“Lords of the Night” Chapter One

The following is the entirety of Chapter 1 from “Lords of the Night,” now available at Amazon.com:

“Who do you think you are, Chaco? A drill sergeant?” Sierra snarled. She slipped off the greased bowling ball, dropping the dishes she had been balancing on the end of a broomstick. The dishes shattered on the tile floor of her kitchen. She picked her way through the shards in oily bare feet, muttering, and seized a glass of water, gulping it as she wiped away the sweat pouring down her face and neck.

“I warned you this would be hard,” said Chaco. He passed a hand over the ruined dishes and they disappeared. He cocked his head at her, amber eyes steady. 

“Yeah, you did,” Sierra responded. “But what the hell does standing on a greased bowling ball and destroying crockery have to do with becoming a sorceress? I’m not applying to Cirque du Soleil for a job.”

“Take a break,” Chaco replied peaceably, but his equanimity did not soothe her.

“I AM taking a break,” Sierra shot back. “Are you going to answer my question?”

Chaco lowered his lithe body into a chair, raking fingers through his dark hair. “As I told you when we started, the training is mental, spiritual, and physical. This is part of the physical training. A magic worker will often find him—or her—self in physically dangerous situations. You need to be strong, very strong, and your balance, aim, and precision must be honed to the highest degree. Think of yourself as an Olympic athlete…”

Sierra glanced down at her body, clad in shorts and tank top. She had been toned and on the slender side when she and Chaco had begun her training. Now she saw muscle definition in her thighs, where before they had merely been strong and well-shaped. The training was definitely making a difference. But god, she was working hard! And she hated it.

“I don’t get it,” she said, still cross. She knew Chaco was only doing his best to help, but at the moment, she didn’t care. “You never exercise. You never practice. Sure, you noodle around with trying new magics once in a while, but I’ve never seen you balancing on a greasy bowling ball. Do you do it when I’m not around or something?”

Sensing that Sierra was easing up a bit, Chaco laughed. “I’m a demigod. I don’t have to practice. When you become a demigod—or full-on goddess—you won’t have to practice either.”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“Well, you can’t expect to become a goddess overnight. You have to work at it. Like becoming Miss Universe or something.”

“Are you telling me that I’ll become a goddess if I continue the training?”

“Oh, no. There are no guarantees. Once you complete the training, there are still the traditional trials and tribulations.”

“I don’t want to be a goddess, Chaco. Your training sucks and I’m done.” Sierra put down her glass and stalked away, leaving Chaco in the kitchen, smiling to himself.

#

One year previously, Sierra had inherited a comfortable sum of money and a house from her fiancé, Clancy Forrester. There was only one problem; she suspected Clancy wasn’t actually dead. No body had been found and her friend Rose, who had witnessed Clancy’s fall from the side of a boat, said Clancy had never hit the water. If he had, he would have died, as the water was boiling from an undersea volcanic eruption. 

The inheritance bothered her conscience, but she rationalized that if Clancy were alive somewhere, she would need the money to find him. She quit her job as communications executive with the Clear Days Foundation—a job she loved—to have the time to search for him. She thought Clancy would forgive her for selling his house and spending his money when and if she ever found him. And she knew she needed training to fully harness the powers that would enable her to find Clancy and rescue him from . . . whatever he needed to be rescued from. Unfortunately, she didn’t know what he needed to be rescued from. In point of fact, she also didn’t know when he needed to be rescued, but she and her friends were working on that. 

While she was figuring out what she needed to do to find Clancy, she sold her own modest townhouse in Mountain View, California as well as Clancy’s highly sought-after ranch house in Sunnyvale. She added those proceeds to the three million dollars Clancy had left her in investments and began looking for a house where she could train in privacy. Her friend Rose, a Native American shaman, had suggested purchasing a remote cabin. 

“You’re going to need privacy—real privacy—and alone time now,” Rose had said. “This training is serious business and you need to concentrate. And you don’t need nosy neighbors.” Sierra bought a cabin in a redwood forest in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which was remote enough to satisfy her friend.

However, Rose had refused to train Sierra herself. “You’ve already gone beyond me in strength,” Rose had said. “There’s really nothing more I can teach you.”

Sierra also asked her friend Mama Labadie to train her. Mama Labadie was a Voudún houngan whose ability to communicate with her loa—or at least with the loa called Madame Ézilée—had come in handy many times during Sierra’s earlier adventures. “No, uh-uh, and absolutely not,” was the houngan’s response. “You’re already scary strong. You should ask Madam Ézilée, not me. She might be strong enough to teach you before you get somebody killed.” 

Kaylee, Sierra’s former work colleague and now a fast friend, was a Voudún practitioner, but claimed absolutely no occult powers. “I’ve been watching you,” Kaylee told her when Sierra groused a bit about Mama and Rose’s refusals to train her. “You’re powerful. You’ve gone wa-a-ay beyond Mama and Rose. They were right to turn you down. Sugar, you need to find someone who’s got more oomph than you do.”

#

One evening, as Sierra was unwrapping china mugs in her new kitchen and putting them on shelves, she complained to Chaco, “They’ve been telling me forever that I need to exercise my powers. That I need to train. But when I ask now? No dice. Mama and Rose won’t help me. Kaylee says she can’t help me. I don’t get it—they like Clancy. They want to get him back. I mean . . . don’t they?”

Chaco, his hands full of packing materials, took a moment to answer. “Of course they like him,” he finally said, swiping raven-black hair away from his face. “They probably liked Clancy more than he liked them.”

Sierra had to admit this was likely true, even if she didn’t like the past tense. Clancy had never been entirely comfortable around the “Three Weird Sisters,” as he called her three closest female friends. “Okay, but still. Wouldn’t you think they would help me to find him?”

Chaco put down a salt and pepper shaker set and sat in one of the kitchen chairs. “Do you want to have a serious conversation about this, or are you just bitching?”

Sierra set two mugs in a cupboard and sat down opposite Chaco. “I want a serious conversation. Tell me.”

“Let me make an analogy. Let’s say you’re a golfer, and you want to improve your game, maybe even play competitively. Do you go to your golfing buddy for training? The one who plays worse than you?”

“Well, obviously no. I take your point. But how am I going to find a teacher who’s better than me, if I’ve somehow gotten so strong?”

Chaco sat quietly, regarding her with his amber eyes. His expressive lips were slightly curved, his body relaxed and boneless-looking in the wooden chair. Like his alternate form, a coyote, he had the gift of seeming at home wherever he was. He continued to gaze at her in silence.

“You mean . . . you?” she finally asked.

“Who else is there?”

And that was that. She began her training in magic to find and rescue Clancy, wherever and whenever he might be. Chaco moved into Sierra’s second bedroom (she didn’t ask where he had been living before) to dedicate his time to her training. She expected that his residency would result in a renewed interest in getting her into his bed, but to her surprise he treated her as a comrade-in-arms with none of his usual sly suggestions. She found herself staring from time to time at Chaco’s face, with its long, chiseled planes, his golden eyes, his nicely muscled…and then she would flush with guilt at the thought of Clancy. Clancy, who would not be lost if it weren’t for his love for Sierra. But having Chaco around was convenient, and he was behaving himself, so the arrangement made sense.

