Every time I do a reading and talk at a bookstore, I inevitably get this question: “What book was your greatest influence?” I know they’re expecting something like War and Peace, but my answer is always the same: The Complete Sherlock Holmes. I let that sink in for a moment and then I tell them why: Holmes taught me, at the age of about twelve, how to think.
In a 1926 story, author Conan Doyle has Holmes say, “When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” There, in a single sentence, is the core principle of deductive reasoning. Life is often a puzzle, a series of unlikelihoods disguising the truth. Holmes helped me make sense of things and find the truth.
Before I began writing the Davies and West series of British murder mysteries, I had been a devotee of the British mystery genre, especially those written during the so-called “Golden Age” between the two great wars. Who were those authors? Agatha Christie, of course, though I never much liked her books—too many tricks. The real Queens of Crime in that period were Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and the paragon: Dorothy Sayers with her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. The Wimsey stories were dramatized on the BBC in the 1970s. The first in the series is Whose Body, but my favorites are The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (“I’m afraid there’s been another unpleasantness…”) and The Nine Tailors (which, by the way, has nothing to do with seamstresses). They are deeply atmospheric, baffling, and wonderful.
Gentleman sleuth Albert Campion features in more than two dozen of Margery Allingham’s mysteries, but start at the beginning: The Crime at Black Dudley. Ngaio Marsh’s detective is Inspector Roderick Allyn and the first of her nearly three dozen stories is A Man Lay Dead. I love reading them all in series.
Of the current crop of British mysteries, my favorites are Deborah Crombie’s A Share in Death; Elly Griffiths’ Crossing Places; Ann Cleeves’s first Vera mystery (just to get you hooked), The Crow Trap; Peter Lovesey’s first mystery featuring the irascible, rule-breaking detective, Peter Diamond, The Last Detective, and Val Macdermid’s non-fiction guide, Forensics.
Try just one of these and you’ll be in for the whole series. These are remarkable authors…and isn’t it interesting that most are women!
June is here and spring is well advanced on the small island in Puget Sound where I live. It is the time of rebirth—not just for the natural world but also for me. Let me explain:
So many of my wonderful readers have written to ask why they can’t find the fourth book in my Davies & West murder mystery series set in Cornwall, England, Murder on the Commons. I’d promised it more than a year ago, and an explanation is long overdue. The answer is…cancer.
Although robustly healthy all my adult life, I began getting infections more than a year ago—viral bronchitis and then pneumonia, among others. They sap your energy so completely that it’s like someone pulled the plug and you simply drained out onto the floor. I also began losing weight. Rapidly. Tests finally revealed I have a rare and incurable form of blood and bone marrow cancer.
Incurable, yes, but treatable!
So the good news is that I’m going to be okay. The bad news is that the treatment—chemo- and immune-therapy drug infusions—effectively shut my brain down for months. It’s commonly called “chemo brain” and it is a remarkable, even amusing phenomenon if you have a perverse sense of humor: your brain simply stops functioning normally. You become unable to recall why you got out of your chair and walked across the room and this just makes you smile, retrace your steps, and start over again in the hope that the purpose will again be revealed. You are perfectly happy to stare out the window at the trees (for hours) with absolutely nothing else going on in your head. Weeks go by like this. The little bit of brain that is still functioning understands this is abnormal but is helpless to change the situation. In fact, it is annoyed. It berates you. It tells you to pull your socks up and get to work. But of course, you don’t care because your brain is in a fog! And anyway, your imagination is off on holiday in some far more pleasant location—a powdery beach, perhaps, with a tropical cocktail in its hand and coconut palm leaves rustling in the warm breeze. It has no interest in returning home.
But it is June at last, those brain-deadening treatments are over (for now at least), and the desire and ability to write has slowly returned. Murder on the Commons, I am pleased to announce, is alive and well and moving again toward completion.
Here’s a hint of what’s to come: Colin West’s pacemaker operation is healing well and he and Morgan Davies (who, uncharacteristically, has been acting as his nursemaid and a loving surrogate mom for his daughters) are back on the job. DCI Penwarren is caught up in the complexities of his ex-wife’s family, the Cuthbertsons, Lords of the Manor on whose land a strangely tattooed body was found. And the victim himself turns out to have had a very shady past. But how he turned up dead in a mire more than three hundred miles from his home remains a twisted mystery for Penwarren’s team to unravel. And that’s just the first 130 pages!
Thank you for your patience, my friends. It won’t be long now. Meanwhile, enjoy the summer!
