Saturday, September 29, 2007

Chicago's Most Insidious Unsolved Murders

On this day in 1982 the first of seven Chicago area people died after ingesting a poisoned Extra Strength Tylenol capsule; the "Tylenol Murders" not only spurred national outrage and fear, but led to a change in the way that medicine was packaged. In Rachel Bell's article "The Tylenol Terrorist: Death in a Bottle," she relates the details of those shocking days and the way that police and firefighters determined that this was not a crime committed at the factory:

"Following inspections, the company determined that the cyanide was not introduced into the bottles at the factory, which left only one other possibility. The FBI, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and law enforcement agencies realized that someone had methodically taken the Tylenol bottles off the shelves at the stores where they were sold, filled the capsules with cyanide and returned them back to the shelves at a later period."

This created what amounted to mass hysteria. With the initial realization of the cause of seven deaths, police were literally driving the streets of Chicago with bullhorns, warning people not to take their Tylenol.

I was a teenager when this occurred, and I remember very clearly watching the stories on the news and wondering why in the world a person would plan such a methodical--yet random--murder. Bell's title is appropriate--this was terrorism, insidious and horrifying. All of the victims of the Tylenol poison were young. The first was only twelve years old, the second 27; two members of the 27-year-old's grieving family complained of headaches while they gathered to mourn. They each took one of the dead man's Tylenol capsules and they both died, as well. They were aged 25 and 19. The oldest victim of these crimes was 35 years old.

I remember that initially, as a frightened young person trying to distance myself from the crime, I consoled myself with the idea that my family did not use that particular pain reliever. But as the days passed I began to fear that anyone would take anything from the shelf and somehow alter it--and of course the drug companies feared the same: the notion of copy-cat terrorism.

In fact, in subsequent years, many events of product tampering occurred, some of which resulted in arrests. The original Tylenol murderer, however, was never caught, despite suspicion cast on two different people back in 1982. One man, James W. Lewis, was even arrested, but denied committing the Tylenol poisonings; police were never able to link him specifically to the crime, although he served time for other crimes.

Therefore, the 1000 dollar reward that Tylenol offered in 1982 for the identification of the killer has never been paid; the murderer remains at large.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Beautiful Lakefront

I was at the lakefront bright and early this morning for our school's walk-a-thon. My post was the North Avenue Beach, although I was briefly at Navy Pier, as well. I was reminded what a beautiful city Chicago is; Lake Michigan was a striking turquoise and the sun was shining all day. 70 degrees, cool wind blowing, happy walkers--it was an idyllic scene.

Ah. Fall is here.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Mystery of Extinction

We were looking at our Humanities book at school. In the first ten pages there were several pictures of famous art from Mesopotamia. One was labeled "Statuettes from the Abu Temple, Tell Asmer, Iraq." The tallest marble figure pictured here, our book tells us, is 30 inches high; the statues are from the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago and the Iraq Museum, Baghdad.

With horror I realized that the Baghdad Museum is no more. I remember the televised images all too well: the destruction, the chaos, the looting. These precious pieces of art, these links to the past, are simply gone--buried in rubble, burned, or lost to looters who probably never did understand the true value of the things they took away.

Then again, one of the main things that we trace in the Humanities class is how civilizations changed, the map changed, as a result of constant war and conflict. I suppose it's too much to hope that somehow this would be avoided in what we call the modern world.

Still, it's painful to think of anything that existed and yet is now gone: races of peoples, species of animals, great works of art. Extinction may be explainable in Darwinian terms, but it's inexplicable in human terms. How is it that we are so often willing to let these things slip away?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Ross MacDonald on Corrupting Wealth

I'm a Ross MacDonald fan, as I've mentioned before. I've reviewed his work here, too--most recently THE BLUE HAMMER. He is great not only because his mysteries were well-plotted, but because they had a social conscience. Today I'll just share some great lines from his work, focusing on one of his favorite themes: money.

"You can't blame money for what it does to people. The evil is in the people, and the money is the peg they hang it on. They go wild for money when they've lost their other values."


"Sex and money: the forked root of evil."


"Money costs too much."


(Source: Jane Horning, THE MYSTERY LOVERS BOOK OF QUOTATIONS, Mysterious Press,1988).

Monday, September 24, 2007

Son of a Son of a Writer

To check out some of the specific (and humorous) diction choices of the good writer I blogged about yesterday, you can check out my post at Poe's Deadly Daughters today. :)

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Predictable Neuron Clusters

My twelve-year-old son has been invited, by special invitation, to attend the young authors conference in our town. He was nominated by teachers who have noted the excellence in his writing. Naturally, this makes me especially proud, but I must also admit to a healthy slice of vanity in the notion that my son shares my same particular interest.

