Murder Takes a Hike

Summer is here in all but fact, the season when most people take vacations.  If you grew up in the United States, the odds are that your vacation history includes one or more of our National Parks.  That’s great! The National Park system is a great idea: beautiful spaces owned by and open to the public. The only problem, for the addicted reader, is you can’t look at the natural beauty while you’re reading a book. I mean, as much as I adore the outdoors, I start jonesing for a good story to read, even when I’m face to face with the Grand Canyon or El Capitan. Of course, the second my face turns to the book, I feel guilty about ignoring Nature.  I can’t enjoy both together.

At least I thought so until my friend, Edna, introduced me to the Anna Pigeon mystery series by Nevada Barr.  Why are those books the solution? Because Anna Pigeon is a Park Ranger and each of her adventures occurs in a National Park.   Let’s start out with the first book in the series, the award-winning Track of the Cat.  It’s set in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, a spot my folks dragged me to when I was small.  It’s a beautiful, barren, desert kind of place, full of antiquities and cactus.  That’s the world the tourists see.  To Anna Pigeon, Park Ranger and heroine of the series, the park is so much more.

Of course, she sees the land and its animals: beautiful, terrifying, vulnerable and dangerous.  She also sees the Park’s human visitors. There are the ill-prepared, day-tripping tourists and permanent neighbors who have their own agendas for Park land. Anna also sees the word of Park Service employees many of whom work for a pittance in order to keep the land and its visitors safe.  When another Ranger is found dead, it becomes Anna’s mission to bring the responsible party to justice.

Like all good literary detectives, Anna is at least as complex as the victims and perpetrators she pursues and that’s why I’m continuing with the series.  Thanks to Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta and Val McDermid’s Carol Jordan and Tony Hill, I’ve started expecting fictional detectives to fight City Hall and their own personal demons while they track down a killer.  On this score, Nevada Barr and Anna Pigeon don’t disappoint.

So, get out the map and decide which vacation spot you’ll visit this year.  Remember to pack your camera, bug repellent, and a big enough water canteen.   And, if you’re visiting a National Park, be nice to the Rangers, especially if they catch you reading an Anna Pigeon mystery. Park Rangers need fans too.

 

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The Deep End of the Deep South: The Help

 

I was 25 when I married and moved from the plains to Mississippi. It was like diving in the deep end of Southern Culture.  I traded wide, far, horizons for close, verdant landscapes; dry heat for humidity; corn for okra.  I also fell headlong, into beliefs and traditions that weren’t my own. For example, one of my first neighbors was a kind old lady, who continually delighted and frustrated me. She insisted on calling me Mrs. Golden but demanded I only use her first name. And, even though she knew more about the place where we lived, she deferred to me in every question. Now I had been raised to recognize the authority of older, more-experienced, ladies, especially when using their names, but my neighbor’s education was different.  She had been taught skin color establishes who is in charge I was fair while she was dark.  Because we’d been taught differently, my neighbor and I spent most of our afternoons trying to outdo each other in courtesy. It’s sad but our mutual efforts to show each other respect became one more wall that kept us apart.
My memories of those sweltering afternoons of frustration all came flooding back when I read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help.  Although this story takes place in the 60’s, it reminds me of the place I met 25 years later.

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The Book

Stockett’s Jackson, Mississippi is like a never-ending high school in some ways. Just like high school, the popular ones measure power by who they exclude. They create rules to undermine and isolate anyone they view as competition. Blacks were cut off from whites; singles from marrieds; boys from girls, and “well-born” people from “trash.”  Meandering through this miasma is Skeeter, a girl whose height and ambition exclude her from the group. More than anything, Skeeter wants to be a published author and, since the Civil Rights unrest is in the news, she decides to write about the least powerful groups in Jackson; the black women who work in white households.  That decision and the resulting book overturns Jackson, Mississippi and the lives of each soul in The Help.

The Help has received a lot of well-deserved praise for capturing the tenor of that tumultuous period, but it is the humanity of the characters that I like. All of the central characters of The Help are female and ensnared by the rules and expectations of their society. This trap infuriates some and enrages many, but they all suffer pressure. Because of these strictures, the women all become creatures of want, some chasing the love, and power they think will make them happy or fighting to survive. Still, The Help isn’t just about what happens to people in an awful situation.  It’s about how they survive even in the worst of times.

