Saturday, August 31, 2019

An Interview with Bernard Schaffer by E. B. Davis

In this brilliantly chilling follow-up to The Thief of All Light, veteran police officer Bernard Schaffer digs deep into the past—and the haunted psyches of the detectives who search for truth . . . at any cost.

 “There’s a thousand scavengers in these woods.”

Before being promoted to detective, Carrie Santero was given a rare glimpse into the mind of a killer. Through her mentor, Jacob Rein—a seasoned manhunter whose gift for plumbing the depths of madness nearly drove him over the brink—she was able to help capture one of the most depraved serial killers in the country. Now, the discovery of a small human foot buried in the Pennsylvania woods will lead her to a decades-old cold case—and the darkest secrets of her mentor’s youth.

“Nobody trusts an animal that tries to eat its own kind.”

Thirty years ago, a young girl went missing. A police officer was murdered. Another committed suicide. The lives of everyone involved would never be the same. For three agonizing decades, Jacob Rein has yearned for the truth. But when Detective Carrie Santero begins digging up new evidence, she discovers some answers come with shattering consequences.

I don’t know why I downloaded this book. It isn’t really my go-to read. It sure isn’t cozy. But I was hooked as soon as I started reading. An Unsettled Grave is the second book in the Santero and Rein Thriller series. That word, “thriller,” usually turns me off. To me, it defines the reader as someone who has to get vicarious thrills, like a bystander at a traffic accident. So not me. But the reader is drawn into this story, not sidelined to bystander status at all.

Perhaps it’s due to the main character being a young female detective. Carrie Santero has her job to do, but as the only female detective on the county’s force, it’s an uphill battle doing her job without ticking off her boss, whose ego might interfere with his brain function, or the rest of her colleagues. Perhaps it’s because Jacob Rein’s life and family played an integral part in the case. Perhaps it’s because Schaffer pulls the reader back thirty years to when the cold case started.

After reading this book, what did I really wish for? That I’d found out about the first book before I read this one. There’s an interesting backstory and beginning to this series that I know I missed out on. So, I’ll pack The Thief of All Light for beach reading soon.

Please welcome Bernard Schaffer to WWK.                                                                                                         E. B. Davis
Preamble Questions:

Before we get into the book, I want to satiate my curiosity. You’ve written a lot of books from children’s books to nonfiction police procedure. When did you start to write?
At a very early age. I was a voracious reader and that’s where it starts for any author. You love to read and at some point, you decide to try creating stories of your own.
My first efforts at getting published were between high school and becoming a police officer. In those days I was strictly a short story and comic book script writer. I didn’t have the confidence to try anything more substantial.
I had this big electric typewriter I used to lug around to various dead-end security jobs. One was at a trash dump, and I’d sit in the security office at night writing while rats raced past the windows.
I was so broke at the time that I used to type on both sides of the pages to save money on paper. This was back in the old days where you did everything by mail and had to wait six months to know if you’d been rejected or not. It was a nightmare.
So I kept writing but ultimately the impending threat of starving to death and living on the streets convinced me to get a real job. Getting married and having two kids convinced me to keep it.
In 2010 my ex-wife and I separated and to keep from going crazy, I decided to do something I’d never done before. Write a novel. That was Whitechapel.

As a full-time police detective, how do you have time to write? Is writing therapy?
I’ve written in police cars at four AM. I've written in trash dumps. I write now when I’m getting into bed exhausted after a long day, but then am suddenly struck with such a perfect piece of prose that I have to get back up and stagger toward my computer. The point is, a writer finds time to get it in.
I'm no different than those who came before me. Elmore Leonard used to write inside a desk drawer at a crappy office job, until they caught him and fired him for doing it on company time. Harlan Ellison used to write in the toilet stall while he was in boot camp. Stephen King used to write in the laundry room with his typewriter balanced on a bucket, or something.
As far as whether or not writing is therapy, I’m not sure. It’s just who I am. Writers write for various reasons. To fight back against the darkness. To expel their demons. To make money. To preserve literature. To show the world they're the best of their time. Maybe I do it for all of those reasons and maybe none. I think therefore I am, and I am therefore I write.

How did you get endorsements from writers such as Lee Child, Lisa Scottoline, JA Konrath, Meg Gardiner?
Getting blurbs is one of the worst things. It’s really humiliating to have to approach established authors and go through the whole begging process. Some make it easy and some don’t.
Lee Child is an incredible guy who is incredibly generous. I met him at my first Thrillerfest and then got in contact with him later. He agreed right away and gave us such a great blurb they used it on the cover of The Thief of All Light.
I’d worked with Joe Konrath before. I spent six years in the indie world and Joe and I crossed paths and co-wrote some pieces together. Joe actually introduced me to his agent, who then became my agent, and now we share a publisher in Kensington. That was pretty easy. Joe has made a second career out of guiding others through the indie publishing world.
Lisa Scottoline is the Queen of Thrillers. I love that lady. She’s from my area and when I met her she beat me to punch and said, “Do you need a blurb?” We stay in touch and see each other at conferences. I really love Miss S as a person and as an author.  
The craziest story is David Morrell.
He not only gave us a great blurb, he suggested we change the entire ending to THE THIEF OF ALL LIGHT. I laughed and said yeah, okay. The book is done. It’s edited and we got our final payment and it’s on its way to the printer. My editor, Michaela Hamilton, wasn’t laughing.
Needless to say, we changed the ending. And David Morrell was right.

An Unsettled Grave Questions:

When Carrie was still in uniform, she made more money than now as a detective. Isn’t being a detective a promotion?
Not always. In some departments it’s a promotion, in others it’s an assignment that can be taken away at any moment. That’s happened to me.
In Carrie’s case, she isn’t promoted to detective. She leaves her agency and goes to work for the county and has to start over in terms of their pay scale and seniority and whatnot.

When a young woman driving home from the gym is pulled over and raped by a man who identified himself as a cop, Carrie asks the officers on road patrol to submit DNA. Her boss, Harv Bender, immediately pulls her off the case and sends her to the boonies to investigate what looks like a dead-end cold case. Wouldn’t asking for DNA for elimination be a standard response and procedure? I know from the quote above, “Nobody trusts an animal that tries to eat its own kind.” But what if a cop is responsible? Getting a bad cop out of the job should be a priority, shouldn’t it?
It should be. If I came to your house right now and said, hi, I’m from the government and we want your DNA maybe you’d give it and maybe you wouldn’t. Cops tend to react poorly when it’s suggested they’ve done something wrong. There's a herd mentality. Part of the reason is, cops all over the nation are punished when a cop in some distant part of the country does something wrong.
How many times have you seen people protesting in New York for something that happened on the west coast or the south, and the cops wind up getting hit with bottles and rocks and everything else? I'm not here to say what's right or wrong about it. I'm just saying, everything evolves over time, including that mentality.

Carrie defines patrol officers into two groups: Road dogs and traffic cops. What are they? What’s the difference? And are these groups real? Are the differences due to individual temperament or are the differences cultivated by the supervisor/county directives?
Every police agency has its own culture. Bucks County, where I work, has over 50 different departments. Different bosses, procedures, sizes, and cultures.
Carrie’s observation about those groups is consistent with my own.
Some guys get a perverted thrill out of wrecking some blue-collar worker’s life with six hundred dollars in traffic tickets. Some guys don’t.

What is a SANE nurse?
A Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner. They are trained to forensically exam victims of sex assaults and secure evidence.

What is Blue Flu? Is it real?
It’s a situation where cops protest by sicking out and not showing up for work. It can really wreak havoc, especially if a department doesn’t have the resources to cover the open shifts. If your entire nightwork shift calls out sick, especially a few nights in a row, you could have a real problem on your hands. It doesn’t happen often. Police officers are generally a very dedicated and professional group. But it has happened.

