Mystery Most Historical, Part Deux

mystery most historical cover

Today, I’m following up on Liz Milliron’s post, introducing authors included in Malice Domestic 12: Mystery Most Historical.

Charles Todd is the pen name of the writing partnership, Caroline and Charles Todd, a mother and son team who write two series, the Inspector Rutledge series and the Bess Crawford series. The Todds bring their love of England and the period to their stories.

Mark Thielman won the 9th Annual Black Orchid Novella Award with A Meter of Murder. A former prosecutor, his story The Measured Chest, is one of the twenty-nine stories in this anthology.

Kathryn O’Sullivan recently published the fourth in her Fire Chief Colleen McCabe series set in the Outer Banks village of Corolla, North Carolina. She won Malice Domestic’s Best First Traditional Mystery.

Martin Edwards is Malice Domestic’s British friend and will be honored as the Poirot Award at this year’s convention. In addition to writing many fiction and non-fiction works including the Lake District series and an award-winning non-fiction, The Golden Age of Murder, he is the president and archivist of the famed Detection Club, a group of mystery authors formed by Agatha Christie and her crime-writing friends.

Verena Rose, a member of the Dames of Detection the publishers of Level Best Books. She edits anthologies and her story, “Death on the Dueling Grounds”, appears in this anthology.

Su Kopil is a writer of short mysteries with offbeat characters with more than thirty published stories. Find her on Goodreads at: Su Kopil Goodreads page

Kathy Lynn Emerson writes under several different genres and several different names. As Kathy Lynn Emerson, she is best known for her historical mysteries including the Face Down Mystery series. She won an Agatha for her nonfiction How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries.

John Gregory Betancourt writes science fiction, fantasy and mystery as well as short stories. In 2007, he received the Black Orchid Novella Award for his novella Horse Pit.

Victoria Thompson, is a prolific writer of mystery and romance. She is currently writing the popular Gaslight Series set in 19th century New York City.

The award-winning Vivian Lawry is a writer of short fiction as well as mystery. Most of her work is set in the Chesapeake Bay.

K. B. Owen is the author of the Concordia Wells Mysteries set in 19th century Connecticut.

Yours Truly, Keenan Powell, is publishing her first story in this anthology, “Velvet Slippers”, which was inspired by a genealogy research trip to Adams, Massachusetts.

Everyone knows Edith Maxwell the very prolific writer of five series including the popular Quaker Midwife series.

Nancy Herriman writes romance and historical mysteries. Her current series of mysteries is set in old San Francisco.

Georgia Ruth has written short stories and a non-fiction book centering on North Carolina.

If you are at Malice, hunt down Liz and me and say hello. We will be on signing the anthology Friday night and speaking on the panel Small Stories in a Big World Saturday morning. The anthology will be available to purchase at Malice. You can also order Mystery Most Historical directly from Wildside Press.




Why is Rhys Bowen Funny?

Crowned and Dangerous

Rhys Bowen is my go-to author when I need a laugh. So, in service of this month’s topic, humor, I bought her last audiobook in the Royal Spyness series, Crowned and Dangerous, and began critically listening in hopes of understanding why she’s funny.

My first point will be: it helps that she has a talented reader. Katherine Kellgren’s voice reminds me of Dudley Do-right’s girlfriend, Nell Fenwick. One just expects funny from her.

Ms. Kellgren narrates in first person as the Lady Georgianna Rannoch, the 35th person in line to the throne of England. The stories are set between the first and second world wars, a time during which, as all of who watched Downton Abbey knows, was hard on aristocrats.

Just stop and think about that for a moment. I, for one, being Irish, do not naturally feel sorry for the progeny of in-bred descendants of Norman thuggery who have dominated the social, economic and political structures of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales for centuries, yet when this one aristocrat falls on hard times, I feel sorry for her – a tribute to the author’s talent.

Georgie’s father lost the bulk of the family fortune gambling on the Riviera, so when he died, passing the title and lands to her brother, Binky, there wasn’t enough left over for Georgie. She is impoverished and must make her own way.

Nevertheless, she is up-beat, self-effacing, resourceful and self-reliant. In every story, the first question is (even before the whodunit): where is Georgie going to live and how is she going to get fed? Not naturally funny material, but the author works it. In earlier books, Georgie sometimes lived in the family’s London home without servants or heating, scrounging for income at various amusing occupations to support herself. She failed as a model. She failed as a housekeeper. She failed working the perfume counter of a department store. These situations often give rise to some amusing slap-stick like clutzy accidents in front of the Queen, or becoming entangled as she dons haute couture. And, all the while, she is dreaming of marrying her Anglo-Irish boyfriend, the charming and handsome, but penniless, Darcy O’Mara. They will live on love.

Along the way, Georgie meets an amusing cast of characters reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s comedies of society: the stingy Yorkshire innkeeper, the snobbish German countess who doesn’t understand British idioms, the slinky Polish ex-pat princess, the lecherous Frenchman, the sinister, scheming Mrs. Wallis Simpson and the overly-familiar, over-fed and incompetent maid, Queenie.

Because the tone of the books is uplifting, putting the reader in a receptive mood for humor, when the slapstick appears, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. It’s been said before: dying is easy, comedy is hard, and I don’t know how she does it. Conjuring these silly romps amongst the royals is Rhys Bowen’s talent and gift to her readers. Brava, Ms. Bowen!

So, Mysteristas: what authors make you laugh out loud?

If I Knew Then….

If it’s so good to know, why didn’t Merlin just tell Arthur what the future held for him in Once and Future King and be done with it?

Because there would be no story.

It’s the story that is important. The ending is only one part of the story. I have heard of people who read the end of the mystery first. I do not. I want to play the puzzle that the author spent a year plus of his or her life constructing for me. But I do sometimes re-read a mystery in order to study how that writer exposed and buried the clues.

Still the puzzle is only one part of the mystery story. There is the thrill of adventure. There are character arcs. We want the characters to get what they deserve whether it’s happy-ever-after or a comeuppance. I love surprises. I love the escape. Sometimes there is exposure to a new point-of-view on something that is germane to our times and I like seeing how other people think.

Girl on a Train was a big hit even though the ultimate question (“Is she going to get murdered for sticking her nose in to other people’s business?”) really wasn’t at stake at all. Unless it became apparent early that she was telling the story from beyond the grave, we knew she wasn’t going to get killed. So the thriller-style ending didn’t work for me. I liked the book otherwise. The author tracked the downward spiral of the protagonist’s alcoholism vividly.

At times, I feel like the author tried, and failed, to manipulate me by posing a mortal threat that is obviously no threat at all. Even as I watch Star Trek with my 12 year old grandson and it looks like one of the crew is in some mortal danger, he’s learned from me not to worry if the crew member is a star of the show. That actor has a contract and he’ll outlive the instant danger to appear in the next episode. Not so for the redshirts, of course, those sad unnamed crew members that get vaporized by some hostile alien. Even so, every episode is a ripping good story so I watch them.

Adrian McKinty successfully played with the mortal-threat-to-the-progat stakes in his last book in the Sean Duffy Series, Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly. He opened with bad guys taking Duffy out into the woods to be shot. The scene stops just when Duffy is pretty sure there is no way out. The next scene starts with the backstory and the book spools out the events leading up to this climactic scene. Added to the suspense was my expectation that this would be the last Duffy book. He could get shot. Authors have killed off their sleuths before to be done with them. Conan Doyle killed Sherlock. Dame Agatha killed Poirot.

But you won’t hear it from me. If you want to know if Duffy dies, buy the book.



I Just Didn’t Get It

Picture it: San Francisco, 1977. My best friend and I had just graduated from college with degrees in broadcasting. She got a job at a little start-up cable company as a production assistant where they were making “made-for-TV” movies. I didn’t get it. What was cable TV?

At the time, television was broadcasted through the air by three major networks. For free. These networks all aired talk shows in the morning, soap operas until mid-afternoon, some game shows and re-runs of Gilligan’s Island and Dark Shadows until dinner, news, prime-time dramas and comedies but it was mostly cop shows (Kojak and Streets of San Francisco were big), more news and then more talk shows and the went off the air around 1 AM. If the networks wanted to air a made-for-TV movie, they made it themselves and it was usually horrible.  It didn’t happen much.

Who was going to pay for some independent production company to make movies? How was this company going to sell their movies? I didn’t get it. So, I got a job at a little sound recording company while my best friend kept working at HBO.

While I was at the little sound recording company, a couple of young guys — both named Steve — in jeans, pressed shirts and very white tennis shoes came in to talk to the boss about a job. My boss said they were going to be rich. The chief engineer told me they had invented a computer people could have in their homes.

At the time, all I knew about computers was that they were huge machines with big rolls of fat tape spinning through them and that NASA’s computers were so big, they took up an entire room.

“Why would I want a computer in my house,” I asked the engineer. “To get information,” he said. “I can go to the library for information,” I said. “I don’t get it.”

