Thursday, May 29, 2014

Add Some Mystery to Your Summer Vacation: The Edgar Allan Poe Museum

At the Edgar Awards on May 1, I was by pure chance seated at the same table with two charming representatives of the mystery world: Jamie Fawcett & Chris Semtner — respectively Executive Director and Curator of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia. I could hardly believe my luck. The Edgars — The Oscars of mystery writing, named after the writer who invented the detective story — and I get to sit with two of the people who know the most about him. I asked them if they would guest blog, and they enthusiastically accepted. 

Chris is going first. I'll hand this over to him now. Jamie will be writing a blog of her own for us in June.

-- Sheila York

Late one October night, a phone call awoke the director of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia. The anonymous caller said he would reveal the whereabouts of the missing bust of Edgar Allan Poe if the director would read to him Poe’s poem “Spirits of the Dead.” 

The missing bust had sat on a brick pedestal in the Poe Museum’s garden pergola for nearly 60 years. Then one morning, it was gone.

The director recited the poem. The caller said, “It’s at the Raven Inn,” and hung up. That’s where the police would find it, resting on the bar in the Raven Inn, a rather seedy biker joint on Richmond’s Southside. 

Next to the bust were a mug of beer and a scrap of brown paper with some lines from “Spirits of the Dead” written on it. When asked how the 80-pound bust came to be there, the bartender told police a man in a cowboy hat had carried it into the bar, saying, “I met my friend in the alley, and he’d like a drink.”

Twenty-seven years later, the bust is still on display, though safely in the Poe Museum’s highly secure exhibit gallery. The abductor was never found.

This is just one of the enigmas lurking around every corner of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum. It is only fitting that the inventor of the detective story should have lived a life haunted by unsolved mysteries, and his museum invites the sleuths of the world to try their hand at solving them. 

[Sheila's note: The picture at right is the original bust, now in its secure location. Below, a replica that sits on the pedestal in the museum's pergola. Chris told me that they have to regularly wipe visitors' lipstick off replica Edgar's cheek.] 

One of the first conundrums is the death of Poe’s father. 

The museum’s Elizabeth Arnold Poe Memorial Building houses dozens of scripts and reviews of the plays in which Poe’s father, David Poe, Jr., performed. These documents help trace his whereabouts in the months leading to his disappearance. Poe’s contemporaries and today’s scholars still debate when David Poe left his wife, where he went, and when he died. But the best evidence leads us frustratingly to the conclusion that he simply vanished from history somewhere between New York and Norfolk sometime between 1809 and 1811. Even Edgar Poe wasn’t quite certain.

Another whodunit involves a murder Poe tried to solve. 

In the museum’s library is the first printing of Poe’s serialized detective story “The Mystery of Marie Roget.” Poe based his tale on newspaper accounts of the unsolved murder of New York cigar girl Mary Rogers, and he boasted that his story provided all the clues the police would need to identify the murderer. Regrettably, they apparently did not follow up on his theory, and the case is still open.

Then there is the question of whether someone was trying to kill Poe. 

The museum owns a letter from his friend John Sartain in which the latter describes a troubling visit from the author, who was convinced that people in Philadelphia were conspiring to kill him. In this note, Sartain expresses his certainty that Poe was not the least bit intoxicated at the time. Sartain found Poe “measured and deliberate” in everything he said, although he later recanted his story. Scholars are uncertain who might have wanted to murder Poe or if he had just imagined the whole thing. Considering he would die under suspicious circumstances a few months later while on his way to Philadelphia, some authors suspect he might have had good reason to fear for his life.

Museum guests can see the walking stick Poe left at his doctor’s house the night before the author left Richmond for the last time. Poe took the doctor’s sword cane along in its place. Why Poe exchanged walking sticks is still unknown, but we do know that Poe was planning a return visit to Philadelphia where, a few months earlier, he had feared someone wanted him dead.

Of course, Poe never reached the City of Brotherly Love. He died in Baltimore nine days after leaving Richmond. The cause of Poe’s death remains a mystery. He disappeared for five days before a Dr. Snodgrass found him semi-conscious and wearing someone else’s clothes, and took him to Washington College Hospital. Over the course of four days in the hospital, Poe was unable to tell anyone either where he had been for the past week or what had become of his luggage.  

That luggage, Poe’s trunk, is now in the Poe Museum along with its key, which was found in his pocket after his death. 
Neither the trunk, the walking stick, nor the museum’s lock of Poe’s hair Snodgrass clipped from Poe's head after he died, provide any answers to the mysteries about Poe’s final days, but there have been a dozens of published theories about what could have happened to him.

These are just a few of the puzzles guests are invited to explore at the Poe Museum, the perfect vacation destination for mystery lovers.

