Friday, August 31, 2007

The Ministry of the Interior

Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I experienced full anasthesia. For a mystery lover, this is a most mysterious thing, and a suspicious one. It left me in a state of disbelief. I watched carefully as the nurse put on my blood pressure cuff, my IV, and various other monitors. Then she said that she'd wait for a signal from the doctor, at which point she'd "get me sleepy."

So eventually she came in and clipped something to my IV and said I should lie on my side, which I did. There was a mouth piece waiting there, the kind of thing you put in a horse or something when you're giving it a dental exam.

In my case, it was for this:An endoscopy! In this procedure, a camera on the end of a long tubey thing is snaked down the throat, through the esophagus, and into the stomach, recording the journey forever in particularly gross snapshots.

I was dreading having to swallow the camera--what if I somehow projectile vomited all over the room?--but as it turned out, I wasn't present for that part--at least not in my conscious mind. But here's the mystery: I THOUGHT I was awake the entire time. I thought I was still lying there, waiting for someone to come in, when a nurse arrived.

"How are you?" she asked.


"You can start getting ready to go, if you wish." I stared at her. I'd like to think my eyes were bulging with indignant anger, but I think they were barely open.


"You're finished."

"But they haven't done it yet!"

She smiled at me--that pitying smile that medical people have for their poor deluded patients. "Don't you remember me?"


"Do you see that you're in a different room?"

I glanced around, ready to prove her wrong, but I was, in fact, in an entirely different room. The recovery room. Ah.

Being a suspicious person by nature, I was still toying with the notion that they had not done the procedure at all, but some elaborate con to save money, some medical version of THE STING. If so, though, they'd paid a lot of people to be in on it, and some of them didn't seem like good enough actors to pull it off.

Reluctantly I stripped off the horrible useless gown and put my own clothes back on, tottering on my feet, feeling resentful that they were making me leave while I was still tired.

I remained grouchy in the car, while my husband and children actually laughed at me, and then I came home and slept for three hours. I woke to attend lunch, and then I slept for a couple more hours, and after I type this I shall go gratefully off to bed.

I can't remember that mythological drink that brings forgetfulness--was it Nepenthe?--but today I do feel some of the mythological mystery of those enchanted fluids. I have been anasthetized, and I shall have to take their word for what happened in the interim.


Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Power of Wind and Music

I started my newest grad school class this evening. I had been harried and hot getting ready, and the class was interesting but tiring.

Imagine my joy when I emerged into the parking lot and found that the air was cold, autumnal, rejuvenating. And then, like a gift from the gods, the song playing on my radio as I turned toward home was--perhaps the best song in the world--LAY DOWN SALLY by Eric Clapton. I can't even explain how the cold wind blowing in my window and the power of Clapton's guitar (and his terrific background vocalist, whoever she is) simply re-energized me, made me feel younger, gave me the proverbial new lease on life.

Then I came home and my house was sweltering, despite three fans spinning madly. Ah, well--I'd had a moment.

What's the music that saves your mood?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Autumn, You are Welcome Any Time

I realize that soon the summer heat will be a thing of the past. The cold autumn winds will force us to close the windows, and we'll wonder where the warm days went. Yet after this summer, I can't help but think I'll welcome those bitter winds. Sure, today is supposed to be the last scorcher for a while, but until the air grows cooler I fear that all inspiration to write will simply melt inside me.

So I say, bring on the yellow leaves, the orchards sagging with fall fruit, the woodsmoke and the football games. I'm ready, and I'm willing.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

How We Failed Amelia

I've always been fascinated by the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. As mysteries go, it's certainly in my top ten of the interesting and unsolved, and I've always rather romantically connected it to the notion of the Bermuda triangle (which has been thoroughly debunked).

Friday I was listening to The Story with Dick Gordon, a show on NPR that I greatly enjoy, and he was discussing Earhart and the fact that she may, in fact, have survived her plane trouble, landed the plane, and sent distress calls, and that one fifteen-year-old girl, way back in 1937, recorded the distress signals that she heard that day on her father's short-wave radio.

The girl, Betty Klenck Brown, is now in her eighties. In an interview with Dick Gordon, she said that she recognized the voice of Amelia Earhart that day. Earhart had already been missing for a couple of days, and Brown knew that. Because Earhart was a celebrity and a hero to women and men alike, much of America knew the sound of her voice from recorded interviews. Therefore, Betty knew that the distress calls were real and important, and for three hours she wrote down everything that she heard.

Her father eventually came home and heard a bit, too, and he went to the Coast Guard (they lived in Florida) with the information (although NOT with Betty's notebook, which I find regrettable) and was told that everything was being handled and his input was not needed.

Betty was not believed, and I suppose as a young woman in 1937, she didn't have a lot of resources to tap in an effort to help Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan (who Betty describes as being "out of his head.")

Ultimately Betty's notebook, with its valuable information, simply became her burden, because no one wanted it and no one believed her. (You can view the notebook, Earhart's route, pictures of Betty and a film of Earhart's last takeoff at The Story).

What bothers me the most about this story is that anyone in charge would discount what seemed like such valid information, and that they wouldn't at least ask to see the notebook, which could have told them the frequency on which Earhart was broadcasting. In other words, based on hearing this story, I think that Amelia Earhart heroically landed her plane when it developed problems, radioed for help over several days, and never received it, and probably died on a small island in the South Pacific.

I love knowing the solution to a mystery, but this one is not satisfying, and my obsessive mind keeps thinking about what would have happened, what could have happened, if people had merely opened their minds to the possibilities.

Today the police, the FBI, the coast guard, often turn to the public and ask for help in solving crimes and disappearances. They set up tip lines and offer rewards. I wonder why this couldn't have been the case with Amelia Earhart, and why no one thought that one girl's precious notebook was worth examining.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Celebrating My Little Clown

My son is nine today; he shares the birthday with Sean Connery, one of his favorite actors, who turns 77.

Einstein would tell me, I'm sure, that relativity will explain how nine years seem to have gone so quickly, how time really does fly when you're having fun, or when you're in the company of a delightful child.

Now that child is old enough to tell me that he didn't answer me because "I thought it was a rhetorical question," so I guess some of the chubby-cheeked wonder of babyhood is gone forever, but each new stage holds its fascinations.

