Category : Books

A Special Architecture

A few weeks ago, I got a query from a blogger for the Eichler Network. (Yes, Eichler owners are networked.) He’d heard that the protagonist in my Miniature Mysteries, Gerry Porter, lived in an Eichler, and would I be willing to do an interview on how, why, etc. Eichler? Of course I would.

Briefly: When I planned the series based on a miniaturist who builds dollhouses, I thought she should have an architect for a husband, and she should live in a special kind of house. My good friend, author Margaret Hamilton, had just moved into an Eichler home a couple of miles from me. Perfect!

If you’ve never seen an Eichler, you’re in for a treat. The floor plan is built around this model, with variations, but the main feature is an atrium with plants of your choice and a skylight that can be rolled back to the open sky.

The phone interview with blogger David Weinstein resulted in this fun blog, complete with photos, where all questions are answered.

Travels with Camille

Revere Beach, where it all began

If scheduling works out, I’ll be in Bethesda, MD when you’re reading this. Maryland is on my short list of places I’m willing to travel to.

I’ve never been a traveler. I was nearly 40 years old when I first traveled west of the Hudson River. I’ve never wanted to go somewhere just to go there, or just to see something different. I’m one of those Yankees who believes everything anyone needs by way of art, science, and culture is on the Eastern seaboard, in the triumvirate of Boston-NYC-Washington DC. Maybe a little side trip to Philadelphia. That’s enough concentrated diversity, not to mention weather, to satisfy me.

But eventually work and other issues sent me traveling around the country.

And who doesn’t have this kind of travel story: sleeping on the linoleum at Chicago’s O’Hare in the middle of a blizzard; being stuck in the smoking section (years ago) as if there really is a difference between yes- and no- when you’re all in a cabin 30000+ feet up; inspecting a nuclear power plant in a town where “good restaurant” means a choice of vending machines in the lobby of a motel with a number in its name, the kind of establishment where you sleep with your clothes on and your purse under your pillow.

Luggage lost, luggage stolen. (Picture hand across brow here): I’ve seen it all.

I wonder why I’ve never given any of my characters a bad travel experience—except for one fender bender in New York City. 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—another one of the ways authors insert themselves into characters without being aware of it.

It took four books to get Gloria Lamerino of the Periodic Table series out of Revere, Massachusetts. It took eight books for Geraldine Porter of the Miniature Mysteries to leave fictional Lincoln Point, California. Sophie Knowles of the Professor Sophie Knowles mysteries stayed put in Massachusetts through all four books, as does Cassie Miller of the Postmistress series. (Jaunts to New Hampshire hardly count as travel.)

In theory, it would be very interesting to put a character in a different locale from their original setting. We’d get a chance to see what happens to her in a new environment, how she reacts to things she’s not used to: unfamiliar weather and culture, the idiosyncrasies of regional language.

Come to think of it, I’d love to see how the coastal Gloria would fare in Montana, how Geraldine would do in Nebraska, how Sophie would adapt to Texas, how Cassie might enjoy the US Postal Museum in Washington DC.

I’m talking myself into a whirlwind tour with my protagonists. What kind of luggage will they have, how will they dress?

It will work, as long as I don’t have to go with them.

World’s Biggest Typo

This is an old story, from the days of my first book, back in the ’90s, but you may not have heard it.

The Preamble

Twice a year, members of Sisters in Crime of Northern California host a “showcase” where we’re invited to read from our newly published work. One after the other, usually about 8 or 9 of us at any given event, stand behind the podium and read a selected passage. Maybe the first chapter, maybe a particularly funny or gripping section from the middle. We have 5 minutes.

Question: How many typos can you expect to find in an already printed book in 5 minutes?

Answer: I don’t know, and I certainly don’t want to find out.

To make sure that doesn’t happen, I never read from my latest release, or any book of mine that’s been published. I know I couldn’t stand it if I came across a typo and could do nothing about it. In fact, I never even open my books once they’re published. Call it Typophobia.

At the showcases, I read from a Work in Progress – that way if there’s a typo or an awkward phrase, I can fix it on the next draft.

The Incident

I guess it serves me right that one day at a signing, I came across the WBT—the World’s Biggest Typo in one of my books.

