Monday, May 30, 2011

The Ladies of the Golden Age of Mystery

My love of mystery stories began in childhood: the Nancy Drew stories, The Bobbsey Twins and The Hardy Boys drew me in and kept me in the world of mystery and suspense. As I grew older, I was drawn to the ladies of The Golden Age of Mystery, most of whom were from the British Isles: Margery Allingham (1904-1966), Agatha Christie (1890-1976), Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957, Josephine Tey (1896-1952). But I would also include Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982) who was from New Zealand and American Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958).

These days not only do I still read these ladies (I may never finish all 80+ novels by Agatha Christie) but I have gone from these original cozies to hard-boiled to suspense to slash and gore to international intrigue and to anything that has a puzzling mystery to it. As I researched this piece, I wondered where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes fit into the mystery genre. I discovered that the fictional detective's stories are generally considered a major innovation in the field of crime fiction. I still read the fictional Nero Wolfe, Ellery Queen and Perry Mason plus the blockbusters of today: Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, Mary Higgins Clark, Patricia Cornwell, John Sandford, David Baldacci, Stuart Woods, Michael Connelly and the late Robert Ludlum to name just a few.

But for the time being, I will remain with those illustrious ladies of The Golden Age although many male writers excelled in the genre. According to Wikipedia, "The Golden Age proper is in practice usually taken to refer to a type of fiction which was predominant in the 1920s and 1930s but had been written since at least 1911 and is still being written — though in much smaller numbers — today." According to Ronald Knox, a detective story "must have as its main interest the unravelling of a mystery; a mystery whose elements are clearly presented to the reader at an early stage in the proceedings, and whose nature is such as to arouse curiosity, a curiosity which is gratified at the end."

In the coming months I will review a favorite novel by each of the "Golden Ladies" mentioned above.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Embarrassing Moments: Paint Spill

Not only have I had adventures and misadventures in other countries but I have had many here in this one as in the following anecdote. From time to time I will share some, which are from a booklet I wrote quite a few years ago titled The Adventures of Hopalong Ganny.

Celebrate Secretary’s Day? There was one year in particular when my boss, the manager of the paint department of a large retail store in Midwest City, Oklahoma did not feel particularly inclined to celebrate. I wasn’t his secretary, exactly—he didn’t have one—but I was the assistant manager of the department and because I was a woman, certain “secretarial” duties fell to me, i.e., dusting and polishing. (Yes, we had janitors but they never touched the shelves.) However, I was determined to prove that a woman could do everything a man could do—mix paint, stock shelves, carry paint cans to customers’ cars, and certainly wait on customers. After a year of learning the paint business, I felt that I could handle any problem that might arise.

One day my boss mixed a can of paint for a lady who then proceeded to walk through the store with it. She had assured him that she could handle one can while she continued to shop in other departments. Several minutes after the lady had departed the paint department, my boss got a call from the TV department. The lady had dropped her can of paint and spilled it. My boss grabbed two pieces of cardboard that had always been by the register but I had never known what they were for.

“Follow me,” he said.

We both rushed to the TV department where he quickly, efficiently, and expertly scooped up the paint and put it back into the can. I was amazed that he had not only gotten almost every bit of the paint back into the can but that there was practically no evidence that anything had happened! He handed the paint can back to the lady and explained that since she was the one who had dropped it she would have to keep it. If he had dropped it then he would have had to mix another can. The lady accepted this quite nicely and left.

“Now you know what to do if you or a customer should drop and spill a can of paint,” he said to me.

Since in my one year on the job this was the only time that had happened, I didn’t think I had anything to worry about. Besides after observing my boss, I knew how easy it would be to scoop up the paint.

A few days later while he was on his lunch break, I mixed a can of dark olive-green paint for a customer, rang up the sale, and, as I turned to hand the can to the gentleman, either one or both of us misjudged the timing and I let go of the handle before he had grasped it.

Plop-plop-plop—I shall never forget that sound as the paint and the can fell to the floor. The paint spilled everywhere—especially on other customers who had lined up to pay for their merchandise. And I? I was standing in the middle of a spreading puddle of green paint.

Another salesperson hustled away the gentleman who had purchased the paint and mixed him another can. The poor customers who had been splashed were advised to go immediately to the restrooms to wash off the latex paint. I found myself abandoned in my sea of green paint.

I looked down at my clothes—a dark green plaid jumper, long sleeve white blouse, nylons, and dressy sandals—and thought, I can handle this and I bet I won’t even get paint on me. I grabbed my boss’s two pieces of cardboard and began scooping paint into the can. Miraculously, I did get most of it back and very little on my jumper and white blouse. But my shoes and nylons were not so lucky! My feet and legs were covered in green paint and it felt like the paint had a life of its own as it oozed up my legs toward my thighs under my jumper. I couldn’t move without making a mess.

By now my fellow salespeople had gathered around—at a distance—and were laughing themselves silly. But one salesman across the aisle in hardware stared at me intently, not laughing. Later he told me that he was wondering how to get me out of my mess. He said that he had thought about picking me up and carrying me to the restroom but then he would get paint on himself. Then, he said, he had the brilliant idea of wheeling me out on a dolly.

Thus to my rescue he came. “Here,” he said, “hop on.”

I did so to the applause of salespeople and customers as he wheeled me away. I looked back at the register and saw that I had done a pretty good job of scooping up the paint. What had not gone into the can had gone up my legs!

He wheeled me to the ladies’ restroom and before getting off the dolly I removed my shoes. I walked in, then removed my nylons and washed both them and my sandals. As I was leaving I saw that the paint must have soaked through my sandals to the bottoms of my feet because I had left little green footprints across the floor of the ladies’ lounge.

Secretary’s Day came soon after and for some reason my boss managed to be out of the store all day. No special lunch with him that year!

And those little green footprints in the ladies’ lounge? They were still there when I left a year later!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Cats & Cat Owners

This week’s guest blogger is Angela Verdenius, the Australian author of sci-fi/futuristic romances, a short horror story, and is currently working on a contemporary romance. Her ambition is to write the million dollar bestseller and retire to the country to read, write and be ruled forever by her cats!

Cats & Cat Owners
Angela Verdenius

I’m a firm believer that most dedicated cat owners are a little nutty. We have to be to cope with our furry babies.

Let me clue you in to my life (and I assure you, I’m a perfect example of a nutty cat owner).

Firstly, over the years of cat ownership (I still operate under the illusion that I own them and not the other way around, though reality would point the other way), we have a track record with our vet. Our assorted cats have had: diabetes, renal failure, asthma, fractured toes (ironing board, don’t ask, but while it was different to have a cat clomping around with a paw in plaster, it was a tad un-nerving when she used it to bash the male cat around the head), snapped ligaments (not a clue, but father and daughter both got it at different stages of their lives), mental issues (currently on-going, don’t ask), suspected congestive cardiac failure, pancreatitis, form of Bells Palsy (DT’s right eye will never shut and the whiskers are smoothed back forever against her cheek), cancer, Feline Infectious Peritonitis, pyometra, allergies, and then the usual assortment of kitty illnesses that keeps the vet’s business thriving and my bank balance crashing.

If I front up to the vet and he/she says ‘It could be **** but it’s unusual in cats’, then you can bet your bottom dollar that’s exactly what they have got. Now the vet usually tacks on, ‘Of course, he/she is one of your cats’. Getting the idea now?

Middle of the night visits to the vet, night time vigils of birthing and illnesses, we’ve done it all.

Shopping is always where you find cat nutters – I mean owners. You can see us in the pet food aisle, staring at all the enticing tins of cat food, and wondering if the kitties are going to eat what you buy them this week, or turn their finicky noses up at it. One of my boys used to suddenly decide he LOVED a certain brand of food, and couldn’t possibly live without it, as he informed me with soulful looks and meows. So Mum would faithfully buy him that same thing the next shopping day, only to have him look at it in disdain and turn his nose up, his expression quite plainly stating that he didn’t know how we could possibly think he could eat this garbage, and really, didn’t we know better by now? Sorry, your Highness, obviously not. So back to the shop to see what else we could get for him.

And cooking food! Good grief, don’t get me started on cooking food. I love crumbed chops. If Mum cooks one each for us, then every cat in the house will be hovering around my chair, pleading for a bit, and I end up with none while they all have a taste. BUT if we cook one extra chop to share with them, not one cat comes near the table. Too full, they say, couldn’t possibly eat another bite. So I eat both chops (‘cause I’m weak) that I really shouldn’t have done.

Fish and chips, anyone? Who else in this town buys 6 pieces of fish to feed two adults? We do, because the other four pieces are to share amongst the furries. I thought we were the only nuts in that department, but no, sure as God made green apples, I have found like-minded nuts – er, cat owners – who do the same. And before you sneer, I have met dog owners who buy themselves a burger, and one for the dog, too!

Sleeping on the beds or sofa. Yes, cats will love to stretch out on the sofa and you can find a weeny spot to squeeze into if you’re lucky. Shift them to make room and they’ll make you feel like you threw them to the wolves. ‘Cause shifting them 3 inches is cruel. Lucky they don’t know how to dial the RSPCA or we’d be in trouble.
As for the beds? Give up any notation of thinking it’s yours. Many is the time I’ve woken up, cramped and in awkward positions, and had to move carefully around the furry piles so I didn’t disturb them.

