Showing posts with label poisons. Show all posts
Showing posts with label poisons. Show all posts

10 August 2023

Great Mistakes in Criminal History / Mystery

Some days you run across things that just make you go, wait a minute, that's not right.  And I'm not talking about Florida Man or South Dakota Man.  I'm talking about people who have actually planned crimes, meticulously, and made some of the stupidest mistakes you can imagine.

For example, a married Colorado dentist who fell in love with another woman started looking up things on the internet like, “is arsenic detectable in an autopsy?” and “how to make murder look like a heart attack." (Yes, I know we at SleuthSayers have all probably done something like that, but at least we had the excuse that we're crime writers, right?)  But this guy not only left a suspicious internet trail a mile long, but he actually ordered a rush shipment of potassium cyanide that he told the supplier was needed for a surgery. To his office.  Where, of course, an employee opened it and went, "Wait, what does a dentist need with cyanide?" And that wasn't the only poison he ordered delivered. Sadly, all of this did not come out early enough to save his wife's life.  (AP News

But from it we can learn three things:  

  • Never use your own computer; 
  • Always delete the cookies and the history on the browser; 
  • Never have poison, etc., delivered to your office or home.  

Another example is researching Amber Alerts, watching a movie about a woman’s abduction, and writing and delivering to 911 a pretty believable script about finding a white toddler all alone on the side of the road and then vanishing, leaving the car open and running and her cell phone, and having law enforcement searching for her and the toddler, and two days later showing up, claiming to be kidnapped and held hostage but escaping - for nothing?  Ten days later, her attorney shows up and recites a flat statement that it was all a hoax. ??? (AP News)  Honey, if you need a couple of days off, just take off!  

And then there's other things that people have obviously written meticulously, carefully, and made a bestselling novel or movie out of it and... there's a major flaw.

I've talked about the 1998 movie A Simple Plan before.  Very good, understandable, greed and stupidity win over planning.  BUT, when an FBI Agent named Baxter arrives in this small town, Sheriff Carl Jenkins asks the "heroes" to work with him without ever having checked Baxter's credentials.  This does not happen in the real world.  No rural county sheriff would ever just say, "Nice to meet you, what can I do for you?" to someone claiming to be an FBI and wanting to investigate something.  Sadly, if Sheriff Carl was that dumb, he deserved what he got. 

(BTW: The fact that Sarah the librarian does and figures out who Baxter really is makes perfect sense to me but then I know that librarians can find out anything in the world, given enough time.)

This fact that rural, state, and national law enforcement do not always work smoothly together - indeed are often loath to listen to each other - explains a lot about some of the disastrous decisions made in recent years.  The latest is the video from Circleville, Ohio, where State Highway Police had Jadarrius Rose surrendered, hands up, while a Circleville City Policeman arrived on the scene with a German Shepherd K-9 and totally ignored the state trooper yelling three times, "Do not release the dog with his hands up!" and released the dog, which promptly mauled Mr. Rose. (Link)  I believe the city policeman figured he didn't have to listen to some state trooper.  

But a while back I figured the most egregious example of mistake that ruins the whole plot (for me) is in Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile.  Heiress Linnet Doyle is murdered at night in her cabin.  Everyone is a suspect.  Linnet's maid, Louise, is the second victim.  And that right there is a major flaw, because (SPOILER ALERT!!!) Louise knows who Linnet's murderer is, and has already pried money out of the murderer.  But murdering her right then and there makes no sense at all. You're the goose that lays the golden eggs, and she's a maid. She'll keep her mouth shut until everyone gets off the boat, because she wants more money. She'll follow you anywhere and keep your alibi, because she wants your money!  You don't kill the goose that has the golden alibi.  Instead, you pay her off for the next year or so, and then, away from Hercule Poirot, you kill her and make it look like an accident. 

Finally, though, my favorite is from The Big Bang Theory, in "The Raiders Minimization" Amy Fowler shatters Sheldon's favorite movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark by pointing out the major plot flaw:

I still like the movie, but she's right.

27 October 2022

The Queen's Poisoner

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

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

First, the poisoner.

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

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

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

Which brings us to the queen. 

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

Queen Christina dressed as a man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

02 February 2017

Arsenic and Old Lace

There are lots of reasons to prefer modern times: air conditioning, central heating, indoor plumbing, anesthesia, and antibiotics are the top five in my book. I also really enjoy entertainment on tap, as it were - music, television, movies, books. And I certainly do not wax nostalgic about the good old days of 37 pounds of clothing worn over corsets (see Judith Flanders' "Inside the Victorian Home"), food cooked until it was a puddle of goo, or the constant smell of unwashed... everything. Bodies, clothing, you name it.
But the Victorian age was a great age to kill somebody.

For one thing, there were no regulations on food or drugs, and no real recognition of drugs. So you could buy laudanum, cocaine, heroin, and other fun stuff, clearly labeled, over the counter. (Remember Sherlock's 7% solution... he wasn't buying it from one of the Bow Street Runners, although he might have gotten it from the Baker Street Irregulars...) And almost all the patent medicines contained cocaine, heroin, and/or alcohol.

