These Toxic Things

          Michaela Lambert has a career I’ve never heard of and indeed doesn’t quite exist yet (but someone should start doing it) as a digital archaeologist for a new start-up run by her boyfriend. No make that ex-boyfriend. Well, like everything in Rachel Howzell Hall’s These Toxic Things, a wonderfully intricate mystery about the secrets that we keep and those that others keep from us, the relationship is complicated.

          But Mickie, as she’s nicknamed, loves her job. She’s a thoroughly modern woman but she loves the curios of the past. For Memory Bank she catalogues items that her clients deem most valuable in highlighting important aspects of their life. Unfortunately, Nadia Denham, her new client and owner of Beautiful Things Curiosities Shoppe, a fascinating store in a somewhat seedy strip mall, is found dead. Denham has a plastic bag over her head and left a suicide note but the death looks suspicious none the less. And there is of course, the shark-like developer who wants to buy the land and bulldoze it for his own upscale development.

          Since the dead woman already purchased the Mega-Memory Package, Mickie decides to go ahead and create the memory book and suddenly finds herself in a sinister, shadowy world. In ways, Mickie is sheltered, she lives in a tree-lined Los Angeles neighborhood behind the pretty home owned by her loving parents. Her uncle, a LAPD cop is equally protective and dedicated to her well-being. She graduated from USC, over-borrows her mother’s expensive and beautiful clothes and the two giggle over her stories of boyfriends while chowing down tacos. And yet even in this cocooned bubble, there are secrets as well.

          Once entering the world of Denham’s beautiful things, she makes good friends at the nearby diner but she’s also suddenly receiving threatening notes and feels as those someone who knows where she lives.

          Hall, a self-described control freak and thoroughly plots out her numerous novels (she has one already written coming out next summer and another next year), draws upon her own life and experiences, the stories she hears from friends and co-workers, and what she reads including newspapers, blogs, and social media.

.         She and her college bound daughter share clothes, munch on popcorn while gossipping, and she has some secrets she will in the future share with her—though none, I’m sure, are as stunning as the one Mickie will discover about her family.

          “Writers are like magpies—we grab shiny things and take them with us,” Hall says and of course that’s true, everything is material for writers. Hall is able to keep track of her complex novels because she is all about organization and has a daily to-do list.

          “If I do something that’s not on the list, I add it later so I can cross it off,” she says. “We all have our rituals.”

          These Toxic Things is one of an emerging mystery subgenre—that of feisty, independent, and intelligent Black woman who while bravely finding her way in the world also has her vulnerabilities.

          “It’s a great awakening of Black female mystery writers, who burst out about three years ago,” says Hall.

          It’s a very welcome one as well.

CrimeReads: Three L.A. True Crime Stories That Went From Reality to Books to Films

CrimeReads: Three L.A. True Crime Stories That Went From Reality to Books to Films. https://crimereads.com/three-l-a-true-crime-stories-that-went-from-reality-to-books-to-films/

Death & Lighthouses of the Great Lakes

Great Lakes Lighthouse: Death, true crime, suicides, and murder.

         Combining an intense interest in both true crime and maritime history, Dianna Higgs Stampfler’s latest book, Death & Lighthouses of the Great Lakes: A History of Misfortune & Murder (History Press 2022), recounts the darker stories of  the fascinating lighthouses lining the shores of the Great Lake states.

         Stampfler, whose previous book was Michigan’s Haunted Lighthouses, first started researching lighthouses 25 years ago while working for the West Michigan Tourist Association and continued after starting her own business, Promote Michigan. But even she made new discoveries

         “Many of the locales, lights, and keepers were new to me, as were their stories,” says Stampfler, who is a member of many maritime and lighthouse organizations. “Some of the stories were so tragic that newspaper coverage was significant. Many stories even appeared in papers throughout the country, which emphasizes their scope.”

         Take the story of head keeper, George Genry, and his assistant, Edward Morrison who both disappeared from their posts on Grand Island in June of 1908.

         “They just vanished,” says Stampfler. “Everything was left at this remote lighthouse including provisions on the dock, coats on the hook, and food on the stove. A month later, what was determined to be Morrison’s battered and decomposed body was found floating in a boat near the shore. A month later, the remains of what they determined to be Genry were found on a nearby beach. There are several theories about how the two men died, some more nefarious or controversial than others, but the exact truth will never be known.”

