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Facebook, Undead Russians, and the Tying of Loose Threads

Terrance Winter, a writer for The Sopranos, has a ready answer when asked about the most frequent fan question he fields — hands down, it’s about the episode with the missing Russian. What happened to the Russian?!

If you’ve seen the series, you know what I’m talking about. The episode, called Pine Barrens, features a botched execution of a Russian thug and his subsequent mysterious disappearance into the frozen wilderness of New Jersey. Neither the Russian nor his would-be corpse makes any other appearance in the series, and the mystery surrounding his whereabouts is never solved. It drives people bananas. Series creator David Chase had this to say about the episode:

This is what Hollywood has done to America. Do you have to have closure on every little thing? Isn’t there any mystery in the world? It’s a murky world out there. It’s a murky life these guys lead. [1]

Part of me loves this mystery. But that part is infinitesimally tiny compared to the part of me that feels that the NOT KNOWING is an unscratchable itch that will preoccupy my psyche until kingdom come.

I had reason to revisit my hatred for loose threads recently because I experienced the unparalleled joy of tying off a thread that has been dangling for the better part of thirty years. When I was in fifth grade, my best friend moved away. This was back when long distance phone calls were expensive and when the internet was still only a gleam in Al Gore’s eye. My friend and I exchanged letters for a few months, but quickly lost touch. I’ve often wondered about her over the years, but web stalking never turned up any clues to her whereabouts. Recently, though, I happened upon her mother’s Facebook page, which led me back to her. Thanks, Evil, Personal-Data-Stealing Corporation! My childhood friend is happily married, owns a powerboat, and seemed only mildly disturbed by my decades-long obsession with finding her.

As a writer, I am torn by the same impulse that led Chase and Winter to craft a messy ending for the Pine Barrens episode. I’ve written before about the unanswered questions in the Lindsay Harding series. My latest book will (I hope) be the start of a new middle-grade adventure series set in Scotland, and my initial draft left many questions unanswered. Life, after all, is a tangled ball of loose threads that dwarfs the biggest twine balls in Kansas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Missouri. You hear that, Midwestern states? Your balls are not as big as you think.

I’m also a reader, though. With the help of a kindly literary agent, I realized that the initial ending I wrote was unsatisfactory, especially for a middle-grade audience. Readers needed more answers than I had given. As I polish this new draft, I’m trying to strike the right balance of resolution and continuing mystery. It turns out that resolution is as easy as killing a Russian in the Pine Barrens, which is to say not very easy at all. Wish me luck!

I’m in love with a weird, evil Yoda creature

I’ve been pretty busy these last few weeks, bringing forth the miracle of life in all its wriggling, pooping, chubby-cheeked glory. Our latest addition, a boy, was born in early June and has kept us on a pretty short leash since then. I’ve been a little hesitant to post here, even when I’ve had the odd spare minute (and spare minutes are very odd these days), because my command of the English language seems to have disappeared along with my nights of unbroken sleep. The other day, for example, I found myself writing “yous” when I meant to write “use.” I guess sleep-deprived Mindy is a wise guy from New Jersey.

Can I share a secret? I really don’t like having a newborn baby. I was first struck by the unusual nature of this feeling when we were still in the hospital. At the birthing center where I delivered, they fit newborns with a little electronic ankle bracelet — the baby version of those plastic tag alarms they put on leather handbags to keep shoplifters from swiping them. I’ve heard stories, and I know there are desperate people out there who have tried to steal babies. Sure, babies are cute when they can sit up and gurgle adoringly at their caregivers. And who doesn’t love a cuddle with a cherub-faced two-year-old who has just awakened from a 12-hour nighttime snooze? By all means, covet one of those. But to want to steal a NEWBORN? Newborns are wrinkly little Yoda-looking blobs who fuss constantly and are essentially super glued to your boob six or seven hours a day. They make creepy little hand gestures and give suspicious sideways glances like they’re villains in a silent film. They use those tiny, powerful lungs to let you know how pissed off they every time they have to fart.

Even though objectively no one should want to endure a hellacious pregnancy, an excruciating delivery, and then several months of Guantanamo-style torture at the hands of a tiny tyrant, somehow there are still seven billion of us on the planet. How to explain this? For me, the magic is encoded in our DNA. Coiled in every cell in our bodies, we have about two meters of DNA strands. Six feet of the stuff! In every cell. The DNA to build a complete human evolved very slowly over millions of years and gosh darn it, it wants to live on. So in those impossibly thin, tightly packed DNA strands, there are adaptations that make us delight in the weird little faces of our babies. And that let loose a hormonal barrage that bonds mother and child. And a thousand other little bits of code unfold to ensure that however we may objectively feel about newborns, we do our darnedest to keep them alive, thriving, and happy. Perhaps the most important of these adaptations is the one that makes us forget all the (very) bad parts and fall madly, irrevocably in love with our children.

Must dash. The evil overlord, um, I mean sweet little baby needs to be super glued to my boob again.