Of course, Southern culture has changed a great deal since the 1960’s.  It’s changed since I moved here.  But a few old discredited beliefs still hang on in some corners, breaking hearts and causing terrible damage. Until these die out completely, the South’s tragic history will remain the elephant in the room, trapping well-meaning people in the corners and blocking them from any way to move forward.

Name It and Claim It: Summer Sisters

If you went to camp as a kid, did you wonder what the counselors did in the evenings? Speaking for myself, that’s when I learned to play Name it and Claim It. Are you familiar with the game? One person sings a few lines from a song, and if you can either join in singing or identify who made the song famous, you win. Sort of. See, knowing the song was usually a sign of how old you were and, although most of the staff were all still in college, advanced age wasn’t an honor we were all that anxious to grab. I haven’t played the game in years. Yet, Name It and Claim It was the first thing that came to mind as I read Judy Blume’s Summer Sisters: A Novel.  In so many ways, it’s a Gen-Xer’s version of We Didn’t Start the Fire.


In a way, this is entirely appropriate, since Judy Blume was the writer for many Gen-X women at an early point in their lives. Her Middle Grade and Young Adult stories steered many of them through the horrible, hormonal adolescent years until they grounded safely into adulthood.  That’s no small task, and many grown women remember Blume because of the help she gave them as girls.  And memory is the central theme of Summer Sisters.


These are Victoria “Vix” Leonard’s memories of her friendship with Caitlin Somers.  At first meeting, these two girls should have little in common.  Victoria, growing up in a working-class family, is familiar with siblings and debt.  Caitlin, the only child of affluent, divorced parents, knows the joys and sorrows of travel and non-stop relocation.  What they share is a sense of loneliness that is relieved when they become friends.  The effects of that relationship change the trajectory of both their lives.
Blume tracks the changes of her characters’ young lives through the popular songs and news stories they follow, a move that first endears and then dates her story.  When  Vix says in the first chapter that she dreams of being the bewitching “Dancing Queen” when she sings along with the record, it tells us a lot, both about the story’s setting and what occupies this child’s imagination.  Unfortunately, nearly every chapter follows with some pop culture marker until the reference feels obligatory.  By the time Vix mentions the padded shoulders in her first business suit, I wanted to shout, “Yes, I get it! We’re in the 80’s!” 
Blume does a better job of capturing Martha’s Vinyard, that off-beat, island of eccentrics, hard-working islanders, summer tourists, and money.  A Summer day at the Vinyard is something to be experienced, with its ambiance of light, color, and joy and you get the suggestion of that in this fire-fly narrative, as well as how much harder life is for year-round residents.  But, what she does nail is the intensity and durability of certain adolescent friendships.  Adult friends like the people we became; first friends loved the people we were becoming.  That makes them worth remembering and writing about, for the rest of our lives.

Because Everybody Loves a Good Fight

A lot of people spent the last eight Sunday Nights watching Ryan Murphy’s TV series, Feud, and I think I know why.  First, it was a quality product: well-written, acted, edited and produced. It was also an intriguing story about well-known people in a fascinating industry.  My mom, with her collection of books on the Golden Age of Hollywood, would have raved about this series, either praising or vilifying it to High Heaven.  But, mostly I think the title explained why people tuned in Sunday after Sunday and can’t wait for the next season: everyone loves to watch a good fight, and the nastier it gets, the better.  In case you are experiencing Feud-withdrawal, and you like a battle of wits, may I suggest Literary Feuds: A Century of Celebrated Quarrels?  Trust me, when it comes to insecurity and ugly behavior in public, writers are pugilists with words.
Take one of my favorite battles in the book, the one between Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy. You could argue these two, like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, might have made better allies than enemies. As creative writers, political liberals, and women succeeding in fields still dominated by men they would have profited from mutual support.  Unfortunately, they also shared twin faults: neither responded well to criticism and both liked to get in the last verbal slam.  So, Lillian dismissed Mary’s negative review of her script by saying the opinion of a mere “Lady magazine writer” wasn’t worthy of her respect.  Now, Mary wasn’t a girl to let something like that go so when she was on TV, said Lillian, was an overrated, has-been and, “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and,’ and ‘the.’  To Lillian, whose reputation at the time was based on her memoirs, those were fighting words. Lillian sued Mary the TV show, the station, and its host for every dime they had. Never mind that, since these gals were both past their peak of popularity, no one was really listening, or that Mary didn’t have enough money to make the litigation cost-effective. Never mind that a lawsuit could (and did) ultimately cause Lillian more damage than Mary’s original, catty remark.  Ms. Hellman stuck to the fight for years, while her health and reputation sank like the Titanic. Only dying allowed her lawyers to drop the suit.  And, McCarthy complained afterward that Lillian’s death kept her from winning outright in court.  Talk about your sore winner!
There are other wonderful tales of Writers Behaving Badly, like Truman Capote’s shot across the bow to Gore Vidal (“So, how does it feel to be an enfent terrible?) and Theodore Dreiser slapping Sinclair Lewis, but I’ll leave those for you to peruse.  In the meantime, before you get into your own war of words, remember, fights are only truly fun to those outside of the line of fire.  And writers know all the mean words.

