Death in a Nutshell

Meet the real-life Miss Peale from The Murderer's Apprentice--the Mother of Forensics Frances Glessner Lee.

The Murderer's Apprentice

Baltimore, 1966

A twelve-year-old girl and a Baltimore City patrolman are about to discover that some monsters are real.

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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.

Paris Dreams

With the fantastic win by the U.S. women in the World Cup and the start of the Tour de France, my thoughts turn to Paris, that most beautiful of cities.

The Champs Elysees at Twilight, glistening like a magic carpet
The architecture of Paris is justly admired, and none more so than the Eiffel Tower, Paris's most iconic symbol, the brightest beacon in the city of light.

The magnificent Arc de Triomphe was commissioned in 1807 after Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz, when the Emperor rode the crest of fortune's wheel.On this day, the massive Arc was a bit of foreground to the Paris Marathon.

Whenever I see that massive structure, I think of of War and Peace, Ozymandias and the Russian winter that would soon destroy Napoleon's Grande Armée.
A detail from the Arc de Triomphe
I'm going to wind up this little tour with a visit to the exquisite basilica of Sacre Coeur, which stands on a hill in Montmarte. When I first saw Sacre Coeur in the early nineties, I wasn't familiar with its history. At that time I saw a gleaming edifice in white stone that was both elegant and imposing, a product of  La Belle époque.
Sacre Coeur
First a little history: During the final decades of the nineteenth century Paris experienced an explosion of art and literature. Renoir painted, Gide brooded, and Stravinsky wrote music so revolutionary it provoked listeners to riot. Yet this golden age was rooted in blood, which brings me back to Sacre Coeur.

The Franco-Prussian War was an unmitigated disaster for France. After the surrender of Napoleon III in 1871, a revolutionary uprising called the Paris Commune seized power in Paris. They held on for two brutal months before being obliterated by the regular French army and were buried on a hilltop in Montmarte.

In the humiliating aftermath of defeat, the people of Paris erected a grand basilica where the martyrs lay buried. After all, the Communards were secular and had no love of priests.  So this was a way of doing penance and erasing the past that had caused such pain.

The history of Sacre Coeur reads like a metaphor, but I'm not sure what it means. I only know that there is something eternal in that white stone and something horrible as well. There are many places like Sacre Coeur in Paris, places where the past and present collide.

So what makes Paris great?

The answer is everything. Architecture, art, open spaces, history, culture--all conspire to form the city of light. I don't think I'd want to live in a world without Paris, and even though it may be years before I see her again, I keep her in my heart.

As Ernest Hemingway observed:
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast."

Song of the Coyotes

I'm not sure why I clicked on this video--curiosity, I suppose. 

In my north Florida neighborhood, I have spotted a lone coyote once or twice on my morning walks, but never heard them.

Or so I thought.

Sing, baby sing!

After listening to the video, I realized that I have heard the song of the coyote--many coyotes.
It begins around 26 seconds in, when a bunch of coyotes start up their noisy chorus. I have heard this frightening, thrilling sound just outside my house and mistaken it for a dog fight. I'm love dogs and was upset at the thought of one being hurt.

Now that I know coyotes were to blame, I don't know whether I should be comforted or troubles. 

Maybe a little bit of both.

The Murderer's Apprentice

I'm in the final stages of finishing my latest novel, which has a brand new title! 

The WIP previously known as Murder on Linden Way has been reborn as:

The Murderer's Apprentice

The change in title happened a week or so ago when I was brainstorming pitches. In addition to being my dog's name--yes, his name is Pitch--a pitch is a simply a way to describe your story in a few words. 

Pitch, in a rare moment of relaxation
This is a useful practice because it forces the writer to think--really think--about what the book is about.

One of the pitches I came up with was The Murderer's Apprentice, which not only refers to the plot, but the theme as well. The protagonist is a twelve-year-old girl and rabid Orioles fan who over the course of summer vacation in 1966 learns about life, friendship and murder. I'm pleased with my new title.

On another note, it was fun as a writer to set my plot in a time when there was no DNA or CSI wizardry. The resolution of the  murder plot depends of character and old-fashioned sleuthing without benefit of smartphones or computer wizardry. 

I should have a firm publication date soon, but right now I'm looking at late April or early May. I can't wait to get my book out there to know what you think of it. All I know it, I had a lot of fun writing it and hope you enjoy reading it.

Here's looking at you, kids!

Winter Moons

There are few things as beautiful and mysterious as a full moon in a clear sky. It's also a powerful symbol that I love to use in my writing.