         The earliest story in her book dates back to the beginning of the 19th century at Gibraltar Point Lighthouse in Toronto – the earliest and longest standing lighthouse on the Great Lakes. In 1809, John Paul “J.P.” Radelmüller, a German immigrant, was appointed as lighthouse keeper for Gibraltar Point. Radelmüller had an interesting history, having worked as a servant for the Duke of Gloucester before moving to Upper Canada.

         “Much of his early history is documented by J.P. himself,” says Stampfler noting that a seven-page handwritten letter he wrote is cataloged at the Library and Archives Canada. “Some believe J.P. was a homebrewer or bootlegger, and that it was through these activities that his murder occurred. Two men from a local military outpost were charged with his 1815 death, but they were acquitted of all charges.”

         Stampfler discovered this story through a chat board where another historic lighthouse enthusiast, Eamonn O’Keeffe has been extensively researching Radelmüller, Indeed, her own research encompassed Googling, old newspaper archives, local libraries, maritime based historical societies, and genealogical sites.

She also visited island lighthouses such as Grand, South Bass, and the many in Door County, Wisconsin.

         “I went not only to do research but also to walk the grounds and see the lights,” she says. “That really helped me connect to them.”

         Autographed copies of Death & Lighthouses on the Great Lakes for $21.99 (plus shipping/handling and tax)are available at PromoteMichigan.com. The book is also available through online booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble as well as in local bookstores.

         For Stampfler’s upcoming book events, visit promotemichigan.com/speakers-bureau

The Appeal By Janice Hallett

        An ever escalating review of email, letters, and documents by two young lawyers at the behest of their supervisor, The Appeal tells the story of a small-town fundraising appeal for a little girl’s life-saving cancer treatment and all the machinations that go along with it.

        “While the alpha family, leading lights of a community drama group, desperately try to raise funds any way they can, some members throw themselves into the campaign, while others harbor nagging suspicions,” says Janice Hallett, a former magazine editor, award-winning journalist, and government communications writer, and author The Appeal. “When a body is found, 15 suspects come under the spotlight.”

        It’s an intriguing way to draw us into the small town theater group and the many assorted people involved.

        “We approach the story in hindsight, from the point of view of two law students, set the task by their tutor to read correspondence pertinent to a legal case of appeal – because he believes the wrong person may have been convicted,”  says Hallett, who was struggling with trying to get a succession of screenwriting ideas off the ground and decided to instead write her first novel.

        “I wrote The Appeal with no expectations that it would ever be published, no deadline and no pressure,” she says. “If I’d thought more about it, I may well have decided against these formats. Ignorance was confidence in this case – it didn’t occur to me it wouldn’t work.”

        And worked out it did. Her book has been named The #1 bestselling debut in the UK in 2021, An Apple Books 2021 Bestselling Crime & Thriller (UK) and an Amazon UK Editors’ Picks: Best Books of the Year, 2021.

        Before she branched out into writing screenplays and mysteries (Hallett has a new mystery out next year titled The Twyford Code), she spent 15 years writing about bubble bath, mascara, sun cream, cologne, soap, and more.

        “ I wrote about every beauty and personal care product on the shelves,” says Hallett. “I edited trade magazines for people who sell beauty products to the public – whether they work in high-end department stores or local drug stores. It’s a dynamic industry that blends science, art, psychology and creativity. I loved it for about 12 twelve years, but by 15 I fancied a change.” 

        As complex her book is, Hallett says she’s no planner when it comes to writing.

        “You won’t find swathes of sticky notes or a dry-wipe board in my study,” she continues. “I set off, let the story evolve, and allow the characters to develop in an organic way. Planning everything beforehand would take all the joy and exploration out of the process for me. Years of screenwriting and playwriting have worked in my favor because you develop a sense of story, pace and timing. If there’s a potential downside, it’s that I never know what the story is about until I reach the end of the first draft. At that point I go back, make the beginning fit the end and put in all the glorious twists and details that make the story so rich and satisfying. I’m a reverse engineer.”

The Other Black Girl

         For the past two years, Nella Rogers, the only child of two college professors, has held a job as an editorial assistant at Wagner’s, a publishing house filled with Ivy League trust funders who work for low wages with the dream of becoming an editor one day. That’s Nella’s dream too, though she knows she has a long way to go. The only Black in the editorial assistant pool since the editor disappeared some 20 years ago muttering loudly and scratching he hear. By the way, this is a major clue in The Other Black Girl (Atria 2021) a book that is way beyond your typical business competition story. The first novel by Zakiya Dalila Harris, it’s a zinger showing not only the tricky waters Blacks must navigate—I mean how many White people, myself included, have had to worry that there were too many Whites in the business?

         The impetus for the book says Harris is something similar. Harris was in the bathroom washing her hands when a Black woman walked out of one of the stalls. Her first thought was who was she?   “I was not used to seeing other Black people on the floor,” he says. “I knew who was in the company and how many Black and Brown people there were on my floor—which was me and a Black editor at Pantheon/Knopf. So, I looked at this woman and hoped we would have a moment, but there was nothing. Which was cool, I get it. But on my way back to my desk it got me thinking, why was I so excited? Why was I so starved? But of course, I was starved.

         Becoming a Wagner editor requires a host of abilities—the ability to work hard, a knack of understanding he Zeitgeist so well that’s it easy to define the winners from the losers when it comes to selecting what novels have that certain something that make them most likely to become best sellers.

         Oh, and keeping your mouth shut and fitting in.

         Nella has got all the above checked except for the last two. Sure, she works hard at developing contacts, and she’s super bright but she blows it big time when she suggests that one of the publisher’s star writers, who is introducing a Black character in his newest book, that the woman is a racist stereotype. Of course she , Shartricia Daniels is the fictional character–a pregnant black opioid addict. But when she tries to point this out, her editor is outraged as is the writer, and unfortunately, The Other Black Girl, Hazel-May McCall, a pretty woman with just the right sense of style, a killer resume, and the sweet guile pretends to agree with Nella. But then later Nella overhears her talking to their shared boss praising the Shartricia character and the book. Or even worse, trying to get her to quit. After all, is there room for two Black Girls at Wagner’s? In any office>

         Someone doesn’t think so as Nella soon finds warning notes, seemingly written to scare her aware from Nelson’s. But there’s something even more sinister going on at Nelson’s and Nella is facing a crisis that is impacting all of the Other Black Girls in offices throughout the city.

Good Rich People and the Bad Games They Play

            Lyla and Graham Herschel like to play games. Not board or video games. Too boring for this ultra-rich restless couple who live in a home high up in the Hollywood Hills and not too far from Graham’s overbearing mother who would certainly win any mother-in-law from hell contest.

            No, the games they like to play involve destroying people’s lives. And that’s what they intend to do to Demi Golding, who they believe is a high earning executive at a tech company.

            In Good Rich People, Eliza Jane Brazier, sets up an unwitting match between these heartless trio and Demi, who is homeless. But they don’t know that. By luck—and the cunning of those always on the brink of catastrophe—she has the necessary information to take them up on an offer to live on their property.

            Typically, son, mother, and wife set people up so they lose everything—their jobs, reputations, and money. But Demi doesn’t have any of those to lose and she’s learned how to survive during her tumultuous childhood, a skill she really needs to try to outwit the threesome who, suffocating with boredom, have upped their game to include murder.

            Brazier, who lived in London for years but now resides in California, knows a little bit about homelessness and having to scrabble to survive. After moving to England, she lost her job and was lucky enough to be taken in by a kindly man who would become her future husband.

            “He was always taking people in and helping them,” she says about her musician spouse who is now deceased.

            The jobs she was able to find didn’t pay enough to give her security and so what writing about the ultra-rich versus the poor really resonates.

            It’s typical of Brazier to draw upon her experiences for her books.

            “I worked at a ranch in Northern California which is where my book, If I Disappear, is set,” she says in a phone interview where she’s working on her fourth book. Her third, set in Los Angeles where she lives, is already written.

            When I ask her if the real ranch was as creepy and weird as the one in her book, she laughs and tells me it was worse. Wow.

            Life is different now with the success of her books. Brazier says she was always a storyteller but didn’t have confidence in her writing ability. When she finally decided to give it a try, she spent a lot of time honing her writing skills and learning the business. Now, she not only is writing mystery novels but also is developing If I Disappear for television.

            “It’s still unbelievable,” she says about the turn her life has taken. “I’m still somewhat in denial.”

All Her Little Secrets

              Most of us keep secrets from those we love—whether it’s simply misdirection about how much that new dress really cost or an outright lie like what really happened at the work party your partner couldn’t attend.

              But in Wanda Morris’s All Her Little Secrets, attorney Ellice Littlejohn has taken it to a new level. Sure, she graduated from an Ivy League Law School and she’s extremely bright and hardworking. She’s also the only Black lawyer at the company where she works. Indeed, she is just one of a few Blacks working there at all. Which explains why there’s a constant stream of protestors outside the company’s building protesting their hiring practices.

              But who is Ellice? She’s not from Atlanta, Georgia like she tells everyone. Instead, she grew up in a poverty-stricken small town where she lived with her alcoholic mother and sadistic stepfather.  She did attend a prestigious boarding school, but it was as on an academic scholarship not because she was a rich kid like most of the other students. And no, she’s not an only child, but her brother Sam, who she dearly loves, has been in and out of jail. That’s not the kind of back story Ellice has created for herself. It doesn’t go with the fancy condo, expensive clothes and car that define her Atlanta lifestyle, one she’s perfected to keep others from finding out about her past including what exactly happened to her stepfather whose body has never been found.

              All these falsehoods start to unravel when she takes the elevator up to the 20th floor to meet with Michael, her boss, for one of their all-too frequent early morning meetings. But Michael’s dead, an apparent suicide and Ellice instead of calling for help, leaves.

              Michael is also her long-time lover. The problem, at least it would be for some women, is that he’s married. But Ellice isn’t sure if she loves him nor is she certain she wants to take over his job when offered that plum promotion. She’s been keeping secrets for too long to know what she wants or how she feels.

              As complicated as all this is, it becomes even more so when the police discover Michael was murdered. To add to the stress, Ellice’s brother Sam was caught on camera using his sister’s ID to get past security at the office. Did Ellice have Sam kill Michael so she could get his job and his plush office (redecorated, of course), or did she kill him herself? And why won’t the police believe her when she tells them that Michael had discovered criminal activity on the 20th floor?

              Morris, who has held positions as an attorney in several Fortune 100 companies, says she thinks both her work as Black female lawyer and her fascination with thrillers helped shape the story.

              “Ellice’s experiences are an amalgam of what many women experience in their lives,” says Morris, who is married with three children and lives in Atlanta. “Think about it, you are the only women working in a predominantly white male space and your colleagues despise you simply because of your race and/or gender and put obstacles in front of you.”

              A fan of mystery/thriller writers like Karin Slaughter, Lucy Foley, Walter Mosley and Joe Ide, Morris wants readers to see the distinctive viewpoint Black female writers can bring to the genre.

              “I’ve always enjoyed books by other thriller authors like John Grisham and Joseph Finder, but I couldn’t find many books like theirs with female protagonists who liked me,” she says. “Black women should be able to find themselves in all types of books including thrillers with smart, sophisticated Black women chasing down bad guys through dark office towers at night without a gun or an ounce of regret.”

The Attic on Queen Street by Karen White

Karen White and I are talking about ghosts, particularly the ghosts haunting Melanie Middleton Trenholm in White’s latest novel, The Attic on Queen Street, the last in the series set in haunted Charleston, South Carolina.

“Do you believe in ghosts?” she asks.

Not really, I reply, but I also don’t like staying in places that are supposedly haunted when I’m by myself.

White feels the same way because, as we both agree, you just never know.

It’s then that her phone goes dead.

“I don’t what happened,” says White when she calls back. “My phone was charged and everything.”

Coincidence? Most likely. But still, it makes you wonder.

But phones going dead are the least of the problems for Melanie, a Charleston real estate agent with young twins, a husband who is deciding whether he wants to stay in the marriage, and a teenaged stepdaughter whose room is haunted. Indeed, the entire house on Tradd Street is haunted. Some of the ghosts are helpful, some are evil, and one is the ghost of a dog—which is fine as it gives Melanie’s dog a companion to play with. And to make matters worse, Melanie’s young daughter is already showing signs of being able to see ghosts.

Ghosts are such a problem that Melanie learned early on to sing ABBA songs loudly to drown out the sounds of the dead people trying to talk to her. But that only works sometimes and in this novel there’s plenty of evil for Melanie to deal with both living and dead. For starters there’s Marc Longo, who stole her husband’s manuscript and turned himself into a bestselling author. Longo is now heading a film crew in Melanie’s house while underhandedly trying to discover the diamonds he believes are hidden there. Melanie is also trying to aid a good friend in discovering who murdered her sister years ago—with the help of the cryptic messages the deceased sister keeps sending her way. And then there’s Jack, her handsome husband. They’re still in love but Jack is darned tired of Melanie always getting herself into deadly situations.

White first introduced us to Melanie in The House on Tradd Street in what was to be a two book series.

“But when it came out and was so popular, my publisher said let’s make it four,” says White. “This is the seventh and I’m really going to miss them.”

Well, kind of, as White is continuing the theme of a haunted city and the Trenholm family, only with Melanie’s stepdaughter in the key role who has to deal with her only supernatural beings when she move  to New Orleans in a book due out this coming March called The Shop on Royal Street.

Interestingly, the Tradd Street series was originally going to be set in New Orleans. White went to Tulane University and in 2005 she was all set to go with her family back to New Orleans to do research for the first book when Hurricane Katrina hit.

“I knew that there was no way with all the catastrophic flooding, and deaths that I could write this story without having Katrina in it and this wasn’t that kind of book,” says White, who has authored 23 books,

Choosing Charleston made sense as White had ancestors who lived in Charleston in the late 1700s and family who had lived on Tradd Street. In ways, she says that when she visited, she felt the pull of genetic memory—a sensation of a past shared life.

“I smelled what they call pluff—which is rotted vegetation,” recalls White, “and I said oh doesn’t that smell so wonderful.”

Coincidence? Doubtful.

The Attic on Tradd Street is also available as an audiobook and electronically.

Everything We Didn’t Say by Nicole Baart

Nicole Baart, who lives in Iowa and is the mother of five children from four different countries, is the author of several bestselling mysteries. Taking time out from her busy schedule—she’s already working on her next novel–Baart chatted with Jane Ammeson about her latest, Everything We Didn’t Say, which was selected as the Book of the Month October’s Most Popular Pick.

What initially drew you to writing mysteries?

I started out writing contemporary fiction, but I have always loved reading mysteries. In the beginning of my career, I think penning a compelling whodunit simply felt too complicated. Plotting a good mystery is no easy feat—and I feared I wouldn’t be able to skillfully juggle all the important elements (red herrings, believable foreshadowing, a twist or two, authentic motive, etc.). Mystery readers have very high expectations! But I started almost unconsciously weaving puzzles into my books, and by the time Little Broken Things came out in 2017 I had gotten over my hesitation. I love writing novels that center around a good mystery, and I’m thrilled that Everything We Didn’t Say has resonated with so many readers.

Can you give us a brief summary of Everything We Didn’t Say?

It’s the story of Juniper Baker, a special archives librarian in Denver, Colorado who returns to her small, Iowa hometown ostensibly to help an old friend. Really, she’s there to solve a fifteen-year-old double homicide and win back the daughter she left behind.

Was the book inspired by an actual event or events? If not, how did you come up with idea for the book?

I’ve been working on this book for nearly three years and so many different things contributed to the final story! It’s truly a sort of book soup: a bit of this, a little of that. But at the center of it all is a cold case in Iowa that I stumbled across several years ago. My heart went out to the family and friends who are still looking for answers, and that quest for resolution and hope in the midst of such brokenness is littered across the pages of Everything We Didn’t Say

Juniper has such a sense of longing and displacement as well as an ambiguousness about her hometown. Are these feelings you’ve experienced? Do you share characteristics with June?

Absolutely. I love my small town (and the people in it) so very much, but I’m afraid sometimes that we think the line between good and evil runs around the outskirts of town. Us and them narratives are so simple and satisfying, but the truth is much more complicated. Small towns can be places of intimate community and belonging, but they are also filled with secrets, prejudices, and the same turmoil and tragedies that plague, well, everywhere. We aren’t perfect, we aren’t even always good, and I think we need to be honest about that. I want to have conversations about where we might be myopic and insular, and find ways to work through our own short-sightedness. I want to be candid about the ways that we fail, and try to be and do better instead of pretending we’ve got it all together.