Ah me, I could go on forever. So why, you may ask, do I put up with the cats? Fellow cat lovers will know what I mean when I reply – how can I not? They are my furry babies. They are there to greet me when I get home (okay, most of the time I have to look for them, but they open those big eyes, stretch and purr – rewarding!). They don’t judge me…well, a little bit, but they assure me it’s for my own good. But seriously…they are just them. Cats. Mysterious, infuriating, lovable, laughable, and very much their own person. You gotta love a cat that can purr and make you feel a million dollars in seconds!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Motherly/Grandmotherly Cooking Memories

Because this is the week before Mother’s Day, I thought I would write about memories from my grandmothers and my mother. And also because food seems to play such a big part in many of my writings, it’s only fitting that I pay homage to those who inspired me.

Just as my grandfathers were different, one, a country farmer, and the other, a city man, my grandmothers were quite different also. I knew my grandmother Amy, who died when I was fourteen, but I never knew my grandmother Daisy, who died while my mother was in college. My great-grandmother Sarah died when I was fifteen.

My grandmothers didn’t use recipes very much. They weren’t expected to prepare elaborate meals. They just fixed whatever they raised or grew and had pretty much the same thing day after day. That was especially true of my grandmother Amy and her mother-in-law, my great-grandmother Sarah. In fact, Sarah churned butter and made a pot of beans everyday. At the end of the day, she threw anything out that had not been eaten and the next day would start all over again.

My country grandmother Amy cooked breakfast for my grandfather, my father and his brothers early in the morning when they came in from their chores. After they went out to work in the fields, she would begin preparations for the noon meal. After that meal was over, she would leave the leftovers on the table and cover it with a tablecloth and it would be ready for the evening meal. There was no electricity or refrigeration in those days but as far as I know, no one got sick from spoiled food. And summers in Oklahoma could get very hot.

After my parents were married and lived on a farm near my grandparents, my mother learned to make chicken and dumplings from watching Amy who did not have a recipe for them. She used a pinch of this and a hand full of that. I don’t remember my grandmother’s dumplings but I do remember my mother’s, which were very rich and delicious. (At one time I made them from scratch also but these days, I’m sorry to say that I use Bisquick and a fat-free chicken broth.) After we moved to town, the meals my mother fixed when I was growing up seem elaborate now because everything was made from scratch. My father was a meat and potatoes man and my mother became quite creative with all the ways she fixed potatoes. And she insisted that we have at least one green vegetable with the noon and evening meals. And we always had a homemade dessert!

My city grandmother Daisy cooked mainly from canned goods from the department store that my grandfather and his brothers owned. Although for most of her youth, my mother’s family had a real electric refrigerator, they did at one time have an icebox when she was a child. It had a well next to the partition that held the ice. Water was poured into the well and because of its proximity to the ice it stayed very cold. The well had a faucet so the family could have cold water. Under the ice was a drip pan that had to be emptied as the ice melted.

When my mother was young she and her siblings fixed their own breakfast, which usually consisted of cocoa and toast. Then they would fight over who should wash the dishes. My mother’s usual excuse for not washing them was that she said she had to go to the bathroom.

Daisy brewed coffee in a large kettle by wrapping coffee grounds in a bag and dropping it into the kettle. When my mother came home from school on the days that Daisy gave a party the aroma of coffee brewing was divine.

I asked my mother what kind of parties Daisy gave and she said, “Old lady parties.” They called themselves the Hyacinth group and as far as Mother knew they just ate, drank coffee, and talked. Since Daisy died in her early 50s, I said that she was never really an old lady. Mother said, “But she always looked like an old lady.”

A few years ago, while Mother and I were eating an English-style beef stew with drop dumplings that I had made, Mother said, “These are the kind of dumplings that my mother added to vegetable soup.”

“Was the soup homemade?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “but the dumplings were. Your dumplings look like hers but I can’t remember what they tasted like.”

But the most delicious recipe handed down from Daisy was her Strawberry Shortcake. And that was a recipe that she actually wrote down. My mother refined it and the memories of hot shortcake from the oven, covered with defrosted frozen, sweetened strawberries and strawberry juice seeping into the shortcake and topped with real whipped cream conjure up a time when homemade desserts were the norm, at least when I was growing up. It has been years since I made it and I wonder if I did so today, would I use Bisquick and Cool Whip?

In closing, the following is a humorous tidbit about my mother:

During prohibition my grandfather bought his liquor at the police station—liquor that the police had confiscated. They always kept a brand of whiskey called Four Roses in the refrigerator. When no one was looking, my mother, who would have been a pre-teen or young teenager, would sneak a sip, feeling very brazen. Never mind that it tasted awful!