Friday, January 31, 2020

The Mathematics of Mystery

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I love math. Do you? I’m not “good” at it, whatever that mean, and I have been known to ask Alexa for percentages. (I am pretty good at figuring out how much an article of clothing costs if I know the original price and know it’s 40 percent off. It’s all about practice.)

But I love it because it has answers. There’s a thing you can find (usually) if you go about it a right way. Sometimes, and this was my downfall in class, I was never quite sure why you’d want to know it. But we all have our skills. And our limitations.

That’s one reason I am so thrilled to introduce you to the incredible and brilliant Sulari Gentill. Her newest book is AFTER SHE WROTE HIM.  (Look at that cover!)

She’s got some ideas about the connection between math and mystery writing. They connect? Yes, they do. Sulari lives on a small farm in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales, where she grows French Black Truffles and writes about murder and mayhem. And—math.
Here’s her calculation.  

The Mathematics of Mystery 
Some novelists are all but born knowing they should write.  Some study literature, or creative writing, become experts is the academic form of the art.  Some belong to families of writers and words are their legacy.
But not me.
I came to writing via the scenic route, completely oblivious to the fork in the road ahead which would lead me into this life.  Before I was a writer, I was a lawyer.  Before that, I thought I wanted be an Astrophysicist.   Indeed, it took me about a year at University, enrolled in what I have come to think of as the “Big Bang Theory” stream, to realise that I didn’t ... and, in that time, I sat through a lot of pure and applied mathematics classes.

I might bemoan those lost hours spent trying to prove one plus one equals two from first principles—actually more involved than you’d think—but I have come to realise that everything that went before I decided to write is at least material, and sometimes, more than that.  Sometimes what came before becomes technique.

Now people appear to easily see the connection between the practise of law and that of writing fiction, though I’m not sure the profession would welcome the correlation.  One doesn’t want to create the impression that lawyers make things up!  My background in mathematics, however, seems at first glance a less natural precursor to storytelling.  And yet, it is probably the greater influence on my work.

In terms of material, mathematics gave me very little, aside from the fact that I could well imagine that some of my classmates kept a couple of bodies in their refrigerators for company.  Aside from that, a knowledge of Gaussian curvature and set theory does not really contribute much to a plot and even less to the development of character.

But that year wrangling numbers did teach me a couple of things which are crucial to my work as a mystery writer.

Firstly, it ingrained the concept of logical thinking, the idea that proposition A can exist if, and only if, proposition B existed first.  This thinking is of course the kind of inductive logic we have come to regard as deductive reasoning, which is, in turn, essential for a mystery plot to hold together. 

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it taught me where the interests of mathematics and that of storytelling diverge.

One of the first things you learn in the study of mathematics is that there are many ways to arrive at the one solution and sometimes there are in fact many solutions to the one problem, all of which are “correct”.  A solution can involve a hundred pages of working, or be achieved in three elegant lines.

For a mathematician it is the elegant solution that is the holy grail.  It is the territory of the truly gifted, who can glance at a string of symbols and numerals to recognise the heart of an equation, and then know how to extract that heart with surgical precision.  I remember those students... twenty minutes after the three hour exam began they would put down their pens and sit smiling at the rest of us as we scribbled frantically, content in the knowledge that they were a species more evolved.  They were probably also the ones with the bodies in their refrigerators.

I think in my entire mathematical career I came up with an elegant solution only once, and that was more accident than design.  My answers were generally of the hundred page variety, multiple routes to reach a solution which stopped at dead ends, attempts to use theorems that did not fit, pages of increasingly panicked scrawl,  ink smeared with tears and sweat and blood, until finally, exhausted and broken, I battered out a solution that was probably correct, but  definitely not elegant.

But you see, it turns out that I’m a storyteller not a mathematician.

In the inelegant solution lies the story.  A tale of valiant attempt, of heartbreak, frustration and perseverance, sometimes of failure.  There is none of that in the brilliant three line epiphany.  The stylish solution is likely a work of genius, possibly poetry, but it is not a story.  For that, there must be those untidy attempts, those many pages of not knowing, and above all, a fear of failure.

