Wednesday, September 30, 2015

No Laughing Matter, a guest post by Jeff Cohen and E.J. Copperman

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Most of you know by now that Jeff Cohen (and his elusive counterpart, E.J. Copperman) is a good friend of mine. What you may not know is that Jeff is also very close to my husband, Ross. They didn't bond over baseball - as respectively serious Yankees and Red Sox fans, it's surprising they haven't come to blows yet - instead, they connected over autism.

In the years since Ross started teaching special ed, he had seen a yearly rise in the number of kids diagnosed with autism and Asperger's syndrome (now redefined as autism spectrum disorder.) Ross had been attending continuing education classes on the subject and doing lots and lots of reading on the side. His experience influenced my third novel, where the mother of an autistic son refuses to have her younger child vaccinated.

Meanwhile, Jeff and his wife were raising their son Josh, who has Asperger's syndrome. (Autism spectrum disorder. Thanks a lot, DSM-5.) Not finding much out there in the early 2000s, Jeff wrote two well-regarded non-fiction books for Asperger parents and included an Asperger's kid in his Aaron Tucker comedic mystery series. Which Ross read for one of his classes, which he then passed on to me, which meant when I first met Jeff at the 2003Malice Domestic, I could tell him honestly that I had read his book and liked it. When Ross finally met him the next year, the two immediately began a conversation about autism. (NOT baseball, as the Yankees had beaten the Red Sox out of the World Series spot at the end of the previous season.)

When Jeff and Ross get together nowadays, they don't spend as much time talking shop - the autism spectrum kids in Ross's school are well-integrated into the programs, and Josh is a graduate of Drexel University's film and video program, looking for a full-time job like approximately 800,000 other twenty-five-year-olds.

But Jeff hasn't stopped writing about autism. He and the pseudonymous E.J. Copperman, author of the Haunted Guesthouse series, started the Asperger's Mystery series last year with The Question of the Missing Head, which Publisher's Weekly called "delightful and clever" and which contains the line “Who stole one of our frozen heads?” In his latest mystery, The Question of the Unfamiliar Husband, Samuel Hoening, proprietor of Questions Answered ("nothing like a detective agency") is called upon to answer the question, "Who is the man in my bed who calls himself my husband?”

Autism is no joke.
The numbers are staggering. Now it’s estimated that one in every 44 children born in America has behaviors that would identify somewhere on the autism spectrum. That’s a huge statistic. And the behaviors range from some mild social anxieties to an inability to communicate and beyond. There are so many shades of color on the autism spectrum that a rainbow is far too inadequate a metaphor.
But I/we write books I’m hoping will make people laugh, and in the Asperger’s mystery series (astonishingly about to continue with The Question of the Unfamiliar Husband), the narrator and central character has a form of autism called Asperger’s syndrome. Although he doesn’t have that at all because the American Psychological Association has decided there is no such thing as Asperger’s syndrome. So obviously Samuel Hoenig is cured and we need to change the name of the series.
Glad we cleared that right up.
Anyway, until the APA made its decision last year, Samuel had Asperger’s, and he was diagnosed with it when he was in his teens. He’s now in his early 30s, I believe, although I’d have to go back to the series bible to be absolutely sure, and you don’t want me to have to do that, do you?
I didn’t think so.
The point is, autism is not a laughing matter. Families are strained (and in some cases destroyed) by it, people who have it can experience innumerable difficulties and suffer anything from slights at school to clinical depression because of their differences. It is something that requires serious thought and consideration, research and empathy. Autism is not something to laugh at.
That presents something of a problem when trying to write a funny book with a narrator who has a form of autism (no matter what they’re calling it this week). But it’s important in the Asperger’sMystery series never to make fun of Samuel’s autism. Under no circumstances would that ever happen.
Of course, that doesn’t mean I can’t have some fun with the way some people react to Samuel’s autism.
The comedy in that series is to see how some characters will respond when Samuel insists on conducting an interview while striding the circumference of his office, thrusting his arms above his head and trying to work up a sweat. His regiment insists on exercise every twenty minutes during the working day, and nothing will dissuade Samuel from that activity. So I let him go and watch the other characters as he races around the room. Their reactions are (hopefully) funny. His “eccentricity” is not.
Samuel also notices idioms and turns of phrase that many of us take for granted and wonders either what they mean or why they came to be at all. Tell a person with Asperger’s (see previous parenthetical expression re: name of disorder) you’re “just pulling their leg,” and you’ll almost certainly be asked why someone would want to do such a thing.
The Asperger’s books are not intended to be joke machines, like some previous series I’ve written (and future ones I might write). Samuel’s point of view is the focus, not being hilarious. But if you think I’m going to deliver a serious, dark, depressing view of a man with a tragic disorder, you have come to the wrong place.
Samuel doesn’t think his little corner of the autism spectrum is a jail cell; he believes it to be his own haven from the madness that goes on around him (that’s most of us). While not an unrealistically upbeat or saccharine kind of guy, he will not wallow in self-pity. Frankly, he believes most people act in ridiculous, borderline psychotic fashions.
And if you read the daily newspaper, it’s hard to argue with him.

E.J. Copperman/Jeff Cohen, either or both, write(s) the Asperger’s Mystery series, which continues (from The Question of the Missing Head) on October 8 with The Question of the UnfamiliarHusband. It might make you laugh. But not at autism.
You can find out more about the Asperger's Mystery series, and read excerpts, at E.J. Copperman's website. You can also peruse his blog, Sliced Bread,  friend him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter as @ejcop. You can explore all of Jeff Cohen's books at his website, friend him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter as @jeffcohenwriter. Jeff also blogs at There's a Dead Guy in the Living Room, which, along with Jungle Red Writers, is one of the longest-running mystery blogs on the internet.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Hallie Ephron remembers Sandra Dee in ME, MY HAIR, AND I

HALLIE EPHRON: When I started seriously writing, I took a class in essay writing. One of our first assignments was “The History of My Hair.” So when my pal, the wonderful writer Elizabeth Benedict, asked if I’d like like to contribute an essay to an anthology about our obsessions with our hair, I enthusiastically signed up.

I took that early-early piece, along with other musings I’ve written since on the subject of my hair, and worked them into an essay I call “Remembering Sandra Dee.” It’s about how I used to cut out photos from movie magazines and beg the hairdresser to cut my hair like that. And how my aspirations for my hair probably short-circuited my accomplishments as an athlete.


My new essay is in stellar company in Elizabeth Benedict’s extraordinary anthology, Me, My Hair, and I: Twenty-seven Women Untangle an Obsession (Algonquin), which was just named PEOPLE Magazine’s pick of the week.

Here are just a few quotes from the essays in it;

Jane Smiley: All I knew was, the hairstyle that I chose from the styling book was called Femme Fatale. Or maybe it was Harlot.

Siri Hustvedt: We are the only mammals who braid, knot, powder, pile up, oil, spray, tease, perm, color, curl, straighten, augment, shave off, and clip our hair.

Deborah Feldman: Eventually I threw away my wigs. I abandoned the community that had forced me to wear them.

Suleika Joauad: Chemotherapy is a take-no-prisoners stylist.

Marita Golden: Black women’s hair is knotted and gnarled by issues of race, politics, history, and pride.

Anne Lamott: Dreadlocks make people wonder if you’re trying to be rebellious. It’s not as garbling and stapled as a tongue stud, say, or as snaky as tattoos.

Emma Gilbey Keller: “Your hair is so thick,” my grandmother used to tell me with a curled-lip emphasis that immediately turned the statement into an insult.

Deborah Tannen: Another woman told me that after she appeared on television standing behind the president of the United States in a bill-signing ceremony, her mother’s comment was, “I could see you didn’t have time to cut your bangs.”

Maria Hinojosa:when I was asked to anchor my own show, I was told to tie my hair back and make its distinctiveness disappear. I think they wanted me to be a Latina Talbots model.

My essay begins:

It's 1958 and I'm ten years old, a skinny kid, all elbows and knees, a long face with big eyes under furry caterpillar eyebrows, sitting on a stack of telephone books in the chair at Mr. Latour's Beauty Salon, where my mother gets her hair done once a week. I've come here often with her, but this is the first time Mr. Latour is cutting my hair. …

“Can you cut it like this?” I ask. I show Mr. Latour a picture of June Allyson that I've cut from a magazine. She's a fresh-faced blond with short, curly bangs and a perfect pageboy.

Here’s me and the stars whose looks I aspired to imitate.

So fess up, when you were growing up, whose picture did you bring to the hairdresser, and did it ever come out the way you wanted it? Men, did you aspire to Elvis’s forelock? Warren Beatty’s mutton chops.

ME, MY HAIR, AND I: TWENTY-SEVEN WOMEN UNTANGLE AN OBSESSION goes on sale today, an original paperback and an ebook! Events in NYC this week, Cambridge MA on Oct. 5 and Wash DC Oct. 13. Check out Elizabeth Benedict's blog for more information. the sched. on my blog: http://ElizabethBenedict.blogspot. #LoveYourHair

Monday, September 28, 2015

Baby, You Can Drive My Car

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: It's inspection time for my car, and it's come to the point where I'm having to weigh my choices. The cost of getting it officially road-worthy is half the actual value of the vehicle, and I feel like a woman with an elderly pet faced with a health crisis - do I opt for the expensive surgery? Or let nature take its course?

We don't talk cars much here, maybe because most of us aren't interested in, I don't know, cams and overheads and litres and all the stuff The Boy can explain knowledgeably. Some women who are total gearheads, but most of the gals I know are interested in boring stuff: is it practical? How's the mileage? We tend to make our first stop car-shopping at Consumer Reports, not Car and Driver Magazine.

I didn't have a driver's license until right before Ross and I got married. I took driver's ed, and did well enough, but when my parents told me I would be responsible for paying the increase when their auto insurance was bumped up to include a 17-year-old, I shrugged my shoulders and said, "Naaaah." My best friend had a car, my boyfriend had a car (a Chevy Nova that required the flexibility of an athlete to neck in) and when I went to college, there were buses and more friends with cars. Then I lived in London, then Washington, and I really didn't need an auto in those environments. Portland, Maine is a little shy of public transportation, however, so I got a license and happily began driving my brand-new husband's brand-new Mazda RX-7 around.