Current brain research, though, tells me that this has nothing to do with him choosing my preference as any sort of tribute to me. People with a large cluster of neurons on the language center of the brain, I've been told, are likely to produce offspring with similiar neuron clusters. Hence we have writing dynasties like Anne and Christopher Rice, William F. and Christopher Buckley, Mary Higgins and Carol Clark. Lots more.

So while I like to think that much of my language ability comes from listening to my parents' excellent vocabularies and their perfect grammar (learned as a second language, mind you!), it is more likely that they gave me my strengths through biology. And that's fine; I'm happy with my fortuitous DNA mix, and I hope that my son will be, as well. He has his father's wicked sense of humor, too, which only enriches his writing.

Ian has shrugged about the invitation to the conference; he claims not to care one way or the other. But when I read the part of the note that said we should notify the school if he will not be attending so that another child can attend, he said, "Okay, fine. I'll do it." The fact is that under his apparent ennui is an emerging writer--someone who finds a part of his identity in his ability to express himself through words. Whether that is due to nature or nurture doesn't matter to me. I'll probably take a little credit either way. :)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Mystery Writer Barbara Fister on Chaos Theory, Urban Art, and the Danger of Mass Hysteria

Barbara, your website is great! Did you design it yourself?
Thanks. It's pretty bare bones, but yes, I am into DIY. I use a free hosting service out of British Columbia, open sources software, and a minimal knowledge of html. I'll be working on a new design when I get the cover art for my new book - which I'm anxious to see.

Aside from being a much-praised author of mystery fiction—On Edge, which came out in 2002, and In the Wind, which debuts from St. Martins in 2008—you are an academic librarian. What do you do in your capacity as a librarian?
A bit of everything! I'm at a small liberal arts college, so there are only six librarians doing a lot - creating our website, building a collection of books and electronic resources, teaching students how to do research. I teach some courses and do a lot of workshops on doing research for everything from conservation biology to constitutional law.

Never a dull moment.

Wow! Here's another library-oriented question: you're surrounded by books. What made you choose the mystery genre when you began to write for publication?
I've never wanted to write any other kind of fiction. I grew up with British golden age authors - my mother was a self-educated PhD in everything, largely because she was a voracious reader of mysteries. I got sidetracked by Russian literature, which became my college major, but rediscovered the genre when I read Dennis Lehane for the first time. He once said in an interview that crime fiction is where the social novel went, and I think it's true. Certainly, there's a lot of it that's purely entertainment, and there's nothing wrong with that, but there is also a lot of writing in the genre that engages serious issues with fine, exciting prose.

You were recently in Chicago, my home base. What did you do? What did you enjoy most? Tell me next time you're in town and we'll have lunch!
We lucked out in subletting a house in Hyde Park from a couple who were on sabbatical from the University of Chicago, so used that as a home base, then got a CTA pass and simply explored as many parts of the city as we could. You have to get into the neighborhoods to know Chicago. It's a great city - diverse, friendly, and endlessly fascinating.

What did I like best? The tamales at La Justicia in Little Village. Mmm.

Tamales are paradoxical: both sinful and heavenly. You spoke at a conference in Canada about “what libraries have in common with Chaos Theory.” Okay, I'll bite. What do they have in common? In twenty words or less. :)
Chaos theory examines the regular irregularity of complex systems using fractal geometry; libraries’ disordered order makes them fractal systems, QED. (Count 'em: twenty words!)

Both succinct and fascinating. You describe yourself as having “wide-ranging curiosity.” Would you say that this was a prerequisite for a writer of fiction?
Possibly. It sometimes makes it hard to concentrate, though!

Tell us a bit more about your books. What made you write On Edge? What's it about?
I got the idea for On Edge when driving through a nearby small town that was the site of a massive child abuse investigation in 1983-84, one that broke just weeks after the notorious McMartin Preschool case in California. For some odd reason, the country (indeed, the entire developed English-speaking world) was gripped for nearly a decade by the idea that our day care centers and small towns were home to secret Satanic cults that ritually abused children. One poll found about 70% of Americans believed at least some of these cases were true. A specialist in crimes against children at the FBI's Behavioral Sciences Unit studied over 300 such cases (including the one in the town near mine) and concluded none of them involved satanic ritual abuse - and that, in fact, investigations into genuine abuse were being hampered by this strange moral panic.

