I Prefer a Thief With Good Taste

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Pennington’s Hoax is available at Amazon or directly from W&B Publishers

Even if you had my address you might not be able to find the house. After winding around a state highway for several miles out of town, one must eventually leave the main road for a series of country roads that eventually lead to a curving path. Provided that one’s GPS is still getting a signal, there is still a ways to go. If one doesn’t miss the turn, which is almost as obscure as the one leading to the Bat Cave, the gravel path that seemingly leads to nowhere gives normal people pause.

There are only four visible houses at that point, and none of them are mine. The gravel path descends and rises beneath a double row of looming trees until one reaches the fork. GPS has surely gone out at this point, so does one take the direction posted with signs warning about the consequences of heading any further in that direction, or does one choose the other path with the gate and more signs about prosecuting trespassers? Those who continue on the correct path will wind through more foreboding forest while trying not to imagine the various creatures that lurk in camouflage.

My office window is on the front of the house, and a year ago I was typing away on Pennington’s Hoax and promoting Murdered Justice when two suspicious cars emerged from the last part of the wooded driveway and stopped at the garage as if they owned the place. They were foolish, if you ask me. This area is very pro-Second Amendment, and I hear gunshots on a regular basis. The wise person assumes that every household is heavily armed.

After a few minutes, the trespassers got a clear indication that people were home, so they drove away casually; too casually for someone who had made an honest mistake.

Until that point, I had let my guard down. I had abandoned my city ways of staying alert, being aware of anyone who might be watching my movements, and checking doors when leaving the house for even the briefest errand. My assumptions about spooky driveways and menacing signs as deterrents to unwanted visitors had been wrong! I dragged out all the security tools, put more items in the safe, inquired about security monitoring, made a list of potential house sitters, and devised escape routes should the house actually become invaded.

After that, I no longer left electronics on the kitchen table when going to the store or even going outside for more than a few minutes. I secured any documents that shouldn’t be in the wrong hands, and filed a sheriff’s report after alerting the neighbors. No one has come back in a year, but I was reminded of the incident when going through some papers and saw a reference number for the sheriff’s case that I filed.

If someone broke in, I have lately realized that they wouldn’t want what they would find. There are bigger and newer televisions in other houses, newer electronics elsewhere, and not much that would fetch more than a few pennies wherever they might take their plunder. I recently read a short article entitled “A Burglar’s Goal is Your Bedroom.” Supposedly thieves are looking for our cash, jewelry, and firearms.

I considered the article’s advice and began to wonder about the motivation of thieves. Jean Valjean took bread. When I was a little kid, someone broke into our house and stole our washer filled with laundry while we were at church. That particular theft was so odd that one wonders if the thieves might not have been innocent people told to drop by and pick up an old washer. Finding no one at home at the wrong address, they broke a window, climbed in and wheeled the old Norge out the door. Breaking the window was not the act of an honest person, but a washer? Who steals a washer—and an old one at that? The robber was surely someone who had grown so tired of using a Laundromat that they would beg, borrow, or steal to avoid one.

Loaves of bread, old appliances, electronics, and firearms all lack the elegance of an art thief. Jewel thieves, for that matter, are much more chic in books and films like To Catch a Thief because they are after some gaudy necklace or a specific stone. Whether art or expensive jewels, the thieves must love what they have stolen so much because they can never sell it, share it, or show it to anyone. Demanding a ransom is their only course of action, but laying aside their motivation, art thievery requires a level of appreciation and a clever mind to pull off a heist.

It’s difficult to imagine a modern thief scaling a tiled roof like Carey Grant in the pursuit of something exquisite. I once knew a private art dealer who never watched television, but decided to break down and buy one. He’d had it three weeks, and it was still in the box when the thieves slipped into the garage one night before he could close the door after pulling his car inside. They forced their way into the house at gunpoint, eyed the art hanging on every surface of the house, took the TV and ran. I saw him after insurance paid his claim. He used the money to buy another nice piece and never replaced the TV.

Apparently we can leave the front door unlocked and a Rembrandt leaning against the wall next to it. It can sit there for two weeks, but if you try hiding your laptop in the underwear drawer while working in the garden, you may never see it again. As I continue to lament the decline of civilization, I have to ask where all the tasteful thieves have gone?

We must solve the opioid crisis, address wage inequality, and improve education at every level so that those who are going to steal can develop an aesthetic sense and go back to nicking nicer things.

© 2018 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, especially the two featuring Maggie Lyon, visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1

 

Interviewing Maggie Lyon

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Pennington’s Hoax is available at Amazon or directly from W&B Publishers

In this blog space I usually write about what’s happening in my life if I’m not promoting my books, which are, by the way, available directly from the publisher or at Amazon. My latest two books feature investigative journalist Maggie Lyon, and this week she’s agreed to take a break from her busy schedule to answer a few questions about her cases, her personal life, and what’s in store after solving Pennington’s Hoax.

PB: Maggie, I want to thank you for taking the time for this interview, and since you’re on a schedule, I’ll simply jump right in if that’s okay.

ML: My pleasure.

PB: While working on Pennington’s Hoax, you spent a lot of time in New Orleans. Aside from getting to the bottom of the Ely Pennington mystery, what are your favorite parts of the Crescent City?

ML: I love the slower pace. People who are always on the run and expecting quick results may be a little disappointed in New Orleans, but I’ve learned to allow for the extra time it takes to get things done down there. And, of course, I love the people. The stories, the traditions, the fact that so much of the lifestyle has endured in spite of the disasters. It’s a city filled with music and food, and food is very important to me.

PB: Of course food is important to you. You’re a former food writer, and your husband is a Michelin-starred chef with a global reputation. What are your favorite restaurants in New Orleans?

ML: Mark-Mario would never forgive me if I failed to mention his restaurant.

PB: You say “his restaurant.” Isn’t it partly yours?

ML: [Laughs] Well, yes, of course. On paper. We share everything, but he’s the chef. He developed the concept, still approves the menu even when he’s not there for weeks at a time, and he made every decision from location down to the plates. I’ve really had nothing to do with the place except enjoy a fantastic meal there from time to time.

PB: Did you eat there every day during the Pennington case?

ML: No. I have my other favorites. In the book I talk about eating at Brennan’s—an old haunt that’s been around for ages, and I did eat at Mother’s for breakfast on several occasions. You can’t go to New Orleans without eating at Deanie’s, and having po’ boys on Magazine Street. I try new places whenever I’m down there, but I can’t abandon my old favorites. And, of course, you have to work out every day if you want to indulge.

PB: Pennington’s Hoax took you to New Orleans, but you seem to indicate in the book that it was almost by accident that this case fell into your lap. I seem to recall that your agent Rina Akin asked you for a favor, and the next thing you knew you were headed for the Garden District down there.

ML: I guess you could say that without Rina bringing Ely Pennington’s new book to my attention, I wouldn’t have had a case.

 PB: You went head to head with Rina several times in the book. How’s your relationship now?

ML: [Looks hesitant] Rina and I are good now. We’ve been friends for such a long time, and even though I messed up—and boy, did I mess up—we found our way back to each other. I tend to describe her in my books as fast-talking, brash, hard-as-nails, but she would do anything for me. I would do anything for her. We’re pals, and I expect that we’ll be working together for a long time.

PB: Did she mind how you portrayed her in the book? All those scenes, I mean. You abandoned her and left her hanging, and she reacted. In fact she might have overreacted. She seemed out of control much of the time, and I got the impression you wanted to avoid her. You described a very volatile woman. How did she feel about that?

ML: Rina is one of the strongest women I’ve ever known. She’s also one of the most brutally honest people I’ve ever met, and she expects honesty from everyone around her. While I don’t think she disputes the things I’ve written about her, she would be the first to say that the book is my story and I have to be true to my perceptions. I came to her for advice once about a person I was writing about. I was concerned that the subject wouldn’t appreciate my observations, and she said, “Listen kid. You stick to your guns and write how you see it. If somebody doesn’t like it, they can write their own $#!@% book!” She’s got a way with putting things colorfully.

PB: So I’ve noticed. The color is usually blue, if I’m not mistaken.

ML: Rina’s got a mouth on her, but she’s a good soul. I’m glad she’s in my life.

PB: In the book, you write about other complicated relationships, and one in particular is your marriage to Mark-Mario Van Heflin-Schröder. He’s a celebrity, and while we know certain things about him, you haven’t really offered anything much about your private life together other than you’re working on your estranged marriage.

ML: Let’s just say that we’re moving carefully. Our careers are now separate, and while he doesn’t go on TV to tell the world what we’re up to, I try to be just as discreet when it comes to writing. If our conversations are pertinent to the case or I feel that he bears mentioning at some point, I include him. But I’m not yet comfortable sharing every detail with my readers.

PB: But we’re dying to know how it’s all going to work out!

ML: So am I! Next question.

PB: Hey! I don’t think you’ve ever let one of your interview subjects get away with not answering.

ML: Maybe not, but I have a sense of boundaries when I’m the one being interviewed.

PB: Understood. So tell us what it’s like to spend so much time with the legendary Phoebe VanRyder?

ML: Oh, Phoebe! She’s like a favorite aunt!

PB: Well, she is Andrew Campton’s aunt, but you feel that close to her?

ML: I know people who don’t care for Phoebe or wouldn’t care for Phoebe, but I think they’re missing out. This is a woman who has been around for almost a century, and she’s vibrant with a great memory. If you’re polite and don’t interrupt her, she can tell you about any famous person that you can think of. She’s known every designer, playwright, musician, artist and—well, anyone worth knowing who’s lived in the last hundred years. From royalty to beggars. I’ve never met anyone else who’s had tea with Queen Mary and also started a charity to feed the homeless. She goes several times a year to work, but at her age you can’t expect her to be there every day.

PB: She’s been a newsmaker since she was a little girl, and I’m glad you’ve brought her back to our attention. You didn’t mention anything specific in the book about her charitable work—or having tea with Queen Mary.

ML: She just happened to mention the queen once; a footnote in a much longer story about the postwar era in London. None of it pertained to Ely Pennington or Garvin Canfield, so there was no point in my including it.

PB: Will Phoebe appear in any of your upcoming books?

ML: First of all, Patrick, you’re assuming there will be more books.

PB: Are you saying there won’t be another Maggie Lyon Mystery?

ML: Who knows the future? If another case falls in my lap or I get an interesting assignment from Andrew, then I’ll certainly write about it. If Rina’s still around to help me get it published, you may read about Phoebe—if she’s part of the story. She may not be part of what’s coming next.

PB: What is coming next?

ML: The last page of Pennington’s Hoax offers a clue. Readers will have to read the book and see if they can figure out what comes after my New Orleans adventure.

PB: Can you tell us more about John Benzonator? Is he still threatening you? Have you given more thought about investigating his shadowy connections and bringing them to light?

ML: As you’re aware, John and I spoke briefly in New Orleans, but I’ve heard nothing from him since. A man like that requires keeping a safe distance, and to maintain that, I’m staying away from that whole group.

PB: You mean the Prelature of St.—

ML: [Gasps] No! Don’t say it! They have people tracking all Internet mentions of their name or their members’ names and affiliations. If you post this interview and include anything about them, you’re putting me in danger!

PB: My mistake. I’m very sorry!

ML: I think we should probably wrap this up.

PB: Before you go, I’d like to ask you about the tight situations you get into. You don’t seem to panic. You have a pretty cool head where I’d end up freaking out.

ML: [Laughs] When you’re being held against your will, you just have to analyze the situation, weigh your options, and make your way to the nearest exit without being trapped. If you’re captor happens to be right in front of you, you have to be extra careful so that they don’t notice you trying to escape. Then you simply disappear… like this. §

© 2018 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, especially the two featuring Maggie Lyon, visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1

 

Is This About Me?

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Pennington’s Hoax is available at Amazon or directly from W&B Publishers

Decades ago, the late Florence King wrote a book called Southern Ladies and Gentlemen. Within its pages there were anecdotes about colorful characters in various southern situations, and I got hours of enjoyment from it. One character was described as a classics professor at a well-known southern university who went about campus wearing a cape and using the purist Latin pronunciations whenever the occasions called for it.

For the next decade I assumed this funny character was the product of a vivid imagination until I was riding home with a choral conductor one evening. I’d been accompanying his choir for a few weeks, and we were neighbors, so we decided to share the 60-mile round trip. It gave us an hour each week to tell stories. One week he told me about college and spending the weekend with some students and some eccentric professor who went about campus in a cape.

“A cape?” I asked. I was barely listening to the story, which seemed to be going nowhere, but the cape, an item of clothing that stirred up images of tri-corn hats and leather riding boots, snapped me out of my reverie and had me asking more questions. The choral conductor had attended Miss King’s university, and the classics professor had been real! Miss King had taken the bold step to include someone in her book based on reality. Prior to that, I’d felt guilty about the notion of turning an innocent (or not so innocent) private person into a character, but now I felt that I had permission.

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For more reading, my books are available at Amazon.

Yes, there are those disclaimers in books about them being works of fiction, and I stand by that. Occasionally I’m asked if any of my characters are based on specific people. I insist that my characters are completely made up, but they might have been formed from traits or behaviors I’ve witnessed in people I’ve encountered. I assign attributes that I want them to have in hopes of furthering the story. The unsavory characters have become that way because I described them as such, and the nice ones are the same way. In truth, no one is all good or all bad, but with limited space and time, you don’t have the luxury of exploring every character’s personality nuances.

At times, someone will say, “I know exactly who you were writing about,” and they’re completely wrong. Once, I actually wrote about someone because their story was just too interesting not to tell. Taking anything away would have ruined it, and their actions required no embellishment to move the story forward. The very person contacted me and insisted that I’d been writing about someone else we both knew.

I realized at that point that some people see themselves so differently than the rest of us perceive them, and they would never admit to being the character who left her dog in the car on a hot day, had a brief fling with the married maintenance man at her apartment complex, or was publicly insulted by a constituent during a campaign speech. While those moments in a person’s life would seem to be unforgettable, we tend to minimize our worst behaviors in our own minds.

Then there are people who’ve never read a word I’ve written even if they’ve met me, and if something sounds familiar, they wouldn’t have a clue that I’d borrowed an incident from their lives. I feel fairly secure that the man who ran off with his wife’s parole officer will not happen onto one of my stories and accuse me of taking liberties.

That said, I’ve recently come to realize that some people do, in fact, recognize themselves in print when something rings true. I recently wrote in this space about someone who phoned me up to say I had been very negative lately. I wrote about not understanding the purpose of the call and never receiving specific examples of my bad behavior. I knew I was taking a risk by bringing it up in an article, but there was always the chance the caller had been so offended by my deeds that this blog was no longer of interest to him or her.

It turns out that my mysterious caller didn’t appreciate being publicized even though I did not name names or even state the caller’s gender. Of course, I denied that he or she was the subject of the article, and I risk making matters worse by bringing up this situation again. However, I had to share that some people do, in fact, recognize themselves in print.

On the bright side, the point made previously about commenting in writing was made, and I did not receive a nasty phone call after posting that article. I only had to read about my monstrous negativity. Again, comments are better than calls.

© 2018 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1

Remembering a Classic Novel

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Pennington’s Hoax is available at Amazon or directly from W&B Publishers

My latest book featuring investigative journalist Maggie Lyon centers around her work as she determines the true authorship of “Rebel’s Last Yell” commonly attributed to reclusive southern author Ely Pennington. “Rebel’s Last Yell” would typically be assigned for high school reading, and to make Maggie’s story more interesting (and somewhat more understandable), she “found” a 1960s book review of the novel. Though written over 50 years ago, Pennington’s novel of racial terrorism in the Jim Crow South is an iconic masterpiece of American literature, which remains relevant after half a century since its original publication. From Edsell Goodnight’s article in Hewlett’s Literary Review:

Ely Pennington’s Rebel’s Last Yell is part coming-of-age story, civil rights anthem, social commentary, and religious criticism woven from a series of anecdotes and southern folklore. Miss Pennington, an heretofore unknown, has landed squarely in the middle of the modern literary world without prior publication in any periodical, collection, or the briefest of letters to the editor of her hometown newspaper. Her career has seemingly washed ashore like Venus with no traces of a natural literary birth. From whence has she come?

Pennington, clearly influenced by Mark Twain and contemporaries such as Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Harper Lee, joins the pantheon of female southern writers, having been thrust instantly into their sorority, but without leaving traces of the usual footsteps to glory. No Harper’s, no Vogue, no Atlantic Monthly. Where has she been, and why not a word until now?

And what words they are, now that this genius has chosen to release her vision to the rest of us. The rhythmic undulations of her prose are like the gentle rippling of a pond on which a pontoon sits with the reader savoring every word and nuanced phrase. Nothing more is required than to open his mind to the vivid imagery, as this newly minted author carries the reader from the shore to greater depths. Once unmoored, stories unfold, reminding us of times described as simpler, but which were far more fraught than the idylls romantic writers have led us to believe.

Set in the 1930s, Pennington immediately introduces us to Jefferson “Little Jeff” McComb of Cumberville, Mississippi whose father Big Jeff is the small-town doctor raising his son as a widowed father with no help except for his devoted housekeeper Olivia and a handyman named Blodgett. Because their house is located on the edge of Cumberville, Little Jeff has few white playmates to choose from and becomes best friends with Olivia’s nephew Titus.

Because Dr. McComb is a wise man of principle and without prejudice, he doesn’t see skin color as a barrier to friendship, and encourages the boys in their summertime pursuits of fishing and exploring the nearby woods. Cumberville is filled with people who do not believe the same way. Since he is their doctor, he cannot risk undermining their confidence in him or his medical practice.

The Great Depression is in full swing and poverty is rife. There is a feeling among impoverished whites that their jobs and their birthrights have been stolen. It’s time to send a message.

One evening, when Titus is staying the night with Little Jeff, Dr. McComb is called away to an emergency after Olivia and Blodgett have gone home. The boys, unsupervised, decide to sneak out of the house and down to the creek to check their trotlines. They can hear music from the midweek prayer service coming across from the black church.

Suddenly the night air is rocked by a series of three explosions followed by what sounds like a pack of howling coyotes. The music has stopped and there is screaming. The full moon, which had lit their way, seems much brighter, but the boys soon realize amidst the screaming that the orange glow is coming from a distant fire. They leave their fishing and head toward the inferno.

Law enforcement doesn’t arrive until dawn when the church is nothing but embers. Two deputies gather information, but insist that the fire was an accident. The church was nothing but a wooden frame structure with no electricity or running water. Lanterns had been used after dark, which they determine was the cause. Six church members are dead, and the protests of the injured go unheard by the deputies who insist that the suddenness of the fire has affected the survivors’ recollection.

The final section of Miss Pennington’s book deals with the following summer when two deputies, also Klan members, go on trial with four other men who have been accused of bombing the black church. There is tremendous conflict in the McComb household as the doctor supports Little Jeff’s decision to testify about what he saw. Oliva is at her breaking point as she cries for her employer not to allow it.

In what is the most memorable passage of the book, Dr. McComb attempts to assuage his housekeeper’s fears while simultaneously demonstrating his character: “Olivia, what kind of man would I be if I stood by and did nothing? What kind of father am I if I do not teach my son that when we hide from the tasks we must face, when we let fear rule us, when we let ignorance rise to power, then we are doomed to live in a society where no one receives justice, the truth is meaningless and corruption is accepted as normal. No, Olivia, out of his love and sense of duty, Little Jeff has more courage than all those cowards who roam the night in white hoods. Those who stand trial may not be found guilty, but they will surely be acquitted if we do nothing. Little Jeff must take the stand, speak the truth and together we’ll face the rebels who have hopefully yelled for the last time.”

Time will tell whether or not Miss Pennington has given readers the best she has to offer, but Gentle Reader, your faithful book reviewer believes that this author’s literary well runs deep, and our thirst will be quenched repeatedly in the years to come.

© 2018 by Patrick Brown

Pennington’s Hoax is published by W&B Publishers and available at Amazon. To learn more about my other books, including Murdered Justice, visit my author page at http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1