Think of it as a murder time machine.

If you follow my blog, you’ll already know that work on book four of the Mount Moriah Mystery series ground to a halt earlier this year when I spent the better part of four months vomiting. I’ve recovered from BarfFest 2016, but still haven’t made as much headway as I’d like on the latest Lindsay Harding adventure.

malice_anthology_coverI haven’t been entirely unproductive this year, though. In addition to incubating my fetus, I also managed to publish a short story in the brand spankin’ new Malice Domestic Anthology, Mystery Most Historical. Malice Domestic is the world’s premier cozy and traditional mystery fan conference. It’s a mystery geek’s paradise. Think Disney World, only with fewer costumed princesses and more alcohol and murder. This year, there were well over 100 authors attending, all of whom write in the traditional mystery genre–i.e. no excessive sex or violence and typically involving relatable protagonists and “puzzle” type mysteries with clues. For fans, it’s a great chance to mingle with your favorite authors and stock up on all things mystery.

I was honored to have my story, “The Blackness Before Me,” not only selected for this year’s volume, but also chosen as the lead story for the whole collection.  I’m the lead-off batter, y’all! All the stories in the collection are set prior to 1950, and all of them prove that murder and mayhem are by no means modern phenomena. My story rides the murder time machine back to nineteenth-century South Africa, where a naive governess finds herself caught up in an intricate murder plot. The collection includes stories by well-known authors like Charles Todd and Catriona McPherson in addition to works by humbler folks like me.

That girl is strange, no question.

If you are a woman of a certain age or the parent of a such a woman, no doubt the title of this post immediately got you humming the opening number from Disney’s 1991 version of Beauty and the Beast. My family owned that tape on VHS; in fact, I think it’s probably still somewhere in my parents’ basement. Even though my sisters and I must have spent the better part of our childhood and adolescent years watching it, I hadn’t thought about it again until recently. Last week, my ten-year-old daughter went to see the new live-action version of the film and fell every bit as in love with it as I did with the original.

Revisiting this touchstone of my childhood got me thinking. The movies both open with the same set up — intellectual misfit Belle chafing (in song!) against the quotidian conformity of her fellow townsfolk. The divergence manifests itself in lyrics like this:

Baker: Good Morning, Belle!
Belle: Good morning, Monsieur.
Baker: And where are you off to, today?
Belle: The bookshop. I just finished the most wonderful story, about a beanstalk and an ogre and a –
Baker: That’s nice. Marie! The baguettes! Hurry up!
As a bookish kid, I was 100% Team Belle. Her love of literature clearly made her superior to oafish townspeople like the Baker, and especially to that Philistine-in-Chief, Gaston.
Watching the same thing play out from the perspective of adult experience, though, I had a slightly different take. When I look at this same scene now, here’s what I see:
Baker (being polite): How’s it going, Belle?
Belle: Let me start to tell you the really long, convoluted plot of a fairy tale I just read…
Baker (realizing that a grown woman is about to fill his entire morning with a painstaking, blow-by-blow summary of a children’s book she’s irrationally excited about): Oh, hey, Belle. Um, that’s cool. I just realized that I’m super busy with these baguettes, though. Later!
Belle, like so many Disney heroines, is a child trapped in a woman’s body. Sure, we all love characters with child-like exuberance. That’s why the internet gets such a kick out of things like this gnarly old dude tearing up the skate park. But this is especially true for female characters. Think of an iconic, lovable female character from a book or movie. Now ask yourself — is that woman fully an adult? I can think of male characters who manage to be magnetic, while still maintaining their dignity. You wouldn’t see Aragorn from Lord of the Rings breathlessly wasting someone’s time with a dizzy recounting of a book he just read. And Atticus Finch doesn’t go around befriending birds and flowers à la Snow White. Mr. Darcy may be uptight and arrogant, but he’s a compelling adult. James Bond, despite his Jack-the-lad demeanor, exudes manliness.
I can’t, however, think of a single adult female character who fully embodies an adult role while still remaining lovable. This is true, I admit, even of my own Lindsay Harding character. She’s trying to be a grown-up, but she’s got a long way to go. Remove the fun from a fictional heroine, and you’re left with a stick-in-the-mud. Or, worse, a bitch. Even the fact that female characters, like Belle in the song lyrics above, are often called girls is telling. Lots of iconic female characters actually are girls or at least very young women, from Anne Shirley to Alice in Wonderland to Katniss Everdeen. Am I wrong about this? I sure hope so. If you have a counter-example, leave it in the comments section.

What a North Korean assassination can tell us about our souls

If you’ve been following the news the past few weeks, you may have come across a series of stories describing the bizarre assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the exiled older brother of North Korea’s secretive dictator, Kim Jong Un. This type of thing–the flagrant murder of a political enemy by state-sponsored killers–is reassuringly rare. And when it does occasionally happen, as when Kremlin-backed murderers poisoned former KGB operative Alexander Litvinenko in a London restaurant, the killers are usually careful to cover their tracks, making it nearly impossible to prove that the hit was orchestrated by a government. I recently heard a radio commentator discussing why such killings aren’t more common, and why governments go to such lengths to hide their crimes. After all, if you’re a nefarious dictator, killing your enemies seems like a pretty straightforward way of dealing with dissent. There are a variety of international laws and treaties that explicitly prevent this type of behavior, especially when it occurs on foreign soil.