I’ve seen those “We Buy Gold” shops. How do they feed off the heroin trade?
Mainly just by existing. They allow anyone to walk in and sell jewelry and don’t ask any questions. Heroin addicts need a constant supply of heroin, so they need a constant source of money.
Those gold places melt the gold almost immediately so it’s not like victims can go and look for their missing items. Priceless family heirlooms. Rings an elderly woman was given by husband decades ago in Paris. All of it sold for pennies and melted into scrap for dope money.

Having not read the first book, I assume Jacob Rein has been either let go or is on administrative leave from the force. Why do he and Carrie stay in touch?
They have an experience in TOAL that binds them together. Rein is her mentor and maybe also a warning of what happens if she lets the job consume her.

Vieira County, which I assume is fictional, is located somewhere in southwestern Pennsylvania, but its jurisdiction extends into parts of West Virginia and Ohio by “agreement.” Is that true? Sometimes legal jurisdiction doesn’t follow state lines?
There are agreements of mutual aid that let agencies share borders, so a bad guy can’t just step over the state line and start mooning the cops chasing him. Those other states are just the PA border in that area.

When Carrie finds the old case files buried in the police station’s basement safe, she doesn’t have the equipment or chemicals to analyze it. Rein encourages her to do it herself. Is it true that there is only one police lab in Pennsylvania? What does Carrie have to do to analyze the evidence?
There is only the PA State Police crime lab in that area for specific types of examinations. They have various satellite offices around the state that do different things. DNA, fingerprints, and whatnot. Philly has its own lab. I’m not sure if Pittsburgh does also. And there are several private labs for DNA, blood evidence and analysis. But none of them work together and you need the PSP lab for almost every major case.

Curiously, Carrie discovers the police chief, who was the original investigator of the case, is named Oliver Rein. She finds a subsequent letter from a new police chief, Walter C. Auburn, writing about Oliver Rein’s suicide, but Auburn’s death date is the same date as on the letter. What does Carrie think about that?
I think that’s for the reader to infer. I’m an adherent to Hemingway’s iceberg theory. The more I stay out of the way of the author, the more the reader has to bring the character forward on their own.

Why does Carrie hate illusions, especially those created by people?
One of the themes that developed while I was writing the book was the difference between the genuine and artificial. What we perceive and subscribe to versus what actually occurred. In the book you see that the town throws an annual parade for a dead police chief, who Carrie later learns, wasn't the hero everyone thinks. She has to decide whether or not to preserve and use that illusion for her own ends, which just happens to be the greater good.

Jacob’s father Ben suffers from PTSD after coming home from Vietnam. What motivates him to compartmentalize, switch it off, and go into soldier mode?
I’d have a hard time explaining that without spoiling the book for people, I think. I can only speak from my own experiences with PTSD. From what I've heard, it's likely my grandfather had PTSD from WWII and raised my father in a very violent way. My dad likely also has PTSD, both from his upbringing and the almost thirty years as a police officer.
I've probably experienced it as well. For a long time, I experienced Exploding Head Syndrome, which is an amusing sounding condition, but freaked me out until I finally started asking questions about it.
Like most things, it went away after I learned what it was. It doesn't bother me anymore.

Why are police badges designed to look like shields?
Legend has it that they are shaped like the shields of soldiers in ancient times because it was their job to protect the people. It's a symbol that you can stand behind me when the bad guys come through the gate and I won't let them have you.

Is Harv occasionally a good cop when he isn’t lazy?
He’s got his moments. He certainly cares. I’ve known plenty of Harv Bender’s, both in and out of police work. Men I don’t like, and don’t respect, but who I know would come running with guns blazing if you needed them.
He's not unique to law enforcement. There are plenty of people I've arrested and had problems with, but I have no doubt that if I got run over by a car or was getting beaten up in the street, they'd still come to help. A few might not. Some would. I hope.

