Tag: poison


It's What's for Dinner

 I missed putting up a blog post today because the past 48 hours felt more like 400 hours. Food, sleep, and writing took a back seat to the day job, packaging gifts for my church’s angel tree, graduating from Citizens’ Police Academy, packing books to send to contest winners, and schlepping a twenty-two pound box to UPS to return a wrong order to Amazon so I could get a refund. Not to mention the usual stuff: feeding the cat, taking out garbage, checking email and voicemail and text messages to make sure I didn’t miss an appointment or deadline or bill due date, “maintaining my social media presence” (that phrase) to keep Facebook and Twitter from sending me gentle reminders about how followers of my author page/feed want to hear from me—you get the picture. I left the day job, late, today with a to-do list longer than it was when I arrived at the office this morning, which means an early start tomorrow to play catch-up.So what did I do when I finally got home tonight, besides say a prayer of thanks that the cat sitter rescheduled her meet-and-greet with Agatha? I headed for the local pizzeria for some comfort food. Yeah, I know “emotional” eating is bad for you but sometimes I don’t care. A meatball and sausage sandwich and a bowl of minestrone soup (loaded with vegetables, by the way) went a long way toward making up for a missed lunch and freezing temps. Food plays a big role in much crime fiction. From the culinary cozy subgenre’s recipes to Nero Wolfe’s epicurean meals to Agatha Christie’s frequent choice of a murder weapon, food appears in mysteries again and again. In her November 2016 article in The Guardian, “Dining With Death: Crime Fiction’s Long Affair With Food,” crime writer Miranda Carter lists several detectives known as much for what they eat as for the crimes they solve: the aforementioned, Nero Wolfe, Inspector Montalbano, Yashim, Pepe Carvalho, Inspector Maigret. Food puts in a more-than-passing appearance in Sherlock Holmes and Sam Spade stories. While Agatha Christie’s poison-laced morsels hardly qualify as comfort food, in many of the other crime stories meals form the center piece of pleasant rituals that provide the detective—and the reader—with temporary respite from the horrors and stress of their work. Like my meatballs, sausage, and minestrone. While my life is far from horrible, it is stressful. Some days I feel as if dozens of things are happening at once and I’m running from crisis to crisis until I reach a point where I can’t even remember what day it is. (On Tuesday, I felt as if, surely, it must be Friday.) I drag myself home, exhausted and cranky. But, with a good meal and an hour or so, I feel ready to take on the world again. What’s your favorite comfort food? How do you unwind after a stressful day?

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Guns, Germs and Lead Pipes

I kill imaginary people for a living. Like John Cusack’s hitman in Grosse Pointe Blank, I’m not quite sure why I do it. Maybe my psychological profile fits a certain “moral flexibility.” I hate doing it with a gun, though.  That’s not to say I haven’t used firearms in my fiction. Guns are efficient, particularly in novels where characters often hit their targets. Readers know what to expect when I mention the gleaming slide of a semi-automatic or a sleek, sloping trigger. And, as American police officers have handguns as part of the uniform, chances favor death by bullet for bad guys (real or invented). My problem with guns in fiction is that they are used all-too-often in the mystery and thriller genres and they deliver death a little impersonally for a psychological suspense book. Shooting someone from five feet away lacks the immediacy that I think readers want when they’ve been inside characters’ heads trying to unravel their thought processes.  I’ve drowned people. There is a certain metaphorical satisfaction to this method of dispensing with marked characters. Sinking beneath the water evokes a burial. The character slips beneath the surface and disappears, the layers of water like fresh shovels of dirt. It also has literary roots (Ophelia in Hamlet, for one). I’ve pushed people off buildings. This method of dispatching with characters has the benefit of working for both women and men. The imaginary person needs only to be someplace precarious and off-balance–in other words in a setting that evokes the atmosphere I’ve been trying to create all book.  I’ve also bludgeoned folks with blunt objects. Writing a scene in which a character was beaten with a lead pipe was extremely difficult for me. I think it took two days to craft and involved looking at head injuries online as well as watching police interviews of suspects in crime of passion killings in which the victims were beaten (YouTube has everything.) I cried a bunch that week. But I think the scene came out with the amount of violence required for the character’s emotional state in the moment.  In a book due out 2018 and currently with my editor, I drugged a character. Employing this method involved reading up on drug side effects and what substances particular pills can and cannot be combined with. The benefit of using this tactic is that I could create considerable tension in the lead up to the death. Would the character imbibe the poison or not? And what if he or she tasted something off? One of the more interesting ways of eliminating a character that I read was in Christine Carbo’s The Wild Inside. It involves a bear and bait–and fortunately for my sensitive stomach happens off-screen, so to speak.  So, writer friends, join me in this morbid discussion. How do you get rid of your victims? Are there any methods that you avoid and why? What are some of the most interesting ways of eliminating characters that you’ve read?  (Also, thanks to Jared Diamond’s book for inspiring my title–even though Guns, Germs and Steel is an amazing historical study of why certain groups of people have experienced a kind of global hegemony and has NOTHING to do with murder mysteries.)          

