Showing posts with label Joseph D'Agnese. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Joseph D'Agnese. Show all posts

01 September 2023

Yikes! and Crickets! The Happy Hollisters are back!

Where do you stand on rewriting or editing the work of long-dead authors? Yes, I am thinking of the recent articles we’ve all seen about revising the work of such authors as Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming, Ursula LeGuin, and Roald Dahl, among others.

I’m asking for a few other reasons.

One: I was just in a casino—I swear I was there for research—and encountered a ton of slot machines derived from literary works. Willy Wonka slot machines. James Bond slot machines. Game of Thrones, and The Lord of the Rings slot machines. Granted, these slots were devoted to filmed versions of these literary properties. But it nevertheless reminded me that there is big money in keeping the literary heritage of an author as trouble-free as possible. No wonder the heirs of various estates are tempted to permit revision of their ancestor’s work. They want book sales and licensing deals to keep rolling in until the copyrights have expired.

Two: I’m also asking because I recently revisited a couple of books in a mystery series I’d enjoyed as a kid. Those books not only raised the question of revision, but, to my mind, complicated the issue even further. It’s back-to-school time in the U.S., so I thought this might make an interesting conversation. But I warn you right now: I cannot easily answer some of the questions I will pose to you. I actually hope that you can help me.

The Happy Hollisters at Sea Gull Beach is the third book in the series I’m talking about, but it was the first to hook me as a kid. It’s the story of a family of amateur sleuths who search for a long-lost pirate ship while on a beach vacation. When I discovered the book at a library sale in the early 1970s, it struck me as aspirational. A family that goes on a vacation to the beach at a moment’s notice? To solve a mystery? Parents who don’t berate their kids about how much this trip is costing? Sold!

It never occurred to me that the Happy Hollisters were part of a larger franchise until I discovered a stash of 15 more titles at a yard sale. By then, I was a little older, and I marveled at how all the loose ends of the plots wrapped neatly in 182 or 184 pages like clockwork.

Only recently did I learn that the Hollisters were part of the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew empire. Their return to the publishing stage in the 21st Century can be seen as a triumph of self publishing, and an object lesson on the importance of preserving one’s intellectual property.


The series ran from 1953 to 1969. They were written by “Jerry West,” a pen name for Andrew E. Svenson, a total Jersey boy—born, schooled, married, and employed first at a newspaper in the Garden State. In mid-1940s, he joined the Stratemeyer Syndicate, then based in East Orange, New Jersey. Svenson wrote about 80 books for the firm, including books in the Hardy Boys series.

In 1950, when the firm began revamping those books to purge them of the offensive racism that had nearly gotten them axed by their publisher, Grosset & Dunlap, Svenson oversaw that operation, revising titles that he himself and other writers had written years earlier. (I’m not going to delve into the specifics of that revision project; that’s what Prof. Wiki is for.) Franchises such as the Bobbsey Twins, the Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew have since been revised numerous times to fit those characters into the modern world. Before anyone was thinking of purging James Bond or Hercule Poirot or Willy Wonka, the Stratemeyer Syndicate and the publishers who later acquired their stable of stories routinely updated the old books. It was what you did if you wanted to keep selling. I’d venture to say that anyone who grew up on those books would agree that revising them in the 1950s was probably a good thing.

Andrew Svenson, 1948 photo. (Courtesy

Svenson outlined and wrote Hardy Boys books along with a coterie of largely anonymous syndicate writers. But he alone was responsible for conceiving, outlining, and writing the Happy Hollisters series, which ran for 33 books.

The Hollisters, who live in the fictional town of Shoreham, consisted of a mom, dad, five kids, a dog, a cat, and—in the later books—a donkey adopted on a trip to Puerto Rico.


Svenson was inspired by his own family. He and his wife lived in the suburb of Bloomfield, New Jersey, with six kids and a bevy of pets. When he traveled, alone or with the brood, Svenson collected ideas for stories. Back home, he’d draft a working outline, and dictate a 33,000-word Hollister book in about a month. The children’s literature archives at the University of Mississippi preserve many of the audio discs Svenson generated on a Sound Scriber device, as well as the initial manuscripts later typed by secretaries. Each book is about 18 chapters of about 1,600 words each. Sticking to that formula was how he managed to hit that 180-page target that impressed me so much as a young reader. He would have had to write about two books a year to reach 33 titles in the span of time he worked on those.

As they travel the USA and the globe, the Hollisters encounter new cultures and find themselves in the middle of a new (yet always murderless) mystery. For the era, the books were considered educational since they delved into different topics—sign language, braille, coin collecting, new cuisines, foreign languages, just to name a few. The photos Svenson collected on his travels informed the illustrations later created by Helen S. Hamilton.

In the heyday of the Syndicate, the Hollister series sold about 11 million books. It was the bestselling mystery series for younger readers at the time. Doubleday and Stratemeyer severed their Hollister contract in 1971, though there had not been any new books for some time. Before he died in 1975, Svenson and the Syndicate tried to tempt new publishers, but found no takers. The Syndicate transferred the copyright to Svenson’s heirs, who tried for a few more decades to interest other publishers. Nothing doing.

In 2010, Svenson’s grandchildren re-launched the series as a self-publishing venture, carefully retyping the entire series—1.1 million words—into digital form for the first time, and carefully digitizing the original Hamilton images and covers. One by one, they re-issued the books as ebooks, paperbacks, hardcovers, and eventually audiobooks. They connected with fans via social media, a website, and homeschooling conferences. The final reissued book pubbed last year. Reviewers on Amazon largely celebrate the books as wholesome, and routinely cheer their happy endings.

On one hand, there’s a powerful lesson here for all writers. Currently, copyright in the United States extends for the life of the author plus 70 years. We have all heard stories of “orphaned” author estates, where the work of a writer disappears because no one has been empowered to license their work after their deaths.

The Svensons—via The Hollister Family Properties Trust—lucked out by making their own luck. Svenson’s widow wisely renewed the copyrights of all the books, which was necessary at the time. His children and grandchildren were all well-educated, many of them with backgrounds in publishing, radio, marketing, and catalog sales. If there was one family who was not going to lose their father’s legacy, it was this one.

That all said, how well do the books hold up?

The reissued Hollister volumes preserve Svenson’s words exactly as they were originally published. As I re-read Sea Gull Beach, I continued to be amazed by Svenson’s gift for compression, keeping the plot humming along quickly, and ending nearly every chapter with a cliffhanger.

