Travel Warnings

Who doesn’t have travel stories?

Sleeping on the linoleum at Chicago’s O’Hare in the middle of a blizzard ✓; being stuck on the hotel corridor where a wedding party occupies all the other rooms and you have an 8 am presentation ✓; inspecting a nuclear power plant in a town where “good restaurant” means a choice of vending machines in the lobby of the motel, the kind of establishment where you sleep with your clothes on and your purse under your pillow ✓.

Luggage lost ✓, luggage stolen ✓.

Until my latest (April, 2015) Miniature Mystery, Manhattan in Miniature, I’ve never given any of my characters a bad travel experience. Maybe because I think every reader would be able to say: I’ve been there, and I can top that.

In fact my characters have hardly traveled at all.

It took four books to get Gloria Lamerino of the Periodic Table series out of Revere, Massachusetts. In seven books, Geraldine Porter of the Miniature Mysteries never leaves fictional Lincoln Point, California. Sophie Knowles of the Professor Sophie Knowles mysteries stayed put in the Boston area through four books, except for a jaunt to New Hampshire, which hardly counts as travel.

In Manhattan in Miniature, Gerry finally returns to her roots in New York City. Here’s a taste of one of her less pleasant moments.

*****

I still felt a little jet-lagged and tired enough to grab a few minutes of sleep. If a cab could be a phone booth, why not a bed? We were traveling slowly enough in midtown rush hour traffic. I scrunched down a bit, got comfortable, head back, legs stretched out as far as possible, volume turned to zero on the video display in front of me, then . . .

Crunch!

A flat tire? In the middle of the crowded Lexington Avenue? From the quick stop and words from the cabbie, words that were directed to an SUV driver and not fit for Maddie’s journal, I guessed No, not a flat, but a fender bender. At a rate lower than the speedometer could register, I’d hardly felt the jolt, which was less violent than what I remembered from operating the bumper cars on the boardwalk at Coney Island.

“You okay back there?” my driver asked, opening the door to exit and examine the damage. He sounded more like a man who hoped to avoid the inconvenience of an injured passenger than one who was concerned for my wellbeing.

“I’m fine,” I said, as he slammed the door. A light changed somewhere and traffic started to flow, but without us.

*****

I’ll leave it you to read about dealing with a killer, the other unpleasant moments.

I Spy

I love a good spy story, from John Le Carre’s classic “Smiley” books to my latest read, Joseph Kanon’s Leaving Berlin. One of my favorite current tv shows is “The Americans,” a story of embedded Russian spies during the Cold War.

Not even the scariest “Dexter” episode gets me on edge as much as a good “drop” scene. Will the spy be caught by a slip of the tongue? Because his wig falls off? Because her FBI-agent neighbor inadvertently catches her radioing her handler? No Internet hacking story is as thrilling.

Every scene in a spy book or a movie or tv show has the potential for a disastrous outing.

Old-fashioned as it is, here’s a list of “Moscow Rules,” said to have been developed by the CIA for spies working in Moscow during the Cold War. The list varies, but here’s a version I like. Tell me if this doesn’t apply to all areas of life and love!

  1. Assume nothing.
  2. Never go against your gut.
  3. Everyone is potentially under opposition control.
  4. Don’t look back; you’re never completely alone.
  5. Blend in.
  6. Vary your pattern and stay within your cover.
  7. Lull them into a sense of complacency.
  8. Don’t harass the opposition.
  9. Pick the time and place for action.
  10. Keep your options open.

So, would you make a good spy?

Little Things

Last Saturday I visited Shellie’s Miniature Mania in San Carlos, CA – my favorite store! She’s always willing to let me drag along my newest Miniature Mystery and join whatever other fun is happening—this time her annual Easter Egg Hunt.  (Shellie is so anxious to please her customers that if they don’t find an egg within a minute or two, she directs them to the nearest one.)

Here are a few of the treasures I picked up:

GOT MILK?

Is this the smallest “quart” you’ve ever seen? I think so!

LUNCH!

Peanut butter & jelly, or Chinese takeout? As long as you’re not too hungry.

Next time you’re in the area, check out Shellie’s!

Spring. Who needs it?

Someone who knows me well sent me a card with this greeting, attributed to Dorothy Parker:

Every year, back Spring comes,

with the nasty little birds

yapping their fool heads off.

