Eighty-one of the country’s top writers wrote essays, stories, and words of praise for their favorite shops, which were then illustrated with charming drawings, in My Bookstore. I talk about my local, Bookshop Santa Cruz, and how a damaged town came to life because of them. If you’d like me to sign a copy, you can get one from Bookshop, or from your own favorite local.
My friend Rebecca Morean drops by for a visit today, with word of a return of her tales of two fascinating women of the early Twentieth Century—one of whom is a relation of… well, see for yourself.
I was excited to sit down with Abbey Pen Baker, the great niece of Faye Martin Tullis for an interview. She very rarely grants interviews, but has such high respect for Laurie R. King, she immediately agreed. Faye Martin Tullis published books about Myrl Adler Norton all through the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s. Her stories and monographs are all out of print now, but two decades ago Abbey found her great aunt’s famous roll top desk at the family farm in Vermont. Inside was a previously unpublished manuscript describing who Myrl’s real father was and the facts of the Myrl and Faye’s first case. In the Dead of Winter resulted in a flurry of questions and disbelief, but facts are facts. We met in a coffee shop in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
Morean: What did you think when you found that manuscript? Did you have to get a family consensus to publish it?
Baker: I remember standing there holding that stack of old paper. The barn is right along the Connecticut River and it was a bright fall day. I started crying when I realized what it was. It was very emotional for all of us. Everyone in family knew Myrl had to be Sherlock Holmes’s daughter, but there was never any real hard proof. There was some talk of a DNA test, but really? Not happening.
Morean: A DNA test? With what?
Baker: There’s apparently some hair at 221b Baker street from a brush that was supposedly Sherlock’s and Aunt Faye kept a tooth of Myrl’s—Yeah, I know. Gross. But anyway, yes. I had the family vote on it and we searched for any of the Norton family to weigh in too, but couldn’t find anyone. We agreed to publish. And now I’m going through Faye’s monographs.
Morean: Why do you think these stories are compelling today?
Baker: It’s a sad truth that we are still dealing with the issues these two women grappled with. And I’m not just talking crime. I mean we still have murder and blackmail and intrigue. Good grief, look at the news. The first monograph, about complicity, focuses on the Mafia and this drug that was supposed to be non-addictive, “Heroin.” And yet people were becoming horribly addicted. Sound familiar? Look at the opioid epidemic today. And then there’s the whole women’s rights initiative, which is still going on. And race and class issues. It’s all there. Faye wrote about all of it.
Morean: While catching the bad guy.
Baker: Or not. I’ve read a lot of these now. And as I am editing, I am also pulling from Faye’s old journals and letters. Sometimes there is no perpetrator, or the perpetrator is really a victim of someone or something else.
Morean: Did you ever meet them? Myrl and Faye?
Baker: I have a vague memory of Aunt Faye. She’d come out to the farm and have dinner with us at Thanksgiving and over the holidays. But she died when I was nine. I hope to go the Norton house in Northampton this summer.
Morean: What would you say to aspiring writers or those trying to write biography?
Baker: Just do it. Do it because you have to. You have to tell these stories, and write like you don’t have a choice. And be a literary citizen: go to readings, buy books, support each other, go on retreats, respect your readers. Don’t put it off. There’s never a convenient time to carve out something for yourself. You don’t need money to write. Write a page a day and in a year you have a book.
Morean: Well. Thank you for your time. Just before you leave, can you talk about what you are working on now?
Baker: It’s another monograph about trust. That’s all I can say.
For more information about Rebecca Morean visit her web site.
Left Coast Crime is an annual conference that moves around the left coast, generally of the US. This year LCC was in Honolulu. Like the other moveable crime conferences, location is a prime consideration, since fans and readers use this as a holiday as well as a chance to meet their favorite writers. So, the attraction of a place like this.
However, I was also this year’s Toastmaster, which meant it wasn’t all lolling on the beach with a Mai Tai in hand. Instead, this was what my conference looked like—Thursday on the bottom, Friday next line up, then Saturday, and Sunday on the chair off the edge of the table.
Plus that, I received the proof pages of Lockdown just before I left, with a deadline of the day I returned home. Sigh. But all in all, it was a blast. I got to exhort the assembled conference to let down their hair
on Saturday. All in all, Left Coast Crime in Hawaii was pretty cool. Reno, you have a lot to live up to.
King and Klinger’s strong third Sherlockian anthology (after 2014’s In the Company of Sherlock Holmes) features 17 stories from leading authors who draw on Conan Doyle’s work for inspiration. The end result is a rich variety of entries, including Tony Lee and Bevis Musson’s “Mrs. Hudson Investigates,” a post-Reichenbach mystery in comic book format. David Morrell sensitively examines Conan Doyle’s obsession with spiritualism in “The Spiritualist,” in which the writer has an unexpected encounter in London’s Psychic Book Shop, Library and Museum. John Connolly displays his gift for subtle satire in “Holmes on the Range,” set in his Caxton Private Lending Library and Book Depository, a home for fictional characters who have “assumed an objective reality” (including Holmes and Watson). Another high point is William Kent Krueger’s “The Painted Smile,” in which a therapist treats a child determined to have his identification with Holmes taken seriously. Other contributors include Anne Perry, Hallie Ephron, and Gary Phillips.
And that’s not even touching on (deep breath) Tasha Alexander, Dana Cameron, Deborah Crombie, Cory Doctorow, Meg Gardiner, Jonathan Maberry, Catriona McPherson, Denise Mina, Hank Phillippi Ryan, or Michael Scott. The list of contributors is here.
So, what’s a book to you? Electronic ink on a screen? Or paper, black ink, and the texture of the cover against your fingers? The words are the same, right? Sure—but the experience isn’t.
For just under 70 years, the Folio Society has made “editions of the world’s great literature, in a format worthy of the contents, at a price within the reach of everyman.” A Folio Society book is the ultimate reading experience: the tactile pleasure of crisp print on quality paper, with illustrations that lead the reader further in and words that engage the mind.
Proof that we can still do things right in a modern age.
I was thrilled to be asked to write an introduction to the Folio Society edition of Josephine Tey’s A Shilling for Candles. I’ve long loved Josephine Tey. This subtlest of writers crafts slim stories with complicated people moving through the most diabolically clever of plots. A murder mystery without a murder. A policeman who spends a whole book on his back in a hospital bed, investigating two victims five centuries dead. Or in the case of A Shilling for Candles, an actress in the spotlight who craves the quiet life.
We expect a crime writer to be clever. We open a mystery anticipating a turn of plot that takes us by surprise, characters with unexpected layers, a solution that makes perfect sense—in retrospect.
What we don’t expect is sly.
Josephine Tey is sly—sly in its meaning of sleight-of-hand, those deft turns of phrase and character that cause one afterwards to look back, frowning slightly over a thing glimpsed at the corner of the eye…
This is a gorgeous book. I particularly love the way Mark Smith’s illustrations don’t so much illustrate as they evoke. Such as this one, where you can feel the way the reporters are crowding in…
If you love your bookshelves, you should consider treating yourself to a copy of this, to pet it and preen…and to read, again and again.
The Folio Society’s page is here.
the troubling lack of actors of color in the nominations its for this year’s Oscars (#OscarSoWhite). And this month, the VBC have been talking (among other things) about the race of Billy Mudd in The Murder of Mary Russell.
In the Conan Doyle stories, most of the characters have no specific ethnic identity. Since Conan Doyle was British, and wrote for a British (and American) audience in Victorian times, it’s fair to say that he, his publishers, and his audience generally assumed that the characters were white/British, except when the story required a wicked Lascar, a mixed-race child (“The Yellow Face”), or the occasional stereotyped villain from America.
The problem is, Britain hasn’t been a completely white nation for a very long time.
I admit that as a writer, I tend not to think about what racial component goes into many of the people on my pages. In fact, although Mary Russell, Kate Martinelli, and some of the others have a certain amount of physical description, when it comes to the characters who are not given any clear indicators, I don’t think it matters much if the reader visualizes that person as Nordic, Nigerian, Filipino, or whatever that reader sees in the mirror each morning.
Sometimes race does matter in a story. If that’s the case, as a reader I expect to be told, either explicitly or by knowing that the character’s name is Chu, Singh, or Katanapoulis. If the author intends a Chu of Nigerian heritage or a Jim Jones who is female, that needs to be made clear fairly early on. (Although it’s part of the charm of Hilary Tamar that we don’t know which gender s/he occupies—and remember when the part of Lawrence Block’s burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr—a Jewish man’s name if ever there was one—was played not by Bruce Willis, but by Whoopi Goldberg?) Neil Gaiman’s Shadow Moon (American Gods) is consistently described as mixed race, with light grey eyes and a swarthy tone to his skin, and his mother having had sickle-cell disease would suggest African-American rather than Romany, Mediterranean, Native American, or any of the other shades of brown.
(Aside: That doesn’t mean there isn’t some justification for the confusion when Ricky Whittle was cast in the part. When Shadow spends the winter in a small town in the northeastern US, I don’t remember any particular mention being made of his standing out to any degree, which [particularly when I first read it, fifteen years ago] I’d have expected. Not in a city, maybe, or in the South, but in a small northern town? No doubt that lack of any passing comment on the part of the town sheriff, or a shopkeeper, or Shadow himself, rather… er, colored my perception of just how dark his shade of skin would be.)