I certainly came across language and scenarios that struck me as antiquated. Eleven-year-old Pam Hollister wonders if girls are allowed to enter the kite contest at Sea Gull Beach. Prior to their trip, the siblings mount a pirate play to benefit a local hospital for “Crippled Children.”

In The Indian Treasure, the fourth book in the series, the Hollisters visit the Native American Pueblos of New Mexico. They learn about adobe houses, historic pueblo structures and kivas, turquoise jewelry, the Hispanic culture of the Southwest, chili con carne, and more. That all struck me as truly educational. Svenson researched Pueblo culture by connecting with Popovi Da, a legendary Native American artist, and docents with a famed tour company.

In the 21st book, The Haunted House Mystery, which features a deaf character and sign language, Svenson thanks his contacts at a school for the hearing impaired. So we have this impression of a conscientious author trying to get his facts straight. And remember, Svenson—a longtime member of the Mystery Writers Association—is the guy Stratemeyer turned to when they needed to revise their older books. He was seen by his peers as an open-minded writer who could be trusted to portray all characters with decency.

Yet there’s still a moment in The Indian Treasure—just one—where an individual is described as a redskin. When the Hollister kids are playing, their shouts of joy are described as “war whoops.” A lot of their conversation touches on all the “nice Indians” they’re meeting, perhaps implying that there are “bad Indians.”

I could go on, probably, but you get the idea. As I read The Indian Treasure, knowing the history of the Stratemeyer titles, the former children’s editor in me thought, “Wow, this would have been so easy to fix. The book is already 90 percent respectful to other cultures. Why not revise it so it’s perfect for the 21st Century?”

That’s where I had to slap myself and ask myself the question I asked you at the beginning. Books are a snapshot in time. When the author says it’s done, it’s done. Dame Agatha did in fact famously revise the book we now know as And Then There Were None for the American market, eradicating its inherent racism. She was alive to do that work, though her UK publishers changed the UK title in the 1980s, after her death. In the New York Times article I link to above, her great-grandson says the book would have been unpublishable if they hadn’t.

Christie, Fleming, LeGuin, and Dahl aren’t here to revise their books anymore, and neither is Svenson. My current thinking is that if a book is problematic, the publisher can at the very least provide a disclaimer. The Svenson heirs have done exactly this. The copyright pages of the new Hollister books all carry this language: “Certain events, terminology and behaviors are presented in this volume exactly as originally printed. In retaining potentially confusing and questionable situations, the publisher offers the opportunity for valuable ‘teaching moments’ for today’s reader.”

I think that’s the way to go. I mean, this is a series that presents a post-war America where diversity is largely nonexistent. The Hollisters are white kids who live in a largely white neighborhood. But that describes most of the old movies cinephiles celebrate today. Heck, it describes a ton of modern movies and TV programs. As an aside, I’ll note that Svenson did in fact write the first African American mystery series for Stratemeyer, featuring a five-kid family not unlike the Hollisters. I’m tracking down a few of those original volumes to review.

That said, aside from the cultures they visit, the Hollisters don’t ever meet anyone who isn’t white unless the plot necessitates the diverse character’s presence. An encounter with a Native American baseball player in their hometown is the inciting plot point of The Indian Treasure, for example. Changing the plot to “correct” the Native American issue would not fix the overwhelming whiteness. You’d have to revise the entire series.

That brings up a host of questions I don’t feel qualified to answer, or even grapple with. But’ll throw them all at you, because some of you have been at this game longer than I have, and probably can offer some coherent responses.

If it was okay to revise the old Hardy Boys and Nancy Drews, why isn’t it okay to revise Fleming, Dahl, LeGuin, or Christie?

Is it because the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew aren’t considered great literature?

Because they were written by an ever-revolving team of house writers?

Because they were mystery novels for kids?

What’s really the issue? Are we okay protecting kids from potentially troubling content, but comfortable allowing adult readers to make up their own minds about the content they consume?

How does this connect with banning books?

And while your eyes are still bleeding, let me lob the most important one at you: Why won’t the Willy Wonka slot machine recognize that I’m a huge fan of the Gene Wilder movie, and let me win big time?

* * * 

See you in three weeks!


11 August 2023

The Day-Hike Bag We Should Have Brought (But Didn’t)

View from the Blue Ridge Parkway, in summer.

About a month ago we set out for an impromptu hike at a nearby state park. We haven’t hiked since before the pandemic. The idea popped into our heads the night before, when we saw that the weather would be beautiful. I am the world’s least spontaneous person, so I mentioned to my wife that I really needed to spend the rest of today preparing for tomorrow.

I’d ghosted a book for NBC-TV’s medical and science correspondent, Dr. John Torres, who has kindly contributed to SleuthSayers in the past. Somewhere in that book was a list of what to pack for a day hike. Dr. Torres—an avid outdoorsman, former Air Force pilot, and ER physician—shared horror stories of people bringing nothing or an incomplete kit on short hikes, and later encountering problems that could have been averted. On his advice, during 2020 I assembled a much more complex “Bug-Out Bag” that would have sustained us if we had to traverse the terrain of Middle Earth to drop jewelry into a volcano.

I just needed a few hours to transfer some choice pieces of equipment from the big bag to the smaller bag. “It can’t be rushed!” I told Denise. “I need time to think.”

“We’ll be back in no time!” she scoffed. 
By now she well knows my penchant for overthinking things. But hey, does no one remember that the shipwreck that birthed 99 episodes of Gilligan’s Island originated as a three-hour tour?

The upshot: we set off with nothing more than water bottles strapped to our waists and some snacks for the dog.

A lot can happen in an hour in the woods. Seeing a trio of other dogs, our guy tore ahead on the trail, tugging my wife so hard that she tripped on a tree root, and sprained two of her fingers. Hike over, folks!

As we headed home, she remarked that she couldn’t believe how quickly her hand had morphed into a hideous, purplish balloon. She iced it upon reaching civilization, but gee, it really would have been nice to have had one of those instant cold packs in our (nonexistent) bag.

While it is still summer, I thought I would share Dr. Torres’s list with you, with my own commentary. Most of us are capable of assembling these basic items, either at your local pharmacy, a reputable outdoor store, or via online shopping. And who doesn’t love shopping?

Dr. Torres’s List:

Blister or moleskin bandages. These bandages are designed to cover a fresh blister before it pops and becomes painful to walk on. They cushion the blister and keep it from getting worse, then fall off on their own when the blister has sufficiently “heeled.” Look for Compeed or Band-Aid’s Hydro Seal.