Chaco had concentrated first on her powers, her mana. In the beginning, Sierra had envisioned her mana as colored flames, erratic and difficult to control. Gradually, she had come to see her powers as brightly colored ribbons twining in space, of every color she knew and some she didn’t. Chaco was able to visualize along with her. “There, right there,” he’d say. “That bright pink one? That’s for healing. Wrap it around your sore knee and see what happens.”

In the next moment, Sierra blinked at him in surprise. “The pain is gone!”

“You can heal other people, too. Try it the next time you see someone limping or with a bandage.”

“Won’t that be kind of obvious?”

“How would they know?” he asked reasonably. “You don’t have to wave a magic wand or recite a spell. They can’t see your mana—only you can. And me, of course.”

Sierra rather enjoyed the mana-strengthening sessions. She no longer endured sprained muscles or headaches. The gold ribbons were for battle. The silver ones were for moving things, the black ones were for…Sierra didn’t know what the black ones were for. They weren’t actually black, as they shifted between deepest indigo, bottle green, copper, and . . . something else . . . as she watched them.

“Chaco, what are the black ribbons for?” she inquired one day as she and Chaco took a break by the little creek that ran near her cabin.

“Black ribbons?”

“Yeah, like this,” and she called the black ribbons up, letting them twist and coil in her mind’s eye, glittering slowly.

“No!” Chaco yelled. He shook her and the twining black ribbons vanished. 

“What the hell?”” Sierra scrambled to her feet and glared at him. “What’d you do that for?”

Chaco remained seated, gazing at her seriously. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. Those … black ribbons. Don’t use them. That is not mana that you can control. If you try, the mana will control you.”

“Then why do I have it?”

Chaco just shook his head. “I suppose we all have something like that inside. Something uncontrollable and dark. Just don’t use dark mana.” He rose in one smooth motion, then effected a dizzying transformation. His face elongated like melting wax, and as Sierra watched, his body hunched, arms and legs growing crooked and furry. Within a few heartbeats, a large, handsomely furred coyote stood next to her. He turned and trotted away into the shadows between the redwoods. Sierra watched him go, a hundred questions unanswered.

#

While she was training, Sierra tried to determine where Clancy had gone, specifically. The loa had indicated in their usual infuriatingly vague way that Clancy was alive and in the Yucatan Peninsula, but had then become tight-lipped and uncommunicative. The Yucatan constituted 76,300 square miles, which was impossibly large to search. Of even greater concern was the question of when. If Clancy had been whisked off to the Mayan Riviera, or even to a remote jungle, surely, he would have been found by now. Unless he’s dead, whispered a sombre voice in Sierra’s mind. 

“Are we certain Clancy didn’t die when he went over the side of the boat?” she asked Rose and Kaylee, not for the first time. Kaylee hadn’t been in Moloka’i when Clancy disappeared, but Rose had been present.

“No, he never went into the water,” said Rose, patiently. “I don’t want to get too graphic here, but do you remember what happened to all those sharks and other fish?”

Sierra shuddered. She remembered the pale, poached bodies of tiger sharks, boiled to death by the wrath of Pele beneath the sea.

“Yes, I do, and Clancy wasn’t among them. But I feel like I’m grasping at straws here. We have nothing to go on but your amulet. Why did you give it to Clancy, by the way? He didn’t—doesn’t—believe in things like that.”

“Once in a while, I ‘see’ a darkness hanging around a person. It usually means they’re about to die, whether by accident or suicide. I saw this darkness around Clancy shortly before we went out to the wind farm where he went over the side of our boat. My amulet is powerfully protective, so I asked Clancy to wear it. When I handed it to him it was in a little leather medicine bag, but he took the amulet out and wore it around his neck, under his shirt. Probably so people wouldn’t see it, is my guess.”

“Do you know anything about the amulet? Where it was made? When it was made?” asked Kaylee.

“I know it was made in the Yucatan Peninsula during Mayan times, because it represents a scroll serpent or spirit snake, which was peculiar to the region. It represents Kukulcan, the feathered serpent, with an ancestor spirit emerging from its mouth. I don’t know anything more about it,” concluded Rose.

“Wait a minute,” said Kaylee. “I thought Quetzalcoatl was the feathered serpent?”

Rose smiled. “Yep. He was—is. He was the plumed serpent of the Aztecs. But Kukulcan came first, with the Maya. If you encounter him again you could ask, but I suspect they are the same Avatar, viewed through different lenses.”

The women thought for several minutes, each pursuing the question of how the amulet might help them locate Clancy. Rose said, “You know, a few years ago I took pictures of all the Native American artifacts that I’ve collected, just in case I needed them for insurance. I must have photographed the amulet, too. The pictures are on a flash drive that I put in my safety deposit box. Maybe the photo will show us some detail that I’ve forgotten.”

A quick trip to the bank, and the flash drive was inserted into Rose’s computer, Sierra and Kaylee hanging impatiently over her shoulder. She located the right files and brought up two photographs of a green stone carving, an elaborately curlicued serpent figure. Rose pointed out the figure of the ancestor spirit emerging from the creature’s mouth.

“What’s this other one?” asked Kaylee, pointing at the second photo. At first, it looked like a reverse image of the first, then Sierra realized it depicted the back of the intricately carved amulet.

“Rose, there’s something carved on the back! What does it say?” Sierra asked, pointing to the screen.

Rose peered at the image. She shook her head. “I have no idea.”

Where the Ideas Live

People sometimes ask me how I get ideas for my books. The short answer is: I don’t. I think people sometimes envision authors sitting at their elaborately carved Renaissance desk, complete with quill pen, and an exclamation point appears with a brand-new, amazing idea for a story! Eureka!

Maybe that’s how it works for some authors, I don’t know. The way it works for me is that I decide what part of the world I want a story to take place in, and then I go to that place. I let the place tell me the story. If that sounds mystical or authorish, it isn’t. It’s just how it works for me.

The first book of my trilogy, “The Obsidian Mirror,” took place mostly in Silicon Valley because that’s where I was living and working at the time. I understood the high tech industries, so my protagonist, Sierra, was a high tech public relations person (as I had been, many moons ago). The idea for the basis of the story came from my familiarity with the semiconductor industry and the ubiquity of integrated circuits around the world.

The second novel, “Fire in the Ocean,” had its origins in a Hawai‘ian vacation on the island of Oahu. I decided I wanted to set a novel in Hawai’i. Once home, I began planning a research trip the way I thought an author ought to—I contacted the Bishop Museum, the leading museum of Polynesian culture in the world. I contacted the University of Hawaii Dept. of Hawaiian Studies (or some such). I made reservations to go to Oahu to meet with these knowledgeable people.

