A cold night, fog in the air, and moonlight casting unreliable shadows. She’s upset to the point of wandering so far no one will hear her cry for help. This is the kind of prologue with layers of description that create an atmosphere so tense I was instantly transported to the setting of the crime. Even knowing something terrible was gaining on her, I couldn’t look away. And I didn’t until the last page of this sprint-paced story, which lands perfectly at an ending that satisfies the whodunit faithful.
A British crime mystery that hit several bestseller lists, Robert Bryndza’s The Girl in the Ice introduces a strong female protagonist in Detective Erika Foster. A woman with very recent demons still haunting her, Erika expects to be on desk duty for the foreseeable future. But an old friend, feeling she needs to get back in the game, calls her into a high profile murder investigation of a young socialite whose influential parents seem hell-bent on preventing Foster from solving the case.
Navigating her new team—not all of whom are thrilled to bring her on—adds tension to an already stressed out Foster, whose disdain for authority and fragile psyche take a few chapters to figure out. As protagonists go, she’s well-written and believable, giving the reader more than enough personality to connect with.
With the body count rising Detective Foster challenges those around her to dig deeper to find the common denominator. But the closer she gets the more pressure she gets from her higher-ups to reroute her investigation away from the socialite’s famous family. Foster is abruptly removed from the case and, as strong women are wont to do, seizes the opportunity to go even harder toward her goal. She’s a brilliant, fearless strategist with no apologies for her direct approach, and this is why the series has sold millions of copies.
The dialogue is the strongest aspect of the story, giving the minor characters dimension and depth. Bryndza threads the kind of nuance throughout the dialogue that makes everyone seem like a viable suspect. Fans of Elizabeth George and Ruth Rendell will appreciate the uncompromising style and British elegance of his writing and character building.
Though this was Bryndza’s first in the Erika Foster series he’s just released number six so fans are advised to select a good bottle of red and hunker down with a stack of these page-turning thrillers and get to know Detective Erika Foster.
On Saint Patrick’s Day I ventured into Chicago for the Murder and Mayhem conference at Roosevelt University. Arriving early, I had a few minutes to people watch as Michigan Avenue rumbled to life with shamrock laden parade goers, some of whom appeared to have hit the green beer already. The sun shone on the Bowman sculpture that marked the entrance to Grant Park and I wondered if anyone else gazing down on the statue from this mystery writers conference noticed the absence of the actual bow from the Native American warrior’s hands. Curious, I looked up the sculpture and discovered that there never was a bow in his hands. The artist designed it that way to engage the viewer’s imagination. What a perfect portend for this day!
The Murder and Mayhem event is the brainchild of two Midwest writers Dana Kaye and Lori Rader-Day, and was sponsored by Sisters in Crime’s Chicagoland chapter and Mystery Writers of America’s Midwest chapter, two of our genre’s best known scribe tribes— if you’re not yet a member get to it. The lineup was incredible, and not only for the keynote speakers Gillian Flynn and Jeffery Deaver.
After the funny and prolific Eric Beetner gave opening remarks and advised us the new tax code allows mystery writers one murder per year (body receipt required), the first panel included authors JD Allen, Danny Gardner, Steve Goble, Alexia Gordon, and Kristen Lepionka. They talked about getting ‘the call’ and how it changed them and I thought how intimidating and humbling it must be to sit up there, doling out advice to a sea of wide-eyed wannabes, as though you had the answers. No doubt many in the crowd were gathering up each tidbit on exactly how to write, how to get that call, how to never have writer’s block—FEED US—and then, like a fresh-smelling cotton sheet spread over a bed, Danny Gardner offers the soft, settling words I laid my head upon. “I love myself the most when I’m writing.”
Lesson #1 of the day: Love yourself.
The second panel, Crafting a Thrilling Series, was again stocked with authors who, through ALL fault of my own, I hadn’t yet read. Raymond Benson, Jess Lourey, Nick Petrie, Patricia Skalka and Carrie Smith compared notes on whether or not they’d set out to create series, or happened upon it through various circumstances. Jess Lourey scored major asterisks on my Buy Next shelf when she stated—with pride—that she sent 423 queries before her book got scooped up. Finally, a count I can relate to! I get dismayed when I read an author saying she got eight rejections or it took ten long months to get picked up. Puhleez. Get back to me when your query spreadsheet looks like a random number generator.
But it was Nick Petrie who got the award for most thought provoking words on the panel: Writers perform acts of radical empathy. We are constantly soaking up the world’s feelings so that we can share them. That’s big work, Nick. Thank you for helping me understand why I sometimes cry when I write.
Lesson #2: Remember to wring out your sponge once in a while.
The third panel, True Tales from a Life in Mystery, hit close to home for me. Alongside authors Jamie Freveletti, Mary Kubica, Isabella Maldonado, and Lori Rader-Day sat Michael Koryta. He and I share the same hometown, Bloomington Indiana, and his upcoming novel How It Happened (May, 2018) is based on an actual murder case that happened there. I still go back to Bloomington regularly and that murder, along with another one which is yet unsolved, have cast a pallor over the town I used to roam freely as a teenager. I never gave a thought to hanging out at the quarries or Peoples Park, but now I imagine these young women disappearing and wonder if I was just lucky, or if my hometown has turned dark. Koryta talked about moving the book’s setting to Maine to give him some distance from the reality that the body was found very near where he had lived. As he spoke about it I could see the memories arc across his face like a sunset, and I realized that there’s an inherit danger in being a writer, which is that we tend to dive deep into our stories without always keeping an eye on land.
Lesson #3: Know when to come up for air.
The lunch hour was next and I was lucky enough to have registered early for the sold out Sisters in Crime lunch talk with Gillian Flynn. Her writing is so good that I’ve written down at least a full page of her words, just to re-read them. For example, the opening line of Dark Places: “I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it.”
I mean, come on. She talked about her process, which sounds a lot like mine: scribbling thoughts on many post-it notes that may or may not make sense upon further review. One thing she said I think I’m going to try. She doesn’t adhere to a daily word count but rather she sets a scene goal. So instead of obsessively gaping at the number at the bottom of the screen, she’s focused on getting the characters through the action. Huh. Didn’t occur to me, and yet it’s so simple.
Lesson #4: Change the rules if they aren’t working.
The early afternoon session, The Winding Path to Publishing, included Eric Beetner, Terri Bischoff, Cheryl Reed, Jessica Strawser, and Andrew Shaffer, whose humorous and thoughtful insights included a reminder to practice self-love. I’m not positive but I’m about 67% sure he was talking about a very specific kind of self-love. Either that or I’d gotten a little giddy from all the fangirling and fantasizing that I was on a panel, waxing poetic about my rise to fame. The panel all agreed that being honest with yourself about the quality of your work—really making sure that you only submit the best work you can possibly produce—is one of the most critical steps along the path to greatness.
Lesson #5: Don’t stop ‘til you get it right.
The last panel of the event introduced me to a group of professionals in law enforcement, forensic science and news, and was very helpful in terms of dealing with facts in fiction. Thomas Halloran, Adam Henkels, Marcella Raymond, Luis Santoyo, and Cynthia Woods were all generous with the expertise in interviewing witnesses, sketching subjects, testing blood and other evidence, and the importance of accurately describing basic procedures. Lots of readers work in these professions and the consensus was that there’s nothing that will take them out of a story faster than writing that clearly shows the writer did not do his research. After this panel I latched onto one these kind folks who agreed to help me with some of my research, so that it doesn’t reek of Wikipedia.
Lesson #6: Get expert advice so the details ring true with readers.
The final hour of the event was the keynote conversation between Jeffery Deaver and Gillian Flynn and may I just say it was delightful! The two of them chatted like old friends, volleying topics like how they develop their story ideas, plotting versus pantsing, and whether they find characters or the other way around. As much as their writing styles and tips were interesting I just kept coming back to how they interacted. It was so professional and yet comfortable. I really enjoyed watching them enjoy each other’s company. Toward the end of their talk Deaver paraphrased a quote made by George R.R. Martin about writing. Deaver’s sparse yet beautiful rendering of Martin’s more heady thought was, “Books aren’t made like buildings, but grown like plants.” And that brings me to my last lesson from this extraordinary event.
Lesson #7: Enjoy all the moments, the writing and the not writing. In them, beautiful things will happen.
Poisonous plants have long played the villain in both fiction and non-fiction over the centuries. Perhaps you’ve read about Socrates being forced to drink poison hemlock while his acolytes watched. There’s also that most badass of botanists, Locusta, who became such a well-known expert in her field that the Romans essentially had her on speed dial to off one another when reasonable discourse failed them, which happened frequently. She was prolific in knowledge and talent, utilizing such classics as nightshade and arsenic, and, when it came time to take out that most Noblest of Romans, Augustus, she added mushrooms—the Deathcap variety.
Agatha Christie is perhaps fiction’s most profuse poisoner, utilizing digitalis (Appointmentwith Death), opium (Sad Cypress), monkshood (4.50 to Paddington) and hemlock (Five Little Pigs) and many others. One might wonder why so many of her books revolve around poison. She developed an interest while working in a medical dispensary and sealed her fate once she took her exam for the Society of Apothecaries. She often spoke of her admiration of poisons as the ideal murder weapon because of the many ways they can be delivered to the intended victim and the amount of time certain poisons take to manifest in murder. Guns shoot, ropes strangle, but poisons, ah poisons. They stalk, pounce, and paralyze in ways that guarantee surprising and unnerving story lines for readers.
Here in the twenty-first century the happenstance of hemlock or opium is too out of place for reasonable minds to accept as a likely murder weapon. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t dozens of other potential perps lurking around your back door or local Lowe’s. I have a dedicated area in the backyard that’s my poison garden, which includes several plants that were already growing here when I moved in. The aforementioned monkshood and digitalis (foxglove) are present, as are hellebore (Lenten rose) and yew. I’ve added castor bean, poppies, larkspur, and Angel’s Trumpet.
Angel’s Trumpet, also known as Brugmansia, is my favorite and it has a lead role in my manuscript The Poison Season. It’s a member of the nightshade family which also includes jimson weed, bindweed and moonflower. In the summer evenings I can sit and watch the blooms of my peach and cream plants spiral open. The scent is, quite literally, swoon-worthy. While researching the flower for my story I spent a little too long sniffing blooms and became a bit nauseated. It passed after a few minutes, and I’ve learned to be more cautious when I’m hanging out with these clever killers.
Another favorite, Moonflower, is a close relative of Angel’s Trumpet. Whereas the Angel’s Trumpet blooms hang down and sway like the skirt of a southern belle, the moonflower faces upward, a beacon for evening moths to come and get their pollen on. Moonflowers open rather quickly, in about seven minutes, right at dusk. It’s a lovely show and guaranteed to provide great photo opportunities.
As a writer I am, by definition, curious. I could spend all of my time researching poisonous plants and like the rest of you authorial assassins, my browser history is ridiculously suspicious. By having a poison garden in my back yard, I can tear myself away from the computer, go outside for a breath of fresh air (not too close to the Angel’s Trumpet), and still be researching my work. I highly recommend investing in a few felonious flowers for your research and relaxation. Plus, a garden gives you a good place to dump the bodies.
If you’re into Mother Nature’s murder mob, check out these sources for more information:
Holly A. Chaille is an advanced master gardener and writer plotting gardens and murders in northern Indiana. She’s a member of Sisters in Crime and knows more ways to use poisonous plants than her husband would like. Chaille is querying her first novel, The Poison Season, a suspense about sisters, the thin tendril between love and betrayal, and of course, poisonous plants.
In Gardner’s latest book in the Sergeant D.D. Warren series, readers return to the Boston streets as Warren again teams with Flora Dane, a former victim of a violent crime (Find Her), to track down a killer. An entire family has been murdered except the oldest daughter, Roxy. She’s missing, as are the family’s two dogs. Warren naturally pings her as suspect number one and drives the police procedural side of the book in that direction. Dane, a vigilante who understands survival instincts, uses her skills to help other survivors get back to living. She believes Roxy’s hiding from the real killer and her first person narrative takes us along as she tracks the girl.
Finding her will either mean a killer is caught, or the last living family member’s life is saved. With her familiar storytelling style Gardner tacks between Ward’s investigation into the life of her suspect, and Flora, whose dead set on finding Roxy alive and safe.
With Gardner’s hefty bibliography fans expect the twists and turns she routinely carves into her writing and Look for Me provides them in spades. Although some are predictable red herrings and dead ends, she doesn’t fail to pull the rug out from under readers and keep them guessing until the last possible moment.
In another of Gardner’s signature moves, Look for Me creates the opportunity for readers to find themselves in a moral dilemma as she zooms in on the over-crowded foster care system and the nightmares formed in a foster home packed with more than one troubled kid. Something bad is bound to happen. But could it have been prevented? And, who’s really at fault here?
Gardner’s characters are each carrying heavy baggage, and it’s their flawed natures, their need to rescue, to retaliate and to rectify that makes them dangerously unpredictable. Some characters linger with readers after the story is over. These characters haunt. Gardner’s fan base has come to expect each new book will have characters who are simultaneously victims and victimizers, and story lines that shine a light into the dark places of those characters.
The layering of subplot seamlessly stiches in hot-button topics like domestic violence and bullying, while deftly pulling back the camera before we start to suspect a sermon on morality is coming soon. Fans will recognize the strong female protagonists, the survivors and the moral struggles, and they won’t be disappointed in this fast-paced and literally right out of the headlines read.
Gardner’s respect for the suspense genre is evident throughout, and in particular in the continued unreliability of two of her ongoing character, D.D. and Flora. An author who consistently touches on topics close to her heart, Gardner’s knack for penning a taught thriller brings issues to the page that many readers can empathize with. The pacing and voice Gardner employs keeps the story vibrating with excitement, and the change in POV guarantees the reader won’t get bored or mired in one perspective.
With a passion for research and her own experience volunteering with an agency serving at-risk and special needs kids, Gardner easily articulates the sad truths of our failing foster care system. But while social issues are ever-present she still keeps the reader turning page after page to get to the final answer.
Bobby “Blue” Bland is belting out Stormy Monday Blues as I emerge from the confessional where I’ve just admitted the killing of several beloved houseplants. Seems about right. It’s a blues tune but like all blues music, it rocks me into a calm meditative state.
Gardening has the same effect on me. I can drop to my knees and dig around in the dirt for hours and be completely at peace. Perhaps it’s the act of kneeling that sets the mood of reverence. I’m blissfully contemplative in the garden, seeding new life in a soil bed or nurturing growing plants.
And all the while my iPod serenades, swings and stomps me around the house or garden. I’ve got playlists of fast loud rock that gets me through a day of mulch moving, chick rockers to tell me stories while I prune, jazz for weeding and straight up blues that’s on 90% of the time. Shuffle blues, gospel blues, big band blues, Chicago blues, any of it, all of it. There’s not a feeling in this world that hasn’t been juked, boogied or twanged into a musical plea for your attention.
Plants love music, too. So fire up your speakers and get your groove on!
Poisonous plant expert Kit Magee is devastated by her sister’s apparent suicide. To unearth the truth and set things right, Kit risks revealing she has more than dirt on her hands.