You may be wondering why this international intrigue piqued my interest, and if I’m planning to abandon the world of cozy crime and make an abrupt shift to writing spy thrillers set in the world of bad haircuts and imported cheese. Luckily for the reading public, the answer is no. Rather, my interest comes down to the word the commentator used: “prevent.” As in these laws prevent this type of behavior. It got me pondering the age-old question of inherent evil. This is Philosophy 101, Hobbes vs. Locke. If laws weren’t around to prevent, curtail, strongly discourage, etc. us from being horrible and violent, would the world just be one big Lord of the Flies-style foray into the darkest cesspools of the human soul?

I’m not talking here about laws that prevent jaywalking, insider trading, and other selfish or thoughtless acts. I’m thinking specifically of killing. Setting aside the small number of people who are utterly detached from reality and social norms, those who are, say, deranged by severe mental illness, caught up in a war, or scarred by childhood abuse, is it true that the fear of legal punishment is what prevents us from committing violent crimes? I’ve thought about this quite a bit as I’ve invented characters whose compelling motivations and character flaws combine to cause them to commit or attempt to take another person’s life.

My feeling is that most basic laws against violence weren’t codified to try to scare people into reining in a natural propensity toward murdering other people. Instead, I see laws as arising from the inherent belief that 99% of the world’s population already shares–killing people isn’t something most of us would even want to do, even if we were assured that we would never be punished. Unless a very specific set of circumstances and personalities are in play, killing doesn’t happen. Sure, I’ve been angry enough to want someone dead. Just the other day, someone (obviously deserving of death) bought the last package of whole grain waffles right out from under me. But if you actually put a knife in my hand and said, “Go for it. No questions asked and no consequences…?” I, along with most people, would take a pass. Even many nefarious dictators would think twice.

Sex, drugs, and Mr. Peanut

“I swear! There’s an entire series of these, and this guy sells millions. There’s one about sexy sentient donuts.”

For better or for worse, last weekend I was made aware of the existence of the literary oeuvre of Chuck Tingle, whose series of creatively-titled, gay erotica about topical issues includes such gems as Feeling the Bern in My Butt. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the premise of Gay T-Rex Law Firm. My mental deflowering took place when a few writers and I were winding down after a day at the Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival, which, to be extremely clear, is a fun, family-friendly writing festival, and not in any way associated with butts or dinosaurs or dinosaur butts. The agent of my corruption was USA Today-bestselling romance novelist Kimberly Lang. Lang was  lamenting the lack of quality control in publishing, and we were feeling simultaneously aghast and impressed by the success of people like Tingle, who churn out books like a Kardashian sister churns out pouty-lipped selfies.

Lang has been in the publishing biz for almost ten years, and her own books range from sweet to steamy. She had some profound (and hilarious) insights into the writing of genre books that really got me thinking about my own work. I’ve sometimes pushed the boundaries of conventional cozy mysteries. My books are sometimes a little more open about addressing uncomfortable issues like racism and domestic violence than cozy mysteries typically are. And the humor can sometimes be sharper than it is sweet. I’ll definitely be keeping all these issues in mind as I start working in earnest on book four in the Mount Moriah series.

suffolk_mystery_fest
Look at me not barfing in abject terror!

Lest you think that Suffolk only involved serious conversations about the craft of writing peppered with digressions into the landscape of, um, creative erotica, let me reassure you that there was also some drug taking. I’ve written before about my reliance on prescription drugs to manage my public speaking anxiety. Suffolk was a pretty intense schedule for me, with a reading, a panel discussion, and an hour-long workshop where I was the one and only presenter. One of my fellow writers saw me popping a beta blocker, and I ended up evangelizing the merits of pharmaceutical-induced calm. I think I converted at least three people to drug-takers and also discovered that one very famous author relies on meds to quell her terror at public appearances. This person is in fact so famous that she might have lawyers who wouldn’t like me mentioning her name in the context of drug-taking, so I won’t!

 

I’ll close this dispatch from Suffolk with a quirky bit of trivia–Suffolk, Virginia is home to the beloved Mr. Peanut. As a child, I thought that Mr. Peanut was the same character as Rich Uncle Pennybags, the cartoon figure who fronts the Monopoly board game. I genuinely only recently realized that they were different. The fact that one is an anthropomorphic peanut probably should’ve been my first clue. Well, now that I’ve had a full education in the history and lore of the Planters mascot, I’m not likely to make that mistake again. But it’s possible that some folks in Suffolk might have mistaken me for Mr. P. After all, we were wearing the same dress.

peanut
Who wore it best?