Thursday, May 30, 2024

Cover design: by Harini Nagendra

This week's topic is Blogger's Choice - pick what you want! And that's always the hardest, isn't it - at least for me. Choice always makes it difficult - especially when there are no boundaries set! So of course, with a day full of things to do, I spent too much time procrastinating, thinking of various topics I could write about, and then moving to the next shiny thing.

Until I thought of - covers! More precisely, book covers. I've always been fascinated by cover art - there's art, science and alchemy involved. What is it that makes a book call out to a reader? Often it's the cover that signals, in some mysterious but usually accurate way, what it contains within. These days, with e-books, audio books, and online browsing, the art of choosing the exact keywords to advertise is becoming more critical - but for me, nothing can replace the satisfaction of scanning through a pile of books at a bookstore or library, and looking at the covers, until something tugs at my attention.

Since my latest book, A Nest of Vipers, released earlier this month - I thought this would be a good time to show you the two gorgeous covers I have 

For the US version, from Pegasus Books - I love the frisson of fear this generates - a young woman, in a sari, her hair beautifully decorated with flowers, walks into a building with a series of arches. Alongside her, vipers slither at the edges, just out of sight. Edward, Prince of Wales, is visiting Bangalore in 1922, and his visit is marked by pro-independence protests, often violent ones. While investigating the mysterious disappearance of a master magician from a locked cage, mid-show, Kaveri finds herself in murkier waters than she intended - what does the magician's disappearance have to do with the Prince's upcoming visit, and the young man found dead just after the magic show? It's A Nest of Vipers alright, and the book cover portrays the mood perfectly.

And then, here's the UK/India version, from Little Brown/Constable/Hachette 

An equally stunning cover, with its gilt embossing, but such a different mood! I love the richness of colours and textures on this one - with the flowers at the edges, Kaveri's gorgeous sari, and the nod to the magician's oeuvre with the snake charmer's basket (so redolent of 1920s India) and the circus tent in the background. 

I may be (definitely am!) biased, but I love both these covers. I know I would never be able to come up with stuff like this, and am in awe of cover designers and artists everywhere. May their tribe continue to flourish!

Murder at a Wife-Swapping Party from James W. Ziskin

This week's question is Blogger’s choice, a veritable free-for-all, so I’m posting my short story “Prisoner of Love.” This appeared in Get Up Offa That Thing: Crime Fiction Inspired by The Songs of James Brown (May 2023). But it didn’t get much exposure, which makes me sad. I wanted to share it here in the hopes that readers will enjoy a story about a murder at a wife-swapping party on New Year’s Eve 1954. Who wouldn’t like that? 

Eagle-eyed readers might recognize Nelson and Lucia Blanchard, who appear alongside Ellie Stone in Heart of Stone and Cast the First Stone.


James W. Ziskin

December 31, 1954

That one of Osgood Bindler’s circle of intimates saw fit to strangle him with his own ascot—the only article of clothing he refused to doff for any activity, save for bathing and shaving—conferred a fitting irony on his death. The fact his murder went unseen by nine other naked revelers on New Year’s Eve, well, that was downright baffling.

         You see, Osgood, a retired Air Force pilot, devoted his life to what we the initiated called wife-swapping. He frolicked among like-minded broad thinkers, and, when engaged in his polyamorous pursuits, took great pride in his gallant—if not exactly gentlemanly—behavior. And even if the years had softened the angles of his once-toned physique, Osgood was considered to be suavely handsome by all who knew him. He had no known enemies.

         His strangulation occurred in a hotel suite several minutes after he’d concluded his exertions with two of the ladies in attendance. He’d enjoyed a post-coital cigarette and a gulp of port before repairing to the bathroom to hose off for the next engagement, should his stamina prove equal to the task. And it was then that an unknown aggressor tightened the paisley ascot around his throat and choked the life out of him.

         Face blue and eyes shot red, poor Osgood lay sprawled on the floor in all his glory, a rude shock in wait for the next unsuspecting soul entering the bathroom to answer nature’s call. That turned out to be a stunning young beauty—Lucia—who’d only wanted to void her bladder, not her stomach, which—alas—she did in reaction to her grisly discovery.

         The inopportune death dampened any enthusiasm the group might have felt for the spectacular finale they’d planned to ring in the new year. It was to be a lampoon of Swan Lake, I was told, a tableau vivant, one part synchronized swimming—without the pool—and one part cheerleading pyramid. No bathing suits or team colors required, naturally, though a long, white feather boa figured in the undertaking.

