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.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Those Influencers

Writers on Facebook have recently been posting lists of the 15 authors who most influenced them.

Frankly, I think their number is too few. We're influenced by everything we read. We absorb all these influences, accepting some, rejecting others, until they coalesce into our peculiar style.

Robert Louis Stevenson suggests, "When you read a book or passage that pleases you, sit down at once and try to ape that quality which most pleases you."

No, Herkimer, that doesn't mean you should write like the writers you admire. I can write a pastiche of Hemingway. But I'm not Hemingway. You pick up bits and pieces of technique from other writers, then you make them yours.

Okay. You want to know who I'd put on my list of fifteen. I'm sure there were many more, but here's my list (in no particular order):

1.Edgar Allen Poe
2.Jack London
3.Emily Bronte
4.John Fowles
5.Washington Irving
6.Somerset Maugham
7.John Cheever
8.John Steinbeck
9.John Dickson Carr
10.Arthur Conan Doyle
11.Ernest Hemingway
12.Robert Louis Stevenson
13.Vladimir Nabokov
14.Ruth Rendell

15.Elmore Leonard

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Birding Seed For Novel Idea

"When you have seen one ant, one bird, one tree, you have not seen them all." E. O. Wilson

It's estimated only one-fifth of U.S. citizens engage in the interesting and beneficial (both economical and environmentally) pursuit. Still that's a lot of people for an avocation once regarded as the domain of spinsters and eccentric old men.

Birding has been around since the late 18th century (see Gilbert White and others) and the term bird watching was first used in 1891.

I admit I'm not a list keeper or as dedicated/erudite as some. A nephew of Roger Tory Peterson was my biology teacher in high school and he inspired me to an early interest in this and all things nature. I've continued to enjoy observing, seeing and hearing birds. I've read my Peterson, White, Teale, Sibley and others.

Among my favorites (though not in order and not divulging reasons) are the cardinal, flicker, ruffed grouse, whip-poor-will and crow.

My interest in this avocation was the seed idea for Shares The Darkness, seventh in my Sticks Hetrick crime series, to be published Sept. 16 by Torrid Books, a subsidiary of Whiskey Creek Press/Start Publishing. My character Officer Flora Vastine insisted on playing the lead this time, and I allowed her to have her way. I'm rather pleased with the results.

Here's the blurb for the book:

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.
Sales outlets:
And major book sellers everywhere.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Interview With a Character

Magistrate: What is your name, ma'am?
Ellen: Ellen Kauffman.
Magistrate: And your age?
Ellen: (frowning): Is it necessary to this interview?
Magistrate: For my records--yes.
Ellen: Very well. I was born in 1863.
Magistrate: Thank you (he does math on a scrap of paper). How long have you lived in the village?
Ellen (pausing a moment to consider): Nearly five years. I operate the general store. Well, I do now. Since my husband's death.
Magistrate: Your husband is deceased?
Ellen (nods)
Magistrate: My condolences, Mrs. Kauffman. How long have you known the accused, Ned Gebhardt?
Ellen: Ever since we moved to the village. That poor boy..."
Magistrate: Yes. And you believe him innocent of the crime?
Ellen: I'm not alone in that.
Magistrate (waving a hand in the air): I'm aware of the stepsister. I can understand her loyalty to the boy. But, what about you? What makes you think Gebhardt isn't a cold-hearted killer?
Ellen (raising her voice) : Because I know him. He's not the monster some would have you believe. He's a sad, gentle boy who doesn't have it in him to harm another person--especially not Susie. He loved her. He could not have done those terrible things.

Magistrate (looking stern): There's a rumor--uh. A rumor you are romantically involved with Detective Roth. Is it true?
Ellen (frowning again): I don't see what that has to do with anything. It's none of your business.
Magistrate: I'm afraid it is. For reasons I'll get to in a moment. Is the rumor true?
Ellen (blushes): We've only known one another a short time. I'll admit, we have become friends and allies in the effort to assure a fair trial for Ned.
Magistrate: Yes, that's my problem, Mrs. Kauffman. Do you think his feelings for you have influenced his position on the case?
Ellen: I do not. Simon is an honest, good man and he will put his job before personal feelings. If he finds evidence, he will present it to the court without hesitation. But, you know yourself, there are other suspects. Simon is investigating them, too, though no one else seems to care.
This is a short interview with a primary character from Something So Divine. Here's the blurb for the novel:
When a young girl is found murdered in a Pennsylvania rye field in the autumn of 1897, Ned Gebhardt, a feeble-minded youth known to have stalked the victim, is the prime suspect.

