31 October 2022

Our Spook House

© Design Bolts

Elmer Grape, my late husband, loved Halloween as much as Christmas, maybe even a little more. He always said kids liked to be scared. Nothing to hurt them, just something fun scary. And I guess he was right. Every time he jumped out at one of the kids or at me, we laughed. So when Halloween rolled around, he was like a little kid himself. Every October 31st, I think of our Spook House in the mid-1970s.

Our house in Houston had a sidewalk leading from the driveway to the front door located under an overhang porch, a little wider than the walkway. He worked commercial construction and had access to rolls of black plastic, Visqueen. Like garbage bags but thicker and blacker. He hung the plastic from the overhang making a dark corridor to our front door where an evil looking Jack-O-Lantern sat. Kids would have to walk the ten feet to the front door, ring the doorbell. I dressed in a long black dress and ratted my dark hair out, giving me a witchy look.

Elmer sat in our dark garage, which had small windows where he could look out at the kids who walked up our driveway to ring the doorbell and say "Trick or Treat." He rigged up a PA system and with his normally deep voice he'd say, "Fee Fie Fo Fum, I Smell The Blood of an Englishman." Parents standing at the bottom of the driveway, were giggling and encouraging their kids to go to the front door. I usually had to open the front door and coax them to come up the walkway corridor to get candy. E would usually add, "I'll grind his bones to make my bread." One little boy about 6, was hesitant so I finally walked halfway to him to give him candy. Then Elmer said, "I'll get him next year." The little boy looked at his mom and said, "Let's don't come back here next year."

The next year we had moved to Memphis, Tennessee. In August before school stated our son Phil, who had been playing Little League football in Houston, still wanted to play and I thought this would be a good way for us to get acquainted with kids and parents. We signed Phil up. We discovered the PTA had a fall festival in mid-October, as a fund raiser, their version of a Halloween Carnival. The previous year they'd had very successful a spook house. Without thinking twice about it, Elmer and I signed up to be the chairpersons for that. I won't detail what all we did, because this is about "OUR" spook houses, but I will say, Elmer built a wooden coffin to use in the school event. It was shaped like the ones you'd see in all those old Western movies. You know, with the angles at the top end. He painted it flat black, and it was long enough for him to lay his 6 foot, two inch body down inside. As kids came inside the room they saw the coffin, as they got near, he'd raise up, sometimes laughing maniacally. Our spook house was a huge success, many kids coming through several times.

Two weeks later was October 31st. "Halloween." Mr. Grape had already planned for it with that coffin. Again using the black Visqueen, he turned our carport into a spooky room and we didn't charge them anything. I once again dressed witchy, in my long black dress. I had my little story, inviting kids inside, telling them of my friend who had been killed in a horrible accident. If they wanted, they could view his body and his parts if they would just come inside.

I had a box with cold spaghetti for them to put their hand down in to feel. Another box & bowl with some peeled grapes for eyeballs. E had added one new feature to his coffin, which was resting on a couple of sawhorses and draped with the black plastic, he cut an opening in the coffin side in order to stick his arm out and pretend to grab at a kid's arms or hand. He was also wearing a horrible rubber mask with a plastic eyeball hanging out. It had slits in order from him to see. As a kid got close he could raise up or grab, whichever seemed to work.

As the doorkeeper, I would have 2 or 3 kids come in at once. Usually, they were traveling in groups. Kids had so much fun, they went home and got their mom and dad to come see the spook house. No one in this neighborhood had ever done such a thing. One mom got so shook at the coffin watching another mom scream jump, she said, "I think I just wet my pants." Elmer heard this and when he raised up, was laughing so hard he had trouble making a scary sound.

The next year we had to change it up. We set up our living room with the coffin against the far wall. We had a large cloth dummy we put inside. We had some big moving blankets on the floor so when you walked in floor felt funny to walk on. Dim lights in the room. The evil Jack-O-Lantern set up with electric candle inside. I told my little story of my friend who had the accident and had the "guts and eyeballs" for them to feel. And steered them towards the coffin and while they're concentrating there, E came out of the coat closet by the front door with his horrible mask, a flashlight in his belt shinning up towards his face, making a moaning noise.

Some of the parents came inside, one mom started screaming, "Damn you, Elmer Grape, I thought you were in that coffin."

Kids mostly stopped Trick or Treating soon after. Mean people put razor blades or poison in candy and it became too dangerous. However, in the nineties after we moved back to Texas, we lived in Austin where a few kids would walk their own neighborhood with parents. Our great niece, Tiffany, lived behind us. She and her best friend, Amber would walk around the block. Somewhere along the way, Uncle Elmer would jump out and scare them. So along the whole way they were expecting him but never knowing exactly when. The girls are now adults with nearly grown kids of their own but at Halloween they always tell the story of being scared and how much fun it always was.

So is it any wonder that I started writing murder mysteries? Or that we owned a mystery bookstore in Austin for nine years? It's just a shame there are no photos or videos. People didn't have cell phones or digital cameras then and even if I'd thought of it, I was too busy telling the story and handing out treats.


30 October 2022

Down the Rabbit Hole


Just when you think you're getting a handle on how this writing game works, you find that some element of the process changes, the situation wasn't what you thought it was, or the situation now requires something you weren't originally aware of. So, come along with me and I'll show you the rabbit hole I stepped in.

It all started on one of the high points of my writing career. My story had just won the Edgar Award for Best Short Story at the MWA Banquet in Manhattan during the end of this past April. I was still riding a high when we returned home and I found an e-mail on a provider which I seldom used. It seemed a publisher in Japan wanted to purchase reprint rights to my Edgar story, "The Road to Hana." Great.

When I agreed, They sent a contract in English. Good thing because I don't read a single word of Japanese. The contract was simple as it laid out the terms. They would publish the story in their version of Mystery Magazine in its July 2022 issue, available on June 25th, and in return they would pay $200 USD by check.

I then went on to do my due diligence as best I could. Wikipedia listed them as a long time publishing corporation. Checking an English version of their online site showed they did publish that magazine. I e-mailed them the story and the signed contract.

July rolled past. No check. I gave them a month. Best I could tell, my story was not in the July issue. In August, I sent an e-mail inquiring where my check was. After all, it could have gotten lost in the mail. That is a long way across all that water.

To my surprise, the replying e-mail came within 24 hours. All the previous e-mails had taken about four days or so for a round trip. I had presumed that working out the translation for the two languages was the cause for the time gap in the first e-mails. A couple of things also bothered me about this e-mail. It came from their treasurer and went something along the lines of to avoid Japanese tax laws, they would run the story in a 4-part serial and would I please send them my bank's routing number, my account number and code password. I'd already had a Turkish hacker take a run at my PayPal account, so whatever happened to that good safe check?

Also, the name of the treasurer was Kobayashi. That might be a common name in Japan, I don't know, but maybe you remember Kevin Spacey in the movie The Usual Suspects? He plays the part of a lame criminal on the lower rungs of the hierarchy and tells the story to the cops about Kobayashi being the elusive and nefarious mastermind of the crime they are investigating. At the end of the movie, the cops let Spacey go and as he limps down the sidewalk, you see him become less and less lame until he walks with a normal stride, no limp. At that time you know he is Kobayashi.

Okay, okay, I will admit to a little paranoia in this time of cyber security hacks, phishing and scams. My former profession probably doesn't help the situation much, but like we always said, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you."

I start to question my invitation to this little tea party. I go dark and leave the next step up to them.

And then at the end of September, what 
to my wondering eyes should appear... No, wait, that's a different story. In this case, a package comes in the mail. It has Japanese postage stamps on it. I open the package and there are the three magazines I asked for as author complimentary copies. Of course, it is all in Japanese. Carefully, I turn page to page searching for anything in English. Finally, on one page is a drawing of palm trees along with four English words in very small print: the Road to Hana. How about that? I am finally internationally published.

All I've got to do now is wait for the White Rabbit to bring me my check.

Not so fast there, Bubba. The Mad Hatter wants his say in this back and forth tale.

Did you know that the U.S. government has a tax treaty with foreign countries? Now, it's going to cost me $85 dollars to fill out an IRS Form 8802 in order to get my IRS Form 6166 Certificate of Residency in order to get that $200 check.

Have any of you people gone down your own Rabbit Hole or taken a trip Through the Looking Glass? We would love to hear about it.

29 October 2022

And Don't Call Me Shirley


As I get older, I'm often reminded that my memory's not what it used to be. Example: One night last week, while my wife and I were watching the news, I asked her what I thought was a reasonable question about a guy who was being interviewed on the street. "Why in the world," I said, pointing, "would someone wear both a belt and suspenders?" It was of course more of an observation than a question, and right away it seemed somehow familiar to me. I spent the rest of the newscast trying to remember where I'd heard that expression before. 

Later that night I did some snooping around on YouTube and--sure enough--I found this clip, from Once Upon a Time in the West, which solved my belt-and-suspenders mystery. When I told my wife about it. she made an observation of her own. She said, not for the first time, "I think you watch too many movies."

Guilty as charged, there. I happen to love movies. And over the years I've picked up a lot of sayings that I first heard spoken in big-screen dialogue. Some of them are silly, some are wise, and most of them stay in my head for a long time afterward. Which led of course to this post.

Here's my question to you: How many film quotes do you recognize, from the following three lists?

NOTE: Given my sophisticated viewing preferences, you can expect to see more quotes here from movies like Jaws and Blazing Saddles than from movies like Schindler's List and Anna Karenina. Sorry, but that's just the way it is.

List #1. 10 lines of dialogue that almost everyone knows.
 (I trust you to supply the movie names. If you've been lost on a jungle island for the past eighty years or so and your rescuers have a computer handy, I have provided video-clip links.)

1. Here's looking at you, kid.

2. I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse.

3. May the Force be with you.

4. Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.

5. You're gonna need a bigger boat.

6. Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.

7. If you build it, he will come.

8. Bond. James Bond.

9. I love the smell of napalm in the morning.

10. Go ahead. Make my day.

List #2. 100 quotes you probably/possibly know, if you're a movie lover:

1. You can't fight in here--this is the War Room. -- Dr. Strangelove

2. Show me the money. -- Jerry Maguire 

3. I coulda been a contender. -- On the Waterfront

4. Play it, Sam. Play "As Time Goes By." -- Casablanca 

5. Surely you're not serious. / I am serious. And don't call me Shirley. -- Airplane!

6. I'm the king of the world! -- Titanic

7. Leave the gun, take the cannoli. -- The Godfather

8. Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. -- Forrest Gump

9. What we have here . . . is a failure to communicate. -- Cool Hand Luke

10. You can't handle the truth. -- A Few Good Men

11. That plane's dusting crops where there ain't no crops. -- North by Northwest

12. Today I saw a slave become more powerful than the Emporer of Rome. -- Gladiator

13. Throw me the idol, I throw you the whip. -- Raiders of the Lost Ark

14. You talking to me? -- Taxi Driver

15. Love means never having to say you're sorry. -- Love Story

16. Is it safe? -- Marathon Man

17. Put up your arms--and all your flippers. -- Men in Black

18. I'd like to report a truck driver who's been endangering my life. -- Duel

19. I wish we could chat longer, but I'm having an old friend for dinner. -- The Silence of the Lambs

20. Say hello to my leetle friend. -- Scarface

21. Open the pod bay doors, Hal. -- 2001: A Space Odyssey

22. The stuff that dreams are made of. -- The Maltese Falcon

23. Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die. -- The Princess Bride

