Life and Death and Crime Novels

Like all crime writers, I explore death daily, in what I read and what I write. It’s a game, of course. Some of my brother/sister writers love every graphic detail of dismemberment. I’m too squeamish for that, but still, VI Warshawski has just encountered a dead body in a rural kitchen, where there’s plenty of scope for gruesome description.

In real life, I’ve been with two people as they died, my father and my closest friend in college; she died of a difficult auto-immune disease when we were 25. The difference between the country of the living and the country of the dead is so complete that when you’ve been spending time in the country of the dead you don’t easily return to the living.

I almost lost my husband last week. He had pneumonia, he’s 92, and his trajectory downhill was steep and swift. Drugs brought him back. He’s still weak but definitely on the mend. The 48 hours where I thought I was losing him still are tearing me apart; I knew what I was witnessing, I’d been in its presence twice before.

I think the game we writers play, toying with death, is a shield. I don’t feel guilt or shame or a sense that I should choose a different subject.  But my recent reminder of the end that awaits us all reaffirms my decision not to harrow my readers. Novels like mine should offer a place of refuge, not a place of devastation. This is why no one important in my books will ever die. Loss in real life is too painful; I’m not going to add to my woes or those of my readers by killing Lotty Herschel or Mr. Contreras, Peppy or Mitch. Certainly not the girl detective herself.



Dirty Deeds in the Cornfield

Dead End


The sun was setting when Peppy and I drove east of town, looking for Doris McKinnon’s farm. I’d spent a tense two hours at the hospital, but had finally received a reassuring report on Ms. Albritten—Nell, I’d learned when I went through her wallet looking for her Medicare card.

I’d seen Albritten into the emergency room, and made sure she was getting priority attention, before checking in at the front desk. The ambulance driver was standing there; t turned out he was the same person who’d come for Sonia Kiel twelve hours earlier—he was working double shifts this week.

“Are you with some kind of Guardian Angel organization?” he demanded with heavy humor. “You go through the streets of Lawrence looking for ladies who’ve keeled over?”

“Hard to know what you would do without me,” I said, trying to get into the spirit of the exchange.

Actually, I was tense. Say a little scared. I was in a strange town with a woman who had a bitter history with the place. If something I’d said or done pushed her over the brink, I would be in a lonely spot.

Albritten had never lost consciousness. She’d thrust her pocketbook and phone at me as she was wheeled past, making the crew stop to watch me lock the door before she let them put her in the ambulance.

“Better you than them. At least I’ll know who stole my money if it disappears,” she said to me..

I followed the ambulance to the hospital. While I was filling out forms for them, I went into Albritten’s phone. Her son’s number was fortunately one of seven numbers in her favorites screen. It unnerved me when he answered the call with, “Yes, Mama?” but of course her name had shown up on his own phone.

He lived in Atlanta, he said, when we’d sorted out who I was and why I was calling. He demanded to speak with the doctors. I explained who he was to the people at the intake desk. After some back-and-forthing with the emergency room team, the intake head told Todd the doctor would call him soon, but right now was taking care of his mother and couldn’t be interrupted.

“Just who are you, though, and what were you doing with Mother?” he said, when they’d given me back the phone.

“Do you remember Emerald Ferring?” I didn’t say I was a detective, just that I had come from Chicago looking for her, and a neighbor had directed me to Ms. Albritten.

“She was in the middle of telling me about the farm where the Ferrings moved back in 1951 when she suddenly collapsed.”

“She’s never had heart trouble,” he said. “Nothing wrong with her health. What else went on? Was she agitated? Did you try to get her to do something she didn’t want, like sign over the title to the house? It’s in my name, so you’d be out of luck.”

“No, Mr. Albritten.” My lips were stiff: this was the kind of accusation I’d been afraid of. And it’s a sadly common scam these days, vermin preying on the elderly. “When you talk to the doctors, see if they’ll let you speak to her.”

When he’d finished worrying and accusing and decided he needed to book his flight to Kansas City, I called Lotty Herschel in Chicago. It was mid-afternoon, when she’s usually at her busiest, but she let her clinic nurse put me through to her. I’d texted her a few times from the road, but we hadn’t actually spoken since I left Chicago on Tuesday.

“You did the right thing, Victoria,” she said. “Get the doctor’s name; I’ll call him later this afternoon. Try not to worry; you couldn’t do more than what you’ve done.”

I sat in the waiting area, trying not to worry. I tried to occupy my mind with reports for clients in Chicago, but the city, and my life there, seemed as though they belonged to some movie I’d watched years ago. I couldn’t remember the details or why they should matter to me.

I had several urgent texts from Troy Hempel. Did you find Ms. Emerald? What did the woman you were speaking to tell you?

She’s in the hospital; I’ll let you know if she’s able to tell me anything. I leaned back in the uncomfortable chair and tried to concentrate on my breathing and not on the yammer of the television. It seems as though one of the torments of modern medicine, besides incomprehensible bills, endless waits on phones and waiting rooms designed to serve as better, and outrageous drug prices, is the constant blare of a television in every room.

“Have her parents been to see her?” I asked.

There had been no visitors, although a man had called around noon to check on her; one of her brothers, the nurse thought he’d said.

At length one of the interns came out to give me good news about Ms. Albritten: all her cardiac signs were stable. They would keep her for twenty-four hours to monitor her, but she should be fine. Yes, I could go back for five minutes to give her her phone and handbag in person.

She was dozing: even the strongest-hearted old woman gets worn out by an ambulance ride and an hour of poking and x-raying. They’d given her some kind of sedative, so that when I gently touched her arm she stared at me with puzzled eyes.

I reminded her that we’d been speaking about Emerald Ferring, that I was in from Chicago looking for Ferring.

Albritten tried to struggle upright. I pressed the buttons on the side, but a nurse who’d been hovering outside the cubicle came in.

“No disturbance for you, Ms. Albritten.”

“One thing,” Albritten said through narcotic-thickened lips. “What I say ‘bout Emral’?”

“That she and Lucinda had moved out to Doris McKinnon’s farm east of town.”

“I say ‘bout McKi—Kin?”

“No more,” the nurse said, taking me by the arm.

“Need know,” Albritten insisted.

