Tuesday, January 31, 2017

A Night at the Theater

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Last night, I had the extraordinary experience of seeing my characters come to life in a stage reading. Now, as someone who studied and worked as an actress (about 800 years ago) I'm no stranger to stage readings, and I've seen my share of amateur ones in recent years as each of my children has participated in the Maine Young Playwrights Festival. But this one was a first for both the author participants and the Portland Stage Company, our city's professional (Equity) theater.

In conjunction with their latest production, Arsenic and Old Lace, the PSC decided to have a readings-and-conversation night with five Maine mystery authors. The whole thing was kicked off and masterfully organized by our own Brenda Buchanan.

Amazingly, the crowd turned out. It was almost a full house! Now, the fact the theater put on a wine and beer reception with delicious Otto's pizza might have had something to do with it...

...But I think there were a lot of crime fiction lovers who would have come anyway.

 The amazing cast of actors assembled on the stage to read from Brenda's Quick Pivot, Straw Man by Gerry Boyle, The Poacher's Son by Paul Doiron, One Was A Soldier (that's mine) and a suitably scary short story by Chris Holm.

 I didn't get any pictures of the performances because I'm too darn polite to whip my phone out in the theater. But it was an impressive array of talent, both from the actors and from my fellow authors. It was interesting - none of the selections we chose (each author could submit up to three pieces for the director to review) were particularly...mysterious. All of them were character studies, with two or more people connecting - or not - for a moment. I swear, the excerpt from The Poacher's Son could make an excellent one act play with very few changes.

 Afterwards, we answered questions from the audience...

 ...on stage and off.

Fingers crossed, the PSC will be doing this event again. There are so many exceptional crime fiction writers in Maine, wouldn't it be great if all of us could get a turn in the limelight?

Many thanks to the wonderful actors who brought a part of One Was A Soldier to life: Bess Welden as Anne Ellis,

Elizabeth Freeman as Clare Fergusson,

and Whip Hubley (who managed to convey a man wearing only a towel while still fully dressed) as Russ Van Alstyne.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Girls in Cars

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: The Smithie will be going through an American rite of passage this week - she's buying her first car. She's very excited about her '04 Subaru Outback sedan, and why not? It has heated leather seats, a sunroof, low mileage, all-wheel drive and that most important element for those of us in the Northeast: no rust!

The fact the Smithie is starting off with a pretty sweet ride has nothing to do with Ross and me helping out - she waited until she was employed, had a chunk of change in savings, and was credit-worthy enough for a small loan. For the rest of us, unless we happen to have parents of means, the first car is usually best described as a clunker. Mine, for instance, was a ten-year-old yellow-and-rust Saab held together by duct tape and Bondo. It was the sort of car that depended on heavy-duty floor mats to keep water from splashing up off the road into the vehicle. It only passed inspection because I took it to an old-timer who disdained computers and who didn't have a lift in his garage.

Of course, I more than made up for it with my other first car - the one I got a share of when I married Ross. To celebrate graduating law school and nabbing a primo law firm position, he had purchased a brand-new Mazda RX-7. Blazingly fast, terribly sporty, completely and utterly impractical for Maine winters. It had NO back seat, so when Baby Smithie came along five years after we were wed, he had to sell it. Poor Ross. Maybe she'll let him drive her Outback.

How about you, Reds? What were your first cars?

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Okay, I was a spoiled kid. I'll admit it. My dad bought me a car when I was sixteen. (This being Texas, a car is not only considered a rite of passage, but essential for getting anywhere.) This allowed me to get to school and to a part time job without them having to drive me. BUT the car my dad bought me was a silver Ford Thunderbird. Not new, but, oh, was it snazzy. Leather seats. Power windows. Power pretty much everything. It was a peach of a car, and I must say I took good care of it and was a pretty responsible driver. But what was he thinking? That powerful car for an inexperienced driver?

Bless him. And now I can never hear Marc Cohn's Silver Thunderbird without thinking about my dad and that car.