In the small town near me, nearly everyone was suspected of unspeakable acts; a police officer who objected to the conduct of the case was arrested along with his wife for being part of the secret ring of child abusers; eventually a trial was held in which a very confused five year old was put on the stand to testify against his parents using words he didn't even understand. It was heartbreaking and ended in a shambles, with two acquittals, dozens of dropped charges, and nobody official ever admitting they'd gotten it wrong.

So - I wondered what the long-term effects of that kind of communal trauma might be, and why fear becomes such a potent driving force in the formation of social issues. There's something so satisfying about having someone to blame for all those generalized anxieties you might have, though it's also very dangerous. On Edge uses the conventions of the thriller to explore that effect. And (I hope) tell an entertaining story, too.

That sounds fascinating! And very much like The Crucible (which was just chosen by Mayor Daley as Chicago's choice for its One Book, One Chicago program).

My next book, In the Wind, is quite different in tone - less dark and
violent, certainly - but in a way it's about the same issue. I was struck by the way the rhetoric of anxiety drove both the excesses of the counterintelligence activities during the Vietnam War era and the measures being taken in the "war against terror" now. If you read the Church Committee Report that called for reforms after Watergate and replace the word "communist" with "terrorist" it sounds exactly like what's going on today. It's scary. And - of course! - that makes it material for a mystery.

But there are some interesting parallels there between the novels. Your new book is being published 6 years after your first; did it take you that long to write it?
No. I spent most of that time trying to write a sequel to On Edge that would satisfy the publisher after my original editor left. It didn't work out. A couple of years ago I started this new book and luckily St. Martin's was interested. I hope the sequel I'm working on now will make them happy!

The top of your blog is a graffiti design. Are you into the whole urban art/ tagging scene?
There's a character in In the Wind who is a tagger. I know some taggers and love good urban art - Banksy is amazing, and I took a lot of pictures of interesting street art in Chicago that is mostly on "permission walls" - places where people can do graffiti legally. Pilsen and Little Village are also full of amazing murals, some of which remind me of the political mural tradition in Guadalajara. On the other hand, I was not at all happy about the lame gang tags that some idiot wannabes sprayed on our home while we were in Chicago! That stuff's just ugliness looking for trouble. We live in an old fire station in the center of our small town, and while there really isn't a gang presence here, there are kids who wished they belonged to something. I just wish they were more artistic, the little scoundrels.

Interesting--that could be a conversation all by itself. And living in a fire station! That is a very distinctive detail!

You were born in Madison, Wisconsin, a lovely Midwestern town that hosted last year's Bouchercon. Now you're in Minnesota. Do you ever visit Madison? Do you miss it?
I have family there who tell me I don't visit enough! It's a great small city with a world-class university surrounded by lakes. What's not to love?

Eugen Weber of the Los Angeles Times says that /On Edge/ offers up “more psychos than should be allowed in any loony-toon town.” What made you want to write a mystery brim-full of psychos?
He must not be from a small town. I didn't really notice until he pointed it out. Admittedly, the narrator's a bit deranged, but he's from Chicago, so...

You've lived in the Middle East. Where? What was your experience there?
In the 1980s I lived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for two years and Algeria for one. Saudi is a strange place - at the time full of foreign workers, isolationist but being developed from a desert society to a modern infrastructure practically overnight, and dominated by a very strict and (to me) joyless version of Islam, with a tense balancing act going on between an absolute monarchy and religious authorities. Algeria is beautiful and poor and socialist, trying to provide universal education and health care but terribly scarred by colonialism and the revolution and recently torn up by a new strain of fundamentalism that is not really Algerian at all. One thing I learned from those two places it that there is no such thing as "the Arab world." There are lots of them, and many different ways to be an observant Muslim.

Such a good point, Barbara. You've also lived in Kentucky, Texas, Africa, Maine. Do you have a favorite place?
Boy, that's a tough one. I have to admit I really enjoyed the times I sublet apartments in Manhattan and in Chicago. Guess I'm a city girl,at least so long as I live in a small town!

What are you reading now? Do you, as a librarian, suffer from the “so many books, so little time” syndrome?
Not so much as a librarian - college libraries are full of books that are good for research but otherwise utterly untempting - but thanks to the 4MA reading group I'm involved in online I have a huge list of books I want to read. That doesn't bother me, though - I love never have that "I'm not sure what to read next" feeling. I'm just about to pick up Tana French's In the Woods.

