Unresolved Murders: Grist for the Writer’s Mill?

Beginning with King William of England in the year 1100, shot through the heart by an arrow, law enforcement records are crammed with unresolved murders—along with the books, plays, and ballads they inspired. To this day the 15th- century deaths of two young princes remain unsolved. 19th-century Lizzie Borden, unknown until her parents’ axe murders, is now infamous in stories and verse, but the case has never been proven. And in the 20th-century Edgar Allen Poe wrote “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” inspired by a young cigar girl whose body in 1841 was found floating in the Hudson River. He re-imagined the scene in Paris, turned Marie into a perfume shop employee who was killed and dumped into the Seine River, and “solved” the crime through the ratiocination of his canny detective Auguste Dupin. He claimed he used newspaper reports “to get into the mind of the murderer.”

Much has been written about six-year-old child-beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey, found strangled in the basement of her Colorado home. Her parents were suspects, but subsequently cleared. In 1947 the horribly mutilated body of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short, known as the “black Dahlia,” was found in a vacant lot in Los Angeles—and became the subject of books and films. Marilyn Monroe’s 1962 “suicide by overdose” has been overdone by writers, as has Elvis Presley’s death, still questioned by autopsy experts.

Thousands of murders have occurred through the decades in small country towns. Only this spring my Middlebury, Vermont newspaper published a photo of two women—one a police detective and one a victim’s advocate–laying flowers on the gravesite of an unknown woman and two children who were killed sometime in the early 1930s. Their remains were discovered in 1935, the police have published simulated drawings of their faces, but to this day there have been no clues to their identities.

On December 31, 1957, in Newbury, Vermont, police pulled the bound body of a cantankerous dairy farmer, Orville Gibson, from the Connecticut River. Rumor had it that Gibson had just beaten his old hired man and that angry neighbors had lynched him. The story even reached the pages of Life magazine. Months after the crime, a local doctor told police he’d seen a car with two men he recognized driving past the farm on the day of the disappearance. But there wasn’t enough evidence to detain the men. And some wonder why the doctor waited so long to come to the police?

Retired Judge Stephen Martin, who in 1960 represented one of the two men accused, has recently published a book, Orville’s Revenge,” in which he calls the death a suicide, a desperate attempt to pin the blame on his accusatory neighbors. Gibson, the judge argues, climbed out on a pier, bound his ankles, tied his hands behind his own knees, and rolled into the water.

Neighbors who knew Gibson don’t agree. They speak of threats to keep people quiet, a note stuck to a tree with a knife at the home of a witness. Investigators take note of the fellow’s wealth and snobbery, the cruelty toward his hired men. How, early on, he surreptitiously beat out more established townsfolk for the land and farm he purchased. On the day of his death a neighbor saw drag marks on the barn floor, a crushed milk pail. Some still insist it was a vigilante-type killing by a small mob of townspeople, full of drink, who kidnapped and tied him up, then tossed him in the river. The death certificate reads “suffocation by means unknown.”

Still, Gibson’s niece would “like to know the answers” to her uncle’s death, and is glad to hear people, including the retired judge, once again writing and speculating. But she feels “there’s no purpose in trying to arrest anyone. It’s way past time for that.” Is it ever too late? Even if most of the original players are dead, including Gibson’s wife, who died in 1973? Gibson’s death remains an open question. A question, perhaps, that a writer like Poe, or any living novelist reading this post, might try to “resolve.”

Look Up

By Wendy Hornsby

When I venture out wearing my guise as a writer to speak to groups of readers, by far the most frequently asked question I field is, Where do you get your ideas? The answer is, I look up. I hope that doesn’t sound snarky, because it’s the truth. Most published writers I know can make a story out of just about any situation. Maybe it takes a particular sort of imagination, or maybe it’s writerly conditioning, but there is story material lurking in the most ordinary situations and encounters.

