Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Mark Pryor Talks Rubbish--Literally

DEBORAH CROMBIE: It is always a treat to have my friend Mark Pryor as a guest here on JRW, and he's here today to talk about (at least partly!) his new Hugo Marston novel, THE FRENCH WIDOW. I have been a huge fan of this series from the very first book, THE BOOKSELLER. Mark is an Englishman who lives in Texas, where he's a prosecutor, and his protagonist, Hugo Marston, a former FBI profiler, is a Texan who lives in Paris and works for the U.S. Embassy as head of security. It's a great international combination!

MARK PRYOR: I would like to begin with a nugget of wisdom that I’ve been sharing as widely as I can these past few months. It comes from a wise young woman aged just fifteen, and arose from our nightly chat about life, the world, and whatever else. We were talking about talking. About who we feel able to talk to, share our problems with. It was a winding, random chat that I couldn’t possibly recreate but I do know we agreed that there’s really only one person we both felt we could tell our trouble to, tell him absolutely anything, whatever was in our heart or our mind.

Now, Natalie, my daughter, isn’t just a philosopher she’s a budding artist, so for my birthday a few weeks after that chat she depicted our shared conclusion on a square of canvas, and I’m delighted to share it with you today. Feel free to use it, no charge whatsoever.

Can you argue with that? No, I didn’t think so….

Now, I should say something about writing, and I’m delighted to be able to do so on this wonderful blog. I thought I might write about Covid-19 and how I’ve been coping, but then I thought, No, we all need a break from that darned virus. So, other than the previous sentence, Covid-19 will not be mentioned. Oh, that sentence too… anyway, onward.

I know, let’s talk rubbish. Literally.

As a criminal prosecutor and a crime writer, one of the questions I get asked the most is: Do you take cases from your day job and use them in your fiction?

It’s a good question, because having prosecuted multiple murderers, robbers, thieves, rapists, and burglars, you’d think my bucket of ideas would be regularly topped up. But here’s the thing about real crime—it’s usually one of two things, either grotesquely mundane or too ridiculous to be believable. And yes, I have an example.

Imagine this: you’re working at a recycling center, a large warehouse of a space, and you’re at the far end of the conveyor belt, which is lined with people in heavy gloves sorting through the recycled items moving slowly toward you. You’re pulling off glass and cardboard, plastic and metal, throwing each piece in the right bin. Suddenly, the person next to you raises his voice over the hum of the belt and the clatter of goods hitting their respective containers, and he says, “Who the heck would recycle a mannequin?”

You look down the line to see what he’s talking about, and you see people pointing in horror. Someone hits the red button to stop the conveyor belt and everyone steps back, because it’s not a mannequin at all. It’s the crumpled body of a man in his fifties, broken and bloodied and partly covered with whatever else had traveled in the recycling can with him.

This happened, right here in Austin, and it was a murder case I prosecuted. Now, I will grant you, so far it sounds like a great start to a novel, right? And it gets better (for a while)….

The homicide detective responded to the scene and was smart. Brilliant even. Once the Crime Scene Unit had taken photos the CSU tech wanted to move the debris off the body to see if they could determine a cause of death. The detective told them not to.

Instead, she started looking closely at the papers on and around the body. Why? She wanted to find pieces of mail in the hopes they’d have an address on them. After all, if they were on the body they’d likely have been in the same can, and that could pinpoint the murder location.

Genius, because it did. Mail on top of the body led them to a barely-used little church, where they found a recycling can with blood on it. That blood was a match for the victim. Nearby video cameras caught several people, including the victim, hanging out there the previous day—a man and a woman. They were identified, and the man confessed to the murder.

Great story, yes? But here’s the thing, the nugget of reality that explodes this wee tale into too many pieces, the kernel of fact that would render this apparently clever tale into a disaster of crime fiction. Remember, they cleverly found the recycling can, right? Now can you guess what they found right next to the recycling can?

Yep. A trash can. You see, it’s very common knowledge here that if you put something (or someone!) in a trash can, it gets picked up by the automated arm on the trash truck, compacted inside it, and then dumped into a giant pit in the middle of nowhere. You put something of value in the trash can by mistake, that’s tough luck because you’ll never see it again. Gone for good.

So imagine the story I’m telling, with a murderer standing there in the night. He has a dead body over his shoulder, and he’s looking back and forth between a trash can and a recycling can. Why in heaven’s name would he choose the recycling can? Any half-skeptical reader would throw the book across the room if he did that in fiction. Quite rightly.

But this gentleman, in real life, did exactly that. I don’t know why, he just did.

Thereby both creating, and ruining, a jolly good crime story.


