Seasoned-Citizen Sleuths

I was delighted to moderate a panel discussion at the Malice Domestic 35 conference held in Bethesda, Maryland last week. Our topic was entitled: Not Her First Crime Scene: Older Characters and Classic Tropes.

Left to right: Sally Handley, Nancy G. West, Libby Klein, Gabrielle St. George, Judy Murray

The distinguished panel included four award-winning authors whose sleuths are all women of a certain age who’ve experienced their share of life’s ups and downs:
Nancy G. West, whose Aggie Mundeen, is pushing forty,
Libby Klein, whose Poppy Blossom McAllister is caught in a 40-year old funk,
Gabrielle St. George whose Gina Malone is nearly 50, and
Judy Murray whose Helen Morrisey is in her fifties.

While many mystery lovers got our start reading Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden books, at some point, we moved on from those teen-age heroines to become fans of Jane Marple and older, more mature sleuths right on up to the beloved Jessica Fletcher.

In spite of those more mature heroine sleuths, our panel discussed how few series feature older female sleuths. Each of the panelists expressed a desire to show that mature women remain vibrant and have a lot to offer the worlds they inhabit.

The panelists also challenged the negative connotations associated with the word ‘trope’. We concluded that the infinitely imaginative and creative approaches writers bring to common mystery tropes are exactly what make the mystery genre so loved by readers.

In conclusion, I quoted Christina Romeril, author of the Killer Chocolate Mysteries, who says, “Mature sleuths such as Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher have been cozy mystery staples for many generations, and there’s a reason for this. They are likeable and invoke a feeling of connection and community within their cozy settings.”

I was especially pleased to moderate this panel since my sleuths, the Donnelly sisters, are 55 and 53 when we meet them in Second Bloom, the first book in the Holly and Ivy cozy mystery series. And I’m very happy to report that with 40% of the cozy and traditional mystery readership consisting of women 40 and older, it certainly appears that the seasoned citizen sleuth is here to stay!


Yesterday I had the great pleasure of seeing the Tony-award winning musical Big River performed at the Greenville Theater. It was absolutely wonderful. I had seen it on Broadway many years ago and I never forgot how fabulous the music is.

Do you remember the late Roger Miller, composer of the pop hit King of the Road? Well, Miller wrote the music and lyrics for Big River, which is based on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of my all-time favorite American novels.

Among the many delights of this musical are the moments when Huck steps out of the story he is narrating, faces the audience and tells us exactly how he was feeling at the moment, just the way he does in the book.

I can remember the exact moment I fell in love with Huck Finn. It was the pivotal scene when Huck is torn about helping Jim escape. After he weighs the pros and cons, he decides he’s doing the wrong thing helping Jim, and he makes up his mind to write a letter telling Mrs. Watson where she can find her runaway slave.

But then Huck starts thinking about what a good friend Jim was to him. That’s when he decides he can’t go through with it and says, ‘All right, then I’ll go to hell’.” He made the honorable choice even though it was against the law, and he was willing to suffer eternal damnation rather than betray a friend. How could you not love Huck Finn?

In listening to Roger Miller’s King of the Road, I realized the character speaking in that song is very much akin to Huck Finn. So I share it with you here.

A Salute to American Diversity This Labor Day

When I opened my newspaper last month, I came across an article entitled Navajo Code Talker Marks Anniversary. I learned that in 1982, President Ronald Reagan established Navajo Code Talkers Day. The August 14th date honors all of the tribes associated with the war effort. The date is also an Arizona State Holiday and a Navajo Nation Holiday.

I did not know that. But I vaguely remember a teacher once mentioning in class that the Navajo language was used as code to transmit messages during World War II. The Japanese were never able to break the code and translate the messages. In the article I read, I learned that the Marines recruited hundreds of Navajos as Code Talkers who participated in all the assaults the Marines led in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945.

Recently I read a book called The Seed Keeper by Diane Wilson. This novel is the story of a Dakota family’s struggle to preserve their way of life. Many of the tribe’s children were forcibly taken from their homes and placed in government run schools where they were forbidden to practice their religion or speak their language.

I am struck by the contrast of these two stories. One demonstrates what is admirable about our country – how the diversity of our people makes us better and stronger. The other depicts what is less than admirable about our country – how we sometimes commit atrocities fighting against, and even trying to erase, the very diversity that makes us great.

This weekend as we celebrate Labor Day, a federal holiday that honors and recognizes the works and contributions of laborers to the development and achievements of the United States, I will be thinking about the many diverse Americans who labor everyday to achieve their dreams and, in so doing, make this country great. Happy Labor Day!

Guest Blogger: Trixie, the Dog

Hi! My name is Trixie Handley. During my brief stay at the Greenville County Animal Shelter, they called me Chica, and I was called something else before that, but I really can’t remember that far back anymore. Actually, I prefer to forget the people who dumped me at the shelter. Don’t like to dwell on unpleasantness.

Anyway, I jumped at the chance to do this guest blog. You know, my predecessor, Lucky, has been immortalized in three of my adopted Mom’s Holly and Ivy cozy mysteries. I haven’t read them, but I heard her talking to someone about how Lucky saved the day in Full Bloom, book 3 of the series.

Not that I’m jealous or anything, but c’mon! Look at my face. Don’t you think I’d make a great character in a book? I even think I’d make a great actor if the book was ever made into a movie. I mean, people are always telling Mom how beautiful I am. I kinda think she’s a little jealous of me.

Lately, I see Mom tapping on a little machine every morning, so she must be working on a new book. At least, that’s what I think she’s doing. What else could make her say “I can’t play with you now”? So I was thinking this is the perfect opportunity to introduce me as a new character in the series. I hear her telling people what a character I am all the time.

Don’t I look like a character?

There’s only one complication. I heard Mom talking to somebody about how you can’t kill off a dog in a book series, and I’m not sure if I want to be in the same story with “wonder dog” Lucky. Sorry, I know it’s not nice to speak ill of the dead, even though I do think not being able to kill a dog off in a story is probably the greatest of all writing rules.

So I have an even better idea. I was thinking maybe Mom could start a new series with me as the lead. I mean, what else has she got to do? I heard her talking about a book she read where the dog told the whole story. I think the title is Dog on It. I could do that. We could call it something like Trixie and Me or Trixie Saves the Day.

Seriously. Look at my face. Why that face on a book cover would sell loads of books, don’t ya think? Imagine the biscuits and chew toys we could buy. I’d own Petco. I’m just sayin…

Well, enough about what I think. What do you think? Maybe you could convince Mom?


On January 21, 2017 I participated in the Women’s March in Washington, DC. It was exhilarating, and I was very aware of that day being historically significant. Here we are four years later with our first woman vice president. Accidental coincidence? I think not.

As I approach my 70th birthday in a few months, I find myself frequently thinking about how the influence of my baby boomer generation, while still significant, is waning. I yearn for younger people to take charge, for emboldened minds with fresh ideas and undaunted spirits to lead the way.

As I watched the inauguration ceremonies on Wednesday, I was inspired. Again, I was especially invigorated by the optimism and energy of the women and their uplifting performances. Lady Gaga’s arm sweep pointing to the flag as she sang “And our flag was still there!” stirred my heart. This Land is Your Land took on special meaning as it was sung by Jennifer Lopez, the daughter of Puerto Rican parents.

But I have to say the one who inspired me most of all was 22-year old Amanda Gorman as she recited her exquisite poem, The Hill We Climb. With poise and amazing grace, she lifted us up with her word craft.

For there is always light

If we’re brave enough to see it

If we’re brave enough to be it.

Brava, Amanda!  May your words continue to light our way and make us brave.

Shining Stars and Asteroids

If you’ve read my blog over the years, you probably know two things about me. One, I’m a bit of a Pollyanna, always searching for silver linings, and two, I’m enamored of celestial events. You may recall my gushing about the total eclipse I witnessed with my sister, Mary Ellen, my friend, JoAnne Manse and hundreds of other sky gazers at the Roper Mountain Science Center in 2017. I mean, seriously — it was a transcendent experience. But I digress…

Admittedly, even I find few things to get giddy over when I read the morning paper these days. (Yes, I still get an actual newspaper delivered to my door.) But this morning I had to smile when I read this headline:

“Two Schoolgirls in India Discover Asteroid Near Mars”

I’m not sure what delighted me more – that a new heavenly body was spotted in the vast expanse of space, or that two fourteen-year-old girls discovered it. Who am I kidding? It was the girls making the discovery that gladdened my heart. In a world full of “yohos”, two young girls made headlines and history.

Kudos to you, Radhika Lakhani and Vaidehi Vekariya . Shine on! Thanks for giving us something to smile about.

Book Review: The Crucible of Steele by Linda Whitaker

Move over, Michael Crichton! There’s a new science thriller writer on the scene and her name is L M Whitaker. In her debut novel, The Crucible of Steele, Whitaker proves herself to be a master storyteller and a gifted writer.

Rooted in Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the plot of The Crucible of Steele revolves around a simple premise. If we have the ability to craft a more perfect human through genetic selection and alteration and speed up the natural selection process, why shouldn’t we? The novel deals with the ethical quandaries facing a world struggling to keep up morally with the choices now possible due to technological advances.

Technology consultant Georgia Steele is no computer nerd. This kick-ass protagonist is both brilliant and tough, and perhaps the only one who can stop a secret organization from ridding the world of individuals it deems to be inferior. As she searches to uncover secrets about her past, Georgia finds herself tested beyond her wildest expectations.

Whitaker does a remarkable job of relating scientific information in understandable terms, all the while providing the reader with a roller-coaster action ride. Reader Beware! This techno-thriller will keep you turning the pages long after you planned to turn out the lights.

Book Review: Blue Marlin by Lee Smith

Lee Smith’s Blue Marlin will make you smile. Jenny, the 13-year old narrator, takes us on a journey, both literal and emotional. She is not the first child to feel responsible for her parents’ marital problems and equally hopeful she can bring about their reconciliation. The precocious aspiring writer, however, does have a unique point of view and an insatiable curiosity.

“I had to see as much as I could see, learn as much as I could learn, feel as much as I could feel. I had to live like crazy all the time, an attitude that would get me into lots of trouble,” she tells us. And, oh, how you will enjoy reading about her many “adventures”.

Set in 1958, Blue Marlin will trigger feelings of nostalgia as the author weaves in details that anyone who grew up in the 50’s will particularly enjoy. Jenny’s and her mother’s fascination with movie stars of the era will evoke memories of what now feel like simpler times.

And as a bonus for writers, Lee Smith provides us a gift in her epilogue entitled “The Geographical Cure”. She describes Blue Marlin as a work of “autobiographical fiction”. This short piece beautifully captures the way authors take their real-life experiences and weave them into a story. As she says, “I have always felt that I can tell the truth better in fiction than non-fiction.” Thank you, Lee Smith.

Book Review: This Tender Land

If you are a fan of Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, you must read William Kent Krueger’s latest novel, This Tender Land. In this compelling story, four orphans set out on a river journey to escape the bleak and merciless Lincoln Indian Training School in the summer of 1932. Your heart will be with them every oar stroke of their journey.

The story is told from the point of view of Odie (Odysseus) O’Banion. When accused of being a liar, Odie says, he’s not a liar – just a storyteller. “Stories are the sweet fruit of my existence and I share them gladly,” he says in the prologue.

As Odie spins the tale, you cannot miss his resemblance to Huckleberry Finn, the boy with a heart who can’t seem to stay out of trouble. You’ll also hear echoes of David Copperfield and Oliver Twist as Odie and his brother Albert navigate, not just the Gilead River, but a grim world, uncaring and unkind to its most vulnerable — orphaned children.

If that sounds just a tad too depressing to read during this time of illness, uncertainty and social distancing, please don’t be put off. There is much love, humor and magic in this mythic tale. It is a story of profound triumph and the resilience of the human spirit. In a time of limited travel, This Tender Land is a journey well worth taking. Feast on the sweet fruit William Kent Krueger provides.

Bad Blogger and Wicked Witches

I admittedly am the worst blogger in cyberspace. When I started blogging in 2015, I was so enthusiastic. I set myself a goal of writing a blog weekly. Well, that lasted about a month and a half, when I realized I was spending more time on writing, formatting and publicizing my blog than I was writing Second Bloom, my first Holly and Ivy mystery. I knew if I ever wanted to finish the book, I had to spend less time blogging, so I went to a once-a-month schedule.

That was working fine for a year or so, but somehow last year, the wheels seemed to have completely come off the cart, and I found myself blogging sporadically. I posted a lame blog on Thesaurus Day in January, honestly believing I was off to a great start. Here it is April and I haven’t blogged since that first post in spite of all the free time resulting from the Covid-19 quarantine.

So, what? Am I now just a quarterly blogger? I understand from all those blogging advice articles that’s the kiss of death. I might not be blogging even now if my friend, Lois, hadn’t emailed me recently. She said she’d been checking the blog and was worried about me since I hadn’t written in so long. Very sad.

Margaret Hamilton, 1958

And it’s not for lack of things to write about. I have lists of blog topics. I’m very good about jotting ideas down based on things I read or see on TV, or even ideas that just pop into my head when I’m walking the dog. Pathetic really. That Catholic school discipline that pushed me through the most difficult challenges my entire life seems to be completely depleted.

Which brings me to my secondary topic today – wicked witches. Last week I came across an article about Margaret Hamilton, the actress who played the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz. The poor woman was relegated to playing witches and spinsters forever after that movie. She had a guest appearance on The Muppet show that had to never be shown after the first airing because parents wrote that it was just too scary for their children.

I totally get that. I was terrified of witches after seeing that movie. The fact you could dissolve her with water didn’t comfort me. I mean what if a bucket of water wasn’t handy when you just happened to run into a witch?

Ah, but what’s the connection to Catholic school discipline, you ask. Well, I attended St. Hedwig’s Grade School in Kingston, Pennsylvania run by the Bernardine nuns. I vaguely remember my first grade teacher, Sister Tolentine. She was quite nice. But in second and third grade I had two much older nuns, Sister Eugene and Sister Timothy. Sister Timothy so terrified me that I had a nightmare one night that I have never forgotten.

Sister Mary Leonelle. Another Bernardine nun who scared me senseless.

I was in my grandfather’s bedroom, arguing with my sister, Jane, as we often did. Sister Timothy appeared in the closet. The flattened headpiece of her Bernardine habit was transformed into a witch’s hat. She warned me I’d pay. As in all good nightmares, the dream sequence shifted and I found myself swinging on a child’s swing we had in the backyard – one that had a little bar to rest your feet on. I was soaring up into the clouds when suddenly, Sister Timothy, in full witchy regalia, was standing on the swing footrest and she began stabbing me. I never went into my grandfather’s closet again .

And then there was the lunchroom lady, Mrs. Marshall – Leocadia Marshall. Just saying her name still gives me the shivers. She wouldn’t even let us talk during lunch. Now there was a bonafide wicked witch.

Well, I’m not entirely sure if those early experiences scared me straight and kept me dutifully fulfilling all my responsibilities my whole life. But I do find it telling that after the memories triggered by that article about Margaret Hamilton I actually sat down and wrote this blog.
How about you? Any wicked witch remembrances in your memory bank?

Until next time – hope it’s not a year from now – I wish you sweet, witch-free, dreams!