Showing posts with label Janice Law. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Janice Law. Show all posts

27 November 2023

We Keep the Dead Close

Although I share many of our colleague Brian Thorton's (Doolin Dalton) reservations about true crime writing, I am going to make an exception for Becky Cooper's We Keep the Dead Close, subtitled, A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence, a very long, sober, and ambitious book. Part memoir, part true crime, the book takes on sex discrimination at Harvard, examines gossip as power, and speculates on the sometimes deceptive power of narrative. Cooper wasn't a Radcliffe student for nothing.

She first heard Jane Britton's story in 2009, forty years after the graduate student in the Harvard Anthropology Department had been found bludgeoned to death in her Cambridge apartment. Athletic and artistic, Britton was a complex character, a forceful, confident personality, susceptible to depression but independent and memorable. Her killer was never identified, but decades on students still relayed the chosen campus story: she had an affair with one of her professors who murdered her and scattered red ochre, famous from prehistoric burials, over her corpse. Kicker: the professor, charismatic and tenured, was still employed at Harvard!

Well, there was a hook for any crime writer, but what seems to have caught Cooper's attention was the implied power of Harvard. She was not to the institution born and while delighted with much of Radcliffe, she often felt like an outsider in a seductive and powerful institution. Powerful enough to conceal a murder? Cooper began to think so, and the gallery of eccentrics in the insular Department of Anthropology, which included archeology, Jane Britton's field, gave plenty of room for speculation.

Nor was she the only one. By the end of We Keep the Dead Close, we have been introduced to a range of amateur detectives, some nursing their own painful losses, who offer a variety of suspects, including the original professor highlighted by student gossip. He was a riveting teacher, if a bit of a poseur, inspiring, temperamental, hot-tempered, and a believer in the power and utility of narrative. Explanation, not raw facts, was the key to archeology in his mind. 

Another candidate, in what was a homophobic environment, was an alcoholic and closeted gay man who had made late night visits to knock (unsuccessfully) on Jane's door. And then there was the archeologist whose female colleague had gone missing on a trip to Labrador. Ironically for a department that feared weakening its status by hiring women, Anthropology seems to have had more than its share of dodgy characters.

It is curious to an outsider that the assumption always was that Britton's killer was a Harvard man and, in particular, someone in Britton's department. Closed corporations often prefer the outsider hypothesis, and perhaps the Harvard powers that be leaned that way. But the undergrads and the graduate students were firm in their focus on one of the University's own. This leads Cooper to interesting asides about gossip and the way that salacious speculation helps even out power imbalances and serves up cautionary tales.

In any case, the university and even Britton's well-connected family seem to have wanted the whole thing to go away. What seems like carelessness and incompetence by the Cambridge police – they failed to secure the crime scene for days while trying to bully a confession out of her neighbors – sealed the failure. Jane Britton's murder was a cold case for forty years before Cooper and a number of other interested parties started pushing FOI requests.

We Keep the Dead Close is a record of Cooper's pursuit of every possible lead, interview and document for ten years. There is a fine line between persistence and obsession, but to do Cooper justice, she frequently reminds herself that she is not the central figure. By the end of the book, she has spoken, often productively, with Britton friends, relatives, suspects, professors, administrators, and cops. Still she hasn't solved the case.

What finally brings resolution turns out to be something as simple as stored samples and improved DNA testing. The results lead Cooper to a more modest ambition for her book but to interesting reflections about narratives, whether about the long-distant past or a cold case murder.

"I know even less about whether telling a responsible story of the past is possible," she writes, "having learned all too well how the act of interpretation molds the facts in the service of the story teller...There are no true stories; there are only facts, and the stories we tell ourselves about those facts."

A comment pertinent at this troubling political moment for the general public as well as for writers.


The Falling Men, a novel with strong mystery elements, has been issued as an ebook on Amazon Kindle. Also on kindle: The Complete Madame Selina Stories.

The Man Who Met the Elf Queen with two other fanciful short stories and 4 illustrations and The Dictator's Double 3 short mysteries and 4 illustrations are available from Apple Books

02 October 2023

Detection at the Opera

Given that crime plays such a big part in opera, it is surprising how few detectives show up on the stage. Surely this is in part historical, most operas being composed before the golden age of detective fiction. The many murders, assassinations and betrayals of the genre tend to be handled by private revenge, royal or judicial fiat, or even, as in Lohengrin, by trial by combat.

Though Oedipus of Igor Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, and Hamlet of Ambroise Thomas's opera of the same name, are exceptions, both based on ancient, even mythic sources. In operas dealing with what were contemporary settings or events, the investigator is hard to find.

So it was with great interest that I noticed a revival of Umberto Giordano's 1898

Fedora, an opera, not about the hat, itself beloved in detective fiction, but a Russian Countess, who tries her hand at detection. The libretto was based on an 1882 play by Victorien Sardou– a drama that opened just four years after the birth of Sherlock Holmes.

Rich, beautiful, fascinating, and impulsive, Fedora is splendidly embodied by Sonya Yoncheva in the Metropolitan Opera's recent production. A fine singer, an excellent actor, and a great beauty, Yoncheva is as close to an ideal Fedora as one is likely to get.

This is important, as Countess Fedora holds central stage in each of the three acts, and without a virtuoso voice and a charismatic presence, the wild melodrama of the opera would be impossible to sustain. The Met's promotions promised romantic passion wrapped around a mystery and proved to be a rare instance of genuine truth in advertising.

Both the romantic passion and the mystery are propelled by the countess. She is much in love with her fiance, one Count Vladimiro, and the opera opens on her first visit to his home. She has barely arrived when the Count, badly wounded, is rushed inside by his coachman and servants. He's been fatally shot. Police are summoned, servants questioned, and a neighbor, Loris Ipanoff, becomes the prime suspect. Motive, unknown, but Nihilist terror is one theory.

When the police fail to apprehend Ipanoff, the grief-stricken and impatient Fedora swears vengeance. Dismissing the efforts of the crime squad, she sets out to find him and gain proof of his guilt. This will be a plot line familiar to many contemporary readers, but I suspect was something of a novelty at the time of the opera's debut performance.

In the second act, Fedora is in Paris along with the suspect, a susceptible romantic who has fallen in love with her, a sentiment Fedora welcomes in two ways. She hopes to use his affection to secure his confession, but she is not entirely immune to Loris Ipanoff's charm, especially when embodied in as handsome a tenor as Piotr Beczala.

At a lavish party in her Parisian residence, Ipanoff at last admits to the shooting, but claims that it was not murder and that he has proof of his real innocence. Fedora demands the evidence, and he promises to present it after the party.

So far, I think Miss Marple, if not Sherlock Holmes, would approve. Fedora has pursued the case with ruthless devotion and a fair bit of dexterity. However, she makes a grievious amateur mistake: she jumps to conclusions and informs the Russian authorities of Ipanoff's confession before seeing his exculpatory evidence.

