One P.I.’s Life

Sheila Wysocki, a death investigator based in Nashville, talked about her work a few weeks ago at the Killer Nashville Conference, and it was full of ideas to start crime fiction writers’ juices flowing.

Although she lives in central Tennessee, she doesn’t work cases based there; for safety reasons, the work she does is all out-of-state (a couple of stories right there).

Her clients are the families of victims. All of the victims are cold cases. Some of the victims died many years before, and some have grown cold because the police have stopped investigating. Sheila apparently believes some of them weren’t very thoroughly investigated from the outset.

No matter how much family members miss them and want a resolution, they can be powerless to make that happen.They are often financially strapped, some because they were poor to begin with, and others because they have been repeatedly taken advantage of by unscrupulous investigators. One of Wysocki’s first tasks is to establish trust.

Several factors influence whether she will take on a specific case. One is whether it’s a case she can take to the public—in other words, will it be effective in ginning up some public sentiment toward reopening the investigation? The families will have already tried to persuade the police to keep up their efforts and have gotten nowhere. Public pressure can’t hurt.

She assesses whether the family includes some strong personalities the police won’t want to tangle with, or whether it has the money to sue the police, which could result in a court order to investigate further. It takes from $300,000 to $500,000 to take a police department to court, she said, which is out of reach for most families. This is where cable tv dollars can help. The popularity of cold case programming means producers are looking for interesting stories, and the network will underwrite the necessary investigation.

These lawsuits enable Wysocki to gain access to official documents and reports, and she reads all of them. She said she often finds that the police haven’t interviewed anyone. She called her approach “crowdsourcing” justice, because she involves families, volunteer investigators, and a variety of other experts in fields like 911 call analysis. She may produce a podcast, which has sometimes proved an effective way to get tips.

She started on this career path after solving the murder of her former college roommate, a case that had gone unsolved for twenty-six years. Thinking about all the pain involved in that murder, she must have pivoted to the 266,000 other unsolved murders in the United States—a number that grows by about 6,000 per year—and found her calling.

The Ubiquitous Plants

Plants are all around us, so it’s no wonder that crime stories occasionally take advantage of what’s right at hand and make them part of a story. The fascinating history of poisons is just one example, and the history of my favorite poisoner Mithradates Eupator is well worth a read. As a recent post mentioned, analysis of plant matter is a frequent part of crime investigations too—what pollen or bit of plant material is present that shouldn’t be? (Writers of ITV’s Vera frequently include such clues.)

How digested is a victim’s plant-based stomach contents? How did authors use that peat bog (Val McDermid) or giant witch elm (Tana French) to conceal a body? A reader commenting thatRuth Ware’s Turn of the Key was too far-fetched asked, “Whoever heard of a poison garden?” This is a person who doesn’t know her Nathaniel Hawthorne. “Rappaccini’s Daughter” is one of my favorite Hawthorne stories! (Maybe the commenter knows her Marvel Comics heir, Monica Rappaccini.)

There’s another side to planting plant evidence too. Rather than obscuring the method, timing, and place of a crime, plants can be used proactively, to send a message, not hide it. Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s novel The Language of Flowers takes on this topic explicitly, and a young couple lets specific flowers say what they are reluctant to express directly. (How Victorian!) As one reviewer said, it’s “a captivating novel in which a single sprig of rosemary speaks louder than words.”

For a tutorial on the practice of floriography, remnants of which have survived thousands of years, Amazon has at least two well received books (The Complete Language of Flowers and Floriography), neither of which I’ve read. Both are well illustrated, though some others are not, which is a big disadvantage when you want to see whatever it is so you can describe it.

Online sources helped me decide which flowers a character deeply sorry about the way he’d treated his late wife and son should choose. He took pale pink roses to his wife’s grave and to their son’s, asphodel, the flower of regret.

Roses have many meanings including as a symbol for silence or secrecy (“sub rosa”) dating to the myths of ancient Greece. Red roses are associated with both courage and romantic love. Yellow roses, aside from the Texas association, symbolize friendship and new beginnings. White roses are linked to innocence and purity, explaining their frequent appearance in bridal bouquets. Pale pink roses, as in my story, are linked to sympathy. Have one character give another a black rose and you’ve sent a message.

Floriography has been practiced for thousands of years, and even though your readers may not know the details, carefully selecting which flowers you use in a story adds emotional resonance, and for the cognoscenti, a grace note of delight. Authors from Shakespeare to J.K. Rowling have used flowers in this way. Ophelia’s flowers included rosemary (remembrance), pansies (thoughts), fennel (sorrow), columbines (affection), and daisies (innocence and purity). New meanings keep being added to our store of floriography too. One of the most compelling of recent years was London’s public art installation to commemorate the outbreak of World War I. Each of the 888,246 red ceramic poppies represented a British or colonial service member who died in the Great War. If you study the pictures, you’ll never forget the association.

poppy poppies Beefeater London
A small section of the 2014 London installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies, each representing a member of the British military who died in World War I (photo: Shawn Spencer-Smith, creative commons license)

Where Stories Come From

If you write short stories, you know that typing “The End” is really the beginning. From there, it’s often a long haul to find just the right spot (i.e., appreciative editor) for your tale. And, you may end up re-working it a bit; as time passes, you may hear a few shortcomings crying out for revision.

Even when a story is written in response to a request for works of a specific type, or on a specific theme, or in a specific time period, acceptance isn’t guaranteed. I insulate myself against the pain of possible rejection by keeping track of the next place(s) I should send a story. If it comes back to me, I send it right out again, maybe with some revisions. Like they say about the state lottery, “if you don’t play, you can’t win.” Or, perhaps more appropriate, our state lottery’s new motto, “Anything can happen in Jersey.”

My story “Duplex” has logged a lot of cyberspace miles, and I’m delighted to say it has now been published online (available free to YOU) on the website, The Green Shoe Sanctuary. This good news prompted me to think back to the story’s origins.

If you live in the northeast, you’ll know that here, at least, duplex houses (one above, one below or side-by-side) are fairly common. Driving home one day, I passed a duplex on a sharply angled corner lot that required one half to drop back a few feet. Immersed at the time in Little Dorrit, in which Arthur Clennam’s dismal family home is like another character, I thought, “If Charles Dickens saw that house, he’d make it part of the story—the withdrawn, unprepossessing side and the proud, thrust-forward side.” (At the end of Little Dorrit you read with relief that Clennam’s malignant house collapses.)

“Duplex” begins by explicitly stating this contrast and evoking Dickens. Only in the second paragraph does it move into the situation of the main character, Cordelia Faye Watters, a young Vietnam War widow in the 1960s. Here’s that opener:

If only a perceptive social commentator like Charles Dickens had dissected the significance of a particular two-family house in Pinterville, Virginia! Anyone could describe its remarkable physical appearance, divided down the middle like a discordant married couple, the two mismatched halves physically split. But only a Dickens would appreciate the possible impact of this arrangement on the house’s occupants. The disheveled half, on the left, hung back some twenty feet or more, while its tidy neighbor, porch painted white as good intentions, sat primly forward. This isn’t my usual crime/mystery story, clearly. Cordelia’s challenge is to open her eyes to the variety of riches and responsibilities of the world around her. I hope you’ll read it and let me know what you think!

What Blood Stains Tell Us

Lisa Black, a guest of honor at the recent Killer Nashville conference, is not only the popular author of several crime series, she’s a certified crime scene analyst. She began her talk about blood stains by reminding us that blood accounts for about eight percent of a person’s body weight, about 5-6 liters for men and 4-5 liters for women. In real numbers, this is about 1.2 to 1.5 gallons. A lot to clean up. 

If you’re writing about a crime scene and want to fling some blood around, these are the types of blood stains Black noted (here’s a good article for more detail and some pictures):

  • Passive stains, or drips. A droplet’s size will depend in part on what kind of surface it dropped onto (absorbent or not) and how far the drop fell.
  • Transfer stains—that is, swipes or wipes. People (or, conceivably, pets) get blood on themselves and transfer it from the place of origin to another surface—the bloody handprint by the door kind of thing. I once had a housepainter with a long ponytail, which was constantly getting in the newly painted surface. When he’d whip his head around, I got transfer stains on my furniture, woodwork, and everything else!
  • Projected or impact stains—a bloodstain cause by arterial blood may show an up-and-down pattern due to the pumping of the heart; a castoff stain comes from swinging a bloody object, possibly the weapon, and can reveal information about the object as well as the number of strikes (the first strike is “free”—the weapon isn’t bloody yet); splash or drip patterns of a liquid dripping into another liquid; and the very fine droplets of high-velocity spatter.

As blood flies around your crime scene, the tail on the droplet tells investigators which direction it was traveling and, therefore, which direction it came from. Investigators painstakingly recreate in three dimensions the “area of convergence,” using the shapes and tails of all the drops to calculate angles. This may be a little hard to visualize (the best pictures I found appear to be copyrighted), but at this link, which is full of useful information, you’ll find an illustration of convergence under the heading “Examination of a bloody crime scene is a slow and methodical procedures.” Amen to that!

