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Excerpt from Darkroom – Day meets her soulmate

The Dangerous Darkroom tour is drawing to a close. If you hurry, there’s still time to enter the drawing for special prizes including a $25 gift card and autographed copies of Talion and Daemon Seer. Darkroom will also be on sale for $s0.99 through this coming weekend.

Meanwhile, I hope you’ll enjoy this brief excerpt from Darkroom. The story centers on assistant art curator Kelly Durrell’s search for her friend Day Randall, a talented bipolar photographer who mysteriously goes missing. This section relates how Day meets Gregory Tyson, the dangerous man who becomes her lover.

At the top of the stairs, Day stopped and listened to the voices. They boomed in the open space above the white geometric walls of the museum. The building’s shape molded the sound. A blind person could hear it and know the height of the ceiling and the steepness of its vault. Another kind of sight. But Day was all eyes. Give her scaffolding and she could shoot the maze of gallery walls, the sophisticated rats nibbling snacks and sipping chardonnay. Not her kind of shot, though. She was more the up-close-and-personal, whites-of-their-eyes, breath-to-breath type, going for that flicker of an instant before the lens fogged.

She kept standing there, breathing funny. She couldn’t be scared of those fools. Not her, the woman who’d flipped Baba and lived.

She’d felt sorry for one of his child whores and called the girl’s parents. He chased her through the house with a blade until she locked herself in the bathroom. He slammed the door, yelling that he would cut her throat, bleed her in the tub and carve her like a chicken, wrap the chunks in newspaper and toss them in a dumpster behind the supermarket with the other rotten meat. She was too scared to feel herself, like her body had turned into air. Baba had a way with threats. He might have carried them out except for Shawn, his half brother. Shawn calmed him down and told Day to get the fuck out, warning her that if she stuck her hook nose into their business again, he would personally waste her skinny ass and save Baba the trouble.

That was an occasion for terror. This was just a crowd of art snobs. No blades here. Just voices, diamond-sharp.

“Going to the party?”

Day whipped around, startled.

Stocky guy in jeans and a lumberjack shirt, not much taller than her. Dark hair streaked with gray. Life stamped in his face, deep impressions around his mouth and eyes. Irony in his smile but no trace of cruelty. He held out a gnarly hand. “Leonard Proud.”

She reached out with caution. Not that he seemed like the type who gave women crushing handshakes, but he looked strong. “Day Randall.”

His hand closed over hers—no squeeze or shake, but firm—and then let go. “Kelly says nice things about you,” he said.

“You’re her friend?”

“More like colleague. I’m on the board of the museum.”

She reached for the scuffed Pentax hanging from her neck, the first and only camera she’d owned, her longtime crutch and trusty third eye.

He waved his arm. “No.”

“It’s, like, official. Photos for the newsletter.”

“Even worse.” But he squared his shoulders and turned his face to stone. Ready for his close-up.

“Dude. I’m not a firing squad.”

Leonard clamped his mouth to keep the laughter in. His cheeks puffed a little and his eyes crinkled in amusement. She saw the moment and took the shot. Snap, snap. What she did best. Kelly would never use the photo in the newsletter—members of a board were supposed to look more dignified—but Day might add it to her portfolio if he agreed.

“Let me send you a print,” she said. “What’s your address?”

He gave her a business card, a plain one with a block font.

“You make Native American art? What kind?”

“Weaving and painting.”

“I’d like to see it.”

“There’s a couple of my pieces back there.” Leonard nodded toward the rear of the museum.

“Show me.”

“Some other time. I wanna get the meet-and-greet over with.”

Day followed him into a gallery of Inuit art. “Would you, like, do me a big favor? Point out the other board members so I’ll be sure and get shots of them. You and Joyce are the only ones I know.”

“How much is Joyce paying you?”

“She’s not.”

He snorted. “A new low, even for her.”

A glass case imprisoned several small totem animals carved from stone, including a curled-up seal so smooth and dark Day yearned to feel its coolness and weight in her hand. “It’s for Kelly. I mean, I’m not paying rent or anything, so I try to help.”

“You live with Kelly?”

“Yeah, for almost eight months. She’s in Chicago at a conference for curators, so I’m, like, helping her. It’s a surprise.”

Leonard raised his eyebrows. “You’re here without an invitation.”

“Do I need one?”

“Hell, no. You’re with me.”

