Singapore Sapphire is Classic Crime Fiction

Memoirs can be difficult to write, and in Sir Oswald Newbold’s case in 1910 Singapore, writing a memoir turns deadly.  As befits a classic mystery, he’s found dead in the first chapter, and the hunt is on to track down the murderer and find out what Newbold could have written that guaranteed his savage murder.

Newbold retired in Singapore to escape England’s “miserable weather and miserable people.”  What secrets was he going to reveal in his book?  Whom would he expose, and why?

Taking the field to find out the truth are dashing Inspector Robert Curran and intrepid Harriet Gordon, a stenographer and typist who has left England under a cloud. Gordon has suffered deep personal loss and abuse.  Part of the enjoyment in this mystery is watching her rise above her grief to find new meaning in life.  We also experience the difficulties and beauties of living in a tropical climate mainly through her eyes, and the vision is never less than fascinating.

The cast of minor characters is as colorful as those you find in Christie’s Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun.  Like Christie, Stuart makes them all vivid and unique.

The author also has a terrific eye for detail.  Because she’s lived in southeast Asia and her father served there in the British army, Stuart can evoke last-century’s Singapore with great skill.  She makes you feel the heavy humidity and lashing rain, you smell the frangipani and mangroves, you can see the glorious heavy blooms of Bougainvillea.  This Singapore is truly “a place of extremes.”

But Stuart doesn’t just paint scenes to perfection, she honestly portrays a colonial society with its prejudices and blind spots.  It’s matched by an  England where women were denied the right to vote and suffragists in prison were tortured by being force fed during hunger strikes.  Bringing those two worlds together is part of what makes Singapore Sapphire so compelling.

Mysteries are sometimes derided as “escape fiction” or “escapist,” but all literature, from Tolstoy to P.D. James, helps you escape your own life and time to travel somewhere fascinating.  If it’s well executed, of course.

With just the right touch of romance, Stuart has written the ideal mystery for armchair travelers and for fans of the genre in its classic form.  Her heroine is bright, resourceful, compassionate; her hero a sterling and indomitable character; the villains are as devious as they should be.  But nobody is a caricature or paper thin.

Singapore Sapphire is clever, well-paced, complex, and deeply moving.  It has everything needed to make a splendid TV movie or even a miniseries.  This is a book to revel in for its local color and its crafty plotting.  No doubt there’ll be more Harriet Gordon adventures, and she’s a welcome addition to the current roster of sharp-eyed amateur sleuths.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.  The former crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press, he’s the author of nine mysteries and fifteen other books in many genres.

 

After 26 Books, I’m Still Learning How To Write

I’m a highly visual person and I think I got my training early, growing up in New York, a paradise of museums.  From elementary school onward, my parents took me on repeated trips to the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Metropolitan.

My very first exposure to genius was when the Met bought Rembrandt’s “Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer” for an unheard-of sum.  I recall being very little and actually crawling through the crowds on my hands and knees so I that could get to the front.  The moody, evocative painting was breathtaking, an entrance to a brand new world.

But that’s what I felt in every museum, whether it was discovering Braque at MOMA, Kandinsky at the Guggenheim, or Monet at the Met.  I didn’t have words for my experience, but looking back, I know that time after time, I felt elevated, transported, and hungry.  I wanted to see more.

And I did, roaming gallery after gallery, and expanding my range to other museums like the Frick.  It was a world of magic, discovery, and promise.  I often felt like Henry James when he visited Rome the first time and wrote “I went reeling and moaning thro’ the streets, in a fever of enjoyment.”

I never imagined that I was going to be a painter, but from second grade on, I felt destined to turn the world into words the way these masters turned the world into experiences on canvas.  Each one was a doorway to wonderment and a world that was waiting for me in Europe.

Sculpture appealed to me, too, whether Greek and Roman glories at the Met or Brancusi’s stark, eloquent experiments in texture and form at MOMA and elsewhere.  Years later I would be moved to tears by a whole exhibition of Brancusi’s sculptures at the Tate Modern when I wandered through the near-empty galleries.  Like a character in Brideshead Revisited, I felt that I was “drowning in honey.”