Food itself was pretty hazardous: bread was whitened with chalk and/or alum, strychnine gave an extra kick to beer, sulphate of copper kept pickles green, and lead was added to chocolate, wine, cider, and a whole lot of other foods. Tea leaves were dried and recycled, and dyed with red lead to make them look fresh. Red lead was also added to cheese for coloring, chalk to milk, and copper to gin...  The London County Country Medical Officer discovered, for example, the following in samples of ice cream: cocci, bacilli, torulae, cotton fiber, lice, bed bugs, bug's legs, fleas, straw, human hair, and cat and dog hair. Such contaminated ice cream could cause diphtheria, scarlet fever, diarrhoea, and enteric fever. "The Privy Council estimated in 1862 that one-fifth of butcher's meat in England and Wales came from animals which were 'considerably diseased' or had died of pleuro-pneumonia, and anthacid or anthracoid diseases." (See the Victorian Website HERE) Plus the Victorians didn't believe that either vegetables or fruit were wholesome, unless they were cooked to a puree, and even then, should only be taken in moderation. If you couldn't figure anything else out, you could probably just kill someone by diet alone...

But let's get on to the real stuff: poison. Arsenic was everywhere. Arsenic was in "wallpaper, beer, wine, sweets, wrapping paper, painted toys, sheep dip, insecticides, clothing, dead bodies, stuffed animals, hat ornaments, coal, and candles". It was used as a beauty treatment - soak your flypapers in water, and drink a few drops in fresh water (which probably came through lead pipes - lead was everywhere) to make your skin translucently white. It was used as a treatment for obesity, and it certainly could take the weight off. Sometimes all of it. Green wallpaper and green clothing were both soaked in arsenic to fix the color. And so was that Victorian mandatory wear for women, crepe, which was THE fabric of mourning.

Now widows were required to dress from head to toe in black, including complete veil, for at least one year, if not longer. Sweating in black crepe mourning garments (37 pounds of it) in summer was common, and I've run across receipts telling women how to wash the [arsenic-laden] black stains from their armpits and neck (both prime lymph node areas). Plus they were walking around, breathing through an arsenic-laden veil all day, every day... Personally, I think we have the explanation why the widow in so many Victorian memoirs and novels falls into a decline and dies young...

And then, of course, some people deliberately used arsenic to kill. Charles Francis Hall, an American Arctic explorer in the mid-1800s, died sometime around October, 1871, on his 3rd expedition. The ship was frozen in for the winter, and he'd returned from an outing with an Inuit guide, when he had a cup of coffee, collapsed, and fell into vomiting and delirium. After the expedition, an official investigation said he died of apoplexy, but a 1968 exhumation showed monumental levels of arsenic. It seems there might have been a feud between him and Dr. Bessels...

And there was pretty Madeleine Smith of Glasgow:  In 1857, when she was 20, she (GASP! HORROR!) had an affair with an apprentice nurseryman named Pierre Emile L'Angelier. Her parents, meanwhile, knowing nothing of Madeleine's behavior, found her a husband. Miss Smith tried to break off her affair with L'Angelier, and asked him to return her letters; instead, he blackmailed her. So off she went to an apothecary's and bought some arsenic - for flies, of course.  Or her complexion.  In any case, you could buy it over the counter.  A few days later, L'Angelier died of arsenic poisoning. Her letters were found, she was arrested and charged with murder, and the trial proceeded. Somehow, she was acquitted. (She was young, she was lovely, she had a good lawyer, and the police had messed up the letters, mixing up the pages...) But she had to leave Scotland. (She later married - twice - and lived until 1928.)

Dr. Thomas Neill Cream
Strychnine. Distilled from the seeds of the strychnos nux-vomica tree, which arrived in the West in the 17th century from China and India, strychnine became the standard poison used to kill birds in the country and rats in the city. And people. Dr. William Palmer was the first to be caught using it in England, for killing his gambling associates.  Dr. Thomas Neill Cream (what is it with doctors?), a/k/a the Lambeth Poisoner, used it to kill a number of prostitutes, and claimed to have killed more as Jack the Ripper just before he was hanged. (No, he wasn't "Saucy Jacky", because he was in prison in 1888, when Jack the Ripper was writing letters and postcards.)

Chloroform. Also available over the counter. The most famous story of murder (?) by chloroform is the Pimlico Mystery, and the death of Thomas Edwin Bartlett. A wealthy grocer, he married a Frenchwoman 10 years his junior, Adelaide. The couple had a special friend, the Reverend George Dyson, who hung around a lot. Anyway, one morning Adelaide got up and found her husband dead in bed. The coroner opened him up and nearly passed out from the odor of chloroform rising from the stomach. Adelaide said that he'd been threatening suicide. Dyson said he'd bought the chloroform for the Bartlett's to remove grease stains. (Who knows? Maybe it works.)  But there were no burn marks on the inside of Bartlett's throat, which there should have been if he'd been drinking chloroform.  So Bartlett's father - who'd never been able to stand Adelaide - thought it was all suspicious and had her charged with murder.

At the trial what really spared Adelaide's life was a simple incident, remembered by the servants. One day, Mr. Bartlett was looking through his wife's drawers (God only knows why, but it certainly sounds like the archetypal Victorian paterfamilias), found a pill, and took it, without asking anyone what it was or why it was there.  (Again, God only knows why.)  Later he told everyone, including the servants, what he'd done. Adelaide's barrister suggested that Mr. Bartlett had gotten up in the middle of the night with stomach pains or some such, found the bottle of chloroform, and knocked it back without asking any fussy questions of anyone first. (The barrister said that by drinking it quickly, there would be no burns on the throat.)  The jury didn't entirely believe this, but she was acquitted, to rapturous applause from the spectators. An internationally famous surgeon/pathologist of the day, Sir James Paget, said of the case, "Now that she has been acquitted for murder and cannot be tried again, she should tell us in the interest of science how she did it!"  Feel free to post any solutions to that little problem. Adelaide never told anyone, because she vanished immediately after acquittal, and no one knows where she went.

So, the Victorian Age - your environment is deadly, the food could kill you, poisons abound, and the symptoms of all are pretty much the same.  It was a coroner's guessing game, a jury's whim, and there was no CSI team waiting in the wings.  There was only one Sherlock, and he was on paper only.  No cameras, no social media, no radio, no publicity.  You really could get away with murder.  Especially if you were young and pretty...

01 August 2013

The Affair of the Poisons

Scandal!  Murder!  Secret poisons!  Death in high places!  Welcome to the 17th century, specifically the reign of King Louis XIV, the Sun King, or, as one of my students once put it, the first king to live as a rock star.
Marquise de Brinvilliers
(after torture, on her way to execution)

The year was 1676, and a middle-aged woman, the Marquise de Brinvilliers, mousy, quiet, of minor nobility and married to same, was arrested for trying to kill her husband.  The investigation concluded that she had poisoned her father, her two brothers, and various strangers in hospitals upon whom she'd experimented with various types of poisons.  She tried to flee the country, but she was arrested in Liege, and tried and tortured.  She was executed (beheaded, and then her body was burnt).  During her trial, supposedly, she talked about how unfair her execution was since everybody did it.

File:Gabriel-Nicolas de la Reynie.jpg
Gabriel-Nicolas de la Reynie
And maybe they did.  The chief of police in Paris at the time was Gabriel-Nicolas La Reynie, rich, smart, urbane.  He cleaned up Paris, protected Protestants, and did a better job than most, or at least more of what we'd recognize as a police chief's job.  He'd been warned by a priest that a lot of people were confessing to poisoning their relatives.  The break came, however, at a party when a Madame Bosse got drunk and started talking about selling poison to the quality trade.  Someone reported it, and an undercover officer went to her later, bought a bottle of poison, and then arrested her.  She started squealing, and soon the authorities were arresting every fortuneteller, alchemist, and self-proclaimed witch or seer they could find.  And there were a lot of them.  Interrogations followed, and this is where it gets dicey, because the standard criminal justice procedures of the day called for questioning prisoners under torture.  Subjected to the water torture (16 pints poured down a funnel in the throat for starters), the boot, the rack, thumbscrews, pincers (sometimes red-hot) and other "standard methods", they named names galore.  And one of them was Madame Voison, self-proclaimed witch and fortuneteller to the stars.  (Think Nancy Reagan's astrologer; or Elizabeth I's Dr. Dee...)

File:La voisin .jpg
Madame Voison
At this point, La Reynie knew he was playing with very dangerous people, who quite literally could have HIM arrested for investigating them, so he went to Louvois, the Foreign Minister, who in turn went to the King, who agreed to a very private investigation so that they could hush up what needed to be hushed up and arrest those who needed to be arrested.  They created the "chambre ardente" ("burning court" - burning being the punishment for witches and witchcraft) to be the central investigation/court.   And names came tumbling out:  countesses, duchesses, counts and dukes.  Even people in the royal family.  The only one not named was Athenais de Mortemart, Madame de Montespan, either because Athenais didn't do more than have a few spells cast or because Voisin was scared of being charged with treason. 

Why treason?  Simple:  Madame de Montespan, daughter of one of the oldest families in France, was the then official mistress of Louis XIV, by whom she'd had 7 children.  Supposedly, it was La Voison who got M. de Montespan her place in the King's bed, because, despite her undoubted beauty, tremendous lineage, acknowledged wit, and extreme willingness, at first Louis just wasn't that into her.  It might have been that Louis was still besotted with Louise de la Valliere, it might have been that Louis didn't appreciate Athenais' incredibly sharp tongue, it might have been that he liked blondes better (who are we kidding, Louis liked everybody), but in any case, until La Voison (supposedly) arranged a Black Mass for Athenais, complete with blood, blasphemy, and spells - all performed on Athenais' nude body or so the rumor went - Louis didn't look her way.  After that, he was hooked on Athenais for years.

File:Francois-Athenais de Rochechouart.jpg
Madame de Montespan
Now the truth is, there was never any proof of all the poisonings, spells, and witchcraft but the word of a group of tortured prisoners who all claimed to be witches.  (Yes, there were deaths - but people died suddenly and quickly all the time, from bad food, infections, blood poisoning, aneurisms, and everything else under the sun.  Remember, this is a world without antibiotics or vaccinations.)  But at the same time, Athenais did admit to buying love spells for Louis (he was not amused).  And even a love spell could be harmful, because no one was checking out the ingredient list - Louis remembered that he'd had terrible headaches during the time in question, although that could have been a retroactive reaction.  And poison of all sorts was widely available (as late as 1892 our own Lizzie Borden could walk into a store and expect to buy prussic acid over the counter), easy to manufacture, and widely used (arsenic and antimony and belladonna were all used for cosmetic as well as homicidal reasons).  And poison was instantly suspected in any sudden death.  When Louis' brother's wife, Madame (who, incidentally was another of the King's lovers - the man got around) died suddenly at the age of 26 in 1670, even she, as she was dying, believed she'd been poisoned and said so.  (Suspects included two of her husband's lovers; the primitive CSI team of the day performed an autopsy and concluded cholera morbus, a/k/a gastroenteritis; the dispute continues to this day.) 

The results of the Affair of Poisons were:  36 people burned to death after torture, 4 sent to the galleys, 36 banished or fined, 81 imprisoned by lettres de cachet.  A lettre de cachet was an unappealable, unexplained order signed by the king, locking someone away for life - it was frequently used by the nobility to imprison difficult relatives.  One of the ones who vanished was Eustache Dauger de Cavoye, who (like Athenais) had played around with Black Masses (on Good Friday, no less!) and other debauchery.  For a long time, he was believed to be the Man in the Iron Mask - but it's been proved that his family had him locked up in the Prison Saint-Lazare in Paris.   One of the most interesting trials was that of the Duchesse de Bouillon, who arrived in court surrounded by relations and fans, hand in hand with her husband and the lover for whom she was accused of trying to murder the Duc.  She was tart, saucy, pert, and laughed her way through the whole trial.  She was acquitted, but the King banished her anyway.   And there was the Marechal de Luxembourg, who was tried (for 14 months) for using spells to get rid of people, including his wife.  He was also acquitted but his secretary was sent to the galleys.  (More on the galleys next blog.)  The King banished Luxembourg for only a week before recalling him to command the King's armies. 

Basically, all the society people were acquitted, despite admitting that they'd been customers of La Voison - but only, they swore, for spells and love potions.  And then, under torture and threat of burning, Madame de Montespan's name was finally said - all the stuff about the Black Mass and love potions came out - and Louis XIV shut the chambre ardente down.  All those who had even whispered Montespan's name were put, by lettre de cachet, in solitary confinement for life, where they were whipped if they even spoke to their jailers, to prevent the mention even of her name.  Faced with a King who was determined to cover up everything (Louis XIV even burned all the records in his possession), La Reynie implied that he believed the worst when he said "the enormity of their crimes proved their safeguard."  We know as much as we do because La Reynie kept his copies of the records safely locked away until they were rediscovered a few centuries later.

Madame de Montespan - well, Louis forgave her.  At least to the point where he kept her at Versailles for 11 more years, until she finally left in 1691 for the Convent of St. Joseph, with a half a million francs annual pension. 

I'm also happy to tell you that the sale of poison was strictly controlled from then on (official date August 31, 1682).  Private laboratories were abolished, and all occult arts forbidden. 

File:Olympia Mancini by Mignard.png
Olympe Mancini
But perhaps the most important result of the Affair of the Poisons is linked to another major society woman under suspicion, Comtesse de Soissons, Olympe Mancini.  A warrant was issued for her arrest in 1680, but the King warned her ahead of time that they were coming for her and she fled the country.  He said, later, that he would have to answer to God for that, but she was an old lover of his, and if she wasn't, her sister definitely was (there is no end to former lovers of King Louis XIV), and he had his own notions of gallantry.  She was suspected of killing her husband, and since she fled, people assumed she was guilty.  

File:Prinz Eugene of Savoy.PNG
Prince Eugene
Anyway, her son, Prince Eugene of Savoy, never believed that she was guilty, and was so furious at his mother's exile that he renounced his French citizenship and joined the Austrian army under the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I.  This was a disaster for Louis XIV, because the Hapsburgs and the Bourbons were mortal enemies, and Eugene was a military genius.  He served 3 successive HREs, and beat Louis like a gong in every battle in the War of the Spanish Succession.  Even more importantly in terms of European history as a whole, Eugene was a major player in the war to take back Vienna and Eastern Europe from the Ottoman Turks.  His most spectacular victory was the 1691 Battle of Zenta, where his casualties were 2,000 to the Turks' 25,000, as well as capturing the sultan's harem, treasure chest, and Imperial seal.  The peace treaty after that Battle restored Transylvania, Bosnia, and Hungary to the Austrian Empire and, thus, to Europe, and put an end to Ottoman expansion in Europe. 

So.  Poison.  Murder.  Scandal.  And we end up with a free Eastern Europe.   You figure it out.

NOTE:  For further reading, while there are an infinite number of books on Louis XIV, and a variety on the Affair of the Poisons, I recommend Nancy Mitford's, "The Sun King", which captures perfectly the breathless, "Entertainment Tonight!", celebrity-obsessed world of 17th century France. 

06 December 2012

Subtlety Is a Wrapped Sledgehammer

"In real life people don't bother about being too subtle, Mrs. Oliver," said the superintendent.  "They usually stick to arsenic because it's nice and handy to get hold of."
                                                                            — "Cards on the Table", Agatha Christie

Every once in a while someone asks me if I read up a lot on poisons to come up with new ways of killing people.  No, I don't.  I stick to what's nice and handy to get hold of.  I do this for a number of reasons:

First of all, I believe that most murders are done spontaneously, in the heat of passion, blind rage, or similar emotional storms, which means the killer uses what's at hand:  hands, scarves, blunt instruments, knives, guns, bathtubs, the occasional pond or car or equivalent.

Secondly, I set most of my murders in a small town, so even if murder is premeditated, it's hard to get high-tech stuff to kill people with.  Our local hardware store just doesn't carry the latest in James Bond type equipment.  (On the other hand, our drugstores have needles right out there where anyone can get them any time without any prescription, which still amazes me.)  Thus, antifreeze and ant killer are probably as high-tech as it gets.  Usually, our murderers still just shoot them, pound them, or drown them.

Most killers - no, let me change that - most criminals are not very bright.  They watch a lot of TV, which gives them many interesting ideas, but does not provide them the A to B's of things, and even if it did, they would ask, in the immortal words of Otto in "A Fish Called Wanda", "What was the middle part?"  Plus, they are easily distracted.  If you gave them a high-tech untraceable poison dart that could be administered from a distance via laser technology, there's a good chance they'd drop it on the way home and end up using a sledgehammer because it was handy.  Or they'd trade it for drugs and again use the sledgehammer.  If you told them they really need to be more subtle, they'd figure you meant to wrap the sledgehammer in duct tape or something.