Day followed him into the reception area, drafting in his wake like she sometimes drafted behind a semi in her Corolla to save fuel. She needed his forward energy to make her entry. She hated coming uninvited among these people wrapped in cashmere. Not hated—feared. You have to tell yourself the truth because these people are going to lie. Their smiles were rubbery, like masks.

Leonard veered toward the refreshments, tidbits of food on trays and glasses of wine lined up on the tablecloth beside them. Wine the color of pee after you drink way too much water. Day stopped. Too many people were crowded around the refreshments. She would catch Leonard after he got his food.

She felt something, turned, and caught Annie Laible staring from across the room. She smiled and waved and got a sour smile back. Annie had new and wilder hair, hennaed and spiked. Months ago, Day had asked permission to hang a few photographs for sale in her gallery—she needed money bad—and Annie had blown her off. Just a blunt “No” without saying why. Now it was like Annie still blamed her for asking.

Joyce was talking with two men in their forties. Older than Day, but not by much. Day was thirty-eight, though she tried hard to forget it. The short guy was wasted, face bright pink, eyes shining and empty. The other was tall and gaunt. His cheekbones drank the wind. She remembered the line from a poem she read growing up. She forgot what poem. Anyway, it described this guy. He turned his head as if he felt her stare. Their eyes met. Locked. She recognized him. Not personally. More like she was an alien species who finds another of her kind among strangers.

She lifted her camera, zoomed in, and took his picture. Then zoomed out and got the whole group. They were probably important if Joyce was talking to them.

He walked over to her. “You’re Day Randall. I bought two of your prints.”

Day knew which ones. Soon after she came to Boulder, she submitted her portfolio for an exhibit at the museum. Joyce turned down the portfolio but said she had a buyer for the prints at $350 each. A fortune for Day. Of course, Joyce never gave up the buyer’s name. She wouldn’t want Day selling to him and cutting her out of a commission. Now here he was, this guy whose cheekbones drank the wind.

“What’s your name?”

“My friends call me Gee.”

She grinned. “Am I your friend?”

“I don’t know. Are you?”

“I feel like we’re the only ones from another planet.”

Gee reached out and stroked her cheek. His fingertips set off a tingling that reached down to her core. “Let’s play Find the Magic.”

“What’s that?”

“This exhibit is called Magic and Realism.” He pointed to a painting. “What’s magical?”

The painting showed a bird and a cat, the tension between prey and predator. The bird’s beak was open in frozen song. The iridescent feathers, intense cobalt and silky green, burned into her mind. “It’s like a window into someone’s dream.”

“We’re doing analysis,” Gee said. “Notice how the details aren’t realistic. The color of the feathers, the way they glow. Not like any finch in the real world. And the proportions are skewed. The finch is ten times bigger than the cat. It fills the whole room.”

“But it’s afraid of the cat anyway.”

“How do you know?”

“I just do.”

“Maybe because the finch is hunched and the cat’s kind of batting at it. Check out these claws. The tips are red.”

“Yeah, like with blood.”

“Exactly.”

Day shook her head. “I don’t have to take things apart. I see them whole.”

“There’s nothing whole. Everything is pieces.” Gee’s gaze played over her face and started her tingling just like his fingertips had. “The universe blew up a long time ago.”

Darkroom Cover

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Join the Dangerous Darkroom Blog Tour

The moment finally comes. The first copy of Darkroom arrives from the printer. Excited and anxious, I tear away the cardboard shell and behold the cover. It’s even more striking and sinister on the paperback than on the computer screen.The colors are deeper . The man lurking at the cover’s edge looks more compelling and mysterious. The designer has done a terrific job. I run my fingers over the glossy surface. Oh, it feels good.

Darkroom

I feel a bit shaky as I open the book. The interior is entirely my work, and although the PDF has been proofed by a professional and I’ve been over it  a dozen times, I fret that I’ve overlooked something so blatant and stupid that I’ll want to crawl into bed and hide beneath the covers. I thumb through the pages. The margins are right. The chapter headings look exactly as I’d envisioned, and none of them is out of place. The headings haven’t mysteriously vanished from any of the spreads.

Finally, my anxiety dies down. There’s probably an error lurking in there somewhere, but not a major error. I can relax and celebrate the launch of my newest novel.

Be sure to join me for the Dangerous Darkroom Blog Tour May 2-6, organized by the lovely people at Novel Publicity. You’ll get sneak peaks of the novel, interviews with me, and exclusive insights to the story and characters that make Darkroom a novel you won’t soon forget.