When I started publishing fiction after years after creative writing classes and completing an MFA in Creative Writing, I was keen to paint with words, to describe what people and places looked like.  Sounds and aromas were secondary, not that it stopped me from writing many books and winning prizes, doing book tours here and abroad, finding my work being taught at universities, and even selling my literary papers and correspondence to a university library.

But in recent years, certain writers who appeal to more than the visual have captured me and taught me to be a better writer because they create an environment that’s also aural and olfactory.  Martin Cruz Smith does this in his crime novels set in Russia that expose corruption and bloated bureaucracy, the chaos observed by his cynical hero Akady Renko.  C.S. Harris also creates a mesmerizing landscape that is multi-dimensional in her Regency mystery series which often explores the wealth and privilege of the period’s upper crust.

In a league all its own is Janet Fitch’s best seller White Oleander about Astrid, a young girl coming of age despite the vengeful, seductive madness of her brilliant, demanding, poet mother.  Sent to jail for murder, her mother is the unhappy touchstone in Astrid’s life as she bounces from one foster home to another, learning harsh lessons about life, memory, and herself.  Her Norwegian name can either refer to strength or beauty, and both are qualities she discovers in herself through harrowing circumstances.

Fitch’s story-telling is powerful because it’s rooted in emotion and the senses, woven through with striking similes and metaphors:

By April, the desert had already sucked spring from the air like blotting paper.

I wanted to tell her not to entertain despair like this.  Despair wasn’t a guest, you didn’t play its favorite music,  find it a comfortable chair.  Despair was the enemy.

So much going on in Kandinsky, it was like the frames were having trouble keeping the pictures inside.

The pearls weren’t really white, there were a warm oyster beige, with little knots between them so if they broke, you only lost one.  I wished my life could be like that, knotted up so that even if something broke, the whole thing wouldn’t come apart.

Of course Astrid doesn’t get her wish as her life gets broken apart again and again, breaking the reader’s heart because she feels so deeply and is so alone.  That last quotation is a perfect example of Fitch’s gift for taking an object and making it become deeply personal, emblematic of a character’s turmoil.

I was so caught up in the beauty of the writing and the fierceness of the author’s vision, I didn’t want it to end, but I also knew that it would inspire me to make my own books live and breathe more fully than before.

Lev Raphael is the author of State University of Murder and two dozen other books in many genres. He offers creative writing workshops, editing, and mentoring online at writewithoutorders.com.

Fine Summer Dining in Chicago’s Loop

On my first trip to France, I spent a week in the Loire Valley based at a chateau hotel whose restaurant had a Michelin star. Everything was impeccable and the first night, when the owner asked how I liked my meal, I surprised myself by responding “J’ai tombé en extase” (I’m in ecstasy). It’s a line I must have read in one of my many French classes over the years and suddenly remembered.

Well, I felt like that this past weekend dining out on Catalan tapas at Mercat a la Planxa on South Michigan Avenue, a few blocks down from the Art Institute, on the second floor of the Blackstone Hotel. The setting couldn’t be more different: it’s a large, high-ceilinged crescent-shaped room with mosaic tiles on the wall above the kitchen which match the room’s decor of browns and orange.  You step down into the dining area and feel that you’re both cozy and on stage. The food was appropriately theatrical in presentation and dramatic in taste.

I sampled figs wrapped in bacon; cannelloni filled with short ribs, foie gras, and truffle béchamel; potatoes with salsa and chili oil; and several more. All of them were mouth-wateringly delicious, and my server wisely suggested I go with an Albariño, a sturdy, dry white wine I’d had once before at a local tasting dinner in Michigan. My dessert was an outrageous crème brullée topped with a scoop of pistachio ice cream and there were Marcona almonds in the mix. It was chewy, sweet, and salty.

I was on a mini-vacation after having written three chapters of a new mystery faster than I expected, and this felt like a fitting reward for hard work, and inspiration to keep going.

There was more fine dining ahead. The next afternoon I had lunch with old friends at Terzo Piano at the top of the new wing of the Art Institute. It’s a cool, clean space of white and grey which in a way matches the elaborate stonework of the Gilded Age buildings you can see on Michigan Avenue. It’s like an aerie.

