Sunday, August 30, 2009

Autumnal Euphoria

Fall gave us a preview this weekend with temperatures in the 60s and deliciously cold winds that wafted around under a bright blue sky. This is euphoric weather, the best weather in the world, and I could only dream of a place where it's like this all the time.

Now I'm remembering, slightly early, all the wonders of fall. Soon I'll be craving hot tea and a good easy chair with a pile of books stacked nearby.

I just finished MALICE IN CORNWALL, which ended anticlimactically and therefore disappointingly. But hope springs eternal in the world of books, and I'm looking forward to my next literary adventure.

What are you reading? And have you glimpsed autumn yet?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Simon and Solitude

"Writing is an escape from a world that crowds me. I like being alone in a room. It's almost a form of meditation--an investigation of my own life. It has nothing to do with "I've got to get another play."

--Neil Simon

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Truth and Mystery

It could be the beginning of a P.D. James novel, or perhaps a Julia Spencer-Fleming mystery or a brutal Robert Fate revenge tale. A 61-year-old female pastor is found murdered inside her own tiny Oklahoma church, where she has been, apparently, praying. The district attorney claims that the murder is the most horrific he has seen in his 20-year career. There are no suspects.

A reader might look at a set-up like this and decide they want to read the book in order to get answers. Who would kill a pastor? Who would brutalize a 61-year-old woman? Why? And why kill her in her tiny church? What possible motive could there be? Yes, this would make a fascinating piece of fiction.

But this story is true, and it helps to explain why the True Crime genre is so popular. We still have questions, and we still want them answered; the only difference is that in fiction, they are generally answered to our satisfaction. In cases like this one, the questions are sometimes never answered at all.

(Image link here).

All Hail Pinkerton, the First Chicago Detective

Allan Pinkerton of the Pinkerton detective agency was born on this date in Scotland in 1819. Pinkerton emigrated to America as a young man, and his many accomplishments in this country include writing (or having written) a series of books about his detective agency with such titles as The Gypsies and the Detectives and Strikers, Communists, Tramps and Detectives.

As the first official detective in Chicago, Pinkerton used techniques that are still famous today, including "shadowing" a suspect and doing undercover surveillance. He is said to have thwarted an assassination attempt against Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. (That's him (left) with Lincoln in a Wikipedia photo).

Pinkerton died in 1884, and at the time of his death he had been working on a way to keep track of all criminals in a central location--the same sort of database that the FBI uses today.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Mantra from Goethe

"Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now."


(Photo by JB 2006)

Friday, August 21, 2009

From Russia With Love: Part Two

Yesterday I shared some pictures of Russia that Gloria Feit shared with me. As a teacher of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, that wonderful novel that takes place in St. Petersburg, I'm always interested in Russian lore and architecture.

Gloria's trip to Russia involved a river cruise, so many of these beautiful buildings are literally in the middle of the water.

The beautiful remains of the church above was found in the middle of a lake enroute from St. Petersburg to Moscow. The area flooded long ago.

St. Basil's Cathedral, Gloria assures me, is "one of the most gorgeous things you can imagine--numerous domes, each one a different size, height, color construction . . . simply magnificent."

This lovely building was one of the sights in the town of Uglich.

Here is the beautiful Neva River, and across its waters is the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg.
This building is the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery, an ancient site in the town of Goritzy.

Thank you so much, Gloria and Ted, for this beautiful tour of Russian architecture!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

From Russia With Love

My e friend and fellow mystery lover Gloria Feit and her husband Ted are always nice about letting me live vicariously through their geographical adventures. Last year I shared pictures of their beautiful trip to India; this year they were kind enough to send me some breathtaking shots of their sojourn to Russia.

The amazing architecture above is found on a church near the Kremlin. Gloria says they found many churches "in and around Red Square."

This golden splendor is the view upon entering the front lobby of The Hermitage.

These are the walls of the Kremlin itself in Red Square.

This is a view of The Hermitage from across the river; what an inspirational sight, and look at that sky!

Gloria tells me that this lovely buildling near the Moscow harbor is going to be dismantled for the ubiquitous condos that are taking over the world.

Here's Gloria herself visiting the small Russian village of Kizhi; ancient churches and windmills dot the landscape in the background. Gloria describes the whole town as "very pretty."

More tomorrow!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Key to Writing Happiness

"I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten--happy, absorbed, and quietly putting on one bead after another."

--Brenda Ueland

(Photo: my sister and I sit at our reading table, circa 1965).