When he arrives, Ipanoff presents a dramatically different version of the fatal event, and he has a letter from the philandering Count to prove his case. Admitting she was wrong, the Countess confesses her real feelings for Ipanoff, but it is already too late. A tragic ending is ensured and appears promptly in the final act of the opera.

The libretto of Fedora makes a clean sweep of the unfortunate Ipanoff's relatives and dispatches the remorseful Countess for good measure. Modern taste, of course, is kinder to investigating amateurs of both sexes. Think of Hitchcock's North by Northwest, where the female lead switches allegiance and winds up with Cary Grant, a completely understandable move.

Nineteenth century opera audiences were less forgiving, as well as passionately fond of deathbed scenes of beautiful women. The wilful and independent Fedora dies - admittedly most elegantly - restoring the 'natural' order and providing a cautionary tale for any later sopranos with a taste of sleuthing.

The Falling Men, a novel with strong mystery elements, has been issued as an ebook on Amazon Kindle. Also on kindle: The Complete Madame Selina Stories.

The Man Who Met the Elf Queen, with two other fanciful short stories and 4 illustrations, is available from Apple Books

The Dictator's Double, 3 short mysteries and 4 illustrations is available.

28 September 2023

The Art of Misdirection

Mention red herrings in mysteries, and one's mind turns naturally to Agatha Christie, she of the artful misdirection, the nasty suspects, and the unexpectedly important clues. But Kate Morton's new Homecoming, provides worthy competition and adds two interesting twists to the old formula.

For one thing, there are no obvious villains. For another, all the victims are genuinely, a reversal of the common pattern, most felicitiously summarized in one of my favorite mystery titles, Nobody's Sorry He's Dead. In Homecoming, by contrast, everyone is sorry and so they should be.

But what of suspects? Here again Homecoming has some surprises. The venue is a small town in the Adelaide Hills of Australia in the late 50's. Everyone knows everyone and most are on good terms, while those closest to the victims are almost uniformly decent, public spirited, generous, and kindly natured. Little joy there for the unfortunate detectives. 

The case, concerning a mother and three of her children found dead after a picnic and a fourth child, a weeks old infant, missing, not only proves impossible to solve but becomes a famous true crime novel, a bestseller in both Australia and in the States, home to its author, Daniel Miller. Like the rest of the characters, he is a decent fellow, a careful researcher, an empathetic interviewer, and altogether an ethical journalist.


And here is the other clever touch, his book becomes a trusted source for one of the key protagonists in Homecoming, Jess Turner-Bridges, the grand daughter of Nora, who is the sister-in-law and aunt of the victims. In 2018, when the much loved Nora takes a serious fall and winds up in grave condition in the hospital, Jess returns to Sydney from London where she has been working as a journalist.

Nora's fall soon triggers Jess's investigative instincts, because it occurred on the dangerous attic stairs, long forbidden to the household. Why had Nora, well into her eighties, risked those stairs? And was there any connection to what one of her carers describes as an upsetting letter from South Australia, location of the small town where the famous case occurred fifty-nine years earlier?

Inveterate readers of mysteries will know that Jess's questions will eventually lead to at least a partial solution of the case, but the unraveling entails a complex narrative skillfully done. Events of the 50's are relayed by our omniscient narrator, while we have Jess's perspective on contemporary 2018 events in London and Sydney. 

We also have old documents and newspaper reports and most importantly, Daniel Miller's book, As If They Were Asleep, which is Jess's bible for most of her investigation. Chunks of Miller's narrative form a counterpoint to her personal life, her memories of her grandmother and of Polly, her absent mother, who has a complicated life story of her own. 

Throughout the book, the consequences of romantic disappointments, bad advice, and a desperate longing for children confirm the notion that domestic life can have as high stakes as any thriller. Homecoming delivers a good story while showing that there are still new ways to outwit the reader and to keep mysteries mysterious.

10 July 2023

The Importance of Stupidity

Mystery fans tend to celebrate the well-stocked minds, brilliant logic and analytical genius of the great detectives, but let's be fair. The genre itself relies to a great extent on stupidity. I am not talking now of the many human follies that supply mystery plots: the protagonist home alone who investigates that sound in the basement, the detective who refuses to wait for backup, the careless bon vivant who parties with dubious companions, or the career criminal set for one last big score. 

No, I am thinking of that great asset for private detectives and clever consultants: a properly stupid police presence. Note the restrictive, 'properly'. Getting a fictional lawman who is dense enough to need help but solid enough to be useful is a delicate literary trick.

 Consider how convenient it is for Sherlock Holmes that his London is served by Inspector Lestrade. Or how nice for Poirot that Inspector Japp is so often puzzled by the case at hand. I needn't even mention those dull chaps, alternately confused and dazzled  by Miss Marple, who lack the advantages of residence in that notorious burg, St. Mary Mead.

I was thinking of such useful officials while watching the entertaining Belgian series, Professor T, now on PBS Passport. It is subtitled, fortunately, rather than dubbed, but there has also been an English language remake with the same name.

In either version, Professor Teerlinck is a great mind in the Sherlock Holmes vein, with even more quirks than the sage of Baker street, including a serious germ phobia. He's a professor of criminology in Antwerp, eminent enough to get away with slovenly grading and candor to the point of rudeness. On the plus side, for someone with minimal social graces and skills, he has a lot of insight into human motivation, plus intellectual courage and a total indifference to the high and mighty. 

Amidst several off-putting habits, Professor T also has a rather endearing fantasy life, frightening and/ or  amusing visions that provide non-verbal cogitation. Professor T's an interesting creation, and Koen De Bouw does a good job of making him as sympathetic as possible.

All Professor T needs to show his brilliance is a compliant police force, and the series delivers up not one, not two, but three detectives needing help, plus their commanding officer. All good, all interesting, all well-performed, but not, I think, in the Japp or Lestrade category. And why not? In a word, they seem insufficiently stupid. 

According to his back story, Paul Rabet, the lead detective, was very successful prior to a personal tragedy – a dramatically convenient death, the skeptical viewer thinks, just before Professor T showed up. No wonder Paul dislikes the moonlighting academic.

And sparky Inspector Donckers, formerly Professor T's outstanding student, surely has the brains to get a handle on a tricky case. Even her laid back colleague, Daan de Winter, not as bright but an excellent interviewer, is no slouch. Their chief, Christina Flamant, once Professor T's lover, is a thorough, smart, and sensible leader. 

Do these people really need a Professor T? Of course, for the purposes of the series, they do, and the writers have added personal problems and a romantic subtext in an effort to cloud their minds and distract them from the clues which only the professor will notice. The results are entertaining, but until near the end of the generously long first season both the police team and the professor seem locked in their roles, with the inspectors having to run to the university, case files in hand, to enlist the great mind.

Then in a surprise, a two part episode not only concentrates on the police team but puts the professor, himself, in jeopardy. A more independent team, a more human professor? Seasons two and three will tell, but they might make an interesting series even better.

