Friday, October 31, 2014

Mary Roberts Reinhart, America's Agatha Christie

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING:  We've been talking with some wonderful contemporary writers this week, but I think Hallowe'en deserves a special guest: one of the writers who helped create and popularize the mystery genre in this country. Mary Roberts Rinehart was called "the American Agatha Christie" - though, since Rinehart's first mystery was published fourteen years before THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES. With that in mind, here's an essay I wrote a few years ago while summering (ie, away for the weekend) in Maine's famous summer destination, Bar Harbor.

I’m writing this in Bar Harbor, on Mount Desert Island, one of the spots that has defined “summering in Maine” for more than a century. I have a spectacular view of Frenchman’s Bay, with the sun rising over the islands, courtesy of my perch high on a hilltop at the aptly named Wonder View Motel. I’m not the first mystery writer to have enjoyed this lofty perch view, however. The motel is built on the former summer estate of Mary Roberts Rinehart, the writer known as the American Agatha Christie. 

Rinehart was born in Pittsburgh in 1876. She trained as a nurse and married Dr. Stanley Marshall Rinehart after graduation. She showed an early interest in writing, publishing several short stories in her teens, but she might have had a conventional life as a wife and mother if the Rinehart family hadn’t lost most of their savings in the stock market crash of 1903. 

Necessity being the mother of invention, Rinehart took to the typewriter. She published forty-five short stories before her first mystery, The Circular Staircase, came out in 1907. The book was an enormous success, selling more than a million and a half copies, and is credited with originating the “Had-I-But-Known” story, described as “one where the principal character (frequently female) does things in connection with a crime that have the effect of prolonging the action of the novel.”

Her prodigious output of short stories, plays and novels included The Door, which introduced the phrase “The butler did it,” (I know, I thought it was English as well) and The Bat, which was made into a movie twice and is credited with inspiring the character of – you guessed it – Batman.

Rinehart herself led a life that might have been written for one of those sweeping sagas popular in the 1930s. She was the first female war correspondent on the Belgian front during WWI, reporting for the Saturday Evening Post. After her husband was appointed medical director of the Veterans Bureau (now the VA) she became an acclaimed hostess in the Washington, DC social world. In her late fifties she helped her two sons found the publishing firm Farrar & Rinehart and served as one of its directors. And in 1947 she broached the then-taboo subject of breast cancer by writing frankly about her illness, radical mastectomy and recovery. 

With all this activity, she naturally needed some downtime. The Rineharts had vacationed out west and in Florida, but with her husband’s death in 1932, Mary Roberts Rinehart looked for a change of scenery. She came to Bar Harbor in 1935 and fell in love with the ocean, the islands, and the Acadian mountains. By 1939, she had completed construction on “Farview.” Several of her novels in the 40’s were set in fictionalized versions of Maine’s most famous resort town, and her estate would itself be the site of a real-life crime drama. Please excuse me as I crib from the Wonder View Motel’s account of l’affair Reyes:

The absence of her husband’s handling of the finances were felt from time to time and at one point even put Farview up for sale. She could not let go of any of her servants. Farview was large and it was hard to find maids. She then hired a butler in the summer of 1947 and her Filipino cook, Reyes, was not happy about it. He had been with the Rineharts for 25 years and he was always highly praised for his skills.
One day, Reyes, told Mary he was leaving. She was used to hearing this from him and paid it no mind. The next day, Mary found his wife, Peggy, a maid, crying. Peggy said Reyes had been drinking the night before and they had a fight when she refused to leave with him. Mary was reading in the library before lunch when Reyes came in. They spoke a few words when he pulled a gun from his pants pocket and pulled the trigger within point blank range of her face. Luckily, the gun misfired. He tried again and Mary leapt to her feet and ran. She entered the kitchen, Peggy, and Theodore Falkenstrom, her chauffeur, saw what was happening.
Ted tackled the cook and grabbed the gun. Peggy ran to get the breathless Mary a nitroglycerine tablet and Ted went and threw the gun over a garden wall. The butler ran down the street to get help thinking he was the intended victim. As Mary was in the hall on her way to phone the police, she saw a young man standing outside the door. The boy said he was looking for a job as a gardener’s assistant.

“Young man,” Mary said, “you’ll have to come back later. There is a man here trying to kill me.” The boy never returned.

As Mary stood at the phone, again in the library, Reyes came up behind her wielding a long carving knife in each hand. Ted and the gardener came running in and again knocked him down. Peggy sat on his chest, and Ted held his arms getting cut by the flailing knives. Finally, the police arrived and took Reyes away.

