Saturday, December 15, 2018

Guest Post - Jean Briggs

Aline here.  I'm delighted this week to introduce you to my friend Jean Briggs.  She is clever and witty and as an English teacher amused her pupils with spoof murder mystery plays with titles like A is for Arsenic, B is for Bludgeon.    But when she decided to write a crime novel it was her passion for Charles Dickens that came to the fore.  He was interested in crimes and police work, so it needed only a small leap of the imagination to cast him as the sleuth in her 'Dickens and Jones' mysteries. For the benefit of our transatlantic readers, Dickins and Jones was the name of a famous London department store, like Bergdorf Goodman, which gives the hint that her tongue-in-cheek style hasn't been totally abandoned!

What’s in a name? 

Graveyards; obituary notices, and births and marriages; the British Newspaper Archive; the Bible; The Oxford Dictionary of English Surnames – these are some of the places from where I steal the names of my characters. Graveyards, though somewhat melancholy, are a very useful resource for nineteenth century names – names you’ve often not heard before. I came across the Reverend Moister in a churchyard near me. The Resurrection Woman – he sprang to life as vividly as anything from Charles Dickens. He would be damp about the hands, naturally, moist about the brow, and oystery about the eyes – something of the hypocrite about him, I thought, stuffing the funeral baked meats into his crocodile mouth while wiping away the tears for the murdered man – or woman.
            Dickens made up some of his names. He clearly enjoyed the sounds as well as the moral connotations of the words. Who can forget Pumblechook, Wopsle, Sweedlepipes, Pecksniff , Squeers? And Scrooge, of course, with its connotations of screw and scrouge, the latter an archaic word for squeeze. Dickens borrowed names, too, from graveyards, streets, shop fronts and people he knew. He saw the name Pickwick on a coach. I borrowed Vholes from him, imagining a moment in one of my murder mysteries when Dickens, disguised as a lawyer, suddenly needs a name. Vholes is a lawyer from Bleak House – his name suits his creeping character. Dickens tells his policeman partner, Superintendent Jones, that he saw the name on a passing cart – thus fiction grows out of fact.
            So often, the names of Dickens’s characters fit their personalities. In naming my characters, there is some alchemy at work, especially for the good and the bad. Sometimes names just come – perhaps unknowingly known, but suddenly apposite.
            Brim is the surname of two innocent children, Tom and Eleanor. It seemed right: short and suggestive of delight. Tilly Moon is an albino child with strange, silvery hair – scorned by the neighbours, and not long for this world. Robin Hart, a missing boy, is ‘bonny sweet Robin’ of Ophelia’s song. His mother drowns. I found the name Drown in a newspaper and gave it to Edward Drown so that Dickens could call him ‘Drown-Ed.’ Dickens loved puns. Dickens befriends a street urchin in my first book, a ragged sort of lad, small for his age. He became Scrap.
            I like a bit of comedy, too – murder’s a grim business. Betty Chew is the toothless charwoman to Mrs Ginger, mistress of a very bad man. Maggie Brine keeps a pub and dilutes her gin with vitriol – it did happen. Georgie Taylor was an infamous dog thief in 1850s London. I gave him a wife – Charity – the meanest woman alive. I found the name Meteyard in one of Dickens’s letters. Then I found it again in F. Tennyson Jesse’s book Murder and Its Motives – Mrs Meatyard, baby murderer. I needed a butcher. I wanted a big one so Sampson Meteyard came along. His partner, Slaughter, breaks down, leaves the business, and becomes a vegetarian – not a murderer.
            The naming of murderers is a tricky business. Surely Drood with his stony name, Jasper, is the murderer of Edwin. Dickens liked stony names: Bradley Headstone has murder in his heart, and Mr Murdstone is as much a murderer as if he had killed David Copperfield’s mother with his bare hands. Cruelty can kill.
            But, the detective story writer does not want to give away too much too soon. Death – from Middle English ‘deeth’ - would be tempting were it not one of the aristocratic names of Lord Peter Wimsey, and too obvious, I think. This is why I choose the most glaringly criminal names for minor villains. Blackledge sets your teeth on edge; I’ve Blackborn and Blackbone in reserve – they sound like pirates. Jonas Finger is a bad lot, a thief and a pimp. Jonas, I stole from Dickens and I found Finger in the dictionary of surnames. It was recorded as early a
s 1219 in the York Assize Rolls. Fikey Chubb is a receiver of stolen goods – Fikey appears in one of Dickens’s detective anecdotes from his periodical Household Words. Chubb – I was thinking of locks and safes. The Chubb Company dates from the early nineteenth century. Betty Tode is a prison wardress. The name is probably linked to Todd which derives from the Middle English word ‘Tod’, meaning fox, but I was thinking of something more poisonous. And there’s Mrs Brimstone, baby farmer – I thought I’d made it up, influenced by Mrs Squeers, but it exits in Brimstone Hill in Essex. Her unprepossessing associate is Bertha Raspin, known as Mother Hubbard because of the instruments she keeps in her cupboard. A nurse, she is not. Saturnino Betti is an Italian criminal who is known as Satan.
            Satan as the murderer – oh, no, no, no! Too much of a giveaway. The murderers must  hide behind very ordinary names, but I won’t be telling you those, of course.
A last thought: Deadman for the victim? No, I haven’t made it up – seventeenth century tax records for Suffolk!


Friday, December 14, 2018

How My Characters Will Spend the Holidays

It's 11 days before Christmas,
And not a gift has been bought.
No decorations are hanging,
No tree has gone up,
But the writer is plotting,
Dastardly deeds concocting. . .

Forgive the really bad poem. It came to me as I was waking up this morning. I don't know why I always get my best ideas for the plot I'm working on when I'm in the midst of something else. I made a few notes. Then I went to my faculty meeting. Now, I'm about to start reading research papers. We're at end of semester.

Thinking about the holidays got me wondering how and with whom my characters would be spending the season. It's a no-brainer about Lizzie Stuart, my crime historian. In her world, the year is 2004. She has met her future in-laws at Thanksgiving (although I haven't gotten that book written yet), and she is getting married on New Year's Eve. So, she's spending the holidays with John Quinn, her former-homicide-detective fiance. What she doesn't know is that her mother, Becca, is about to put in another appearance.

Meanwhile, Hannah McCabe, my homicide detective, in my near-future (soon to be parallel universe) novels is spending Christmas in Albany at home with her father, Angus, the former newspaper journalist and editor. The year is 2020. Adam, her brother, will come to dinner and bring his girlfriend, Mai. Their Great Dane puppy, who finally has a name, will be there. He will need to be reminded of his training when he sees the ham on the dining room table. Hannah's best friend and her husband will arrive, bringing dessert from their restaurant, and a surprise visitor will drop by.

The character I'm not sure about is Jo Radcliffe, my World War II Army nurse. She is a new protagonist who I introduced in "The Singapore Sling Affair." This short story (in EQMM's Nov/Dec 2017 issue) is set in 1948. Jo has come back to the village in upstate New York, where she has inherited her aunt's house and her Maine Coon cat. The cat has not warmed up to her yet. But I'm sure several people will invite her to Christmas dinner. I don't know whose invitation she will accept. And then there's New Year's Eve. Will she stay at home with a good book? Or, maybe she'll be invited to go down to the City to celebrate there.  

Right now, I need to start reading papers. Then I'm going to try to get in a couple of hours of shopping. Tonight I'm making fudge. Tomorrow our Upper Hudson chapter of Sisters in Crime has our annual holiday party. And maybe tomorrow, I'll get some decorations up.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Thursday, December 13, 2018

It's All Gravy

Donis here, facing a conundrum...what to write today. My blogmates have introduced so many interesting topics over the past weeks. I'm really enjoying reading about who to cast in the movies made of our books, and I'd love to tackle that subject. In fact, I will do that when next I post on December 27. You wouldn't believe some of the suggestions I've heard over the years as to who should play Alafair Tucker in the movies.

