Baltimore, 1966


12-year-old Dara Burke can’t wait for summer. So far 1966 hasn’t been so great. She and her mom fight all the time. And her little brother is a royal pain. But once summer comes, everything will be okay. But then one spring day the dead boy whispers in Dara's ear. Warning her about the bad man who was coming.

On the other side of Baltimore, Patrolman Stan Gorsky also looks forward to summer in the land of pleasant living. Until the little boy dies. When Stan learns of similar deaths of other boys, he plunges headfirst into an unofficial murder investigation. Soon Stan finds himself on the trail of a shadowy killer. A bad man who hunts the children of Baltimore, and is always one step ahead.

As Stan draws closer to identifying the killer, only Dara stands between her brother and the bad man. 

Can Dara save her brother’s life . . . and her own?

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Dumb Witnesses

 A dumb witness in s just what it sounds like. It's an animal--often a dog--that had witnessed a crime. Usually a murder. The creature has knowledge of the crime, but is unable to communicate what it know. Leaving it to the detective to ferret out the truth.

I'm using the word dumb in its original meaning, as in being unable to speak. In mysteries, a dumb witness is one that has witnessed a crime--usually a murder--but is powerless to tell its story. At least not in the conventional manner.

Perhaps my favorite dumb witness is Bob the Jack Russell Terrier from Agatha Christie's novel Dumb Witness. As Bob was with his mistress on the night she was murdered, Poirot is certain the little fellow knows the truth and eventually the great detective "hears" what the dog has to say.

However, a good dumb witness is more than a plot point. As with any other element of the story, it can be used to develop character, inject pathos or even add a little humor. It's also part of a long and revered tradition in Western literature as the first dumb witness appeared way back in Homer's Odyssey in Argo, Odysseus' faithful dog.

When Odysseus returns home in disguise only Argo recognizes him. The faithful dog wags his tail, but lacks the strength to go to his master. Fearful of betraying his identity, Odysseus dares not acknowledge Argo. As Odysseus passes by his old companion, the old dog dies, having lived to see his master once more.  In this heartfelt passage, the clever Odysseus is rendered more human.

A recent dumb witness is found in Donna Leon's The Waters of Eternal Youth. In the novel Commissario Guido Brunetti is asked to investigate a cold case from fifteen years earlier in which a young girl is attacked and subsequently brain damaged. Before her injury, the girl was an avid equestrian whose greatest joy was her beloved horse Petunia. In the novel's poignant conclusion, the girl is brought to the farm when Petunia now lives. In a transcendent scene, the old horse and damaged girl recognize one another.

Now, we move from the sublime to the ridiculous. I'm a dog person so when I sat down to write Murder in Mystic Cove, I knew a dog would play a crucial role in the plot. Sure enough, the victim's elderly pug Jinks witnesses his master's murder. Because the victim was such a nasty piece of work I originally pictured Jinks as an extension of his master in order to emphasize the victim's loathsome nature.

It didn't take long for me to switch tracks and soften some of Jinks' rough edges. Though the elderly pug didn't exactly become lovable, what with his chronic halitosis and excessive gas, he did become a pitiable creature, which helped humanize my very unlikable victim and add a bit of pathos to the tale.

Originally, I patterned Jinks after my son's dog Lucas, but soon realized I should soften some of Lucas rough edges. Which as you can see from the before-and-after picture proved a wise move.

So you see, dumb witnesses aren't dumb at all but very smart.

The Once-and-Future Queen

Over the summer of 1916, with most of the world at war, a young Englishwoman decided to write a detective novel. 

Of course it wouldn’t be published, but the writing would be a welcome diversion from worrying about her aviator husband fighting overseas. And her job at the hospital dispensary had set her mind aflame with all its pretty poisons—why not write a mystery?

When the young wife mentioned her plan to her older sister, the sister said, “Well, I bet you couldn’t write it.”

“Still, I should like to try,” the young woman replied. 

Thank goodness for murder-mystery lovers everywhere, the young Englishwoman did indeed try, and a few short months later, the book was finished.

The woman was Agatha Christie and the book The Mysterious Affair at Styles, her first novel.

It is a remarkable achievement. In this debut novel, her particular talents are on full display, talents she would hone to near-perfection in the coming years.

In Styles she piles suspicion on the most likely suspect even though he seemingly has an airtight alibi. It’s a technique she uses again and again—of course X has a reason to kill Y, but he was ten miles away at the inn when Y was murdered! The reader accepts the deception until the truth is revealed.

Agatha’s fascination and knowledge of poisons are on full display. At the dispensary where she worked, the poisons sat in lovely bottles, to be dispensed only with exquisite care. A grain or two over the proper dosage results in utter catastrophe, as it did for elderly Emily Inglethorp at Styles.

Then there’s Agatha’s ability to structure a plot as intricate and precise as any mathematical equation. But often overlooked is how plot functions as character, as intertwined as any Gordian knot. As Laura Thompson wrote in Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life, the solution to the murder at Styles resides in the character of the killer.

Or as Poirot so aptly observes: “Human nature. That, I think, is perhaps the real answer as to why I am interested in this case.”

It’s also the reason readers are still interested in Christie’s fiction. For Agatha, it was always about human nature.

Though it would take several years for The Mysterious Affair at Styles to be published, the completion of this remarkable debut novel marked the beginning of an era.

Thus was born the Once and Future Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie.