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Death in the Dollhouse

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.


Dollhouses have a shelf in my life. I played with dolls and miniatures for a very long time—longer even than my little sisters. Our house had a tall, narrow built-in bookcase on the second floor landing, and I set up rooms for my tiny doll family on five “stories.” These went from kitchen to living room, dining room to bedrooms. The coup de grace of a Victorian bathroom with pull chain toilet and free standing china tub. I could play “A Little Princess” or “Borrowers” or a story of my own devising.

While I made doll clothes and tablecloths and tiny books, the home was furnished mostly with dozens of very fine wooden and porcelain furniture pieces, a long-term loan from a kind neighbor. These beds and sofas and dining cabinets dated from probably the 1940s and ’50s and were often in the nostalgic Victorian or Colonial style. Was it the dollhouse that gave me an appreciation of antiques? And was the art of playing family stories set in the past practice for later writing historical and mystery novels?

Frances Glessner Lee, born in 1878, also loved dollhouses. But she transformed a picturesque child’s hobby into a dark art. Her miniature rooms are the center of a magnificent show currently at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C.

A parlor scene with victim

Frances’s path to her gory, tiny rooms was utterly original. She was a lady of privilege, the only daughter of the industrialist John Jacob Glessner, who owned the International Harvester agricultural and construction machinery company. Frances and her brother were tutored at home; he attended Harvard, but her parents denied her the chance for higher education due to her gender. It was a sad, too familiar story.

Some of the activities that filled Frances’ time as a girl were making dolls and miniatures and reading the novels of Sherlock Holmes. Her marriage to a lawyer named Blewett Lee was unhappy; she wanted much more than life as a society wife. Frances appreciated the central concept in Sherlock Holmes stories about clues being essential—and often overlooked. But her husband didn’t want her to pursue the forensic pathology work that she spoke about learning. The couple divorced, and her parents dissuaded her from trying to enter the field.

But Frances didn’t give up. After her brother died, she had access to her inheritance and used some of it to endow a brand new department of Legal Medicine at Harvard. She realized this could be a venue where she could contribute. The school was named Magrath in recognition of her lifelong friend, the doctor George Burgess Magrath, a coroner who was on Harvard’s faculty. Her idea was to take a crime, create a tiny room filled with a victim and clues, and let police and coroners study it for their own education.

Frances and Ralph Moser, her estate’s carpenter, spent between three to six months fabricating a “nutshell,” as she called these incredibly detailed dollhouse rooms. To make the piece known as “Barn,” Ralph was directed to shave pieces of wood from an aged shed on her property and put them together to be the barn’s boards. Frances knit tiny stockings using straight pins and recreated tiny newspapers by hand.

The Barn. Did the farmer suffer suicide or murder?

All the ideas for the crimes presented were hers, and often featured women at risk in domestic situations, and the poor and working class. Her dollhouses show the real world of the United States between the thirties and the fifties. Some of them are still used by the Baltimore Police Department for training.

I visited the exhibition over the Thanksgiving weekend, and it was packed with viewers, young and old, peering in at the lit-up nutshells. The line went out the door, the show was so popular. It was heartening to see a woman like Frances appreciated after her death. In her late years, she was the inspiration for some fiction by her friend, Erle Stanley Gardner. She also is said to have been the model for Jessica Fletcher in the television show “Murder She Wrote,” although Jessica was a writer, not an artist.

The exhibition, “Murder is her Hobby” runs through February 2018 and is well worth a peek. If you visit the Renwick’s web page about Frances Glesser Lee, you can take a virtual tour and also hear a podcast about the show.

Princess Only After Death

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

When times are frightening, worry comes easily. It’s much harder to be the one to step forward into harm’s way.

Recently, my attention was drawn back to World War II and one of its greatest heroines, aka the “Spy Princess.”

I am thankful for what she did—and I wish more people knew about her.

Noor Inayat Khan was born in 1914, with a background that feels uncannily familiar to my own. She had a father born in India, and a mother from the West. A cross-cultural marriage at that time seems unlikely—but it really occurred.

Noor’s mother, Ora Ray Baker, was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico. At age 20, Ora Ray attended a lecture in San Francisco given by Inayat Khan, a musician born in Punjab in the Sufi dervish tradition. Ora asked him for an interview, and the two fell in love and married. Inayat came from a fascinating lineage: his own father was Maula Baksh, founder of a famed music academy in Baroda named the Gyanshala, and her grandmother was Casimebi, a descendent of Tipu Sultan, the Muslim ruler of Mysore who died fighting the British in 1799.

The daring young couple married in London, and Ora Ray took the Muslim name of Amina Sharada Begum and began dressing only in sari to show her enthusiasm for India. She traveled the world with the musical group that Rahmat Khan founded, the Royal Hindustan Orchestra. Their eldest child, Noor, was born on January 1, 1914 in Moscow. After the outbreak of the Great War, the family fled to England. During their years in London, Inayat performed for both Mahatma Gandhi and Indian soldiers convalescing in hospital—as well as for grand opera productions such as Lakme that capitalized on the European interest in the Far East. Inayat came under government suspicion due to his connection to Gandhi and his skill at establishing Muslim and Indian community groups in Britain. He was seen as a risk to the stability of the British Empire. So in 1920, the family shifted to Tremblaye, France, so the musical group and other activities could continue without as much surveillance.

Noor plays the sitar

Noor grew up with interests in poetry and mysticism, as would seem natural for someone with such a creative family life rooted in the Sufi tradition. Her happy life changed in 1927, when Inayat Khan traveled back to India to see his family, and fell ill and died in Delhi. So it was under tragic circumstances that the fourteen-year-old Noor had her first visit to India in 1928, to pay respects along with the rest of her family at Rahmat’s tomb. Now she had to be the mother leading the family in their existence in France, because her grieving mother retreated in to a life of seclusion. Their Indian uncles living in France supported them financially. Noor played sitar, piano and harp; but she also had the gift of story. After attending a French university, she began a career writing children’s stories and translating Indian stories into English. Then the Germans invaded France. Their way of life had ended. This was a watershed moment for the family who had grown up believing strongly in nonviolence. Would they aid the British, who had been the enemy of their father?

Noor as “Nora Baker” serving with the SOE

Noor understood the the danger of the Nazis. She and her brothers felt called to support the resistance, and they decided the best way to do that seemed to return to England and offer their service. Here she used the name Nora Baker to fit in with the other women workers and not attract suspicion due to her half-Indian heritage. The story of her childhood and the challenge she faced is well-described in a biography by Shrabani Basu. A PBS documentary-drama, “Enemy of the Reich,” is another take on her story.

Noor was one of the first women radio operators trained in Morse Code—and decoding messages for the government could have been the extent of her work, save for one fact. She was a fluent French speaker, and that attracted the attention of the office of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the famed espionage organization set up by the British to sabotage Nazi operations in Europe. Noor was interviewed by Selwyn Jepson, the British crime writer who became the SOE’s chief recruiter. Jepson asked if she would be willing to travel back to France and transmit messages. He said she would not be protected by international laws of warfare, and only receive ordinary service pay that would be held for her in England and given to her upon return—or to her survivors, if she didn’t.

Despite the dangers of the job, Noor immediately agreed. While Jepson felt confident about her, other men in the SOE were concerned that perhaps she was too naïve and honest. Her own father had taught her that the worst sin was to lie. While in training as an agent in Britain, she spoke to a police officer who stopped her and said she was in the SOE—a major mistake. She was counseled and allowed to continue, in large part because her speed and skill at transmitting messages was top notch.

Noor parachuted into France in 1943, clinging fast to the 30-pound suitcase carrying all her transmission equipment and false identity papers naming her “Jeanne-Marie.” Her codename, “Madeleine,” was one she chose from the stories she wrote. Just like her own mother—she had changed identity. Noor’s first action was to unite with the spy network, Prosper, to which she was assigned; but within a week, all of the members of the group were betrayed and arrested. The rookie espionage agent was on her own. The London office ordered her to return—but she refused, saying that since she was the only information conduit from Paris, she would stay until a replacement came. The government knew her capture was inevitable, but saw her act as the sacrifice of a soldier in the line of duty.

“Jeanne-Marie” worked hard sending messages and running from one part of Paris to the next, evading capture several times. She was doing the work of a six-person group alone. She communicated with a small group of French agents as well as the British. Some of her achievements during her first four months of work were identifying places for British to drop arms, assisting agents in getting out, managing distribution of arms, and insuring the escape of 30 airmen who’d been shot down in France.

The Germans knew of her existence, so she began changing her hair color—first to red, and then to blonde—and went back to the old neighborhood where she’d lived as a child. Former neighbors were willing to take her in, despite the danger she posed.

With the frequent captures of agents all around her, she must have known how close she was dancing to the fire. One day, she went to meet Canadian agents per London’s directions; the problem was, the Canadians had been captured and the people she met were non-German Nazis. Noor worked unknowingly with them for several weeks, but she was ultimately arrested and questioned in a Gestapo interrogation prison set up in an elegant mansion at 84 Avenue Foch. Unfortunately, it took quite a while for the British to understand she’d been captured—they kept sending messages on the radio, and the Germans answered using false information.

Other people held at the same time said that Noor resisted giving information even under torture. She attempted escape at least twice; in the end she was kept in solitary confinement and shackled. I can only imagine how dispiriting this must have been, and I wonder if she turned to the prayers and songs of her childhood for comfort.

The war had definitively turned in the Allies’ favor in September, 1944, and it became crucial for the Nazis to eliminate imprisoned agents who might later reveal their actions during the war. Noor and other women resistance agents were transferred from France to Germany and the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. There, Noor was identified as an especially dangerous type—they called her “the Creole” and was given the most sadistic treatment. She spent her sole night at Dachau being kicked and beaten and was ultimately shot to death along with the other women agents. It was September 13, 1944—seven months before the camp was liberated by the Allies.

Noor Inayat Khan was just one of many women working against Hitler who were killed in the line of duty. She is popularly called her the “Spy Princess” due to the long-ago link to Tippu Sultan, although she was by no means a royal.

Noor never was able to see her family after leaving England for France in 1943—and she certainly didn’t get the service pay the British government promised for her service. But she was one of three SOE women awarded the George Cross, and she also received the French Croix se Guerre.

Five years ago, the British artist Karen Newman sculpted her image. Her likeness stands in London’s Gordon Square near her former childhood home. Fortunately, it does not say “Spy Princess,” a title she would never have been called, had she lived. Noor’s face holds a quiet, melancholy expression—as if she knows this, too.

The Usual Santas

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

It seems like yesterday, but it was last summer. I was dutifully working on edits when I got a surprising email. My editor, Juliet, had informed me about a Christmas mystery short story anthology scheduled for October 2017. Soho Press authors writing mysteries set in different parts of the world had turned in their contributions a year earlier—but there was enough room to add one more story. Did I want to submit something?

I thought about it for a few days.  Short story crime fiction is more terrifying a process to me than novel writing. It means grabbing an idea and introducing suspects, motivations and various twists and turns within the space of a few thousand words. While there are many writers—including right here, amongst my Murder is Everywhere comrades—who can dash off a short story in a day or two, I find the process of writing a story takes months. And when I’m done, the story is always longer than the guideline. If the average writer can take ten words to say something—I’ll use twenty.

I had to ask myself—how can I afford the time to write a short story? And would it really be good enough to go in the collection? The formidable lineup included our very own Cara Black. And speaking of lineups, the book’s title was coy: The Usual Santas.