Red Eye Gravy like Grandma used to make.

But today I must add one more entry about food in novels. Type M's own Charlotte Hinger mentioned on Facebook that I had included a recipe for red eye gravy in my latest novel, Forty Dead Men, and many FB denizens replied to her post with their fond memories that most Southern of dishes. So I thought that I'd relate that recipe here, just before Christmas, so you can try it with your leftover Christmas ham. I'm going to include another fabulous family gravy recipe that I grew up with–chocolate gravy! We used it on biscuits for breakfast, and I can't think of a better Christmas treat.

If you've never tried red eye gravy or chocolate gravy, you're in for an experience. Farm families used all kinds of interesting things for gravies and sauces, mostly because you used what you had on hand and never let anything go to waste, and in this case, necessity is the mother of some really delicious culinary inventions. Besides, they're easy! So give them a try. You won't be sorry.

Red Eye Gravy

After frying several slices of country ham in butter, deglaze the skillet (a cast iron skillet is best) with a cup of strong black coffee. Use a spatula to loosen the meat bits that have stuck to the bottom of the pan. Add a cup of water and simmer the gravy until it has reduced by half. After the gravy is poured into a dish or gravy boat, the coffee and meat bits will sink to the bottom and the drippings will rise to the top. Long ago, some clever wag decided that the dark coffee under the clear grease looks like a human eye looking up from the bowl. Yum! Give it a stir before spooning the gravy onto your rice or potatoes. Be sure to use quality pieces of ham to fry.

Now, I never ate red eye gravy made with anything but coffee, but there is an equally beloved recipe made just the same way but with Coca Cola instead of coffee. My books are set in the 1910s, so Coca Cola was available, but I can't imagine that Alafair would waste money by using a fancy bottle of soda to make gravy. You can add a tablespoon of flour to thicken the gravy, but that's not the old way. If you try it, Dear Reader, let me know what you think!

Chocolate Gravy

The recipe for chocolate gravy came into my mother's family through my Aunt Loreen. When I spent the night with my cousin, my aunt would make this with homemade buttermilk biscuits in the morning. I wonder sometimes if I was more interested in the chocolate gravy than I was in playing with my cousin. My family also uses variations of this recipe for pudding and pies. This gravy is quite simple to make, but potent. You must be an extreme chocolate lover to eat this. One of my brothers-in-law pronounced it too rich for normal human consumption, and this guy will eat boiled sheep's eyes. The rest of my family loves it.

Mix together thoroughly 1/4 cup of powdered cocoa (I use plain old Hersheys), 2 cups of sugar, 1/4 cup of white flour, and 1/4 tsp. of salt. Add 2 cups of milk to the dry ingredients and mix well. Cook in a heavy saucepan over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens to desired consistency. I usually wait until it begins to boil with a dull plop. Remove from heat, mix in 1 tsp. of vanilla. Delicious on any kind of bread (think chocolate-filled croissants), or anything your heart desires.

Have a merry and delicious holiday season!

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

From page to screen

What a fun topic Aline introduced in her post Monday! Most of the past week's Type M posts have touched on the business of writing in some way; polishing and submitting a manuscript, getting used to rejections, creating pitches for TV and film, and promoting the book after it's finally released into the world. And now Aline has touched on one of an author's favourite games; dreaming about who will play your character when your series is produced for TV. And Aline makes a good point. It's not all about making enough money to pay the mortgage for once and even possibly to take a trip (although that would be nice). It's about the interpretation of your work, which is as close to reflecting your soul as it is possible to get.

When we read a book, the character emerges out of our imagination. We conjure them up in our mind's eye, and we put as much into their identity as the author does. The character is not just his or her physical appearance but the sum total of how they react, the words and tone they use, the gestures they make, the clothes they choose, the meals they like... Maybe the reason some authors don't actually have a clear visual image of their main character is that details like the colour of their hair are possibly the least important aspect of their identity.

A character on screen, on the other hand, is not a product of our imagination but a real person we can see. In fact the reader's first impression of a character is not what they're thinking or saying, but what they look like. And from then on, all our impressions of that character are grounded in that concrete reality.

What the great actors like John Thaw and Brenda Blethyn succeed in doing is capturing the essence of the character as we the readers imagined them, not just in looks but in gesture, tone, and style. I would add to that list of successes Stephen Thompkinson as Peter Robinson's DCI Banks. I was ambivalent about Nathaniel Parker as Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley, mostly because he didn't seem Patrician enough, but I thought petite, pretty Sharon Small (a perfectly fine actor) was entirely wrong as lumpy, awkward Barbara Havers.

In my own, more modest imaginings, I have gone through a number of Inspector Greens, most of them relatively unknown Canadian actors. In the the twenty years since he came on the scene, a number of my favourites have grown too old for the part, like Michael Riley. So I am now casting about for a new possibility - mid-forties, unremarkable looks but a bit ADHD and obsessively driven. Do any of you have an ideas about who would make a perfect Michael Green? As for my new series,  Jennifer Lawrence would do an admirable job as Amanda Doucette. Hey, dream big or go home. In the end, however, I think my own daughter Dana would have the spirit, fierce drive, and vulnerability to play Amanda.

And thinking about Aline's conundrum with Marjory Fleming, what about Miranda Hart from Call the Midwife?

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Holiday Movie Entertainment

by Rick Blechta

I had an interesting conversation with a friend this past week about favourite Christmas movies. Like many, my favourite for many, many years is the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol starring Alistair Sim and whole cast of brilliant character actors. Interesting factoid: The movie was filmed in August!

His favourite Christmas movie really startled me: Die Hard. I had to think back, and yes, the action (of the first two movies in the series, actually) takes place at Christmas. We have a DVD copy so my wife and I pulled it out and watched it. It was as I remember: filled with lots of macho action from Bruce Willis and the crew of bad guys led by estimable Alan Rickman. There isn’t all that much Christmas in it, though. It could just as easily taken place “in the heat of an August bank holiday”.

I got back to my friend after viewing the movie again and asked him why this was the Christmas movie for him. Answer: “It’s all about a man trying to save his wife so that they can spend the holiday together.”

I don’t mean to be insulting to my friend, but come on! That seems pretty shallow to me. Yes, the holiday season is a time for family coming together, but I don’t think most people would imagine that within the movie’s framework. But my friend is not a particularly sentimental person. I guess I am.

His wife, interestingly had another surprising choice: Love Actually. This is a very entertaining film but a number of the multiple story threads are really quite sad, and there is an overall feeling of anger and hurt in many scenes. Again, a rather surprising choice for a favourite holiday film. And this woman is quite sentimental.

Am I out of step? Am I missing something?

What is your favourite holiday movie?

(And by the way, if you have Netflix, you might want to watch The Christmas Chronicles which is new this year. It has flaws but also snappy dialogue, great computer graphics, and Kurt Russell as Santa is very entertaining. I don’t know if it will become a classic must-watch holiday staple, but it is definitely worth a view.)

Monday, December 10, 2018

The Interpreters

A question I'm often asked is, if my books were to be filmed (I should be so lucky!) which actress would I want to play my detective?  I can never manage a very satisfactory answer:  I've never seen an actress who made me think of  my 'Big Marge' Marjory Fleming. She would have to be Scottish, of course, and very tall - though I suppose if Lee Child can accept Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher, that may just be me being picky.

I don't actually describe her in the books except in a very general way and I'm not even sure that I know what her face looks like. When I'm reading, I don't often conjure up a picture of the characters.

Film is different, though. The actor has to be the interpreter of the character and when I'm watching a series I will be very clear in my mind whether the chosen actor is right for the part or not.    There have been several TV series of Agatha's Christie's Miss Marple but for me the only real Miss Marple was Joan Hickson (those shrewd, faded blue eyes!) just as Hercule Porot was undoubtedly David Suchet.  John Malkovitch, pooh!

Ian Rankin, I know, never described Rebus specifically, yet Ken Stott seemed perfectly tailored to the part - a hard man, but soft at the same time.  Colin Dexter was thrilled with John Thaw, and indeed it's hard to imagine Morse having been the success it was if he hadn't defined the character so brilliantly.

For me Roy Marsden absolutely was PD James's Adam Dalgleish in the TV dramas and I was horrified when Martin Shaw took over, but for Phyllis neither was her Adam.     Similarly Brenda Blethyn with her Northern accent seems to me perfect for Ann Cleeves' Vera, but according to Ann she has the wrong Northern accent - a distinction rather wasted on those of us who don't live in the Pennines.

On the other hand, when the first Inspector Wexford series was made Ruth Rendell was so thrilled with George Baker's interpretation of the character that she thought of him from then on as Wexford himself in the subsequent books.

So, do you have someone in mind to play your favourite sleuth?  And of course, that does lead on to the other question - when they make that film about your life, who would you want to play you?

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Coconut Cupcakes

by Vicki Delany

Late to the party as usual, but I loved Rick’s suggestion of us putting some recipes from our books up on this blog.

There is a lot of cooking and eating in my books. In the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series, Mrs. Hudson’s Tea Room is located next to the shop; In the Year Round Christmas series, Merry’s best friend owns Victoria’s Bake Shoppe, and in the Lighthouse Library series (by me as Eva Gates) Lucy’s cousin owns Josie’s Cozy Café.

I sense a theme here.  To continue the theme, my just-announced series for Kensington is the Tea By The Sea Mysteries (Spring 2020).

I myself love to bake, but I don’t do much of it any more mainly because now that I don't have children at home, I don’t need an entire cake after dinner, thank you very much.  But when I have guests, I like to pull out all the stops. A lot of the baking mentioned in my books is things I make myself., although the books don’t have recipes.

So here, from Vicki’s kitchen as well as Mrs. Hudson’s Tea Room, are coconut cupcakes.  These aren’t traditional Christmas treats, but the white icing, I think, gives it a lovely wintery feel.

I won’t be back on this page until the New Year, so I wish you all very Happy Holidays and a Merry Christmas.

What will I be doing this year for the holidays you ask? Here’s a hint:

Image result for mozambique


·               1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
·               2 teaspoons baking powder
·               1/2 teaspoon salt
·               1/2 cup packed sweetened shredded coconut
·               6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
·               1 1/3 cups sugar
·               2 large eggs, plus 2 large egg whites
·               3/4 cup unsweetened coconut milk
·               1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
·               1 1/3 cups large-flake unsweetened coconut

1.      Preheat oven to 350°F. Line standard muffin tins with paper liners.

2.      Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt. Pulse shredded coconut in a food processor until finely ground, and whisk into flour mixture.

3.      With and electric mixer on medium-high speed, cream butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Gradually beat in whole eggs, whites and vanilla, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Reduce speed to low. Add flour mixture in three batches, alternating with two additions of coconut milk, and beating until combined after each.

4.      Divide batter evenly among lined cups, filling eat three-quarters full. Bake, rotating tins halfway through, until a cake tester inserted in centers come out clean, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven; turn out cupcakes onto wire racks and let cool completely. Cupcakes can be stored overnight at room temperature, or freeze up to 2 months, in airtight containers.

5.      To finish, use a small offset spatula to spread a generous dome of icing onto each cupcake, and, if desired, garnish with flaked coconut. Store at room temperature until ready to serve.

Icing: Use your favorite buttercream vanilla icing. I like to use a splash of coconut milk rather than plain milk. If you don’t normally add milk to your icing, you can cut down slightly on the butter and replace with coconut milk.