Found this image in a Colorado College scrapbook while looking for something else.
I got invited to Steamboat Springs, Colorado this week to give a presentation at the local public library. I was kinda dreading the four-hour drive each way, but it turned out to be a lot of fun. I listened to a new music, looked at the beautiful view, and enjoyed the hell out of the fact that none of the many traffic jams were northbound while I was northbound, nor southbound while I was southbound.
The presentation went well, the weather was perfect, I hiked five miles and saw an excellent waterfall, and then I found out that I'd be reimbursed at the official IRS rate of 56 cents per mile, so it feels like I made money on this deal!
What's the best work trip YOU ever went on?
Last week I was so excited about Anna Katherine Green that I left out an important codicil: she was the first American to write a mystery novel, not the first earthling. I apologize. Thanks, Esau Katz, for pointing this out. And thanks, Josh Getzler, for not pointing out that you'd already pointed this out on an earlier post.
According to Marie T. Farr's entry on her in American Women Prose Writers, 1870-1920 (Dictionary of Literary Biography volume 221), Green disliked the term "detective novel" and preferred "criminal romance." Farr references Alma Murch's "The Development of the Detective Novel" (1958), which claims that Green introduced a number of detective story tropes, including the series detective, the "rich old man, killed when on the point of signing a new will; the body in the library; the dignified butler with his well-trained staff; detailed medical evidence as to the cause and estimated time of death," and more. This suggests that without Green, we wouldn't have the name of this blog!
She's even the one who first came up with the idea of an icicle as a murder weapon in her 1911 novel Initials Only.
"Ralphie, you're lucky it didn't cut your eye! Those icicles have been known to kill people."
Did you know that the author of the first first American detective novel was a woman, Anna Katharine Green?
No, I'm not saying the first woman author of a detective novel was Anna Katharine Green. I'm saying that the first author of a detective novel was Anna Katharine Green, a woman.
Shouldn't we have heard of her before? Why haven't we heard of her?! Is it because of the patriarchy? Is it because her books aren't widely read any more? Bit of both, I'm guessing, but let's look into it.
She was born in 1846 and published The Leavenworth Case, the first detective novel EVER by ANYONE anyone in America, in 1878. You can download the full text of the novel from the Gutenberg Project for free.
More next week.
In the 1980s, a man named Stephen Blumberg stole thousands of books and manuscripts from American libraries, amassing a collection worth millions of dollars. (For the full story, see his Wikipedia entry or the "Bibliokleptomania" chapter of Nicholas Basbanes’s A Gentle Madness.)
Colorado College was one of the many stops on Blumberg's cross-country book-stealing tour. He stole at least two books from us. One of these was no big deal, a 1930s pamphlet on Bent’s Fort, easily replaceable. The other, however, was quite rare: Henry Villard’s The Past and Present of the Pikes Peak Gold Region, published in 1860. Currently, it's held in only a handful of U.S. libraries and isn't available from any dealer. The FBI valued the CC copy, in its crummy modern binding, at $10,000.
Blumberg may have stolen as many as a dozen books from our library, but only these two were recovered. Library staff worked with the FBI to get the books back. It was particularly complicated because Blumberg not only removed or covered over library ownership marks from books, he also added false library marks. So, for example, a book stolen from Harvard might get a University of Michigan bookplate slapped onto it, and then a “withdrawn” stamp on top of that.
As was his wont, Blumberg used his own saliva to remove the CC bookplate from our copy of this book. Nevertheless, the FBI tracked it down, and it was returned to CC after Blumberg's 1991 trial. He spent almost five years in jail. Since 1996, he has been convicted twice more for similar thefts.
Because researchers often want to see the book that Blumberg stole, but can't always remember the name of it, we now state in our catalog record that our copy of the Villard book was "temporarily part of the Blumberg Collection." It's a good book to bring out with classes when we want to talk about the ethics of book collecting, and always sparks an interesting discussion.
When I was hired as Curator of Special Collections at Colorado College, we had about thirty books and boxes on a shelf labeled "cataloging snags." I ignored these as long as I could, but finally one day I gave the shelf some attention.
As you might expect, I found mostly 20th century books in non-Roman writing systems -- books in Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, etcetera. There was also a box of old coins, including, gasp, a penny from the 1950s, worth perhaps as much as 15 cents to an expert collector. The shelf was full of junk, in other words. Nothing "special" for Special Collections at all.
And then there was this.
Let me try to approximate the sound I made at this point. It was something like this:
The book is the first published English translation of Aristotle's Politics, printed by Adam Islip in London in 1598. It has the bookplate of English scholar Sir Sidney Lee (b. 1859), editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. He wrote a little bit about Aristotle and a lot about Shakespeare.
We cataloged it right away. How it ended up on the cataloging snags shelf, I don't know. It wasn't terribly difficult to catalog -- it has its title page, and the Library of Congress owns a copy. It's in beautiful condition and is one of the more valuable books we have in the library. It's now in our temperature- and humidity-controlled high-security vault. I bring it out regularly to show to classes in Classics, Philosophy, Political Science, and Book Studies. And I'm thinking about making the kitty cat on the title page the mascot for Special Collections.
Colorado College started school this week, and the library is crazy busy with tours and instruction sessions. The Special Collections reading room has been jammed with people every day.
So, like John Cage, this week I have nothing to say and I am saying it.
In the wake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Swedish mysteries are all the rage. Not that they aren’t good, but they may be getting more attention than thrillers set in, say, Honduras. Anything with a Swedish connection seems to have a little extra oomph right now. Cecilia Ekbäck is, in fact, from Sweden, but she now lives in Canada and wrote this book in English, which probably makes it easier to present to a U.S. audience. Historical novels are also hot, and Wolf Winter wins on this front too.
Set on the frontier of Swedish Lapland in 1717, Wolf Winter includes a murder, but it goes beyond to study human behavior under extremes. In 18th century Scandinavia, the struggle with winter and just finding food to make it through until spring was brutal. Maija has moved from a coastal town to a rugged mountain with her husband and daughters. This sparsely-settled area holds just a few families, and the closest town is miles away. Almost as soon as they get there, one of the daughters finds a dead body; the story of how and why this man was killed unfolds throughout the novel. Against a backdrop of the politics and culture of the time, Ekbäck explores of how people act under pressure, whether political, social, or religious. The culturally distinct Lapps play a role in the story, as does the state-sanctioned church and even the King of Sweden. In the end, Maija and most of the other settlers survive the harsh winter, but not without much suffering, both physical and psychological.
At times I was reminded of Halldor Laxness’s Independent People and other novels that bring home the fundamental toughness of rural life in Scandinavia. I can’t evaluate the authenticity of Ekbäck’s recreation of Sweden in 1717, but I found it all eminently believable. I enjoyed both the historical detail and the characters. The author’s spare style fits well with the reserved people and harsh landscape she describes. This title is due out in January 2015.
Gwen Gregory is the resource acquisition and management librarian at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She reads books the way many people watch TV.
Last week I delved into the history of the term mystery. A friend pointed out that the term detective fiction was probably first, and this turns out to be true. The OED has examples from the late 19th and early 20th century for the terms detective story, detective fiction, detective novel, and detective film:
I got curious this week about the origin of the word mystery. It turns out it's a lot older than I expected, and at the same time a lot more recent. Depending on how you look at it, it's more than 2000 years old, or less than 100.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Latin word mysterium had a solely theological meaning in the Classical world. It's then found in early Christian texts as early as the 4th century. The first known use of the word used with a secular meaning is in a 14th century bible: ca. 1384, Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) (Douce 369(2)) Dan. ii. 27 "And Danyel answerde byfore the kyng, and saith, 'The mysterie whiche the kyng axith, the wise men and the witchis and dyuynours..mown not shewe to the kyng.'"
Jump 250 years and we've got a meaning closer to the word we use in this blog: "In weakened use (chiefly ironic or humorous): a puzzle, a conundrum." The example the OED gives for this general usage is "[blank] is a mystery to me," and the first known use is from 1629: "J. Ford Lovers Melancholy iv. i. 64 Aret.: What should this young man bee, Or whither can he be conuay'd? Sophr.: Tis to me a mystery, I vnderstand it not." (Why the u in understand is a v in this example, but not the u in young, is a mystery to me; I understand it not.)
It's not until much later that we have a documented use of the word as a kind of fiction. The OED's earliest example comes from none other than Raymond Chandler, in a letter he wrote in December of 1949: "The mystery and 'tec are on the wane." (You can see the whole letter in context here -- he also thinks that science fiction is a flash in the pan!) The next use in the OED is from the New Yorker in 1969: "Linda was on the next bed, reading her mystery." (Turns out this is John Updike, though the OED doesn't say so. See it in context here.)
Janet Evonovich is up to number 21 in the Stephanie Plum series, and I'm happily surprised to say that she's still making me laugh. The books are all basically the same -- Stephanie gets into trouble as a bail bondsman, cars are destroyed, Lula says funny stuff, Ranger and Morelli are hot, and Grandma Mazur is feisty. Terms such as "doodah" and "knicky-knacky" abound. Nothing really bad happens, and there are pastries. Fine by me!
I would like to lodge one complaint, however, and that's the boilerplate descriptive stuff that shows up in each book. We're on number 21, people. We don't need to be told that Lula used to be a prostitute or that Stephanie has brown hair, or at least not in such a clunky, expositive way. Even if a reader is new to the series and starting with number 9 or 14 or 21, that reader will catch up without help.
You guys!! There's a book about mystery books that take place in the book world!! This is probably the most perfect thing ever for the Hey-There's-A-Dead-Guy librarian Sunday post.
It's a limited edition, pricy book (200 copies, $75), but if ever there was an audience for such a book, it's us, right? The best part, to me: it contains 130 full-color photographs of "rare or especially interesting dust jackets and covers."
The Oak Knoll page says the publication year is 2013, but this page says the publication date is July 2014. I think it probably just came out, because it isn't in any libraries yet.
Or some of them anyway.
In 2009, a small press called Ghost Road published my young adult novel The Wandora Unit. I got paid a tiny, thrilling advance. The book sold a few copies and got reviewed in Bitch, and then Ghost Road quietly went out of business. In 2012 another small press wanted to reprint it, but then they went out of business, too.
Maybe that's okay. I made so many mistakes in that book. Just mistake after mistake after mistake. Here are a few:
Things I did right:
Maybe now that I've admitted these mistakes publicly I'll be able to move the fuck on. But I doubt it. If I knew how to fix the book and make it a marketable YA novel, I probably would never have written it in the first place.
I was first drawn to The Art of Secrets by James Klise (Algonquin, 2014) because it takes place in Chicago and the author is a librarian. Once I started reading, I found that Saba Khan, the teenage heroine, lives just a mile or so from my home in the Rogers Park neighborhood on the north side of the city. I was quickly drawn into the story, which blends elements like teen angst and learning to get along with arson and art theft.
Without revealing too much of the plot, here’s a quick rundown. Saba’s family’s apartment burns in an arson-caused fire and they lose all their possessions. Her fellow students at the private school where she is on scholarship want to have a benefit auction to help the family, and one donated item turns out to be quite valuable. Chaos and crime ensues.
The text is almost all in the form of first person narratives from different characters, including Saba, her parents, others students, and teachers. Some are police or newspaper interviews, some are journals entries; there are even a few text messages. It took me a bit to get used to this, as well as to the different fonts used to express handwritten entries, but I got into it fairly quickly.
Klise manages to touch on quite a few interesting issues, especially cultural, religious and socioeconomic diversity as exemplified by Saba and other students. The mystery is not particularly complex, but it did keep me guessing until the end. While the crimes committed are serious, there’s no violence or drugs involved. The Art of Secrets will be engrossing for most young adult readers, and quite a few grown-ups as well.
Librarian side note: there were comments in the text about a student using the library catalog terminals for email. Only a librarian would bring this up, so I know the author is the real deal.
Books arts exhibition, Lafayette College, 2006, photo by D.J. Chuang, Creative Commons license
The stories of why I became a librarian are manifold, but I realized today that probably the real reason is air conditioning. Colorado Springs doesn't get anywhere near as hot as other places I've lived, but it's been hot enough for the last few days that I've been appreciating the coolness (temperature-wise) of Tutt Library, and remembering how nice it was to work in libraries in the summers in NY, MA, PA, and NC.
