Friday, May 1, 2015

A History of Poisons

by Jean Henry Mead

The discovery of poisons occurred when prehistoric tribes foraged for food; an often deadly experience, or what would later be known as Russian roulette. Primitive poison experts were people to be reckoned with, and they either served as tribal sorcerers or were burned at the stake, depending on whom they practiced.

Our first written accounts of poisonings are from the Roman era over 2,000 years ago, although the Chinese, Egyptians, Sumerians and East Indians had practiced the art of poisoning for centuries. Cleopatra allegedly used her slaves and prisoners as guinea pigs while searching for the perfect suicidal poison. She tried belladonna and found that it killed quickly but was too painful for her own personal demise. She also tried an early form of strychnine but it caused facial distortions at death, so she chose instead the bite of an asp, a small African cobra, which produced a quick and painless death.

Those in some cultures were so afraid of being poisoned that they consumed gradual amounts of various poisons on a regular basis to build up their immunity to them. Dorothy L. Sayers, in her book, Strong Poisons, had her villain doing just that, as did Alexander Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo.

Food tasters were employed by most royals. If they survived, after sampling each dish, the king would consent to eat his meal. The job must have paid well, or a steady stream of prisoners were employed against their will.

The use of poison-tipped arrows during the Renaissance period paved the way for modern pharmacology. Drugs such as atropine, digitalis and ouabain evolved from plant concoctions used for killing both people and animals. And we now know that thousands of people are killed each year with pharmaceutical prescriptions.

The Roman Borgia family of the fifteen century was a dynasty of poisoners, according to Serita Deborah Stevens in her book, Deadly Doses. If Casare Borgia were offended by something someone said, the unsuspecting person was invited to attend a party and would leave seriously ill or in the back of a mortician’s wagon. Borgia's poison of choice was arsenic, the favorite of assassins of that era.

Bernard Serturner isolated morphine from opium in 1805, but the formal study of poisons began with Claude Bernard, a physiologist, who researched the effects of curare, a South American poison the Indians used to tip their arrows. Chemical analysis could detect most mineral compounds by 1830, although not organic poisons. By 1851, a Belgian chemist discovered the technique of extracting alkaloid poisons while investigating a homicide caused by nicotine, a very deadly poison. Jean Servais Stas was the first to isolate nicotine from postmortem tissue.

The use of poison as a means of murder declined when modern methods of detection were perfected and physicians began saving many of its victims.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Sparrow’s new clothes

by Bill Kirton
The new clothes
I’ve written many times about The Sparrow Conundrum, usually trying to persuade readers to buy it. But this time (although I’d still love you and all your friends and family to get a copy because my wife is still dreaming of the tax exile she envisaged when my first book was published in the 90s), I’m using it to illustrate a different point.
A while ago, it came under new management and the new edition has now been published. So what? You ask. Well, to begin with,  having a new publisher may counteract the fact that my marketing and PR skills show no signs of improving and most bookshops still seem reluctant to stock Indies.
But the main reason I’m writing this is because the change has brought home very forcibly the impact of a new cover. I liked the old cover and, when I got the first proof copies of it, it gave me the usual ‘this is my baby’ pride. It’s been with me for a few years and helped the book to  win a couple of awards. And maybe the familiarity of it helps to explain my reaction to the new one because, frankly, it feels like a different book. I’ve made just one or two tiny changes to the text so it’s more or less identical to the previous edition and yet it doesn’t seem so.
I always claim that I never judge a book by its cover (except when the cover’s so awful that you know the book can’t be any good because it’s been treated
The old clothes
so shamefully), and I’m not ‘judging’ the Sparrow either. It’s not a question of whether it makes the book look ‘better’, that one is ‘bad’ and the other ‘good’; it actually seems to be a question of identity. I know the book well. It was my first ever novel and I not only wrote it, I rewrote it many times over, gave it at least 4 different titles en route. So it’s a long-standing, familiar friend. And now, all of a sudden, I see it wearing a new outfit and I don’t recognise it.
It reminded me of an exchange I had with a young girl who was in a workshop I did for children in Huntly library last year. After the class she asked me:
‘Is that your book, The Darkness, on the shelf upstairs?’
‘The cover’s rubbish, isn’t it?’
As it happens, I don’t agree with her but this latest experience has made me very aware that I maybe need to think more carefully about the power of a book’s appearance.
It also makes me want to get on with the sequel, just so that I can see what the cover’s like.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Writing with Family

By June Shaw

Here are my sweet teen granddaughters, avid readers who are sisters that asked to write a book with me. (Okay, the third one is me.)

Me: Do you really want to write a book, or do you just want money?

Them: No, writing a book should be fun. We'd love to do it with your help.

They loved HUNGER GAMES. So did I. We agreed to write YA dystopian. While I created most of the novel, they were great help. I asked for lots of input, and they gave it.

Sometimes the main character got in a major bind, and I had no idea how to get her out of it. One phone call to them got the duo thinking and creating a list of suggested events. They helped with setting and characters and creatures and otherworld building. Wonderful. One reviewer even called it better than HUNGER GAMES.

What would you do if the government decreed that each person would be allowed to have only one friend? That's our premise in JUST ONE FRIEND. They said to mention to everyone that it's on sale for a limited time for .99.

Have you ever tried to write a book with anyone else, especially a member or two of your family?


Thursday, April 23, 2015

Malice Domestic--A Bucket-List Item--May1-3, 2015 Bethesda, MD

I’m leaving for Malice Domestic on April 30, and I’m so excited. For years I’ve wanted to attend this wonderful event, and now I shall, God willing and the creek don’t rise. (Okie speak)

I will soon be on my way, via Southwest Airlines, with Judy Rosser, BFF and my remarkable beta reader, riding shotgun. Judy is a reader, and this convention is for READERS! They call themselves fans, I call them fabulous. 
L-R Carolyn Hart, Jackie King, Judy Rosser
Bouchercon 2013
Sharing our room at the Hyatt Regency in Bethesda, MD will be LuLu Harrington, author of MURDER, MAYHEM AND BLISS.

I’m thrilled out of my gourd to be on the panel titled YOU COULD JUST DIE LAUGHING: HUMOR IN MYSTERIES. I have read each of the books by my co-panelists and they ROCK! Here is the list:

Kathryn Leigh Scott, Moderator—JINXED  (I especially recommend for film fans.)

Cindy Brown—MACDEATH  (If you love the theater, you’ll love this mystery!)

Shelley Costa—BASIL INSTINCT  (A riotously funny Italian family A dynamite mystery, plus Choo Choo Bacigalupo's recipe for Gorgonzola and Spiced Walnuts in Port Wine Syrup.)

Tim Hall—DEAD STOCK  (If you love vintage clothing, this is your cup of tea.)

Jackie King—THE INCONVENIENT CORPSE  (No resources, no job skills and a stranger’s body in Grace’s bed. A B&B mystery.)

Nancy G. West—FIT TO BE DEAD  (If you’ve ever struggled with your weight, imagine it with a dead body thrown in. Fun mystery set in a gym.)

Here is how the official website for Malice Domestic phrases their Con:
“Established in 1989, Malice Domestic® is an annual "fun fan" convention in metropolitan Washington, D.C., saluting the traditional mystery—books best typified by the works of Agatha Christie.
The genre is loosely defined as mysteries which contain no explicit sex or excessive gore or violence.”

I invite anyone who is fortunate enough to come to this note worthy happening, to attend our panel. Be sure and speak to me afterwards, we will all be signing. I’d so love to meet you!

We will each have books to sell and I’ll have free bookmarks for my Grace Cassidy series.
1st Grace Cassidy Mystery



Friday, April 17, 2015

How Carolyn Hart Became a Bestselling Author

When Carolyn Hart sent me an announcement of her soon-to-be released novel, I asked that she write a guest blog and she graciously complied:                                              
In the spring of 1985, I was a failed author. I’d had seven books published but another seven manuscripts were stacked, gathering dust, turned down by a raft of publishers. This was the heyday of steamy romance novels. I tried that. No sale. I wrote WWII novels. Escape from Paris, the story of two American sisters in Paris in1940 who help British airmen flee the Gestapo, is possibly the best suspense novel I ever wrote.  Escape from Paris later sold to a small publishing house in England, then to Doubleday in the U.S. and has been reprinted now by Seventh Street Books. But in 1985, it was in the unsold stack of seven.
1985 marked a turning point in mystery publishing for American women. Until then, publishers considered the American mystery to be the hard-boiled male (of course) private eye written by men. That mold was broken by Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky, and Sue Grafton.They wrote hard-boiled books but the protagonists were women. Publishers saw their sales and decided American women readers were interested in books by and about American women.
As a writer living in Oklahoma, I didn’t know a sea change was occurring. All I knew was that I’d written book after book and no one was interested. I was teaching at the time and attended a meeting of Mystery Writers of America in Houston. Wonderful Joan Lowery Nixon, a renowned Houston YA writer, had a cocktail party for the MWA members.
I attended though I felt out of place even though I’d had seven books published. There was that stack of seven unsold and nothing on the horizon. Everyone was friendly and kind, as writers generally are. I met Bill Crider who had just sold his first book. As we talked, he asked if I’d been to Murder by the Book. I asked him what that was. He said, “A mystery bookstore.” I’d never heard of a mystery bookstore. The next day I took a cab from the hotel to Murder by the Book. The owner was there, gracious and appealing Martha Farrington. I didn’t introduce myself or mention my previous books. Instead I gloried in the store, row after row of shelves filled with mysteries of all kinds, suspense, thrillers, traditional mysteries, crime novels, British mysteries, and a whole wall of used books. In Oklahoma when we like something we say, “I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven.” That, to me, was Murder by the Book. (Martha has since retired but fabulous Murder by the Book continues to be a Houston triumph.)
I returned home, energized by friendly writers talking about the books we loved to read and loved to write and by visiting Murder by the Book. I’d just started a new book (the triumph of hope over experience) set in a bookstore. I made it a mystery bookstore. I wrote the kind of book I love to read, about ordinary people and the passions and heartache that lead to murder and about a young couple, Annie Laurence and Max Darling, who truly love each other. I called the book Death on Demand. 

In New York, publishers were looking for books by American women. The book sold to Kate Miciak at Bantam, one of the mystery world’s most fabulous editors. I had written it more in defiance than in hope. The possibility that anyone would publish it seemed remote. It never occurred to me to think in terms of a series. Kate called to talk and asked, “It’s the first in a series, isn’t it?” I immediately said of course it was. I wrote the next and the next and readers read them and I kept going. The 25th in the Death on Demand series - Don’t Go Home - will be published May 8. 

Annie Darling tries hard to keep her promise to Max that she will never again put herself in danger but their good friend Gazette Reporter Marian Kenyon faces scandal and heartbreak when an author’s return to the island ends in murder. He knew too much about too many. Choices are made by Annie about the importance of friendship and by Marian about what kind of truth matters.

by Carolyn Hart
Submitted by Jean Henry Mead

Thursday, April 16, 2015


I'm a day late but I just wanted to sneak in a couple of early reviews of my next Daisy Dalrymple mystery (Minotaur, June).

Publishers Weekly: "...Affecting..."
                          The rest is just about the story, but at least the one word that's actual review is positive!

And Booklist:
"Now here’s a proper British mystery. The title refers to the two million excess women left unmarried after WWI. Dunn’s heroine, the Honourable Daisy Dalrymple, now wife of Scotland Yard Inspector Alec Fletcher, is friends with one of these women, Willie Chandler, a chum from school who has just moved to Beaconsfield with two other roommates. With Daisy recuperating in the village after a bout of bronchitis, she renews the acquaintance, and she and Alec gladly accept an invitation to Sunday lunch. Though the smell of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding wafts through the kitchen, another, less aromatic smell comes from the basement. Alas, it is the exceedingly dead body of a woman.

"Are Willie et al. the murderers? What about the leasing agent, who had a thing for the home’s former owner? Or the lascivious schoolteacher? Daisy, much to the chagrin of her husband (though he’s getting used to it), is as involved as ever in this twenty-first book of the series. A thoroughly cozy atmosphere combines with a solid mystery.
More Daisy, please."
— Ilene Cooper

And Kirkus just arrived:  "Fans of classic British mysteries and Dunn’s clever heroine will find plenty of local color and red herrings in her latest charmer."


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A chat with a frog

By Bill Kirton 
Richard Dawkins, the eminent but controversial evolutionary biologist, is always being attacked for his ‘militant atheism’ and uncompromising rejection of things ‘supernatural’. A while ago, the accusation was that he’d claimed fairy stories were bad for children. It was a false accusation but I took the chance of using it to write a blog. It went like this:

(There’s a frog sitting on the wall outside my house, right on the corner, near the gate. He spends a lot of time there. I always say ‘Hi’ when I go out and when I come back. He doesn’t often reply and when he does it’s more of a grunt than a greeting. This week, though, he was looking around a bit. I thought he looked sort of anxious, so I stopped for a wee chat.)
‘Morning,’ I said. ‘You seem a bit … different today.’
‘I s’pose I am.’
‘Seen the paper?’
‘Yes, but…’
‘Bloody Richard Dawkins. At it again.’
‘Ah, right. The bit about not telling kids stories about princesses kissing frogs and toads.’
‘Right, he reckons it’s only feeding them more supernatural stuff, like the church does. Clever bloke. But he always sees the destination, not the journey.’
‘What d’you mean?’
‘Well, you’ve seen me here, haven’t you?’
‘How often?’
‘Well. Lots. You’re always here.’
‘And why d’you suppose I do that?’
‘I dunno.’
‘’s obvious, innit. Balmoral’s just up the road.’
(He’s right, I live on the road that leads to Balmoral, but it’s nearly 50 miles away.)
‘So what?’ I said.
‘Well, if I’m going to have any chance of getting kissed by a princess, I’ve got to hang out in the places they go to.’
‘So that’s why you’re here? Waiting to be kissed by a princess?’
‘Any particular one?’
‘No, I’m not fussy. I won’t be hanging around after the kiss.’
‘Why not?’
‘Well, I’ll have changed. I’ll be a prince then. I’ll have money, status, women. Why the hell would I want to sit on the corner of a wall?’
‘Hang on a minute. What are the chances of a) a princess seeing you and stopping? And b) actually giving you a kiss?’
‘That’s exactly what Dawkins said. It’s all statistics. No room for hope.’
‘Have you bought a lottery ticket this week?’
‘Well, yes.’
‘Right, so right now, you’ve got a chance of being rich next Wednesday.’
‘It’s true. And any minute now, some chauffeur-driven limo could pull up here, some woman in a tiara might get out, pick me up and kiss me. Just a peck’ll do. Doesn’t have to be tongues. And I’ll be a prince.’
‘No, listen. Is that theoretically possible?’
‘Is it?’
‘I suppose, theoretically, we …’
‘Right. But the trouble with Dawkins is, he jumps past that. Just focuses on conclusions, results. All statistics do is get rid of the nice bits.’
‘What d’you mean?’
‘OK, listen. There’s four mice living in your cellar…’
‘Are there?’
‘Yes, and every so often they get changed into horses and they get to pull a big carriage to balls and that. And the lizards down the garden, they get to be footmen. And that rat who lives in your garage, he’s a coachman. Brilliant.’
‘Yes, there’s always a “but”. Just think about it. The mice – all of a sudden they’re white horses and they’re big and beautiful, and they gallop away for miles. And the lizards and the rat are clinging on, having a great time. Carefree, all of ’em. Living the dream.’
(He really did have a dreamy look on his face as he described it. Then his expression changed.)
‘But all of a sudden, it’s midnight and they all change back. And they’re standing round by this pumpkin. And they’re bloody miles away. Takes them hours to get home.’
‘I don’t see what…’
‘That’s reality. Nothing wrong with the dreaming and the supernatural. It’s the “happy ever after” bit. That’s the real problem. Dawkins joins up all the dots. He wants everything to connect, make sense, mean something. Well, obviously, that’s crap. Never mind meaning, I just want the bit before the “happy ever after”. If I could…’

(He stopped. I looked at him. He was staring across the road. A Rolls Royce had pulled up. Something was fluttering on its bonnet. It was the royal standard.)