Fall is coming; how will you celebrate autumn in Minnesota?
There's a county park near us that is beautiful when the leaves turn. We usually go there to walk to the top of the hill and bask in all the colors. Not all that exciting, but it is my favorite season.

Sounds great to me! Thanks for chatting with me, Barbara!
Thanks for asking!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Blog Link

You can check out my post today on Inkspot about how my upbringing affects my ability (or inability) to sell books. It's party tongue-in-cheek, but there's some reality there. :) Click here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Garbo, Raskolnikov and the Lure of Isolation

While I'm mentioning birthdays, I'll mention Greta Garbo, who was born on this date in 1905 (in Stockholm), and whom the New York Times called "the enigmatic and elusive star of some of Hollywood's most memorable romantic movies of the 1930's and a 50-year focus of curiosity and myth."

Part of Garbo's allure, of course, was her apparent need for solitude. She is supposedly famous for saying, in her lovely contralto, Swedish-accented voice, "I vant to be alone," but the Times corrects that in her obituary: "A declaration often attributed to her was, 'I want to be alone.' Actually she said, 'I want to be let alone.'"

Garbo's mystique lasted long after she retired, because she became rather a recluse in New York, that bustling city, and people only occasionally glimpsed her walking the streets of Manhattan.

I always reference Garbo when I teach Crime and Punishment, because Raskolnikov is isolated by his act of murder, and he demands solitude more than once. At one point, he screams at a group of people who are all trying to help him: "Get away from me! I want to be alone, alone, alone!"

Like Garbo, Raskolnikov only draws more interest with his anti-social behavior, and I suppose it says something of our society that we are continually fascinated with the recluses. (J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee, where are you now?)

In the case of Raskolnikov, though, his desire for solitude is both caused by his murder and an aid to solving that crime. In the case of Garbo, it merely made her a subject of interest, of "myth," and gave her a place on the list of mysterious celebrities.

Photo link here.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Happy 91st to My Idol, Mary Stewart

I've written many times about Mary Stewart on this blog; in my estimation she is unmatched as a writer of romantic suspense, and as a writer of the literary mystery. Stewart's writing, intelligent and exciting, has remained my favorite for thirty years, and I only hope she is celebrating this birthday with people that she loves, and that perhaps she is reading a good book at her own hearth.

Always a private person, Stewart did consent to an interview with Raymond H. Thompson in 1989, in which he asked her about the writing of suspense. Stewart claimed that it was not entirely conscious: "I've written stories since I was three and a half, and I think you're either born with the storyteller's flair or you're not. You can learn much about the craft of writing, but you either have the storyteller's flair or you don't. It's no virtue of mine. It's just there. In a story, however, each point of rest is also a point of departure; you can't help it."

For anyone who hasn't read a Mary Stewart novel, you must do yourself the favor of reading one in honor of her birthday. NINE COACHES WAITING has been re-released by Chicago Review Press(thanks for that info, Janet Reid) with a lovely, mysterious cover. I bought it for my mother for her birthday this past August, because she is the one who did me the favor of introducing me to Mary Stewart!

In any case, Mrs. Stewart, I am thinking of you today as you celebrate 91 years.

Happy Birthday, Agatha!

September 15th marked the birthday of Agatha Christie, who was born on that date in 1890 (and who died in 1976). Guinness Book of World Records calls her "the best selling writer of books of all time." I'm not sure if J.K. Rowling has yet given her some competition for that title, but the women have something in common--their ability to tell a story, and their gift for cloaking their characters in mystery.

Agatha's mysteries made her famous, especially because of her gift for writing the unguessable crime--for hiding her clues in plain sight. She created the still-famous characters of Miss Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot, who are endlessly re-interpreted in televised versions of Dame Agatha's work.

Christie was fascinated with all things mysterious, and perhaps this was why she loved Egypt--a place in which she lived at times and where she set several of her novels. Christie shared her love for the ancient world with archeologist Max Mallowan, who married the divorced Agatha in 1930.

Christie's legendary play, The Mousetrap, is the longest-running play of all time (it is still running after 55 consecutive years of performance).

Her mysteries are numerous, and I have read many of them. One of my favorites is set in Iraq, one of Christie's favorite countries, and where she spent a great deal of time when traveling with Mallowan. They Came To Baghdad is a fun little romp through a very different Iraq, one which captures the mystery and glamour of the ancient world.

What's your favorite Christie?