So, in Laskin, South Dakota, people are shot, drowned, stabbed, smothered, strangled, run over, bludgeoned, and frozen to death.  Poison is indeed arsenic or antifreeze, or the occasional overdose of prescription medication.  Just call me an old-fashioned kind of girl.  But don't get me wrong - if I can come up with something new, I will!  :)

Latest news from the pen:  Donald Moeller, a child molester who kidnapped, raped, and murdered a nine year old girl back in 1990, was executed October 30th.  A number of inmates threw a party, and I'm told that the cheering could be heard all the way to the death chamber, where, just before they plunged the needle home, Mr. Moeller supposedly said, "That's my fan club."  He was wrong.  Some people saw this as horrible, horrible, more proof that inmates are basically violent, etc.  Personally, I saw it as totally predictable.  The one group all the inmates can/do look down on is child molesters.  And, if everyone would just be honest, they are encouraged to do so.  "They'll take care of him in the pen," is often said at conviction, knowing (without saying it) that that means beatings and gang rape and even murder.  So what did everyone expect?  Oh, and here's a no-brainer:  who let the inmates throw that party and didn't break it up? 

On the lighter side, my favorite line so far this year:  "It's not my fault I'm in here.  My baby mamma turned me in for dealing drugs because I cheated on her."  I'm not sure whether he's living in the Land of the Unconscious or floating down the Mighty River of Denial, but I do know he's got a lot of company.

05 October 2012

What's the Objective?

Recent events in my life -- unrelated to writing -- caused me to remember the old adage about "putting things behind you."  When something is over and done with, you can't go back and change it; you have to just keep moving ahead.

I don't know when I learned this adage, but my time in the Army brought me face to face with some of the most painful occurrences requiring it's implementation   Thankfully, those days are over.  Now, for me, the path ahead is inevitably made easier by the love of my wife and family.

And, I'm reminded that the easiest way to turn my back on the past -- putting something behind -- is to focus on an objective ahead of me  This is a good trick for writers to remember: both in their personal lives, and in our writing.

When the inevitable rejection slip arrives, for instance, it's always much easier to deal with when I've got a new work in progress.  I take a moment (maybe an hour or two -- to be sure I've got it right) to repackage the rejected material for the next market I've got on the list in my computer.  I try to list as many markets as possible for each work, in advance, because I find it hard to remember where I intended to send the manuscript next, when it's just come back to me.  Once it's repackaged and shipped off, I do my best to drop it and forget it until the manuscript either sells or comes back again.  And, it's much easier to drop it and move on, if I've got a new objective ready and waiting: that new work in progress that's calling me from my Word program.

My recent ruminations about putting things behind, by focusing on an objective farther ahead, has also led me to consider how this concept fits into writing.

The Series

Lee Child, author of the Reacher series
Currently, I've been reading novels from the Jack Reacher series, since a friend of mine decided to get rid of about a dozen books she had read, and these included a lot of Reacher novels.  I've read several other successful series, in the past, and it seems to me that protagonists in nearly all of them were focused on distant -- often unobtainable -- objectives.

These objectives are often not mentioned directly, within the novels of any given series.  However, even if they are not clearly spelled out, or alluded to, these objectives still come through, via a manner of transmission similar to that of an unstated theme:  The words may not mention it, but the characters' actions, words and/or thoughts shout it loudly (or, at the very least, seem to repeatedly murmur it) to the reader.

I haven't quite decided what Jack Reacher's objective is, but I suspect it's something along the lines of: Finding roots that he can pull out and carry with him when he moves on.  Reacher is a wanderer -- he moves from place to place -- from what I've seen of the series. (Some of you know him much better, and I invite comments or corrections.)  This idea of a wandering protagonist, in search of some objective or ideal, is an oft-repeated theme in literature -- but seems even more recurrent when it comes to series protagonists.

Though he occasionally winds up working in New York, Mexico or California, for the most part Travis McGee seldom gets far from where his houseboat, The Busted Flush, is moored at slip 18F (if memory serves me correctly), yet I would argue that he's also a wanderer.  He wanders from job to job (though they're all part of his "salvage" operations), and from woman to woman.

Through the life of the series, he wanders mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually.  And, in all that wandering, he's seeking.  What is he looking for?  Well, perhaps it's True Justice and True Love, coupled with Fiscal Security.  I suspect, however, that he'd trade away Fiscal Security, if he thought he could get the other two as a result.

There may be those who are shaking their heads, wondering why I'm writing about objectives, when what I just wrote about Travis McGee looks more like motivation.  And, that's not a bad question to ask.  To me, objectives and motivation seem to be two ends of the same stick.  The objectives the character wants to achieve -- even if they're beyond the character's grasp -- motivate that character to do what he does.  More importantly, they motivate that character to do these things the way he does them.     

An objective such as True Justice may lie far beyond the story parameters.  It may well be an objective that cannot be achieved just by solving any plot problem -- such as a criminal investigation -- but if the protagonist is seeking True Justice, that may well influence the way s/he deals with people who pop up as obstacles to solving the case.  And it would certainly influence how the protagonist deals with having to kill or injure someone.

