The Oxen are Slow, but the Earth is Patient*

As I read about the surrender of the Afghani troops, the rush to Kabul, and the evacuation, I can’t help but compare it to the Fall of Saigon in 1975, the subject of Pay Back, the third book in The Cooper Quartet. The parallels between the two events are too keen. The U.S. pulling out of a lost war, one fought for 18 years the other 20, money spent on arming our allies, training their pilots, and building an air force, only to see both crumble in days. In Pay Back, the Cooper family is entangled in the Fall of Saigon, each driven by the need to make recompense for their pasts. Their story begins in 1967 in Dead Legend, as the Vietnam War tears the U.S. apart; the second book, Head First, unfolds in 1972 during the Christmas bombings as the U.S. prepares to pull out our troops. The eBook of Head First will be available for $.99 on Amazon, September 9 – 12.

After the pullout in 1972, the U.S. Embassy remained open and protected by Marines. The U.S. continued to support the South Vietnamese Army and Air Force, with both advisors and weapons. In addition to the Embassy Staff and Marine units, the usual alphabet soup remained in-country (the CIA, et cetera, et cetera), plus U.S. contractors, their families, and reporters. As did the Vietnamese scouts who spent the war embedded in various units of the U.S. military, the Vietnamese who worked for the U.S. forces, and the Amerasian children of U.S. soldiers. All but the children were promised a quick exit should the North Vietnamese take the South.

When the South Vietnamese Army folded at Pleiku in late April 1975, the rush to get out was on, refugees poured into Saigon, clotting the airport at Tan San Nhut and the city. They weren’t alone. The armed troops from the South Vietnamese army rushed in with them. Masses waited outside the U.S. Embassy, at the airbase in Tan San Nhut, or floated the Saigon River on a rumor that merchant ships were waiting in the coastal city of Vung Tau. The Cooper family is caught in this mêlée, whether in the U.S. watching it on television, in Saigon, or with the Seventh Fleet. I hope I did the tumult justice.

On April 29, with 15 North Vietnamese divisions ringing Saigon, the U.S. Ambassador ordered the evacuation. The U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet pumped chopper after chopper into Saigon from the South China Sea. By the last flight out April 30, over 6,000 people had been evacuated, overpopulating the waiting aircraft carriers and destroyers. A few flights got off from Tan San Nhut before it was shelled. And though, Vung Tau was attacked, and fuel depots burned, some people made it down river and out by ship or fishing boat. By any standards, the exit was messy, and many were left behind.

In my research for Pay Back, international reporters in Saigon wrote of an abiding insouciance among the population which had survived the French, the Japanese, the French, and the U.S. – an enduring patience that someday the country would be theirs. It’s been nearly fifty years since the Fall. The Domino Theory’s dire predictions proved false. Perhaps because of Vietnam’s long history of colonialism, invasion, reunification, a country emerged, not easily, not without bloodshed, but not our way, or the French’s, or anyone else’s. And perhaps Afghanistan will as well, given the similar history of the two countries. One thing is certain, there will be repercussions and blame enough to go around.

Don’t Tell, the final book of The Cooper Quartet, deals with the aftermath and repercussions of the Fall of Saigon for the Cooper family. It will be published on November 11th; the date seems apropos.  

*I stole the title for this blog from a line in the movie High Road to China.

My New Book and What Erle Stanley Gardner Has to Do With It

Though I thought I was done with my Deputy Tempe Crabtree series, but after a visit to my daughter’s home in a gated community for seniors, another idea popped into my head and I wrote The Trash Harem.

It wasn’t easy. The fact that I couldn’t meet with my critique group due to the pandemic really hurt. Receiving their feed-back chapter by chapter has always helped so much and I’m considered them my first editor.

Erle Stanley Gardner

However, the ideas kept flowing, and because the story is set in Temecula, a place I’ve visited often, a thought popped into my head about a most famous writer, Erle Stanley Gardner. He lived and wrote most of his books while living in Temecula. I knew a lot about Gardner, not only from reading some of his Perry Mason books, but visiting the Temecula Valley Museum where the whole second floor is dedicated to the writer.

Not only is his writing desk available to be viewed, items from his office and other artifacts but also a multitude of photos of his ranch. Gardner’s ranch had twenty seven buildings including separate cabins for his full time secretaries. He loved camping in Baja California; he took his secretaries because he wrote even while on vacation, his doctor, and many others with him in a caravan of different kinds and types of camping vehicles. After his death, the ranch was sold, and resold to the Pechanga Indians.

I had the privilege of meeting three of his four secretaries who appeared at the Temecula museum for a celebration of Gardner. As they told those of us who had gathered, Gardner worked on four books at a time, he spoke them into a Dictaphone and were transcribed by his secretaries. When I met the secretaries who were in their eighties, they were all still lovely, bright women.

And yes, I did figure out a way for Erle Stanley Gardner to be an important part of The Trash Harem.


Official Blurb:

Deputy Tempe Crabtree has retired from her job in Bear Creek when friends, who once lived in Bear Creek and attended Pastor Hutch’s church, ask her to visit them in Temecula. The husband, Jonathan, is a suspect in what might be a murder case. The retirement community includes many interesting characters, any of whom might have had a better motive than Jonathan. There is also a connection to Earle Stanley Gardner as well as the Pechanga Old Oak. What is a trash harem? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

To purchase The Trash Harem

Marilyn Meredith’s Bio:

She is the author of over 40 published books including the Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery series, and writing as F. M. Meredith, the Rocky Bluff P.D. series. She’s a member of two chapters of Sisters in Crime and the Public Safety Writers Association.




Where Does Cultural Appropriation Begin and End?

If you pay attention to current discussions of literature, art, or even music, you have no doubt stumbled across accusations of “cultural appropriation.” When JK Rowling mentioned “skin walkers” on her Pottermore website, she was accused of appropriating the culture of Navajos. Justin Bieber was blasted for wearing dreadlocks, accused of appropriating a Black hair style. Jeanine Cummins, author of American Dirt, took a tremendous amount of flak for writing about a Mexican immigrant when she’s never been one.

I remember years ago when a writer for a TV series about teenagers was discovered to be—gasp—over 30 years old! How dare she claim to be capable of writing about teenagers? Never mind that she had already written many episodes for the hit series. A prizewinning Australian artist creating Aboriginal dot paintings was revealed to be—omigod!—not an Aboriginal person, although clearly a master of the Aboriginal dot style. He’s been erased from the internet and is probably living in exile on some remote island now.

Even I, an infinitesimal speck in the universe of writers, have experienced this prejudice of “you can’t do it if you’re not it.” I was once verbally offered a contract for a prizewinning children’s book I wrote about a Kikuyu girl in Africa. Upon learning that I was not African-American, the editor immediately withdrew the offer.

Writers throughout history have written from the points of view of many others. Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, was neither a male scientist nor a monster. How did Leo Tolstoy write Anna Karenina when he was never a woman? How dare Gene Roddenberry write about a pointy-eared Vulcan named Spock? He clearly had no idea how many other planetary species he had insulted. I guess we’ll find out when they arrive to teach us how ignorant we actually are about their cultures.

Good writers are observers, researchers, and explorers. We are creative. We live in our imaginations as well as in the real world. We try to “step into another’s shoes.” We are often telling someone else’s story, and why shouldn’t we be allowed to do that? In my Neema mysteries, I tell the story from three points of view: a female scientist, a male police detective, and a gorilla. That’s at least two and half violations of “cultural appropriation,” because although I am female, I’ve never been a scientist. The protagonist of my Run for Your Life trilogy is a teenage girl of mixed race. I guess I get points for having been a teenager at one time, but I don’t have a Black father like my character. I also own a salwar kameez, the tunic-and-loose-pants-and-long-scarf ensemble worn by many Hindu and Muslim women—am I not allowed to wear that? Just shoot me now.

Can a Black or Hispanic author write from the point of view of a Caucasian character? I have no problem with that—do you? Can a Native American man wear a suit and tie, or does he need to don bark and buckskin so he won’t be accused of appropriating White culture?

Yeesh. I once read the beginning of a book that was written from the point of view of an elk. While I rolled my eyes and certainly thought that was over the top, it certainly never entered my brain to say the author couldn’t write that passage because she wasn’t an elk.

So, publishers, please publish more varied voices and authors of different backgrounds so we can read about their authentic experiences. Critics, discuss the stories and the characters all you want. We all have individual tastes and preferences; that’s what makes the world a richer place. But please, let’s share ideas and cultures. Let’s encourage imagination, not stifle good writers. Let’s not talk about “cultural appropriation.”

The Pear Garden by Karen Shughart

We call it the Pear Garden, and this is how it started. I come from a family of dog lovers. Almost everyone has or has had dogs: my husband and I, our kids, my siblings, nieces and nephews, cousins. When they pass, we grieve for our fur babies for a long time; and we always remember them fondly, even after we adopt a new pet.

A few years ago, one of our great nieces and nephews came to visit with our daughter, Jessica. Emil was maybe about nine or ten that year and still grieving for the family’s dog, Pear, a lovely, gentle Golden Retriever who had been laid to rest a few months before. Emil was still sad about the loss. We live on Lake Ontario, and Jessica and Emil went off to the beach to collect smooth stones at the water’s edge. Then they came back and painted them with creative, colorful designs including four of them each with the initials that spelled “PEAR.”

Behind our garage there’s a mulched bed of shrubs with some spaces between them. The stones were artfully arranged in one of those spaces to honor Pear’s life. We said prayers and sang songs.  I had wondered if the stones would survive our harsh winters, but to this day they are as bright as when they were first painted.

A few weeks ago, our niece, Suzanne, her husband, Tom, and their two daughters came to visit. While they don’t have a dog, my brother and sister-in-law, Didi and Grammy to the girls, had recently sent Gus, their sprightly Wheaton terrier, over the rainbow bridge.  Maya and Hannah had loved Gus and were taken with our Pear memorial. Our daughter was visiting this time, too, and a little while later we added painted stones for Gus.

When I told my sister about the expanding garden, she remarked that when she and her husband visit us from Florida this fall, they would like to paint rocks and place them in our garden for their beloved dog, Sally, another gentle Golden who had recently succumbed to an unexpected illness.

In the past, we’ve scattered the ashes of our own dogs where they most liked to romp and kept the remainder in ornately carved boxes stacked upon shelves in our library. Now I’m thinking that we need to paint stones for them and add them to the growing display. Our adopted Beagle, Nova, has been with us for about a year-and-a-half. We love her dearly, and she’s as much a member of our family as our other dogs were. I hope, though, that it will be years before painted rocks bearing her name are placed beside the others.

As it turns out, there’s a new tradition that’s begun in our family to remember all the dogs we’ve loved. Perhaps Pear is watching somewhere from puppy heaven, proud to have been the first of these and pleased that we’ve named our memorial garden after him.

The Murder Person Redux

by Janis Patterson

We’ve talked a lot about the myriad murder weapons present in the average home, and a little about what deadly things a murderer can carry on his person, on which I intend to expand a little after this warning.

If your murderer is going to use something clever (i.e., more than a rock or a gun or a knife) that he carries on his person he not only needs to be extremely smart but very careful. especially if the murder method results in instantaneous death. Then everyone who was with the victim is likely to be carefully scrutinized. We cannot rely on the police overlooking anything suspicious.

So with that caveat in mind, let’s talk about the actual killing. If your villain is going to be gone before death occurs there’s a lot more leeway in method.

How will your murderer handle such risk of exposure? Usually it will involve some specialized equipment,  barring the expected – and lamentably common – belts and scarves, etc. Here is where the ingenuity – and the sneakiness – of the murderer becomes paramount. If specialized equipment is necessary and the murderer can’t manufacture it himself, he must find a safe and secret way of obtaining it. Remember, the more people who know a secret the less of a secret it becomes and the more of a risk exists for the murderer.

If your killer is a woman, jewelry is a good choice. An earring with an edge sharpened so fine it can slice arteries. A garotte wire woven through a chunky metal necklace, though with this method you must be sure that it leaves no identifiable imprint in flesh as chain patterns are very recognizable. There is also the question of disposability. You don’t want to be caught wearing the murder weapon.

One way of murder requires a very daring and brave – if not downright foolhardy – killer. This would not work where there is a possibility of a body search of witnesses and would probably work best in a crowded venue. The murderer secretes a thin needle to the inside of a finger, with thin surgical tubing running up his arm to a bladder secreted somewhere on his person. Under the clothes under the arm to a pocket where it could be manipulated with the free hand would be the best choices. Fill the bladder with the poison of choice – a very fast acting one would be my preference, as you don’t want your victim to remember he felt a sharp prick or that your murderer was standing very close by at the time!

Personally, my choice would be curare, the South American neurotoxin. Fill the bladder, grasp the hand or arm or neck of your victim, make sure the needle enters the skin, squeeze the bladder… almost instantaneous death. And most likely untraceable if you did your sourcing cleverly, as one of the benefits of curare is that it dissipates almost instantly and leaves no trace in the body, which makes finding ‘cause of death’ almost impossible. Of course, your murderer would need superb neuromuscular skills in order to make sure he didn’t jab himself. I’m too much of a klutz to even think of trying this method. I would probably end up being my first victim! And if you worry about supply sourcing, you can order curare over the internet. It’s amazing what you can find out there if you just search creatively.

So – if you want a memorable murder, if you want something different, just let your imagination roam. While it’s terrifying, it’s also true that almost every object in this world can be used as a murder weapon in the hands of a clever villain. Your murderer is limited only by your imagination… and his conscience.