In my latest novel Murder Comes to Elysium, a blood moon rises over Grubber County, Florida. While most of the county gets ready for a moon-gazing party, PI Addie Gorsky tries to ignore it. As she observes, there is enough blood in the world, without the moon getting in on the action. On the night of the blood moon, she finds herself in a tight situation:

At last I slipped from the side door and into the night. It felt good, like diving into a cold lake on a hot day, but my relief was short-lived. My eyes traveled upward, to the full moon tinged in red, glaring down like a bloody eye. I hadn’t escaped it after all. The blood moon at China Rose had followed me here.

When she returns home that night, Addie reflects:

The learned astronomer fell silent at last, thank God. His droning voice had worn on my last nerve and on his audience as well, judging from the measly applause. What were all his big words worth after all? The truth of this October night was written in black skies, stars that gleamed like broken glass, and a full moon tinted red—a hunter’s moon. And a hunter’s moon demanded blood.

I love a full moon any month of the year, but there's something special about a winter moon. This little video features photos of the December and January full moons.

Very Punny!

I love puns and so did Shakespeare. Though many of his puns have lost their context, these two are still pretty funny. 

Romeo and Juliet (Act I scene IV)
Mercutio: “Nay, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance.”
Romeo: “Not I, believe me. You have dancing shoes
With nimble soles; I have a soul of lead
So stakes me to the ground I cannot move.”

 Much Ado About Nothing (Act II scene I)
Beatrice: “The count is neither sad, nor sick, nor merry, nor well: but civil, count; civil as an
orange, and something of that jealous complexion.”

Beatrice is talking about the villainous Count Claudio, using civil as a pun on Seville, which is a type of very bitter orange from Spain.  

And though your English teacher never shared this, Shakespeare's text pulses with sexual innuendo. Here's a spicy line from "Venus and Adonis." 

Graze on my lips, and if those hills be dry
Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.

Yeah, that pleasant fountain!

And you thought Shakespeare was boring.
Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford
& the man who really wrote the Shakespeare plays!

Microbe Hunters!

The other day, I found myself thinking of a book I read and loved as a kid--Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif.

1943 edition, which
looks just like my old battered copy!

Although it’s always dangerous to go back to beloved books of childhood, I’ve found myself brooding on Paul de Kruif’s book and my childhood love of it.

Like a lot of my reading material, I dug it out of our cluttered cellar of our rowhouse in Baltimore, hidden among boxes of Christmas ornaments and old winter coats. The cover wasn’t exactly enticing, but once I started reading, I was hooked.

Written in swashbuckling prose, Microbe Hunters details the lives of several dedicated men of science as they muscularly tracked down the dangerous pathogens that threaten humanity.  There was Pasteur versus rabies while Koch squared off against tuberculosis and Ehrlich took on syphilis--well, you get the picture. It was all pretty heady stuffy. So heady that for a time, I imagined growing up and joining the ranks of the microbe hunters. In my fevered daydreams, I saved countless lives and was on the verge of winning the Nobel prize, until I brought back to earth when my parents and other adults reminded that I was no good at science and had almost failed math.

In other words, I was a girl.

I knew they were right, though it hurt to have another dream dashed. My other ambition was to play for the Baltimore Orioles. Even though I had no talent for the game and was the wrong sex, I loved baseball (still do) and my Orioles (ditto).

Curious about my beloved childhood book, I found a copy online and digitally flipped through its pages. The book was and wasn’t as I remembered. I saw why I’d been enamoured of these cock-sure men who stode the world like giants and spoke almost exclusively in exclamatory sentences.“‘How true are the words of Goethe!’ cried Behring. ‘Blood is an entirely wonderful sap!’”. And here’s Loeffler--a colleague of Koch’s--waxing philosophic about diphtheria:  “The toxin must be found, in the organs of a dead child, in the carcass of a guinea-pig dead of the disease—yes—and in the broth where the bacillus grows so well!”

A lot of the dialogue was ridiculous, with much of it obviously cut whole from the cloth. I seriously doubt that after the Leeuwenhoek’s death, the learned men of England and Paris observed: “‘Leeuwenhoek is dead, it is too bad, it is a loss that cannot be made good. Who now will carry on the study of the little animals?’”

The author also relied heavily on cultural stereotypes. For example, the Dutchman Leeuwenhoek comes off as a man-child: “He was like a child anxious and proud to show a large red apple to his playmates but loth to let them touch it for fear they might take a bite out of it.” But far worse is the casual racism de Kruif employed when he wrote of the human subjects, something I hadn’t noticed as a child.