24. Travis! Bring your gun! -- Old Yeller

25. Who ya gonna call? -- Ghostbusters

26. Made it, Ma! Top of the world! -- White Heat

27. They call me Mister Tibbs. -- In the Heat of the Night

28. Seven years of college, down the drain. -- Animal House

29. I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore! -- Network

30. We got trouble, right here in River City. -- The Music Man

31. Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. -- Rebecca

32. Who are those guys? -- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

33. Please welcome the very excellent barbarian . . . Mr. Genghis Khan! -- Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure

34. I'm walking here! I'm walking here! -- Midnight Cowboy

35. After all . . . tomorrow is another day. -- Gone with the Wind

36. STELLA! -- A Streetcar Named Desire

37. I'll have what she's having. -- When Harry Met Sally

38. He can't go down with three barrels on him. Not with three, he can't. -- Jaws

39. I see dead people. -- The Sixth Sense

40. Plastics. -- The Graduate

41. I'm George, George McFly. I am your density. I mean . . . your destiny. -- Back to the Future

42. Houston, we have a problem. -- Apollo 13

43. I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man. -- True Grit

44. You had me at "hello." -- Jerry Maguire

45. I don't understand. All my life I've been waiting for someone, and when I find her . . . she's a fish. -- Splash 

46. Shaken, not stirred. -- Goldfinger (and many other Bond movies)

47. There's no crying in baseball. -- A League of Their Own

48. Snake Plissken? I heard you were dead. -- Escape from New York

49. And for a brief moment, Gordo Cooper became the finest pilot anyone had ever seen. -- The Right Stuff

50. It's alive! It's alive! -- Frankenstein

51. Rosebud. -- Citizen Kane

52. Remember me? I came in here yesterday and you wouldn't wait on me. Big mistake. -- Pretty Woman

53. He's fleeing the interview! -- Fargo 

54. What in the wide, wide world of sports is goin' on here? -- Blazing Saddles

55. Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. -- Wall Street

56. Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me. Aren't you? -- The Graduate

57. Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine. -- Casablanca

58. Heeeeere's Johnny! -- The Shining

59. It was beauty killed the beast. -- King Kong

60. Anybody hear that? It's an impact tremor, that's what it is. I'm fairly alarmed here. -- Jurassic Park

61. Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings. -- It's a Wonderful Life

62. Tell 'em to go out there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper. -- Knute Rockne: All-American

63. Put some Windex on it. -- My Big Fat Greek Wedding

64. And that was the end of Grogan--the man who killed my father, raped and murdered my sister, burned my ranch, shot my dog . . . and stole my Bible. -- Romancing the Stone

65. Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape. -- Planet of the Apes 

66. I saw it. It was a run-by fruiting. -- Mrs. Doubtfire

67. Be careful, out there among them English. -- Witness

68. ADRIAN! -- Rocky

69. I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too. -- The Wizard of Oz

70. Roads? Where we're going, you don't need roads. -- Back to the Future

71. Fat man, you shoot a great game of pool. -- The Hustler

72. I volunteer as tribute. -- The Hunger Games

73. Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. -- Casablanca

74. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead. -- The Terminator

75. Have fun storming the castle. -- The Princess Bride

76. Roger O. Thornhill. What does the O stand for? / Nothing. -- North by Northwest

77. Michael, we're bigger than U. S. Steel. -- The Godfather, Part II

78. Give me ten men like Clouseau and I could destroy the world. -- A Shot in the Dark

79. To infinity and beyond! -- Toy Story

80. Docta Jones, Docta Jones! No more parachutes! -- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

81. This was no boat accident. -- Jaws

82. I don't have to show you any steenking badges. -- The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

83. WILSON! -- Cast Away

84. When you said you chased tornadoes, I thought that was just a metaphor. -- Twister

85. A lie keeps growing and growing until it's as clear as the nose on your face. -- Pinocchio

86. I want Ness . . . dead. I want his family . . . dead. I want his house . . . burned to the ground. -- The Untouchables

87. Hasta la vista, baby. -- Terminator 2: Judgment Day

88. What if there is no tomorrow? There wasn't one today. -- Groundhog Day

89. All I wanna do is go the distance. -- Rocky

90. That'll do, pig. That'll do. -- Babe

91. They're heeee-re. -- Poltergeist

92. I killed him for money and a woman--and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. -- Double Indemnity

93. We rob banks. -- Bonnie and Clyde

94. I'll be back. -- The Terminator

95. These aren't the droids you're looking for. -- Star Wars

96. There's only one rule: Once you go in . . . you don't come out. -- Escape from New York 

97. Sometimes nothin' can be a mighty cool hand. -- Cool Hand Luke

98. Round up the usual suspects. -- Casablanca

99. As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again. -- Gone with the Wind

100. Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passing. -- To Kill a Mockingbird

List #3. 50 quotes rarely recognized, but cool anyway (some of my favorites):

1. Goodnight, you princes of Maine, you knights of New England. -- The Cider House Rules

2. I've got the motive, which is money, and the body, which is dead. -- In the Heat of the Night

3. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist. -- The Usual Suspects 

4. We at the FBI do not have a sense of humor that we're aware of. -- Men in Black

5. Any man don't wanna get killed, better clear on out the back. -- Unforgiven

6. That's a negative, Ghostrider, the pattern is full. -- Top Gun

7. All these things I can do, all these powers . . . and I couldn't even save him. -- Superman

8. The next time I see Blue Duck, I'll kill him for you. -- Lonesome Dove

9. A wed wose. How womantic. -- Blazing Saddles

10. You got ten seconds to run like hell. Then dynamite, not faith, will move that mountain into this pass. -- The Professionals 