Cold-weather clothing. I know it’s summer but deserts and mountains get chilly mornings and nights. If you’ve been sweating or got caught in the rain, you’ll feel cold without a fleece or extra layer.

Duct tape. Why? Because you can do many things with it. You can fashion a quick and dirty splint, for starters, which might have helped us.

Lighter, waterproof matches, or a fire starter tool. I’m listing these in escalating order of complexity. A lighter will be fine if you need to make a fire. But if you run out of fuel or something goes wrong with the flint mechanism, waterproof matches—which can literally be struck underwater—or ferrocerium rods that allow you to start a fire, caveman-style, could be lifesavers.

Food and water for each person. I’m thinking lunch, protein bars, and water bottles; more if you’re staying out for longer.

Headlamp. Dorky? Yes. But these allow you to keep both hands free in the dark while you study a map or compass. They come either rechargeable or battery powered. Take your pick, but make sure you have fresh batteries or a fresh charge before you leave home.

Headlamp (left) and compass.

Insect repellent. ’Nuff said.

Knife or multitool. I like Benchmade for folding knives, Victorinox for Swiss Army-type knives, and Leatherman multitools. Deploying multitools can be a pain if you don’t use them often, so pack a copy of the instructions as well.

Assorted knives/tools. The folding black one (by Benchmade) has a combo blade—half straight, half serrated.

Lightweight emergency blanket. These can be acquired quite cheaply. The chief ingredient is Mylar, which is annoying and crinkly, but helps retain much of your lost body heat. You can find more durable, tarp-like ones that could help you build a makeshift shelter if you needed it. Others resemble sleeping bags. The key is to choose ones that are not too heavy. You can always toss a wool blanket in the trunk of your car, but you need to get off the trail safely first.

Navigation tools. A compass and/or a GPS device.

Small first aid kit. You will want to amp up what you get in the kit from your drugstore. Most do not have the cold packs we so desperately needed, nor cooling gels and packs in case of burns.


It's been a terrible year for ticks where we live. We've used the tweezers and other supplies in here several times.

Tweezers. You want ones with very fine tips for extracting ticks or splinters. I’m fond of the kit put out by Tick-Ease.

Waterproof notebook and pen. You’re a writer, for heaven’s sake! Bring writing materials. Choose ones that won’t crap out if it rains.

Whistle. There are tons of really loud safety whistles on the market. I like the new titanium ones because I have actually crushed cheap plastic ones in my backpack. Dr. Torres taught me that three short blasts on the whistle is the universal code for SOS/HELP. 

That’s the end of Dr. T’s list.

As I reflect on this a few years later, I recognize that things get exponentially more complicated the longer you stay in the woods, and the more people and pets are in your party. For one, you’re obliged to bring along more food and water, not to mention blankets for everyone. 

Dog people recommend packing booties for the pooch. If beloved Rover hurts a paw, you don’t want to be stuck carrying him or her out.

I also notice that our list didn’t recommend bringing toilet paper, which you’ll miss immediately if you really need to go and you’re two miles from a bathroom or transportation. Most state and federal forests urge you to “pack in, pack out,” which means you’d also want Ziploc bags or plastic grocery bags to pick up after yourself, not to mention your animal.

If you want to go deeper—much, much deeper—you might enjoy this Substack post by former SleuthSayer Thomas Pluck, who took a course at a survive-in-the-woods/tracker school in New Jersey that has been in operation for 45 years.

Over to you, gang. Surely I’m not the only one to obsess over this stuff. I’d love to know what items I’ve forgotten, and what you tote when you venture outdoors.

I’ll close by pointing out that the pages of any back issue of EQMM or AHMM would serve as excellent toilet paper. The wonders of pulp fiction.

* * * 

See you in three weeks—if I survive the next outing.


21 July 2023

The President Who Played Detective, and other adventures

Replica of Washington's Rising Sun chair, used during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. (The Museum of the American Revolution)

Is it my imagination, or have museums in the U.S. gotten loads better? Last summer I visited the visitor center at Valley Forge National Historical Park, and was impressed that the exhibits integrated two things that would have been unthinkable two decades ago: hands-on learning for kids, and excellent representation of the contributions of women, Native Americans, and people of color.

My childhood memories of this particular episode in the Revolutionary War featured three takeaways: George Washington had a white horse that he either rode or prayed beside; the American troops were poorly outfitted and left bloody footprints in the snow; and gee, the winter weather sure was bad.

I never learned that Washington’s encampment included “camp followers,” typically the spouses of the soldiers who cooked meals for the troops, mended clothing, and performed other valuable services. I didn’t learn that African American soldiers and Native Americans were also among the troops. I didn’t know that other civilians tagged along as well, earning a living selling wares and munitions. The visitor center touched on all of these things, including the fact that General Washington despised the camp followers, calling them a “clog,” i.e. a drain on the army's food and resources. 

Time was, you’d have to specifically visit a children’s museum to find child-height exhibits that asked critical thinking questions and encouraged kids to open boxes, touch replicas, and push buttons to reveal answers or to hear period-appropriate sounds.

When I confessed my astonishment to all this to one of the rangers, he informed me that everything I was seeing was installed during the center’s pandemic closure. Even the film shown in the theater had been revamped to depict troop diversity and the contributions of women.

These sorts of changes to the way we tell American history are often lambasted as revisionist. Others make a big deal when something is Not Taught In Schools, as if the omission is part of a conspiracy. It’s not. I haven’t seen a decent history textbook in forty years that does justice to the breadth and complexity of American history. As a culture, we choose what’s important, and then we water it down even further to create textbooks. For as long as I’ve been alive, the accomplishments of white men was believed to have been of paramount importance. So that’s what we taught. The best teachers I’ve known—of history or anything else—ignore the textbook and teach using materials they’ve discovered through their passion for the subject.

I hit plenty of other museums and historic sites on a recent trip up the coast, following a wedding. I offer these quick capsule reviews.


The Museum of the American Revolution:
This museum dates to 2012. Great assortment of weaponry and Hessian headgear. It has a replica of a pirate ship, a Liberty Tree, a replica of the statue of the King George statue that solders and civilians tore down in 1776 in downtown Manhattan, and melted for bullets. You also learn about colonial-era voting rights for women, and the contributions of women, Africans enslaved or free, and Native Americans to the cause. The crown jewel of the museum collection is the tent used by Washington at Valley Forge. I went to the museum on a weekday, and found that the docents were pretty good at warning you when large school groups are likely to impede your progress through the galleries.

The Betsy Ross House: I’d never been, I’m glad I went, but I’m not sure I’d go again. Most historians question the assertion that Ross sewed the first U.S. flag, a story which came to light about a hundred years after her death in the form of affidavits signed by her descendants. There are wonderful exhibits for kids. You really get a sense of what it was like for a woman to run a successful business as a seamstress and upholsterer in this era. The house is minuscule, and I venture to say that the outside courtyard and attached gift shop comprise more square footage than the entire house. The best book I’ve found on the central question—did she or didn’t she?—is the one by Marla R. Miller.

The President's House: The house where Washington lived during the later years of his presidency no longer stands, but its footprint is smartly delineated by a series of exhibits on the edge of the green in front of Independence Hall. According to Pennsylvania law, any slave who lived in the state for six months automatically became free. To circumvent this law, the Washingtons rotated their slaves so no one person would hit the six-month-mark. Panels and film clips recount the story of an enslaved woman, Ona Judge, who managed to escape to New England and live out her life in freedom. See the book by historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar.

Washington's Privy. (Mt. Vernon)

Franklin Court: Old Ben’s house no longer stands but you can walk the courtyard where he and his family resided. Nearby are a historic post office, print shop, and a museum—all of which I love. But I was a Franklin fan going way back. Round tablets stationed throughout the courtyard tell you where the privies serving this household were once situated. I love historic crap, but not necessarily this version. The only exhaustive book on Franklin’s life in recent years is the one by Walter Isaacson.

While in Philly:
We did cheese it up at Campo’s and Sonny’s, two Center City joints known for cheesesteaks. I split two of these sandwiches in one day with my wife, and lived to tell the tale.

Washington DC:

The National Postal Museum: This was a surprise. You can see replicas of old stagecoaches that delivered mail, and postal train cars that carried postal workers who sorted mail as the train rocketed to their next destination. You can wander a forest, imagining what it was like to travel through colonial America delivering mail and following axe marks on trees to reach the next mail stop. I was astonished to learn that the name of newspapers was originally derived from the method by which they were delivered—hence names such as The Post, Courier, Packet, and so on. All of these exhibits and the Smithsonian’s postal archives are housed in this massive old postal building. There’s a working postal window within the gift shop, where you can buy hot new stamp releases. Highly recommended.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture: This is a very new museum and still hot with tours and school groups. Timed entry is mandatory, and helps keep the pace going. If you start at the beginning, with exhibitions focusing on slavery, you’ll encounter a sluggish series of queues. The pace picks up in later galleries. The biggest takeaway is seeing just how many nations engaged in the slave trade. But it would be incorrect to see the museum solely as the story of slavery in America. It’s so much more, and far too rich to take in on one visit. We’ll be going back. One book I’d recommend: All that She Carried by Tiya Miles.

Colonial Williamsburg: I’d visited here for a blur of a weekend as a kid, and during a book signing event as an adult. This was the first time I actually entered most of the restored structures and spoke with the artisans and docents who bring this place to life. The tinsmith, the pewterer, the printers, and the bookbinders not only know about their craft as it’s practiced today but also how it was conducted in the 1760s-1770s England and Williamsburg. At the drop of tricorn hat, they can quote from interesting historical records they consulted to bone up on their professions. When I asked a gunsmith if the metal parts of their weapons were made by the local blacksmith, he scoffed, “No way! We don't even drink with those guys! We make everything ourselves.” I enjoyed the shops, I enjoyed the period-authentic menus at the restaurants, and I dug the live music. We stayed in an attic room on one of the main drags, which granted us admission tickets for the length of our stay. I’d return again to visit structures closed or under renovation on this time around.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon: I’d never been, and I’d return again. The grounds feature a modern museum, the residence, several outbuildings, a working farm with animals, stunning views of the Potomac, and the tombs of the president and Martha. The most powerful part of our visit was a wreath-laying ceremony at the graveyard of free and enslaved persons. As each new grave is identified (but not exhumed) local scout troops are invited to mark the graves with hand-painted rocks. About 80 burial sites have been located; about 150 people are believed to have been interred here. We befriended a docent and fifer who made this short ceremony all the more special.

He was very proud of that lawn.

I admit that my headline here is clickbaity but I couldn’t resist sharing an anecdote related on the enslaved persons tour. The lawn in front of Mt. Vernon was cut by workers wielding scythes back in the day. Vast lawns were a sign of wealth. Washington instructed his overseers to tell the enslaved workers (about 500 people over the span of years that the couple lived here) not to walk on the grass but to stick to the well-marked paths around it.

Washington arose one morning to find a footprint in the grass. A clever surveyor, he dashed indoors for a measuring tool, recorded the dimensions of the footprint, and instructed his men to visit the slave quarters, measuring feet until they found the culprit. According to our docent, the records state that the unnamed offender was found and severely dealt with. (The presumption is that they were whipped.) The evidence seems skimpy, if you ask me, considering the similarities in people’s foot sizes. But hey, you do you, Detective-in-Chief! Yay Washington. Yay America.

* * * 

BSP: Today I am a proud husband bragging about his wife. Denise had an article appear this week in Rolling Stone, pegged to the opening of the Oppenheimer film that opens this week. You can read it here. You may encounter a paywall, that is apparently applied at random. You can usually read the whole article if you activate your browser's "reader mode."

See you in three weeks!



30 June 2023

Thinking outside the book signing box

Gift shop at Colonial Williamsburg.

Today I’m revisiting a post I wrote years ago for another blog that now appears to be inactive. I wanted to share this with you because I spent many weeks leading up to Fourth of July on the road, hawking one, then two, and finally three nonfiction history titles.

I learned a lot about bookstores, book sales, and marketing during this period of time. So much so that about a year after the first book pubbed, our small publisher contacted my wife and me, asking if we would speak to the heads of their marketing and sales departments. They had noticed that in the last year or so, they had accrued an impressive number of new accounts. All of them were gift shops at museums and historic sites, and all of them were ordering the same book—ours and ours alone.

“What are you doing to sell these books?” they wanted to know. Until that point they had not really considered historic sites as a potential market for their products, but shortly after this they began acquiring and publishing more nonfiction history titles.

I’m offering this as a case study, more or less. And since I know this does not speak directly to the realm of mystery novels, I’ll offer some comments at the end of the post about how a mystery author (or any other) might put some of this into practice. So please bear with me and try to think creatively about how you might apply this to your work.