“Rein,” she said, touching his wrist before he could get out. “What changed your mind?
Why are you letting him work on your case?”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about the people who died to make me what I am, he said.
“I still owe.” (Kindle Loc. 3331)

What does Rein mean by that?
Although each of the books are standalones, and you can enjoy them without needing to read the others, people who do read them all will have a more complete understanding of the story. I definitely want you to read them all.
In this particular case, I think Rein realizes that he has an ability to do things that most people don't. Those abilities were forged by great suffering and sacrifice by the ones he loved. He still owes them for what he can do, and the way he pays it is by doing it.

Carrie eventually solves the rape case by becoming a near victim, but her gun saves her. Is this a message to women?
Violence against women was very much on my mind during the writing of the book. It comes out of nowhere and they are specifically targeted just because they are women.
I’m not a gun advocate or gun fetishist by any means. Just a realist.
In the book, a predator attacks Carrie with overwhelming violence and she can either fight or die. She wasn’t going to karate kick her way out of that. A gun is a tool, designed for a specific purpose. Police carry them to accomplish a specific function. Carrie did what she had to do.

What’s next for Carrie and Rein?
Blood Angel releases in 2020. My editor always said most series only go three installments, so at least we went the distance. My goal with each of the Santero and Rein books was to improve each time. We’re starting to hit pretty high levels, so if we decide to do more I am going to have my work cut out for me.
Thank you so much for having me on Writers Who Kill! 

Friday, August 30, 2019

Top 10 books to Read by Warren Bull

Top 10 Books To Read Recommended By Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, And Elon Musk
By Sean Kim  -Warren Bull

Image from Ben White on Upsplash

Top 10 Books To Read
1. Atlas Shrugged By Ayn Rand
Recommended by: Steve Jobs and Mark Cuban
Topic: Politics & Business
One-sentence summary: “Solve the world’s problem through entrepreneurial solutions.”

When Steve Wozniak was interviewed about what influenced Steve Jobs in the early days of building Apple, he mentioned that Atlas Shrugged was one of the books that Jobs used as his guide to life & business.

2. Competing Against Time By George Stalk
Recommended by: Tim Cook
Topic: Business, Economy, Productivity
One-sentence summary: “Time is now added to the other three critical factors in order to remain competitiveness in the market – money, productivity, and quality.”

Competing Against Time is a book that Tim Cook passes out everywhere and makes it a recommendation for all new hires at Apple to read.

3. Business Adventures By John Brooks
Recommended by: Warren Buffet and Bill Gates
Topic: Business & Finance
One-sentence summary: “A classic story about the American corporate and financial life.”

What do two of the richest men in the world have in common? They love the writings of John Brooks. Gates writes in his essay about Business Adventures: “Brooks eschews ‘listicles’ and doesn’t ‘boil his work down into pat how-to lessons or simplistic explanations for success.’ Instead, he tells entertaining stories replete with richly drawn characters, setting them during heightened moments within the world of commerce.”

4. Influence By Robert Cialdini
Recommended by: Charlie Munger and Guy Kawasaki
Topic: Psychology, Persuasion, Marketing
One-sentence summary: “Science-backed methods to persuade just about anyone you want.”

Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s partner in crime at Berkshire Hathaway, attributes Cialdini’s work as having a big influence on his thinking process. His published work of the 25 Cognitive Biases of humans was very much influenced by Cialdini’s work.

5. Life Is What You Make It By Peter Buffett
Recommended by: Bill Clinton
Topic: Life, Purpose, Autobiography
One-sentence summary: “Instead of taking the way of least resistance, choose the path to greatest satisfaction.”

This autobiography book by Peter Buffett, Warren Buffett’s son, shares the wisdom learned from his family and his experiences. Here’s how Ted Turner, Media Icon and the Founder of CNN, describes it: “With home-spun, heart-felt wisdom Peter Buffett ponders how to make a meaningful life, while making a living.”

6. The Happiness Hypothesis By Jonathan Haidt
Recommended by: Tony Hsieh
Topic: Happiness, Culture, Philosophy,
One-sentence summary: “Giving and serving are the ways to happiness.”

“This is probably the book that’s made the biggest impact on my life over the past five years. The author examines the beliefs about the happiness of different cultures, religions, and philosophers from different periods, and then compares those beliefs with research that’s been done on the science of happiness. The book is thought-provoking and the concepts can be applied to business and to life.” – Tony Hsieh (CEO of Zappos)

7. The Four Agreements By Don Miguel Ruiz
Recommended by: Oprah Winfrey and Jack Dorsey
Topic: Spirituality, Life, Happiness
One-sentence summary: The book can be summarized in the following four precepts:

1. Be Impeccable With Your Word
2. Don’t Take Anything Personally
3. Don’t Make Assumptions
4. Always Do Your Best

8. Self-Reliance By Ralph Waldo Emerson
Recommended by: Barack Obama
Topic: Individualism, non-conformity and independence
One-sentence summary: “Hold on to your own convictions, despite what society and other people want you to believe.”

Self-Reliance is what put Ralph Waldo Emerson on the map as one of the most influential poets and philosophers of the 19th century. President Obama referenced this essay as one of the most significant books to him in an email to Jon Meacham from the New York Times, and even referenced the importance of self-reliance in his 2008 election victory speech.

9. Autobiography Of Benjamin Franklin By Walter Isaacson
Recommended by: Elon Musk
Topic: Autobiography, Entrepreneurship, Benjamin Franklin
One-sentence summary: “The rise of Benjamin Franklin from the bottom to the top.”

Elon Musk, the Co-Founder of Paypal, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX, has said that Ben Franklin is one of his heroes and likely sees Franklin as the type of American he himself would like to be and become: a combination of statesman, inventor, and businessman.

“You can see how [Franklin] was an entrepreneur. He started from nothing. He was just a runaway kid.” -Elon Musk

10. The Remains Of The Day By Kazuo Ishiguro
Recommended by: Jeff Bezos
Topic: History, World War II, Life & Regret
One-sentence summary: “A compelling portrait of the perfect English butler and of his fading, insular world postwar England.”

“Before reading it, I didn’t think a perfect novel was possible. I’m always interested in things that seem to be impossible, but are then achieved.” -Jeff Bezos

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Body Farms? By E. B. Davis

It’s official—I’m an old lady. At my age, I was surprised and embarrassed not only by my feelings of shock, ignorance, and naiveté, but also at my perspective on the subject of body farms. How did this come about?

The subject came up while attending a ladies’ church circle luncheon to honor a member leaving Hatteras Island to move to Nashville. Our discussion focused on Tennessee attractions, one of which turned out to be the body farm at the University of Tennessee. Of course, I thought the ladies were talking about a fictional place. My confusion comes honestly. William Bass, the creator of UT’s body farm, teamed with Jon Jefferson to write many murder mysteries under the name Jefferson Bass, based at the body farm. Thus, my confusion.

As a mystery writer, one who often depends on forensic science to help solve my fictional cases, I was aghast not to know the reality of such a place. The body farm at the University of Tennessee was created after Professor Bass made a mistake identifying the age of a body. As a result, the body farm was created on acreage near the university where dead humans’ bodies are left to the elements and their decomposition is studied.

I should be in favor of such a scientific endeavor. I should applaud their efforts to give forensic students the opportunity to see in the flesh, or not, each stage of the process. They experiment, leaving some bodies exposed, caging some so animals can’t interfere, hiding some in car trunks or water tanks—to emulate possible homicide victims’ fates. But the fact is—I can’t.

The process isn’t rocket science. There are factors that speed up or slow down the process. But the process is the same no matter what the manner of death. There are extenuating circumstances, such as mummified bodies, but then we know all about some of these situations. How many times does it take to replicate the process in the advancement of science? Ten, one hundred? The university has had over one-thousand bodies and over four thousand more in queue by donors who have signed up to be studied after death. And this body farm isn’t the only one. They are springing up all over the country.   

What is my problem? Although I want advancement in the forensic sciences, I also want bodies studied for the advancement of medical science—health for the living. Although many people donate their bodies for this cause, there is usually a shortfall. Yes, we want everyone’s murder to be solved, but I’d rather the kid with cancer live a long life. Why can’t the real murder victims’ bodies be used to study murder?

This summer, I read an article about an increase in tourists’ deaths at the Grand Canyon—due to backing up too close to the edge while taking selfies (just Google “selfie deaths at the Grand Canyon”). Yep, got to be a Darwin Award for these deaths. But it also got me thinking about our self-absorbed culture. Isn’t donating your body so others can watch it decay the ultimate selfie? Scoff all you want. Morbid fascination is a sick reality. (Excuse my snide attitude of turning science into entertainment in the form of fiction set at the facilities by the director, bless his heart.)

It also makes me think much more favorably on cozy mysteries in which the graphics are omitted. A premise of cozies is the sanctity of life and the dignity of death. Where is the dignity in death at body farms? To each his own, I guess, but I’ll stick with my grandmother’s comments on viewing dead bodies. She said, “If you give me a viewing, I’ll come back and haunt you.” We did not give her a viewing. Me—I’m getting cremated. End of story.  

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

An Interview with Author Cynthia Kuhn by E. B. Davis

I had marched into The Path’s End restaurant intending to order oatmeal, but somehow
my order translated itself to go with the flow after my friends had ordered waffles.
How does that happen, anyway? If someone could figure out how to keep one’s
willpower on a leash, they’d be a gazillionaire.
Cynthia Kuhn, The Subject of Malice, Kindle Loc. 1875

The organizers have rustled up plenty of surprises for the literary conference at Tattered Star Ranch. But the murder of an influential scholar wasn’t on the program—someone has clearly taken the theme of Malice in the Mountains to heart. This shocking crime is only the beginning: other dangers and deceptions are soon revealed.

English professor Lila Maclean has a full agenda: she must convince a press to publish her book (possibly), ace her panel presentations (hopefully), and deal with her nemesis (regrettably). However, when Detective Lex Archer requests Lila’s academic expertise, she agrees to consult on the case. While her contributions earn high marks from her partner, it could be too late; the killer is already taking aim at the next subject. As Lila races to keep her colleagues alive, publish or perish takes on new meaning.

Cynthia Kuhn won the Agatha Award for the first book in the Lila Maclean Academic Mystery series for The Semester of Our Discontent. The Subject of Malice is the fourth book in this series and will surely cause a stir since it is held at a conference similar to the Malice Domestic Conference. Much like Cynthia, Lila is nominated for an award, but Lila must read and answer questions about her academic nonfiction. Her career hinges on the publication of her book.

But the Raleigh sisters, Simone and Selene, poke their nasty noses in Lila’s business and try to bring her down again. Lila knows it, Calista, her cousin, and Nate, her colleague, know it, but Lila’s blockhead publisher doesn’t get it. When a body appears, Lila’s boyfriend, Detective Lex Archer, asks for Lila’s help. She has to solve the case. But there is a truth waiting to jump Lila and shake her status quo that’s as nasty as Simone and Selene.

Please welcome Cynthia Kuhn back to WWK.                                                 E. B. Davis 

Thank you so much for hosting me!

The literary conference Lila is attending, Malice in the Mountains, is sponsored by the Horror and Gothic Society. What encompasses Gothic literature? How do you define the genre? What differentiates it from Mystery?

