Monday, January 20, 2020

Sticky words - What Hallie's Writing

HALLIE EPHRON: Once again, it's WHAT WE'RE WRITING WEEK on Jungle Red. I'm not sure that you'd call what keeps me busy right now writing. A whole lot of idea scribbling, blogging, and noodling about in my head.

Kasey Goodwin - Pauls Valley Noodling Tournament
Kasey Goodwin
Paul's Valley
Noodling Tournament
And because I'm barely writing full sentences, never mind paragraphs or chapters, I'm going to focus on words. Expressions. "Noodling about," for instance. I have no idea where I got that expression (apparently it's also a slang expression referring to the catching of catfish), but these days I'm finding a lot of my words and expressions are creeping in from other media.

My friend and Clever Girl Organizer Kathy Vines uses a word sticky to express the way things like words can, well, stick. 

I've always been susceptible. Years ago, my husband I saw a
dubbed-in-Italian SHREK on television in a hotel in Italy, and ever since we've referred to one or the other of our daughters as the Principessa. (Pronounced: Prin-chee-PAY-sa). When I've got too many clothes to pack, I'm likely to say, "We’re going to need a bigger boat." (JAWS) "Sometimes the spaghetti likes to be alone" (BIG NIGHT) has a million uses.

My vocabulary has taken a decidedly British turn when I adopted. "I could use a bit of Wensleydale" from WALLACE AND GROMMIT. "Don't Panic" (said with eyes rolling and arms waving about) from CHICKEN RUN. And the simple "Thanks, Luv" from VERA.

Lately I've been watching THE GREAT BRITISH BAKING SHOW (I am not a baker but I find it mesmerizing... even the
episodes I've already seen) and I find myself adopting a whole new vocabulary. Who knew biscuits are cookies (I'm sure Debs and Rhys did). That a British pudding isn't gooey and creamy unless it's undercooked. I'm dying to know what royal icing or creme pat or fondant tastes like.More than that, the baking show has larded my language with all sorts of new expressions. I find myself:
  • Complaining about having to do detail work with lots of fiddly bits
  • Being chuffed for some kind words from a reader
  • Finding the chocolates I made for Christmas scrummy
  • Encouraging my husband to crack on
  • And hoping that a bit of writing I've done ticks all the boxes.
I do have to be careful not to allow all of this run off to flow into my writing, since this is not the way my characters talk. 

What expressions have stuck to you from the TV shows and movies and social media you're imbibing?

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Jungle Reds' Discussion Questions for Book Groups

HALLIE EPHRON: Whenever I finish a reading a book, I find myself desperate to talk about it with someone else who’s read it. For those of us in a book group or book club, we’re fortunate to have a go-to source of like-minded readers to talk about the books we loved… or hated… or simply stirred us up and got us thinking.

From an author’s point of view, we’re thrilled when a book group decides to read one of our books. We’re often asked for discussion questions, so today we’re offering a list of questions for each of our latest books. And inviting you, please, at the end, to share your own experiences in a book group and what kind of questions you’ve found generate the most interesting discussions when your book picks a mystery novel. 

LUCY BURDETTE: In my ninth Key West food critic mystery, A DEADLY FEAST, food critic Hayley Snow is set to be married to her heartthrob detective Nathan Bransford. But she has a lot of worries because Nathan’s been married before and both sets of parents were married and then divorced. So she canvasses her friends and family about their experiences with marriage. I’m hoping this book might make for a good book club discussion!

1. What’s your theory about what makes for a good marriage?
2. Does it seem to you that Nathan and Hayley are a good match? Why or why not?
3. When you’re reading about a fictional wedding, how much do you like to hear about wedding plans and details?
4. What are your favorite examples of fictional weddings, either books or movies? Explain why you chose them.
And for some non-wedding questions:
5. Have you ever gone on a food tour? If so where? If not yet, what place would you love to eat your way around?
6. Martha Hubbard talks about chefs feeling possessive about the recipes they make and serve—they don’t want diners making substitutions. How do you feel about that?
7. How do you feel about Hayley’s relationship with her mother? And compare this to her relationship with Miss Gloria and Allison, her stepmother.
8. Hayley’s boss Palamina says she never understood why Hayley was living with a senior citizen, until she met Miss Gloria. How do you feel about this character? Does she accurately reflect seniors?

If you'd like to invite Lucy to speak to you group, contact her at RAISLEIB "at" GMAIL DOT COM.