We sold books in the Philly cemetery where Ben Franklin is buried...

One of the most humiliating rites of passage for any new author is the book signing.* Despite everyone’s best efforts, you can end up sitting for hours at a lonely table at the front of your local bookstore while legions of potential readers blow past you as if you’re invisible. If anyone dares make eye contact with you, it’s to give you a pitying smile. The same people who will wait hours to have a book signed by a “name” author cannot wait to get out of your line of sight. Why? Because they don’t know you, they don’t know your book, and they don’t know why they should.

How can you make sure this embarrassing experience never happens again? Simple: Stop trying to sell books in a bookstore.

This may sound heretical coming from a traditionally published no-name author, but I think it’s solid advice that can be deployed judiciously from time to time. Seventy percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years. Those who do venture into bookstores are habitual browsers, or else infrequent buyers looking for a specific title. Maybe they read a lot, or maybe they’re just there to pick up a book their kid needs for a class. Bookstore regulars are jaded by the sight of an unknown author sitting a table signing books. The others just want to grab the book they came for, and get the heck out. You cannot move many books in such a tough crowd, all the while surrounded by hundreds of other competing titles.

...we sold in historic churchyards...

If you want to sell books, you must break out of the pack and become the only must-buy book in the store. Consider signing instead at non-bookstores, such as specialty stores, gift shops, galleries, museums, historic sites, etc. My wife/coauthor and I have sold upwards of 100 books a day in some of these places. We were as surprised by this result as our publishers, but we finally figured out that unless you’re a name, successful book signings often depend on reaching shoppers for whom the experience of a book signing is a rare treat.

At non-bookstores, signings are worthy of press releases, cakes, balloons, and hullaballoo. What’s more, gift store browsers have one raison d’etre: they’re looking to shop. The wallets of everyone walking in the door are psychologically cracked and ready to spill cash. If you sell in a souvenir shop, for example, your book now becomes a souvenir-by-association, a relatively cheap must-have from that tourist’s vacation.

Here’s how to turn these events into over-the-top successes.

...we sold at the gift shop at the National Archives in DC, where the Declaration of Independence is housed and displayed.

Get the sales staff involved. Have a staffer greet each person as they enter the store and say something like, “We have a book author with us today. She’s here autographing her book about X.” This primes shoppers, answering the question most are thinking but will never ask: “What’s that lady doing behind that table with all those books?”

Stack your book around the store. Your book should not only be on your table but on every available surface. Place some on a table behind you, so people can walk right past you and inspect the book on the sly, without you hovering over them. (I swear this happens, and results in sales.) A stack of books should be at the cash registers too, and every salesclerk should say, before they ring up each person’s purchase: “Did you see we have an author in today signing copies of their book?” This gives shoppers one last chance to buy before they check out. If it’s a venue such as a museum or attraction that sells admission tickets in addition to having a gift shop, sales clerks will have two opportunities to pitch your book.

Get attention in a fun way. People hate approaching a table where someone is obviously selling something. Help them get over it, and do it in a way that connects with the theme of the store. To sell our history title set during the American Revolutionary War, we targeted gift shops at historic sites—the visitor center in Philly near where the Liberty Bell is housed, for example—and asked an actor friend to dress in colonial costume and read quotes of the Founding Fathers all day long.

The late Scott Sowers was a Broadway actor, audiobook narrator, and character performer who had appeared on Law & Order numerous times. Miss him terribly.

As each new gaggle of tourists flowed into Ye Olde Historick Shoppe, the actor yelled in a booming voice, “Hear ye, hear ye!” and proceeded to read a rousing line or two from the letters of, say, John Adams or Ben Franklin. At the end, our friend joyously yelped, “Huzzah!” Shoppers soon got the idea that this was all part of the fun experience of shopping in this particular store today. They froze in their tracks and listened, they snapped pictures of the dude in costume, they conquered Their Fear of The Table—and they bought a book. At the Old State House in Boston, by the end of the day the sales clerks were even yelling “Huzzah!” as the actor concluded a quote. A clerk confided to us, “I’m really loving my job today!”

Give away something free. Whether they buy a book or not, everyone you meet should get a bookmark or business card depicting the book cover and some info on the back. If they don’t buy the book now, they’ll buy it online later. Tell them how to connect with you via your website or socials. If parents stopped by with kids, we gave every kid a U.S. flag sticker. That single act usually broke the ice with parents. (Avoid giving candy or treats.)

Make eye contact and connect. Every time I see an author with his nose in a book at his own signing, I feel like swatting the tome out of his mitts. Engage your customers! Look them in the eye. Smile. Say good afternoon. Hit them with the pitch: “This is our book about the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence,” we used to say. “The cover unfolds to a copy of the Declaration of Independence.” Then we flipped open a cover to show them how it “worked,” and waited for the inevitable, “Oh, that’s cool!” Then we’d say, “We’re the authors of the book, and we’re autographing copies today any way you’d like.” Sadly, people who don’t buy books often don’t immediately comprehend that authors autograph books, and that such books make a nice keepsake or gift. Be prepared to repeat these lines all day. Getting a book signed by you is, in a way, a limited-time offer. It’s the only reason to buy immediately versus buying the book a month from now online or at another store.

Keep a sign-up sheet handy. Inevitably you will make connections with people who want you to do talks, visit their classrooms, or want to receive your newsletter. Make it easy to collect those names. Collect the contact info and socials of the the gift shop employees as well. You may be hitting them up in the future, and they will mostly likely promote you on their socials.

An impromptu signing on a 2023 visit to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philly.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: I write mysteries, you say. There are no historic site gift shops for mysteries. Well, sure. But with some effort, I think most authors should be able to find suitable non-bookstore venues for their book. We met a photographer selling his gorgeous coffee table book at a busy camera repair shop on a Saturday. Once, while my wife shopped at a Victoria’s Secret in a New Jersey mall, I saw the author of a book on brassieres—I think it was this one—presiding over a hilarious book event, complete with pink champagne and a tempting, boob-shaped chocolate cake. Sheer genius.

Why couldn’t you sell your cat mysteries at a local Petco? Your cozy series about a cupcake-baking sleuth at a local bakery? Your PI mystery set in your small city at the local visitor’s center where tourists come to grab maps and sign up for the trolley tour?