Gothic literature as a genre is often said to have blossomed during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, though there were earlier texts that certainly had Gothic elements. The genre continued to shift in later eras following its “Golden Age,” but early Gothic harkened back to the mysterious and supernatural flavor of medieval romance to offer wild and inexplicable tales that thrilled readers. There are numerous conventions, but I’ll touch on a few big ones. The settings have changed over the years—from crumbling castles or other buildings with Gothic architecture (from which the genre gets its name) to isolated houses to urban landscapes—but there is still a strong sense of horror and, typically, a crossing of boundaries (physical, mental, spiritual, etc.) as well as a confrontation of reason and unreason. The uncanny remains a powerful aspect, defamiliarizing the familiar. Monsters and monstrosity are also common, whether in the form of external threats/figures or internal obsessions. Gothic has been discussed as a subgenre (or precursor) of horror, and Gothic and mystery are also intertwined. Consider that Edgar Allan Poe was a master of Gothic literature as well as the so-called “father” of the detective story. Detective fiction, mystery, and thriller have developed their own conventions, but they do generally focus on darker subjects, elements of terror, and the crossing of boundaries.

Simone Raleigh has been Lila’s nemesis since she got her job at Stonedale University after Lila was offered the position over Simone’s twin sister, Selene. Is that reason enough for revenge?

Simone and Selene definitely think it is. They are grudge-holders of the highest degree!

The Raleigh sisters announce they have a contract with Lila’s publisher to write a book, Brontë and Dare: Double Trouble. Is Brontë considered Gothic? Would a publisher want two books on the same author, Dare, who few people know about? Why would the publisher release them at the same time?

Yes, Jane Eyre has been discussed as a Gothic novel, with wonderfully unsettling aspects, from the red room scene to the madwoman in the attic and beyond. In The Subject of Malice, Fairlake Press sees itself as edgy and ahead of the curve, and they don’t do things exactly the way others do. (There’s another reason that emerges as the story progresses too.)

Since Lila’s dissertation and book is about Isabella Dare, she is taken aback that the sisters are also publishing a book about Dare and may preempt her book by getting theirs published first. Why would this concern Lila?
Lila has been the only one studying the work of Isabella Dare for years—she even had to fight to write her dissertation on Isabella’s books because no one knew who Dare was or thought she was important enough to be the subject of study. Lila finally won that battle, and has been working on the book that will introduce Isabella to the literary world. Now that Lila has a contract, her nemesis has swooped in, picked up the same topic, and cut in line. If the Raleighs publish their book first, Lila will be scooped. What’s more, her book may not be published at all, which means she is not likely to receive tenure and will need to leave Stonedale University.

Lila knows how to draw eyes and umbrellas. What does that say about her?

One interpretation might be that she is observant and prepared...

Lila catches Selene in several lies. Does Selene think she’ll never get caught?

Selene is of the opinion that whatever she says is true enough for her own purposes.

Flynn McMaster is also a professor at Fairlake University. His series seems to be a cross between Star Wars and Harry Potter. When he derides an anthology of critiques about his works, published by Lila’s publisher, does it discredit them? Isn’t he just being sour grapes and wouldn’t others think that?

With someone of Flynn’s stature, it does seem as though damage could be done to the press’s reputation because his fans adore him and hang on his every word. However, a number of the professors and authors in attendance at Tattered Star Ranch believe Flynn is completely out of line and behaving badly.

Lila’s beau, Detective Lex Archer from Stonedale PD, takes over the investigation when a professor’s body is found. When the weapon is found and murder is suspected, why does Lex ask for her help?  

He eventually comes to realize that there are procedures, hierarchies, and codes specific to academia that he doesn’t understand and he wants her insights behind the curtain, so to speak. 

What ingredients are in a Cobb salad?

Most commonly, I’ve seen lettuce, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, bacon, avocado, chicken, and blue cheese. Dressings vary. Bit of trivia: supposedly the salad was invented by or for Bob Cobb (I love names that rhyme!), who owned the famous Brown Derby.

Why types of lettuces have tails?

Ha! Lila thinks of the long stem as a “tail”— examples would be arugula, frisée, spinach, watercress, etc.
When Lila meets Beckett, Selene’s fiancé, she attributes him as, “the previously well-kissed boundary-setter.” What does she mean by this?

He ended some overly enthusiastic PDA...but only after it had gone on for too long already.

Midway through the conference, Simone apologizes to Lila, who is shocked. Why is Simone acting so out of character?