Mary’s son Alan flew up that night to be with his mother. The next morning he gave her the news that Reyes had hung himself in his jail cell. A Catholic priest allowed him to be buried in sacred ground since he was “Plainly of unsound mind.” Mary had no anger against the long-time cook and paid for his funeral.

Mary Roberts Rinehart  received a special Edgar Award for lifetime achievement in 1954, the year after she published her last novel, The Frightened Wife. Until her death in 1958, she summered every year in Bar Harbor. To which I say, dear readers, if it was good enough for America’s Agatha Christie, it’s good enough for me.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Lure of the Masquerade, a guest post by Tasha Alexander

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I have long suspected that writers of historical fiction must not-so-secretly long to live in other ages. Not really-real historical times -- who wants to be without modern dentistry, antibiotics and washing machines? But the past that lives in our imagination and in our senses. Folks go to Renaissance Faires, join the Society for Creative Anachronism, reenact Civil and Revolutionary wars, attend steampunk conventions. Most of all? Young or old, they celebrate Hallowe'en.What's the common thread?

That's right. They get to dress up. Wear costumes. Pretend to be someone else.

Nobody knows this better than Tasha Alexander, whose much-loved Lady Emily series gives us all the chance to live a far-flung, romantic, exciting and mystery-filled 19th century life (while still listening to music on our ipods while we read.) Here's the description of her latest, THE COUNTERFEIT HEIRESS:

After an odd encounter at a grand masquerade ball, Emily becomes embroiled in the murder investigation of one of the guests, a sometime actress trying to pass herself off as the mysterious heiress and world traveler Estella Lamar. Each small discovery, however, leads to more questions.  Was the intended victim Miss Lamar or the imposter?  And who would want either of them dead?  

As Emily and Colin try to make sense of all this, a larger puzzle begins to emerge:  No one has actually seen Estella Lamar in years, as her only contact has been through letters and the occasional blurry news photograph. Is she even alive?  Emily and Colin’s investigation of this double mystery takes them from London to Paris, where, along with their friends Cécile and Jeremy, Duke of Bainbridge they must scour the darkest corners of the city in search of the truth.

How does Tasha feel about being an historical author? Well, for her, every day gets to be Hallowe'en!

Few holidays offer the guilt-free indulgences of Halloween. There’s nothing to cook, no presents to buy, no family drama to anticipate. Instead, we can choose to dress up in whatever costume strikes our fancy—silly, serious, sexy, scary—and give and get candy in all but unlimited amounts. What’s not to like, particularly when you consider the fact that no one is going to pressure you to involve yourself in Halloween if you’re not interested? It would not be so easy to forgo Thanksgiving.

For me, costumes have always been the most appealing part of Halloween, partly because I can take or leave candy. If Trick or Treating involved getting something spicy instead of something sweet, I might revise my position just a bit, but the real reason the costumes matter the most to me is because they remind me of reading. Sounds crazy, right?

From the time I was a little girl, I felt as if I had been born in the wrong century. I wanted to be a pioneer, setting off in a covered wagon, ready to find the perfect homestead in the west. Or Cleopatra, who never needed a translator when dealing with foreign emissaries because she was fluent in seven languages. 

Or an ancient Athenian, listening to Socrates in the Agora (yes, that one only works so long as you willfully ignore the fact that girls in ancient Athens weren’t hanging out in the Agora; I have no trouble doing that). Or Scarlett O’Hara, deciding who could bring her dessert (but you know now that if I were Scarlett, she’s be looking for more barbeque and less dessert). 


As it is all but impossible to do any of the above in real life, I lived out these fantasies through reading. Books let you enter another time and place, and let you to feel what it would have been like to be someone else. Is there anything better than the sensation that the world around you is disappearing and being replaced by another one, first with words and then with the vivid details your mind fills in as you read page after page after page?

Of course, you don’t ever actually get to BE the characters in books, which can be something of a drag. As I teenager, I would have gladly switched places with Elizabeth Bennett, but on the other hand, I never felt the urge to join Ishmael on the Pequod. Still, a holiday like Halloween gives us the opportunity to don the togs of our favorites. So tell me, what would be your ideal literary costume for October 31?

One lucky commentor will win a copy of THE COUNTERFEIT HEIRESS!

You can find out more about Tasha, and read excerpts of her Lady Emily novels, at her website. You can also friend her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter as @talexander.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends; a guest post by E.J. Copperman and Jeff Cohen

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: This is a picture of Jeff Cohen, author of the Aaron Tucker comedy/mysteries and the Comedy Tonight mystery/comedies

Talented author, baseball connoisseur, father and husband.

This is a picture of E.J. Copperman, author of the Haunted Guesthouse series.

Prolific novelist, New Jersey booster, writing teacher and musician.

We here at JRW Love Jeff and E.J., and have had both on to talk about their latest novels. But never in our wildest dreams did we think they would get together to start another quirky, clever mystery series with such a protagonist who can only be described as a Sherlock Holmes for our age: Samuel Hoenig, a brilliant loner with a Questions Answered agency, an apartment in an old pizza restaurant, and Asperger's Syndrome. 

Not since Nora Roberts teamed up with JD Robb or Ed McBain wrote with Evan Hunter has the literary world seen such a tag team.  So let me introduce to you/ the one and only Jeff and E.J./ and THE QUESTION OF THE MISSING HEAD...

What’s your favorite Beatles song?
It’s not an idle question, nor, heaven forbid, one that doesn’t lead to a discussion of my (our) latest book. The song by the Fab Four you most enjoy is a key to your inner psychology, a way to determine whether you are trustworthy or un-, sincere or in-, mented or de-.
That’s the theory of Samuel Hoenig, the borderline genius with Asperger’s Syndrome who is the central character and narrator of THE QUESTION OFTHE MISSING HEAD.
Samuel has a “disorder” (he thinks of it merely as an element of his personality) called Asperger’s Syndrome, which used to be its own thing and is now a part of the autism spectrum and don’t get me started on how all that happened. One of the aspects of Asperger’s is that the person with it usually focuses on one or two subjects almost to the exclusion of all others.
In Samuel’s case, there are two “special interests”: New York Yankees baseball and the music of the Beatles.
But not to worry, Red Sox Nation—Samuel does not use his knowledge of pinstriped hardball in any way but to sometimes understand other issues in human interaction. He does, however, ask most people he meets what song by John, Paul, George and Ringo they most favor, and the answer can tell him a great deal. He believes.
So let’s take a quick sample and see what Samuel thinks is the hidden truth behind each Beatles response:
Eleanor Rigby: Pretentious. Terrified of death. Possibly believes him/herself to be lonely.
Help!: Energetic. Articulate. Possibly sees himself as a victim.
You Know My Name, Look Up the Number: Complete and utter lunatic.
There are others.
I conceived of the Beatles test as a way for Samuel to use his special interest in the Beatles (a subject I know well enough to at least usually avoid the dreaded Research) to understand the “neurotypical” better than he usually does. The world is something of a puzzle to Samuel, so having some pieces that are familiar helps smooth the way a little bit.
It also allows for people Samuel meets to respond in a variety of ways. Those who are going to see him as a freak will recoil at the question, as if he were asking what type of underwear they favor on first meeting (that’s not bad; I might have to use that one in an upcoming Samuel book). Those who “get” him, like his new associate Janet Washburn, will answer without hesitation and be interested in the type of information they might have just volunteered.
But it also is designed to help the reader see what Samuel sees and hopefully to understand him better. Samuel narrates the Asperger’s mystery series because I wanted the reader to get into his head and rummage around.
Full disclosure: I have a son who has Asperger’s, and try to cram some information about it into many of the books I write so those who aren’t looking for it might be confronted with some understanding of the disorder anyway. People have told me they enjoy the added value of information, and some with relatives or friends who have autism in the family have graciously said the inclusion of characters who are just a little bit different has helped. I hope that’s true.
The Beatles thing? I think it’s fun and it gives me the opportunity to show how Samuel thinks, and for the reader to decide if he’s right about the judgments he makes. Just because he says that loving Rain means that one is contemplative and intelligent doesn’t mean you have to agree. You might be one of those freaks who are crazy about Revolution 9. That’s your prerogative.
So. What’s your favorite Beatles song, and what do you think it says about you?

Jeff and E.J. have copies of THE QUESTION OF THE MISSING HEAD for some lucky commentors! Yeah, yeah, yeah!

E.J.Copperman and Jeff Cohen have collaborated on THE QUESTION OF THEMISSING HEAD, an Asperger’s Mystery from Midnight ink. If your local bookstore doesn’t have it, ask them to order it—they will.
You can find out more about Jeff Cohen at his website. You can friend him on Facebook ,  follow him on Twitter as @jeffcohenwriter, and enjoy his blogging at the fabulous Hey, There's a Dead Guy in the Living Room! You can get info and read about the Haunted Guesthouse series at E.J. Copperman's website. As you might expect, E.J. is on Facebook, Twitter (as @EJCop) and has a blog, Sliced Bread.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Writing What Matters; a guest post by Suzanne Chazin

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that in America, there are no second acts. Fortunately, our guest today didn't listen. Suzanne Chazin had a decade-long gap between her first mystery series and LAND OF CAREFUL SHADOWS. How did she bridge the divide? By following her heart.

Thanks so much for hosting me on Jungle Red. It’s an honor to be on a site with writers I admire. Today I’d like to talk a little about how I came to write Land of Careful Shadows, the first book in my new mystery series.

First, a confession: I turned my back on novel writing before I wrote this book, convinced I’d never publish another novel again.

In the early 2000s, I was laid off as an editor at Reader’s Digest. At the time I was working on my first mystery series about the FDNY, based on my husband’s work as a New York City firefighter. I went on to publish three books in that series. Then my mom suffered a series of strokes and died, my second child was born and my new novel couldn’t find a publisher. I felt lost in every part of my being, convinced that the only way to get ahead was to write, write, write.
I started on another novel. Half way through, I put it down. The problem, I decided, was that I was writing because I wanted to publish again rather than because I thought I had something to say. What I needed was to step back, think about something that mattered to me and do it. If that meant never publishing again, so be it.

I already had an idea what mattered to me. I also knew that it had nothing to do with novel writing.
I live in northern Westchester County, NY, a lush, wooded region about forty miles north of New York City. It’s an area where great wealth and great need exist side by side. In the 1990s, Latin Americans, many of them undocumented, began to settle in the area. They mowed the lawns, cleaned the houses and bussed the restaurant tables of the more affluent in the county. At the train station, I often saw them huddled on cold winter mornings, rubbing their hands together to stay warm while they waited for contractors to drive by and offer them work.

As the daughter of immigrants (my father was from Russia, my mother was born and raised in England), I admired their grit and resilience. I knew from watching my parents that it took a lot of guts to make it in a strange land. There was one big difference however: my parents were able to acquire the legal status that allowed them to work their way into the middle class, further their educations and eventually own their own home. The people I saw would never get that chance, no matter how hard they worked because of their undocumented status.

I’m not political, but I felt moved by their situation. I began volunteering at a local outreach center that provided English lessons and other services to new immigrants. I got to know some of the people and began to hear their heart-rending accounts of near-death journeys and tearful family separations. The writer in me began to wonder: was there some way to share their stories so that others in the community could be as inspired as I was by them?

I contacted several local Hispanic organizations and suddenly found myself talking to people who, in many cases, had never shared their stories with anyone before. I interviewed almost twenty people—men and women of all ages from countries throughout Latin America. I began the project in the hopes that the people I interviewed would eventually be able to step out of the shadows. But our immigration policies have shifted very little in the past two decades. My subjects’ stories could not be told without exposing them to undue risk. The project ground to a halt. Once again, I felt the sting of disappointment and defeat.

Months went by and still I couldn’t get their stories out of my mind. These people had risked so much to share them with me. I knew I had to find a way to keep them alive. And suddenly, after saying I’d probably never write another novel again, I knew I had to. It was the only way to tell their stories. I took what I knew and loved about writing mysteries and married it to something I cared about deeply. And Landof Careful Shadows was born. I hope readers love the twists and turns that come with every good mystery novel. But I hope too, that they come away with a sense of the real people behind it.

JULIA: How about you, dear readers? What real-life passions have moved you to make a difference - be it writing a book, writing your legislator or righting wrongs? Join us on the backblog and two lucky commentors will receive copies of LAND OF CAREFUL SHADOWS!

When the dead body of a Latino woman is found in a reservoir about fifty miles north of Manhattan, with a photo of a baby in her purse nearby, the police try to determine who the child is and if it is still alive. Along with the photo, they also find a disturbing note in the purse: ''Go back to your country. You don't belong here.''

Homicide Detective Jimmy Vega is Latino too, so he knows how hard it can be for an outsider to fit into a close-knit town like Lake Holly. Vega is a highly respected officer of the law, and he is challenged and intrigued by Adele Figueroa, a passionate defender of immigrants' rights. Vega must rethink everything he believes in order to uncover the truths about his town, his family, and himself.

Find our more about Suzanne, LAND OF CAREFUL SHADOWS and her series featuring FDNY fire marshal Georgia Skeehan at her website. You can also friend Suzanne on Facebook, follow her on Twitter as @SuzanneChasin and read her blog, Writing with Oven Mitts.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Twizzlers and Red Hots and Mounds, Oh my!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Hallowe'en is almost here, and among the changing fashion in decorations, parties, and costumes, one part of the holiday remains constant: candy. Or, as my younger self would have put it, Candy!!!