Crickets. No one ever responded to my requests. So I decided that the story would be set on Moloka‘i, because that is the island of sorcery, according to the ancient Hawai’ians, which made it extremely attractive to a fantasy writer (that would be me). I also wanted to visit my friend in Captain Cook on the Big Island, because I hoped he would introduce me to some local people who could tell me about myths and legends. I changed all the reservations, abandoning the idea of speaking to the academic experts in Oahu.

At this point in my journey, I didn’t have a story. I knew i would be using my protagonist Sierra, and probably her friend, Coyotl the Trickster, but there were several other characters involved, and I wasn’t sure how I would be using them: Clancy, Rose, Mama Labadie—and especially Fred.

So my husband Tom and I jetted off to the Big Island. My friend was not available to meet for a few days, so Tom and I found ways to entertain ourselves—snorkeling, sampling the local goods like honey and macadamia nuts and coffee. We tried the local Captain Cook grocery store for wine, but the selection was unappealing, so we made a trip to Costco in Kona. While standing in line, I noticed an enormous refrigerator nearby, full of leis. I have always wanted a maile leaf lei. They are made as garlands rather than necklaces, and they often use only the pleasantly vanilla-scented leaves, not flowers. Sure enough Costco had them, and I took my prize back to Captain Cook. 

I wore the lei the next day on a visit to Volcano National Park. Kilawea, Pele’s home volcano, was erupting, so I decided to sacrifice my lei to Pele, Goddess of Fire, and ask for her blessing on my work (which I hadn’t started because no story yet). To my disappointment, they wouldn’t let us anywhere near the actual flowing lava, but we were able to approach the rim of the caldera. It was clear this was the right place because there were other offering leis hanging in a tiny tree next to the railing, as well as on the railing itself. I held up my lei, asked for Pele’s blessing and whanged it right into the little tree, where it was securely caught in the branches. Then we turned around and started to walk away, but I wanted a photo of my lei hanging in the tree, so we went back after only a few steps. 

Flinging my maile lei into the tree at the rim of the Kilawea cauldera.

My lei had vanished. All the other leis were still there. It was absolutely still without a breath of wind. We looked all around the ground under the tree. No maile leaf lei to be seen. With that incident, the story began to take shape in my head, with Pele taking an important role. 

When I started thinking about “Lords of the Night” (I didn’t have a title at this point, by the way), I decided to write a historical fantasy—even though my characters were 21st century people. Why? I think it was the challenge. And I wanted to learn more about the ancient Maya. My mother helped to excavate several Mayan ruins in Yucatan and Guatemala, back when most of those great cities were still covered in jungle, and there were no roads to the excavation sites. So in addition to reading intensively about the Maya, their history, arts, mathematics, science, and culture, I set up a trip to the Yucatan Peninsula. (Actually, Tom does all the actual trip planning, based on what I want to see. He is wonderful that way!)

The ruins of a palace at Calakmul

I was blissfully untroubled by the problem of getting my 21st century characters back to the 5th century. This is fantasy! I can just make it up! As a writer, I adore that freedom. Why do you think I don’t write science fiction?

I also cleverly invited a couple to go along with us. Clod, the male half of the couple, was born and lived as a young person in Mexico City, with vacations in the Yucatan, which is where his father was raised. Linda studied Spanish in school. I speak Spanish like a first-year student with a strangely good accent (thanks to my Spanish-speaking mother). Tom has never studied Spanish. See how I did that?

The story began to take shape for me when we visited the ruins of Calakmul, which lie within the borders of a large biological reserve on the Guatemalan border. Calakmul had been my primary destination, though we did visit Tulum, Uxmal, and a few other archeological sites. I don’t know why Calakmul drew me so strongly. My mother didn’t excavate there, and I had never heard of it before beginning research for this trip. I had seen photos, and the city has a temple that rivals Egypt’s Great Pyramid for size. Plus, it is located in the middle of a jungle, far from the well-trod tourist trails. Intriguing, no?

There is only one hotel within the borders of the biological reserve. If you want to visit Calakmul, you more or less have to stay at Hotel Puerta Calakmul, because the hotel, deep in the jungle, is still 60 kilometers or so from the ruins, along an unpaved road. When you get to the drop-off place for the ruins, you still have to walk a kilometer to arrive at the actual city. 

At the base of one of the temples in Calakmul.

All of which made my visit to Calakmul everything I could have hoped for. As we walked along, I picked our guide’s brain about Mayan folk tales and we saw peacock-gorgeous oscillated turkeys, and monkeys, and javelinas. The ruins themselves were pleasantly shaded, with very few other people around. It was nothing like the wait-in-line-in-the-tropical-sun-with-a-million-other-tourists experience of the more popular sites. The temples, all of which have not yet been excavated, are impressive. In its time, Calakmul was one of the most powerful cities of the ancient Mayan world, and its name was Ox Té Tuun. Ox Té Tuun is central to “Lords of the Night,” and as I strolled along its broad avenues I developed the character of Ix Mol, a young Mayan girl from Ox Té Tuun with a very big problem who enlivens the pages of “Lords of the Night.”

More Calakmul.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that place is central to my process as a writer. I have no idea why, but there’s nothing like a good trip to someplace far, far away to stimulate my creative juices.

That’s what I tell my husband, anyway.

I Finally Climaxed

Sorry—that may have been a bit misleading. I mean that I finished the third book in my “Gods of the New World” trilogy. And it took a long time to get here. But you don’t want to hear all that—you want to know all about “Lords of the Night,” the final book? Right?

In “Lords of the Night,” Sierra and Chaco travel back in time to rescue Clancy from 6th Century Yucatan. (Spoiler Alert: Clancy didn’t die in the boiling ocean in “Fire in the Ocean” after all. Okay, I did consider letting him die in Moloka‘i. But Clancy was there at the beginning of this adventure in “The Obsidian Mirror.” After all this time, I really wanted him to be there at the end.)

 Sierra and Chaco discover that Clancy was saved from death by boiling, but is now lost in the distant past, somewhere in the huge expanse of the ancient Yucatan jungle. 

In the process of trying to locate Clancy, they encounter a young Mayan girl, Ix Mol, who has an agenda of her own. Ix Mol knows how to find Clancy, but it involves walking the White Road all the way to the great city of Ox Té Tuun, hundreds of miles away.

They arrive just in time to see Clancy sacrificed at the Temple of Chaak. 

Well, being dead didn’t stop Clancy before. But the real excitement is where Sierra and Chaco wind up. Clancy and Ix Mol also have surprise endings to their sagas.

And Fred? Well, if you want to know the role that Fred plays in this story, you’ll just have to read it.

I can say no more. But I can guarantee a satisfying climax to Sierra’s story. To read the first chapter:

Sorry—that may have been a bit misleading. I mean that I finished the third book in my “Gods of the New World” trilogy. And it took a long time to get here. But you don’t want to hear all that—you want to know all about “Lords of the Night,” the final book? Right?