         I received a telephone call a few minutes after midnight from an old chum, Tad Halberstam, roommate from my Hotchkiss days and—as it happened—the ringmaster of the New Year’s Eve saturnalia. Why hadn’t I been invited? I was a fixture at those gatherings, after all, and knew all the regulars intimately. Stinging from the affront, I nevertheless agreed to rally ’round, thanks to Tad’s entreaties. Armed with my medical bag, I jumped into my Jag and, after several minutes, managed to coax the engine to life. The temperamental thing always balked at turning over in chilly weather, and sixty degrees Fahrenheit qualified as downright frigid in Los Angeles. Once I had the motor warm and purring at my touch, I roared off to a hotel on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. (A cackle of lawyers representing the establishment in question threatened me with ruin if ever I associated their client’s name with the events of that night. So, I’m afraid, I must limit my references to the scene of the crime as simply “the hotel” from here on out.)

         Upon my arrival at “the hotel,” I joined the stunned playmates in the suite’s parlor. Tad assured me that no one had left the place. All the revelers were present and accounted for, now decently covered and demure, even as the scent of their mischief lingered in the air. Once more I felt the pang of exclusion, wondering how I might have offended Tad—or one of the troupe—to have earned a thumbs-down when the invitations had been up for debate. Hadn’t I been an enthusiastic actor in past performances? Versatile, as well? Even if I was running stag at that point of my life, I thought they might have at least made an exception in my case. I had half a mind to take my assistance elsewhere, but the sight of the aforementioned beauty, Lucia, quelled my pique. She was a miracle of flesh and desire, with a heart-shaped face, hypnotic eyes, and pouty red lips. Her ravishing figure, cosseted by a lovingly diaphanous, violet negligée, stoked an ardor deep inside me. She flashed me a kittenish smile, and I found myself instantly a prisoner in her thrall.

         I am not a handsome man. Never mind that my teeth are a size or two too large for my lips to conceal, despite their own considerable proportions; or that my hair, though still quite black, has lost significant terrain in its battle for dominion over the shiny crown of my scalp; or even that my face, which has been described—rightly so—as “long,” gives me an appearance some less-kind souls call “horsey,” no. Forget those superficial details.

         Though I cannot claim to be a handsome man, I, Nelson Blanchard, am—as it happens—a rich one. Quite rich, in fact. And that state of affairs has long compensated for my lack of physical allure. Money not only buys fine clothes and expensive haircuts to enhance one’s meager charms, but it attracts beautiful people. Particularly those who don’t have a lot of scratch of their own. And while I confess to having relished the gratifications that come with wealth, I hasten to add that I have never used my luck to exploit less-fortuned individuals. Rather, I have treated my money as an instrument of philanthropy—after my own fashion—using it for what I like to think of as a good turn or a generous tip, to employ a crass transactional metaphor. The pretty girls and handsome young men who have shared my company, I believe, walked away from our experience happier and richer for it.

         So, that night, despite my lack of good looks, I entertained hope that I might intrigue Lucia enough to grant me a bob for an apple, as it were. She had smiled at me, after all. On first approach, I’ve been told, people often mistook me for someone important. And my arrival on the scene must have cast me in a heroic light as, presumably, I was there to save the day. If the bewitching Lucia was in any way tempted, then, yes, I intended to woo, flatter, beg, and debase myself—if necessary—to seduce her. But first there was the matter of Osgood Bindler.

         I discovered that, while useful in other circumstances, my medical degree and board certifications proved inadequate when it came to reanimating a dead man that night. I examined the body. Rigor had not yet set in, which was to be expected since, by all accounts, he’d been in the pink just an hour or so before. His cerulean-blue eyes, still open, were speckled with petechiae—blotches of blood in the whites—a reasonable indication that strangulation had been the cause of death. The lacerations on his neck and the hemorrhaging of his tongue provided compelling evidence to support the same conclusion. I took his temperature rectally, which seemed the easiest method—maybe befitting?—given the circumstances, and scribbled the reading in my pad, ninety-six degrees. The cooling of the body was consistent with the reported time of death. So much for the obvious.

         Armed with this knowledge, I urged Tad to call the police immediately, but he begged me to hold off. He argued we might avoid a messy scandal for the innocent parties if we could determine exactly what had happened and hand over the murderer to the cops tied up in a neat bow. I relented, granting him two hours, not a minute more. I didn’t want to risk my own good name and medical license for a band of degenerates who hadn’t even been decent enough to include me in their wicked plans.

         I set up shop in the smaller of the suite’s two bedrooms and charged Tad with the task of herding the dramatis personae in for questioning one by one. First on the carpet was Osgood’s wife.

         A tall, plump strawberry blonde with smudged pink lipstick and one missing false eyelash, Muriel Bindler was nearing fifty. Apparently, she and Osgood had reconciled after their most recent separation, since I’d heard the rumors that the aging Lothario had run off with a younger woman. For the second time.

         Wrapped in a terry cloth robe and nothing else, Muriel sniffled as she dabbed her swollen eyes with a wadded-up Kleenex. I asked her how the evening had progressed before the tragedy. She explained she’d been a late scratch for the orgy, due to her sore right patella. The bending, kneeling, and twisting required for the vigors of group recreation had disqualified her from all strenuous activity for the past six months. Nevertheless, she didn’t want to let the team down, so she’d suited up for the game and planned to participate as one of the base supports in the naked pyramid at midnight. Her whimpering grew into sobs, then wails, as she called out for her beloved Osgood.