Monday, August 17, 2009

Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It

Mae West said "Too much of a good thing is wonderful," and that sentiment was indicative of her attitude toward life. West cultivated a reputation as a sensualist, a "bad girl" who enjoyed being bad, but she was actually a humorist and a clever writer and actress.

West was born on this day in 1893. Always a charismatic person, she hit it big with her movie debut in a film called NIGHT AFTER NIGHT. Her role was small, but she asked if she could re-write her lines and she ended up stealing the show, according to her costar, the actor George Raft. Her most famous line from the movie happened when a coat-check girl said, "Goodness, what lovely diamonds," to which West replied, "Goodness had nothing to do with it, Dearie."

West's one-liners are still famous, as were her on-screen performances with actors including Cary Grant, Randolph Scott, and W.C. Fields.

Many a woman in Hollywood today may try to convey an aura of confident sexuality, but Mae West was a daring--and often censored--pioneer for equality and individualism.

(Image link here).

Friday, August 14, 2009

Braving the Falls

Women fearing foreclosure should consider the brave act of Anna Edson Taylor, the first woman to survive going over Niagara Falls alone in a barrel. (October 24, 1901). I assume this means some women did it before her and did not survive. Why the desire to get into a barrel and brave the brutal falls?

Well, Anna did it for the cash reward. She put that money toward a loan which was due on her ranch in Texas.

I cannot say I would risk death to help pay my mortgage, but I really admire Anna's ability to think outside the box and inside the barrel.

Nowadays if women wanted to make quick cash in a public way to pay a looming bill I suppose they could seek notoriety on reality tv or a game show or something, but I don't think these require the same mixture of bravery and insanity that Anna had to show in order to save her ranch.

image link here

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Gold Moon

We were advised to look to the skies the last two nights for a splendid celestial display. The Perseid meteor showers, an annual occurrence, were supposed to fill the night sky with streaks of light.

I went out, camera in hand, in hopes of capturing some miracle on film, but alas, I am far too close to the lights of Chicago to see much of anything at all in the night sky.

The heavens provided some consolation, however, in the form of a wonderful gold moon, hanging low in the sky and looking like a lost treasure. After this shot I think I might apply at National Geographic. :)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Real Estate Can Be Murder

Nancy Lynn Jarvis is a Santa Cruz realtor-turned-mystery writer who uses her tricks of the trade as details in her novels. Her latest book is called Backyard Bones.

Nancy, what made you go from being a realtor to being a mystery writer?

It was accidental, really. My husband and I decided to experiment with being retired for a while when the real estate market tanked. To beat being bored, he built a spectacular greenhouse and a 16’X20’ foot office from the ground up--I decided it would be an interesting puzzle solving game to see if I could write a mystery. I had the beginning and ending in mind and a stockpile of real estate-related experiences ranging from the humorous to the bizarre to use as background material, and not a clue what to do to weave them into a book.

I read Tony Hillerman and reread my favorite Agatha Christies for structure, made the protagonists me and my husband and other characters people I knew, and began acting out the day’s scenes and dialogue alone in my office each morning. Over time the characters developed personalities separate from the people who inspired them and I discovered the importance of outlines, at least loose outlines, and time-lines of who-knew-what-when which are critical for mysteries.

Do the occupations have anything in common?

Realtors, especially buyer's agents, (which was the role I most enjoyed) and mystery writers have a lot in common. Both listen carefully but observe what is being said non-verbally, recognize the interpersonal dynamics between the principals, and play detective based on what they learn about people.

I always told clients stories to make contract complexities understandable and to persuade during negotiations. As a writer, I still tell stories, just in written form.

What’s the premise of your latest book, Backyard Bones?

Backyard Bones begins with children unearthing a skeleton in their new back yard. It’s an ancient burial, but they find another burial in the same place a few weeks later and that time it’s murder. All of the characters in the book have secrets regarding the murder victim and no one’s relationship with the victim is quite as it seems.

That sounds similar to another book I read recently called The Crossing Places! You'll have to check it out.

You live in Santa Cruz, California. What are the selling points of this city?

Santa Cruz is a fantastic place to live. Within twenty minutes it’s possible to go from the beauty of dense redwood forests to miles of walking beaches. The air is clean and clear, temperatures are moderate, sunshine is abundant, and the surfing is great. It’s an easy trip to San Francisco or San Jose for theater and opera, but we have a great music scene and acclaimed Shakespeare Santa Cruz locally as well as a University of California campus. But what’s best about Santa Cruz is that it combines a warm community feel with a real commitment to it’s official motto: “Keep Santa Cruz Weird.”

Sounds fun! Your detective, Regan McHenry, is also a Santa Cruz realtor. Is she like you?

She’s curious, impatient and determined, a bit of a crusader, and cares a great deal for her clients. Those aspects of her are like me. But she’s much more daring, younger and thinner, less naïve, and more obsessive than I am.

You have a recipe for Mysterious Chocolate Chip cookies on your website. I think I figured out the secret ingredient. :) How did you happen to add this to your cookie recipe?

Like almost all aspects of my books, it started with a real estate interaction. A client of mine came up with the idea. She added habanero chili oil to a cookie recipe she created and would leave batches around for people seeing her house to sample. If I warned people about what was in the cookies, most wouldn’t try them. If I didn’t, people would take a bite and rave they were the best cookies they ever had. In moderation it turns out habanero chili enhances your chocolate-tasting experience.

Hmmmm. I will have to try that.

In your books you point out the euphemisms that realtors use in order to make things sound more attractive. What are some of your favorites?

I love the phrase, “home with potential.” Usually that means the house is a disaster. Some of my other favorites are: “easy commute” which translates to practically on a freeway; “seller added custom touches” which means the seller thought he was a good handyman/designer but we know better; and in notes to other Realtors, “don’t worry, the dog is big but friendly.” You don’t need an explanation of what that means, I’m sure.

What are you writing now?

I’m working on the third book in the series, tentatively titled Buying Murder. It begins with a building inspector finding a partially mummified body in a wall space. This too is based on truth: there was an odd triangular space in a house my clients were buying. They joked with the building inspector that it seemed like a good place to hide a body and asked him to explain why it was there. He came down from the attic after taking a look and, with a perfectly straight face, announced he had found Jimmy Hoffa. Now I’m taking it further and using it as the starting point for a book.

Do realtors have time to read often? What do you like to read?

Realtors do read. We are always planning to be better organized and put our open-house-when-no-one-comes time, being-at-inspection time, and waiting-for-our-clients-to-get-out-of-a-traffic-jam time to productive use, but we more often grab a book and read for pleasure. For fiction give me Amy Tan, Margaret Atwood, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I also loved The Life of Pi and Death Interrupted, but usually I read non-fiction like Team of Rivals, which was a remarkable book.

How can readers find out more about your books?

Readers can go to my website:, where they can read the beginning of The Death Contingency and Backyard Bones and print out that Mysterious Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe.

Thanks for chatting with me, Nancy!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Those Who Cannot Cry

"When you're a writer, you no longer see things with the freshness of the normal person. There are always two figures that work inside you, and if you are at all intelligent you realize that you have lost something. But I think there has always been this dichotomy in a real writer. He wants to be terribly human, and he responds emotionally, and at the same time there's this cold observer who cannot cry."

--Brian Moore

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Happy Birthday, Mom and Dad

My parents share a birthday month, and the dates of their births are only six days apart. This weekend is the midpoint between them, so today we celebrate.

My mother was born in Germany; my father's parents came to America from Hungary when they were in their teens, and my father was born in Chicago in an all-Hungarian neighborhood.

Fate brought them together in a fascinating way (which you can read here), and they have been together for 53 years.

Have a wonderful year, Mom and Dad!

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Nixon, Numbers, and Nemesis

At the beginning of my first mystery I quoted Richard Nixon, who famously said to David Frost in 1977, "When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal." Perhaps it was then that Nixon heard Fate's trap snapping shut, or perhaps it was much earlier.

Today is a significant date in the life of Richard Nixon; in 1968 on this day he was nominated for President at the Miami Beach Republican Convention. He chose Spiro Agnew as his running mate.

Six years later on the same date, August 8th, Nixon announced his resignation, following the revelations of the Watergate investigation, most of which were attributed to the work of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post.

Nixon's hubris remains a fascinating topic, and in fact his story reminds me of the Ancient Greek myths. It was the Greeks who originated the term "hubris" about actions that would shame and humiliate the actor at some future date. Naturally, these actions were often the result of extreme pride. While Nixon could have been remembered as a President who improved America's foreign relations and who ended the fighting in Vietnam, he is, despite his assertion that he was "not a crook," generally remembered as one.

The ancient Greeks made those guilty of hubris subject to the punishment of Nemesis; this goddess brought fatal retribution for those who succumbed to pride. One might say Nixon's Nemesis became the Washington Post; or perhaps it was in his mirror all along.

photo link here.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Missing Secret Agent Man

This summer I've found myself longing for a really good suspense flick--a new Bourne movie or even something like Disturbia, which tries to capture the excitement of earlier suspense movies (in this case, Rear Window). But aside from the potential of District 9, which doesn't seem to fit into the category of suspense or horror but might be great fun, there's not much to see on the big screen.