A woman bought a copy of “The Hydrogen Murder,” in hardback, from the bookseller and brought it to the table for me to sign. At least, on the outside, it looked like “The Hydrogen Murder.” The wrap-around paper cover was right, the flap copy and photo were correct.

I opened the book, ready to pen my name. But something was off. What was Simon & Schuster’s logo doing on the first page? Avalon was my publisher at the time.

I kept going, flipping pages, gasping as I went. The printer (or someone!) had put the entire text of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451″ between the covers of my book. I removed the paper cover and saw that the printing on the hardback spine was correct for “The Hydrogen Murder.” In the photo, you might be able to make out the flap copy (mine) on one side, and the title page (Bradbury’s) on the other.

I’m sorry to tell you that there is no resolution here—the bookseller had no idea where she’d gotten the book; no other book in her stock of Hydrogen Murders was like this one. I did, of course, keep the book, making sure the purchaser’s money was refunded. It remains in my inventory as one of a kind.

I’ve often wondered if the great Ray Bradbury ever opened one of his copies of “Fahrenheit 451″ and found “The Hydrogen Murder,” by Camille Minichino.

If so, it might not have fazed him—after all, he wrote sci fi.

Can you top that for a typo? I’m willing to relinquish my title to the WBT for a good story.

Success for Women

One last post during Women’s History Month.

Here’s a paperback from my shelves — this is one of those no-need-for-a-long-comment reviews.

Note the title of this series: AMY VANDERBILT SUCCESS PROGRAM FOR WOMEN (across the top), and the title of this volume, by Florence Brobeck: SERVING FOOD ATTRACTIVELY.

Inside there’s all you need to know about giving unforgettable parties—from the importance of garnishes to sections on shrimp, horseradish, lemons and limes. And, under C, caviar and celery. Recipes abound. I was tempted to try the one on spumoni until I saw that one ingredient is instant nonfat dry milk crystals. It did take the magic out of spumoni for me, and where would I even buy those crystals?

The book was published in 1966. I would have guessed 1956. I wonder if it’s still selling with a certain demographic.

Irritating Reads

What good is a rant if you can’t reuse it?

Here’s my latest, on The LadyKillers blog a couple of weeks ago.

One of my biggest pet peeves in crime fiction is HEAD-HOPPING. You know what I mean – the practice of switching point of view within a scene.

I spend a good deal of time discussing POV with my writing students, and invariably one will point out a best-selling author who does this willy nilly (at random, every which way, here and there, all over the place, in no apparent order).

After I ungrit my teeth, I try to explain. And I try to find good articles on the topic. Here are a couple of favorites.

http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/blog/2014/04/30/head-hopping-fiction-writing/

http://theeditorsblog.net/2011/09/10/head-hopping-gives-readers-whiplash/

https://ellenbrockediting.com/2013/11/26/the-difference-between-omniscient-pov-and-head-hopping/

Head-hopping is common and acceptable in the romance genre:

As Billy Bob and Sally Jo danced, he felt he was in heaven and she couldn’t wait for the last chord.

But in a romance, it’s the relationship that’s the main character, the romance matters more than either Billy Bob or Sally Jo.

Head-hopping in a mystery, however, is detrimental to the story. The best-selling author (I’ll call her P. L.) who invaded my class most recently at least plays “fair,” in that she gets into the head of every principal character except one—the killer’s, of course. So, after four or five head-hopping chapters, you can identify the killer.  He’s the one whose thoughts you’re not privy to. Booo.

Another best-selling author (I’ll call him S. J.) cheats! You get into the head of every character, including the killer, but while you’re in the killer’s head, he “acts” as innocent as all the others, wondering what the killer’s motive was, how the killer managed to escape, and so on.

Both the cheating and the non-cheating versions are IRRITATING. (Yes, I’m shouting.)

Now—your turn!

Does head-hopping bother you? What does?

Best of 2016

In case you missed this on the LadyKillers Blog. It’s the time for “Best Ofs”.

My favorite book of 2016 came to me by way of a swag bag shared by Ann Parker.
She knew I was mad about Malcolm Mackay’s trilogy THE SUDDEN ARRIVAL OF VIOLENCE, HOW A GUNMAN SAYS GOODBYE, AND THE NECESSARY DEATH OF LEWIS WINTER. If you love a good hit man story, as I do, these books are for you.

So I was ready for Mackay’s newest offering, THE NIGHT THE RICH MEN BURNED. Here’s how the Prologue opens:

He ended up unconscious and broken on the floor of a warehouse, penniless and alone. He was two weeks in hospital, unemployable thereafter, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that, for a few weeks beforehand, he had money. Not just a little money, but enough to show off with, and that was the impression that stuck.

I look for three things when rating a book: character, story, and writing. Mackay is a 10 on all counts. In the first lines (above) you know this character: You know what he values, and what he will do to get it. You have arrived in the middle of a story: the man is unconscious, penniless, and alone. And you have great writing: not a wasted word (also not a gerund or an -ly adverb!).

I’m in a few book clubs, one of which is a mystery reading group at a library. We begin each meeting by rating the book, from 10

I’m almost always amazed at ratings.
“I’d give this an 8 or a 9,” Edna might say.
“But the story was weak and there were 3 subplots that weren’t wrapped up.”
“Yeah, I agree,” Edna will say with a shrug. “But I liked the woman.”

or

“I’d give this story an 8 or a 9,” Ralph might say.
“But the writing was terrible. It could have been written by a third grader.”
“Yeah, I agree,” Ralph will say. “But the story was good.”

and so on.

Apparently, I’m the fussy one, demanding all three criteria are met. I’m curious about you and your rating policies. What does it take for you to give a book a 10? a 1?

My Best

Last week you saw my Worst — a limerick about a typewriter, or was it a typist? So, what was the best thing I’ve ever written?

If “best” equals “memorable,” then I have to admit I wrote my best scene in the last century. At conferences, I still meet people—readers, writers, even authors with far more star power than I’ll ever have—who tell me how compelling that scene was.

My guess is that it’s because The Scene was a thinly disguised true story.

The True Story

I was strolling through Walnut Square in Berkeley, California, a multilevel shopping structure. To access the restrooms, one had to start at street level and climb an outdoor flight of stairs to a mid-level, half-indoor, half-outdoor facility. Some time in mid-afternoon, I made my way up the steps, and entered the women’s area, on the left.

The short version of the rest of the story: I was flashed.

The long version became a scene in my next novel, THE BERYLLIUM  MURDER, detailing my panic, my response, my eventual escape.

The Scene

Here’s the scene in its entirety.

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It might have been Rita’s extra-fit body that inspired me—when I left her, I had a rare desire for physical exercise and decided to walk to Elaine’s. Invigorated by the weather of a typical Berkeley morning—still a bit of fog, cool, and breezy—I went at a good clip and approached Walnut Square just before ten o’clock. I looked up at the brown wood multi-level structure with about a dozen shops and restaurants, and realized it offered a painless way to pick up a few souvenirs for Matt and the Galiganis.

It also offered a restroom, which I would need if I weren’t going straight home. I remembered exactly where it was, up a flight of stairs on the Walnut Street side, behind one of the coffee shops.

I walked up the old wooden steps to the public facilities. Just as I’d left them, I noted—unheated, cracked cement floor, ill-fitting door to the outside—more like an outhouse, but adequate for the purpose.

Soon after I’d locked myself into the center of three empty stalls, I heard someone enter the area. The person walked to my door and stood there. I couldn’t tell from the heavy, black athletic shoes whether a male or female was facing me on the other side. I detected a faint, sweet scent that might have been perfume, but I couldn’t be sure the aroma hadn’t already been there, as part of the mix of smells in the room. What I did know was that he/she was not waiting for a stall since there was an empty one on either side of me.

I sat there, all bodily functions suspended, my heart pounding in my chest. The shoes didn’t move. I could hear no breathing but my own, louder than a vacuum pump.

It’s broad daylight, I told myself, and there are shops opening all around me. If this were an attacker, why wouldn’t he break through the flimsy lock on the door. Or shoot through it. Or throw a bomb over the top. Why just stand there?

I shuffled my feet on the floor and rattled the toilet paper holder, as if to tell my would-be assailant I was going about my business unaware of his presence. I knew I couldn’t yell loudly enough for a shopkeeper to hear me, and the street traffic was a whole story below me. I didn’t want to alert my stalker that I was aware of the threat with a useless scream. I swallowed hard and thought, but my head seemed empty except for the echo of my heartbeat.

I reached into my purse for a weapon of some kind, opting not to go down easily. I wished I’d been in the habit of taking care of my nails—at least I’d have a file in my purse if I did. The half-eaten roll of peppermints, the calculator, and the small flashlight I fingered on my way through the contents weren’t going to be much help.

At the bottom of the bag, I found my cell phone. I’d forgotten to leave it home in Revere. I knew it wouldn’t work after all the hours away from its charging base, but I had an idea how I could use it—if it had enough power to make sounds when I pushed on the numbers.

A fake call. Is that the best I can do? I thought. The unfortunate answer was yes. Who shall I pretend to call, then? 911? The attacker would know he had enough time to spare before a response team could get to me. Whoever it was still hadn’t moved, or cleared his or her throat, leaving me with no clues about gender. The sweet odor faded in and out as I sat there.

I made my decision. A fake call it would be. I abandoned the idea of “Rocky,” as too obvious for a strong man, and “Bill” or “Bob” as too wimpy. I chose Mike. I punched seven numbers at random, as if I were making an ordinary call within the area code. I was thrilled to hear the sound of the connection at each button. After a moment, I said, in as loud a voice as I could summon, “Mike. Come up the stairs. Into the ladies room. Quickly.”

The unisex shoes turned in the direction of the door, giving me hope for a moment. What followed, however, was a ghoulish jig, the bulky shoes stopping, turning back to me, then finally shuffling out the door, like a dancer uncertain of his steps. I breathed out and listened intently. No further sound. Had my bluff worked, in spite of the uncertainty I’d sensed at the end? Had the person left or was he or she waiting for Mike?

I could hardly believe my pitiful scheme was effective, but I knew it was my best chance to leave the stall. I tugged at my clothing, took a few breaths and went outside, rushing down the stairs to the sidewalk. I looked around and saw no one who looked like an attacker, and no one who could have passed for Mike.

What I did see on the ground at the bottom of the stairs was a ski mask. A navy blue ski mask, in Berkeley, in June. I glanced up and down the street, as if I’d be able to spot the owner and compare shoe sizes with those of my pseudo-stalker, but the only people in view were a noisy family of four alighting from a teal blue minivan.

I shivered and walked away.

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What about the next 20 books I’ve written? Apparently nothing stands out.

If you’ve read anything of mine that’s better than this, I’d really like to know.

Classic Thrills

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to include a short piece on classic crime stories in the MWA NorCal newsletter. Here it is, reproduced with my permission.

You always remember your firsts.

The first time words on a page brought me to tears was when Beth March died in “Little Women.” The first time words frightened me to death occurred when an arrogant, drunken Fortunato was lured into the vault in “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Imagine my thrill when I realized how much more excitement and suspense awaited me in the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

Next I read “The Tell-Tale Heart,” in which the dark guilt of a murderer is his undoing: I admit the deed! — tear up the planks! (Poe was not one to stint on exclamation points!) “The Pit and the Pendulum” gave me the most meticulous description of a torture chamber: Any death but that of the pit! And surely no character descriptions in literature can match those in “The Man of the Crowd,” the art of following a stranger who captures your fancy.

Still, “The Cask of Amontillado” remains my favorite: I plastered it up. Surely one of the most chilling lines in crime fiction.

A place to curl up with a good thriller

•  Care to share your reading “firsts?”

Gloria Speaks

Now and then, a character will speak out, sometimes willingly, other times under duress. This time, it’s the latter: the fictional Gloria Lamerino of the Periodic Table Mysteries is not wordy like her creator. Here she obliges the author who gave her life and tells us what that life is like.

From Gloria Lamerino

Ask me to put together a system to measure the spectral lines of hydrogen. I’ll be happy to oblige. I know where I can get the right laser and detection system.

But please don’t ask me to write an essay. Nothing makes me more nervous than that. I’m feeling that old classroom anxiety all over again. My college liberal arts teachers were always telling me my answers to questions were too short, not full enough, whatever that meant. In my major, mathematics, with a physics minor, an answer was an answer, no matter how few words or numbers it took.

But, to please my mentor, Camille Minichino, I’ve agreed to write about my life as a scientist and then, unexpectedly, as the partner of a homicide detective.

It all started when I decided to retire from my laboratory career in California and return home to Revere, Massachusetts. To ease the transition, Rose Galigani, my best friend from grade school, offered me an apartment above the funeral home she runs with her husband, Frank. It seemed like a good idea until I realized the challenge it would be to do my laundry—it so happens that the washer/dryer set shares the basement with the embalming room. I found a Laundromat downtown pretty quickly. I still had to master the trick of walking past their “clients” laid out in the first floor parlors, and the chemical smells that are only partially masked by elaborate floral arrangements.

Rose and I couldn’t be more close, or more different. I look more like the average woman from a chunky Italian-American family. Rose, with her auburn hair and petite figure looks like the Hollywood version. We even managed to stay close during my three decades in California, with frequent meetings on one coast or the other.

It was during one of those Christmas getaway weekends in Boston that I met Detective Matt Gennaro, a friend of the Galiganis, who is now my husband. Between then and now, we’ve had many adventures as I’ve been able to help him solve cases where science or scientists were involved.

There was the time one of my colleagues doing hydrogen research was murdered at his lab desk; and another when a congresswoman dealing with legislation on the United States helium reserves was the victim of a hit-and-run; and I recall helping solve the murder of a poor janitor working in a lithium battery facility; and then beryllium . . .  well, you get the picture. Selected covers are shown here.

As I’m writing this, I’m working on a case of magnesium poisoning at a spa, my 12th case with Police Department the Revere. Matt just briefed me on the crime scene and the victim, a maid of honor in a bridal party.

How does one go from a physics researcher to an amateur detective? You might be surprised to learn that the training is not that different. Not that I’m skilled with weapons or forensics, but a physicist has to be a problem solver, look for clues, and find the culprit when an experiment is going wrong—a stray electromagnetic pulse? An unexpected thermal gradient?

Not so different from sifting through theories of a homicide, looking both inside and outside the box to solve the problem and capture a killer.

Look at me! I’ve come up with more than 500 words, not as painful as I thought.

Maybe my next career will be essay writing.


Bloody Stories

A recent blog site topic invited us to compare American and British writers. Here is my response, reproduced.

Wouldn’t it be considered unpatriotic if I said I prefer British mysteries, as if I wished we had lost the Revolutionary War? From a native Bostonian yet, where it all began?

As I thought about the nationalities of writers I love, it turns out I have favorites from many countries. Karin Fossim from Norway. Pierre Lemaitre from France (How can I resist a male cop named Camille?) The recently deceased Umberto Eco from Italy. An American or two, like Thomas H. Cook and John Verdon. I thought I had a few British favorites, too, but it turns out Peter Robinson is Canadian and Peter May is a Scot. I’m one of the few readers unimpressed by the work of Denise Mina or Val Mcdermid, but Brit Mo Hayder makes up for them.

A couple of years ago, I became a British writer. Well, to be exact, a UK magazine asked me to write a short story. I was (and am) thrilled. The story, Majesty in Miniature, was published in parts over 3 months in The Dolls House Magazine.

I set the story at Windsor, the home of Queen Mary’s famous dolls house, sending my protagonists Gerry Porter and her granddaughter, Maddie, on a tour of the majestic house.

Although I’ve never seen the house in person, I knew all about it from books and videos. I knew about its running water (the cisterns housed in the basement), electric lighting, and working lifts, its miniature crown jewels and special tea services.

I was sure I could capture the essence of the dolls house; what I worried about was the language of the British characters, especially the British docent. I agonized over using “bloody”—too mild? too wild?—and finally checked in with my friend Simon Wood, who agreed to vet the story.

There was only one language problem that neither Simon nor I could have predicted.

“Docent?” a UK contact from the magazine asked me. “We’re not sure what that is.”

What? I’d been concerned about the docent’s dialogue, not the definition of the word. And isn’t the UK the home of the OED?

I figured the person was too young for an old word, or she was a foreign intern serving across the pond.

In the end, we settled on changing “docent” to “guide” and the story made it through the rest of the process.