First 250 Word of Manuscript:
Four minutes to go.
“Grindhouse Blues” began to moan its way through my earbuds as I inhaled slowly through my nose. Steady hands, Kit, I willed myself.
The blade in my left hand sliced down the length of the flower, cleanly dividing it. With my right hand I spread open the two halves, exposing its male and female parts. Using hemostat clamps I removed the anthers, the male parts holding pollen, and set them carefully onto the paper plate beside me. Breathe.
I swept a miniature paintbrush gently across the anthers lifting pollen onto the eyelash-fine hairs. Tapping the brush delicately onto the plate, I smiled as the tiny pile of yellow fluff landed softly. Exhale.
Less than a minute to complete this phase of my experiment.
As I turned to set the net cover over the plate my jumbo-sized cat Max jumped onto the workbench.
“Shit!” I grabbed him around his fat yellow middle a split second before his paw landed in the pollen. “Max, you could’ve been poisoned.” I hoisted all twenty-two pounds of him up onto one shoulder and placed the cover over the plate with my free hand.
Brugmansia, or Angel’s Trumpet, was a dangerous plant. My sister Margie and I discovered it several years ago at an herb workshop. The host had grown several brugmansia varieties around her property and was fascinated by the plant’s intriguing history as an anesthetic, hallucinogen and deadly poison, earning it the nickname the Devil’s Breath.
Koko Taylor was pitching a wang dang doodle all night long and Sally whooped. Spinning around she shimmied toward CC and held out her hands. CC smiled and pushed her chair back. She could never resist the opportunity to dance, especially with Sally, whose moves were at once fantastically sexy and so bawdy it could make a truck driver blush. Sally bit her lower lip, brow furled, and slowly twisted while lowering her rear end toward the floor. She must have iron glutes I thought, not for the first time.
“Come on girl. Get your groove thang groovin’,” Sally said as she twisted back upright and added crazy legs to her dance.
I took my wine glass in one hand and Sally’s hand in the other just as the music changed to John Mayall singing Where Did My Legs Go. We two-stepped around the table while CC shimmied solo. The three of us moved easily around each other, clinking glasses when we passed.
CC could dance for hours and sometimes did. She would plug in her earphones and move throughout the house singing and twisting and getting a bit of housework done, though not a lot.
The idea was to relax rather than clean but every now and again something got dusted or sorted, more a side effect of the dancing. One of her favorite songs was Howlin’ Wolf’s Built for Comfort. Sally and I would know when that song was playing in CC’s ears because she would sing along in a growly melisma, with a few “Tell em, Wolf!” or “Lay it down, man!” shouts of encouragement.
I’m going to tell you now that I did it. I killed those plants. But I really had no idea I was doing it at the time. You’d think that, as a master gardener, I might know better than to water plants that are hibernating in the sunroom, which reached a high temp over the polar vortex week of 20 degrees.
But the master gardener training doesn’t have a module on thinking clearly when you’re snowed in with a kid, a bunch of pets and woefully low supply of dark chocolate and good beer.
So on a trip through the sunroom to take the dog out for a pee, or rather, stand outside with her, repeatedly coaxing to no avail, I noticed that a couple of my wintering geraniums were dry enough to have pulled in from the pots. A quick glance around alarmed me. The purple oxalis I’ve loved and nurtured for years had fainted. The herbs were so parched I swallowed reflexively.
Filling a watering can with water I carefully drizzled water into the pots, which steamed from the cold. This, my gardening accomplices, should have warned me.
The next morning I found every plant I’d watered dead. Really dead. And then it occurred to me. I filled those tiny gorgeous plant cells with water that froze inside them. I scoured my books for resuscitation instructions but the prognosis is bleak.
So, in memory of my jade and oxalis I am sharing my confession. Maybe I’ve prevented another death by sharing my story.
If you’ve committed a plant crime, please join me in the confessional.