11. In the end you wind up dying all alone on some dusty street. And for what? A tin star? -- High Noon

12. Ain't had no water since yesterday, Lord. Gettin' a little thirsty. Just thought I'd mention it. Amen. -- The Ballad of Cable Hogue

13. How will you die, Joan Wilder? Slow, like a snail? Or fast, like a shooting star? -- Romancing the Stone

14. Oh, my. I hope that wasn't a hostage. -- Die Hard

15. I'll take those Huggies and whatever you got in the register. -- Raising Arizona

16. He just saved your life, and Elizabeth's too. And he saved mine, and Arliss's. We can't just shoot him, like he was nothin'! -- Old Yeller

17. Stay on or get off? STAY ON OR GET OFF? -- Speed

18. I wish they wouldn't land those things here while we're playing golf. -- M*A*S*H

19. O Captain, my Captain. -- Dead Poets Society

20. Love means never having to say you're sorry. / That's the dumbest thing I ever heard. -- What's Up, Doc?

21. Come on, Hobbs, knock the cover off the ball. -- The Natural

22. We find the defendants incredibly guilty. -- The Producers

23. I'm always frank and earnest with women. In New York I'm Frank, in Chicago I'm Ernest -- The Long Kiss Goodnight

24. Moneypenny, what would I do without you? / My problem is, you never do anything with me. -- On Her Majesty's Secret Service

25. I see you've been missing a lot of work. / Well. I wouldn't say I've been missing it. -- Office Space

26. I'm thinking your head would make a real good toilet brush. -- Heaven's Prisoners

27. The horse is too small, the jockey's too big, the trainer's too old, and I'm too dumb to know the difference. -- Seabiscuit

28. I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals. -- Butch Cassidy

29. Go do that voodoo that you do so well. -- Blazing Saddles

30. All you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, and charge me for a chicken salad sandwich. / You want me to hold the chicken? / I want you to hold it between your knees. -- Five Easy Pieces

31. Where is your commanding officer? / Blowed up, SIR! -- Stripes

32. You are in need of a soothsayer. / How do you know? / I'd be a fine soothsayer if I didn't. -- A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

33. This lighter has sixty-two different functions. Sixty-three if you wish to light a cigar. -- Our Man Flint

34. Funny thing is, on the outside I was an honest man. I had to come to prison to be a crook. -- The Shawshank Redemption

35. That's a Smith and Wesson--and you've had your six. -- Doctor No

36. Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes? -- Raiders of the Lost Ark

37. That was the end of my religion period. I ain't sung a hymn for 104 years. -- Little Big Man

38. Here are your names: Mr. Brown, Mr. White, Mr. Blond, Mr. Blue, Mr. Orange, and Mr. Pink. -- Reservoir Dogs

39. Don't open my pantry, Father. I found one of them in there and I locked him in. -- Signs

40. He's in a gunfight right now. He'll have to call you back. -- Under Siege  

41. You know, the one thing I can't figure out, are these girls real smart or real real lucky? -- Thelma and Louise

42. You can shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit 'em . . . -- To Kill a Mockingbird

43. What happened to the old bank?--it was beautiful. / People kept robbing it. / Small price to pay for beauty. -- Butch Cassidy

44. If you build what, who will come? / He didn't say. -- Field of Dreams

45. Ain't gonna be no rematch. Don't want one. -- Rocky

46. He did it! He missed the barn! -- Cat Ballou  

47. Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? / So help me, Me. -- Oh, God!

48. I once asked this literary agent, "What kind of writing paid the best?" He said, "Ransom notes." -- Get Shorty

49. You've got me? Who's got you? -- Superman 

50. This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off. -- Alien

And this is me, signing off. If you have a favorite film quote, or even one from TV (I had to draw the line somewhere), please let me know in the comments section.

Next Saturday, I'll be here with something about, believe it or not, mystery writing. Meanwhile, keep watching those movies.

28 October 2022

Unfinished Business

NYC Wanderer (Kevin Eng), CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

  I generally try to finish a book when I start it. I abandoned a few during lockdown because I was locked down and didn't want to waste my time. Also, I'm usually rewarded for my efforts. But in 2022, I've ditched two: One classic, and one I'd hoped would give me insight into our increasingly narcissistic society. 

Portrait of a Lady - Henry James

This is one I read from a list of classics compiled by Harold Bloom. I had a love-hate relationship with Bloom's work. He could be full of himself, sounding like a self-appointed arbiter of what is "good" literature. I had a high school English teacher who did that, and I don't have fond memories of her.

But Bloom's How to Read, as in deep reading, is a worthwhile volume. Bloom reins in his pompous tendencies and offers up lists of poetry, drama, and novels he believes everyone should read. These are not his version of the Western Canon. 

For the most part, I've enjoyed every book so far on the list. I had to do Crime and Punishment on audio because Russian novels really don't translate well into English. This explained to me by one actual Russian and another person fluent in the language. I skipped Proust's In Search of Lost Time, mainly due to length. I want to read it someday, but when my schedule is not so pressed. And I want to reread The Magic Mountain when I can go more slowly.

And then we come to Henry James's Portrait of a Lady. I'd like to say I bailed too soon on it, but he starts off doing his own literary criticism. Now, if I post my own review of Holland Bay, Amazon is going to not only ban me from their service, they'll pull every book I have on the site, much to the chagrin of three publishers, all too small to afford the damage that would do. But he's Henry James.

I skipped the self-indulgent essay. Stephen King encourages you to do the same to him and has taken to putting the author notes at the end of his work. 

Then we get into the story. It's a bunch of Victorian bankers chatting about how superior they are. It goes on for about twenty-five pages. I took the book back to the library. But wait! I did Crime and Punishment on Audible. Maybe that would help.

