31 March 2022

The Murder of Sir Thomas Overbury Part III: the Killing

(This is the final installment of a three-part series on a notorious murder during the reign of King James I of England [James VI of Scotland]. For the first part of this post, with general historical background as well as a fair bit about the victim, click here. For the second part, which deals mostly with the conspirators, click here.)

When is an "honor" not really an honor?

Everyone knows that sometimes an "honor" is precisely that. A great occasion for the honoree, and the sort of thing to be welcomed–if not outright eagerly anticipated– when it comes your way. Oscar nominations. Getting named to the board of a prosperous Fortune 500 company. Making the New York Times Bestseller list (I should live so long!).

Not always easy to quantify, but like the late, great Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart once said of pornography, "I know it when I see it." The same is also true of the kind of thing frequently called an "honor" when it really isn't.

Here's one example

And even worse than this type of infamous "non-honor honor" is the sort of honor that could be hazardous to your health. In an example from American history, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, first black regiment in the United States Army, received the "honor" of leading the charge during an attack on rebel fortifications at Fort Wagner, South Carolina.

Led by their heroic commander, one Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the 54th did itself proud, spearheading the Union charge into the teeth of murderous cannon fire, in an attempt to take the strategically important fort situated on an island in Charleston Harbor.

But the net result? The 54th Massachusetts Infantry numbered six hundred men at the time of the charge. The regiment suffered nearly a fifty percent casualty rate in this single action alone (two hundred seventy-two killed, wounded or missing)! Among the dead was Shaw, the colonel who led the way.

When it's an offer to serve as ambassador to Russia!

While not necessarily a death sentence, a 17th century example of an "honor" along these lines was serving as an ambassador to Russia. Especially during the early part of the century, when Russia was pretty much the "Wild West" (without the "West" part) of Europe. Anarchy. Lawlessness. A devastating famine that began in 1601 and lasted for years afterward. Invasion and extended occupation by Polish armies, culminating in a teen-aged Polish-Swedish nobleman briefly taking the throne in 1610!

By February of 1613, things had gotten a little better, with the Russians kicking the Poles out and electing a new (Russian-born) tsar, Mikhail, who established the Romanov dynasty. Barely twenty, Mikhail faced a long, grinding battle getting Russia's nobility to mind their manners and unite behind him in anything other than name. So even though there was a new sheriff in the Kremlin (and if his coronation portrait is any indicator, one with superb taste in spiffy red boots!), there was still plenty of lawlessness, crime, war, famine and pestilence to go around.

Even with the Poles gone, Russia was an impoverished, backward country on the periphery of what most Europeans considered civilization. For government functionaries such as Overbury, it was the type of diplomatic posting where careers went to die.

So how did he come to be the recipient of such a signal "honor"?

What happens when you piss off a rival and that rival has the queen's ear.

As mentioned previously, Overbury seems to have consistently overestimated his own cleverness, andsystematically underestimated that of nearly everyone around him. He had expended a great deal of time and effort steering his pretty boy puppet Robert Carr into King James' orbit so as to profit by a successful pulling of Carr's strings. When the king began to entrust Carr with a number of duties involving fat salaries attached to a slew of confusing paperwork (Carr was pretty but not too bright), of course Carr relied heavily on his friend and mentor Overbury to help out with the details. Overbury in turn took his own considerable cut. Pretty standard stuff, where court preferment was concerned.

All that changed when the king's favorite minister Robert Cecil, earl of Salisbury died, and a power vacuum opened close to the throne. Salisbury oversaw James' foreign policy, and with his death the king saw an opportunity to begin to set that policy himself, as long as he had someone along for the ride who could handle the intricacies of diplomatic language (and paperwork). He decided that his favorite Robert Carr was perfect for the gig.

Of course Carr was not remotely suited for such work. But his mentor Overbury was.

With Carr's elevation to his new role there were people lining up to try to win influence with him, and through him, with the king. This included members of the already powerful and well-connected Howard family. Namely Henry Howard, earl of Northampton and his niece, Lady Frances Howard, already married in a teen-aged and allegedly never-consummated hate-match with the young earl of Essex.

As Overbury had done with Carr, placing him in King James' path, now Northampton did to Carr, placing his still-married and barely into her teens niece in Carr's. Her tender years notwithstanding, Lady Frances had already acquired a reputation for bed-hopping, and while Carr seemed capable of wrapping a king around his little finger, he seems to have been no match for Frances' feminine wiles.

The two were soon openly consorting, and there was talk of marriage after first seeking an annulment of Frances' marriage to Essex, on the grounds of non consummation. (The earl detested his new bride nearly from the moment he met her and fled on a tour of the continent rather than sleep with her. And he stayed away for a good long while afterward!).

Overbury was furious at being frozen out of the lucrative gig of pulling Carr's strings, and published a  widely-read poem pretty effectively slandering Lady Frances. He had made a powerful enemy.

What's more, this enemy was a favorite of the queen. She managed to prevail on Queen Anne to convinceher husband the king to offer Overbury the "honor" of serving as His Majesty's man in Moscow.

Now Overbury found himself outfoxed. If he accepted the posting, he'd be away from court, with no influence and no money. To the people of Jacobean England, Russia was only slightly closer to home than the New World, which was to say one step closer than the moon!

However, to refuse such an offer of appointment was flat-out dangerous. Such refusal could be taken as an insult, and history is replete with examples of how well royals tend to take insults from those ostensibly in their service. (Newsflash: it ain't lying down!)

Overbury's thoughts along these lines are not recorded. And there's no way of knowing whether he seriously considered the possibility that the choice before him could possibly wind up being between a trip to Russia or a trip to the Bloody Tower. Regardless, he chose to refuse the "honor" of serving as English ambassador to Russia, and apparently managed to come off as so high-handed that in April 1613 an infuriated King James had him tossed into the Tower for his trouble.

By September, Overbury was dead.

Ten days later Lady Essex received her wished-for annulment, over Essex's protestations that he was not, in fact, impotent, as the papers requesting the annulment claimed. Within a couple of months, Lady Frances and Robert Carr, now no longer earl of Rochester, but "promoted" to an even more plumb title with vastly more substantial holdings as earl of Somerset, were married.

That might well have been the end of the story. But Robert Carr was an idiot, and it quickly became clear that he was now as much the Howards' puppet as he had earlier been Overbury's. Plus, the king was fickle in his affections where his favorites were concerned, and apparently within a year or so, Carr began to lose his hair and his looks. James soon tired of his pet earl, and let it be known to certain influential members of his inner circle that he would welcome an excuse to be shut of him, so he could focus his attentions elsewhere (namely George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham).

And that was when rumors began to surface about Carr's frequent visits to the Tower to see his erstwhile friend and mentor Overbury in the months preceding his death. And of Carr's possible connection with the gifts of possibly tainted food and drink a certain jailer pressed upon the unfortunate man.

The Investigation

Whispers of "poison" were nothing new during the reign of James I. Invariably when anyone of any importance died quickly and without violence, some gossip, somewhere began to murmur in the ears of friends that the circumstances certainly seemed suspicious. And as much as James wanted to be rid of Carr, the last thing he wanted was a scandal. So he set his two brightest advisors to work on the investigation, ensuring it was handled right from the start.

These two were none other than the greatest legal minds of the age. Two great names that survive even today: Sir Francis Bacon and Sir Edward Coke.

The first thing they did was have Overbury's corpse exhumed and subjected to an autopsy. He was indeed found to have been poisoned. Not by food, or drink, it turns out, but by a combination of emetics and enemas.

Overbury's jailer and the lord lieutenant of the Tower were immediately confined and questioned. It all came out in their confessions and the confessions of those they named as co-conspirators.

Apparently Lady Frances and her uncle the earl of Northampton dreamed up the scheme to have Overbury dispatched in a manner which might not look suspicious, and pressed her dupe of a husband into service, getting him to visit his "friend" Overbury regularly, and impress upon him the only way out of the Tower was through touching the heart of the king and moving him to pity at Overbury's lowly state.

Confinement did not agree with Overbury, and he was already ill. But a combination of emetics andenemas would help make him seem even more piteous and enfeebled, certain to prod James into an act of clemency, Carr argued. Overbury, desperate to escape the Tower, agreed to this course of action.

In furtherance of the Howards' plan, the Tower's lord lieutenant (the government official overseeing the operation of the Tower) was removed in favor of a notably corrupt one named Helwys (recommended by none other than the earl of Northampton, to whom he paid a customarily hefty finder's fee), who in turn assured that a jailer named Weston agreeable to Lady Frances' plan was placed in position to oversee Overbury's "treatments."

Lady Frances' connection to the plot was laid bare by the confession eventually wrung from her "companion," a seemingly respectable physician's widow named Anne Turner. In reality Turner was anything but.

While her husband was still alive Anne Turner carried on a prolonged affair with a wealthy gentleman, and bore him a child out of wedlock. After her husband's demise she "made ends meet" in part by running a secret red light establishment where couples not married to each other could go to have sex. She had also served as her deceased husband's assistant on many occasions and possessed some skill with chemicals–especially poisons. She quickly developed a black market business selling them to many of the "wrong people."

So when her employer Lady Frances came to her seeking help, Anne Turner was more than willing to assist. Together with an apothecary she knew and worked with, Turner came up with several doses of emetics and enemas laced with sulfuric acid. Weston in turn administered these to an unsuspecting Overbury, who soon died.

The Outcome

Possessing not much in the way of either money or influence, the quartet of Turner, Weston, Helwys and the apothecary (whose name was Franklin) were quickly tried, convicted, condemned and hanged.

The earl and countess of Somerset, who did possess both money and influence, were immediately arrested and thrown into the Tower. The earl of Northampton only escaped a similar fate by having had the good timing to die the previous year.

The resulting scandal, far from merely ridding the king of a tiresome former favorite, caused James no end of embarrassment. He repeatedly offered to pardon Carr in exchange for a confession to the charge of murder.

For her part, Lady Frances quickly admitted her part in Overbury's murder. Carr, however, insisted ever afterward that he knew nothing of the plot (given his demonstrated lack of smarts, hardly difficult to believe that he was little more than the dupe of his extremely cunning wife). The earl and his wife were tried and eventually convicted on charges of murder and treason. Obviously concerned that Carr might implicate him in the murder and no doubt also nervous about what Carr might say about the nature of their personal relationship, James let them languish in prison for seven years, eventually quietly pardoning both the earl and the countess, and equally quietly banishing them from court.

Apparently the bloom came off the rose for this star-crossed couple during their long confinement, and their burning passion cooled into a dull hatred. If Carr's protestations of innocence are true, it stands to reason that the revelation of the part she played in killing his friend and mentor Overbury may have had something to do with his seeing her in a different light.

The next ten years after they were pardoned in 1622 were spent quietly loathing each other on Carr's estate in Dorset, far from the pomp of James' court in London. Lady Frances died aged 42 of cancer in 1632. Carr followed her to the grave in 1645.

30 March 2022

Unknowing What You Know

Rebecca K Jones
Rebecca K Jones

In 2020, Rebecca Jones was named the top Arizona felony prosecutor by the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys' Advisory Council, one of the highest honors in her field. In addition to her work for the state of Arizona, Rebecca also writes compelling crime fiction.

Her debut publication was in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine's "Department of First Stories" in 2009, and her debut novel, Steadying the Ark, was published by Bella Books this spring. She's also got several new short stories coming out — one in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, another in an anthology due from Down and Out Books this November — and she's translated short fiction by Thomas Narcejac from French to English for two anthologies I edited in recent years.

Her writing and her translations are not the reason I know her, though. Actually, I've known her since long before she began to write and translate: I'm her father, and I couldn't possibly be prouder to introduce her to the Sayers of the Sleuth.

— Josh Pachter


Unknowing What You Know

by Rebecca K Jones

If not for NaNoWriMo in 2015, I might have written a different book altogether– or none at all. Although I’d written short stories– including a collaboration with my father, Josh Pachter, which appeared in EQMM in 2009– and wrote a lot of non-fiction for my day job, I’d never had much interest in trying to write a novel. As it happens, my mom told me about National Novel Writing Month a few days after it began on November 1, and on the spur of the moment I decided to jump right in.

Writing a sixty-thousand-word piece of fiction in a month was intended to be an experiment, nothing more. Could I sustain the pace over four weeks while working at a demanding full-time job? Could I produce an interesting product? I had no idea– but this seemed like a challenging way to find out.

At the time, I was a sex-crimes prosecutor at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in Phoenix, Arizona, and had worked in that position for about three years. Since my workload didn’t leave me with a lot of free time, I figured my best bet was to follow that age-old piece of advice and “write what I knew.”

What I knew, what I lived and breathed all day every day, was sex crimes. I handled all kinds of cases– child molest, adult rape, child pornography, plus a wide range of miscellaneous offenses including voyeurism, public sexual indecency, and whatever else crossed my desk.

That sounds like a grim description, and it was a pretty grim life. I wound up leaving MCAO in 2018 to prosecute complex drug trafficking and racketeering cases for the Arizona Attorney General’s Office– a job I enjoyed for four years before recently switching to appellate work at the same office.

Back in 2015, when I challenged myself to write a novel in a month, I knew I wanted my protagonist to be a young, gay, female sex-crimes prosecutor. As it happened, I had already written a short story featuring just such a character, Mackenzie Wilson (although she hadn’t yet made it to sex crimes when I wrote “Failure to Obey,” which appears in the current issue of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine). I liked Mack in that first story and decided to graduate her to sex crimes, but that’s where the resemblance between my character and my real life ended. Mack is a great attorney, but she has a number of maladaptive coping strategies that I’m relieved we don’t share. Of course, who knows, she might say the same about me.

It isn’t unprecedented for prosecutors to become novelists. Linda Fairstein and Marcia Clark are two of my favorites, and they both write courtroom thrillers that I find exciting. Marcia Clark also wrote a non-fiction book about her most high-profile case– I don’t need to remind you which case that was, do I?– and she’s certainly not the only prosecutor to have taken that route. There’s even a former Maricopa County Attorney with a true-crime book about a high-profile case. (In that one, defense counsel actually wrote his own true-crime book, about the same case, and wound up consenting to being disbarred for his trouble!)

It can be tricky, though, to write about real cases. Although I’ve tried some crazy cases, none of them has the drama necessary for a compelling read– and writing about cases before their appeals deadline tolls would be ethically questionable at best.

Most prosecutors don’t participate actively in investigations, and a book set entirely behind a prosecutor’s desk– watching most cases end up with plea agreements and few of them actually going to trial– who would want to read that? The day-to-day reality of being a prosecutor– like the day-to-day reality of most jobs (I hope, or is it just mine?)– is that, when you get right down to it … it’s pretty boring.

An additional consideration for me was that I knew there would have to be some bad actors in my story– judges, defense attorneys, even prosecutors and cops who didn’t do the right thing, or weren’t smart, or otherwise weren’t heroes. As a person who works with attorneys, judges, and (until recently) cops all day every day, I didn’t want my real-life colleagues wondering if they were being lampooned or speculating as to the inspirations for my characters. 

So for those reasons– ethics, drama, and my desire to be a nice person– it was crucial that my book be wholly fictional. Although I tried to present the legal process faithfully, I found that I had to take some liberties. The “big case” that Mack deals with, for example, winds up in trial within about six months. In reality, it would take years to get such a case in front of a judge and jury, but where’s the dramatic tension in that?

Steadying the Ark, novel

While juggling all of these considerations, I wrote my sixty thousand words in November 2015, and, by the end of the year, I finished a first draft of the book.

One of the most time-intensive parts of the revision process was ensuring that any accidental similarities between the cases and people in my novel and the cases and people I dealt with in real life were edited into oblivion. Once I was satisfied that I had a draft I could consider “final,” I began to shop the manuscript around to publishers– and it was released as Steadying the Ark in March of this year by Bella Books.

When Bella bought it, they told me they envisioned Mack as a series character. That was, as you can imagine, music to my ears– but it was also terrifying. Now, I realized, I’ve got to invent a whole new set of made-up people? I have to make sure I don’t accidentally write about real cases again?

For as long as I can remember, though, I’ve been a person who loves a challenge, so I am currently hard at work on a new adventure for Mackenzie Wilson. Next up? Homicide cases– which I’ve never handled, so am busy.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have spent ten years doing work I love– work that makes my community a safer and better place. In a way, Steadying the Ark is a love story. It’s not about, but it’s dedicated to the real-life people who face the darkness day in and day out and come out the other side having done work that matters. It is my attempt to show readers how brave and dedicated these individuals are. I hope I’ve been successful!

29 March 2022

You’re Only Famous When You Die

Leigh Lundin was the first to notify me of my untimely death, when he emailed me on March 16:

Michael, while speaking this morning with my friend Cate in South Africa, she bloody nearly gave me a stroke.

She: “I’m sorry to hear about your friend, the one we were just talking about.” (We’d been talking about how prolific you and John Floyd are, masters of quality and quantity.)

Me: “What? Who are you talking about?”

She: “Michael Bracken. I saw his obit. It’s online.”

Me: “No!”

She pulled up the article and read it to me. Whew. It quickly became clear the obituary was referring to someone else, BUT… here’s the kicker. That early edition of the article spoke of the novels and numerous short stories you’d written, mentioned EQMM/AHMM, and that you’re editor of Black Cat. They conflated your career with the other guy!

Cate emailed me the URL, but by the time I got it this evening, the mix-up had been resolved. I regret I couldn’t get a copy to show you the conflation, but better for us, they had the wrong Michael B. I don’t know if there’s a way to get that early copy. I include the URL below.

I haven’t said anything to anyone else in case you might find an article/story in this, Michael. AND—this is exciting—you are definitely renown internationally.

I often wonder what will be written about me after my death and, apparently, I almost found out.

But I do wonder, so much so that I once attempted to draft my own obituary when I suspected no one in my family would do it justice. After I discovered that the cost to publish my bloviated paean to myself would cost my heirs more than I’ve earned for most of my short stories, I decided the paltry inheritance I’m bequeathing them—what is the going rate for half a ton of recyclable paper?—might better be spent on a twelve-pack of Mountain Dew to be shared at the Wake while everyone listens to “Highway to Hell” and “Stairway to Heaven” in an unending loop because I want all my bases covered.

So how is it we wish to be remembered after we’re gone? Loving parent and devoted spouse? Or hermit-like creature whose occasional screeds entertained tens of people? Will the list of the left-behind be a litany of children’s and grandchildren’s names or a screen capture showing all the unfinished manuscripts residing on our hard drive?

Either way, most of us are likely to be forgotten soon after our passing… unless we have stories in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine’s submission queue. Then we will live forever.

Until then, may you live long enough for your friends to read your obituary and to express relief that the report of your death had been greatly exaggerated.

28 March 2022

Looking For the Next Best Thing

Several years ago, I met another local writer at a conference. He was unpublished, but his business cards and website bore the legend "Website of Future Bestselling Author..." 

A few weeks later, he posted on Facebook. He had won Honorable Mention for the Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine contest that invites readers to write a flash story to accompany a photograph in the magazine. He felt his story deserved more than a mere honorable mention. My wife and I looked at the photo before we read his story, and we both immediately thought of the same premise he used.

I'm going to guess he's not a bestselling author yet, partly because he hadn't learned one of the basic lessons.

When you're writing fiction, your first idea may or may not be good, but the SECOND one is usually better. If you can find a THIRD, that might be even better. Use it.


Guidelines for magazines or themed submissions often include examples, usually an obvious first choice, and many writers try to follow those examples. That means the editors may see several submissions using that same idea. Even if the writing is superb, those stories have less chance of being selected because they'll cancel each other out.

But something DIFFERENT will catch the screener's and editor's attention.

Some time ago, Michael Bracken posted a call for private eye stories set in the 1960s. He mentioned that stories involving an historical event from the period would have preference, and gave examples. I don't remember what those examples were, but they might have been Woodstock, the Bay of Pigs, and Neil Armstrong's walking on the moon. He probably got several stories using each of them.

I wrote a story set in the Detroit riot of 1967. I attended summer classes at Oakland University, a mere 30 miles away, so I remembered many of the details without research. I hoped no other writer would use that event and that I'd have less competition. Sure enough, "Kick Out the Jams" (Remember the MC5?) will appear in Groovy Gumshoes this April. Far out, man.

The upcoming MWA anthology Crime Hits Home also arrives in April. I assumed many submissions would reflect a "Home Sweet Home" idea and might involve a home invasion. I tried to think outside the box, and "homeless" led me to other places. "Jack in a Box" found a home.

A few months ago, I had an idea for a novella, but when I started writing, I locked up after about 3000 words. I tweaked the idea and tried again, but hit another wall. When I realized that my mian idea could function as a red herring instead of the main plot, I tried again.

That third version had more potential surprises. I finished the first complete draft last week, and since I wrote several bad ideas out of my system in the early versions, it's much better. It still needs revision, but I have more to work with. 

Years ago, Georges Polti wrote The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, describing every plot premise he could identify in (mostly classic) literature and drama.

Victoria Lynn Schmidt updated it a few years ago in her own book, Story Structure Architect, which I highly recommend. She adds a few more situations– premises, if you prefer– and several open-ended questions that nurture creativity. But both books make the same point.

There are a finite number of situations and ideas. If you take one that is used frequently (this year's trend), you set yourself up against all those other works. If you create a new twist or combination, your story will stand out and has a better chance of being noticed.

And selected.

27 March 2022

Me & Ol' Bobble Head

Years ago at one of the Edgar Award Banquets back when I served on the MWA Board of Directors, Margery gave out Edgar Allan Poe Bobble Heads as party favors. Mine, still in the original box, sits on my computer desk where I write my short stories. Call it a nod to the muses for a little extra assistance in creativity.

For many years, I assumed that Ol' Bobble Head would be the only Edgar to grace my writing area, and that could still be the way things turn out yet. But this year, I do have a slim chance to get a real one. You see, on the early morning of Wednesday, January 19, 2022,my wife informed me that my story, "The Road to Hana," had been nominated for an Edgar in the Short Story category. To say I was astounded, elated and/or greatly pleased would be an understatement. I tried to be cool, but nope, my feet did not touch the floor. In the end, it made no difference, I still had to do the breakfast dishes. So much for fame.

So now you're asking yourself, what are this guy's odds of getting a real Edgar? Well, since I have interviewed an illegal bookie during my professional past, I do feel somewhat qualified to come up with the proper odds for this particular event. Normally, there are five nominations in an Edgar category, so that would give me a 20% chance of winning, however there must have been a tie when it came to the top five short stories this time because for the 2022 competition there are six nominations in the Short Story category. This now gives me a 16.67% chance of winning. Oops, my odds just dropped. Sonuvagun.

Of course, since two of the six nominations are stories published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, this means that the editor, Linda Landrigan, has a 33.33% chance of having one of the two stories in her magazine which were nominated by the judges to receive an Edgar. That's better odds for her.

Now, to throw a ringer into the competition, one of the nominees would have to be awarded posthumously if he wins. It seems this really famous author passed back in 1968, roughly two months after I came back to "the world" from my twelve-month, all-expenses, government-paid vacation in a tropical climate, if you don't count the monsoon season. I was barely trying my hand at writing war poems, much less trying to create short stories for publication. Damn. I think you can see how hard it is for a guy to get a real Edgar these days.

In any case, I would like to commend the judges for their high intellect in nominating my story and throwing my hat in the ring this time. As the saying goes, "It's an honor just to be nominated." I'll stick with that because regardless how it comes out on April 28th at the Banquet in Manhattan, I definitely do feel honored to have even been mentioned in this group of distinguished authors.

As for Michael Bracken and James A. Hearn, I have read your excellent nominated short story, "Blindsided," also in AHMM. So, I'm sure you'll pardon me at this stage if I go find a bar and wish myself some luck, so that my story can at least give yours a little bit of competition. See you guys at the AHMM table at the banquet.

Well, Ol' Bobble Head, I would surely love to introduce you to Ed, but if nothing else, we will always have Manhattan.

26 March 2022

In which our Heroine asks the Question: Why Bother?

I read in the paper today that divorces and job resignations were way up in 2021, the conclusion being that Covid is causing us to revisit all the important things in our life.  So it was almost serendipitous that this week I was put to the challenge to defend (or at least, assess) my continued feverish predilection for writing fiction.

Someone (a real person, not my wayward alter ego) asked me the other day, why do I write.  Or more specifically, why do I continue to write.

Now, this was not meant to be a slight in any way.  The person who asked was another writer facing the same sort of future I see for myself.  That is, he is also:

  • A mid-list author with a respected traditional house, putting out a book every 12 to 18 months.
  • An author with 15-plus books and dozens of short stories published in respected magazines.
  • A thirty-year history of writing.
  • Some awards on the mantel.

And - wait for it -

  • Slim to no chance of getting rich or achieving best-seller status on the New York Times or Globe and Mail bestseller lists at this point in the career.

So… writer friend asked, "Why do we still do it?  What can we possibly achieve now that we haven't already?  Because that Top 20 list is probably never going to be within our reach."

(Wait a minute.  Was I supposed to be on some list?  Another thing I failed to do?  I felt like I was one of the wise men - the 4th one you never hear about, Irving the Unwise - going to see Baby Jesus in the manger.  "I didn't know we were supposed to bring gifts.  Nobody told me we were supposed to bring gifts!")

But I digress.  My friend wasn't through.  "How many books do I need to have published to feel like I'm kind of a success?  When will I have enough?"

Poo.  I had no answer.

This fall, I signed a contract for my seventeenth book.  It comes out next fall (if Covid doesn't kill the presses for lack of paper worldwide, sigh.)  And then the question will be, is that enough?  Will an eighteenth book make any difference at all to me or to the world?

So I asked myself, "Self - why are you doing this?  At a time when so many people are retiring to the golf course, why are you still torturing yourself with plot lines and deadlines and tedious social media promotion?  Why are you putting up with endless Amazon reviews and online trolls who couldn't find a plot hole if they were pushed into it?  (Note to alter ego:  always carry a shovel.)

Then a strange thing happened this morning.  A reader in the States sent me a notice she received from the West Virginia Library System, that the audiobook version of my title Worst Date Ever, was available for lending.

Well, that's cool, I thought.  Maybe it won't seem like a lot to you, but I live in suburban Toronto - that's in Canada, the other big country on the top end of North America.  The one that invented hockey fights and slurps maple syrup.

I can't begin to tell you what this email did for me.  We've all had a hard year.  But the thought that my renegade book (a loopy romantic comedy - I usually write crime) could perhaps put a smile on the face of a reader an entire country and several states away did something to my heart.

Like the Grinch, I think my heart grew several sizes.

God Bless that reader.  Because the answer to my friend's question became clear to me.  I write so that I might put a smile on someone's face - someone who might need it.  Someone who has seen hard times, is longing for escape, and needs a little lift that doesn't cost anything more than a library card.

That's why I write. That's why I continue to write. How about you?

May 2022 bring you smiles.

Here's that little book in the West Virginia Library.  Who says I can't write romance?  (Okay, so they asked me to write a romance, and I wrote about a series of bad dates.  Give me a break.  It has a happy ending, doesn't it?)

Available at all the usual suspects…

25 March 2022

All's Fair in Death and Cherries

cherry blossoms
© 2022 Joseph D'Agnese

The cherry trees are blooming in my neighborhood as I write this.* Each year, my wife and I go out of our way to shoot as many photos of this spectacle as we can. We love watching the petals of the blossoms flutter across the yard like pink snow. Truly magical, and bittersweet, because by the time they begin dropping you know the show is nearly over. Indeed, by the time you read this, the bloom may well have ended.

Countless poets, writers, and artists in various cultures have drawn inspiration from those trees, and I’m no different. But because I’ve spent my life consuming crime novels and stories, my cherry-tree thoughts turn each year to the tale of a miserable exploited writer. The story comes not from a mystery or some work of literary fiction, but from one of my favorite cookbooks. Here’s the intro to the recipe on Cherry Pudding:

The cherry season is very short and one is always touched with sadness when it comes to an end. Sad too is the story of the song which is still passed on from one generation to another, ‘Les Temps des Cerises.’ In 1867 a young poet, Jean-Baptiste Clemént, sat in a shabby room watching at the death-bed of a friend. To cheer her a little he composed the first verse of the song, which he recited. The dying girl murmured, “It’s charming. Go on,” and he improvised the whole poem.

The girl died and the poet wept and the song was written. One day the poet suffered from the cold. He went to a publisher and exchanged his poem for an overcoat. Whilst the publisher made two million francs from the song the poet, in a moment of need, pawned the overcoat for fourteen francs, and that is all he got out of his lovely song.

The North Point Press editions.

The author of these words is Edouard de Pomiane (1875-1964), who was a food scientist who lectured at the Pasteur Institute for 50 years. It’s hard to get a solid grasp of his biography. Articles say that his specialty was digestion or digestive juices, but he became a celebrity in France during the 1930s for radio shows in which he expounded clever ways to bring tasty dishes to the table. By the time he died at age 89, he had authored 22 cookbooks. The two that are most easily found in English translation are Cooking With Pomiane (the 245-page volume from which the cherry song story is excerpted) and French Cooking in Ten Minutes.

“Modern life is so hectic that we sometimes feel as if time is going up in smoke,” Docteur Pomiane tells us in the introduction to the latter, which clocks in at a mere 142 pages. “But we don’t want that to happen to our steak or omelet, so let’s hurry. Ten minutes is enough. One minute more and all will be lost.” He was speaking of the hectic life as it was perceived in 1930, when the book was published.

I love dipping into these small paperbacks from time to time, because they make me smile. The prose is refreshing, clear, and charming as heck. Pomiane was a master of the conversational tone. He wrote at a time when many French people were leaving the country for cities and the allure of steady office jobs. The shortages of WW-I were still well remembered. How could these proud people cook wholesome, traditional meals on schedules that were no longer their own to make?

On his radio program, Pomiane made his prejudices abundantly clear: French cooking as we’ve come to know it is unnecessarily complicated. Let’s leave fussy cooking to the professional chefs, if they feel they must cling to it. When you cook at home, keep it simple. That’s sensible advice for home cooks—and writers, to boot. The first chapter of Ten Minutes begins like this:

First of all, let me tell you that this is a beautiful book. I can say that because this is its first page. I just sat down to write it, and I feel happy, the way I feel whenever I start a new project.

My pen is full of ink, and there’s a stack of paper in front of me. I love this book because I’m writing it for you…

His first piece of advice:

The first thing you must do when you get home, before you take off your coat, is go to the kitchen and light the stove. It will have to be a gas stove, because otherwise you’ll never be able to cook in ten minutes.

Next, fill a pot large enough to hold a quart of water. Put it on the fire, cover it, and bring it to a boil. What’s the water for? I don’t know, but it’s bound to be good for something, whether in preparing your meal or just making coffee.

I’ve never been able to figure out if the famous cherry song he references, which is renowned as a song of political rebellion, is describing cherry blossom time, or the season some months later when the fruit is actually harvested. I suspect it is the latter. Pomiane appears to adore the fruit, because he gives us at least a half dozen cherry-based recipes. Clafoutis. Cherry Pudding. Piroshki with Cherries. A homemade cordial called Cherry Ratafia. And on and on. Here he is, describing the extraction of the Cherry Tart from the oven:

Don’t be discouraged. Cut the first slice and the juice will run out. Now try it. What a surprise! The tart is neither crisp nor soggy, and just tinged with cherry juice. The cherries have kept all their flavor and the juice is not sticky—just pure cherry juice. They had some very good ideas in 1865!

© 2002 Joseph D'Agnese

Another food scientist-writer would have lectured us on how butter melts in the pate brisee and creates air bubbles and blah blah blah, snooze snooze snooze. Pomiane knows the science. He also knows we don’t need to know it. He focuses instead on telling details and imagery that you cannot shake from your mind. When the flesh of cherries are broken, he says, “they seem to be splashed with brilliant blood.” And indeed, in the song, the color of the cherries came to symbolize the blood of rebellion.

That should not surprise those of us who have read widely in the mystery genre, where death is often paired with food. But when I read Pomiane, I sometimes wonder if I am reading a cookbook or watching a piece of Grand Guignol theater. In the larger of the two books, he recounts a 1551 legend about a jealous baker who finds his wife in the kitchen with a younger man.

He’s just an assistant I hired while you were out of town! she tells hubs.

“Very well,” the husband says, “I am prepared to believe your story, but if this young pastry cook cannot prepare eighteen cakes immediately I shall stab him with this cutlass and then slit your throat, Madame.”

The young man prays to St. Madeleine for guidance, and lo and behold, miraculously turns out the legendary cakes that bear her name.

I suspect that Docteur Pomiane’s adoring fans would have been far more shocked if they knew a little-advertised truth about the mustachioed, grandfatherly man who crafted these best-selling books on cuisine. You see, Pomiane was born in France, but his birth name was Edouard Pozerski Pomian. His parents were immigrants. Quelle horreur! The man who taught the 20th century French to cook, the man whose ideas many say influence farm-to-table French chefs to this very day, was of Polish descent.

A happy spring to you all!

The cherries seen most often in one’s neighborhoods are ornamental, not fruit-bearing, trees. On occasion, if weather and pollinators align properly, an ornamental might well bear tiny fruit, which are fit for crows, not humans. Ask me how I know.

See you in three weeks!



24 March 2022

Dark Tales for Children

Thanks to Joseph D'Agnese's Reading in Bars blogpost (HERE), I read Zilpha Keattey Snyder's The Egypt Game, and really enjoyed it. I think Snyder captured childhood obsession and fantasy perfectly. You do the damnedest things in childhood, from time-travel to being horses, from reading every single novel by an author and memorizing every freaking character and plot twist (Tolkein, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Andre Norton, Heinlein, T. H. White, Ray Bradbury, Carolyn Keene, Sherlock Holmes, etc.) to knowing you are going to die if you don't get to watch the latest episode of [fill in the blank here].  

And children know that adults have absolutely no understanding or comprehension of who you are, what you want, or what you're going through, and never will. Deep down, every child completely disbelieves that adults were ever children. They are an alien species, set down among us to tell us what to do and train us for some future role. This is, I think, part of the attraction we had for Stranger in a Strange Land, aside from the sex (which for the 60s was pretty damn racy). The Old Ones raising the Nymphs to become something else made perfect sense. 

But I disagree about the darkness of The Egypt Game. Yes, a child is murdered. And a second one, later on. I know, I know, if that isn't dark, what is? Well, so is child molestation, and in my childhood neighborhood we had a guy across the street who was molesting his foster kids, and our college-age next door neighbor tried to molest me when I was six. That's dark - too dark for most children’s book writers to think about touching, and probably rightly so.  

Anyway, despite the murders, there's a distance kept throughout the novel which makes sense:  children really can ignore almost everything if they're obsessed with something else. And 99% of the adults of The Egypt Game are harmless. Most of the time, the children spook themselves, which is also normal. 

MY NOTE:  In The Headless Horseman, my Laskin character, Linda Thompson, reminisces about how she talked herself into an obsession with a man – who does look pretty odd – that makes her absolutely terrified of him. Meanwhile, in case you haven't guessed, there were worse characters roaming Laskin at the time.  

Anyway, as I thought about it, I realized that children's literature has actually gotten tamer in many ways.  Try Nancy Drew - the books we were reading in the 1960s were still, mostly, the editions of earlier years. And thinking back on those books, what I remember is how in almost every story, Nancy was knocked out, kidnapped, bound, gagged, and taunted at least once, if not more than once. 

Nancy Drew in bondage
Image courtesy of The Paris Review

And sometimes it was Nancy and her chums. Repeatedly. In The Clue of the Velvet Mask, George Fayne, one of Nancy's best friends, was not just chloroformed and kidnapped, but shot up with mind-altering drugs, and - when she's finally rescued - is terrified that they are all going to be killed. Now this is important because George is, throughout the series, just as brave as Nancy, and even more of a daredevil. So for her to be frightened? So frightened that she's screaming at Nancy to give up the investigation? Scary. Also, the villain nearly smothers Nancy to death in that one. In fact, the ruthless, dangerous criminals who Nancy's up against repeatedly drug and physically assault Nancy and her friends. (Wikipedia)  Very dark.  

MY NOTE:  The Clue of the Velvet Mask was the last ghostwritten Nancy Drew by Mildred Benson, who has been credited as Nancy's original creator, and apparently the darkest one she ever wrote. If you want to see how dark it can get, you need to find the original - the 1953 edition - currently out of print.  

SECOND NOTE:  We all knew, BTW, that George was gay, even back in the 1960s, but then we were California girls, and learned stuff early. Didn't bother us a lick. When we role-played Nancy Drew novels, none of us minded being George if we couldn't be Nancy - what we hated was being assigned to play Bess Marvin, George's cousin and Nancy's other best friend, who was always depicted as plump, hungry, and scared of her own shadow.

Yes, children's literature has been tamed. Think about Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. An orphan is almost starved to death in an orphanage, escapes, and is taken in by a young gang of pickpockets and thieves under the tutelage of a career criminal. Among the companions are a young prostitute who is regularly beaten and eventually bludgeoned to death by her brutal criminal lover. Etc. How the hell did this ever get read aloud as a post-supper treat? And yet it was. 

Going back even further in time, there's Martha Sherwood's The History of the Fairchild Family, published in 1818 and remaining in print for over a hundred years, and part of every good Victorian child's library.  Fiercely Calvinist, it's all about the Fairchild parents trying against all odds to save the souls of their little unregenerate children Emily, Lucy, and Henry.  Horrific things happen - Augusta Noble, saucy, pert, and disobedient, plays with candles and burns herself to death, which immediately leads to everyone declaring the obvious truth that she is now burning in hell as well. And, when Emily, Lucy, and Henry fight amongst themselves one day, their father first whips them, then takes them out to see a gibbet, where a rotting corpse is hanging, its chains rattling in the wind, and makes them kneel in the dust and pray underneath it.  Now that's nightmares.

BTW, if you want to read The Fairchild Family in all its horrors, you can read the 1819 text HERE - especially "The Story on the Sixth Commandment."  It explains the early Victorian mindset better than any modern analysis can ever do.

And, finally, Grimm's Fairy Tales. I remember The Robber Bridegroom very well, because for some reason I was fascinated by the fact that the robbers gave the poor victim three glasses of wine:  one white, one red, and one yellow.  Anyway, the miller's daughter goes to see her betrothed in the forest, not knowing he's a robber. At the house both a bird in a cage and an old woman tells her that the people there will kill her and eat her. The old woman hides her behind a cask, and the robber & his gang arrive with a woman whom they proceed to get drunk, and then kill her and chop her up. Luckily the ring finger flies off and lands in the miller's daughter's lap, and she shows it at the pre-wedding banquet. The bad guys are executed, so all is well. Huzzah!

Maybe that's the hallmark of true children's literature - in the end all the bad people are caught, executed, die, are destroyed? And then you grow up, and you find out that the bad guys aren't always caught, executed, die, or destroyed. That's when your heart breaks, and the real nightmares begin.

"Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon."~ G.K. Chesterton, writing the original lines, in Tremendous Trifles, Book XVII: The Red Angel (1909)

23 March 2022

End of Watch

I watched a picture called Crown Vic, from 2019, because it had Thomas Jane.  I know he’s done a lot of stuff, but I didn’t take much notice until The Expanse – my bad.  Crown Vic is pretty good, a series of incidents, really, not a rising narrative arc, about a pair of L.A. patrol cops on a single night shift, the old salt and the rookie kid, Jane of course the lifer, showing the newbie the ropes.  It’s a well-made movie, handsomely shot, with a handful of good cameos, both funny and disturbing, and I liked it enough to look up the writer/director’s credits, Joel Souza.

Souza wrote four pictures before Crown Vic, and directed three of them, but what made me sit up and take notice is that the picture he started work on next was a Western with Alec Baldwin, titled Rust.

This may or may not ring a bell with the rest of you, but Rust was on location right down the road from here, at Bonanza Creek ranch, a few miles south of Santa Fe.  Souza and his cinematographer, Halyna Hutchins, were rehearsing a set-up with Baldwin.  At some point, Baldwin drew a prop weapon, and cocked it.  The gun went off.  From later investigation, it turns out there was live round in the gun.  The bullet hit Hutchins, went through her, and hit Souza.  She died; he recovered.  Production shut down, and it’s unlikely to resume.  There’s probably no way to get to the bottom of what actually happened. 

The word “complacency” was used by the Santa Fe county sheriff.  One question is how an assistant director could call out “cold gun,” and then hand Baldwin a loaded one.  Another is how dummy rounds, live ammo, and blanks were all present on the set.  This called attention to the armorer, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, and her level of experience.  Hannah is Thell Reed’s daughter.  Thell Reed is one of the more celebrated gun-handlers in Hollywood, right up there with Arvo Ojala, and it’s hard to imagine Hannah being stupid about guns.  In fact, soon after the shooting, word got out that she’d argued for stricter safety protocols and basic firearms instruction for the cast and crew, and she’d been turned down because it wasn’t in the budget.  The more unsettling thing to me is that neither the AD nor the actor thought to check the weapon for themselves. 

Be this as it may, let’s turn our attention to the gun itself.
  Alec Baldwin has recently said that he didn’t pull the trigger.  This may in fact be true.  The gun he was holding was a replica of a Colt single-action Army.  A lot of these are made in Italy by Uberti, and imported by American distributors like Cimarron.  [See below]  This is by no means a primitive gun.  It was state-of-the-art in 1871.  Granted, there have been a few improvements over the last 150 years, but it’s a proven and reliable design.  It does, on other hand, have safety issues.  The cylinder holds six rounds, but you only load five, and leave the hammer down on an empty chamber.  You cock the gun, and the cylinder rotates.  It’s not a good idea to pull the hammer back with just the ball of your thumb, straight back; you want the joint of your thumb across the hammer, or your thumb could slip off.  And the trigger is very light: it’s seated directly against the hammer, and slides out from under it with a breath of air.  If you’re not familiar with the hardware, it’s an accident waiting to happen.

Did it happen
this way?  I have no idea.  And while I don’t know guns upside-down and inside-out like Steve Hunter, I think I know this particular gun fairly well.  I’ve been shooting it for sixty years.  It’s not at all inconceivable that the gun went off, in effect, all by itself.

This, of course, addresses only the mechanical question, and absolves nobody of responsibility.  There was a culture of carelessness on the picture.  It was make-believe. 

22 March 2022

Where to Start - the Importance of Choosing the Right Story Opening

All writers, but especially newer writers, sometimes start their stories in the wrong place. And by "place," I don't mean the wrong setting, which I've written about before. See here. I mean starting in the wrong moment of the story.

Let's take a story about a bank robbery. There can be many places to open the tale. Do you start with your gunman stepping up to the teller? That opens right in the middle of the action. Excellent! Readers will love that. Or do you start the story when the robber enters the bank and looks around? Showing him checking out where the guard is and if he's distracted, and deciding which teller to approach (which one looks the most compliant?) and other such details could raise the tension even before the robber gets in line. Such an opening could work nicely too. 

But there are other options, aren't there? Do you open the story with the robber and his getaway driver in the car, on the way to the bank, talking about their plans? Or do you start with the robber getting a foreclosure notice on his house a week before the robbery, when he realizes he needs to get his hands on some money and fast? Or do you start when he's twenty years old with his first credit card, frivolously buying things he'll be paying back for years at a high interest rate, thus setting him on the path of getting that foreclosure notice? Or do you start on the day he's born, because everything that happens to him from that moment on ultimately brings him to the second when he shoves an empty bag at the teller and says, "This is a robbery"?

Lots of choices. Hopefully, no matter if you're writing a novel or short story, you won't start with the robber's birth. That could make for a very long tale. (Charles Dickens, I'm looking at you and your David Copperfield, the second sentence of which is, "To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born.") 

Every storyteller has to figure out for herself where the best place to start any particular story is, but it's always good to have the beginning centered around something happening or soon to happen. You don't want to start too early in the story (too long before some action occurs) because the reader could get antsy for something to happen to move the plot forward. (And, since we're talking about timing, you also don't want to start too late in the story. Imagine a bank robbery tale that started with the robbers running out out of the bank, into the getaway car, which takes off. The reader would feel confused and cheated because they missed all the excitement. If you're going to write a bank robbery story, you have to show the robbery!)

Given all of this, you might expect I'd say the absolute best place to start a robbery story is when the robber is about to shove his bag at the teller, thus starting with the action. But you'd be wrong. (Ha! A good story--including a good blog--can always benefit from a surprise, just like this one.) Anyway, while starting with the robber reaching the teller can be excellent, there is something to be said for a slower--or even slow--opening that showcases the main character and his emotional wound that sets him on the path to robbing the bank. A beginning that sets up the conflict from which the action will later (but not too much later) unfold also can work (such as the receipt of a foreclosure notice). So can an opening that introduces the setting, hiding little details you'll use later when all hell breaks loose. 

I used a slow opening in both my stories currently nominated for the Agatha Award, one a bit slower than the other. "A Family Matter" (from the Jan./Feb. 2021 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine) opens with the main character, Doris, watching a moving van outside the vacant house next door. It looks like a nice family is moving in. At least that's what she thinks until she hears their chickens. The reader learns quickly that chickens are unacceptable in this nice neighborhood, and Doris believes she must take action to prevent them from taking roost. The conflict from which the story will unfold is thus quickly born, even if there isn't a lot of action right away.

In my story "A Tale of Two Sisters," (published in the anthology Murder on the Beach), the beginning is slower. We open in the middle of a wedding ceremony, with the maid of honor thinking, "My big sister, Emma, was no bridezilla, but heading into her wedding today, she’d been wound up so tight she was like a jack-in-the-box ready to spring." So, we open with the tone--the reader understands that this day is not just joyous but also tense. As the ceremony proceeds, Robin, the point-of-view character and maid of honor, sets the stage, introducing the reader to the key characters and their emotional needs. She addresses things she feared would go wrong during the ceremony. She mentions details the reader will (I hope) overlook until those details come into play later in the story. Finally the scene ends with the newly married couple's first kiss and Robin thinking: "A sigh of relief escaped my lips. Finally, we could relax. Fingers crossed, it would all be smooth sailing from here." This was a quiet opening. Nothing bad happened at all. But I expect the reader will know that poor Robin is kidding herself. If she thinks it will all be smoothing sailing from here, surely a shipwreck is in the offing. And many of the pieces that will go into creating the upcoming storm were baked into the story right from its slow start.

So, those are two openings that don't start with big action. But notice where I didn't start. I didn't open "A Family Matter" on the day Doris and her husband moved into the neighborhood and learned its social rules. I didn't open the story on the day the prior family moved out of the house next door. I opened with conflict: the new family moving in--with their chickens.  

Similarly, with "A Tale of Two Sisters," I didn't open with the maid of honor awakening the morning of the wedding and thinking about everything to come that day. I didn't open on the day the bride got engaged or met her fiance. I didn't open on a fateful day the prior year when something happened between the bride's mother and aunt that set certain things in motion. I started the story during the ceremony, late enough into the action so that the upcoming storm isn't far off, yet early enough that I could quietly plant a bunch of seeds that soon would bloom. 

Let's bring things back to my bank robbery scenario. Do you have to start such a story when the robber approaches the teller? Nope. You could start when the robber enters the bank. Or you could open with the robber outside the bank, in the car, debating if he should go through with his plan. Maybe you even could open when the would-be robber gets that foreclosure notice, which pushes him to devise his desperate plan. 

How you start your story is up to you. But whatever you choose, make sure there's something going on in that opening scene that's important, be it shoving a gun at a teller (starting with action) or opening a foreclosure notice (starting with the conflict from which the action will unfold). That way, whether you start with a bang or start slow, you'll have something to intrigue and lure in your reader and keep her turning the pages.


Want to read "A Family Matter" and "A Tale of Two Sisters"? You can find both stories on my website. Click here for "Family" and here for "Sisters." If you'd prefer to read a PDF version of "A Family Matter," you can find it on the AHMM website. Just click here.

And if you're interested in reading the three other short stories currently nominated for the Agatha Award (stories by Richie Narvaez, Gigi Pandian, and Shawn Reilly Simmons), you can find links to them on the Malice Domestic website. Click here and scroll down to the list of the nominated stories. The titles are all links.