If your character doesn’t see any blood, never fear. There are tools to bring it into view. Amido black is a general protein stain that makes fingerprints, footprints, and other patterns visible. Anyone familiar with Gone Girl came to appreciate the magic of Luminol, which is specific to blood, and especially useful in detecting minute amounts after attempted clean-ups. It works through a reaction with the iron in hemoglobin.

One last tidbit from Black that might come in handy as you write: Bleach destroys DNA. Plus, as Oyinkan Braithwaite began her award-winning novel, My Sister, the Serial Killer: “I bet you didn’t know that bleach masks the smell of blood.”

How Crime Scene Investigations Really Work

Author and former U.S. Army forensic pathologist (and professional Santa) Bradley Harper led a fascinating seminar at the recent Killer Nashville conference that provided a bit of “the inside story” (you should pardon the expression) on autopsies and crime scene investigations.

His opening analogy was an interesting digression with a distinguished pedigree. He said Aristotle maintained there are only three arguments: Blame, Values, and Choice. Fixing blame is what forensics tries to do, and blame always relates to events that happened in the past tense. Values, he said, are always argued in the present tense (“we believe in. . .”), and choices are argued in the future tense. When two people are arguing, if one is using the past tense (blame), and the other is using present or future tense, they will never agree. This is a handy trick to remember next time you’re setting up a fictional confrontation!

Forensics is even older than Aristotle. It began in China about 3000 years ago when a murder occurred, with the assailant presumed to be part of a particular guard unit. The magistrate asked each guard member to lay his sword on a table. Then they waited. Before long, one and only one of the swords was covered with flies, attracted by the invisible traces of blood still on the sword.

Fast-forward to 19th century France and the efforts of numerous men of science to bring scientific methods to the analysis and systematization of crime investigations. Advances in photography, fingerprinting, and the standardization of autopsy procedures elevated the field. These pioneers’ accomplishments soon found their way into literature, starting with Edgar Allan Poe’s detective, C. Auguste Dupin. And then there was Sherlock Holmes. In 1910, a devoted Holmes fan, Frenchman Edmond Locard, set up the world’s first crime lab. You’ll remember Locard as the man who developed the exchange principle: “every contact leaves a trace.”

So what happens with in an autopsy? Harper said the steps include: verify the deceased’s identity (preferably with a thumbprint); take a full-body x-ray; make an external examination; U.S. pathologists use a Y incision and remove the top of the skull to reveal the internal organs and brain, any of which may be taken out for further analysis if necessary; analyze stomach contents, blood, urine, spinal fluid, the vitreous humor of the eye, etc; and take lots of pictures throughout.

Read More:
The Three Basic Issues (from Thank You for Arguing)
The Virtual Autopsy – explore online!
The Exchange Principle
Autopsy: A Screenwriter’s Guide
The Nutshell Studies of Frances Glessner Lee

Planting Evidence

A larger overlap than you might think exists between plant science and crime investigation. This confluence was suggested at the recent Killer Nashville conference by Jane Bock, Professor Emeritus in the University of Colorado’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

For writers, this field opens new possibilities for developing clues and those arcane hooks that make a story unique. Clues based on plant science can be crucial to a case: Ask Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who was executed for the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby largely on evidence related to the wood used to construct a homemade ladder (still controversial, and there are true believers on both sides).

Botanists get involved in crime investigations for any number of reasons: they’re asked to identify plant-based controlled substances; they’re asked to identify plant material found on a corpse’s body or clothing or at the crime scene; they’re asked to help identify plant cells (from fruits, vegetables, seeds) found inside a body, in the g.i. tract. This reveals not only what the victim ate, but whether it was harmful or poisonous. Where in the gastrointestinal tract the cells are found can help determine time-of-death. If they’re still in the stomach, death probably occurred no more than two hours after a meal. If they’ve moved on, well, let’s not discuss it.

Forensic botanists also are expected to know what grows where and when. A flower out of season suggests it came from somewhere else. (An episode of the BBC mystery Vera used this type of clue.) Do a suspect’s skin, fingernails, clothing, shoes, vehicle, or home contain traces of the same plant material found on the victim? The more anomalous the material is to when and where it’s found, the more likely suspect and victim are connected.

Dr. Bock and her U of C-Boulder colleague, David Norris, published a textbook on this topic in 2012, based on the approximately 50 cases they worked on. Each has served as an expert witness for both the prosecution and the defense in homicide cases. If you want to dig into this further, other more recent resources continue to pursue these seeds of crime.

Further Reading:
Murder Most Florid, by Dr. Mark Spencer (2019)
Plants and Crime: A Green Mystique Forensic Mystery Companion by Alan Graham (2021)

Killer Nashville in the Rearview

Last week’s Killer Nashville was a satisfying excursion on the whole. Not only were the speakers/attendees/lunch buddies great and the panels interesting, I arrived in Nashville several days early and spent them at Tennessee’s beautiful new State Library and Archives downtown. Accomplished a lot, genealogy-wise.

The meeting was at a hotel about twenty miles south of the city in a county whose citizens have been notoriously anti-vaxx. According to information I pried out of the organizers beforehand, mask policies were set by the hotel (there weren’t any or they weren’t enforced), so that only about forty percent of the attendees wore masks. The conference website and Facebook page were surprisingly mum on the subject; it was as if covid (and people’s understandable worries about it) didn’t exist. Perhaps it was repeated questions like mine that prompted a very last-minute letter from organizer Clay Stafford to attendees, but by then quite a few people had cancelled or decided not to attend. The planners’ cavalier attitude is summed up in the conference title: “Killer Nashville: Unmasked.” Stafford made a convoluted argument attempting to justify this choice, but it fell flat, with me at least.

Nor, unless I missed it, did the pre-conference materials mention that restaurant in the conference’s hotel venue is closed. Breakfast only. The bar was open, but not a peanut, not a pretzel stick in sight. Caterers must have brought food in for the two lunches and one dinner that were part of the three-day meeting. Attendees needed a car to get to any restaurant that wasn’t fast-food, chain-type.

Aside from these lapses in planning for attendee comfort and safety, the program was excellent and diverse. Ironically, despite covid concerns, this was the largest Killer Nashville attendance to date! There were right around 300 people, desperate to chat up their friends and fellow authors. People were upbeat, happy to be together, and grateful to Killer Nashville for making it possible. And, of course, when I saw that the bookstore would send my purchases home, at no charge if I bought more than $100-worth, I “saved” myself that mailing fee with no trouble at all!

Karin Slaughter: No Sugarcoating

Last week a library consortium sponsored an interview with best-selling crime author Karin Slaughter to discuss her new standalone thriller, False Witness. She told the interviewer that it is a hard book to talk about without revealing spoilers, and since I’ve read and reviewed it for CrimeFictionLover.com, I can attest to the difficulty.

The book centers on two sisters, Leigh and Callie, who in their mid-teens experience a horrible event that has changed their lives in many ways. The book was a way to for Slaughter to explore her abiding interest in the impact trauma has on people. The bond between the sisters is at the book’s emotional core. Sister relationships, she says, are so fraught. “A sister is the person you can love the most and hate the most at the same time.”

The interviewer noted that many readers consider her books very “dark,” and she said “if my name was Ken Slaughter, they wouldn’t say that.” She puts violent situations in context but does not shy away from portraying them as they are. No sugarcoating. When she was a child, her grandmother would often have a black eye or split lip or even a broken bone. Her uncles would always make light of it, saying how clumsy she was, but as Karin grew older, she realized her grandfather was an abuser. The family’s refusal to face or even discuss the violence “only hurt my grandmother” and enabled the beatings to continue.

Tough issues, indeed, but despite them, Slaughter works considerable humor into her stories. In this one, Callie works in a veterinary clinic and gives the animals humorous (and very apt) nicknames. Her boss, Dr. Jerry, entertains her with intriguing animal stories. “This book was my opportunity to put in all the obscure animal facts I’ve collected,” Slaughter said. “You can’t have all the dark stuff without balance.”

As adults, Leigh is a lawyer in a high-priced Atlanta firm, and Callie a drug abuser, intermittently sober. To research Callie, Slaughter talked with current and former drug abusers and wanted to describe their outlook without defaulting into clichés. She wanted to separate Callie’s base personality from the addiction and does so in part through Callie’s love of animals. In my opinion, Callie comes across as the novel’s most engaging and believable character.

She read Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Katherine Anne Porter’s novel about the 1918 influenza epidemic, which contains so many parallels to our covid experience. The new book includes a pointed epigram from Porter too. Slaughter produces a book a year, generally, and has published 21 novels with more than 35 million copies sold worldwide. Several of her books are optioned for television, and the one closest to airing is Pieces of Her, which will be an eight-part Netflix series starring Toni Collette, premiering in late 2021 or 2022 (covid delays).