I really wanted to do it. And despite my slowness, I had an idea.

Like many writers, I have built a graveyard of rough drafts inside my computer. I had a full draft of a story featuring my new mystery heroine, Perveen Mistry, Bombay’s first woman lawyer. She’s a Zoroastrian living  in a city filled with others like herself—as well as Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews and Christians. My story was almost there—but not quite. Could I “Christmas up” the story and meet the 4 week deadline?

Madame Blavatsky with Hindu Theosophists in the 1880s

There’s nothing like a deadline to get the juices flowing. And the fact was that Bombay in 1921 was a place rich in spiritual interchanges. My story draft was inspired by the history of the Theosophists, a group of European, American and Indian seekers who had interest in shared mystical roots of world religions. The movement was divided into competitive factions in the early 20th century. It was also led by two strong women: the first, Madame Helena Blavatsky, was a fascinating Russian expatriate who settled in India, and the second, Annie Besant, was an Irishwoman who worked alongside Indians resisting British rule.

Annie Besant often wore a plain sari

Inspired by these folks, I created a fictional group of international thinkers called “Realists” for my story titled “Hairpin Holiday.” My heroine, Perveen Mistry, is just an everyday lawyer working in her family firm. She has to make sure her client, a Jewish hotelier, does not suffer any losses during their controversial lecture booked into his hotel ballroom—at the same time as the Asiatic Society’s swinging Christmas party.

Of course, the problem is more than a contract. And yes, Father Christmas makes a brief showing!

The cover has sparkly red letters—perfect for Christmas!

When the handsome, 400-page collection of 18 stories was published a couple of weeks ago, I received my complimentary copies. I opened it up to smile at funny endpapers featuring caricatures of a number of us. Even one of my dogs—the gentleman beagle Charlie—made it into the drawing! We had been asked by the artist what we usually have in our hands. Cara chose her cappuccino cup, and I carry a dog leash.

I was fascinated by Cara’s story, “Cabaret Aux Assassins.” Without giving too much away, I’ll hint that it’s a epistolary mystery that has something to do with both Sherlock Holmes and the Dreyfus affair, and the tale is set in Paris of the 1890s.

There are terrific stories by more writers you may already know: Stephanie Barron, Henry Chang, Gary Corby, Colin Cotterill, Timothy Hallinan, Mette Ivie Harrison, Teresa Dovalpage, Line Kaaberbol and Agnette Fries, Martin Limon, Helene Tursten, Mick Herron, Ed Lin, Stuart Neville, Tod Goldberg, and James R. Benn. And the inimitable Peter Lovesey, who also wrote the foreword.

“I’d better warn you there are shocks in the plenty,” Peter Lovesy promises. “Nothing will top the appearance of the heavenly host to those hapless shepherds, but there is plenty here to get your heart thumping.”

Read our starred Publishers Weekly review—and enjoy a taste of a December, bright or bleak, all around the world.

Psst! Several terrific bookstores will holding holiday parties this December 2017 where you can get The Usual Santas signed! The raft of participating authors at these book parties is a mystery still unfolding—but I’m gonna leak to you that I will be among them. Check with McIntryre’s Books in North Carolina and the Mysterious Bookshop in New York. And watch my website for more details of the Santa parties as they emerge.

The New Dog Blog

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Daisy, newest resident of the Massey household

I thought I was done with babies fifteen years ago. But there’s a baby in our Baltimore house again—a fur-baby.

She arrived by car!

The adventure began when my college student daughter was scrolling Facebook and found a frantic post from a woman overwhelmed with four children and two dogs. The smaller dog was a winsome puppy who was too hard to train. My daughter bought the dog and had it headquartered at a friend’s place. The two of them named her Dazy. In our house, she became “Daisy.”

What the hell is this little animal?

Daisy is an odd looking scamp—sometimes I think she looks more like a weasel or fox than hound. Some have said she looks like a Wookiee from Star Wars, but I don’t remember Wookiees. Chewbacca? The dog appears to be a Yorkshire terrier mix, with the addition being perhaps Chihuahua or something else. She’s about ten months old, weighs a tad more than 8 pounds.

Charlie is the canine patriarch

We did not appreciate our daughter buying a dog, even if she was ostensibly bunking somewhere else. We already had a beloved dog—an elder statesman beagle. Charlie has three jobs: firstly, sleeping on the couch; secondly, writer’s muse, and finally, the harbinger of any suspicious dogs passing the house. Given his solitude and set routine, we didn’t think a 12-year-old gentleman would like a high-spirited puppy running around. We expected snarling or avoidance.

Now they’re family

From the moment he met her, Charlie fell in love with Daisy—perhaps because she’s female, small and cute. Daisy is non-dominant and very affectionate, but she sometimes shows her jealous streak, trying to cut Charlie off when he heads for the comfort of my lap. Her best trick is to begin barking at the side door, which causes Charlie to jump down from the couch to run and defend the household. Once he’s vacated the couch cushion, Daisy gracefully jumps into it.

This is to show scale!

Over time, the big boy and the little girl got to know each other beyond the pretty faces. Daisy began spending whole weekends here when my daughter was busy. After the friend lost housing and became an ex, Daisy moved in with us for the duration. We are working with a dog trainer on walking and other important behaviors, but it seems that Daisy’s working equally hard training us. We sound like idiots now. “She’s done both numbers!” is the victory cry I make during a good morning or evening. There is a lot of walking going on—yes, it cuts in on writing, cleaning and bathing—and also lots of throwing of chew toys.

Sadly, Daisy’s idea of a really good chew toy is a mahogany dining table. Bitter Apple spray only dissuades her temporarily. She’s a lot of work, but she has taught Charlie to play like he’s young again. The sight of them tangling together with gentle grunts is as sweet as when my human children played Legos.

Belly cushion for nap time

The Secret Life of Maharanis

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Searching for maharanis at Jagmandir Palace in Udaipur

One of my favorite parts of a recent India trip was staying at the City Palace in Udaipur. This is the seat of the Mewar kingdom—a dynasty of Rajput kings who were never conquered by the Moghals or British. Mewar joined with other Rajput kingdoms in northern India to become the state of Rajasthan in the Democracy of India after 1947.

Guest room view at Shiv Niwas Palace hotel within the Udaipur palace complex

While the Government of India doesn’t provide funds to support the old maharajas’ lifestyles—and their properties—the nobles at least had the pleasure of retaining their titles and homes. The Udaipur City Palace has a maharaja with wife and children still living in their own guarded residence—a proximity that adds glamour to the visit.

But in the historic section of the palace that serves as a museum, I began revising my ideas about what it was like to be a maharani. The zenana section in which royal women were protected from view was hot and shadowy due to the windows being carved jali screens rather than open to views. I was overcome by a sensation of being closed in. Even the women’s outdoor courtyard was small and dull, compared to other outdoor spaces at the palace.

After that short tour, the life of an Indian maharani seemed like imprisonment.

The book I found at Ames Library

But there’s nothing like hearing the story from a maharani herself.

Recently, I was at the Ames Library of South Asia in Minneapolis. I came across an old book titled Autobiography of an Indian Princess. I knew I had to read it—and thank goodness I was able to find a reprinted edition online to add to my own library.

Autobiography of An Indian Princess was penned in 1921 by Sunity Devee, the 57-year-old Dowager Maharani of Cooch Behar, a small northeastern kingdom near Bengal that remained independent of British rule. Actually, the title’s a bit of a misnomer. Sunity was a maharani, which means queen. The English government insisted on calling Indian maharajas and maharanis “princes” and “princesses” so as not to overshadow the Empress of India: Queen Victoria.

Maharani Sunity Devee photographed in London

Sunity was a commoner born of “good family” in Calcutta. Her father, Keshub Chunder Sen, was a famous minister and social reformer who converted from Hinduism to the Brahmo Samaj, a faith founded by Bengali Hindus who wanted to worship one deity (Brahma) rather than multiple Hindu gods and goddesses. The British in India thought highly of Mr. Sen and worked hard to persuade him to allow a match between 13-year-old Sunity and 16-year-old Nripendra, the crown prince of Cooch Behar. Sunity’s father had worked hard to ensure passage of a law setting the minimum age of marriage for Hindu girls living in British India at 14. The bride’s tender age resulted in considerable verbal backlash against Keshub Chunder Sen, although the actual marital cohabitation did not begin until she was sixteen and her husband nineteen and returned from his schooling in England.

Sunity’s sons photographed in London during their school days: the two eldest boys became maharajas

Sunity and Nripendra’s arranged marriage turned out to be a very happy one. The royal couple shared interests such as traveling, fashion and jewelry, literature and art, and high society. They had four sons and three daughters, insuring the security of the royal line—which pleased Cooch Behar’s population.  Sunity spoke just Bengali at the time of her marriage, but learned other Indian languages and English fluently. She was constantly in London and became arguably the most popular Indian woman in British society. Sunity was friends with Cornelia Sorabji, the Parsi woman lawyer who represented the interests of many Indian noblewomen in the early 1900s. Cornelia stayed with Sunity in the zenana at Cooch Behar so the two could discuss books. Sunity and Cornelia tried to establish a nursing school for Indian women, but it never came to be.

Sunity’s granddaughter Ayesha, on far right of one of her brothers, became a maharani and then was elected member of India’s parliament

Reading Sunity’s autobiography, I learned that in Cooch Behar, purdah and zenana were customs observed at home only. This meant Sunity traveled in a heavily curtained palanquin so the country’s people could not catch sight of her face, and she cooked and prayed and concentrated on childcare and lived in the palace zenana. She obeyed her husband’s directive not to ride or play tennis. When Sunity was away from Cooch Behar, though, she posed happily for photographs in French couture gowns.

And while Sunity adored her British royal friends in Britain, she chafed at the way the British in India treated Indians. In exchange for the right to rule over their own lands, maharajas were forced to pay annual taxes to Britain—taxes that could be raised if the British political agent took a dislike to the maharaja. The British government also had the power to investigate a kingdom’s accounts at any time, and to even choose a successor to the throne if the maharaja didn’t have a son.

The controls over royalty were as tight or even tighter than for everyday Indians. A maharaja had no right to travel outside of India without getting permission from his British political agent. This agent might tell him where his sons must go away to school, and they created their own boarding schools for Indian noblemen inside India where they received a biased education (Maharaja Nrirenda himself went to such a place before finishing up in England). The elaborate supervision seemed meant to create a line of obedient princely states.

Sunity’s boys were all educated abroad at the order of the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal—despite her wish to have them stay longer at home. As a result, the sons came home from Eton speaking French and Greek, but having forgotten their local language.

The Cooch Behar royal family was regarded throughout India as the most westernized royals—and in most eyes, this was not a compliment. They were envied, but not really able to live lives of their choosing. For instance, when Sunity’s eldest son, the crown prince Rajey, finished his Oxford education and wanted to work with his father’s ministers in the Cooch Behar government, the plan was refused. The British government said he had to join Lord Curzon’s Army Cadet Corps instead—a fancy honor guard. This diversion kept him from learning what he needed to know about Cooch Behar to be an effective ruler.

Rajey and his younger brother Jit grew up to serve as maharajas of Cooch Behar. The three daughters (Girlie, Pretty and Baby) were taught to ride, play tennis and dance, and all had sophisticated educations. The parents matched Girlie to a respectable, non-royal Calcutta boy of Brahmo faith and allowed Pretty and Baby to marry Englishmen and live in England. Ironically, the Cooch Behar princesses’ lifestyles in the 1920s were too advanced to make them suitable for marrying Indian maharajas at the turn of the century. And the England that both enthralled and frustrated Sunity was the place where she thought her daughters would do best.

I was fascinated with the idea of princesses when I was a child—and in my adulthood I’ve turned into a serious India royalty buff, thanks to the fascinating backstories of many of India’s princely states. In addition to The Autobiography of an Indian Princess by Sunity Devee, I am digging Lucy Moore’s Maharanis: The Extraordinary Tale of Four Indian Queens and Their Journey from Purdah to Parliament and Posing for Posterity: Royal Indian Portraits by Pramod Kumar. There’s a great series on the Indian NDTV channel called Royal Reservation which gives the viewer a quirky, inside tour of various palaces and has candid interviews with the royals who still live there. Watching one of the programs, I was intrigued to learn that a Muslim begum (equivalent of maharani) in Gujarat hopes to open the doors to her palace’s zenana as a hotel for women tourists.

The Horrible New Face of Clowns

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Pennywise

As noted recently in The Washington Post, now is a bad time to be afraid of clowns.

Because they are everywhere.

Pennywise the Dancing Clown features in the film It, based on Stephen King’s famous book. And when I tuned into the FX program American Horror Story Season 7, I found more than one very twisted, homicidal clown. Later this year, a film called Behind the Sightings releases that is inspired by alleged menacing clown appearances in 2016.

This coming Saturday, September 15, 2017, clown-styled people will be gathering to protest in Washington, D.C. These self-described “Juggalos,” who first organized in appreciation of a band called Insane Clown Posse, are protesting their classification as a gang by the FBI and US Department of Justice. The Juggalos claim that people with Juggalo clothing, makeup and paraphernalia have gone on criminal watchlists, lost jobs, and more. After looking at their photos, it appears most of the Juggalos are not in full clown drag, but enjoy elements of clown makeup and clothing.

So when did clowns become frightening enough to get the government involved?

It seems a journey centuries in the making. Early clowns appeared in Europe and Asia as court jesters or buffoons. They were mainly jokers and not necessarily dressed to obfuscate their identities. These clowns played a role in government—not just to entertain royalty and their visitors, but to sometimes provide inside information. Then came circuses—with exotic animals often led by trainers in clown costumes, and clowns onstage and in parades and at children’s parties. A clown seemed like shorthand for fun.

In the 1960s, a clown with a bright red wig became an upbeat symbol for McDonald’s hamburger chain. Ronald McDonald, and a small cast of cartoonish friends, were designed to make children beg their parents to stop at the restaurant’s trademarked Golden Arches.

However, the longtime, happy go lucky McDonald’s clown image became tainted when subversive Japanese filmmakers made short film clips purporting to be commercials showing a Ronald McDonald character stalking young women in their homes. These images went viral and resulted in McDonald’s downplaying Ronald.

This corporate action is striking, because Ronald McDonald houses provide overnight shelter for the families of sick children are all over the United States—sometimes for weeks at a time. And inside many hospitals, amateur and professional clowns regularly visit children on the wards. The World Clown Association supports traditional clown work in circuses and in parades and service activities aimed at military veterans and senior citizens. They have spoken against nonprofessionals using a clown image to frighten the public.

I don’t suffer from fear of clowns, which has a formal name: coulrophobia. I grew up of age when clowning was highly popular, and in fact evolved into a huge 1970s fad for mimes with beautifully painted faces. The greatest pantomime of all, a Frenchman named Marcel Marceau, performed in white face. Seeing a picture of Marceau in his skinny outfit with top hat and fabric flower triggered pleasant memories for me.

I grew up to witness my own children’s natural discomfort with people covered up in outsized costumes, whether they were familiar Sesame Street characters or clowns. I get it. If you see someone who doesn’t have the skin or hair or hands of a person, and whose face is fixed into a false, colorful grin, your brain registers alarm. A face that doesn’t react with empathy or other expressions feels unsafe.

I imagine that the people who dressed up as clowns and appeared near playgrounds and on the edges of woods in 2016 and other recent times enjoyed carefully putting on makeup and costume and becoming something unrecognizable. There is a real power when one transforms the everyday appearance.  If you’ve ever changed your appearance for a wedding, dance, job interview, military occasion or religious event, you may have had this feeling of becoming bigger and bolder than your usual self.

Former Trump advisor and current Breitbart News executive chairman Steve Bannon labeled white supremacists as “clowns”—notwithstanding the fact that many of these so-called clowns are followers of his right wing website.

The irony is that on Saturday, Sept. 16, Trump supporters will rally on the Mall in Washington very close to where the Juggalos have their permit. Any resulting interactions may become a circus—but I doubt there will be happy laughter.

Knocked Off Their Pedestals in Baltimore

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I cannot call myself a native Baltimorean. However, I’ve spent almost two-thirds of my life in this so-called “Charm City,” so I call myself one by conversion. I love my town.

When I arrived here fresh off the plane for college, I believed I was going to a Southern city—but I quickly reversed my thoughts, as I realized I was 3 hours from New York, 1 hour from Philadelphia and Washington DC, and almost everyone at school was from the Northeast. Yes, there were crabs that came from an amazing microclimate on Maryland’s Eastern shore, but the accents were nothing like true Southern accents. But evidence remained. Before the Civil War, Maryland was a slave-holding state—although its proximity to Washington DC put it on the Union side during the Civil War. 65,000 Marylanders fought for the Union while 22,000 joined the Confederate troops.

The Civil War ended with President Lincoln issuing the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all people in the US from slavery. For some, that was a hard pill to swallow. All across the South, efforts were made to keep blacks from living free and dignified lives. Jim Crow laws established boundaries between blacks and whites. In Baltimore in the early through mid-1900s, Confederate organizations raised funds and got permits to put up four monuments to their past on public land.

But statues aren’t just placeholders in parks.

Earlier this month, a heavily-armed white supremacist rally gathered to carry torches and shout messages of hate at a Confederate monument in Charlottesville, Virginia, that the city had voted to remove. “Unite the Right” brought together Nazis, the Klan, and new white supremacy groups. And then they turned on the peaceful counter protestors who’d come. One woman died and 33 people were injured during hours of violence where the police stood by. Although President Trump took it in stride, many people in the country were aghast.  And mayors and governors of Southern states realized that the monuments on their streets could very likely bring the supremacists to visit them.

Within days of the Charlottesville rally,  Baltimore’s recently-elected mayor Catherine Pugh ordered the monuments removed. Her action was received with relief by many Baltimoreans, including myself.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney’s statue stood at Mt. Vernon Place

This monument’s base has bloody-looking trickles of red paint

To the outside, the action to remove might have looked like a quick reaction, but it was a long time coming. Many activists in recent years have showed up to protest the Confederate sympathizers who chose to gather at the Robert E. Lee/Stonewall Jackson monument during Martin Luther King weekend. As my friend who organized a silent vigil there over many years said, it was stressful for her children to see the people come to mourn the loss of slavery. It seemed like a slap in the face to do it during the King holiday, although the Confederates explained to the protestors they were doing it at the time of both Lee’s and Jackson’s birthdays.

Some people have suggested that removing the Confederate statues is an act comparable to the what the Taliban or Isis has done when they’ve conquered places. But these statues were erected many decades after the Civil War. They are not part of the city’s slave history. The organizations that erected them were shrewd to place them in the city’s most beautiful and prestigious locations, near museums and colleges where visitors to Baltimore would have to see them. The monuments were put up during times that whites were intent on pushing back civil liberties for racial minorities.

Baltimore tried to deal with the statues gently. They experimented with placing plaques next to the statues explaining this provenance—but the statues were still upsetting to people. A commission of Baltimoreans appointed by the previous mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, studied the issue and recommended removal of two statues, but to leave two in place with plaques of explanation. The two the commission decided to leave were the ones relating to Confederate soldiers who perished—rather than Roger Taney, the former Supreme Court chief justice who affirmed the right of slave owners, and Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s most famous generals.

Why shouldn’t the statues remain with plaques of explanation? My mind was changed after I heard Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott speak. He said that slavery is a 9-11 for African-Americans. Allowing the statues of those who loved slavery is tantamount to putting up statues of the hijackers who hit New York’s World Trade Center in 2001. And these statues weren’t destroyed. Right now the removed statues are safely covered up and waiting on an undisclosed city lot. They have a future, somewhere.

I drove around last weekend to look at what was left of the monuments. The bases were still standing. Some of them had been hit with red paint that looked like blood, and others with graffiti.

On right, Cellis; to left are members of UXU, the multi-media organization that produces his videos

When I arrived at the site of the former Robert E. Lee-Stonewall Jackson monument, I was intrigued to find a cluster of young men there. Several had cameras out, a boombox was playing, and one man sat atop the statue performing a rap song.

After the song was done, I met the rapper/songwriter, Cellis, who is a well-known artist activist. Cellis comes from Baltimore and has recorded strong songs outspoken on police brutality and gay rights. His new song will be a proclamation of resistance to white supremacy.

The Baltimore Sun’s photographers have photographed the statues and their sites before and after. See whether you think we suffered a devastating cultural loss. The Baltimore Office of Promotion and Arts is inviting artists to create sculptures to stand where the old monuments were. A beautiful future, which we can’t yet imagine.

Indian Chutney for an American Summer

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

In the height of summer, a heap of imperfectly gorgeous tomatoes rest on my kitchen island. They beseech me to touch them and make something great. The obvious thing would be to make a lush sauce—but it’s 90 degrees outside, and I’m not in the mood for cozy Italian pasta.

No. These tomatoes are calling out their wish to become a chutney.

“Chatni” is a classic accompaniment to a South Asian meal containing rice, meat and vegetable dishes, and breads. In a typical chatni, fruits and vegetables such as tomato or mango are slow-cooked with spices and ginger, various forms of chilies and the solid brown sugar called jaggery. Jaggery comes from palm sap or sugar cane and is sold in Asian grocery stores. Sometimes garlic and onion are part of the mix. Before the British, mustard and other oils were used to help keep the chutneys from spoiling. The ingredient of vinegar in chutneys comes from Britain, but is now part of some Indian chutney recipes.

Yogurt-based sauces also are known as chutneys; most famously the coriander-mint chutney served at almost every Indian restaurant, and the creamy, sweet and spicy coconut chutney essential to South Indian dosa.

When the British tasted chatni, they loved it. They anglicized the spelling to “chutney” and found ways, after they went back to Britain, to make new chutneys with fruits like apples, plums and rhubarb and the preservative vinegar. A few months ago, I had a great experience making rhubarb chutney. They also created “Major Grey’s Mango Chutney,” a style of sweet and sticky chutney containing raisins, vinegar and a bit of tamarind that is an ingredient in many an American chicken salad. In my family, it is the standard slather over a cheddar cheese sandwich—or grilled cheese.

Sweet mango chutney is the starter chutney for children who are cautious about foreign tastes. Growing up, I had a big spoonful of sweet mango chutney with almost every home cooked Indian meal. I can’t imagine eating biryani without some mango chutney mixed in. These days, Indian food companies such as Patak’s make these Anglo-style mango chutneys with chilies included, if you like.

Back to the homemade tomato chutney. My recipe is inspired by a traditional one found in The Calcutta-Cookbook, A Treasury of Recipes from Pavement to Palace by Minakshie “Kewpie” Das Gupta, Bunny Gupta and Jaya Chaliha. Kewpie was a legendary Bengali home cook and cookbook writer. After Kewpie’s passing, her family opened a jewelbox of a café in her honor within their historic home at 2 Elgin Road. Kewpie’s is a must for lunch, if you are visiting South Kolkata. And the cookbook details how to make “Colonel’s Sweet and Hot Mango Chutney,” which is surely more delicious than the commercial version.

Kewpie’s placemats have charming vintage-inspired drawings of Calcutta life

During my frequent lunches at Kewpie’s in the late 1990s, I enjoyed food served on banana leaves and old-fashioned terra cotta plates. There would always be several extraordinary fresh chutneys served. Not to mention spicy pickles—but vegetable pickle is a story for another column!

My tomato chutney, which does not include raisins or too much chili firepower, is great on sandwiches, burgers, alongside grilled meat and fish. You can mix in 1/3 cup of it with eggplant that’s been roasted and mashed. You wind up with something very much like the famous dish Baigan Bharta, but with 75% less work.

Chutney’s jammy consistency, when it’s ready

The farmer’s market sells larger bunches of herbs than can be eaten in a week—so again, the answer is chutney. I make my cilantro-mint chutney with Greek yogurt for extra protein. It’s a natural with crispy treats like samosas, pakoras or with grilled fish. This green chutney is a great marinade for chicken pieces to be baked or grilled.

Here are my tomato, cilantro-mint and rhubarb chutney recipes. Please note that these chutneys are designed to be refrigerated in glass jars or bowls with lids. They are not shelf-stable.

I’m winding up my culinary adventures to return to my real work: writing a novel. It strikes me, though, that concocting a chutney is a bit like writing a mystery. There are so many interchangeable small parts: fruits and vegetables, spices, and preserving vinegars or oils. When I write, I pull together many pieces: characters, plots and sub-plots, settings, conflicts, motivations. I contemplate when I’ve got too much of one thing or am missing an important element. My book’s components are adjusted as it grows toward a finished state.

But while it takes a year for me to write a book, a chutney rarely simmers more than thirty minutes.  This makes it a small but gratifying accomplishment.

The Mint-Flavored Novel

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Sujata, Jeffery Deaver, and Mid-Atlantic MWA chapter prez Donna Andrews

A week ago Sunday, I sat in a crowded conference room in Bethesda and listened to a few comparison of novels to toothpaste. When you go looking for toothpaste at the drugstore, what would you think if your favorite one was missing—because Proctor & Gamble hadn’t felt inspired to make any toothpaste that month?

And if you were planning to launch a toothpaste for humans, would you flavor it with liver because it was your great original idea, or would you choose mint?

These were some of the provocative questions posed by Jeffery Deaver, the current president of Mystery Writers of America (MWA) and the bestselling author of 35 thrillers, most recently The Burial Hour. Mr. Deaver had kindly come to Bethesda, MD to teach a writing craft workshop, “Taking It To The Next Level,” for the Mid-Atlantic chapter of MWA. Not all of he had to say was new to me, but honestly, we writers forget what we should be doing. The care and revision taken with a first novel can easily fall by the wayside once a writer’s on a yearly publishing schedule. Listening to Mr. Deaver’s multi-page presentation (he gave us all typed notes on clipboards!) was like imbibing a very healthy smoothie after years of too much coffee.

Our guru started our morning by explaining the toothpaste metaphor: “You write for people, you don’t write for yourself. You are a professional running a business. And with the regard to the flavor of your book—think if it has an audience. You need to ask is this concept, “mint”? Is the plotting “mint,” are the character names “mint”?

This advice doesn’t exactly line up with the “write the book you want to read that doesn’t yet exist” tip that explains how I’ve come up with my concepts for two mystery series. I believe his concept of “mint,” though, doesn’t mean writing something that’s already out there. It refers to creating a book that’s easy for readers to fall in love with, that tastes good from the very first page.

He spent gobs of time talking about how to plan a book—because that’s how he spends eight months every year, doing research (always saved in his own words) and a plot outline that’s usually 150 pages long. He likens the craft of building a book by following directions, just as aviation engineers put together an airplane. Would the engineers stick a wing or a tail in a random place just because they felt like it?  No! They always follow directions.

Mr. Deaver points out the time that will be saved if you plan rather than experiment. I too am an outliner, but the longest outline I’ve written was just shy of thirty pages. And I’ve never solved every nuance of the mystery in my outlines, which he says is the lynchpin to writing a satisfying mystery or thriller.

He acknowledged writers can go forward without having plotted everything, but they will spend much more time thinking of what to write than actually writing.

The hardest thing for me is looking at an elaborate sequence of linked events that lead to a startling conclusion that makes complete sense. I freeze when it comes to writing twisty plots—but when Mr. Deaver was talking about it, I suddenly realized that it might be fun to try—and I could keep track of each idea by putting it on a Post-It note.

So, the day after the workshop, I tried. Not only with the plot of my next book, but with a family tree for my characters. With deep outlining, I could track my backstory of the mystery as well as the chief adventure. However, I was doing this outlining at the midpoint of writing book 2, not before the whole shebang. But that was fine. I was seeing new opportunities for using my characters since I’d been working with them a few months already.

Back to “Taking It To The Next Level.” I perked up after a coffee break, when the topic turned to writing stories that hook readers emotionally. Mr. Deaver had plenty to say—more than I can reprise here (he will teach this course again). I appreciated his point about the writer frequently raising questions that have important consequences. This means lots of cliffhangers and “wow moments”—rather than just one big climax, as is the structure in a lot of mysteries. “Promise and don’t deliver!” he said, reminding me of someone in Washington, DC. He meant raising questions in the reader’s mind and delaying answering them for as long as possible.

And then there’s the issue of making good on all the suspicious aspects you’ve raised. Don’t leave the red herrings uncooked! Jeffery Deaver strives to resolve every conflict, character, clue and subplot by the end. He will go through a manuscript 30 to 40 times to make sure this happens, and that the language sounds utterly natural. By the time such a book is finished, it is a “mint” example of quality mystery.

In the last minutes of the class Mr. Deaver warned us to never allow our characters to get in jeopardy because of a stupid act like allowing a phone to go dead. And conversely, I’m relieved that not one of the writers’ mobile phones rang during the workshop.

Original Brooklyn

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Summer driving trips are on an upswing. Why not? Gas is cheap, and it’s often faster to drive to nearby state than to fly or take the train. Feeling all these things, plus a desire for a short summer road trip, I packed up the Highlander Hybrid and took off for Brooklyn.

The mission was for my husband and me to deliver our teenage son to three-week-long performing arts camp, a significant expense—but one that we sensed would give him a great deal of pleasure, and perhaps help him think about ways to share his stellar guitar performances beyond the confines of his bedroom. And the SUV had enough room to carry an amp and guitar and all the extras needed for a camper—plus room for my  husband and me to bring overnight bags for our own adventure.

We were all going to be happy campers.

Tony and I hadn’t been in Brooklyn since visiting friends 22 years ago who were renting in the once borderline North Brooklyn neighborhood of Cobble Hill. Our friends had long since departed a neighborhood that became very chic. We stayed in a small hotel at the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Smith Street, which had turned into a kind of gourmet row full of Danish, French and Asian restaurants. Brooklyn seemed a paradise of good food and sophisticated little shops selling everything from tea to the premium British Farrow and Ball paint.

Still, you knew it wasn’t a fake city. The Brooklyn Detention Center faced directly across the street from the Nu Hotel. However, the jail also looked rebuilt.

Fortunately, the Middle Eastern grocery shops I remembered from the 1990s were still thriving on Atlantic Avenue. Sahadi’s had a James Beard Award sign in its window when we walked in to buy Aleppo pepper flakes and ras-el-hanout Moroccan spice mix. I got my pita across the way at Damascus Bread and Pastry Shop, which was filled with jovial customers perhaps shopping for Eid.

After we’d stashed the food in the hotel, we wandered into the residential area known as Boerum Hill. Did you ever read Betty Smith’s novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? Set 100 years ago, that novel showed the poverty and lack of opportunity for the poor and working class in Brooklyn. Today, a lot of tall trees line Brooklyn streets filled with well-kept brownstones. The attached-house architecture reminded me of typical areas in Baltimore, although ours are brick, stucco or wood—and we call them rowhouses. Deja vu continued when we went to dinner at a jazz supper club in Williamsburg, the neighborhood of the book. It was delightful to pass a bar that didn’t have hipsters drinking aperitifs, but older local people who were joyfully slapping dominos.

On a Sunday morning, we walked from our hotel to the Brooklyn Promenade, a walk that takes one along the piers of the waterfront known as Brooklyn Bridge Park. Lots of native plants had built a lush landscape, and tucked behind tall shrubs were a series of inviting family playgrounds, some of which had playground sets and others, pools and sprinklers.

At the Park’s Pier 1, we came upon “Descension,” an art installation by an Indian artist, Ashish Kapoor, who had created a large, round whirlpool filled by the nearby sea water. I found it mesmerizing to stare into the churning water. My thoughts whirled about how Brooklyn once was the kind of poor and working class town that Baltimore still (mostly) is. The two cities were linked by similar architecture, a past history of industry jobs, and attractive, developed urban waterfronts. But why was Brooklyn so much more successful?

The answer was staring at me across the water: Manhattan and its prime jobs. That’s what my own city needed to become more than a bleak setting for crime shows on television.

On our last morning in Brooklyn, Tony and I strolled Smith Street, looking for the teashop we’d recalled seeing during the hubbub of the previous evening’s street festival. The French cafe, Tabac, where I’d had a salad of greens, beets and goat cheese for the previous day’s lunch, was bustling with breakfast diners at its outdoor tables, but the area was largely quiet. We talked about how much we’d enjoyed Brooklyn, which was so surprisingly tranquil… but we couldn’t imagine upgrading to such a place. The cost!

We were startled by a tall man in his twenties walking fast toward us on the largely empty sidewalk. His mouth twisted into a grimace as he drew close. He barked: “You’re running it.” Seeing the confusion on our faces, because he clarified it. “You rich people are running it here.”

The stranger strode off before I could explain that we were actually “bridge and tunnel crowd” who couldn’t afford to buy a Boerum Hill brownstone and paint its door in Farrow & Ball aubergine. I tried to remember the last time someone had verbally accosted me in New York.

And then, I did.

Back in the 1980s, I was a young woman who occasionally came into New York to visit college friends and report news for the Baltimore Evening Sun. I remember arriving in Manhattan on a rainy afternoon and trying to hail a cab. One stopped, and its driver, a white man, gave me a second look after I told him to take me to the Upper East Side. He asked, “Do you tend to have trouble catching cabs?”

“When it rains, it’s difficult,” I’d answered uncertainly. What was he getting at?

He gave me a hard look. “I mean, isn’t it hard to get a cab because you looked Hispanic? Who wants to stop? I don’t want to drive to Spanish Harlem.”

The cabbie was trying to put me in my place—just as the guy on Smith Street was doing.

Back to 2017. I was shocked that a stranger would mistakenly infer from the sight of me that I was a wealthy interloper. Yet I couldn’t deny that we’d booked two nights in a hotel intending to enjoy the restaurants, shops and parks of Brooklyn.

However, in his mission to make a tourist couple feel uncomfortable, the angry young man communicated something quite valuable.

There are people living in Brooklyn who don’t have handsome houses with aubergine-painted doors. They are the Brooklyn originals who worry that, in a few years, there might not be any room left.