So Happy Birthday, Graham and Sean, and may you both have a wish come true.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Shakespearean Storms in Chicago

This has been one tempestuous week in Chicagoland; today's storms felled trees all over town, roofs blew off, windows blew in. The tree in our front yard bowed lower than I had ever seen it bow, as if in submission to the unusually strong winds. It reminded me of the storms in Shakespeare, which were often augurs of significant events: the deaths of kings, imminent murders, the plots of traitors.

I was reminded, too, that Cassius, in Julius Caesar, walked the streets at night braving a storm like this, baring his chest and daring the lightning to strike it. His theory was that with Caesar in power, all was not right with the world, and the storm was an instrument of "fear and warning."

And of course the Tempest raised by Prospero was meant to be a storm of vengeance against the men who had betrayed him. Considering all of the rain we've had this week--and I'm talking violent rain, with weird lightning and odd-sounding thunder--I might even believe it if someone told me that the current weather was someone's act of revenge.

On the other hand, it's beautiful in a wild and frightening way. As long as I keep my roof and our tree doesn't fall on our house, I think we might make it through with a renewed appreciation for nature and some very green grass.

Masters and the Mysterious Dead

Today is the birth date of poet Edgar Lee Masters, long one of my favorites because of his beautiful Spoon River Anthology, a book of poems that gives voice to each person buried in the graveyard in the fictional Spoon River (fictional, but it was based on two Illinois towns in which Masters grew up).

While Masters doesn't give the dead a full voice--that is, they never really explain the afterlife or how they died--he lets each dead person explore the one thing they want to talk about--whether it was that they had a good life, or a bitter regret, or a painful experience on earth. A couple of them were murdered, and they take their killers to task in their angry monologues. All of the dead have their say.

One of my favorite poems, Lucinda Matlock, gives voice to a woman who was strong despite many hardships, including the deaths of her husband and many of her children before her own death. Lucinda despairs that her children and grandchildren may well not be strong enough, and that they somehow expect things to go their way rather than dealing with whatever comes. She sums it up by telling them scornfully that they may not have enough of what it takes:

" . . .What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you—
It takes life to love Life."

As a mystery lover, I find satisfaction in the fact that Masters takes on the greatest mystery and allows us to see a world beyond life, a world where the dead are still just as human as they had been on earth.

Masters also has a rather lovely view of death, as we learn in some of the fictional epitaphs, and also in his own, which is taken from his poem "Tomorrow is my Birthday" from a volume he wrote in 1918:

"Good friends, let’s to the fields…
After a little walk and by your pardon,
I think I’ll sleep, there is no sweeter thing.
Nor fate more blessed than to sleep.

I am a dream out of a blessed sleep-
Let’s walk, and hear the lark."

(Photo link here.)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Full Furnace of This Hour

The heat continues, and the humidity is sucking the will to live out of the inhabitants of my town. Or maybe just out of me.

For a poetic look at an uncomfortable subject, I turn to Archibald Lampman.


From plains that reel to southward, dim,
The road runs by me white and bare;
Up the steep hill it seems to swim
Beyond, and melt into the glare.
Upward half-way, or it may be
Nearer the summit, slowly steals
A hay-cart, moving dustily
With idly clacking wheels.
By his cart's side the wagoner
Is slouching slowly at his ease,
Half-hidden in the windless blur
Of white dust puffiing to his knees.
This wagon on the height above,
From sky to sky on either hand,
Is the sole thing that seems to move
In all the heat-held land.

Beyond me in the fields the sun
Soaks in the grass and hath his will;
I count the marguerites one by one;
Even the buttercups are still.
On the brook yonder not a breath
Disturbs the spider or the midge.
The water-bugs draw close beneath
The cool gloom of the bridge.

Where the far elm-tree shadows flood
Dark patches in the burning grass,
The cows, each with her peaceful cud,
Lie waiting for the heat to pass.
From somewhere on the slope near by
Into the pale depth of the noon
A wandering thrush slides leisurely
His thin revolving tune.

In intervals of dreams I hear
The cricket from the droughty ground;
The grasshoppers spin into mine ear
A small innumerable sound.
I lift mine eyes sometimes to gaze:
The burning sky-line blinds my sight:
The woods far off are blue with haze:
The hills are drenched in light.

And yet to me not this or that
Is always sharp or always sweet;
In the sloped shadow of my hat
I lean at rest, and drain the heat;
Nay more, I think some blessèd power
Hath brought me wandering idly here:
In the full furnace of this hour
My thoughts grow keen and clear.

Archibald Lampman

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Fictional Murder is Not This Scary

Historically, August 21st has been a day of some violence. One of the more horrifying assassinations I've ever heard of was attempted on August 20th in 1940, when a hired killer broke in on noted Marxist Leon Trotsky in his Mexico hotel room, tricked him into reading something, and then struck him on the head with an ice pick, which had been concealed in the visitor's coat. Worse yet, Trotsky did not die instantly, but lived until the next day.

Because I teach Crime and Punishment, I'm forced to contemplate the violence of axe murder twice a year, but this one is far more horrifying to me because it actually happened, and in historical mentions the weapon is even called an "ice axe."

And more political violence: on this day in 1983, Benigno S. Aquino Jr., the Phillippine opposition leader, decided to return to Manila from the U.S., and was shot moments after disembarking.

And on this day in 2000, after noble efforts to rescue the sailors on the Russian Submarine Kursk, it was announced that all 118 men had perished.

I prefer my tragic deaths and murders in the pages of good fiction--these events are far too dramatic and horrifying for my bookish sensibilites.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Unfamiliar Terrain of Composition

I am writing a new book. It started fast and furious, page after page of text appearing on the computer as my fingers flew over the keys, desperate to get down those initial thoughts as quickly as possible.

I have written forty thousand words. And suddenly the terrain has become more treacherous. For me, every new book is an unknown mountain. I feel compelled to climb it, and I know that I can get to the other side, but I have no idea what I will encounter on the way there, nor am I entirely clear about all the details of the denouement.

