31 August 2015

Trouble with a Capital T

Jan GrapeI don't know why, but it gets more difficult for me to get to the SleuthSayers site or our Sandbox. What I get most of the time is a message that says that page is not available. or that site is not available. Or I get my name and it says I'm unknown, even though I'm signed in on google blog. It sometimes takes me 30 to 40 minutes just to figure out how to get here.

I'm still having to use my tablet as I couldn't  get on site at all with my laptop. I really got screwed up by downloading Windows 10. Do not do it until you have to unless you are a computer nerd or guru. This seems to be a more recent development. I used to have a hard time but finally found a easy path, but since you guys made it accessible to phones, etc. I've had this trouble. The first time I tried my regular way it wouldn't  work. Then I stumbled onto the secret. Then last night and today none of that worked. However, finally, a few minutes later I stumbled onto a new way. OK, enough whining. I don't even have any cheese to go with.

I suppose life is supposed to hand you lemons now and again. That somehow teaches us to learn how to make lemonade. But does it help in writing?  In many ways it does. I heard an author say once that he didn't trust a writer under forty-five. He did not think a writer had enough experience in living life to qualify as a good writer. 

Do you think that might be all wrong? Or does it make sense to you? I can agree in some way. Not only life experiences come into play, but I think your writing improves with age. That doesn't necessarily mean "your age."  I'm  also talking about writing maturity. I personally began to realize after I'd been writing for a few years that my writing changed about every six months or so. It got stronger, better as I learned the craft. As I learned how to develop stronger, more realistic characters. Also as I learned more natural sounding dialogue and how to create tension. You don't have to age chronologically, but your writing matures if you keep writing daily or at least every few days.

The chronological age can help also. Yet some people have life experiences at an age earlier than others. A loss of a parent or a sibling. A family's loss of a good job, changing the family 's economic standing. A young woman or young man dealing with abuse, emotional, physical or sexual can certainly make life experiences change. Sometimes the person has to grow up and learn to deal with life at an early age.

In that respect, I don't necessarily agree with the author who said, not to trust any writer under 45. I can also see a person's age can bring about a maturity of writing about life as in real life. 

In reality I don't  think you ever grow to full maturity with your writing. And some folks never grow up emotionally.  As a writer I think it is a lot of fun to keep growing and as an older adult I think being grown-up is much more trouble than it's  worth. I think I'll  just stay a kid a few more years.

30 August 2015

Rocky King: Murder, PhD

With this, the fifth and final in our Rocky King, Detective series, we’ve brought you the five examples available in the public domain. UCLA archives contain about two dozen more episodes salvaged before a disingenuous lawyer destroyed DuMont’s film library, virtually erasing collective memory of the pioneering broadcaster and its teleplays.

In this episode, you may wonder about the haunting blues harmonica that starts off as a nice touch but grows slightly tedious. It’s not used as filler in the ordinary sense. Besides giving organist Jack Ward a break, the jail cut-scene serves a purpose: a staged transition giving actors a chance to rush to their next location, sometimes on a different floor of the DuMont Tele-Centre in Manhattan. The harmonica/jail insert at the four-minute mark gives Roscoe Karns time to jog from the domestic setting of his house to meet Detective Sergeant Lane (Earl Hammond) in their office. Imagine writers and directors forced to not only plot a viable story, but to plan for actors reaching their scenes in time as designated cameras went live.

Mistakes were inevitable, although this episode is relatively free of errors. As we saw in an earlier episode when a picture fell off a wall, things sometimes went wrong during live presentations. Falling props and scenery were not uncommon. Not only did scenery problems afflict the early 1949 BBC broadcast of Miss Marple, the murdered victim rose and walked off the set in the middle of the broadcast.

Tip back your chair and watch how crime stories appeared in homes in the nascent days of television in this episode titled…

Murder, PhD
broadcast: 1953-Dec-13

in which a possibly innocent man is due to be executed in 180 minutes…

29 August 2015

OPs and No-OPs

by John M. Floyd

I have read with great interest the recent SleuthSayers columns by Melissa, Jan, and others on the subject of outlining. It's a fascinating topic, and at the risk of beating a dead horse, I'd like to offer a few more views.

First, let me--like Donald Trump--clearly state my position. I always outline my fiction. Having said that, I should point out that I don't usually outline it on paper. I write mostly short stories, so I outline them mentally. But believe me, the result is still an outline, and I depend on that pre-determined structure to guide me through the writing of the story.

Decisions, decisions

I should mention several other things as well.  The first is, I don't choose to outline rather than fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants. For me, it's not a choice. I outline because I have to--I couldn't do it any other way. Well, I suppose I could, but if I did, it would take me much longer because I'd go down all kinds of wrong paths and have to constantly retrace my steps and start over again. Life's too short for that.

Another thing. Although I always have an outline in my mind when I begin writing (in fact I never write a word until I'm pretty sure I know where the story's going), I often wind up changing the outline during the writing process. Sometimes I think of a better ending, or an additional character or two, or a reversal in the middle that adds something to the plot, etc. So my outline, unlike my head, isn't rock-hard. But I do have to have a map spread out on the dashboard before I start my trip.

And yes, I do plan things all the way to the end. I don't necessarily plot backwards from the end, as I've heard some folks do, but I have to know the conclusion before I begin. Again, it might change during the course of the journey--I might travel a little farther than I'd thought I would, or make detours, or stop a little sooner than planned--but I feel that knowing that destination before I start out helps keep me on course throughout the story.

Sneak peeks

Unlike my friend Janice Law--who is a wonderful writer, by the way--it doesn't bore me to "know" ahead of time what I'll be writing about. I've also never felt that that prior knowledge stifles my creativity. Instead, it gives me a feeling of security, an assurance that I won't stray too far off the path. Besides, the process of pre-plotting is probably (can you say "alliteration"?) the most enjoyable part of the writing experience, for me. I love coming up with the storyline. Since it's done in my head and not on paper, I don't go into painful detail with this mental preview, but I do spend a lot of time putting it together, and--again--when it's done, the framework is there for me to build on.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying outlining is the only way to go, or that you should do it. Or even try to do it. In fact, I agree with another comment Janice made recently, in a different post: she said every writer must do whatever works best for him or her. We're all different. I think the need to outline or not is already wired into our brains, and that circuitry would be difficult--maybe impossible--to change. Some of us are always early to appointments and some are always late; some are night-owls, some are early risers; some of us squeeze the toothpaste tube from the end and some don't, or prefer the toilet paper hanging forward over the roll instead of backward, and so forth. Same thing applies here. You're an outline person or you're not (author James Scott Bell says you're either an OP or a No-OP). I've even heard that engineers, programmers, accountants, etc., are more likely than "ordinary" people to be OPs. Maybe that's my excuse.