Evidence against Ned is circumstantial and there are other suspects. Influenced by the opinions of Ned’s stepsister and Ellen, a woman who has perked his interest, Simon Roth, the investigator, is inclined to give Ned benefit of the doubt. Then he discovers damaging evidence. 

Still unwilling to view Ned as a cold-blooded killer, Roth puts his job and reputation in jeopardy as he seeks to assure a fair trial for the accused.
The novel is available in both print and electronic formats from the publisher, Sunbury Press (; Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other major booksellers.
Care to read more and see reviews? Go to

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Some Recommended Women Mystery Writers

The first female detective novel was written by a man, James Redding Ware, in 1864. It was another two decades before Anna Katherine Green (I've written about her before) and some other pioneers broke the ice and women became known as both the authors and protagonists of the mystery genre.
Now in the heat of summer as some of you may be seeking books to read, I thought it might be fun to name some of my favorite women writers and what I like about them. Personally, I don't care about the gender of a writer; my only concern is the books. I read widely and these are not the only women I read, so if your favorite isn't on my list it doesn't mean I think her unworthy. Also, my list is not in order of preference, but just a random listing as I think about them.
Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine (1930-2015) is at the top of my pantheon of favorite women writers. She varies from tightly knit psychological novels to the more cozy-style Inspector Wexford series. Some favorites: A Sight For Sore Eyes, a Rendell standalone; Kissing the Gunner's Daughter (Wexford) and The Chimney Sweeper's Boy (Vine).
Patricia Highsmith, (1921-1995) the American grande dame of psychological thrillers. The Ripley books are probably the best known now and worth a read. My personal choice though would be either Strangers on a Train, her first novel, or The Cry of the Owl.
Elizabeth George, (1949-) an American who writes the Inspector Lynley series set in Britain. Lynley is an interesting character, an aristocrat who chooses to work in the sordid crime world of the police. Still, as a character, I prefer his junior officer Barbara Havers, feisty and disorderly, but dedicated to the work. As to books, you can't go wrong with the first in the series, A Great Deliverance.
Val McDermid (1955-), a Scottish crime writer with three series going--Dr. Tony Hill series, Kate Branigan series and Lindsay Gordon series. My preferred of her work, though, are two standalone novels, A Darker Domain and A Place of Execution.
Rebecca Stott (1964) has only published two crime novels to date, Ghostwalk and The Coral Thief. Ghostwalk, the only one of the two I've read so far, was shortlisted for the Jelf First Novel award and the Society of Authors first novel award. The New York Times compared her to Borge and Edgar Allan Poe, which seems right on to me.
Kate Atkinson (1951-), another Brit, who writes (among other things) the Jackson Brodie series. I've only read two of the books to date and Started Early, Took My Dog stands out as another quirky favorite for its wit, characterization and surprises.
Karin Fossum (1954), billed as the 'Norwegian Queen of Crime' makes the list for her Inspector Sejer series. Fossum, who began as a poet, has about a dozen books in the series to date. My choice, Bad Intentions.
Caroline Graham (1931-) is best known for her Chief Inspector Barnaby series (produced for TV as Midsomer Murders). She also has a quirky style that amuses me. I've liked The Ghost in the Machine and Faithful Unto Death, among others.
Sophie Hannah (1971-) is a British poet and novelist. I love her Waterhouse and Zailer series. A fav being Kind of Cruel, which will confuse and amuse you.
Laura Lippman (1959-), a Baltimore-based journalist turned novelist. Her Tess Monaghan series has been a hit since its debut in 1997. But, don't miss her standalone novels either, especially After I'm Gone and The Most Dangerous Thing.
Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958), a Pennsylvania-native, is often referred to as the "American Agatha Christie." During her long career, she penned three series, some 30-standalones, 10 short story collections and a dozen or more plays. Rather than tossing a coin to decide which to read, I'd recommend her first book, The Circular Staircase, which sold 1.25 million copies and propelled her to fame.
Finally, a writer I only recently discovered: Tana French (1973-), an Irish writer/actor whose talent blew me away when I read my first of her novels. To date I've read: Faithful Place, Broken Harbour and The Secret Place. Her novel In the Woods won an Edgar in 2008 for Best First Novel.

I could have recommended many more, but there has to be a limit in a blog. I also know this list comprises writers who have already achieved a modicum of fame. In recompense, sometime in the near future I'll compile a list of lesser-known women writers who've intrigued me.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Curiosity--it Might Have Killed The Cat, But It's Vital For Writers

It's generally agreed, when our ancestors left Africa to populate the rest of the world they were driven by concerns of  climate and population growth. I believe another reason needs to be considered--curiosity.

