Already Read 2020: January

 

You’ve seen those “How Many of These Books Have You Read?” quizzes that populate the Internet? You click on the titles and the little people inside the website tally them and tell you what percentage you’ve read. I’m sure their purpose is to make me feel inferior.*

Some do more than count. One calculated my age. Imagine my surprise/embarrassment/shame when I learned that, based on the number clicked, I’m in my twenties.

Boy, did they get that wrong.

But the fault is mine—I haven’t been reading much as I should.

To remedy that, on January 1, 2020, I resolved to read more** books.

###

Book Report

In January, I read the following:

The Bloody Bead, co-written by Helen Currie Foster and Manning Wolfe, part of the Bullet Books Speed Reads*** collection. When sweet Miss Cherry goes missing, garbageman Juan Agosto reports his suspicions to his older sister, Teresa, a police officer. The investigation that follows provides a suspenseful read. And a fast one—like the other Bullet Books, it’s a novella, designed for busy people who want short reads. Or, for that matter, idle people who want short reads.

No spoilers here, but I will say there are some things Juan Agosto would prefer not to find in a garbage bin.

***

Broke,***** by Kaye George. In this third volume of the Immy Duckworthy series, wannabe private eye Immy moves out of the double-wide where she and her daughter, Nancy Drew, have been living with Immy’s mother, retired librarian Hortense.  The three-story house Immy rents—the one she can afford on what she earns as (real) PI Mike Mallet’s secretary—looks like it’s about to fall down, and some parts of it are. But it’s filled with antique furniture. Plus a room filled with dusty old books. Plus a ghost. Plus, on the third floor,  something that doesn’t belong there at all.

Immy’s policeman boyfriend, Ralph, is his same, dependable self, but the gorgeous Vance Valentin proves a formidable competitor, sort of. Also present are pet pig Marshmallow and Larry Bird, the vicious hen.

And then there’s the body.

***

The Whole Family: A Novel by Twelve Authors, edited by Elizabeth Jordan. This collaborative novel, conceived by author and editor William Dean Howells, concerns the effect an engagement has on an entire family. The book comprises twelve chapters, each by a different author. Each chapter is written from the point of view of a different character. Chapter I, written by Howells, introduces Mr. Talbert, the father of the prospective bride, and alludes, briefly, to the others in his household. One of these is Mr. Talbert’s sister, described as “a lady of that age when ladies begin to be spoken of as maiden.”

Here’s where the fun begins.

Chapter II, entitled “The Old Maid Aunt,” was written by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. Mrs. Freeman was forty-nine when she married a man seven years younger than she. One critic reports that Mrs. Freeman didn’t appreciate the phrase maiden lady, so she scrapped the stereotype.

The aunt she created is young, attractive, and vibrant. And she has a past—she and the prospective groom have recently engaged in a flirtation—or something. We don’t know exactly how serious the relationship was, but it was serious enough to make the visiting groom turn white when he sees her— and to catch the first train out of town. To complicate things further, the Talbert’s new neighbor had once threatened to shoot himself if the aunt wouldn’t marry him. Neighbor’s wife is not amused.

In other words, Mrs. Freeman hijacked the plot.

The rest is a romp, with each character—the bride, her mother, her grandmother, her teenage sister and pre-teen brother, her older brothers and their wives, the groom, and others—weighing in with their own descriptions of events, opinions of other characters, and plans to help fix things. There’s a lot to fix and they are oh, so helpful.

The Whole Family was published in 1908, so, compared to contemporary novels, it begins slowly. When the maiden aunt appears in Chapter II, however, things pick up considerably.

An Amazon note: One Amazon reviewer, who gave the book four stars, writes, “I would say they [the authors] did very well , except for one, who’s chapter was so rambling and unintelligible I had to just scan the paragraphs to get any sense out of it. But, all in all, it was a good book.”*****

My note: The “unintelligible” chapter was written by Henry James. With all due respect to Mr. James, don’t feel bad if you have trouble getting sense out of it. It’s been said that Mr. James “chewed more than he bit off.” (Attributed to Oscar Wilde, Mrs. Henry Adams, and the author’s brother William) All in all, it’s a good book.

#

* Important to consider when deciding how inferior to feel: Lists vary according to the whims and biases of the makers. Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, and Winnie the Pooh show up on all the lists I’ve examined. The Twits appears on just one.

** Goals and objectives should be quantifiable, and this one isn’t, but I’ll deal with that later. The way I’ve been going, more might mean three.

*** As I’ve mentioned before, numerous times, I co-wrote a Bullet Book, too. See the sidebar.

**** Read my review of Choke, the first Immy Duckworthy mystery, here.

***** I would link directly to the review, but when I do, an enormous picture of the book cover appears on this page.

###

The authors: Helen Currie Foster, Manning Wolfe, Kaye George, William Dean Howells, and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

###

So that’s January. According to Kindle, I’m now 40% through Elizabeth George‘s A Banquet of Consequences.

Rules for Writers

The following is a guest post I wrote for the Bullet Books Speed Readsblog. In it I explain what an author does when she discovers she doesn’t have a clue about what she’s writing about. I also include a link to a book trailer, but you have to read to the end of the post to find that.

***

There are many rules for writers. Two of the major ones: Write what you know and write what you love.

I was pleased that Stabbed, which I co-wrote with Manning Wolfe, was set in Vermont. I love vacationing there: mountains and trees, summer wildflowers and narrow, winding roads, rainstorms and starry nights, white frame churches and village greens.

In Chapter 1, Dr. Blair Cassidy, professor of English, arrives home one dark and stormy night, walks onto her front porch, and trips and falls over the body of her boss, Dr. Justin Capaldi. She jumps back into her car and calls the sheriff. The sheriff arrives and . . .

What happens next? Who takes charge of the investigation? The sheriff? Or the state police? What do their uniforms look like? Where do rail lines run? What’s the size of a typical university town? And a typical university? And several other details not gathered during a typical vacation.

I didn’t know, so, new rule: Write what you learn. Research. Research. Research. The best mystery authors have been avid researchers.

Agatha Christie, for example, is known for her extensive knowledge of poisons. As a pharmacy technician during World War I, she did most of her research on the job before she became a novelist. Later she dispatched victims with arsenic, strychnine, cyanide, digitalis, belladonna, morphine, phosphorus, veronal (sleeping pills), hemlock, and ricin (never before used in a murder mystery). In The Pale Horse, she used the less commonly known thallium. Christie’s accurate treatment of strychnine was mentioned in a review in the Pharmaceutical Journal.

Francis Iles’ use of a bacterium was integral to the plot in Malice Aforethought. His character, Dr. Bickleigh, serves guests sandwiches of meat paste laced with Clostridium botulinum and waits for them to develop botulism. If Dr. Bickleigh had been as knowledgeable about poisons as his creator, he wouldn’t have been so surprised with the consequences.

Among modern authors, P.D. James is known for accuracy. Colleague Ruth Rendell said that James “always took enormous pains to be accurate and research her work with the greatest attention.” Before setting Devices and Desires near a nuclear power station, she visited power plants in England; she even wore a protective suit to stand over a nuclear reactor. Like Christie, James used information acquired on the job—she wrote her early works during her nineteen years with the National Health Service—for mysteries set in hospitals.

Most authors don’t go as far as standing over nuclear reactors in an attempt to get it right, but sometimes even the simplest research is time-consuming. And, even the most meticulous researchers make errors.

Dorothy L. Sayers was as careful in her fiction as she was in her scholarly writing. But she confessed in a magazine article that The Documents in the Case contained a “first-class howler”: A character dies from eating the mushroom Amanita muscaria, which contains the toxin muscarine. Describing the chemical properties of muscarine, Sayers said it can twist a ray of polarized light. But only the synthetic form can do that—the poison contained in the mushroom can’t.

Most readers don’t forgive big mistakes. And why should they? Thorough research is a mark of respect for readers. And sometimes, getting the facts straight in fiction has consequences the author can’t predict. Christie’s The Pale Horse is credited with saving two lives: In one case, a reader recognized the symptoms of thallium poisoning Christie had described and saved a woman whose husband was slowly poisoning her; in the second, a nurse who’d read the book diagnosed thallium poisoning in an infant. The novel also credited with the apprehension of one would-be poisoner.

As to Stabbed—Well, we don’t expect it to save lives or help catch criminals. I knew Vermont, but I didn’t know Vermont criminal procedure. Now, readers will come out knowing what the uniform of the Vermont State Police looks like and what happens at a courtroom arraignment.

And choosing the murder weapon was easy. We considered the book’s title and – well, d’oh – no more research was required.

***

More about Stabbed: http://bulletbooksspeedreads.com/book/stabbed/

Book trailer for Stabbed: https://youtu.be/URDtnyRvfq0