Therefore I've had to turn to Netflix to rediscover some old movies in hopes of getting my suspense fix. Last night we saw The Notorious Landlady (Jack Lemmon, Kim Novak, 1962) which, although it is really not at all suspenseful in the modern way, has some lovely photography and moody shots of foggy London that helped to create atmosphere in this funny mystery. Novak's acting is terrible and Lemmon does too many comical double-takes, jutting out his chin to defy the world that says his sexy landlady may have committed murder. The movie is slow to start, but it picks up steam along the way and becomes a visual feast by the end, in a wonderful scene set in Penzance, with a British band playing Gilbert and Sullivan as a built-in soundtrack to the action.

We've also discovered some lovely French suspense films, including Tell No One, which is so labrynthine that you really have to pay attention to the subtitles.

But today I'm pulling out my box set of Secret Agent Man, (aka Danger Man)the series starring my first fantasy boyfriend, Patrick McGoohan. These stylish episodes have titles like "The Room in the Basement" in which "Embassy walls and diplomatic immunity hide the kidnapped colleague of agent John Drake."

Ah. Should be fun, and a nice alternative to some of the ridiculous attempts at moneymaking that are now in theatres.

Oh, and those secret agent men above, who love a good espionage flick more than I do, are now tall and unwilling to pose for their mother in fake movie posters. But in the nostalgic '90s they made awfully cute Danger Men, especially because they're wearing those coats over their pajamas. :)

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Is Writing a Misery?

Ask published writers about the process of writing and they often have very little good to say about it. It's arduous, it's torture, it's maddening. Sometimes, when one is pursuing a particular but elusive vision, I suppose writing can be all of those things. Consider the words of the greats: Georges Simenon, who said "Writing is not a profession, but a vocation of unhappiness." Or John Hall Wheelock, who said that "Most writers are in a state of gloom a good deal of the time; they need perpetual reassurance."

But, like everything, writing has a flip side. While I sometimes worry, even obsess over my writing and how it will be received (and oh how cruel the whole grind of publishing can be), I also take great joy from the characters I create. Sometimes I think I create them because they are often more likeable than real people, and I escape to my computer with the intention of visiting these fictional friends. This sounds like a movie review cliche, but my characters make me laugh AND cry while I'm creating them, and that's how I know they are almost real.

Cynthia Ozick called writing "an act of courage," while Anne Morrow Lindbergh saw it as a beautiful escape: "What release to write so that one forgets oneself, forgets one's companion, forgets where one is or what one is going to do next . . ."

I think that I agree the most with Thomas Costain: "I am convinced that all writers are optimists whether they concede the point or not."

It takes an optimist, doesn't it, to face a blank screen or a blank pad and to believe that it will, with work, become a manuscript of 300 pages. So what if that manuscript causes some problems along the way, or occasionally plunges one into gloom?

Odysseus tried for twenty years to reach the end of his labors, and in the end he was called great. This is every writer's secret optimistic goal: to struggle through the bad days, enjoy the good days, and eventually produce something that receives acclaim from the world.

(Pictured: my cat Rose contemplates my desktop).

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Lizzie and The Unsolved Murders

On this day in 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were murdered in their own home--apparently hacked to death by an axe. After a couple of days of investigation, police came to suspect one of the Bordens' two daughters, Lizzie, of committing the act.

Lizzie Borden, of course, has become a popular figure in American murder lore; songs and poems were written about her and the brutal murders attributed to her.

However, after a trial in which the prosecution could put forth nothing but circumstantial evidence, Lizzie Borden was aquitted of her parents' murders, and she went back to her home town with her sister. She lived in a handsome estate there until her death in 1927.

It was never determined who actually killed Andrew and Abby Borden; the evidence in fact still points to Lizzie. She was acquitted, however, because the prosecution had not been able to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

A list of all the circumstantial evidence of Lizzie Borden can be seen here.

Photo link here.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Karen's Sad Story

I'm blogging at PDD with a list of sad songs. But I had to add one here. I don't know if I think SUPERSTAR is sad just because of the deluded girl in the song, or because of the fate of Karen Carpenter. Even in this clip she looks decidedly thin, and she and her brother always looked so solemn, back in the days when they made guest appearances everywhere. Still, SUPERSTAR has to be viewed as a sad song even if you don't know Karen's story.