Mark Pryor is a former newspaper reporter from England, and now a prosecutor with the Travis County District Attorney's Office, in Austin, Texas. He is the author of the Hugo Marston mystery series, set in Paris, London, and Barcelona. The first in the series, THE BOOKSELLER, was a Library Journal Debut of the Month, and called "unputdownable" by, and the series has been featured in the New York Times and was recently optioned for film/TV. Mark is also the author of the psychological thrillers, HOLLOW MAN, and its sequel, DOMINIC.  As a prosecutor, he has appeared on CBS News's 48 Hours and Discovery Channel's Discovery ID: Cold Blood. He lives in Austin, Texas.

Here's Mark in Monmartre. Does that look like the perfect place to write???

A young American woman is attacked at a historic Paris chateau and four paintings are stolen the same night, drawing Hugo Marston into a case where everyone seems like a suspect. To solve this mystery Hugo must crack the secrets of the icy and arrogant Lambourd family, who seem more interested in protecting their good name than future victims. Just as Hugo thinks he’s close, some of the paintings mysteriously reappear, at the very same time that one of his suspects goes missing.

DEBS: I can't wait to dive into this one! REDS and readers, just how much reality do you want in your fictional crimes? As Mark points out, most murders in real life are not very clever--but would we want to read about them?

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Double Your Fun with Two Christmas Cozies

DEBORAH CROMBIE: We have a double helping of book fun for you today! Jungle Red friends Edith Maxwell (as Maddie Day) and Maya Corrigan both have brand new Christmas-themed mysteries. And, yes, we really do need to start getting in the mood. Christmas will be here before we know it. Here are Maddie and Maya with some holiday cheer!


 A Couple of Recipe-Wielding, Pseudonym-Toting Authors

Maddie: Thanks, Debs, for hosting Maya and me! When we realized we both had Christmas cozies coming out the same day (September 29), we thought a joint appearance would be more fun than going solo, so we’re going to interview each other. The Reds community gets two for the price of one! And we’re both giving away a copy of our new books, too.

Maya, Gingerdead Man (best title, ever) features a Dickens of a Holiday Festival, and your protagonist Val throws a tea for the volunteers – who are all in costume. It’s a fabulous visual. How did you think up a Dickens-themed holiday festival? Have you ever been to one like it?

 Maya: The idea came from one of my critique partners, Carolyn Mulford. Though I’ve never been to a Dickens Festival, I found photos and programs online from several festivals with volunteers dressed as Dickens characters. It was a perfect fit for my series. My previous books in the series, Crypt Suzette and S’more Murders, had scenes with costumed, role-playing characters. Costumes can disguise people, but the choice of a costume can reveal someone’s true nature. The killer who crashes the tea party in Gingerdead Man is shrouded in black like the eeriest Dickens ghost from A Christmas Carol. The ghost gives each person a gift. When Santa opens his, he finds a gingerbread man, but it doesn’t have raisin eyes and an icing smile. Instead, it’s a skeleton with bones traced in white icing—a gingerdead man. I bet you can guess what the murder weapon is. 

Speaking of skeletons, Maddie, you have one in Candy Slain Murder, only it’s a real skeleton, not an edible one. Your main character, Robbie, like mine, runs a café. How did you incorporate holiday motifs in your mystery? 

 Maddie: Robbie decorates her country store with garlands and tiny white lights. She puts up a freshly cut tree and decorates it with her boyfriend, Abe, and his teen son, Sean, who brings holly-shaped cookies his grandma made. The three of them walk downtown for the tree-lighting and visit from Santa, who drives in on an antique fire truck driven by Mrs. Santa. Unfortunately, Danna, Robbie’s assistant, gets in a fight with an aggressive local photographer, which kind of spoils the event.

And then we have the food and the recipes, which we both include in the books. In Candy Slain Murder, Robbie Jordan and her assistants work hard to come up with Christmas breakfast and lunch specials that look festive. They make a spinach and red pepper egg bake, a Noel omelet, and a split pea soup that includes fresh peas and minced fresh tomatoes. They serve gingerbread people and red-and-green sugar cookies, too. But at Pans ‘N Pancakes, they can use as many ingredients as they want. Your book recipes always have only five ingredients. Is it hard to come up with those?

 Maya: When I was a Mom with two part-time jobs and two preschoolers, I began collecting easy recipes so I could cook fast. Besides the recipes I’ve used for years, countless five-ingredient cookbooks are out there. I’d rather be able to use a few more ingredients for the book’s recipes, but five works with my mystery framework—five suspects, five clues, and five-ingredient recipes. I found it hard to stick to just five suspects in Gingerdead Man. With two seemingly unrelated deaths and no one person with a motive for both crimes, I had to juggle two different sets of suspects. They’re winnowed down as the story progresses, but the connection between the two deaths doesn’t become clear until the end. 

 Maddie, you also have multiple victims in Candy Slain Murder, but a different kind of challenge. One victim shows up as a skeleton. How did Robbie go about investigating a long-ago death, and have you incorporated cold cases in other mysteries?

Maddie: Good question! I don’t think I’ve used a cold case before. But this one kind of slammed Robbie in the face, when Abe spies the skeleton in the attic of a house where the roof was opened to put out a fire. Robbie does what she does best (next to cooking) and digs into the disappearance of a local woman a decade earlier. She sneaks a peek at some of the woman’s diaries from before she dies, and she visits the hospital where the woman’s husband practices.

A different kind of cold case in this book is when a young man shows up claiming to be Danna’s older half-brother. The problem is, growing up as the single child of a single mother, she’d never heard about any siblings, half or otherwise. I don’t want to spoil the story, but it gets complicated, and stems from an issue that formerly was more scandalous than it is for many these days.

Most people think of cozy mysteries as light and humorous, but they also tackle familial and societal issues familiar to readers. Real life has real-life problems, and I don’t shrink from including them in books – but only as a backdrop to the mystery.

Tell us about that aspect of your book, Maya.

Maya: A situation many families face comes up: what to do about an aging parent who needs more care than is available at home. Val caters a birthday dinner for an older man and overhears an argument his daughters have about whether and how to convince him to give up his house. Related to his living situation is the status of the young immigrant woman who’s been his live-in aide and is in a precarious economic and legal position.

Maddie: Both are current and timely. How about pen names which we both write under? Were you asked to use one, or was it your own choice?

Maya: I’ve written nonfiction and short stories using my first, middle, and last names. For this series, which I knew would come out as a small paperback, I combined and shortened my first and middle name so it would fit better on the cover. In Gingerdead Man and other books, I’ve created characters with pseudonyms, aka, aliases. Like a costume, an alias disguises your identity, but your choice of a name can be a clue to who you really are.  

 So, Maddie, are your pen names a way to hide your identity and why did you choose them?

Maddie: That’s funny. No hiding for me, since I do my best to link my names everywhere I can. My name since birth has been Edith Maxwell, and my Agatha Award-winning Quaker Midwife Mysteries are written under that name (book #6, Taken Too Soon, released September 8!). Maddie was born five years ago with the first Country Store Mystery, when my editor wanted me to use a different name than Edith. Here’s why. The Local Foods Mysteries series was by Maxwell but, after five books, the contract was not renewed. Kensington wanted the new series to look like it was written by someone else, but they never said I couldn’t connect the names. The series has done so well, Maddie Day also writes my newest series, the Cozy Capers Book Group Mysteries.

 Maya: Thank you again to Deborah and all the Jungle Red Writers for hosting Maddie and me. May we all meet again in person very soon.

Readers: What’s your favorite season for books to be set in? Do you seek out books by a favorite author’s alter ego? Have you been surprised to learn two authors were the same person? Each of us will send a signed copy of our new book to a lucky winner!


In Candy Slain Murder, Country Store owner Robbie Jordan’s life seems merry and as bright as the Christmas lights glistening around South Lick, Indiana – until a man claims to be the long-lost half-brother of Robbie’s assistant. A fire destroys the home of a controversial anesthesiologist, exposing skeletal remains in his attic. The twin of the long-dead woman is murdered. Unavoidably intrigued, all Robbie wants for Christmas is to stop her winter wonderland from becoming a real nightmare.

Maddie Day pens the Country Store Mysteries and the Cozy Capers Book Group Mysteries. Agatha Award winning Edith Maxwell writes the historical Quaker Midwife Mysteries and short crime fiction. With twenty-three mysteries in print and more underway, Day/Maxwell lives with her beau and their energizer kitten north of Boston, where she writes, gardens, cooks, and wastes time on Facebook. She hopes you’ll find her on social media under both names, on, and at her web site.


Gingerdead Man: During Bayport's Dickens of a Holiday festival, Val hosts a tea party for the festival's costumed volunteers. Robed in black, a party crasher hands out gingerbread men with white icing skeleton bones. Though the creepy cookie—a gingerdead man—looks like a Halloween leftover, cookie addict Santa can’t resist it, gobbles it up, and keels over. His death puts a damper on the festivities, and then someone else dies from eating a sweet gift. To restore the holiday spirit, Val and Granddad must stop the murderer from baking more deadly treats.

Maya Corrigan writes the Five-Ingredient Mysteries. They feature a café manager and her live-wire grandfather, the Codger Cook, who solve murders in a historic Chesapeake Bay town. She’s also written nonfiction and short stories as Mary Ann Corrigan. She lives in a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C. When not reading and writing, she enjoys theater, travel, trivia, cooking, and crosswords. Connect with her through her website,, where you’ll find book news, recipes, and mystery history anecdotes and trivia.  

DEBS: I just wanted to add that my town used to have a Dickens festival on the town square every year, on Thanksgiving weekend. I'm not sure why they stopped but I wonder if it might have had something to do with heavy Victorian costumes and unseasonably warm Texas weather.... There were no murders (that I know of!)



Monday, September 28, 2020

Silly Little Motivators

DEBORAH CROMBIE: While only some of us have deadlines, all of us sometimes need a bit of help getting through our daily to-do lists, and we all have little tricks to encourage ourselves. When I'm trying to meet my writing goals, for instance, I give myself the grown-up equivalent of  gold stars. For every productive writing sprint during the day, I get to add a snippet of book-spined washi tape for that period in my weekly planner. (Washi tape is decorative masking tape, used for journaling and crafts.) The more words I've written, the bigger the piece of tape. I know this sounds really silly, but nothing makes me happier than looking back at my week and seeing two or three big sections of book tape in every day's column. I give myself a big pat on the back.


Here's a dummy page with a perfect writing day! (I'm not showing anyone a real page, as I use the weekly planner to write down EVERYTHING, from the weather to what we had for dinner, and they are VERY messy.)



I also write easy things on my to-do list just so I can cross them off. (I'll bet I'm not the only one.) This works on the theory that if I feel like I'm productive, I am more productive. Makes sense, right?

And there are the little daily rituals. If I write until five o'clock, I can have a cup of tea and half a piece of shortbread to keep me at the computer until dinner. Hey, it works, and that's usually my best writing sprint of the day. (It's probably the caffeine and the smidgen of sugar kicking my brain into gear…)

Of course, food rewards can be tricky, as I"m sure we all know. Just don't anybody mention cupcakes, or I might be in big trouble. 


Reds, what are your secret little motivators for getting things done?

RHYS BOWEN:  Debs, I would find that tape stressful, I know. It would stick to the wrong things, get tangled up. I’m hopeless with sticky tape

I got Rocket book for Christmas. It is a notebook you can erase when you are done. Also you take a shot with the smart phone app and a note is transferred to Evernote or what you use. I find it satisfying to erase those notes

I’m a morning person I like to get writing after breakfast and finish by lunchtime. Afternoon is for more secretarial stuff. I have to do five pages a day. I write the page numbers ahead in my agenda and I’m thrilled when I get ahead 

Having said that I’ve been so stressed at living with constant worry that I’m not working at my usual speed. Do you find it’s hard to find energy?

HALLIE EPHRON: Lists do it for me. So satisfying, I agree, to tick the boxes. But my lists (I confess) or more so I won’t forget rather than as motivation. My brain is a complete sieve when it comes to remembering to do stuff… and then there are the times when I do it AGAIN because I’ve forgotten that I did it. 



LUCY BURDETTE: Yes lists are good, if I can find them. Right now with puppy chaos in our house, nothing paper can be left within reach. And we’re all out on the porch until it gets too cold, so my stuff is very disorganized. If I have a deadline (right now I don’t other than what I suggest to myself), I try for 1000 words a day. I can’t quite picture the sticky tape or an erasable journal, but hey--whatever works is good! And Rhys yes, life is far from normal right now so it makes sense that we don’t feel normal.

JENN McKINLAY: It used to be coconut M&Ms. I could have one M&M for every paragraph completed. Alas, they stopped making those. Now, I reward myself with a swim in the pool at mid-afternoon, followed by a cup of Yukon Gold tea, if I get my pages done. If not, I have to keep working. The hardest bit for me is getting started and I wish I could come up with a reward system that would kickstart that. It’s amazing how I will fritter time away until two in the afternoon and then have a blind panic of writing just so I can go swimming. Argh.

DEBS: Jenn, that's either very long paragraphs or a lot of M&Ms! And I've never heard of coconut M&Ms. 

Jenn, if you figure out the reward system to get the writing going earlier, let me know. I do exactly the same thing, but I don't have a pool as a carrot.


JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: My organizing stuff is definitely a work in progress: I've been trying to improve and come up with ways to keep track of my to-dos for some time now. It's very much not something that comes naturally for me.