And that was my brush with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the creators of Apple.

Then I decided my career in media wasn’t going anywhere, so I went to law school. While I was in law school, my brother-in-law asked me to hurry up and finish so I could come work for him at his little start-up gaming company in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. “Woo-hoo,” I thought to myself sarcastically. I’d been to Lake Geneva. It was over a hundred miles from urban anywhere. And it had this odd little anomaly: there was absolutely no one else there my age. There were lots of people older than me and there were lots of children and sarcastic teenagers, but I didn’t see anyone I’d want to hang out with other than the family. So, I passed.

What was the name of my brother-in-law’s game, you ask?

Dungeons & Dragons.



Me, Myself and I

This morning as I lay in bed bargaining with myself about what could be postponed in favor of continuing to lay in bed listening to the silence, it occurred to me what a huge portion of our fictional journeys seek discovery of self.

Is that not the purpose of the character arc?  We meet the character living a life under normal circumstances, like so many of us do IRL (in real life) going from one mundane task to the next: drive kid to school, office, pick up kid, get dinner on, load dishwasher, fold laundry.

Then the inciting event occurs, a crisis in that person’s life. What are all the possible things it could mean to her? She looks at it from this angle and that angle. Her mother, her husband and her best friend all give their opinions, sometimes unsolicited, sometimes unwelcomed. She mulls over what feels right and what does not. She mulls over whether she will passively accept the event or whether she will take action.

In a complex story like Liane Moriarty’s Truly, Madly, Guilty, there are seven point-of-view characters, three married couples and a teenager, who experience the same inciting event and spend the book hashing it out. Will the marriages survive? If not, is that a good thing?

(Having been thrice married myself, I often say that the divorce WAS the happy ending.)

Once the POV character sorts out the meaning of the event and her actions in response, is she a different person leading a different life, is she the same person, or is she the same person more realized? What does the mundane look like to her after it’s all said and done.



Every time I think about our theme of the month (relationships), I hear Carly Simon sing “Anticipation”. I’m sure it makes sense somewhere deep in my psyche, probably because I was in high school when the song was popular and relationships were ever so painful then.

So now, a few decades later, I’m listening to Benjamin Black’s A Death in Summer. I am so amazed at this book, I began listening to it again immediately after the first listen. Now that I know Who Did It and the truth behind all the secrets, it’s fascinating to see how Black seeds and obscures his clues.

Not that it’s a clever puzzle; it isn’t. But Black’s writing is on another level. From his first sentence in a scene to the last, every word, every phrase, every sentence has purpose and it flows in a pace that is just right.

There are scenes reminiscent of an Ingmar Bergman film, subtle and filled with tiny details but each detail develops the characters or plot like the scene early in the book where Inspector Hackett is interviewing the grieving widow and the farm manager in the kitchen. There is a fourth character, a uniformed officer, who blends into the background in that scene, green in the gills from having seen his first death-by-shotgun-to-the-head corpse. Black feathers in tiny details and gorgeous analogies through Hackett’s eyes, which on first pass you think: well, he’s just telling us what the other characters look like; and on second pass, you realize he’s laying out the puzzle.

Black’s books are character-driven, even the mysteries. In every scene, we are evaluating whether a character is telling the truth, or lying, and his/her motivation and how the POV character feels about that plus how the POV character fits this event into his or her life, making sense of his or her own identity and purpose including living in Dublin, Ireland in the 1950’s.

It seems everyone is asking “Why am I in this place? Is there somewhere else I should be?” Maybe it’s just the inheritance from those who stayed behind when so many emigrated, but it never occurred to me that they would be wondering whether they should leave too.

There’s a great first date scene where she hands him a ticket for the bus and he spends a couple of sentences evaluating the significance of how she handed the tickets to him.

And there’s a snow globe that shows up meaningfully in a few scenes but the purpose, or symbolism, of which I never figured out. It may just be another Rosebud (Citizen Kane) kind of thing. I’m open to discussion.

I have been dying to get the paperback, pull out my highlighters and outline it. So, when I heard about the Amazon Smile program from Terrie Moran on Facebook, that was all the excuse I needed to order.

Because this is stuff I am focusing on: not just the mystery puzzle but the people puzzle, how they all fit together. A musician told me once, without a baseline, you don’t have a song. The baseline gives the song structure, like the foundation of a house. These character arcs are the base line of our melodies. Because without a character caring about solving the mystery, there is no story. I am grateful to Black for doing these so well.