In “Lords of the Night,” Sierra and Chaco travel back in time to rescue Clancy from 6th Century Yucatan. (Spoiler Alert: Clancy didn’t die in the boiling ocean in “Fire in the Ocean” after all. Okay, I did consider letting him die in Moloka‘i. But Clancy was there at the beginning of this adventure in “The Obsidian Mirror.” After all this time, I really wanted him to be there at the end.)

 Sierra and Chaco discover that Clancy was saved from death by boiling, but is now lost in the distant past, somewhere in the huge expanse of the ancient Yucatan jungle. 

In the process of trying to locate Clancy, they encounter a young Mayan girl, Ix Mol, who has an agenda of her own. Ix Mol knows how to find Clancy, but it involves walking the White Road all the way to the great city of Ox Té Tuun, hundreds of miles away.

They arrive just in time to see Clancy sacrificed at the Temple of Chaak. 

Well, being dead didn’t stop Clancy before. But the real excitement is where Sierra and Chaco wind up. Clancy and Ix Mol also have surprise endings to their sagas.

And Fred? Well, if you want to know the role that Fred plays in this story, you’ll just have to read it.

I can say no more. But I can guarantee a satisfying climax to Sierra’s story.

To read the first chapter of “Lords of the Night”: https://wordpress.com/page/theobsidianmirror.net/39

To purchase “Lords of the Night” on Amazon: https://amzn.to/3sZtqkY

Cover Reveal: Lords of the Night

I couldn’t have done this without the help of several people who took the time and trouble to offer me advice. I was also smart enough to ask my artistic daughter, Kerry Gil, who has formal training in graphic arts, for feedback.

I am super pleased with the resulting cover. I probably went through eight different iterations before getting to this one. I didn’t post all of them, but I got wonderful feedback from my friends online as well as family. I suppose I have had more difficult creative challenges, but mimicking someone else’s style in a field in which my competence is minimal is one of the tougher goals I have set myself.

In particular, I am pleased that everything fits the ancient Mayan theme of the book–ocean, snakes, temple, palm fronds, Spirit Snake amulet, coyote (Chaco!). The birds flying around the temple refer to a climactic scene in the book (although it’s not the only climax, I assure you).

I hope you like the cover. I will be back soon to announce the publication of “Lords of the Night,” the final (and climactic) ending to “The Gods of the New World” trilogy.

It’s Been a While, Hasn’t It?

I admit it—I have not been a consistent blogger. My last post went online Feb. 23. In my defense, it was Feb 23 of this year.

In fact, my last posting was right before the pandemic started—or at least right before we realized there was a pandemic going on, because it had reached our shores already.

It has been a very eventful time, but I had trouble coming up with a blog topic. I was consumed with politics (still am) but I wanted to keep my blog politics-free. I’m not, as I have heard other authors say, worried about offending conservative people, who might then never buy my books. Everything I stand for offends conservative people, so they won’t be reading my stuff anyway. I just wanted one place where I did NOT write about politics.

I could have blogged about the quarantine and its many adjustments to a new reality, but all of you went through that too—you’ve been there, done that. I’m sure I have little to add other than my frustration with the people who refuse to practice social distancing and wearing masks—and the politicians who encourage them not to. My only consolation has been the realization that many of them will get sick.

I could have blogged about writing my new novel, but I was hard-pressed to imagine why you would care until I had something to announce—and maybe not even then.

I could have blogged about having the third book of my trilogy go unpublished for two years after I finished it, but I already blogged about that. My publisher decided to publish only non-fiction going forward, which leaves a fantasy writer more or less up the creek without a paddle, especially with a third book in a trilogy. I will be publishing it on Kindle—but I need a cover first.

I could have blogged about my sister’s death, shortly after the beginning of the pandemic—of a heart attack. That certainly provided me with a great deal of blog-able fodder. I just didn’t want to write about it.

I could have blogged about getting a new dog after the death of my beloved Gigi. Poppy is a cutie with a lot of personality. But I didn’t want to.

I could have blogged about the horrific fires consuming California. We nearly had to evacuate, but today it looks like we won’t.

I could have blogged about inheriting my sister’s jewelry—hundreds of pieces of jewelry—and setting up an Etsy store to sell it because I couldn’t wear that much jewelry in several lifetimes. Building the Etsy store was actually one of the most enjoyable things I have done during the pandemic. In case you’re looking for jewelry. I have everything from Victorian antiques to Native American to hand-crafted silver to high-end costume jewelry and everything in between. Come on down: https://www.etsy.com/shop/SilverboughJewelry?ref=search_shop_redirect

I did finish the first draft of my current novel. It is entitled, “The Spell Book of Thorfinn Bare-Butt,” and it is set in Iceland’s Viking Settlement Age, 9th Century CE. The kernel of the story came to me while I was touring a lava cave in the Hauksdalur region of Iceland. The guide told us that archeologists had found signs of habitation in the cave that dated back to the settlement age. He explained that after the eruption, the rock would have stayed warm for a very long time, making it an ideal human habitation. (I can tell you by the time we visited, it was FREEZING.)

I had a vision of a young magician setting out to make a reputation for himself. He occupies the cave because it is both comfy and free, and attempts to summon a spirit to help him become more powerful. Unfortunately, our hero, Odd, is under a curse. This caused some—but not all—of his spells to go awry. Instead of a powerful spirit, Odd conjures up a 21st Century female kickboxer named Hekla. Now both Odd and Hekla have real problems, and the story goes on from there.

I hope to have a final draft in another few months. After that, I will try to find an agent because I am tired of publishers slithering out from under me. I’m hoping a good agent can find me a solid publisher with reasonable terms that specializes in fantasy or fantasy and science fiction. That will give me some confidence that they aren’t suddenly going to switch to the many tell-all books on the way from the Trump administration. Please wish me well!

Let Me Tell You About Gigi (written three years ago in preparation for this day)

Inca cuddled up with Gigi today, knowing her friend wasn’t feeling well.

I had a bit of a scare recently. My dog Gigi developed a fever, lost her appetite and began to act lethargic. She’s 12 years old, so I wasted no time taking her to her vet. Dr. Good, who rolls around in a mobile clinic, did a thorough exam, took blood and urine and an X-ray—and found nothing wrong other than the obvious presence of an infection. So Gigi went on antibiotics.

I’m happy to say Gigi recovered. But while she was sick, I began to dread the possibility of losing this amazing creature with whom I share my life and my home. I thought I would write an obituary about her now. Because when she dies—because she will die—I won’t be in any shape to write. At this stage, who knows how long she’s got? She’s a big dog, and the big ones don’t tend to live as long.

So I decided to write about Gigi now, while she’s still with me and I can discuss her unique characteristics without breaking down in floods of tears.