So that misspent part of my youth spent studying mathematics taught me not only how to solve the puzzle (eventually), but the value of not doing so too cleanly. It showed me how to embrace the struggle that the genius never knows.  And that is the art of the mystery writer.

HANK: Oh, isn't that truly thought-provoking?  Speaking of which,  let me tell you a bit about Sulari’s new book, AFTER SHE WROTE HIM.
The synopsis says:
Madeleine d'Leon doesn't know where Edward came from. He is simply a character in her next book. But as she writes, he becomes all she can think about. His charm, his dark hair, his pen scratching out his latest literary novel . . .
Edward McGinnity can't get Madeleine out of his mind—softly smiling, infectiously enthusiastic, and perfectly damaged. She will be the ideal heroine for his next book.
But who is the author and who is the creation? And as the lines start to blur, who is affected when a killer finally takes flesh?
After She Wrote Him is a wildly inventive twist on the murder mystery that takes readers on a journey filled with passion, obsession, and the emptiness left behind when the real world starts to fall away.”

On the cover? Is Dean Koontz. Who says “A pure delight…cleverly conceived and brilliantly executed. Reds and readers, I cannot wait to read this.

And look how great that cover is! Just look again.

SO, Reds and readers, how do you feel about math? And a copy of AFTER SHE WROTE HIM to one very lucky commenter!

A reformed lawyer, Sulari Gentill is the award-winning author of the Rowland Sinclair Mysteries, which chronicle the life and adventures of her 1930s Australian gentleman artist, and the Hero Trilogy, based on the myths and epics of the ancient world. 
Sulari has won and been shortlisted in many awards including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Australian Book Industry Awards, the Davitt Awards, the Ned Kelly Awards, and the Scarlett Stiletto Awards.  She was the inaugural Eminent Writer in Residence at the Australian Museum of Democracy. 
Most recently, Crossing the Lines, an unusual postmodern mystery—which will be released in the US by Poisoned Pen Press in April 2020 as After She Wrote Him—won the 2018 Ned Kelly Award for Best Crime Novel.  Give the Devil His Due, the 7th in Rowland Sinclair Mysteries, was just published.
She lives on a small farm in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales. 
@sularigentill (Twitter and Instagram)

Thursday, January 30, 2020

A Room with A View at The Palace--in San Francisco

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Where to start. This is the most fascinating thing ever, and I could give the fabulous Ann Parker (and her newest book
MORTAL MUSIC)  a big intro and tease you into reading this amazing view into history.

But I know you, darling Reds and readers. Let me just say a few  words: Sarah Bernhardt. Lily Langtry. Tigers.  Enrico Caruso. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake. 

Are you skipping ahead? Of course you are.

A Room at the Palace 
          By Ann Parker

When Inez Stannert, the protagonist of my Silver Rush historical mystery series, left the Rocky Mountain mining town of Leadville, Colorado, to settle in San Francisco, California, she needed a place to stay. Such initial thinking led me to exploring what hotels existed in 1881 in "the Paris of the West." 

One place in particular cropped up again and again: The Palace Hotel. The Palace, the brain-child of San Francisco banker and investor William C. Ralston, opened in October 1875 and was well established by the time Inez and her 12-year-old ward, Antonia Gizzi, would have made their way to the city.

  Engraved illustration of the original Palace Hotel in San Francisco (1887).

Luckily for me, information about the Palace Hotel liberally dots the research landscape. It was renowned in its time, and no wonder—it was not only magnificent, it was HUGE, seven stories tall and covering an entire city block downtown. Each of its 755 guest rooms had a bay window overlooking the street below and a private bathroom. (In 1875, private bathrooms were a big deal.)

Carriages and hacks brought passengers up a circular driveway into the "grand court," which featured a tropical garden, statuary, and fountains and an enormous glass skylight seven stories above. Hotel guests and residents could lean over the balustrades on the various levels and watch the rich and famous come and go below.

And oh, there were many rich and famous who paraded across its marble floors and ascended the redwood-paneled "rising rooms" (aka elevators). 

For instance, general and former U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant stopped there in 1879. (Later in that same trip, he visited Leadville, Colorado. His visit there plays a crucial role in two early Silver Rush books—Iron Ties and Leaden Skies, but I digress.) Civil War generals Philip Sheridan and William T. Sherman were also feted at the Palace. Visitors representing the literary arts included Rudyard Kipling, Oscar Wilde, Julia Ward Howe, and newspaper-publisher and writer Miriam Leslie (who managed Leslie's Weekly after her husband's death).

What interested me most were the stories of various nineteenth and early twentieth century singers and actors and actresses who stayed within its walls. One of the better-known guests was the tenor Enrico Caruso, who was in the hotel when the famous 1906 earthquake struck. (One oft-told tale is that he came to the balcony and sang to calm the hysterical masses, however the story is apparently apocryphal. You can read an account of what really went down here on SF Gate.) 

Besides Caruso, luminaries included opera singers Adelina Patti and Emma Nevada and actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Lilly Langtry. 

In 1887, Bernhardt arrived at her eight-room Palace Hotel suite, surrounded by a mountain of baggage and her pet parrot and baby tiger. Langtry checked in with thirty-two trunks and twenty-eight leather hat-boxes and valises, while Patti bested those numbers with thirty-six trunks and countless other bits of luggage. As I pored over descriptions of the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of these performers and others, Theia Carrington Drake—the fictional prima donna of Mortal Music—took form in my imagination.

 Lillie Langtry and Sarah Bernhardt were both guests at the Palace Hotel, although not at the same time, as far as I can tell.

As I researched the hotel's history, I also became intrigued by the story of the staff who, visible and invisible, kept the Palace running. Warren Leland, the original manager, hired nearly 200 African-American hotel employees—a very unusual move in 1870s San Francisco. 

They occupied highly coveted positions at what was described as "the largest, most exclusive hotel west of the Mississippi." Around 150 men were hired to be waiters, bellmen, porters, and cooks, while a goodly number of women took positions as chambermaids. The book Pioneer Urbanites: A Social and Cultural History of Black San Francisco by Douglas Henry Daniels, notes "... the salaries were good, and the patrons gave handsome tips." However, the situation did not last. 

When new management took over in the late 1880s, black cooks and waiters were immediately fired and instantly replaced with white employees. This 1889 article in the Daily Alta California provides some background.

But the story of the Palace Hotel is more than glitter and glamor and upstairs/downstairs. With more than a thousand souls living or working within its walls, the Palace was a city within a city. Bonanza Inn sums it up nicely:

"Whatever happened elsewhere in the way of human behavior was certain sooner or later to happen there. Within its walls men and women schemed and quarreled, gambled away fortunes and conducted profitable businesses, drank to excess and delivered lectures on temperance, lived in adultery and led exemplary lives—all according to their preferences and their opportunities... "

This nineteenth-century "city within a city" proved the perfect place for me to bring my fictional diva Theia Carrington Drake, her newspaper-publisher husband, and their entourage and for me to kickstart Mortal Music's tale of mystery, murder, and deception. 

And I suspect that, like many of the hotel's esteemed visitors from the past, I will return there again in the future.

HANK: Oh, I am swooning. Have you been to the Palace Hotel? ANY palace hotel? It reminds me of the line from that movie Grand Hotel--"people come and people go, but there is always the Grand Hotel." 

What's the most wonderful hotel you've ever visited?

And a copy of MORTAL MUSIC to one lucky commenter!

And Ann Says: PS: The Palace Hotel was destroyed in the fire following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. It was rebuilt, and remains a hotel today. You can visit, have brunch at the Garden Court restaurant with its vaulted glass dome above, and use your imagination to time-travel to nineteenth-century San Francisco. For more information, check out A Brief Illustrated History of the Palace Hotel by Bruce Cooper.

Ann Parker is a science writer by day and historical mystery writer at night. Her award-winning Silver Rush mystery series, published by Poisoned Pen Press (a Sourcebooks imprint), is set primarily in 1880s Colorado, and more recently in San Francisco, the "Paris of the West." The series was named a Booksellers Favorite by the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association. 

Mortal Music is the seventh and newest in the series. For more information about Ann and her books (and links to some really fun historical tidbits about Leadville and San Francisco), click here. 

MORTAL MUSIC (Silver Rush Book 7) 

"Richly nuanced period details and vivid characters enhance a plot that takes some surprising turns." —Publishers Weekly