If not, get some wine and go into the other room and finish the book! Everyone else...

1. How did you feel about the ending?
2. When you started the book, how did you feel about Rachel and Jack’s marriage? The dynamics of their relationship? What was the balance of power in that relationship?
3. How do you feel about lawyers and what they do? If you’re a lawyer, what parts of the book capture a legal reality for you? If you’re not a lawyer, which lawyer in the obok did you like the most? DId that change as the book progressed?
4. How do you think women’s issues--sisterhood, support, mentoring--change professional relationships? How did Martha use hat? How did Rachel use that? How did Clea use that?
5. We are never in the point of view of the reporter Clea, but we hear her described-very differently by the three characters who deal with her. How do Jack, Martha and Rachel think of the journalist--and what do you think about how different those descriptions of her are?
6. Have you ever been so madly in love with someone that you would do anything to “get” them? Which characters in the book are obsessed with someone?
7. We think about unreliable narrators--but aren’t we all unreliable? Because we’re describing the world the way WE see it? Or the way we want it? And lawyers, especially, have to be able to argue both sides of any story. How does that prism change how you understood the book?
8. Have you ever been on a jury? What did you think about what happened in the deliberation room? If you’re called to jury duty in the future--will this realistic portrayal change how you think about the jury system?
9. If you were a lawyer, would you want to be a prosecutor? Or a defense attorney? Why?
10. The title THE MURDER LIST has at least three meanings--maybe more. What did you think it meant when the book began--and what did you think at the end? 

To request Hank for an event or speaking engagement, please contact 

RHYS BOWEN: These discussion questions for my new book, Above the Bay Of Angels, that will be published on February 11. Maybe you can think about the questions when you read it. 

Above the Bay of Angels is a story of a young girl, cheated out of the life she expected but able to shine when she becomes a cook for Queen Victoria and experiences the delights of French cuisine when the queen goes to Nice. 

1. Do you think Bella made a wise choice when she acted on the letter she found?
2. One of the themes of this book is the British class system. Do you think it right that Bella remains a snob?
3. Food plays a big part in this book. What does Bella learn about food as the story progresses.
4. The journey to Nice opens up a whole new world to Bella. Why do you think she is able to appreciate it more than her fellow cooks?
5. Discuss Bella’s relationship with her sister
6. The story in Nice has its basis in real history. Did the plots and intrigue enhance the story for you?
7. In what ways is this a mystery rather than a simple historical novel?
8. Which character did you dislike most? (There were several really objectionable ones, weren’t there?)
9. What was your impression of Queen Victoria from this story? Did it agree with what you already knew about her?
10. Did you agree with the ending? Were you surprised? Did she make the right choice?

If you would like your bookclub to Skype with Rhys do contact her at and visit her website for updates.


1.Do you think the portrayal of Viv’s experience in the kitchen at O’Reilly’s was realistic? What special challenges do women chefs face in the kitchen?
2.Why do you think Viv cut off all contact with Fergus? How might things have turned out differently if she had not?
3.How do the events of the book change Viv’s relationship with her own kitchen staff?
4.Why did Melody withhold the truth about her family and their circumstances from Andy?
5.Do you feel that Melody’s relationship with Andy can be repaired? How might it be different?
6.What qualities does Kit have that are consequential to the resolution of the story and Grace’s safe return?
7.Do you feel that Melody’s relationship with her parents, and in particular, her mother, has changed by the novel’s end?
8.How does Duncan’s injury affect his handling of the case?
9.Why does Duncan feel driven to learn what happened to Nell Greene?
10. Are there any commonalities in the revelations experienced by the major characters? If so, what are they?

To arrange an author appearance, Deborah's publicist at Harper Collins:


Interestingly enough, I have to write reader’s questions for my July book PARIS IS ALWAYS A GOOD IDEA this week. It’s a new genre for me, single title romantic comedy, but I’m having a lot of fun with discussion possibilities. Here’s my starting place, we’ll see which of these make it into the back of the book!

1. What event causes Chelsea to reconsider the path her life is presently on?
2. Do you think revisiting her past will help Chelsea to move forward with her future?
3. What is Chelsea looking for? What does she hope to find in revisiting her post college gap year?
4. Which of the three loves of her postcollege gap your is your favorite? Why?
5. When does Chelsea start to see her work rival, Jason Knightley, in a different light?
6. What happened that kept Chelsea from moving forward with her life? Why?
7. How does grief play a role in both Chelsea and Jason’s lives?
8. How does Chelsea’s relationship with her family change during the course of the book?
9. What does Chelsea learn about revisiting her past? Why couldn’t she be the girl she once was again?
10. What does Chelsea learn about herself during her trip? How is she different at the end of the novel from who she was at the beginning?

To contact Jenn, reach out to publicist Brittanie Black, PRH Publicity: 

HALLIE EPHRON: Careful What You WIsh For

1.There are three couples in the book (Emily and Frank, Ruth and “Murph,” and Quinn and Wally.) How is “stuff” a dynamic in each of their marriages?
2.How did Emily and Frank’s fertility problems affect their relationship? How has it affected Emily’s relationship with Becca?
3. What is Emily’s relationship with her mother? How are they alike; how are they different?
4. At the end of the novel, why do you think Emily goes with Frank to the storage unit?
5. Do you think Frank got what he deserved in the end?
6. What do you collect, and what does it say about you?
7. Have you known a hoarder? What skills do you think a professional organizer needs to help someone like that? 
8. Do you think Emily and Becca made any decisions that a more experienced professional might not have made?
9. What do you think the title CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR refers to?
10. The author has said that one of the inspirations for this book was the Patricia Highsmith novel, Strangers on a Train. Can you see the similarities and differences?

If you would like your bookclub to Skype with Hallie, please contact her at Hallie "at"; check her website for her events.

Now we'd love to hear about your experiences in a book discussion group. We'd love to hear all about it... 

What are the books that were particularly interesting or difficult to discuss? And what kind of questions you’ve found generate the most interesting discussions when your book picks a mystery novel. 

Saturday, January 18, 2020


HALLIE EPHRON: As everyone who follows us knows, I have a thing about the small matter of saving our planet. About conserving, cutting down on waste and recycling, and trying to ensure quality of life for our grands and great grands, along with the flora and fauna with whom they'll share the earth.

Today I’m welcoming a kindred spirit who is much more informed and much more emphatic than I. Kyla Bennett is a PhD ecologist and an environmental lawyer working for a Washington DC based environmental whistleblower non-profit organization. A lifelong environmentalist (and vegan), she's trying to save the world.

I’m thrilled that she’s give me the okay to share her advice. Some of it’s easy-peasy and you're probably already doing it. Some of it’s a stretch.

Hang onto your hats because what you're about to read may feel a bit stronger what you’re used to finding  on Jungle Red. Think of it as bracing. And literally, food for thought.

Kyla has promised to drop
by today to field questions and comments, so please add on and share your thoughts!

KYLA BENNETT: It's that time of year where I get on my soapbox and tell you what YOU can do to save the earth.

Guys, it's 2020. We have tipped over the precipice and we may not be able to save ourselves. But we have to try, right? So here are the top 10 things you can do to help. Because if you're not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

Yes, I KNOW we have to hold fossil fuel and chemical companies and plastics industries and the government accountable, but that doesn't mean we are helpless. EVERYONE HAS TO DO SOMETHING. Don't you have children, grandkids, people you love? Australia is on fire. The earth is literally burning. We are destroying our planet, and we have to stop. Failure is not an option.

Okay, here goes.

1) Go vegan. Seriously. Or at least cut down substantially on meat, fish, poultry and dairy. It's not hard, it's better for your health, the planet, and it's humane. And it’s too late for snarky comment about how they can't give up their bacon, or how plants have feelings too, or how veganism is harder on the environment than meat. We have to make some concessions here if we want to save the planet. (Plus, have you SEEN any of the footage coming out of some of those slaughter houses??? Have you no compassion???)

I urge you to watch Forks Over Knives, or if you're an athlete,
Game Changers. Make it a resolution, and do it soon, because I think Forks Over Knives is getting taken off of Netflix soon. And yes, I know, small family farms are better than the big industrial farms, but many people buy from those small family farms?

How about this: if you're going to eat eggs or drink milk or eat meat, buy it from a small family farm. Otherwise, just don't.

Stop using pesticides. It's 2020. There is an insect apocalypse, and we NEED insects to survive. I live in Ground Zero for EEE (eastern equine encephalitis) and WNV (West Nile virus), and we don't use pesticides. I use Repel's Lemon Eucalyptus spray on us, and it works, and it's not bad for the environment, and it doesn't have PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) Yes, many pesticides have PFAS. Stop killing the bees. Stop spraying carcinogens that destroys the brains of children.

Just. Stop.

3) Minimize/eliminate plastic. There is too much plastic. Microplastics are everywhere, in the ocean, in our water, in our food. It's dangerous. It's killing marine mammals and sea turtles and birds and mammals. It's killing us.

Here are some of the things I've done: switched to
Little Seed Farm
deodorant, which comes in a glass jar. It works. Switched to Viva Doria toothpaste, which comes in a glass jar. I use Etee's concentrated dishwashing liquid, which comes in a biodegradable pod. I bought some glass pump jars, and I reconstitute it in that. I've gone back to bar soap (added bonus: no palm oil, which is killing orangutans). I like Kirk's and Meliora soap. Speaking of Meliora, they have a great laundry powder in a cardboard container - no plastic. And a cleaning scrub. I clean with vinegar and essential oils.

Try to avoid plastic wrapped fruits and veggies. I bring
mesh bags
to the grocery store for my produce and my bulk foods. I buy bulk organic oats, and put them in glass jars (I like Anchor Hocking from Target, because there is NO plastic!). Buy from your local farm when you can, and bring your own reusable bags.

Bring your own
mug to the coffee place (I like Stojo, because it collapses down to nothing). I even make my own granola, because I can't get a straight answer out of the cereal companies as to whether their plastic inserts have PFAS. And as you all know, I have gone down the PFAS rabbit hole. Speaking of which...

4) PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). Get rid of your Teflon/non-stick pans. No, NONE of the so-called "green" non-stick pans are safe. Get cast iron and season it well. Or get stainless steel if you are okay with using oil. Get rid of your waterproofing crap, check with companies to see if they use ANY PFAS when buying rain gear, shoes, carpets, car seats, makeup, etc. Use a brand of dental floss that doesn't use PFAS, like Desert Essence. Use the PFAS free ski wax, and furniture polish. I use Kenetrek for waterproofing, and all natural furniture polish for my wood furniture.

GET A FILTER. We are all contaminated, and this is all about minimizing risk.

Avoid plastic. A ton of it has PFAS in it. Home Depot and Lowe's have allegedly banned all PFAS from their carpets as of now, but check. Don't buy biosolid fertilizer. Avoid the "flame retardant" clothes and fabrics. It all has PFAS.

Look, this isn't just about YOUR health. Whenever YOU use a Teflon pan, and wash it, that plastic goes down the drain and ends up in MY water. You're contaminating everyone. Just stop.

Read labels and buy wisely. Did you ever notice how many things have palm oil? We have to stop. Email companies and tell them to remove it. We are destroying rain forests, which are the lungs of the earth. We are killing orangutans. We just have to stop. Even sustainable palm oil. We don't need it, and it's not healthy. I even gave up my beloved Dr. Bronner's soap because of palm oil.

6) Cut down on flying. Yeah, I know. But really... try. 

7) And cut down on driving, if you can.

8) Go solar. Yes it works. We generate 118% of what we need, and sell the rest to the grid. If you live in an apartment or condo or you can't afford to buy solar panels, switch to green energy with your electric company.

Turn off your friggin' lights and stop wasting water. Why do you leave your porch lights on all night? Turn off lights when you leave the room. Make sure you have energy efficient bulbs. Stop watering your lawn. Really? Just stop. Oh, and hang dry your clothes. I got a great drying rack from Lehman's. Dryers use a ton of electricity.

9) Avoid chemicals. Did you know there are 80,000 chemicals on the US market, and EPA has banned only 9? Yeah. Well, that doesn't mean that only 9 are dangerous.

10) Teach children about nature, and wildlife, ecology, and biology. If they don't spend time outside, if they don't understand how we're all connected, and how vulnerable humans are as animals, we are doomed. Teach them to love and appreciate wildness and other species. Teach them empathy and compassion and curiosity.

"In wildness is the preservation of the world." - Henry David Thoreau.

Okay, I'm done. Thanks for reading. Never underestimate our power. We can change things if we all act together. We cannot afford to wait any longer. Do something. And #vote.

HALLIE:  What did I tell you? Bracing, right?

I’ll be switching to green energy with my electric company. And changing my toothpaste. I stopped buying plastic wrap and tin foil and I try not to use plastic bags or paper towels. I don't water my lawn. I'm switching to Kyla's toothpaste and dental floss. Never owned teflon pans so that's easy. And all our carpets were made before PFAS were invented. And...

Baby steps, I know. But if we all do it, it makes a difference. (Remember when dog poo was everywhere and airplanes had no smoking sections?)
What have you done in 2019 and what will you be trying to do in 2020 save the planet?

Friday, January 17, 2020

Music as grace notes in James Ziskin's Ellie Stone novels

HALLIE EPHRON: When I first heard about James Ziskin's Ellie Stone novels, he had a new one out which was set in Hollywood in the 1960s, I knew I had to meet him. I grew up in Hollywood in the 60's and I'd set my latest novel there, too. He was getting an amazing reception to the series--his books have won the Anthony and Macavity awards, and been finalists for Lefty, Edgar, and Barry Awards. Not too shabby! I just finished reading the latest, TURN TO STONE (launching June 21) and it's simply terrific.

So I'm delighted to welcome him to Jungle Red, and have him weigh in on music, and the role it plays in the Ellie Stone novels.

JAMES ZISKIN: I write a series of traditional mysteries set in the early 1960s, featuring plucky young newspaper reporter Ellie Stone. Since the first book, music has played a supporting role in all the stories. Not necessarily front and center, but important just the same. Whether it’s a clue tied to some classical records maliciously shattered in STYX & STONE, or simply Ellie’s uncanny ability to name a piece of music at the drop of a needle, you’ll always find music in an Ellie Stone mystery. It’s no different in the seventh installment, TURN TO STONE, coming out January 21, 2020.
Ellie moves around quite a bit. That’s because she’s living and working in an upstate New York mill town and I wanted to avoid Cabot Cove syndrome. You know, that disorder characterized by too many murders in a small village? Ellie has solved crimes in her adopted upstate home of New Holland, New York City, the Adirondacks, Los Angeles, Saratoga Springs, and now—in TURN TO STONE—Florence, Italy.

It’s September 1963. Ellie is in Florence to attend an academic symposium honoring her late father. Just as she arrives on the banks of the Arno, however, she learns that her host, Professor Alberto Bondinelli, has drown in the river under suspicious circumstances. Then a suspected rubella outbreak leaves Ellie and nine of the symposium participants quarantined in villa outside the city with little to do but tell stories to entertain themselves. Making the best of their confinement, the men and women spin tales and gorge themselves on fine Tuscan food and wine until the quarantine can be lifted. And as they do, long-buried secrets about Bondinelli rise to the surface, and Ellie must figure out if one or more of her companions is capable of murder.

That’s the setup. But what about the music? I’m just getting to that. Since Ellie is in Italy, there’s bound to be Italian music. Let’s take the pieces mentioned in the book in order.

1. Ellie writes in her preamble to the story that Neil Sedaka, Paul Anka, Andy Williams, and Petula Clark all had hits in Italy in 1963. And they sang those songs in Italian. 

2. The first song that appears in the book is an anti-fascist anthem of sorts, “Bella ciao!” The song has its roots in the nineteenth century as a folk song, but was adopted and adapted during the Second World War by the partisans and the anti-fascist resistance that sprang up in 1943-44. It’s a catchy tune and an enduring song of protest and rebellion. Have a listen.

Here are the words to the first stanza and refrain:

Una mattina mi son alzato,
o bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao!
Una mattina mi son alzato
e ho trovato l'invasor.

O partigiano portami via,
o bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao
o partigiano portami via
che mi sento di morir.

One morning I awakened,
oh bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao!
One morning I awakened
And I found the invader.

Oh partisan carry me away,
oh bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao
oh partisan carry me away
Because I feel death approaching
3. “Volare.” Lucio Bevilacqua is the adorable Marxist, one of the ten academics trapped by the quarantine. And he’s the one who plays the guitar. Not many complete songs, mind you, as he never seems satisfied with the tuning of his strings. After he plays “Bella ciao,” which is not well received by those with different political persuasions, Lucio tries to lower the political tensions by playing “Volare.” Everyone groans at the overplayed hit, and Lucio abandons the song halfway through.

4. Throughout the book, Lucio spends a lot of time flirting good-naturedly with Ellie. His courting usually takes the form of a theatrical serenade on bended knee. And the love ballades are always taken from Italian pop songs of the era.