On the surface, Gigi is just a very doggy dog. She’s half Labrador and half German Shepherd, with maybe a dash of Doberman. She’s black-and-tan and shorthaired, with floppy ears. As much as I love her, I do not share my bed with her because she’s 75 pounds of elbows and she farts and groans all night.

I wasn’t looking for a dog when Gigi came to my attention. I had lost my dog, Ringo, a year previously and was still in mourning. My daughter Kerry saw an ad on Craig’s List that said, “Sweetest dog in the world needs a home.” I looked at the picture. This dog was much larger than I wanted. She was black-and-tan, which is not a color scheme I admire. And she lived about 65 miles away.

I called her owner. Apparently, they rescued her when she was about six months old, and loved her dearly. But the landlord of the house they had just moved into said the dog had to go. I asked question after question, because living with Ringo taught me the right questions to ask. (Loved that dog, but he was a hot mess when we first got him.) The answers seemed good, so my husband and I drove 65 miles to meet the dog.

The dog’s name was Gertie, a name I knew I couldn’t live with. She greeted us with kisses and a wildly wagging tail that slapped against our legs like a baseball bat. I observed her with a baby and with cats—completely calm. I did everything I could to elicit a dominant or aggressive response—grab her collar, squeeze her paws, roll her over, and so forth—all of which she responded to with kisses and wags.

I decided I wanted her, but we had five houseguests with a sixth on the way and I felt it was unfair to plop an adopted animal down in the midst of all this chaos, so I said I’d come get her when the house had cleared out. Her owner agreed, but later told me that the landlord had threatened to evict them if the dog wasn’t gone by a certain date. On that day, I drove back to collect her.

Gigi in her salad days. She almost always walked around with a stuffy toy in her mouth. I selected stuffies on the basis of how much they amused me.

In the interim, we had a lively family discussion about what to call the dog, as Gertie just wasn’t going to cut it. I thought we should pick a name that was similar to Gertie so she would adapt to it quickly. I suggested Gigi. My daughter said it sounded like a stripper. After a two-hour discussion, Gigi it was, though still over my daughter’s objections.

When I picked her up, her owner burst into tears and rushed us out the door, handing me a ceramic jar for dog treats. It was clearly a painful parting. I put Gigi in the back of my car and headed home. Gigi rested her chin on my shoulder for the entire trip home, which I thought was a good sign.

It turns out I needn’t have worried about the abundance of guests or about the name. Gigi walked into the house and acted as though she had lived with us her entire life. She also responded to her new name instantly. As a matter of fact, as the houseguests began to go back to their own lives, Gigi seemed to miss the party atmosphere of an overcrowded house. She still loves a good party.

Then we began to get to know her. First of all, Gigi is an extremely obedient dog— except when she isn’t. For example, if she needs to go outside to go to the bathroom or check out the gophers, she will go outside. If she doesn’t, she will wag her tail and refuse to move. I have learned to trust her on things like this and will only insist if there is some compelling reason. She has a stentorian bark that wakes the eldest grandchild from her nap, so I put Gigi out when Jessamyn is napping so if the doorbell rings or there is a package delivery, she won’t sound the alarm. Gigi goes reluctantly, but she goes if I really insist.

She can make friends with just about any other animal. I have seen her buddy up to:
At least two coyotes
A bunny (kisses were exchanged)
A feral cat
A cat that was so terrified of her that it refused to come into the house until Gigi performed her ambassadorial work
Innumerable other cats and dogs and humans

The feral cat is my rescue kitty, Inca. When I first acquired Inca from a rescue organization, they told me she was one of a litter of feral kittens. They were considered too old to domesticate, but they seemed to be adapting to humans, so the rescue decided to place them with families. Inca was okay with me as long as I kept her confined to a bathroom, but she was horrified by Gigi. When I let her out of the bathroom, Inca disappeared for two weeks, flitting about in our peripheral vision like a bat.

One day, I saw Inca and called to her. To my astonishment, she strolled over and climbed into my lap. After a bit, Gigi came into the room and lay down. Inca trotted down the length of the couch, mewing at Gigi. I had no idea what would happen, as I hadn’t had either of them for very long, but Gigi came over as though Inca had been calling her and proceeded to kiss her. Inca adores Gigi. It’s pretty funny to watch her try to give this enormous dog a bath with her tiny pink tongue.

I give Gigi a lot of credit for the rapidity to which Inca adjusted to domestic life and became an affectionate pet. She never used to let me pet her tummy, which I longed to do (best part of a cat). One day, I gave Gigi an extensive belly rub. Inca watched intently nearby as Gigi groaned with happiness. When I finished with Gigi, I turned to pet the cat. Inca flopped down and presented her own belly for a rub, and she has enjoyed it ever since.

Inca and Gigi have seldom been parted, but there was one weekend when I had to use a pet-sitting service. Gigi went to the sitter’s home, but the service had a large enclosed cat area for feline borders, so they were separated for about four days. When I went to pick them up, Inca was there, but the sitter had not returned Gigi. I told them to have the sitter bring Gigi directly to my house as soon as possible, and left with Inca.

When we got home, Inca shot out of her carrier and began searching the house. She went from room to room, mewing loudly, but of course, Gigi was nowhere to be found. When the sitter showed up with the dog about two hours later, Gigi made for her water dish immediately because it was a sizzling day. She put on the brakes when she saw her kitty friend, and the two of them checked each other out carefully, kissed, and then Gigi got her drink.

You might be wondering about the coyotes I mentioned earlier. I am familiar with the coyote trick of sending a fertile female to lure a male dog to its doom (the original femme fatale). That wasn’t what was happening here. The first time, I noticed Gigi making play bows along the fence enclosing our yard. Something was moving around vigorously in the tall grass and weeds on the other side of the fence. When I got closer, I saw it was a small, young coyote. The two animals were playing, each on one side of the fence, play-bowing and running, then bowing again. They seemed to be having a lot of fun.

In the second instance, my son-in-law Mike came home and saw Gigi in the back yard with what he thought was a fox, just hanging out together. He videoed it, calling Gigi in, so we were able to see it was a young female coyote that had found a way under the fence. Apparently, Gigi and the coyote had been chilling together in the back yard for quite a while. We don’t really want her socializing with coyotes, so we fixed the fence.

There is an exception to Gigi’s long list of friends. My daughter’s dog, Hendrix, is a Japanese Chin. He’s one of those fluffy, goggle-eyed little dogs. He annoyed Gigi at first acquaintance by biting her ankles. Gigi responded by squashing Hendrix flat with one big paw, but unfortunately, this triggered Hendrix’s bad back, requiring expensive meds. Although he has lived with Gigi now for four years, Hendrix has not improved his behavior and sometimes still bites her ankles. Gigi has learned to ignore/not squash him, but she cannot overlook it when he steals her chew toys.

Gigi loves to carry toys around in her mouth, usually a stuffed animal, but sometimes a chew toy. Hendrix isn’t allowed bones or chews because of major, life-threatening allergies, and he steals her toys out of jealousy. One night, Kerry took a bone away from Hendrix and returned it to Gigi. Gigi took it with her customary gentleness, but never stopped staring at Hendrix. Finally, she turned her back, walked away a few paces, turned around, and THREW the bone at Hendrix with a snort worthy of a teenaged girl.

Gigi has been wonderful with the grandkids, gentle and protective. She permitted all kinds of indignities, though we tried to spare her and teach the children to be gentle with animals—which they are. When Tom and I aren’t at home, Gigi sleeps in Lilah’s room, squeezing completely under the bed. She’s so big I’m not sure how she gets out again. Both the grandkids learned early to dodge Gigi’s lethal tail. It smarts when her tail connects with human flesh.

The kids loved Gigi. Gigi loved the kids.

While I don’t doubt that if anyone threatened us, Gigi would rip his throat out, I trust her 100% with children, guests and pets. She is one of the most utterly trustworthy personalities I have ever encountered. It’s not like having a dog around so much as having an odd-looking grandmother. A grandmother who might attack burglars.

Whenever I have had to treat Gigi for an ailment, she is the soul of cooperation. She will do anything the vet asks, patiently enduring indignities such as rectal thermometers and intrusive examinations. Once both her ears became infected. I had a bottle of liquid that I had to flood both ears with twice a day—something most dogs would strenuously resist. When Gigi saw me coming with the bottle, she would lie down on one side and present an ear. When I was done treating that ear, she would roll over and present the other one. She’s that way with every medical treatment—including acupuncture, which helps with her arthritis when it get bad—apparently understanding that we are trying to help her even if she doesn’t understand what we are doing. (Although I wouldn’t take any bets on her lack of comprehension.)

We live in a beach town. It’s also a dog town, and many people bring their dogs to play at the beach. I took Gigi frequently when we first moved here, but after a couple of years she started coming back limping and sore. Age, alas, is catching up with her, and her once-black muzzle and face are now frosty. She has arthritis and some old joint injuries that cause her problems. Unfortunately, she just doesn’t understand moderation. If I take her to the beach, she runs around and greets and plays with every other dog present, and most of the humans, too. We have had to curtail her beach visits, which is sad, because she used to have a blast.

It’s hard to express this without sounding kind of woo-woo, but this animal is enormously spiritual—more than most humans I know. She’s kind, gentle, intuitive and loving. I respect her as much as I would respect another human because she is her own creature. She knows who she is. She has a presence. Don’t get me wrong—she’s still a dog. She begs at the table. Sometimes she pees in the wrong place (but only if desperate). She barks at nothing and she barks at everything. But looking in her eyes, I see a kindred being who communicates clearly without words, who respects and loves me.

And when she goes (may it be many moons from today), I will be as grief-stricken as I would be for any family member. That’s why I’m telling you now, while I can, that I have in my keeping a great and beautiful soul. It’s a beautiful soul that farts and groans all night, that’s all.
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Gigi died today (November 26, 2019) at the age of approximately 15. So I had three excellent years with her after I wrote this piece. She was going downhill fast, and I wanted to say goodbye before her life became a complete misery to her. She died at home with her family around her.

Blogging, Publishing, Disappointments, Runes, Dried Cod Slathered in Butter

Okay. I admit I am not the world’s most dedicated blogger. I haven’t posted since the end of my Iceland trip, sometime in July—and I was cheating, because after we left Iceland, we went to Copenhagen, then Stockholm, and had a wonderful time. Except for the heat. It was 85 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit the whole time we were there, and of course, Scandinavia doesn’t know from air conditioning. My husband, who walks six to eight miles EVERY FUCKING DAY wanted to walk everywhere. I vividly recall standing in a jeweler’s shop looking for gifts and raining sweat on the display so hard I didn’t even contemplate looking for better prices because I was so embarrassed.

The only place I recall being air conditioned was the Vasa Museum in Stockholm. It is a museum that was built around an entire 17th century ship called the Vasa that sailed for 1500 yards on her maiden voyage, then keeled over and sank. It turns out she was top-heavy and there wasn’t sufficient ballast. A great pity for the king of Sweden, who had commissioned the ship and assured she was as gaudy and painted and stuffed full of guns as a wild west whorehouse. A greater pity for the thirty people who drowned when the Vasa sank. But a benison for the rest of us, because the ship was raised nearly intact and restored so that we can marvel at her and the astounding objects and decorations that she flaunted so briefly. And the entire building was positively freezing. I loved it.

But back to blogging. Why do I blog? I blog because I hope it will help sell my novels, although I don’t talk about my novels that much. I guess I am hoping that you’ll adore my prose style and want MORE! MORE! MORE!

But I have a problem, and I suppose I’d better discuss it. I have two novels of a trilogy in paperback, ebook, audiobook, etc.: “The Obsidian Mirror” and “Fire in the Ocean.” I also have a children’s book that was self-published, but let’s leave that aside for now. Last January, I sent my publisher, Diversion Books, the draft of the third, final, and (in my opinion anyway) best book of the trilogy, “Lords of the Night.”

My publisher basically said, “Oh, did we forget to tell you? We’re focusing on non-fiction now.” Long story short, they are still making the first two books available, but nothing further, and they won’t be bringing out “Lords of the Night.”

I believe that’s called “trilogus interruptus.”

Fast forward to last week, and I attended the World Fantasy Conference In Los Angeles. I wish I could say that a publisher stepped forward and rescued my entire trilogy, all the while warbling promises of AWESOME book promotion, but that didn’t happen. I did talk to an editor at Daw, and editor at Tor, and an agent that handles fantasy, and they all said the same thing, more or less: you are so screwed.

It seems that publishers don’t like picking up series in the middle, even if they can (my publisher will give me back my publishing rights). The advice was to take “Lords of the Night” to Kindle—maybe all three books—and do my own promotion. The agent suggested that a smaller publisher might pick up the trilogy; it would be worth trying. And then I can write my next book—unrelated to the trilogy—and find an agent and a new publisher.

Interestingly, I met at least three other writers who said the same thing had happened to them. Being a novelist is so glamorous.

But I did come back newly energized. I plan to pitch a few publishers and see what happens. And I have started on a new book. It will be set in settlement-era Iceland, as the Vikings began to turn into farmers and build a new society. 


But there will be magic, and it will be Icelandic magic, which is different from other magical systems I am familiar with. As a consequence I am studying the Elder Futhark, which is the set of Icelandic runes used in fortune-telling in the Icelandic tradition. In this tradition, the runes themselves are magical, not just another alphabet. Each does have its own sound, which means the runes can be formed into words—but each also has its own meaning, both symbolic and literal.

For example, berkana:

As you might suspect, the sound associated with it is “B.” It means “birch.” Its more mystical meaning is “purification, fertility and birth.” This can be interpreted a number of ways, depending on where it falls in the casting, whether or not it is reversed, and its relationship to the other runes in the casting. It’s almost as complicated to learn as tarot, except that a standard tarot deck has 55 cards, while the Elder Futhark has only 24 runes. Which I guess makes it about half as complicated as tarot.