Now, there are some hurdles and challenges with this approach. In most cases, you must a) persuade the managers or owners of these venues to give you a shot, and b) iron out who will order and sell the books. Will the venue buy them from you or the publisher and sell to customers, or will they let you sell direct? And will they ask for a piece of the action? You really have to summon your courage to ask and negotiate—two things authors admittedly hate to do.

Still, using techniques like these we burned through cases of books and have been invited back at nearly all the venues we’ve done. And before someone asks, this all happened years before my wife’s later solo titles hit the New York Times Bestseller List. So, at the time, she and I were just average midlist authors.

Believe me, I’m naturally quite shy. I really prefer sitting at my desk writing. It took all I could muster to convince stores to have us, and to persuade the sales staff to turn their stores into a circus for a day. But it was all in their best interest. The stores profited from every sale, often earning more per copy than we did. At the end of our first Boston signing, the manager told us this was one of the highest-grossing days in the store’s history. He offered us a free shopping spree—I blew part of my credit on a John Hancock Bobblehead—and picked up our dinner tab at a nearby restaurant that night.

That does bring me to the biggest challenge: cost. We did these multi-city trips each Fourth of July Week for three or four years straight. When other people we going to the beach, we were slogging our way up the East Coast of the US, visiting hot, humid, expensive cities such as DC, Philadelphia, and Boston. We visited out-of-the-way National Historic sites run by the National Park Services. Park rangers, not booksellers, presided over many of our signings (and later talks). These were, to be blunt, work trips for which we always took a tax deduction on our federal and state taxes.

Still, we knew that such an effort—complete with meals, lodging, etc.—was not cost-effective in the short term. (Our travel costs far outstripped our per-copy earnings.) Would this investment pay off over time? Well, watch what happened. When we pubbed the second book, the publisher offered us a travel grant—in other words, we did not have to pay it back out of royalties—to do our annual July trip. And one of the venues arranged for free lodging (in Boston!) via the site’s nonprofit foundation. The first book has since sold about 100,000 copies, the second about 30,000, so yes, I do think in the long run, it was worth it to cement the saleability of these books in the minds of the non-bookstores.

* * * 

* Please note: In the parlance of U.S. bookstores, a "signing" is considered different from an "event." The former is just an author autographing at a table placed at the front of the store, the latter is a evening or afternoon presentation where an author is expected to lecture/speak, read from the book, and answer questions from an audience. Most of the ones we did in the early days were signings. As the books became more popular, some of the historic sites invited us to do speaking events. One, a historical society in RI, paid us an honorarium for the talk.

Happy Fourth of July to everyone, and see you in three weeks!


09 June 2023

My father had the goods!


Via (under license).

I thought I’d follow up my Mother’s Day post with one about my Dad, since it’s coming up on Father’s Day as well. I’ve written about him here before, and about the hilarious connection he had to my first-ever meeting with a book editor.

First the bad news. Dad—aka Big Frank—left us forever last July, not long after his 91st birthday, while still of sound mind and creaky body. Though his own father died young, his mother’s side of the family was unusually long lived. His Mom died at 95, his aunt 100, his uncle at 103.

His was a groovy existence while it lasted. Dad was always a raconteur, a cutup, a card. I knew him to devour only two types of books—ones on psychic phenomena, and ones about woodworking. I can’t say that he ever read a single thing I wrote; it just wasn’t his thing. Upon retirement, he took to prowling garage sales, and would often brag about his finds. When I’d visit the house, he’d lure me out to the garage and show off one tool after another.

“Lookit this,” he said, showing off a plane, or a saw, or a chisel. “How much you think I paid for this?”

“No clue,” I would say.

“Fifty cents!”

I know I was supposed to be impressed, but often I thought, “You paid fifty cents for that?”

I could wax on but most of my memories would not be germane to this blog. Instead, I thought I’d focus on Dad’s connection to the first short story I ever sold to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (AHMM). “Button Man,” which appeared in the March 2013 issue, was set primarily in New York during the 1950s. The protagonist named—surprise! surprise!—Frank is an Italian American from Brooklyn who has recently left the Army after serving during the era of the Korean War. Though he once dreamed of pursuing a career in music, our narrator ends up working as a pattern maker in New York’s Garment District.

Well, that’s pretty much my father’s resume to a T. He claimed that he never made it to Korea because the general at Fort Benning preferred him to stay put and play his saxophone. “Your papers are in my desk,” he often quoted the general as saying. “Let ‘em stay there.”

Goofing around at the barracks in the 1950s.

My dad played sax, clarinet, and flute equally well. A marching band in the Army, and a string of big bands in New York when he got back home. When one of the bandleaders he played with heard that Frank was thinking of settling down, the pal told him that music was no career for a family man. Dad took a six-week class at some technical school and ended up on glamorous Fashion Avenue. That’s one of the things you did back then if you were Jewish or Italian and didn’t have deep pockets. The making of clothing for the masses was your ticket to gainful, unionized employment.

Growing up, my brothers and I were steeped in the world of the district. We’d ride the bus from New Jersey with him from time to time, and spend a half day with Dad, especially if it was close to the holidays. Come lunchtime, if we were lucky, we’d eat with him and his buddies at a series of Jewish delis or hole-in-the-wall Italian red-sauce dives. 

I can close my eyes and instantly conjure the smell of the sweatshops he worked in. The gurgle and hiss of the steam presses, the irritating tickle of airborne fabric dust, the oppressive goddamn heat. 

We were reared in the lingo. Fashion designers were stylists. Scissors were shears. Fabric and textiles were goods, as in, “This here is a nice piece of goods.” (Often uttered while one was feeling up said goods.) Mannequins were forms. By second grade I knew words like baste-stitch, stayflex, bust dart, shearling, and pleats.

These are the largest of his shears.

To make extra money, Dad often took work home and freelanced from our garage or a series of studios he rented in our small town. I may be the only SleuthSayer who grew up in a household with two sewing machines, a leather machine, and a garage full of headless female shapes in a battery of sizes from petite to zaftig.

My brothers and I, eager to earn some pocket money, learned to wield gigantic shears and bizarre tools like notchers. God help us if we used the fabric shears to cut paper!

The notchers are above the shears.
 I have no idea what the spiky rolling tool was called,
but I loved using it to put holes in paper.

From time to time a truck from a mill in Paterson, New Jersey, appeared in our driveway to unload rolls of green-and-white cardstock paper or brown packing paper. These rolls were so massive my father used a hand truck to lift them slightly when he needed to unwind and sever a piece from the roll. A kid could be crushed by such an object.