I’m from the Northeast where, in winter, snow is a regular and expected climatological feature AND people pretty much know how to cope with it and drive in it—in it, around it, through it. To us, it’s as natural as breathing. Albeit rapidly. It’s an adrenalin adventure. Any hill, any curve, any intersection is a new challenge. It’s you against nature…and against that other idiot who has recklessly decided to go for a joyride in the winter wonderland.
Then I moved to Seattle where, as is well-known, it rains a lot in winter. Temperatures are mild. Rain is a bit of an annoyance, but moisture is good for your skin and hardly life-threatening.
Until it turns to snow. Then, it’s mayhem. All hell breaks loose out here.
There is a scientific reason for this. Seattle is hilly. Steeply hilly. I’m talking cable car and tram hilly. We had them once. Then cars and buses rendered them obsolete and they vanished. But did gravity adjust? It did not. It still held stubbornly to the rule that what goes up—or tries to go up—must come down, often in graceful, or not so graceful, descending pirouettes, until you crash into an immovable object. Like another car, or a bus, or an electrical pole. The electrical pole at least has an excuse; it’s anchored to the ground; it didn’t just ark there. The cars and buses? They’re just stuck, often bunched up in cozy, if strangely configured, groups at the bottom of said hills.
So I moved to a small island in Puget Sound…not just because of incompetent snow drivers in Seattle, but it did figure into the decision. What didn’t figure into the decision was that this island, too, is hilly. Very. And while it is surrounded by arguably warmer than freezing salt water, snow happens. Rarely, it is true. But when it does, as it has this month, the island and its incompetent snow drivers make Seattle look like heaven by comparison.
Over a couple of days, we got about a foot of snow. Maybe more. No one is sure because almost no one can get out of their homes to measure. Also we had no power for several days; my house got down to 38 degrees. That’s what it should be outside, not inside! Thankfully, I have a wonderful neighbor who has a 4WD pickup and we’ve been able to get out for food. On our travels, we have seen only one snowplow. It was broken down by the side of the road.
In terms of square miles, this island is about the size of Manhattan…but with fir trees instead of high-rises and a year-round population of only perhaps 10,000 people. Some of those people work for the electrical utility and the country roads department and they have been doing yeoman work. Both of them. But I can’t help but think they are under-equipped and understaffed for such an event. You know: the kind of event where people think, Hey, let’s go bombing around in the snow in our cars! In short, an event invented for idiots.
Idiots like me. I got as far as the end of my driveway before I got stuck. That was four days ago. The car is still stuck and so am I.
Lesson learned: I am just another idiot…
Ah, the New Year!
I don’t know about you, but the New Year is a very happy time for me, a time for celebration. It’s not because I believe the next twelve months will be ever so much better and brighter than 2018 (although that’s not a very high bar to clear, if you know what I mean…). And it’s not that I have made solemn resolutions to be a kinder, gentler soul than in previous months. That won’t happen--not because of being irresolute, but because every new day presents a new challenge to that solemn vow when you are a born New Yorker and witty sarcasm is like a birthright, even if you move 3,000 miles west to the terminally nice Pacific Northwest.
No, the first week of the new year makes me happy because it means the hideous Christmas candy canes that hang from utility poles in the center of our little island town will be taken down at last. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a bah humbug person at Christmas. Far from it. I love how Christmas makes folks smile more and give generously to good causes. But these candy cane eyesores do test one’s holiday spirit.
Let me explain. These seasonal “ornaments” are composed of rows of ratty red and formerly white (now gray) streamers wrapped around a frame which, thanks to being clipped to the power lines, are illuminated at night. It must be said that the dark helps. History tells us that candy canes had their characteristic curve at one end to represent a shepherd’s crook. But to me they look like old barber poles with a bad case of brewer’s droop.
And, speaking of history, this is how ours came about: our little town’s retailers all had their own Christmas decorations, which they stored in the attic of the pharmacy. A fire there destroyed them (and the pharmacy). That Thanksgiving, at a local college football game, a sharp eared island spectator overhead someone in the bleachers mention he had a commercial ornaments business. Our civic-minded resident pounced and was taken to this fellow’s warehouse where, it being past Thanksgiving, all the attractive Christmas paraphernalia had long since been rented. The only thing left was the one thing no one with any taste at all wanted, specifically the cheesy plastic candy canes. Thus, they arrived on this benighted isle…where they have been in use ever since, despite very clearly losing their initial luster…such as it was.
The candy canes are like the Emperor’s missing clothes (except they’re not missing). Many on the island consider them a beloved, if bedraggled, tradition.
Others, like me, wish we had a bonfire night tradition like they do in England…and that the canes were the fuel.
They’ve been taken down this week, which is a mercy. But they’ll be back next year. Oh yes, they’ll be back.
It’s a tradition, you see…
Last Christmas, I was invited by a worthy local charity here on the island in Puget Sound where I live to be an “elf.” That’s right: an “elf.” The idea was to dress up in an elf costume—which mostly meant a silly hat and battery powered blinking Christmas lights around my neck—and then stand outside our local supermarket to encourage people to put donations into a basket.
Elves (is that the plural?) are, you know, little folk. Like leprechauns. Unlike leprechauns, however, elves wear red in addition to just green, are mostly sober, and show up in the dead of winter, not the spring. In the winter, you see, leprechauns hibernate. Being Irish, they’re “sleeping it off.” Elves, on the other hand, come out when the winter weather is at its worst. This is because, unlike leprechauns, elves are hopeless idiots.
But they are big-hearted idiots. They venture out into the cold ringing bells at local shops and markets to raise money for good causes, of which, let’s face it, there are no shortage. They ring bells because, on account of being very short, this is the only way they can get noticed and keep from being trampled by hurrying shoppers with visions of sugarplums (whatever they are) in their heads instead of paying attention to where they’re going.
Their diminutive stature notwithstanding, try as you might you can’t ignore these elves. You can’t for example, shift course and use a different store entrance because they’ve got them all covered. Plus, they’ve got you both coming and going and, while elves are idiots, they have good memories (this is in part due to the fact that they are not the aforesaid drunken leprechauns). They’ll remember that you said you’d contribute on your way out. They’ll remember your coat, your hair, your silly reindeer-printed holiday socks.
Now, becoming an elf does not take a lot of brains (see “idiot” above). All you have to do, when asked, is say yes. If you have a soft heart and even softer brain, “yes” comes easily. Thus it was that I became an elf. I would say “unwittingly,” but that would assume I had wits in the first place.
I confess I have some disadvantages as an elf. I am six feet five inches tall and do not fit the usual elfish image. A kid came up to me and actually said, “You’re not an elf; you’re too big.” It was everything I could do to keep from giving him a swift kick. But that would be un-elflike.
But you see, the worthy charity that pressed this role upon me made a major strategic error. That is because I am, by birth and upbringing, a wise-guy former New Yorker which, if you think about it, is not your most ideal set of credentials for garnering good will. On the other hand, as a former New Yorker, the task of shaking people down for money comes naturally.
To me, being appointed an elf was like a license for extortion. It was also like being given a stage for stand-up comedy. And there isn’t a New Yorker on earth who doesn’t think he’s a comic. “Funny Wise Guy” comes in the water in New York, with the fluoride. It’s like a birthright.
So, really, the task is simple: you gotta get shoppers’ attention. You gotta stop them in their tracks. You gotta shake them down. You gotta give them no choice but to contribute to the cause…because who knows what dreadful punishment a New York elf might have up his sleeve if you don’t ante up.
But I was subtle. I started out with my most gentle approach: I’d say, rather loudly and with just the tiniest sense of menace, “Don’t even think about walking in that door without making a donation. You got kids maybe? You still like them? You think Santa isn’t watching you at this very moment?” This technique is remarkably effective, if somewhat less than elf-like.
But then there are the hard cases, and you just gotta make their perilous situation very clear to them: “You think you’re gettin’ in here without a donation?! Wise up, pal! Don’t make me bring in Big Guido with his baseball bat to persuade you, okay? You like those knees of yours? How much? How much are they worth to you? You wanna limp for the rest of your sorry, penny pinching, uncharitable, uncaring life? Yo, Guido!”
I found this technique to be very effective, if only because shoppers know the next step with an elf from New York is a mugging, which is so unseemly at Christmas. The elf, who, after all, is doing “good works,” has the upper hand. You, on the other hand, do not…unless you donate. Get the picture? It’s that simple…
Meanwhile let me tell you: it ain’t easy standing out in the cold, ringing annoying bells, eyes watering from the wind, wishing you had a flask of bourbon, and harassing for a worthy cause. Thankfully, there are good non-New Yorkers on this island who can be generous with their contributions when appropriately threatened…bless their hearts.
Truth be told, I raised a ton of money during my gig as an elf. More than anyone else. It is also true that I wasn’t invited back this year. Maybe they don’t need the money. Who knows? All I know is that Big Guido is unemployed and unhappy. This is not good. Not good at all.