystery Writers of America anthology The Mystery Box, April 2013.

25 October 2012

The Victorians, Redux

Victorians loved a good mystery.  Quite a few Victorian authors used murder, theft, financial malfeasance, and investigations as a major plot device.  Certainly Charles Dickens did in Edwin Drood, Bleak House, and Martin Chuzzlewit.  More unexpectedly, Elizabeth Gaskell's first novel, Mary Barton, revolves around a murder mystery, as does Charlotte Yonge's The Trial.
But today I would like to give special attention to Anthony Trollope, that unbelievably prolific author, who for some reason has long been labelled a "serious", even dull author.  All I can say is that he had a wicked sense of humor, and understood - and wrote about - women better than any other Victorian author I've ever read.  Granted, his novels were the opposite of fanciful, set in the realities of middle-class and upper-middle-class Victorian life. Yet he used a lot of sensational material, including murder, arson, forgery (Orley Farm), theft, bigamy, and illegitimacy.  He did the most realistic portrait of a working prostitute (as a major character!) in The Vicar of Bullhampton that I've ever run across in Victorian literature.  So where did he get his reputation for respectability?  I have no idea...

Anyway, some of my favorite novels, which revolve around crime, are:
The Eustace Diamonds:   Lizzie Eustace, is a very shady Lady; she marries a baronet for his money and gets it all when he dies of consumption very early in the novel, including a fabulous diamond necklace that is the bone of contention between her and her husband's attorneys.  They say it's an heirloom, and belongs to the estate; she says possession is ALL of the law, and it's hers.  When the necklace is stolen, everybody is under suspicion, and the repercussions of the investigation range from the tragic to the hilarious.  (One of the great subplots of this, by the way, is Lizzie's suitors - a wealthy baronet's widow, no matter how scheming, is going to be sought after.  There's the Corsair, Lord George de Bruce Carruthers; Lord Fawn, who is only one minim of intelligence above Bertie Wooster; and her cousin, Frank Greystock, the standard strong-jawed Victorian hero; and the Reverend Emilius, the Victorian equivalent of a televangelist.  Don't count on knowing who will end up with whom...)

In the sequel, Phineas Redux, a hero from another novel, Phineas Finn, returns and is accused of murdering political rival Bonteen by bludgeoning him to death on a dark night (and you thought politics was dangerous today...).  But Lizzie Eustace is back (how I love that character!), and has parked herself with the victim's widow, where they condole and support each other until Lizzie's current husband turns out to be one of the other major suspects... 

Moving from murder to high finance, there's The Way We Live Now, which is all about stock manipulation (mostly stock in railroads in Patagonia and elsewhere, all mythical, but the London pounds are real) by the masterly dastardly Augustus Melmotte.  Everyone is up to their neck in financial malfeasance, life is sweet, profits are high, and no one can understand what's wrong with it- until the whole thing comes crashing down.  This was made into (imho) an excellent PBS miniseries with a scenery-chewing David Suchet as Melmotte (which must have been a nice change for him after the tight-buttoned Poirot).

Besides crime, women, hunting, and politics, Trollope did madness and obsession frighteningly well:

The Reverend Josiah Crawley in The Last Chronicle of Barset.  A recurring character in the Barchester novels, Crawley is desperately poor, fiendishly proud, with a wife and children who are always on the verge of starvation, and for whom he will accept nothing in the way of charity.  In this novel, Crawley is accused of theft - and as the investigation goes on, he comes to believe that he may well have done it. 

But Crawley has nothing on Louis Trevelyan in He Knew He Was Right who becomes so jealous of his wife - on such extremely insufficient grounds that Othello seems fairly reasonable - that he takes their baby away and flees to the continent.  Nor on Frank Kennedy, whose descent into madness is charted over two novels, Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux.  By the end of them, Mr. Kennedy has become a religious monomaniac who demands that his wife return simply so they can suffer together - and who tries to kill Phineas in the name of God and morality. And, just to prove that Trollope was no sexist, there is Mrs. O'Hara in An Eye for An Eye, who, when the dastardly Fred Neville seduces and does not marry her daughter, pushes him off a cliff.  (Yes, she goes insane afterwards, but personally I think she was just trying to avoid a hanging.)

So, for those of you who are looking for some old-fashioned crime and punishment and madness, check out Anthony Trollope - available in paperback and on Kindle.

  1. We are, God willing and the creek don't rise, on a cruise as this is published, so forgive me if I haven't responded in a couple of weeks to any postings!
  2. Links to novels on one of the many sites offering free Trollope eBooks have been included.

24 October 2012

Flash Fiction

I walked up to the counter in the public library. "Excuse me.  Did anyone turn in a thumb drive yesterday?"

"Several," said the clerk.  "What color was it?"

"White. Well, more of a cream."

She nodded and sorted through a box behind the counter.  "One of these?"  There were five, almost identical.