Truth be told, I respect and envy those writers who don't find it necessary to plan things out beforehand, who just sit down and start typing away with no idea where things are going from there. How convenient that must be. I also envy their confidence, that things will turn out well. That ain't me. If I did that, I'm fairly confident things would not turn out well. And I confess that I find myself a little suspicious of famous writers who insist in interviews that they never, ever outline their fiction in any way or to any degree. My response would be that veteran writers have been through the process so many times that indeed they probably don't need a blueprint anymore in order to build the house. The plan is probably in their heads whether they realize it or not.

The same old song-and-dance

You know what I'm going to ask. Are you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pantser? Do you ever go halfway, and plan only the beginning, or a few plot points, and then free-wheel the rest? Have you ever tried or seen the need to change your approach? If you're a No-OP, do you ever find yourself taking the wrong path, maybe to a blind alley? If you're an OP, is your outline on paper or just in your mind?

Either way, I wish you good writing and successful narratives.

And don't touch my toothpaste tube!

NOTE: My friend Art Taylor, who I'm pleased to announce will be permanently joining us at SleuthSayers in October, will be guest-posting in my slot on Saturday, September 5. I don't know if he's an outliner or not, but he's a fantastic writer. Be sure to stop in for his column next week.

28 August 2015

Where Cattle Are King

By Dixon Hill

In the great western films, the cattle baron may be a hero or a villain.

But, he is nearly always male.

And powerful.

Tovrea Mansion ...

Tovrea Castle ...

The Wedding Cake Castle ...

These are the names normally provided when visitors to Phoenix ask, "What is that odd building?"

And, visitors DO ask.

Primarily because this house, once home to the locally famous Tovrea family, who were Valley cattle barons, is tucked right into a curve of the loop 202 freeway not far from Sky Harbor Airport.  Though the photo below is several years old, it provides a good view of the 202 curving around the top (north) end of the photo to run north-south along the eastern edge of the old Tovrea estate.  The castle, or mansion, is sitting on that raised hill near the center of the photo.

The road near the top of the estate (north end) is Van Buren, while the one running past the bottom or south end is Washington.

Incidentally:  That facility bordering the west side of the estate -- the one with all those white semi-trucks parked around its perimeter, and located on the left side of the photo -- is the main Phoenix post office.  This is about where the stockyards used to start, which did not make for heavenly scented air in or around the castle's location.

This, at least, was the opinion of Alessio Carrero who had made a sheet metal fortune in San Francisco after migrating from his native Italy.  In 1928, having also become a successful land developer, Alessio moved to Arizona with the dream of turning the area we see in that photo above into a subdivision and adjoining resort called Carrero Heights.  What we now call Tovrea Mansion (or castle) was initially slated to serve as a hotel.

The problem was:  The place stank.

Oh, it was pretty, alright.  But, the Tovrea stockyards and meatpacking plant sat right next door.  And that Tovrea facility was NOT SMALL.  In fact, it was a world-class operation, one of the largest packing plants in the U.S.  The company, founded by E.A. Tovrea, who began his cattle career at the age of ten, had the motto: "Tovrea - Where Cattle Are King!"

EA was not a man to shirk hard work.
He is seen here with his wife, Della.

EA Tovrea powerful cattle and shipping baron.
Though Carrero tried to buy Tovrea out, in hopes he might make his development work, such was not to be.  There are those who say Mrs. Tovrea liked the looks of that hotel Carrero had been building on a desert knoll not far from the stockyards.  On the other hand, there are those who say it was E.A. who had his eye on the place, and that his wife fought like a wildcat to keep from having to live so near to thousands of head of beef.

Whatever the truth, the hotel and the land around it changed hands in 1931.  E.A. and his wife moved in soon after, turning it into their home, though E.A. lived little more than a year longer.  His wife, Della, would stay on in the home until her death in 1969.

And . . .

There are those in The Valley who speak of a curse, because robbery and murder seems to track certain Tovrea family wives.

Which is why I mentioned Tovrea Castle at Correro Heights (as it is now formally known) here on Sleuth Sayers.  As I mentioned once before, I intend to post articles about crime scenes of interest to those who might attend Left Coast Crime in Phoenix this upcoming Feb. 25th through 28th.

The castle, and the associated restaurant below are fairly nearby the hotel where the conference will be held.

The Tovrea Castle society runs wonderful tours through the old home, as well as the adjoining cactus garden, each day.   Additionally, you might want to spend an evening eating a great dinner at the old "Stockyards Restaurant" a place first opened as a cafe within the company's office building.

That building still stands to today, and the Stockyards Restaurant is still going strong -- along with a nice bar.
The restaurant today.  

I'll be getting to those crimes I mentioned, in the next installment.

See you in two weeks!

A sign from yesteryear, and how the place got its name.

The restaurant's hay-day.

That bar inside is pretty darn nice.

27 August 2015

Frozen Solid

August is almost over, and so I think this is the perfect time to talk about Ice Ages.  Yes, Ice Ages, ice fishing, and all the things you kind of long for in a hot August.

A lot of people think that South Dakota's in the arctic circle, and this January (every January!) I tended to agree. The temperature, for those of you who chickened out and went south, sank to levels that broke all records since the last Ice Age, although after four days of highs at ten below zero I can state confidently that the Ice Age was warmer.

Severe weather strongly affects people, and there was a lot of grumbling, cursing, panic and depression.  But then I turned to more constructive outlets.  Besides making huge vats of soup, I organized unofficial parties of scouts to keep an eye out for ice monsters.  I was concerned about woolly mammoths, too, but after all, they were large, clumsy beasts that probably made a lot of noise as they crunched through ice, snow, and the supermarket parking lot. My private bet is that you can always get away from a woolly mammoth. Ice monsters, however, are sneaky, creeping silently to envelop whole villages in their icy claws.  So I asked the local ice fishermen to keep an eye out for them, and they agreed.  Though they probably wouldn't notice if a woolly mammoth came up and sat down beside them, other than to wonder why Jim smells kind of funny.

This is because ice fishermen are crazy.  It's one of the requirements, probably right there in the fishing license, in the small print along with this year's limit. "Must be over 18, a resident of South Dakota, willing to sink brand-new two-ton four-wheel-drive vehicle in the lake for two fish under six inches, and/or risk frostbite to all important bodily extremities in pursuit of the same."  AND THEY ARE.