20 March 2023

A Bold Move

Many years ago, my then (and excellent) agent had a complaint with my latest manuscript: There's only one murder! she said, even though craze for serial killers was still in publishing's future. I dutifully killed off an elderly birdwatcher who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but my heart was not in it.

Brendan Slocumb novel, The Violin Conspiracy

So I was interested in Brendan Slocumb's strategy for his debut novel, The Violin Conspiracy. It not only lacks multiple murders, it lacks a death of any kind, as well as rape, grievous bodily assault, stalking, and blackmail. Ah, you think, a cozy. Well, no. There are no detecting cats, no recipes for chocolate cake, no would be Miss Marples. 

What we have in the initial pages is not bloodshed, but a theft, one almost wants to say a kidnapping, of a young violinist's prized violin. Sherlock Holmes would have approved, our founding father being as keen on finding precious objects as preserving fancy reputations, but is it enough for our bloodthirsty publishing business?

This where Slocumb has been ingenious, in both structure and characterizations. His hero, Ray McMillan is unusual in several ways, all of which play nicely into the plot. He is a Black classical violinist. And as succeeding chapters reveal, he began as a poorly trained but very talented and determined musician. There were no pushy parents or private lessons for Ray, whose unsympathetic and avaricious family had no use for music with one exception: his Grandmother Nora, who gifts him with her grandfather's fiddle.

Ray has a difficult road to follow, securing a quality instrument is difficult, strings and even rosin are expensive, and racist bias, often of in a really frightening form, present roadblocks to things as simple as playing a wedding gig, getting to a concert, or getting basic repairs on an instrument. With these obstacles, there is already a considerable layer of drama in The Violin Conspiracy.

But Slocumb has two other strands to work with. One is the violin, dusty, rosin encrusted, much in need of repairs but with a surprisingly decent sound. It is a 100 year old heirloom with an dramatic backstory of its own, and moreover, it is taken and held for ransom, just as Ray is preparing for his chance to break into the big time: the Tchaikovsky Competition.

The Tchaikovsky is a super high stakes affair, and Slocumb obviously knows a lot about the stresses and strategies of big time classical competitions. Even more important for this reader, he shows a genuine love of the violin and of its repertoire. He manages to bring performances to life and although the story of the underdog taking on the world is an old one, in the right hands it still provides plenty of drama.

I couldn't say the characters are subtle or particularly complex. The good are very good and the bad are thoroughly horrid. But Ray is appealing and his love of music is genuine. Faced with a high stakes competition, obstacles from racists, a greedy family, legal threats to his violin before outright theft and a ransom demand, he has his work cut out for him. It turns out there is plenty going on without bloodshed.

The Violin Conspiracy comes at an interesting time when, as a matter of fact, there is considerable interest in the works of Black American classical composers like Florence Price and William Grant Still (both of whom the mystery references), and new operas by Black American Composers like Terence Blanchard (Fire Shut up in My Bones at the Met) and Anthony Davis (The Life and Times of Malcolm X at Detroit Opera).  There are also some fine young Black string and piano players, including the highly praised brother-sister duo, Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Masons (cello and piano). 

A good introduction to several fine Black classical pianists in available on the web at PBS's Now Hear This "Florence Price and the American Migration", glimpses of her life, selections of her work and of the blues and jazz that informed it as well as her classical training.

The Falling Men, a novel with strong mystery elements, has been issued as an ebook on Amazon Kindle:

Also on kindle: The Complete Madame Selina Stories

The Man Who Met the Elf Queen with two other fanciful short stories and 4 illustrations, is available from Apple Books at:

The Dictator's Double, 3 short mysteries and 4 illustrations is available at:

28 November 2022

Literary Land up for Grabs

There comes a time in life when the phrase, "if only I was younger," comes all too readily. A smooth sheet of ice on the state forest pond, a foot of new snow in the field, and, occasionally, an idea of a topic that might once have been perfect, all elicit the same nostalgic cry: "if only!"

That was my reaction recently when I made my way through Peter Cozzens'

Tecumseh and The Prophet, a detailed history of the two remarkable Shawnee brothers who tried to stem the tide of American settlers, land speculators, and soldiers into what had been Indian country in Ohio and the rest of the Old Northwest.

Brave, handsome, personable, and multi-lingual, Tecumseh impressed nearly everyone who met him, Americans and British as well as the chiefs and warriors of the various tribes whom he tried to convince to make a united front against the newcomers. What he didn't know, and what his scapegrace, but charismatic, brother, The Prophet, only realized late in life, was that not intelligence, not courage, not even weaponry was against the native peoples, but demography.

While European diseases and internecine warfare had greatly weakened the Shawnees, Creeks, Cherokees, the Iroquois Nation, and the rest, it was the unstoppable tide of European immigration, combined with the high Colonial and early Federal American birthrates that tipped the scales against the tribes. 

With ever-accelerating speed, land-hungry settlers and ambitious speculators crossed supposedly sacred treaty lines, cut down the forests, and killed the game. When they were met with violence, they called for troops to push the tribal people back to yet another temporary treaty line. It's a sad story and one that does not reflect well on our early days as a nation.

And that is perhaps one reason why, despite a surfeit of possibilities for crime, skulduggery, scams, heroism, betrayals, daring raids, and eccentric characters, the early Federal period on the frontier rarely appears in mystery fiction. Indeed, except for James Fenimore Cooper's works featuring the Colonial period in what is now New York State, the abundant possibilities of guerrilla warfare, militias, land speculation (Cozzens points out how many of our Founding Fathers were engaged in this dubious art), plus the machinations of politicians Indian and American, arms dealers, fur traders, and liquor purveyors has gone virtually untapped by writers.

But historical squeamishness may not be the whole story. After all "cowboys and Indians" plot lines kept Hollywood in cash for decades, so it may be as simple as the fact that current mystery writing is still very much in thrall to three models, two of them British: the beloved cozy with the amateur detective, the Victorian prototype immortalized by Arthur Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, and our own 20th century tough guy PI in deepest Noir territory.

So ingrained are these prototypes that our own Michael Bracken stipulated in a recent anthology call: All, or a significant portion, of each story must be set in the 21st Century. And he added, for those mathematically challenged, (That’s 2001 to the present day.)  

A story set in Ohio in 1812 clearly wouldn't fit the bill for Michael at the moment, but considering that we regularly see short stories set in Greece or Rome or early Britain, it is too bad that such a fertile and virtually untouched literary landscape is neglected.

If only I were younger!

09 October 2022


"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," Dickens wrote at the start of A Tale of Two Cities. He was thinking of politics and the run up to the French Revolution, but modern mystery writers might well echo his sentiments. Never has there been more opportunity to see one's darlings in print, but rarely has it been so hard to make a decent profit.

And then while narrative – factual, counter-factual, frankly fake – is a crucial part of our present turbulent culture, writing stories and studying them is certainly taken less seriously than the all important STEM disciplines. 

In this atmosphere, Anthony Doerr's Cloud Cuckoo Land is a cause for modest celebration: a fine novel that unabashedly celebrates stories – even silly ones like the fanciful ancient tale that fascinates so many of his characters.

Based on The Golden Ass of Apulieus, the story of a shepherd who longs to become a bird and fly to the paradise of Cloud Cuckoo Land, opens the wonders of literacy for Anna, an impoverished apprentice embroiderer in  Constantinople just before its fall to the Turks. It will later fascinate Omeir, an illiterate Muslim conscripted with his two beloved oxen for the Sultan's siege army, who comes to see the book, now carefully hidden, as a source of magic. 

Researching the Greek story causes Konstance, alone on an inter-planetary starship, to regard her supposedly complete library with a skepticism that will change her life, while presenting the shepherd-turned-donkey to the next generation proves consolation and purpose for Zeno, traumatized soldier and talented translator.

Doerr, whose Pulitzer prize winning All the Light We Cannot See also featured youngsters on the cusp of adolescence, again writes with special perception about children, whether his two 15th century juveniles facing poverty, war, and possible enslavement, or modern day Seymour, clever but mildly autistic, whose only friend is an owl, or Konstance, whose peculiar life is definitely in science fiction territory.

 A situation further away from the Ancient Greeks than hers could hardly be imagined, yet the old story about a man who wants to be a bird and is mistakenly tranformed into a donkey captures Konstance, too, just as it does the school children who, with Zeno's help, will transform the old tale into a little play.

Indeed, the many uses of stories, the wonder of literacy, and the perfection of the printed book bind together the disparate narratives in Cloud Cuckoo Land, suggesting the application of another old bit of wisdom: Man does not live by bread alone.

The Falling Men, a novel by Janice Law with strong mystery elements, has been issued as an ebook on Amazon Kindle. Also on kindle: The Complete Madame Selina Stories.

The Man Who Met the Elf Queen, with two other fanciful short stories and 4 illustrations and The Dictator's Double, 3 short mysteries and 4 illustrations are available from Apple Books

08 August 2022

Sidekicks and Wingmen

Few things are more helpful to a detective than a good assistant. Dr. Watson ranks as the first among equals in this useful category, being not only a helper and the recording narrator, but also a stand in for the reader when the great man's mind gets ahead of the rest of us. He was followed up by the likes of Archie Goodwin of Nero Wolf fame and the obtuse but brave and cheerful Captain Hastings, friend of Hercule Poirot.

I have been thinking about assistants of one sort or another since I have recently watched several of the Cormoran Strike TV dramatizations while reading a number of Abir Mukherjee's mysteries set in 1920's India. Both feature lively and highly intelligent assistants who are crucial to the stories' success.

Strike, created by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling) is a fine character, a one legged Afghan war vet who hires pretty Robin Ellacott as his secretary and office manager and gets the bonus of a trained driver, a superb undercover operative, and a fine detective. While Cormoran has some rough edges and is not at his best in social situations, Robin is a smooth operator, although, in what I consider a retrograde touch, she doubles as the woman in jeopardy when the action lags.

Robin is well acted on screen and well drawn on the page, as is Mukherjee's Sergeant Surendranath (Surrender-not) Banerjee, assistant to another war wounded detective, Captain Wyndham. The Captain

is a man of the Empire, only partly disillusioned about the Imperial project after the horrors of trench warfare which have left him addicted to opium. That he evolves from acceptance of the colonial power structure to a considerably more complex attitude is due to his assistant, Sergeant Banerjee.

Banerjee, a Brahmin, was superbly educated in England (Harrow and Cambridge) and he has family connections with the top of Indian society and with supporters of Ghandi's independence movement. Both these circumstances make him an unlikely, as well as a conflicted, policeman in a colonial set up. Nonetheless, he is good at his job, if a touch naive, and he clearly foresees a need for good police work in any future India. 

Banerjee's education gives him perspective on both cultures. He is a key to Wyndham's (and the reader's) understanding of Indian politics, religious beliefs, and customs up and down the social scale. He is certainly better educated than his Captain and perhaps more intelligent.

What Banerjee does not have and what he will certainly learn from Wyndham is a more cynical and realistic view of human nature, especially of its criminal elements. And just as rapport with his Sergeant modifies the Englishman's view of the Raj, so the Captain's trust and their evolving personal relationship strengthens the sergeant's confidence in himself and in an independent India.

Signs of this evolution were very clear in their most recent outing, Death in the East, which also highlighted Banerjee's importance as a character. The Sergeant's arrival was delayed for more than half the novel, and at least to this reader, he was sorely missed. Wyndham with his bad memories and his addiction is best taken in smaller doses. His obvious affection for Banerjee lightens the mood of the novel, even as the Sergeant provokes him to reassess the done thing and British attitudes.

They are a good team, and Mukherjee, who was raised in Scotland and now lives in London, has himself the bicultural heritage and background to bring them both to life, as well as a host of Colonialists, revolutionaries, princes, opium purveyors, servants, and even ladies of the zenana.


The Falling Men, a novel with strong mystery elements, has been issued as an ebook on Amazon Kindle. Also on kindle: The Complete Madame Selina StoriesThe Complete Madame Selina Stories.

The Man Who Met the Elf Queen with two other fanciful short stories and 4 illustrations and The The Dictator's Double, 3 stories, 4 illustrations are available from Apple Books.

01 April 2022

Let's Hear it for the Chorus

Possibly our remote ancestors put on little skits in the clammy caves of northern Europe. Or spawned dramas out of the dance and ceremony of Southern Africa. The urge to imitate may be as old as the species, but, at least in the West, honors as the first to take the stage go to the Greeks. They had tragedy and comedy, protagonists and antagonists, deus ex machina, satire and slapstick and the chorus.

In Greek plays, the latter is of vital importance, serving most often as the voice of the ordinary populace, the shifting and uncertain, deeply conservative, and anxiously pious folk who witness the fall of kings and the revenge of queens.

We've retained a lot from the Greek theater, including its termanology, but the chorus has been neglected item of late, except in certain grand operas. This is why I found Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty especially interesting. Ms. Moriarty (wonderful name for a mystery writer) has resurrected the chorus and made interesting use of it in her 2014 novel about an upscale Australian seaside community with a first rate elementary school.

The children of Pirriwee Public School are the expected mixed bag of talents and temperaments. The adults, sad to say, are a competitive and cliquey bunch, divided between professionals and stay-at-home moms. But whether super homemaker or corporate honcho, they are all almost pathologically protective and involved, hyper-sensitive to any slight or injury to their offspring, and possess the attack instincts of a mama bear.

As a result, Pirriwee Public School is a real snakepit of parental anxiety, social jockeying, and one upmanship. Still, it is a real shame that something deadly serious had to happen at their annual Trivia Night fundraiser.