Enter the blog tour drawing for a shot at winning these special prizes:

  • A paperback of Larry Clark’s famous photo essay Tulsa. Darkroom features a talented photographer whose photos, like Clark’s,”uncover the secret of a face, its elusive life, so it becomes the portrait of an intimate you have yet to meet.”
  • A set of 10 custom note cards with envelopes, featuring a photograph of Boulder’s iconic Flatirons by moonlight. Photograph by Charles Pfiel.
  • Autographed copies of my dark fantasy horror novels Talion and Daemon Seer.
  • A $25 Amazon gift card.

Darkroom is a suspense thriller with a noirish atmosphere and unexpected twists. Art curator Kelly Durrell goes looking for her missing roommate, talented photographer Day Randall, and becomes entangled in a demimonde of powerful people who will stop at nothing to protect their secrets. Here’s what advance readers and reviewers have to say about Darkroom:

“. . . tight, compelling, and convincing writing.”  — Jon A. Jackson, author of Hit on the House and No Man’s Dog

“A thriller with unexpected plot twists and suspenseful action.”  — RT Source

“Kelly Durrell is a deftly-drawn, intelligent, and likable heroine.”  — Daiva Markelis, author of White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life

“A solid mystery that involves a satisfyingly diverse range of characters.”  — D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review

“[Maddox’s] prose flows with beauty and clarity.”  — Tahlia Newland, author of The Locksmith’s Secret

The paperback is now available through Amazon and will soon become available through other online sellers. The Kindle edition is coming May 3, and you can preorder a copy right now at the special launch price of just $0.99. The price is going up at the beginning of next week, so don’t wait too long!

Book Reviews – The Bullet and Playing with Fire

I don’t post many negative book reviews. When I’m not connecting with a book, for whatever reason, I stop reading unless I’ve committed to reviewing it. And I don’t feel comfortable judging books that I haven’t finished. I liked Mary Louise Kelly’s The Bullet and Sherry D. Ficklin’s Playing With Fire enough to finish them. Despite their differences, the two thrillers share one quality that always draws me into a story: an engaging first person narrator with a distinctive voice.

Playing With Fire

This YA novel centers on Farris Burnett, a teenage hacker whose father is a Marine Corps officer. The story begins as he assumes command of Cherry Point air base and she enrolls in a new high school. When someone hacks the base computers and begins wreaking havoc, Farris sets out to find the culprit.

Playing with Fire CoverFarris has a strong voice, and the secondary characters are complex and interesting. Overall the writing is good, but the book could have used better editing. The author uses principal in a context that calls for principle, and there are a few confusing sentences.

The main problem with the novel is the plot structure. The hacking problem begins almost halfway into the story. Everything up to that point involves Farris’s life—her dead mom, her somewhat distant relationship with her father, the unfair ostracism she faced at her last high school, the challenge of making friends at the new one, the dilemma of liking two guys who hate each other. The characters introduced in the first half do play important roles in the hacking plot, but the author could have told readers what they needed to know in half the space.

The upshot is that Playing With Fire is more teen high school drama than it is thriller. This might not be a problem for the novel’s teen audience, but the book description led me to expect more suspense and less romance.

The Bullet

Caroline Cashion, a professor of French at Georgetown University, discovers that she’s adopted and has a bullet in her neck. The bullet has been there since she was three years old and her birth parents were shot and killed. I struggled with the premise. This woman is in her 30s and none of her doctors ever noticed the bullet lodged against her spine until it began causing symptoms? And her adoptive parents never told her anything about her origins? I was willing to give the improbability a pass because the first-person narration hooked me from the start.

The Bullet Cover 2Caroline flies to Atlanta to find out who her parents were and what happened to them. She learns that they were killed in their home and that the bullet passed through her mother before entering her. Removing it from an infant would have been too dangerous. The killers were never found.

While she’s busy talking with reporters and the detective who worked the case, her doctor shows up at her hotel. He’s flown all the way from Washington because he’s smitten with her. They strike up a romance. Later she finds out he’s married, making the subplot even more irrelevant than it already was. I have nothing against romantic subplots if they somehow advance the story. This one is mostly filler. It shows an aspect of Caroline’s character, that’s about all.