The fact my first vehicle was a high-powered sports car shaped my driving habits for the rest of my life. Be forewarned if I'm giving you a ride.

The Mazda RX 7 was great, right until the babies began to arrive. I switched to a Volvo 240 station wagon, a car that I loved as much as the zippy little Mazda. It held EVERYTHING: two car seats, dog, luggage, groceries, and it powered through Maine winters like the train grande vitesse through the south of France. I cannot tell you how many diapers I changed on that wagon's tailgate, and when we started potty training, I kept a little potty seat in the back for those times I'd hear, "Mommy, I feel the feeling!" while driving to the Hanneford.

Alas, the Volvo finally went to the Big Auto Yard in the sky, just shy of getting its 300,000 miles plaque (Volvo used to send you these magnets to affix to high-mileage cars, I don't know if that still happens.) Our last really nice car - before Ross left the law for special ed teaching and we began 19-year-and-counting of parochial school, Catholic high school, college and boarding school tuition payments - was a sweet top-of-the line Ford Explorer: leather seats, sun roof, all the bells and whistles available in 1999. We drove SO many miles in Aretha (named after the inimitable Ms. Franklin); back and forth to upstate New York, DC, Canada and of course the daily 48-mile-commute, mostly over country roads rough with frost-heaves and potholes. It was the terrible roads that finally did her in. One day she just sort of collapsed, and after the tow to the garage, we discovered both axles had cracked. Good-bye Aretha. R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Since then, we've had a string of older used cars, some lasting longer, others not so much (the terrible state of our country roads continue to be an issue.) My latest is an '02 Lincoln Continental, which we got when The Boy was in high school with the express purpose of having him learn to drive in it. I swore I was getting rid of it as soon as he passed his license exam, because there was NO WAY I was driving around in a little old grandma car whose paint job matched my hair (silver.) But the car seduced me. The leather seats were sooo comfy, and it had power everything and a sun roof, and it accelerated like a dream. It also had built-in lumbar support and the instrument display is large enough to see without putting my reading glasses on. Clearly, the Lincoln people know their demographic.

It's the Lincoln on the chopping block right now. Do we go all in with $$$ repairs and keep her, knowing she's 13 years old and has 170,000 miles? Or do we donate her to NPR and start shopping for another ride? What do you think, Reds? And what have been your favorite cars as you ride down the freeway of life?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: My first car was--a Chevette. It probably saved my life, because I was trying to decide between that one and a Pinto.

Two things. One, it was black. Which was a real surprise because in the showroom it looked navy blue. Oh, well.

Two. My step-father made me go buy the car myself. ALL by myself. I was, I think, 19. He said: Under no circumstances should you pay for taxes and title. You make the car dealer pay for that. They will try to convince you to pay it, he warned, but don't you do it.
Time came, they try to make me pay for taxes and title.
I refuse. They say--you have to.

This goes on for a while. Armed with the knowledge that my father will yell at me if I cave and pay, I say- listen, forget it then. i'm not paying that. There are plenty of cars out there, and I will go somewhere else.

They finally agree.

I'm happy,  I go home. I trumpet my triumph.
My father looks at me as if I have lost my mind.
I said TAGS and title, he says. TAGS. Of COURSE you have to pay the TAXES!
(Who know what really happened with what I actually paid, right?)
I loved that Chevette. And gas was 39 cents a gallon. I used to buy a dollars worth at a time, all I could afford.

RHYS BOWEN: I remember my first car too.. all too vividly. It was an adorable little Fiat. Bright red. And the car from hell. It was used, of course. It refused to start at awkward moments. It cut out on me in the midst of the mountains and only the fact that I was going downhill and coasted for several miles to a repair shop saved me from being stranded in the middle of nowhere. AND I was living in London. When I found a parking space I was loathe to give it up so I left the car parked for weeks at a time, taking public transport and thus making it clear that the car was not necessary.

In the early days of our marriage I had used cars that died on me in the middle of freeways. But these days my car has to be totally reliable. I drive between SF and Arizona several times a year so I always have a new car in warranty and change it every five years. I now have the super-deluxe model with every safety feature on it, rear cameras, side cameras, crash avoidance etc etc. Love love love it.
So my advice would be to Julia bite the bullet and get something new and reliable.

LUCY BURDETTE: I think Rhys is right on this, Julia. I do not miss the days of driving cars that could quit on you at any moment, on any highway. More than once, I had mufflers and pipes drop out of the bottom of a car and drag along the road. I drove a few of my dad's hand-me-downs, but after I wrecked his Chevy Vega (too tired to see the stop sign, sigh), it was time to buy my own. The winner was a Ford Falcon faux-woody station wagon that I landed for $200. I did not realize that the entire bottom was rusting out, including the gas tank, which began to leak from multiple holes. Once that was all replaced, I drove it back and forth to grad school in Tennessee. You could see the road rushing by under the passenger's feet and it was very cold in winter--brrrr. My next car was my favorite--a step up at $500--a Dodge Dart slant six. The only downside was the black interior--broiling hot in Florida. It was a man magnet:), and I wish now that I'd kept it. Funnily enough, John had the same car in his youth!

HALLIE EPHRON: I agree. JUNK IT! Right this minute. You do too much driving to be driving anything that could leave you stranded.

We buy brand new cars, pay cash (boy does that throw them), maintain them, and drive them into the ground. Our 2001 Honda Civic is going on 200K miles and, knock wood. just keeps going. My first car was gorgeous. I still salivate remembering it. A dark chocolate Chevy Impala convertible with caramel leather seats. Used. And I only drove it for 2 years before moving to NY. Loved that car.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Julia, buy a new car. I'm afraid the Lincoln (I learned to drive in one!) has reached the point of no return. And you do NOT want to be stranded somewhere in a Maine winter.

I love cars. My very first car was a used '65 silver T-bird. (Anybody hearing Marc Cohn here?) Leather seats, power everything. Fabulous. My third car was a Datsun 240Z. It was the love of my life until, many years and many boring sedans later, I had a wild firs- foreign-advancecheck moment and bought a 1997 Honda Prelude. Red. Heaven. I traded it in four years later because by that time we had an 80 lb German shepherd who couldn't fit in the back seat.

I would buy a high performance car again in a minute if I didn't now have the two young BIG shepherds. They can sit in the back sit of my eight-year-old Honda Accord, but not for longer than a run around town. So I've been looking at compact SUVs. I'm astounded at how much the technology has changed since 2008! So far my pick is the Ford Escape. Julia, you should drive one. But I haven't bought it because my Accord only has 56,000 miles on it, and other than some body damage where some creep swiped me in a parking lot, is in perfect condition. So I'm still thinking, and in the meantime will file a claim on the damage to my car!

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: I have a drivers license, but I/we don't have a car. I've never had a car. Always lived in either New York or Boston and took the subway or T. Now, once in a while, we'll rent a Zip Car (you can rent a car by the hour in cities and there's a garage that has them right across from our building) or get car service. I like the idea of treading lightly on planet earth. And saving money. (But, just for the record, I can drive both automatic and stick shift.)

JULIA: Looks like the consensus is in on my Lincoln! How about you, dear readers? Do you have a car you loved? Loathed? Come over to the comments and pimp your ride!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Ice Cream--Pumpkin Ice Cream

DEBORAH CROMBIE: So you know it's officially FALL when pumpkins start appearing on porches (earlier and earlier...sigh) and thoughts turn to soups and chili and stews and quick breads and all those lovely cooler weather foods at which we've turned up our noses all summer. 

But it's really too early for pumpkin pie--not until we've at least got past Halloween--and I'm not even mentioning pumpkin latte (which I think is revolting.) So, naturally, our thoughts turn to cream.

Is that weird? I don't think so. The thing is, last spring we got a Cuisinart Ice Cream Maker. This gadget is way up there on my Favorite All-time Appliance list. Maybe I'm a little late in joining the 21st century, but we were still using one of those ice cream makers that has to have ice and rock salt added all around the canister as it churns. At least it was electric, I'll give it that, but when it was running it sounded like an airplane taking off.

The new ice cream maker is fabulous. You put your canister in the freezer for a couple of days. When it's good and cold, you stir together your ice cream mixture, then put that in the fridge for a couple of hours. Pour the mixture into the cold canister and pop it in the machine while you're eating. Voila! A half hour later you have delicious, finished ice cream.

We've tried several recipes over the summer, but so far, our favorite has been Simple Vanilla. But then I ran across this:

Pumpkin Pie Icecream

1  1/2 cups whole milk
1 cup packed light or dark brown sugar
2 tbs molasses or dark brown corn syrup
1 and 1/2 cups canned pumpkin purkee
1 and 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
1/4 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
2 and 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 cup crumbled ginger snaps, vanilla butter cookies, of graham crackers

In a medium mixing bowl, use a hand mixer on low speed to combine the milk, brown sugar, and molasses, about 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the pumpkin puree, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. Add heavy cream and vanilla. (I do all this in my Kitchen Aid mixer.) Turn the machine on, pour the mixture into the cold canister, and mix until thickened, about 20 minutes. Add the crumbled cookies during the last five minutes of mixing. The ice cream will have a soft, creamy texture.

I haven't tried this, but I have all the ingredients, so am going to give it a whirl (excuse the pun) today.

What about you, REDS and readers? Have you made pumpkin ice cream? What gets you in the mood for the changing of the season?

In a medium mixing bowl, use a hand mixer on low speed to combine the milk, brown sugar, and molasses until the sugar is dissolved, about 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the pumpkin purée, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg.
Add heavy cream and vanilla. Turn the machine on; pour the mixture into freezer bowl, and let mix until thickened, about 20 to 25 minutes. Add the crumbled cookies during the last 5 minutes of mixing. The ice cream will have a soft, creamy texture. If a firmer consistency is desired, transfer the ice cream to an airtight container and place in freezer for about 2 hours.
Remove from freezer about 15 minutes before serving. - See more at:


1-1/2 cups whole milk
1 cup packed light or dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons molasses or dark corn syrup
1-3/4 cups pumpkin purée (solid pack pumpkin)
1-1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
2-1/2 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup crumbled ginger snaps, vanilla butter cookies, or graham crackers


In a medium mixing bowl, use a hand mixer on low speed to combine the milk, brown sugar, and molasses until the sugar is dissolved, about 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the pumpkin purée, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg.
Add heavy cream and vanilla. Turn the machine on; pour the mixture into freezer bowl, and let mix until thickened, about 20 to 25 minutes. Add the crumbled cookies during the last 5 minutes of mixing. The ice cream will have a soft, creamy texture. If a firmer consistency is desired, transfer the ice cream to an airtight container and place in freezer for about 2 hours.
Remove from freezer about 15 minutes before serving.
- See more at:


1-1/2 cups whole milk
1 cup packed light or dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons molasses or dark corn syrup
1-3/4 cups pumpkin purée (solid pack pumpkin)
1-1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
2-1/2 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup crumbled ginger snaps, vanilla butter cookies, or graham crackers


In a medium mixing bowl, use a hand mixer on low speed to combine the milk, brown sugar, and molasses until the sugar is dissolved, about 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the pumpkin purée, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg.
Add heavy cream and vanilla. Turn the machine on; pour the mixture into freezer bowl, and let mix until thickened, about 20 to 25 minutes. Add the crumbled cookies during the last 5 minutes of mixing. The ice cream will have a soft, creamy texture. If a firmer consistency is desired, transfer the ice cream to an airtight container and place in freezer for about 2 hours.
Remove from freezer about 15 minutes before serving.
- See more at:

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Debs Crombie: Stop and Smell the Roses

DEBORAH CROMBIE: This week we've been talking about scheduling and focusing and mono-tasking and getting more done. All very well, and we all want to be more productive. (And for those of us who write, we all want to write books faster!) But--

Our JRW special contributor Kaye Barley added a word of wisdom. In fact, she posted a little short video of older women talking about things they wish they'd done more of. And  you know what? Nowhere in those comments was there anything about staying on task and increasing your productivity.

They wished they had spent more time just BEING. So I'm adding my bit--a little ode to porch swings and roses. It is porch swing season here. (It's too hot in the summer, even at night, to enjoy it.)  But it's glorious now, with the temps dropping down in the 60s at night, so evenings and mornings are pleasant, and even midday doesn't feel too bad in the shade. I love autumn, it's my favorite time of year. There is something so evocative in the shortening days and the knowledge that the flowers will be gone soon. There's an urge to draw in, to contemplate, to feel life ebbing and flowing. 

Above is one of my two front porch swings, complete with the autumn cushions, and Pookie (don't ask...) our outdoor kitty. I'm making some time every day to sit in the swing for a few minutes and give her some much-appreciated company. And I'm admiring the last bloom of our little mini-roses. These were all, like the cat, rescues--little gift roses that you buy in the supermarket, most of which get thrown away when they've finished their bloom. I've stuck them in porch pots, where they thrive happily through Texas winters AND summers. 

So REDS and readers, tell us one thing that you do when you want to take a moment to just BE.

And REDS ALERT! The winners of D.E. Ireland's MOVE YOUR BLOOMING CORPSE are Jane Reads, Plum Gaga, and Michelle Dorsey. Email me with your addresses, ladies.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Libby Hellman--Today We Can All Be Spies

DEBORAH CROMBIE: What a roller coaster week! And what better to top it off than SPIES

Who else is fascinated by spy stories? Not just Bond-esque, but real life spies, those shadowy figures who risked everything to save the world--or damn it. And do you ever wonder how espionage has changed? Here's our Jungle Red friend Libby Fischer Hellman to give us the scoop.


Hi, Reds and Reds fans. It’s great to be back at the party. Thanks for having me.

I’ve been focusing on espionage recently. Which means reading as many fiction and non-fiction accounts as I can, watching a lot of espionage movies (you can imagine how hard that’s been ), and keeping up with the news. I visited the Spy Museum in Washington and Bletchley Park in the UK. The result so far is a novella called The Incidental Spy, set in the early years of the Manhattan Project in Chicago. It’s just been published, and it’s about a German refugee who is forced to spy on the nuclear fission experiments at the University of Chicago from 1940 to 1942.

Today, though, I’d like to share my thoughts with you about the world of espionage and how it’s changed. Because it has changed. Significantly. At the same time, though, it’s brought back some tradecraft I assumed was obsolete.

World War Two at Home

Depending to whom you’re talking, Prague and/or Lisbon were the European spy capitals during the Second World War. Anyone was a potential spy, and they held the future of the world in their hands – the stakes were that high. Unfortunately, many spies were notoriously unreliable or became double agents when their marks realized they were being spied upon.
At home, though, it was a different story. America was physically untouched by the war (except for war bonds and rationing and families sending loved ones into battle). The reality was that if you were, say a farmer in the Midwest, it was possible to ignore the war and go about your business. Which made spying a little easier. Most Americans didn’t constantly look over their shoulder fearing someone was out to steal
private secrets.

Still, there were some infamous (and unreliable) spies. Take Doctor Ignatz Griebel, who served in the German Army during World War I. He emigrated to the US, became an American citizen, and eventually became the president of the Friends of the New Germany, which eventually merged into the German-American Bund. When Griebel was arrested by the FBI, he revealed the details behind a German spy ring operating in the U.S.  A Federal grand jury subpoenaed him, but in 1938 he escaped aboard the German ship Breman, taking vital intelligence with him. And in a brazen act of chutzpah, he even tried to come back to America after the war, but was arrested before disappearing into obscurity.

Dr. Ignatz Griebel
The Duquesne spy ring was a German attempt to spy on the US arms industry and their preparations for war. The network's head, Frederick 'Fritz' Joubert Duquesne, hated the Brits, fought for the Boers, and worked for German intelligence during World War I. He was determined to keep the USA neutral and out of the war.  His ring came to a rapid end, thanks to William Sebold, a freshly-naturalized US citizen who ended up working for the FBI. 33 people were tried as a result of the ring's break-up, 19 pleaded guilty and the rest were found guilty anyway. One Abwehr officer later said the ring's demise proved the 'death blow' of wartime German espionage on US shores.

Atomic Spies

When we think of the so-called Atomic spies, based in the US, UK and Canada, we, of course, think of the Rosenbergs who gave away information about the US nuclear weapons program to the Soviets. In reality, though, physicist Klaus Fuchs was probably the most notorious Communist spy—he actually worked on the Manhattan Project and had extensive access to high-level scientific data. The Venona project intercepted Soviet intelligence reports sent during and after the war, which gave US officials clues to his identity. Many believe there had to be other spies as well, perhaps even at Los Alamos. Rumors swirled about Oppenheimer
Klaus Fuchs
and David Greenglass, and their reputations were ruined forever.

The 1950s and McCarthyism

As fear of the Nazis waned, America's fear of communism grew, and our reaction to alleged spies in our midst exploded. Government official Alger Hiss was accused of being a communist spy. After a mistrial he was tried again in 1950, convicted of three counts of perjury, and served over three years in prison. (Thank you, Richard Nixon). Throughout his trial and after, he denied any wrongdoing.

That paved the way for McCarthyism, which kick-started an extraordinary period of Communist-driven fear in the 1950s. As you probably know, thousands of American citizens, from government workers to movie stars, were asked by a congressional panel: "Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist party?”  Their answers weren't always taken at face value and countless reputations, careers, and lives were ruined. The public seemed not to react to the horrors of the situation until Joseph Welch uttered the famous question “Have you no sense of decency sir?” at the Army-McCarthy hearings, and Edward R Murrow took him down on national TV.

Lack of Clarity Today

Today the game has changed. Technology has proven to be a double-edged sword. The motivation for espionage has changed, too. In the past it was truly a matter of life or death. Soldiers’ lives were at stake during the war; everyone was at risk during the atomic bomb scares. There was a clarity to espionage. There were good guys and bad guys, and we were always the good guys.

It’s not so simple today. While anyone could be a spy during the war, today we all can be spies all the time. All we need is a camera, perhaps a drone, a bug on a phone, a computer hacker, or a really good decryption code.

Which makes figuring out who’s spying on whom and why murky. Today governments spy on individuals. Corporations spy on competitors. Nation states spy on each other. And while espionage used to be motivated by the defense of one’s nation, we now know espionage is used for corporate advantage…manipulating election results… or stealing the latest technological advances.

Ironically, that has brought some of the old spy tradecraft back in vogue. Why write an encrypted email when you can just arrange a dead drop? Why risk being recognized on a video camera when you can disguise yourself with a wig and pair of glasses? (Don’t forget to change your shoes.) And that American flag you used last July 4th? Plant it in a flower pot to signal a meet. Who’s going to know?

Our reaction to the murkiness of espionage is equally murky, and I could go on for another three pages about it. If I do, though, the Reds will have me for lunch. Happily, I have a new Ellie Foreman book coming out next March (it’s been over 10 years since the last one), and it deals with —what else? — espionage in the post-Snowden era and our reaction to it. It’s called Jump Cut, and I’ll (hopefully) be back to talk about it next year. Meanwhile, what do you think about the current state of espionage? Or do you refuse to think about it at all? What tradecraft techniques do you admire? DId you ever want to be a spy? Why or why not?

Libby Fischer Hellmann left a career in broadcast news in Washington, DC and moved to Chicago
35 years ago, where she, naturally, began to write gritty crime fiction. Twelve novels and twenty short stories later, she claims they’ll take her out of the Windy City feet first. She has been nominated for many awards in the mystery and crime writing community and has even won a few. 

DEBS: I was not only fascinated by spy stories, I played spy! My friend and I had secret drops, and codes, and I'm sure we annoyed the hell out of the neigbors by watching them with binoculars, just waiting for them to do something sinister...

What about you, REDS and readers? Any secret hankering to practice your tradecraft?

REDS ALERT: Kaye Barley, you are the winner of Peter Robinson's In the Dark Places! You know the drill:-)

And Libby, fascinating stuff. I can't wait to read The Accidental Spy. Just bought it! 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

D.E. Ireland--Going Off Script

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Check your compasses, folks! We are still across the Pond, but we've moved from freezing cold Yorkshire in the present day to London post 1912 and the fictional world of Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins. What could be more delightful?

Here are Meg Mims and Sharon  Pisacreta, writing as D.E. Ireland, to tell you about--


Basing a mystery series on real people or famous fictional characters has its advantages. Whether an author decides to make their protagonist Arthur Conan Doyle or his famous Baker Street detective, a lot of the groundwork has been done. And there’s a ready made audience comprised of readers who either are intrigued by this historical figure or love the books these characters were first seen in. Jane Austen is now sleuthing, along with her delightful heroine Elizabeth Darcy. Mozart, Jane Eyre, Beatrix Potter, and Dorothy Parker are the stars of their own mystery franchises, and Mrs. Hudson, Sherlock Holmes’s housekeeper, has joined her clever employer in the crime solving game as well.

Since our series is based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, we’ve reaped the benefit of fans who remember the play with fondness or – more likely – adored the 1964 musical My Fair Lady
starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison. Shaw made it easy for us. He not only created such memorable characters as Eliza Doolittle, Henry Higgins, and the lively Alfred Doolittle, but he wrote a lengthy epilogue on what he envisioned for these characters after the curtain went down. However, his future plans for Eliza and Higgins didn’t include solving murders, so that required some tweaking on our part.
Sometimes more than tweaking is required and we have to go completely off script. For example, we introduced Eliza’s cousin, Jack Shaw, another East Ender who pulls himself out of the slums and is now a Scotland Yard detective. Having a relative in the Yard allows Eliza and Higgins access to police information they otherwise would never be privy to. We’ve also taken the liberty of adding suffragette Sybil Chase to the cast. As Jack’s fiancée, Sybil will become a “sister” to Eliza, initiating her into the fight for women’s rights. Principled and politically driven, Sybil reflects Shaw’s own version of a modern woman.

Although Colonel Pickering has an important supporting role in Pygmalion, we adore him as much as Eliza does and plan to expand his character in future books. Certainly he must have interesting stories to tell about the many years he spent in India. And if any My Fair Lady fans were curious about the woman Alfred Doolittle was preparing to wed when he sang ‘Get Me To The Church On Time’, wonder no more. The colorful Rose Cleary Doolittle will have a chance to shine – and argue with Eliza – throughout the series.

When it comes to Shaw’s original characters, Freddy Eynsford Hill and his younger sister Clara, we’ve gone completely off script. In the play, Freddy is a love-struck swain who does little more
than moon after Eliza. Shaw claims that he and Eliza eventually marry and run their own flower shop. When they run into financial difficulties, both of them are forced to take night classes in bookkeeping. Clara is a foolish and snobbish teenager in Pygmalion. Shaw stated that she later becomes a devotee of H.G Wells, and works in a furniture store with a fellow Wellsian. We couldn’t do much with either of those scenarios. So in our second book, Clara falls in love with a young baron, who luckily takes as great a fancy to her. Will wedding bells be ringing for these two in the next book? We certainly hope so.  A pretentious 18-year-old with a new title and loads of money should make for a few interesting adventures.
As for her brother, we decided our Freddy has “a need for speed”. In Move Your Blooming Corpse, he’s a proud member of the London Rowing Team at the Henley Regatta, and may end up racing automobiles! But don’t be surprised if a romantic rival for Eliza’s attention turns up in Book Three. Where Freddy is concerned, we generally side with Higgins. We have no wish to see the independent and feisty Eliza Doolittle become Mrs. Eynsford Hill and go back to selling flowers.

We definitely went off script when Eliza became a fellow elocution teacher with Higgins in our series. Shaw made it clear in his epilogue that neither Higgins nor Pickering thought Eliza was ready to be an instructor, and that Eliza would not go against their wishes. Our Eliza is even more stubborn than Shaw imagined, and she’s been teaching her own students how to speak the King’s English from the opening chapter of our first book. This also allows us to keep her and Higgins in close proximity, especially since they live together at 27A Wimpole Street… chaperoned by Colonel Pickering and housekeeper Mrs. Pearce, of course.

While we are endlessly grateful that Shaw created such colorful and engaging personalities, we believe taking creative license with his characters refreshes and livens up the series. We hope readers agree.

And Sharon and Meg have a copy of their new book to give away to THREE lucky commenters!

Writing under the pen name D.E. Ireland , longtime friends and award winning authors Meg Mims and Sharon Pisacreta teamed up in 2013 to create a series based on George Bernard Shaw’s celebrated characters Eliza Doolittle and Professor Henry Higgins. The first book in the series, Wouldn’t It Be Deadly, was a 2014 Agatha Award finalist for Best Historical Mystery.

In Move Your Blooming Corpse, Eliza and Higgins are off to the Ascot races when Alfred Doolittle becomes part owner of the Donegal Dancer, a champion racehorse. But the victory is spoiled when a man is trampled on the course and someone is found murdered in the stables. With time running out before the next race, Eliza and Higgins investigate jealous spouses, suffragettes, and the colorful co-owners of the Donegal Dancer. But can they outrace the killer, or will there be another blooming corpse at the finish line?