“Eri un’abitudine, dolcissima abitudine, che vorrei reprendere per sognar” (This is the Italian version of “Can’t Get Used to Losing You.”)

“Mi sono inamorato di te” (I’ve fallen in love with you.)

“La ragazza del mio cuore sei” (The girl of my heart is you.)

“Non dimenticar che t’ho voluto tanto bene” (Don’t forget that I loved you so.) This is the Italian version of a song made famous by Nat King Cole.

5. When the quarantined residents tell their stories for entertainment, Lucio is there to accompany them on his guitar. For the tale about a Jew who considers—then rejects—converting to Christianity, Lucio spontaneously strums a tune that Ellie recognizes as part of the third movement of Mahler’s first symphony, the “Titan.” It’s a distinctly Jewish theme, a jaunty bit that makes you want to dance. For the first time, she’s impressed by his considerable talent and wit.

6. Professor Bondinelli’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Mariangela, arrives at the villa from her school in England, and Ellie takes her under her wing. The two discuss photography, the losses of their fathers, and music. Now, this is late September 1963, and Mariangela—like many girls her age in the UK—is crazy about the Beatles. Of course they Beatles were virtually unknown in the US until a couple of months later.

Mariangela and Ellie manage to scare up a portable record player at the villa, and the girl treats Ellie to her favorite three songs in the world: “Ask Me Why,” “Please Please Me,” and “She Loves You.” With the pure, unbridled enthusiasm of youth, Mariangela plays the songs over and over, and Ellie indulges her her passion, especially in light of the recent loss of her father.

Why do I include so much music in my books? I’ll answer that with the very same Shakespeare quote that Ellie butchers above. He said it better than I could ever hope to.

“The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.”
(The Merchant of Venice, 5.1.91-7)

TURN TO STONE launches January 21, 2020. Available in bookstores, libraries, and popular online portals.

Barnes & Noble

James W. Ziskin, Jim to his friends, is the author of the seven Ellie Stone mysteries. His books have been finalists for the Edgar, Anthony, Barry, Lefty, and Macavity awards. His fourth book, Heart of Stone, won the 2017 Anthony for Best Paperback Original and the 2017 Macavity (Sue Feder Memorial) award for Best Historical Mystery. He’s published short stories in various anthologies and in The Strand Magazine. Before he turned to writing, he worked in New York as a photo-news producer and writer, and then as director of NYU’s Casa Italiana. He spent fifteen years in the Hollywood postproduction industry, running large international operations in the subtitling and visual effects fields. His international experience includes two years working and studying in France, extensive time in Italy, and more than three years in India. He speaks Italian and French. Jim can be reached through his website or on Twitter @jameswziskin.

HALLIE: What Jim didn't talk about is ITALY! Turn To Stone is nearly as much fun as taking the trip to Florence yourself. But since he's talking about music, my mind wanders to the authors for whom music is a central part of their stories. And of course Deborah Crombie, for sure. And Ian Rankin. And of course Colin Dexter's opera-loving Inspector Morse.

And I want to hear about his years in Italy, because it's so clear that his view of it (not to mention his accent) belies an insider's perspective.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Monastery turned prison camp in James L. May's debut THE BODY OUTSIDE THE KREMLIN

HALLIE EPHRON: James L. May's THE BODY OUTSIDE THE KREMLIN debut novel is a historical mystery set in the same era (1920s) as Jess Montgomery's THE HOLLOWS but in a very different place--a notorious Russian prison camp based in a gloomy monastery that housed priceless icons. Amazing setting, right? James is here to talk about why he set his novel there.

JAMES L. MAY: The Solovetsky Archipelago was a strange place for the Bolsheviks to set up the first camp in what would become the Gulag, the secret-police-run prison system in which millions of citizens of the Soviet Union were imprisoned and worked to death. Strange, but maybe inevitable too.

Before Solovetsky was a prison, you see, it was the site of one of the most important monasteries in the Russian north. Located in the White Sea, almost on the Arctic Circle, by the time the camp was established in the 1920s, the place had been occupied by monks for almost 500 years.

When the Communist and anti-religious Bolsheviks seized power, they took the monastery over as part of the general expropriation of the property of the Orthodox Church. With repression being a major part of their political program from the beginning, they needed somewhere to send dissidents: members of competing socialist parties, untrusted intellectuals, Ukrainian nationalists, remaining White Army officers, and whoever else got on the wrong side of the regime. You could be imprisoned for any reason, or no reason at all.

What always surprises me about this is just how easily the monastery’s piety and serenity were translated into the prison camp’s starvation and suffering. Partly this was a matter of its filling practical needs: Solovetsky was remote, it was isolated, and the monks had already built much of the infrastructure that would be needed for a self-sufficient labor camp of the kind the Party had in mind. The Bolsheviks were never hesitant about exploiting this kind of efficiency.
But the two institutions also had more in common symbolically than you might think. Russian monasticism, like most Christian monasticism, has always had strong threads of withdrawal from the world and self-abnegation running through it. The Kievan Crypt Monastery, probably the most famous monastery in Russian Orthodoxy, was founded when Saint Antonius couldn’t find a place that would suit his worship in the city; instead he went into the wilderness and dug himself a hole to live in. (In time it was expanded into an elaborate system of crypts by his followers, then a huge cathedral and monastery complex.) Here’s the description of his daily life given in the medieval Russian Primary Chronicle: “Thus he took up his abode there, praying to God, eating dry bread all the day long, drinking little water, and digging the crypt. He gave himself rest neither day nor night, but endured in his labors, in vigil, and in prayer.” Minus the prayer, it sounds like a prisoner’s routine, doesn’t it? Bread, water, and hard work. The monks on Solovetsky didn’t dig crypts, but many of the most devout did go out to live in the islands’ forests as hermits, with little food and no comforts.

The Solovetsky camp’s treatment of its prisoners was like a dark mirror held up to these monks’ self-imposed strictures. Where the monks had fasted, prisoners starved. Where the monks’ days had been ordered by the liturgy, prisoners’ were ordered by the steam-whistle
sending them to work or calling them back for curfew. Solzhenitsyn, who devotes a chapter to Solovetsky in his classic Gulag Archipelago, was struck by the fact that supply issues at the camp were so bad that some prisoners were issued sacks as clothing. How can that not bring to mind the sack-cloth shirt a monk might have worn a hundred years earlier to mortify his flesh and demonstrate his repentance?

There’s no evidence that the people who organized the Solovetsky camp had these parallels in mind explicitly. But I do think they show that Russian Communism inherited more from Russian Orthodoxy than its adherents would have been comfortable admitting. The common idea is that human beings, by being removed from the world and denied normal human needs, can be transformed into something beyond human.

For the monks, that something was a more spiritual, more Christlike being. For the Bolsheviks, it was a creature that could be completely dominated and used up by the State. There’s certainly no moral equivalence between those two things! And I don’t want to suggest that Orthodox monasticism was to blame for Soviet repression. But viewed from a certain angle, the resemblance is there.

(I should note that it was never just Russians that had the idea that prisons effectively remove prisoners from the human world. The word “penitentiary” came into use in the US in the 19th century, as people began to think of prisoners as “penitents” – in other words, as people who withdrew to repent their sins and improve their souls, just like monks. And that way of thinking has had some bad results here too. Maybe it’s no wonder that the US incarceration rate is sometimes compared to that of the Gulag in its worst years – though our prisons are nowhere near as deadly.)

Of course monks rarely ever succeed at being as pure and unworldly as they are supposed to be. Monastery-set mysteries, like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose or Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael novels, have always been favorites of mine in part for the ways that they show people in cloistered life to be as human as the rest of us, just as capable as we are of greed, or pride, or love. (Mysteries are especially good at showing this, since the detective is always trying to discover the motives that people would rather keep hidden.)

One of the reasons I wrote The Body Outside the Kremlin was to do the same thing for the prisoners of Solovetsky. Subject to a regime that aimed to dehumanize, they deserved to have the human details of their lives in the camp imagined and investigated as fully as I could manage in fiction.
I’m curious to know whether this way of thinking resonates with Jungle Reds readers. Do you have favorite mysteries that bring people who have been placed “outside the bounds” of humanity back inside? Any good ones to recommend, whether set in monasteries, prisons, or elsewhere?

HALLIE: Hmmm, mysteries set in monasteries or prisons, places that sequester their inhabitants. Of course, Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile come immediately to mind. Kiss of the Spiderwoman. Surely there are great mysteries set in convents. And maybe we can count the many crime novels in the rarified atmosphere of Oxford or Cambridge. Maybe even Hogwarts.

What else comes to mind?

And I'd certainly like to hear about the research James did in order to write his novel. What is the Solevetsky camp now?