This is one reason why I think it's important for the author to have a firm grasp on the protagonist's long-range objectives, even if the other characters, or even the protagonist, are unaware or a little "iffy" on the subject.  Keeping the protagonist's long-range objectives in mind helps keep that protagonist in character -- no matter how many installments finally make up the series.  When the protagonist changes over time, which can happen in a long series, it also helps an author understand what sort of soul-searching that protagonist is going to have to go through as s/he changes.  Maybe the change is internal, but the long-range objective remains unchanged, thus providing a touch-stone for how the character will change.  Or, perhaps the objective itself may change, which could engender much greater soul-searching.    Either way, this is one reason to keep a protagonist's objective in mind while writing.

Another Reason

How many Westerns feature a gunslinger with a good-guy streak, who goes around righting wrongs?  The movie The Magnificent Seven may have been based on The Seven Samurai, but I suspect its tremendous success was the result of snatching up seven such wandering gunslingers and putting them all together on a mission to right a wrong.  And, each of the seven clearly had his own objective for doing so.

This plot line reverberated with audiences, who felt as if they knew where these guys were coming from. I suspect, however, that the mechanism for making the audience members identify with these guys had more to do with those objectives, than with the gunfights.  Action may sell a film, but I suspect audience identification with the main characters is what makes a film great.  People may wonder: "How would I handle those bandits?"  But, when viewers think, "How would I handle this, if that were my objective, if that was what I was worried about and/or trying to achieve -- how would I act in that man's shoes?" then the guts begin to twist, and celluloid springs to real life.

I think it works the same way in novels, too.  No one would enjoy being in an actual fire-fight, and few readers can say, "Yeah!  I remember what that was like.  I totally identify with this guy being shot at and shooting back."   Give the protagonist some long-range objectives, however, similar to those other folks might have, and suddenly the reader identifies with the character.  S/he has a reason to care about that guy being shot at, because there's a connection there.  After all, we all have unobtainable objectives in our lives -- don't we??

When I was in the Army, I was much younger and quicker as well as single.  I also spent a lot of time flying between far-flung places, where I was not always surrounded by friends.  And, there was a Sci-Fi "Men's Action" series I used to read, about a wandering band of travelers in a post-apocalyptic world.  The group had stumbled across a network of teleportation devices, which made it possible for each novel to begin in a completely new setting.   Essentially, it worked as a Sci-Fi version of a traveling band of Old West gunslingers who went from town to town cleaning up each place they moved through (i.e. killing the bad guys, thereby liberating the oppressed populous).

At the time, I had enough blood and guts in my life, without adding more from my reading.  What kept me buying the books (aside from the fact that I could find them in most airports) was the unstated group objective.  What the group was really traveling around, looking for, was A Safe Place to Nurture Love.

Now that would hardly seem like a successful objective for a "Men's Action" series, but I'm convinced it was indeed the group objective.  Each of them had lost people they loved to sudden, unexpected violence several times in the past.  Each was now in love with another member of the small party, but unwilling to fully commit to that love, for fear it would "Jinx" the relationship, causing them to lose another person they loved to the sudden senseless violence that ran rampant in the post-apocalyptic world they inhabited.

Not that any of the macho male characters would even have been caught  even thinking about nurturing love!  And, none of the female characters -- who were a bit more intelligent than the male characters -- would have deigned to mention it aloud to any of the males.  I got the feeling, however, that everyone understood this was what they were looking for.  Their personal histories, their actions, words, thoughts -- the way they went about doing things -- made this very clear.  And, that objective, A Safe Place to Nurture Love, was absolutely unobtainable, given their circumstances.

At the time, when I was reading these books, I knew that I identified with the main characters.  But, I didn't know why.  Only in retrospect did I realize that my personal objective at the time was quite theirs.  They were seeking a safe place to nurture love.  I – a single soldier on an A-Team, who was in and out of the country quite a bit ˆ was seeking a way to live, which would give love a chance  to grow in my own life.  That seemed unobtainable to me, back then.

And -- when I tried to re-read one of the books in the series, years later, after my wife and kids had become such a fundamental part of my life -- well, I suspect that's why the book couldn't hold my interest.  I was no longer a part of the target audience for the series, because my own objectives had changed.  I no longer identified with the main characters.

In Conclusion

Certainly, there are other ways of helping readers to identify with characters. But, helping them identify via connection between objectives is useful.

I've always felt the line that gave the Declaration of Independence it's greatest strength, was mention of "the pursuit of happiness."  It probably also gave the framers of the Constitution their biggest headache, too.  I often picture them sitting around saying, "That damn Jefferson!  It's one thing to write about the pursuit of happiness, as if you're a poet!  We all know there's too much random chance in life, creating unexpected sadness, to make True Happiness possible.  Yet, we have to write a document that gives people the latitude to at least try to pursue happiness.  How the hell are we supposed to that?"

And, that's one of the nice things about writing fiction.  We don't actually have to make any of our characters achieve True Happiness.  In fact, doing so would probably destroy the ability of a reader to suspend disbelief (unless you're writing for children).  We just need to remember what our main characters' objectives are, so readers have another way of identifying with them.

For what it's worth, that's my two cents.

28 February 2012


Typical Datura blossom
They believe what they are told, said Miss Marple.  “Yes indeed, we’re all inclined to do that,” she added.  Then she said sharply “Who told you these stories about India, about the doping of husbands with datura . . . .?”

                    Agatha Christie
                    A Caribbean Mystery

    In a previous article I listed a number of books that were inspired by trips to the Caribbean.  When I finished the article I realized that there was only one book on the list that I had not, in fact, read.   I remedied that by downloading Agatha Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery onto my Nook and read it while we were “down island.”  Half way through the book Miss Marple muses on a strange flowering plant – the datura. The reference struck a personal chord.

Areas where daturas are likely to be found
    I suspect that few readers know much about the datura.  The plant grows profusely in warm climates and, while indigenous to Latin America (on this continent) can be found in many aereas of the world.  The datura puts forth beautiful lily-like flowers, wonderfully fragrant, that blossom and then whither, each over the course of an evening and the following morning.  Sometimes, particularly in mid-summer, one datura plant can produce 20 to 30 of these one-day wonders.  At sundown you can watch the bees buzzing around the sealed flower buds, waiting for each flower to burst open.  A beautiful plant.  But, as Miss Marple alludes, there is a dark side to the Datura.  More about that in a little while.

    Why was I surprised to encounter Agatha Christie’s reference to the plant,?   Well, as rare as the datura plant is, it is hardly so on our block in Chevy Chase, in the District of Columbia.  Like many of our neighbors we have several datura bushes growing in our back yard, where they have been ensconced for the past thirty years.  It was surprising to find Miss Marple referencing this strange plant since my wife Pat and I, along with many of our neighbors, were, in fact, introduced to the datura by a lady not completely unlike Miss Marple.

    Shortly after we first moved into our home in Washington, D.C. back in 1982 there was a knock at our front door.  When I opened the door I was face to face with a ramrod straight 80 year old woman attired in a cotton dress and a huge straw hat, tied at the chin.  Our visitor announced (seemingly in one breath) that she was Mary Marsh, that she lived just across the street and that she had lived there since 1942.  "Back then," she said, "the street was not even paved."  Nodding her head once in punctuation she then marched through the door before I could even utter a word of invitation.  Mary walked purposely into our living room, seated herself on the couch, and explained that as the oldest neighbor on the block she wanted personally to welcome us to the street.  My wife Pat and I watched in awe as Mary prattled on non-stop about the history of our new block. 

    The next day Mary appeared again at our door, this time with a small white envelope.  “I thought you might like these,” she said, thrusting the envelope into my hand.  “These are datura seeds. I could see your back yard through the kitchen window yesterday, and I thought that a row of daturas would look lovely along your rear fence.” 

    Pat is more the gardener, but even she was perplexed.  “What are daturas?” she asked.  “Lovely white flowers, bloom only for a day,” Mary responded.  “You have to pinch the flower off then, you know, in order to be sure that the plant continues to produce and doesn't start going to seed. Bert and I,” she said, referencing her 84 year old husband who at the time we had yet to meet, “brought them back from Mexico years ago.”  Mary thought a minute and then added “you know, I have a book about daturas that I should lend to you.”  And at this she turned on her heel and trotted back across the street only to return several minutes later with what was probably the most dog-eared and heavily read book I have ever seen.  She handed the book to Pat and then left. 

    We closed the door, looked at each other and then down at the book.  The well-worn volume our octogenarian neighbor had pressed into Pat's hands was titled Narcotic Plants of South America.  Well, beyond that ominous title the book also confirmed the beauty of the datura's flowers.  That afternoon, like Jack and the beanstalk, we planted the seeds.

    So, we had a colorful introduction to Miss Marple’s (and Mary Marsh’s)  most unusual plant.  As Mary had assured us, the datura, more  technically the Datura Stramonium, without question, produces a lovely and fragrant flower. Each blossom is lilly-like.  The flowers open, like clockwork, just as the sun sets, and they last only until the next morning.  And as each flower opens it sends forth a beautiful fragrance, that often, in the height of summer, will flavor the air of our entire back yard.

    I never found another copy of that book Mary loaned to us, but in one of the few horticulture books on daturas that is easily accessible, Brugmansia and Datura: Angel's Trumpets and Thorn Apples, Ulrike Preissel, writes   
Datura, sometimes called Thorn Apples, are mostly annuals and are cultivated like summer flowers. The impressive bell flowers of both varieties -- in white, yellow, pink and red -- are extraordinarily decorative. It's no surprise that Brugmansia and Datura are prized by enthusiasts around the world. 
    But enough of this.

    Mr. Preissel also notes  that cultivation of daturas is unlawful in some places in the world.  (I understand this to be the case in Oklahoma, for example.)   Why?  Well, as Miss Marple observed, and as the title of that book Mary Marsh first loaned to us back in 1982 implies, daturas are not known solely for those lovely, lily-like aromatic flowers.  We can get an inkling of this from the name itself: reportedly  in Latin one meaning of the word "datura" is "send to die."

    The datura is, in fact, one of the most dangerous poisonous and hallucinogenic plants in the world.  Enno Freye in Toxicity of Datura Stramonium  has written:    
No other substance has received as many “Train Wreck” severely negative experience reports as has Datura.  The overwhelming majority of those who describe the use of Datura (and to a lesser  extent Belladonna, Brugmansia and Brfunfelsia) find the experiences extremely mentally and physically unpleasant and not infrequently physically dangerous.  
Datura seed pods 

    This beautiful flowering plant has historically been linked to numerous murders and suicides, particularly in India and in Europe, where it also grows in warm climes.  A 2002 study entitled Brugmansia and Datura:  Angel’s Trumpets and Thorn Apples by Ulrike and Hans-George Preissel (yep, co-authored by the same gentleman who, in the earlier quote, was extolling the datura’s beauty) reports that the between 1950 and 1965 the State Chemical Laboratories in Agra, India  investigated 2,778 deaths that were caused by ingestion of the datura plant. 

Datura seeds
    Most poisoning incidents involving daturas stem from the ingestion of the plant’s large potato-like root.  But it is not just the root that causes trouble.  The datura’s seeds, which diffuse from the plant in the wind after the first frost, are also highly toxic, and reportedly swallowing as few as a half teaspoon of the datura’s seeds will cause delirium and, in severe cases, death by cardiac arrest.  

    Closer to home (indeed, only a few miles from mine) the United States Center for Disease Control reports that in 2008 a family of six in Maryland were inadvertently poisoned when they ate  cooked datura root and leaves that they unknowingly added to a stew they had assembled using only “natural” ingredients found in the woods behind their home.  (Ahh, nature!)  While, thankfully, all six survived the ordeal, the Center, even in its characteristic dryly medical style, reports a harrowing experience:
The six affected persons came from one family and included three men and three women ranging in age from 38 to 80 years (median age: 42 years). All six shared a meal of homemade stew and bread at approximately 9:00 p.m. on July 8, 2008. No one else was at the home when the meal was eaten. Approximately 1 hour later, another relative arrived at the home and discovered the six affected family members laughing, confused, and complaining of hallucinations, dizziness, and thirst. One of the family members vomited. The unaffected relative called emergency medical services, and all six were transported to the hospital by ambulance.

On admission to the emergency department, two of the six patients were unconscious. The other four were awake and had altered mental status; . . . .  During the next 6 hours in the emergency department, the six patients continued to experience tachycardia [i.e. accelerated heart beats], mydriasis [i.e. severe dilation of the pupils], and altered mental status. One remained unconscious. The others demonstrated confusion, aggression, agitation, disorganized speech, incoherence, and hallucinations. All six were admitted to the hospital, five to the intensive-care unit.
    According to the Center, such effects are apparently not at all unusual in cases where datura, and principally its root, is eaten.  Typically ingestion of the plant produces delirium, a complete inability to differentiate reality from fantasy, violent behavior and prolonged amnesia. Without immediate treatment ingesting the root can prove fatal, particularly to children.

    You would think that such a plant would be very popular in the types of stories that spring from the computers of authors such as those who contribute to this blog.  But aside from Agatha Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery, I personally know of only one other book in which the datura plays an explicit role –  The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel.  There the roots of the plant are ingested by the clan’s shamans to induce a hallucinatory religious experience.  The  datura also reportedly inspired the strangling plant that was a key element in the plot of the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone (or Sorcerer's Stone depending on where you live).  Following publication of the book there was a spate of somewhat hysterical reports from folks in the English countryside who found that their gardens in fact contained the plant that had inspired the one used against Harry.  

    While the datura is not a common mystery device, it has made its presence known throughout history.  The chapter on daturas that is available on-line at the Poison Garden Website  reports the following:
In 38 A.D. Antony led another attempt by the Romans to subdue the Parthians and, as with previous expeditions, met with no success. Starving on the way back, his soldiers were reduced to living off the land and some of them ate Datura. As a result they are reported to have done nothing but ‘turn over every stone in his path with the greatest gravity, as though it were a difficult task.’ It is sometimes said that this incident leads to the saying 'leaving no stone unturned' to mean taking great care over a task.
    My favorite historical reference to daturas, however, that is quoted at the Poison Garden website, is from colonial times: 
In Jamestown in 1679, soldiers ate leaves in a salad and experienced ‘a very pleasant comedy’. In the “History and Present State of Virginia” (1705), Robert Beverly gives an account of what happened. “Some of them eat plentifully of it, the Effect of which was a very pleasant Comedy ; for they turn’d natural Fools upon it for several Days: One would blow up a Feather in the Air; another would dart Straws at it with much Fury; another, stark naked, was sitting in a Corner, like a Monkey, grinning and making mows at them;  a Fourth would fondly kiss and paw his Companions and snear in their Faces with a Countenance more antick than any Dutch Droll. . . . A thousand such simple Tricks they play’d, and after Eleven Days, return’d to themselves again, not remembering anything that had pass’d.” This incident gives [to daturas] the [local] name jimsonweed (Jamestown Weed).
    Or consider, if you will, the strange case (sounding like Rod Serling, here) of Clairvius Narcisse, probably the most well-documented Haitian "zombie."  Narcisse "died" in 1962, lay in a refrigerated morgue for three days and then was buried.  Yet he turned up 18 years later, identifying himself to his sister on the streets of Port-au-Prince.  Narcisse claimed that after being buried alive he was dug up and then subjected to mind control that allowed him to be kept in forced labor all of those years.  According to Wade Davis' 1985 book The Serpent and the Rainbow, and a report at the Skeptoid website, this was accomplished by force feeding him "a paste made of sweet potatoes, cane syrup, and a plant called Datura"  The website notes that datura, popularly referred to as "the Devil's cucumber" in Haiti, along with nightshade and henbane, has long been used there as a hallucinogenic drug.

    All that having been said,  thanks to Mary Marsh -- who, notwithstanding her life-long proximity to these poisonous plants lived to be almost 100 -- our neighborhood is populated by many daturas, all relatives of the seeds Mary brought back from Mexico decades ago.  On our block daturas are cultivated only for the beauty of their flowers.   No mystery stories here,.  Certainly no zombies.

    Our daturas plants do seem to have a mind of their own.  They started out near our back fence in 1983, died out there but then re-appeared for several years at a side fence, only to desert that location for their present home  under a black locust tree at the rear of our yard.  There they die off every fall only to re-appear, like clockwork, in the first warm days of June.  By August they can be six feet tall.

    Throughout the summer we appreciate the beautiful flowers, and the aromatic fragrance each evening as the blossoms open.  Miss Marple, and our late neighbor Mary Marsh, knew both sides of the plant.  But for us it is all about the flowers.