I am the rankest of amateurs and I don’t actually believe in magic, but I have been a bit awed by the runes and how accurate they tend to be. I’m looking forward to the role they will play in my new book.

For now, I will leave you with this random observation. In old Iceland, food was always an issue, and many times life depended on finding something dead washed up on the beach. One standby food was dried fish. Here’s what dried cod looks like (this one has a tag on it from the supermarket):

I suppose this could be rehydrated and cooked in a stew, though I haven’t gotten that far in my culinary research yet. But the preferred way of eating it was to break off a piece, cover it with salted butter and eat it. Icelanders still enjoy this as a snack, kind of like we eat potato chips.

I admit I did not know this when we were in Iceland, or I would have tried it. Next time.

The Tale of How a Little Book for Kids Grew Up and Became a Little Book for Kids


Once upon a time, many years ago (many, MANY years ago), I was a college student at Beloit College (it’s in Wisconsin and that’s all you need to know about it). I was earning a Master’s Degree in Teaching, and one of the courses I took was Children’s Literature. Much of our grade was based on two essays the professor had assigned. Two essays that I am sure the professor had selected carefully for their learning potential, but which I thought were incredibly boring.

So without any notion of what I was really doing, I asked my prof if instead of writing two essays, I could write two children’s books instead. He agreed.

I spent the better part of the next several weeks holed up in the house trailer where my husband and I lived at the time, writing a little book called “I Am Not a Bear,” and illustrating it in pen and ink and watercolor. I painted the scenes and then pasted the typewritten text onto the watercolor paper. Lacking any sort of binding option, I punched the pages with three holes and fastened them with binder rings. It was a crude production, but the best I had to hand.

The original illustration of Paul picking up his room.


The new illustration of Paul picking up his room.

The story is about Paul, a little boy who wants to live with the bears because bears don’t have to do math, pick up their rooms, or eat oatmeal. He winds up trading places with a bear cub, Growf, who wants to live with people. Both discover there really is no place like home, but they do meet each other in the end and have a good laugh about it. It’s a simple story with a sweet message about family and home—and whether or not the grass is really greener elsewhere.

My prof liked the book and read it to his kids, who also liked it. I got an A+ in the class. End of story.

Except it wasn’t the end. I kept this opus in a file drawer for many years. When my kids hit the right age (around four years old), I pulled out my “book” and read it to them. They seemed to enjoy it, even if it didn’t become a favorite like “The Cat in the Hat.” But then, my book didn’t rhyme.

The decades passed. The grandchildren came along. I read “I Am Not a Bear” to them, too. But as I was reading it, I noticed a few things with embarrassment. It was too long and wordy for the target age. The illustrations were crude, and I had learned how to paint in oils by this time and had paintings hanging in galleries. Even more important, print-on-demand had been invented, so I could create a genuine book for my grandchildren—something they could keep if they wanted.

I rewrote the book, trying to cut verbiage and page count. Then I re-illustrated it in pastels. I wanted a soft, fuzzy look, and pastels seemed ideal. I had never used pastels before, but I didn’t let that stop me. It turned out pastels weren’t that much different from painting in oils, just…drier. Then I formatted it for lulu.com and printed a few copies for the grandchildren and sundry other kids belonging to friends and family.

I thought that was the end of this little story. But no.

I became distraught over the separation of families at the border and the imprisonment of immigrant children. I lay awake at night, agonizing over those poor kids and their families, frustrated because there was nothing I could do to help.

Then it occurred to me I could help. If I could find an appropriate organization aimed at helping immigrant families at the border, I could self-publish “I Am Not a Bear” as a bilingual English-Spanish book and donate all the proceeds to that organization to help them be more effective.

I approached only two refugee assistance organizations. The first one never replied to me. The second, the National Network for Refugee & Immigrant Rights (NNIR), responded immediately and enthusiastically that they would love to work with me on this. They have been an appreciative partner.

Just one problem. I don’t speak or write Spanish. I can find my way around a Spanish-speaking country by dint of speaking only in the present tense and waving my hands around a lot, but I didn’t even know the Spanish word for “bear cub.” (It turns out a lot of people who speak Spanish don’t know that either, which made me feel better.)

Fortunately, I have a Spanish-speaking friend who grew up in Mexico, Clod Barrera. I asked Clod if he would translate my book, for the magnificent compensation of nothing but my eternal gratitude. Clod, being a wonderful person, did so. And then I passed the translation around to a few other people to make sure all was copacetic—because I sure wouldn’t have known if there were a problem!

Finally, everything was ready to go. Except for formatting the new version of the book on lulu.com. For some reason, this took forever, and I have no intention of boring you with why, but it is finally ready to sell.

I don’t usually ask people straight out to buy my books, but I’m making an exception. If you care about the plight of children and families at the border—and know a child (around four to seven years of age) who would enjoy the book, or know of a school that could use bilingual books for young children—I’m asking you to buy “I Am Not a Bear/Yo no soy oso.” One hundred percent of the profits will be donated to the NNIR for at least two years. Here’s where to get it: http://www.lulu.com/shop/kd-keenan/i-am-not-a-bearyo-no-soy-oso/paperback/product-23979188.html

I thank you in advance. Every book that sells sends more money to help immigrants and their families.

This illustration didn’t make it into the book for purely technical reasons. but I kind of like it anyway.

The Cozy Mystery Flop: A Review

I love cozy mysteries. Especially English cozies. This may be because I started with Agatha Christie—I tell a lie, it was actually Nancy Drew, so there goes that theory.

Anyway, I like the whole tea-and-crumpets thing. And I listen to a lot of audiobooks, so when someone teddibly, teddibly English narrates, like Davina Porter or Simon Vance, I feel fully immersed in jolly old Blighty.

But they have to be well plotted, too. Really, the core of a mystery is its plot. A mystery is a contract between the author and the reader. The author promises not to spring the solution to the mystery on the reader without first hinting at it or making the critical information known to the reader. The author’s skill is in disguising the information in such a way that the reader never guesses, or is at best unsure until the end. Like many mystery readers, I love to try to figure out the solution before the author reveals it—but I don’t want it to be obvious, either.

In the end, the reader has to be able either say proudly, “I figured it out, but it wasn’t easy,” or, “I should have seen that coming, but I didn’t.” Either way, it has to be a satisfactory end that explains all loose ends and does not defy the laws of reality as we know them.

A few years ago, I stumbled across G.M. Malliet’s mystery series about life in Nether Monkslip, an isolated English country village. The star is an Anglican priest, Max Tudor, an ex-M15 agent who wearied of the life of a spy and went into the god-bothering business. Being an Anglican priest, he gets to have a love life, too. The object of his affections is Rowena, the hippy-dippy owner of the village pagan/spiritual/wicca shop. I’ll just say they are a fun couple.