For example, last night I was wool gathering, staring at my computer screen, supposedly working on a book proposal, lost to time, when I heard my husband walking toward the stairs that lead down into my work room. The clock said it was time to start thinking about what we were going to do for dinner, so that’s what he was coming down to talk about. I heard him step onto the top landing, and immediately he let loose with his rarely-deployed signature epithet, “God DAMN sonofabitch,” so I knew something dire had happened. Rising from my chair, I asked my usual question: “Is there blood?” He answered only, “Come.”

Because towels are useful in just about any calamity, I grabbed the towel I keep by the back door for muddy feet and raced for the stairwell. I found Paul standing above me holding two glasses of Cabernet, one a little less full than the other.

“Fabulous replication of arterial spray,” I said in appreciation when I saw what had happened. He’d made a misstep or hiccupped or something on his way down. Whatever he’d done had caused wine to shoot over the top of one of the glasses and out into the air above the narrow stairwell. It didn’t take very much more than a generous tablespoonful of wine, no more than two, to make a broad mess. Splotches of deep red dropped onto every one the eleven steps, coursed down the stair rail, and spritzed both yellow walls with a very decent vintage 2008 California red.

As I mopped my way up the stairs toward Paul, we talked, of course, about blood spatter and how tough it would be to clean up a crime scene in a hurry because of the extent of the spray and how quickly it stained. Paul, the stand-in for the perp, was himself a mess, dripping wine from wrist to elbow. We had several interesting crime scenarios worked through before we finished the clean up and started talking about dinner. I suppose there are people who would find the topic of the hour more than a little morbid, but after living with a mystery writer for many years, my husband has become accustomed to conversations of this sort.

stairs

Sometimes, stories begin to emerge when I look down. The seed for “The Legacy,” the story I contributed to the Jewish Noir anthology, edited by Ken Wishnia, from PM Press (October 2015), came up out of my garden one morning. I pulled up a weed, and tangled in its roots was a shiny red plastic bead, a little buried treasure left behind by someone who lived in the house before us.

I find all sorts of things the left behind by the children who once lived in the house: a deflated hacky-sack snagged in the thorny Oregon berry bushes, the remnants of sidewalk chalk under the wooden swing, corroded Hot Wheels, a dolly’s pink bottle, plastic soldiers, and, frequently, plastic beads. Someone must have had a big box or bag of beads that got spilled in the yard. A child might pretend they were real jewels. A writer would know they were. And have maybe three versions of how they might have been lost and how they were found again and the dangers inherent in possessing something coveted by others, all running amok through the imagination.

We live California’s Mother Lode, Gold Rush country, atop a mountain of gold. There are still people hunting for, and sometimes finding, glittering treasure among the rocks. For now, I’m perfectly happy discovering the occasional plastic bead or soldier or corroded toy car. Every discovery has a story, a treasure in its own way. If you just look up.

My Amazing, Technicolor Dream Shirt

My blog last month reflected on some of the more somber aspects of my trip to SC in July for a family reunion. This time I want to touch on some lighter moments. I’ll get to the shirt toward the end.

The extended family gets larger every year. In my generation (which I’ll call Gen1), with my brother and cousins, there are 14 of us. We’re all still alive and none of us is, or has been, in jail. We do have the sorts of health problems you’d expect to find among 14 people in their 60s and early 70s. One of my older cousins had a heart attack two weeks after the reunion. My brother, who is 68, may be in the worst health of us all. I was shocked to see how old and decrepit he looked. Diabetes, heart problems, prostate cancer, a MERSA infection—they’ve taken a toll on him.

The reunion is held at the home of one of my cousins. She and her husband have a huge great room (pardon the redundancy) and a pool. Her three daughters help with preparations, and the rest of us bring food. The daughters are married and producing the next generation, as are the children of several other cousins, but we’re not as prolific as one might expect. My two grandparents produced five children, who produced us 14. Of those 14, five have no children, four have one child, three have two children, one has three, and I have four. So, a total of 17 children (Gen2) from the 14 of us. That’s not a rate that will produce rapid population growth.