Still? Again? Men Shunning Women Authors

reading

Periodically authors get motivated to revisit  a persistent question, Why Won’t Men Read Their Books? It’s pretty discouraging to think that a big chunk of the population who might read a mystery/crime book, who say that’s their favorite genre to read, will dismiss out of hand the one they’re working!

An article by the gender-masking MA Sieghart in last Sunday’s Guardian newspaper takes up the issue once again. “Female authors through the centuries, from the Brontë sisters to George Eliot to JK Rowling, have felt obliged to disguise their gender to persuade boys and men to read their books. But now? Is it really still necessary? The sad answer is yes.” Sieghart set about to document that for her new book, The Authority Gap, through a survey she commissioned from Nielsen Book Research. The result? “Men were disproportionately unlikely even to open a book by a woman.”

Take top-selling female authors. Less than one reader in five is male. Then take top-selling male authors. Almost half (45%) of their readers are women. Clearly, women are much more comfortable reading across gender than men are. A question of quality, you ask? No, Sieghart says, pointing out that women authored nine of the ten best-selling literary novels of 2017.

I’ve puzzled over this a lot in previous posts. Now Sieghart takes the issue beyond a marketing conundrum, suggesting a more serious problem underneath. By cutting themselves off from the ideas, imaginations, experiences, and perspectives of women, as expressed in the books they write, men limit their ability to understand half the world. It’s a familiar-sounding argument from another domain when she says, as a result, men “will continue to see the world through an almost entirely male lens, with the male experience as the default.” The stories women tell—and the women themselves—will be niche, when in reality, they are not niche stories; they are human stories.

From Page to Stage: The Deep Dive

Once the preliminaries are over—the table read, the initial preparation–it’s time for actors and director to buckle down to the real work of rehearsing a new production. Just as authors, once they have a sense of their book—on paper, in their heads, or on innumerable post-its—have to buckle down and dig into the specifics.

Leader of my Zoom course on the play rehearsal process, Adam Immerwahr, artistic director of Washington DC’s Theatre J, let us see how the he and the actors dissect every line. As an avid listener to audiobooks, I’m well aware of how a talented narrator wrings so much more juice (and often humor) out of a text than I’d get from scanning words-on-a-page. They have a way of making it sounds like there’s a perfect way to read each line; this experience with actors and their director showed how not true that is!

Both Kate Eastwood Norris and Cody Nickell, the actors helping with the course, were quite comfortable with this iterative process. Immerwahr pointed out that the scant stage directions Shakespeare provides force director and players alike to figure everything out. It’s fantastic training for interpretation.

Immerwahr, Norris, and Nickell began with the set-up for our “test-case” play, Neil Simon’s comedy, Last of the Red Hot Lovers. As the play opens, middle-aged restaurateur Barney peeks into the door of his mother’s apartment. He believes she’s away for a few hours, and he’s arranged an assignation for the afternoon—a first for him. He calls out, “Hello? . . . Mom? . . . .”

We don’t get any farther before Immerwahr asks, what would Barney have done if his mother had answered him? Nickell’s reflection on that possibility suggests a number of ways to approach those two-words. Is Barney hesitant? Apprehensive? Confident?

In posing such questions, Immerwahr is trying to nudge the actors in a particular direction, toward a common understanding of what’s really going on. Text and subtext. It’s painstakingly slow, and even actors who are not in the scene benefit, Nickell said, because “they have to get on that train.” In writing, we don’t have the benefit of the actor’s intonation, raised eyebrows, chair-flop. We have to clarify what we’re trying to convey as precisely as possible, especially in key scenes.

Neil Simon’s long stage direction describes how Barney fusses around the apartment, checking his watch, trying not to leave evidence he’s been there, shutting the blinds. These simple actions show the audience how nervous and indecisive he is. He makes a chatty, unnecessary phone call to his restaurant and in the middle buries his real questions: “Did my wife call? . . . And you told her I’m at Bloomingdale’s?” Ah, his alibi is intact, and we see he’s a clumsy liar. You can see this kind of action and phone call easily adapting to a story.

Bringing out a multitude of revelations from such seemingly commonplace actions and dialog demonstrates how much art is involved. As an audience-member, you get the “right” impression of Barney seemingly effortlessly. But, as Immerwahr emphasized in a class last fall on how to watch a play, “In theater, everything’s a choice.” In novels too.

This is just one of many entertaining Theatre J classes expressly designed for people who love (and miss) live theater. Check it out!