Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Evolution of a Character

(This essay is included in the latest issue of Mystery Readers Journal, Small Town Cops II, along with a full slate of articles of interest to those who enjoy mysteries set in smaller communities)

I'm the author of the Daniel 'Sticks' Hetrick crime series, set in a small, fictional community near Harrisburg PA. There are currently six novels in the series and the seventh was published on Sept. 16, 2016 by Torrid Books, a division of Whiskey Creek Press (Start Publishing).

I've published 15 novels (including the Hetrick series) and a non-fiction regional history book. My short stories and articles appear regularly in a variety of magazines. Though I'd used him previously in a short story, Sticks made his novel debut in 2006, four years before my own retirement after 40 years as a newspaper reporter and editor.

Sticks is the focus of the stories, but other members of his team (like his proteges Flora Vastine and her boyfriend, Cpl. Harry Minnich) as well as a few town characters get their stage time. Fans seem to like that I offer this approach and reveal the lives and concerns of ordinary officers and their families in addition to the procedural and forensic detail. The bits of humor (dark, of course, in keeping with the theme) and romance hasn't turned any off to my knowledge either.

In Something In Common Hetrick's bored in retirement and offers himself as unofficial consultant to his less experienced successor, Aaron Brubaker, who's perplexed by a recent murder, the first on his watch. Sticks discovers the murder is linked to a major theft of rare ornithological books and the trail leads from the big city to his hometown. The discovery forces him to confront danger and the darker side of his community and its residents.

Cruel Cuts, the second in the series, introduces Hetrick's protege, novice Officer Flora Vastine. A rash of animal mutilations and a vicious poison pen campaign aimed at an ambitious young lawyer leads to murder.

Corruption's Child, which follows, has Hetrick and his colleagues investigating the murder of a local waitress and an elderly Amish man, the latter mortally wounded in the latest in a string of burglaries from the Amish.

Being Someone Else, a tale of identity theft: When an out-of-state reporter is found murdered at a disreputable bar, the tendency to violence spirals in the rural Pennsylvania community, and the investigative trail keeps bringing Hetrick and the team backs to the family of a wealthy doctor who has retired in his hometown.

Practice To Deceive, next in the series, splits locations between Sticks and the team. Hetrick, a widower, and Anita Bailey, the new woman in his life, go on a Caribbean cruise. When a passenger is murdered, Sticks is drawn into the case and works with the Jamaican officer in finding a solution and a killer. The cruise was intended to be a vacation before he began a new job as a county detective, working out of the same office as Anita, a deputy prosecutor.

Meanwhile, back home, Flora and the team are probing mysterious assaults on young women.
Both Sticks and Flora will learn the past has consequences which can't be denied.

The sixth in the series, A Burning Desire, takes arson to murder. Sticks and Flora confront dangerous people from their pasts, and errors in judgment add to their jeopardy.
Shares The Darkness, the seventh, is about the murder of a birder in a patch of woods on the outskirts of town. Here's the blurb:
Jan Kepler and Swatara Creek Police Officer Flora Vastine were neighbors and schoolmates, but never close.
When Jan, a school teacher, avid birder and niece of a fellow officer, goes missing and is found dead in a nearby tract of woods Flora finds herself thrust into the middle of an examination of the other woman's life, as she searches for clues.
As usual, the police have more than one crime to deal with. There’s illegal timbering and a series of vehicle thefts taking up their time. And there are other issues to deal with. Flora is concerned there’s some shakiness in her relationship with Cpl. Harry Minnich who seems to be making a lot of secretive phone calls.
Still Flora maintains focus on the murder. Despite evidence implicating other suspects, the odd behavior of another former classmate rouses Flora’s suspicion. Flora’s probing opens personal wounds as she observes the cost of obsessive love and tracks down the killer.

Grab a copy of Mystery Readers Journal: Small Town Cops here:

Friday, December 16, 2016

Some Favorite Films

I don't consider myself a film critic. But, like many raised in a time when film took precedence over TV, I have my favorites.
I've mentioned before, I consider The Gods Must Be Crazy my favorite film of all time and view Jamie Uys as a cinematic genius. I'm not going to include Gods in this summary, though, citing instead some other classics I enjoy. They are, in no particular order:
Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston star in this 1948 adventure tale of a search for gold in Mexico based on a novel of the same name by the mysterious B. Traven. Bandits and greed turn a search for wealth into tragedy. Huston steals the star honors from Bogie.
Wuthering Heights. There have been a number of remakes of Emily Brontes' story of vengeful, thwarted love (one of my all-time favorite novels), but none have surpassed the emotional intensity of the original 1949 version starring Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier and David Niven.
Arsenic And Old Lace. Frank Capra's brilliant 1944 adaptation of a Broadway play is a dark comedy with a stellar cast headed by Cary Grant. If this film doesn't make you laugh, you have no sense of humor.
The Trouble With Harry. Another dark comedy, this one about a dead man who won't stay put. I'm a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock and I've watched this 1955 film dozens of times without tiring of its quirky humor. Captain Albert Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) believes he's accidentally shot Harry, but he's not the only one with reason to hide the body. John Forsythe and Shirley MacLaine (in her screen debut) star, respectively, as a struggling artist and a single mother who knows Harry and is glad he's dead.
North By Northwest. This 1959 film, another Hitchcock, is considered by many one of the director's best. Even if the critics didn't agree, it'd still be among my favorites. A case of mistaken identity puts Cary Grant (here in his more usual casting as a suave man-about-town) on the run from villain James Mason and his cohorts and sexy Eva Marie Saint as the mystery woman he meets on a train. Who can forget the crop duster chase or the Mt. Rushmore climax?
To Kill A Mockingbird. The 1963 film is a fitting tribute to the Harper Lee Novel and Gregory Peck is superb in the role of Atticus Finch, the small-town lawyer defending a black man accused of rape. Mary Badham and Philip Alford, the children portraying Scout and Jem, were equally brilliant. It's no surprise this film took three Academy Awards.
The Sand Pebbles. A 1966 classic which earned Steve McQueen his only Oscar nomination and explores U.S.-China relations in the 1920s. McQueen stars as a sailor with a personal code of ethics who is drawn into a situation which can only go downhill. Based on a novel by Richard McKenna, who actually served on a gunboat like the one in the film.
The Wild Bunch. One of my favorite Westerns, this 1969 Peckinpah classic about a group of aging outlaws who run to Mexico and come up against a larger foe than the lawman (Robert Ryan) pursuing them after a foiled bank robbery. An outstanding cast, including William Holden, Ernie Borgnine, Strother Martin and Emilio Fernandez as the vicious Mapache. Bloody, but not inappropriate for the time and situation.

Ragtime. This 1981 movie is based on the novel of the same name by E. L. Doctorow and features an all-star cast including James Cagney as Police Commissioner Waldo, the lovely Elizabeth McGovern as Evelyn Nesbit and Howard E. Rollins Jr. as Coalhouse Walker Jr. I love the novel and wasn't disappointed by the film. It's a beautiful (and at the same time, disturbing) portrait of New York City at the beginning of the 20th century.

Once Upon A Time In America. In my opinion, this 1984 Sergio Leone offering is the best gangster epic ever--more emotionally satisfying than the Godfather (see the full version, not the edited studio version). A Prohibition-era Jewish gangster returns to his old haunts on the Lower East Side and confronts ghosts and regrets from the past. A knockout cast including Robert De Niro, James Woods and Elizabeth McGovern. And the score is knockout beautiful.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Some Favorite Dogs in Books

Watching the National Dog Show on Sunday brought to mind the huge role dogs have had in literature.
From the earliest Greek tales down to the present, dogs have accompanied some of the most beloved and hated fictional characters, earning a big place in our memory. We all have our favorites. Here are a few of mine (in no particular order):
White Fang, a mixed wolf/dog in Jack London's stellar adventure novel. After a brutal early life, White Fang bonds with Weedon Scott in a manner sure to tug at the heartstrings of the most hardened of readers.
Lassie, a Rough Collie, is memorable from a book, films and TV serials. The creation of Eric Knight, Lassie is an over-the-top sentimental story of a dog bonding with humans.
Fred Gipson's story, Old Yeller, a Labrador Retriever/Mastiff mix, is a tragic character. If you haven't read the book, I'm sure you've seen or heard about the film. After heroically saving the lives of his owners, Yeller tangles with a rabid wolf and has to be put down.
Snowy (Milou), a Wire Fox Terrier, is the companion/rescuer of TinTin, the rather naive boy adventurer created by Herge. Unlike most dogs, Snowy is capable of speech (only with TinTin and other animals). I loved these comics as a boy.
Big Red, an Irish Setter, in Jim Kjelgaard's most famous novel, is owned by a man who wants to make him a show dog. Red gives his affection to a boy who happily accepts him, simply, as a dog.
Bull's Eye, breed not specified, Bill Sikes' dog, in Charles Dicken's Oliver Twist, is not a nice dog. Though considering his owner it's easy to see why. Bull's Eye has "faults of temper in common with his owner," but you can't deny his loyalty to his master.
Gnasher and Wolf, possibly Mastiffs, though breed is not specified, are among a number of memorable dogs in Emily Bronte's wonderful Wuthering Heights. Like Bull's Eye, they are not noted for their affectionate nature. Described as "hairy monsters," Lockwood first encounters them on a visit to his landlord, Heathcliff.
Then we have Lad, another Collie, almost as famous as Lassie, who began as a short story character created by Albert Payson Terhune, a dog lover if there ever was one. Terhune, a sportsman/adventurer who also bred Collies at his Sunnybank Kennels, penned more than 30 dog-focused novels. Harlan Ellison paid tribute to Terhune in his novella A Boy and a Dog.
Though not a fictional character or my favorite breed, there's Charley, a Poodle, who accompanied John Steinbeck on his 1960 road trip across the United States. Charley actually belonged to Steinbeck's wife, Elaine, but makes a good sounding board for the writer. The title was inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels With a Donkey, an equally fascinating travel journal.
Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Ketch, a German Shepherd, in my tale, The Limping Dog, and Change, Officer Flora Vastine's faithful Border Collie.
So, who are some of your favorite dogs in books?

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

What I've Been Reading It

This is an assessment of books read in the past month. I may make this a regular blog feature, provided people find it of interest.
The books:
James Oliver Curwood--The Valley of Silent Men.
Ngaio Marsh--Killer Dolphin.
Judy Sheluk--Skeletons in the Attic.
Juli Zeh--Decompression.
J. M. Lee--The Investigation.
E. S. Thomson--Beloved Poison.
Jonathan Yardley--Misfit.
As a youth, I was an avid fan of Curwood's adventure tales set in the Far North. On a whim, I downloaded a Kindle copy of his The Valley of Silent Men to see how his work stands with me now. Unfortunately, despite an intriguing plot that kept me turning pages, I found myself irritated by his flamboyant style and abuse of the exclamation point.
I also hadn't read Marsh in many years but am now inspired to read or re-read more of her work. Killer Dolphin allowed her to indulge in her love of theater. This, the 24th in her Roderick Alleyn series, focuses on a glove alleged to have belonged to Hamnet Shakespeare and the skulduggery it inspires. If you're a fan of Agatha Christie and haven't read Marsh, do.
I gave Skeletons in the Attic a five-star review. If you enjoy small town mysteries with feisty heroines, a cast of quirky characters, well-paced plots, twists and turns and a bit of romance, this is a book you'll want to check out.
Fueled by an interest in deep sea diving, I expected to enjoy Decompression more than I did. I gave it three stars. Zeh tells the story from the viewpoint of the three main characters, Sven, a dive instructor; Jola, an actress who hopes to land the role of a pioneer woman diver, and Theo, a struggling writer and Jola's lover. It was difficult to tell who told the truth and, frankly, I couldn't work up much sympathy for any of them. Review here:
The Investigation also rated five-stars. Lee is one of South Korea's top writers and this is his first novel to be published in the U.S. It involves a murder during World War II in Japan's notorious Fukuoka Prison. A majority of the prisoners, including famed poet Yun Dong-ju, are Koreans accused of fomenting rebellion against their Japanese conquerors. Review:
Beloved Poison was another five-star read. I'm fascinated by the Victorian era and grew up reading classics from the period. In this debut novel, Thomson evokes the age and provides fully-developed characters with names right out of Dickens, a gripping plot and a distinct sense of place. Review:
Yardley's stellar biography follows writer Fred Exley's alcoholic trail from his birthplace in football-dominated Watertown, N.Y., across the U.S. as he sponges on friends and strangers and achieves fame if not fortune. Yardley characterizes Exley as a "one-book author," centering his attention on "A Fan's Notes," the first and best known of his three "novels." That may be true but I found "Pages From a Cold Island" and "Last Notes From Home" entertaining expansions on the first autobiographical entry.
So, that's the books for this time. What am I reading now?
Loren Estleman--Detroit is Our Beat.
James Lilliefors--The Psalmist (first in the Bowers and Hunter mystery series).
Rob McCarthy--The Hollow Men.
Ian Mortimer--Millennium.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Those Old-Time Radio Shows

I grew up listening to radio. We didn't have a television until I was in high school.
If you had the experience I think you'll agree, radio gave us something the TV generation missed out on. Listening to radio inspired more use of imagination than that required by the visual media. I'm not saying television viewers lack imagination.
The point is radio, as in reading, requires the listener to imagine the scene, create the speaker in his mind--'pictures' and sound that are more personal than those projected visually. Who can forget that squeaking door and the eerie organ music of 'Inner Sanctum'? Or the sonorous voice of 'The Shadow'? Do you see The Whistler?

I believe listening to those old time radio shows was as much an incentive as my youthful reading in inspiring me to want to write my own stories. Willa Cather said much of the material a writer uses is acquired before the age of fifteen.
I spent a lot of time listening to those old radio shows in those teen and earlier years. These included Inner Sanctum, The Whistler (noted for its unexpected twists at the end), Mr. and Mrs. North, Boston Blackie and many others. One of my favorites was 'I Love a Mystery,' about three friends who ran a detective agency and traveled the world in search of adventure. It originally aired from 1939 to 1944 and then was revived and ran from 1948 to 1952. I was too young for those earlier episodes, but many are still available online.
The Shadow, one of the most popular of radio shows, ran from 1930-1954, prompted a magazine and a series of novels. The opening line is haunting, "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows."
Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons, was another popular show and one of the longest running, 1937-1955.
The radio version of The Thin Man, based on Dashiell Hammett's novel, ran in 1936, before I was born, but I've seen the film and the TV adaptation. William Powell and Myrna Loy reprised their film roles in the radio show but were replaced by Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk on TV.
Of course mysteries weren't the only shows I listened to. There were also many good Westerns, comedies and drama. Still, mysteries remain my favorite.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Introducing Rita Chapman

My guest today is Rita Chapman, an Australian writer whose work includes several mysteries and an unusual horse novel. Welcome, Rita.
Tell us a little about you and the place where you live.
I was born in London and moved to Australia in my early twenties. I spent my working life in Sydney, the most beautiful city in the world and moved to Queensland when we retired, for the warmer weather.  We live on the Sunshine Coast, a popular tourist destination and enjoy walking on the beaches and around our pretty river and lakes. 
 When did you begin to write and what got you started?
I didn’t finish my first book until I retired.  I had often started when I was working (mostly on a typewriter) but never found the time to actually finish.  Some my earlier writing I used in my first couple of books.  In Queensland we often go weeks without rain and then it can pour for two or three days.  It was during this first downpour that I sat down to write. 
You've written in several genres. Do you have a favorite?
Horses have always been my passion, so Winston – A Horse’s Tale is my favourite book and genre.
You're second book, Winston-A Horse's Tale, is written (uniquely) from the horse's perspective and first-person viewpoint. Your latest, Dangerous Associations, is also first-person. Is this your favorite viewpoint?
Are your stories plot or character-driven?
My books are plot based.  I usually have an idea of the main story before I start.
Pantser or outliner?
I’d love to be an outliner.  Normally I’m pretty organized but I can’t seem to plot out my chapters and characters.  I find it easiest to just sit down at the computer and let the story evolve.
What are you working on now? Care to give us a peek?
I’m working on a “Missing” series, following on from my first book Missing in Egypt.  This one is called Missing at Sea and follows Anna on a cruise some years later, where a woman goes overboard. 
What are the biggest misconceptions people have about writers?
That they make money!
 What do you like to read? Any favorite authors?
My reading tastes are quite varied.  I love Australian authors Kate Morton and Bryce Courtenay as well as Wilbur Smith, crimes, mysteries, autobiographies and of course anything to do with horses.  My favourite indie authors are Rebecca Bryn and Sarah Stuart, who formed Worldwide Authors, to which I belong.
Do you have any advice you'd like to share for other writers?
For a would-be writer, just do it.  Now that you can self-publish your work doesn’t have to stay hidden in your computer.  Until you try you don’t know what you can achieve.  For other writers,  I think we all know we have to edit, edit, edit!
We all know the importance of marketing today. What are some of the methods you prefer for introducing yourself to the reading community?
I’m not too keen on the marketing side.  I have a website,, where I interview a different author each week.  I’m lucky enough to have a local bookshop stock all three of my books and I like to distribute bookmarks featuring my work.
What do you do for fun and relaxation?
I play tennis at a wonderful social club close to home, swim, walk and of course read.  We also love to travel and have just returned from a month driving in the USA and Canada, seeing Yellowstone National Park and The Rockies.  I even saw a couple of bears!
Missing in Egypt
Winston – A Horse’s Tale
Dangerous Associations