JENN MCKINLAY: I drove what was affectionately called "The FBI Car". A navy blue 1976 Ford Fairmont (my parents unloaded it on me when I went to college in 1986). I can still remember how my bare skin would adhere to the baby blue vinyl interior during particularly humid summers. There was nothing pretty about it and when the temperatures reached 32 degrees in CT, from Nov through March, the radio would freeze on the local Spanish station, which is probably why I acclimated so well when I moved to AZ six years later. I only had it for college. Once I graduated and got my first librarian job, I traded up to a sweet cherry red, Pontiac Grand Am coupe with a sunroof and all the whistles and bells a single girl could want. Still, I made lots of great memories in old blue.

RHYS BOWEN: my first car? I got some money for my 21st birthday. It was a Fiat 500, bright red and so cute looking but an absolute nightmare. It broke down with monotonous regularity in the most inconvenient places. And I was living in central London with absolutely no parking places.when I found a spot, half a mile away in Regent's Park, I left the car there for weeks and took public transportation rather than lose my parking spot. Eventually I admitted defeat and sold it. My next cars were big old American klunkers. How sweet it was when I bought my first new car!

JULIA: So FIAT really does stand for Fix It Again, Tony?

INGRID THOFT: My first car wasn't strictly mine; to have its use I did a lot of carpooling my dad around!  I would often drive him to work at the hospital, then drive myself to school, and often pick him up later in the day.  It seemed to work out well for everyone involved, and I drove a nicer first car than I might have under other circumstances.  It was a 1989 Ford Probe, and it had a completely digital dashboard and was gray with a red interior.  I also remember that you could set an alarm on the dash that would sound when you exceeded a certain speed.  I discovered this one day on the way to school when an unusual noise blared from the speakers.  How thoughtful of my dad to set it without my knowledge!!

HALLIE EPHRON: I only realize now how privileged I was. My first car was a 4-year-old Impala convertible with butterscotch leather seats. I loved that car, though it was constantly breaking down. I drove it my last year and a half in high school. Never did get the hang of driving with the top down (what do you do with your hair?) No cars after that until I married and 6 years out of college we moved to New England and bought our first car, God help us, a mustard-colored Pinto station wagon that rusted almost instantly and died after 55K miles. After that we've had a yellow Escort station wagon that also rusted and died young. Ever since, we only buy brand new Honda Civics (you resell them after 200K miles) and driven them into the ground. Boring, pure reliable transportation: Heaven.

LUCY BURDETTE: 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!

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  After my high school years of driving my parents' fancy cars--seriously, a Bentley which my little brother wrecked, and a Checker, and. well, whatever, when it came time for my own first car, I had to get something less snazzy.

 My father told me he'd pay the down payment IF I handled the negotiations myself. Arrgh. I was 17. He also said I was totally on my own, except his only demand was that I refuse to pay for taxes and title.  He said asking customers to pay that was a sneaky car-dealer trick, and only stupid people paid taxes and title, and that the dealer would try it. And that if I fell for it, he would NOT pay the down payment. Okay, then.

I go to the dealer, choose a butterscotch yellow Chevrolet Vega, (so funny, there's a theme on this blog) with khaki leather seats. I negotiate like mad. At the end, the dealer says--and of course, we'll add taxes and title.

I think--oh HO! This is what my father warned me about! So I refuse. Utterly, immovably, unshakably refuse.

They try to convince me, up one side and down the other. I am adamant. After all, my down payment is on the line. I finally say: I'm sorry, if you make me pay that, the deal  is off. They look at me, in disbelief.

And finally they agree.

I get the car.

I go home, all happy, and victorious, and tell the story to my dad.

He looks at me like I'm nuts.

TAGS and title, he says. I told you TAGS and title. Everyone has to pay taxes!

Not me, I guess...

JULIA: Hank, I'm having you negotiate my next car purchase! How about you, dear readers? Tell us about your first ride...

Sunday, January 29, 2017


DEBORAH CROMBIE: On Friday, a friend suggested on Facebook, that, "If you are able, find a way to get some money into the pocket of an artist. A musician, a painter, a writer--any of those people who help us give our lives meaning and depth and joy."

What a great idea, I thought. It not only supports the artists, but it is a way of helping us feel centered and able to look positively at the world.

I only read this after I had been out for the day with a visiting friend, but I realized I had done just that. In our local kitchen store, I'd spotted a card with a beautiful watercolor painting of two green pears. When I said, "Oh, I love this!" the shop owner replied, "Let me tell you the story behind that card."

She said that her father had recently died. Her mother, an artist, had not been painting for some time. But two weeks after her father died, her mother sent her this little painting. The shop owner framed the original (which she showed us) but decided to have her mom's painting reproduced on cards and then give the proceeds from the sale of the cards to the hospice that had cared for her father with such love and kindness.

Of course I bought the card, and it's now sitting on my kitchen windowsill, to remind me of beauty, and kindness, of creativity, and of the affirmation of life.

REDs, are there any little treasures you've found recently, much-needed touchstones for the power of good?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Touchstones? Well, this actual stone is on my writing desk. I see it every time I sit down.  I consider it every day.

Jenn: A friend of mine is a writer. A reporter and then a novelist and successful at both but then life came along and she stopped writing. Recently, I got an email from her saying she was having a jewelry sale. I went and was completely blown away. She had spent the past few years making bracelets, necklaces, and earrings and the same creativity that was evident in her writing was now visible in her jewelry. I bought gifts for everyone but kept this one for myself. It reminds me of river stones that are tumbled and smoothed by the water that rushes over them and reminds me that creativity is always a part of you no matter how it manifests itself.

RHYS BOWEN: I really own touchstones! My son is really into healing stones and gave me these two worry stones which I keep in my pocket when I travel. And I find that when I am stressed, as in right now, I have to do something with my hands: knitting, sketching, beading. Anything creative attempts to make sense of life.

HALLIE: Love the card, love the bracelet.

Updating belatedly: I try to surround myself with objects that have special personal meaning that calm me. Here's a wall in my office. Each object (a cat from Kate's Mystery Books, a Christian Louboutin nail polish (my daughter has designed the interiors of his boutiques), a Virginia Woolf-holding a martini card that a dear friend sent when my first book came out, a picture that my grandbaby drew, and a wooden lady riding high on a bike that my then best friend gave me. Each loaded with happy memories and inducing calming thoughts: This too shall pass.

DEBS: I love that Hank and Rhys have actual touchstones! And I love Jenn's friend's necklace, and the fact that she invented a new channel for her creativity.

READERS, do you have special things that help you remember the creativity and joy in the world?

Saturday, January 28, 2017

REDS Remember Mary Tyler Moore

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: What a shock it was to read of the passing of Mary Tyler Moore. She was such an icon, such a central fixture in the public imagination, it seems hard to believe she could get old and die like regular mortals. That lanky, elegant figure, that swoop of brunette hair, that distinctive voice and million megawatt smile - all tied together with perfect comedic timing and the ability to convey a whole monologue in one glance.

She had a five-decade long career, but The Mary Tyler Moore show is what she'll be most remembered for. It's hard to imagine now how revolutionary it was to see a single career woman holding her own back in the early seventies. Mary Richards dated, but her life wasn't about finding a man. It was about her job, and her coworkers and friends. The show touched - lightly, amusingly - on sex, birth control, equal pay and equal opportunity, but it was Mary herself, happy and fulfilled in an office instead of wearing an apron at home, that changed perceptions and showed a different kind of life to millions of girls and young women. It feels like all of us have lost a beloved, flag-waving, feminist aunt.

Reds, what are your memories of Mary Tyler Moore?

Jenn: As a Gen-X, latchkey kid, I feel as if I was raised by Laura Petrie ("Oh, Rob!") and Mary Richards ("You've got spunk!) and I couldn't have asked for finer role models in my after school rerun watching TV time. Laura Petrie was so funny and charming and hip, while Mary was smart and clever and valued her people. As I watched her, I really believed that I could accomplish anything if I put my mind to it. What a gift for a young girl to have. What an impact to make on several generations of women. Mary Tyler Moore really could turn the world on with her smile.

HALLIE EPHRON: As a Baby Boomer, I desperately wanted her hair. That perfect flip. Of course I watched the show every week. And when I came to New York to meet with my editor for the first time, and came up out of the subway to see the Flatiron Building looming over me, it was Mary I channeled (even though I knew I wasn't in Minneapolis)... if I'd been wearing a hat I'd have flung it up in the air. "You're gonna make it after a-all!"

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Well, I cannot begin to tell you. A woman in television? Huh. I was actually working at my first TV station in 1975 and in Indianapolis--so you can imagine how hilariously must-see that show was! And the people were perfect--I still don't know how they completely understood and portrayed the types and the dynamics.  It makes me shake my head with nostalgia just thinking about it--I was in exactly the same milieu at the time it was on. We all got courage from Mary! She was so tough and vulnerable at the same time--I love when she got spunky. How did that go--didn't she hate being called spunky?  And my mother :-) got the two of us completely conflated.

RHYS BOWEN: Oh how I envied that hair! Especially when she was Laura Petrie and it flipped up in a way mine never would. I enjoyed her as Mary Richards much more because I'd worked for the BBC and I'd met some of those characters. However at the BBC I have to say that on the whole women were treated absolutely equally so it was a shock to me to find that women in other jobs were not treated like men. I was glad Mary was a role model for young women demanding equal treatment and respect.
But I'll always remember Mary for her role in Ordinary People--what a stretch for someone who had played adorable comedy. We've had a horrible twelve months of loss of our icons, haven't we. Enough, grim reaper!

INGRID THOFT:  I have to admit that I wasn't quite old enough to watch "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" when it was first on air, but I do remember catching the occasional rerun and thoroughly enjoying it.  Like Rhys, I remember MTM best for her role in "Ordinary People."  She gave a tour de force performance as the brittle, unforgiving mother, evidence of her extraordinary range.  The other thing that comes to mind when I think of MTM?  She married a man fifteen years her junior at a time when women just weren't doing that sort of thing.  Her choice of spouse was another instance in which she was blazing new paths and proving that anything men could do, women could do, too.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I grew up on Dick Van Dyke. It was my parents favorite show, and that was the only night that we were allowed to eat in the den on TV tables--what a treat! I think my dad had a big crush on MTM--she was his ideal woman. Recently I saw two episodes of the Dick Van Dyke show that had been colorized (did anyone else see those?) and her comedic timing was just brilliant. The Mary Tyler Moore show didn't make as much of an impression on me--those were years when I didn't watch much TV at all--but I watched enough to see my own role differently when I went out into the work world. Groundbreaking.

LUCY BURDETTE: I loved both of those shows too, but like Rhys and Ingrid, ORDINARY PEOPLE is the performance that sticks in my mind. (One of my all-time favorite movies.) After I saw it, I remember telling my father (who was married to an emotionally withholding woman) that he must go see it too. He must have heard something dire in my voice because he snuck off to see the movie without the wife. I think Mary Tyler Moore helped him get out of a lousy relationship!

READERS, what do you remember most about Mary Tyler Moore?

Friday, January 27, 2017

Lisa Black--The Changing Nature of News

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I've long been a big fan of Lisa Black's Theresa MacLean books, set in Cleveland. In fact, when I went to Cleveland for Bouchercon, I kept seeing Cleveland through Theresa's eyes. 

Lisa, who is herself a forensic scientist, writes the best forensic investigation novels out there. Now, Lisa had debuted a new series, also set in Cleveland, featuring forensic investigator Maggie Gardiner and detective Jack Renner, and, boy, does it have a twist.

Here Lisa shares with us some of the fascinating things Maggie learns in UNPUNISHED:


            Well, as a grizzled newspaper editor explains to my character, Maggie, in my new book Unpunished:
“News, as an entity, used to be considered so vital to democracy that the FCC required television channels to have a certain amount of public service content…as if they recognized right away what a time-suck television was going to be. That’s why TV news existed in the first place. When I was a kid you had three networks, they all had the news on at seven and you had no choice but to watch it. But ratings weren’t great—let’s face it, no one in this country has ever been as big on staying informed as we would like to think. So in the late sixties broadcasters discovered market-driven journalism. Fluff, in other words…feel-good stories, lost puppies, recipe ideas and of course, the secret lives of celebrities. It raised ratings and still satisfied the FCC code.

“But then came cable, and people started watching reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore show instead of Dan Rather. A little bit of fluff no longer sufficed. Now we have entire channels of news, quote unquote, that isn’t remotely news. Magazines are the same—they’re probably the only industry in America that’s even worse off than newspapers. Ever wonder why you can stop renewing a magazine and they keep sending it to you for another couple years? Because subscriptions don’t pay for it. Advertisers pay for it, and they want to see high circulation numbers. And corporations want to see profit. Lots and lots of profit.

And without that profit, no one can afford to create enough new content to fill an entire newspaper. Or an entire 24 hour a day news channel—that’s why I say not just newspapers, but news itself has changed.

“For instance, a lot of the people you see on broadcast news are not reporters. They will show a video segment that looks exactly like a regular old news broadcast, with some pretty person with a perky smile standing on a sidewalk with a microphone telling you about something that happened. She ends with, ‘This is Miss Perfect Teeth in Washington, D.C.’ But Miss Perfect Teeth never tells the viewing audience who she works for. You assume she works for the network, but she actually works for a PR firm or a lobbyist or a candidate. These segments--they’re called Video News Releases-- look just as good and sometimes better than the real thing. The TV channel has twenty-four hours to fill up, VNRs are available, and they’re free. Newspapers get the same thing in printed press releases. The editors got to get the paper into the rollers, and the release is there, and it’s free. So they give it to the copyeditor. Why the hell not? But it’s not news.
 “We have a whole generation growing up who don’t remember that broadcast news used to mean someone came on and told you what happened. It wasn’t four people sitting around bickering like kids on a playground about their opinion of what happened. Then they bring on ‘experts’ and ‘consultants’ who get a few minutes to push whatever agenda they’re plugging that week. They look good, sound professional, and play into the political leanings of the target audience. But when they’re done all the audience has gotten is a slightly classier version of the Jerry Springer show, which apparently keeps them entertained enough that they don’t complain. But what they don’t get is useful information.”  Such as the play-by-play in Syria.
            This is only one of the lessons that forensic scientist Maggie Gardiner learns as she is thrust into this miasma of moving targets. Along with homicide detective Jack Renner, she works to learn why the staff of the local paper keep turning into that day’s headline…and that perhaps Jack has not entirely given up the questionable ways of peacekeeping she discovered in That Darkness

Lisa Black has spent over 20 years in forensic science, first at the coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio and now as a certified latent print examiner and CSI at a Florida police dept. Her books have been translated into 6 languages, one reached the NYT Bestseller’s List and one has been optioned for film and a possible TV series. 


DEBS: And here's more about UNPUNISHED
       It begins with the kind of bizarre death that makes headlines—literally. A copy editor at the Cleveland Herald is found hanging above the grinding wheels of the newspaper assembly line. Forensic investigator Maggie Gardiner has her suspicions about this apparent suicide inside the tsunami of tensions that is the news industry today—and when the evidence suggests murder, Maggie has no choice but to place her trust in the one person she doesn’t trust at all….
        Jack Renner is a killer with a conscience, a vigilante with his own code of honor. He has only one problem: Maggie knows his secret. She insists he enforce the law, not subvert it. But when more newspaper employees are slain, Jack may be the only person who can help Maggie unmask the killer--even if Jack is still checking names off his own private list.

READERS, do you remember when news was news?