Revelations about Revolutions

For the last two years, popular culture has been increasingly influenced by the musical, Hamilton. First, at the Public, then the Richard Rodgers Theatres in New York and now on its first national tour, Hamilton has garnered more acclaim, and awards than any show in recent memory (I think the last show to pick up the Pulitzer, as well as the Tony and the Grammy for Best Musical was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying).  Nevertheless, this polished, game-changing production did not appear, full-blown overnight. Hamilton had a long, slow, evolutionary journey, and the story its creation is almost as fascinating and complex as the subject, itself. Thanks to its composer, Linn-Manuel Miranda, and columnist/critic Jeremy McCarter, we have an insight into that creative journey through the book, Hamilton, the Revolution.  Reading it doesn’t leave you thinking (ala The Grateful Dead), “What a long, strange, trip it’s been.”  It reminds us how good minds, and generous natures, can create works of genius.
Take one feature of this revolutionary musical, its employment of Hip Hop and Rap. These were chosen, not just because the composer knew and loved the mediums but because he knew they were the best modes to use for this musical.  As McCarter points out, before the American Revolution was a battle of weapons, it was a battle of words and ideas with essayists like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson leading the attack.  To recapture the feeling of those verbal Molotov Cocktails and set them to music would require a text-heavy medium, something Hamilton’s composer well understood. Add this to the edgy, street-wise intelligence omnipresent in Rap and Hip Hop, and you have a revolutionary form of music to tell a revolutionary story.  Like some genius concepts, we only see in hindsight, how obvious this is.  
However, as gifted as Mr. Miranda is, his creative partners should not be slighted.  When I first saw the images of the musical’s set, I assumed it was a “bare bones” stage. All you see, if you Google these, (Sorry, I don’t own any I can add) are roughed in brick walls, wooden catwalks, some ropes and a pair of movable staircases.  It turns out this was an intentional choice the set designer came up with through research.  He learned early colonists built their first shelters with materials and techniques borrowed from ship-building.  Consequently, the first act’s set suggests a site still underway and under construction.  By moving a few walls and removing the ropes during intermission, the second act set lets us know we’re at a New World, both bigger and a little more settled.  
The reader learns every choice in the Hamilton production was intentional, including costumes, casting, and props.  There were debates, and disagreements, and mistakes on the way as well as a ton of revision.  The personal lives of the cast and production team often align with the musical, sometimes in heartbreaking ways.  Through it all, the composer and his creative team focus on each moment of the show, making it stronger, swifter and more focused.  If nothing else, Hamilton the Revolution reminds theatre-goers that plays and musicals aren’t the static dramatic pieces we know so well.  Those are simply the final, evolutionary results.  There is a world of story and song behind each one that ended up on the cutting-room floor.
So, before you put the soundtrack of Hamilton back into rotation or start the Herculean labor necessary to get tickets, open a copy of Hamilton, the Revolution and get to know the story behind this show.  Sondheim and Lapine wrote that “Art isn’t Easy”.  This book shows that Art is still worth the work.

The Story My Mom Would Have Loved

How to talk about a story with the improbable title of The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society?  That question’s been baffling me for days.  I have to talk about it because it’s the best book I’ve picked up in recent memory, and it has not one but several stories worth telling.  I want to talk about it because it refers to may subjects I hold dear.  But, more than anything, I want to say this is one book my mom would have loved.

As a girl, my mom spent two years in England, before the Beatles but after the War.  To say those years made an impression on her is like saying the Colorado River had an effect on some of the topography in Arizona.  For the rest of her life, she maintained a lively and affectionate interest in the fortunes of Great Britain and everyone who had ever lived there.  But, even though she saw England recovering from World War II, I don’t think she knew about what happened to the Channel Islands during the conflict.  I know she never mentioned it to me.  That’s one reason why The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is so important.
We all know that the Third Reich’s armies marched west across Europe until they reached Dunkirk/Dunkerque, France.  Did you know they didn’t stop at the French edge of the Channel? Nope, neither did I. They continued their mainland invasion onto the Channel Islands which became the only British Territory occupied by the Nazis during WWII.  Once the invading force landed, all of the communication and shipping lines between the Islands and England were cut.  Islanders who evacuated their children to England didn’t know if their kids were living or dead, sometimes for years.  Between the blockade cutting off their usual supply lines, and the food and livestock commandeered by the occupying army, those who stayed had very little to eat. Germans shipped the Jewish Island dwellers to concentration camps and brought in their own prisoner/slave laborers to be worked to death there instead. Residents of Guernsey and Jersey and more had to find a way to survive five years worth of this misery. It wasn’t easy.  This book remembers part of that story.

The GL&PPPS is also about life after the war and how people learn to live with their memories. Everyone in the book has experienced loss and traumatic memories that many of them would rather forget.   Of course, such things cannot be forgotten, but some of these folks learn to work through their pain with the wisdom they accidently saw in some book.  GL&PPS is, in many ways, a love letter to the books, and readers, and writers that get us through the rough times.  Even the story behind the book is enchanting.
If you notice, the cover art in the picture above says Mary Ann Shaffer is this story’s sole author but the cover here says it was written by two people: Ms. Shaffer and one Annie Barrows.  The epilog, I’d guess you’d say, of GL&PPS, is the story of these two, and a story that was too good to die. I’m won’t tell you more, except to say the tale is good and warming enough to be included in the GL&PPS.
My mom and I didn’t agree on everything. In fact, I think we fought through my entire adolescence. I didn’t always understand her. Still, she was my first teacher and my touchstone on a great many things and that hasn’t changed in the years since her death. I know she would have loved this tale of survival and serendipity, and how books can help you during the worst of times. And she’d want everyone else in the world to read it.

Updating the voice of a Racing Thriller : A Plea to the Estate of Dick Francis

Mr. E. Williams
Johnson & Alcock Ltd.
Bloomsbury House
74-77 Great Russell Street
London, WC1B 3DA

Dear Sir:

As the literary agent for the estate of Dick Francis, you probably receive too many letters concerning his novels and I apologize for adding one more.  However, this letter is not to ask for licensing, reprinting, film or merchandising rights; nor does it demand Felix Francis be locked away until he creates six new books.  It is a request that some of Dick Francis’s thrillers be re-recorded and released as audiobooks in order to protect the stories as well as their prospective audience.
I realize book recordings were probably something of a publication afterthought when these books were originally released, and the process involved little more than recorded speech.  I know, I just spent an excruciating weekend listening to Odds Against being read like it was a shopping list.  All of the tension, terror, irony and humanity was drained from the narrative and although each character had an individual accent, they all spoke at the same rate and pitch. As a suspense novel, this recording it could have been marketed as an effective sleep-aid medication. I’m female, American, and an amateur performer but I could have done a better job reading than that!
Now, Wikipedia and Amazon/Audible’s web-sites show the same actor recorded at least seven Dick Francis novels, including the great nail-biters Enquiry and Smokescreen.  The audio samples of these sound like literary pablum. Not a bit of crisp, cool, British, reserve but boredom and distinct enunciation of every “t”.  Such recordings will not bring any new Francis readers to the fold or harvest many pounds from the older, willing fans who miss their jockey-turned-author.  For the sake of stories and the fan-base his name still commands, can new recordings of these stories be made with an actor and production team who knows their business? 
Incidentally, although Mr. Francis wrote more than 40 books, I notice a large percentage of them are not available in e-format, at least here in America.  Can that be changed?  These may be 20th-century tales but they need not be confined to that period’s technology. New fans would appreciate the convenience of e-reader formats for the old stories and older fans would appreciate the chance to carry their entire Francis collection without developing arm strain.   Trust me.  40+ books begin to add up in weight, even when half of them are paperbacks.
Thank you for your attention and time; I wish you well through the snarls of Brexit.
Sincerely,