Rare books and manuscripts, you see, are supposed to remain at a fairly stable temperature and humidity. Not all libraries have the same rule, but here at Tutt we try to stay between 61 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit and between 41 and 44% relative humidity. My office isn't quite as cool as the collections areas, but it's still way cooler than outside. And every time I enter our collections area I get a nice blast of coolness, kinda like when I'd find any excuse to go to the walk-in refrigerator when I worked at a pizza shop in high school.
If you don't know about this website, you should -- it's really cool, especially the read-alikes section, which is small but spot-on.
Stop, You're Killing Me includes a diversity index pointing readers to series with detectives who aren't straight, white, and/or able-bodied, along with indexes for lots of other things. Lucinda Serber and Stan Ulrich run the site. It's a work in progress, of course, and it isn't perfect (why isn't Jonathan Lethem's Gun, with Occasional Music listed in the science fiction section?), but SYKM is doing so many things so well. It's well worth a look, and you might want to sign up for their newsletter, too.
Thanks, Tip Ragan, for the recommendation!
Joseph Green and Jim Finch. Sleuths, Sidekicks and Stooges: An Annotated Bibliography of Detectives, Their Assistants and Their Rivals in Crime, Mystery and Adventure Fiction, 1795-1995. Scolar Press, 1997.
I can't believe this print source was ever written, published, or sold, and yet all three things happened. This is a book of ... how can I even explain it ... it's like if an obsessive-compulsive fan of detective fiction had endless money and time to create something like Casaubon's unfinished, doomed "Key to all Mythologies" in George Eliot's Middlemarch. Except this got finished and wasn't doomed!
The book has sections for detectives, authors, books, sidekicks, and stooges. The detectives get most of the book's real estate (pages 43 to 748). Each name is accompanied by a brief description, basic personal information (nationality, sex, type, and location), a list of "sidekicks" and "stooges" (i.e. adversaries), a short biography of the author who created the detective, and bibliographical information. The rest of the book is mostly cross-references, so if you know the name of the stooge you can get to the detective.
Why would anyone use this book in the age of Google? I don't think anyone would. Yet there's something wonderful in the fact that it exists, that Green and Finch actually got paid (presumably) to create this crazy thing. And it's still in print, with a price of $200! Its Amazon rank is about 6,400,000 at the moment, which may be the worst rank I've ever seen, not that I've made a study of such things.
Winner: detective fiction fan nerdliness.
Despite being published in the nascent days of the internet, this book would still be of great use to anyone writing detective fiction. I can even imagine such a person keeping this book by her bedside, dipping into it or reading from cover to cover, gleaning, along the way, basic information on the history of the police in the U.S. and England, mystery tropes such as the gentleman thief and the locked room mystery, and the origins of terms like red herring or whodunit. The entries are signed and contain references for further reading.
I spot-checked Wikipedia and found the information in the Companion generally superior. The book scoops Wikipedia by four years on the etymology of whodunit, with a reference to a usage in 1930. It's got carefully researched entries on topics like the spinster sleuth and the slicks, which would be difficult or impossible to find online. Most important, the Companion is slated to writers. The exact kind of information a writer might need on smuggling, sex crimes, or bribery are in the Companion; I found no online source with succinct, writerly overviews on these topics.
Winner: the print book.
As you may know, I'm the resident librarian at Dead Guy. Now and then I like to flex my library muscles, and this is going to be the first in a series of three posts looking at reference works on detective fiction. My plan is to compare some pricy print sources to the information we can now get for free on Wikipedia and elsewhere.
Bruce F. Murphy's Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery (St. Martin's, 1999) is a single-author work with entries on authors, titles, characters, and themes in detective fiction. It lacks neutrality, making it, to my mind, less of an encyclopedia and more a work of criticism. There are facts here (short biographies, occasional incomplete bibliographies), but the thrust of the entries is critical. Sue Grafton gets a rather nasty overview (when Kinsey Millhone goes undercover, she "sounds like a character from Happy Days"; the writing is "vapid" and "bland," and the marketing of the books is "cutesy"); Robert B. Parker gets similar treatment (his later books are "simple" and even "canned").
Murphy's Encyclopedia is a good book. It's intelligent and well-written, and I can see why libraries all over the country have acquired it. But I'm not sure why anyone in 2014 would spend $75 on it ($65 for the paperback) when more and better factual information is readily available online, for free. The 1999 edition of Murphy misspells Janet Evanovich's name (Evanovitch) and lists her birth year as unknown, while Wikipedia knows all about her; Murphy's entry for Agatha Christie is under 1000 words, about a tenth of the size of the Wikipedia entry.
In the early days of the internet, we librarians cautioned researchers against depending on Wikipedia. It had no editor! It was written by amateurs! It could be changed at any moment, by anyone! Of course, these things turned out to be strengths, in the end, and while you can't always trust everything in Wikipedia, it's frequently got more and better information than print sources.
Last year at around this time, I confessed my "dirty submission secrets." My statistics last year turned out to be okay, though of course there were way more rejections than acceptances. My numbers are definitely worse this year.
In 2013, I submitted 100 bundles of poems, poetry comics, and short stories. I didn't intend to submit a perfect 100, but now my terrible percentages are easy to calculate, so I've got that going for me, which is nice.
21 journals accepted my work, which makes for a 21% acceptance rate. I received 63 rejections. 16 journals never replied. Of the 21 journals that accepted my work, two folded, so my percentage is more like 19%. That makes this easily the worst year since I started keeping track.
My bright idea to send poetry comics to the New Yorker may be to blame for some of the drop in my statistics. Also, I sent out way more submissions than usual (100 bundles instead of 60-70), and to some pretty high-prestige places, because hey, I'm the real thing, right? Well, apparently the high-prestige mags mostly didn't think so. Once again, I learned the same lesson I'm always learning: the really satisying interactions with editors and other writers aren't necessarily connected with prestige. If I were in charge of the poetry world, for example, Menacing Hedge would have a reputation on level with the Kenyon Review. But I'm not.Who is in charge of the poetry world, anyway? I'd like to have a word with that person.
Oh, I forgot the best acceptance of all, not included in my statistics because it was for a full-length manuscript, not a story or a group of poems. Red Hen Press, which published my last book, accepted a new collection of poems, tentatively titled "Suicide Hotline Hold Music." The book will have comics in it! I'm pretty excited about that! So maybe I should consider this a bang-up year after all.
Guest post by Jon Khoury for Jessy Randall
If you're unfamiliar with the great work of writer Richard Laymon you owe it to yourself to find a book or two and take the plunge. Laymon, the author of over 50 mystery, thriller, horror stories follows the traditions of absolutely no one. In fact, suffice to say, that any 21st century writer of mystery and horror without understanding Laymon is cheating the genre by ignoring a wonderful and true talent.
In Laymon's 1994 mystery In The Dark, librarian Jane Kerry finds a note in an envelope sitting on her chair at the circulation desk just before closing one evening. "Jane," the only word on the sealed envelope lurks in front of her as she turns and notices. As she glances around the library to see who may have left the note, she is interrupted by several last minute patrons checking out last minute books for the evening. Finally, once the library is closed, Jane is able to reach down, open the letter and read what it says. "Look Homeward Angel," it says along with a further clue or two as the book and the mystery begin.
Jane is subsequently led, via these notes into more and more dangerous tasks while receiving gifts from The Master of Games, doubling after each mini-adventure. (the first envelope contains $50) If you know Richard Laymon, the tasks become more and more difficult, risky, ambiently and overtly sexual and what lies ahead is good old fashioned, pre-cell phone to get you out of a tough situation, mystery, horror suspense,with spot on dialogue and absolutely not, your grandparents' cheerful Miss Marple adventure.
Once you read Laymon, assuming you'll accept exactly who he is, as a writer, you will crave more. Like the great works of Alfred Hitchcock, innocent people get tangled in most unusual ways. My promise to you is that a treasure hunt of your own will ensue as you begin looking for more and more Laymon books. And in a funny way, the prize and pleasure seems to double, as does Jane's fortune, with every read.
Jon Khoury is the Executive Director and CEO of Cottonwood Center for the Arts. Although he has a knack for being a people person, the people he meets in books are his favorite company.
Note from Jessy: Thanks, Jon, for recommending this book to me. I found it compulsively readable, couldn't put it down and finished it in two days. Here's my favorite sentence in the book: "The pistol went nicely into the big, loose pocket on the right front of her culottes" (p. 296). (Not a sentence you'd find in many books today.) I was disappointed that Jane didn't use her library and information skills more, however. Her librarianhood seemed to be for titillation rather than for plot. On the other hand, how titillating are culottes? Well, at least she was wearing something at the time. For great swaths of the book she's at least partly in the buff.
In a recent article in Salon, Susie Meister talks about her experiences on reality TV shows and her love/hate relationship with reality TV. Her piece is interesting to me because of what she says about the gender dynamics of reality TV, but here's the non-gender-related part that keeps reverberating in my mind:
"the cast is banned from bringing books, music, television, phones, cameras, computers, games and other forms of entertainment that would distract from cast interaction."
Well ... NO WONDER they all go batshit crazy and turn on each other! No books for weeks? I'd be crying, shaking, screaming, ripe for cult kidnapping.
Meister was on Road Rules and The Challenge, which may be different from my beloved Top Chef and Project Runway, but when I think about it, I'm not sure I've ever seen any of the cheftestants or designers reading books. I guess I always figured they were reading off-camera, for obvious reasons. But maybe they, too, aren't allowed books? I know the chefs can't have cookbooks, duh, and the designers can't have pattern books, duh again. But what about just books to read? I mean come on.
Shada, the Gallifreyan prison planet.
On the last planet in the Spiral Arm to escape decrystallization by entropy gods.
The 8th and 9th levels of the Shellworld Sursamen.
Fillory, although the book ended in the Neitherlands.
Empire Falls Maine.
The gangland tour of Watts.
Berlin, during the rise of Hitler
Diskworld, in the Ramtops.
Palestine in 1910.
Chicago in the 1990s.
D.C. 1964 ...
New Mexico, on the rez.
All of over the US as Whitey Bulger- on the run from the FBI!
Oregon with John Steinbeck and his French poodle, Charley
I am on the Raft near the Oregon Coast (Snow Crash)
1936 Olympics in Berlin.
Cameroon in the 1920s
Planet Earth, seventeenth century.
If you like, leave your answer in the comments!
Remember the contest about the mystery marginalia, with a prize of $1000? The mystery has been solved!
Daniele Metilli, an Italian computer engineer, has been named the winner. Working with a colleague who is fluent in French, Metilli identified the script of the marginalia (a particular type of 18th Century French shorthand) and translated some of the text. And guess what, this story is particularly library-oriented, because Metilli is studying to be a librarian, and says libraries are the best places for finding mysteries to solve!
I just finished binge-watching True Detective. Best show I've seen on TV in a long time.
Seems to me there would be a market for a book of True Detective craft projects, with chapters including:
stick sculpture (small)
stick sculpture (large, bones and skulls optional)
cross-stitch: "Death created time to grow the things that it would kill"
cross stitch: "All the dick swagger you roll, you can't spot crazy pussy"
beer can people
And speaking of beer can people, here are some helpful tips for making them:
And here are fifty compelling questions about the beer can people:
Also, if you, like me, had trouble understanding what Rust was saying half the time, then you may enjoy this:
And several other excellent parodies here.
The University of Chicago library is offering a $1000 prize to anyone who can identify and translate some highly unusual marginalia in an early printed edition of Homer's Odyssey. The best guess, so far, is that the notes are 19th century French shorthand. They appear in the chapter in which Odysseus visits the underworld. Paging Dan Brown! Dan Brown, you are wanted in the office ... so we can provide you with the inspiration for your next book.
Good luck figuring out the marginalia! Here are some close-ups.
Thanks, Lynne Thomas, for the tip!
Walter Kirn is a respected contemporary writer, author of novels including Thumbsucker and Up In The Air. He is also widely published in magazines, including Time, GQ, and Esquire. Kirn’s new book Blood Will Out is being promoted as the next great true crime story, right up there with In Cold Blood. I beg to differ. While it focuses on Christian Gerhartsreiter, a man of many aliases perhaps best known as Clark Rockefeller, it isn’t really the story of this German who came to the U.S. and remade himself as an American aristocrat. There is another book all about that, The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal. There was even a Lifetime TV movie about Gerhartsreiter. Rather, this is the story of Kirn’s relationship with the man he knew as Clark Rockefeller and how being a writer affected the situation.