(image link here)

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Victims Are Only Fun in Mysteries

Every mystery needs a victim; in fact, I sometimes take pleasure in trying to figure out who's going to get murdered--generally, in the standard revenge tale, it's the most hate-worthy person, the one that you want to see getting his or her comeuppance.

In real life, though, nobody likes a victim. I realized that I may play this role myself more often than I should. There's no point in spending precious time and energy on blame, which has never been productive.

I just saw these quotes in the Higher Awareness newsletter.

"When we blame, we give away our power."

-- Greg Anderson

"People who consider themselves victims of their circumstances will always remain victims unless they develop a greater vision for their lives."

-- Stedman Graham

Food for thought, Greg and Stedman. I'm going to spend today trying to harness my power and use it to my advantage. I'm not sure exactly what that means, but that will be part of the experiment. Who's with me? :)

Link to image here.

Friday, September 14, 2007

In Answer to the Eagles Questions

Here's some more information about the Eagles' new cd, at their very own website. Click here and learn all about what sounds like a very cool album. You can hear their pre-release song, "How Long?" and see the video.

No, the Eagles aren't paying me to hawk their album. :)

I'm just excited!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Mysterious Sound of The Eagles

I was driving home from night school this evening, enjoying the cool evening air and listening to the top five on US99, the Chicago country station. Number five was a song I'd never heard, and as I listened I thought, "Wow, these guys were heavily influenced by The Eagles." I listened some more and decided that the lead singer was trying to BE Don Henley, and the guitarist was blatantly ripping off some Eagles licks. I liked the song, though, so I waited to hear the name of the band, thinking they could be my new Eagles, the Eagles-like band for the 21st Century.

Then the announcer came on and said, "That was the Eagles! That's right, they have a new song!" How wondrous was this news to me, who lists the Eagles in her top five bands of all time? Poor fan that I am, though, I didn't know they had a new album coming out. I just listen to the old ones when I do chores and sing along with every song.

Needless to say, I'm looking forward to "Long Road Out of Eden." It's not just that The Eagles are a great band, and that this new project is incredibly nostalgic for those of us who grooved to Hotel California in our teen years. No, it goes beyond their musical talent to the actual sound they made--it defied classification, and their melodies contained an aura of mystery which has always appealed to the mystery-lover in me. Their lyrics, too, were sophisticated and layered. And who can beat the line, "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave?"

Poe would have liked that one.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

In Retrospect

Even after six years it's hard to contemplate the events of September 11th, 2001. One thing I remember is that I was teaching World Literature that morning to my high school class. Often I forget to write the date on the board, and so that morning I made a point of writing it out: September 11, 2001. Usually I might just abbreviate it like this: Sept.11. I'm not sure why I wrote it out that morning; it's a coincidence and nothing more. One of my students, though, after hearing the news, asked me tearfully: "Why did you write out the date? You never write out the whole date like that! Why did you do it?" She seemed to feel that by writing out that now-legendary date I had somehow set events in motion, had precipitated the tragedy that no one, even now, can quite comprehend.

But I wrote the date and then went about teaching, not knowing what would happen any more than the other Americans who went about their morning routines. We were reading The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, and were discussing, ironically, a part in which terrorists kill the president and Congress and take over the running of the country. I was trying to persuade my students that it wasn't as crazy as it sounded--that freedom was a precarious thing unless people were vigilant.

Then a white-faced colleague called me into the hall. Based on her expression, I thought she was going to tell me that one of my children had been hurt or killed; so when she told me that the World Trade Center had been attacked I felt a momentary relief, terrible as that sounds, because my children were safe.

But I didn't feel that they were safe as the day went on, as the horrible footage played across television screens and we saw the aftermath of hatred. Anyone's safety seemed like an illusion at that point, and the dead were like victims of some horrible lottery, some chance decision of an enemy.

Now we have, perhaps, an emotional distance, but it all comes back, feels immediate again, when we see the footage and hear the stories. We'll never forget and, as people predicted on that day, we'll never view the world quite the same way.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Words on Remembered Suffering

"The most difficult thing of all—yet the most essential—is to love life, even when you suffer, because life is all."

--Leo Tolstoy

"If it were possible for us to see further than our knowledge extends and out a little over the outworks of our surmising, perhaps we should then bear our sorrows with greater confidence than our joys. For they are the moments when something new, something unknown, has entered into us. The more patient, quiet and open we are in our sorrowing, the more deeply and the more unhesitatingly will the new thing enter us, the better shall we deserve it, the more will it be our own destiny."