The innate curiosity of our species has been responsible for every advance, development, discovery you might consider. Have you heard the story about Isaac Newton poking himself in the eye with a needle? He did it as a scientific experiment. I'd say that's carrying curiosity to the extreme. Still, without curiosity, there can be no driving force.

Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous mind. Samuel Johnson

Curiosity is immensely important to writers, too. It fires our imagination, makes us ask--what if?.. Come on, admit it, you're as nosey as me. All writers eaves-drop. Well, we do, don't we? I know I've got my fill of story ideas and other useful details that way.

We have seen that central among the traits that define a creative person are two somewhat opposed tendencies: a great deal of curiosity and openness on the one hand, and an almost obsessive perseverance on the other. Both of these have to be present for a person to have fresh ideas and then to make them prevail. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity

All children come with curiosity. They want to touch, taste, smell, eat every little thing they can grab in their sticky little fingers. They're also trying to understand this world they've been born into. Asking questions: Why am I here? What am I supposed to do here? Why is that geek making faces and speaking gibberish to me?

It's all part of the learning process--the importance of which doesn't diminish with age.

For many adults, curiosity begins to dim in the wake of other, more worldly concerns. For writers, it's important for us to preserve our sense of curiosity, even enhance it if we can.
I'm not suggesting you turn yourself in a Miss Marple. But, if something sparks your interest, chase it and see where it may lead you.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Seeing for Oneself: Autopsies in the 19th Century

My topic today is a rather grim one--autopsies, particularly forensic autopsies, in the 19th century.
An autopsy occurs in my latest novel, Something So Divine, set in 1897 rural Pennsylvania. They also occur in several of my other historical mysteries, Fallen From Grace and Sooner Than Gold. So, research on the subject was vital to my stories.

Dr. Hackett, still wearing the same rumpled suit as the day before, scowled at Roth as he entered the small shed attached to the side of the hospital. As always, Roth was surprised to find the room well lit and orderly. Two corpses were laid out on kitchen tables. The windows of the room were thrown wide open, but the movement of a flow of air couldn't disguise the fact one of the subjects awaiting autopsy was fresher than the other. (from Something So Divine)

The term 'autopsy' (derived from Greek: "seeing for oneself") has been used since the 17th century, though the practice may date back to the ancient Egyptians. Great strides had been made prior to the 19th century when Rudolf Virchow, a German now known as the "father of pathology," standardized protocol and procedures.

The late 19th century and early 20th century are considered by some the Golden Age of the autopsy, primarily due to medical advances. In the 19th century, the power of the physician toward a dead body (and relatives) was enormous.

There are now two types of autopsies: clinical, which is a pathological procedure to determine cause of death and generally requires permission of a family, and forensic, which seeks answers to questions of interest to the legal system. This latter is my focus here.

As early as 1897, intent was to conduct an autopsy as soon as possible, from an hour to 10 hours after the death. This was intended, both, to preserve tissue and organs and to return the remains to the family as quickly as possible.

The prestigious New England Journal of Medicine reported in 1897 some pathologists recommended preserving soft body parts in formaldehyde so they could be presented in court where they "...would often convey much more meaning to the average jury than lengthy technical descriptions."

The journal also acknowledges that in the late 19th century autopsies were at the discretion of the medical examiner who made his decision after viewing the body and holding an inquiry. For sanitary reasons, it was recommended cadavers should be held in a location isolated from living medical patients.

Some authorities in Europe (where the greatest strides were being made) were critical of American physicians who they considered careless and indifferent to the deceased, which could lead to no autopsy being conducted or one that was less discerning.

It would be wrong to paint all physicians here with the same brush. Many were competent and thorough in their examinations, basing their work on the latest scientific knowledge. Technical innovations, such as the improvement to the microscope were a significant aid to their findings.

Unfortunately, not all autopsies were conducted in separate hospital facilities where sanitary conditions were more likely to exist. Depending on the location and what was available to the examiner, autopsies could and were performed in deplorable locations, a private house, an old shed or even barn and other places.

Generally, wherever it was to be conducted, there were recommendations for equipping the site. A sturdy kitchen table or a door set upon supports was primary as work station. The room was to be well-lighted, as large as possible and with any windows thrown wide open. Other equipment included wash buckets and pails, a plentiful supply of hot and cold water, a bottle of carbolic acid, turpentine, carbolic linseed oil and other solutions, clean rags, newspapers, sponges, soap and towels. Despite the risk, few surgeons of the time wore rubber gloves, which didn't come into general use until the 1920s.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Man Who Didn't Want to be Known.

Would you like to be recognized as a writer? Or, would you rather have your books recognized and read?