A reporter in Atlanta also tries to seduce Caroline, but he’s not as attractive as the doctor. He writes a story about her, though, and soon after her return to Washington, someone breaks into her apartment with the clear intention of doing her harm. Events escalate from there.

Caroline’s later actions surprised me since they seem to contradict her character. Readers are supposed to believe that the revelations about her past have changed her profoundly, but there’s nothing about her life beforehand that makes her behavior believable. Not to mention the unlikelihood of someone intelligent and mature traveling around the country shortly after dangerous surgery.

The story is well told, but the credibility issues and pointless romance put a drag on its momentum.

The Locksmith’s Secret – A Rich Narrative Tapestry

In The Locksmith’s Secret, Tahlia Newland has woven several narratives into a complex story about the joys and pitfalls of love and the enduring power of the imagination.

Writer Prunella Smith, whom readers may remember from Newland’s last book, Worlds Within Worlds, has found love with Jamie Claypole, an English transplant to Australia. The two are happy together, but Ella knows little about Jamie’s past. The gaps in her knowledge become apparent when Jamie is summoned home after his brother’s sudden death. All at once he becomes secretive about his family and where they live and how long he intends to stay with them.

The other narratives reiterate in various ways the problem Ella faces: whether to pursue Jamie and uncover his secrets or to reclaim the solitude she lost when he came to live with her.

Memories of unhappy past experience with a lover who abandoned her overshadow Ella’s hope for happiness with Jamie. Ella had been a ballerina with a promising career until a back injury forced her to give up ballet. Her lover, who was also her onstage partner, promptly discarded her once they could no longer dance together.

A Buddhist, Ella mediates regularly, and during meditation she’s transported into the world of Daniela, an Italian nun. On the brink of taking her final vows, Daniela finds herself attracted to the man who tends the nunnery’s garden. Like Ella, she faces an unexpected choice about the direction her life will take.

In addition, Ella has a recurring dream featuring a locksmith who may or may not be Jamie and who holds the secret to unlocking doors into countless other worlds, a metaphor for the creative and spiritual freedom that she seeks. She pursues the locksmith, but he seems always just out of reach.

Although troubled by Jamie’s secretiveness, Ella keeps writing fiction. Woven into The Lockman’s Secret is a steampunk novel that has taken hold of her imagination. The chapters appear as she writes them, and the story of intrepid reporter Nell and her efforts to uncover the villainy of Lord Burnett generates as much suspense as the main narrative. Like Ella, Nell values her independence and strives to prove her worth in the professional world. She worries that marriage to her employer’s son will mean the end of her career.

Newland interweaves all of these threads with consummate skill. Not once do they get tangled. Not once does the suspense flag, which is especially impressive in a contemplative novel like The Locksmith’s Secret. The credit goes to Newland’s mastery of narrative structure, to her concise and transparent prose that is eloquent without ever drawing attention to itself, and to her wonderfully varied and complex characters.

The worlds of Prunella Smith have a clarity and power that you won’t soon forget.

Cover Locksmith's Secret

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Return to Tanglewood

I found the paperbacks in a used bookstore. Their pages were yellowed and they had the distinctive smell of old books. New, they cost $0.60 and $1.25. They were A Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s adaptations of classical myths for children, and when I was nine years old they were my favorite books. Or actually book. The book I read long ago was a hardback that contained both volumes.

So I bought the old yellowed paperbacks.

I remember reading them in the living room of my neighborhood friend ‘Alicia’. I was lying on the carpet, which had a swirly pattern that reminded me of waves. Alicia was a grave little girl. I liked her because we did things like read quietly together. It may be I borrowed the book from her rather than from the library. She had quite a few books.

At the time my brother and I and our mother lived with Nana, our grandmother and Mom’s ex-mother-in-law, in Ocean Beach, California. The two women had a complicated and sometimes tense relationship.

Nana ended my friendship with Alicia. Alicia’s mother didn’t invite me to Alicia’s birthday party because she couldn’t invite me without also inviting the other neighbor kids, including two sisters she disliked intensely. I understood. The sisters were nasty bullies and I didn’t like them either. But Nana didn’t understand. She took my not being invited as an insult. So when my birthday party rolled around, Nana allowed me to invite all the neighborhood kids except Alicia.

During the party Alicia came to the door. I still remember Nana’s hard voice as she spoke to Alicia through the screen, telling her she couldn’t come in and have cake with the rest of us.

