April 27, 2009

Keep the Mystery Free of Sermons By Guest Blogger Chester Campbell Mysteries are no place to preach sermons. A weighty subject covered with a deft touch (does that sound like cream puff football?) can deliver a powerful message. One that comes to mind is Betty Webb’s Desert Wives, which dealt with the evils of polygamy along the Arizona/Utah border. It led to legislative action in the State of Arizona. Other books, which shall remain nameless, treat social issues in a heavy-handed manner, turning off readers who are not die-hard believers in “the cause.” Where is the dividing line, that small thread that separates the preacher from the storyteller? I think the issue must be widely accepted as just plain wrong. That was certainly the case with Arizona’s polygamists, who exploited young girls to satisfy their lust for sex and money. They got the girls pregnant to acquire babies that brought in fat welfare checks. The mothers and their offspring were kept in compounds that provided economies of scale in reducing living costs. A book’s characters can, and should, be dedicated to their cause, but the author needs to keep an even hand in dealing with the narration. When opinions other than those expressed by characters sneak in without regard to anything factual, the reader is going to start wondering about the objectivity of the book. Pontificating paragraphs that give a dogmatic view to one side of the controversy will turn people off. Social commentary which explains an author’s views on an issue can work in a foreword or a back-of-the-book explanatory note, but it has no business in the plot of a mystery. A well-written story that shows, not tells, the horrors of some threat to society will get the point across without the necessity of the author intruding. One of the major problems we’ve encountered in recent years, one that keeps popping up from time to time, is environmental pollution. Probably the most costly to rectify is that caused by toxic chemicals entering the water supply. That’s the subject I chose for my latest book, The Surest Poison. I’m not a “message” writer and approached the subject from the standpoint of how it could lead to a good mystery for my private investigator to solve. Since his background involved work as a National Park ranger, his concern with the effects of pollution were obvious. The protag and the attorney who hired him express their displeasure over the health problems created by the polluter, and some of the ill effects are shown as Sid interviews people in the affected area. The horrors that result from careless dumping of toxic wastes don’t need to be further exploited to highlight the inevitable distress. Hot-button social issues can add tension and create added interest in a mystery plot, but they should be handled with care. Have you tackled any of these pressing problems? How did you approach the subject to keep yourself on firm ground and stay out of the bully pulpit? ---------------------------------------- Today’s visit is part of Chester Campbell’s Blog Book Tour. He will give away several copies of his books in drawings at the end of the tour on May 1. Leave a comment here and you may be a winner. For more details click this link to his web site. Chester Campbell is the author of two mystery series featuring private investigators. The Surest Poison, first book in the Sid Chance series dealing with a chemical pollution case, is just out. He has written four Greg McKenzie novels featuring a retired Air Force investigator and his wife. Currently secretary of the Southeast Chapter of Mystery Writers of America and president of the Middle Tennessee Chapter of Sisters in Crime, he lives in Madison, TN with his wife, Sarah, and an 11-year-old grandson
Nature -- as good as it gets Posted by Lorraine (L.L.) Bartlett—better known to some as Lorna Barrett April is a fickle month. It teases you with the last of winter, and then turns right around and teases you with a taste of August. We’ve seen it all this month, snow, rain, thunderstorms, rain, hail. I’m thankful I don’t live in tornado country, or I’m sure we’ve have seen one of those, too. Saturday started out in the 40-degree range, and within a few hours was already 70 degrees. Hot dog! Short-sleeved shirts and shorts! And it just so happens we were heading out to our summer cottage in rural New York. This is the first year we’ve been down there in early Spring—thanks to baseboard electric heat we installed on the hottest day of 2008. Whoa—it was like another world. All the trees were bare. You could actually see the cottages on the island across the bay—even without binoculars. Of course only the really hardy have their docks out. We have a dock, but no boat. (Alas, we’re not sailors—we just swear like them.) Last week, we stayed over one night. The place was cold and musty and a bit dank. We unloaded the car, turned on the heat, and hightailed it out of there for several hours to let the place warm up. Sunday morning, we went for a walk down the road to see what changes had taken place with our neighbors who live here year round. (We’re one of the few seasonal places left on the street.) One neighbor had enclosed her yard to keep out the deer. Another was having a new entrance added. Still another had lopped off the flat roof, installed a new one, as well as adding quite a large addition to the back/front (depends on which side you call back—okay, on the WATER) side of the house. Another neighbor had knocked down his summer cottage and replaced it with a year-round residence. I envy the people who live here all year. It must be wonderful to watch the changing seasons on a daily basis. Okay, thanks to heat (and municipal water added in 2007), we can now witness three seasons, but I’ve heard tell being here in the winter is akin to living on the moon. You’re trapped inside—and everything’s white—the land, the water, and the sky. We’ve never been down early enough to clean up the last of the old hosta canes, so this year I was able to clean everything out, including other plants that had sneaked in (snow on the mountain). Whoa! These hostas are way ahead of the guys at home. It’s colder there, what gives? All I can think is that they’re sheltered from the relentless wind, and get bright sunshine most of the day. They’re truly magnificent in the summer, and may fare better without the canes of several years past. The bay is notorious for sweeping storms from the north. You can watch the rain coming as the surface of the water changes with the speed of the wind. Saturday night we were ensconced in our happy hour chairs, reading, when the wind came rushing up the bay. The wind socks danced wildly and I was sure the narrow piece of PVC pipe they’re attached to would snap—sending them who knows where. But despite six or seven hours of vicious wind, the pipe has held through yet another storm. And the socks have survived to dance another day—through yet another storm. In another couple of weeks it’ll be time to put out the hummingbird feeders. We’ve never succeeded in luring hummingbirds to our house, but, like clockwork, they arrive here in mid-May and stay through the Labor Day weekend. I’ve got a new camera and I’m hoping to get some wonderful pictures of them at the feeder. Or maybe dive-bombing each other. (They really are greedy little buggers and don’t want to share.) As I was typing this, I happened to look up, and saw two ducks fly past. Then – holy crap was that a hawk or a turkey? Something huge flew past, holding its prey in its talons. It didn’t take any imagination to know what was coming next. Several years ago, we sat on the deck as a huge hawk perched in the tree at the edge of the yard. It had something in his talons and after a while (and with much binocular work), we figured out it was a squirrel—or at least part of one. Mr. (or Ms.) Hawk waited for several hours and we figured it was waiting for the rigor mortis to release its grip. Once again, a storm blew up the bay and in the driving rain, Mr. (or Ms.) Hawk had a delicious dinner ripping apart what was left of Mr. (or Ms.) Squirrel. Well, that’s nature for you. (P.S. The big bird flew by again—and it was a bald eagle! The first I’ve ever seen!) Once, a decade or so ago, I saw my one and only owl. It was the size of a huge log, and defied gravity by actually flying. It looked like it shouldn’t be able to get off the ground, let alone get high enough to perch at the top of a Siberian Elm. We also watch ducks, geese, swans (20 this year!), gulls, and in the fall, cormorants. We always seem to just miss really big fish leaping out of the water. On land there are abundant squirrels to entertain the cats (and their very active sexual antics to entertain children), chipmonks--and the 20 or so pale orange feral cats that seem to multiply like rabbits, courtesy of our irresponsible neighbors. (Oh, yeah--and rabbits, too!) Often, on hot summer nights, we see fireflies. They never cease to amaze me. One year – before we were married and used to stay over (when other family members with small children with many sticky fingers monopolized the place), we left about 11 p.m. and saw the entire side of...

Lorraine Bartlett

Five women, five weekdays, many surprises.

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