Gen2 are now adults, with spouses and children. There are enough of them—and there have been a couple of divorces and remarriages—that it gets confusing for us Gen1 folks. I found myself engaging in a pleasant conversation about baseball with one of the Gen2 spouses. He had read my book, Perfect Game, Imperfect Lives, about Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. We talked about baseball and collecting baseball cards. His own collection went back no farther than the mid-1980s.

When I got home I decided to send him a few cards from my duplicates from the mid-50s. But I had to email a couple of people and make sure I knew who I had been talking to. Turned out I had the wrong person. Fortunately I had never addressed him by name. Once I got that straightened out, I sent him the cards, including a ’56 Topps Elston Howard. He sent me a nice note of thanks. His wife also emailed me and said he had been like a kid at Christmas when he got the cards.

And now for the shirt. One of the weirdest experiences I’ve ever had occurred on my trip home. When I checked out of my hotel the clerk—a young African American man with dreadlocks—said “That’s a pretty shirt.” I’ve always liked the shirt I was wearing that day, but I was surprised by the comment. I thanked him and went on my way. Later in the morning I stopped at a rest area in NC. I opened the door to the building for an older woman, i. e., somebody my age, who was walking up the steps behind me. When she passed me, she said, “As I was walking up here I kept thinking what a pretty shirt you’re wearing.”

But, wait. It gets weirder. Later in the day I stopped for gas and a snack in KY. The clerk, a woman of about 40, said, “That’s a beautiful shirt.” That evening, in IN, I went to a Cracker Barrel for dinner. Being alone, I was seated at a small table, facing a 60-ish woman who was sitting at a similar “two-top.” In that situation I just want to avoid eye contact. When the woman got up to leave I realized she was stopping at my table. When I looked up, she said, “I just want to say what a pretty shirt that is.”

Folks, it is a pretty shirt, but it’s not so exceptional that it should elicit comments from such a diverse audience across four states. It’s a pale blue, pin-stripe, old man’s shirt from Penney’s. I tried taking a picture of it for this blog, but nothing seemed to quite do it justice.

The story has an epilogue. A few days after I got home my wife and I went to Applebee’s for dinner. I was wearing a different shirt, another one from my Penney’s collection. When the greeter held the door open for us, he told me, “That’s a pretty shirt.” My wife said she just about broke up on the spot. All we can figure is that I really know how to wear a shirt.

Where The Birds Are

When we first saw this place we named it Animal House. A divorced man and a couple of hostile roommates who, on the day we came to look at the house, barricaded themselves in their rooms the whole time we were here. Which meant there were two rooms we never even saw.

The enormous backyard was crowded with old power mowers, weeds, debris and trash of various kinds, and an otherwise empty and deteriorated deck housing a hot tub that hadn’t been operational, or even whole, for some time.

The raised vegetable garden at the back was neglected to the point where a large two-dolphin fountain with a cracked bowl was all but hidden in the middle of it. At some point in its life it had lost its motor.

The house was on a pleasant cul de sac in Petaluma, where we wanted to live. It had trees, including a huge old fruit-laden plum tree and several of its children and a huge redwood. The kitchen,. The master bedroom, and what was then the living room all had sliding glass doors. It was a short sale, so it was very cheap. In our price range if we stretched a little.

It took five months of bank play before we could move in.

We knocked down a wall so the living room became a large dining room and the bedroom we had never seen became a small living room with a bay window. We bought a wood-burning stove, a pretty little Jotul, and had a tile guy build a hearth for it.

Of course, there was still the yard. The fountain, repaired and fitted with an aquarium pump, was moved out of the vegetable garden. When the cleanup was finished, we put in a geometric pattern of flower beds, adding more trees—a fig and two Japanese maples as anchors for the beds. And in the middle of the pattern of beds, the exuberant fountain.

There was a bonus we hadn’t thought about. Birds. So many birds. In the fountain, on top of the fountain drinking from the spouts on the dolphins’ heads, and in July and August, a spectacle to watch every day through the sliding doors. Whole flocks of them filling the plum tree, picking and dropping the fruit, following it to the ground, finches, scrub jays, robins, birds we couldn’t identify even with a bird book. One of the crows loved standing on top of the dolphin and yelling. I yelled back. Sophie the cockapoo learned to look out into the yard when she heard the word “bird.” Lefty the springer spaniel was too busy sharing the plums to care.

Best of all, we’d created the perfect place for a wedding.

Threads of Evidence

DSC01566Ever pick up a book you’d never heard of and immediately know you’d love it? I suspect most of us have. Without even thinking about it, we know what we love to read about. Maybe it’s romantic love. Or cats. Or family conflicts. Or serial killers. (Probably not all of the above in the same book.)

I’m attracted to old houses, preferably large, and possibly deserted. Mysteries from the past that affect people today. Antiques. Small towns where everyone thinks they know everyone else … but don’t know everyone’s secrets. And the coast of Maine, a place I’ve loved since I was a child, and where I’m lucky enough to live now.

And what could be more fun for a writer than to plot a book that included all their favorite things?THREADSOFEVIDENCE

So my THREADS OF EVIDENCE, the second (after TWISTED THREADS) in my Mainely Needlepoint mystery series, includes all my favorites.

In 1970 a seventeen-year-old girl died suspiciously at a large party in her family’s large Victorian “cottage” (as summer homes of the wealthy were, and sometimes still are, called in Maine). mother never believed the girl’s death was an accident, so for years she sat alone in the large house and tried to figure out what might have happened, and why. And while she sat, she did needlepoint. Cushions of all sorts. And, most dramatically, a series of large panels picturing her home and the town of Haven Harbor, Maine.

The house, named “Aurora,” has now been deserted for years. Many people in Haven Harbor think it should be torn down. Ghost stories about it abound.

Then, to everyone’s surprise, famous Hollywood actress Skye West and her handsome son buy the old estate, complete with broken windows, valuable and not-so-valuable furnishing, and all that needlepoint. They ask Angie Curtis, head of Mainely Needlepoint, and her fellow needlepointer and antiques dealer Sarah Byrne, to appraise everything in the house, hold a sale to get rid of anything they don’t put in dumpsters … and restore those needlepoint panels

They soon learn Skye has a personal interest in the history of the old house. And when her glass is poisoned during the house sale, it’s clear someone in Haven Harbor doesn’t want her asking questions about what happened in 1970.

Skye hires Angie to help her investigate and examine the past and talk to everyone who was at the fatal party in 1970. And the then Mainely Needlepointers restoring the panels find they contain strange clues to the past.

Love those old house mysteries! Hope my readers do, too!

Workplace Murders and Real World Heroes and Heroines

By K.K. Beck

I’ve written various workplace novels where an amateur protagonist solves a murder on the job, in parallel with a couple of Seattle detectives named Lukowksi and MacNab. One reason I like writing these workplace novels is because I get to both learn and explain how different jobs work from behind the scenes. (And because I think there is a lot of great humor to be gleaned from the workplace, which is why people tend to joke around a lot on the job.)

But I was surprised when recently someone said that I wrote books about the “underemployed.” To me, my characters in these books weren’t necessarily underemployed. They were simply employed. Perhaps the reviewer saw them as underemployed because they were fixing cars, working in a supermarket and selling ads at a failing radio station but were still clever enough to solve a crime. (In Tipping the Valet, my protagonist parks cars.)

It seems clear to me that intelligent people do all kinds of jobs. And, my dumbest boss ever had a Harvard MBA.

I am irked that we seem to have lost respect for people doing useful jobs, or jobs that involve physical and economic reality instead of the often highly overrated “creativity”. One reason I’m glad my kids had jobs when they were teenagers – they all worked in food service at one point, and other jobs too – is that they now respect working people – and know how to avoid cross-contamination in the kitchen.