One never knows why Simone does what she does. It’s frequently self-serving, but sometimes it’s genuine.

When Simone verbally attacks Lila again, Lila defends herself well. What finally snapped in Lila? She isn’t usually confrontational.

Lila has stood up for herself before, but it’s usually in a quieter way. This time is different--you’re right. It’s a combination of things: she’s fed up with Simone’s behavior, the stakes are higher, and her emotions are a bit heightened already because of something that’s happened earlier.  

What do Calista and Nate think about Lila’s publishing debacle and Lex?

They are Team Lila--will help her through anything and cheer her on.  

What is next for Lila?

She will be encountering another mystery (surprise)!
Cynthia Kuhn writes the Lila Maclean Academic Mysteries featuring an English professor with a knack for sleuthing. The Semester of Our Discontent received an Agatha Award for best first novel; The Art of Vanishing and The Spirit in Question were Lefty Award nominees for best humorous mystery. She blogs with Chicks on the Case and is a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and International Thriller Writers. For more information, please visit

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

A Murder of Crows

by Tina Whittle

During the first week in my new home, I received several lovely housewarming gifts—a bottle of wine, a jar of preserves…and a tiny, pristine squirrel skull left on top of my deck post.

I don’t know which backyard denizen to thank for the present, but I suspect the crows. They are the UPS delivery crew of the marsh, toting bits of this and that here and there, usually in search of tasty tidbits but sometimes just for the heck of it. Or so it seems to me, watching them from my deck, dark and sleek against the Spanish moss and live oak leaves.

The crows in my yard announce their presence with a raucous “caw caw caw,” which is my cue to toss some unsalted peanuts their way. When I’ve delivered the goods, they use a different call, one that doesn’t match any of the recorded crow sounds on the Audubon site. It’s a lilting “kree-oh, kree-oh” and I suspect it’s their mimicry of my pathetic attempts to caw at them. I also suspect they’re laughing at me behind their wings, like Parisians do when Americans try to speak French.

Traditionally, a flock of crows is referred to as a “murder.” My etymological research revealed that this usage traces back to the 15th century, when the idea of creating fancy collective names for groups of animals first became popular. These terms of venery (historical vocabulary referring to the hunting of game) were more poetry than science. Owls gathered in a parliament, peacocks in an ostentation, and ravens in an unkindness. The name for a bunch of geese depended on what they were doing—on the ground, they were a gaggle; on the water, a flock; and in the sky, a skein.

Biologists dismiss these terms as quaint hooey. For ornithologists, birds form families and flocks, not flamboyances and murmurations. Crows are no different, their dark epithets notwithstanding. And as much as I love murder—in the literary sense, I hasten to add—I agree with the scientists on this one. Crows are no more murder-y than any other animal (tiny skull on the deck notwithstanding). In fact, they are intelligent, creative, and devoted to their families. They make tools, recognize human faces, and are not above theft and manipulation (check out the YouTube video of a crow stealing a credit card at a Japanese train station, attempting to use the card at a ticket kiosk, and then, frustrated, giving the card back to its rightful owner). Crows feed family members when they are sick or injured, and they form tight-knit families, with newly adult birds staying on to help their parents raise the next generation. They can live almost twenty years, though they rarely nest in the same spot twice. And when they do murder—which is rare, but documented—it’s for reasons, infidelity being one of their recorded motivations.

I’m grateful to have them in my yard, grateful even more that we have some kind of relationship, these birds and I. Their delicate, bony gift was either a generous welcome, a flagrant bribe, or a thinly veiled warning. I plan to keep the peanuts coming regardless.

*     *     *

Tina Whittle writes the Tai Randolph/Trey Seaver mysteries. The sixth book in this Atlanta-based series—Necessary Ends—is available now. Tina is a proud member of Sisters in Crime and has served as both a chapter officer and national board member. Visit her website to follow her on social media, sign up for her newsletter, or read additional scenes and short stories: