Friday, June 9, 2023

What’s So Irregular About A Detective? (And A Little Quiz, Too!) by Jeri Westerson

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Jeri Westerson is one of our faves here at Jungle Red Writers, in part because she has so many toys in her toy box. Medieval noir? Yep. 14th century conman? Uh huh. Romantic urban fantasy? You bet. Victorian steampunk? She's got it. Honestly, that's not even scratching the surface. Suffice to say, whatever genre you like, Jeri has a book for you - she's like a giant heart full of chocolates, except the chocolates are novels and Jeri is not made of shiny red cardboard.

I was so thrilled when she told me about her new series, the Irregular Detective Mysteries, because like a lot of you, I love a good Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Not only is she telling us all about it today, but one lucky reader will get a free copy of The Isolated Séance!




My newest series is a Sherlockian one. But it’s not all about Holmes but somewhat Sherlock adjacent, called An Irregular Detective Mystery. It has nothing to do with one’s fiber intake. It’s about one of Holmes’ former Baker Street Irregulars, Tim Badger, who is now an adult and starting his own detective agency with a friend of his, Ben Watson (no relation to Dr. Watson). Though working under the shadow of Holmes only gets them out-flanked and just a step behind…until they find a case Holmes won’t take. 


Dr. Watson describes the original Baker Street Irregulars in A Study in Scarlet as “half a dozen of the dirtiest and most ragged street Arabs that ever I clapped eyes on.” To which Holmes remarked, “There’s more work to be got out of one of those little beggars than out of a dozen of the force.”

And he’s right, of course. He put those fellows to work.

Led by their “dirty little lieutenant” Wiggins, these street kids of all ages, usually under the age of eighteen, could go all over London, unnoticed…unseen…and listen in on the docks, in keyholes, on roof tops—and report back to Holmes. It was good work for a kid from the slums. And likely, the best they might ever have.

In which stories did they appear? Really only three.



           A Study in Scarlet  Written in 1887 but set in 1881, they managed to locate and bring the prime suspect and cabman Jefferson Hope to Baker Street and to Holmes’ clutches.

           The Sign of Four – Holmes sends them out to find the steamship Aurora for a handsome reward.

           The Crooked Man – Holmes sends out one Irregular named Simpson, to watch over Henry Wood’s lodgings.


And in just three stories, Doyle managed to capture the imagination of readers for decades to come, and have us thinking about these street urchins who are suddenly glad to be appreciated for who they are and what they can achieve with their wits and their knowledge of the lowest places in London. There’s a bit of the Artful Dodger about the Baker Street Irregulars and that’s not accidental. Though this is not Dickens’ London anymore, it’s still the Victorian period (1837 to 1901), and Dickens was published from 1836 to 1870. Sherlock Holmes didn’t appear on the scene till 1887. It’s a different London in many respects…but also the same in many respects. And that comes down to how the poor were treated.

With the creation of the 1834 Poor Law, workhouses were born. The intention was a good one. It was the execution that faltered. It was a way for the government to care for the poor, to give them food and shelter out of the weather, but also to put them to work, because in many ways, the morality of the day was to blame the poor for their lot (is this ringing familiar?) and in order to give them a proper reset, they would work off their debts in the poor house.

Even in Scrooge’s day, the average man knew what a failure the workhouses were to help the poor and treat them humanely. Because if they didn’t find a place in a workhouse, they had few other options.

But one of those options was a Penny Sit-up for the night. No, not doing sit-ups, but for a penny you could actually sit up on a hard wooden bench in a corridor for the night, to try to sleep in that position.  


If you had tuppence, that is, two pennies, you could do a Penny Hang-over. Nothing to do with over-indulging with booze, but instead literally hanging over a rope all night to (try) to sleep. One could cram in high numbers of people hanging over a rope instead of allowing them to lie on the floor. And to make sure they didn’t overstay their welcome, the rope would be let down at 5 or 6 am. 


However, the Salvation Army had coffins so you could lie on the floor. Not actual coffins, but slender rectangular-shaped boxes (no lids) laid out row on row tight together, and for four to five pennies a night, you’d get to sleep in that with an oil cloth over you, which might even include a cup of tea and a piece of bread. Fancy.  


Now, the new series isn’t as dark and dingy as these examples of poverty, but the main characters do have to rise out of their own circumstances—with a little help from the guv’nor—and use their wits and natural cleverness to solve their cases.

And now, a little quiz for you to solve. Let’s see how much you know about the Sherlock Holmes stories. Are you ready for a brief quiz? Answers below the video.


1.     What was Doyle’s original name for Sherlock Holmes?

a.      Sorenson Holmes

b.     Sherrinford Holmes

c.      It was always going to be “Sherlock” Holmes

2.     What was Holmes’ dog’s name?

a.      Toby

b.     Betsy

c.      Neither of the above

3.     Holmes’ older brother’s name was

a.      Bycroft

b.     Zoloft

c.      Mycroft

4.     Holmes’ older brother was a member of

a.      The Diogenes Club

b.     The Auto Club

c.      The National Geographic Society

5.     Who was Holmes’ landlady?

a.      Mrs. Tyne

b.     Mrs. Hudson

c.      Mrs. Avon

6.     Who were the only named Baker Street Irregulars?

a.      Fenster and Lewis

b.     Cagney and Lacey

c.      Wiggins and Simpson



Answers to the quiz.

1.     b. Sherrinford. In the original notes of Doyle’s rough draft of A Study in Scarlet, he toys with the name “Sherrinford Holmes”.

2.     c. Holmes never owned a dog himself. But he did borrow one from time to time. A dog named Toby, owned by a Mr. Sherman in The Sign of Four: The dog was an “ugly long haired, lop-eared creature, half spaniel and half lurcher, brown and white in colour, with a very clumsy waddling gait.”

3.     c. Mycroft

4.     a. Mycroft belonged to the Diogenes club.

5.     b. Though she didn’t have a name in A Study in Scarlet she soon got the name of “Mrs. Hudson.” Extra points for recognizing that the all the names in number five are also river names.

6.     c. Wiggins and Simpson. We don’t know their first names.  

JULIA: What do you love about Holmes pastiches, dear readers? Let us know, and one lucky commentor will win a copy of The Isolated Séance!

Thursday, June 8, 2023

A Day in the Neighborhood--Circa 1957


HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN. A little time travel today.  When Nick Chiarkas was a guest on House of Mystery (NBC) with Alan Warren, he was asked a question he had to think about– the primary inspiration for his novels Nunzio's Way and Weepers. 

He had to think about it, he says, because, while  both books can stand independently, they are part of the Weepers Series. Nick wanted to show that when he was growing up in the projects, even though life was hard and dangerous, there still was love and cohesion between families, friends, and neighbors.

And so he thought about that a bit more. And today, Nick takes us back to those days in the fifties. And isn't this a great photo (from his neighborhood--mothers on watch) from the time to get you in the mood?


NICK CHIARKAS: I grew up in the Al Smith housing projects in the Two Bridges neighborhood on Manhattan's Lower East Side. It was late afternoon on a sunny day in 1957. I was 13 years old and sitting on a bench in the small concrete playground near my building.

I was sitting on top of the bench-back with my feet, wearing PF canvas high-top sneakers on the bench seat. That was cool. I was alone reading a Little Lulu comic book.

Sylvester Green, tall, tough, and 16 years old, walked into the playground.

He said, "Whatcha readin', Nicky?"

"Little Lulu."

"Lemme hold your comic book."


I had to say "no," or I would be a punk.

I put up a bit of a fight, but Sylvester knocked me over the back of the bench into brittle and painful bushes that grew in the projects. He took my comic book and left. I got up and looked around; nobody saw what had happened.

Good. I dusted myself off, wiped a little blood off my face with my sleeve, and went home.


My mother met me at the door when I got to my apartment. She asked me where my comic book was.

"Ah, I must've left –"

She said, “Zitto cetriolo.” Which means "shut up, cucumber" in Italian. Why cucumber? I have no idea.

"I saw that boy, Sylvester, take your comic book."

"It's no big deal, Ma; I –"

"No big deal? Andiamo."

You guessed it, andiamo means let's go.

She grabbed my arm, and off we went to Sylvester's building. This was not good news for little Nicky, but I was counting on Sylvester being out somewhere, enjoying my comic book. As I said, it was a lovely day, and it wasn't supper time or anything—no chance he would be home.


My mother knocked on Sylvester's apartment door. Sylvester's mother opened the door. "Marie, can I help you?"

"Stella, your son took my son's comic book."

"Sylvester, give Nicky back his comic book," Stella shouted over her shoulder.

Let me point out she did not give Sylvester a chance to lie to her; she just told him what to do. Sylvester came to the door, handed me my Little Lulu comic book, and looked at me in a way that made it clear tomorrow was going to be a bad day for me since we went to the same school. My eyes and body language tried their best to explain to him that I didn't say anything. My mom just saw what had happened. No use.


My mother thanked Mrs. Green. Mrs. Green thanked my mother. That was the end of it…except for me the next day.


When I think about that story, I realize no police were involved. No one was really hurt. It seemed to me that the mothers took care of everything going on. Families knew families. Police were rarely called for anything. The benches were usually lined with women and some out-of-work men. They all watched over the neighborhood. This was the inspirational string of the family and neighbors coming together to take care of problems that tie my two novels together. And when they couldn't handle something, they knew who to go to: Nunzio's Sabino.