--Rainer Maria Rilke

"When it seems that our sorrow is too great to be borne,
let us think of the great family of the heavy-hearted
into which our grief has given us entrance, and inevitably,
we will feel about us, their arms and their understanding."

--Helen Keller

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Transitioning to Autumn

Today it is cool! Cool for the first time in ages. So I started thinking about autumn and all the things I love about it--and then I remembered its brevity, and was reminded of this poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay.


"WHEN reeds are dead and a straw to thatch the marshes,
And feathered pampas-grass rides into the wind
Like agèd warriors westward, tragic, thinned
Of half their tribe, and over the flattened rushes,
Stripped of its secret, open, stark and bleak,
Blackens afar the half-forgotten creek,–
Then leans on me the weight of the year, and crushes
My heart. I know that Beauty must ail and die,
And will be born again,–but ah, to see
Beauty stiffened, staring up at the sky!
Oh, Autumn ! Autumn !–What is the Spring to me?"

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Friday, September 07, 2007

Bouchercon, I Hardly Knew Ye

Last year at this time I was preparing to go to Bouchercon in Madison, Wisconsin. The event was memorable, especially because of all the neat people I met. I took this picture at the big Madison Farmer's Market; what a far cry it is from what people might see this year at the Alaska Bouchercon.

It would be nice to go, but one can't attend them all, can one? :)

And it is nice to be able to lounge at home rather than pack a bag with clothes, books, and conference necessities.

But if you're going, let us know what it's like--and take pictures!

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Praying Mantis, Pray Tell?

Check out this bug that I saw on my house a couple of weeks ago. I had just painted, and I thought a leaf had stuck to the wet wall. However, the paint, upon inspection, was dry, and instead I realized that the leaf had antennae and little tiny arms like a Tyrannasaurus Rex. I wondered if it might be a praying mantis (which I had never seen in my life), but the ones I found online didn't look the same--they were much greener than this brown fellow.

I had always thought, too, that the PMs were mainly found in the south, and I'm minutes from Chicago. Is Global Warming somehow relocating the Praying Mantises? :)

If there are any amateur (or professional) entymologists who read this blog, please give me your best guess. I'd like to say I still know where the bug is, but my husband WOULD have to try to touch it, and it slipped into the shrubbery and disappeared. Ah, well. At least I captured him on film. I feel like a gosh darn National Geographic photographer. :)

The Weary Wee Flipperling

On a trip to Brookfield Zoo this summer we saw this little fellow sunbathing. He was rather oafish on the rock, but then he would slide into the water and become the picture of grace and ease. Every seal reminds me of a wonderful Rudyard Kipling poem (and if you read this blog last December you know that I am fond of Ol' Rud).

And the poem goes like this:


"OH! hush thee, my baby, the night is behind us,
And black are the waters that sparkled so green.
The moon, o’er the combers, looks downward to find us
At rest in the hollows that rustle between.
Where billow meets billow, there soft be thy pillow;
Ah, weary wee flipperling, curl at thy ease!
The storm shall not wake thee, nor shark overtake thee,
Asleep in the arms of the slow-swinging seas."

--Rudyard Kipling

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Mystery and Art

"People love mystery, and that is why they love my paintings."

--Salvador Dali


Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Why Mystery Lovers Shouldn't Play Trivial Pursuit

Last night my son asked if we could play Trivial Pursuit; this is ironic, since the last three times we played as a family we all ended up in bad moods, and last night was no exception.

My oldest son hates it when he doesn't know the answers; I think he got that from me. Generally, because the questions vary so wildly, I will get some sort of obscure query about the Bataan Death March and will fail to answer. Then my opponent will get a question like this (which is actually a question in one of the versions of Trivial Pursuit): "Which fictional mouse, created by Walt Disney, has become an American Icon?"

This will drive me crazy. I never get the mouse question. Last night, when I landed on "literature," I was thrilled to think I might actually earn a chip. My question, however, was about a comic strip--one I'd never heard of. Is this how we define literature, I wondered? Then I looked back at the box and saw that the brown, in its newest version, stands for "the printed word." I failed the comic book question, and then my nine-year-old got the question about Emily Dickinson, so we were both furious.

And yet in a few weeks, we will all want to play Trivial Pursuit again. Why? I've been thinking about this today, and I can only assume that it's about the mystery. That perfect question is out there, and I will know the answer next time! And so it lures me like the siren of board games, and I falter again and again. I did not know which eastern state has the largest display of collectible spoons. I was not aware that Pete Rose achieved his 4000th hit right before his 42nd birthday.

But I did get one terrific mystery lover's question: "What is the more politically correct title of Agatha Christie's TEN LITTLE INDIANS?" I answered, I was correct, and my family decided I had some value as a player.

So do you know? Or should I try the mouse question? :)

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Lake Monsters and Their Legends

I've posted a couple of times about the Loch Ness Monster, a legend that I find fascinating. But David Bennet of British Columbia pointed out that BC has two of its own legendary lake monsters, called Ogopogo and Cadborosaurus. David revealed that "Ogopogo is a lake monster, like Nessie, supposedly living in Lake Okanagan, in the interior of BC. Cadborosaurus, or Caddy to his friends, is a sea monster supposedly living in the waters off Victoria's breakwater, which shelters the Inner Harbour area."

This was a revelation to me, since I thought Loch Ness was the only story of this kind. Now, after some research, and with the tip from David, I have found that many a lake has its attendant monster, or legend thereof, and that there is much folklore regarding the creatures. There are plenteous websites that offer information about the lake legends, like this one and this one and many more. And David's BC lake creatures are not alone by a long shot!

What this tells me is that many people, like me, crave mysteries. We want things to be unsolved and larger than life, because that means that we can hold onto our fascination and our hope of something compelling. Do I think that one of these lake monsters will be found? Of course I can't rule it out. New species (or really old ones) have been located before--why not in the bottom of a lake? But will it bother me if they are never found? Not really. These sea creatures are already alive in the imaginations of thousands of people, and they'll stay there as long as we have the capacity to think and dream.

What's your favorite legend?

Photo link here.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Mary Welk on Being an ER Nurse, Writing Mysteries, and Surviving Murderous Moments in a 39 Year Marriage

Hi, Mary! Thanks for chatting with me.

You are still a part-time ER nurse. What’s more stressful: the ER, or writing on a deadline? :)

Let me put it this way: I didn’t get gray hair from writing fiction! I may go sleepless some nights, but I can always find time to revise a manuscript, erase any errors in spelling or catch a flaw in the plot and correct it. Unfortunately, there’s no time for re-writes in the ER. You have to do things right the first time, or both you and your patient could be in big trouble. Compared to the stress of my job, writing on a deadline is a piece of cake!

Good to know--it puts things in perspective! You have written or published a story in seven (nine) books; you work; you are the mother of six children (one of whom still lives at home) and the grandmother of seven children; you review for Mystery Scene (and How do you do it all? Are you just really efficient?
Don’t I wish! Luckily, I have a great husband who doesn’t mind shopping for groceries or putting in a load of wash when I’m at work. Also, our children are all grown now and generally don’t need Mom the way they did when they were younger. I have more time for myself than ever before, but I still don’t get everything done that I’d like to do. I’m juggling a half dozen different projects right now and wishing I could clone myself! :)

You are a role model for modern women.

Your Caroline Rhodes mystery series is set in the fictional town of Rhineburg, Illinois. How did you come up with this name and location?

My parents were first and second generation Americans of German descent. Although we lived in Chicago, many of our relatives lived in rural farm areas in the Midwest that had been settled by German immigrants. Each summer, when we made what I called the “annual pilgrimage” to Kansas City to visit my grandparents, we’d stop in these towns to see the relatives. They were all great storytellers, and catching up on a year’s worth of family tales made for great entertainment for a child on hot summer afternoons. I learned a lot about small town living from listening to these grown-up conversations, some of which – the more gossipy type – weren’t, of course, meant to be heard by ears as young as mine. The stories stuck with me, though, and when it came time to writing my own stories, it only seemed natural to set them in a place I knew from experience – a small Midwestern farming community settled by German immigrants where everyone knew everyone else’s business. There is no real Rhineburg in Illinois, but the name is Germanic, as are the names of many of the characters in my series.

That's so interesting! Didn't Washington Irving base a lot of his tales on German folk tales? Washington Irving experts, please check in.

Back to your characters: Like you, Caroline is an ER nurse; her husband is a professor of history. Is your husband a professor as well?

No, my husband worked for the U.S. Air Force for seventeen years and is now with another department in the federal government. My dad was a biology professor in Minnesota before he came to Chicago many years ago to work in medical research. Two of my sisters are retired teachers, and two of my daughters are now in teaching. My knowledge of university politics comes mainly from what I’ve learned from these family members along with my own experience in putting several kids through college. As for the history angle, I’m a history buff and enjoy reading historical non-fiction.

One of your books is titled A Deadly Little Christmas. What made you want Christmastime as a mystery setting, and how did you use the season to your advantage in writing the plot?

