Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Real Guac

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Now that it's getting to be patio weather, at least in some parts of our JRW world, it's time to think about summery foods. I know that we may be facing a shortage of avocados--and the price has definitely gone up--but I can still get a big bag at Costco for less than $6. The problem with the big bag is that they all tend to ripen at the same time. 

So what do you do? 

You make guacamole! It's fabulous. We can just eat it for a meal this time of year. Who cares about having anything else for lunch or dinner?

However, I have discovered that not everyone in non-Texas land knows how to make guacamole. And sometimes, even in Texas, people put weird things in it, so I am going to give you the low-down, absolutely classic, essential guac recipe.

Except that it's not very exact.

Use Haas avocados, the ones with the wrinkly black skins. They have the best texture and flavor.  A ripe avocado should just give a little bit under the pressure of your thumb. You don't want hard, and you definitely don't want mushy. If there are brown spots inside, throw it out. You might salvage some for avocado toast, but not in your guacamole!

Here we go!

Serves 4. Or maybe 2. Or maybe, if the cook is really greedy, 1.

2 to 3 avocados, depending on the size
Juice of at LEAST 2 limes, depending on size and juiciness
Half a red onion
Half or whole jalapeno, depending on size and your heat preference
Half a bunch of cilantro

Cut avocados in half and save the seeds. Peel and put flesh (that sounds weird, but you know what I mean) in bowl. Dice onion very fine, almost to a mince. Remove seeds and ribs from jalapeno, mince. (I wear rubber gloves for this.) Chop cilantro--I like this really fine, too. Salt everything generously--fresh ground sea salt is best. (Remember that avocado is bland by itself.) Squeeze lime juice over everything, then mash all the ingredients with a fork until you don't have any big lumps and everything is well mixed. Taste, add more lime juice and salt as needed. The flavors should really pop. This is food magic!

Put the guacamole in your serving dish and nestle one or two seeds in the dip. They help keep it from turning instantly brown.


Serve with tortilla chips, or, my personal favorite, small savory rice crackers, because the chips tend to get really salty very quickly.

Or just eat your guacamole right out of the bowl, with a spoon.

And that's it. No tomato, no garlic, no extra flavoring.

If, by some remote chance, you have guac left over, put in an airtight storage container with the seeds. I press some plastic wrap tight against the surface, too, before sealing with a lid. You will still have a thin layer of discoloration the next day (avocado oxidizes very quickly,) but it's easily scooped off with a spoon. Enjoy again!

(I read recently that to prevent browning, you should cover your dip with a thin layer of water, then pour the water off before serving the guacamole again. I tried it. Did NOT work. Watery guac had to be thrown out. Ugh.)  

And how wonderful is it that avocados are GOOD FOR YOU!

If you twist my arm, I'll give you the recipe for an authentic, absolutely essential margarita to go with your guacamole...

REDS and lovely readers, do you like guacamole? Like Mexican food? Make guacamole? And do share any cooking hacks with us! 

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Making Lemonade from Lemons

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I posted several weeks ago about the tree disaster that befell us this winter. Our neighbors cut down the huge one-hundred-year-old elm tree that completely shaded our back yard and patio in the afternoons. As I practically live outside from early spring until fall, this was a devastating blow for me. This is Texas, after all, and the back of our house faces pretty much due west--or maybe slightly south of due west, which is even worse! 

Our patio went from a shady haven to flagstone hell! But there was nothing we could do--the tree was just on the neighbors' side of the property line.

After a few miserable weeks (it took them three weeks to get the tree down, AND they had to work out of our back yard to do it) I started trying to find an upside. 

Our roses on the back fence would get lots more sun. Our grass would probably do better. Our water bills would be less (we were the ones watering that huge root system for the last twenty years, after all.) And, um...still thinking.

All possibly good things, but none of them solved the issue of the deck and especially the patio being unusable from about one o'clock in the afternoon on. 

Then, one morning as I was taking a walk, I noticed a neighbor had a shade sail over their driveway. Hmm. I started to research. I consulted the practical hubby, who said it could be done, and we plunged in. We went for the red that picked up the color in our Japanese maples (which we hope survive. They are under story trees, not meant for full afternoon sun.)

And here we are, lots of hardware, rope, ladders, and a post later, besailed!

A sail over a small part of the deck, and a bigger one over a section of the patio. We had to put in a post at the back fence to hold the third point on the patio sail, but it shades at least a section of the patio until late afternoon. (The fence point on the sail is where the tree used to be.)

My little paradise may not be quite restored, but it's certainly improved, and the sails make me smile every time I look at them. I got to plant a few of my shade-loving pots, as well.

And the sunny parts of the deck are thriving.

I may still not be a happy camper when the temps hit the upper nineties, but I'm trying to make the best of things. We have a third sail that we think we may block a little more sun from our west-facing sun porch windows, but we haven't had a chance to put it up.

So, dear REDs and readers, how have you made the best of an unpleasant or distressing situation? It does force you to be creative.

(And thanks to Jasmine and Dax for the photo-bombing:-))

Friday, May 17, 2019

Marcia Talley's Family Vault

DEBORAH CROMBIE: It is always such a treat for me to host my dear friend Marcia Talley! And I  have to admit that I've read an advanced copy of her newest Hannah Ives novel, TANGLED ROOTS, and I LOVED it. 

I've always said that reading a Hannah novel is as much fun as sitting across the table with Marcia for a nice long visit, and I love learning what leads to the plots in Marcia's books. I well remember discussing this one when it was just a gleam in Marcia's eye!

Here's Marcia to fill you in!

MARCIA: Last year about this time, after I delivered Hannah’s sixteenth adventure, Mile High Murder, to my editor, and while I awaited her feedback, I began visiting my relatives … the dead ones, that is.

My sister, Debbie, started me off on what is turning out to be an addiction by entering our family details into and sharing editorial responsibility with me, the oldest of our siblings. Just like the ads on television, a leaf pops up, you click on the leaf, head off on an adventure of discovery to a new family fact, click on another leaf and so on and so on until four hours have flown by and your husband is wondering what on earth has happened to dinner.

Fortunately, there's already a lot we know.  We had a great-great uncle on our father’s side who was deep into genealogy and wrote a book about it. Then there’s our Mormon cousin who provided a family tree that takes our family back – I kid you not – to Ragnhild “Hilda” Hrolfsdatter, born in 1836 in Maer, Norway.

Most of the Duttons came over with the Winthrop Fleet in 1630, it appears . I confirmed family legend that I'm directly related to John Hart, a signer of the Declaration of Independence through his daughter, Susanna, and to John and Priscilla Alden of Mayflower fame. But we knew all that.

Fast-forward to the secrets?  Before he married my mother-in-law, my father-in-law had been married before. Who knew? And that first cousin once removed we know never married? Well, apparently he did, during WW2, in Iowa.

It’s the deaths that fascinate me.  Sometimes their tombstones tell the tale. In November 1910, baby Robert Culver, my second cousin once removed, lived only 6 hours. His mother, Helen, died a day later.

But, the real treasure trove are the death certificates you discover online. My second great grandmother Helen Drew lost four of her children, ages 15, 17, 20 and 25 in a single year during a typhoid epidemic. I. Can’t. Even. And two of these little angels only lived into their teens, drowning two years apart in separate accidents on Lake Michigan. 

My husband’s step-grandfather, drop–dead handsome James, was caught between train cars and decapitated. 

“Papa Hise,” another relative on his mother’s side, fetched the shotgun out of the attic, killed the family dog before the horrified eyes of his daughter, Odie Grace, then shot himself in the head. It took him two days to die. Then there was the Brelsford great uncle who went West to seek his fortune. When prospecting didn't pan out, he shot his car before turning the gun on himself. Better the car then the dog, I say.  

One relative was murdered at age 21. What's that all about, I wonder?  Another, a Rebel, died of smallpox in a Yankee prisoner of war camp.  My great grandmother, Marcia Jane Drew, for whom I was named, died at age 42 in Lowell Massachusetts during dental surgery, or so my grandfather firmly believed. And yet there’s her death certificate, staring me in the face: ovarian tumor. As a cancer survivor who confidently stated “there’s no history of cancer in my family” that would have been good to know.

About that time, I needed an idea for a novel, so I figured why look any further than my own family’s deeply tangled roots? My 3rd great grandmother, Sarah Drew, died of “suicide by hanging.” Really? At age 84? 

I definitely felt a novel coming on.

My deep research for Tangled Roots began with the obvious first step: I spit into a test tube and sent it off for DNA testing.  I spent the weeks before the results came in constructing my family tree on a popular genealogy website and soon, like Hannah, found myself sucked, head-first, down a rabbit hole.  Now, nearly a year later, I’ve reconnected with a long-lost cousin (Hello, Ellen!), discovered that a first cousin in fact wasn’t, learned that identical twins don’t just run in the family, they run rampant, and visited a cemetery not far from the King Arthur Flour Company in rural Vermont where generations of my family lie buried. Some of these genealogical adventures inevitably wove themselves into the fabric of Tangled Roots.

Hannah Ives’s sister, Georgina, has some astonishing news. A DNA test has revealed she is part Native American, and Hannah’s test has similar results. The link seems to come from their late mother. But how?

As Hannah dives into constructing her family tree, she uncovers a heart-breaking love story and a mysterious death, while DNA matching turns up two second cousins, Mai and Nicholas. Hannah and her niece, Julie, are eager to embrace their new relatives and learn about their surprising ancestry, but Georgina’s husband, Scott, isn’t so keen… Are more revelations about to come to light? And can Hannah untangle her family roots to uncover the truth behind a devastating tragedy?
Tangled Roots officially releases in the U.S. on July 1.  What to do in the meantime? I have to admit that genealogy is now a passion.  After building my own family tree, I’m helping friends research theirs.  When an elderly British friend told me she knew her mother had been married before, but she didn’t know anything about the man, not even his name, I immediately volunteered to help.  Several days later, I was able to give her a photograph of his tombstone in Flanders: over 4000 young British soldiers had died in combat on that same day in 1917.

If the contents of friend and family closets ever peter out, what with the popularity of Scandinavian Noir these days, maybe I’ll start writing under a family-inspired pseudonym – Hilda Hrolfsdatter has a nice ring to it, don’t you agree?  

You can learn more about Marcia Talley and her books by going to

or follow her on Twitter at


Marcia blogs with the Femmes Fatales at

DEBS: Marcia's family is certainly more interesting than mine--at least as far as I know! REDs and readers, what skeletons have you discovered in YOUR family closets?? 

DEBS PS: Marcia's book is available for pre-order from your favorite bookseller!

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Who's the Victim?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: It’s something Dame Sue Grafton talked about all the time—how the
most neglected character in mystery novels is—the victim.

And the wonderful Dick Belsky, a reporter and editor of infinite renown who has now taken on fiction as a second brilliantly successful career—has been thinking the same thing.


By R.G. Belsky

“Everybody matters, or nobody matters.”

That’s the famous credo of Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly’s wonderful and long-running LAPD homicide detective - and it really is a noble and laudable concept.

Sadly though, it’s not always true.

Not in real life police murder investigations.

Not in the media, where I worked for many years covering murders at the New York Post, New York Daily News and NBC News.

And not even in mystery fiction, where I write a series these days about a TV journalist named Clare Carlson.

My new book BELOW THE FOLD takes a hard look at the issue of how the media covers different murders in different ways. Sure, every human life is important. But the ones we hear about on the news are often decided by a set of rules sometimes cynically referred to as the White Blonde Female Syndrome.

Sex sells. Sex, money and power. That translates into big ratings numbers, which translates into more advertising dollars. Those are the only kinds of murders worth covering, Clare - a TV news director in New York City - explains at the beginning of the book.

But sometimes a journalist’s human instincts take over and he or she ignore those rules to do what they believe is the right thing, the moral thing - instead of just going for the obvious sensationalistic news appeal.

That’s what happens in BELOW THE FOLD (a newspaper term for a story not considered big enough to make the front page headlines) when Clare begins investigating the murder of a homeless woman on the streets of New York City named Dora Gayle. Dora Gayle isn’t sexy, rich or powerful. She’s really just a “nobody” the people in the newsroom tell Clare, who question why she even cares about this seemingly un-newsworthy murder.

But Clare discovers that the homeless woman was once a beautiful, brilliant college student who dreamed of writing poetry and great literature.

She finds a haunting picture of the woman as a 22-year-old where she looks happy and full of life and still dreaming of the wonderful things she had to look forward to in the life ahead of her.

And Clare eventually finds herself identifying with Dora Gayle - not just as a news story, but as a person.

Oh, and Dora Gayle does turn out to be helluva story too.

I think this is a valuable concept for us to follow in writing mystery fiction, as well as in real life media and police coverage of murders.

Not too many mystery novels are about homeless people or people living in rundown housing projects or even ordinary people living ordinary lives which don’t seem that interesting on the face of it.

But - like Dora Gayle - everyone has a story, when you dig down deep enough to find out the facts about them.

And, to paraphrase Connelly, everyone can matter.

I learned this lesson a long time ago when I was a young journalist at the New York Post, where we had a veteran police reporter who would check out EVERY murder that moved on the police wire, no matter how unimportant it appeared.

I use a fictional version of this in my book, but I can still remember actually sitting there next to him while he would call up the cops and ask questions like: “Tell me about the body of that kid you found in the Harlem pool room - was he a MENSA candidate or what?” Or, “The woman you found dead in the alley behind the housing project - any chance she might be Julia Roberts or a member of the British Royal Family?”

I once asked him why he even bothered since these murders were never going to be anything worth covering in the newspaper.

“Hey, you never know,” he said.

In my book, I follow that advice
as I have Clare Carlson check out the homeless woman’s murder, which turns out to be linked to long-buried secrets involving rich and powerful figures - and it surprisingly explodes into a sensational headline story for Clare and the TV station.

Of course, not every murder can be covered equally in the media.

Or in mystery fiction either.

But do we sometimes focus too much on the sensational, high-profile crimes - and ignore the lost lives around us that might be just as important?

It’s a question that every reporter has to struggle with in the fast-faced media world we live in today.

What do you think?

HANK: It’s so fascinating—which victims get press attention versus the ones who don’t. Do you notice that? What do you think about that? What do you think about why?
And do you realize--it may be that "below the fold" becomes a baffling anachronism? Do you still read the paper paper? I sure do!

R. G. Belsky is an author of crime fiction and a journalist in New York City. His newest mystery , BELOW THE FOLD, is being published in May 2019 by Oceanview.
It is the second in a series featuring Clare Carlson, the news director for a New York City TV station.
The first Clare Carlson book, YESTERDAY’S NEWS, came out in 2018.
Belsky previously wrote the Gil Malloy series - THE KENNEDY CONNECTION, SHOOTING FOR THE STARS AND BLONDE ICE - about a newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News.
Belsky himself is a former managing editor at the Daily News and writes about the media from an extensive background in newspapers, magazines and TV/digital news. At the Daily News, he also held the titles of metropolitan editor and deputy national editor. Before that, he was metropolitan editor of the New York Post and news editor at Star magazine.
Belsky was most recently the managing editor for news at His previous suspense novels include PLAYING DEAD and LOVERBOY. Belsky has been nominated as a finalist for the David Award at Deadly Ink and also for the Silver Falchion at Killer Nashville, He also was a Claymore Award winner at Killer Nashville.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Anne LeClaire on the People We Thank

DEBORAH CROMBIE: We are so happy today to have Anne LeClaire, the best-selling author of The Orchid Sister, visiting us! She has a fascinating question, and I can't wait to hear everyone's responses.

ANNE LECLAIRE: Do you always read the author’s acknowledgements?  I do. I appreciate the public recognition that it actually does take a village to get a book not only written but on the shelf.

Often the author is generous and thoughtful in thanking those who have been invaluable in her research and supportive in her life.  I chose the pronoun deliberately for in my admittedly unscientific survey, it’s usually women who express their gratitude – often running on for pages as they thank their publishing team, their agents, writers’ groups, family, friends, people interviewed during the research phase or who answer those questions that pop up during the course of the writing. Doctors, scientists, law enforcement, lay people of all ilk, even friends who have offered support by watching her children, providing a hot meal or a space in which to write.

Men?  Not so much. They thank their partners and professionals who provided expertise in other fields, but I can’t remember an instance where one male author thanked someone for bringing over a casserole or taking the children off for the day while he finished the last pages of the first draft. I’m curious as to the reason for this, but that is a topic for another day.

I suppose if we really thanked all the people who mentored us along the way, offering support and help, answering the hundreds of queries, reading drafts at various stages, not to mention other authors whom have influenced us, it could prove a volume unto itself. No author works alone.

Although she has been dead for many years, I always wish I had mentioned Dot  Winski in my acknowledgements. She was the cook in a four-room school where my mother was a principal and taught first grade.  The basement cafeteria was comprised of an oven, refrigerator, and long counter which doubled as a prep area and service space where the students would grab a tray and then carry their meal back to their classroom to eat. Without question it would not be legal today. Off to the far side by the furnace was a card table and a couple of chairs where Dot, a large-bodied Polish woman, would drink coffee and smoke when she wasn’t cooking or washing dishes.

When I was on vacation (I had a different school schedule than my mother had) I would spend hours in the basement with Dot. She was a high school graduate, a passionate reader and a born story-teller which was what drew me to her at first. It was also what made me trust her enough to confide in her that I wrote short stories, ones I showed to no one.  She wanted me to read them to her and when I did, she always responded enthusiastically, encouraging me to write more. 

I went off to college in Ohio and my mother moved to another position in another state and I lost touch with Dot. But when I think of early influences, people who believed in me and gave me permission to follow my dream of becoming a writer, I think of her. I regret I never told her that.

Who do you acknowledge? Was there a Dot Winki in your life? 

DEBS: Yes, I do always read author's acknowledgements, but it had never occurred to me that women tend to thank a village. Now I'm going to be looking at every book I read by a male author! As for a Dot Winki, mine would be my grandmother, who not only taught me to read but to love reading, and who encouraged all my aspirations. And I'd add Miss Schwann, my teacher in both third and sixth grade, who shared her enthusiasm for learning.

How about you, REDs and readers? 

The Orchid Sister: Set on Cape Cod and the myth-shrouded Yucatan coast of Mexico, the novel is “full of sisterly love and the power of women.” Two sisters – Kat, who is fighting the idea of aging and Maddie, who is afraid to love  – are caught up in the dangerous obsession of a fanatical doctor in a clinic deep in the Mayan jungle. 

Anne LeClaire is the author of ten best-selling novels, an award-winning memoir, Listening Below the Noise, and a children’s book, Kaylee Finds a Friend.
She teaches workshops both nationally and internationally on writing as well as on the practice of silence. Anne lives on Cape Cod.