Laser-sharp memories

The death this week of Charles Townes brought me back to my grad school days. It doesn’t take much, since my time in a basement lab at Fordham was one of the richest periods in my life. Gotta love those Jesuits—a mental challenge a minute!

Townes and Schawlow were household names at the time, and breakthroughs in lasers were important to those of us involved in spectroscopy.

The one I used in the early 1960s was a 200-cm tube filled with a mixture of helium and neon, with highly polished mirrors to sustain the laser action. Every morning we had to clean the mirrors to coax the long glass tube into action.

We lived for a while with only the He-Ne and the ruby laser—I know exactly where I was when news came in 1964 that an argon laser had come on line!

It was the people as much as the technology that marked my time at Fordham. I remember them all, keep in touch with many, and miss those who are gone.

The Edgars®

Due to a special announcement, Wednesday is the new Thursday for this week.

Today, the Mystery Writers of America announced the nominees for the Edgar®

Award. Congratulations to all!

Here they are:

Mystery Writers of America is proud to announce, as we celebrate the 206th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe, the Nominees for the 2015 Edgar Allan Poe Awards, honoring the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction and television published or produced in 2014. The Edgar® Awards will be presented to the winners at our 69th Gala Banquet, Wednesday, April 29, 2015 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, New York City.


This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)
Wolf by Mo Hayder (Grove/Atlantic – Atlantic Monthly Press)
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King (Simon & Schuster – Scribner)
The Final Silence by Stuart Neville (Soho Press)
Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin (Hachette Book Group – Little, Brown)
Coptown by Karin Slaughter (Penguin Randomhouse – Ballantine Books)


Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman (W.W. Norton)
Invisible City by Julia Dahl (Minotaur Books)
The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens (Prometheus Books – Seventh Street Books)
Bad Country by C.B. McKenzie (Minotaur Books – A Thomas Dunne Book)
Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh (Crown Publishers)
Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver (Minotaur Books – A Thomas Dunne Book)


The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Albani (Penguin Randomhouse – Penguin Books)
Stay With Me by Alison Gaylin (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)
The Barkeep by William Lashner (Amazon Publishing – Thomas and Mercer)
The Day She Died by Catriona McPherson (Llewellyn Worldwide – Midnight Ink)
The Gone Dead Train by Lisa Turner (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)
World of Trouble by Ben H. Winters (Quirk Books)


Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America by Kevin Cook (W.W. Norton)
The Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art by Carl Hoffman (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)
The Other Side: A Memoir by Lacy M. Johnson (Tin House Books)
Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William Mann (HarperCollins Publishers – Harper)
The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, the Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation by Harold Schechter (Amazon Publishing – New Harvest)


The Figure of the Detective: A Literary History and Analysis by Charles Brownson (McFarland & Company)
James Ellroy: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction by Jim Mancall (McFarland & Company)
Kiss the Blood Off My Hands: Classic Film Noir by Robert Miklitsch (University of Illinois Press)
Judges & Justice & Lawyers & Law: Exploring the Legal Dimensions of Fiction and Film by Francis M. Nevins (Perfect Crime Books)
Poe-Land: The Hallowed Haunts of Edgar Allan Poe by J.W. Ocker (W.W. Norton – Countryman Press)


“The Snow Angel” – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine by Doug Allyn (Dell Magazines)
“200 Feet” – Strand Magazine by John Floyd (The Strand)
“What Do You Do?” – Rogues by Gillian Flynn (Penguin Randomhouse Publishing – Ballantine Books)
“Red Eye” – Faceoff by Dennis Lehane vs. Michael Connelly (Simon & Schuster)
“Teddy” – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine by Brian Tobin (Dell Magazines)


Absolutely Truly by Heather Vogel Frederick (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)
Space Case by Stuart Gibbs (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)
Greenglass House by Kate Milford (Clarion Books – Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers)
Nick and Tesla’s Super-Cyborg Gadget Glove by “Science Bob” Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith  (Quirk Books)
Saving Kabul Corner by N.H. Senzai (Simon & Schuster – Paula Wiseman Books)
Eddie Red, Undercover: Mystery on Museum Mile by Marcia Wells (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers)


The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
Nearly Gone by Elle Cosimano (Penguin Young Readers Group – Kathy Dawson Books)
Fake ID by Lamar Giles (HarperCollins Children’s Books – Amistad)
The Art of Secrets by James Klise (Algonquin Young Readers)
The Prince of Venice Beach by Blake Nelson (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)


“The Empty Hearse” – Sherlock, Teleplay by Mark Gatiss (Hartswood Films/Masterpiece)
“Unfinished Business” – Blue Bloods, Teleplay by Siobhan Byrne O’Connor (CBS)
“Episode 1” – Happy Valley, Teleplay by Sally Wainwright (Netflix)
“Dream Baby Dream” – The Killing, Teleplay by Sean Whitesell (Netflix)
“Episode 6” – The Game, Teleplay by Toby Whithouse (BBC America)


“Getaway Girl” – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine By Zoë Z. Dean (Dell Magazines)


Lois Duncan
James Ellroy


Ruth & Jon Jordan, Crimespree Magazine
Kathryn Kennison, Magna Cum Murder



I have a new favorite bookmark:

I used to think I was cheating when I used movies and television shows to illustrate topics in my writing classes. Not any more. I’ve come to accept that I need all the help I can get for teaching and studying story structure in particular.

For analysis, nothing compares to a story presented visually. The stories are short (about two hours, in one sitting, instead of the many hours, spread over days, that it takes to read a book); plot points are often emphasized by music and crafty camera work; characters change visibly, before our eyes, not needing a thousand words. We may miss the leisurely enjoyment of language, but we feel the immediacy, being hit over the head with structure.

A movie I didn’t particularly like brought me my latest thrill in its use of a device to circle back, from the end to the beginning. The movie was THEORY OF EVERYTHING, with an amazing performance by Redmayne, but somehow the writers et al. missed the fact that Stephen Hawking is a physicist. I guess they thought that wasn’t an important enough part of his life and gave it only a “by the way” in the movie.

But here’s the good moment. It’s not a spoiler in the usual sense, but it does give away this wonderful device. The details may be off since I saw it some time ago, but the idea is in tact.


Toward the beginning of the movie, when Hawking is not yet bowled over by his disease, a woman in a classroom drops a pen. Hawking bends over, picks it up, and hands it to her. No big deal.

Toward the end of the movie (he’s now famous, though you’d never guess why from the movie), a woman in a large audience drops a pen as she asks a big question, like what’s it all about, Stevie?

The camera goes to Hawking, who (with appropriate background music) straightens up in his wheelchair, stands, walks down the steps of the stage to where the pen is, picks up the pen, and hands it to the woman. He walks up the steps and returns to his chair to answer the question.

A great little package; an outstanding device, in a movie or in a novel.


Sometimes we call them “repurposed” — the fact is, it’s a rerun.

I ended the old year and started the new with a medical setback, so I’m calling in my chips and RePosting a LadyKiller blog from last year/aka last week. Forgive me if you’re bored.

I’m a glass-half-empty-and-it’s-draining-fast kind of girl, so I can’t speak to making lemonade out of lemons. BUT I can tell you how one of my hobbies turns trash into art.

In the world of miniatures, there’s a spectrum of artists. On one end is Frances Lee, famous for her recreations of crime scenes, which she used to instruct police officers on procedure. Pick up The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death for a fascinating collection of her scenes, made from scratch, down to knitting tiny stockings for a clothes line.

On the other end is, well, me. My particular style of kludging scenes together is called “Found Objects” – taking the cap of a toothpaste tube and turning it into a lampshade, or using a toothpick for a log in a fireplace. Here’s a sample. The scene is a café, set up on a bookcase shelf. The white tables are  the inserts from PIZZA boxes to keep the cover from the food; the chairs are wire and soda bottle caps; the cases for pastry are small plastic boxes sold as organizers.

Bistro in Museum cafe

Each of my Miniature Mysteries (by Margaret Grace) contain tips at the end for found objects. Here are a couple of lemon-to-lemonade samples for your dollhouse or mini scene:

1) The lemon:  small springs found in a used up ballpoint pen.

The lemonade: Attach one to a screen door for a realistic look or place it on the floor of a child’s room as a “slinky.”

2) The lemon: a worn-out woolen winter glove.

The lemonade: a knit cap, made by cutting the tip from a finger of the glove.   Turn up the brim and toss on the floor!

You get the point!

If you think this is cheating, remember the wisdom of Carl Sagan:

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.

See? Why bother?

My first post of the new year  — I don’t know why I’m always amazed that new years, like new months, are usually the same as the old years, the old months, unless you actually do something about it.

I keep hoping that there’s some magic about that turning point at midnight, when it becomes 2015 or Thanksgiving or my birthday. There should at least be some help from the universe on those days, an extra push, so that, when you make a resolution, you get some free momentum. I’m not asking for another Big Bang, just a kick-start. Aren’t those trending now?

Instead, it turns out, it’s all up to me to make any changes in the new year.

Maybe my new calendars will help. I have three great new calendars: Mathematics, Ray Donovan, and New York, and a new geeky scarf.

What? It’s not looking good, you say?

Any secrets you can share?

A Piece of Peace

2014 was a year of jigsaw puzzles. The old-fashioned hard-copy kind brought together family and friends on many occasions. It’s almost impossible to overlook the metaphor for life. For our card this year we put together a 1000-piece puzzle of the scene at Rockefeller Center, taking a photo before and after. Then we undid it, and sent a piece with this card to everyone on our list. If you’d like a piece, email me with your address!

It might be too-John-Lennon a sentiment, but imagine if we could all get together with our pieces and put the world back together.

This year’s card from me (vague idea) and The Cable Guy (everything else to bring it to life).For God is not a God of confusion, but of Peace. 1 Corinthians 14:33

Wishing you all a happy holiday season.

Yo Ho Ho

There was one and only one fun thing about the holiday season in my house as a kid. It wasn’t Santa Claus (never heard of him/it until I was too old to believe in one). It wasn’t the decorated tree that I wasn’t allowed to touch, or the overall Italian version of Scrooge-mood that prevailed in the house.

Before I could take it in my own hands, the best thing about Christmas was my cousin, Yolanda.

She died a couple of years ago, and I’m left with wonderful memories of the cousin who made my Christmas merry.

Yolanda was an artist. Wow! Fifteen years older than me, Yolanda flew around the town with the flair of an independent young woman that I could only marvel at. I didn’t realize how unusual that was for a single woman in the fifties.

She worked in Boston, the big city, for Fredericks of Hollywood, arranging their window displays. She’d also do sketches of models wearing clothes and furs from other stores, and a few days later we’d see them in the newspaper.

Could any job be more glamorous?

This was her Christmas present to us every year: at some undetermined hour during the first two weeks in December, Yolanda would visit the homes of all her aunts, uncles, and cousins. We never knew when she’d come, but we’d each wake up one morning during that time to find our storm doors painted in holiday décor. Snowflakes, silver ornaments, red and green bells, golden candles, candy canes, wreaths and stockings—all had been carefully drawn all over the panes of glass.

We knew Yo had been there!

We figured she came in the middle of the night, but, after all, we were in bed by 8, so she might have come at 8:10!

I have many more memories of Yolanda. Her belly-laugh-funny quirk of putting things back into the boxes they came in after each use. Soap, for example! Toothpaste! Glue!

Yolanda married in her thirties (late for those days) and outlived her husband, a Boy Scouts of America exec, working well into her eighties.

That she was able to support herself as an artist was in itself a feat.

She had many accomplishments, like being the artist of record in towns in New York and Florida. This article appeared in the Finger Lakes Times when her work was put on permanent display in the Geneva, New York, City Hall.

But what I cherish most is that Yolanda gave me the gift of Christmas. I knew that she loved me enough to share her art and her delightful laugh at a time when laughs were hard to come by.

Many people will miss the artist Yolanda Fiorentino Schofield; I miss Yo.

Ho Ho Hole

December 11—time to drag out the old physics-of-Christmas stories.

My favorite explains how it’s impossible for Santa to get his job done:

There are about 2 billion children in the world and even at one toy each, we have something like 400,000 tons traveling at 650 miles per second to get around world in one night.

A simple calculation shows that Santa has 1/1000th of a second to pull up on a roof, park his sleigh, hop out, climb down the chimney, figure out who’s naughty and nice, distribute the presents, eat a snack, and say Ho, Ho, Ho, all without waking the household. Then he goes back up the chimney, gets back into the sleigh, dusts off his suit, and moves on to the next house.

Even though there’s not a lot of sleigh traffic up there, it’s not a feasible trip. Not just exhausting, but physically impossible.

But wait!

The naysayers are way behind the times. Have they never heard of worm holes? Wormholes are features of space-time that allow a shortcut through the universe.

Imagine you’re standing in a long line at the post office. You’re at one end of the room and the clerk is at the other. Now imagine a piece of paper with a stick figure representing you at one corner, and a figure at the diagonally opposite corner to represent the clerk. Fold the paper so that your stick figure is on top of the clerk’s.

See? You’ve just taken a shortcut to the head of the line.

In another version of worm hole demonstration, dots are placed at opposite corners of a piece of paper, the paper is folded, having the dots touch, and the same effect is seen.

That’s what Santa does. With a little math and a dash of relativity theory we can show that, in fact, with every stop, Santa can come out of the chimney before he gets in!

No problem making all those stops.

So, yes, Virginia, relatively speaking, Santa can do it!

Now if only I could find the right wormhole to get me through Bay Area freeways.

A Theory of Movies

For a variety of reasons, I don’t review books. The biggest is that I might run into the author in a dark alley or at a conference.

But I have no such restriction on movie reviews. Hence my review of A THEORY OF EVERYTHING. In a nutshell:

1. Amazing performances by all the principals. In case you’re wondering if Emily Watson is old enough to be the mother of Felicity Jones—she is, barely, older by 16 years.

2. Great cinematography, if that’s the word for beautiful views of Cambridge.

So far so good, but WHERE’S THE BEEF? SCIENCE?

I know the movie is being billed as the story of the relationship between Stephen Hawking and his first wife, Jane, but couldn’t there be SOME science? Maybe 10 minutes worth instead of the 4 we were treated to? One potato-and-pea analogy does not science make.

I can’t help thinking that if we were watching the story of a “brilliant” athlete, we’d be treated to scene after scene of tackles, hoops, swings, twirls, and goals.

Maybe quantum mechanics doesn’t lend itself to such action shots, but how about head shots for a change? Maybe someone can figure out how to show multicolored brain activity while explaining worm holes and general relativity?

I’m going to try THE IMITATION GAME next. It’s billed as English mathematician and logician, Alan Turing, helps crack the Enigma code during World War II.

Let’s see how much mathematics and logic have been allowed to seep in.


Thanksgiving, c. 1951

Wishing all who read this and celebrate Thanksgiving a very happy day.