Reading A Wonder Book again, I understand why I loved those stories so much. They must have been a challenge. I doubt my nine-year-old self knew words like erudition, vagrant, and audacity (and those are all in one sentence). But the truth is you don’t have to understand every single word when you read. Seeing a word like dominions the first time, you kind of guess the meaning from the context and can be pretty sure it meaning something like kingdom.

MinotaurHawthorne’s tales lifted me from everyday life into a world of magic adventures where the mysterious Quicksilver comes to the aid of Perseus as he sets out to slay the Gorgon, where greedy King Midas is cursed with a golden touch, and where Theseus  braves the labyrinth and battles the Minotaur. I got lost in those stories. As Hawthorne says in the preface (which I doubt I read back then), “No epoch of time can claim a copyright in these immortal tales. They seem never to have been made; and certainly, so long as man exists, they can never perish.” They awakened my love of fantasy.

But Hawthorne also gives the stories a frame. A group of children, brothers and sisters and cousins, are staying together at a beautiful estate called Tanglewood. They sit together on a spacious porch overlooking a misty valley, or beside a shady brook, while their college-age cousin Eustace Bright tells the stories.

Tanglewood seemed like paradise to me. It was a world without divorced parents or kids who were nasty bullies. The children in the book might tease one another gently, but they’re never mean. If one of them had a birthday party, all of the others would be invited. And if one of them showed up at the door, wanting to be let in, she wouldn’t be turned away.

A clone in the world

I decided to fill in one of the millions of gaps in my education by reading a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. I couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for Remains of the Day, the one about the butler, but Never Let Me Go is about clones. Surely, I thought, a novel about clones had to be a little exciting.

The thing is, Never Let Me Go is about people who happen to be clones. The narrator, Kathy, tells the story of growing up at a special school with others of her kind. The children vaguely understand they’re destined to be donors, but they don’t comprehend what it means. The plot centers on the complex relationship between Kathy and her two best friends, Ruth and Tommy.  There is a love triangle, jealousy, and betrayal as well as loyalty and affection. In the usual course of things, the conflict might have resolved as the characters became adults and went their separate ways, but since these three share the same destiny, they remain entangled to the end.

As science fiction, Never Let Me Go is pretty much a bust. In its world, cloning was developed just after World War II, so the story unfolds in the later Twentieth Century. To be convincing, this sort of alternate history needs details and explanations that the author seems to have no interest in providing. Readers learn only what Kathy learns about the process of cloning and organ harvesting, which is next to nothing. Near the end of the novel, Kathy and Tommy visit one of their former teachers and find out a bit about the politics of this world, but it’s nothing the reader hasn’t already inferred. The novel’s world is subjective. It rings true because Kathy’s voice and sensibility ring true.

At times it irked me that she and the others accept their fates so passively. But they’re playing the only role they know. No other possibilities have been shown to them. Their dreams never extend beyond a “deferral,” a few years of grace before their bodies are taken apart. When I discussed the novel with Joe, he pointed out that even sheep struggle as they’re led to slaughter. But sheep can’t be taught and conditioned the way people can. Most of us want to believe in free will, but society makes its demands and exacts its price.

Many years ago, sitting in jail on a drug charge, I had an epiphany. Society sets boundaries. The people who ignore them are eventually relegated to prisons and mental hospitals. You might flout the boundaries and elude punishment, but you better not forget they’re there. If this great discovery seems a bit simpleminded, keep in mind that I was twenty— just a few years younger than Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy when their lives are supposed to end.

Imagine always being imprisoned. Imagine believing those boundaries to be the end of the world with nothing beyond them. That’s the reality of Kathy and her friends.

The larger boundary, one that imprisons us all, is certainy of death. The clones are killed because their body parts are needed to keep the “normals” alive awhile longer. Yet mortality is absolute. The normals will eventually die too. They justify the killing by believing clones have no souls, but maybe they’re taking their own souls too much for granted.

Never Let Me Go Cover

A taxing week

There are kids who dream of growing up to be entrepreneurs. They set up lemonade stands at the end of 10K races. They seek out jobs stocking supermarket shelves or hawking mall fashions as soon as they’re old enough to work.

I wasn’t one of those kids. I put off getting my first job as long as possible, preferring to spend my summers reading books.

So it’s ironic that I find myself the president of a corporation.

Okay, it’s not much of a corporation. Its assets might keep a dog in kittles for a lifetime as long as the dog isn’t too large and price of kittles doesn’t skyrocket.

How did this happen?

A few years ago I decided to quit looking for another agent and publish my novel Talion on my own. A newbie to the world of publishing, I learned that a book must have something called an ISBN, a number that identifies it for cataloguing and marketing. There are several ways to obtain an ISBN free of charge, but whoever gives it to you is the publisher of record for your book.

If I was going to invest time and money to publish my novel, I wanted to be the publisher of record.

That meant becoming an official publisher. It’s easy to do. Just go to myidentifiers.com and buy a batch of ten ISBNs for a little less than $300. You’re now a publisher.

Logo Attempt 7-aI called my publishing company Cantraip Press. Cantraip is an archaic Scottish word meaning “magic spell.” I hired a graphic artist to design a logo with a Celtic flavor and I was ready to go. (Since then I’ve redesigned the logo.)

A year later, I agreed to publish Occasional Writers, an anthology by the Past~Forward Memoir Group, a group of local writers who meet twice a month to discuss each other’s work and hone their skill. Since the group is funded by our local arts council, I had to enter into a contract with a corporate entity as well as with each of the nineteen writers whose work would appear in the anthology. With advice from an attorney, I drafted the contracts myself.

Cover correct with type WebIt was time to separate my business obligations from my personal obligations and those of my husband. The press became an S-Corp, Cantraip Press, Ltd., which looks kind of cool on letterheads.

The process of incorporating isn’t difficult—fill out a form, pay some money to the State of Illinois, acquire a credit card for business expenses.

When the fiscal year ended, I thought vaguely about corporate taxes. Given that Cantraip Press, Ltd. had made only a few hundred dollars in profits, I doubted it would owe the government any tax. But I figured the government would expect me to submit a return, which I would prepare along our personal income tax returns.

Then at the beginning of April I got a letter from the IRS. Cantraip Press, Ltd. owed them $200, the penalty for failing to file a return by the deadline.

But, but . . . April 15 was two weeks away.

Was this some kind of sick April fool’s day joke perpetrated by the IRS?

The letter gave a phone number to call if I had questions. So I called. The lady who answered explained that corporate taxes are due on March 15. I apologized, telling her it was my first corporate tax return and I was clueless. She was kind enough not to laugh. Instead she put me on hold. A few minutes later she was back. Since I didn’t know about the March 15 deadline, she said, the IRS would waive payment of the penalty—this one time only.

Whoever said the IRS is heartless?

Every year since then, I’ve prepared my corporate tax returns, federal and state, and mailed them well before March 15. In May I mail off another form and a $100 check to renew the status of Cantraip Press, Ltd. as an official S-Corp in the State of Illinois.

But here’s the thing. I hate—just hate—keeping books and doing taxes. I have the requisite software programs, QuickBooks and TurboTax. They make the work easier, but they cannot make it interesting. For me it’s a slog. I can concentrate for hours on writing or editing or playing Scrabble, but ten minutes of bookkeeping spaces me out.

Between bringing QuickBooks up to date and doing the taxes, the last week of February was no fun. It would make sense to hire an accountant if my tiny corporation made any money. But it doesn’t.

Trace - Ebook SmallThe press has grown, though. It has published six books altogether, two by me and the rest by other authors. This spring Cantraip will release two more books, my novel Darkroom and a two-novella volume, Vibe/Sync, the second in Letitia Moffitt’s TraceWorld series.

I’ve had to buy more ISBNs. The truth is I like publishing books, I just hate balancing them.

Three ways to reap a profit from dead bodies

Most people would agree dead bodies are not a good thing. When one falls into your path, you step around or over it, or else you bury it with ceremony and weep. But there are a few enterprising folk who know how to make dead bodies work for them. One such creative entrepreneur is James Lewis, whose story is recounted by Joy Bergmann in her article “A Bitter Pill” in The Chicago Reader. Here’s a guy with oodles of initiative and imagination. He spots a dead body, and instead of thinking, “How sad!” or “Maybe I should call the police,” he asks himself three questions:

Does the dead body have money in the bank?

In 1978, Bergmann relates, the body of a Kansas City man named Raymond West was found dismembered in his attic. The body was too decomposed to determine a cause of death, but the cops soon learned Lewis had been lurking around the house after West’s disappearance and had cashed a $5000 check, supposedly signed by West. A business loan, Lewis insisted. Perfectly legitimate. After he was arrested, he told the cops the truth: Finding West dead in his home of natural causes, Lewis had done what any clever fellow would do — dismembered the body and hidden it in the attic, taped a note on the door so people would think West had gone on vacation, then helped himself to the checkbook. He was no killer! Only a scavenger.

Old House Smaller

For a while it seemed Lewis would be punished for showing some initiative, but he had an excellent attorney who glommed onto various procedural errors and argued eloquently:

“It’s one thing to kill somebody, it’s another to thing to dismember them after they’re dead. And while dismembering somebody after they’re dead is repulsive and repugnant, it’s not homicide” (qtd. in Bergmann).

Does the dead body scare the bejesus out of people?

In 1982 a wacko in Chicago bought several bottles of Tylenol, replaced the painkiller in some of the capsules with cyanide, and then replanted the bottles on various drugstore shelves. Some younger people might wonder how he put new plastic seals around the bottle caps. He didn’t have to. In those days bottles of over-the-counter medicine and vitamins were unsealed. After seven people died from taking the poisoned Tylenol capsules, that changed. We now have tamper-resistant packaging. James Lewis seized the opportunity to blackmail the company that made Tylenol, warning that more people would die unless he was paid a million dollars. Instead of being praised for trying to make lemonade from these unfortunate dead lemons, he was caught and sent to prison for extortion. Worse, the cops suspected him of being the wacko who did the poisoning. But they never made a case against him.  Of course not. His only crime was trying to generate some income.

The Tylenol poisonings remain one of the major unsolved crimes of the last century.

Do people want to read about the dead body?

In this case, the answer seems to be no.

Several years ago Lewis published a novel about — what else? — mysterious poisonings that spread panic through a community. He promoted the novel on his Web site as part of a campaign to uncover the truth about the Tylenol poisonings in 1982. To date, the novel has three reviews on Amazon.com. One of them, written by Lewis himself, extols the novel and awards it five stars. The second reviewer titles his review “The Only Book I’d Burn” and the third declares that Lewis isn’t getting any of his money. I usually disapprove of reviews by people who haven’t read the book, but not this time.

If the FBI doesn’t finally nail James Lewis, I hope he ends up in a nursing home where the caretakers treat him callously, ignoring his complaints about the unbearable pain that never leaves him. “Bring me some fucking Tylenol!” he’ll scream. And the attendant outside in the corridor, slumped in her chair, will turn another page of People magazine.

 

Joy Bergmann’s article is worth reading: A Bitter Pill

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Dance to The Doors in a Parrot Hat

On Christmas Eve my parakeet Westie spread his wings and flew away to Parakeet Valhalla. I miss the little guy. He was the inspiration for Lu’s parakeet Foster, who survived being bird-napped by the daemon Black Claw. To honor Westie’s memory, I’m hosting a drawing for the Foster Prize Pack.

One big winner will claim all the prizes shown below.

Gain additional chances by sharing the drawing on Twitter, following me on Twitter, or visiting my Facebook page. The drawing is open to all newsletter subscribers and anyone who wants to subscribe. The deadline for entering is February 29.

  • Festive parrot hat for those times when you feel like a party.
  • Cute pair of Japanese parakeet socks.
  • CD of The Doors greatest hits, including Foster’s favorite song, “Light My Fire.”
  • Autographed paperback of Daemon Seer.

 

Contests, Drawings, Serial Killers

 

 

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Sneak peek: final cover for Darkroom

Last month I received several intriguing cover ideas from graphic designer Pete Garceau. Any of them would have made a great cover for Darkroom, so to help me choose, I polled readers to discover which one they liked most. Two clear favorites emerged.

Darkroom_1

This cover captures the sinister mystery of a forest in the mountains, a setting central to the story. It received 42% of the votes. I love the subtle colors in the image and way the trees form a tunnel at their center. I’ve seen similar covers on suspense novels, which isn’t altogether a bad thing. Readers generally want a cover to signal the genre of the story. Since Darkroom is psychological suspense, the cover with the mysterious forest does tell readers what they’ll get.

But ideally I want a cover that does more than its basic job.

The other finalist won the poll with slightly more than half the votes, not a huge enough margin to make it an overwhelming favorite. The white frame suggests an old-fashioned darkroom negative. (The photographer in the novel still works in a darkroom even though most others have moved to the digital format.) I like the way the man in the image is only half visible and part of him is outside the frame, eluding the camera. Because he’s partially hidden (or hiding) he becomes sinister. The purplish darkness adds to the effect.

Darkroom_9a

This cover evokes the mood of Darkroom perfectly, and it’s more distinctive than the other finalist. Perfect except for one thing—the man. His appearance is wrong for the story. None of the characters looks anything like this guy. so I went back and forth between these two very good but not ideal alternatives.

Then Pete Garceau went to the extra trouble of finding just the right model for the cover. Unlike the other one he faces the viewer with an ambiguous gaze that suggests menace or defiance. He looks like a bad guy with dark motives.

And that’s just what I want.

 

 

Darkroom Cover

 

Thank you to everyone who helped me choose!

Gifted Thief will steal your heart

The protagonist of Helen Harper’s urban fantasy Gifted Thief lives the first eleven years of her life without a name. An orphan among the Highland Sidhe, she’s so despised that no one bothers giving her one. She lives in a castle, the ward of a nobleman, ignored or bullied until she escapes to the world of human beings. There she makes a life for herself with the help of a newfound human friend, Taylor. She names herself Integrity.

Taylor is a thief, so Integrity enters that profession.

Years later, she’s working with him and a team of magical characters, each with specialized skills. They look for high value targets, so when Taylor hears about a rare sapphire kept in a bank vault, he dispatches the team to acquire it. Integrity and her friends scale the building and break into the vault — only to find the sapphire isn’t there! Worse, Taylor has been lured into the debt of dangerous people. He needs money fast.

Then the trap closes. The debt and the elusive jewel are part of a Sidhe plot to force Integrity back to their lands. But why? For years they haven’t bothered coming after her.

Except in the prologue, the story is narrated by Integrity, and one of the novel’s attractions is her voice. She’s a funny, insightful, and self-deprecating narrator — the most likable protagonist I’ve encountered in a while. The band of thieves are endearing in their kindness and loyalty to one another. And then there’s the comical genie trapped in the letter opener.

Overall, the story is a bit too sweet for my tastes until the Sidhe show up. They come off as arrogant, vain, and treacherous — an entrenched aristocracy interested only in wealth and power.

With one or two possible exceptions.

Byron, the handsome son of a clan leader, may be hiding goodness beneath his jaded playboy exterior. He’s attracted to Integrity and offers to help her. Although she’s attracted to him, she refuses to give him her trust. He’s a Sidhe and she despises them all. Worse, he’s one of the Sidhe who made her childhood miserable. The romance between the two follows a predictable course of miscues and misunderstanding.

But once she returns to Sidhe lands, Integrity needs his help. She can’t be choosy about her allies as it becomes clear that the clan leaders mean to kill her once they have no more use for her.

Despite the danger, her return finally gives her an opportunity to find out about her parents and who she truly is. The search for identity is a central theme in literature, and Integrity’s quest adds weight to a story that occasionally seems frivolous.

I began Gifted Thief thinking it was pleasant fluff. But Integrity changed my mind. She likes to crack silly jokes, but she’s serious about defending herself and protecting her friends. By the end I loved her and hoped for her eventual triumph.

Gifted Thief is the first book of Harper’s Highland Magic series. The next one, Honour Bound, will be released on February 29.

My Reading Hangups

I start every book meaning to finish. But sometimes I put the book down and never pick it up again. Here are a few of the reasons why . . .

I love to read fiction. That’s one reason I became a writer — to create those magical portals called books. I begin each story hoping to be swept away, so caught up that nothing else exists, but sometimes it fails to happen. After a few pages or a few chapters I lose interest and abandon the book, never to return. Here are a few reasons why:

The dreaded info dump

Exposition is necessary at the beginning of a story. Accent on necessary. Writers can overestimate how much readers need to know. Suppose you’re reading a story that opens with a family in a car bringing their daughter to college. You’re getting to know the family from the daughter’s point of view — their conversation, her thoughts and reactions. Then you come to two lengthy paragraphs of background info — how she feels about her stepdad, the financial struggles of her family over the past year, her hopes and dreams. Nothing in the paragraphs is needed to understand the present scene. All of it could have surfaced gradually.

Those paragraphs are like lumps of flour in stew that hasn’t been stirred enough. They distract from the flavor. They may even spoil your appetite.

Read the rest at Novel Publicity. While you’re there, enter the drawing for a $50 gift card.