The Mystery of the Mystery Lady

Sorry if you’ve missed updates of this blog for the past week or two.  The combination of seasonal affective depression, a back injury and poison oak knocked me out for a bit.  Hope you enjoy the return!
Civilization’s changed a lot in the last hundred years. (That’s an understatement, wouldn’t you say?) We’ve gone from flimsy, barely airborne planes to walking on the moon and probes exploring the solar system; wooden wall phones for the well-to-do to computer smartphones attached to practically everyone; tiny circles of close friends and family to global communities.  With all of that change, a lot of formerly private life have become increasingly public.  I’m not sure if Elizabeth MacKintosh would have liked the world today.  As a mystery writer, she was better than average, but the best enigma she ever created was her life.
You say you’ve never heard of Elizabeth MacKintosh?  Tell you the truth, I hadn’t much either until I ran into J. M Henderson’s Josephine Tey: A Life.  And that is the name mystery lovers recognize.  Josephine Tey, the creator of the Alan Grant mysteries and Brat Farrar.  The lady who entertained us by breaking the rules laid out by other mystery writers.  The author who included insights into girls colleges and “the life theatrical” in some of her books but never explained how she got the knowledge.  The answer is, they came from other, undisclosed parts of her life.
As Elizabeth MacKintosh, she trained at a girl’s college and taught in England until her mother’s death and her sisters’ marriages returned her to Scotland.  To Inverness, she remained ever after Miss MacKintosh, her father’s housekeeper and one of those women who lost a sweetheart in “The War.”  Under this cover, Elizabeth began to publish under the name Gordon Daviot: first stories, then plays.
In Miss Pym Disposes, the title character has accidentally become a best-selling authoress.  Gordon Daviot’s hit play, Richard of Bordeaux brought the same level of success and consternation to its author.  The money from it paid for the occasional bit independence from Scotland and her father’s home, but now Gordon Daviot was supposed to be a writer of historical plays.  So Gordon continued to write for the stage, a dozen plays over the next quarter century.  And with a new pseudonym, Josephine Tey began to publish well-known mysteries at the same time.
How compartmentalized did Elizabeth MacKintosh’s life get?  During the last year of her life, she was terribly ill but never released the news. Her death came as a shock to the celebrated actors who didn’t know “Gordon” was sick, and the Josephine Tey fans who (at least) got one more “Alan Grant” story: The Singing Sands, found in her papers and published posthumously.
Henderson’s biography helps flesh out some of the details hinted at in her subject’s work and the research adds some sorely needed context, but in the end, we only learn what Miss MacKintosh experienced during her life, not what she thought or how she felt about it.  Those impressions were not available to the public under any name.  They remain the private property of Elizabeth MacKintosh  / Gordon Daviot  / Josephine Tey.  And maybe, that’s as it should be.

Murder Amongst the Scribblers

One of the things fiction readers love is something Stephen King described as “pulling aside the curtain”.  Grisham fans get a peek at the lives of lawyers because that’s the world their author had known before he picked up a pen.  Val McDermid and Patricia Cornwell delight devotees with their stories of police and forensic detection because, as former crime journalists, they knew the turf.  But it takes someone like Josephine Tey to pull aside the curtain on that most nefarious tribe – the writers – and give readers an eyeball into the world of professional scribblers.  To Love and Be Wise may be sixty-seven years old but when it comes to describing the workings of a writer’s community, this story feels like a vat of fresh, hot, gossip.