It’s here. I send you my condolences. Put away those lovely woolen scarves, your handsome jackets, and all your closed-toe shoes.

You’ll have to adjust to the shops’ single-minded pastels (as if an adult can be taken seriously wearing canary yellow or shades of peach).

Dust off the fan blades and get out the tissues; it’s allergy time.

Pi day has passed, along with Einstein’s birthday. Is there anything to look forward to?

Possibly:

Report from Crimelandia

I’m back from Left Coast Crime in Portland Oregon last weekend.

THE GOOD:

Gigi Pandian accepting award from Gar Anthony Haywood

• Congratulating Gigi Pandian for her Rose Award — for the best mystery novel set in the LCC region.

Gigi also has the best photo collection here.

A SAMPLE:

MYSTI and DALE BERRY at LCC

Plus:

Panel: It’s A Living: Odd Jobs & Strange Professions, with 
Linda Joffe Hull (excellent moderator), 
Diane Vallere, Tammy Kaehler, and 
Robert S. Napier.

• Reuniting with friends and colleagues.

• The comfort of overcast days, so easy on the eyes.

• Made in Oregon shops with many chocolate choices.

The Bad:

• Hotel dining, with only one choice for dinner: the bar!

A THROWBACK:

The Real Me, c. 1980

I couldn’t help recall the last time I was in Portland – as part of my job inspecting nuclear power plant control rooms for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Here I am at TROJAN in the late 20th century, as the digital natives call it.

Lucky number 20?

Early copies of MANHATTAN IN MINIATURE

It’s always exciting when a new book comes out. MANHATTAN IN MINIATURE is my 20th traditionally published mystery. Was the arrival of this book on my doorstep as exciting as when THE HYDROGEN MURDER arrived 18 years ago? Hard to say.

I don’t dance around the room with it and prop it up at the foot of my bed as with #1. I’m a little more blasé

However, in a way, I like this 20th book better. At least I hope it is; I’ve learned a great deal with each book, so this one should be 20 times better than the first, right?

MANHATTAN IN MINIATURE will get a lot more of my attention than the first book. Back then, there was no Facebook. There was no way to e-promote; there were no blogs.

I did something I haven’t done before in MANHATTAN – I pulled a character out of another series and included him in this one. THE OXYGEN MURDER, also set in Manhattan, introduced an NYPD cop whom Gloria Lamerino and Detective Matt Gennaro help solve a case. He’s Buzz Arnold, who’s never without a Yogi Berra quote. I’ve brought him back in this new book—an inside joke, if you will.

Meanwhile, I’m working on the 9th miniature mystery, MATRIMONY IN MINIATURE. You guessed it: Gerry Porter and Henry Baker are ready to call it a marriage.

SPECIAL OFFER

Comment here by March 16 to enter a drawing for an advance copy of MANHATTAN IN MINIATURE. I’ll announce the winner on St. Patrick’s Day.

Women’s History Month

MARCH – Women’s History Month.

I have mixed feelings about women’s anything, unless it’s the feminine care aisle in the supermarket or the OB/GYN specialist.

I remember being in Washington DC during the opening of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the self-proclaimed “gender specific” museum. I saw a wonderful exhibit of the works of French sculptor, Camille Claudel, as well as works by Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot.

Who thought we needed to build a special museum for the work of these and other female artists? Didn’t they deserve to be shown at the National Gallery of Art, only 20 minutes away by foot.

I almost regretted buying a ticket, seeing it as supporting continuing sexism in art and culture.

Yes, this is another of my rants against separating women’s achievements, singling them out, as if they can’t compete in the real, co-ed world.

Years ago, I was part of a program I’ll call XYZ, to give girls an extra push by having a day of science, for girls only, taught by female scientists. Sounds good, right?

Wrong.

First, there was the giggle factor—boys, young and old, giggling over the fact that girls had to be taken aside and given special attention to learn science. They obviously weren’t good enough to be taught science with the boys.

The guys were right—that’s exactly how it looked.

That should have been enough to kill the program, but it didn’t. I tried several times to change the course of the program, simply by inviting boys to the classes. Let the boys experience female science teachers, too (see above for why that’s important!) I continued to volunteer in the program, constantly petitioning for a change of philosophy and was shot down each time, until I finally quit. I realized that sexism was still rampant, and the powers that be would always consider that girls need special TLC to learn the hard stuff.

The program, started in the 1970’s, is alive and running, and still girls only. I know personally two of the Board members, and I know they “mean well.” But — When I ask, “Why is there still such a thing as the XYZ program?” the answer I get is “Because girls and women are still underrepresented in science and technology fields.”

If after 40 years of XYZ, that’s still true, here’s another possibility:

Girls and women are still underrepresented in science and technology fields because programs like XYZ exist, and encourage people to think girls can’t cut it in the normal learning environment. Because boys who are left out will still go on to be the CEOs and Research Directors and giggle as they look at women applicants and remember those special girls who got together to play scientist.

Driving Miss Royal

The Cable Guy finished updating my website last week. (THANKS, CABLE GUY!) It now loads equally well on the biggest and the smallest devices you own.

Browsing around the site while he was working on it, I came across a “poem” I wrote a long time ago, in my punny phase. Here it is:

Typewriter, mid-20th century. (It's hard to rhyme with Underwood.)

Driving Miss Royal

There once was a writer named Royal,
To her keys and her carriage so loyal.
She knew how to white-out,
Wrote poems with the light out,
She really was quite a smart goyal.

Our Royal could type like a racer;
No one in sight could out pace her.
She typed with great speed
And never did need
Even a tiny eraser.

But poor Royal was out making copies
When they came with the wires and the floppies.
A computer they brought her
And said that she oughta
Start learning or go and plant poppies.

So Royal met up with a cursor
And her life just got worser and worser.
In spite of her wiles
She lost all her files
And spoke in words terser and terser.

Our writer friend couldn’t believe
That software could novels retrieve.
Her disks she would whack
With alas and alack
And for her lost typewriter grieve.

For many ’tis ever so tiring
To figure out manuals and wiring.
But our Royal’s a leader,
A mystery reader,
In days she was back in there firing.

Now Royal performs any feat
With options, escape, and delete.
She does her off-loading
With no more foreboding
And menus for her are a treat.

And now for the rest of the news:
Royal is off on a cruise.
From her PC
She gets efficiency.
There’s gold in them there CPU’s!

©Camille Minichino 1989

How embarrassed should I be?

I Left My Heart Far From San Francisco

West Roxbury, MA c. 2000

Advice to authors: Right up there with “write what you know” is “write what you like.”

I beg to differ. The long version follows.

Throughout this season of winter storms, I’m often asked (by those who apparently don’t know me very well), “Aren’t you glad you’re not still back there?”  Meaning, I suppose, in Boston, where I was born or in New York City, where I went to school.

So, I’m answering the question as publicly as I can. No, I’m not glad I’m where it can hit 80 degrees in February.

I don’t like the Bay Area. There, I’ve said it. I don’t hate it. I just don’t like it.

But it’s much more interesting for me as an author to write the opposite. When I set The Oxygen Murder in my favorite city, New York, I made sure that my protagonist, Gloria Lamerino, hated it. It was fun to try to get inside the head of someone who was bored by Broadway and counted the minutes till her friend would let her leave the Met—more fun than using tour book phrases to describe the “spectacular shows” or the “breathtaking exhibits.”

In my next release (April 2015), I send Gerry Porter (the Miniature Mysteries) to New York. She can’t wait to get home I also try to give my protagonists markedly different temperaments from mine, and different interests.

Gerry, for example, loves the Bay Area. Although she’s an east coaster like me, she’s come to love California life; she gardens and she eats outdoors—not me; my record is clean on both. Gerry knows the names of the trees that line her street (I have to do research among my friends to write these passages). Gerry lives in an Eichler neighborhood like one not far from me in Castro Valley, and she loves her atrium. Wheresaas, an atrium is one of my top three things to rule out when I’m house shopping. Excuse me? Voluntarily buying dirt and bug potential for inside my house? I don’t think so. Atriums are up there with koi ponds and mold in the walls.

To enjoy the San Francisco Bay Area, you have to be basically an outdoors person. You have to love the sun, walk on trails, and, usually, have a pet or two. Again, my record is clean on all three. I lived on Lake Chabot Road for three years before I realized there actually was a Lake Chabot on the road. It’s pretty big, too, they tell me, and there’s a park, but—in my defense—most of its shore (do lakes have shores?) is blocked by trees of some kind.

Gerry never rails against her town of Lincoln Point, a fictitious city perilously close to Mountain View, California—whereas I’m constantly yammering about the state of museums in the Bay Area, compared to the Smithsonian, the Whitney, and the Frick, and wishing I were back at the Met, where I’m a member. San Francisco museums are all about the buildings and the grounds; New York museums are about the exhibits inside, and you don’t need to stand in line for a special ticket so you can spend 20 minutes in a tiny, crowded gallery to see 18 Monets. New York insurance buildings have more than that in their lobbies.

See what I mean about yammering?

A Valentine Story

Now and then, I try my hand at writing romance. Here’s an early attempt.

Plenty of Fish in the Creek

I drove through the rain until I reached the creek that flowed along the edge of the park. My head seemed ready to explode.

“The creep,” I shouted out loud, “dumping me on Valentine’s Day.”

While I tried to gain control of my breathing, a park ranger, draped in plastic, appeared in the darkness. He tapped his club on my windshield, the glow from his flashlight the only break in the smooth black night.

I wiped my teary face on my sweatshirt and cracked the window.

“Good evening,” we said simultaneously, except that I’d read his badge and added, “Officer Hardy,” hoping to flatter the old man into leaving me alone.

“Everything okay?” He squinted at me behind his dripping glasses.

“I’m fine. Just doing a little thinking.”

I wasn’t about to tell him the gory details of my break-up with Derek.

“Man trouble?” he asked, grinning as if he’d been named Therapist of the Year.

“Guess it shows,” I said, still on my flattery track.

“Well that’s no way to spend Valentine’s night,” my new best friend said. “But don’t worry, there’s plenty of fish in the creek.” He made a sweeping gesture, encompassing the noisy rush of water about ten yards away and down as many feet.

“I know I’m not supposed to be here,” I said, waving my hand in the direction of the “no trespassing” sign. “But I need a little time alone.” I put a slight, hopeful emphasis on “alone.”

“Well, the park’s closed, but there’s no hurry. In fact, if you’ll invite me in, I’ll share my supper.”

I felt a twinge of panic and looked around my car. I sniffed the air for embarrassing odors and did a quick inspection for bits of decaying organic matter. Nothing so unhealthy that I can’t entertain an old man for a few minutes, I decided.

“That would be nice, Officer Hardy,” I told him. I hoped I’d set the right tone—formal, so he wouldn’t get the wrong idea of his chances with the attractive young woman that I was (Derek’s rejection notwithstanding), yet friendly, to preclude a ticket for loitering. I wondered exactly what authority park rangers had, and whether there was a weapon beneath his opaque plastic wrap.

Officer Hardy went to his county-owned Jeep and returned with a bright red metal lunch box, mercifully lacking cartoon characters. I was happy to hear him credit his wife for the treats within. No one mentions his little woman one minute, and then hits on a girl the next, I reasoned.

Mabel Hardy, he told me, prepares a meal for him every night. It’s usually gone by now but, lucky for me, he was distracted this evening by a raccoon fight.

As we sat in my car and drank tract-home coffee, I told him as little as possible about my falling out with Derek. We split a sugar cookie in the shape of a heart with red sprinkles over the top, and I let him think I was grateful for his unparalleled wisdom.

“Buck up and by next Valentine’s Day, you’ll have someone special,” he said, moving crumbs from his raincoat to his lunch box.

Another stroke of luck for me, I thought, I don’t have to take care of anyone’s lunch box.

“Guy that dumps you doesn’t deserve to be walking around,” Officer Hardy said as he repacked his thermos.

“I’m glad you feel that way.”

“Got to go,” he said at last, putting his hat back over his thin white hair. “You lock these doors, and take your time pulling yourself together.”

Just what I wanted to hear.

I waited until the sound of Hardy’s Jeep died away. Although the rain had stopped, the sky was still a mass of the darkest gray, without a trace of moonlight. I switched on my flashlight and walked to the back of my car, sinking into the mud.

I opened the trunk and pulled out Derek’s body. His ugly khaki windbreaker got caught in my bumper and slowed me down, but I managed to free him.

I rolled Derek’s lifeless weight to the edge of the cliff and pushed him over the side. For a moment I stood there, wondering if the fish in the creek were aware of their new companion.

On my way out of the park, I passed Officer Hardy in his Jeep. We tapped on our horns and waved at each other as I drove away.

<> the end <>