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Be Careful What You Say; You Might End Up in My Novel

 I struggled to come up with an idea for a blog post today. I mean I had nothing. Nothing struck me as new or blogworthy. I didn’t feel I had anything to say about anything, at least nothing that hadn’t been said countless times already. No new spins, no new twists. Until I decided to get dinner and went out for a sandwich.
My town boasts a lovely cheese market. They sell more varieties of cheese than I imagined possible. Cheese made from milk produced by every animal except yak, I think. Cheese from more countries than you can find on Google Earth. Plain cheese and cheese with add-ins ranging from berries to nuts to nettles to bourbon. Pure cheese nirvana. The market also sells deli meats, salads, pastries, beverages, and heat-and-eat meals. And sandwiches. Which is why I was there. As I waited for my panino (which I just learned is the singular of panini) to come off the grill, a man approached the counter with a tub of grated parmesan cheese. The cashier rang up the cheese and asked the man if he wanted anything else. “No,” the man said. He swiped his card to pay for his cheese and left.
Grated parmesan. That’s all he bought. No pasta, no bread, no wine. Just a single tub of grated parmesan. Who goes to the store and buys only a tub of grated parmesan? What’s he going to do with it? I looked him over—unobtrusively, I hoped. Middle-aged. Handsome. A bit of gray flecked his dark hair and beard. His beard fell into the scruffy category—too heavy to be five o’clock shadow, too scant to be called full. Neat and trim enough to suggest he worked to keep it that way. He wore a nice suit and carried a stainless-steel travel coffee mug. The lid was on but he held it sideways, suggesting he’d finished the contents at some earlier point in his commute. It also suggested he’d just come from the train. If he’d driven, he’d have left the mug in his vehicle. In other words, he looked like an average businessman, no different from some zillion other average commuters. Nothing sinister about him.
But, because this is how my brain works, I immediately started to attribute sinister motive behind buying only a tub of grated parmesan cheese. I decided he was going to mix poison in it and swap it for an unadulterated tub. A regular brain would assume he was planning a spaghetti dinner and simply forgot the parmesan so stopped by the store on the way from work to get some. Or someone was fixing spaghetti for him and called or texted him to say they were out of cheese and please get some on the way home. A regular brain would assume these things. My brain is not regular. My brain writes murder mysteries. A friend once asked me if I spent all my time imagining ways my friends would die if they were characters in my novels. I told him my “friends” have nothing to worry about. But, yeah, I kind of do. Every place I visit is a potential crime scene in some future novel. Every person I see is a model for a fictional victim or suspect. Every overheard conversation becomes the basis for potential dialog or a plot. It’s been said that authors steal lives. Authors steal entire worlds. Everything, even the most mundane situation (and, really, what’s more mundane than buying a tub of cheese?) is fair game for future fiction. And, you know what? I’m not sorry. No apologies. As an introvert, I’ve lived in my head my entire life. I enjoy the stories swirling around in there. I’m not hurting anyone. I don’t shout at strangers, “Hey! Who are you going to poison with that cheese?” Making up stories satisfies my urge to create, fulfills my God complex. The world in my head operates the way I want it to. Good triumphs over evil, the bad guy never gets away with it, repentance and redemption are the rules, not the exceptions, chaos becomes order, wrongs are made right, justice prevails.
So, Mr. Cheese, if you happen to read this, don’t worry. I don’t really think you’re a mad poisoner. My assessment of your food choice may have been influenced by the advanced reader’s copy of fellow Missdemeanor, Cate Holahan’s, new domestic thriller, The Lies She Told. A good domestic thriller makes you suspicious of all things associated with domestic tranquility. You give every mundane action, every scene of commonplace life, the side eye, wondering what darkness lurks beneath the Norman Rockwell-esque veneer. But, please, enjoy your pasta or whatever you plan to sprinkle with parmesan. I’ll keep my thoughts about your purchase to myself. Unless I come across a breaking news headline about the Spaghetti Murders. 

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