Tell us about One Body One Hope and what led you to co-founding the organization.

It’s a long and complicated story, but the simple version is that my husband and I met a Liberian man who became a friend while we were in Ethiopia adopting our second son. That connection led to a deep relationship with a couple in Monrovia, and lasting ties to the children’s home that they opened after the Liberian civil war. We call it the accidental ministry because we never intended for it to happen! What started with one church and 35 orphaned and at-risk kids has grown into three children’s homes that serve over 150 kids (and often their extended families), 27 churches, 6 schools, a micro-finance program with a 92% repayment rate, numerous community redevelopment projects, and a 160-acre commercial farm. Our passion is empowering indigenous leaders and then getting out of their way. Everything good that has happened through One Body One Hope has been because of the Liberian people and their enduring love for their country!

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?

I love interacting with readers on my Instagram page @nicolebaart, where I have worked hard to cultivate an uplifting, authentic community. We talk about much more than just books, and I seek to find ways to connect on a personal level as we discuss everything from parenthood to being a good neighbor to things that bring us joy. I’d love to see you there!

Where They Wait: A Scott Carson Supernatural Thriller

          What could be easier than for an out-of-work journalist than an offer of a high paying gig writing a puff piece for an old friend? Well, if you’re the main character in a Scott Carson novel then take it from someone like me who has read every book Michael Koryta has written including those under the Carson pseudonym, things will get much worse before—and if—they get better.

          In time for a stupendously creepy Halloween scare we meet Nick Bishop in Where They Wait (Atria/Bestler, $27) as he arrives in Maine. His assignment is to write about Bryce Lermond for the Hammel College alumni magazine. $5000 is a whole lot of money for a profile of a successful college alum but Bishop, who has reported from Afghanistan, almost turns the job down. He’s proud of his reporter credentials and this job is beneath him. Unfortunately, he’s also broke and besides, a paid trip to Maine gives him a chance to see his mother, a once noted scientist, who now suffers from dementia.

          Oh, if only it were that easy. First entering Lermond’s headquarters, Bishop notes there’s something off kilter about the whole set-up. But he agrees to try Clarity, the app Lermond’s developed that promises to soothe and relax. And indeed, when Bishop first listens to the hauntingly beautiful song, he does fall into a sound sleep. But it’s a rest followed by horrific and seemingly real nightmares. Lermond’s top assistant—and Bishop’s childhood friend—warns him not to listen to Clarity but the melody and the voice of the woman singing is addictive. No, make that irresistible despite she committed suicide and yet shows up frequently and all too real in Bishop’s Clarity-induced dreams.

          Koryta, who grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, says that he was struck during the pandemic lockdown at how many relaxation apps were coming to market.

          “I thought this is good but then wondered what if it isn’t good for you,” says Koryta in a call from his home in Maine. “And writing the book during the backdrop of the constant question of how communication is being used to either save democracy or destroy it as well as the power and responsibility of communication soaked into my work. The power of song is really striking to me. Song has a staying power that most things do not, we remember songs and what they say.”

          As the song and the nightmares begin to overtake him, Bishop tries to delete Clarity but it reappears. He also begins to discover secrets about how his mother, who now only seems able to talk in riddles, worked at rewiring his memories. What he remembers about his past never happened.

          “You can peel a lot of things away from a person but as long as they have their own sense of the truth, they’re going to find their way but if you tell them what they know is a lie it changes all that,” says Koryta. “That’s part of the emotional experience I want to impart.”

          Typically, any of Koryta’s books can be read at distinct levels. If you want a great read that moves fast, he delivers. But you can go down to deeper levels, such as his intense research into memory when writing Where They Wait and into how the actions of the characters’ ancestors impact the choices they make now.

          Koryta says the fun part of writing is in the journey of discovering how it will end.

           “When I’m start a book, I don’t know where it’s going,” he says. “You have to personally embrace the unease. I can scare myself when writing and I perversely enjoy that.”

%d bloggers like this: