Sunday, July 19, 2015

Manner of Death and Means of Murder

Lone Star Tick Image from

“Death by misadventure,” a phrase describing manner of death catches my ear and stimulates my imagination. “Unintended consequences” does too. Both spring from the concept of “accident” but imply some sort of human intent, though not necessarily “good” intent or “well considered” intent.

The idea of someone meriting a Darwin Award by bumbling into their own death does not make for a good murder mystery, in my opinion. However, if a third party bumbles into someone’s death while that third party is involved in some nefarious activity – now I’m interested. Or if the dead person colluded in the crime. Or some other crime.

If the dead person were an innocent, and the murderer a jealous lover or crooked business partner or a crazed serial killer, the story very well may not be a mystery at all, but a news story. And those stories can and do inspire murder mystery writers.

All murder mystery writers understand that the most dangerous animal in the woods is homo sapiens sapiens – modern humans. Naturally, the fact that most murder mystery readers are modern humans makes them inordinately interested in what their confreres do or have done to them.

As to “means of murder.”

Agatha Christie was particularly fond of poison. Check out the Agatha Christie section of Torre Abbey Gardens in her hometown of Torquey, England. (May have to add Torquey to my Bucket List.) John LesCroart’s The First Law uses guns – up to and including a major shoot-out. (Maybe I should put San Francisco on the Bucket List.) Nevada Barr in Ill Wind takes advantage of a geologic peculiarity. (Definitely should put Mesa Verde on the ole Bucket List. It’s a lot closer to my house.)

My husband’s education and a lot of his professional experience is in the field of Veterinary Medicine. He says “The most dangerous animal in the woods, after man, is the tick.” Just imagine a man with a tick.

What an intriguing thought. Ticks, as described in Wikipedia, will make your blood run cold and reach for the DEET. And that’s just reading about them.

They have eight legs like their arachnid relatives, spiders and mites. They meet all their nutritional needs by sucking blood. They can carry disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. Indeed, they can carry more than one pathogen at the same time making diagnosis and treatment more difficult.

In far southeast Arkansas, where we had a veterinary clinic, my husband provided blood samples from our patients with ehrlichiosis to Dr. Sidney Ewing at Oklahoma State University School of Veterinary Medicine. Ehrlichiosis is caused by members of the genus Ehrlichia, a genus of bacteria named for the German microbiologist Paul Ehrlich. One of those little beasties is Ehrlichia Ewingii, named for OSU's Dr. Ewing. (Rather a perverse honor, I think – having a disease causing agent named for you.)

Ehrlichiosis in dogs and humans has long been successfully treated with Doxycycline but some of our cases were proving to be drug resistant. And untreated or unsuccessfully treated, the disease is lethal.

The important thing in treating any tick-borne disease is beginning treatment immediately which requires early diagnosis or at least awareness that the sufferer has been exposed to a tick so treatment can be started. 

Just think, if the intended victim had not been in the woods – maybe did not even live in an area known to be a tick-bite risk area . . . .

The murderer could acquire the ticks elsewhere. Overnight by UPS then give the little buggers easy access to a blood source to keep them alive – say a mouse the murderer is not particularly fond of. And then access to the victim -- say in the hair behind the ear.

The local medics wouldn’t know to ask about recent tick bites or look for ehrlichia or promptly start proper treatment. Voila – Murder by Tick.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Green Mountain -- a travelogue

My Green Mountain.

That’s how I always refer to it. It’s two miles from our house, but it’s recognizable from almost any place in the Denver area because unlike the rest of the foothills it has a bald, rounded top. So whether I’m at the Museum of Nature and Science down in Denver or the Woodcraft store south of Denver in the town of Centennial, I know which way is home.

This picture was taken May 10, 2015, Mother’s Day. That was our last snow of the 2014-15 winter season. In this picture, weather is coming out of the mountains, obscuring the taller foothills behind Green Mountain and the Front Range 14ers behind them.

We moved to Denver almost four years ago from Edmond, Oklahoma. I had never been interested in exercise or hiking. In Oklahoma if you can't get there in a car, why go? The weather there is not conducive to outdoor activities in the summer -- too hot. Or the winter -- too cold. And there are few sidewalks or walking or biking trails in or near urban areas. They're changing though.

In Lakewood, which is our town, there are bike lanes and sidewalks and trails in the parks and open spaces. Green Mountain is in William F. Hayden Park.

Denver is located at altitude 5,280 feet. Our house is at 5,700 feet and Green Mountain’s summit is at 6,854 feet.

I’ve hiked to Green Mountain's summit and I’ve walked its shoulders in every season. It’s always beautiful – sometimes white with snow, sometimes brown and brittle. This spring and summer it fits its name, green.

           This is my favorite starting point the Utah                   This is my daughter Grace 
           Street Trail Head. No motorized vehicles                     heading west up the trail. In 
           are allowed on the trails, but bicycles are                     that direction, as you can see,           welcome as are horses and hikers.                                the sky was a brilliant blue.                    

But looking northeast, out across the prairie that day, the haze almost completely obscured Denver.

Weather here is peculiarly local. Looking more to the east, back toward our neighborhood, you can almost see where the haze begins.

          A month after the last snow of the season, wildflowers are peaking on Green Mountain.
                                        Canadian Thistle                                Mariposa Lily  

                                  Orange Paint Brush                               Plains Larkspur

                                         Prickly Poppy                                  Saffron Ragwort

Yucca, also called Spanish Bayonet
After an hour on the mountain, I'm ready to head home and get ready for my exercise class. Not only do we have beautiful places to hike, but Lakewood has five rec centers with excellent facilities and staffs. 

           It's good to top the last ridge and be back where we began, Utah Street Trail Head.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Gone Girl -- A Book Review

This blog post was written July 8 in the foothills of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. It should have been hot and dry. It was not. The temperature was 60 degrees and it rained. Not typical Denver-heavy-mist rain, but legitimate drops that made pattering noises on the roof and splashed into the birds’ water bowl.

I should have been working. Novel number two was sitting in my head and languishing on a memory card, waiting for me. There was a piece of short fiction parked on my laptop wanting finishing. I’d committed to writing at least one tweet a day.

And, if that weren’t enough, there was laundry to be done. Instead of doing any of that, I read.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, published June 2012. Wikipedia says it is a “thriller” and “an example of the literary subgenre called Domestic Noir.” A term that was first applied to fiction in 2013 by Julia Crouch, an author described as “the queen of domestic noir.” She defines it as “a broadly feminist view that the domestic sphere is a challenging and sometimes dangerous prospect for its inhabitants.”

The same view of hearth and home held by many street cops, male and female. Retired New York City policeman, Steve Osborne, in his nonfiction TheJob: True Tales from the Life of a New York City Cop, recounts one of many domestic violence cases he's worked. “The wife explained that she was having a heated argument with her beloved, and sisters being sisters – especially in the heat of battle – they stuck together. And when the second woman butted in, the husband went ape shit. . . . he grabbed a large kitchen knife from the sink and carved the two of them up.”

I know I’ve said before that thrillers are not my cup of Earl Grey. And they’re not. Nor do I pay any attention to the New York Times Best Sellers list. But I do take recommendations from friends and family seriously and my daughter said Gone Girl would be interesting to me because of its construction. She was right.

It begins with a husband coming home to discover his wife missing. The story then unfolds alternately, through his viewpoint and the wife’s diary entries. Is she alive? Or dead? Did he do it? If she is alive, how long will she survive?

The plot is exquisitely crafted leaving the reader not knowing what or whom to believe. Twists and turns hardly describe the hairpin curves and backtracks we’re led through. The fear factor, rather than proceeding up and down like a roller coaster, drops us from one frightening crest only a little way down before jerking us to the next greater height. Again and again. Never letting us relax.

I won’t tell you how it ends, but I will say it’ll make you grateful for your own problems.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Cover Letter

“He’s a nice man,” my husband said.

I know, I thought. I can’t do that. He’s a busy man. Not to mention that I’m more than a little star-struck by him.

“Go ahead. Send him your book. He might like it.”

How cool would that be?!

My chest felt a sudden crushing sensation. You know, like right at the top of the first peak on the roller coaster. The last few seconds before liftoff. That feeling that something awful might happen.

“Write a cover letter and send it to him,” he said.

A cover letter. Of course. I was not at the brink yet. I would compose the perfect cover letter and mail Murder on Ceres to Neil deGrasse Tyson. He’s an astrophysicist. He can see that humanity’s future lies off-Earth. He knows we’ll still be humans and, with or without flying cars, he knows that the future will be normal for those humans who inhabit it. It will be different from today, but it will be just as normal to them as yesterday’s future is normal to us. He’ll get what I tried to do in my
sci-fi/murder mystery.

It could take days. That cover letter. Weeks, maybe.

I began the next day. “Dear Dr. Tyson.” The honorific Dr. is used only for medical doctors except in the South? I’ve been told. And how many times have I been told that all things Southern are somehow less-than? I think of my poetry teacher in college – Dr. Norman Russell, who was a botanist of the first order. A well-respected scientist AND poet who was originally from West Virginia and I’m originally from Oklahoma. Both states are definitely south of New York where Dr. Tyson is from. But Mr. wasn’t right for Dr. Russell and it didn’t feel right for Neil deGrasse Tyson so I kept the honorific.

I then proceeded to write what amounted to little more than a fan letter, telling Dr. Tyson how much I admire him and his work. That I never took issue with his stance on Pluto. That his Cosmos was great and that I was much relieved to hear him say such nice things about Carl Sagan. That I was impressed that he wrote essays for Natural History magazine home of another of my heroes Stephen Jay Gould. That he has a wonderful sense of humor like so many scientists do – Stephen Hawking being an excellent example.

I did show admirable restraint and didn’t mention that I think he’s hot.

I hardly mentioned my book at all.

My editor (who happens to be my daughter) and her friend kindly read my letter and suggested changes.

The letter morphed into a sensible communication that explains a little about Murder on Ceres and why he might enjoy reading it.

Murder on Ceres is an old-fashioned murder mystery set in the future. The story
itself follows intelligent, by-the-book Police Detective Rafael Sirocco, as he tries
to balance the demands of his job and his responsibilities to his family. Through a whirlwind of illicit drugs, space pirates, and secret identities, Rafe chases the truth
all 270,000,000 kilometers from the shining cylinder of Ceres Colony to the alien landscapes of Earth.
And a more reasoned description of my admiration for him.
I appreciate your treating science as “normal” and humanity’s future in Space
as inevitable. I am a great admirer of your work. I think you share my lifelong
passion for space travel and a faith in our future as a species. I hope you enjoy
Murder on Ceres.
Very truly yours,

I signed the letter, ate two left-over muffins, had another cup of coffee, headed to the post office.
I was going to lunch with a friend so I had on make-up and was wearing a dress. Did I mention that I was trembling as I handed THE ENVELOPE to the young woman behind the counter in the post office?
“Have a nice day,” she said.
“You have a nice day, too,” I said.
Then she said, “You look very pretty today. That’s a good color for you.”
Oh, my. Do you think that’s a good omen? Can I be forgiven a small slip of superstition?
I was over the first peak on the roller coaster. Free-falling. Murder on Ceres and its cover letter were away. Flying. That crushing feeling was replaced by exhilaration and I left the post office with one of those nonsensical grins that you just can’t contain.

I did it!