Tough choice, isn't it? It's human nature to want a pat on the back for a job well done. You've put a lot of time and sweat into writing your novel. Certainly you'd like someone to appreciate what you've achieved. Some might call it egotism, and it is. Still, that's not a totally bad thing. As long as it doesn't get out of hand, ego is important in building self-confidence--something all artists need and often lack.

On the other hand, we all want our books to be read. There's joy in walking into a library or a store and seeing your books on the shelves--especially if they're being borrowed or purchased. Isn't that a primary reason we write books, produce art or do anything creative?

We're all familiar with some writers who produce great books, whose names are recognized, yet give no or few interviews and limit marketing activities to the minimum. In our time, Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner, among others, come to mind.

How about B. Traven?

A man who said, "An author should have no other biography than his books." And, "The biography of a creative man is completely unimportant."

Traven, whose personal history raises as many questions as answers, assumed many other names in various phases of his life. There have been claims he was an American, born in Chicago, and that he was Ret Marut, German anarchist, who fled Germany for a new life in Mexico. Some speculation has Jack London and Ambrose Bierce using the Traven name as a pseudonym. There's even a rumor he was the illegitimate son of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

But none of that has to do with his success as a writer. His first writings as B. Traven appeared in 1925--a short story and a novel--published in Germany.

His best known work (though not his best) is "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which John Huston made into a film starring Humphrey Bogart. Ten of his works have been translated to the big screen, though "Treasure.." was Hollywood's lone attempt. The others were produced in Mexico and Germany.

It wasn't this book/film that made his name synonymous with good writing. That came with publication of his second novel, "The Death Ship," first published in Germany in 1926. A Spanish edition was published in 1931 and it came out a third time in English in 1934.

Since then, his books have been translated to some 40 languages, he continues to be read around the world, and new editions of his work are still being published.

Would Traven's technique of putting all attention on the book and none on himself work today?
Doubtful. Unless you're already famous or your background is so mysterious or weird as to make you a celebrity without trying.

Publishers, agents and other experts tell us we must 'brand' both ourselves and our books in order to achieve sales. There's so much good competition out there today. It's no longer a matter of do I want to market or not. Marketing is too important to ignore.

So get out there and market.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

When Words Aren't Enough

"The surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite and concrete."  (The Elements of Style  by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White)
As writers, we all want our words to be understood. The same holds true for a person speaking to another. In a face-to-face conversation, the task of achieving clarity is made a little easier by means of facial expression and gestures we understand and which convey the speaker's meaning.
"There was speech in their dumbness, language in their very gesture. The Winter's Tale, William Shakespeare.
 Those aides are missing in a phone conversation, in texting and emailing and, often, in writing and can contribute to misunderstanding.
Despite our reliance on them, words can't always express the full measure of what we mean to say. That's because there are so many nuances attached to a particular word and what we mean it to convey. This becomes even more difficult when you consider translating from one language to another.
One way to assure clarity is to bring in those expressions and gestures I mentioned above.
Here's a brief example from the master, Elmore Leonard (Road Dogs):
He watched the bank robber shrug, watched him pick up his glass and take a drink.
"You're having a good time poking around," Foley said, "trying to find out what I'm up to, aren't you?"
"I enjoy talking to you," Tico said, "one bank robber to another, uh?" and waited for Jack Foley to see he was being funny.
He did, but smiled only a moment.
And a longer one from Stephen King (The Hotel Story from On Writing):
Olin looked pained. For a moment he glanced around the small, smart lobby, as if for help. At the concierge's stand, a man was discussing theater tickets with his wife while the concierge himself watched with a small, patient smile. At the front desk, a man with the rumpled look one only got after long hours in Business Class was discussing his reservation with a woman in a smart black suit that could itself have doubled for evening wear. It was business as usual at the Hotel Dolphin. There was help for everyone except poor Olin, who had fallen into the writer's clutches.
"Olin?" Mike repeated.
No question of what's going on in either case.
And, finally, one from my own Something So Divine:
"Why were you watching out for her? Did you think someone wanted to hurt her?"
The boy shrugged his shoulders and didn't answer. He turned his gaze away.
Behind them a chair squeaked, and Roth heard the scratching of the clerk's and the reporter's pens on their notebooks.
"Ned. Ned, look at me. Somebody did hurt Susie. Was it you, Ned?"
The boy brushed a shock of hair away from his eyes and shook his head. He peered steadily at Roth. He blinked, and tears ran down his cheeks. "She was my friend. I loved Susie."
"Do you know what happened to her up in that field?"
Ned slowly shook his head from side to side.