This is both exciting and frustrating; it's almost like having to build the mountain as I hike on it. Writing, for me, has some of the same features of reading. I enjoy it and find it entertaining; I get caught up in my own story. But there are places where that story is not whole in my mind, and that's when I have to supply these little bridges that will advance the journey, that will get me to the little town of First Draft, safe and sound. :)

Meanwhile, back at the ranch . . .

Friday, August 17, 2007

Conflict Fuels the Fields Story

August 18th marks the birthday of legendary businessman Marshall Field, whose most notable legacy to Chicagoans was his eponymous store, Marshall Field's, which had been in Chicago for so long it had become a handsome and beloved landmark on State Street (the distinctive State Street store clock is pictured here).

Recently there has been much controversy over the Field's name; despite much protest from loyal Chicagoans, Fields was re-named Macy's after it was purchased by Federated Department Stores, and those who loved Marshall Field's on State Street felt that more was being taken from them than a store. This was a piece of Chicago history and culture.

The State Street Macy's store, by all reports, is not doing particularly well, and protestors continue to demand that Marshall Field's be re-instated. There's even a website which urges people to join the crusade to bring back Field's.

Of course Field is known for another Chicago landmark--the Field Museum, to which he gave one million dollars in 1905, and to which he bequeathed another eight million in his will.

One wonders what Field would think of the store controversy; it's hard to believe he wouldn't be proud, not only of the fact that the store existed for so long, but that people loved it so much that they fought to see it restored to its former glory.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Back to Organized Chaos

The school year officially started today, when I attended my first meeting in preparation for the new class sessions which begin next week. My sons go back a week from Monday, and then I return to graduate school at the end of the month.

Sweet summer, relaxing summer, will be left behind in the wake of all the things to be done, the effort of constantly keeping track of everyone's day, each person's schedule of obligations, homework, housework, work work. The new season is upon us, and while it has its attractive points--the smell of new books and pencils, the eagerness of the students and teachers, the lovely atmosphere of hope pervading the halls--it is also frightening. I always end up promising, "This will NOT be as chaotic as last year; I will not do that again." And then of course I get immersed, and it's just as crazy as ever.

Still, I can't imagine not being in a school when fall begins. I've been going back to school in September since 1970, either as a student or a teacher, and I'd probably feel a sense of loss if I had to go someplace else, to some other job. Unless that job was being independently wealthy and reading books all day--that one I could probably handle. :)

The toughest thing is that there is less time to write, but there's a way to do even that if one budgets time. The older I get, the more I realize how costly wasted time really is, and it helps me to put things in order, to push, to achieve.

So here's to the new school year!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Peter Rozovsky, Editor and Blogger, Discusses The International Mystery Scene

Peter Rozovsky writes a blog called “Detectives Beyond Borders: A Forum for International Crime Fiction,” because, he attests in a rather sinister subscript, “Murder Is More Fun Away From Home.” You can check out his blog here.

I wanted to ask Peter a few questions about his blog and about international crime fiction, and he graciously agreed.

Hi, Peter! Thanks for chatting with me.

Your blog, Detectives Beyond Borders, focuses on crime fiction that is not written by Americans. Was there a certain work or series that got you interested in mystery fiction that goes beyond the American tradition?

My interest in international crime fiction is a fluke, in a sense. Though I'd long enjoyed travel, I'd never read much crime fiction. One of the benefits of my travels was a Dutch girlfriend. Because of her, I paid special attention when I found a novel called An Outsider in Amsterdam by Janwillem van de Wetering about five years ago. Soho Press published many of this Dutch crime writer's books, and that led me to some of Soho's other crime writers -- Seicho Matsumoto (Japan), Qiu Xiaolong (China), Helene Tursten (Sweden) and Peter Lovesey (U.K.) among them. From that point, my old interest in travel and my new interest in crime fiction dovetailed, and the rest is history.

British mysteries have reigned supreme for many years, perhaps because of those queens of mystery, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, and also because of Arthur Conan Doyle, and some of the wonderful English writers who have carried the torch since then. Do you focus on British mysteries, too, or do you try to find works (and countries) that receive less literary attention?
I gave you a partial answer to this question when I mentioned Peter Lovesey in Question #1. I do gravitate toward works and countries outside the classic crime-fiction tradition, but that can take in British writers as well. Bill James and his superb Harpur & Iles series are one example.

I’ve discovered the books of Henning Mankell, which depict such a cold and lonely Sweden as a setting for Kurt Wallander’s investigations. You blogged recently about Swedish mysteries and certain thematic parallels between them. Do you recommend any particular Swedish crime writers? And what are those parallels that today’s Swedish mysteries share?
If you think Henning Mankell's Sweden is cold and lonely, you should try Åsa Larsson's! I recently read her novel Sun Storm, whose setting is very different from those of other Swedish crime fiction I'd read, including Mankell's. Most Scandinavian crime fiction is set in cities, and Scandinavian cities tend to be in the south of their countries. But Larsson's is set in the far north, in a region where Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia meet. Place names and other features up that way are reminiscent of the Finns and the Sami, the region's ancient people. In all, the atmosphere is very different from the urban crime fiction of Uppsala, Stockholm or Kurt Wallander's Skane province. I found this a refreshing reminder that, as much as we tend to make generalizations about Swedish, Irish or Italian crime fiction, for example, these countries have their own regions, their own rivalries, and their own diversity.

That said, I do notice a common theme of sympathy in the work of Swedish crime writers, a concern for investigators, criminals, suspects and friends, relatives and lovers of all the above. Håkan Nesser shares that sympathy and also the proverbial Swedish concern for social justice. His novels also have a playful sense of humor, which is probably not a generalization many people would make about Swedish crime fiction.

Do you also discuss American mysteries which are set in exotic locales, or would that not meet the criteria for your blog?

I don't have criteria so much as I have tendencies. Those tendencies naturally don't leave time for a lot of American writers, but I have read novels by British writers that would fit your description. These would include Colin Cotterill's The Coroner's Lunch, which is set in Laos, and several novels from Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen series, each one of which is set in a different Italian region.

Do you have a current favorite fictional detective?
I'd get a lot of fictional characters angry at me if I answered that one. Bill James' Harpur and Iles are like leading actors in a dark comedy. No gang of investigators is as hilarous, hysterical, violent and dysfunctional as the police in Ken Bruen's Brant and Roberts novels. Peter Lovesey's Peter Diamond is a superb example of the angry, impatient, brilliant police investigator. See how many authors' works I enjoy and write about? That's how many favorite detectives I have.

You’ve blogged a great deal about Fred Vargas, of whom I had never heard. Can you tell me a little bit about her?
She's a French medieval historian who turned to crime fiction and had made a good job of it. Britain's Crime Writers Association split off its top award two years ago into two awards, one for English-language crime fiction and one for translated crime. Vargas' novels have won the international award both years so far (and their settings are contemporary, despite their creators' medieval background).

Her work is different from any other crime fiction I've read. For one thing, she builds up to the main crime very slowly. She gets away with this because she has such a sure and determined eye for character and for local detail.

You asked people to comment on their favorite crime novel first lines, and you cited Chandler’s “Red Wind,” (which I recently cited myself on DorothyL. Interesting!) as an example. Do you have a particular favorite first line?
Oddly enough, I never had a special interest in first lines until I posted that question. Two that I've noticed recently are from Irish crime novels: "The night of my mother's funeral, Linda Dawson cried on my shoulder, put her tongue in my mouth and asked me to find her husband," from The Wrong Kind of Blood by Declan Hughes and this, from Declan Burke's The Big O:

"In the bar, Karen drinking vodka-tonic, Ray on brandy to calm his nerves, she told him how people react to death and a stick-up in pretty much the same way: shock, disbelief, anger, acceptance.

" `The trick being,' Karen said, `to skip them past the anger straight into acceptance.' "

Outside crime writing, there are James Thurber's classic: "I suppose that the high-water mark of my youth in Columbus, Ohio, was the night the bed fell on my father" and the first two words of Hamlet: "Who's there?"

Oh, yes! My favorite line from that particular story is "Please don't use your chloroform, as this is all I have." :)

Since you are interested in crime fiction from all over the world, I wonder if any of that fiction has made you want to visit the place in which it is set. If so, where would you go first, based on the novel’s description alone?

I've been to quite a number of the places that have been settings for crime novels I've read, but not for that reason. Usually the opposite happens: I visit a place, then I look for crime fiction set there.

You say that Sandra Ruttan (also interviewed here) is a bigger Ian Rankin fan than you are. I would suggest she is the biggest Rankin fan in the world. :) What makes Rankin so addictive, so compulsively readable?
I'm not the person to ask on this one. I've read three of his novels and a couple of his short stories. The outstanding characteristic from that small sampling for me is the dry humor of his story "The Dean Curse," and humor is not a characteristic most readers would normally associate with Rankin. I guess that means I don't get the Ian Rankin phenomenon. This is not the same as saying I don't like his writing. It just means that I can't single out what has made the man the worldwide success that he is.

Let’s say a bunch of us crime and mystery fans were having lunch, and some of us, like me, admitted that they rarely read mysteries that aren’t British or American. Which book would you tell me to run right out and get immediately so I could get a flavor of something beyond my borders?
Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong. I won't even wait for that hypothetical lunch to say that everyone should read it. It gives a superb, convincing picture of Shanghai in the 1990s, physically, politically and psychologically, and it has a surprise twist that would not have been believeable anywhere else.

Great, thanks! What inspired you to begin your blog?
I've given the matter some thought recently, and the answer is that I don't remember. I took the impetus for my first post from David J. Montgomery's greatest-detective-novels list, but I don't remember what had made me look at his blog when I did.

What are you reading now?
I'm flipping among two novels by Fred Vargas, Seeking Whom He May Devour and The Three Evangelists, and The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II by Fernand Braudel. I may have to shake up the crime-fiction portion of that list. I don't what readers to think that there is nothing more to my blog than the great Fred Vargas!

Thanks again for chatting, Peter--this was really interesting stuff!

Mark Coggins on Raymond Chandler, Hard Boiled Mysteries and Cool Science Projects

Sharing a birthday with the great Alfred Hitchcock is mystery writer Mark Coggins, whose work has been favorably compared to that of Chandler and Hammett, and who has a new August Riordan mystery coming out soon. He recently visited Oxford University to study the original manuscript of Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye.

Thanks for chatting with me, Mark.

Your first book, The Immortal Game, was nominated for several awards and features a detective named August Riordan. How did you come to write the book?

The Immortal Game started out as a short story for a trade paperback quarterly called The New Black Mask. August Riordan’s first appearance in print had been in another story for The New Black Mask called “There’s No Such Thing as Private Eyes” and I’d written The Immortal Game as a follow-up, but unfortunately the publication folded before the story made it into print. This was in the mid-1980s.

I put the short story in a drawer for about ten years, and when I found the time again to write seriously around 1996 or 1997, I pulled it out and used it as the basis of the novel. Of course, it was much expanded from the story.

Ah, the old put-it-in-the-drawer-for-while-trick. :)

Loren D. Estleman compared you to Dashiell Hammett; NPR says you have given the hard-boiled form “fresh life.” Did you expect all this praise? Be honest. :)

I was completely taken aback. Loren was extremely generous in the blurb he gave me for the book and the NPR review and several others, such as the one that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, came as shockers. I didn’t expect the book to be reviewed, much less favorably reviewed.

A nice surprise, then! How did you choose the name August? Is it your favorite month, or perhaps were you inspired by the adjective august, which would suggest something “baronial, brilliant, exalted, or grandiose?”
Well, I knew I wanted the last name of the character to be Riordan as a sort of homage to a character in Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely. For the same reason, I also knew that I wanted the first name to start with A. I finally picked August because I thought it was somewhat unusual and I liked the ring of it. And the fact that I was born in August didn’t hurt!

Cool. You’ve written three books and are about to publish a fourth. Are they all August Riordan books?

They are, but the second one—-which is being reprinted by Bleak House Books this month—-is a little different. It’s titled Vulture Capital and, as you might guess, has to do with the venture capital industry. Unlike the other books, Vulture is not told from Riordan’s (first person) point of view. It’s told from the point of view of a venture capitalist named Ted Valmont in an objective third person point of view. This is the same point of view that Dashiell Hammett used in The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key.

Do you foresee many books in this series?
I’m in conversation with Bleak House Books for another two book contract, so if that goes through, we would have at least two more. Chandler wrote seven Philip Marlowe novels. It would be fun to do at least that many, but I don’t have aspirations to do a full alphabet full of them like Sue Grafton. I’m just not that prolific.

Your books seem to incorporate a lot of computery-things, lots of references to the new technology. Is this because you have “worked with a number of Silicon Valley computer and venture capital firms?”
Yes, my day job is in computers and software, so I’m leveraging the knowledge I picked up from working in the industry. However, Riordan himself is quite a technophobe. Part of the tension in the books comes from having him deal with technology that he would not use or be comfortable with.

A while back I interviewed Keith Raffel, who also writes about Silicon Valley in Dot.Dead. Do you know Keith? Or is the valley not as small as I think it is?
I do know Keith. Vulture Capital and his book are often compared because they both have plots that have to do with start-ups. I also co-founded a software start-up that was in the same “space” (customer relationship management) as the one that Keith co-founded. His was a lot more successful than mine, however!

All that said, I actually didn’t meet Keith until his book came out. Which means, I guess, that the mystery community is even more tightly knit than the Silicon Valley one.

You wrote an in-depth analysis of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, for which you studied 200 pages of Chandler’s original typescript at the Bodleian Library at Oxford. This brings up many questions: (Here's Mark at Oxford).

First, did you go to Oxford specifically to study Chandler, or was that merely a by-product of the trip?
I had heard about the existence of the Chandler archives (and the fact that unused manuscript pages from The Long Goodbye were in them) from Ridley Pearson. So, yes, I did go to Oxford primarily to see the archives and the pages.

Did it intimidate you to hold the work of this great—and greatly loved—writer?
It didn’t so much intimidate me as leave me a awestruck. It was a great thrill.

What prompted you to do such a detailed analysis of the drafts of The Long Goodbye as compared with the final version?
While he hadn’t studied the pages carefully, Ridley had told me that the material in the archives had not been used in the final book. He theorized that the pages had been cut at the request of the publisher to shorten the length of the book. The Long Goodbye is a long PI novel, but from my reading of the Chandler biographies, I didn’t think that could have been the reason for the cuts. My original motivation was to see if I could find out why the material had been cut—-and to see exactly what happened in the “missing” scenes.

You suggest that some people might not choose this as Chandler’s greatest work, but that you would (as would I). Why might some people not choose it? Why would they, in your opinion, be wrong?
I do think it’s Chandler’s best book, but I think it’s fair to say that it is a book that’s shorter on thrills, wise-cracks and plot twists than, say, The Big Sleep or Farewell My Lovely. Marlowe is more world-weary and mature in Goodbye. It’s a more somber book because of it and I think that may influence some readers’ opinions of it.

I think it’s the best for exactly the reasons I outlined in the article. I think Chandler succeeded in writing a literary novel, rather than just a genre novel.

Okay, enough on Chandler and back to Coggins: One of the things posted on your website is, surprisingly, a second grade report card, on which it looks as though you got a B. What’s up with that? Where was your initiative?
I wasn’t exactly the best student in grade school, and wasn’t even particularly interested in English or writing until college. I was much more interested in “science,” which to me meant building model airplanes and blowing them up with firecrackers.

That is fun science! You stated that your life “really began with the third grade.” My son starts third grade this fall; can I assume his life will now begin? Is this the age of reason?
Our family moved around quite a bit during the time I spent in kindergarten and grades one and two, and I think that’s why I don’t have very clear memories of those years. I said that simply because I can recall more details about friends and activities from that grade forward.

You’ve been a keynote speaker at computer events; have you also taught writing?
In a small way. I’ve taught at the Book Passage Mystery Writer conference, as well as the Murder in the Grove writers’ conference.

You live in San Francisco; I have heard many things about the legendary beauty of this place (my parents honeymooned there in 1956). What’s the best thing about it from your perspective?
I like the fact that it’s a “real city,” but one that’s not so large and overwhelming that you can never know it all or find it difficult to get around. I also love the rich history and the interesting architecture. That coupled with the natural beauty of the location and the energy and vibrancy in the arts and industry make it an exciting place to live. I never feel like I’m missing out on anything in San Francisco.

What are you reading now?
I just finished Memory Babe by Gerald Nicosia and Off the Road by Carolyn Cassady. They are both books about Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation. I’m doing research on Kerouac for my next book, tentatively titled The Dead Beat Scroll, which is about a new Kerouac manuscript that turns up when a house in San Francisco in which Kerouac lived and worked is demolished.

Sounds great! How can readers find out more about Mark Coggins, who may well be this generation’s Chandler?
You are being far too kind! If I could write half as well as Chandler, I’d be a happy man. But to find out more about me and my work, check out my web site:

my blog:

and my publisher’s site:

Thanks, Mark! I look forward to reading your books, and you've inspired me to read more Chandler, as well.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Check out The Hitch Tribute

I blogged about Alfred Hitchcock in honor of his 108th birthday at Poe's Deadly Daughters today.

Anyone out there have a favorite Hitchcock movie? I love Rear Window, but I think Rebecca is my favorite. And that way I'm paying tribute to Daphne Du Maurier, too, whose book is even better than the film with Fontaine and Olivier.

Check them out!

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Mystery of Language Acquisition

This is a dialogue I had with my son this afternoon:

Me: Why is this backpack in the middle of the floor?

Him: (Unconcerned) I was wearing it earlier.

Me: Graham, do I want this lying here in the middle of the floor? Do I?


Me: Graham!

Him: What?

Me: How about answering me?

Him: (shrugging) I thought it was a rhetorical question.

Now I must mention that my son is eight, and I had no idea he knew the word "rhetorical." :)

Language acquisition is something we've long wondered about; both of our boys were early talkers and mimicked all sorts of words they heard in conversation. I suppose this helped them to start building vocabulary way back when.

We only hope that they can parlay their language skills into enjoyable and lucrative careers that will pay for Jeff's and my stay in the mental hospital.

The Mystery of Fate

There are many mysteries that are rooted in plain old destiny--in the way things are. One of these is the mystery of extinction. I read yesterday that a rare aquatic mammal in China called the Yangtze Dolphin is now extinct, basically driven into non-existence by pollution, cruel fishing practices, and human apathy. TIME's article by Peter Ritter suggests that the dolphin was rare, nicknamed "the goddess of the Yangtze," and considered "auspicious" by fishermen. So here is the mystery: if the fishermen valued this creature, who didn't value it enough? Will extinction increase due to environmental concerns? Will the human race become extinct?

Okay, those are pretty deep mysteries, so here's a lighter one: the mystery of birth days. I have a theory of birthday clusters: that somehow we are drawn to groups of people who repeat patterns of birth anniversaries. For example, today is my father's birthday, but August also marks birthdays for my mother, my brother, my son, my godson, my grandfather, my father-in-law, and several of my friends. October and December have similar clusters. My husband tells me this is mere coincidence, and it may well be--or perhaps are we drawn to people who make their imprint on the world at a certain time, in certain months? Do any of you have birthday clusters in your lives?

And happy birthday to my father, who is 76 today.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Waiting for the Magic to Begin

I am one week away from returning to work; I had been hoping all summer that I'd be visited with a good idea for a new suspense novel, but unfortunately that idea came to me only recently, and I've been desperately tapping away, trying to get as much of it down as I can before I lose the inspiration.

I wonder if other writers are more orderly than I in their composition process. I get one seed of an idea and then sort of burst out of the gate like a bull at a rodeo, flailing around. At least that's how it seems to me. It's very obsessive--I have all of these disjointed ideas, images, dialogues, and I need to compress them into a form that might at some point be readable, even compelling.

I'd like to say I use an orderly process--index cards or legal pads or even a working outline--but it's far more vague than that. I think I'm actually waiting for magic, or maybe the Holy Spirit. :)

I read a terrific book once called MAGIC, RHETORIC, and LITERACY: AN ECCENTRIC HISTORY OF THE COMPOSING IMAGINATION, by William A. Covino. It's a complex book which traces the link between words, magic, and human thought throughout the ages. In the ancient world, thought itself was thought to be a magical process; Aristotle wrote that "phantasy is our only basis for speculative reasoning." Throughout the ancient world and into the Renaissance, in the writing of greats like Plato, Aristotle, Pico, Aquinas, Augustine--there is a suggestion that writing itself, and the ideas that seem to come from nowhere--are magical processes.

Even into the Romantic Period, Covino contends, there were writers who clung to the notion that the composing imagination was rooted in something magical:

"Romantic fascination with the magical imagination is explicit in Blake's visionary poetry, Wordsworth's and Coleridge's conjunction of the natural and the supernatural in the Lyrical Ballads, Percy Shelley's faith in the power of language and mind over cultural and political matter in Prometheus Unbound, The Witch of Atlas, and A Defense of Poetry, and Mary Shelley's portrayal of a magical world ravaged by a monster of science in Frankenstein.

English Romantics turned to magic in order to license the powers of the composing imagination, to find a discourse for intellectual and political revolution, and to define writing as a liberatory force that constructs realities."

I always remember this book when I begin to compose, because I often feel that I'm waiting for some exterior thing, some process that begins outside of myself. I'm curious to know what other writers would say about this. Leave comments, please!

Thursday, August 09, 2007

A Writerly Trip to Jefferson Park

Yesterday the book discussion group at the Chicago Public Library, Jefferson Park Branch, discussed my book THE DARK BACKWARD and then invited me to talk afterward.

I brought my camera along to photograph the nice crowd of people who attended, and then FORGOT to do it! Sorry, Jefferson Park readers! Hopefully I'll go back next year and then I'll be sure to preserve the image digitally. Meanwhile I've put up a picture of the library itself, for those of you who are fans of library architecture.

These book discussions are my favorite part of book promotion, because you get to talk to people who've already read the book (as opposed to trying to sell it to someone), and can hear their thoughts about it. The questions are always interesting, and we ended up chatting about generating thoughts, outlining: yes or no?, how characters emerge, how plotting happens, and then more esoteric things like the nature of forgiveness.

And now, back to reality: still painting the house. You'd think it was a mansion, given the amount of time it takes to paint it. It is not, however. :)

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Beautiful and Splendid Things

"Life has loveliness to sell, all beautiful and splendid things, blue waves whitened on a cliff, soaring fire that sways and sings, and children's faces looking up, holding wonder like a cup." -

That lovely sentiment is from the poet Sara Teasdale, who was born on this date in 1884. Teasdale also penned one of my favorite lines that has become a mantra:

Look for a lovely thing and you will find it,
It is not far -
It never will be far.
(from NIGHT, Stars Tonight 1930

And while I contemplate the lovely words of a rather tragic poet, I must prepare for a book chat that I'm doing at the Jefferson Park Library today in Chicago, where we'll be discussing THE DARK BACKWARD.

Have a great day!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Crimes Of Which No One Speaks

I've started to realize that there are crimes all around us, but not the kind which require solving. They're right in front of us, daring us to expose them.

It may not surprise you to hear that my first example is about a bank. Our bank recently told us, when I called with a routine question, that we were "without overdraft protection." They made it sound very dire. What if we were to become overdrawn? Who would protect us? I almost fell for that, until the female representative told me that we "qualified" for this protection, and it was free.

"Then why don't you just protect all of your customers automatically?" I asked.

"Well, because then some people would use it as an excuse to be overdrawn all the time," she explained.

"So how does this protection work?" she said.

"We would issue you a card, which, if you were to become overdrawn, you could use to draw amounts of up to 10,000 dollars."

This got my attention. "So it's basically a credit card?"

"It can be used as a credit card, yes, but you could save it solely for overdraft protection."

Is it me, or does this seem underhanded? Does it seem like people gathered in a bank conference room and said, "We need a new way to get credit cards in people's hands. Let's try calling it 'overdraft protection.'

I told her no thanks--that I'd protect myself by balancing my checkbook.

Yesterday my husband walked up to me and said, "Boy, am I glad I called the bank. Did you know we didn't have any overdraft protection?"

And sure enough, I got a new credit card in the mail a week or so later, and it's a funny thing--nowhere on the paperwork did it indicate that the card could be used to protect me from overdrafts.

Is this a crime against intelligence? Against honesty? You tell me.

Monday, August 06, 2007

MacInnes and Ludlum: The Great Suspensers

I pondered the similarities between these writers on my blog post at
Poe's Deadly Daughters today. Let me know what you think!

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Mystery Mom

Happy Birthday to my Mom, Katherine. She turned me on to mysteries way back in the 70s and we are still book buddies today.

Have a great day, Mom! Guess what I'm getting you for your birthday? :)

Friday, August 03, 2007

Mystery Writer Susan Wittig Albert Chats About Beatrix Potter, Farming in Texas, and Taking an Animal's Point of View

Hi, Susan! Thanks for chatting with me.

You are a writer who seems to have followed her heart into all sorts of writing. Your popular mystery series featuring China Bayles and Robin Paige have brought you great acclaim and made you a best-selling author.

Your newest series features as its protagonist the author and illustrator Beatrix Potter. Why did you want to write about Potter? How did you happen to conceive of The Cottage Tales, as your series is called?

I learned to read with Beatrix Potter. My mother read her little books aloud to me so often that I memorized them, and then “read” them to myself. (Who knows what kind of influence that had on my writing style!) I didn’t know much about her, though, until my husband Bill suggested that we use her as a character in the second book of our Robin Paige series, Death at Gallows Green, which is set in 1896. I began doing the research, and simply fell in love with her, and with the place she created in the Lake District. We visited there, and I knew I had to write about it, and about her. And since I’m a mystery writer, I naturally thought of writing mysteries—British cottage/village mysteries. Natalee Rosenstein, my Berkley editor, was encouraging, and we took it from there.

The series is lauded as one for “adult and young adult readers.” Was this something you thought about when writing the books?
I think about it often, and try to design and craft the books so that they are appealing to younger readers. I’ve created some younger characters, both girls and boys, and although the animals weren’t created specifically for young readers (grownups like talking animals, too!), I think the animal plots appeal to youngsters. The books are being read by homeschoolers (I know, because I get email from them!), in part because a teacher/mom/dad can build a unit around them, focusing on the setting, on Beatrix’s life, on the history of the time, and so on. And I love it when I hear from a family—mom, dad, kids—reading the books aloud together.

In your first book, according to your website, Potter “gradually moves away from her London life as a dutiful Victorian-age daughter, and into an independent life that offers new hopes, new love, and the possibility of self-determination.” Was it challenging to write from the perspective of a woman in 1905 England?
Bill and I were writing the Robin Paige books at the time I began the Cottage Tales. The Paige series is set from 1895-1903, and features quite a number of women, both fictional and real. So quite a lot of the background research had been done, and I’d already begun to feel rather like a woman of 1905 myself! When I’d finished the first book, I learned that Linda Lear was writing a new biography of Potter. We connected via email and became close friends. Linda was good enough to share her research with me, and I read the manuscript of Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature as it developed. So I was living with Beatrix in a variety of ways.

Booklist calls your first cottage tale, The Tale of Hill Top Farm,
“perfectly charming,” and many other noted reviewers had similar responses. Have you always gotten good reviews?

Print reviews, yes. PW gave the second book, The Tale of Holly How, a starred review. But when you read the Amazon reader “reviews,” you’ll see that there are people who don’t like talking animals, on principle. And there are people who would like a more intense mystery and stronger dramatic action. I’m delighted to say that they appear to be in the minority. I hear every day from people who remember Beatrix fondly from their own childhood reading and who are pleased to be able to read a “charming” book that gives them a pleasant introduction to a world in which life was slower, quieter, and (from our perspective, anyway), much simpler.

You write the Robin Paige mysteries with your husband, Bill Albert. How did you decide that you would collaborate?
Big smile here. Actually, we figured that out when we were still dating (this was in 1986). I was writing one of the “new” Nancy Drew mysteries, and asked him for some plot advice. He told me what I needed to know, and I thought, “Hey, this is the guy for me!” We collaborated on over 60 young adult novels, from 1986-1992, including books in the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series. (There’s a list on our website). After I started the China Bayles series (on my own, although he reads every book and gives me valuable feedback and suggestions), we wanted to continue to write together, and chose England in the Victorian/Edwardian period because both of us loved the time/setting.

Neat! What a great way to stay in touch with your spouse. :)

Back to the Cottage Tales for a moment. In these stories, the reader is given insight into both the animal and the human world. When the animals “speak” to each other, it is written in italics. Did this ever become difficult, merging these animal dialogues with the human ones?

It’s a kind of crazy thing, but in these books, I can think through the animals more easily than I can through the people. I wouldn’t have predicted this when I started the books, but what did I know? I had never done anything like this before. I was helped by going back and rereading Wind in the Willows and Watership Down, which became something like benchmarks for me. I was aiming for that kind of tone, that kind of native naturalism. And of course, Bill and I talk to and with our own cats, dogs, chickens, cows, etc. (don’t you?), so it feels very good to me.

I do, but I'm afraid I'm often saying "You naughty dog! I can't believe you did that! :)

You grew up in Illinois and now live in Texas. What difficulties did that present when you wanted to set a book in England, especially when that book was partly based on true events?

I grew up reading Dickens and Thackeray and Jane Austen and have always loved Victorian English—-so the language of the period comes pretty easily. We’ve traveled extensively in England, and have a very large library, so setting hasn’t been as much of a problem as it might seem. But I’m writing about the past, which is (all by itself) a whole other country. A lot of my research is necessarily done in books. I use primary material when I can (books, newspapers written at the time); I use secondary materials when that’s all I can find. Until the Internet came along, my biggest challenge was finding the library that held a particular book I needed. Now, the Internet makes historical/foreign research much, much easier.

The Magical Web. All of your books fit into the “cozy” category. Have you ever aspired to write something edgier?

Not really. I feel that we live on the edge as it is, given the uncertainties and challenges of our real lives: wars, hurricanes, earthquakes, political storms. And there’s already enough torqued-up fiction out there to satisfy readers who want something that’s harder-core. I’ll keep on writing what I like to read, which is easier on the heart, a little closer to the spirit.

Your cottage tales contain maps, a cast of characters (as in a drama), a glossary of terms like “betimes” and “nawt,” and recipes that relate to the story. When did you decide to incorporate all of these neat details? Did you conceive of all of these extras when you wrote the first book?
The extras were all part of the original design of the series (which, maybe we should mention, is a limited series: eight books, spanning the years 1905-1913). I love maps, and since the village is real (and many readers have visited there) I coveted them. I use the recipes to give readers a glimpse into the history of that particular regional cookery. The glossary is necessary, if I’m going to use dialect—although I don’t use as much as I’d like because it’s too confusing to the eye. The historical note is really important, since it gives the actual background against which the fiction is created.

Did you aspire to be a writer as a child?
Yes, I did. I wrote my first “novel” at nine, sold my first short story at 19, to a magazine called Jack and Jill. Wrote lots of poetry, too.

Your website is quite elaborate. Do you maintain it yourself?
I have a wonderful webmistress who maintains the sites (there are now actually three). But I’ve designed (and re-re-re-designed) them. They are a work in progress!

Susan, you’ve written, by my count, 35 books. When do you find the time to write, and what inspires you?
Actually, that’s just the work since 1992, when China Bayles solved her first case. There were 60+ kids’ books before then (1984-1992) and my academic writing before that (5 or 6 books, lots of articles, etc). I’m the original “woman who spilled words all over her life.” I am privileged (and oh! how lucky I feel about that!) to be able to write full time, and prefer to write without a break (no weekends off) when I’m working on a project. Life inspires me, and this wild, wonderful world in which we live it. I read something, see something on TV, and imagine it as a piece of a book.

I admire the fact that your life has taken many turns as you explored your interests. I’m especially interested by the part of your bio that says, after earning a Ph.D from the University of California at Berkeley, you taught and held administrative positions at the university level for fifteen years, at which point you quit, because you were “fed up with academic politics.”

Good for you! Was there a “last straw” sort of moment? Had you already started writing at this time?

Oh, wow, yes. Too many last-straw moments, mostly having to do with faculty politics. I think the thing that tipped it, though, was the realization, one Monday morning, that I had put in a 60-hour week the week before, all on university stuff, and that the coming week promised more of the same, and the week after that and the week after that. There had to be a better way! I began thinking about what I might do if I weren’t at the university, and consciously made the decision to try writing YA novels. I hit with my first effort, wrote several more (writing evenings and weekends). Buoyed by that, I turned in my resignation. I have never regretted it, not one single moment.

I'm reminded of a Johnny Paycheck song . . . :)

Your bio says that “Susan and Bill live on 32 acres in the Texas hill country, 60 miles northwest of Austin, with two black Labradors named Zach and Lady, a matching black cat named Shadow, and an ever-changing assortment of ducks and geese who flock together under the watchful eye of Major Gander, a Toulouse goose of outstanding merit.” This sounds idyllic. Is it?

Well, we’ve had a heckuva lot of rain this summer, the road’s a wreck, the garden’s a mess, we can’t do the mowing because it’s too wet, and yesterday’s high temperature was 99. (Life in the country is a great deal of work—-if you want somebody else to take care of the potholes, you probably want to stay in town). Other than that, it’s pretty wonderful. I’m writing a book about it, in fact. It’ll be out from the University of Texas Press in 2009.

You are a dynamo! How can your readers find out more about you and your newest mystery series?
That’s easy! Go to and sign up for our eletter. While you’re there, sign up for China’s herbal eletter, too. Sorry—Beatrix doesn’t have one. :)

Thanks for chatting, Susan.
You’re very welcome. I enjoyed it!

A Heartfelt Message to P.D. from Me

I've been lucky enough to meet P.D. James twice in my life. Since today is her birthday, I thought I'd reflect on those two meetings.

The first took place on a rainy evening somewhere around 1988, (that's us in the blurry picture above), when her book DEVICES AND DESIRES came out, and I joined a loyal throng outside Scotland Yard Books in Winnetka, Illinois, to wait for a chance to meet Ms. James in person. The line went around the block, and everyone in it was wet, but we were all in high spirits. My mom, a fellow P.D. fan, was with me, and we marched slowly forward, finally gaining entrance to the store itself, a lovely place which, alas, I think no longer exists.

Once I approached the great mystery writer, the queen of all living mystery writers, I was terrified. What in the world would I say when I finally approached the table?When I got there and pushed my copy of the big book forward, I settled for, "Ms. James, it is such an honor to meet you."

And in her sweet, delicate, precise voice, she replied, "Well, it's quite an honor to meet you, too." Of course she was being polite, but she did it very well, and I walked away feeling pretty good--until I saw my mother, who marched right up to the table, bent low and said something private to P.D. James and made her laugh, and then the two of them had a right old conversation. To say I was envious would be an understatement. :)

The second time I met her was many years later, when she had turned eighty and had written her autobiography. Centuries and Sleuths, now located in Forest Park, was right across the street from me at the time, and proprietor Augie Aleksy managed to get word to me that he'd persuaded James' publicist to swing by his store after her big signing in Chicago. However, because it was a last minute decision, he was not able to notify many people.

And that was how I came to be sitting in an intimate little gathering of less than 20 people, listening to P.D. James speak softly about her life, her children, her writing. It was wonderful. I remember feeling a sense of unreality as she chatted about the birth of one of her daughters (I believe in a London basement) during World War II, while bombs were falling outside.

So I have two signed books by P.D. James, and a lovely memory of her face, her voice, and her sweet gentility. I'll probably never meet her again, but I do wish her a very happy birthday, and I suppose it's only fitting that I pull out one of her books--I've read them all--and indulge in another fan moment.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Hilda and the Heat

It's supposed to hit 97 today here in Chicagoland. I did my painting early, but we have to run errands soon, and we'll venture into that hazy hotness that is crisping my lawn as I write.

I thought a poem about the heat was in order; here's one by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) which I thought was nice.


O wind, rend open the heat,
cut apart the heat,
rend it to tatters.

Fruit cannot drop
through this thick air--
fruit cannot fall into heat
that presses up and blunts
the points of pears
and rounds the grapes.

Cut the heat--
plough through it,
turning it on either side
of your path.

H. D.