I gave them a careful look-see.  "That's the one!"

Wordle: Lost and Found
She handed it to me.  I said thanks and took it back to my seat.  I plugged the flash drive into my laptop and started scrolling through the files. Based on their titles the drive's previous owner had had a great interest in knitting and cake recipes.  Not much of a speller either.

Pretty boring.  But I would keep looking.

There had to be a story idea in there somewhere.

23 October 2012

Things that Go Bump in the Night

Octagon House, Washington D.C.
In 1967 I enrolled as a freshman at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and moved into a dormitory on 19th Street between E and F Streets.  Like a lot of new residents of the District my new-found college friends and I took joy in roaming this fascinating city whenever we had the chance.

One night in October, around midnight, following a late night walk, we found ourselves behind a colonial mansion two blocks away from my dorm.  The mansion had been converted to offices, and behind it were park benches.  We sat down gazing up at the three story building and after several minutes we noticed something decidedly eerie.  Someone dressed in a white gown was walking through the building and up and down the winding stair case that connected the three floors carrying a lighted candle.  We watched, transfixed, for several minutes, until suddenly the figure disappeared. 

    This was long before the age of the internet and instant knowledge gratification.  So when we decided to look further into the history of the building we did so by hitting the university library the next morning.  The house we had sat behind, and watched as that candle moved from window to window, was (and is) Octagon House, the headquarters of the American Institute of Architects and, more importantly for our purposes, purportedly one of the most haunted houses in Washington D.C.

    Octagon House was built by Colonel John Taylor in 1801 and served as a temporary White House for James and Dolley Madison following the sacking of Washington D.C. and the partial burning of the White House by the British in the war of 1812.  It was in Octagon house that President Madison eventually signed the Treaty of Ghent, finally ending that war.  And the ghosts that reportedly reside in the house?  Well, according to legend the most prominent of the spirits are the two daughters of Colonel Taylor, each of whom separately met their deaths falling down the circular stair case that is the architectural centerpiece of the building.  But also, over the years, a gambler reportedly shot to death on the third floor of the house, a British soldier, and various slaves, who lived in shacks behind the house, have all been observed in the dark of night frequenting the building.

    It’s a funny thing with ghost stories.  Ask me if I believe in ghosts and I will say “no.”  Ask me if I have seen any and I’ll look a bit embarrassed and say “perhaps yes.”  And I wouldn’t be referring only to those candles.

    My mother died in 2010, and thereafter my brother and his wife rehabbed her St. Louis house for sale.  When we visited St. Louis that Christmas we went by the house to examine the miracles they had wrought.  As I was getting ready to leave through the front door I turned around and there was my mother, standing next to me and putting on her coat.  She smiled, I blinked, and then she was gone.

    Several years earlier my elder son Devon worked for the summer in my wife’s hometown of Vincennes, Indiana.  He stayed with my wife’s sister and husband, who lived in a beautiful old Sears house, lovingly restored, in the heart of town.  The house is also, purportedly, haunted – an elderly lady is frequently seen walking through the rooms.  One evening Devon had the house to himself – my in-laws having left it in his care while they lit out on a camping trip.  Devon, lonely and perhaps a bit nervous, called us long distance that evening.  In the midst of the conversation he screamed.  “What happened?” we yelled into the mouthpiece of our phone.  It took several seconds for Devon to compose himself.  He had sensed something behind him, and when he turned there was a huge face leering at him several inches away.  The face, it turned out, was on a balloon.  The balloon, in turn, had been left downstairs in the dining room – a leftover reminder from my sister-in-law’s birthday.  The balloon had (somehow) floated through the dining room, down a short hall and then up the back “servants" staircase,” coming to rest right behind Devon as he spoke on the upstairs phone.

    So.  A simple explanation.  The balloon was carried by air currents, no doubt fueled by the air conditioner returns, through the house and then up the back stairs.  But why, one wonders, did it stop right behind Devon?  And why with the face turned just so?

    The episodes recounted above share a thread common to most "ghostly" encounters – the evidence of the ghost itself comes down to wisps and shreds.  It’s all potentially explainable – over active imaginations, stimulation brought on by atmospherics, coincidences that align just so.  Actual evidence of a haunting is pretty hard to come by. 

    But not always.  The day that this article posts we are in Bardstown, Kentucky -- en route to a family reunion back in Vincennes.  There is a stretch of road in Kentucky, just outside of Bardstown in the midst of the Bourbon Trail that has long been reported to be haunted.  As cars come around an “s” turn in the road a flickering figure can, at times, be discerned hovering in front of the car.  Eventually, in an attempt to prove that something really is out there, some local amateur paranormal investigators set up a camera on a hillside overlooking the road.  The camera recorded many cars rounding the curve for days, and showed nothing.  Nothing that is until the clip below was filmed.  Watch very carefully, paying close attention to the area right in front of that car as it rounds the turns.


    Okay.  Deep breath.  Gotcha, didn’t I?  (Yet another example of framing the pitch!)  By the way, that road isn't even in Kentucky.

    Having moved, I would hope unexpectedly, to the realm of ghost fiction, let us tarry there a while. Like many, there is nothing I like better than a good ghost story.  American ghost stories tend to follow the British model, which is really a bit rigid.  In "Some Remarks on Ghost Stories" (1929), the British ghost story writer M.R. James identified five key features of the classical English ghost story,: 

•    The pretense of truth
•    "A pleasing terror"
•    No gratuitous bloodshed or sex
•    No "explanation of the machinery"
•    Setting: "those of the writer's (and reader's) own day"

The video clip I think manages to hit every one of those notes.

    There is something about a well-turned ghost story that hooks me pretty easily.  Particularly at this time of year, when the pumpkins ripen and the evening winds begin chilling the woods.  Some personal favorites that you might want to try as Halloween approaches are these:
The Shining, by Stephen King  This is King’s third book, published in 1977, and his first bestseller.  The ghost is in many respects The Overlook Hotel, where the story takes place.  If you want to opt for a filmed version, try for the 1997 television miniseries – much superior, in my view, to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation.  Even if you have already read The Shining this is a great time to re-visit the story -- after 36 years a sequel, Doctor Sleep, is in the works and due out in time for next Halloween. 

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson  One of the few novels written by the queen of short story horror fiction.  Terror is built superbly around ghosts that are never seen and a group of innocents, each with some background in the paranormal, who are assembled in the name-sake house by a scientist intent on providing proof of the existence of ghosts in a paranormal experiment that goes horribly wrong.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Shetterfield.  This gothic treasure intertwines the ghost stories of a famous and reclusive ghost story author, the mystery of her long-lost thirteenth ghost story, and the secret aspects of the her life.

The Séance by John Harwood  Another great gothic ghost story.  Set in Nineteenth century England, the story of a woman who returns to the site of tragedy to attend a seance with the hope of curing her mother of a strange malady.  What is not to like when ancient mysteries and castles collide? 

Her Fearful Symmetry:  A Novel by Audrey Niffenegger  When Elspeth Noblin dies of cancer, she leaves her London apartment to her twin nieces, Julia and Valentina.  The two American sisters move to England and become enthralled with life after death.  The title is from a William Blake poem -- need we say more?  This novel was not particularly well received (the author previously did better with The Time Traveler's Wife.)  Perhaps this one pushed the envelope just a bit too far.  A real horror story.  Not for the faint of heart!
The Thirteenth Child by David Dean  I admit that I haven’t yet finished this new volume by my Tuesday partner in crime – I was waylaid from fiction the last two weeks as I prepared to teach an annual class at the University of Denver – but I am far enough in to recommend the tale wholeheartedly.  What’s not to like about a mystery involving three centuries of disappearances and a terrifying boy who appears only between dusk and dawn—a creature that lures children from their homes for his own dark purposes?
   There is a chill in the wind.  Happy Halloween!

22 October 2012

Technology Challenged

Jan GrapeI've mentioned many times that I'm technology challenged. After talking to many writer friends through the years, I've discovered that I'm not alone. I learned to use a computer back in the early80s. Yep, the first computer I owned was a Kaypro. It was only a word processing and it used a large 5 1/4 inch floppy disk. The computer and the printer cost around thirty-eight hundred dollars. Yeah, really.

The next computer I had was a PC called a Comp-u-Add, I think it was around 1985 or so. It still mainly was only word-processing. If it did anything else I don't remember. I may have been able to used AOL then but not really sure. I bought my first desktop from Dell. Things were becoming more sophisticated. This computer used a 3.5 in diskette. By this time, I'm using AOL, and goodness AOL was all the big rage.

I also had a fax machine and had a dedicated phone line. I hate to think of how much I'm spent over the years for computers and electronic equipment. And could only utilize a small amount of intelligence these things could do. I remember also buying a Dell laptop along about then. The operating system was DOS. I took my laptop with me when I went to visit my daughter in Nashville, TN. My grandson, Riley was 5 years old and he and I played a few games on the laptop. A short time later, I'm back in TX, Riley's father was given a laptop at his sales job but there was no manual given out that day. My son-in-law got home and turned on the computer and couldn't do anything to make it start-up. He tried several things he thought might work but nothing did. Riley (age 5) sat watching his dad and finally said, "Nana always types 'dosshell' first." His skeptical father totally frustrated finally typed DOSSHELL and his computer came to life.

So at this point you'd think I was a computer expert...NOT. I could use Word Perfect processing program but about all I could do was type my stories, cut and paste. I learned to integrate addresses and work the mail program. Other writer friends still thought that was fantastic because they couldn't do that. I was able to write several short stories on the computer. That was a big step up from typing them on an electronic IBM Selectric typewriter.

I wrote my first book on my Dell laptop and Desktop. I could go back and forth, copying them onto the diskettes and keep them up to date. I made several back-up copies of everything and learned from a writer friend in CO to keep a copy in the freezer. If your house burned, chances were that diskette would survive. We all worried that we'd somehow lose our work. Computers crashed and things got lost and what would we do if that happened?

We were in New Mexico volunteering as camp hosts for Bureau of Land Management (BLM) down in the very bottom of the Rio Grande Gorge when I bought my second Dell laptop. This was probably 2001. It was delivered in Taos at the main BLM office and we were 16 miles away. As soon I we could we drove into down and I was so excited to have a new laptop. Laptops were the way to go when you lived in a 31 ft. Fifth Wheel RV. No room for a desk or desktop.

By now I could get online and transfer a file to the publisher and they could send it back with suggestions for changes but the final copy editing was still done and printed up in hard copy and paper. When you sent a final manuscript in back in earlier years, you sent a hard copy and a diskette.
So being able to send a mss online was seemingly high tech and in reality it was at that time.

Flash forward to current time. I still haven't learned much about computer operations...as Rob and Leigh can testify. I had so much trouble trying to get my blog article written and up and online that Rob finally wrote some step by step instructions for me and I have to use them every time. Here are my recent technology challenges.

There's a lady I heard about in ME who will format your books into the correct files so they can be uploaded to Nook and Kindle. I know there are people all over the place who do this, but she was recommended by a writer friend so I contacted her. She wrote me back saying she could do it and began spouting off technological things for me to do. I wrote back saying...wait, please. I have no idea what you're talking about. I'm very technology challenged. She wrote back saying, no problem. I've hand-held many first-timers, but we'll get it done.

First, I had to find a copy of my first book, written on my first laptop. Call me crazy but I still have all three of my old laptops. I looked on my second oldest and couldn't find the 1st book. I did find the second one and after a few tries managed to copy the file to a flash drive. Put the flash drive in the proper slot on my current desk top, copied to desktop and sent it to Pam. Whew...that wasn' too bad.

Next she wrote saying we needed to come up with covers for the books. I had sent actual copies of both books. I more or less had designed the cover for the 1st book published in 2001 and the publisher did a variation of that cover for the 2nd one published in 2005. In between years Five Star published a collection of my short stories (Found Dead In Texas). So I'm frantically searching for jpegs of the covers and can find pictures of the covers on these old laptops but they were in PDF not jpeg. I had at least learned a few years what a jpeg was but not how to produce one or anything.

While trying to find a copy of my first book (and she said Word Perfect was okay) I found it, but the oldest laptop would not take a flash drive. I got an e-mail from Pam saying she had the hard copies of my books and the file I had sent to her only had 16 chapters and the book had 21 chapters. I thought I had sent my final file to her...but NO, wasn't so. While still searching for the first book and have no idea how to get it off the old laptop. I came up with the idea of taking the laptop to a computer store (not a big box store, a small help place) who said they could convert the copied diskette file to a flash drive. I take it in and learn that this file is only 16 chapters. Back on the way home I realized that I had only saved the 21 file chapter file to the computer not to the diskette. (See how challenged I am.)

Back home again, I discover the correct 21 chapter file on the 2nd laptop and the also full file of the whole mss for the first book which I thought was not on this 2nd laptop (again challenged.) I have no idea how I missed it the first time. I had been sure both books were on the 2nd laptop when I began this process (challenged again). Believe it or not, I got the files to Pam, and her son was able to scan the book covers into something that can be used and things are finally looking up. I'm currently proof-reading the 2nd book because it was the first file she had ready. And actually finding typos in the book not the file. So will try to get those corrected so the e-books will be in better shape all around.

You who are computer knowledgeable folks are probably laughing by now. I don't blame you. My friend Pam is hand-holding me. Some of the notes she writes she's dumbed down (the best she can) the technical words and phrases so I can understand. Otherwise I have to write back and say...I have no idea what you're talking about.

I am about as dumb as a horned toad when it comes to technology. But I am still learning. My story and I'm sticking to it.

21 October 2012

Vive la Différence Part 2

by Leigh Lundin
male remote control
© unknown

Straight from my eMailbox last week I mentioned a few reasons why women contend men are happy beasts. Naturally, scientists have developed a test to determine guynicity and naturally SleuthSayers proudly brings it to you.

Testing Your Man's Manliness

Give your man this scientific quiz to determine his GQ or Guyness Quotient.
  1. Alien beings from a highly advanced society visit the Earth, and you are the first human they encounter. As a token of intergalactic friendship, they present you with a small but incredibly sophisticated device that is capable of curing all disease, providing an infinite supply of clean energy, wiping out hunger and poverty, and permanently eliminating oppression and violence all over the entire Earth. You decide to:
    1. Present it to the President of the United States.
    2. Present it to the Secretary General of the United Nations.
    3. Take it apart.
  2. As you grow older, what lost quality of your youthful life do you miss the most?
    1. Innocence.
    2. Idealism.
    3. Cherry bombs.
  3. When is it okay to kiss another male?
    1. When you wish to display simple and pure affection without regard for narrow-minded social conventions.
    2. When he is the pope. (not on the lips.)
    3. When he is your brother and you are Al Pacino and this is the only really sportsmanlike way to let him know that, for business reasons, you have to have him killed.
  4. What about hugging another male?
    1. If he's your father and at least one of you has a fatal disease.
    2. If you're performing the Heimlich maneuver. (And even in this case, you should repeatedly shout: "I am just dislodging food trapped in this male's trachea! I am not in any way aroused!")
    3. If you're a professional baseball player and a teammate hits a home run to win the World Series, you may hug him provided that:
      1. He is legally within the base path,
      2. Both of you are wearing protective cups, and
      3. You also pound him fraternally with your fist hard enough to cause fractures.
  5. Complete this sentence: A funeral is a good time to…
    1. remember the deceased and console his loved ones.
    2. reflect upon the fleeting transience of earthly life.
    3. tell that tasteless joke about the dead pedophile in the bar.
  6. In your opinion, the ideal pet is:
    1. cat
    2. dog
    3. dog that eats cats
    4. alligator
  7. You have been seeing a woman for several years. She's attractive and intelligent, and you always enjoy being with her. One leisurely Sunday afternoon the two of you are taking it easy – you're watching a football game; she's reading the papers – when she suddenly, out of the clear blue sky, tells you that she thinks she really loves you, but she can no longer bear the uncertainty of not knowing where your relationship is going. She says she's not asking whether you want to get married; only whether you believe that you have some kind of future together. What do you say?
    1. That you sincerely believe the two of you do have a future, but you don't want to rush it.
    2. That although you also have strong feelings for her, you cannot honestly say that you'll be ready anytime soon to make a lasting commitment, and you don't want to hurt her by holding out false hope.
    3. That you cannot believe the Jets called a draw play on third and seventeen.
  8. You have decided that you truly love a woman and you want to spend the rest of your life with her– sharing the joys and the sorrows, the triumphs and the tragedies, and all the adventures and opportunities that the world has to offer, come what may. How do you tell her?
    1. You take her to a nice restaurant and tell her after dinner.
    2. You take her for a walk on a moonlit beach, and you say her name, and when she turns to you, with the sea breeze blowing her hair and the stars in her eyes, you tell her.
    3. Tell her what?
  9. You get married. One weekday morning your wife wakes up feeling ill and asks you to get your three children ready for school. Your first question to her is:
    1. "Do they need to eat or anything?"
    2. "They're in school already?"
    3. "There are three of them?"
    4. "Children? What children?"
  10. When is it okay to throw away a set of veteran underwear?
    1. When it has turned the color of a dead whale and developed new holes so large that you're not sure which ones were originally intended for your legs.
    2. When it is down to eight loosely connected underwear molecules and has to be handled with tweezers.
    3. It is never okay to throw away veteran underwear. A real guy checks the garbage regularly in case somebody – and we are not naming names, but this would be his wife – is quietly trying to discard his underwear, which she is frankly jealous of, because the guy seems to have a more intimate relationship with it than with her.
  11. What, in your opinion, is the most reasonable explanation for the fact that Moses led the Israelites all over the place for forty years before they finally got to the Promised Land?
    1. He was being tested.
    2. He wanted them to really appreciate the Promised Land when they finally got there.
    3. He refused to ask directions.
  12. What is the human race's single greatest achievement?
    1. Democracy.
    2. Religion.
    3. Remote control.

How to Score: Give one point for every time you picked answer 'c'. A real guy would score at least 10 on this test. In fact, a real guy would score at least 15, because he would receive the special five-point bonus for getting the tasteless dead pedophile in the bar joke.

20 October 2012

The shrink is in...cyberspace

by Elizabeth Zelvin

As regular readers of SleuthSayers know, my blog brother Dixon Hill knows all about explosives. My blog sister Eve Fisher visits prisons. And I too have an alternative identity. Am I Wonder Woman? Nope. Outrageous Older Woman? Well, yes, but that’s not what I’m talking about today. In the world of mental health professionals, I’m known as LZcybershrink.
That’s the monicker by which I do counseling and therapy online with clients all over the world on my eponymous website, LZcybershrink.com. I’ve even got the T-shirt. On the back, it says, “Shrink online…grow online.”

I started doing this work around the year 2000, after fifteen years as a clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and director of alcoholism treatment programs in New York. New York City is a therapy-rich town. Walk out the door and spit, and you’ll hit six therapists. So there’s a lot of competition for clients who sound like Woody Allen.
Since I went online, I’ve treated folks who would never have walked into a therapist’s office in their communities: the stutterer, the 400-pound compulsive overeater, the farmer’s wife whose husband is drinking again, the flasher, the rape survivor, the gay guy or lesbian in the military. I’m the only shrink in Manhattan who’s had a client in crisis because her pregnant horse got cancer. I’ve helped a lot of people by doing exactly what I do as a mystery writer: sit down at the computer and let those fingers fly.

Online therapy is still a new field. It attracts a lot of skepticism. How can you connect with people if you can’t make eye contact and hear their voices? How can clients express themselves and convey authentic emotions through the written word? I hope every writer and avid reader can answer that second question. Did Shakespeare convey authentic emotion in King Lear? I think so. Don’t you? My two professions have a lot in common. Both use the medium of the written word expressively. Both are all about connecting with other human beings on an emotional level. And both are careers about which everyone says, “Don’t quit your day job.” ;)

So what do we substitute for visual and aural cues? For one thing, the smileys, emoticons, and acronyms that already form the common currency of Internet communication. As I explain to clinicians for whom I provide online training in online practice skills, these can be more nuanced than you’d think. As an office-based traditional therapist, I would never have winked at a client.
But I can use a winkie to soften a hard truth when I think a client needs “tough love” or to add affectionate irony to what I say. The client can get mad at me and still feel safe by adding LOL to a critical or even hostile comment. That simple ;) or LOL can mean, “You said it’s okay to get angry, and I’m taking the risk of expressing my anger to you. But that doesn’t mean I’m about to quit therapy.” And see how I used the winkie in the line about “Don’t quit your day job” (above)? In that instance, it means, “Hey, I’m kidding—and not kidding.”

Beyond word choice and Internet shorthand, I’ve found I can connect with clients over time by developing shared vocabulary and an intuitive grasp of how each one uses text and pauses to convey resentment, sadness, humor, sarcasm, and a host of other subtleties. In other words, what mental health professionals call the therapeutic relationship springs to life in a chat room just as it does in a therapist’s office. As for clients who work with me by email, some folks naturally dig deeper in narrative, in reaching within and taking time to tell their story than they do out loud in the moment—as every writer knows.

Personally, I have an additional advantage. As all who’ve met me know, I was born to schmooze. I do it face to face at Malice, the Edgars, MWA and SinC events, and book tours, and online on mystery e-lists such as DorothyL and various social media as well as one to one via email. My, um, intense and lively personality comes through whether I’m there in person or keyboarding my way through cyberspace. And please note that well-placed “um.” What was I telling you about the statement it modified? That’s a pop quiz, not a rhetorical question. You can answer by posting a comment. :) My husband likes to tell people that every time he passes through the room, I’m smiling at the computer. LOL Not really. I’m smiling at you, if you’re on the other end of my fingertips at the time. :)

19 October 2012

The Dadaist Enigma of Claire DeWitt

Of Novels and Noir

I’m a member (if you can call being a part of such a loose-knit group a member) of the Hardboiled Discussion Group at the Poisoned Pen bookstore here in Scottsdale.  I’m sure you understand how such a thing works: everybody in the group reads a certain novel each month, then we meet at the store, after hours, to discuss it.  In this case, a fellow named Patrick Millikin, who’s worked there for over a decade (and also edited the anthology Phoenix Noir), chairs the group and helps us decide which novels we’ll read for the month

I don’t always manage to get to the meetings, but I usually manage to read the book for the month.  So, over the past few months I’ve read several noir mysteries.  Of those, the two that stand out as the most wonderfully contrasting works are James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce and Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead.  One a grimly realist work, the other a flight of fancy that still manages to be rather grim yet holds an artistic aspect I don't recall encountering before in literature.

James M. Cain
Mildred Pierce is probably the more widely known of the two,  of course, James M. Cain being the writer of  classics such as: The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity.

Mildred Pierce has been around for decades, but I only met her this past summer—thanks to the group’s introduction.  Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, on the other hand, is a fairly recent novel – second or third  in a contemporary series, which I understand is planned for five installments.

I said the two works contrast wonderfully, and they do.  Which is . . .

 Almost the Point of this Post:

Among the books I've read by Cain, Mildred Pierce probably stands as one of the best examples of Cain holding himself in check, keeping a tight reign on his natural tendency to let everything devolve into a murderous blood bath. As such, I found it based in greater realism—the realism of its time, at least. Claire DeWitt, however, includes  magical thinking, a holistic approach to detection and hints of Voodoo -- all connected inextricably to the painful realism of post-Katrina New Orleans: a remarkably gripping combination.

The two novels easily compare, in my mind, because neither was what I expected, and both consistently diverged from paths I thought the novels were about to take.

In the case of Mildred Pierce, one of the first such occurrences took place soon after Mrs. Pierce’s husband left her with two daughters, and she was not easily able to find employment. “Okay,” I thought. “This is going to be a noir mystery or suspense plot, so -- This is going to be the story of an abandoned woman who winds up becoming a prostitute, then works her way to 'madam' of her own establishment. In the end, she’ll be laid low by the realization that her favorite daughter has become a sex worker in either her own establishment, or that of a rival.” I was, of course, wrong. How wrong? Well, if you haven’t read the novel, I encourage you to read it and find out.

There really isn't much of a "mystery" in Mildred Pierce, though there are plenty of quasi-legal shenanigans.  But, there is a mystery in Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead.  In fact, I finally decided that there are at least two mysteries.

Sara Gran, author of the Clair DeWitt series
Claire DeWitt (the novel's protagonist) has studied to become a detective by reading Detection, a book written by supposedly great French detective (or "mad man", depending on who's doing the describing) Jacques Silette.  She then, as we learn in the book, apprenticed under a woman who had known Silette and had -- in her own turn -- apprenticed (as well as evidently doing other things) under him.

One of the tenants evidently set forth by Silette is: "The client already knows the solution to the mystery.  But he doesn't want to know.  He doesn't hire a detective to solve his mystery.  He hires a detective to prove that his mystery can't be solved."

When I hit this paragraph, at the top of page three, I got the idea it meant: A person close to a murder victim won't like learning why he was murdered, because it may reveal unsavory things about the victim's life.  And, those unsavory things may be what he was murdered for.  And, to an extent, I was right. The mystery at the core of the novel isn't hard to figure out; I had it pegged pretty early on -- as did many of the other group members.  But, the core mystery isn't necessarily what you want to read the book for.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill out of context: "This book is a mystery wrapped in an enigma."  The core mystery is wrapped in a kaleidoscope of clues, odd extraneous-seeming events and depictions, and pseudo-clues -- and the reason behind them is what makes the read worthwhile (IMHO).

Elements of the Enigma

At first read, ridiculous absurdities seemed to clutter the pages, squeezing the story out of my mind. Among them:
  • A small boy has a .44 Magnum concealed in his pants at one point.  
  • An off-duty police officer works as security while carrying only  "a .22 caliber revolver." 
  • Complaining about having to give constant updates about the case status, the first-person narrator writes: "Scientists don't give updates.  As far as I know no one asks a painter for an update, or a chef."  
  • At one point, Claire DeWitt recalls a past occasion, in which the police were unable to...  (Well, I'd better leave that one for you to see for yourself.  Let me assure you, however, that the resulting solution contains a massive absurdity.)

Now I've handled a .44 Magnum, and I can assure you that I -- a grown man -- couldn't possibly conceal such a side arm in my pants.  Not unless I wanted to walk around and have everyone ask me, "Is that a .44 Magnum in your pants, or are you just happy to see me today?"

When I asked some of my cop buddies if they'd carry a .22 revolver on off-duty security work, they looked at me like I had three heads and scoffed at the idea.  One actually said, "That'd be absurd."

For those who think scientists don't give updates, let me assure you that my relatives who conduct scientific work in universities have to give constant updates.  Otherwise the money funding their work dries up very quickly.  As for painters: Seems like folks ask my house painter friend "How long until you're done?" to the point that he sometimes feels all he's doing is answering that question instead of painting.  My wife continuously asks my son -- the artist type of painter -- for updates on his latest work in progress, just as she keeps asking me, "How long until you make enough money off your writing so that I can quit my job?"  As for asking a chef for updates....  Well, ask a chef and I think you'll find he feels constantly harassed while cooking.

These glaring absurdities at first caused me problems.  Does the author not realize how wrong she's got it? I wondered.

At the same time, Claire's rather holistic approach to detection made me recall another book I'd read, long ago: Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency.  The Douglas Adams book, however, was a comedy.  Claire DeWitt may be many things, but I don't think I'd call it a comedy.  On the other hand, I thought, maybe it is, but I'm just not getting it.  If this was the case, then Sara Gran wasn't letting us in on the joke, the way Douglas Adams had.  And, one reason I felt this way, was because too many of the occurrences were too similar to certain mistakes I'd seen ignorant writers make in the past.  Is Sara Gran ignorant? I wondered.  Or, is she doing this on purpose, for some reason?

I arrived at my book club still wondering.  About half the group that night, really didn't get the book (myself included), but the other half loved it.  At one point a woman said, "It's interesting that, though many of us say we didn't like it, we can't stop talking about it."  And, indeed, we not only had a much-larger-than-normal group, that night, but stuck around discussing the work for nearly twice the usual time.

Some of the members had seen Ms. Gran, when she came to speak on a book tour.  I asked them if she struck them as the sort of person who would make such mistakes.  Could she, in their opinion, be ignorant?  To the last, each ensured me she was clearly very intelligent, and they were convinced she had included these absurd occurrences very intentionally.

And, along the way, I discovered that those who loved the book really didn't love it as a mystery, per se.  Instead, they enjoyed some esoteric quality about the book, which they couldn't really explain.  I listened to them, thinking maybe they were onto something. And, on the drive home, I realized:

The Glaring Absurdities are the Point of the Story

I submit that Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead is an example of a very specific type of absurdist literature.  Other examples of absurdist lit sprang to mind on that drive home, chief among them: The World According to Garp.  But, there was something different about Claire DeWitt.  The plotline was superimposed over the backdrop of post-Katrina New Orleans, a setting so strong that it seemed to grow out from the backdrop in a way that turned setting into an additional character.  And this character was harsh, glaring and pain-filled, as well as mysterious and magical.

That wasn't the only thing the plotline rested upon, however.  It also hung on very solid mystery elements, as if it were straddling a contemporary mystery line and the background-character at the same time.


Finally, on that drive home, I reflected on a Modern Art class I'd taken years ago in college.  There, I came to understand that appreciation for Modern Art required more than just viewing: it also required work on the viewer's part, and sometimes benefited from a little explanation.  In short, I had to alter the way I thought about what I was looking at (or: "interacting with").

Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase No.2, for instance, caused one reviewer of New York's Armory Show, in 1913, to write that it resembled "an explosion in a shingle factory."   Looking at the work (on the left), you can see why.  But, that critic was missing the point of the painting.  Duchamp's work was not meant to capture one moment in time, as a young lady with no clothing came down a spiral staircase; it was instead an attempt to capture her entire movement down that staircase.  Some of us could undoubtedly capture a similar image -- though probably more blurred -- by using a film camera loaded with very slow film, employing low light, and leaving the aperture wide open as a naked woman walked down a spiral staircase.  To get closer to Duchamp's final product, however (a relatively un-blurred collection of still shots), it would probably be necessary to shoot a series of still shots -- without advancing the frame, so that they all fell on the same negative -- as she came down.  Either way, the difference between comprehension and non-comprehension, concerning the painting, comes down to whether or not the person viewing (or interacting) with it understands the intent behind it.

Roughly seven years later, Duchamp created L.H.O.O.Q. which can be seen on the right.  He was said to have created this work by drawing a pencil mustache and beard on a postcard reproduction of the Mona Lisa, adding the letters L.H.O.O.Q. to the bottom.  The five letters are a bit of a quip.  In English, we can read them as "Look", but in french the pronunciation sounds like the french phrase meaning: "She has hot pants" (or a hot something else, if you want to be more literal perhaps).

L.H.O.O.Q. is generally taken as one of Duchamp's attempts at Dadaism, an art movement that arose from artist's negative reactions to the horrors of the First World War.  Dadaism (or Dada) largely rejected reason and logic, instead prizing nonsense, irrationality and intuition.  The word Dada, itself, may have been coined because it sounded like a "nonsense" word, or because it is the French word for Hobbyhorse, which one of the artists in the movement arrived at through random means.  

L.H.O.O.Q. fits into the Dadaist camp, in many people's minds, because it would appear to be Duchamp's slap in the face of an iconic art form (the Mona Lisa) while simultaneously pointing up the "unacceptable way" that icon had been used to line pockets.

And, I think it's important to note that, without the Mona Lisa image behind it, we'd be left with just a penciled mustache-beard floating in air, and the initials below. Still nonsensical, but hardly worthy of note nearly a century later. Earlier, I wrote that I believe Sara Gran's latest novel is a particular type of absurdist literature. Were it just a novel of absurdities – as I perceive The World According to Garp to have been – instead of being constructed around a more standard format, then I would simply list it as another example of absurdist literature. It's the mystery anchor, here, as well as the depth of setting, that I believe lifts it into another realm of literary art form. The two together, in my opinion, work in a manner similar to the Mona Lisa image in L.H.O.O.Q.

Thus, to me, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead fits the Dada mold, because it is a work of absurdity (or nonsense) prizing irrationality and intuition (the "holistic approach" detective methods used in the novel) and is superimposed over a standard mystery and deep background "anchor". (The mystery being: What happened to a guy everybody said was a nice, helpful, friendly person with no enemies, during the first days following Katrina's landfall in New Orleans? And, what has become of his remains?)

I'd say, if you want to look at glaring realism, in which the artist has worked mightily to hold himself in check – take a gander at Mildred Pierce. But, if you want to see a work that demonstrates just as much harsh realism, but in which the writer works equally hard to produce something perhaps even more transcendent – read Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead.

Or, do yourself a real favor – READ THEM BOTH!!

Either way, I'll see ya' in two weeks, buddy!

— Dixon