If you are interested in learning more about the inspirations for Poe’s detective stories, the Poe Museum is the perfect place to uncover the truth behind “The Gold-Bug” or “The Purloined Letter.” Visitors learn how Poe, as a writer for Richmond’s Southern Literary Messenger, used his own amateur sleuthing skills to expose a fake chess-playing automaton five years before he wrote his first detective story.

This summer, try solving a mystery at the Poe Museum. The museum’s four-building complex boasts the world’s largest collection of Poe personal items and memorabilia.

Finding us won’t take much detective work. Just visit our website at

Chris Semtner
Edgar Allan Poe Museum

With Chris at the Edgars

Copyright 2014 Sheila York & Chris Semtner

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Little Girl Saved by the ASPCA

In 1874, there was an American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, but there was no similar organization to defend children against abuse.   The mores and customs of those times regarded children as the chattel of their parents.   “Dickensian” does not begin to describe what many, many children suffered.  Then came the case of Mary Ellen Wilson.

Mary Ellen (sometimes also called McCormack) was born in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen 150 Years ago this past March.  When her father Thomas died, her mother had no other means of support.  In order to take a job, she had no choice but to board her infant daughter with a woman named Mary Score.  This was common practice at the time.  For a while, the expedient worked for Frances Wilson and her baby girl, but when Frances lost her job, she could not longer pay Score to take care of the baby, who turned the child over to the New York City Department of Charities.  Mary Ellen was not quite two at the time.

The welfare agency placed the child in foster care with a couple named McCormack.   It was a trumped-up situation.  Mr. McCormack claimed the child, saying he was Mary Ellen’s biological father.  The Department of Charities handed the kid over illegally.  And though the law required them to follow up annually on her condition, they failed to do so.

Etta Agnell Wheeler

Mary McCormack hung onto Mary Ellen, even after her husband died and she remarried.  It was at this point that neighbors became aware of what was happening to the little girl.  One of them talked to Etta Agnell Wheeler, a Methodist missionary who worked in the area.  Wheeler gained entrance to McCormack’s apartment on a pretext of looking for care for a relative.  She found the child barefoot in December, washing dishes at the kitchen sink.  She was obviously bruised, malnourished, and neglected.  Wheeler applied to the local authorities to help the child, but they refused to enforce even the paltry child protection laws that were on the books.

Henry Bergh

In desperation, Wheeler went to Henry Bergh, the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  He agreed to help.  Neighbors testified.  This group of concerned adults managed to get Mary Ellen away from McCormack.  An ASPCA lawyer pled her case before the New York State Supreme Court.  Ten-year-old Mary Ellen testified on her own behalf.   She had suffered a dreadful litany of cruelties: Regular and severe beatings, malnutrition, sleeping on the floor, no warm clothing, being locked inside dark rooms, and allowed to go outside only at night and in her own yard.

Here is a heart-wrenching quote from her testimony:
“My mother and father are dead.  I don’t know how old I am…I have no recollection of ever having been kissed by anyone…  I have never been taken on mamma’s lap and caressed or petted.  I never dared to speak to anybody, because if I did I would get whipped.  I do not know for what I was whipped….I have no recollection ever being on the street in my life.”

In the year Mary Ellen made this testimony The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was founded.  It was the first, but afterwards many other such organizations were established.

Mary Ellen Schutt before her death

Etta Wheeler and her relatives eventually got custody of Mary Ellen.  When she was 24, in 1888, Mary Ellen married a widower, Lewis Schutt who had three children.  Together they adopted an orphan girl and named her Etta, after Wheeler.  Mary Ellen lived to be 92.  She died in New York in 1956.

As some of you know, my African series, which launches next month with Strange Gods, is based on the Ten Commandments.  Each book will deal with the sin mentioned in the Commandment and with another grievous sin for which there is no commandment.  There are many evils that deserve their own commandment.  Child abuse is number one on my list.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Back Home on the Range

The Monday following Edgars Week I was back in Albany, but actually in the City of Saratoga. (I have yet to figure out if the ‘Saratoga’ where the Continental Army beat General Burgoyne is one and the same ‘Saratoga Springs’ that the highway signs tell me I’m in). Never mind. I was there at the Saratoga Police Pistol Range to qualify with both .38-cal. revolvers that I’d carried during twenty years as a cop in the NYPD—which, bye the bye, I last fired in 1987, the year I retired (and also when I last cleaned them, but that’s another story.)

I’m at the Range this Monday to keep from getting arrested. You see, I once had a Carry-Permit issued me by the City of New York as a retired Member of the Force “in good standing” (meaning not having been arrested anywhere since). When you leave NYC, however—as I did to reside in Albany–the Permit automatically expires, and the NYPD requested me to mail it back (I didn’t). I keep both revolvers—my off-duty 5-shot Smith & Wesson Chief and the on-duty S&W Police Officer’s Special—in my sock drawer in our bedroom on the top floor of our Row House in Downtown Albany. Not in a “locked metal box” as the Department prescribed. How in hell could I get to my gun with all deliberate speed to repel a burglar if I first have to remember where I stashed the lockbox key (recommended to be kept separate from the lockbox), then unlock the box to get the gun. There is a further complication in that the gun will not be loaded. At the insistence of my wife Rose, I keep the bullets in a different hidey hole because loaded guns in the house make her nervous. This, as you can readily see, adds an additional step to the whole business before I can Stand My Ground (as Floridians say).

Of course, there hasn’t been a single home invasion on my street in the seven years I’ve lived here, and I can’t really see a burglar climbing two flights of stairs to beard us in our bedroom, so it’s more likely that I will, in such circumstances, yell loudly down the stairs: “POLICE!”, then call them.

I’m not a gun buff. I still have the two revolvers I carried while patrolling the mean streets of the City, but none others. I’m sentimentally attached to them, which explains my presence this Monday on a Police Pistol Range. I owe it to The GRUMPS who arranged for the presence of eighteen of us—all retired guys, no gals—to shoot for certification under Federal law. The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act (LEOSA, 18 U.S. Code 926) authorizes me to carry my revolvers concealed on my person in every State of the Union, including the City of New York (which delights in locking up off-duty out-of-state lawmen who think they can bring their firearms into the City because their place-of-employment isn’t as finicky as NYC). We owe this boon to former President George Bush, the Son, who did one good thing after all.

The Saratoga PBA Range is a homey place, small by Big Department standards, accommodating just eight shooters simultaneously. Surprisingly, all the old cops were qualifying with revolvers rather that automatics like the Glock. It bespoke a long-ago time when police departments prescribed that its members carry the revolver because of its reliability: if you never cleaned a revolver, it would still fire, whereas a dirty automatic would jam, fail to fire. I fired 50 rounds from each revolver at a stationary paper target stapled to a flexible metal pole from distances of 25 yards, 15-, 3-, and one-yard. That one-yard is meant to simulate combat. You stand a little to the side an arm’s distance away and give the target a shove with your free hand, step back quickly with the foot opposite your shooting hand while drawing your weapon, holding it close in to your side a bit forward of your body (so you don’t shoot yourself), and let go three rounds rapidly at the bad guy. Your body is doing the aiming at the silhouette of a muscular, bald-headed, mean-looking white guy, with a gun in his fist pointing at you. This is a practical exercise since most police gunfights occur with the shooters within three yards of each other. The Range Instructor then scored our targets. I passed, respectably. (It’s like riding a bike, muscle memory.)

For the occasion, Rose had sewn me a Carpenter’s Apron in denim to hold the one hundred rounds I had to grab in handfuls to reload as I fired the Course. I bought the ammo at a store on a suburban route with a monster sign blinking: “GUNS”. I’d never been in a store like it, having in the dim past bought only from NYPD-affiliated shops clustered around the Police Academy on East 20th Street. I needed a pair of safety glasses, ear protectors, and bullets, of course. The bullets are called ‘wadcutters’, meant for shooting targets. The People Bullets are soft-nosed ‘hollow-points,’ designed to explode and expand within a body on impact, causing massive tissue damage. I remember the NYPD, when it decided in the 1990s to arm its members with these ‘.38-Specials’, calling them “humane bullets”. Actually, it had everything to do with the tendency of higher-velocity rounds to pass right through the bad guy, taking out innocent pedestrians in the line of fire. The lawyers referred to this unintended result of non-stop bullets as Lawsuit City. Incidentally, I was voted Best Looking Ammo Pouch on the Range that day by my fellow GRUMPS.

At the end of shooting, six of us went to lunch together at Ruby Tuesdays in a nearby mall. I had told my share of war stories during the morning, enough to merit the invitation. Two homicide detectives from Nassau County, one a member of the Saratoga Springs Police department, another a BCI investigator with the State Police, the last a sergeant formerly of the NYPD’s Bronx Narcotics Unit. All of us long retired from police work, me the oldest at table. I’d not met any of them before, although the Bronx sergeant said he and I had spoken at a GRUMPS Christmas Party. Our time had overlapped in the NYPD so we talked of the Old Days. As we stood around a picnic table waiting for our Relay to be called onto the range, I asked him if he planned on cleaning his guns that evening; he did. (I recalled the process: you wet cotton patches with Hoppe’s Gun Oil, attach them at the end of a thin metal rod that gets run through the barrel and empty chambers, then repeat with dry patches to remove excess oil.) He volunteered that he also dismantles the weapon to get at all the moving parts, and offered to show me how. I declined, noting that despite not having been cleaned in 27 years, the moving parts still moved, the guns fired. At first taken aback, he recovered, offering to clean both my revolvers for me if I bought lunch. I bought lunch.

GRUMPS is not an acronym as so much of police-speak is. Rather, the name aptly calls to mind a couple old codgers sitting on a park bench chewing the rag, remembering the Good Times, recast and immortalized in the retelling.

© 2014 Robert Knightly

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The 1940s

So I was in the midst of a crush on Winston Churchill (which will be the subject of a future post) when what should nestle inside my Kindle but The Forties: The Story of A Decade. This is a compilation of many different articles, profiles and reviews that appeared in The New Yorker during and after WWII. There’s coverage of D-Day, London during the blitz and the Vichy regime. John Hersey is represented by an account of John Kennedy’s adventures on his PT boat and Hiroshima in its entirety.

Already giddy from these offerings, I came upon Joseph Mitchell’s wonderful “The Old House at Home (On McSorley’s Old Ale House)”: “Except for a few experimental months in 1905 or 1906, no spirits ever have been sold in McSorley’s; Old John maintained that a man never lived who needed a stronger drink than a mug of stock ale warmed on the hob of a stove.”

In Lillian Ross’ “Symbol of All We Possess,” I learned that some cities (Greater Philadelphia and New York City) fielded separate Miss America candidates. Before there was Bert Parks, there was Bob Russell and the Miss America pageant song was this one: “Let’s sing a song to Miss America,/Let’s raise our glasses on high/From Coast to Coast in this America,/As the Sweetheart of the U.S.A is passing by/To a girl, to a girl,/To a symbol of happiness,/ To the one, to the one/Who’s the symbol of all we possess.”

I was less impressed by the book reviews but that could have been because with the exception of For Whom the Bell Tolls and 1984, I haven’t read the books reviewed. There is also a sour little piece by Edmund Wilson called “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?” This is not to be confused with Wilson’s later “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” Wilson complains about Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, and says this about The Maltese Falcon: The Maltese Falcon today seems not much above those newspaper picture strips in which you follow from day to day the ups and downs of a strong-jawed hero and a hardboiled but beautiful adventuress.” Mr. Wilson cannot see what all the fuss is about. He likes Poe and Dickens but not much else.

The volume contains a good selection of movie reviews (His Girl Friday, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Dictator, Citizen Kane, Casablanca) and fiction by Carson McCullers, John O’Hara, William Maxwell, Elizabeth Taylor and others.

My favorite piece in the collection is “Come In, Lassie,” Lillian Ross’ account of the Red Scare in Hollywood. This was written shortly after the Hollywood 10 were prohibited from working in the film industry in America. Hollywood then produces the “Screen Guide for Americans” written by Ayn Rand. Protests one screenwriter: “For years I’ve been writing scripts about a Boy Scout type cowboy in love with a girl. Their fortune and happiness are threatened by a banker holding a mortgage over their heads, or by a big landowner, or by a crooked sheriff. Now they tell me that bankers are out. Anyone holding a mortgage is out. Crooked public officials are out. All I’ve got left is a cattle rustler. What the hell am I going to do with a cattle rustler?”

But we soon discover all is not gloom. Jack L. Warner, busiest of the Brothers, is genially inclined to bolster up the courage of those who are ready to throw in the towel. “Don’t worry!“ he roars, slapping the backs of of lesser men around him. “Congress can’t last forever.”

Oh, that that were true.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Unsafe to Read

Sunday's New York Times tells us that modern college students are asking for warning labels on certain books in the Literary Canon that they are forced to read, because they may find the content disturbing. Rape victims and returning veterans, they say, are particularly at risk and must be warned before opening their copies of The Great Gatsby or Mrs. Dalloway.

According to Philip Wythe of the Rutgers Daily Targum, our nation's classrooms are thronging with damaged, sensitive people suffering from all kinds of psychological disorders. They must be protected from further abuse, which for humanities majors can take the form of being required to read as many as 35 novels in four months. Maybe even paying attention to the contents.* Since censorship is wrong—we all know that—the answer is for the professors to put "trauma trigger warnings" on their syllabi, so that sensitive students can beg to be excused from reading anything they might not feel safe with.

The concept of trigger warnings is said to have originated with the Women's Movement. If that's true, I'm sorry for it. In my day Sisterhood was Powerful, not an excuse to be let off from reading challenging material.

Great literature is supposed to shake you. But whether you read or not, if you live and stay awake you will be educated. Experience keeps a dear school, as they say, but a fool will learn in no other. There are lessons you're better off learning from examples in books, before you are confronted with them in real life. War is hell, for example. Not everyone who wants to have sex with you loves and respects you. Not everyone who disagrees with your beliefs is evil, or even necessarily wrong. Some people do not regard you as human, and never will. I could go on.

Here's a passage from A. E. Houseman's A Shropshire Lad that seems to me to speak to the point:

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all the springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
—I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.

Hey, I read that in college. It's a metaphor, kids. Nobody is advising you to take poison.

© 2014 Kate Gallison

*If Mr. Wythe's classmates think reading 34 novels in four months is traumatic, wait until they graduate with their humanities degrees and try to find jobs that will enable them to pay off their college loans before they reach the age of retirement.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

What is Luck?

The word “lucky” has been coming up so often in conversations with diverse people that I began to consider it’s nature and also how the word is used.

I have often called myself lucky, in acknowledgement that my accomplishments have something to do with the fates, not all my own doing.  Fortune has smiled on me.  I have not doubt of that.   And in ways that were poor chance.

We all owe to chance our genetic make up, for instance.  How did your parents meet?  What put them in mood the day you were conceived?  All of us owe a lot of who we are to what particular sperm hit which particular egg.  And so it goes from there on.  That teacher who inspired you could have become a doctor or accidentally gotten pregnant in high school and never made to college.  You could have gotten into a traffic jam on our way to buying that house and found it already sold.

Life depends on luck, right?

I say a small “yes,” and a resounding “no.”

I lost my taste for the word when I sold my first book—a how-to volume on management for business types.  The day I signed the contract just happened to be my birthday—March 17, 1983.  My husband and I were celebrating with dinner out.  With us were a colleague of mine and his wife—a school librarian who regularly bragged about how little work she had to do in the Brooklyn public high school where she was employed.  (I hesitate to say “where she worked,” since her efforts seemed to be singularly focused on avoiding doing a lick.)

David ordered champagne and offered a toast to my birthday and the contract for my first book.  Our friends were very interested in the book and expressed their congratulations.  Except for the “librarian,” who exclaimed, “Wow.  You’re really lucky.”

What could I do but lower my gaze and agree with her.  If I was turning red, they all might have thought I was blushing from modesty.  Modest though I wish to be, at that moment I was miffed.  Perhaps it was because the words came from that woman—who had an opportunity to help underserved children, who instead rejoiced that they were not interested in books.  Their disinterest allowed her to sit around reading magazines instead of engaging with the students.  And she thought that a person got a book contract through luck?

Just two weeks ago, a visitor from Europe reported that a mutual friend had told him how lucky my husband and I were to have bought a place to live in lower Manhattan when it was still affordable.  Yes.  But.  We bought when others were running to the suburbs because NYC was bankrupt and in trouble.  We stuck with our city out of love, not greed.  We WERE lucky—to have found each other, to have the same dreams, to have the capacity to work very hard and take joy in doing so.  In answer to what I hope was mild mannered question, my visitor reported that in his country, everyone ascribed success to luck.  “What about failure?” I asked.  “Oh, they blame failure on the person.”   Really?  Why would anyone with such a belief system get off the couch?  Does it surprise you to know that his country is not one of the more economically stable in the EU?

On the other hand, I expressed to a friend earlier this week that chance is the most creative force on the planet, if you let it in.  For me that "if” makes all the difference.

Are these beliefs the reason why some people persist in pursuit of success while others remain passive in the face of their own possibilities?  If opportunity knocks, are the people who get off their duffs and answer the door lucky?  If you ask me, failure is often merely a result of bad luck.  Success requires good luck.  But sometimes it also requires a whole lot more.

Annamaria Alfieri

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Tom, We Hardly Knew Ye…

When a young insurance salesman sold his debut novel, The Hunt for Red October, to the erudite Naval Institute Press for $5,000, a new sub-genre was launched and the rest is literary history!

For several stellar films, over 17 bestselling novels and several non-fiction military books, Tom Clancy's "genius for big, compelling plots" and his "natural narrative gift" have entranced hundreds of millions of devotees, and he remains one of the preeminent storytellers of our time.

With secret operational missions, warlords in Japan, Colombian drug busts, nuclear terrorists, European amusement park raids, to name a few themes, Tom took us almost to the end of a tumultuous civilization with unfailing authenticity and detail.

His thrillers, many written over twenty years ago, could well be current Page One stories of any major newspaper on the planet!

Command Authority, published after his untimely death in October, 2013, describes what is actually happening right now in May, 2014, in places like Crimea and Ukraine, with a fictional Russian president named Valeri Volodin. I feel like I'm reading Page One of the New York Times. Or watching the news on TV. For example, in this book, Gazprom, Russia's quasi-state-owned natural gas company features prominently.

The director of the CIA tells the U.S. national security team at one A.M. in the Cabinet Room, "If anyone doubts for a second that the Kremlin is responsible for this, they are hopelessly naïve." (P. 102)

And U.S. President Jack Ryan says, "We've seen this over and over… Volodin is playing to his own room." (P. 103)
"Kiev has turned into a hotbed of intelligence activity." (P. 129)

A common view for years has been that the spy genre was owned by the Brits—writers like Graham Greene, Len Deighton, Frederick Forsythe, John le Carre.

But the emphasis has shifted. With a changing world of intelligence gathering, terrorism, espionage, dirty tricks, Americans like Clive Cussler, Nelson DeMille, Robert Littell, Alan Furst, Charles McCarry, Vince Flynn, David Hagberg, WEB Griffin—are considered to be some of the greatest writers in the genre, along with Tom Clancy.

As I revisit some of Clancy's writing, I am impressed by his incredibly sensitive prose, his moving insights into human nature. Twenty years ago I galloped through his pages like a hungry animal! Now, I savor slowly the emotional depth in his pages, like I would a glass of aged Laphroaig!

In my earlier reading I missed a lot of the real essence of Clancy's understanding of the human psyche and his gifted ability to portray the heart and emotions of his brave warriors.

Since the death of this gentle giant, a guy who was refused personal combat duty for his country because of poor eyesight, I hope my renewed respect for his emotional insights will make me a better writer!

You may ask, who was my favorite character in Tom's books. Not Jack Ryan, the hero in most of them, a man who rose to become POTUS, the leader of the free world.

I favored a young man named John Kelly, the hero in Without Remorse, published in 1993, with one of my favorite Virgilian lines in the front of the book— "Arma virumque cano," as well as John Dryden's wise line, "Beware the fury of a patient man."

Kelly, a former Navy SEAL and Vietnam vet, still getting over the accidental death of his wife, befriends a young woman named Pam, who is abused, then killed by American drug dealers. At the same time, the Pentagon prepares to rescue Americans from a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp and assigns John Kelly, now code-named John Clark, to spearhead the operation.

John then fights on two fronts, his duty to his country in Asia and his now personal mission against deadly drug dealers in Baltimore, the killers of young Pam.

Without Remorse shows us the vulnerable,intelligent young fighter more than other books, where John features as a more mature C.I.A agent, a national icon in a secret role. If he had lived, would Clancy have a given John Clark another book like Without Remorse? I think so.

Today, I wish I could drive down to Maryland and visit with Tom. "How did you know so much about the human heart and soul, the lacrimae rerum of life?" I'd ask him.

Would he have answered? We'll never know… Dear Reader, what do you think?

I really, really miss Tom Clancy…

T. Jackie Straw

P.S. This also brings loving memories of our talented colleague, Marty Meyers, and to his beloved wife, Annette, one of the great pillars of the American mystery family, my friend for many years.

Love and prayers to you both. Love conquers all…

Friday, May 16, 2014

Grand Theft Roof

Now that Harold and I have returned home to our modest little house in Lambertville and our two dogs, Psycho and Killer, I feel able to freely share with you the fact that we spent last week on vacation in Savannah.

It was glorious there, hot and sunny. We walked all over the tourist district, sat in the shady squares, ate in the coolest restaurants. I would have sent pictures to Facebook if I hadn't heard about a local burglar who checks Facebook to see who isn't home and then backs up a truck. He may be out of jail by now. I did want to show you my favorite thing in Savannah, though, and that's a public fountain designed for kids to run around in when the weather is hot.

I could watch them all day, and listen to their screams of delight. Happy kids are so much fun. We should have a fountain like this in Lambertville.

Nobody bothered the house while we were gone, I'm delighted to report, due partly to the constant surveillance of my son, Charles. And the dogs, of course. They're pretty mean. Fortunately our modest little house does not have copper downspouts. Over the past few months people have been creeping around town stealing the copper downspouts from various churches and nice buildings. And not just here. It's happening all over.

There's an abandoned bank building in Trenton—How abandoned is it? Let's just say it's empty and unguarded—whose roof is being stolen piece by piece because it's copper. Here are some pictures, taken by Mark Dunlap of the Motor Vehicle Commission, whose office window looks down on the roof.  The story was written up in the Times of Trenton by Nicole Mulvaney.

They say the inside of the building has been similarly gutted. Trenton police have more urgent business to attend to, and the Governor won't sign any laws requiring scrap metal dealers to report what they buy—manhole covers, you know, street signs, brass plaques honoring veterans, people's downspouts and roofs, useless stuff like that—or record the license numbers of those who bring them things. Too much paperwork for them, he says. It stifles business.

© 2014 Kate Gallison

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Ordinary Grace, Reviewed

I have attempted here to review Ordinary Grace without giving too much away, though there is one spoiler. Perhaps I should just say it's one of the best mysteries I've read in years and you should all read it.

I always come to William Kent Krueger novels expecting to be instantly engrossed. A friend lent me Iron Lake years ago at a time when I was facing some serious surgery and as long as I had my eyes on the pages of that book the hospital stay to come was never a distraction. Even my husband’s observation that I would not understand the problems inherent in driving a truck across a frozen lake didn’t dent my enthusiasm. After the surgery any discomfort was kept at bay by a reading of Boundary Waters. Any author who can draw me out of my world into one that is totally unfamiliar has me as a lifelong fan.

Ordinary Grace is a wonderful novel and I was thrilled that it won an Edgar. Kreuger's rendering of the daily struggles of this family, of the natural world and the details of life in the 1960s (yes, I remember watching Disney's Wonderful World of Color on a black and white T.V. set) frame the action of the novel perfectly.

Frank Drum says as the novel opens, that though terrible things happened that summer he doesn't think of it as depressing. One of Kreuger's great gifts is his ability to make this novel and the things that happen in it both stark and cozy. Yes, tragedy strikes, but life goes on and people experience contentment and happiness again. (The scene in which Frank realizes he has not thought about his murdered sister all day and has actually laughed is perfection.)

If I have any quibble it's that Nathan Drum seemed a touch too good to be true. He gives off a faint whiff of Atticus Finch. But any novel that can remind you of To Kill a Mockingbird has a lot going for it.

© 2014 Stephanie Patterson

Friday, May 9, 2014

My Favorite Color

Around the end of the nineteen-sixties, when I was still a mad housewife, I found myself at a party talking to a charming, handsome young man my husband knew from work, an African-American. Trying to make myself interesting, as one does, I said, "I'm writing my autobiography." What I was actually writing was a bad mad housewife novel, but that's a story for another day.

"Really!" he said. "I'm reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X."

"Ah," I said. "That would be nothing like mine. I don't even have the nerve to wear yellow." My remark mystified him. What I meant by it was that I didn't have the nerve to do anything I might have wanted to do, let alone revolutionize the world like Malcolm X. Yellow was my favorite color, but it made me look purple and vaguely ill. The magazines all advised me not to wear it for this reason. I didn't even have the nerve to tell my first husband how unhappy it made me when he… well, did just about anything. He wasn't fond of criticism. After all, who is? But allow me to draw the cloak of charity over my first marriage, as well as over the novel, which was deadly dull and ended with the mad housewife's suicide.

Many years have gone by, and now I will tell the world, without shame: Yellow is my favorite color. It's cheerful, sunny, mood-elevating. Still, when Jackie Cantor, then my editor at Dell, asked me what my favorite color was, so that she could have the cover for Bury the Bishop rendered in that color, I told her, "Red." This was because I had seen studies that said red was the best color for selling things. I wanted my book to sell. Indeed it did pretty well.

Nowadays the only reason for concealing my true favorite color is that hackers might discover it and use it to break security in my online bank accounts somehow. They would have to know a lot of other stuff, though, and some of it I might have lied about, right? Because I have lots more nerve than I used to in the old days. I have the nerve to tell the occasional lie to a bank's security system. Make up the name of a first pet, maybe. Also I now have the nerve to actually wear yellow. I just bought a cotton sweater by Joan Vass in "sunset," a charming shade of yellow. Here I am wearing it. Perhaps it makes me look purple and vaguely ill. I don't care. It's my favorite color.

© 2014 Kate Gallison

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Malice & Mr. Poe

For the last decade, since my first novel was accepted by a publisher, the last days in April and first days of May have been reserved for the Edgars and Malice Domestic.

The Edgar Awards — yes, named for Mr. Poe — are sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America, and are the Oscars of the mystery world. Each of 9 categories is judged by a separate committee of mystery writers. The awards are great fun in a laid-back and witty evening. And you don’t have to show cleavage and be under 40 to get your picture taken! 

Caroline Hart (center) was named a Grand Master this year (along with Robert Crais, far right). 

She gave me my first cover blurb, saying of A Good Knife’s Work “Sheila York combines glamour, humor and the late 1940s in a clever and challenging mystery.” I was a total newbie and she gave me a blurb. It was so kind of her. 