The central reality of ice fishing is ice.  Now to most of us, ice is something we either put in our drinks or slip on and bust our fannies.  But to the ice fisherman, as to the Eskimo, there are innumerable grades and variations of ice, from "frozen solid" to "Just drive on out, she'll be fine." Their problem is in telling the difference, especially if they're driving someone else's car.

Image result for ice fishingYour average ice fisherman, trudging out on the ice with a pail of bait, sporting the uniform of ancient insulated body suit, hunter's cap, and gloves, with only his nose exposed directly to the howling winds and ferocious cold, is a harmless individual who simply doesn't like his nose as much as the rest of us do ours.  He says he has come to fish, which is sometimes true.  Mostly, though, he comes for that strange meditative state that comes only when he is crouched over a small hole in the ice.  "Om," might be running through his mind, or "Uff-da", or "There's a big one right under me, I just know it," or "I'm missing the game."  Sometimes he even thinks, "My nose is about to fall off."  But no matter what, he stays put on his little patch of holy ground, er, ice.

This is why he wouldn't notice a woolly mammoth if it came up and sat on him.  It also - FUTURE MYSTERY WRITER ALERT -  makes him a perfect target for murder.  Except that the problem is that no one would be able to tell that he was dead until he didn't show up for dinner, and even then they might not look for him.  (Ice fishermen are not always the most notable dinner companions.)

But you put this same shy, retiring man into a vehicle, preferably a big pick-up with a few concrete blocks in the back, and that meditative state goes flying out the window right along with his brain. Suddenly he's zipping up one end of the lake and down the other, doing figure eights and "controlled spins" (it's controlled as long as the truck doesn't flip).  Any slush (with, hopefully, ice under it) simply means a larger, better spray as he does a perfect 360 degree circle.  If he can scare some roosting ice fishermen, well, they needed to get their circulation going anyway.  And no one is more surprised than he when that last whoosh of spray comes from his front end going through the ice.

And you thought I was kidding!

"But it was frozen solid when I went by on my way to work!" he explains, ignoring the fact that he went by three days ago.  Since then there has been a major thaw, and the ice is now a series of little ice floes with water running around them.

I once saw a pick-up actually sitting on an ice floe.  It was large and new and expensive.  The driver was in the cab, staring out at the landscape while the motor idled, and the exhaust shrinking the floe as he smoked a cigarette.  What I couldn't figure out was how he got out there in the first place.  He had to have gone out the night before, when there was still a thin skin of ice on the water.  Planning, of course, to get an early start.  (Fishermen always want to get an early start, which is why they're always back so late.)

"You'd better just try to wade, I mean, walk your way out!" I yelled across at him.

He looked around and shook his head.  "Nah, I can just drive on out, she'll be fine."  He backed the truck up a little, and then gunned it.  Icy slush flew up and sprayed everything, including the required roosting ice fishermen.  The ice floe shook, dissolved, and the truck was hidden by walls of water and ice to where I couldn't look any more.  When I finally peeked, he was wading out of the lake.

He stared back at his truck and said, "Lake was frozen solid when I saw it on my way to work Tuesday."

"It's Thursday," I pointed out.

He shook his head in disbelief.  Then he grinned.  "At least I'm bringing home dinner," he crowed, holding up two six-inch fish.

Like I said, ice fishermen are crazy.

26 August 2015

The Whitechapel Murders

What is it about Jack the Ripper that continues to excite our collective imagination? The murders took place in 1888, after all, a hundred-and-twenty-five years ago. Everybody involved is long dead, the victims, the surviving witnesses, the cops, the newspapermen, the actual killer.

Well, foremost, the case has never been solved. There's an enormous canon of literature devoted to it. If you go the Ripper casebook website, http://www.casebook.org/, they name over a hundred possible suspects.

Secondly, it's widely considered to be the first documented serial killer case - although this in isn't true. Jack, however, generated a boatload of newsprint, and the image of a demented vivisectionist stalking Whitechapel for unlucky whores took hold.

More particularly, though, it probably is the first case to involve criminal profiling. In the late 1800's, forensic psychiatry didn't exist. Forensics of any kind, crime scene analysis, was primitive. Preserving the chain of evidence wasn't even on the radar. But in the Ripper case, a police surgeon speculated the killer was a
solitary, subject to periodic attacks of erotic mania, a "brooding condition of the mind." In other words, they were taking a stab (no pun intended) at ascribing motive. Jack wasn't simply possessed by evil spirits, he was diseased, as it's commonly understood. Mentally ill. Not an attempt to excuse his crimes, it was a means to an end. If they could isolate the Ripper's logic, they might identify him.

A couple of recent mystery thrillers explore this dynamic, David Morrell's MURDER AS A FINE ART (and its sequel, INSPECTOR OF THE DEAD), and Stephen Hunter's I, RIPPER. Morrell's book isn't about the Whitechapel killings, but a guy mimicking the Ratcliffe Highway murders, which took place seventy-odd years before the Ripper. Hunter's book, as you can tell from the title, is very much about Jack.

It's interesting that two not entirely dissimilar writers have both chosen to do historicals, and Victorian era historicals, at that. I understand the attraction. It's also interesting that both Hunter and Morrell come at it from a somewhat similar perspective. Not a modern one, mind. There's nothing a-historical or anachronistic about their approach. But the period they've chosen is one of huge impending change. The coming of rail travel, say, the Industrial Revolution in full cry. Income disparity, the crushing burden of poverty, the displacement of populations and the rise of dense urban environments. All of this contributes to the rise of a phenomenon like the Ripper. And what the two writers both do, entirely convincingly, is to work out how you'd look for a killer's footprint, the shadow he casts. This is forensic science before it had a name. Reading the runes, or bottling smoke.

When we talk of Dickensian squalor, it's really a kind of shorthand, and an avoidance mechanism. It's hard for us to imagine how squalid and brutish life in the London slums actually was, in Victorian times. Social inequities were extreme, and the Ripper became a metaphor - a gentleman, it was said, preying on the weakest of the underclass. Jack embodies a nameless dread, an entire ruling class of predator. He prefigures, not the Ted Bundys of this world, but gangster capitalism. He represents a stacked deck.

Why was he never caught? Police incompetence, for openers. They weren't equipped to deal with somebody like Jack. Yes, he was a pattern killer, and there was method, and opportunity, and most importantly, repetition, but the cops never established his template, and he slipped the noose. Then again, there's the more sinister theory that Jack was a member of the Establishment, some go so far as to say a collateral cousin of the Royal Family, and a scandal had to be prevented. Because we have the lingering question of why the murders stopped. Maybe they found the guy, but his social position protected him, so instead of going for a short dance on a stiff rope, he wound up in the booby hatch. Which might go some way toward explaining why Jack has such a long shelf life. He eludes us. Not simply because it's the most studied of cold cases, and unresolved even today, but because he himself seems written in water.

Not so, his victims, In death, they have a disturbing physicality, exposed to the naked eye. Mary Jane Kelly was the last of the five, and a police photograph exists, the disemboweled girl lying in her bloody sheets. You can find the picture at the link below, but I won't post it here.

25 August 2015

Learning to Love the Element of Surprise

When you read a novel, you'll often see an acknowledgments page on which the author thanks people who have helped in the creation of the book or in the author's career: friends, experts, librarians. Well, I'm here to say that we mystery writers have someone else to thank. Someone I've never seen thanked publicly before. So today, I give a hearty salute to ... cereal companies.
My current cereal has no prizes. Sob.

Since the mid-1900s, and particularly in the decade of my youth, the '70s, kids cereals often came with a prize buried deep in the box. I'd dutifully eat my cereal every morning, patiently waiting until the day I'd gotten far enough into the box that, joy oh joy, my new toy slid with my cereal into the bowl. What would it be? A fake tattoo? A small race car? A whistle? Whatever it was, I was eager to get it. And in the process of eagerly awaiting my prize each day, I was trained to be a mystery reader.

Think about it. Reading a mystery is just like anticipating the prize in the cereal box. Readers know a surprise is coming at the end, and they wait, happily turning pages, eager to uncover the bad guy or experience a big twist. Or both. Some readers try to figure out whodunit in advance, just as kids used to try to guess what the cereal prize would be. I was a big guesser, so it makes sense that I grew up to love mysteries, reading and writing them.

Googly eyes tattoo from a bandages box.
Of course there were all kinds of cereal eaters, just like there are all kinds of mystery readers. Some kids, like me, waited for the prize to tumble out of the box. We grew up to be readers who start on page one of a book and read until the end. But there were many kids who had no patience. They rammed their arms into each new cereal box, reaching around until they pulled the prize out. These kids grew up to read the last page of a book first.

Sometimes cereal boxes revealed right on them what the prize would be so you went into breakfast knowing what to expect, but not knowing when it would happen. When would the toy slide out of the box? Would it be as cool as you hoped? The kids who liked knowing the prize in advance and enjoyed the ride, waiting each day for the toy to fall into the bowl, became thriller readers.

Alas, the time of mystery prizes buried in cereal boxes seems to be over, which leaves me a little sad. But this development makes it all the more wonderful that the Frito-Lay company has taken up the mantle of training future mystery and thriller readers with their new, time-limited Doritos Roulette
Everything's better with Coke.
Chips. Most of the chips in these bags are normal nacho-cheese Doritos, but every sixth one is superspicy, and you never know which chip it will be until it's in your mouth.

Bob Harris's first bite.
I recently tested these Roulette chips on some friends. They started skeptically. How hot could the superspicy ones be? As you'll see in the photos, pretty darn hot. "One little taste and my tongue's on fire," author Sherry Harris said. "Ooh, I'm sweating," her husband, Bob, said. Ashley Harris added, "The regular chips have a slight kick, and then you hit the hot one and wow." But did they all stop after eating a superspicy chip? Nope. They liked the kick and went back for more. "I hurt myself, but it was good," Bob said.

Tasting a real hot one

Talk about teaching eaters--and readers--to love suspense and the element of surprise. Knowing the extraspicy chips are in the bag, but not knowing when you'll get that explosion in your mouth, is like reading a thriller, knowing there's a ticking time bomb under the table and waiting, heart pounding, until it goes off. And by putting more than one superspicy chip in each bag, the Doritos people are training readers to enjoy the rollercoaster ride of a good mystery, as the story waxes and wanes, and the main character faces greater and greater hurdles as she gets closer to the end of the story or book.

He's sweating!
That is excitement. That is the fun of reading a mystery. And that is the delight that cereal companies used to bring with the prizes hidden in their boxes, and that the Frito-Lay company is bringing now with their Doritos Roulette Chips. Alas, I understand these chips are only on sale through the end of this month, so if you want to experience them, run out and get a bag now, before they effectively go out of print. But before you do, please join me in thanking cereal companies and Frito-Lay, on behalf of crime writers everywhere, for priming kids and grown-up snackers to love mysteries so much that they come back, again and again, to read more. For mysteries are like any good chip--you can't just have one.

Do you recall a favorite prize you got from a cereal box? Or have you tried the Doritos Roulette Chips? I'd love to hear about it.

24 August 2015

Queen of Crime

I met Sam Neill (the movie actor) once. For a short time, in a galaxy far, far away (the 1980s), I worked as a bank clerk on campus at the University of Auckland, and Mr Neill came in one quiet afternoon to make enquiries about foreign exchanges. His brother was a lecturer at the university (his brother, Michael, would later be one of my English professors). I mention this brush with movie stardom simply because I can state that I have met and spoken to someone who not only knew, but was a good friend of, writer Ngaio Marsh.

Ngaio Marsh sold four stories to the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and I mention this upfront, because it's the only other connection (albeit tenuous) that I can claim to her; I too have had stories appear in the same magazine.

Ngaio Marsh's 
short stories 
I Can't Find My Way Out (August 1946)
Death on the Air (January 1948)
Chapter and Verse: The Little Copplestone Mystery (August 1973)
A Fool About Money (December 1974)

A couple of Dames at the Savoy (Christie and Marsh)
Edith Ngaio Marsh was born in 1895 (April 23; same birthday as Shakespeare) and died in 1982. In both instances, in Christchurch, New Zealand. If you want to talk about New Zealand and crime/mystery fiction, you start (and can pretty much end) with Ngaio Marsh. From the 1930s through to the 1980s, Ngaio Marsh wrote 32 novels (most still in print). She is considered to be one the leading writers of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, and along with her stable mates Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Dorothy L. Sayers, has been described as one of the original four Queens of Crime. The actual Queen (Elizabeth 2), made Marsh a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1966, and in 1978 (along with Dame Daphne du Maurier), Dame Ngaio Marsh became a recipient of the Mystery Writers of America's highest honour: the Grand Master Award. No other New Zealand writer of mystery fiction has yet achieved her standing. In fact, no other New Zealand writer. Period.

Ngaio Marsh's parents met in Christchurch. Her mother, Rose, was a New Zealander and an actress, and her father, Henry, was British and a bank clerk with an interest in the theatre. They were married in 1894 and Edith, their only child, was born the following year. An uncle fluent in Maori was asked to provide an indigenous middle name (a custom at the time, apparently), and he came up with "Ngaio", which is a Maori word for a type of tree, with the additional connotations of clever, methodical, and restless.