For many years, I’ve worked at a famous aerospace company in Seattle, where my mother worked during World War Two building B-17 bombers as a teenage blueprint reader. I’m retiring in a few weeks, and I’m looking forward to it, but I’ll miss my visits to the factories where the airplanes are assembled.

The men and women there, who build technically amazing, and to me quite beautiful airplanes, generally love their jobs and take immense pride in doing them well. But in movies, factory workers – when we see them at all – are often portrayed as mindless robots or dim bulbs. In reality, people who assemble complex products are well aware of the importance of the work they do and often come up with manufacturing improvements the engineers didn’t think of.

Years ago, while writing mystery novels, I also worked in the fishing industry, writing about the trawlers that fish the North Pacific. The idea was to have health insurance and orthodontia for my kids, and it was also fun to have a reason to hang out in the legendary Elbow Room in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

An unpleasant and very successful New York agent I had at the time told me in a jocular way that she and her trust fund baby assistant had talked about my degrading occupation and thought my job must be the most depressing thing in the world, adding that the idea of doing work that had anything to do with industry would drive them both to actual suicide. But I bet they ate fish.

Apparently, a huge percentage of the people who write movies and television scripts today are rich kids from Ivy League schools, with little experience in the real world, and their naiveté often shows when they try and write about the rest of us. I wish there were more movies about regular people – not just people in glamorous professions. Even in the real world it seems as if there aren’t enough people who know how to do real things – like repair objects that are broken. Or drive any make or model of car without consulting the owner’s manual, like Tyler Benson, my new amateur sleuth from Tipping the Valet. He can also drive backwards at a high rate of speed, which can come in handy when you least expect it.

What To Do With Bad Reviews

Unpublished authors imagine that once they are published, life will be glorious. That’s because they haven’t thought much about bad reviews. Every author gets them, and sometimes they’re agonizing.

As a published, working author, you learn to live with the reality of bad reviews in different ways. You can stop reading them. You can have someone you trust vet them for you and warn you so that nasty splinters of prose don’t lodge in your brain. You can leave town or stay off the grid when your book comes out.

Hell, you can be perverse and break open a bottle of champagne to celebrate a dreadful review. Why not? Or if you’re a mystery author, you can have fun with a bad review and kill the reviewer. Of course, you don’t have to go all the way to murder. Fictional defamation, degradation, and despoliation can be satisfying, too.  But getting captured by a review is not healthy.

I remember a Salon piece of close to 3,000 words (seriously!) by a novelist who complained that Janet Maslin killed his novel in the New York Times. Killed? No critic has that power. But Maslin did trash his book. It happens. She also made a gross mistake about his book in her review. That happens, too. One reviewer claimed that my second novel focused on a theme that it didn’t remotely touch, which meant she was probably confusing it with another book of mine.  Reviewers get sloppy all the time.  Sleepy too, I bet….

sleepingstudenty_LargeThe Salon piece was disturbing and at times painful — but not just because of Maslin’s error. It opened with the author describing how he moaned on his couch, face down, while his wife read and paraphrased the bad review, and her having to admit that Maslin dissed the book as “soggy.”

The author teaches creative writing and had published three previous books, so you’d think he would try to set a better example for his students. Instead, while he admitted he was lucky to have been in the Times at all, he focused on his misery and even shared that he’d previously thought of Maslin as a ghost friend because she gave his first book a great review. That was super creepy.

I’ve published twenty-five books and I read as few of my reviews as possible. Why? Because I’ve learned more about my work from other authors through their books, conversations, or lectures than I have from reviews. I don’t look to reviews for education, validation or approbation. I hope they’ll help with publicity, but I’ve seen people get raves in the New York Times without any impact on sales.

More importantly, we authors shouldn’t let our self-esteem be held hostage by the Janet Maslins of journalism, and we should try not to over-estimate their importance or expect them to stroke our egos. Bad reviews? Ignore them along with the good ones, and keep writing.

How do you deal with bad reviews?  Have you ever felt trapped like the writer who wrote the Salon piece?

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk (Guide to the Writing Life) and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.W

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