The plot is simple: Leslie Searle, an American photographer, has gone missing.  Since Leslie Searle is a celebrated photographer, no one is surprised he was staying at Salcott St. Mary, an English-Village-turned-Artist-Colony, when he disappeared. What is striking is how this unassuming, interesting, attractive young man managed to upset every creative mind within its borders!

It isn’t enough for Toby Tullis, that imperious and pompous playwright, that the young and attractive Mr. Searle isn’t familiar with his (Toby’s) work or his house. Even worse, Searle’s not impressed when they were mentioned! Silas Weekly, that third-rate imitator of D. H. Lawrence, might loathe Searle on principle (Weekly hates anything not ugly or covered in muck) and Serge Ratoff might despise him as a “middle-west Lucifer” but even harmless, sweet, romance writer, Lavinia Fitch feels disturbed by Leslie Searle’s presence. In the middle of dictating her latest best-selling Harlequin story (Think the late Barbara Cartland) Lavinia wonders if Searle isn’t perhaps, a little mad. Still, Walter Whitmore is the writer with the “Most Likely Suspect” award. That chronicler of rural English life was the last person actually seen with Searle, seen having an argument with the photographer. Now Searle is missing, everyone has a motive, and Scotland Yard is moving in.
Alan Grant, Josephine Tey’s fictional detective, travels to this village that’s a British cross between Martha’s Vinyard and Yaddo to figure out which writer put the poison pen to Searle.  We follow Grant through his interviews and get a “behind-the-scenes” gander at the spots where writers work or malinger. It doesn’t matter that these authors are fictional characters themselves.  There’s a ring of truth in all of their scenes.
There should be.  When Josephine Tey published To Love and Be Wise, she’d been a successful author and playwright for more than two decades.  She knew the literary and theatrical worlds as well as the major players in them.  And, by all accounts, she liked to keep them at a distance.  Art, as work, needs to be taken seriously but it’s hard to look at some artists for long without laughing. Without ever giving the game away, or leaving herself open to libel, Tey makes it clear she understands this world and how silly its inhabitants can be.
So, if you are in the late dregs of winter and longing for warmth and sunlight, imagine yourself in Salcott St Mary.  Come watch the artists at play. You’ll have fun. Just stay away from the river, especially if you’ve irritated one of the locals. We wouldn’t want you to disappear.

A Tale of Two Sisters

Parents don’t tell you (even though they should) that it can be hard to grow up with a sister  It means there’s there’s always someone else around, and, whether you’re older or younger, you two are always in each other’s shadows. When the two of you are small, sisters are in-house competition for any family attention and favor. And, because a sister gets to know you well, she can figure out every last thing that annoys you. This is knowledge she uses religiously.  If someone meets your sister first, they may expect you to be a lot like her.  You’re not.  In spite of, or maybe because of their physical proximity, sisters can grow up only seeing how they’re different, believing they have nothing in common except relatives and DNA.  
Ask June Elbus in Tell the Wolves I’m Home how hard it is to have a sister in the house. At one point, Greta seemed like both a sibling and a friend, but now they fight all the time.  They can’t help it; they’re such different people. Greta is self-assured, in high school and a gifted actress.  June’s still in Junior High and shy.  There’s a lot of emotional distance between them and, square in the middle, is their Uncle Finn.
Tell the Wolves I’m Home is more than a story of sisters, it’s a tale of the recent past. Finn, as the family artist and June’s Godfather, is bent on painting a portrait of his nieces. June loves spending time with him while Greta wants to stay away.  After all, Uncle Finn is sick and everyone’s worried about the modern plague. Everyone is terrified of catching the HIV virus and the death sentence that comes with it, AIDS. Uncle Finn is dying from AIDS.  
June must sort through the unspoken lies and half-truths she and her sister were told to sort out why Finn’s picture is so important to the world.  Why her mother says Finn’s death is murder. Why a sibling can be so cruel and still understand you better than anyone in the world.

Family and love are works of delicate mystery, as complex and layered as a Bach fugue or modern art. They’re not easy to understand or dismiss.  But they are also the glue that can hold us together when everything else is falling apart. So it can be hard growing up with a sibling. It’s even harder to lose one. Tell the Wolves I’m Home shows why family is important, even at the worst of times.