I adored the series, but soon read all of the existing books, so I picked up another mystery by Malliet, this time with her Detective Inspector St. Just. The first two books were not as enthralling as the Max Tudor stories, but good enough that I purchased a third, “Death at the Alma Mater.”

There are spoilers from this point forward, so please stop reading now if you intend to read “Death at the Alma Mater.”

The story takes place at the fictional St. Michael’s College of Cambridge University. The college hosts a weekend get-together for Old Boys and Girls, and they invite only the wealthiest alums because the intention is to dun them for seriously large donations. One of the guests is gorgeous and wealthy Lexy Laurent, who is famous for being famous, her ex-husband, Sir James Bellows, and his wife India, who took James away from Lexy after only three years of marriage.

It is 20 years after the graduation of these Old Boys and Girls, yet Lexy is believed to still have an obsession with Sir James. When Lexy turns up dead by the boathouse, the fun begins.

I won’t expose the entire plot, but what is supposed to have happened is that James, a writer, had published an early novel that promptly sank from view without notice. He casually gifted his then-wife, Lexy, with the rights to this novel, never thinking it would ever be worth anything. (We don’t know this detail until the exposition at the end.) Lo and behold, the novel develops a cult following and then becomes an overnight best seller years later. Movie deals are being discussed. James, knowing that Lexy will be at the reunion, asks for the rights back. Lexy, having finally reduced her passion for James to ashes, refuses. James pretends it’s no big deal, but plots her murder during the reunion at St. Mike’s.

He carries out the murder near the college boathouse before dinner. After dinner, he is seen by several people having a serious chat with Lexy in the garden. In truth, “Lexy” is a plastic blow-up doll with a Lexy wig on (she’s famous, remember?), wearing an academic robe. This is supposed to establish that Lexy was alive, though in fact she has been dead for a few hours. This gives James an alibi, as he is careful to be within sight of the other guests until the body is discovered.

This is where G.M. Malliet and I parted company. I just didn’t believe a disguised plastic blow-up doll, even if seen only from the back, could pass as a human being. And the jiggery-pokery of blowing up the doll, dressing it, moving it, making sure people saw it but that no one got close enough to see that it wasn’t Lexy, and then somehow getting it out of there without anyone seeing either him or the doll—nah. I became unwilling to suspend my disbelief. (I mean, have you SEEN one of those dolls?)

The other major point is that James killed Lexy for the rights to his book. It was never mentioned that Lexy might have a valid will leaving everything to the Orphaned Hedgehog Home or something. The ex-husband certainly would not be handed the rights back if he were not specifically granted those rights in the will. So it would have been all for nothing.

I can only recommend the St. Just series with muted enthusiasm, and “Death at the Alma Mater” not at all. However, I most heartily recommend all the Max Tudor books. They are everything English cozy mysteries should be, and satisfying reads, every one.

Book Review: “Magpie Murders” by Anthony Horowitz


Mysteries are different from other genres in that the author has a specific contract with the reader. This contract says, roughly:
1. Thou shalt provide the reader with the clues needed to solve the mystery, if the reader manages to look at the clues in the right way.
2. Thou shalt not conceal the one piece of information needed to identify the criminal.
3. Thou shalt not make the criminal easy to identify because that would be no fun at all.
4. Thou shalt not invent random crap like time travel to explain how the criminal managed to pull off the crime.

These restrictions can make mysteries rather formulaic, but great mystery writers rise above them. And occasionally, an author manages to pull off a tour de force that both respects the contract and rises above it. “Magpie Murders” by Anthony Horowitz is just that kind of mystery.

But before we get into the novel, let’s talk about the two basic genres of murder mystery: cozy and hardboiled. It’s actually more like two separate genres, because cozy readers often don’t like hardboiled mysteries, and vice versa. Agatha Christie is, of course, the great-grandmother of the cozy mystery with her English villages, eccentric detectives, crumpets and tea. Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane epitomize the hardboiled mystery, with gritty, urban settings and down-at-heel, cynical detectives like Mike Hammer.

“Magpie Murders” is by definition a cozy and an English cozy at that. My favorite kind of mystery, in short. Don’t ask me why I am so enamored of vicars, fêtes and jumble sales—I just am. “But “Magpie Murders” is a cozy mystery within a cozy mystery, giving the happy reader not one but TWO mysteries to solve. The murders are unconnected except that the author of “Magpie Murders,” the book within the book, is also the victim in “Magpie Murders,” the novel.

Okay, that might have been a tad confusing so I’ll back up. The story opens with a book editor, Susan Ryeland, reading a manuscript. The manuscript, “Magpie Murders,” was written by Alan Conway, an enormously successful mystery writer and the mainstay of Susan’s employer, a small publishing firm. Susan warns the reader that the manuscript changed her life completely, and then we plunge into the story of “Magpie Murders.”

This story within a story is set in post-WWII England. An apparently accidental death occurs in Pie Hall, the residence of the local gentry, Sir Magnus Pie and his wife. But was it an accident? Small-town tongues are wagging. Then Sir Magnus is found dead in his front hall, decapitated by a sword from a nearby suit of armor. There are carloads of suspects, but nothing that makes any sense. Conway’s fictional detective, Atticus Pünt, is called in. Pünt appears to have solved the mystery—perhaps—by the time Susan Ryeland comes to the end of the manuscript. But the final chapters are missing. And then her boss gets a letter from Conway that sounds a great deal like a suicide note, and they discover he is dead, apparently having thrown himself off a high tower attached to his historic residence.

Susan begins investigating on her own because she needs to find the missing chapters—her publishing firm might not survive without bringing out Conway’s final book. She doesn’t find them, but does discover that someone has taken Conway’s notes and wiped all versions of the book on his computer. She begins to suspect that Conway was murdered. She also finds that there are several people who had excellent motives for murdering him, from his recently discarded lover to his next-door neighbor.

At this point, the reader is working on two murder mysteries, both taking place in English villages, and both involving assorted vicars, village residents, and mysterious visitors. Horowitz does a credible job of keeping the stories distinct. A lesser writer might have led the reader into an inextricable bog of confusion. I listened to the audiobook version, and splitting the narration between a man and a woman helped to keep the two stories straight. Samantha Bond narrated those portions told by Susan Ryeland, and Allan Cordune narrated the manuscript mystery. Both did an excellent job.

Eventually Susan solves the modern mystery and finds the missing pages. She nearly loses her life in the attempt, but then we get to read the end of the story-within-a-story. Both mysteries resolve satisfactorily and adhere strictly to the reader-author contract outlined above. I didn’t guess the solution to the manuscript mystery at all, and only sussed the modern mystery toward the end. Far from feeling frustrated by this, I am always happy when the author outsmarts me—as long as the author plays fair. “Magpie Murders” is one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had in a while, and I will look for more mysteries by Anthony Horowitz.