If the author has provided no hints, often the case with minor characters, I’m like most readers in that I assign the character my own skin by default: white.
But about Billy Mudd. Writing a series as I do, I’m forever discovering things about my established characters. Who knew Mrs Hudson was Clarissa? I sure didn’t, until I wrote The Murder of Mary Russell. And did I know Billy was black, or at any rate, mixed race? Had no idea. And although that’s something Conan Doyle might have mentioned in his stories—might have—nothing in the Holmes canon says he’s blonde or freckled. So when I came across the following descriptive sign in the Museum of London—
—I realized that this was where Billy came from. (Sorry it’s blurry, it describes the image as: “An African crossing sweeper, St Martin’s Lane, c1830. In the 1780s there were about 5,000 people of African origin living in London….” Click on it to see it larger.)
Does it matter, that Billy’s skin has more melanin than mine? No—and yet it does. Just as it doesn’t matter that a number of characters I’ve written are gay and lesbian, and yet at the same time, yes, it does. (And again, if the character’s orientation doesn’t come up in the course of the story, I figure that some ten percent of the reading public is gay, so probably ten percent of the characters are, too. Have fun choosing which ones!) Just like, who cares if a white actor plays a role that, in the book, is unspecified? But when all those unspecified roles are filled with white faces, it very much does matter.
We’re a world of many peoples, all kinds of colors and shapes. Sometimes we writers need to remember that, and celebrate the variety.
We loves us some Lyndsay Faye here on Mutterings. Her Timothy Wilde trilogy has been one of my favorite worlds to explore in recent years, while the author herself has become one of my favorite people.
Lyndsay now has a new world, publishing next April: a deliciously wicked tale that starts as a riff on Jane Eyre and ends up redefining Victorian England as a whole. And since Lyndsay knows how much I love her books, she sent me two copies of the book, so I could share one. Lyndsay describes Jane Steele as Jane Eyre meets Darkly Dreaming Dexter.
Jane Steele: “Reader, I murdered him.”
Would you like a copy? Post a comment here before Monday midnight, and I’ll draw a winner.
As you probably know, every year the Crime World [Fictional Division] gathers to discuss pretty much everything to do with crime & mystery books: from character development to social media, e-books to Hollywood. The conference is named after the editor/reviewer/writer Anthony Boucher
and this was Bouchercon’s 46th year. We met in Raleigh, and the fun began.
Of course, the funnest part is if you get to win something.
Like an Anthony.
Next year it’s going to be in New Orleans. That’s right, NEW ORLEANS. And just look at this guest list:
American Guest of Honor: Harlan Coben
International Rising Star Guest of Honor: Craig Robertson
Bouchercon Kids Guest of Honor: R. L. Stone
Local Legend: Julie Smith
Lifetime Achievement: David Morrell
Fan Guests of Honor: Jon & Ruth Jordan
Toastmasters: Harley Jane Kozak & Alex Sokoloff
Sign up now, and get yourself a hotel room, because it’s going to be a blast.
See you there!
So, this crime writer walks into a kitchen…
Or maybe a bar—it depends on what story you’re after, and what you’re hungry (or thirsty) for.
Whether it’s drinks to curl your hair or a soup to warm your heart, Kinsey Millhone’s peanut butter & pickle sandwich or Valentine Wilde’s chicken fricassee, or maybe a cup of Jack Reacher’s coffee with one of Mrs Hudson’s coffee-sheet cookies, there’s enough here to keep you fed and watered for weeks to come.
Besides that, the book is really gorgeous–
with pictures of scampi & bullets, spaghetti & pistols, and food porn that makes you want to ring up Nero Wolfe and invite him over for a plate of Alafair Burke’s run-soaked Nutella French toast. Check it out, here.
whether it’s on the freeway or a treadmill.
There’s a lot of podcasts with my voice on them, floating around on the etherwebs, in which I and others talk about writing, or Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell, or anything else on our minds. Most recently, when we were down at BoucherCon in Long Beach, Lyndsay Faye interviewed Les Klinger
and me for the Baker Street Babes podcast series, which since we’re all three good friends, was a whole lot of fun. I haven’t been as methodical as I should be in noting my various podcasts over the years, so I’ve probably have lost track of a fair number of these gems (if you know of any good ones that are missing from my page, please send me a link!) but still, there’s a bunch of podcasts collected together, over here.
Laurie King: helping you escape boredom since 1993.