Sunday, August 17, 2014

Twist, Martext, Cromwell, Hardy, Reed, North, Goldsmith, Wendell Homes . . .

My lead character, Oliver Swithin, is not a fictional version of me, although I'm vaguely aware that he voices a lot of my opinions and prejudices. I will, however, grudgingly allow that he may be living somewhere along one of my own roads not taken.

That forename stuck in my head after a vacation reading of Dickens's Oliver Twist in the incongrous surroundings of sun-soaked Majorca. We don't even have any Olivers in the family.

Or so I thought.

But a recent burst of family tree research has turned one up at last. Yep, I have a 13th great-grandfather called Oliver Chadwick, direct ancestor of pompous Victorian poet and all-round mountebank "Professor" Richard Sheldon Chadwick, whose dubious doings have graced these pages before. I don't have any dates for Oliver, but his son Nicholas, my 12th great, was born in 1550 in Staffordshire, England.

Mathematically, I've inherited an average of 0.000031% of Oliver's genes. That means we have about one in 32,000 genes in common. And since the Genome Project has estimated that humans have only about 24,000 genes, this particular generation gap crosses the line where -- in terms of DNA, anyway -- Oliver's ancestry becomes completely irrelevant to me, and I'm no more related to him by blood than I would to any other sixteenth-century English citizen from the Midlands, such as, oh, William Shakespeare.

Unless, of course, Oliver's name eventually pops up more than once in my lineage, which is increasingly likely the further back you go, with twice as many branches for each generation and a fewer people around to sit on them. At Oliver's level there are already about 16,000 slots to be filled. (Effie Strongitharm has more to say about this stuff in This Private Plot. Just thought I'd mention that. If you're interested.)

Monday, June 23, 2014

"If Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse had a child, he'd have written this book."

Okay, if you know me by now (get to know me!), you'll know that's probably the best imaginable headline for a review of one of my books, ever. (Well, maybe "Spielberg offers half a billion for movie rights to mystery series" might just cap it.)

So special thanks to Laura Hartman, reviewer for Patch in the Oswego area, for all her enthusiasm. And for a magnificent piece of wordplay.

You see, I have a character in This Private Plot called "Lesbia Weguelin," and Laura speculates that it's a double-entendre for something like "let's be a wiggling."  

I love this. It's entirely appropriate in a book that includes a character whose name is the Swedish word for penis. (Quilt-Hogg and Mormal also have dubious etymologies, and An Embarrassment of Corpses includes a company called "Woodcock and Oakhampton." So far, nobody's spotted the filthy joke behind that one.)

Unfortunately, the wiggling is entirely accidental. Here's the true story.

I'm a devotee of the early 20th century "English musical renaissance," and I have quite an extensive collection of CDs by British composers from this period. Hyperion is one of several recording companies that have done an outstanding job of reviving the works of many lesser known composers, with well-chosen artwork for the CD covers. Back in the dark times when we indulged in CDs.

Lesbia - Weguelin. (See?)
For several recordings of big works by Sir Granville Bantock (1868-1946), Hyperion astutely chose paintings by contemporaneous neo-classical artists -- you know, all Mediterranean sunlight, diaphanous gowns, and a marked absence of underwear. But this was okay for the Victorians, because the young ladies thus depicted were (a) foreign and (b) from classical literature, so it was educational. Besides, you could always blindfold the piano legs.

And for Sir GB's 1906 hour-long orchestral song cycle "Sappho," coupled with his "Sapphic Poem" -- I'm not making this up -- the selected image was an 1878 picture called "Lesbia" by John Reinhard Weguelin (1849-1927), an English artist despite his name.

You might think this pairing coyly matched the implied sexual theme. You'd be wrong. The real Lesbia was a pseudonym for a former mistress of Catallus, the first-centry BCE Roman poet, and from what was said of her at the time, she was decidedly heterosexual and seemed intent on proving it to as many famous men as possible. A good sport, we might say euphemistically. Well, if you looked anything like Weguelin's slice of Victorian soft-core porn -- history lesson, I mean -- you wouldn't keep it to yourself, would you?

Where was I? Oh yes. I don't have this particular CD, but I saw it a while ago in the Hyperion catalogue with a credit for the cover art abbreviated to "Lesbia Weguelin." And I knew immediately that I had to invent a character with that name.

Boring stuff this, eh? Let's pretend instead that Laura was right all along . . .

"Knock knock."

"Who's there?"

"Lesbia Weguelin."

 "Lesbia Weguelin who?"

"Lesbia Weguelin, Miley, your fifteen minutes are nearly up."

Incidentally, were Agatha and PGW to have paired, they'd have been one of those rare couples to have received name-changing honors quite independently. (The wife of a knight get to be called "Lady Whatever" anyway, but in this case, the damehood would be in Agatha's own right.) Other examples are Dame Cleo Laine and the late Sir John Dankworth and Dame Agatha herself, whose second husband, Max Mallowan, had been knighted for services to archeology. Alas, Dame A and Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse could not have sired me, since poor PGW was apparently unable to have children, possibly because of a childhood case of mumps. Oddly enough, I read a 1934 comic story by Agatha last week called "The Girl in the Train" (it's in The Listerdale Mystery collection) that was clearly inspired by PGW and could almost have been written by him on one of his off days. I guess there's more than one way to reproduce.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Daily Insult . . . the adventure continues.

Secundus -- born in Manhattan, schooled in the Westchester burbs -- does a very fine English accent, although he's reluctant to demonstrate it in public.

"Do you get it from listening to me?" I ask. "Or from all the British shows you watch?"

"Actually, I don't notice that you have a different accent," he answers. "That's probably because, in all my life, you're the person I've heard talking the most. Ever."

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

"Call that a silly walk, Hercule?"

Reviews for This Private Plot are coming in. Here's what Booklist said:

"This snarky cozy is full of humor and British quirkiness. Agatha Christie meets Monty Python."

Yup. Nailed three of my teenage influences right there, if you include the implied Lewis Carroll reference. It's like she knows me.

Hmm. What if Agatha really did meet Monty Python . . .


"Look, why did the parrot fall flat on his back the moment I got him home?"

"The Norwegian Blue prefers kipping on its back. Remarkable bird, innit, Squire? Beautiful plumage. It's probably pining for the fjords."

"Pining for the fjords? It's not pining, it's passed on. This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! He's expired and gone to meet his maker! He's a stiff! Bereft of life, he rests in peace! If you hadn't nailed him to the perch, he'd be pushing up the daisies! His metabolic processes are now history! He's off the twig! He's kicked the bucket, he's shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible! This . . . is an ex-par--"

Mr. Praline broke off as the door to the pet shop opened suddenly. Silhouetted in the doorway was a man whose erect stance and air of dignity made you instantly overlook his lack of height. The newcomer took a couple of paces forward, a slight limp now noticeable, until the harsh fluorescent lighting fully revealed the dandified neatness of his appearance, from his dapper shoes to the freshly brushed Homburg that crowned his egg-like head. His military moustache seemed to twitch as the odor of the dirty cages reached him, and he plucked irritably at sudden stray feather that had floated onto the impeccable cloth of his sleeve.

"One moment, mon ami,"  he cautioned, in an accent that the little Belgian knew would be mistaken for French once again. These cloth-eared English! "I put it to you, M'sieur Praline, that the parrot has not merely expired, as you put it. He was  . . . murdered!"

"Murdered!" gasped the two men on either side of the counter.

"Murdered," confirmed the detective. "He was, 'ow you say, whack-ed. Rubbed out. Bumped off. Dispatched. Iced. Wasted, pasted, wetworked. He's been given a Chicago overcoat. He sleeps with the fishes. He was taken for a ride to the 'appy 'unting ground. He was made to walk the plank, with malice aforethought and extreme prejudice. Polished off and toe-tagged, he has bitten the dust while the fat lady sang. He said no to an offer he couldn't refuse. This . . . is a DOA parrot."

He took another dainty step forward. "Mais oui, mes amis," he continued, glaring at the remains of the blue parrot on the floor in front of his highly polished toecaps. "It is murder, certainment. Murder most foul!"

Thursday, May 29, 2014

See you on the radio.

The title of this post is what 11-year-old Tertius said as he waved me off on yesterday's expedition to the wild and untamed badlands of Greenwich, Connecticut, there to be interviewed by the two wittiest and most talented radio hosts in the business, Kim Burns and Bonnie Levison. (At least he didn't tell me I had a face for radio.)

Kim's a stand-up comic and a writer (and an old friend), Bonnie's also a stand-up and teaches storytelling in connection with New York's the Moth. Their show, "Anything Goes," features on Greenwich's WCGN, and the whole procedure was a delight and relatively painless. My doctor says I should be able to walk again within a week or so, although I may need eschew to shorts for the time being.

Listen for yourself [Click here] to some of Kim and Bonnie's earlier podcasts. Go on, you know you haven't got anything better to do, or you wouldn't be here.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Is this the world's rudest woman?

Everybody read the previous (i.e., older) post? Good. The scene is set.

I go into Arcade to buy Didi's book. Proprietor Patrick is deep in conversation with what seems to be a self-published author seeking shelf space. So I patiently station myself in front of the counter to signal that, for once, my intentions go beyond that of another author craving validation and sales estimates. I am, ahem, a paying customer.