Kirn first encountered Gerhartsreiter/Rockefeller in 1998, when Kirn agrees to take a rescue dog from Montana to the latter in New York. From the beginning, Kirn admits, to himself at least, his interest in meeting a Rockefeller, both as a writer in search of characters and out of a fascination for the rich and famous. After a rough journey, Kirn delivers the disabled dog and thus begins a years-long friendship. The two men are in contact off and on for many years. In 2008, Clark Rockefeller is arrested in a child custody/kidnapping case, his real identity is discovered, and he ends up in prison. In 2011, he is charged with the 1985 murder of Jonathan Sohus in California. This trial took place in 2013, with Kirn in attendance. He used it an occasion to reflect on his relationship with the man he knew as Clark Rockefeller and considered the testimony of the witnesses through the lens of his own experiences. Kirn made friends with other writers at the trial and even took his own teenage daughter to court one day. He was really into it. After the guilty verdict, he visited his old friend in prison a number of times. Even after hearing all the testimony, and knowing so much about all the cons and lies, he could see how easy it was to be manipulated by him.
The strength of book Blood Will Out isn’t in psychological insights about sociopaths or forensic evidence about cold murder cases. It is really about Kirn’s relationship with this totally off the wall person and how that worked out. Like most people, Kirn generally believed what Gerhartsreiter told him about his life, maybe taking things with a grain of salt but never imagining that it was all totally fabricated. In fact, he dismisses the first reports of his friend’s false identity in 2008, until it becomes fully clear that it was all a lie. Kirn examines his thoughts and feelings, ranging the gamut from being impressed at Rockefeller’s modern art collection (which turned out to be all forged) to betrayal upon the revelation of his true identity and full-on anger at some points during the murder trial. Along the way, Kirn shares bits and pieces about his own life, including his family and divorce. He frequently refers to stories of self-invention like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, believing they inspired his friend’s efforts. This is an interesting exploration of both our fascination with celebrity and how we react when faced with someone who breaks all the rules of social convention.
Gwen Gregory is the resource acquisition and management librarian at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She reads books the way many people watch TV.
You guys! Some thieves tried to steal a pair of ruby slipper replicas from a Staten Island hotel! The best part is, there were three of 'em, a woman and two men, so it's almost as if Dorothy, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow were to blame (I'm figuring the Cowardly Lion would have been too cowardly to participate.) Mystery writers, wouldn't this make a great heist story, with a few modifications? Someone please write that novel. Thank you. And thank you, Jezebel, for calling my attention to this theft.
Speaking of library mysteries...
Someone has been leaving coded messages inside books at the Weldon Library at Western University in Ontario, Canada. As of March 24, 2014, 18 notes have been found. Professor Mike Moffatt has images of all the notes at his blog, and a reward is offered to anyone who can crack the code.
Get to it, mystery decoders!
A mysterious book artist has been leaving book sculptures around Edinburgh since 2011. They're beautiful and fragile and made from books. The artist still has not broken anonymity, despite a whole exhibition of the sculptures and a book about them.
For the past ten years or so, my library colleagues have been reviewing books at our book review blog, Bookends. I thought it might be fun to gather all the mystery and mystery-ish book reviews together here. Some of these are by recent guest blogger Gwen M. Gregory. Other reviewers are McKinley Sielaff, Diane Westerfield, and Steve Lawson.
We track bestselling books obsessively: weekly, daily, even hourly or minutely on Amazon sometimes (guilty!). Yet we hardly pay any attention at all to library lending. Why not? I suppose because money isn't involved, or not as directly involved, but still, it seems worth thinking about.
Library Journal's annual survey of U.S. public libraries shows that in 2013, libraries lent mysteries more than any other kind of book. And this has been true for years, with slight fluctuations. From the survey:
"Among fiction’s various genres, mystery remains king, though its grip slipped somewhat in 2013, when 95% of respondents reported it as one of their top five fiction circulators; in 2012, its share was 99%.
Interestingly, the survey shows that libraries in urban and rural areas lend more mysteries and thrillers than libraries in suburbia. I would never have guessed that.
Thanks, Lynne M. Thomas, for calling my attention to this annual survey.
As a librarian at a research university, I am lucky enough to attend the American Library Association’s conferences once or twice each year. These gatherings of thousands upon thousands of librarians from all kinds of libraries are a major market for publishers and resellers of all types of books, as you can imagine. One thing they do to entice librarians is to give us lots and lots of free books, mostly prepublication copies. What could be better than free books before anyone else gets to read them?
My last few times at the conference, I have collected more and more of these books. It started when I got a few young adult and children’s books for my nieces and nephew. Once I started collecting those, I saw more and more titles that I thought they might enjoy. I love a good young adult read myself. Then I started perusing the adult books from many of the same publishers. There are so many interesting new novels by authors from all over the world. Would this new title be a breakout hit? I’d have to read it and decide for myself. So I saddled myself with at least a dozen paperbound prepublication copies to lug home on the plane.
At the conference in January 2014, I broke down and took all my collected loot to the convenient temporary post office set up as part of the conference, mailing the books home. Once I started this, there was no stopping. I mailed another box to myself each day the book exhibits were open, and still ended up with a dozen more books in my suitcase. My nieces and nephew have piles of fresh reading material and I have dozens for myself. You may be wondering, when will I actually read all of these? Even though I’m a fast reader, it will take a while. I have to give up on some if they are just not working for me. However, that disappointment is more than made up for by the thrill of finding a great book and then being able to pass it on to a carefully selected reader friend, hoping that they will enjoy it as I did. This is the librarian art of reader’s advisory, which I don’t practice in my day-to-day work so it’s even sweeter to be able to do it for my friends and family.
I did pick up a few mystery and thriller titles at the conference. So far, I have enjoyed Dominion by C. J. Sansom, well-known author of the Matthew Shardlake mysteries set during the reign of Henry VIII. Dominion is an alternate history set in the Britain of 1952, if the UK had surrendered to Germany in 1940. Germany has a tight grip on the UK, with plenty of SS, Gestapo, and other Germans stationed there. The Russian Front has become an ongoing guerilla war. The British Resistance, led by an aging Winston Churchill, is smuggling a scientist out of the country, and German agents, working with the British government, aren’t far behind. I am fascinated by Britain during World War II, possibly fueled by watching Foyle’s War on TV and reading Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis, time travel stories that take place during the Battle of Britain. Sansom’s novel is an extension of that stressful time period, adding elements of cold war spyplay, in which the British are pushed further and further outside their comfort zone by the Third Reich. Fans of 20th century alternate history as well as cold war spy dramas will enjoy this one.
Gwen Gregory is is the resource acquisition and management librarian at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She reads books the way many people watch TV.
Cartoon by Nin Andrews
When this post pops up, I'll be just recently back from the annual AWP conference in Seattle.
Others (Kelli Russell Agodon, Nin Andrews, Kate Gale) have written (and drawn) far better than I ever could about the travails and wonders of AWP. The first time I attended AWP, when it was in Denver in 2010, I thought, well, I've done it and now I don't have to do it ever again.
I have attended almost all the AWPs since then. This will be my fourth. Every time, I think, I must stop doing this. It's awful. It makes me feel horrible.
But ... my friend(s) are going. And I have a new book, or I'm trying to have a new book. And most of all, what if I miss something? An opportunity, an amazing piece of writerly gossip, a MOMENT?
Like, if I hadn't gone last year, in Boston, I would have missed having super-terrific barbecue with the guys from sunnyoutside press. And if I hadn't gone to the one in 2012 in Chicago, I would have missed hearing my friend Daniel M. Shapiro telling Nikki Giovanni "Thanks for everything," which, in context, really made no sense. (Nor would I have the memory of standing on a corner in a clump of writers and getting doused in puddle water by a passing car.) If I'd skipped my first AWP, in Denver, I wouldn't have gotten to gasp with delight at meeting Sherman Alexie at the West Wind bookfair table. Speaking of the bookfair, I always come home with at least a dozen great new books.
Still -- it's a lot of money and mental anguish for the occasional moment of awesomeness. There are too many people, and it's too noisy, and nobody can really pay any attention to anyone else, and the whole thing makes you want to coil into a little ball and rock back and forth chanting "I am me, I'm still me, I'm the same person I've always been." I never write a word of any worth during AWP. I'm a gibbering mass of french-fry-seeking patheticness. Maybe I won't go in 2015. Seriously. I might not.
Oh my gosh, there was a new Tom Robb Smith book -- Agent 6 -- and I somehow missed it when it came out in 2012. I've just started it and can't put it down.
As I wrote in 2009 for my library's blog: Tom Robb Smith is a brilliant freaking genius. The setting for his thrillers Child 44 and The Secret Speech is post-Stalinist Russia, a world of justified paranoia for everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, from powerless citizens to KGB officers and back again (sometimes within the course of an hour).
Child 44 takes place in a world where the State claims murders don't happen; thus, a serial killer can thrive. Leo Demidov, a former state security officer, puts himself and his loved ones in grave danger just for suggesting there's a killer out there, much less trying to gather evidence and put an end to the crimes. (A confession: I am a bit weak of heart when it comes to stories of children in danger. Child 44, which early on contains a riveting scene of a family near starvation, was almost too much for me. But you'll enjoy the second book more if you read this one first.)
The Secret Speech, which hinges on a real life document by Krushchev apologizing for Russia's past mistakes, is mind-blowingly good. Leo now has infinitely more to lose; you will gasp at the lengths he goes to to protect his family. Honestly, my heart beat so fast during some of these chapters that I had to get up and walk around the room to calm down. Each character is complicated; good and evil people and deeds mix and match throughout. Yes, it's a popcorn book, but a hell of a good one.
I think The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons may be my favorite Lawrence Block book in a long time. It's a bookish book, with lots of references to books and reading; Bernie Rhodenbarr, the narrator, runs a bookstore when he's not burgling, and he's thinking about all the things bookish people are thinking about right now in 2014: digital books, what books are, why we read them. This particular book, perhaps more than others, references multiple other mystery authors: Rex Stout, RIchard Stark, Ed McBain.
I've been reading Block since I was a kid (see my previous posts on the topic here and here) and it's been fun to grow old with him. The Burglar books are fairly wholesome, as crime novels go -- there may be a murder or two, but they happen fairly quickly and bloodlessly. In this book, Block seems to be consciously aware of what kind of writer he is and what kind of crime-solver Bernie is. There's a passage toward the end where Bernie's friend Carolyn tries to convince him to turn away from the dark side, and Bernie points out that when Dan Marlowe's character Earl Drake turned wholesome, the books lost their bite. He's right: we need Bernie to be a burglar, or he'd just be blah.
The genre (if it is one) of poetry comics is hard to define. As guest-editor of the February 2014 issue of the online literary magazine Snakeskin, I chose 21 poem-like combinations of text and image that were at least partly hand-drawn.
When I put out the call for poetry comics submissions for Snakeskin, I didn’t know what would happen. I was enormously pleased at the variety I received. Becky Cooper’s “Map Your Memories” project suggests that we all have poetry comics in us just waiting to come out. Maybe you should make some!
My writer friend Bruce Bentzman recently published a three-part essay about being burgled in the online magazine Snakeskin (part 1, part 2, part 3). I thought Dead Guy readers might be interested in some of the real-life procedural details of the case.
Bentzman left his apartment unlocked for about fifteen minutes while he did some outside work. When he returned, he discovered his laptop and a few other things had been stolen. Bentzman and his “more significant other,” Ms. Keogh, called the police. Meanwhile, they soon learned, the burglar had already begun using the credit card to purchase gift cards from local shops.
Bentzman was especially upset about the less-monetarily-valuable thefts: his mail, his journal, and three beloved fountain pens including a Sailor Bamboo Susutake similar to the one pictured at right. (I occasionally receive handwritten letters from Bentzman; it’s clear from looking at them that he cares deeply about ink and penmanship.) He followed the credit card trail of the burglar, hoping to recover whatever he could from nearby trash bins. He says:
In the trash at the Rite Aid in Yardley, I found three envelopes that were not mine. It appeared that someone had paid bills and thinking they were mailing them, inadvertently tossed them into the blue recycle bin mistaking it for the blue mailbox that was only a few feet further. I picked them out, noted the return address, mailed them correctly, and called Mr. N. of Yardley to reveal the error. Mr. N., who sounded like a dear man, 92-years-old, was thoroughly astonished and grateful. So was I. I felt I had been afforded the chance to restore some goodness into the world, countering the damage caused by the shithead burglar or burglars, only I never found my mail.