As a kid, Hallowe'en was a highlight of the year. My mother had firm ideas about nutritious eating; stuff like candy and soda was a rare treat in our house.  So although our creative
home-sewn costumes were a thrill, and our small town Hallowe'en parade was a blast, the best part of the evening came at the end, when I would upend an entire pillowcase of goodies on the dining room table. My sister and I would score big when we went out - she was adorable, I was articulate, and we were both (thanks Mom!) very polite. We inevitable got invited to take another one or two pieces, which would then be sorted and swapped and saved at the table later on.

There was a clear hierarchy of Hallowe'en candy every kid knew. At the very apex were the full-size name brand chocolate bars, followed by the junior or snack size version of the same. Further down were the tasty single-serving candies: sourballs and lemon drops, caramels and Sugar Daddies. Near the bottom were the sweets that sounded a lot more fun than they were, like Pixie sticks, Bottle Caps and candy cigarettes (which, I'm sure, aren't made anymore.) At the very bottom, along with the occasional baggie of pennies and religious tract, were the weird old-people candies: Necco wafers and wax bottles of "cola" and Laffy Taffy in hard, inedible slabs. (Full disclosure: my husband loves Necco wafers. I think it's a New England thing.)
Today, as an adult, I still get a thrill out of stocking up on candy, because just like my mom, I don't usually keep it in the house. I went for several years when I couldn't eat chocolate, and even today I need to be judicious in its consumption, so picking up a bag of Hallowe'en M&MS makes me feel like a teetotaler on vacation where no one can see me slugging down Pina Coladas. I'm not the only one, either - I've learned I better get two bags of each kind, because one of them will be mysteriously half-devoured before the actual Fright Night!

How about you, Reds? What were the candies you loved in girlhood? And what are the ones that can tempt you from the whole grain/organic/locally sourced diet we all strive for today?

HALLIE EPHRON: I have a confession to make. I *love* licorice. I know, I know, black licorice whips and jelly beans are always the very last candies left in the bottom of the bags but they're my favorites. Red hots, too. And anything with coconut.

Chocolate? Meh. Peanut butter cups? Patooey.

So you can imagine I got along pretty well, trading candies with my sisters after we'd drag home our haul and spread them out in carefully delineated piles on the floor (Mine. Yours.)

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Twizzlers! Yay, love Twizzlers.  And I agree, I am a big  black licorice fan, too. Mounds, too. Almond Joy! And I am very pleased they decided to make those little sizes. Two bites is  just the right amount.  Jelly beans, all kinds.  NECCOs (New England Candy Co) SHOULD be good, but they just aren't. Chocolate, take or leave. I am baffled by sour things, and hot things. And candy that DOES stuff. Who would eat a Sour Parch kid or (whatever those are) that only makes you pucker?  Or anything that fizzes, hisses or blows up in your mouth? I protest any candy that fights back.

And of course, Julia, One must buy the TEST bag to make sure the candy will be okay for your guests.

JULIA: I like that, Hank. I'll use that in the future. One does want to be a considerate host.
DEBORAH CROMBIE: I don't remember getting anything I much liked. Tootsie Rolls by the dozen. Ugh. Same for Bit O Honey. And so sorry, Hallie and Hank, that I don't share your passion for licorice. Or Twizzlers.  Not Red Hots.  Oh, and I HATED candy corn, and there was always lots of that. And I agree, Hank, I protest any candy that fights back.

I do like good jelly beans. These days we don't have many trick or treaters, but I usually buy Hershey's kisses, knowing that I'll have a few and hubby will snack on the rest until Christmas.  Geez, we sound candy-boring... I have discovered on this book tour, however, hungry late at night with nothing but hotel mini-bar snacks, that I like Kit-Kats. Maybe I'll add those this year.  Oh, and I LOVE peanut M&Ms, so not a complete candy flop!
LUCY BURDETTE: My older sister and I tried our best to bamboozle the best candy from the younger kids, but my parents kept a close eye. I do love red twizzlers, but never the black stuff. I used to like Good 'n Plenty, but over that now. Debs, I will take your Bit O Honey, Hallie, your peanut butter cups, and anybody's Nestle's crunch. Wasn't it the worst when someone decided to give out apples? Or worst of all, toothbrushes!

I don't buy any candy now, because we are not on trick or treater's routes. And I would just eat it. Whether I like it or not...

RHYS BOWEN: I didn't grow up with Halloween but I went through my kids' bags with something like paranoia--was that box of Good and Plenty slightly unglued at one end?  I'd confiscate the gum and anything that was questionable, then I'd allow one evening to pig out before the rest got put away for occasional treats.

I live on a hill now and very few kids walk UPWARD to get candy but I do keep a good supply of Snickers, Kit Kats, M and Ms just in case! 

(And oh dear, if there is some left I hate wasting food...)

JULIA: That's the spirit, Rhys. Uneaten candy is sad candy. How about you, dear readers? What candy did you love or loathe at Hallowe'en? And what do you give out to the little ghouls and goblins (or more likely, Elsa and Captain America) today? 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Coconut Pie to Die For

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Did you know that talking to strangers could make you gain weight? I'm not kidding. It happened like this.
This last Thursday night I was in Wilmington, Delaware, having dinner with Caroline Todd and a friend of Caroline's (thanks, Betsy!) after a great signing at Chester County Book Company in Chester County, Pennsylvania.

There was a Bonefish Grill right next to my hotel, and having seen the same restaurant in Annapolis and been curious, I suggested we try it. It was late, but the food was delicious and we had a delightful waitress, a young woman named Shelby. From her we learned about the restaurant (based in Florida and focusing on fresh-market fish and innovative seasonal recipes.) I also learned that lima beans were a Delaware thing--I had no idea! (And now I regret never having had fresh lima beans, which is exactly how someone not from the South should feel if they've never had fresh-shelled black-eyed peas...)

And now we get to the fattening part.  I'm not usually much for deserts, but I'd seen on the menu that they had coconut pie. Shelby assured us that it was really special because they used fresh coconut.

I had a wave of nostalgia--my mother made fabulous coconut cream pie, and I suppose that memory was what tipped me over into temptation.

Shelby brought one serving of pie with three spoons, and, oh, my, this pie was nothing like my mother's. This was a custard pie, not a cream pie, and topped not with meringue but with what tasted like whipped creme fraiche. Rum sauce. No crust. 

We all tasted it, but even between the three of us we couldn't finish it, it was so rich. It was also one of the most delicious things I've ever tasted. 

This is a copycat recipe, so I can't guarantee that it will taste just like Bonefish Grill's Coconut Custard Pie, but I'm willing to give it a try. I just have to think of a special occasion to justify it, and learn how to grate fresh coconut, because I have no doubt that Shelby was right and that is what makes it so, so special.

Bon appetit!
Bonefish Grill Jamaican Coconut Pie With Rum Sauce
Copycat Recipe

Makes 1 Pie
1 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
6 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla
2 cups coconut, shredded
Rum Sauce
1 cup brown sugar (light or dark)
1 cup butter, unsalted
1 cup dark rum
Pie Filling: Place milk, cream, sugar, flour, eggs and vanilla in a mixing bowl. Mix with a hand mixer for 2 minutes on medium speed. Add coconut and mix together until completely incorporated. Place in a greased pie pan. Cook at 350° for 40-45 minutes.
Rum Sauce: In small sauce pan, heat butter over medium heat until melted. Add brown sugar and mix together until sugar dissolves. Add rum and cook for 1 minute on medium heat. Slice pie and serve with rum sauce, to your liking. Pie best when served warm.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Talking to Strangers

DEBORAH CROMBIE: (Tales from the Road, Part 3) I'm waving at you from Austin, Texas (glad to be back in the Lone Star State!) and the Texas Book Festival. Tomorrow will mark five weeks since I started out on this round the country crazy book tour thing. (Well, at least part of the country--sorry, West Coast and South East... Hopefully next time!) I have a few more events this next week, then a ten day break before taking off for five days in Long Beach for Bouchercon 2014. After that, I'm going into hibernation and you will have to pry my poor fingers from the keyboard.

But, oh, it has been fun, and I've learned a few things (I am perhaps a marginally better packer than I was before September 20th), acquired a whopping boost to my airline miles (upgrading to business class on my next outbound trip to London), and reaffirmed some things, including:

I LOVE talking to readers! Put two people who love books in a room together and you are pretty much guaranteed to have a good conversation. But as an author, talking to a group of people who have read your books is absolute magic. I learn things about my novels and my characters, and about how readers relate to them, that are a revelation.  Often I learn things that will affect what I write in the future. We writers spend a lot of time alone, pouring ourselves into stories and characters that exist only in our heads, and talking to readers is our affirmation that we have made a connection.

And I remembered how much I like talking to strangers (that thing we were told never to do, right?) But I don't mean the creepy kind. I mean chance encounters. Fellow travelers in airports, a cab driver, a waitress in a restaurant.

(I should maybe add a caveat--this does not include one of the traveler's worst nightmares, being stuck next to someone on a four hour flight who talks at you non-stop. One should be able to bow out of the conversation:-))

But back to the good conversations. For example; the first day of my tour I was flying from Dallas to Abilene, Texas. A forty-five minute flight, right? Except that it was canceled.  Fifty people had to be re-booked. It was hot, and people, including me, were frustrated and cranky. Seven hours later, I was still on standy-by for the next to the last flight of the day. But in the meantime I'd started chatting with a cheerful-looking fellow stranded passenger. His name was Mark, and he was an engineer from Edmonton, Ontario, who spends every other week on a project in Abilene. By the time we finally got on that 9 p.m. flight, he'd promised to come to my event at the Abilene Library the next day. Which he did, and it turned out that his wife was a big fan of the books. Weeks later, thinking about Mark makes me smile.

There have been lots of others. Tom and Kathy, strangers to each other and to me. We all shared a lunch table at Friday's in Milwaukee Airport. Lorenzo and John, car service drivers. Shelby, the waitress at a restaurant in Wilmington, Delaware...

People are just so interesting. And I have to wonder, if you go through life with a closed face, unwilling to smile or make eye contact with people you don't know, what do you miss?

So what I'd like to know, REDS and readers, is DO YOU TALK TO STRANGERS? And if you do, have you met people who have made your life a little richer?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?--Donald Bain and Renee Paley-Bain

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Don Bain and Renee Paley-Bain, authors of the novelizations of Murder, She Wrote, as Donald Bain and Jessica Fletcher, hardly need any introduction from me.  But I must say that, "Where do you get your ideas?" is as a writer perhaps my favorite question from readers, and I am fascinated, as always, but the daisy-chain of ideas that go into what becomes a book. I only wish I could say I'd written 42 of them!!!! (Or is that 120??)

Here are the Bains to tell us!

Where do you get your ideas?

This must be a question that every writer gets (right, Reds?) whether on their first book or forty-first. Our forty-second book in the “Murder, She Wrote” series is just out, Death of a Blue Blood, and while looking back over the twenty-five years of publication we don’t always remember what prompted a particular plot, we do know exactly what inspired this one: “Downton Abbey.”

You might find it ironic that a book series based on the characters from a television series includes a book inspired by another television series. But we like irony.

For those of you not familiar with “Downton,” it’s a PBS series about an English aristocratic family caught up in changing times and mores of the post-Edwardian era. It’s one of the superb British costume dramas that show up periodically on public television and inspire a devoted following—including us. Its predecessor in the same vein was “Upstairs Downstairs,” which we also loved and whose 68 episodes chronicled the same social milieu in the 1930s. The fifth season of “Downton Abbey” is currently airing in the still-United Kingdom (Thank you, Scotland!) and will show up on U.S. TV in January 2015.

What is it about the lives of England’s advantaged class that so captivates us? After all, we sloughed off the rule of Mad King George 238 years ago—and violently, too. Yet we’re still fascinated by the nobility we rejected, the extravagant behavior of the lords and ladies that repelled us when we were expected to finance it.

Renée’s theory is that these shows are simply grown-up fairy tales with castles and balls, and elegantly dressed men and women waited on by an army of servants—a dream life found in the pages of  “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty,” et al, that a good many of us were raised up on in nightly stories—at least the females among us, Don adds. Of course each fairy tale had a stumbling block to happiness in the form of an evil stepmother, poison apple, or witch’s curse, just so we wouldn’t think a life of privilege came easily.

In Death of a Blue Blood, Jessica Fletcher is invited to a New Year’s Eve ball at Castorbrook Castle in the Cotswolds (talk about alliteration!). And her “plus one” is the handsome Scotland Yard inspector, George Sutherland, who has been wooing her since the very first book in the series, Gin & Daggers. Readers are divided over who Jessica’s love interest, if any, should be, with many rooting for Dr. Seth Hazlitt, her usual companion on the television show. But George has a pretty good fan base by now, having appeared in at least half a dozen of the books.

“Downton” is filmed at the ancestral home of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, and an enjoyable part of our research was multiple viewings of “Secrets of Highclere Castle,” a DVD visit to the earl’s country home, situated on a 5,000-acre estate. (The current countess also writes a blog on life at Highclere.) Our fictional Castorbook Castle is owned by the Earl and Countess of Norrance, and his lordship has a mother, Lady Honora, with an equally dyspeptic outlook as the “Downton” character, Lady
Violet, played on television by the delightful Maggie Smith.

While there are some similarities given our admitted admiration for “Downton Abbey,” there are many more differences to accommodate both our imaginations and the requirements of our modern story. In the first chapter, Jessica discovers the body of a woman lying on a path in a secret garden, and nearly succumbs herself when she gets locked out in the cold. Here’s a peek at her first introduction to her host and his family:

“Who was she?” I asked George in a low voice.

“Apparently she served as lady’s maid to our 

“Lady Norrance?”

He nodded. “Her name was Flavia Beckwith. She’d been with the family many years. Drink your tea.”

“Didn’t anyone miss her?” I whispered.

“With all the hustle and bustle of the staff getting ready for the ball, no one thought to look for her.”

I took a sip from the delicate china cup and replaced it in the saucer. I was wrapped in a heavy blanket in a wing chair in a corner of the drawing room near the tall Christmas tree, the branches of which held swags of gold ribbon, gold glass balls, and electric candles. George sat on an ottoman by by my side. There were ten of us gathered for afternoon tea. George and I were the only ones who weren’t members of the family, but a few other guests were expected to arrive at any moment. Our hosts, Lord and Lady Norrance, had fussed over me in my disheveled state, but were understandably far more upset to learn of Mrs. Beckwith’s demise.

“What in blazes was she doing in the garden?” Lord Norrance asked, glaring at his wife.

Marielle, the countess of Norrance, raised a hand to tuck a loose strand of hair into her chignon. “I asked her find a sprig of holly that I could use for my hair for the ball.” She checked her image in the mirror over the fireplace. “I didn’t ask her to go into the garden.”

“Any sensible person knows it’s far too cold to walk outside at this time of year,” said a gravelly voice belonging to the Dowager Countess of Norrance, the earl’s widowed mother. Honora Grant was a slight woman in her seventies, but her delicate appearance belied her tough nature. Earlier, when she had leaned on Nigel’s arm as he escorted her into the room, she had pointed to a seat with her cane. “Put me over there where I can see everyone. Marielle, you know that’s my chair by the fire. Find another place, if you please.”

Lady Norrance obligingly vacated her seat so her mother-in-law could take it. Nigel placed a pillow he’d carried in on the chair, and Honora settled herself down. She cast a critical eye on the other occupants of the room. “I hope you’re not planning to cancel the ball because of this unfortunate incident.”

“Oh! We hadn’t thought...” the earl’s wife trailed off.

“You really should, you know,” said a young woman dressed in jodhpurs and boots. “We’ve had a death in the family.” She released the scarf around her neck and shook out her dark blonde hair.

“Nonsense!” the earl said. “This event has been on the social calendar for many months.”

“Jemma, must you irritate your father?”

“Sorry, mum.”

“We could hardly cancel now,” the earl said. “People are already arriving.” He waved an arm in George and my direction.

“And very welcome you are,” said Rupert Grant, the earl’s younger son, nodding at us, causing a curl from his carefully gelled hair to flop onto his forehead. He was a boyish looking fellow in his mid-twenties. “Besides, Flavia would not have wanted to discomfort the family in any way.” He leaned forward to pluck a pastry from a silver tray. “Isn’t that right, Mother?”

“You’re correct, of course, dear. Please take a plate and napkin. Mrs. Beckwith was dedicated to Castorbrook Castle and our family.”

“Wasn’t she a governess once?” the dowager asked.

“Yes, Grandmother,” Rupert said, “but she needed another job when the three of us rudely decided to grow up.” He cocked his head at his sister, Jemma, the horsewoman, and their older brother, Kip, who sat across the room and idly paged through a magazine. “And Mother gave the old girl another position.”

“Ridiculous! She wasn’t even trained.” Honora thumped her cane on the floor. “Can’t imagine she could have been a proper lady’s maid without training. But then your mother probably doesn’t know the difference.”

Marielle flushed and looked to her husband for defense, but he was lost in thought as he stared into the fire.

Jessica begins to investigate the background of the dead woman and George, who’s convinced her death was an accident, reluctantly joins in.

We had fun tramping around our fictional castle, peeking into the elegant halls on public display and the scruffier ones behind the scenes, and most of all, creating the colorful array of characters led by Lord and Lady Norrance. We hope you enjoy our latest effort.

So, Jungle Red Writers and readers: Do you have a favorite fairy tale? Is there a castle in it?

Murder, She Wrote: Death of a Blue Blood, published by the Obsidian imprint of Penguin Group, is bylined by the fictional Jessica Fletcher and the actual Donald Bain. Don’s wife Renée Paley-Bain collaborates with him on the series. 2014 marks the 25th year of “Murder, She Wrote” in print. Don, who has written more than 120 books, is also the author of the “Margaret Truman Capital Crime Series” (Tor/Forge), and, this year, had his first stand-alone thriller published under his own name, Lights Out! (Severn House).