“You said she was a white woman who rented to black students. You said you hadn’t seen her for years. And then you collapsed.”

Albritten relaxed into the bed and shut her eyes. “S’right. Not see. Long time.”

The nurse nodded significantly toward the exit. I bent to assure Albritten that her son would be arriving the next day, and a corner of her mouth twitched into a smile.

Before leaving the hospital, I made my way to the intensive care unit. I identified myself to the charge nurse as the detective responsible for getting Sonia Kiel and Naomi Wissenhurst to the ER last night.

“Oh, yes, Detective. We were able to release Naomi: she needs medical attention but can get that at home: she’s taking a leave of absence from the university for the rest of the term. Sonia is still unresponsive, but of course she was in worse shape before she took the drugs and at least she is able to breathe on her own. The next twenty-four hours will be important.”

“Have Sonia’s parents been here?” I asked, curious. “Or anyone from St. Rafe’s?”

“A man phoned this morning; I think he said he was one of her brothers, but you’re the first person who’s actually come here. Would you like to see her?”

She led me into the back, where Sonia seemed like an appendage to the computers surrounding her. Her breathing was slow and shuddery: at the end of each exhalation there was a dreadful pause as if she weren’t sure she should start up again.

They’d bathed her, of course, and put her into a clean gown. Her face was slack, so it wasn’t easy to imagine what she would look like if she were awake and animated, but in repose she seemed to have her father’s square face and dark coloring. Lenore Kiel’s hair was thin and dirty blond, Nathan’s thin and white, but perhaps when he’d been young he’d had the same wiry black curls as his daughter.

Drugs and street life had coarsened Sonia’s skin. She had some old bruises on her arms, but I didn’t think they were track marks, more as if someone had hit her. Someone at St. Rafe’s or someone on the street?

I picked up one of her flaccid hands between my own and knelt to talk to her. “It’s V I Warshawski, Sonia. You called me this morning, to say you’d seen Emerald Ferring. You saw her on Matt Chaleff’s grave, you said. Matt Chaleff.”

I thought she might have twitched when I repeated his name, but it was probably wishful thinking.

“If you wake up, when you wake up, you call and tell me where he’s buried. I want to see Matt’s grave, okay?”

I held her hand a bit longer, massaging it lightly. Her fingers were rough, the nails cracked. An obscure impulse made me brush the curls away from forehead. When had her mother last touched her like that?

The nurse gave me an approving nod as I left. “The LPD should send you over when they need to question a patient; you have a good touch.”

I smiled in embarrassment. “I’ll talk to Sergeant Everard about it.”

I was glad to have Peppy with me as I rode out of town. The people I was meeting, the histories I was learning, were dragging me down. My friends were six hundred miles away. My lover—ex-lover? I still hadn’t heard from Jake—was even further. The countryside was desolate in the November twilight. Whatever farmers do in the fall must take place indoors. If I’d been by myself the desolation might have made me drive straight into the Kansas River.

My iPad showed the McKinnon farm about half a mile south of the highway between Lawrence and Kansas City. Once I left the highway, I was on gravel roads that didn’t have streetlamps. I drove slowly, keeping to the center of the road, headlights up.

At one point, showed up on my tail, a dark SUV, maybe a Buick Enclave. I thought I’d seen it as I got on the highway, but the traffic was heavy enough that I couldn’t be sure. Here on the county roads, we were alone. The hair on the back of neck prickled. Peppy, sensing my unease, stood , growling lightly.

At the crossroads between East Nineteen Hundred and North 2800 roads, the SUV turned south, where a sign pointed to the Kanawaka Missile Silo. I went north, my shoulder muscles relaxing, breathing easing back to normal.

After following North 2800 Road for a quarter of a mile, I came to a turnoff with a mailbox labeled McKinnon. Excellent.

The drive ended in a turning circle about a hundred miles from the road. I pulled up behind an elderly Honda and looked at the house. It was a square building, two stories and an attic, and it wasn’t just dark, but gave off that aura of emptiness you get from an abandoned building. I hadn’t taken the time to search McKinnon before I drove out; maybe she’d died and Nell Albritten hadn’t heard about it.

I got out, releasing Peppy from her leash. The dog tore off into the twilight, after who knows what Kansas animal: I hoped not a skunk. I shone my flash over the ground and the out-buildings—two barns, some sheds.

If Emerald Ferring and August Veriden had come out to see Doris McKinnon, they must have turned back and driven on. This was a complete dead end.

Peppy had raced back from her hunting adventure but had started nosing around the house, snuffling at the foundation. She disappeared again, this time at the back of the house. I called to her, but she started barking and whining.

“Come!” I said in my sharpest voice.

She came partway toward me, a darker shape in the dark night, but barked and whined again and turned back to the house. I followed her, my legs stiff, the tingling on my neck moving down my spine.

The back door was shut but not locked. Peppy can smell ten thousand, or maybe it’s ten million times better than I do, but when I pushed the door open, even my inferior nose picked up what she had noticed from across the field—the sickly-sweet smell of rotting flesh, the metallic odor of blood.



Happy Hanukkah

Hanukkah starts at sundown on December 6. It’s sometimes called the Festival of Lights because we light candles every night for eight nights–starting with one, ending with eight. Some people eat fried food to commemorate the miracle of the oil in the Temple: a flame was supposed to be lit constantly in front of the Ark of the Covenant. Growing up in Kansas, I was always the only Jewish kid in my class. I told the story of Hanukkah so many times I never wanted to tell it again, so this is the short version. You can read a longer version here:

Hellenized Syrians had conquered the land of Israel and turned the Temple into a shrine for the Greek gods. They demanded that Jews give up their own beliefs and bow down to Zeus. When the Temple was reclaimed from the Greeks, legend has it that there was only enough oil to burn for a day and a night, but while messengers were scouring the land for another supply–which took eight days to arrive in Jerusalem–the little vial kept burning. And so we light candles and fry food.  Hmmm.

Chiara's First Hanukkah

Chiara’s First Hanukkah

In the context of today’s extremism in just about every religion, including Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and even the Buddhists in Burma, parts of the story are troubling. Historians say that the Hasmonean brothers, who drove the Greeks and their idols from the land, installed a ferociously rigid version of Judaism, and punished, even killing people who didn’t live up to their version of the religion. On the one hand, the Hasmoneans were heroic: they valiantly stood up to and conquered a much larger invading army, they protected the right of their people to worship as they chose. On the other hand, once in power, they were rigid and punitive.

Despite this troubling history, Hanukkah is a time for acts of bravery, even small acts. Jews are encouraged to set their Menorahs in a window where they can be seen. In some parts of the world, even in some parts of America, it can be hard to be a Jew. It takes particular courage to make a public declaration, to show that very Jewish symbol to the world.

This public declaration for me means I must start to take a more visible  stand on the issues that matter most to me in today’s America, in particular, reproductive rights. Like many supporters of women’s right to make their own health and reproductive decisions without church or state interference, I’ve let myself be silenced by the inflammatory rhetoric of those who think we are children (or even chattel animals: the Illinois legislature assigns women’s health to their agricultural livestock committee). Yesterday I stood with Planned Parenthood on Michigan Avenue. I continue to stand with them.

I stand with Planned Parenthood

I stand with Planned Parenthood




Boom-Boom Warshawski Makes his Chicago Blackhawk debut

Stanley Cup playoffs, Blackhawks and Lightning tied at two games each. How Boom-Boom Warshawski, Blackhawk star as well as VI’s cousin and closest childhood friend, would have loved to be in the middle of the fight!

My second novel, Deadlock, introduced Boom-Boom, although he sadly entered the series as a murder victim.

Deadlock, a V I Warshawski novel

Deadlock, a V I Warshawski novel

Over the years, VI has often thought about Boom-Boom and recalled some of their more hair-raising adventures together. In Brush Back, on sale out in July, Boom-Boom plays a major part of the backstory. I originally had planned to open the novel with a flashback to his Blackhawk debut, but as the story worked out, I had to remove that opening chapter. (By the way, you can pre-order Brush Back now by following the link.)

With Stanley Cup mania going on, I thought it might be fun to share this outtake chapter with you:

Blackhawks win Stanley Cup

Blackhawks win Stanley Cup




Up near the rafters the noise shook our bones. We were on our feet, slamming our chair seats up and down, stomping, screaming, whistling.

“Boom Boom!” slam. “Boom Boom!” slam. “Boom Boom.”

The foghorn under the scoreboard bellowed. Down below us, on the ice, my cousin raised his stick from the middle of the scrum, then skated to our side of the rink. Of course he couldn’t see us, with the stadium lights in his eyes, but he bowed in our direction.

Frank Guzzo hugged me so hard we both almost toppled into the seats below us. Mayhem in the Madhouse on Madison: Boom Boom’s first game as a Blackhawk, his first goal, his first victory.

Frank shouted something at me, but I couldn’t hear it, even with his lips near my ear. I screamed back, but our words were swallowed by the sound. The old Chicago Stadium, decibel level around 130 on average, up to 300 when all noise-makers were turned on.

Old Chicago Stadium where Boom-Boom (and MJ, and Bobby Hull) played

Old Chicago Stadium where Boom-Boom (and MJ, and Bobby Hull) played

We followed the rest of the crowd down the steeply-banked stairs and went to wait by the player exit. It was April, near the end of the regular season, a warm enough night that none of us put our jackets on. My dad and his brother Bernie were grinning at each other like teenagers and the rest of us were teenagers, or near enough.

Boom Boom had spread tickets around like confetti, to me (of course) and his folks and my dad, his best friend Frank Guzzo, even to some of his lumpy cousin’s on his mother’s side. Another couple of dozen people from the neighborhood had paid their own way: this was going to be a night to tell their grandchildren about: I was there when Boom Boom Warshawski scored the winning goal against the Flyers.

Boom Boom had even given Frank a ticket for his sister Annie, who was still in high school.

“I don’t know where she is,” Frank said, when I asked. “I just drove in from Nashville for the game. You remembered to get the ticket to her, right? You haven’t become so snooty at Red U that you forgot your old pals, have you?”

Red U. That was an old insult for the University of Chicago, dating to the Nineteen-fifties, the McCarthy era, long before my time on the quads. It’s what all our neighbors called it in South Chicago, though, and it added to the hostility toward my mother when they learned she had her heart set on my studying there.

I punched Frank in the ribs. “I’m slumming with you, aren’t I? I hand-delivered the tickets. Your mom said Annie wasn’t home so I left the envelope with her, okay?”

“Warshawski!” Frank saw my cousin before the rest of us. “You dang hotdog, you. You trying to upstage the Golden Jet?”

Boom Boom laughed. “No way, man. Lucky shot. Not like that homer of yours against Nashville on Monday.”

“Yeah, speaking of which, I gotta head out now. I’m already running a ninety-dollar fine for being AWOL, can’t make it two days in a row.”

Boom Boom walked across the parking lot to Frank’s car with him, tripping on the deep grooves in the gravel. “Your turn’s coming, Frankie, your turn’s coming. When they call your name in the starting line-up at Wrigley, I’ll be there hollering, you’d better believe it. Thanks for making the trip up here, man.”

Frank Guzzo, Boom Boom Warshawski—they were the biggest stars of my neighborhood. When they graduated high school three years earlier, the school held a day in their honor. They were given special plaques, they got to choose the menu in the cafeteria, the gym was renamed the “Guzzo-Warshawski Gym.”

All over this city, poor kids dream of becoming sports legends, but Boom Boom and Frank were the rare boys who got to live the fantasy, Boom Boom on ice, Frank in baseball. Two years after Boom Boom’s debut—when my cousin had already turned into a legend of sorts—Frank was called up to Wrigley Field. The same crowd that had gone to see Boom Boom turned up for Frank.

All those hardcore White Sox fans who’d sooner spit than say “Ernie Banks” made the long L-ride north to cheer the home boy. I was in my first year of law school then, but I blew off a paper to join my dad, Boom Boom, my dad’s police buddies, and my uncle Bernie in the bleachers.

VI and Sara in front of Wrigley Field

VI and Sara in front of Wrigley Field

His third game at Wrigley, Frank’s turn ended. The Cardinal second baseman, leaping to get the catcher’s throw, came down hard on Frank as he was sliding into second. The Cardinal’s cleats ripped muscle from bone. Frank had a half dozen surgeries, two years of rehab. When they were finished with him, Frank still had an arm better than anyone on the south side, but nowhere near good enough for Major League ball.

Cardinals v Cubs

Cardinals v Cubs

My cousin’s been dead a lot of years now and so has my dad. I don’t hear news from my old neighborhood very often and I’d almost forgotten Frank. Until the day he walked into my office.





KU Commencement Address, May 17 2015


I was privileged to receive the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters and to address the graduates at the University of Kansas on their May 17 2015 Commencement.

Delivering Commencement Address

Delivering Commencement Address

Remarks for the University of Kansas 2015 Commencement


Chancellor Gray-Little, Chairman Wilk,Distinguished Guests and Faculty. Above all, members of the Class of 2015 and your happy families: welcome, and thank you, for the honor of this degree and the privilege of speaking here today.

Congratulations to all our graduates. You completed a rigorous course of study, despite times of despair or frustration or confusion. Whatever the next stage on your journey, when you are discouraged and feel like quitting, remind yourself that you stuck with this job, this important job of education, even when the going was rough.

Let’s have a round of applause for our courageous class of 2015.

With Chancellor Gray-Little, Prof Ada Sue Hinshaw and others

With Chancellor Gray-Little, Prof Ada Sue Hinshaw and others

While we’re in the clapping mood, let’s also thank the families and friends who made sacrifices so that these graduates could stay the course.

I have been a Jayhawk since I was five years old, when I attended my first KU commencement. My dad had just joined the Kansas faculty and he took part in the procession through the Campanile and down the hill. My mother and brothers and I stood in the stands and cheered when we saw him.

AI grew up around this university and received my BA here. My years on the hill shaped who I have become as an adult. Like most alums, I go insane during March madness, feel a little more depressed when football seasons rolls around.

Reading in a children's cubbyhole in the Lawrence Public Library

Reading in a children’s cubbyhole in the Lawrence Public Library

Of course, university education, your education, your life, are about more than cheering for sports teams. As a fan you are on the sidelines, but you are the key players in your own lives. You will spend those lives in your own fields of endeavor—almost always without a cheering section. You will be tested time and again, and you will find yourselves needing to draw on the lessons you learned here.

Although commencement literally means to begin, it is also a time of endings. All endings are hard—they are the hardest part of a novel to write well—so it shouldn’t startle you if you find the end to your KU life difficult. Moving on to the next stage of your journey means taking a leap from the high dive without knowing what kind of water lies below you.

For those of you who do know what you are doing next, whether at work or school, or as a volunteer, my heartiest congratulations. For those who are facing the future with less certainty, you are not alone. If it’s any comfort, after my own graduation I floundered in clerical jobs, sold computers to insurance agents, wrote speeches for corporate executives, and did many other odd jobs for a good number of years before finding my way to my public writing voice.

It is not always given to us to find our passion or our path easily. I can’t promise that your own road will be easy, but I can promise this: if you give up, you will never find the road at all.

You are graduating into a world that will challenge you in many ways. You face financial and job uncertainties tougher than my generation knew. You also face opportunities we didn’t have—those of you born with earbuds implanted in you roam the fast-changing technology landscape more easily than my generation does.

At the same time, you came of age in a world dominated by war, by terrorism and by economic instability. The first years of the 21st century could be called the Age of Fear, starting with fear of terrorism, and moving from there to fears closer to home.

Hand-in-hand with fear goes the extraordinary rage with which people around the globe confront each other. Here at home, we hurl abuse at each other from opposite sides of a deep political divide. We then retreat to the safety of our favorite Internet sites, where we stoke our rage by writing ever more monstrous accounts of what those other folks, those barely human beings, are doing.

Not since the Civil War has our country been such a house divided. Yet it was in the midst of the Civil War, that bloody conflagration, that the University of Kansas was founded. In 1863, two weeks before Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg, while war was still raging, the Kansas legislature voted to establish a university in Lawrence, provided the town could supply land and money.

Sara Robinson and her husband Charles, who gave up an affluent life in the east to  make sure Kansas came free into the Union—even spending time in prison at the hands of slavery forces–, deeded the land where we stand today. Amos A. Lawrence, a town founder, donated most of the money. In 1866, the first classes met, an equal mix of young men and women—virtually unheard of in that era.

The university’s founders had a bedrock belief, bred in their very bones, that education was essential for good government and good citizenship. The first thing the Puritans did when they reached Massachusetts was to set up public schools, because they knew that their future depended on an educated citizenry.

Sara Robinson, 1827-1911

Sara Robinson, 1827-1911

The men and women who came from New England to settle Kansas two centuries later didn’t know how or when the Civil War would end, but they, too, knew they needed to educate the next generation of citizens if the Republic had any hope of surviving. Charles and Sara Robinson took a great leap from that high board when they gave the university the land we stand on today, even though only a few months earlier, terrorists from Missouri had massacred most of the men in Lawrence.

Our founders chose as the motto for our school the verse from Exodus, when Moses says: I must turn aside to see that great sight, why the bush burns but is not consumed.

The ability to look at the unknown, the startling, the terrifying, and to ask fundamental questions about it, lies at the heart of our Kansas education.

If you take nothing else away with you, take this: an abiding spirit of inquiry.

Questioning, listening, learning are the true antidotes for fear.  FDR said we have nothing to fear but fear itself, but I believe the biggest thing we have to fear is willful ignorance. Willful ignorance, and a desire to give way to unthinking rage lie behind today’s terrorists in Africa and the Middle East, who bomb schools and whose name translates as “Down with western education.”

Willful ignorance also catches up with us here at home. Every time a state government slashes education budgets—and states all across the Union are making deep cuts to education–I weep: governments are sacrificing the long term health of the Republic for very minor fiscal savings.

The spirit of open-minded inquiry is how change happens for good, in our individual lives and in the larger world. The book of Exodus would tell a different story if Moses had seen the bush and said, “oops, scary fire, think I’ll take my sheep a different way,” or even worse, if he’d been texting and hadn’t seen the bush at all.

The inquiring mind, the open mind, lies behind every discovery that changes lives for the better, from Arthur Fleming noticing the mold in his petri dish and turning it into penicillin, to Rosalind Franklin noticing the double helix in X-rays of DNA, which opened the field of modern genetics.

Learning to question, rather than to fear, isn’t something you get from Google. You definitely don’t get it by building walls of pre-judgment and anger around you. You learn by digging deep—by understanding the minds of the people you work with, understanding the deeper issues underneath the surface tweet.

We humans all live both alone, and in community. If this age could be called the Age of Fear, it could equally be called the Age of the Selfie.

We live in isolation inside our earbuds, but we inhabit shared space, and it is space we hold in trust for those who follow us. The founders of the United States didn’t pledge to live “me first, me only”: in the Declaration of Independence, they said “we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”

This university exists because the Robinsons and Amos A Lawrence shared that sense of obligation to community. Like others here today, I owe my own education to the generosity of Elizabeth M Watkins. I feel a duty to my writing gift to let my spirit soar. I feel an equal duty to the community that educated me to make that education possible for others.

A questing spirit, and a generous heart offer a cure for the narcissistic rage that threatens to consume our nation today. When  we are seeking, and when we are sharing, we can overcome the furies and willful ignorance that blind all of us at times. We also become free to take risks, to jump off the high dive.

May all of you dare mighty things in the years to come. May you find strength for the next step on your journey. May you find joy along the path. Take chances. Don’t settle for the easy thing, insist on the good thing. Take nothing for granted. Share your discoveries. Above all, stop to ask the hard question: why does the bush burn, and yet is not consumed.


No Comments

The DOLLUS Syndrome

Brush Back by Sara ParetskySara published an essay in the May 1 Booklist on issues around missing voices in contemporary crime fiction

Sara’s new novel Brush Back, about troubled families, Chicago sports, and Illinois politics, will be in bookstores everywhere on July 28



No Comments

Who We Like To Read

After a week of totally unscientific polling, in which visitors to my Facebook page listed their favorite crime/thriller/mystery writers, we came up with a list of 276 beloved writers. They’re listed here in a ranked order–and I’m vain enough to be relieved that visitors to my page like my books! With 276 writers, there are bound to be ones you never encountered, so here’s to some happy reading days ahead–a way to avoid thinking about the endless cold or endless drought–whichever your particular affliction may be.

Happy Readers

Happy Readers

Paretsky Sara
Grafton Sue
Crombie Deborah
Penny Louise
Sayers. Dorothy L.
Bland Eleanor Taylor
James P.D.
Allingham Margery
Christie Agatha
Kellerman Faye
Barnes Linda
Muller Marcia
Peters Elizabeth
Stabenow Dana
Lehane Dennis
Burke Alafair
George Elizabeth
King Laurie R.
Rendell Ruth
Rozan S.J.
Spencer-Fleming Julia
Winspear Jacqueline
Hammett Dashiell
Stout Rex
Cody Liza
Evanovich Janet
Hess Joan
Maron Margaret
McDermid Val
Millar Margaret
O’Connell Carol
Reichs Kathy
Burke James Lee
MacDonald John D.
Barr Nevada
Burke Jan
Fairstein Linda
Greenwood Kerry
Grimes Martha
Larsson Åsa
Leon Donna
Lippman Laura
Marsh Ngaio
Rice Craig
Sjöwall Maj
Conan Doyle Arthur
Kellerman Jonathan
Krueger William Kent
Leonard Elmore
Vargas Fred
Atkinson Kate
Beaton M.C.
Black Cara
Davis Dorothy Salisbury
Davis Lindsey
Flynn Gillian
French Tana
George Anne
Gordon Alison
Gran Sara
Griffiths Elly
Gur Batya
Highsmith Patricia
Hill Susan
Hughes Dorothy
Läckberg Camilla
MacInnes Helen
Marklund Liza
Matera Lia
McIntosh D.J.
McPherson Catriona
Mina Denise
Moyes Patricia
Orczy Emma
Ryan Hank Phillipi
Sigurðardóttir Yrsa
Stewart Mary
Storey Alice
Tey Josephine
Walters Minette
Waters Sarah
Chandler Raymond
Connelly Michael
Crais Robert
Creasey John
Fforde Jasper
Francis Dick
Gardner Earl Stanley
Grisham John
Higgins George V.
King Stephen
Larsson Stieg
MacDonald Ross
Mankell Henning
Parker Robert
Thomas Ross
Thompson Jim
Wahlöö Per
Westlake Donald
Abbott Megan
Abbott Patty Nase
Adams Ellery
Aird Catherine
Albert Susan
Allen Stacy
Andrews Donna
Anthony Evelyn
Armstrong Charlotte
Atwood Taylor Phoebe
Aubert Rosemary
Bartlett Lorraine
Blackwell Juliet
Blómkvist Stella
Bowen Gail
Bowen Rhys
Brackett Leigh
Braddon Mary Elizabeth
Brand Christianna
Braun Lilian Jackson
Brown Rita Mae
Byerrum Ellen
Campbell Bonny Jo
Capponi Pat
Carlton Marjorie
Clark Marcia
Cleeves Anne
Conley Jen
Cooper Susan Rogers
Cornue Virginia
Cornwell Patricia
Coup Terri Lynn
Cross Amanda
Delany Vicki
Dereske Jo
DiSilverio Laura
Donaghue Emma
DuMaurier Daphne
Duncan Elizabeth J.
Dunn Carola
Ellison J.T.
Fossum Karen
Fradkin Barbara
Fraser Antonia
Frazer Margaret
Freveletti Jamie
Gagnon Michelle
Gardner Lisa
George Kaye
Gilbert Michael
Goldstein Debra
Graham Caroline
Graves Sarah
Gray Alex
Hamilton Denise
Harlick Robin
Harris Charlaine
Harris C.S.
Hendricks Vicki
Hillerman Anne
Jaffarian Sue Ann
Jance J.A.
Jennings Maureen
Jones Darynda
Jones Elizabeth
Keene Carolyn
Keller Julia
Kendall Kay
Kijewski Karen
La Plante Lynda
Linds Gayle
Locke Attica
Lockridge Frances
Lombri Linda
Lutz Lisa
MacInerney Karen
Maffini Mary Jane
Maffini Victoria
Massey Sujata
Matthews Francine
McClendon Lisa
McCullough Karen
McLeod Charlotte
Milchman Jenny
Moss Jennifer
Munger Kate
Nabb Magdalen
Neuhaus Nele
O’Connor Gemma
O’Shaughnessy Perri
Paton Walsh Jill
Pawel Rebecca
Perry Anne
Pauwels C.L.
Pickens Cathy
Robb J.D.
Roos Kelly
Rule Ann
Sanxay Holding Elizabeth
Sartor Nancy
Sellers L.J.
Shames Terry
Slaughter Karin
Sokoloff Alexandra
Spindler Erica
Staincliffe Cath
Stevens Chevy
Terrell Beth
Terrell Jaden
Thompson Lesley
Tursten Helene
Unger Lisa
Welsh Louise
White Ethel Lina
Wilson Laura
Wilson Wesley Valerie
Zeh Juli
Abbott Jeff
Atkins Ace
Baldacci David
Bronzini Bill
Bruen Ken
Buchan John
Cain James M.
Campbell Robert
Carr Caleb
Charteris Leslie
Clifford Joe
Cohen Gabriel
Cohen Jeff
Costain Thomas B.
Crispin Edmund
Dexter Colin
Dickson Carr John
Freeling Nicholas
Gil Bartholomew
Goldsborough Robert
Grabenstein Chris
Greeley Andrew
Greene Graham
Hallinan Tim
Handler David
Harris Thomas
Hewson David
Hiaasen Carl
Hillerman Tony
Hopkins Bill
Hughes Declan
Innes Michael
Isles Greg
James Dean
James Seeley
Kerr Phillip
Koryta Michael
Lockridge Richard
McGarrity Michael
McGinty Adrian
Monson Mike
Nesbø Jo
Neville Stuart
Patterson James
Pears Iain
Peters Ellis
Pierce Rob
Pitts Tom
Poe Edgar Allen
Preston Douglas
Queen Ellery
Rankin Ian
Rhatigan Chris
Rosenfelt David
Sansom C.J.
Simenon Georges
Twain Mark
White Dave
Willieford Charles


Miss Bianca: A Cold WAr Story

Miss Bianca
by Sara Paretsky

Abigail made her tour of the cages, adding water to all the drinking bowls. The food was more complicated, because not all the mice got the same meal. She was ten years old and this was her first job; she took her responsibilities seriously. She read the labels on the cages and carefully measured out feed from the different bags. All the animals had numbers written in black ink on their backs; she checked these against the list Bob Pharris had given her with the feeding instructions.
“That’s like being a slave,” Abigail said, when Bob showed her how to match the numbers on the mice to the food directives. “It’s not fair to call them by numbers instead of by name, and it’s mean to write on their beautiful fur.”
Bob just laughed. “It’s the only way we can tell them apart, Abby.”
Abigail hated the name Abby. “That’s because you’re not looking at their faces. They’re all different. I’m going to start calling you Number Three because you’re Dr. Kiel’s third student. How would you like that?”
“Number Nineteen,” Bob corrected her. “I’m his nineteenth student, but the other sixteen have all gotten their PhD’s and moved on to glory. Don’t give the mice names, Abby: you’ll get too attached to them and they don’t live very long.”
In fact, the next week, when Abigail began feeding the animals on her own, some of the mice had disappeared. Others had been moved into the contamination room, where she wasn’t supposed to go. The mice in there had bad diseases that might kill her if she touched them. Only the graduate students or the professors went in there, wearing gloves and masks.
Abigail began naming some of the mice under her breath. Her favorite, number 139, she called “Miss Bianca,” after the white mouse in the book The Rescuers. Miss Bianca always sat next to the cage door when Abigail appeared, grooming her exquisite whiskers with her little pink paws. She would cock her head and stare at Abigail with bright black eyes.
In the book, Miss Bianca ran a prisoner’s rescue group, so Abigail felt it was only fair that she should rescue Miss Bianca in turn, or at least let her have some time outside the cage. This afternoon, she looked around to make sure no one was watching, then scooped Miss Bianca out of her cage and into the pocket of her dress.
“You can listen to me practice, Miss Bianca,” Abigail told her. She moved into the alcove behind the cages where the big sinks were.
Dr. Kiel thought Abigail’s violin added class to the lab, at least that’s what he said to Abigail’s mother, but Abigail’s mother said it was hard enough to be a single mom without getting fired in the bargain, so Abigail should practice where she wouldn’t disturb the classes in the lecture rooms or annoy the other professors.
Abigail had to come to the lab straight from school. She did her homework on a side table near her mother’s desk, and then she fed the animals and practiced her violin in the alcove.
“Today Miss Abigail Sherwood will play Bach for you,” she announced grandly to Miss Bianca.
She tuned the violin as best she could and began a simplified version of the first sonata for violin. Miss Bianca stuck her head out of the pocket and looked inquiringly at the violin. Abigail wondered what the mouse would do if she put her inside. Miss Bianca could probably squeeze in through the F hole, but getting her out would be difficult. The thought of Mother’s rage, not to mention Dr. Kiel or even Bob Pharris’s, made her decide against it.
She picked up her bow again, but heard voices out by the cages. When she peered out, she saw Bob talking to a stranger, a small woman with dark hair.
Bob smiled at her. “This is Abby; her mother is Dr. Kiel’s secretary. Abby helps us by feeding the animals.”
“It’s Abigail,” Abigail said primly.
“And one of the mouses, Abigail, she is living in your—your—” the woman pointed at Miss Bianca.
“Abby, put the mouse back in the cage,” Bob said. “If you play with them, we can’t let you feed them.”
Abigail scowled at the woman and at Bob, but she put Miss Bianca back in her cage. “I’m sorry, Miss Bianca. Mamelouk is watching me.”
“Mamelouk?” the woman said. “I am thinking your name ‘Bob?’”
Mamelouk the Iron-Tummed was the evil cat who worked for the jailor in The Rescuers, but Abigail didn’t say that, just stared stonily at the woman, who was too stupid to know that the plural of “mouse” was mice, not “mouses.”
“This is Elena,” Bob told Abigail. “She’s Dr. Kiel’s new dishwasher. You can give her a hand, when you’re not practicing your violin or learning geometry.”
“Is allowed for children working in the lab?” Elena asked. “In my country, government is not allowing children work.”
Abigail’s scowl deepened: Bob had been looking at her homework while she was down here with the mice. “We have slavery in America,” she announced. “The mice are slaves, too.”
“Abigail, I thought you liked feeding the animals.” Dr. Kiel had come into the animal room without the three of them noticing.
He wore crepe-soled shoes which let him move soundlessly through the lab. A short stocky man with brown eyes, he could look at you with a warmth that made you want to tell him your secrets, but just when you thought you could trust him, he would become furious over nothing that Abigail could figure out. She had heard him yelling at Bob Pharris in a way that frightened her. Besides, Dr. Kiel was her mother’s boss, which meant she must never EVER be saucy to him.
“I’m sorry, Dr. Kiel,” she said, her face red. “I only was telling Bob I don’t like the mice being branded, they’re all different, you can tell them apart by looking.”
“You can tell them apart because you like them and know them,” Dr. Kiel said. “The rest of us aren’t as perceptive as you are.”
“Dolan,” he added to a man passing in the hall. “Come and meet my new dishwasher—Elena Mirova.”
Dr. Dolan and Dr. Kiel didn’t like each other. Dr. Kiel was always loud and hearty when he talked to Dr. Dolan, trying too hard not to show his dislike. Dr. Dolan snooped around the lab looking for mistakes that Dr. Kiel’s students made. He’d report them with a phony jokiness, as if he thought leaving pipettes unwashed in the sink was funny when really it made him angry.
Dr. Dolan had a face like a giant baby’s, the nose little and squashed upward, his cheeks round and rosy; when Bob Pharris had taken two beakers out of Dr. Dolan’s lab, he’d come into Dr. Kiel’s lab, saying, “Sorry to hear you broke both your arms, Pharris, and couldn’t wash your own equipment.”
He came into the animal room now and smiled in a way that made his eyes close into slits. Just like a cat’s. He said hello to Elena, but added to Dr. Kiel, “I thought your new girl was starting last week, Nate.”
“She arrived a week ago, but she was under the weather; you would never have let me forget it if she’d contaminated your ham sandwiches—I mean your petri dishes.”
Dr. Dolan scowled, but said to Elena, “The rumors have been flying around the building all day. Is it true you’re from eastern Europe?”
Dolan’s voice was soft, forcing everyone to lean toward him if they wanted to hear him. Abigail had trouble understanding him, and she saw Elena did, too, but Abigail knew it would be a mistake to try to ask Dr. Dolan to speak more slowly or more loudly.
Elena’s face was sad. “Is true. I am refugee, from Czechoslovakia.”
“How’d you get here?” Dolan asked.
“Just like your ancestors did, Pat,” Dr. Kiel said. “Yours came steerage in a ship. Elena flew steerage in a plane. We lift the lamp beside the golden door for Czechs just as we did for the Irish.”
“And for the Russians?” Dolan said. “Isn’t that where your people are from, Nate?”
“The Russians would like to think so,” Kiel said. “It was Poland when my father left.”
“But you speak the lingo, don’t you?” Dolan persisted.
There was a brief silence. Abigail could see the vein in Dr. Kiel’s right temple pulsing. Dolan saw it also and gave a satisfied smirk.
He turned back to Elena. “How did you end up in Kansas? It’s a long way from Prague to here.”
“I am meeting Dr. Kiel in Bratislava,” Elena said.
“I was there in ’66, you know,” Dr. Kiel said. “Elena’s husband edited the Czech Journal of Virology and Bacteriology and the Soviets didn’t like their editorial policies—the journal decided they would only take articles written in English, French or Czech, not in Russian.”
Bob laughed. “Audacious. That took some guts.”
Abigail was memorizing words under her breath to ask her mother over dinner: perceptive, editorial policies, audacious.
“Perhaps not so good idea. When Russian tanks coming last year, they putting husband in prison,” Elena said.
“Well, welcome aboard,” Dr. Dolan said, holding out his soft white hand to Elena.
She’d been holding her hands close to her side, but when she shook hands Abigail saw a huge bruise on the inside of her arm, green, purple, yellow, spreading in a large oval up and down from the elbow.
”They beat you before you left?” Dr. Dolan asked.
Elena’s eyes opened wide; Abigail thought she was scared. “Is me, only,” she said, “me being—not know in English.”
“What’s on today’s program?” Dr. Kiel asked Abigail abruptly, pointing at her violin.
“You need to drop that old stuffed shirt. Beethoven. I keep telling you, start playing those Beethoven sonatas, they’ll bring you to life.” He ruffled her hair. “I think I saw your mother putting the cover over her typewriter when I came down.”
That meant Abigail was supposed to leave. She looked at Miss Bianca, who was hiding in the shavings at the back of her cage. It’s good you’re afraid, Abigail told her silently. Don’t let them catch you, they’ll hurt you or make you sick with a bad disease.


1 Comment

Voices on the Margins

Remarks to open the session on “Voices on the Margins,” Bouchercon 2014, Long Beach

We live in a society that is contemptuous of the written word. Many, perhaps most, cities and states in America have cut budgets for schools and libraries repeatedly in the last several years. We easily find money for sports arenas, we subsidize members of Congress who own cotton farms, but we make no pretense of putting money into supporting the written word. In that sense, every person at this convention, readers and writers, live on the margin of American society.

Eddie embraces Clare O'Donoghue, Jamie Freveletti, Charlaine Harris, and me

Eddie embraces Clare O’Donoghue, Jamie Freveletti, Charlaine Harris, and me at the Voices event

As lovers of crime fiction, we are further marginalized by writing genre fiction. We aren’t writers, we are crime writers. Every now and then a carrot bobs up in the stew and is proclaimed as having “transcended the genre.” Kate Atkinson, for instance, regularly “transcends the genre.” The rest of us are hacks.

Every word used to pinpoint our identity pushes further to the edge of the page, away from the center: I am a woman, white, heterosexual, WEEJ, progressive, feminist, grandmother crime writer. Never simply a writer. All those labels make up part of my identity, and my identity informs my writing, but I try to transcend my identity, to write about people from many backgrounds, many viewpoints. I try to be faithful to my voice, to my gift, to that incredible magic, the word made visible.

Every person at this convention takes part in many identities. We have Tea Party activists, socialists, anarchists, feminists, Lesbians, Gay, Trans-gendered, African-American, Jewish, Muslim, Atheist, Christian, Asian-American men, women who like serial killers or cozies or true crime or espionage or PI’s or or or…

The one thing we share is that we are passionate about the written word, whether we are writers, readers, librarians, editors, agents. We cannot let ourselves be splintered by identity politics. We must find ways of coming together around our shared passion in a world that devalues literacy and the literate.

(by the way, a WEEJ is a white Eastern-European Jew)


1 Comment

Climate Change Ballad Number 1

The story of 35000 walruses crowded together on an Alaska beach because of the disappearance of Arctic ice distressed me as I’m sure it did you. I don’t know if my Climate Change Ballad really helps the situation, but it was the only response I could come up with in the moment.


In the western U.S.
On the Puget Coast Sound
The walruses play
Where the oysters abound

They dive to the bottom
Then swim on their backs
Where they float into shore
To eat their small snacks

Of oysters, and mussels
Or plankton and snails
Which their friend, Captain Tony,
Sets out in large pails.

For Tony loves oysters
And mussels and such
He eats what he catches
And doesn’t take   much.

In April one year,
Maybe two-oh twenty-four
The walrus Queen, Olga,
Swam up to the shore.

She slapped on the sand
And gave a great shout.
“Tony! Why are there no
Tasty oysters about?”

Walruses crowded together on beach

Walruses crowded together on beach

“I know,” Tony wept.
“I know all too well.
The acidic ocean
Destroyed all their shells.”

“The ocean’s acidic?”
Olga wept bitter tears.
“How did this happen?
How soon will it clear?”

“Carbon,” Tony sighed.
“We burned too much fuel
In coal and in wood
But above all in oil.

“Carbon in air
Falls down to the ground
It pours down in rain
Right into the Sound.”

“A continent floats
Out in the south seas
The size of two Texas’
And full of disease.

“It’s where bottles and diapers
And plastic decay
Into one giant island
That grows every day.

“This island, Plastarctica,
Almost all life rejects:
No birds, no more fishes
Just lots of insects

“Are all that can live
In the tar and the waste
Those birds that land there
Die in pain and in haste.



“Oh, no,” Olga wailed
And gave a loud cry.
“No fishes, no oysters,
My babies will die.

“You must clean the ocean
There’s much work to do
Get rid of that carbon
We’re all counting on you.”

So Tony got cracking.
He called all his friends.
They studied the oceans;
They published the trends.
They wrote to the Congress
Explaining the science:
“We’re killing the planet
Due to carbon reliance!

“We see every day
It’s getting much hotter
Himalayan ice
Is turning to water.”

“Ridiculous man,”
Was the answer he got.
“There’s no climate change;
That’s all tommy-rot!”

The priests shouted loudly
“You all are effete!
You’re part of the atheist
Leftist elite!”

Captain Tony tried harder.
“You can still drive your Lexus.
Just pay more for gas
And pay higher taxes.

“Don’t subsidize oil
Use solar and wind.
Ride buses and trains.
Go by bike when you can.”

“Higher taxes, you mad man!”
The CEO’s shouted.
“We need bigger profits!
It’s what we’re entitled.”

“Pay more for bottles?”
The public all screamed.
“Buy cheap and discard—
It’s America’s dream.”

Next year Himalayan
Ice came barreling down.
A billion Chinese
And Indians drowned.

The Florida waters
Rose up ten feet high.
The people fled inland
So they could stay dry.

There was less food to eat,
Less water to drink.
No place to stay cool,
Birds and trees grew extinct.

“God’s punishing us
For believing in science.
Only the Bible
Is there for reliance,”

The ministers said
From every old creed.
“Turn to prayer, turn to Scripture,
But don’t give up greed.”

Meanwhile the armies
Gathered for battle.
With less food to eat
Their sabres all rattled.

Who knows which country
First dropped the big bomb,
But soon they all followed
And a great giga-ton

Of nuclear ash
Fell to the ground.
People burned, children died
And in Puget Sound

Queen Olga floated
Not to play; she was dead.
Her body grew bloated;
On her children she bled.

Captain Tony sat quietly
Out by the ocean.
His friends gathered round him
To find a solution

To nuclear winter.
There was little to do,
But wait ‘til it lifted
Say in Thirty-oh Two.

But in Texas and Egypt
In Chile and Britain
In their various pulpits
The clerics all threatened:

“Who caused this disaster
If not folk in science?
This shows that they
Treated our God with defiance!”

The people responded
As if in one voice,
“Kill Captain Tony!
He’s left us no choice!”

They created big fires
Out of wood chips and oil
And soon Captain Tony
Was brought to the boil.

Cap'n Tony burned at the stake

Cap’n Tony burned at the stake

“Now that he’s gone
With his atheist elite
God will reward us
With more food to eat!”

But the Divine Justice
Gave no quick answer
To famine, pollution
And fast-growing cancer.

For thousands of years
The planet seemed dead
Humans fought rats and roaches
Over rare bits of food.

Now and again
In the midst of the sludge
A poet would reach out
To learn ancient knowledge

But the Kochs and their ilk
Were still hoarding wealth
They bought off the rulers
They did it by stealth

And roused up the rabble
Whatever the creed
To hunt and stone poets
And cheer while they bled.

Slowly but surely
Radiation decayed
Birds re-emerged
A few walruses played

Out in the waters
Near old Puget Sound
Where occasionally now
A new oyster was found.

And more slowly still,
Despite threats of violence
Brave women and men
Re-committed to science.

Captain Tony’s nth grandchild
A bright kid called LuAnn
Studied protons and neutrons,
And even the muon.

While off on the tundra
Her cousin Guilffoyle
Was shooting the wolves
While drilling for oil.


No Comments


Upcoming shows

No events booked at the moment.


April 2018
« Mar