As for motivation, I like to treat myself with entertainment/news. If I get my word count done, I can watch a movie tonight. If I answer all my emails, I can hop on Twitter for a half hour. For some tasks, I motivate myself by doing something at the same time. For instance, while

walking the dog, I'll listen to a podcast with headphones, or make dinner while tuning the radio to All Things Considered. If I've knocked off everything I had to do today, I kick back and read in the evening.


Okay, I also read if I haven't gotten everything done.


And I agree with Jenn, getting started writing is the worst, because you can't stop and reward yourself - that negates the whole idea of starting! Maybe a chair that gives you a backrub if you start typing?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Oh, getting started! SO hard. Ridiculously, I make an appointment with myself. I say, okay, you can do anything you want, guilt free, until ______. Then I pick a time that’s on the hour or half hour, because you can only start at those times.

Sometimes that works.


Oh, Rhys, I would NOT want to erase. I love looking at all the things I‘ve done. It’s my gold star. And I used to keep a running list, but that got too difficult during the pandemic. Now I have a notebook that I mark as one day per page, so I can use it as a planner, too.


Why didn’t I just get a calendar/planner with the dates already on it? Too logical.  I had a perfect notebook, and it works just fine. 


Totally put things in that I did that weren’t on to-do the list so I can cross them off. Well, of COURSE. It’s not even strange.


And you know I have a timer. I set the Alexa for 34 minutes when I start writing, and when I say: Alexa, set the timer for 34 minutes, I cannot do anything but write. That absolutely works.

DEBS: Why 34 minutes, Hank? Not 30, or 45? Is it the magic number? But I'm with you on the not wanting to erase the things I've done. The checking off is so satisfying. And besides, if I erased things, I might not remember that I've done them...


READERS, how about you? What helps you get things done?

Sunday, September 27, 2020

My Dinner with Ruth @lesliekarst

 LUCY BURDETTE: When Ruth Bader Ginsburg died last week, I thought instantly of my friend Leslie Karst. I remembered that she knew RBG and has written a memoir about cooking dinner for the Ginsburgs. (I've read it, it's excellent, and I hope we'll see it out in the world soon!) Leslie agreed graciously to write a post about this for us.

LESLIE KARST: History will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg for many things, including her tireless and passionate work with the ACLU as an advocate for women’s rights, her thirteen years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, her twenty-seven years as justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and, recently, her rock-star status as the “Notorious R.B.G.,” inspiring “I dissent!” tattoos and jewelry in the shape of her famous lace collars. 

But to me, she was also a family friend.

RBG and me

My father and “Ruth,” as he always referred to her, became close back in the 1960s, when he was teaching at the Ohio State Law School and she was teaching at Rutgers and later at Columbia. They had both been involved in comparative law—Dad with Latin American land reform issues, and Ruth with Swedish civil procedure. (Yes, you read that right: Did you know that as a young lawyer, RBG learned Swedish and then helped translate the Swedish Code of Civil Procedure into English?)

The two stayed in touch over the years, and I grew up hearing stories about Ruth, as she and my father both moved on from comparative law to civil rights as their areas of study and advocacy—and she, eventually, on to the federal judiciary.

And then came the chance of a lifetime. Dad told me he’d invited Ruth to come speak at the UCLA Law School, where he now taught, and she had accepted. Only half-serious, I suggested that I come down to Los Angeles and cook dinner for Ruth and her husband Marty at my parents’ house. 

I’d expected Dad to merely laugh, in that “ha-ha, that’s a ridiculous notion” kind of way, but instead he cocked his head and looked at me, then said quite seriously, “That sounds like a great idea.” 

What had I gotten myself into?

I spent the next nine months planning and fretting, as I worked out the menu for a Supreme Court justice and her world-renowned tax law professor husband—both of whom I knew to be devout foodies. 

And when the evening finally arrived, I sat in my parents living room shaking in my boots. 

But I needn’t have worried. Ruth—though taciturn and serious, as was her wont—was absolutely lovely. And even more so as the evening wore on and the six of us (my parents; the Ginsburgs; my wife, Robin; and me) consumed all six of the bottles of wine I’d purchased for the dinner. 

Ruth, my dad, and me

And Marty was as charming as could be, enthusiastically digging into the food I’d prepared while regaling the table with hilarious stories—some regarding his wife, who simply smiled and nodded in response. Here are a few tidbits we learned that evening:

Ruth would routinely consume fourteen cups of coffee a day.

She once got her car stuck atop a bollard which had risen up as she tried to enter the DC Circuit Court parking lot after another car without waiting her turn.

The purse she carried (at least that night) was very heavy—weighing at least five pounds.

I’ve written a memoir of my experience planning, cooking, and attending the dinner—tentatively entitled Cooking for Ruth—which I hope will be published some time soon. But in the meantime, here’s a peek at the menu I served:

Seared Sea Scallop with Ginger-Lime Cream Sauce

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Brown Butter

Garnished with Crème Fraîche, Chopped Walnuts, and Walnut Oil

Baby Spinach Salad with Blood Orange, Red Onion, Dried Cranberries, 

Pine Nuts, Gorgonzola Cheese, and Dijon Vinaigrette Dressing

Blackened Ahi Coated in a Dry-Rub of Spices and Black Sesame Seeds

Served with Wasabi Mashed Potatoes and Snow Peas

A Selection of Pastries from Amandine Patisserie in Los Angeles

Robin and I saw Ruth several times after the big dinner. Whenever we were in Washington, DC, she’d invite us to the Supreme Court, and after watching the day’s arguments we’d chat with the justice in her chambers. (My attendance at Malice Domestic was twice the occasion for such visits with Ruth.)

RBG bobblehead in her chambers

The last contact I had with Ruth was last summer, to let her know that my father had passed away. She recorded a beautiful testimonial for his memorial service at the UCLA Law School, which you can watch here:  

I will miss you Ruth. Thank you for dedicating your own life to bettering ours. 

About Leslie:

The daughter of a law professor and a potter, Leslie Karst learned early, during family dinner conversations, the value of both careful analysis and the arts—ideal ingredients for a mystery story. Putting this early education to good use, she now writes the Sally Solari Mysteries (Dying for a Taste, A Measure of Murder, Death al Fresco, Murder from Scratch), a culinary series set in Santa Cruz, California. An ex-lawyer like her sleuth, Leslie also has degrees in English literature and the culinary arts. 

Visit Leslie at 

Leslie blogs at and 

About Murder from Scratch:

Sally’s life is already plenty complicated, what with running the popular and bustling Gauguin and dealing with irate cooks, scheduling headaches, and other staffing issues. So when her dad convinces her to take in a blind relative, Evelyn, whose mother has just died of a drug overdose, she’s none too happy. Sally’s cousin, however, turns out to be not only highly competent, but also lots of fun. And she’s a terrific cook, to boot—taught at an early age by her chef mom, Jackie. 

When moved objects around her house cause Evelyn to suspect that Jackie’s death was not the accident or suicide the police believe it to have been, she and Sally decide to investigate on their own. And Sally soon learns that Evelyn’s blindness makes her more attuned to her other senses, allowing her to discover clues that Sally would easily have missed. The cousins’ sleuthing takes them into the world of pop-up and Southeast Asian restaurants, macho commercial kitchens, and the cut-throat competitiveness that can flame up between chefs—especially when stolen recipes are at stake. 

“Karst seasons her writing with an accurate insider’s view of restaurant operation, as well as a tenderness in the way she treats family, death and Sally’s reactions to Evelyn’s blindness.”

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Pandemic Puppies

LUCY BURDETTE: The pandemic puppy has become a hot trend and for better or worse, I have surfed the wave. My husband John loved our two Aussies, but really had no interest in another dog. To be fair, they are a lot of work. And we like to travel. But as the months locked up at home unspooled, we obviously weren’t traveling anywhere. My urge for a dog got stronger, John softened, and I began to look.

In the olden days, pre-pandemic, a person could go to an animal shelter and meet the pets and choose one that fit the family. But times have changed, now it’s all done online. We were looking for a small dog who could get along with T-bone, since his safety came first. As I quickly learned, small younger dogs had huge waiting lists. I was rejected for not having a fenced in yard for what was described as a low key Jack Russell terrier. Then I found these guys, but they could only leave as a pair. (John said no, really no, but they are still available. It breaks my heart to see them still listed. Maybe someone out there would like to look at them?)

Then I started looking for puppies, also scarce as hens' teeth. But we lucked into our Lottie and brought her home when she was 7 1/2 weeks old. I hadn’t had a puppy since I was 35. And John had never had one. We had no idea! There were some very low moments with housebreaking that I will not describe in detail. One thing that helped was friends (like Debs and Gigi) who had great advice. Another was having a couple of pals, Ann and Lori, who were going through the same thing at the same time. I’ve invited them to help me with this post today.

LUCY: Why did you get a pandemic puppy?

Sergeant Pepper as a newborn

ANN MASON:  Our precious Toby died on April 16, aged 14 years and 5 days.  He was the quintessential LBD --  little black dog -- and we were devastated.  He left a black dog shaped hole in our hearts.  Sometime the end of May we had yet another LBD melt down, and Julie asked me to call our breeder, see what she had.  Yes, we'd had a few glasses of wine.  Julie said that if we could find a little black dog, we'd  name him Sergeant Pepper.  We already had Penny Lane, a six year old Pomapoo.  Keep the Beatles theme et al.  I called the breeder, and she had exactly zero puppies!  But she had a poodle in labor.  The next morning our Sergeant Pepper was born, named already.   What can I say?  It was karma.

Lori with Clementine coming home from the rescue

LORI RADER-DAY: Honestly? I missed having a dog in the house. Our dog Ursa died in June of 2019, piling on to what was, for me, pre-pandemic, a really crappy year. So Clementine is less a pandemic puppy than a return to the normal my husband and I had for twelve years with our first dog. Having a dog gives us structure to our day (oh boy does it) and gets us out on walks. In quarantine, those things became even more important.

LUCY:  What's been the hardest part of raising a puppy?  

ANN: Dealing with peeing and pooping and eating and sleeping and chewing on all electrical cords.  At almost four months, Pepper is almost potty trained.  Julie and I watch him every moment that he isn't crated, have learned the signs, and we have had only one piddle this week, not bad.  No poops at all.  He is learning to ring the bell when he wants to go out, and he always goes potty as soon as he hits the grass.  Eating and sleeping we have down pat.  He is crated with water and food and a chew toy, has slept all night from the git go.  Electrical cords are cordoned off, more or less.  So far none of us has been electrocuted but it's early days.

LORI: Our particular puppy weaponized defecation so that whenever we left her alone in her crate, she lost her mind, anxiety-pooped, and then slid around in it. Her first night with us, we gave her and her crate three baths. She's settling down now, finally, but not being able to look away from her for a MINUTE has caused more than zero meltdowns. I have been working on a really difficult book, too, so it wasn't all Clem's fault. But, like, 98 percent.

LUCY: As I said before, we had no idea how hard the first month to 6 weeks would be with a puppy. For the first month, we barely slept. A week or two ago when Lottie went to the door and sat, and looked back as if to say 'I have to go out,' it felt as if we'd discovered the Covid vaccine! 

What's the best thing about this puppy decision?  

ANN: The best part is puppy breath, the way he stands on his hind legs and holds up his little arms to be picked up, how he learned sit and down in about three tries so that he plops on his little butt or tummy when there is the slightest possibility of a treat.  Right now he is curled up on my lap, under my arm, sound asleep.  He's soft and silky and cuddly and smart as hell and doesn't have a doggy odor.  That's poodles for you.  What's not to love?

LORI: She's such a sweet little girl and have you seen her fluffy ears and orange paws? She's a delight when she's not eating her own poop or chewing on shoes. I missed that relationship after our first dog died, and having a dog back in the house, while slowing down my book and creating basic and total chaos, has been good for all the grief I feel about the world.

LUCY: We picked Lottie up on July 18. My book was due on September 1. Really a dreadful idea in hindsight. 

Hints for anyone considering a puppy?  

ANN: Three words.  Crate  Crate Crate.  And cover that crate.  Just like a new baby, feed, potty and then put down for a nap in crate.  Well, if a baby you might want to use a crib, but you get my drift. And by all means cover the crate.  This is puppy's den, dark and quiet and safe. Drag a lead when not crated.  Do this the first seven months.  It serves a couple of purposes.  You always know where the puppy is -- on the other end of that lead sticking out from under the couch -- and you never play chase.  All you need to do is pick up the end and start walking.  The puppy will follow and bingo, you've done leash training.  Trust me.  This works. Keep to a routine.  Dogs can tell time.  It's a fact.  Analog or digital, daylight savings or standard time.  Meal time, nap time, play time, potty time, bed time.

Unless  this is not your first rodeo, consult a trainer.  It's the best money you can spend.  She will evaluate your puppy, give you direction in early training, and tell you how brilliant that  puppy is. 

LORI: Make sure you have 1,000 things she CAN chew so you can swap them out for things she isn't supposed to be chewing. Nylabone, soft toys, frozen teething toys. She's currently chewing on an antler (?) someone gave Ursa, which is why I have time to write these answers. Oh and WALKS, as many as you can do and very small treats so you can give them all the time for the behavior you like. Also, secure your house better than we did or you, too, will be at the emergency vet in week three, covered in urine and waiting for x-rays.

LUCY: Here's a photo of some of Lottie's stuff. You see why it was a lifesaver to have these two puppy pals at the same time we were managing our Lottie in the earliest days? I'll leave you with two videos that demonstrate why this was all a wonderful idea after all...and please, tell us your puppy stories!


Lori Rader-Day is the Edgar Award-nominated and Anthony and Mary Higgins Clark Award-winning author of The Black Hour, Little Pretty Things, The Day I Died, Under a Dark Sky, and The Lucky One.

Lucy Burdette writes the Key West food critic mysteries, including THE KEY LIME CRIME.

Ann Mason is a retired RN, everything from high risk OB to Hospice, living in Rochester NY with partner, Julie, also retired, plus Eliot the polydactyl cat, Penny Lane the Pomapoo, and Sergeant Pepper, 16 weeks and potty trained!!!  As are we all.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Libraries by Sharon Dean

LUCY BURDETTE: Today we welcome Sharon Dean to the blog with a subject I bet we can all agree on--our love of libraries!

SHARON DEAN: When I was in elementary school, I devoured a series of biographies bound in orange. I read now that they were published by Bobbs-Merrill and that there were over two hundred of them. I could still lead anyone to the shelf where they sat waiting for me to select enough to keep me busy for the week. 

My first job was shelving books in that little library that I still associate with orange-bound biographies. When I was about thirteen, I'd walk the half mile to my job and walk home by myself in the dark. Those were days when we weren't as fearful. The biggest fear my parents had was that I'd go to my job and find the librarian dead. Her name was Bertha and I remember her as a shriveled old lady, though she probably wasn't much older than fifty. But she was ill with cancer. A strange smell often filled the library. I think that it was the smell of death. And, yes, she died while I still worked there, but thankfully not in the library.

I gave Bertha's name to the elderly, former librarian in my novel The Barn. I based that library not on the one of my childhood but on the one in the town where I raised my children. There's a wonderful story about that library. It had once been a church. When the church closed and joined the other Protestant church in town, there was a stipulation that the building had to be used for church purposes or income. My kids went to youth group there and they roller skated around the former, now pew-less, sanctuary. My daughter took her first dance classes there. 

When the town needed a new library, this old church seemed a perfect place. It would absolve the other church of the financial burden of its upkeep and provide the town the space it badly needed. But there was that clause in the will that related not to the building, but to the land the building was on. It took years, but two women eventually tracked down the heir, who was, I recall, a librarian himself. He gladly gave permission for the church to become a library. 

Bigger libraries are now available to me. The library at the college in the East where I taught, the library at the college in the West where I now live, the Carnegie town library in my town, the many libraries I researched in when I was an academic: the Beinecke at Yale, the Hay at Brown, the Houghton at Harvard, the Morgan Pierpont in New York City. But my heart is with the small libraries of my childhood and my young motherhood and of that little library that Charity Royall is in charge of in Edith Wharton's Summer. 

When I was researching for The Wicked Bible, my forthcoming novel featuring Deborah Strong, librarian and reluctant sleuth, I read two books on the history of libraries: Wayne A. Wiegand's, Part of Our Lives: A People's History of the American Public Library (Oxford UP, 2015) and Matthew Battles' Library: An Unquiet History (Norton, 2015). What an interesting history it is. Big or small, libraries deserve to be labeled "sacred spaces."

In this age of easy downloads, how important are libraries to you? What stories about a library would you like to share?

About the book: In 1990, Deborah Madison and Rachel Cummings, both seventeen, are enjoying a bicycle ride on a beautiful September day in New Hampshire. They stop at a local barn that no longer houses cows but still displays a wooden cow’s head that peeks out from a window in the rafters. Sliding open the door, they find Rachel’s boyfriend, Joseph Wheeler, dead on the barn’s floor.

The case lies as cold as Joseph for nearly thirty years until Rachel returns to New Hampshire to attend the funeral of Joseph’s mother. The girls, now women, reopen the cold case and uncover secrets that have festered, as they often do, in small towns. Against a backdrop of cold and snow and freezing rain, Deborah and Rachel rekindle their friendship and confess the guilt each of them has felt about things that happened in the past. The Barn is a story of friendship lost and recovered, secrets buried and unburied, and the power of forgiveness.

About Sharon Dean
: Sharon L. Dean grew up in Massachusetts where she was immersed in the literature of New England. She earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of New Hampshire, a state she lived and taught in before moving to Oregon. After giving up writing scholarly books that required footnotes, she reinvented herself as a fiction writer. She is the author of three Susan Warner mysteries and of a literary novel titled Leaving Freedom. The Barn, the first novel in a new mystery series, features librarian and reluctant sleuth Deborah Strong as she and her friend solve a thirty-year-old cold case. Set in the depth of New Hampshire’s January, The Barn is a story of friendship lost and recovered, secrets buried and unburied, and the power of forgiveness.