         I offered her my handkerchief, which she accepted absently. Then, with the vigor of a blue whale clearing his blowhole, she jettisoned the contents of her nose—and perhaps one of her frontal lobes—into my fine-linen hankie. It was hers now.

         I shifted the focus of my inquiry to her husband. Had she observed anything unusual that morning? Or that evening before the party? Muriel said Osgood had been out of town visiting his mother since just after Christmas. He’d only flown back to Los Angeles that evening for the New Year’s Swan Lake pool party, and the first time she’d seen him was when she arrived at the hotel with the refreshments and the aforementioned boa. Osgood was already up to his elbows in two naked ladies but took the trouble to lift his head and yodel hello to Muriel from across the room. That was the last intercourse she ever had with her husband.

         I asked if she could tell me anything else. She said she’d manned the bar for the others, pouring drinks, making sure there were enough ice and mixers, and emptying ashtrays, so her attention had been divided. Still, she recalled Osgood had spent about thirty minutes romping with the two women, one a gregarious regular named Trixie, and the other an old acquaintance, Peg, the wife of a pilot from Edwards Air Force Base. Then he’d sat up on the sofa, had a smoke and swig of port, and made for the showers. That was shortly before “that Spanish girl” discovered him in the bathroom and vomited her supper into the tub.

         I saw deep sorrow in her eyes and wondered if it was merely grief at Osgood’s death that troubled her. Or was there something more? Did she perhaps find it difficult to watch him gambol about with other women while she was relegated to the bench? Surely not, I thought. Jealousy is a powerful motivator in the population at large, but not typical among the swapping set.

         As I’d known Muriel for years, and even paired off with her on occasion at similar gatherings in the past, I felt it proper to offer my deepest sympathies. I folded the large woman in an awkward embrace, then dismissed her.

         The next course on the menu was the delicious Lucia. She’d discovered the body, after all. But before asking Tad to show her in, I preened in the mirror. Smoothing my hair, brushing the lint from my jacket, and examining my teeth for any stowaways left over from the lonely hors d’œuvre I’d prepared myself a couple of hours earlier: six escargots drowning in parsley and garlic and butter. Did I mention that I’d once trained at the Cordon Bleu in Paris? Another of the perquisites great wealth affords. Satisfied I was as presentable as I’d ever be, I gave Tad the all clear. And, without delay, Lucia shimmered into the room.

         She was gorgeous. I’d always been partial to brunettes, and this girl’s silken-chestnut hair was just the shade and style I preferred. She called to me like a siren. Ensnared me. Bound me faster than any shackles ever could. Besotted, I knew I had to have her, this Latin beauty who, in comparison, made a legendary temptress like, say, Bizet’s Carmen look like a soggy, chewed-up cigar. (Well, not Carmen Jones. God, no. I’d have given my ten best fingers for five minutes with Dorothy Dandridge.) But, in spite of my lustful cravings for that divine actress, I aver Lucia was the most tantalizing creature I’d ever beheld.

         I concealed my keenness, of course, aiming instead for raffish and sophisticated. And rich. Let’s not forget rich. By some wrinkle of luck, my act seemed to be working. Her sparkling brown eyes studied me with what I imagined was fascination, if not avidity. It quite nearly flustered me, but I am nothing if not possessed of sang-froid, particularly when on the scent of prey.

         She took a seat on the edge of the bed and crossed her legs. Then, the little coquette tugged at the hem of her short negligée to shield her shapely thighs from my gaze. I pulled up a chair to be near her and, clearing my throat, wiped my perspiring brow with the back of my hand. My handkerchief was no longer an option. That’s when she informed me, apropos of nothing, that she was a cellist.

         I begged her pardon, and she explained in the softest, silkiest Spanish accent I’d ever heard, that she was a conservatory-trained musician. Not just some floozy. At least not all the time. She began listing a few of her favorite pieces, but I confess the thought of her bestriding a cello in that skimpy negligée drove me to distraction. I didn’t hear a word she said. Instead, I imagined her lithe, tanned arms flexing softly in youthful bloom as she caressed the strings with her gentle bowing, summoning the most dulcet strains from the instrument. Her spell deadened my reflexes, like a cobra mesmerizing her prey. And those bare legs—oh, how they cradled the cello lovingly yet firmly, as her lips danced in slow, undulating waves before my eyes. Yes, she was speaking, but I heard nothing. It was too late. I couldn’t escape. I was her prisoner now and forever.

         How long had I been lost in my reverie? I couldn’t say. All I knew was that I’d drooled down my chin.

         Reluctantly, I returned to the subject of Osgood Bindler. Lucia repeated that upon discovering him on the floor, she’d become ill. Normally, she had a strong stomach and was not squeamish. A few years before, she’d glimpsed two dead bodies at the scene of a bus accident in Cuba, her native land, and she’d had no such reaction. But that night at “the hotel,” the urge to retch had struck unexpectedly, overwhelming her in a matter of seconds. Most unusual. Still, thinking quickly, she’d managed to direct her vomit into the bathtub and away from the corpse. I risked a congratulatory pat on her knee. Fortune favors the bold. She, in turn, purred at me, nearly causing me to lose my train of thought.

         But I found the thread. What had she been doing when Osgood disappeared into the bathroom?

         Averting her eyes demurely, as if modesty compelled her to blush at the memory of her naughtiness, she told me she’d been dancing an eight-legged mambo of sorts on the floor with Tad, his wife, and a tall, quiet insurance man whose name she couldn’t recall. Must have been Arthur Whittle, I thought. He fit the description. Conjuring the image of Lucia in flagrante delicto, I felt a shiver crawl up my back, winding its way over kidneys and ribs, before climaxing in a ticklish shudder in the trapezius muscles of my shoulders. By God, I was going to have that woman or die an unhappy wretch.

         I drew out my questioning until I could no longer justify keeping the others waiting. After all, were her measurements, birthday, or telephone number in any way germane to my inquiry? Of course not. But I weaseled the information out of her just the same. For the record, the answers were 34-22-33, November 3—a Scorpio—I should have guessed—and there was no phone. She was only visiting Los Angeles, hoping to land a movie role. Her companion for the evening, Philippe Gaspard d’Ossonville of Guadeloupe, had wangled an invitation to the Swan Lake party for himself and Lucia. She described him as her “impresario.” He’d made vague references to a producer who might be attending the soirée. Lucia, for her part, needed no convincing. She was game.

         D’Ossonville was a descendant of one of the founders of the French colony, she claimed, though I had my doubts. He was handsome, I’ll grant, with wavy brown hair and a deep suntan. But, to me, he looked more like one of those professional dancers in an English seaside hotel than an aristocrat. When I remarked he must be quite rich, she frowned. Not so much, it turned out. He liked gambling, but as is often the case, he wasn’t very good at it. He hoped Lucia’s nascent film career might help him square some debts he’d run up in recent months.

         Over the next hour, I interviewed the remaining swappers one by one. There was Tad, of course, and his wife, Virginia, a pleasant enough gal when sober. Quite accommodating, in fact. So much so that Tad had got her in a family way his junior year at Amherst. She was a Wellesley girl, and they married in haste before the rabbit had even been buried. Neither claimed to have noticed anything unusual around the time of Osgood’s strangulation, as they’d been rolling around on the floor with the keeper of my heart—Lucia—and Arthur Whittle, the tall, quiet insurance man. They were surely telling the truth. Who could possibly look away from the matchless beauty of Lucia in extasi? No, they would never have noticed what Osgood was up to, even if he’d been humping Trixie and Peg just to their right. I thanked them for their cooperation, showed them to the door, and called for the Air Force couple.

         Freddie Wallace, the husband, “liked to watch.” Pervert. Though who could blame him? He said he’d been absorbed in the performance Lucia, Tad, Virginia, and Whittle were offering, and never even noticed when Osgood headed to the bathroom.

         He explained Osgood had been his trainer years before at Enid Air Base in Oklahoma. They’d become good chums, and their wives had hit it off as well. Together, they’d recruited other couples on the base to join in their swapping games, and, after Freddie was transferred to Edwards, they reconnected.

         Peg Wallace remained quiet, sipping her drink, as her husband recounted the history of their acquaintance with Osgood Bindler. When I turned to get her version of events, I noticed she was positively green. I asked if she was feeling ill, but she never had the chance to answer me. Instead, she bolted from her seat next to Freddie, charged to the bathroom—where Osgood still lay on the floor—and commenced to heaving lustily into the toilet. Her husband followed and attended to her.

         Several minutes later, they returned to their seats before me. Ever the solicitous host, I offered her the glass she’d been drinking from, but she turned it down. Freddie sniffed the liquid and remarked to Peg that she didn’t usually drink rum. She explained that she’d worked up a thirst while cavorting with Osgood and Trixie, and had mistakenly picked up a cocktail someone had abandoned nearby. Reasoning that she’d shared with the attendees humors far more intimate than rum, she’d shrugged and adopted the glass for her own.

         Next on the rack came Arthur Whittle (see above) and his wife, Trixie. She was the gal who, alongside Peg, had rubbed herself raw on Osgood just before he padded off to the bathroom. The couple answered as I’d expected. Having finished the deed, Trixie had lain on the carpet, staring at the ceiling, as she labored to catch her breath. She’d seen nothing. Arthur said his attention had been focused on the task at hand, viz. the glorious pulchritude of my Lucia. (Yes, I was thinking of her as mine by then. She had me, after all. Why shouldn’t I lay claim to her?)

         That left me with one last person to interview: d’Ossonville. It hadn’t escaped my notice that he was the one wallflower, besides Muriel, who’d abstained from the activities in the moments before Osgood Bindler went to his doom. That fact, in and of itself, didn’t make him a suspect in my mind. But my growing hostility toward the man who stood between me and Lucia gave me reason to wish him guilty. If I could prove he’d strangled Osgood and hand him over to the police, the path to the woman who held my heart in her hand would open wide to me.

         Dressed in a silk robe, he sauntered into the room like a boxing champ and took a seat opposite me. Affecting bemusement, he wondered aloud by what authority I was questioning him. Or the others, for that matter. I brushed aside his attempt to dictate the direction of our meeting by informing him in French that he had the right to garder le silence, though I could not recommend such a strategy. I knew that phrase well, having myself run slightly afoul of the law—a charge of public indecency in the Bois de Boulogne—during my time in Paris. My warning had no teeth, of course, but perhaps the surprise of my impeccable French convinced him to play ball.

         When pressed to account for his whereabouts at the time of Osgood’s death, he was unable to claim he’d been busy with any of the potential partners in attendance. I shook my head ruefully to indicate how unfortunate that was for him. He was the only person present in the suite without a firm alibi. He began to sweat, a development I savored, and wiped his brow. As he did, I noticed the scratches on the back of his right hand, and he noticed my noticing. With feigned nonchalance, he offered that he’d tried to pet a stray cat that morning and got the wound as thanks for his kindness. I grunted and pretended to write something in my pad.

         I asked him how he had come to be invited to the New Year’s Eve party, and he sighed with what looked like relief. This was a question he could answer without incriminating himself. He’d befriended Osgood several months before in a casino in Havana, and the two had remained in touch. I regarded him down my long nose and waited for more. When nothing was forthcoming, I rattled him by inquiring if he owed money to Osgood. D’Ossonville nodded sheepishly but provided no sum.

         His alibi for the time of the murder matched the others’. He’d seen nothing unusual and insisted he hadn’t strangled Osgood. I made a note of his story, then told him we’d be summoning the police now. He nearly choked. Did that mean I’d decided who’d killed Osgood Bindler?

         Tad phoned the reception desk and broke the news that one of his guests was no more. “The hotel,” in turn, alerted the authorities, and everyone in the suite took advantage of the time remaining to clean themselves up and dress in their street clothes.

         I wanted one last look at Osgood Bindler, a man I knew well from past engagements. He was lying there under a sheet we’d appropriated from one of the beds. Poor fellow didn’t even rate a fresh shroud, as the bedding had been used, soiled, and wrinkled by his fellow revelers. Upon consideration, I supposed he would have wanted it that way.

         I stared down at him and wished him a peaceful eternity. My gaze came to rest on his paisley ascot, and I chuckled sadly. Such a dandy. It wouldn’t do for him to go with his neckwear askew, so I knelt and straightened it to show him to his best advantage. Satisfied he was ready for the police photographer, I rose to my feet. And that’s when I became aware of something sticking to my hand. It was a false eyelash.

         By the time the police showed up, d’Ossonville had vanished. No one had seen him go, but he was on the lam. The detective in charge, Sergeant Paulson, was furious that one of the attendees had run off. I tried to calm him with assurances I’d spoken to the AWOL witness. While giving him the information d’Ossonville had shared with me, I may have repeated a couple of times that he’d had scratches on his hand—perhaps evidence of a struggle—and owed money to the victim. Lucia volunteered the address of the hotel where d’Ossonville was staying, though Paulson figured the suspect was probably already on his way to Mexico. After taking statements from “the bunch of perverts,” he said we could all go home, but with a warning not to leave town. The police issued an A.P.B. for d’Ossonville.

         That left me with the lovely Lucia in my care. She had nowhere to go besides d’Ossonville’s hotel room. And she was too spooked to return there in case he showed up. He was a murderer, after all. I told her she was welcome to stay as long as she liked in my love nest in the Hollywood Hills. She cooed like a dove and took my arm.

         Dawn was approaching as we roared east on Sunset Boulevard. I glanced at the vision sitting to my right and asked if she realized how dangerously beautiful she was. That prompted a quizzical look. I realized I needed to start at the beginning. I explained that, despite unspoken etiquette, Muriel Bender had succumbed to simple bourgeois jealousy. In fact, I was convinced she’d sworn off swapping in recent months because she couldn’t bear the thought of loving anyone but Osgood. The phony knee injury was a ruse. He, of course, was free to share himself with others, but she? She was his prisoner.

         Lucia wanted to know what made me think that, and how her own dangerous beauty figured in the equation.

         I laid out my hunch. Muriel had been afraid Osgood might be so taken by the exquisite Lucia that he would abandon her, Muriel, again. This time for good. To prevent such an eventuality, she’d slipped some kind of emetic concoction into Lucia’s rum. She wanted to be sure there’d be no coupling between Osgood and Lucia. Peg Wallace ended up an unintended victim, as she’d found Lucia’s cocktail and downed the rest of it.

         Lucia agreed that my reasoning was quite clever, but she doubted Muriel had poisoned her. She was feeling perfectly fine now, ready to express her gratitude for my kindness, an intention she signaled by stroking my hand as it rested on the vibrating gearshift. Furthermore, how could Muriel possibly have known to come to “the hotel” prepared with—what—syrup of ipecac? And wasn’t that bitter? Lucia would have detected it.

         Gorgeous and smart. A cellist, too. Perhaps the vomiting had been coincidental. But the poisoning fit my larger theory of events. That Muriel had taken advantage of everyone’s distraction to slip into the bathroom and strangle her husband, just as if wringing a towel, as he prepared to step into the shower. To prevent him from leaving her again. To free herself from her prison. For she could never love anyone else, and she could no longer bear to see him in the arms of another.

         Yes, I am despicable. To serve my own ends, I let an innocent man take the blame for Osgood’s murder. In fairness, however, the police believed he made it to Mexico and was never apprehended. And I allowed a guilty woman, Muriel, to go free, because I wore the same shackles as she. I, too, was a prisoner of love. But, in my case, I was happy to wear my bonds.

         Lucia never left my home in the Hills. Thanks to a blessing I surely didn’t deserve or understand, she fell in love with me. Perhaps it was my money, my house, and my Hollywood connections, but I’m a romantic at heart and would rather think we were made for each other. We married a month later. No, I don’t mind sharing her for an hour or two from time to time with other playmates. It’s a pleasant diversion we both enjoy, safe in the knowledge that we belong to each other. Perhaps me more to her than she to me. I won’t quibble.

         But that morning, as the new year dawned over Los Angeles, I poured Lucia a glass of brandy and lit a fire in the hearth. She was already naked on the divan, waiting for me. I called out that I’d be right there and, as I stoked the blaze, dropped a single false eyelash into the flame.


Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Playing it back

This week it’s blogger’s choice, so I’d like to revisit last week’s question:  Have there been recent novels which had you laughing, crying, clinging to the edge of your seat?

by Dietrich

Every once in a while there’s that perfect new book that comes along, characters with voices that resonate and stories that stay with me. 

These become books that I like to revisit from time to time, to hear those amazing voices once more.

Here are a few favorites I’ve reread and would like to recommend.

The Rum Diaries by Hunter S. Thompson is a novel that he wrote in the early 60s, but it wasn’t published until ’98. The story was influenced by the author’s own experiences in San Juan. Not a true account of events but a re-imagined work of fiction, based on the world around Thompson at that particular time. 

"I felt a tremendous distance between me and everything that was outside, and I knew I could never go back to the way I was.”

What’s interesting, as any Gonzo reader can tell, is how this early work starts to show Thompson’s trademark wit, mockery and righteousness. If you haven’t read it, put it on your list.

Another voice that I can’t ever get enough of belongs to J.D. Salinger. And although I’m a big fan of Catcher in the Rye, it’s Franny and Zooey that remains my favorite. The story, or rather, two short stories are deep, moving and powerful. Masterful dialogue in an irresistible book, and one I’ll keep revisiting.

"Everything everybody does is so — I don't know — not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless and —sad-making. And the worst part is, if you go bohemian or something crazy like that, you're conforming just as much only in a different way.”

The third one I’m including is Gunsights by Elmore Leonard, published in ’79, written decades after the popular westerns he wrote when he started out. This one’s about two Arizona legends on opposite sides of a land dispute the newspapers dubbed the Rincon Mountain War. It’s got all the sharp dialog and quirky characters typical of a Leonard novel. And certainly one worthy of that top shelf of favorites. 

“If you're going to spend your life standing on principle, you want to be sure everyone understands what the principle is.”

And I reread The Help by Kathryn Stockett, from 2009. The story takes place around the 60s civil rights movement and introduces a wonderful cast of well-drawn characters. The story deals with how blacks were treated in Jackson, Mississippi, as seen through the eyes of a group of black maids who dare to tell their side of things.

“I always thought insanity would be a dark, bitter feeling, but it is drenching and delicious if you really roll around in it.” 

The one I’m rereading now is Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. First published in ’57, a tale of the Beat Generation, the pursuit of freedom and the search for meaning. It’s a rhythmic prose that Kerouac described as his kick-writing style, pounding a typewriter for three weeks straight, fueled on pea soup and benzedrine, churning out the first draft of a tale of the rise of a new generation in search of its own American Dream. To me, his words are pure magic.

”I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn't know who I was—I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I'd never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn't know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds.”

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

How To Begin


Terry here, and this week we get to make up our own topic. So since I'm beginning my next Jessie Madison novel, I thought I would do a tiny tutorial for myself (and others who might be interested): 

How To Begin A Novel: 

 1) Think up characters. 


     a) The protagonist. If you’re writing a series, that makes it easier. But even if not, you have to decide who your character will be—someone like you? Someone totally unlike you? What will their traits be? 
     b) Minor characters—even if you are writing a series, you have to decide which recurring characters will be involved, and what new characters will come on the stage (see plot, below) Example: In every book there is someone from out of town—either who has moved to Jarrett Creek recently or who is just visiting. 
    c) Victim—who is going to “get it?” And why? It may seem crazy, but I’ve sometimes had a victim and didn’t exactly know who did the deed or why. It makes for some scrambling at the end. So you ought to at least give some thought as to why. Also, will there be more than one victim. Example: In my Samul Craddock, I knew that someone had been killed a long time ago, but it wasn’t until I realize there was a second victim, that the story started to make sense. 
    d) The killer—oddly, I don’t think you have to know this right off the bat. Sometimes the killer reveals himself or herself to the writer later. At least, they do to me. 
    e) Antagonist—someone determined to keep the protagonist from reaching his or her goal for figuring out what happened. And every type of book has a different kind of antagonist. In a cozy, the police might not want an amateur sleuth to figure out what happened. In a thriller, the antagonist if often someone determined to carry out a deadly plot. 

 2) Think up a setting.

If you’re writing a series (sound familiar?) that makes it easier. BUT if you’re a small town you may not want every book to be exactly in that small town for fear of the dreaded “Cabot Cove Syndrome.” (see victim, below). So you may need to think of setting not quite in the same area. And if you aren’t writing a series, the world is a big place. Example: For the second in my Jessie Madison thriller series, I had to decide where Jessie would go next. I was enchanted by the name of the Calypso Deep, the deepest trench in the Mediterranean sea. But then I realized that it was too deep for diving. So I had to think of somewhere else.

The Aeolian Islands appealed to me. Volcanic islands off the coast of Sicily, where I’ve been before and which had just the right atmosphere. 
    a) Setting also includes time of year. So you have to decide when the book will be set. Is it going to be hot? Cold? Lovely weather? Raining? 
     b) And it also includes specific spots: a town? A city? The wilderness? The mountains? The sea! 

 3) Think up a plot. If you’re writing a series, this may be the hard part. You don’t want the same thing happening to the same people. And yet it can’t be too far-fetched, or your readers won’t go along with it. And if you aren’t writing a series, the plot can be anything! ANYTHING! The important thing is to think it through. You don’t have to outline exactly, but you do have to consider a few things:

     a) What type of book are you writing? If you’re writing a cozy, you probably don’t want a plot that involves the threat of world destruction. If you’re writing a thriller, best stay away from Miss Mary’s Knitting Circle. If you’re writing suspense, the plot has to be suspenseful (duh). If you’re writing a historical novel, there’s the whole question of research. Are you writing a humorous story? A serious exploration of murder’s consequences? Will there be a lot of action? Or is it mostly cerebral? 
     b) Does your plot involve something that interests you enough to sustain you through the months it will take to write the book? Are you willing to do the research involved? 
    c) Does the plot make sense? I learned over the years that it’s fine to “just start writing” when an idea pops into my head, but at some point it was essential to stop and take stock of whether the idea had “legs.” I had to ask myself if there was enough to it to keep the thread going.

 4) Do enough research to get you on the right (write) path. 

 Now the only thing left is to start writing. Butt in chair, computer open—NO! do not go to social media. Do not play any video games. Start putting words on paper. Simple, yes? Well…maybe not, but that’s another blog post.

Sunday, May 26, 2024

A New Mystery Anthology!

Let’s make this week's question Blogger’s choice, a veritable free-for-all.

Brenda here.

This is a timely question. I'm pleased to introduce a new anthology titled Larceny and Last Chances, due for release mid-June. 

The call for stories went out last year from Superior Shores Press with entries cut off at 80. From these, 21 stories were selected and an additional story is also included, penned by the editor Judy Penz Sheluk. I'm delighted to say that my story "The Pool" is in the anthology.

Advance reviews have been wonderful.

"Short, not-so-sweet, and some with a surprise twist, these stories will entertain both the casual and discerning reader alike ... Don’t miss out on these quick reads—they truly deliver!”— Frank Zafiro, Award-winning author of the River City series

“The stories in Larceny and Last Chances feature twists that will keep even seasoned readers guessing and characters you'll be hoping to meet again. A superb editor shepherding a stellar group of authors through fun, fast-paced narratives of nimble fingers and desperate chances—what’s not to love?”—Joseph S. Walker, Mystery Writers of America

Larceny and Last Chances is available for pre-order on Amazon. I personally enjoy reading short stories before bed or sitting on the back deck with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. They can be read in one sitting, which makes for a satisfying hour or two. I'll be savouring my copy this summer!

I'd be remiss not to note the passing of one of Canada's best short-story writers, Alice Munro. I read her Dance of the Happy Shades in university and remember being blown away. I plan to read more of her work this summer as I while away the long, hot days in the shade of my own veranda :-) Alice will always be celebrated as a true Canadian icon and a valued treasure. Her stories live on with every reading.


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Friday, May 24, 2024

Books That Kill, by Josh Stallings


Q: Have there been recent novels which had you laughing, crying, clinging to the edge of your seat?

A: That is a tall order, there are very few books I’ve read with that wide a swath of emotions. And seeing as Criminal Minds has the word Criminal in the title, it seems like the book's being crime fiction is implied. Also “recent” so the masters are out. Tall but not impossible.

First up is Charlie Huston’s CATCHPENNY. It is a quintessential LA novel. A young man follows his rock star dreams to LA. He has the looks and voice to make it, but the town being what it is chews him up, takes his love and leaves him broken and that is just the back story. When we meet Sidney Catchpenny he is a jaded sneak thief working for very dangerous people. It’s a crime novel. 

There is a missing 16 year-old girl who is needed to save human kind. It’s a thriller. 

And in his world magic is real. Sid can travel through mirrors, but pays highly every time he uses magic. It’s a fantasy novel or maybe urban-fantasy. 

It’s actually all of those things and more, and this points to the problem with rigid definitions in genre fiction. At its core it is about over coming the bleak world view that traumatic loss creates inside us.

“The whole internet is like a giant mirror. A swampy reflecting pool for the world. Viscous and unclean, mottled, distorting.” — Charlie Huston, CATCHPENNY.

It is about the power of hope to bring us together. For readers of Huston this may sound out of character, but trust me it’s not. It is a tough world that he never shies away from. His earlier works showed brilliantly how and why people could be broken, in CATCHPENNY he suggests a way we can heal. 

“I let myself imagine that it mattered, my voice. Vanity again. But also this. Imagine this. I let myself dream that my voice had a place in this that nothing else could have filled.” — Charlie Huston, CATCHPENNY.

For the last year I have been dipping in and out of an ever darkening depression. Reading CATCHPENNY something shifted. I saw a way to climb out. It is a brilliantly written thrill ride. The final chapters kept me reading all night. Charlie Huston has never been better.

"I absolutely loved it. Catchpenny is a brilliant book, full of heart and the language is pitch-perfect. If Elmore Leonard had ever written a fantasy novel, this would be it.” —Stephen King

Tana French’s, THE HUNTER is the follow up to THE SEARCHER. Cal Hooper, is back as the blown-in retired Chicago Detective living in a small village in the West of Ireland. French captures the claustrophobic feeling and real danger of living in a community where everybody knows your business and rumors spread fast and have real consequences. Trey Reddy, the half-feral teenager Cal is training in life and carpentry has her life torn up when her criminal father comes home spreading dreams of a gold rush coming to town. It all goes to hell and town folk look for whom to give to the Garda.

In Cal and his woman friend Lena, Tana French gives us a portrait of flawed but truly moral people whose behavior we can all aspire to. THE HUNTER is scary and funny and poignant. Tana French is a writer who just keeps getting better.

Gary Phillips’, ASH DARK AS NIGHT follows Harry Ingram in Los Angeles 1965 as he documents and tries to make sense of the Watts uprising or riot depending on your neighborhood and political bent. On one level it is a pitch perfect detective novel. A photo journalist hired to find a man who disappeared in mayhem is beaten down by dirty cops and cruel gagsters. Zooming back you see it is also a social novel, looking at what was happing in 1965 and how it affected communities of color. Watts is not seen as a monolith. Phillips shows a wide palette of people and opinions. True believing Communists, a bank robbing activist, conservative business owners, and free thinking artists. Phillips’ love for them all creates a world I want to hang out in. It is also a scary world where LAPD can grab and beat you with no fear of repercussions. It is factually right on, and that makes it even more frightening.

“For thirty years Phillips has been a must-read writer, and One-Shot Harry is probably his best ever—tense and suspenseful, of course, but also deep, resonant and intelligent. It's a story that needed to be told, and therefore a book that needs to be read.” —Lee Child

ASH AS DARK AS NIGHT is the second in the A Harry Ingram Mystery series and should be mandatory reading for lovers of crime fiction and everyone else. Gary Phillips paints a more truthful picture of LA in the 60’s than any history book I’ve read. 

Phillips does all this with his trademark humor, heart, and unrelenting action. You will find yourself laughing, crying, and clinging to the edge of your seat, I know I did.

“In the tradition of Dashiell Hammett . . . Makes us feel that the war he’s waging is for our own salvation.” —Walter Mosley

Here are a few others that I’ve read in the last year and continue to reverberate in my head.


PEDRO PARĀMO, by Juan Rulfo.

DEATH IN THE ANDES, by Mario Vargas Llosa.

What books tick all your boxes? How do you feel about genre and sub-genre definitions, helpful, hurtful, or ya don’t even think about them?


What I’m reading now, THE FITH SEASON, by N.K. Jemisin. 

On deck to read next, THE FLAMETHROWERS, by Rachel Kushner.