Sorting Out the Dead

For the last week or so I've been deep into, tracing the ancestors on my mother's side all the way back to the Great Migration, when the Puritans came over and subdued the howling wilderness of Massachusetts. (I can always tell myself that I'll write a book about those times; if I do that I can put the cost of an international membership on my Schedule C and get a tax write-off.) I enjoyed it greatly, finding out things about ancestors I never knew existed. The way to do this is to find out who your distant ancestors were by accessing official records of birth, marriage, death, censuses and the like, and then go off into the rest of the internet and look up other things about them and their times that might be available.

There's lots of stuff online about the early settlers of Massachusetts. They had a really hard time, and those who found a way to survive are to be commended. All these women had eight or ten children, if they didn't die having the first one, and then they had to find food for them, put clothes on them, and keep a roof over their little heads while they grew big and strong enough to become useful farm workers. I was all set to write a piece about immigrants as a result of these researches, drawing parallels between that crowd, the crowds who came later, and the crowds arriving now. Their struggles are surely comparable. But while I was off playing with my mother's ancestors someone or something got into my tree and messed up my father's side of the family.

The trouble arose mostly because my great grandfather Gallison married two women named Phoebe, Phoebe Mills and Phoebe Howland. The census takers, both Canadian and American, made no distinctions as to maiden names. I know I got their children all sorted out a month or so ago, but somehow it's all messed up again. I mean, seriously. Phoebe Mills had five children before she was nine years old, and then two posthumously? I don't think so. Now instead of writing a nice think piece about all of our hard-working forbears I have to go sort out the Gallisons. Yes. Urgently. Because I'm too worked up about it to think, first of all, and secondly because I have to fix this or I won't sleep tonight. Phoebe Mills died giving birth to Uncle Israel! Everybody knows that! Grrr.

I don't understand how anybody could even get into my tree and change it. I'm going to have to speak to the people at

Grumpily yours,

Kate Gallison

Bouchercon Week Re-post:Buenos Aires Through Their Eyes

By the time you read this, I will be in the car on my way to Albany for Bouchercon 2013.  Given the activities of the week, I am giving myself a break and re-posting my "researcher's notebook" from January 2012 when I went to Buenos Aires to research Blood Tango

Annamaria Alfieri

I am working on my third historical mystery — one that takes place in Buenos Aires. I came on this trip to get the feel of the city that is the backdrop for my story. After spending the past year reading deeply into the history of Argentina and especially of the Peróns and their times, I want to experience first hand the places I have been writing about. I have been here before, but not with such a story in mind.

On Day One of this research excursion, we took a tour of the Casa Rosada — the seat of the Argentine government. The palace is magnificent. It is pink because President Domingo Sarmiento (1811-1888) proposed they combine the Federalist red with the Unitarist white — to appease whichever of the violently opposing factions took precedence at any given moment during in the country's tumultuous 19th century history. The interior rooms are grand in the ornate style of that era.

My story does not go back that far; it takes place during October of 1945, a period when the Casa Rosada and the stately Plaza de Mayo in front of it were the focus of street demonstrations and popular uprisings. Chaos that ended on October 17th when Perón stepped out on the balcony of the Casa Rosada to address an estimated 300,000 low-level workers who had rallied to support him.

Perón called those men his descamisados — shirtless ones. In that era, men in Buenos Aires were required to wear jackets in public. They could not enter a restaurant or a movie theater without "proper attire." So the poorest laborers were not really shirtless, but jacketless. They did the dirtiest jobs in the country.

As elsewhere in the New World, the skilled laborers were European immigrants — mostly from Italy and Spain —Basques, largely — and some Irish and Germans who poured into the country during the tsunami of migration at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. They built buildings, made shoes, played music, all manner of work that required training. Argentina was rich then, off cattle, which were shipped live to England and the Continent. Once refrigeration was perfected, the meat was butchered in Buenos Aires and then shipped, rather than sending it on the hoof.

During the Great Depression, thousands of Indians and mestizos from the vast plains of the Pampas came to Buenos Aires looking for work just in time to man the slaughterhouses and the meat packing plants then springing up. These were Perón's descamisados. To secure them as his power base, from his position as Minister of Labor, he had raised their wages and gotten them health insurance and paid vacations. During the week before October 17th, his superior officers in the military government had forced him to resign. Now the descamisados wanted him back.

On that fateful day, they flooded into the center of the city from their villas miserias, slum towns, down across the Riachuelo to the south of the capital. They had never seen the city of Buenos Aires before. The "Paris of the South" must have seemed like a fairyland to them. They massed in the Plaza de Mayo and demanded their man.

I have walked some of the streets the men from the desolate interior walked on that day and tried to see through their eyes, buildings, wonderful even to me, who has seen the real Paris, Rome, Venice. Awestruck would be the word to describe it. To get the same feeling I have to imagine what it would be like to look at the earth from the moon.

Annamaria Alfieri

In the Land of Domestic Disquiet (Literary, not Personal)

So this summer I’ve read The Silent Wife and The Husband’s Secret. I just downloaded something called What Kind of Mother Are You? No, I still haven’t read Gone Girl, but clearly other people aren’t holding back.

I think I understand the pull of this. For some years in the 1980s I did weekly duty as a volunteer counselor on a domestic violence hotline. I talked to all kinds of women and the refrain I heard most often was: “My friends and family wouldn’t believe this. They think I have a great life.” Every marriage (or intimate relationship) has a mystery all its own.

Of course, it’s ever so much more fun to read about dis-ease than it is to experience it yourself. So when I got my hands on a copy of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense, edited by Sarah Weinman, I knew I was in for a good time. These stories are all written by women. As my mother once said after watching a male soap opera character flashback in tortured fashion on an argument he had with his wife, “Oh, men don’t agonize about personal stuff like that.”

This collection makes me happy that women do.

Though I’ve read and enjoyed every type of mystery and have made a point of reading dead writers, there were some authors here I’d not heard of: Nedra Tyre, Barbara Callahan and Helen Nielson. The whole collection is wonderful (I would have added Margaret Yorke) but I had three favorites: “Lost Generation,” by Dorothy Salisbury Davis (she’s the collection’s only author still living), “The People Across the Canyon” by Margaret Millar and Celia Fremlin’s “A Case of Maximum Need.”

I always have a very difficult time writing about mystery plots, especially short stories, as I don’t want to give too much away. The Salisbury-Davis story is one of a community’s retribution and Millar’s flirts with the mingling together of fantasy and reality and the dangers of getting what you wish for.

The Fremlin story is simply hilarious and features a young social worker who wishes her 87 year old client could just be an old lady grateful for the help she’s been offered. When she tells her client, Mrs. Fosdyke, that she hopes she feels better, the old lady replies, “Better? Don’t be silly dear, I’ll be feeling worse. I’ll go on feeling worse until I’m dead. Everyone does at my age. Don’t they teach anything but lies at that training place of yours?”

What puzzles the social worker the most is Mrs. Fosdyke’s assertion that giving her a telephone would be dangerous. She just doesn’t understand; the reader soon does.

So let James Bond travel the world. Let Robert Langdon uncover international conspiracies. Women know that evil can sit down with you at a cozy, sun-dappled kitchen table.

Stephanie Patterson

Recovering a Family Treasure

In her old house on St. Croix Street in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, my beloved grandmother Hill had a locked closet. Inside were her treasures, things that she knew other people would steal the minute they had a chance; her diamonds; her gold beads; her copy of THE ANNALS.

When Granny became too old to live by herself my mother, her only child, helped her pack up and deal with her possessions and move to Mrs. Lister's boarding house, sometime in the nineteen-fifties. I was too young to be involved in this, but as it turned out I was the only one who knew the true value of a lot of the stuff in that house, or at least its value to my grandmother and the family generally. The kitchen table, for example, was made from a solid piece of golden oak pulled out of an old French well at a military camp in Canada where Grandaddy was stationed. To my mother it was just a table. Granny had never told her the story. So it's gone.

(Don't even get me started on the collection of comic books I had carefully amassed over many summers. That was in my closet in Granny's house, along with the red silk kimono with the gold dragon embroidered on the back and Aunt Ethel's lavender chiffon tea gown.)

I suppose the jewelry was duly gathered up, but the closet of sacred things was left open long enough for whoever was creeping around in search of it to snag THE ANNALS. (It strikes me that this was possibly my great-aunt Mary.) In any case Granny's copy of THE ANNALS was gone for good, never to be seen again.

The annals of what, you ask? Why, The Annals of Calais, Maine, and St. Stephen, New Brunswick, by the Reverend Isaac Case Knowlton, Calais, Maine, 1875.

This book was a trove of genealogical information as well as a—what can I call it?—a sort of class totem, whose mere physical possession admitted one into the upper echelons of St. Stephen society. Without THE ANNALS the young people might forget how the Hills, along with the Markses, the McAllisters, and the others, had settled St. Stephen and turned the wild forest into a place of grace and beauty. The print run was limited, and only the best families had a copy. Not that it was read every night at the dinner table, like the family Bible, but that it was written out in official print for everyone to see. We were the superior people. All the rest of you were ordinary. Knowing this fostered good table manners and gracious behavior.

Now all the Hills have died or left St. Stephen. The young people have forgotten them, even the descendants of the founders themselves. No one has good table manners anymore. No one behaves graciously, least of all me. But people on both sides of the border are interested in genealogy again, as am I. As a result, I was able yesterday to find two digital copies of THE ANNALS online, one put up by Google Books and the other on a Canadian genealogical site.

Paradise. Even better, the University of Toronto is offering a paperback copy at a reasonable price. I'm going to buy it and put it in the plastic tub where I keep the family tree material for future generations. Perhaps it will induce them to get their elbows off the table and stop eating with their fingers. But first I'm going to read it. What style. Here's Knowlton's description of how the dread Passamaquoddy winter came down on the unsuspecting heads of the French settlers on Dochet's Island:

"Fierce winds arose and wrenched the faded leaves from the frightened trees. The air grew sharp and cutting. The birds vanished, fled to their southern homes. The snow sifted down from its exhaustless storehouse, and wrapped the dead and frozen earth in its white shroud. Great blocks of ice were piled on the shore, or hurried by in the black angry water."

Ah. Fine writing.

Kate Gallison

The MWA New York Chapter Mentor Program

Here is one of the great benefits of membership in the Mystery Writers of America, New York Chapter.  If you live in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, or West Virginia and are a member of MWA you can get help and support from one of our published authors.  Follow the advice below.  If you are not a member, you may want to consider joining--for lots of reasons, but his one benefit has motivated a number of our members to join.  I have never heard from anyone who regretted it.

Annamaria Alfieri

The 2013-2014 MWA-NY Mentor Program committee invites members of the New York Chapter of MWA, unpublished and published, to submit their work for critique by an active member of the chapter.

For a new low fee of twenty dollars, you may submit the first fifty pages of a completed novel, the first fifty pages of a novel in progress, the first fifty pages of a screenplay or TV script, or one or two short stories totaling fifty pages or less. A slightly shorter or longer submission is fine if a scene or chapter ends a few pages before or after the fifty page limit. A synopsis of 500 words or less (needed to help us match you to a mentor) is required for novels. The synopsis should describe the whole plot for completed novels and what you know of the plot so far for works in progress. If you are submitting short stories, include a paragraph describing each. Only crime-related submissions will be accepted.

As in past years, completed novels submitted will be ranked by the mentors as to publication readiness and the committee will select up to two of the highest ranked to be read by established literary agent.

Please read and follow the submission requirements very carefully or your submission will be rejected.

  1. All submissions MUST BE electronic submissions. DO NOT SNAIL MAIL.

  1. Only WORD documents in .doc format will be accepted (no docx or pdf or anything else). 

  1. The deadline for submissions is November 1, 2013.

  1. The fifty pages of the manuscript/short story/screenplay/script and the synopsis/paragraph must be double-spaced with one-inch margins all around. Use either a Times New Roman or 12-point Courier font. Include your name, the title and the page number at the top of each page.

  1. Package the fifty pages followed by the synopsis/paragraph in the same single WORD file with your last name as the file name. Example, Maiorisi.doc.

  1. Attach the Word document to an e-mail addressed to Include in the body of the e-mail: your full name, phone number, and e-mail address, another copy of your synopsis and an indication of your subgenre. (Choose from the following – cozy, traditional, hardboiled, thriller, suspense, romantic suspense, noir, police procedural – and use more than one to characterize your work if necessary).  Short stories, screenplays and scripts do not require a subgenre.

  1. Send, by snail mail postmarked no later than November 1, 2013, the enclosed application/release form with both parts completed and a check for $25 payable to MWA-NY.  DO NOT SEND YOUR MANUSCRIPT.
                If you want to join in say so here.  I will get the mail in information to you.

Critiques will be e-mailed to you in mid-February. The 2013-14 Mentor Program will close with a panel discussion in February. 2014. Topic and location will be announced later.

One final note. The active members of the chapter who serve as mentors do so without payment. Their only commitment is to critique the work in writing. This program does not involve face-to-face discussion or an ongoing relationship between mentor and mentee, unless initiated by the mentor.

Refer to the chapter website for additional information about the program and e-mail or if you still have questions. The e-mail subject should be Mentor Program.

The Mentor Program Committee looks forward to receiving your submission.

  Deborah Pines, Chair
  Catherine Maiorisi
  Ken Isaacson
  Persia Walker
  Shizuka Otake
  Kate Lincoln

New York Chapter


PHONE NUMBER:_____________________________________________


E-MAIL ADDRESS:_____________________________________________

MWA MEMBERSHIP NUMBER:___________________________________

TYPE OF MEMBER (circle one):    ACTIVE           AFFILIATE         ASSOCIATE


TITLE OF MANUSCRIPT:________________________________________

SUBGENRE: __________________________________________________________


I acknowledge that I have requested a mentor from the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America to review my manuscript entitled____________________________________________
and provide editorial and publishing advice regarding the manuscript. In connection therewith, I hereby release Mystery Writers of America, its employees, agents, and representatives, and the reviewer from all claims, suits, and damages related to or arising from this review and the advice provided, including but not limited to any claim of copyright infringement or use of intellectual property.

            SIGNATURE OF AUTHOR:__________________________________________

            PRINT NAME OF AUTHOR:________________________________________



Dodging the Bad Guys in Arabia (Or, Setting the Setting)

A Tale of Life and Death in Yemen . . .

Today I am delighted to welcome a longtime colleague, a veteran member of The Author's Guild, member of Mystery Writers of America and the Romance Writers of America. In addition to using her considerable acumen in the world of finance, the life-or-death problems her characters endure in her suspense novels come straight from this author's own life-threatening experiences in her world travel. She is also a master in the field of short fiction. CRY FROM THE EMPTY QUARTER, a pre-published thrilling novel set in Yemen, showcases the real dangers American travelers face in many spots featured in today's TV news and the international newspapers. Please welcome Barbara Bent to Crime Writer's Chronicle!

Thelma Jacqueline Straw

My international intrigue novel, CRY FROM THE EMPTY QUARTER, is based on a real trip to Yemen—always fraught with danger—which I took several years ago.

As my friends know, I’ve done a lot of traveling with a particular emphasis on the Middle East and North Africa—Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco. My forays into these exotic countries always leave an impression on my imagination that surfaces in my suspense novels.

As part of a Canadian tour group of about sixteen experienced travelers, I explored Yemen in a caravan of Toyota Land Cruisers, each with its own armed driver. From day one, we were told to stay together—never be separated from the rest of the group, because, at that time, warring tribes would kidnap tourists to negotiate with the government. Men were more at risk than women. So even in the midst of chaotic outdoor markets we were always all aware of the location of the rest of the group.

The mandate to stay together was constantly emphasized. In fact, on day two as our caravan wove through a narrow road between two cliffs, I could see men on the top signaling with mirrors to those on the other side. Our local guide in the lead car leaned out of the passenger window from the waist up, and motioned urgently for the rest of the cars to keep up.

In Sa’da, Yemen’s northernmost province, we toured the ruins, had lunch and were just emerging from a gift shop in the center of town, when a gunfight erupted on the street. We quickly sought cover back in the shop.

The situation in Sa’da and its environs on the border of Saudi Arabia was thought to be so dangerous, that we were stopped at an Army road block just outside of town. Our local guide negotiated with a high ranking official for at least an hour, as to whether we could return to our hotel in Sana. Stuck in the sweltering cars alongside a ditch, a young soldier gazed in at us every fifteen minutes or so. When he looked my way, I didn’t know whether to smile or look scared, since his camouflage uniform resembled the skin of a giraffe.

Finally, we got permission to return to Sana, but only if we were accompanied by soldiers driving a flatbed truck with a 50 millimeter howitzer aimed over and around our cars.

Trips into the desert, The Empty Quarter, an expanse of sand almost as large as Texas, required the services of a Bedouin guide who, in his own vehicle would ride ahead to “interpret the sand” and plot a safe course for us.

The morning of our trip, our cars were loaded with provisions—hard boiled eggs, water, pita, a couple of watermelons—before dawn. As the sun rose, we pulled into a gas station and a lanky, white-robed Bedouin, with a mop of dark curly hair and a gap in his front teeth, stepped out of his car sporting a rifle slung over one shoulder.

“Ah, the Bedouino,” our driver said, using the term his last group of Italians had used. The Bedouino surveyed us with a wolfish glare, climbed back into his car and motioned to us to follow with his loose white sleeve blowing in the wind.

Soon after we entered the desert, the Bedouino tore off like a bat out of hell. In the distance I saw a truck and heard numerous gun shots. I was ready to hit the floor of the car. Surely there were enemies ahead. But no. He had missed the qat truck, full of green leaves that the natives chew for a narcotic effect. He was signaling the driver to return so he could buy his daily supply.

With a cheek full of the qat, he sped off again. In an effort to keep up, we jounced and bounced and careened through the sand. It was hot, gritty and flat.

Bathroom breaks were no problem for the men, who simply turned their backs to the crowd, but the women stood in a circle to hide one of their own.

Around noon we came to a Bedouin camp that was set up for modern caravans crossing the desert. They had cold sodas and a large, colorful, open sided tent with long rectangular pillows around the perimeter. The tent was positioned so that the desert breeze cooled the air. It was delightful, despite the fact we were totally exposed to drones or roving bands.

The Bedouino disappeared to “relax” with his girlfriend at the camp while we ate, enjoyed the time out of the bouncing vehicles, bought jewelry and knick knacks from the Bedouin women until it was time to go.

Of course, we got stuck in the sand and while two of the drivers tried to dig out the car, our driver put a tape cassette in the car tape player and to the Arabic strains of a song that sounded like Alvin and the Chipmunks do Arabia, they danced in the sand. A kind of Arabic do si do.

We approached Sana as the light was growing dim. It was a race to reach the safety of the city before dark, and the government had shut the cell phone towers down in order to gain control over some problem or another. So our communication was cut off.

In my novel, CRY FROM THE EMPTY QUARTER, my protagonist, Omar, an Arab American, becomes obsessed with going to Yemen to donate money for a school. He and his wife Sara, also an Arab American, become estranged over this decision, because she feels getting involved with the people in a country as unstable as Yemen, is not something you dabble in.

When he lands in Sana, his allies turn into enemies and he is used as a pawn by his uncle, Mustafa, whose son has killed a boy from another tribe. Omar, unaware of the feud between his father and his uncle, is caught in a trap where he will be handed over to the other tribe in an eye for an eye exchange. In many cases, this exchange is forgotten for a large sum of money.

Omar is forced to call Sara to bring the ransom money and he asks her to bring his friend Ali, whose family is from the same area of Yemen, to accompany her on her rescue mission. Not only is she is angry at Omar’s naiveté, but also, she dislikes Ali. And, it turns out Ali’s family is involved in this tribal feud as well.

When Sara and Ali get there they are instructed to deliver the money, in cash, to destinations that are constantly changing. In the meantime, Omar and his kidnappers are traveling to locations dictated by Mustafa and his minions. Every journey involves a road block, cell phone outage, missed messages, off road travel, bad food, distrust, fist and gun fights and culture clashes.

This harrowing and, at times, terrifying trip made such an impression on me, that it gave me the impetus to use the setting as a major character in my novel.

Because you know, folks, I couldn’t make this stuff up!

Barbara Bent

Must Murder Advertise?

You may have noticed, dear reader, that the Crime Writers’ Chronicle has started running ads.

We decided to do this after conferring together, and with a certain amount of trepidation. If we hate it, if any of us hate it, or if any of you hate it, we’ll stop running the ads.

I have to confess that it was my idea. I was working at the polls during the recent primary election to replace Lautenberg in the senate. I actually had a dog in that fight, the divine Rush Holt, the smartest man in congress. To take my mind off the prospect of my man losing to Cory Booker, a swell fellow but no Rush Holt, I began to complain to the other poll workers about what a lot of work I do on the blog and how it doesn’t pay anything. (Actually I don’t do that much work, and if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t do it, but some sort of monetary compensation would be lovely.)

“Why don’t you run ads?” one of the women said.

So I looked into this issue, and proposed it to the gang, not really believing that we would make much but thinking, hey, maybe it’ll be enough to buy us all drinks in a couple of months. Some said, as long as the ads aren’t offensive. Some said, anything but wrinkle cream. Some said, go for it. How high-class do we really think we are?

Google AdSense offered us all kinds of control over the content of ads, but not, as it happens, the delicate precision that I would like. I would like to be able to put the kibosh on, among other things,

  • Anything mentioning a “weird trick”
  • Anything promising to enrage doctors
  • Anything with pictures of bloated lips, huge eyelashes, or rolls of belly fat.

The ads have been running for a week or so now, at the bottom of the latest post. What you see depends on a complicated algorithm involving the content of the blog that day, the cookies on your computer, the personal information that Google has on you (over sixty? Try this wrinkle cream) and who’s offering to show you an ad. Most of the ads we’ve seen are for books, self-publishing help, and things like singing lessons (!) and driving lessons. When I viewed the blog the other day only to see a grotesque image of some woman’s eyelashes I leapt to the AdSense dashboard and interdicted ads for beauty products or health aids. So there. Take that. We won’t be seeing those anymore.

Now that the ads are inoffensive (I think), are they making us any money? More to the point, from your vantage, will AdSense do anything for your blog? The jury is still out on that one. They don’t pay off, for instance, until the total hits a hundred bucks. The stats on our dashboard claim that out of 584 hits the ads have had 5 clicks, which might mean that we earned $3.93, except that it’s really only $1.84 since at least some of the clicks were performed by the Crime Writers themselves, or so Google claims. They have this rule that we aren’t allowed to click on our own ads. Who knew.

At that rate, say, $1.84 a week, it will be 2015 before we can run out and buy that bottle of Champagne and the jar of caviar. In fact Google might just yank our AdSense account altogether after they read this post. I don’t care. I’m sick of censoring myself for fear of angering the powerful. Life is too short. Bleah, Google. Bleah.

Kate Gallison

The Death of a Cannibal King

This month’s PUNchline entry:

Ichoo, the fiercest cannibal king in the jungle, was feared by all explorers who went to Faway Island.  As luck would have it, the only landing spot they could use to gain access to the remote atoll was in front of Ichoo’s thatched hut.

Many potential explorers unfortunately ended up in the king’s stewpot.  To avoid that fate, the intrepid anthropologist Dr. Niles Source decided to befriend the king by bringing him gifts.  Soon, the cannibal had so many possessions that he had to add a second story to his dwelling.  With each of Dr. Source’s visits, the greedy king warned him that on his next landing he must bring a more impressive offering.

On one trip Dr. Source arrived with an elaborate Victorian chair which he declared to be a throne fit for Ichoo.  The king was delighted. On fine days, he would have his lackeys carry the chair outside so he could sit resplendent in front of his hut.  As Source was leaving two weeks later, the king demanded another, even bigger chair on the explorer’s return.

And so it went, with each visit: a chair of carved mahogany, then one with red velvet upholstery, then another brocaded with the royal arms of England, and on and on.  Soon the ground floor of Ichoo’s hut was filled with some of history’s most elaborate chairs.  Finally, Dr. Source arrived with the pièce de résistance.  The back of the chair was taller than Ichoo, taller even than Niles Source; the seat was upholstered with royal purple silk, and the all of the beautifully carved wood was covered  with 18 carat gold leaf.  It shone in the sun like a throne for an all-powerful god.

Ichoo declared that he would never sit in any other chair.  His fellow tribesmen began lining up, hoping to take away the rest of his now distained collection.  But the king did not want anyone but himself to have such luxurious possessions.  He instructed his lackeys to put the rejected chairs on the second floor of his hut.

That night Ichoo’s hut collapsed from all the weight of his possessions, killing the greedy king.

The moral of the story is….

Annamaria Alfieri

The Night I Almost Shot the Sheriff…


It was a dark, quiet night in Sewanee, Tennessee. No moon or stars. A narrow paved road, dark silent woods on one side, horse pasture on the other. The road to the school's main building and the dormitory for teenage female students. No street lights. My cottage sat a few yards off the pavement, beside the pasture on one side, near a narrow dirt road that led beyond the barn down a winding mountainside to an unknown number of active stills, operated by local moonshiners, studiously ignored by local law enforcement. I'd been warned by our school handymen to turn a deaf ear to the nocturnal trips on the dirt road. "If you don't bother them, they ain't gonna bother you."

The moonshiners were related to the handymen, to all the other daily workers in the small academic town and their relatives who lived in the nearby "hollers", putting bread on the table by selling their "white lightning," or crawling to early deaths on their bellies in the coal mines a few miles away.

Subbing as the school night watchman, I kept my rifle by my bed. About 2 A.M. I heard the sound of a car coming up the road. I jumped out of bed, threw on a dark raincoat and grabbed the rifle.

I could see the outline of a car. No lights, crawling up the road, just enough noise to be scary. Bootleggers usually came by in rusty trucks with grumbling motors. This was the soft purr of a well-maintained motor, coming closer, ominously.

I'd formed a nightly ritual of lifting my gun to the sky, shooting off a few rounds—this seemed to work in keeping interlopers away. The sound of gunshots reverberated through the maze of mountains—it sounded like a whole battalion, with the echoes, not one lone rifle. The shots echoed in the hills. Then I raised the rifle and pointed just above the top of the car. One, two, three shots.

Suddenly, to my horror, a familiar round-shaped red light appeared on the roof of the vehicle.

Ohgodpleasehelpme, I prayed.

I'd almost shot the local sheriff!!!

There are no rules or scripts for such a moment.

Terrified, I lowered the gun and slowly walked to meet the car as it stopped in front of my house. A tall man in uniform, complete with stiff hat and shiny badge stepped out.

"Good evening, Sheriff, I'm so pleased to see you!" I stammered, as if we were at a cocktail party!

I was stiff with fright, aware I had no papers - nothing to show legal ownership of a gun!


Since all the local candidates for the job as night watchman for a girls' school were kin to one another, we'd had no luck in retaining men for that job. Every qualified male was related either to someone who moonlighted as a moonshiner, or their cousins. Families stuck together. No one was going to squeal on or report a bootlegger—or intruder at the dormitory. With the centuries-old customs regarding local "Town and Gown" the dividing lines were deep and strong.

So I decided to try my hand as night watchman. I asked Fred, our chief maintenance man, to get me a rifle. I'd never even HELD a gun—and I figured a rifle would be safer to handle than a small weapon. This was mountain territory where every man hunted. He showed me how to hold, point, load and shoot. I practiced by aiming at the far hills behind the barn and soon felt comfortable in holding the thing. I kept it on the passenger seat of my car when I drove into town at night. The word got around like wildfire—beware that lady at the girls' school with the gun! I felt safe on those lonely dark mountain roads. The moonshiners slowed down their nocturnal trips to their hidden, illegal stills.

After that night, the Sheriff and I remained friendly. He respected the unspoken rules of "Town and Gown." The academics versus the native townspeople. He was Town. I was Gown...

Soon after, a qualified man stepped up to the plate and I had no further need to shoot at the hills in the night.

The establishment of the ruling class in the small university town (often called the Princeton of the South) went on its law-abiding way, keeping a friendly surface peace alongside the illegal moonshine business, that continued to thrive...

I moved on with my life and relocated to Manhattan.


Today if this incident with the Sheriff happened, I'd probably be writing this from a narrow grey cell, sans window, dependent on the state for three squares and a hard cot.

That night in Tennessee took place in real time—but on a different planet!

I have become a spinner of tales around crime. Murder is often our beat. We research crime, we attend trials, we take courses in criminal methodology. Visit jails and psychiatric institutions, study millions of people on subways, planes, streets, in bars and parks.

But after these last years of abominations involving guns, most of us who walk these mean streets take a hard look at how we express violence through guns.

The death of the Martin child in Sanford, Florida, was a recent wake-up call. The increased maiming by guns in Colorado, Arizona and Connecticut have focused us on a deeper examination of the tools we use in our stories.

Our readers see the reality and horror daily on screens. No longer is the written word closed off from real life.

I find my experience that night—knowing I'd almost shot a law enforcement officer—haunts me constantly.

I shrink from writing about a gun as a killing weapon.

My brain sees the experience as both a form of self-preservation and atonement.

Would I shoot at a person again?


We all recall Mary Higgins Clark's famous challenge… "What IF"

That episode in Tennessee will haunt me as long as I live… the " What IF?"

As I think of the various possible endings to my true story—my own crime writing increasingly has a firm center:

"Justice will be served."

T.J. Straw

La Divina

In recent weeks Kate and Thelma have mentioned listening to opera and it has reminded me of my introduction to what some consider to be the world’s most overwrought art form. Most of my opera going has been done at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia where I have hung out in the amphitheater because the seats are cheap and the sound sublime. My happiest moment was sitting amidst the angel choir at a production of Boito’s Mefistofele. It was glorious. The “top of the house” only disappointed me once. I went to a performance of Tosca and I could almost see behind the set. Tosca seemed not so much to throw herself from a great height as to hop over a low fence.

My interest in opera started when one of my college professors decided I was worthy of an introduction to great singing. He would play recording after recording of the same aria. “Who is this?” he would ask. “And this? And this?” I fear my sophistication as a listener always fell short of his expectations. I almost never answered correctly but when not in quiz mode I found I loved the over the top music and plots. I wasn’t sure I ever expected to see an opera because performances were so expensive.

But in 1973 I got a chance to see the soprano whose voice I always recognized: Maria Callas. She was appearing in recital with Giuseppe De Stefano at the D.A.R.’s Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. The concert was going to cost a whopping $15.00 and I didn’t think my parents would give me the money but two of my professors told them it would be a once in a lifetime experience for me so the money was mine.

I felt a little on edge on the day of the concert because La Divina had cancelled in Philadelphia the night before. Temperamental opera stars were tolerated much more then than now. Jokes were made about no show divas (“Madame Callas is available for a limited number of cancellations this season.”). I put thoughts of not seeing Callas aside and reminded myself that I would finally get to see Constitution Hall, a concert hall most famous for the performance that didn’t occur there—Marion Anderson’s solo recital. And while my opera loving professor was giving me a lift to and from the concert, we were not sitting together. The guy meant well but usually spent a lot of time explaining to me why I shouldn’t be enjoying any performance to which we might be listening. I was sure if he sat next to me, I would hear endless comments about performances in which she sounded better (“You should have heard her in Athens in ’52…”).

My concert companions turned out to be two members of the D.A.R. who brought powerful opera glasses (which they generously shared with me) so they could get a look at Callas’ jewelry. “I wonder if Onassis gave her that?” they whispered. They had never heard her before so weren’t filled with opinions about her singing. Actually,they scarcely mentioned the singing, saving all their comments for critiques of her wardrobe. They did on occasion wonder if Maria thought about Onassis as she sang all those sad songs.

Was she in great voice? Probably not. But I had several recordings on which she sounded less than wonderful. The concert, however, was still memorable. Callas was a fabulous actress. A hand on the hip and a toss of the head during the “Habanera” communicated so much. She was never from the “plant your feet and sing” school. And surely Tosca’s “Vissi d’arte” was her anthem and she sang it with enormous warmth and passion. After she finished that everyone looked weepy.

She received a rapturous standing ovation in an age when such a thing didn’t occur on a daily basis.

My professor and I met in the lobby.

“Well, of course they were applauding for what she was not what she is today… You wouldn’t be so happy with this performance if you’d heard her in ’56 in. . .”

Well, in 1956 I was four so I missed whatever legendary Callas performance occurred then so I was able to enjoy the ’73 Callas as much as my professor enjoyed the Callas of 1956. Because her artistry had so many facets generations of us were able to enjoy her no matter what model was on offer.

Stephanie Patterson