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

New Book Release

Shares The Darkness, my fifteenth novel and the seventh in the Sticks Hetrick crime series, was released today by Torrid Books, division of Whiskey Creek Press/Start Publishing.

The series is set in Swatara Creek, a fictional community near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and the characters frequently visit sites in the capitol. Hetrick is a retired police chief who now works as a county detective. The protagonist in this latest book is one of Hetrick's protegees, Officer Flora Vastine, though Sticks is involved in the events.
Sticks is the focus of the series, but others like Flora and her boyfriend, Cpl. Harry Minnich as well as a few town characters get their stage time. Fans seem to like that I offer this approach and reveal the lives and concerns of ordinary officers and their families in addition to the procedural and forensic detail. The bits of humor (dark, of course, in keeping with the theme)and romance hasn't turned any off to my knowledge.
I conceived the premise for the series in a short story while living in Lebanon PA, hence the location of Swatara Creek near Harrisburg. There is a Swatara creek and even a township with that name, but the town in the books is entirely my invention.
Though a series, the novels can be read as standalones. Titles, in order, are: Something In Common, Cruel Cuts, Corruption's Child, Being Someone Else, Practice To Deceive, A Burning Desire and Shares The Darkness. Here's a blurb for Shares The Darkness:
Jan Kepler and Swatara Creek Police Officer Flora Vastine were neighbors and schoolmates, but never close.
When Jan, a school teacher, avid birder and niece of a fellow officer, goes missing and is found dead in a nearby tract of woods Flora finds herself thrust into the middle of an examination of the other woman's life, which opens personal wounds.
And a short excerpt: Harry’s attitude was more optimistic when he called her cell later that night.
“Peg’s group only got through part of the game-lands and you guys didn’t cover everything either,” he told her. “There are some thick woods out there. Fresh growth on the trees and brush. Deep leaf cover on the ground. You said yourself, her knapsack was half-buried and you didn’t see it till you kicked it free.”
“I was so sure we’d find her after that.”
“I’ve heard hunters telling all my life how difficult it is sometimes to find a wounded deer—even in the season when most trees are bare. Even in a small area like the Preserve, nature can conceal more than you might think.”
“I hope you’re right, honey.”
“If she’s out there, we’ll find her. The Staties have promised two search dogs for tomorrow morning. Aaron said one of the Boy Scout troops is going to pitch in, too.”
Flora lay back on her bed. Despite the shower and rest, muscles in her legs ached from the strain of tramping over the rough landscape. “Before I found the pack I was almost ready to agree with Fred and think she’d gone somewhere else.”
“Well, now you know she must be out there. Fortunately, the weather isn’t frigid like it was last month. She’s young and healthy. If she isn’t too bad hurt and we find her...”
“Oh, God. What if we’re too late, Harry? We...”
“Think positive, babe. Think positive.”
But Harry’s optimism couldn’t obliterate Flora’s fears. Despite her tiredness, it was a long time before sleep came as Flora kept visualizing scenarios of Jan lying in the muck in the darkness, wild animals circling round her, no one responding to her desperate cries for help as the dampness of the night sucked away her strength and will to live.
Buy links:
And other major booksellers.