Bentzman soon learned that two women, likely the burglars, were under arrest for other crimes in the neighborhood. He filled out a form requesting to see the crime report for his burglary:
A week later, I received a letter from the Township Manager informing me that my request has been denied pursuant to the Pennsylvania Right to Know Law Section 708 (b)(16). 708 (b) are the exceptions. (16) has many parts. Which parts are pertinent to me? One that stood out was, “(iii) A record that includes the identity of a confidential source or the identity of a suspect who has not been charged with an offense to whom confidentiality has been promised.” But maybe more pertinent was, “(v) Victim information, including any information that would jeopardize the safety of the victim.”
Then there was (vi), which is subdivided into five parts. “(A) Reveal the institution, progress or result of a criminal investigation, except the filing of criminal charges. (B) Deprive a person of the right to a fair trial or an impartial adjudication. (C) Impair the ability to locate a defendant or codefendant. (D) Hinder an agency’s ability to secure an arrest, prosecution or conviction. (E) Endanger the life or physical safety of an individual.” That last one, would my inquiries place me in danger?
Bentzman found out as much as he could about the accused women. The more he learned, the less likely it seemed he would ever recover his pens or his journal (and indeed, as of this writing, he hasn’t gotten them back). He learned that the two women were heroin addicts and repeat offenders, and that he would be in attendance at the hearing for Anne Bambino, the woman who had used Ms. Keogh’s credit card. What was it like to see her up close?
The courthouse was unimpressive, a one-story white stucco building. It looked insignificant, as if the law did not merit any special honor, held no particular virtue. When Ms. Keogh entered the stark lobby of the building, I pointed to the window in the wall where she needed to sign in. We then sat together and waited, wondering if we would recognize Ms. Bambino when she arrived.
I expected to recognize her. After all, I had seen her photograph. I had seen the pictures taken by surveillance cameras. I had seen her mug shots. There are several as she has been arrested multiple times. I had seen her Facebook portrait. She would not have recognized me or Ms. Keogh. Whether it was she or her associate who rifled our apartment, we had no photographs of ourselves on the walls. And there she was. She was easy to recognize. She arrived under guard and in chains.
She wore a maroon prison suit under a winter jacket. A chain dragged between her ankles. Her wrists were also chained and it extended to a steel loop on a thick leather belt. Even in this sad state, she was more attractive than I expected. It was disconcerting to see this small, pleasant appearing woman in such determined restraints.
Ms. Keogh and I took a seat in the last row of the small courtroom. I looked at Magisterial District Court Judge John J. Kelly, Jr. I knew him! Was I to call the kid I wrestled back in our Neshaminy High School gym class “Your Honor”?
It hardly mattered that we came to the hearing. There was no confrontation. We were not called to speak. Ms Bambino was offered to sign a waiver. It wasn’t that she was pleading guilty, but she was not contesting the charges and was having the case combined with other charges that would involve other courtrooms.
They placed the waiver on the judge’s bench for her to sign. It was too high for the small Ms. Bambino, only 5’3” and her arms restricted by chains. She rose on her tip toes to sign. One of the officers of the court said she was looking well. It caused a charming smile to arise across her face and I heard her pleasant voice. As I made it out, she was admitting that despite prison life she felt she was doing well. Then it was over and they led her away.
We left the courtroom and Detective Nicastro discussed the matter with us. He told us about Ms Bambino. She had been married, but it wasn’t known if she was separated or divorced. I asked if she had any children, but he didn’t know. I asked about my stolen pens. Detective Nicastro said that when the burglars realized they were just some pens in those little sacks, they probably threw them out.
It was hard to be indifferent to whatever happened to Ms. Bambino. I was angry with her, but with all the years she will be incarcerated, it would be terrible enough; I could not bring myself to wish her more. What is the value of my pens compared to several years of her life wasted in prison? That day at the hearing, seeing this meek blonde incongruously shackled and fettered, I felt sorry for Ms. Bambino. I am relieved the decision isn't mine to make.
Here's R.M. Morrow's entry in the Tin House Shirley Jackson story contest. His title for it is "Hilda." (What am I talking about? See this post. And if you entered the contest, I'd love to read your ending -- send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Nobody answered the door when we knocked but it turned out somebody was in the home. In the cellar, it turned out. And this somebody I'll name later followed us back to our homes. Then, as chance had it, he followed Hilda to her home. And he wasn't returning a dropped handkerchief. He wasn't exactly the romantic type.
Hilda's father is something like a doctor, so I have to believe him when he says its unlikely that Hilda suffered much in the way of fear or pain when she was murdered. He said that she was fast asleep when the culprit sneaked in through a jimmied bedroom window. He said that her murderer did the job with one clean stroke of the hammer. I have no reason not to believe Hilda's father. Like I said, he's something of a doctor and it is his job to know these sorts of things. He could be lying for me or to himself, but either of us outright knowing or bitterly acknowledging that she died in fear and agony won't stir her bones and bring Hilda back from the grave. It would only make our nights seem a few hours longer and a few shadows darker. As it is, when she died it was as if I had a pantry shelf inside me that was swept clean of its bags of flour, sugar, and salt, and repurposed, restocked with a box of drywall nails, a box of rat poison, a can of abrasive detergent and a jug of off-brand paint solvent.
The trial was spectacular but brief. I was given caution that I might have to take the stand as a character witness. And as much as I would have liked to talk up a storm about what a great gal Hilda is it never came to be. Like I said, my father is a lawyer and he did all he could to abbreviate this unexpected chapter in his daughter's life. The killer wasn't much of a surprise. He was the exact type of human being that fascinates Hilda and me. He was greasy and grubby, all ribcage and pointy elbows and knobby knees with no light in his eyes. If he had not been sent to the electric chair, or to the scaffold, I forget which card the judge and jury dealt the scarecrow, he would have lived out his remaining days as a drunken car mechanic or simply as an unremarkable drifter. He really was just the cut-here and fold-there paper doll replica of the ghastliest sort of human being. His name was Fred and he was a generic monster. And that is all I will say about that.
Hilda has become much more popular without me. She has been invited to appear at all the slumber parties, and reports are that she is quite open to discussing her life, her death and, naturally, all manner of topics that sustain what I can only imagine is the robustly intellectual salon atmosphere of an overnighter at Sally's or Becky's or Molly's. Boys, for example. I never knew she had it in her, but Hilda apparently knows which boys have eyes for which girls. I am both slightly charmed and a little unnerved to learn that Hilda has developed this talent. And she's transformed into a regular butterfly. I understand that just last Friday she bellied up to no less than five Ouija boards in one night. She was the opening act to that dead Norton girl. Not the one you're thinking of, but the other one. The one who tripped over some rocks and drowned in Sanders pond about eight years ago. So they say. Hilda really is much more sociable now. I can't say the same about myself.
I've taken to hiding out in the school library. The long shelves and high stacks provide sanctuary while I go about my way losing weight from skipping lunch and reading the beauty magazines. It is not so bad. I tell myself that I am preparing my body and mind for the spring fashions. Unless they're too ghastly. And my grim presence and its attendant relationship to Hilda has the benefit of discouraging many young lovers from turning the seven-, eight- and nine-hundreds of the Dewey Decimal system into their own private moonlit forest of eros and enchantment. I know it's a ghastly thing to do, but so is going steady. And I'm not exactly a wall-scratching poltergeist out in the wilderness of the American History books when I protect my dominion. I'm polite. "Hey. Studying here," is all I have to say, and it is like a magical phrase that banishes the Steady Eddies and their Real Swell Gal Pals. Where they go I don't know and I don't care.
The other day I caught a ride with mother into town at four o'clock in the afternoon. I wanted to retrace old steps but I told mother that I was going to meet some girls from school at the malt shop to study for an upcoming mathematics test. I told her I would get a ride home and to please keep my dinner warm. "I'm glad to see you trying to get out there and engage with the world again," she said. "I know it can't be easy, and probably never will." I said with my sweetest smile, "Why mother, whatever do you mean? Really. What are you talking about? What won't get easy and never will?" She had no reply.
I found myself wandering the aisles of Schneider's Food and Drug. I don't know how I got there. I had lost track of a small chunk time but the clock said it was only half past five. I decided to be constructive and began looking for something to steal. Candles seemed to call to me. Yes. That was it. I would steal a candle and when I got home I would close my door and turn out the lights and light the candle for Hilda. And it would be like old times to walk out of the store with a secret, however small. It would be a cinch to pull off such a very small heist, right there in the hardware and housewares aisle.
Just as I savored the singular moment of joy to be had before slipping the candle into my coat pocket Mr. Schneider's mother stepped from what seemed to be out of nowhere, but was really the bread aisle. Which is kind of funny because I have always believed that the bread aisle is the most boring corridor in any given store. I mean, bread is bread, right? Well, Old Mrs. Schneider shook her head so vigorously that her peasant scarf began to unknot itself, and then she angrily shook her knitting needles at me and said, "You live, to shoplift after Hilda's gone? Your lesson to study: accept her gone!"
I was stunned for just a moment. But only just. I said, "Why you backwards beast. Really, you're just a filthy old hag. See if I or my family or anybody else I talk to ever shops here again. I mean, really. What ghastly things to say to a young girl."
R.M. Morrow has worked as a cemetery groundskeeper, an assistant editor at Weird Tales magazine, and a night clerk at an old hotel. You can follow him on twitter @Frankenstein007.
Lawrence Block's latest burglar book, The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, opens with a scene in Bernie Rhodenbarr's bookstore. A woman comes in looking for a particular book. She finds it. She immediately buys it ... using her phone, to read on a device. She thanks Bernie for his help. If she hadn't seen the paper copy in his store, she wouldn't have been able to remember the name of the book she wanted to read.
Bernie is inured to the fact that this is how people use bookstores now. His friend Caroline gets miffed on his behalf, but Bernie shrugs the problem off. (Perhaps it's no big deal to him because he makes most of his dough by burgling, not bookselling.)
Block himself seems to be okay with the idea of digital books. After all, he released this book primarily as an e-book for Kindle.
I'm still not there, though. I can't seem to read more than a few pages of a book on any kind of digital device. The free samples from iBooks are perfect for me -- they cut off just as my eyes can't take it any more. At that point, if I like the book, I get a paper version, usually from a library.
Come to think of it, I've been using bookstores as book-browsing-stations for years, so I'm very much like the woman in the first chapter of Spoons. I'll visit an airport bookstore and write down six titles in my notebook to get later at a library. Maybe bookstores will have to start charging entrance fees. I'd gladly pay a couple of bucks to browse in a bookstore. I'm not sure if this model is economically feasible for the book world as a whole, though.
I've just ordered the paperback version of Spoons for the Colorado College library. My library, like most libraries nowadays, "owns" and "lends" e-books, but we aren't yet set up for downloading to Kindles or iPads, so this is our only option for this title. Fine by me, and I look forward to reading it!
Here's Megan Taylor's entry in the Tin House Shirley Jackson story contest. Her title for it is "Ghastly." (What am I talking about? See this post. And if you entered the contest, I'd love to read your ending -- send it to email@example.com.)
I slowed as we got closer. I told myself it was because I was taking it all in, because it was such a funny house and we’d want to laugh about it afterwards, the way we always did. There was dirt and crabgrass in the yard, the way you’d expect but there were also some straggling flowers and I knew I shouldn’t be scared; of course Hilda wasn’t. She marched right up to the screen door and knocked, three short raps like she belonged there or something, but no one answered and by the time I got beside her on the porch, her little white-gloved fist was raised again.
“Hilda,” I said, “maybe we shouldn’t.”
I didn’t mean to say it, not out loud, but the porch smelt bad like rotten apples and I don’t know, but it kind of felt bad too. There were black gaps between the boards beneath our feet and the wood had gotten soft and I started worrying about cellars. What if the planks gave way and we fell down –
But Hilda gave me a look and knocked harder and then the door was scraping open and I gasped, the boards moaning and sinking as I stepped back.
A dirty man, I thought. A bad dirty man – well, at least now we’d finally met one!
I nearly laughed, except how could anyone laugh with that person standing there so close and looking – their eyes a yellow kind of hazel and their skin all gray and greasy, grease spots covering its house dress too – a dress, I realised, so it couldn’t be a man, but a woman. A dirty woman, except you didn’t get dirty women, did you?
She wasn’t much taller than Hilda and had black hair too, though of course it wasn’t washed glossy like hers. It was all sticking-out tufts and faded patches. The woman had a fat neck, with grime folded into the creases and there was more grime in the cracks around her dirty yellow eyes.
Of course Hilda paid no mind to the eyes or the dress or anything. She was too busy making her face little-girl again, and she held her gloved hands clasped together like she was praying or something.
“I’m sorry to trouble you,” she said. “But we’re looking for our aunt. Our mother gave us this address. She’s very sick, but she sent us – that’s why she sent us...”
Hilda’s voice came out high and breathy and beneath her lowered lashes, her eyes shone – I didn’t think I’d ever seen her quite so ghastly. I felt the thrill of it, even while I was still feeling so stupid and scared – maybe because of that.
“Gee,” she said. “I think this is the right place. I sure hope so. We haven’t seen our aunt in years. And – and, we’ve come way across town. We only had the fare one-way.”
I held my pocketbook very still so you couldn’t hear the quarters jangling and I wondered what Hilda would do if the door slammed shut in our faces. Instead, the woman laughed.
“Your aunt!” she said – and there was something feathery about her voice, something lightly husked. “And your mother too! Your poor sick mother!”
She opened her mouth wide as she laughed. Her tongue was fat and pink and there were holes between her horrible teeth – black gaps that made me think about cellars again, but “Come on in!” she said and Hilda didn’t wait or anything; she just went right in.
I followed her into the brown hall, what else could I do? Though I kept thinking about the guy at the newsstand, how he’d told us to go straight home, and how this place was nothing like any home I’d ever been in – the apple smell was much worse inside and it became even more terrible when the woman swung around me to shut the door. She drew the bolts and flicked the key with such sudden surprising speed, I wondered if there wasn’t something truly ghastly about her, if she might actually be a witch –
Of course I’m too old to believe in witches, but she was standing even closer than before and for an awful moment I thought she might grab me, touch me, but she just put the key into her dress pocket and said “Come in!” again, which I thought was pretty dumb since we were already locked inside.
“Poor girls,” she said. “You must be tired after coming all that way. Let me fix you a drink and you can tell me all about your poor sick mother. What good girls you must be, what with your poor sick mother and all...”
She was already swaying down the brown hallway, moving thick and slow now, the way I’d imagined she would. Hilda turned to me.
“What are you doing?” she hissed. “Stop looking like that. You’ll spoil everything.”
I didn’t say anything, but Hilda went on anyway: “And don’t think we’re leaving any time soon.” She tugged my hair where it had come loose. “It’s up to you now,” she said. “It’s your turn. You have to steal something before we can go.”
In the den, there was a lot more brown, a ratty brown rug and a brown scratched coffee table and a bookcase with spindly legs. Even the light leaking in under the blind looked brown and there were three brown battered armchairs draped with lace doilies the color of tea. I didn’t want to sit down on any of them, but Hilda did and so I did too, but I didn’t take my coat off. The chair’s lumps pushed into me anyhow. The apple air pressed close.
“I’ll bet you girls like lemonade,” the woman said. “Nothing quite like home-made lemonade! Bet your poor mother can’t make it anymore. I bet your aunt...” She trailed off, her yellow eyes blinking.
“That would be grand,” Hilda said.
“Grand,” I muttered too, but I was already looking about for something to take. I needed to be quick, and then we could go – in fact, it needed to be now, while the woman was off in her tacky little kitchen. I could hear her cracking ice and banging doors and I pictured shelves, stained and sticky and bowed beneath the weight of cheap canned soup. She’d have crates full of apples in there too, I thought, every one of them brown and running to mush...
But I had to concentrate. There was a green ashtray on the table and a row of pale ceramic figures on top of the bookcase. The doilies were closer, but I didn’t want to touch them. I didn’t want to touch any of it.
Hilda didn’t care of course. She leant across and picked up one of the figures. Her eyes flashed. “Oh, it’s all too great!” she said.
Up close, I could see that the ornament was some kind of cherub, a fat angel-baby, except because of the dirt caught in its crevices, it looked wrinkled, its face like a devil’s, its ceramic eyes spookily blank.
I thought about the woman, only a room away. I thought about her yellow eyes and gray neck and what it might be like to have to touch her... I reached out to snatch the cherub from Hilda, but she swept it away from me. She slid it back on to the bookcase just as the woman reappeared in the doorway.
Hilda mouthed: too easy.
“You’re still here!” the woman said.
She was carrying a tray with a clouded-looking pitcher on it and two tumblers. Ice clinked as she shuffled closer and for the first time, I looked down at her feet. They were black and rippling, and they merged with her shadow like some kind of puddle, like sticky oil. I looked away and when I looked back again the black had parted and become two separate slinking cats. The cats slithered ahead, one of them vanishing with the dark under Hilda’s chair.
“Excuse my babies,” the woman said.
Her slippers trailed after them, ordinary and oatmeal-colored, peeling at the toes. She set the tray down on the table, knocking the ashtray on to the brown rug. No one picked it up, but I wondered if I might be able to sneak it into my purse later.
“It’s just lovely to have you!” the woman said. She lifted a long wooden spoon from the tray and stirred the pitcher. “Two good girls, with a sick mother. Coming all this way to see me!”
The shrivelled chunks of lemon bobbed as she jabbed the spoon in harder. Her yellow eyes looked watery, her lips wet.
“I had a sister once,” she said. She raised the spoon to her big dark mouth and sucked on it. “More sugar,” she said. And then: “You are good girls. Aren’t you?”
Hilda’s smile flickered small and tight, but “yes!” she said. “I mean, I like to think so. I hope so.”
Hilda and I watched the woman as she dumped an entire bowl of sugar into the pitcher, as the spoon that had been in her black, gapped mouth descended again, and circled.
“What an interesting place you have,” Hilda said. “So many nice things.”
She turned to me and I wondered if she wasn’t suddenly wishing that I’d been faster too, that maybe now she wanted to get out as badly as I did – except that Hilda never got scared.
“I hope so too,” the woman said, pouring. “Because some girls I know like to make up stories. Some girls like to play tricks.” She handed us our tumblers. “My sister and I used to play tricks, I think...”
Hilda stiffened. She stared at her lemonade, and then took a thin breath and downed half with a flourish. “Delicious!” she said. “Thank you!”
The tumbler chilled my hands. I felt them both looking at me. I took a sip. It was very sweet, but there was something coarse about it too.
But: “Delicious,” I murmured, and then when they wouldn’t stop looking, I made myself drink more.
“Good!” the woman said. “Good girls! What d’you like doing, you two good girls? I’ll bet you like riding don’t you? Riding horses – and streetcars too, right across town. Only it’s a shame when you don’t have the fare, isn’t it? When you get stuck way out and can’t even call home...”
The cold and sweet travelled from my throat up to the back of my skull. I felt it settle there, underneath my hair, little clammy ceramic fingers.
“It’s very cold,” I said, but nobody heard.
“I’ll bet you like swimming!” the woman went on. “I bet you’ve got your very own pools – I’ve got one myself – I know! You wouldn’t think it from the neighborhood, but I’ve got nice things too, don’t I? Didn’t you even say I had nice things? Just cause it’s gotten a little run-down around here, doesn’t mean I don’t like to keep nice things when they come calling.”
Hilda had finished her lemonade. She reached out to set her tumbler down, but her hand floated mid-air.
“I don’t feel so great,” she was saying – but then something touched me. I felt it skim my calves, a prickle of matted bristles as the shadows crept from under Hilda’s chair to mine. I jumped up, spilling what was left of my drink on to the ratty brown rug. The cold in my head flared whitely and when it cleared, I saw that Hilda had dropped her tumbler too. I wanted to laugh again – at least you wouldn’t see the stains!
But then the woman stood, beside me. She looked taller than before, and even wider.
“You want to see my pool?” she whispered. “It’s out back.”
For a moment, I thought she was going to open the door and I could run, but instead she shuffled to the window. “Here,” she said.
I stepped over Hilda’s tumbler, and then carefully across the rest of the rug in case it started squirming – it seemed quite likely that it might. I thought of rats’ tails and of the cats, oil around my shins. I held my hands out for balance; I didn’t want to fall.
The woman lifted the blind, but I had to squeeze in close to make out anything through the smeary panes. Even then, I could only just see the house next door, the only other house nearby, with its empty black windows. I couldn’t see any pool, just a dark trench hacked into the ground. It was only about long enough to lie down in, but it was deep –
“Ain’t it great?” she said. “I’ll bet all the neighbourhood kids will drop by – the decent kids, anyway. The Winners, the Andersons...”
Suddenly, I knew that I had to steal the key. That’s what Hilda would do, and she’d help me, even though it was my turn – didn’t we do everything together? Wasn’t she ghastly? But when I turned back, I saw that Hilda was curled up and her eyes were closed. She had her gloves folded over her stomach and she was moaning softly, the tea-stained doily hanging right by her mouth. And then the whole room lurched, the walls and floor no longer meeting. Everything trembled, although that could’ve been just me – my papery hands, my cold, bright head –
“I have to go,” I said. “My mother...”
“Is sick. I know – didn’t you tell me? Or was that your tricky sister?”
The key, I remembered, was in the woman’s greasy pocket. Hardly thinking, I reached out and when I started to fall, she caught me. She hooked her big arm around me and her touch was much lighter than I’d imagined, gentle and fluttering, like her voice. She lay me down carefully on the rug.
“You’re tired,” she said. “No wonder – coming all this way, crossing town! And just to visit your old aunt. Aren’t I your aunt?” She laughed. “Didn’t you tell me that?”
The brightness in my head was finally dimming. Darkness hovered close. I felt it flowing over me like the slither of cats, like oil, black and glistening.
“Yes,” the woman said. “You get a good rest. You’ve come to the right place, you and your sister. Don’t you worry now, I know how to have fun. When you wake up, I’ll fix some fresh lemonade. And later on, I’ll take you swimming.”
Megan Taylor is the author of three novels, How We Were Lost, The Dawning and The Lives of Ghosts. As a massive Shirley Jackson fan, she was overjoyed to be named second runner-up in the Tin House competition. To find out more about Megan's writing, please visit www.megantaylor.info.
Here's Bill Gavula's entry in the Tin House Shirley Jackson story contest. His title for it is "Fun." (What am I talking about? See this post. And if you entered the contest, I'd love to read your ending -- send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Here's Barbara Arno Modrack's non-winning entry in the Tin House Shirley Jackson story contest. Her title for it is "Let's Do a House." (What am I talking about? See last week's post. And if you entered the contest, I'd love to read your ending -- send it to email@example.com.)
Getting in was easy. Hilda looked under the mat and found a key and opened the door right up and we went in. She yelled “Hello? We’re here!” and I was amazed because I would have never thought of that, to just act like we were expected. But the house was empty. It was easy to see that because it was so small. You went right into the kitchen from the front door, have you ever heard of such a thing? The linoleum was squishy. There was just one little room off the kitchen and it was empty, you could see, because the bed was unmade and no one was sleeping in it.
The whole thing was very dirty, as if no one had lived there for a very long time. Dishes overflowed the sink onto the counter. A greasy work shirt hung on the doorknob to the bedroom and Hilda went right to it and held it up for me to see the name sewed over the pocket. It said “Pete,” and Hilda laughed and said the name. She said it a few times, “Pete! Pete! Pete!” like it was such a treat to say a common name like that with no one to stop her.
“Check for beers,” I said and I couldn’t even believe I’d said it. It was as though Hilda had said it but it came from me. Hilda stopped saying “Pete” and looked at me funny and I was afraid for a second she was going to tell me we weren’t going to be friends but she didn’t. She dropped the shirt and did what I said and opened the grimy white Frigidaire and sure enough there were beers inside. She pulled out two of them and set them on the counter in a little space where there weren’t any dirty dishes and opened a drawer to find an opener. Utensils clanged around in the drawer and clanged and clanged until I realized Hilda was doing it on purpose and she looked over her shoulder back at me to see if I was laughing. I think she was surprised to see that I wasn’t and she just held up an opener like she’d just finally found it and said “Church key!” When I didn’t say anything she said, “That’s what they call it. A church key. Get it? Like opening a beer is like going to church.”
I don’t know why I didn’t laugh. Even today I think that is very funny. A church is like a beer, a beer is like a church. So Hilda just came over to the table and opened her beer, popping the cap off and throwing the cap over her shoulder like who the hell cares where this beer cap lands? We sure don’t. And she opened my beer for me. One thing we both did together, without planning it and exactly at the same time, was tip our beer bottles together before we took a drink. “To the common people,” she said. I took a long drink, so long that the fuzz of it burned my throat and the cold of it hurt my forehead. But I didn’t stop. I came up for air a few times but I drained the whole bottle like I had been in a desert and was so thirsty I couldn’t get enough. I put the bottle on the table and said, “I want another one.”
Hilda had taken a sip of hers and made a face and then held her nose and took another sip and she giggled and expected me to giggle too and I didn’t. When I said I wanted another beer she got up from the table and went to the Frigidaire and brought it to me and opened it and laid the bottle cap on the table and sat back down so the two of us were sitting in this ugly little house drinking beers across the table like that was the way it was supposed to be. Hilda had hardly had any of her beer though she kept trying and she said, “I don’t see what the common people see in this.” I said, “I like it.” And she said, “If you like beer you are common and if you are common you can’t be my friend.” And I said, “I’ll be your friend. You can’t stop me.” And then I thought, who is this speaking? Is it me? It hardly seemed possible. Hilda was sipping delicately on the beer and I had almost finished the second one when the door opened and a man came in, a very common man and very greasy, from hair grease to grease on his clothes and his hands. He said, “What the hell.”
Suddenly Hilda was Hilda again and she jumped up and said, “Oh, dear, whatever could have happened? We must be on the wrong street. This isn’t my grandma’s house!” She looked at me and said, “Was that supposed to be North Wilson? Or South Wilson?” Again I was amazed. How can she think of these things so fast? But the beer had changed me. Something had. I said, “Are you Pete?” and Hilda swung around to look at me and the way her face was it was as if she was about to be pushed off a bridge and she didn’t want to go. That just lasted a few seconds and she turned away so fast her wonderful dark hair whipped as though in a breeze. That’s what it looked like to me, like a breeze had fluffed her hair. She was running to the door when the man caught her around the waist and flipped her over his shoulder where she dangled like a rag doll. The motion did not stop as he carried her into the room with the ugly unmade bed, her arms and legs useless and her face turned up toward me, her mouth open but no sound. I will always remember that. The lock on the door rattled shut.
After a time the door opened and Hilda came out, very white, and ran past me, still at the table as though I was tied there but I wasn’t. I wasn’t tied at all. There was nothing keeping me in that seat. Hilda got the door open, the one we had come in, and she ran down the old steps and up to the street. I wondered how she was going to explain to her mother where her brown coat was. The man came out of the ugly bedroom and was buckling his belt. “You better get the hell out of here and never come back,” he said. “I only wanted the pretty one. You just go home.”
Walking down the city street was like walking up a hill. It took more effort than I thought I could put forth, but I did it. I found the street car stop and paid my fare and went back to where we were supposed to meet Hilda’s mother for a ride but no one was there so I found a phone box and called a cab. I was lucky I had money in my pocket.
Barbara Arno Modrack's mystery story "Acting on a Tip" appeared in the July 2012 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in July 2012.
Congratulations to Pazit Cahlon! She won the Shirley Jackson unfinished story competition at Tin House.
Do you know what would be really cool? If Kelly Link and the Jackson heirs would produce an anthology of stories started by Jackson and finished by others. Here's my stab at a dream list of contributors: Stephen King (who sings Jackson's praises in Dans Macabre), Aimee Bender, Margaret Atwood, Jo Walton, Charlie Anders, Haddayr Copley-Woods, China Mieville, Colson Whitehead, Cathleen Scheine, Terry Bisson, George Saunders. I would read that book 100 times.
Here's my non-winning entry in the contest. If I'd been in charge of titling the story, I would have called it "The Common People."
“Maybe a witch lives there,” Hilda said, because it was an old-fashioned kind of house, with gingerbread decorations on the porch.
“Or maybe a dirty man,” I said. That made Hilda laugh, which gave me hope that I could still redeem myself after I’d done nothing to help when Hilda did the shop.
“You don’t even know what a dirty man is,” said Hilda.
“Sure I do,” I said. “It’s not just a man who’s dirty. It’s a man who will try to touch us, or kiss us.” That made Hilda laugh even harder. She went up on the porch of the house and knocked on the door as if she had a reason to be there. Right away the door opened.
It wasn’t a dirty man. It was only a woman. So that was a relief. She was plump and had gray hair. I guess “plump” isn’t the right word, though. She was just fat, and her hair was stringy. “Hello, girls,” she said, as though she’d been expecting us. “Come in.” She looked up and down the street.
Hilda gave me a smile that said this is going to be easy as pie. The woman hadn’t even asked us our business or why we were knocking at her door so late in the afternoon. Hilda was going to be able to do anything to her.
Once we were in her living room the woman sat down in a chair and Hilda and I found ourselves sitting down politely on the couch opposite. “I’ll get you some tea,” she said, “and then you can tell me all about it.”
“Tell you all about what?” I said.
Meanwhile Hilda had taken a notebook out of her bag and had a pen in her hand. “First, we’ll need your name,” she said. Then I got it. It was going to be a survey.
“Oh, my name is much too difficult to pronounce,” said the woman, “so you can call me Mrs. B.” She went into the kitchen and started opening and closing cupboard doors and banging things about like any normal mother would when guests come over. When she came back out she didn’t seem as fat as before. She had a tray with tea things on it and a plate with some dusty chocolates. Her teeth were bad, like common people’s teeth always are. They didn’t fit together very well.
“We need your name for the survey,” Hilda said.
“No, you don’t,” said the woman, and there was a little flicker there, something that passed between the woman and Hilda so fast I couldn’t catch it. I’m never fast enough with things. Hilda took a piece of chocolate and put it in her pocket when the woman wasn’t looking. To show her, I took two pieces and ate both of them right then. I knew I still had to make up for the shop.
“Our first question is, how long have you lived here?” I said to the woman through a mouthful of chocolate. It wasn’t bad chocolate, actually. I took another piece. We’d never done the survey in a person’s house before. We normally did it in parks and things. So I was tailoring the questions to the new situation, which I thought was clever of me and should show Hilda that I can think on my feet. She always acts like she’s both prettier and cleverer than me, but I don’t see why she should get to be both. There should be at least one area where I can be the best.
“Quite a long time, dear,” Mrs. B. replied. “Since before you were born.”
“Are you married?” Hilda asked, with her pen in hand.
“Not anymore,” said Mrs. B., and let out a tinkly laugh like a much younger woman. Though maybe she wasn’t so old. In this light, her hair was only a little bit gray. She waved a hand toward a painting on the wall. “My family,” she said. The faces of the husband and children were faded, almost rubbed out. One of the children, a girl, was wearing a blue skirt with a green blouse.
“What a pretty outfit your daughter is wearing,” said Hilda, smirking. I knew she was remembering the time we made Suzy cry at school for wearing blue with green. Everyone knows those colors clash. “How old is she now?”
“Oh, who knows,” said Mrs. B. “So what kind of a survey is it?”
“May I use your powder room?” Hilda asked. She handed me the notebook and pen and gave me a significant look. She even tapped the notebook with the pen, hard. Her message was clear: it was my turn now, my chance to even things out for my poor showing at the shop. I flipped to a new page in the notebook.
When I heard the bathroom door close I took a few more chocolates and told Mrs. B. that we were doing a fashion survey. “Clearly, you have a sense of fashion,” I said to Mrs. B. (It’s always a good idea to butter them up.) “Which magazines do you take?”
“All the usual ones,” she answered, looking out the window. “Which ones do you recommend?”
You can’t let them get you off track like that. “When was the last time you went shopping,” I asked, “and what did you buy?”
“I went to the grocery just the other day,” she said, “and got those chocolates and the tea.” The kettle still hadn’t boiled, so there was no tea yet. “I went to the Pick-N-Pay. They were having a sale.”
I scribbled something in the notebook. There hadn’t been a Pick-N-Pay in town since I was very small. Mrs. B. was maybe not all there, brain-wise. “No,” I said, very friendly and polite, “I meant clothing shopping. When did you last go shopping for clothes? Did you go to a department store, or …?” The idea, with this one, was to give the person all kinds of compliments and then fall out laughing afterward at their awful taste. This woman’s taste was perfectly ghastly, so I knew her fashion survey would be a great one. Her living room looked like it hadn’t changed in forty years.
“I mostly make my own clothes,” said Mrs. B., looking down at what she was wearing. I could have sworn it was something brown and drab, a house dress or something, but now that I looked more carefully I saw that it was even better than that, it was some sort of woolen thing, too tight in the hips and too loose in the bust. All different shades of beige. And her shoes! They looked like something a cow would wear. They had those plastic inserts to keep your ankles straight.
“Yes, of course,” I said, all professional. Where was Hilda, anyway? What was taking her so long? I wanted her to see how well I was doing without her. I flipped a new page in the notebook and continued scribbling down random bits for the survey: Pick-N-Pay, Makes them herself, Shoes with plastic. “And where do you buy the fabric you use to make the clothes?”
“I make the fabric, too,” said Mrs. B., offering me more candy. “I have a loom in the basement. Would you like to see it?” She looked so hopeful I felt I had to say yes.
“Let me just check on my friend,” I said. I knocked on the bathroom door, but there was no answer. “Hilda?”
“I’m sure she’s fine.” Mrs. B. was right next to me all of a sudden. There was a faint scent of onions and something like cigarette smoke about her. She strode ahead of me in those beige plastic-supported shoes and opened up a door further down the hall.
If I went down into that basement without Hilda no one could ever say that I was second-best. It was quite freeing to realize this. Either Hilda was hiding – and she couldn’t possibly claim to be better at the survey if she was hiding – or she was staying in there on purpose and this was a test. I got that excited feeling in my throat. It was a test.
“Hilda, you’re going to miss seeing the loom,” I called out. “The loom Mrs. B. uses to make her own fabric so she can sew her own clothes.” This was going to be the best survey yet, and it was going to be mine, all mine. Hilda was only going to be the witness. I fairly stomped down the basement stairs. Mrs. B. was a few steps behind. Well, she was old. Of course it would take her longer. “Is there a light switch?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Mrs. B., sounding like she was still at the top of the stairs. “But it’s a bit tricky.” Then the door closed and it was dark.
“Mrs. B.?” I called. “Hilda?” I grabbed for the railing, but there was none. Just for a second I was a little bit scared. I put my hand on the wall and tromped back up the stairs and found the switch. It turned on a dim light in a room at the bottom of the stairs. “Is that where the loom is? In that room down there?”
“Yes, dear,” said Mrs. B. “I’m just getting some more chocolates.”
“Thank you!” I said. They really were very good chocolates. I’d eaten so many I was perhaps getting a stomach-ache.
I went back down the stairs and into the room with the light. There was no loom in there, or not any kind I recognized. There were some different machines and tools and things, and a three-legged metal stool. There wasn’t much to do while I waited. No surprise there, I mean, who goes in basements? Maids, I suppose. To do chores and get supplies and things. I was so bored I looked around for something to point out to Hilda. There was a Bendix washing machine, a really old one, with rust on it. I couldn’t find a radio or a telephone or an intercom or anything good. When Hilda finally got down here, she would probably find something fantastically ghastly with her first glance, though. There was one machine that looked like a flattener and there was another that looked like a giant porcupine with knitting needles sticking out all over. It made a terrible noise when I turned it on.
After a while, I went back up the stairs and asked Mrs. B. if everything was all right. The door at the top of the stairs seemed to be stuck shut. “I can’t see the loom,” I said, pushing with my shoulder on the door. “I only see something that looks like it’s for ironing, and a knitting needle thing. What is that, anyway?”
“You’ll find out!” Mrs. B. answered. “Your friend seems to have disappeared,” she said, from the other side of the door.
The stairs had something tacky on them, a thin coat of something like honey. My shoes would probably be ruined, but I didn’t mind because it was time for new shoes anyway. I went back down the stairs and into the little room with the machinery in it. I was suddenly feeling a bit tired, so I sat down on the stool and opened up Hilda’s notebook. I looked back at the earlier pages to see if Hilda had put some jokes in there or something. Maybe a comment on the ghastly painting.
On her last page she’d written “Bathroom window. Run! See you tomorrow.” Had she really gone out the bathroom window? Oh, she was going to just die when she heard what she missed. She would never again be able to claim she was better at the survey than I was. I wished there was some place to lie down, because I felt like taking a nap. The floor was just dirt, so I didn’t want to lie on it. But then I lay on it anyway.
Mrs. B. still didn’t come down. It occurred to me that if I couldn’t get out of the basement Hilda wouldn’t know about it until the next day. And she probably wouldn’t want to tell anyone where we had been, because that would be end of all our fun. My stomach was really hurting now, and my head, too. I wondered if there was something wrong with the chocolates.
If I went missing for 24 hours, I thought, I would definitely be the winner. Hilda might get some attention for being the last person to see me, but my name is the one that would be splashed all over the papers and spoken in hushed tones at school. I’d be quite famous! There would really be no way for Hilda to compete with that.
And if I were killed, well, that would be even better, because she could never one-up me in that case. Even if Hilda found a way to get herself killed too, she would just seem like a copy-cat.
Oh, good. Mrs. B. was on her way down the stairs now.
Darryl Wimberley has five novels with St. Martin's Press in the Barrett Raines mystery series: A Rock and a Hard Place (1999), Dead Man's Bay (2000), Strawman's Hammock (2001), Pepperfish Keys (2007) and Devil's Slew (2011). A separate, literary work, A Tinker's Damn, was published in 2000 by MacMurray and Beck; another literary novel, The King of Colored Town, was published in 2007 by The Toby Press, and was awarded the Willie Morris Prize for Southern Fiction. His script Kaleidoscope was Grand Prize Winner for Fade In: Magazine's 1998 competition. He and my husband, author and editor Ross Gresham, are former colleagues.
RG: You’ve written award-winning literary fiction, and you’ve also done a long genre series. Is it a different experience to write?
DW: If you have a dead body in your story and you are Dostoevsky, you are operating with a very different purpose in mind than if you have a dead body in your narrative and you are John Grisham or Scott Turow or Stephen King. To oversimplify-- How far would you get in a genre series if your protagonist couldn't figure out who the murderer was? And how far would your series run if your protagonist was killed in the first book?
Purpose matters, not just for the subject undertaken, but as a determining factor in every other aesthetic decision.
That does not mean that any given literary work has more merit than any given work of sci-fi, noir, fantasy, etc. It does mean that good literary fiction and good genre fiction develop narratives informed at their outset by parameters and purposes that are narratively distinct, and so ready comparisons can't be made. Both Daisy Miller and "The Turn of the Screw" are great fiction. But Henry James, self-consciously, knew that these works were not directly comparable.
Another over-simplification in this argument would be to say that works can always be neatly binned as genre or literary. That clearly is not true. I'd argue that a lot of Elmore Leonard's work deserves merit both as genre, and as literary fiction, and of course Tolkien is rightly cited in every convention of fantasy-lovers as an example of literary work.
On the other hand many novels that I read (or perhaps read badly), especially when touted as examples of post-modern purpose/construction, are for me simply tiresome. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is, for me, mostly unbearable. I don't have much patience with authors who disdain basic story-telling; I suspect them of being lazy because, from my own experience, developing a coherent plot is not just hard, hard work but intellectually challenging. It can't be an accident that works enduring for readers, whether the Iliad or To Kill A Mockingbird, observe the basics of story-craft -- a narrative that makes sense, a voice that is unexpected, characters whose actions are not entirely predictable, and, I would add, a concern for a world unrelated to meta-fiction. Anyone looking for a model for genre fiction or literature might profitably sit down for a season of Breaking Bad.
RG: You’ve also worked as a screenwriter. What did that teach you?
DW: It taught me how to forge a damned good plot-line. People now often joke about Syd Field's nonfiction book. The first edition is best, titled simply The Screenplay. Most of the book is derivative. Even so, the chapter relegated to "The Plot Point" is something novelists need to read along with screenwriters. It is hard to come up with a plot that will sustain seventy thousand words.
It's not an accident that most writing schools virtually ignore the business of story-boarding. Most students in those arenas write short stories—pretty hard to write a novel in a 15 week semester. But short-narrative writing can screw up folks wanting to move on to multi-hour series, feature scripts—or novels. Understanding the narrative structure that repeats and underpins well-written films and dramatic series is part of a craft that can be learned and applied to works of prose.
RG: Setting is important to a lot of thriller series, and of all the places you’ve lived, you chose northern Florida? What’s the flavor you were after?
DW: The importance and influence of setting in any well-written fiction is hard to overstate, but setting has no necessary relationship to "reality". As I Lay Dying and "A Good Man is Hard to Find" derive much of their power from an authentic evocation of an actually-extant time and place, but The Lord of the Rings and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe are equally powerful narratives set in settings that are almost wholly imagined.
Setting is the lens, real or fabricated. through which the stuff of writing is refracted. All settings get filtered through the author's consciousness. A writer, whether James Lee Burke or Bill Kennedy, has to know his story's period and place inside and out to be effective. A story's setting includes details of its period as well as its place, so for example when I set my novels in northern Florida, I can't take for granted that the region familiar to me from childhood was the same place in 1925 or 1965 as it is in 2013. The "flavor" changes, necessarily, with any particular place or time. I grant myself no special provenance or expertise in my setting, but I do know enough to mine that region to create those authentic encounters essential to any fiction.
RG: You’ve been in the game a while. What’s changed in the publishing world?
DW: Technology has somewhat paradoxically created a choke-point between new writers and agents. Anyone submitting manuscripts to agents sees the "Submission Guidelines" that populate almost any literary agency's website. Most of these sites require an electronic submission which is much easier for newbies to manage than in previous years where a hard-copy of the manuscript, or some sample of the text, would accompany the obligatory SASE.
So much easier to send. But is this a good thing? I asked a New York agent recently if her agency even looked at submissions submitted over the internet and she freely admitted that they did not. In the first place, easy submissions mean that agents get many more manuscripts, most of them bad, flooding into their hard-drives. And there is another factor at play. Recreating the agent's response to my question roughly— “Our offices are small. Space comes at a premium. In the old days, when manuscripts came in shoeboxes or whatever, we'd stack 'em up around the office and eventually they'd get in the way, and we'd sit down every month or so and weed 'em out, just to get some room to move around. You'd read the first twenty pages of each submission and maybe halfway through the stack you'd find something meriting more attention. But with the computer? There's no mess. There are no boxes under your feet or stacking up the wall, so there is no incentive to actually start reading the hundred or so submissions that we get DAILY." So who gets agents now? Several contests offer a publication or meeting with an agent as incentive to submit. Those can be worthwhile. Other manqués get recommendations from writing schools whose profs often are published themselves with ongoing relationships at many agencies, or with editors. OR (new info for me) folks with manuscripts have to shell out coin to get personal sit-downs at conferences where agents pay to meet aspiring writers. Ten minutes to make your pitch.
A lot like Hollywood, come to think of it.
In the old days.
Thinking about this blog and the connections between libraries and mysteries, I suddenly remembered last night that one of my very earliest rare book experiences concerned mysteries. I was a student assistant at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library of Columbia University, and one of the first things I had to do in that illustrious position was ... a lot of photocopying. Like, hundreds and hundreds of pages of photocopying. It was 1990, and that's how we helped remote researchers back then.
I spent many hours copying Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine manuscript materials for a researcher whose name I never knew. I see now that I must have been in the Frederic Dannay Papers, which are pretty impressive. There's a note in the finding aid stating "This part of the collection comprises 87 boxes of manuscripts submitted to EQMM from its beginning in 1941 till the early 1980s." Elsewhere, the number of manuscripts in the collection is given as 4,600. Now, I'm not saying I copied all 4,600 manuscripts (thought it may have felt like that at the time) -- but -- WHOA.
So that means that Dannay, co-founder (with his cousin Mandred B. Lee) of EQMM and editor of the magazine for four decades, saved the manuscript versions of virtually all the stories published in the magazine. That's pretty amazing. So this collection includes manuscripts of stories by -- well -- EVERYONE. Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Pearl S. Buck, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, and many more.
I guess he knew what he was doing, huh?
My library colleague Amy Brooks, a terrific actor, recently wrote down some advice to a young man (okay, her nephew) about speaking in public. I happened to overhear his grateful phone call to Amy this week, and his presentation was a massive success. I thought I'd share Amy's advice with y'all. Reading isn't the same as acting, but there are a lot of overlaps. Take it away, Amy:
-- Know your material inside-out.
-- Allow yourself the luxury of natural breath. You can not go too slow. Savor your words. Speak them clearly. Your audience will understand and appreciate what you have to say MUCH MORE if you give them the luxury of time to take in your words. No matter how slow you think you are speaking, you can't speak slowly enough. DON'T RUSH. Savor.
-- Be in the moment, and only that moment.
-- Honesty is everything: be yourself. Let your art speak for you, and when you speak, let it be from your heart. You simply can not go wrong if you speak from your heart. Honesty always wins the day. (Honesty meaning, authenticity, I suppose.)
-- Humble yourself to the work. Be a channel of your own work. Be the spokesman for your work, if you will. The work is already strong. You have already "sold" your work. Just give it voice.
-- Before you go the lecturn, be still. Take some quiet moments to just Be. Gather your thoughts, or even better, empty your brain of thoughts. You already know what to say. You've done your homework.
-- Once at the lecturn, greet your audience with your eyes and smile. Take them in. Appreciate them. Even for the 10 seconds it takes to get settled at the lecturn.
-- Remember this: YOUR AUDIENCE IS ROOTING FOR YOU. THEY WANT YOU TO DO WELL. THEY ARE ON YOUR SIDE. Be their new best friend for your 10 minutes.
-- There's no way to fail. It's another moment in your life. You will succeed by sheer virtue of having the courage to get up there and be You.
The only thing I have to add to this is that if you are supposed to read for ten minutes, plan to read for a maximum of eight minutes, and practice in advance so you know how long eight minutes is.
I don't know about you guys, but I've received more responses to submissions in the past week than in three months preceding. Mostly bad news, some good news, but just, a lot of news all at once after a long silent period. Is this a coincidence? Or are editors perhaps clearing their desk before Thanksgiving? Maybe they want to send rejections well in advance of the winter holidays, when we fragile humans are liable to get depressed anyhow?
I asked a couple of literary agents I know, and one said yes, pre-Thanksgiving desk-clearing is going on; the other said no, the desk-clearing doesn't happen until December. In my case, the responses are coming from editors of small literary magazines, some of them affiliated with colleges and universities but most of them not.
Come spring, I'll once again let it all hang out and tell my dirty submission secrets. Until then, despite hearing a lot of "no no no no no," I'm proud to announce I've already quadrupled last year's poetry salary!**($12 up from $3)
Carol Berg writes fantasy novels full of murder and mystery. I recently heard her speak at an Authors' Day event in Colorado Springs and found her thoughtful and engaging. I wanted to know more about the mystery side of her work.
Q: You've published thirteen novels. At what point in your writing career did you feel like you were really a writer?
I’ve felt like "a person who spends a lot of time writing" since halfway through my software engineering career, when an engineering friend persuaded me to exchange email letters "in character." That was so much fun that I wrote novels for nine years, just for the fun of it, never imagining anyone could want to read any of it. But I didn't call myself a writer in those days. For better or worse, I didn't do that until I started getting paid for it.
But if the real question is when did I come to think of
myself as one of those people whose books I've read my whole life...well, just
between you and me, I still feel like
a bit of an imposter. I'm not one of
these people who's imagined myself a writer since I was three years old. Writing happened to me late, after I'd done a
lot of different things: teaching, parenting, engineering. And it's taken a while to convince myself
that it's not just a fluke. But it's certainly
true, that when you start getting emails from readers, telling their reactions
to your stories and which characters are their favorites - that makes you feel
like maybe, yeah, you are really legit.
Q: Your books take place in a medieval kind of world, a world without private eyes, police detectives, guns, or car chases. How does this affect the murder mystery parts of your books?
All of us who've read novels like Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael stories know that you can create wonderful, believable murder investigations in historical settings. Observation, logic, information gathering, research, perceptive interviews, shaping a theory of the crime from collected evidence—all those techniques translate well, whether the victim is poisoned with herbs, stabbed with a poignard, or shot with a 45.
The trick with a fantasy/mystery crossover like my novel, The Spirit Lens, is the role of magic. One of the worst sins a fantasy writer can commit is allowing magic to solve too many problems, or, heaven forbid, lack rules, boundaries, or consequences. I did not want to write CSI Collegia Magica, where magic could come up with instant identifications or replace autopsies or fingerprint analysis. (CSI is a lot like unrestrained magic.)
For the most part, my investigators use ordinary observation and knowledge to formulate their theories of the crime. For example, a student of magic turns up dead after going missing for several months. She has died from a stab wound, but she is also emaciated and marked with bruised circles – cupping marks – as result from the practice of bleeding. As the marks were all over her body, this was more than just some primitive attempt at healing. Someone had a use for her blood, but didn’t want to kill her. In the Collegia Magica world, the blood of a sorcerer has power when used in formulating (wicked) enchantments. The tips of the dead girl's fingers were also removed – which tells my investigators that she had worked some magic for her murderers and they didn’t want that magic identified, because one of the "rules of magic" in this world is that every sorcerer leaves a trace of his or her own personality on any spell worked.
Magical forensics do have a place as well. My double agent sorcerer has the skill to take apart enchantments to reveal their purpose, the materials used in the work, and how the particular enchantment can change the nature of its object. Like a forensics specialist doing chemical analysis, he can determine, for example, that an arrow used in an attempted assassination "is an implement of death, precisely made from living wood, steel, and poison. Splintered now, but made to fly straight, to penetrate…everything." It can penetrate armor, in fact, which changes the meaning of the actions surrounding the crime. It is very much fun to come up with the techniques and their usefulness - and their limits.
Q: Since I'm a librarian, I'm always curious about research that writers do for their books. You mentioned the importance of doing research for your fantasy series. What kind of research do you do? Do you have any help with that side of things? Can you give an example of research that ended up influencing the plot (or characters, or setting) of a book or books?
One of the pleasures of writing fantasy is getting to create an entire world as the background for a story. But I can't just throw anything together to make a mishmash. I want to make readers feel as if the people and places I write about really exist. To make a coherent and realistic world, I need to give thought to everything from climate and geography to history, religion, politics, and social and family structures. But then again, I am not a person who likes to do months and months of research before beginning to write. So I always begin with just enough research to be able to set the opening scenes. I need to get the feel of the era I'm trying to create, and a sense of the local geography, weather, and customs in my particular version of the world.
For my Lighthouse Duet, I wanted to begin with my renegade hero taking sanctuary from famine, civil war, and a winter that doesn't end in an approximation of a 12th century monastery. So first off, I spent some time reading How the Irish Saved Civilization and A World Lit Only By Fire. I browsed the internet, which has a treasure trove of plans of Cistercian monasteries in Britain and journals of daily life in the monasteries. I also did a little reading about the Little Ice Age in Europe in the 17th century, and about the geography of Germany - since it’s easier to get the geography and climate to make sense when they’re based on a real place - and about medieval maps. I had decided that I wanted my renegade's obnoxious family to be a family of cartographers. As it happened my hero's grandfather had produced a famous book of maps that supposedly could lead one into the realm of angels, if one knew how to invoke the particular magic of the map.
As I moved on through the first book, Flesh and Spirit, I needed to give Valen tasks in the monastery, which led to reading about food and recipes of the era, about beer-making, about stripping a pig (I can show you a step-by-step how-to!), about manuscript illumination, and making ink. Most of my research goes into writing just a few evocative details to give the feel of the time. Some goes into the "business" a character is occupied with as a conversation takes place. You would never want to burden a book with everything you can learn about monasteries or stripping pigs! Later on in the series, as I developed my own version of the fae, who dance in the moonlight for a very special purpose, I wanted to know more about rigorous dance training – so I read a wonderful book called Mao’s Last Dancer – and I watched White Nights with Mikhail Baryshnikov, and other ballet movies.
For the Collegia Magica books, set several centuries later in a different world, I spent a lot of time with scientific timelines. Because I create my own worlds, I feel like I can adjust the time of certain discoveries, as long as the prerequisites are in place. I replicated both Foucault’s pendulum and Isaac Newton's parlor demonstration of splitting light through prisms as features of the "Grand Exposition of Science and Magic," which is where our mystery takes a sudden deadly turn. I also researched blindness when one of my investigators was left blind by a villain's enchantment, visiting medical sites and even discovering a blog where newly blind discussed their experiences. Networking is part of research as well. I have a friend who is partially sighted, and she passed my questions on to a man who became profoundly blind at just the same age as my character. There is nothing like having a real person at hand to answer questions.
I manage my own research, though I'll always use the recommendations of other friends, writers, and librarians about where I can find a good dictionary of swear words or such like.
Q: What's the best: getting the idea for a book, working on the manuscript, finishing the manuscript, selling the manuscript, holding the published book in your hands, or, in your case, winning various and sundry awards for a book? You can only pick one.
All of the above are wonderful. But the best is when you hear from a reader who says she stayed up much too late because she couldn't put it down, or when a young man walks up to your signing table at a convention and says he pulled one of your books out of a box of donated books in Iraq and the story both took him away from a place he didn't want to be, and made him feel better about why he was there. Nothing compares to that.
Q: What's the worst job you've ever had?
Most likely the semester where I was teaching three sections of 10th grade plane geometry and two sections of 9th grade algebra, comprising about 185 students total. That was rugged. But then again, I actually enjoyed the math and the teaching. I just wasn't ready for the teenagers, being barely not a teenager myself! Mostly I’ve been very lucky about jobs.Q: What do you like to eat for breakfast?
Most days it’s cereal and fruit: strawberries, blackberries, or - the best - Colorado peaches. Occasionally it’s oatmeal and blueberries. But on a frosty winter morning, my Southern roots cry for satisfaction, and nothing does the job like homemade biscuits, sausage, and scrambled eggs from our friend Dave's happy chickens. And always, always, as I sit down to write, I have a cup of Raspberry Royale black tea in hand.
Q: You mentioned in your talk that you love mysteries. Who are your favorite mystery authors?
I've loved mysteries since Nancy Drew days. Probably my all time favorite is Dick Francis. I am not a horse person at all, but I marvel at how he introduces a sympathetic heroic main character in about ten words and draws us into an adventure so smoothly. He was a master at spare prose. I also love Dorothy Sayers, Tony Hillerman, P.D. James, Ellis Peters, Elizabeth George, and Charles Todd. All different, but all entertaining.
Q: You mentioned that the main character in one of your books (or series?) is a librarian -- could you talk a bit about that -- obviously I love that!
Coming from a family of teachers, librarians, musicians, and engineers, I often look to those professions for my heroes and heroines. I wanted to set my Novels of the Collegia Magica in a world experiencing an explosion of scientific discovery and exploration, much like our early 17th century. In our history, this was the age of Newton, Galileo, Descartes, Champlain, and Sir Francis Drake. It was the time of Sir Francis Bacon, the philosopher credited with devising the scientific method, who once said, "Many secrets of art and nature are thought by the unlearned to be magical."
My narrator Portier de Savin-Duplais really wants to become a sorcerer. He has the intelligence, the knowledge, the dedication, and the blood inheritance, but he just can't make enchantments come together. Determined to discover why, he accepts the position of the librarian at a collegia magica – a school of magic. He becomes an authority on the history and practice of magic – and a whole lot of other things besides. Nine years later, someone tries to assassinate the king of Sabria. The king goes looking for someone to investigate the matter, and he recalls a very distant (and poor) cousin. Yes, our librarian. So he summons Portier and offers him the job. The inquiry must be secret, because the last man who tried to look into matters has vanished. And the king requires an investigator familiar with magic, because the evidence left from the attempted assassination implicates a sorcerer doing Very Ugly Things.
Portier doesn't feel he’s capable. "Yes, I've read widely," he says. “But who would ever separate knowledge of sorcery from its practice?” But the king replies: "Skills can be bought. Knowledge takes much longer to acquire, and the ability to question, analyze, interpret, and deduce longer yet. The capacity for loyalty is born in a man, reinforced, I believe, with family connection. I believe you the fit person to pursue a confidential, objective enquiry into a matter of sorcery..."
Portier takes the job, and gets a whole lot more than he bargained for.
Q: Now, a question for our readers. Here's a drawing of Portier de Savin-Duplais by one of Berg's many fans. Ain't the internet grand?
Beth Groundwater is the author of the Claire Hanover gift basket designer series and the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Adventure series. Her newest book is A Basket of Trouble, released November 8, 2013. She lives in Colorado and enjoys hiking, biking, skiing, whitewater rafting, and, as you can see in the photo, canoeing paddling a ducky, or blow-up kayak (correction from BG, 11/12/13; she says duckies are "very tippy, so you're almost guaranteed to get wet").
Q: As it happens, I was just at an event with a silent auction of about a dozen gift baskets. What are your favorite things to find in a gift basket?
A: In general, I like to find things inside the basket that stimulate all of the senses—vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch, etc. For me, that might mean some mystery books to read, a windchime to hang outside, cinnamon or vanilla scented hand cream or lip balm, a pair of fuzzy warm socks in a cute pattern, and lots and lots of dark chocolate! To read some general tips from my protagonist, Claire Hanover, for making perfect gift baskets, your blog readers can go to: http://bethgroundwater.com/Gift_Basket_articles.html
Q: You've published six novels. At what point in your writing career did you feel like you were really a writer?
A: In early 2006, when I signed my first contract for a full-length novel, which turned out to be A Real Basket Case, the first mystery novel in my Claire Hanover gift basket designer series. Before that, I had earned some money from selling short stories, and I had finaled in writing contests, but it wasn't until I had sold a book-length manuscript to a publisher that I felt like a truly professional writer.
Q: Since I'm a librarian, I'm always curious about research that writers do for their books. Do you research your people, places, etcetera? Do you travel to places you write about?
A: Oh yes, I research the heck out of my books, which is a large part of the fun of writing them. For instance, A Basket of Trouble, the third book in the Claire Hanover gift basket designer series, includes horseback trail riding, hippotherapy (the use of horses in physical and occupational therapy), and illegal immigration. I've ridden horses recreationally over the years in Colorado, but I took a trail ride through the Garden of the Gods Park in Colorado Springs specifically for this book. I also interviewed the manager of a Colorado Springs-based trail riding business. And, I interviewed a hippotherapist and observed some of her therapy sessions. I researched catalogs of horse tack (equipment) and cowboy work wear, the meanings of the sounds that horses make, observed a farrier at work shoeing horses, and more. My hope is that because of my research, readers will be immersed in the care and riding of horses while reading A Basket of Trouble and trying to solve the puzzle of whodunnit along with Claire Hanover.
Also, all of my mystery novels so far are set in locations in Colorado or nearby Utah, and they are all in locations that I've either lived in or visited extensively. I feel that to describe a setting, I need to be there myself to know what it smells, sounds, and tastes like, to photograph it, to see the local flora and fauna, to hear the local dialect, and more. I didn't need to travel far for A Basket of Trouble, because I researched it and wrote the first draft when I still lived in Colorado Springs, the setting for the book.Q: What's the worst job you've ever had?
A: Waiting tables at a Howard Johnson's motel restaurant one summer when I was in college. The bartender had quit, so I had to mix cocktails for my tables, even though I was only 19 and didn't know squat about cocktails. And, I had to make the ice cream dessert orders, as well as do all the other stuff involved in waiting tables. I would come home close to midnight after a long shift with sticky ice cream all down the front of my uniform and have to wash it the next morning before going to work again. I was running on my feet all day and working my a** off, and sometimes customers would only leave a quarter as a tip. I now tip wait staff generously at restaurants if they're doing a good job. But, on the flip side, I also know when they aren't, so they get less sympathy from me if they're goofing off.
Q: What do you like to eat for breakfast?
A: What I would REALLY like to eat for breakfast every morning is a warm, flaky chocolate croissant, thin-sliced smoked salmon with all the toppings, fresh berries with cream and coffee with cream. What I usually eat for breakfast is a bowl of Kashi Go Lean cereal with 1% milk and a half of a sliced banana and a cup of coffee with that same 1% milk in it. I can dream, though!
Q: What are you reading right now?
I picked up a couple of used books by Jodi Picoult and another couple by John Irving at a local independent new/used bookstore the last time I signed there, so I'm working through those right now. Along with reading a lot of mystery novels, I like to mix up my reading with some mainstream fiction, literary, women's fiction, true crime, and even romance.
Q: What's the best: getting the idea for a book, working on the manuscript, finishing the manuscript, selling the manuscript, or holding the published book in your hands? You can only pick one.A: You are a hard task master, Jessy! There are aspects of each phase of the process that I like and dislike, but if I have to pick just one phase that I enjoy most, I would say that it is getting the idea for a book and researching it to start putting together a story. It's the time when my creativity and imagination is most put to the test. That first phase is still very exciting, even after publishing so many books.