Nope. I hated the book for much the same reasons I never liked Bonfire of the Vanities. I don't like any of the characters, and I don't care about the problems of rich people. 

"Wait. Doesn't your scifi series feature a trillionaire's son and a royal?"

Yes, but the son hated the gilded cage and ended up becoming a soldier. The royal hates her job and doesn't hide the fact. They're more Harry than Charles.

Well, I wasn't going to like all of them. 

Selfie - William Stohr

I had high hopes for this one. It started off well enough, with a look at Eastern and ancient views of "self." 

Aaaand then we get a chapter on suspect seventies psychotherapy fad that still exists, a muddled theory that - because humans moods and motivations shift and a section of the brain drives impulsiveness - humans have no free will and are not a single entity, and a whiny self-indulgent passage about the author's neuroses. 

I can read Philip Roth for that, and I like reading Roth's work. My wife saw me reading and said, "You don't look happy." I wasn't. The book went back to the library after I'd only read a third of it. After I dropped it off, I thought about it. Did I give it a fair chance?

The recommendation came from a friend's Goodreads page. I'd picked some interesting books from his shevles: Ohio: A Novel, Lincoln Highway, Don't Know Tough, and Under Color of Law. Some of his nonfiction picks were quite good, especially those around music. So, this was a safe pick, right? I just got impatient?

It's not even on his shelf.

It's odd. When I start a book, I feel committed to finish it. It's why I switched from print to audio on Crime and Punishment. But Portrait of a Lady wasn't just heavy - So was The Human Stain and The Magic Mountain. - it was tedious. Audio didn't make it any better. Or maybe Twain and Hemingway have spoiled me (along with Washington Irving.) But then I skipped Melville's intro to Moby Dick and jumped into the story. The episodic nature of it made the story easy to follow.

Maybe I'm too invested in crime or science fiction, but I'm also plowing through the canon of Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and William Shakespeare. So, no, that's not it. I love history. I love contradictory history. Jennifer Paxton, a professor of medieval studies, has a vastly different view of English history, especially the Anglo-Saxons, than Mark Morris. Yet I get a lot out of their work. Joseph M. Marshall III, a Lakota historian (and not a bad audio reader) is saying some uncomfortable things about the European incursion into indigenous territory. And to be honest, I can't wait to hear what he says next.

27 October 2022

The Queen's Poisoner

Queen Christina of Sweden (r. 1632-1654)
 That one got your attention, huh? Kind of a vague term, "the Queen's Poisoner." Does it mean "the person who poisoned the queen?" Or maybe, "The poisoner who worked for the queen, perhaps even filling an official position of "queen's poisoner"? Or it could be the title of a fantasy novel?

For our purposes it's something altogether–uh, okay mostly different. The "poisoner" in question is a professional. The queen is unconventional. And this story has two parts. Today we'll talk about the poisoner and the queen. In two weeks, we'll talk about the indirect impact these two persons had on an entire country–and not the one the poisoner called home (Italy) or the one ruled by the queen (Sweden).

First, the poisoner.

The formidable Olympia Maidalchini
It's easy to sum up the historical record on our poisoner, because said historical record is so slim. His name (we think) was Nicol√≤ Egidi. But he is better remembered by his nom de guerre: "Egidio Exili" ("Egidio the Exile"?). Exili first enters the historical record while serving in the household of Olympia Maidalchini, the influential sister-in-law of the current pope, Innocent X (r. 1644-1655). Exili's position was listed as "poisoner."

It's important at this point to understand that the profession of "poisoner" most often could have been more accurately called "alchemist," which in many ways was a forerunner to what we refer to as a "chemist." Granted, a lot of the experimental research done by these individuals involved coming up with poisons, not least because the only way to prepare an antidote for a particular poison was to experiment with the actual thing. 

How long Exili worked for the powerful (and by all accounts, formidable) Donna Olympia is not recorded. And when next he pops up, it's several hundred miles to the north, at the court of Queen Christina of Sweden.

Which brings us to the queen. 

(We'll get back to Exili in a moment).

Queen Christina dressed as a man

Born in 1626, Christina came to the throne upon the death of her father, King Gustavus Adolphus, in battle. She began to rule in her own right in 1644, and then took two steps guaranteed to ensure her reign was brief: she made public her desire to never marry (and thus never to produce an heir), and eventually made public her conversion from the Lutheranism of her youth (and in service of which her father had died, a casualty of the so-called Thirty Years' War) to Catholicism. 

Neither move was popular with her subjects, who were both A) overwhelmingly chauvinistic by our standards, and B) overwhelmingly Lutheran by any standards. And that's not all. During the ten years before she abdicated in favor of a male cousin, Christina acted in ways very unlike the "conventional" queen of her era.

For starters, she frequently dressed as a man. Coupled with her lack of interest in marriage, it has been speculated that Christina might have been either gay or even transgender. Both are possible, as is the notion that she dressed as a man because she felt men were taken more seriously in the areas which really interested her: the arts and sciences.

While she reigned Christina's court in Stockholm was a hot bed of artistic and scientific inquiry: artists, scholars, scientists (or, as they were known at the time, "natural philosophers") from all over Europe flocked to Sweden hoping for some of the royal patronage with which Christina was so generous that she nearly bankrupted the state treasury.

Exili was among those who went to Sweden looking for a "research grant," and he entered the queen's service and stayed in that position for several years.

Including that time the queen sent him to Paris on royal business, and the French promptly tossed him in the Bastille.

And that's it for now. Come back in two weeks to find out what happened to both this queen and her poisoner, as well as what climactic event they had an indirect impact on. See you in two weeks!

The Bastille surrounded by the eastern part of Paris in 1649.

26 October 2022

The Duellists


A young girl shepherds a group of geese down a tree-covered lane.  She’s brought up suddenly short by a tall man in a Hussar’s uniform, standing indifferently in her way.  A short distance beyond, two other men in shirtsleeves are en garde, at rapier point.  She’s stumbled onto a duel.  The two men are clearly mismatched; the first is awkward and inexpert, the second condescending and impatient.  The first makes a stumbling attack, the second parries him and circles to one side, exasperated.  The first lunges again and the second skewers him center body, as carelessly as brushing aside an insect.  “L√†,” the better swordsman says,   and steps back, leaving the blade sticking through and through.  He lifts his empty hands in a dismissive gesture, this small business beneath his dignity, and turns away. 

This is the opening scene of Ridley Scott’s 1977 feature picture debut, The Duellists.  Conrad begins his 1908 novella with a brief paragraph to set up his backdrop, the Napoleonic wars, and drops you right into it.  Ridley, if anything, allows us to catch our breath for a single, brief moment, but then abruptly pulls the rug out from under. 

Here’s the hook.  Two of Napoleon’s officers, cavalrymen, fight a duel, the pretext a supposed insult, but the cause of their dispute itself misunderstood.  They go on for another dozen years or so, from Strasbourg to the invasion of Russia to the emperor’s exile, to fight each over and again, to no result, until finally, one forces a resolution on the other. 

Conrad is no stranger to obsession, or the collision of fate and accident, or the opposition of two people thrown into relief, their character mirrored.  “The Secret Sharer” comes to mind, or Lord Jim.  What drew Ridley Scott to it seems more problematic.  I don’t see a lot of ambiguity in his movies.  Subtleties, elusiveness, a thing seen on the periphery, yes, and shape-shifting.  But for the most part, you seem to skitter on material surfaces, often metallic, or reflective, armored, not porous and elastic, not inward. 

And yet.  A sense of something hidden, or withheld.

The cinematographer on The Duellists was Frank Tidy, his first feature, as well as Ridley’s, but the camera operator was Ridley himself.  This is telling.  The guy actually looking through the lens.  You have to wonder which of the two was composing the shot.  The movie’s beyond pictorial – every frame is breathtaking.  You can feel a sense of awe, not that they’re so good at what they do, but that they got a chance at the brass ring, and made the most of it. 

The gods also smiled on their casting.  Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine are the leads, Keitel as the hasty fireplug with a grievance, Carradine as the long, languid drink of water, both of them playing to type, but making it seem new, as if each of them were suddenly startled awake, in character, and blinking at the light.  Cameos to make you swoon: Albert Finney and Tom Conti, Edward Fox and John McEnery, Alun Armstrong, Diana Quick, Pete Postlethwaite.  They lucked into it, whatever it is, and stepped across the magical boundary into the sublime. 

Available to stream on Amazon Prime; also on DVD, both Standard and Blu-Ray. 

25 October 2022

Second Chances, Revisited

In “Second Chances,” his October 15 SleuthSayers post, John Floyd asked the question “Do editors often ask you to revise and resubmit a story?”

His post and the comments from readers address the issue from a writer’s point of view. What about from the editor’s point of view: “Do you often ask writers to revise and resubmit a story?”

The answer depends on how loosely or tightly we define “revise” because it’s a continuum that includes simple spelling, punctuation, and grammar corrections at one end and a complete rewrite at the other end.

Ima Writer’s manuscript just
needs a little work.

Few writers ever deliver a perfect manuscript that can go directly into production without an editor spilling some metaphorical red ink over the pages. Even with the cleanest manuscripts, I correct errors that have slipped past the writers, and I may also make changes based on style preferences, which may be mine or may be the publisher’s. For example, my preference is for the serial comma when I edit fiction, and one publisher I work with prefers “okay” rather than “OK.”

I have no qualms about requesting these corrections and changes, and I expect the writers I work with to address them with minimal complaint. At the same time, if in my editing I’ve introduced an error, or if I’ve made a change that doesn’t ring true, I expect the writers to let me know. This is especially true when dealing with regionalisms (spelling or grammatical choices that may be appropriate in one part of the country but not another). Recently, I’ve had two New York-based writers take me to task for insertion of a comma after a particular word when it starts a sentence because it interferes with New York speech patterns.


The territory between correction and rewrite is quite wide, and may involve redrafting sentences, rearranging a paragraph or two, or addressing logic flaws, mathematical errors, and factual errors.

Recent examples of revisions I’ve requested involve:

A story set between the two world wars referring to the first one as World War I. World War I wasn’t referred to in this way until there was a World War II, and was most often referred to as the Great War or, occasionally, the first world war.

A story in which a bullet shatters the glass of a car that was earlier described as being glassless.

A story in which a character fires one of two bullets but later in the story someone has collected two shells, implying that both bullets had been fired when they hadn’t. The numerical problem needed to be resolved.

A story in which a character under the influence of drugs acts as if the drugs have suddenly ceased to have an impact. The character either needed a slower transition from drugged to not drugged or there needed to be a clear explanation of the sudden change.

A story in which a driver speeding down the highway at night recognizes someone standing by a car at the side of the road and pulls in behind the other car. Given the speed of the vehicle, the distance one can see in the light of one’s headlights, and the time it takes to recognize someone in the dark while speeding, it is far more likely the driver would pull to the side of the road ahead of the parked car.

If a story is otherwise acceptable, and if these things can be easily fixed, I will request revision.


How many things have to change to call a revision a rewrite? Either something significant or enough smaller things that there are multiple changes on every page, some of which may be the type indicated above.

Recent examples of rewrites I’ve requested:

A story that started near the end of page two, so I asked that the first two pages be cut significantly.

A story that ended several pages before the author stopped writing, so I asked that those extra pages be deleted.

A story that was overwritten, using too many words to tell the story, so I asked that everything be tightened.

How often do I suggest or request rewrites? Not often.

I consider two things before I suggest or request a rewrite: Do I like the underlying story? Have I worked with the writer before?

If I have never or rarely worked with the writer, I may describe the desired changes and tell the writer that I would be happy to reconsider the story after a rewrite. Some writers will rewrite, some won’t. Some improve the story through rewrite and receive an acceptance, some don’t.

If I have previously worked with the writer and those previous encounters have been positive—and especially if the story was written by invitation—then I will ask for a rewrite.


Most writers I’ve worked with are open to correction, revision, or rewrite, especially if I explain why I’m asking. Some, once they understand what I’m asking for, will find a solution that’s better than anything I suggest.

And when that happens, everyone benefits.

24 October 2022

All love is good love (in writing as in life.)

I have a particular hobby horse when it comes to mystery writing that I keep well fed and groomed, and in a comfortable barn. 

Good writing is good writing irrespective of the genre.  I’ve got the degrees and read thousands of books of all kinds, and some mysteries are examples of transcendently exquisite writing.

Classical, didactic definitions of exceptional literature are meaningless to me.  What constitutes good writing is in the mind of the reader, though I think we can fairly say that if it engages you, holds your attention to the end, and leaves you feeling a bit excited, the writer’s mission was a success. 

To those who think genre writing, in particular the mystery/thriller species, is somehow second rate, I like to say, “You try it.”  I also play in a rock band. Trained classical musicians might think our musicality is primitive, but if you don’t have a feel for the nuances and texture of the form, it will stick out like a sore thumb.  I love ballet, but I’ve known some ballet dancers who have no idea how to get it done on the dance floor, especially with a disco ball overhead and giant amplifiers pounding in their ears. 

Writers of both literary fiction and mysteries select from the same toolbox.  They both need vividly rendered characters, clever and mellifluous prose and a sturdy, satisfying plot.  In fact, mystery writers cannot succeed without that last ingredient, whereas the literary breed can sort of drift off toward the end of a book with a vague, exhausted glance at their premise and often get away with it. 

The debate over high vs. low art is eternal and unresolvable.  Partly because what’s high or low has been historically fungible.  To me, the Olympian height of visual art was achieved by the Impressionists, though in their own time, the French Academy wouldn’t invite them to a cocktail party, much less to a spot on the wall of the Louvre.  There isn’t a music critic alive today who wouldn’t regard Duke Ellington or Miles Davis as a consummate genius, but go look at their contemporaneous reviews. 

Everyone is entitled to like what they like and disregard the rest.  I have a list of songs and movies I love that my best friends think are complete crap. And vice versa.  That’s not only okay, it’s what makes the arts so richly wonderful.  There’s something for everyone.  That doesn’t mean there can be no objective measures of quality.  There is often a general consensus (few would regard Bo Derrick’s Tarzan movie on par with the best of Truffaut), but you have a right to stand bravely outside the mob and declare your devotion to Bo’s “They’re painting me!” pathos. 

What I argue with is condemnation, or ridicule, of entire swaths of creativity, based entirely on whether or not it fits within a prescribed set of criteria – a frozen, sclerotic definition.  Most, if not all, the mystery writers I know would say they could care a toss about this.  But of course, deep down, they do.

I just know that Scott Turow set out as a young writer to create a mystery/thriller informed by literary techniques and sensibility, and came up with Presumed Innocent, an artistic tour de force.  As did Dennis Lehane with Mystic River and Gillian Flynn with Gone Girl. 

I’m convinced that in a future time, these works will be sitting alongside Faulkner, Twain and Flaubert, and no one will think a toss about it. 

23 October 2022

Thrush at Bat

’Tis the season of the witch, the jack-o-lantern, the sugar skull, and unseen things that go bump in the night.

In near darkness of the wee hours, friend Thrush stumbled into his bathroom. In the sink sat a tree frog, a small amphibian that clings to glass doors and snarfs mosquitoes. Yay, tree frogs. Thrush didn’t want it to dehydrate but, half-awake, he didn’t want to deal with it at that hour. He dribbled water over it and stumbled back to bed in the dark.

He rose early before dawn and found the creature still in the sink, still in near darkness. Thrush wasn’t wearing his glasses, so he dribbled more water on it.

It was game day, Penn State versus Auburn. Thrush forgot about wildlife in the bath until mid-afternoon when he told me, hoping I’d rescue it. That’s me, Mr Neighborhood Wildlife Rescue.

There in the sink huddled a small dark lump. I didn’t have glasses on either, but I’d never seen a black tree frog. Suspicious, I pulled on gloves and scooped the tiny critter into a paper napkin. What the hell?

It had a stick-like projection… two, in fact… and a small tail. Frogs lose their tails when they’re young. And the little thing was shivering.

Halloween season– I found myself face-to-face with a bat.

a very wet bat a very wet bat
a very wet bat
shivering, can't open eyes
a very wet bat a very wet bat
stick-like part is a folded wing
struggling to open its eyes

Most bats in North America are small, the majority barely two inches. As a kid tramping through our woods, I encountered one that looked like a tan cocoon clinging to a branch of a bush. I imagined it emitting inaudible little zzzs as it napped. Some varieties of bats like caves, some trees, and others prefer man-made structures– attics and belfries.

Florida has thirteen flavors of bats. This little guy was probably its most common, the Mexican (or Brazilian) free-tail bat. He wasn’t at all aggressive or even defensive. He lay in my hand resting and quietly shivering. I took him outside in the sun. Thrush grabbed his camera.

The majority of bats are insectivorous. Like dolphins, they use echolocation to find prey. Bats eliminate tons of mosquitoes, flies, and other bugs each season. That’s tons literally. The largest are fruit bats, not carnivorous at all.

The ‘free-tail’ part of my little bat means it has more than a stub that’s not part of its wing. This bat can use a couple of Halloween tricks.

For one thing, the Mexican free-tail bat can jam ultrasonic signals of other bat species. They let a cousin find an insect, blast its echolocation frequency and swoop in for a snack.

The Mexican free-tail bat is also the fastest mammal in the world. It can clock 100mph (161kmph) on straight and level flight. Little else can come close.

As I held the tiny bat in the sun, it stretched one thinner-than-paper wing, tucked it in and stretched the other. They were nearly transparent.

Moments later, he stretched both and paused. The wingspread of this tiny thing astonished me, 10-12 inches (25-30cm) on a body hardly two inches long (5cm).

It knew when it had dried sufficiently to fly. It lifted off my palm, those impossibly tissue-thin wings not so much flapping as sailing. Within a moment, it shot amid the plants that line the canal and was gone. Gone like ghosts of Halloween.

May you and your bats stay safe this holiday.

22 October 2022

A Look Behind the Names

Well, only a little bit is by me today.  Instead, it's my pleasure to welcome friend, colleague, and fellow Canuck Judy Penz Sheluk to these pages.  Judy hits on a topic particularly dear to my heart. I'll tell you why after her post.
— Melodie

A Look Behind the Names

by Judy Penz Sheluk

If you follow me on social media, you'll know I'm the owner of  Golden Retriever named Gibbs (after Leroy Jethro Gibbs of the long-running TV show NCIS). Gibbs, who will turn seven on October 15, is a good dog who lives up to the stubborn streak of his namesake and the Semper Fi (always faithful) motto of the marine corp.

Now, you might be asking what any of this has to do with Before There Were Skeletons, the latest book in my Marketville Mystery series, and I'm getting to that. You see, I've long been a supporter of Golden Rescue, a wonderful Canadian non-profit that connects Golden Retrievers of all ages in need of a home with folks hoping to adopt one. And like so many charitable organizations during the height of Covid, Golden Rescue's primary annual picnic and auction fundraiser was cancelled.

Enter Wanetta Doucette-Goodman, a tireless behind-the-scenes worker who organized more than one Facebook silent auction to raise those much-needed funds.  When I saw the one in the Fall of 2020, I thought, I could donate a book copy or two, maybe even a "name the character" in my next book."

I floated the idea of a "name the character" by Wanetta and she loved it.  In fact, she loved the idea so much that she became the winning bidder.  But Wanetta is the giving sort.  She didn't ask for a character to be named after her, but rather, her daughter-in-law, Kathleen "Kate" Goodman, nee Lindsay.  She also sent me photos of Kate, and told me she had two older sisters, Kelly and Kristine.

I could have stuck to the original bargain - a character named kate Goodman--but what fun would that be? Besides, it's not as easy to come up with character names as you might think.  And so, Before There Were Skeletons has several nods to Wanetta's winning bid:

Kathleen “Kate” Goodman: a twenty-eight-year-old woman who hires Callie to find her mother, who disappeared on Valentine’s Day 1995, following her shift at a local bar in Miakoda Falls. Veronica Celeste Goodman was 18 at the time, and by all reports, a devoted single mom who’d just signed a one-year lease.

 Lindsay Doucette: Veronica’s older sister and Kate’s aunt. Lindsay raised Kate after Veronica disappeared, and, having been duped in the past, is not entirely on board with Callie’s investigation.

  Wanetta Georgina Bulmer: Last seen in Miakoda Falls on January 17, 1995, Wanetta was twenty years old and new to town.

 Kelly Anne Acquolina: Last seen in Miakoda Falls on January 31, 1995, Kelly Anne was twenty at the time.

Kristine Paris: An important character with a secret past.

Of course, Callie’s first instinct upon reading the missing persons profiles of Veronica, Wanetta and Kelly Anne is that they are linked, though the police have never formerly reported that connection. Is she right? Ahh… you’ll have to read the book to find out. But at least now you know what’s behind the names.

Melodie here again: After I read this post, I talked to Judy and we both got a kick out of the fact that I had done something similar — that is, five years ago, donated a character name to a charity auction.

The charity was the Burlington Humane Society, and the winner was a pug called Wolfgang!  (Yes, his good buddy/owner may have put him forward.)  If you look on the cover of Crime Club, you will see Wolfgang in all his glory.  He plays an important part in the investigation as well.



Check out Judy's latest mystery!

About Before There Were Skeletons

The last time anyone saw Veronica Goodman was the night of February 14, 1995, the only clue to her disappearance a silver heart-shaped pendant, found in the parking lot behind the bar where she worked. Twenty-seven years later, Veronica’s daughter, Kate, just a year old when her mother vanished, hires Past & Present Investigations to find out what happened that fateful night. 

Calamity (Callie) Barnstable is drawn to the case, the similarities to her own mother’s disappearance on Valentine’s Day 1986 hauntingly familiar. A disappearance she thought she’d come to terms with. Until Veronica’s case, and five high school yearbooks, take her back in time…a time before there were skeletons. 

·       Universal Book Link: https://books2read.com/u/mqXVze

·      About the Author:

A former journalist and magazine editor, Judy Penz Sheluk is the bestselling author of two mystery series: The Glass Dolphin Mysteries and the Marketville Mysteries. Her short crime fiction appears in several collections, including the Superior Shores Anthologies, which she also edited

Judy is a member of Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and Crime Writers of Canada, where she served as Chair on the Board of Directors. She lives in Northern Ontario on the shores of Lake Superior. Find her at judypenzsheluk.com.