Why paper? Dad’s specific role in the vast machinery of the district was to convert the stylist’s elegant sketch into a pattern—i.e. template—for the upcoming manufacturing process. Sometimes he worked from a sketch, other times from a sample garment that had to be reverse-engineered. Mostly he worked in women’s fashions. Overcoats, trench coats, spring jackets. He once did jodhpurs for the horsey set, and occasionally ventured further afield.

“Dear,” he told my wife when he first met her, “you know, I pioneered fake fur for the children’s market!”

Like me when presented with a 50-cent chisel, my wife was speechless.

His other claim to fame: a faux-leather Fonzie-style jacket for kids.

Notice that I did not say the official Fonzie jacket, because that would mean that the manufacturer had actually bothered to license the garment from the producers of the hit TV show, Happy Days. But there was a time in the mid-1970s when Fonzie jacket knockoffs were everywhere.

That was the thing about the garment industry, then and now. It was absurdly, colorfully corrupt. Knockoffs were the name of the game. If Saks debuted a line of $233 car coats, you figured out how to knock it off and sell your retails-for-$43 version to Sears, Penney’s, and Montgomery Ward. When the wife of a colleague decided to embark on her own line of fashions, she asked my father for advice. Her business was tanking. She found the industry brutal and depressing. No matter what she did, she could not seem to interest any of the department store buyers in her wares.

“How much are you paying them off?” Dad said.

“Is that what people do?”

“The bosses do, yeah. How else you think you’re gonna get into the big stores?”

As you might imagine, that’s the sort of the direction my AHMM story went. Our protagonist befriends a young Irish American garment worker, the scion of a large button manufacturing concern, who becomes appalled by the graft he encounters every day, and decides to do something about it. Publication of that story is now 10 years in the past, so I don’t feel I need to cloak any spoilers. The naive gent ends up in witness protection.

My father claimed that’s how one of his young Irish friends from the district vanished into thin air, only to phone my father years later to say hello—and goodbye. It saddened Frank to recall the story. In my version of the tale, I made up the part about the guy working for his father’s button company. I have no idea what kind of job an Irish guy would have had in the Garment District back in the day.

To date, it’s the only short story I’ve written that stems from someone in my immediate family. No worries. In time I’ll follow through on my threat to steal something from them all.

A Happy Father’s Day to all.

* * * 

See you in three weeks!


19 May 2023

The tomatoes stink, but you should really try the pie


Back in May 2021, I shared some memories of my mother, and it occurs to me to revisit her story at least once more before this month of mothers passes us by.

Early last year I finished assembling a Word doc containing all the recipes she left behind when she died in 2016. They came in two forms. The first was a giant box of index cards, and frankly, those recipes were largely unremarkable. Like a lot of home cooks, she snipped recipes she discovered in magazines, and gradually altered them to her taste the more she experimented with them. A few of these truly became her own, but most did not.

The second group of recipes were far more interesting. In a “marble” cover composition notebook she kept what can probably best be described as a cooking journal. In this book, she recorded recipes that she had just thrown together off the top of her head, along with occasional diary-like entries and comical asides.

The existence of the journal came as a surprise. I could not imagine her actually taking pencil to paper in this way. She was born in Italy, so English was forever a second language to her. She did not take to writing easily. She never finished high school, and her only jobs in life required manual labor. Hence, her notebook is filled with misspellings and wonky grammar. But I love this little book because I can see her mind at work, trying to make sense of her intuitive cooking process. I’m going to share some entries from the notebook exactly as written. Warning: punctuation is nonexistent, and the prose is somewhat hard to parse:


for jars 2 colander (colapasta) makes 6 1 quart jars 1 buscel makes approx 18 jars. I made on my birthday 8-21-01 the last time I made in 2000 also on my birtday. Sthings because I got gipt*

Where to begin with this? I had not known that the word colander in Italian is colapasta, so that was a revelation as I was editing. The word buscel is her rendering of bushel.

I don’t know why she would throw in the non sequitur about canning tomatoes on her birthday; possibly it served to remind her what time of year she traditionally bought and canned tomatoes. I don’t think she noted the date to remind herself when the produce was at its peak of flavor. The last line—which I translate as stinks because I got gypped**—reflects a theme that crops up often in these pages. She is convinced that a particular farmstand in New Jersey sells subpar tomatoes. Here’s another dig:

August 29

The past 4-5 days Im making tomato there are very bad I got them from the farm never again

This is the Last Time

I love how she capitalizes those last two words.

In a few entries we find her making handmade egg noodles, which she generously plans to mail to a former neighbor who retired to Indiana. I can’t recall the last time I received a box of handmade noodles in the mail, let alone handmade anything, but I do recall that this neighbor loved the chicken soup my mom served with these noodles.

Shortly after embarking on this editing project, I realized that the recipes in this book were largely unusable as written. They are more lab notes than recipes. She’s trying to figure out which ratios of ingredients have the greatest impact on the final dish, and that’s too backstage to interest most of us. If I ever hoped to share her discoveries with family members, I’d need to test each recipe by making each dish myself. I also saw that in some cases I’d need to offer footnotes to explain to the uninitiated what Mom was talking about.

also on Sep. 7

I made Tacconelle Molise dis is homemade pasta in shepe of
diamanti. Because I seen it in La Cucina Italiana in Cantalupo we made this all the time with fresh tomato sauce
Translation: In a magazine called La Cucina Italiana, she spotted an article on a regional diamond-shaped pasta dish which she chose to call Tacconelle Molise. (Modern foodies generally describe the pasta as typical of the Abruzzo region. Years after my mother left Italy, “the Abruzzi” she knew as a child split politically into two distinct regions—Abruzzo and Molise.) Mom hailed from a village in Molise called Cantalupo. Clearly, the recipe inspired her recollection of that dish, and the urge to make it.

All professional writers have had the experience of reading a sentence, detecting that a critical word is missing, yet still being able to comprehend the sentence anyway. But I have no clue how to read the second-to-last sentence in this recipe:

Sep. 5 — 01

I made a pie today with 5 nactarine & 2 plums 1/4 sugar 1/4 tapioca 1 tb. of lemon juice cinamon & nutmeg I can bake and tell if it is good pie is OK.

To bad nobody is here to eat it.

Not sure what kind of pie this is. It doesn’t sound like a two-crust pie, but maybe more of a hand pie, tart, or galette. The penultimate line remains as cryptic to me as it was the first time I read it. Is she saying she baked the pie, and tasted it solely to determine its quality? Or is another reading possible?

