How My Mother Inspired My Mystery Series

I started a mystery series in the 1990s thanks to my absurdly well-read, multi-lingual mother. When I was publishing literary fiction in the 1980s, she had surprisingly urged me more than once to write for a wider audience. She was right, though it took me a while to see that. Once I did publish mysteries, my audience grew and so did my name recognition.

She had filled me with a love of all kinds of books as a child by reading to me, helping me learn to read myself, getting me a library card early, and taking me to our Beaux Arts library every week. She never forbade me borrowing any book no matter the subject or reading level, and she mocked the juvenile reading assignments we had at school. Sometimes she even mocked my teachers themselves. Born in St. Petersburg and raised in Poland, she spoke English better than a few of my native-born teachers and she was a scathing critic of their pretensions when she returned from parent-teacher conferences in elementary school, especially the one who tried speaking French to her because my parents had lived in Belgium for five years. When that teacher had asked her something in (awful) French, my nonplussed mother reported saying, “Excuse me? What language is that?” It was delicious to feel part of a conspiracy with my mother, and I think I was already learning something about appearance, reality, pomposity, and satire that would help me years later in my mysteries.

(my first library on West 145th Street in Manhattan)

This erudite and witty Holocaust survivor who loved Thomas Mann, Tolstoy, Aldous Huxley, Balzac, and Stefan Zweig also adored mysteries. Devoured them. She read mysteries with the devotion she gave to the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, which she said had helped her perfect her English once she got to the United States. I suspect it might also have helped her face the puzzle of her own life, her miraculous survival when so many dozens of her family members had perished or been murdered during the war.

On a typical day, the shelves in my parents’ bedroom where she kept her library books would have a wide range of mysteries, and thanks to her, I discovered Agatha Christie, John Creasey, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Daphne du Maurier, and Phoebe Atwood Taylor–a very eclectic bunch, no?

My mother was also a splendid, unpretentious cook. She had grown up somewhat privileged in northeastern Poland in a bourgeois-intellectual family with a maid, and had never prepared any food for herself, not even a cup of tea until after W.W. II—or so my father claimed. Whatever the truth of that, her cooking was deft and never called attention to itself. She casually cracked eggs with one hand, stirred bowls like a magician casting a spell with his wand. Her omelets were miraculously fluffy, her cakes and cookies the envy of my friends. Though she couldn’t sing or dance, she was at her most elegant when she cooked or baked, despite our small Washington Heights kitchen.

When I started my mystery series, I quietly dedicated it to her, though she would never be able to read any of it, because by that point she had drifted far out onto the sea of dementia. I made my narrator, the besieged professor Nick Hoffman, a foodie and a book lover. I also made him something of an outsider since he’s a New Yorker in Michigan. In another private nod to my mother, I gave Nick in-laws who were refugees from Belgium. Lines that my mother had said or might have said weave their way through the series in silent tribute.

Someone who idolized that paper, she would have been proud to see my series reviewed in the New York Times Book Review more than once. I hope she would have recognized herself in this line from one of those reviews: “Nick Hoffman mows down intellectual pretenders with his scathing wit….the idiocies of academe always bring out the caustic humor that is the best part of him.”

My mother was the child of revolution, born to a Menshevik father who had to flee St. Petersburg when the Bolsheviks seized power. Through my childhood and adolescence, I watched her endlessly discuss history, politics, and state power with neighbors and friends. Her perspective on international affairs was informed by her deep reading in current events and her encounters with Soviet and Nazi brutality, but that didn’t mean she had lost her sense of humor. She once quipped that Spiro Agnew’s droning speeches reminded her of “Stalin on a bad day.” And she noted that a week before Stalin died, she had toasted to his demise at a party of Holocaust survivors. “It worked! Maybe I should have tried that sooner?”

She loathed Nixon and the Vietnam War and had made plans to get me to Canada should I be drafted. I know she would be appalled by the growth of our national security apparatus and the way it’s trickled down to local police departments who have become obscenely militarized. I wrote Assault with a Deadly Lie, due in October, with that massive cultural shift and my mother very much in mind. It’s the darkest book in the series. Nick Hoffman’s academic world is invaded by stalking, harassment, police brutality, and much more. In a way, this book is not just a continuation of the series, it’s a continuation of the conversation I’ve been having with my mother ever since she stopped talking to anyone back in the early 1990s, ever since that voluble, highly intellectual woman disappeared into silence. She may have been dead now since 1999, but in my mysteries, this one especially, she’s profoundly, beautifully alive.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.  His next online creative writing workshop is Mystery Writing 1.0 and runs for the month of June.  This blog originally appeared on the Mysteristas site.

My Mother’s Life Lesson

I think about my literate, multi-lingual mother all the time, even though she died nearly twenty years ago.

Well-read and well-educated, she inspired me with a love of learning for its own sake.  She was always ready to help me with homework in any subject, made me pay attention to politics and the news, and encouraged me to follow my dreams of travel to Europe. Even though I started learning French in fourth grade, my command of that language wouldn’t be as good as it is if she hadn’t been so thorough and patient.

More than that, she also taught me a valuable life lesson.  I was pretty young when my parents, my brother and I were walking into some downtown Manhattan restaurant for lunch and we were approached by a homeless man.

I didn’t understand anything about how people in our wealthy society could end up at the bottom like that, I’d never been in a situation like that, and I was embarrassed and confused.

Dressed in several layers of clothing including a tweed topcoat that seemed too heavy for the season, the man asked my mother for a cigarette, sounding as formal as a college professor.  She opened her purse and offered him a whole pack of Larks.  And money.

He shook his head in thanks, said, “One cigarette was all I asked for.”  And that’s all he took.

Inside, I asked why she had offered him all of her cigarettes.  My mother was a Holocaust survivor and had seen worlds of horror that I was only just beginning to learn about.  What she next said has always stuck with me: “I could never beg for anything in the war.  If someone does what he did, I have to say yes.”

It was an eye-opening, heart-expanding moment.

Lev Raphael is the best-selling author of 25 books in genres from mystery to memoir.  An assistant professor of English at Michigan State University, he also teaches creative writing on line at http://writewithoutborders.com/

 

My Mother’s Last Phone Call

I had never believed in ghost or spirits or anything like that until my mother came to me after she died.

Actually she called. From New York.

new_york_skyline-wideA heavy smoker, my mother had suffered from multi-infarct dementia for almost a decade.  The last time I had heard that voice, she was speaking soft Russian baby talk, having returned to her first language. It was strange but oddly comforting because she was in a mental hospital for observation, yet as calm and affable as a hostess at a party trying to put an awkward guest at ease.

The deep smoker’s voice I remembered speaking many languages besides Russian when I grew up became more and more distant over that decade she was ill. I missed talking to her, which was deeply ironic, because my mother was such a voluble, excited, intelligent talker that she often ignored whether you were interested in what she was saying.

Opinionated and extremely well-read, she didn’t just love the sound of her voice, she reveled in the workings of her own mind. She was like Katharine Hepburn who once told an interviewer that she didn’t drink, “Because cold sober, I find myself absolutely fascinating.”  And she had that actress’s steely determination.

katharine-hepburn-9She was also a fierce believer in my talent as a writer who never got to see my career take off. Perhaps most bitterly for me, the woman who had been reading mysteries for as long as I could remember succumbed to her dementia before she could read even one of mine.

I didn’t miss the conversational juggernaut my mother could sometimes be, but I missed her voice. And then I heard it again. I was in Michigan in bed and the beige retro phone by my bed rang around 3 AM. “Cookie?” It was one of my mother’s childhood nicknames for me, and I hadn’t heard her use it since I was in elementary school.

retro desk phone“Mom, is that you?” I repeated it several times until she said “I’m all right.” Then she hung up.

The phone rang again. This time it was my brother telling me that our mother had died a little while ago.  “I know,” I said sleepily. “She just called me.” He didn’t ask what I meant, though later he told me how disappointed he was that she hadn’t spoken to him after she died since he was one of her caretakers, so I assume he believed my story.

Right after my brother’s call, I couldn’t figure out if I’d been dreaming, or if somehow she had actually called me, or if I’d been dreaming and she had entered my dream. Whatever really happened, the shock of her being dead was assuaged by the fact that I more and more believed she had in some way reached out to me from somewhere to comfort me. Better still, she had given me a precious gift: the sound of her voice.

Now, you could say that my mother was ill and had been in a rapid decline for weeks, so this was nothing more than a wish fulfillment dream, just my longing to be in touch with her one more time. You could say that my subconscious created the illusion of the call to make accepting her death easier, and that I was easily persuaded because I wanted to be connected to her.

But I wouldn’t.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books ranging from memoir to mystery and you can find them on Amazon.