DEBS: It's been years since I saw the movie, and  I did NOT remember that Jeremy Brett played Freddie! How fabulous!  I'm going to have to watch it again. And I can't wait to read Move Your Blooming Corpse.

REDS and readers, do you enjoy seeing fictional or historical characters in a new incarnation? Tell us and be eligible for one of three copies of Move Your Blooming Corpse.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Peter Robinson--In the Dark Places

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I've been a huge fan of Peter Robinson's Inspector Alan Banks novels since
the very first book appeared in 1987--in fact, I strongly suspect those first Banks books went into the hopper of my aspirations to write an English crime novel, as crazy an idea as that surely was.

So a new Alan Banks novel is always an event to be marked down on my calendar with great anticipation, and it is a very special treat to have Peter here to talk about the 19th Inspector Banks, In the Dark Places. Who but Peter Robinson could make a gripping novel out of a missing tractor, and a very, very cold Yorkshire winter? (Don't worry. The missing tractor is only the first toe in the snow...)

PETER ROBINSON: My latest DCI Banks novel is called In the Dark Places. Its real title is Abattoir Blues, but this is the fifth time US publishers have pressed a title change on me. Even though I strongly suspected it was going to happen, “abattoir” not being a word in common usage in the USA, it still stings a bit. It’s like renaming someone’s child. I suppose I harboured hopes that enough people might have heard the Nick Cave song to go for it. But no. In the Dark Places it became, which rather reminds me of a Gillian Flynn title. At least it doesn’t have “girl” in it. Naturally, I get the flack when someone buys it thinking it’s a new book and finds out she has already read it. That’s me all over, trying to con people into buying the same book twice!

Anyway, this is the one about the stolen tractor. I remember the look in my editor’s eye when I told her that, though things improved when I went on to say that there are also dismembered bodies and an exciting chase scene.

When I first got the idea for the story, I’d been seeing and hearing a lot of news items about rural crime here in North Yorkshire, where I spend part of each year. The one that really stuck in my mind concerned the theft of 1500 sheep in one night from a farm in nearby Lincolnshire. The mind boggles. The amount of organisation, manpower and equipment needed to pull off such a heist make Oceans Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen seem like child’s play. But they’re only sheep, not money, so the story never got further than the local newspaper. On the other hand, I thought, that’s somebody’s livelihood, and where you have organised crime like that, with so much at stake, you also have the potential for mischief and mayhem, which is my business. Unlicensed slaughterhouses abound (I did consider Slaughterhouse 6 as a title at one point but soon gave up on that) and overseas connections are often involved, the same kind of routes and techniques you find in people-trafficking, where life, human or animal, is cheap.

Having a team of detectives at my command is a great way of avoiding boredom, as I can bring a different character to the foreground each time. Of course, Banks and Annie remain the main characters, but in this book, DS Winsome Jackman gets a larger part than usual and we get to find out a bit more about her life. In the next Banks book, When the Music’s Over ( fingers crossed), which should be out next year, the new DC Geraldine Masterson takes centre stage.

In a wonderful stroke of irony, one reviewer remarked how apt In the Dark Places is as a title, as it refers to a song by P.J. Harvey, from her album Let England Shake. Much as I admire Polly Harvey, it was Nick Cave’s “Abattoir Blues” I had in mind. Still, Nick and Polly were an item once upon a time, and there’s something very fitting about all that. So what do you think about changing titles in general, and is it Abattoir Blues or In the Dark Places? Does it even matter to the reader (unless she buys the book twice, of course)?

DEBS: Here's more about In the Dark Places: Louise Penny calls In the Dark Places "brilliant." Tess Gerritsen says it's "thrilling." And Michael Connelly describes Peter Robinson as "amazing." One of the world's greatest suspense writers returns with this sensational new novel featuring Inspector Alan Banks, hailed by Michael Connelly as "a man for all seasons."

It's a double mystery: Two young men have vanished, and the investigation leads to two troubling clues in two different locations.

As Banks and his team scramble for answers, the inquiry takes an even darker turn when a truck careens off an icy road in a freak hailstorm. In the wreckage, rescuers find the driver, who was killed on impact, as well as another body—a body that was dead well before the crash.

Snow falls. The body count rises. And Banks, perceptive and curious as ever, feels himself being drawn deeper into a web of crime, and at its center something—or someone—dark and dangerous lying in wait.

Vibrating with tension, ingeniously plotted, and filled with soul and poignancy, In the Dark Places is a remarkable achievement from this masterful talent.

REDS and readers, what do you think about the change in titles for an American audience? (I would definitely come down on the side of Abattoir Blues.) Peter will be dropping in to say hi and answer comments this afternoon, and YES, WE HAVE A COPY OF IN THE DARK PLACES FOR A LUCKY COMMENTER!

(Can I just say--no spoilers-- that I loved Winsome's story thread in this book! And that I wanted to curl up under a blanket with a hot cup of tea while I was reading... Maybe Peter will talk to us about creating that wonderful atmosphere. Brrr...)

 REDS ALERT! The winner of David Hewson's The Flood is Susan D! (And David hopes very much that it will make your upcoming trip to Florence more enjoyable.) Email me at with your mailing address, Susan.  You know the drill:-)