Just what constituted this calamity, Moriarty cleverly delays until the concluding chapters, although we know from the chorus, a selection of school parents and one put upon police investigator, that it was serious. But do not expect to gain very much information from these gossipy folks, because their attention is seriously divided. There's that episode of bullying in the kindergarten class and the definitely not-our-type youngest mother with the boy who needs watching. There's gossip about a new au pair and early morning drinking and speculation about just who introduced head lice into the lower grades.

Meanwhile, the three main protagonists, Madeline, Celeste, and Jane, get on with their increasingly complicated lives, providing fodder for the chorus as the chapters move inexorably toward the fatal Trivia Night (Elvis and Audrey Hepburn costumes mandatory!).

What is clever about this structure is the way suspense builds on ignorance; we don't even know the identity of the victim until the last few dozen pages. And it would be a foolish reader who trusts any of the intel from the chorus. Moriarty has found an ingenius way of strewing red herrings in her plot. Forget subtly working in casual remarks when you have a chorus: just let someone blurt out whatever you need to muddy the narrative waters.

Big Little Lies eventually morphed into a 14 episode HBO drama. Perhaps the chorus isn't as obsolete as we thought.

My Madame Selina mystery stories about a post-Civil War spiritualist medium in New York City have been issued as an ebook on Kindle, The Complete Madame Selina Stories. Ten mysteries and a novella featuring Madame Selina and her useful young assistant Nip Thompkins are available on Amazon.

The Man Who Met the Elf Queen, with two other fanciful short stories and 4 illustrations, is available from Apple Books.

The Dictator's Double, 3 short mysteries and 4 illustrations is also available at Apple Books.

21 March 2022


The older I get, the more I believe that fashion rules all. Consider even narrative plot lines, surely the result of individual literary inspiration, and yet certain structures come in and out of favor. Where now are the revenge tragedies beloved of the Elizabethans and the Jacobeans? Or the "good" versus "bad" girl plot lines that populated so much fiction in the 'Fifties? Tastes change in plot, in characters, in theme.

I started thinking along these lines during a long car trip to Chicago. On the way out, Tristan and Isolde was playing on Met Opera Radio and on the way back, La Traviata. In both, helpful folk interfered in the action to disastrous effect. They were meddlers, in short, and meddlers were once a staple of drama and narrative.

Consider the most famous of all Greek dramas: Oedipus Rex. Oedipus is a man of misfortune literally from birth, when the oracle predicted that he would kill his father and marry his mother. His distressed parents, being of ruthless disposition, had the child exposed to die on a nearby mountain. Thus would have ended the story of Oedipus, had not a kindly shepard saved the infant, delivering him to the King and Queen of Corinth and so precipitating the tragedy and confirming the inescapable nature of fate.

Disastrous help was not confined to the fatalistic Greeks by any means. The ancient Irish had their own version in a story that Wagner used for Tristan and Isolde. Tristan, a warrior who has killed Isolde's intended, is escorting her to his leige lord King Mark. Isolde and the King are to be married as part of a peace settlement. Furious about the death of her beloved, Isolde tells her friend/servant Brangaene to prepare a poison drink, which she intends to share with Tristan, killing them both.

Brangaene, however, substitutes a love potion intended for Isolde and King Mark's wedding night.

Tristan and Isolde are soon in each other's arms and the tragedy is well underway.

Undeterred by all this bad luck, Shakespeare's Friar in Romeo and Juliet comes up with a strategem to help the lovers. Juliet drinks a powerful sleeping potion, and her family, believing her dead puts her in her tomb, where Romeo, who hasn't gotten word of the plot, kills himself out of grief. Juliet, awakening, follows him into death.

A couple of centuries later, Alexandre Dumas fils wrote La Dame aux Camélias, which Verdi turned into the ever popular opera, La Traviata. Against her better judgement, Violetta, the brilliant young courtesan, falls in love with the poet Alfredo Germont. She gives up her life in Paris and uses her fortune to live quietly in the country with him, hoping for a time of happiness before she succumbs to consumption.

All is well until she is visited by Alfredo's father, who is concerned that his son's scandalous liason will harm his sister's marriage prospects. Good-hearted Violetta at last agrees to leave her love, and, as any attentive reader can easily guess, unexpected consequences ensue. Alfredo, not being privy to his dad's machinations, insults Violetta at a party, bringing down the wrath of his father, public disapproval, and a challenge to a duel from Violetta's protector Baron Douphal that might have had a fatal outcome.

Germont and Brangaene, the friar and the shepherd – where are their like now? We have fewer stories about royals with faithful servants and the last old indulgent children's nurse I came across was Nan in my own Francis Bacon series. Are helpful bystanders rarer now in our divided culture or do our novelists and dramatists no longer feel the need to emphasize the inescapability of fate, which so haunted the ancients? 

Either way, for the moment at least, literary meddlers are out of favor.

The Falling Men, a novel with strong mystery elements, has been issued as an ebook on Amazon Kindle. Also on kindle: The Complete Madame Selina Stories.

The Man Who Met the Elf Queen, with two other fanciful short stories and 4 illustrations and The Dictator's Double, 3 short mysteries and 4 illustrations are available at Apple Books.

20 January 2022

Bloody Scotland

 My dad's reaction to genealogy ranged between dismissal and fantasy. When I was quite small, I remember asking him about our more distant relatives. "Horse and cattle thieves," he said promptly. That, with the addition of the detail that three of his four grandparents had lived into their nineties, was the sum total of his genealogical information until, years later, assisting our son with a school project, he invented Don Alonzo Law, surviver of the Spanish Armada, to account for the "Iberian Influence" in Scotland and for our dark hair and eyes.

Well, a grain of truth in both cases, as there was a prehistoric connection with the Iberian peninsula, and the Laws were lowland people originally and probably engaged in one way or the other with the long unrest between Scotland and England. 

Whether or not Dad's throwaway remark was a sign of my future career in literary crime, I was certainly not surprised when Scandinavian Noir was followed a few years later with the recognition of what wags called " Tartan Noir." Far from being a late comer to the mystery game, Scotland had long played an important role in the development of our favorite genre.

Consider that the world's most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, was not only written by Edinburgh-born and bred Arthur Conan Doyle, but was inspired by one of Doyle's medical school professors, Joseph Bell. Add Robert Louis Stevenson, who, besides historical thrillers, wrote the greatest of all supernatural mysteries, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His slightly later countryman, John Buchan, helped create the modern thriller with The thirty-nine Steps, while working in government service, including a stint as Governor General of Canada.

All three have had important successors. Ian Rankin and Val McDermid are probably best known to Tartan Noir fans, but they are not alone on the evidence of Bloody Scotland, a recent anthology edited by James Crawford, publisher at Historic Environment Scotland, a heritage organization in charge of some 300 sites and buildings. The anthology presents an interesting group of mystery writers, Scots and a few of what my Aberdonian relatives would call Sassanachs: English who write about or in Scotland. 