The last line, on the other hand, is abundantly clear, and touches on another of her favorite themes. She made a pie that can only be eaten by herself and her husband, because her three ungrateful sons have left the nest empty.

Which brings me, I guess, to the only advice I can offer you this May. If your mother is still with you, by all means visit sometime and gorge yourself silly on pasta and pie.

A belated happy Mother’s Day to all.

* * *

* Nearly all online dictionaries note that the use of this word is informal and offensive.
** Still offensive, even when spelled correctly.

See you in three weeks!


28 April 2023

The Mystery at the Heart of “Masquerade”

My notes and case dossier from 41 years ago.

Buried treasures, anagrams, and complex puzzles are all tropes found in mystery fiction. They’re also elements of a delightful children’s book that spawned a sub-genre in kidlit in the 1980s.

It all started with a 1979 picture book called Masquerade, written and illustrated by a British artist and “wizard” named Kit Williams. (The book was published by Jonathan Cape in the UK, by Schocken Books in the U.S., and by publishers elsewhere around the globe. The plot of the book is simple. A sprightly hare is charged with transporting a precious amulet, a gift from Lady Moon to the aloof Sun-God. Jack Hare travels the length and breadth of England to deliver the prize, but loses the amulet along the way. Readers are encouraged to use the clues hidden in the book’s 15 hyperrealistic illustrations to find a very real sculpture, which Williams crafted from gemstones, faience, and 18k gold, and buried somewhere in that blessed plot, England.

Like some kind of latter-day Willy Wonka, Williams promised to send an airplane ticket anywhere in the world to the person who wrote him and convincingly demonstrated that they had cracked the code. He further promised to travel with the winner to the secret site and assist in the dig.

Thus ensued a colorful couple of years that saw (mostly) adult readers of the book going nuts digging up gardens, soccer fields, and other public and private lands all over the nation, in search of Williams’ jewel-encrusted rabbit. One long-suffering woman told British media that people kept digging up her rabbit-shaped topiary in search of the treasure. As the book’s fame spread, its New York publisher proudly bragged to the media that no less an entity than the FBI bought copies for their trainees to test their mettle cracking the code. They couldn’t, but with all the publicity the book sold at least 2 million copies worldwide.

While I never cashed in my childhood savings bonds and booked my ticket to England, I too became obsessed with the book, which arrived in U.S. bookstores about the time I was entering high school. I paged through the book countless times, and even “taught” the book for a time when I was tutoring kids in math and reading at a local elementary school. I was counting on the genius of little kids to help me unravel the case, because I was hopelessly stumped.

Like any good mystery, the book piled red herrings on top of red herrings. The visual clues included atomic numbers, magic squares, and so on, all designed to lead you astray. Williams actually painted a herring gull—a type of seabird—into one image. In another, he painted a goldfish whose scales appeared red where they overlapped with an underlying image of a hare. Each image featured a riddle painted in its borders. Some of the letters were red, others had barbed serifs. The barbed or red-letter clues, once decoded, amounted to a handful of innocuous and often unhelpful anagrams.

While Williams insisted in the book flap copy that no knowledge of British geography was necessary to solve the mystery, the book nevertheless touched on history, mathematics, literary references, British train schedules, astronomy, physics, botany, and the animal kingdom. For example, one clue found in the border of the very first image reads: “One of Six of Eight”—a reference to Catherine of Aragon, the first of six wives of Henry VIII.

In 1982, newspapers around the world revealed that the rabbit amulet had been found by a gentleman who sent what he believed to be the solution to Williams. Williams later published a smaller paperback in which he spelled out the solution in excruciating detail. Obsessive that I was (and still am), I rushed out to get that new version of the book and was astonished by the diabolical complexity of the puzzle.

To summarize this quickly, the key to the puzzle was drawing a line from the eyes of the living figures—humans and animals—in each of the paintings through their fingers (or paws/claws/fins) until those lines crossed and touched letters in the border. But you had to get the hierarchy of beings—men, women, children, hares, and lesser animals—in the proper order if you ever hoped to assemble the letters in the right sequence. One clue to this arrangement is found on the title page: “To find the hidden riddle, you must use your eyes, / And find the hare in every picture that may point you to the prize.” (Italics mine.)

If you do this, the marginalia spelled out the following:


From here, it becomes a matter of locating a monument in England dedicated to Catherine of Aragon, and waiting for the sun on the day of the vernal equinox to cast a shadow pointing to the location of the treasure. Where was the monument, you ask? An acrostic formed by the bolded letters above reads: Close by Ampthill. That’s Ampthill, Bedfordshire, where Catherine was exiled following the annulment of her sad marriage.

The two most important images in the book was one featuring Sir Isaac Newton and another depicting a woman known as the Penny-Pockets Lady. These two spell out the color-coded hierarchy of beings that solvers were intended to follow. 

In the Isaac Newton image, the barbed letters (circled in blue) spell SIR, and
the red letters (circled in red) spell ISAAC—both of which have nothing to do with
solving the final mystery. However, if you draw lines from the eyes of certain figures
through their hands, toes, paws, fins, etc, the resulting lines point to letters
that spell the secret word HOUR in the above acrostic.
Please do not ask me how to draw the lines;
I knew how when I was 16 years old, but not today.

By now I think we can agree that an American high school kid, aided only by his love of mysteries and a gaggle of second graders as his Baker Street Irregulars, had little hope of cracking the case.

Many years after the treasure’s discovery, The Sunday Times of London alleged that the finder had not played fairly. Instead of decoding the clues properly, he learned of the hare’s approximate location from an ex-girlfriend of Williams, and started digging holes until he struck pay dirt. The prize should have gone to two physics teachers from Manchester who cracked the code exactly as its creator intended, but whose letter reached Williams too late.

Scandalized, Williams apologized to the world at large. By then he had moved on to writing other puzzle books, painting more gorgeous images, and designing fanciful public clocks. As one who struggles constantly to conceive of even one or two clues to embed in my stories, I can only marvel at someone who possessed the creativity to layer such a dizzying array of clues for a book spanning a mere 32 pages. In my eyes, Kit Williams is some kind of a genius.

Masquerade is no longer in print, but you can still find reasonably priced copies online. If you’re buying for a child, you will want the 9-by-11-inch hardcover. If you want to learn how to decipher the code in the author’s own words, look for the 6-by-7.5-inch paperback version of the book “with the answer explained.”

See you in three weeks!