A few seconds later, Patrick's assistant Aly emerges from the rear office. Simultaneously, the front door is flung open and a woman comes in, talking loudly and angrily on her cell phone about something to do with a renovation that doesn't seem to be going to her satisfaction. She pushes past me, takes up a position at the counter, and without breaking her phone conversation for a second or lowering her voice, thrusts her platinum American Express card at Aly.

(Well, I say pushes past me, but that would suggest she was even slightly aware of my existence.)

Aly, puzzled, looks to Patrick for help. He's forced to interrupt his chat and suggests that the woman might have a book on order. The woman is still half-screaming at a contractor, still flapping the charge card, without making eye contact. Aly reads the name on the card, finds it in the order book, and is able to retrieve the volume. She charges it, gets the woman's signature, and hands her the purchase. Still without acknowledging her surroundings, the woman grabs the book and stomps out of the store, not even pausing for a thank you.

In An Embarrassment of Corpses (now in paperback, did I mention that?), Superintendent Mallard reveals that he keeps a mental list of the people who, in his personal opinion, deserve punishment even if they haven't technically broken the law. Guess who's just gone to the top of my own list?

Friday, May 23, 2014

The end is in sight. (And for once, that's not a bottom joke.)

My friend Maureen Amaturo always reads the final pages of a book first, to see if she's going to like it. As a mystery novelist, obsessed with the architectural unfolding of my story and the power of suspense and misdirection, this pisses me off. But if you, dear reader, skip to the very end of This Private Plot,  you'll see Maureen is the first person thanked in the acknowledgements, despite her appalling reading habits. That's mainly (but by no means exclusively) because she's the founder of the South Shore Writers Group, whose members patiently reviewed the book as it emerged, chapter by chapter.

Maureen must be doing something right, because another former member of the group, Didi McKay, is also in print right now, with a charming new children's book called Gifts of the Animals. 

Didi has the enviable day-job of working at the Stepping Stones Museum for Children in Norwalk, Connecticut, a frequent destination for the Beecheys when my kids were younger. Some of her colleagues provided the book's lovely illustrations of animals raised by families around the globe.

Here's Didi's book, in a photograph she took of the window of Rye's Arcade Books. It's the blue one under the "O." And do you see what's under the "S"?

(As for the title of this post, it's a bit of an in-joke. Barbara Peters, my editor at Poisoned Pen Press, in an effort to rein in the Briticisms, placed a restriction in the number of times I could use the word "bottom" to refer to Effie Strongitharm's posterior before reverting to "buttocks." I got three in, all in the first chapter.)

Sunday, May 11, 2014

To whom this may concern.

"To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness."

As an adoptee, I attribute myself to four parents: in chronological order the two who supplied the nature, and the two who supplied the nurture.* But having by now lost three of them, I wonder what Wilde's Lady Bracknell would accuse me of? Gross negligence?

On this American Mother's Day, I'm happy to report that one of my co-mothers is alive and well and Morris dancing in Maidstone. (If you can call that living.**) And just as Laurence Olivier was eleven years older than Eileen Herlie, who played his mother, Gertrude, in his film of Hamlet, so my lovely Mum is actually far younger than me.***

But switching to the three I lost, I was very happy to memorialize my adoptive parents at long last in the dedication of This Private Plot, with apologies to the friends who are going to have wait for another book before their turn comes up. (I promise to write more quickly this time.)

Here's the text, so you know who to blame.



*This does reflect a development in This Private Plot, but you'll have to get to Chapter 39 before you see the connection.

**Sorry, puzzled American readers. The ritual trashing of Morris dancers is a British meme.

***That joke would be funnier if she didn't actually look it. By the way, Hamlet is also given a workout in TPP, not least by the Theydon Bois Thespians in their first appearance on the stage in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Out! Out, I say!

Sunday (May the Fourth) was Star Wars Day. (It thurroundth uth and bindth uth).

Yesterday was Cinco de Mayo. (Spanish for "Just mustard, please.")

Then what's a good reason for partying today, May 6, 2014? (Well, it's the tenth anniversary of the "Friends" series finale . . .)

Benighted mortals! Today is the official publication day of This Private Plot, the third title in the somewhat optimistically styled "Oliver Swithin Mystery Decalogy," although if I continue at this rate, I'll be 107 before Oliver and Effie get to third base.*


Anyway, don't waste your time reading this blog entry. Go and buy it! Now! (We cozy authors are tough.)

Or better still, mail me $5 directly, then you don't have to read it.

The other titles are also out in paperback today, for the first time. Buy them too.

*Just kidding, that happened between An Embarrassment of Corpses and Murdering Ministers. But most of This Private Plot is about Oliver's failure to score a home run in the bedroom of his childhood.