So, how do you pronounce Ngaio? And I have been asked. Being an authority on the New Zealand vocabulary and accent (because I be one), I can tell you it's pronounced Nigh-Oh [ /ˈnaɪ.oʊ/ ].

Marsh's childhood, from all accounts, was reasonably spiffing and splendid (we'll skip over the fact that she was bullied at school and for a time (10-14 years) was home-schooled). She read everybody. Ah... pause for a moment to imagine a life before the Internet, before television. Imagine summer afternoons in the countryside reading Kipling, Dickens, Henry Fielding, Smollett, Shakespeare, and Conan Doyle. You can just picture her, in Edwardian attire, basking on a blanket in a soft breeze, with a flask of lemonade, a half-eaten ham sandwich, and thoroughly absorbed in Smollet's The Adventures of Roderick Random (mark the name Roderick well).

In addition to reading, Marsh also had a taste for the theatre, like her parents, and while still in school she mounted several amateur theatrical productions. She also began writing: short stories and plays. At first, her audience was her school peers, but by her 20s, she was in print, with stories and poems appearing regularly in Christchurch's The Sun newspaper. She also had a strong passion for painting, and she graduated in 1917 with an Arts diploma (first-class honours) from Canterbury University College (Christchurch is located in the Canterbury province of New Zealand).

By the time Marsh was in her early twenties, the three corners of her world had been set. It's no surprise, then, that theatre and the arts would later form the backdrop to several of her novels. And although painting would figure prominently throughout her life (dare I call it a hobby), it was to the gravitational pull of words, both those written down and those spoken aloud, where her heart fell.

For the next ten years after graduation, until 1928, Marsh continued developing her talents as a writer: writing plays and working on a "New Zealand" novel. Together with a group of likeminded artists she formed "The Group" (a group, mostly women, with avant-garde leanings). And she found on-going employment with a handful of professional theatre companies. It was in this time that she "paid her dues" and learnt her theatre craft. In fact, had Marsh never written a single novel, she would still be recognized as one of the doyens of 20th Century New Zealand theatre. Indeed, my first introduction to her was in a theatre, when I was 14. I had joined an amateur repertory company (the other members were mostly adults), and I remember Marsh being spoken about with reverence on winter evenings over cups of hot tea and crumbly digestives (a type of cookie).

Marsh (in beret) with "The Group", 1936
My first introduction to Ngaio Marsh the author had come about earlier, when I was about 6 or 7, only I hadn't been aware of it at the time. There was a bookshelf in my parents' living room. The upper shelves were lined with the classics of literature, and the lower shelves with a healthy selection of crime fiction (Cat among the Pigeons, Death on the Nile, etc.). One title on the bottom shelf always caught my eye: "Surfeit of Lampreys". I was a small boy. The title may as well have been written in Klingon. Or Latin.

In April 2012, the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine published my short story Pueri Alleynienses, and a friend asked me if the Latin title was a reference to Ngaio Marsh's detective, the principal character of all 32 of her novels, Roderick Alleyn. No, it wasn't, but then I discovered, unintentionally, that it was. My story was about two old men who, many years earlier, had attended Dulwich College in London. Pueri Alleynienses is the title of the Dulwich school song. It translates from the Latin as "Boys of Alleyn" (the founder of Dulwich College was Edward Alleyn). My interest in Dulwich had been based on the fact that Raymond Chandler had been a pupil there (1900-1905). In 1882, part of Dulwich College was annexed as a separate school, to be known simply as Alleyn's School, and it was at this school that Ngaio Marsh's father received an education, and from where she took a name for her character.

And a home for her character, too. London. Inspector Roderick Alleyn worked for Scotland Yard. He was British, a member of the gentry (his older brother was a baronet). He was an Oxford graduate, and had a background in the British army and the Foreign Service before he joined the Met. Almost all of Marsh's 32 books are set in England, with just four set in New Zealand, where Alleyn is either on secondment to the New Zealand Police, or is on holiday (Colour Scheme, Died in the Wool, Vintage Murder, Photo Finish). A fifth, Surfeit of Lampreys, starts out in New Zealand, but promptly returns to London and stays there.

Why London? Because in 1928, Marsh went to live there. Why? Probably because, like most other New Zealand artists and creatives (and even more so 80 odd years ago), New Zealand is a bit empty. Even today, the population is well under five million, spread out over a land mass equivalent in size to the United Kingdom, or California, and not a lot of people in that population could give a flying truck about the local arts scene. Unless it involves Peter Jackson and lots of loud noises.

Nowadays it's called going on The Big OE (Overseas Experience). Yes, there is actually a name for it: when young New Zealanders venture overseas to find fame and fortune, or to get a life. Nowadays, an OE could mean venturing anywhere: Spain, Norway, the US, South America; but until about 20 years ago, it meant only one thing: London. There are very few New Zealanders who work, or have worked, in the arts who haven't done it. Katherine Mansfield, Janet Frame, to name two others. Even I’ve done it. I lived in Soho for a year (before decamping for the continent). The Big OE is written into the DNA of many New Zealanders.

Marsh (1935)
London's (and Europe's) appeal to Marsh would have been great. To quote Eddie Izzard, "It's where the history comes from." Marsh's father was British, her mother a second-generation New Zealander with strong family connections to the "old" country. And through her connections in the New Zealand theatre world, Marsh landed in London on her feet running and co-opened an arts and crafts shop in Knightsbridge. She wrote a series of travel articles that were syndicated by the Associated Press, the strength of which gained her admission to the Society of Authors in 1929. And she gave up on her New Zealand novel. The "colonial novel" had by this time become a little passé, and not something an artistic, sophisticated, independent lady of London would care for.

And then one wet winter's weekend in 1931, trapped indoors with nothing much else to do, a bored Marsh thought she would try her hand at a detective novel. She had been reading Sherlock Holmes mysteries since she had been a child, and she was au fait with the emerging detective genre (she had read Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, et al). The Golden Age of Mystery Fiction had begun, and Marsh probably didn't realize it when she put pen to paper that weekend, but she was about to join it. Her first book, A Man Lay Dying was published three years later in 1934. Inspector Roderick Alleyn entered the minds of readers and found their favour, along with most critics'.

Marsh was back in Christchurch when the book went to print, having returned in 1932 to nurse her ill mother. She wouldn't return to Europe until the late 1930s, and from then on she largely made her home in New Zealand. The Big OE was over. If I was to write a movie script about Marsh, that's where I'd end it: The publication of her first book to great reception. The end. Roll credits. The rest of her life is largely a matter of bibliography and milestone. She wrote 31 more novels featuring Inspector Alleyn (about one every 1-2 years), cementing her place in the literary pantheon. She wrote numerous plays, short stories, articles, and three works of non-fiction, including an autobiography. And she dedicated the remainder of her time to her other love: theatre.

Selected Milestones 
(not mentioned above)

Penguin Books publishes the Marsh Million, in which one million copies of ten of her titles (i.e. 100,000 x 10) were released on the same day.

Marsh produces her favourite play (Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author) at the Embassy Theatre in London.

It's interesting that this was her favourite play, given her love of Shakespeare. It's an oddball piece of theatre (in my tainted opinion -- I sat through a million amateur performances of it in the 1980s as a lighting designer). I much prefer Rod Serling's Five Characters in Search of an Exit, if you know your Twilight Zone.

An Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine reader's poll votes Marsh one of the best mystery writers currently active.

Receives an honorary doctorate in literature from Canterbury University.

The Ngaio Marsh Theatre opens. It is a 400-seat proscenium-arch theatre on campus at the University of Canterbury (currently closed due to earthquake damage). Opening night was a Ngaio Marsh produced production of Twelfth Night.

Death at the Dolphin nominated for the Edgar Award

Marsh produces A Midsummer's Night's Dream, starring Sam Neill.

Tied up in Tinsel nominated for the Edgar Award

South Pacific Pictures (a NZ television company) produces four feature-length adaptations of the New Zealand-set novels, starring George Baker as Inspector Alleyn.

Click here to watch online: Died in the Wool

The BBC produces The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries, adapting nine of the novels.

The Ngaio Marsh Award is established by journalist Craig Sisterson. The award is given each year to the best crime novel written by a citizen (or resident) of New Zealand. 

Roderick Alleyn

Roderick Alleyn's initials are RA. As a painter, Marsh would have known that the initials "RA" after an artist's name stand for Royal Academician, i.e. an artist elected (to the distinguished title) by members of the Royal Academy of Arts. I mention this purely as an observation.

Agatha Troy 

Agatha Troy first appears in Artists in Crime (1938). She is a famous painter. She is Marsh's version of Agatha Christie's  Ariadne Oliver -- i.e. a character through which the author can vicariously live in the story. Troy reappears in the later books and becomes Alleyn's wife.

Ngaio Marsh's 
Mystery Books 
1. A Man Lay Dead (1934)
2. Enter a Murderer (1935)
3. The Nursing Home Murder (1935)
4. Death in Ecstasy (1936)
5. Vintage Murder (1937)
6. Artists in Crime (1938)
7. Death in a White Tie (1938)
8. Overture to Death (1939)
9. Death at the Bar (1940)
10. Surfeit of Lampreys (1941) [US: Death of a Peer]
11. Death and the Dancing Footman (1942)
12. Colour Scheme (1943)
13. Died in the Wool (1945)
14. Final Curtain (1947)
15. Swing Brother Swing (1949) [US: A Wreath for Rivera]
16. Opening Night (1951) [US: Night at the Vulcan]
17. Spinsters in Jeopardy (1954) [US: The Bride of Death (abridged, 1955)]
18. Scales of Justice (1955)
19. Off With His Head (1957) [US: Death of a Fool]
20. Singing in the Shrouds (1959)
21. False Scent (1960)
22. Hand in Glove (1962)
23. Dead Water (1964)
24. Death at the Dolphin (1967) [US: Killer Dolphin]
25. Clutch of Constables (1968)
26. When in Rome (1970)
27. Tied Up in Tinsel (1972)
28. Black As He's Painted (1974)
29. Last Ditch (1977)
30. Grave Mistake (1978)
31. Photo Finish (1980)
32. Light Thickens (1982)

Don’t ask me to name a favourite Marsh. I've only read two of them, and a long time ago at that. The word tardy is applicable. In researching this little post, I turned up the fact that the bafflingly titled book on my parent's bookshelf, Surfeit of Lampreys, is considered her best book. I've left a memo on my desk to get a copy and read it.

Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to th' rooky wood.

Light Thickens was Marsh's final novel (1982). The title is taken from a line in Shakespeare's Macbeth (quoted above), and a principal element of the book concerns the theatrical taboo of "the Scottish play". Marsh completed the book shortly before her death. The Golden Age was over. The last queen was dead.


Photos: The Christchurch Press, The NZ National Library

23 August 2015

Rocky King: Death Has Dark Hands

This is the 4th of five episodes of Rocky King, Detective found in the public domain. Some readers are cheering and some are groaning, all muttering, “Only one more to go!” Today’s presentation is also the most obscure and difficult to locate.

It can’t be argued that crime shows proved at least as popular in the nascent television market as they had on radio, before that on stage, and today on our fancy wide-screen entertainment centers. Fortunately for mystery writers, the public’s appetite proved voracious. The DuMont Television Network led with their own stable:

Adventures Of Ellery Queen
Chicagoland Mystery Players
Famous Jury Trials
Front Page Detective¹
Hands of Murder/Mystery

Man Against Crime¹
The Plainclothesman
Rocky King, Detective
They Stand Accused
Trial By Jury

¹ syndicated
² reality courtroom show

Early television programming was noted for live action. Soaps with their few set changes seemed reasonable enough, but detective dramas took considerable planning to accomplish seamless transitions, when a director earned his keep. Occasionally sets were found on different floors, requiring actors to run up and down stairs to meet the story requirements. Not until the 1970s would wild car chases become popular enough to obscure muddled plots.

The Plainclothesman appeared in the 9:30 Eastern Time slot immediately following Rocky King. That program innovated ‘subjective camera PoV’, adding a level of complexity and sophistication to live on-camera work. Rather than the audience passively observing a show put on for their benefit, they could participate through the eyes of the protagonist, looking at scenes, actions, and clues as he would see them.

It’s 9 o’clock of a Sunday evening where family gathers around that fascinating new piece of furniture, the DuMont television set. Mom has opened its cabinet doors and Dad switches on the set. The screen brightens, wriggles, and then takes shape… Come with us now for another Rocky King adventure …

Death Has Dark Hands
broadcast: 1952-Oct-19

in which dies a chemist with a glowing reputation…

22 August 2015

My Novel is a Mess (How to survive the chaos point in your novel)

Yes, I’m at that point.  Writing to a specific word count, three-quarters written, and my eleventh novel is an unqualified mess. 

If you are a veteran writer like me, you say it’s not going to happen this time.  But it does.

Here’s why:  
The Linear Approach:

This time, you are going to write linear, by gawd.  One chapter after another, in mathematical order, until you reach the end.  Each chapter will have an outline.

But here’s the problem with that.  You signed a contract that specifies a pretty exact word count.  Is your story going to magically end at the precise word count you need?

Damn straight, it’s not.  It’s going to meander along, minding its own business, taking little side trips, refusing to stay on course.

Because, of course, outlines are just that.  They’re a guide.  You don’t know whether the story is really going to pull together with sufficient motivation and all the goodies until you actually write the thing.  And here’s what happens along the way:

You need a new character to make the plot work.  You just thought of a fab new subplot.  Orlando doesn’t work as a side-setting.  You need to move it to Phoenix, and that means a whole lot of changes…

And before you know it, you’re scribbling on the outline, adding this, subtracting that, and it hits you in the face. Your book is a mess.

Scene plus Scene

I write comedy, and comedy is finicky.  Those good lines come when they come, and you have to get them down fast.  Sometimes they’ll present themselves to me when I’m in a restaurant.  Sometimes, when I’m already in bed.  (Yes, I keep a pen and paper on my bedside table. Ditto, by the loo.)

I always have an outline.  But when writing a highly comedic book, you have to write those funny scenes when you are inspired.  This means hopping around the timeline, writing the scene that works for you today, thinking of another great line, hopping back to an old scene to insert it, when you should be moving forward.  

Which brings you to this point: the important scenes are written, and they present themselves like completed sections of a jigsaw puzzle.  Little isolated islands without any bridges to each other.  You need to find the pieces that are missing and write the bits to connect them.

Because Sister, your novel is a mess.

That’s the point I’m at now.  The comedy is there.  The conflicts are in place.  The climax is written.  Now I need to take that kaleidoscope and move those pieces into the pattern that works best.

How to cope?  I think the best thing you can do is accept that this is going to happen.  Unless you are a robotic automaton lacking inspiration, you are going to veer from the plan more than once. 

At some point, every novel you write is going to be a mess. 

My advice: just accept it.  And understand that part of your role as writer is that of clean-up artist. 

That’s where I stand today, staring at a story that looks like a tornado just ran through it.

Time for the cleanup crew. And a healthy wee dram.

Melodie Campbell writes funny novels, including the multi-award winning book, The Goddaughter's Revenge.  You can buy them in Chapters, Barnes &Noble,  and all the usual suspects online.

21 August 2015

Author Down

The phone call came in the middle of July. A fellow writer had died a couple of days before and his only son was letting me know of his dad's passing. Seems the son had my telephone number on a short story manuscript I'd sent the kid while he was deployed in Afghanistan a few years back. It was the only way he knew to get in touch with me.

His father (Aaron B. Larson 03/14/1955 - 7/14/2015) and I had been critique partners from about 1993 up to somewhere around 2001. It was mostly short stories, plus a novel each. In those days, we communicated by old fashioned snail mail for exchanging manuscripts and typed critiques, and in person with conversations at a monthly writers group meeting if Aaron managed to drive the 200 Interstate miles from his house to the meeting on that particular night.

Aaron had started out as a serious writer before me and had been doing well with his short stories published in various magazines. His output was a mixed bag of fantasy, sci-fi and mystery stories, but he was trying to make a living at writing in those genres and in that format. The incoming paychecks were small, not much to support a family. He did have some fame and recognition on the fantasy and sci-fi side, but those by themselves don't buy much in the way of groceries. To help tide things over, he took up various employment, such as night motel clerk and substitute teaching, among other jobs.

In an attempt to broaden his potential writing market, he put together a collection of his short stories and took up novel writing. Both were published by small press. The problem for him was, if you tried to live by the pen, but didn't make the big time circuit, then your career was apt to die by the pen. In the end, it came down to either obtaining success towards the top of the writing pyramid, or get serious about other employment to pay the bills and then only write on a part-time basis.

In later years, he drifted away and I moved south. Eventually, he took his two college degrees and went back to school for his masters in drama. His creative side moved over to the theater. We talked a few times afterwards, but it wasn't the same. His heart for writing had been taken out of him.

After the call came in that night, I dug out the giant plastic bin I'd kept all our correspondence in and went through it. There were photographs, personal letters, critiques, copies of successful publications, triumphs and rejections, notices of potential markets and of closing markets, hopes and dreams. It got me to thinking.

I've always known this writing game of ours is a harsh mistress. If you're going to mess around with this fickle muse, on any level, then you'd better have some talent, lots of luck and a thick skin. It also doesn't hurt to network like hell and have something in your background or writing to make you stand out from the pack.

A lot of years ago, a man named Jack London figured writing short stories would be his way out of poverty and out of working jobs at manual labor, but his first short story to be published sold for only five dollars and that payment was too long in coming. He was ready to abandon a career of writing, when his second short story paid him forty dollars and gave him the encouragement to continue. After that, his novels and other short stories paid him increasingly well. He made it to the top during his time period.

For me, I think I always knew I was better off with a good paying job, so that paychecks coming in from writing weren't crucial to feeding my family. Could be that I picked up on a certain lack of encouragement from a couple of college professors in my earlier years, but then that same put down led me to an I'll-show-you attitude that got me my first three sales. Who knew? Of course in the end, it was my contract with the military to go fill sandbags in a hostile environment that left me with itchy feet and a restless mind which put the final cement into my job decision to go work the streets as a fed.

We've all known writers who struggled and ended up with some measure of success, whether it was a few paying publications or a great career. At the same time, we've known those who struggled and had little or no success. I guess you just do what you can, strive hard and hope for the best.

In the meantime, wherever you are on the measuring stick, I wish you all well.

Go out there and persevere as best you can.

20 August 2015

History: a Study in Coincidences, Part II

by Brian Thornton

Last around in the rotation I talked about the famous coincidence of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis having been born one year and one hundred miles apart. Then I hinted at another, similar historical coincidence that began in the Caribbean. I said:

"Two men, born on adjacent Caribbean islands, within five miles of each other, their birth places separated only by a shallow, two mile-wide stretch of ocean known as "The Narrows." Both of these men were born out of wedlock to members of their respective island's planter class. Both of their fathers were British-born and raised, coming out to the 'Sugar Islands' seeking their fortunes.'

"Both of these men early demonstrated so much native intelligence that they were sent abroad (One to England, the other to New York City) to receive an education superior to the one they could have received at home.'

"Both of these men became very successful in both business and politics. They were both products of slave-holding societies during the 18th century, and it was on the subject of slavery that these two men could not have been further apart. One of them, impressed by the writings of Enlightenment philosophers on the subject, became a confirmed abolitionist at a time when it was rare for a gentleman, even those who found slavery distasteful, to express an interest in completely destroying the practice.'

"The other inherited his father's sugar plantation back home, and owned slaves until the very day the practice was abolished.'

"Oh, and there was one other area in which the two men vastly differed. Ethnically. One was Scottish and English, and the other was the half-Welsh son of a plantation owner and one of his black slaves, and thus born into slavery himself.'

"Care to guess which one was the abolitionist, and which one was the slave-owner?"

(You can read the entire post here.)

I even tossed in a photo showing both islands:

In the comments section B.K. Stevens and Dale Andrews successfully named one of the men in question: none other than Alexander Hamilton, American banker, political philosopher, aide-de-camp to and personal friend of George Washington, first Secretary of the Treasury for the new American republic, and, like many of the new nation's leaders, something of a polymath.

Dale, who is apparently quite the aficionado of All Things Caribbean, also correctly identified the two islands in question (and in the above picture) as St. Kitts and Nevis Island, which are bound together politically, despite the Narrows channel that runs between them.

They and several others were quite right that Hamilton was the one who went on to become an abolitionist. And for the record, Hamilton is the one who was not born a slave. His father was Scottish and his mother English.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Alexander Hamilton's odyssey from an undistinguished birth on a tiny island in the Caribbean to social prominence and tremendous wealth during his later years in New York City, is the way he got from Nevis to New York.

His neighbors paid for it. Literally.
Alexander Hamilton, by John Trumbull

Conceived out of wedlock to a married woman of mixed English, French and possibly Jewish descent and her lover, the wastrel fourth son of a Scottish laird, Hamilton was born in January, 1757, in Charlestown, the capital of Nevis Island. He was the couple's second son.

The family moved around a lot. To Dutch-owned St. Croix, and back to Nevis, then again to St. Croix, where, after the boys' father ran off, their mother Rachel, set up and ran a store.

Because his mother had never divorced the husband she's abandoned to run off with the elder Hamilton, both Alexander and his elder brother, James Jr., were born without legal status ("bastards"). This played hell with the boys' inheritance when Rachel died.

Alexander was just thirteen, and James a couple of years older. Their father had run off years before, and everything their mother owned was seized by her husband, the man she had never divorced. They were fostered out to a series or neighbors and relatives, and because they were born out of wedlock, not allowed to join the Church of England, and as a further result, had never been allowed to attend the local church school.

Alexander Hamilton Aged 13
They received spotty private tutoring while their mother was alive. James, the elder brother, was eventually apprenticed to a carpenter. Young Alexander was adopted by a merchant back on Nevis who may or may not have been his real father. He clerked in his adopted father's shop, continued to read widely, and eventually wrote several pieces for the local newspaper that so impressed his neighbors in Charlestown, that they took up a collection to pay for the boy's education. 

In 1772, aged fifteen, Alexander Hamilton left home for a "grammar" (preparatory) school in New Jersey. Two years later he would enter Kings' College in New York City (modern-day Columbia University).

Up to that point, and for the rest of his life, he never owned slaves.

Which leads us back to the other member of our mystery twosome. Let's start with a name: Nathaniel Wells; a birthdate: September 10, 1779; and a birthplace: his Welsh-born father's plantation on St. Kitts. The baby boy's mother was a slave named Juggy.

Nathaniel's father William Wells was the scion of a wealthy Cardiff family, who came to the Caribbean and made his fortune as a slave trader (he eventually left the slave trade and invested that income in a large plantation that made him even more money). When his wife died shortly after their arrival on St. Kitts, the elder Wells began having relationships with his slaves. Juggy was the first, and Nathaniel was his eldest child. He eventually sired six in all, freeing them and their mothers and making sure they had an income to provide for them.

Where Alexander Hamilton had a hardscrabble childhood with very little in the way of fatherly influence in his life, Wells, born a slave, was freed by his father after he turned four, sent to England to be educated (at his father's expense) in London. William Wells had notions of sending Nathaniel to Oxford, but died before he could realize that dream.

Nathaniel Wells inherited the majority of his father's considerable estate, both at home in Wales and on St. Kitts. He used part of his inheritance to acquire a considerable amount of property in Monmouthshire, including a huge mansion in the Wye River Valley called Piercefield House.

Piercefield House around the time Nathaniel Wells purchased it in 1802.
Wells put down roots and settled in to the role of prosperous country squire, serving a Warden for his local Anglican church (no talk here of excluding him from church membership because of his bastard status), and as a Justice of the Peace. He served for twelve years as High Sheriff of Monmouthshire (1818-1830), held a lieutenant's commission in the local militia (only the second black man to serve in that capacity in the King's military forces).

Nathaniel Wells' seal. We have no extant likeness of him.
And it's not as if Wells was (to use the popular African American term) "trying to pass." "Mr Wells is a West Indian of large fortune, a man of very gentlemanly manners," one of his neighbors wrote of him, "but so much a man of colour as to be little removed from a Negro."

So here he was, "a man of colour," living the life of an English country squire. Making plenty of money off of his sugar plantation on St. Kitts, like so many other absentee landlords of the period. 

And not freeing a single one of his slaves.

And while Wells never actually returned to the Caribbean, nor personally mistreated the hundreds of human beings he owned over the course of three decades, it would be foolish to assume that means his slaves were well treated. In fact, the plantation was run by an overseer on Wells' behalf, and it is well-documented that the plantation slaves were not spared the lash one iota during Wells' stewardship.

In fact, when emancipation came to St. Kitts, along with the rest of the territories controlled by the British Empire, in 1832, Wells, like every other landlord on the island, refused to free his slaves, illegally keeping them in servitude until the Crown negotiated the terms of compensation for every slave to be freed throughout the empire. 

This didn't happen until 1837. FIVE years after the initial decree of manumission!

Wells made a tidy sum off of his freed slaves, and continued to prosper until ill health caused him to retire from public life in the early 1850s. He sold his estate at Piercefield and moved to Bath, again because of his health. He died in 1852, the terms of his will provided that his holdings be divided among the twenty-two children his two marriages produced.

Two of his sons grew up to be clergymen. His eldest son, Nathaniel Armstrong Wells *1800-1846), was one of them, and a famous author during his time, celebrated for writing about his travels in Spain. 

If he recorded any thoughts on his father's origins as a slave and subsequent conduct as a slaveholder, they have not survived.

As for the magnificent estate house at Piercefield, it has fallen into ruin, with only the exterior walls still standing. The estate itself is now the site of the Chepstow Racecourse. 

How's that for a legacy?

Piercefield today.