The menu was small and select and while waiting for my friends I feasted on goat cheese fritters which were so good I made sure to save some for them–though the temptation not to was strong. When my friends arrived, two of us ordered crispy eggplant with a cashew dressing. It was very subtle, the presentation and service lovely, eye-catching.   I had just seen the Institute’s sublime Manet exhibition of late portraits and still lifes and felt that I had entered a painting myself, perhaps a David Hockney.

The restaurants were unique in style and cuisine, and each offered a celebration of fine food beautifully and lovingly prepared.

Lev Raphael loves to travel and he’s the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.  He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.

Why Did I Start a Mystery Series With a Gay Sleuth?

I never set out to write mysteries, gay or otherwise. When I launched my career as an author, it was with short stories which were ultimately collected in a book that won a Lambda Literary Award.

But one of them, “Remind Me to Smile,” featured a couple of academics faced with a bizarre situation: Stefan has gotten an ex-lover of his a job in the English department that is his and Nick’s home. Nick is outraged, and then depressed when Stefan invites the ex to dinner.

The good ended happily and the bad unhappily, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde. That was what this particular fiction meant, anyway.

My first editor at St. Martin’s Press, the legendary Michael Denneny, was very taken by the story, only he said the dinner guest should have been poisoned. And then a few years later, when I was wondering where I should take my career after a collection of short stories, a novel, and a study of Edith Wharton, Denneny said, “Nick and Stefan could be like Nick and Nora Charles.”

That’s when the Nick Hoffman series was born. He and Stefan teach at the same school, are happily married, but the unexpected keeps intruding into their lives thanks to the murderous academics they work with. I’ve been writing it over the years because I loved the characters, and because I loved the academic setting where, as Borges put it so well, you find bald men argue over a comb.

I was already a fan of mysteries before I started; I grew up in a household filled with Agatha Christie books, and I was reviewing mysteries and thrillers for the Detroit Free Press. That made me determined to avoid one thing: sleuths who don’t get changed by what happens to them. In far too much crime fiction, the protagonist discovers a body and then goes off for breakfast at Denny’s as if nothing’s happened.

Years ago, when I first met Walter Mosley, we talked about ways to keep a series from becoming routine for the author. He said his strategy was to take the series through historical changes, and see how they affected Easy Rawlins.

In the Nick Hoffman series, Nick ages and is definitely changed by the deaths he encounters. His relationship with Stefan develops, too. Depicting a loving gay couple over time, and under stress, has been one of the joys of this series.  The world has changed a lot, too, since the series began in the 90s, so it’s been fun to chart those changes in mysteries, which are good vehicles for social commentary.

Mystery writing has made me a better teacher, too, and I’ve been fortunate to teach mystery fiction in classes, workshops, and online.  The series has more impact than I would have guessed, putting me on the map in ways I never expected.  The New York Times Book Review took notice, especially relishing the academic milieu.  That’s how a writing career goes: the unexpected is always your companion.

Lev Raphael’s latest mystery is State University of Murder, a story of homophobia, sexual assault, gun violence and much more.  He teaches writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.

Has an Editor Changed Your Life?

Let's Get Criminal (A Nick Hoffman / Academic Mystery Book 1) by [Raphael, Lev]

I left teaching at Michigan State University years ago because I didn’t think I’d be able to finish a book with only having summers off for extended writing time.  It was a gamble, and a serious loss of income my spouse said we could manage–for awhile.  Two years passed and I was more and more disheartened, especially when I got rejections for my book of short stories like the one that said “I don’t much like your metaphors and such.”

I was so down that I even talked about giving up writing as a career and maybe studying to be a therapist, since I was married to one and had such a deep background in reading psychology, going back to college.  And then one night a call came from Michael Denneny, the celebrated editor at St. Martin’s Press, and he said, “I want to publish your book.”  I was ecstatic.  When I hung up and shared the news, my witty spouse quipped, “Did you tell him you’d given up writing as a career?”

The book got dozens of reviews and launched my career.  Denneny was an amazing, hands-on editor who spent seven months doing deep dives on each story in the book.  Many of them were abut the Second Generation, children of Holocaust survivors, and back in the 197s and 1980s I was a pioneer in tackling this subject.  It was understandably dark material and one night at dinner in New York, Denneny suggested that I branch out and write something comic, since he thought I had a good sense of humor.  That suggestion was tossing a stone into a pond and watching the ripples.

I immediately thought of the story in my first collection told in the voice of an English professor who discovers that his partner has helped a former lover get a job at their university.  Not only that, his partner invites the guy for dinner.  It seemed like a good foundation for a mystery: What if the dinner guest dies?

Crime fiction was a genre I loved, and I had started reading mysteries in junior high school. My local library was well stocked and I worked my way through every Agatha Christie book on its shelves and branched out in many directions, like the comic New England mysteries of Phoebe Atwood Taylor and the spy novels of John Creasey.

Sadly, none of my college classes focused on genre literature, but the flip side is that as an English major, I was introduced to one amazing author after another, from D.H. Lawrence to Virginia Woolf. I read them all voraciously, inspired more than ever to make my life as an author.

For inspiration as I planned my mystery, I returned to crime novels I’d read before and read many dozens of new ones by authors from Robert Barnard to Sue Grafton.  Let’s Get Criminal was born, but Denneny didn’t connect with it.  I was disappointed, but as a writer friend once said, finding the right editor for your book can be as difficult as finding the right partner or spouse.

Winter Eyes (coming out novel) by [Raphael, Lev]

Soon after St. Martin’s press published my coming out novel Winter Eyes, I was approached by an agent who’d read about that books and I signed with her.  She saw Let’s Get Criminal as a Jewish Object of My Affections.  I was dubious, but then again, what did I know?  The rejections mounted and there was a trend: most of the editors said that they didn’t like mysteries.  Before I could ask why she was picking the wrong editors, she left the business.

But the editor who took over at St. Martin’s Press from Denneny, Keith Kahla, loved the book when I tried him myself, and he wanted the next one in the series, too, when I told him what I was planning. The Edith Wharton Murders was #2 and it put the series on the map thanks to a rave review in the New York Times Book Review where Marilyn Stasio said, “The Borgias would be at home at the State University of Michigan, that snake pit of academic politics.”  Kahla was justifiably pleased, and he was every bit as good an editor as his predecessor.

I read widely then and always had, so it was no surprise that I moved into other genres while keeping the series going and reviewed books for a number of publications including the Detroit Free Press where I had a monthly crime fiction column.

Let’s Get Criminal went out of print, was re-published by Lethe Press and went out of print a second time.  Now it’s available as an ebook from ReQueered Books.  I’m delighted that a new generation of readers can see where the Nick Hoffman series started.  And in case you were wondering about the title, it’s a comic nod to the Olivia Newton-John song “Let’s Get Physical” which plays a role in the book.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-six books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com and his latest mystery is State University of Murder.

Guest Post: Writing is Cheaper than Therapy

I’m not one of those authors who grew up dreaming of becoming a novelist. The urge to write came upon me much later in life during a time of great personal stress. We all deal with stress in different ways. Some people run marathons, others run to therapy, and still others run to the mall for retail therapy. None of these were options for me at the time.

After years of a mandatory daily mile run around the high school track during gym class—a task which had to be accomplished in under ten minutes—I’ll only run to escape a killer hot on my heels. Otherwise, forget it! As for therapy, retail or otherwise, one of the factors causing me stress at the time was financial. We were eating macaroni and cheese casseroles most nights to stretch the food budget. No way could I afford a new pair of socks, let alone a shrink.

So I began to write, and before I knew it, I’d written a 50,000-word romance. Losing myself in my characters enabled me to escape my own problems, if only for a little while. I probably could have accomplished this by journaling, but as a teenager, I had discovered my mother was reading my diary. Once your deepest personal thoughts have been violated in this manner, you become reluctant to risk repeat exposure.

The crisis that had caused me to first start writing eventually passed, but I discovered writing fiction was so cathartic that I’ve never stopped. Ten years, many rewrites, and an additional 50,000 words later, my first foray into fiction became the second book I sold, and I’ve continued to write. Twenty-four years after typing that first sentence, I’ve now published sixteen adult novels, with a seventeenth in the works, and four novellas in mystery, romance, romantic suspense, and women’s fiction. Every book has a little of me in at least one of the characters but which characters and what traits remain my secret—with one exception.

In my Anastasia Pollack Crafting mystery series, Anastasia’s communist mother-in-law Lucille is patterned after my own communist mother-in-law. Anastasia’s reactions to her often mirror my own thoughts and actions from back when my mother-in-law was alive. Although I have to admit, Anastasia often handles these situations far better than I did at the time. In my defense, though, I’m only human. Anastasia is my better angel, personifying the woman I wish I were. That’s the beauty of fiction. We can recreate ourselves through our characters.

USA Today bestselling and award-winning author Lois Winston’s latest book is Drop Dead Ornaments. She also writes under the pen name Emma Carlyle.  Check out her websites at www.loiswinston.com and
www.anastasiapollack.blogspot.com.  You can connect with her on Twitter and sign up for her newsletter here.

Universities Can Be Hazardous To Your Health

The New York Times recently told the chilling story of a woman doctoral candidate who left her doctoral program in the late 1960s because she was sexually harassed and assaulted.  As she recounts it:

“There was no word for sexual harassment, there was no language for this, there was no Title IX, no administrator to report it to. I felt shame as if I had done something wrong, and there was no recourse. So I left.”

Well, despite Title IX and administrators to report such conduct to now, two women I know at the university where I was recently a visiting assistant professor were not a whole lot better off.  They each felt that their complaints about a graduate student they accused of stalking, harassment, and assault were grossly mishandled. One woman was my office mate, the other was a student who had taken five courses with me, and gone on a summer abroad program in London that I co-taught. Disgusted, my office mate left Michigan, and my student left the university before graduating because staying there was too traumatic.

Their stories and similar ones around the country inspired my new mystery State University of Murder.

Real people, places, events have never gone directly into my fiction: they’re transformed in myriad ways.  Those two women were widely covered in the media and their stories raised questions about administrative arrogance, malfeasance, and lack of humanity.  Traits that administrators at universities across the country demonstrate all too often.  I hear horror stories from friends who are teaching, and have heard them whenever I speak at a college or university.  Sooner or later somebody tells me about high-handed, grossly overpaid administrators.  It’s a national scandal.

In State University of Murder, professor Nick Hoffman has survived a mass shooting to find himself in a renamed department which has been moved to a different building in an attempt to tamp down the bad publicity generated by the shooting.  The brand-new new chairman, an import from France, is the height of grandiosity, not surprisingly with a first name like Napoléon.  Is the chairman mercurial and contemptuous?  Does he alienate nearly everyone he comes into contact with? Does he evoke murderous rage?  Absolutely.

As the mystery builds, I pay tribute along the way to the former assistant professor and the student who shared their stories with me.  And to the women students and faculty who find their universities toxic despite how far we’ve supposedly come from the 1960s.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-six books in genres from memoir to mystery and teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com where he also offers editing services.  His latest academic mystery is State University of Murder and his June workshop is Mystery Writing 1.0.

 

When an Author’s Quirks Get in the Way: Chris Bohjalian and “The Flight Attendant”

Chris Bohjalian’s most recent novel of suspense tells a gripping story about an alcoholic flight attendant, Cassie Bowden, who wakes up in a luxury hotel bed in Dubai next to a murdered man she slept with the night before.  His throat’s been slashed and there’s lots of blood in the bed.  When she drinks too much, she has blackouts, and she’s wondering if she could have killed him, though she can’t imagine why.

What should she do now?

Cassie has a history of bad choices and some of what she does immediately and in the days after her horrific discovery is truly off the wall–when it’s not just plain dumb.  The lawyer who eventually tries to help her has no problem calling her crazy.

So who killed Cassie’s sexy, wealthy hook-up?  And was he really a hedge fund manager?  Cassie doesn’t know, but before long she starts suspecting that she’s being followed.  In classic thriller style, her troubles escalate as the story unfolds, and often because of her own mistakes.  Cassie is almost a total screw-up, but it’s hard not to sympathize with her, given the alcoholism in her family.  And given that she’s painfully aware of how stuck she is in very bad patterns:

She wanted to be different from what she was–to be anything but what she was.  But every day that grew less and less likely.  Life, it seemed to her…was nothing but a narrowing of opportunities.  It was a funnel.

The details of her work life in the air and on the ground are fascinating, ditto how she interacts with her fellow flight attendants, and Bohjalian is at his best describing Cassie’s shame about her alcoholic blackouts.

But the writing is a bit odd at times. Streets and aisles are described as “thin” rather than “narrow” for no apparent reason. The author has a fondness for unusual words like “gamically,” “cycloid,” “niveous,” “ineludibly,” “noctivagant,” and “fioritura” which stop you right in your tracks.  The last one is a doozy.  It refers to vocal ornamentation in opera and seems totally out of place in describing a lawyer’s complaint to her client.

At a point when Cassie is longing for a drink, it’s not enough for Bohjalian to call it her ambrosia.  No, he has to pile on synonyms “amrita” and “essentia.”  Seriously?

You get the feeling with all these splashy word choices that Bohjalian is showing off, but why would a best-selling author bother?  Does he somehow feel that he has to jazz up his thriller with fancy-shmancy diction to prove that he’s more than just a genre writer?

Bohjalian also spends way too much time on Cassie’s amygdala, her “lizard” brain, and mistakenly thinks it’s a seat of reflection.  It isn’t.

Almost as annoying as his vocabulary or his weak grasp of neuroscience is the fact that his American characters sound British when they use “rather” as in statements like “I rather doubt that–” Even the narrative employs “rather” as a modifier way too often.  This is apparently a tic of his that nobody’s bothered to point out to him. Likewise, Bohjalian uses formal phrasing in a story that’s anything but formal, so time and again there are constructions like this one: “She hadn’t a choice.” Given the book that he’s written, “She didn’t have a choice” seems more direct and natural.

Despite the distracting quirks, I stuck with this thriller because the protagonist is a fascinating hot mess and Bohjalian is a solid story teller when he gets out of his own way.  The novel has some fine twists and a satisfying and surprisingly heartwarming ending.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in many genres including the newly-released mystery State University of Murder.  He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com where he also offers editing services.

University Abuse Scandals Inspired My Latest Mystery

People often ask me at readings, “Where do you get your ideas?”  In another context, the writer Lawrence Kushner once wrote, “Entrances are everywhere and all the time.”  That’s how I feel about my books: a door can unexpectedly open whether I was looking for one or not.  I walk across the threshold and discover a new world.

After I returned in 2011 from another book tour in Germany, the chair of the English Department at Michigan State University asked if I’d consider teaching for them.  I was delighted because I come from a family of teachers and had taught at various schools for over a decade before he contacted me, including two years at MSU after I earned my PhD.  He was delighted to have me join the faculty because in his words, I had published more books than any single professor and more than the entire creative writing faculty put together.

Flash forward a few years.  One afternoon, my office mate looks shaken and she tells me a terrifying story of an ex-boyfriend breaking into her apartment and roughing up her current boyfriend.  The police get involved, there’s a restraining order, but she eventually comes to feel that the department and the university fail her.  Soon after, one of my students tells me about being stalked and I quickly realize she’s talking about the same man.  She ends up leaving MSU before she can finish her degree because she’s so traumatized by how dilatory and even hostile MSU officials seem to be in dealing with her case.

Then the giant Larry Nassar scandal breaks.

Real people, places, events have never gone directly into my fiction: they’re transformed in myriad ways.  The two women I knew were widely covered in the media and their stories raised questions about administrative arrogance, malfeasance, and lack of humanity.  Traits that administrators at universities across the country demonstrate all too often.  I hear these stories from friends who are teaching, and have heard them whenever I speak at a college or university.  Sooner or later somebody tells me about high-handed, grossly overpaid administrators.  It’s a national scandal.

In State University of Murder, professor Nick Hoffman has survived a mass shooting to find himself in a renamed department which has been moved to a different building in an attempt to tamp down the bad publicity generated by the shooting.  The brand-new new chairman, an import from France, is the height of grandiosity, not surprisingly with a first name like Napoléon.  Is he mercurial and contemptuous?  Does he alienate nearly everyone he comes into contact with? Does he evoke murderous rage?  Absolutely.

As the mystery builds, I pay quiet tribute along the way to the former assistant professor and the student who shared their stories with me.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery including the just released State University of Murder.  His next online creative writing workshop at writewithoutborders is Finding Your Memoir and runs for the month of August. 

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.