Despite the poverty, we (the kids growing up on those streets) felt loved and valued. Not just by our family but by our neighbors, not by the greater society, but by our neighborhood. The older women and men told us stories and shared life lessons.

 Lessons like: Don't be a bully.  Do what's right even if you catch a beating.  Be polite (please, thank you, hold a door).  Share.  Help.  Don't self-pity.  Accept responsibility.  Don't be a sore loser; if you win don't brag.  Read at the Public Library.  Be a stand-up guy. 

Mostly, I learned that it is not about what you get for what you do but what you become by doing it.


HANK: Love this! So, Reds and Readers, what lessons did you learn from your neighborhood? 

Nick Chiarkas grew up in the Al Smith housing projects in the Two Bridges neighborhood on Manhattan's Lower East Side. When he was in the fourth grade, his mother was told by the principal of P.S.#1 that "Nick was unlikely ever to complete high school, so you must steer him toward a simple and secure vocation."

 Instead, Nick became a writer with a few stops along the way: a U.S. Army Paratrooper; a New York City Police Officer; the Deputy Chief Counsel for the President's Commission on Organized Crime; and the Director of the Wisconsin State Public Defender Agency. On the way, he picked up a Doctorate from Columbia University; a Law Degree from Temple University; and was a Pickett Fellow at Harvard. How many mothers are told that their children are hopeless? How many kids with potential surrender to despair?

That's why Nick wrote Weepers and Nunzio's Way — for them.

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

A Fond Au Revoir to the Ducks

 HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Poor little Eddy. She is confused. The little female mallard is gooshing around in the leaves that remain in the tarp that covers our pool, trying to figure out what the heck is going on. (Talk about protective coloration, right? Whoa. See her?)

Yes, it's time for the pool to open, and that means it's time for the water to be drained from the tarp, and that means it's time for the ducks to leave.

They've been In our backyard pool since March of this year, but you know the story.

 “Our” first two ducks, who we named Flo and Eddy, and yes I know it's strange, but Flo is the male and Eddy is the female and that's just how it is. Their names just appeared to me that way. (Flo and Eddy, like water, you know?)

They have been coming to our backyard, as you know, every March for 27 years.

Twenty-seven years! 

The first year they arrived I was jumping up and down with delight! I remember the first words out of my mouth were: “Jonathan! Do we have any duck food?” 

Of course we did not have duck food, but we soon got it, and soon we were feeding the ducks happily.  

We had no idea what would happen, how long they would stay, whether it would be overnight or forever. We finally had to open the pool for the summer, and that was a moment of crisis. Would they stay and swim in the pool with the chlorine? Year number one, yes they did. 

Eddy arrived first, sploshing into the chlorinated pool, and it was so funny, because I could see, for the first time, her little webbed feet pushing back and forth in the now clear water. I was totally freaked out! I called the Audubon Society, panicked. 

“Listen,” I said,  “there is a duck in our pool, and there is chlorine in it! Will it hurt their feet?” The Audubon Society person paused, and then, in the most supercilious tone imaginable, said to me:  Does the chlorine hurt your feet?

Which I thought was irrelevant, but I took it to mean that it would be fine. The next day, though, Eddy came back, and sort of quacked and waddled around the patio, and then left.

I was absolutely bereft. Would I ever see the ducks again?

And then, around March 15th or so of the next year, somehow I can describe this to you, the ripples on the water in the pool tarp were just... different. 

And I said to Jonathan, “The ripples in the pool look like it's time for the ducks.” And he said, “What do you mean?” And I said “I have no idea. It just looks like... it looks like it's time.”

The next day the ducks arrived. Flo and Eddy, looking exactly like they did the year before. 

I know you know this story, so I will keep it short, but every year around March, they come, Flo and Eddy, and more ducks which we named Not-Flo, and Not-Eddy, and Mangy Duck, and No Neck, and Spot Front, and Nasty Duck, and Pretty Eddy.

You ask if we can tell them apart. Yes indeed we can, and if you watched them as much as we do, you would be able to as well. I mean think about it, if you had four, say, dachshunds, you'd be able to tell them apart, right? Same with ducks. 

And now they actually come to our back door to remind us to feed them! And gently peck on it if we don't hurry up.

So, the pool people are here today, and another season of our life is over, duck season is on pause until next year. But I know it's summer, and the pool will be fun, and it will be lovely to have sunny days and float on our rafts in the pool reading with lemonade, one of our favorite pastimes. But I know that if someone asked me “would you rather keep the pool closed and keep the ducks around?” I would say yes.

Au revoir, dear Flo and Eddy, and we are crossing wings and fingers to see you next year.


Reds and readers, what are your signs of the coming summer?