Most of the usual suspects are included with the exceptions of Rankin, Kate Atkinson and Alexander McCall Smith. Each writer has taken one of the organization's properties, ranging from pre-historic Mousa Broch in the Shetlands (Anne Cleeves naturally) to The Forth Bridge (Doug Johnstone) and Edinburgh Castle (Denise Mina – a truly terrifying story). 

Because the structuring device of the anthology is architectural and archeological rather than thematic, Bloody Scotland gives an unusual range of styles and types of stories.

We do have a revenge tale and a rather unusual serial killer, but we also get a glimpse of Viking life, a contemporary fellow coming undone, a frighteningly feral child, a murder at an early textile plant, and what is probably the closest one can come to a comic hostage taking.

As a result the mood ranges from gruesome to understated with plenty of stylistic variety. Historic Environment Scotland probably conceived this volume as a fundraiser, and there is certainly a story for just about every taste. Including the frankly antiquarian. 

It will not spoil Craig Robertson's "The Twa Corbies of Cardross" to say it references a work in one of Scotland's earlier claims to literature: the famous border ballads. Sir Walter Scott collected many of these and published them in The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, first edition 1802. That puts "Twa Corbies" (Two Ravens), an account of a murder in a handful of stanzas, a few centuries ahead of Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"

Robertson updates this stark little ditty and recasts it in prose but he keeps the two ravens, big carrion-feeding corvids for the non-birder, showing that in our genre, at least, there's always a place for a good plot and good detectives.

My Madame Selina mystery stories about a post Civil War spiritualist medium in New York City have been issued as an ebook on Kindle. Ten mysteries and a novella featuring Madame Selina and her useful young assistant Nip Thompkins are available on Amazon.

27 December 2021


"He was not for an age," Ben Jonson wrote of his colleague, rival, and friend, Shakespeare, "but for all time."  Statements in eulogies, especially poetic ones, run to hyperbole, but in this case, Jonson was right on. The Bard of Avon has joined Homer and the great Greek playwrights as one of the few Western writers to achieve something like literary permanence.

It helped that his work entered the academic canon, just as the Greeks were helped by the primacy of their language for the educated man. But like Aeschylus and Company, Shakespeare was helped by his own mastery of words, his magpie eye for good plots, and his genius for creating great characters that still ring true.

I began thinking about the rarity of such literary longevity after reading two mysteries back to back, Attica Locke's Heaven, My Home, follow up to her Edgar-winning Bluebird, Bluebird, and Ngaio Marsh's 1967 Death at the Dolphin, which involves a glove purportedly belonging to Hamnet Shakespeare. They provide interesting contrasts.

Just over 20 years post war, Death at the Dolphin has all the characteristics of the golden age of UK detective fiction, including a leisurely beginning (it doesn't live up to its title much before p.100); a fine cast of eccentrics, theater people set to inaugurate a revived theater with a new play; literate dialogue and a detective superintendent of fine breeding and a top notch education.

Heaven, My Home begins as all good modern mysteries begin, with chills and danger, and adds a bevy of possibly dangerous and mostly bigoted characters in a literal East Texas backwater. Darren Matthews, Locke's Black Texas Ranger, shares a good, if quite different, education with Superintendent Alleyn, but where Alleyn is all upper-class self control and detachment, the younger law enforcement officer is all too prone to let either anger or sympathy complicate his professional duties – and personal life.

How times change. Post war, post Blitz, post austerity, there seems to have been a huge taste for order, neatness of plot, and a certain decorum even in violent death. Death at the Dolphin seems a strictly period piece, despite the clever plotting and the charming Dolphin theater. Did anyone ever speak in such carefully literate paragraphs? Was there ever so much emphasis on correct diction, and was much

of the purpose of the action really to show that the upper classes were still all right? 

Reading it, I couldn't hope wondering if fifty years on, what we today read for pleasure will not raise an eyebrow. I can imagine questions along the lines of,  Did people really use so much profanity? Was most fiction politicized? And what on earth was the significance of that MAGA hat the sheriff kept on his desk? 

Unlike Ben Jonson, I have no idea if any of the fictional heroes of the moment are destined to live even "for an age", never mind "for all time." But detective fiction, being a relatively new genre, hasn't done too badly in the longevity department. At least three characters have lasted a century or close to it: Sherlock Holmes, successful across the media landscape, has been taken up by later novelists who have married him off, sent him to Freud, tampered with his cocaine habit, and even brought him back to modern London. To the sleuth of Baker Street, we can add two from the redoubtable Agatha Christie: Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple. 

Copyright issues have perhaps kept other writers from enlarging their adventures, but they have both had extensive careers in films and TV. Significantly, both have been successful with a wide variety of performers. Margaret Rutherford played Miss Marple for laughs, and Jane Hickson's Marple was a reserved intellectual, while actors as different as Peter Ustinov and David Suchet have essayed Poirot. Characters for all times? Maybe not, but at the moment they are aging very nicely and for one of the reasons that Shakespeare's creations are still on the boards: great, instantly recognizable, and eccentric characters. 

Add good plots, good luck, good publicity, and a fictional detective can go quite a long way just like that fun couple, the Macbeths, Viola, Falstaff, or the whole sick crew at Elsinor. A certain amount of excess seems to be required, more than plausibility or any but psychological realism.

For that reason, if I had to tip some popular characters who may entertain quite far into the future, I would, reluctantly, mention not any print crime fighter, but those two escapees from the comic books: Superman and Batman, with perhaps Wonder Woman making a third. All three have shown the size, the flexibility and and adaptability required.

My Madame Selina mystery stories about a post Civil War spiritualist medium in New York City have been issued as an ebook on Kindle. Ten mysteries and a novella featuring Madame Selina and her useful young assistant Nip Thompkins are available on Amazon.

My Madame Selina mystery stories about a post Civil War spiritualist medium in New York City have been issued as an ebook on Kindle. Ten mysteries and a novella featuring Madame Selina and her useful young assistant Nip Thompkins are available on Amazon.

29 November 2021

Post Harlem Shuffle– the Uses of Mystery

A number of famous folk have been turning out mysteries and thrillers lately. Both Clintons have published political thrillers with a little help from James Patterson and Louise Penny, while double Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead has produced Harlem Shuffle. Technically this is an historical novel that wraps a portrait of Harlem in the turbulent early 1960's around a heist scheme and a revenge plot. Our guide through this tangle of events is one Ray Carney, a good man, a faithful husband, a devoted dad, who, as the novel puts it, was "only slightly bent when it came to being crooked."

If the inhabitants of Whitehead's much praised The Underground Railroad were light on characterization and heavy on allegorical import, Ray is a man in full, hopeful, contradictory, vengeful, generous, and clever. In a word, complicated.

And he'd better be. Harlem in the '60's was a complicated place. New York City as a whole has never suffered from an excess of good government, and the Black city within the city was no exception. Stratified by wealth and color, impoverished by bias in nearly every facet of life, poorly educated, badly housed, and beset by crime, Harlem's vibrancy, creativity and vitality came despite danger and corruption.

Ray knows all about that. He owns a small furniture store, supplying a variety of new and used sofas and dinette sets, recliners and lamps. Much of his clientele buys on time and their payments are not always timely. Worse, the whole city appears to run on bribes to white cops and protection money to black gangsters or, in the lingo of the times, on the circulation of  "the envelopes."

With money going out the door, it is no surprise that Ray, whose late father, Big Mike, was a career criminal, does not look too closely at the source of the second hand radios, TV's, and appliances that cross his path. Indeed, shortly after the novel begins, what was happenstance begins to seem like fencing in earnest, thanks to his charming but feckless cousin Freddie. 

Freddie hangs out with the likes of Miami Joe, an ambitious but maybe unreliable thief, and Pepper, an ultra professional hitman. One foolish thing leads to another with Freddie, who involves his sensible but devoted cousin with Chink Montague, the big mobster of the moment.

If that is not complication enough, Ray is simultaneously attempting to move up the social ladder. He wants to grow his business and handle really quality furniture. He also wants to improve his standing with his snobby in-laws, disdainful of both his impoverished background and his dark skin.

Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead

His attempt to join the Dumas Club, the prime organization for Black movers and shakers, provides more than he bargained for, namely another route to the underbelly of Harlem. There characters like Cheap Brucie and Miss Laura have interesting connections with the cream of Harlem society, presenting both danger and opportunity.

Soon Ray is juggling any number of tricky situations, endangering his marriage by flirting with criminality and endangering his life by making enemies of both outright mobsters and the seemingly legit, some of whom are white. His path through these dangers presents a picture of a society under extreme pressure. Riots that he understands 100% threaten hard-won prosperity, while the corruption that saps the economy of Harlem also provides a vital source of income.

It clearly takes a man of Ray Carney's particular talents and background to survive. His decent impulses and work ethic are as essential as his ingenuity and ability to compartmentalize, driving the novel, along with his imprudent loyalty to Freddie, the brother he never had, the companion of his youth and the spark plug of innumerable adventures.

04 October 2021

Tony & Anthony

"There is nothing new under the sun," wrote Ecclesiastes, a fellow who knew a thing or two about writing, because he also acknowledged that "the making of many books is a weariness of the flesh." Mystery writers can say amen to both, which is why when something even slightly novel appears on the horizon, the publishing world rejoices.

Anthony Horowitz book cover

UK author Anthony Horowitz has lately devised an interesting variant on the relationship between detective and amanuensis and has kicked his notably intricate and tricky plotting up a couple of notches with two novels featuring Daniel Hawthorne, a former detective inspector who really does appear to be, like Sherlock Holmes, a consulting detective. In this case, his clients are police departments in need of some extra forensic savvy.

In The Word is Murder, Hawthorne approaches Tony, a TV writer and novelist whose extensive credits mirror Anthony Horowitz's own, about writing up one of his cases. The Tony version of Anthony Horowitz initially declines, citing his current immersion in Foyles War, the anticipated displeasure of his agent, and various other book commitments.

Fortunately for fans of traditional mysteries, 'Tony' as Hawthorne always calls him, is intrigued enough to accompany the ex-cop to a real life crime scene and eventually to draft a first chapter that Hawthorne finds thoroughly unsatisfactory. The author has a great deal of fun with the difference between fictional and real crime and with the conflict between Tony's natural desire to write something lively and interesting and Hawthorne's equally natural desire for strict, even pedantic accuracy. He really is a detective for whom no detail is too small to notice.

Initially, the chances of this partnership going the distance seem slim. There will be no cozy suppers of the sort that Mrs. Hudson provides for Holmes and Watson, nor any personal errands such as Archie runs for Nero Wolfe. Hawthorne guards his private life so strictly that it is momentous when Tony discovers his address and a major triumph when he at last enters Hawthorne's flat.

Perhaps this is just as well. Hawthorne's great gifts are observation and analysis combined with a ruthless absorption in a case. Social graces, empathy, and rapport are not really in his skill set, much to Tony's frequent embarrassment and occasional distress. He really does not want to risk his reputation writing up a fellow who can be rude, even bigoted.

Still, faced with a tricky crime, Hawthorne is the man for the job, and if 'Tony' is often stymied, prone to incorrect solutions and, worse, to foolish personal risks, author Anthony Horowitz keeps his wits about him. He is clearly a big fan both of Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie and in the first two Hawthorne books, The Word is Murder and The Sentence is Death, he combines all the misdirection and red herrings of the traditional genre with a pair of thoroughly modern sleuths and some lively insights into contemporary UK publishing and TV.  

Anthony Horowitz book cover

The Hawthorne novels are, to my mind, superior to his other adult series, although it, too, is skillful entertainment. The Susan Ryland series features books within books, as one of  the fictional Alan Conway's Atticus Pund mysteries appears at full length within both The Magpie Murders and The Moonflower Murders.

Besides providing a second helping of traditional detection, the Pund novels serve to entangle editor Ryland in crimes that definitely reflect the same Golden Age of Detective Fiction sensibility. They are marvelous from the point of view of plotting, but I don't find Ryland as engaging a character as either well-meaning and rather harried Tony or sullen, difficult, but eventually surprising, Hawthorne.

My Madame Selina mystery stories about a post Civil War spiritualist medium in New York City have been issued as an ebook on Kindle. Ten mysteries and a novella featuring Madame Selina and her useful young assistant Nip Thompkins are available on Amazon.

06 September 2021

The Lewis Trilogy

Recently I caught up with Peter May's Lewis Trilogy, three mysteries published in the twenty-teens featuring sometime Edinburgh detective inspector Fin Macleod. May, a Scottish author and TV screenwriter, learned a good deal about the Isle of Lewis while working on the first-ever drama series produced in Scots Gaelic, a language Great Britain once proscribed as uncivilized and liable to promote sedition.

 The Gaelic (like a clan leader, the language has its own article) is the native language of almost all the characters, English being the subtly alien tongue of  school and foreign officialdom. It is The Gaelic, the mother tongue, combined with the harsh and isolated life of the Hebrides, that encourages the clannish intimacy of the island and lends a distinctive touch to May's three novels.

What is even more unusual is the structure of the books. Each one contains a criminal case, investigated, officially or not, by Fin Macleod. This procedural is wrapped around another story, Fin's childhood and youth in The Black House and The Chess Men, and Tormond Macdonald's in The Lewis Man. These are not just the familiar flashbacks to ancient and exciting crimes but nearly full dress novels within novels, Tormond's being a real tour de force, given that the old man suffers from dementia.

Reading the trilogy, even out of sequence, has made me think about mysteries' relationship to time. Romance and science fiction are forward looking genres, and arguably most thrillers, too. Will they marry? Will the explosion, assassination, loss of the formula be prevented? Will this be our future or some variant of what comes next?

Mysteries, like archeology and history, are backward looking and have been backward looking from their very earliest appearance. Genesis takes pains to elucidate the jealousy Cain felt for Abel, while the unfortunate Oedipus has to go back to events before his ill-fated birth. Clearly from very early on, people have felt that the violence of real life – so often impulsive, unpremeditated, and frankly stupid – was deeply unsatisfactory.

The quest for justice, for revelation, for the unveiling of secrets, especially those protected by hypocrisy or power, requires roots in the past, and the deeper the roots, seemingly the more gratifying the solution. With The Lewis trilogy, May found a fertile literary field for deep and entangled causes and effects.

The island population is so small and the communities so isolated, that everyone's business is a communal affair. Such secrets as there are – like the events on the grim gannet harvesting expedition to one of the dangerous rookeries – gnaw at everyone. What really happened, people ask Fin, but he doesn't remember – although he will.

And who was the now-senile Tormod Macdonald and what is his relation to the man found in the peat bog, the man preserved like the famous bog mummies but sporting an Elvis tattoo? And how did a pop star's plane wind up in a disappearing loch? Those are real secrets, and although their unraveling cannot comfort Fin, who has lost his small boy in a hit-and-run accident and, with him, his whole mainland life, the island with his own language and his old friends is home without a doubt.

Fin Macleod finds that he can go home again but he can't recover the raptures of careless youth or the boundless optimism and confidence of adolescence. That's a relationship to time that the now ex-detective inspector Macleod may find more difficult to reconcile than even the tricky history of old alliances, rivalries, loves, and hatreds that make up his community.

My Madame Selina mystery stories about a post Civil War spiritualist medium in New York City have been issued as an ebook on Kindle. Ten mysteries and a novella featuring Madame Selina and her useful young assistant Nip Thompkins are available on Amazon.

09 August 2021

Charlotte Salomon, Her Book, Her Mystery

I have always been fond of people who accomplish things they are not supposed to be able to do. Jacob Lawrence was not a historian but that didn't stop him from painting a history of the Great Migration and along the way, reviving history painting, which, incidentally, was not supposed to be done in water based paints, either.

So I was intrigued by the case of Charlotte Salomon, who was murdered, unknown to the art world, in 1943 at Auschwitz. Hiding in exile in the south of France, she had deposited her major work, Lieben? oder Theater? ( Life? or Theater?) with a supporter a few months before her arrest by the Gestapo. 

The work, comprising 769 gouaches ( \out of a total of around 1000 done between late 1940 and early 1942) and including a number of painted texts and textual overlays on transparent paper, survived. The images are now available at, thanks to the Jewish Historical Museum Amsterdam that owns the collection.

I came across this remarkable work via a piece in the New York Times which led me to the immense Charlotte Salomon and the Theatre of Memory by Griselda Pollock, a scholarly work with some heavy theorizing but also many insights and, most important from my point of view, an excellent selection of Salomon's work.

Very nice, you're probably thinking, but how is that even remotely relevant to SleuthSayers. Here's the interesting bit. Just as Jacob Lawrence had to invent or reinvent a form to tell the history of his people, Salomon, or CS as she signed her paintings, used her art to tell what wasn't supposed to be told in a way that wasn't supposed to work.

Lieben? oder Theater? is in part a family history, told as a painted novel with fictionalized characters, including Charlotte Kann, a stand-in for its creator. The family history is grim – and not just because it spans the Great War and the rise of the Nazis. The work opens with the depiction of a young woman, Charlotte Kann's aunt, who flees her home in the middle of the night and drowns herself in one of Berlin's lakes.

Female suicide becomes a leitmotif of the work as the aunt is followed in death by her sister (Charlotte's mother) and later her mother (Charlotte's maternal grandmother). Crime writers with their suspicious minds will no doubt detect the reasons for these deaths ahead of the careful academics. 

The middle section of the work concerns Charlotte, inheritor of suicidal tendencies – or a person reacting to the forces that drove the others to their deaths. She is saved by the philosophy of a traumatized war veteran, who, unfortunately, is really in love with her glamorous opera singer stepmother. The triangular relationship plays out against the rise of the Nazis, whose rallies and pogroms are depicted in vigorous paintings.

The work ends with all safety lost in the previous sanctuary of Nice, France. Her grandmother dead, Charlotte and her grandfather are arrested and released to a precarious temporary freedom, which she paints to quite devastating effect. 

What brings this immense, eccentric, and remarkable work into the mystery orbit, however, has been the recovery of the postscript to the work. Like the texts in Lieben? oder Theater? this was originally done in painted letters. But part of the document only exists now in typescript, the original having been lost or more likely destroyed by her surviving family,  since it appears to be a confession that the writer murdered the grandfather by poison.

Around this there are doubts. The death certificate for Salomon's grandfather lists heart attack as the cause. The postscript claims he was poisoned by Veranol, incidentally the same drug Freud gave his daughter when she was endangered by the Gestapo. Charlotte Salomon's grandfather was a physician, as was her father. The drug was certainly available. 

The fascinating question is what precisely was this postscript. A confession by the historical figure Charlotte Salomon, who I suspect would have had her reasons for homicide? Or a confession by Charlotte Kann, the lead character in the painted novel/memoir? Or a wish in place of act by either the character or her creator?

We are unlikely to know the truth. What we do know is that even the substance of the book, minus the postscript, was explosive. One only has to read Freud's accounts of  'hysterical women' and delusional girls to see how firmly the professional class of the times closed ranks when anything threatened male dominance and bourgeois respectability. Without professional standing or specialized education, Salomon had to use her art for her indictment.

In exile, short of supplies (CS reused the backs of rejected paintings), burdened by a lethal family history, and living in most dangerous times, Salomon created a document of great complexity and sophistication out of a modest medium and such paper as she could acquire. 

Denied training as a painter (unfeminine) she was channeled as a student into the more acceptable illustration. Ironically, this course was perhaps her artistic salvation, because it gave her the tools to incorporate the new ways of looking at narrative available via the movies and comic strips into her work as well as a mastery of the water -based medium. 

The earlier paintings tend to be multi-scene like comics or Renaissance works. The later ones become more expressionistic, simpler and more powerful, under the pressure of intense lived emotion and the terror of the inevitable that arrived when she was 26 and newly married.

Although as Pollock notes Salomon was healthy, blonde, German speaking and a skilled draftsperson, she was killed on arrival because she was pregnant. The young woman haunted by deaths and tempted by suicide died when she had the most reason to live.

My Madame Selina mystery stories about a post Civil War spiritualist medium in New York City have been issued as an ebook on Kindle. Ten mysteries and a novella featuring Madame Selina and her useful young assistant Nip Thompkins are available on Amazon.