See the full list of this year’s nominees and winners here.

By happy accident, at my table were two of the staff of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia: Jaime Fawcett, the executive director, and Chris Semtner, the curator. They're young, eager, and super enthusiastic about their jobs. I snapped a picture of them, but while it looked great in the darkened banquet room, I had cut off half of Chris’s face (a Poe-esque touch). A new cell phone. I hate learning curves. 

Then a group of us went to the after-party hosted by the legendary editor Otto Penzler, also owner of the famous Mysterious Bookshop, and after that, slid over to an Irish bar across the street. 

That's Reed Farrel Coleman at the left end of the table with his wife, Roseann. Reed will continue the Robert B Parker Jesse Stone series. The new book, Blind Spot, comes out in September. 

I collapsed into my hotel-room bed about 3:00am, then was back up at 7:00am to catch the train for Washington DC and Malice Domestic.

Malice Domestic is a writer/fan convention dedicated to traditional & cozy mysteries.  

Here’s a shot of me and my cohorts on the panel It’s Alive! Mysteries that Bring History to Life. I wish we’d had more time. I was just getting revved up on the subject of how much the Great Golden Age of Film might owe to the censorship of the Production Code when time ran out.

Congrats to my buds Charles Todd (actually Charles and Caroline Todd, who write as a team) and Chris Grabenstein for their Agatha Awards wins — respectively, Best Historical Novel and Best Children's/Young Adult Novel.  

The best moment for me might have been on a quiet ride up in a packed elevator. Just as she got out, a woman turned to me and said, “I just love your books.” And the doors closed. In unison, everybody else in the elevator turned to me and examined my name tag to see who the heck I was. 

Way too quickly, it was time to go home. Red Caps are the best-kept secret (and let’s keep it that way, all right?) in travel. You check in at the Red Cap station, then when the train is ready, you’re escorted (unencumbered by bags) to the train, boarded before the other passengers. Your bags are stowed in a convenient and empty space — no elbows, no fisticuffs — and then you get to pick your seat (mine’s always in the quiet car). You settle in, relax. Let the other people search, dragging their bags behind them, for the last empty seat on the train. All for a tip. I’m $5 a bag, unless it’s full of books that I’ve greedily acquired at an awards celebration and a convention, then the Red Cap gets hazardous duty pay. 

But may be best to avoid asking Amtrak's virtual chat lady for any help. Last month, when I was making my reservations, I typed in "Senior Discounts" and I got hits on how to get information in Spanish. Golly, I hope that was a tech glitch. 

Sheila York
Copyright 2014

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

English Wins!

Yesterday, at lunch with a life-long friend, we raised a toast to the English language.  The child (him) and the grandchild (me) of immigrants, we had been talking about our gratitude that English was our native tongue.

Other languages are more musical, as is, for instance, Italian, the only other one I speak well.   It even has a more logical grammatical structure.  And you cant beat Spanish for being easy to spell.  I could go on.  But those are not the lingual virtues we praised.  We both love English for its richness.

Lets take one possibility.  Say you want to characterize a woman as a person who makes advances to the opposite sex.

You can call her:

A Flirt:  With this description she comes across as seductive, but not serious.  Her invitation is light-hearted, not serious.  She may want the man, but she may just be amusing herself.  And amusing him into the bargain.

A Coquette:  She is a flirt with a touch of elegance and sheen of shyness

A Heartbreaker:  She seems available, but she is not really.  Even if he gets her in the sack, he is not going to keep her.  Its hard to tell, but she could hate him (or maybe she despises all men) all the while she is coming on to him. 

A Vixen: This girl is more complicated than she seems on the surface.  She may have a hidden agenda.  She is young and lively.  For me this word conjures a picture of hersmall, slender, with a sly look in her eye

A Siren: She wants to attract him, but she does it from afar.  She draws him just by being wonderfully attractive, across a crowded room.

A Tease: She offers herself quite overtly, but she has no intention of following through.  She may be doing it for the thrill of succeeding.  And that may be the only thrill she is after.

A Vamp: This girl is obvious.  She dresses the part.  She comes on like gangbusters, and she is confident that she will succeed.  She picks her targets, and she gets her man.

A Wanton: this poor sad creature is indiscriminate.  Shell take whoever she can get.

OF COURSE, a girl can be called any of these names and not be any of these things.

And I cite these examples to demonstrate the expressiveness of the language, not to comment on womens behavior.

There are a few words to describe men in the same circumstances, but not as many, and the shades of meaning they convey are not as subtle.  That is because women are more complex than men.  But you knew that.

We could, I think, try to match up women in literature with the terms above, Estella in Great Expectations, for example.     

 Annamaria Alfieri