A Deadly Little Christmas was the first book in my “Rhodes to Murder” series. It’s been out of print for several years now, but thanks to Echelon Press LLC, it will be back on the shelves this fall in a revised second edition under the title A Merry Little Murder.

The idea for setting the story during the Christmas holidays came to me one snowy December day when I was putting up our artificial tree. It was an old tree, and the various colors painted on the ends of the branches to indicate where each one fit in the trunk had chipped off long before. Guessing which branch went where was a real pain, as was having to strip the tree of decorations three times after various strings of lights – previously working like a charm – died one by one. I was feeling more like Scrooge than Santa by the time I finished the job, so I didn’t take it kindly when my husband walked into the room and noted that I’d placed a medium sized branch where a long branch belonged. In a moment of total madness, I whipped that branch out of the tree, turned to my husband, and rammed the end of the steel shaft directly at his stomach.

Luckily, he pulled his abs in before I could do any damage to either him or our marriage. (We’ve been together 39 years now. :) While my actions didn’t land me in jail, they did give me an idea for a nifty murder weapon. A little research into plastic explosives convinced me that an exploding artificial tree was doable, so of course the story had to take place at Christmas. As for the rest of the plot, I revised and enlarged upon an unpublished story that I’d written years before, and voila! My first Caroline Rhodes mystery was born.

What a great story! Your latest book, The Scarecrow Murders, has a very scary cover. Do you have any input into how the books look?
I had no input into the cover of The Scarecrow Murders. I had a more humorous cover in mind since the whole idea of a battle of the sexes between the residents of Rhineburg – the town fathers picketing the university in support of the school’s football team while their wives marched in solidarity with a group of female rodeo riders – seemed amusing to me. But the publisher chose this cover, and I do think it’s good and scary for a Halloween mystery.

Do you like to read mysteries, or just write them?

I love reading a good mystery. One of the perks of reviewing for Mystery Scene and is that I get to read a lot of newly published books from both the major publishers and the independents. I’ve found some excellent new authors to add to my TBR list this way. When I’m not deep into a new mystery, I tend to read historical and political non-fiction.

Who are some of your favorite writers?
Among the bigger names in the mystery field, I’m a huge fan of Nancy Pickard, Lisa Scottoline, Barbara D’Amato, Sharon McCrumb, Dick Francis, Donald Westlake, Carl Hiaasen, David Morrell, and Martha Grimes, because I’ve learned so much about writing from reading their books. Among the now-gone-but-not-forgotten authors, I love Emma Lathen, J.J. Marric, Constance and Gwenyth Little, and Norbert Davis for their writing styles. Among the midlist authors, I enjoying reading books by Steve Brewer, S. D. Tooley, Mary Saums, Eileen Dreyer, Judy Clemens, Carolyn Haines, and others too numerous to name. For a little fun sci-fi/paranormal reading, I love Terry Pratchett.

What are you reading now?
Flawless by Joshua Spanogle. It’s a medical mystery, or as the publisher calls it, “a novel of medical suspense”. So far, it’s very good.

I met you at a mystery event in Schaumburg, Illinois. Do you attend many events and conferences throughout the year?
I attended many more in the past than I might in the future. Some conferences are now using the MWA membership guidelines for panel consideration or placement of books in the sellers’ room. I’m currently published by three different independent presses, not all of whom meet the MWA requirements. That means I don’t meet the requirements for all of my books, and it would be rather silly to attend a conference where only one of your titles could be stocked in the bookstore. So, I’ll be more particular in the future as to which conferences I’ll attend. I’ll still attend as many book fairs as possible.

What are your plans for the Caroline Rhodes series?

I’m currently working on a fifth “Rhodes to Murder” novel featuring Caroline and Carl. When it will be published depends on contract negotiations with Hilliard & Harris. Echelon Press LLC has expressed an interest in re-printing the second and third books in the series, and I hope to see the second one out in spring of 2008.

If you could go anywhere in the world to do your writing, what location would you pick as inspiration?
Much as I love Chicago, I’m most relaxed when camping along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Give me a cottage in western Michigan where I could watch the sun set over the lake each day and I’d be in heaven.

That does sound heavenly, I must agree. How can readers find out more about you and your books?
I have a new website at where readers can sample a chapter from A Merry Little Murder and where (hopefully!) I’ll have a blog running soon. Also, all my books are available at where readers can find reviews of the series.

Thanks for chatting, Mary!
Thank you for the wonderful questions!:)