I’m enjoying Skylarity’s posts. Check him out, and celebrate everything!
I’m enjoying Skylarity’s posts. Check him out, and celebrate everything!
I’m worried. What will happen when Global Warming, Big AG and the pharmaceutical companies kill our pollinators? Here’s my sextina in protest.
People do not die for us immediately but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life which bears no relation to true immortality but through which they continue to occupy our thoughts in the same way as when they were alive. It is as though they were traveling abroad. Marcel Proust
I’m waiting for Mike, but he’s not coming back. He left us last month as the dreary rains dried up and the Napa Valley rioted into leaf and bloom. I was sure he would emerge from his Beemer in the swirl of white petals billowing from the trees shading the Upper Valley Campus parking lot. The prodigal student returning, his hat jaunty over his crisp pink button-down and white duck trousers a manuscript tucked into his portfolio and a twinkle in his eye.
You might say Michael was this teacher’s pet. But in the four years Michael Weaver Layne and I shared stories and literary criticism, we became more than teacher and pet. We became friends.
Mike trusted me with his words and I saw in his writing the potential for acclaim. His mind was wildly creative and he wrote with abandon and humor. It was a joy to read his stories and a joy to know him. Jonathan Franzen says on death: “The fundamental fact about all of us is that we’re alive for a while but will die before long. This fact is the real root cause of all our anger and pain and despair. And you can either run from this fact or, by way of love, you can embrace it.” Mike Layne loved life, embraced it, and brought lightness to my world.
“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so as long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away.” Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Mike Layne’s legacy remains with us in his beautiful architecture, infinity pools, irreverent short stories and an unpublished novel, Mammoth, written in the style of a Clive Cussler thriller. It was Mike’s dearest wish to co-publish Mammoth with Clive. At his death, Mike was negotiating with Clive’s editor for a leg up. He was going to make it.
Mike was also compiling a book of short stories to be titled Blah Blat and Blather. The following is one of the stories slated for the collection and one of the last pieces we worked on in class.
In an email to our group:
Michael Weaver Layne
No moment’s timing could have been better than when Lord entered my life. Vicky had left me, slamming the door in my face, ending what I thought was a near perfect relationship.
“What could be wrong with wanting sex three times a day?” She screamed as she stomped down the steps to the gravel drive.
“I suppose nothing, except the demand it imposes on durability,” I shouted. I felt durable enough, after all, I run marathons. But even runners need occasional breaks.
I watched as she throttled her Subaru down my long drive to the Silverado Trail.
Okay, it’s over. I sighed.
I poured a Pinot into my glass, filling it to the rim and settled into the teak chair on my porch and began dissecting my thoughts. No more evenings with Vicky on the porch, watching the cars go by. No more evenings in bed with Vicky feeling my manhood sucked away ––– sitting solo on the porch –––– not nearly as bad as I had feared. I missed Vicky the nympho but welcomed the respite from her lusty demands.
I filled my glass once more and gazed across my vineyard and down the vacant drive to the Silverado Trail. A pickup swerved into my drive, sliding to a stop, its driver kicking something out of the truck’s rear bed.
“Oh no! Good lord not again.” I cursed. From my porch, I could see a little gray ball of fur yelping desperately at the truck as it sped away.
“Damn,” I growled, “Another abandoned orphan.”
It occurred all too often. An unwanted pet dropped into the midst of paradise to fend for itself, or if lucky, find adoption.
I set my glass on the table and loped down the drive. “Hey boy, come on it’s okay,” I shouted.
Rather than dart off into traffic to be run over, as these outcasts often did, the little fur bundle, yipping happily, dashed in my direction zigging down the drive. I knelt to my knees and it sailed into my arms, swabbing my face with its tongue.
“Good lord stop that,” I shouted with a laugh, holding the pup at arm’s length and just beyond the reach of its tongue. Lordy Lordy, you’re an affectionate little dog.
We bonded instantly.
“Lord.” I announced, let’s name you Lord.”
From that instant, Lord became his name and we became inseparable, best buddies, constant companions, and like the nights with Vicky, Lord and I shared the bed –– the difference, cuddling and sleep our only goal.
He loved television, particularly the Simpsons. He would lay motionless for episodes, his chin on crossed paws, one ear up and one down, his one blue eye and one brown, following Marge’s blue hairdo as if it were another candidate in need of herding.
Lords intelligence amazed me. I figured out ways for us to entertain each other. I taught his tongue to read braille. I made up plastic cards with raised dots for the words, roll over, sit, or shake. Lord would lick them, then for a treat, perform the command.
Other things too. The fire hydrant I brought home from a flea market and placed in the yard. Lord understood immediately and from that day on, it stood as his private urinal.
Lord grew into a fine sheep dog, eager to chase a Frisbee. He loved my pool and the mallard that would drop in on misty mornings. In fact, Lord loved everything. His insatiable fondness for life, his tragic flaw.
His first affair was with the skunk who lived along the Napa River, his amorous advance meeting with a blast of spray. Repeated baths of tomato soup did little to clean Lord or mask the skunk’s odor.
Next, he sought romance with a porcupine. Our vet spent half a day plucking quills from Lord’s muzzle.
In spite of these miss-adventures, he loved every animal on the ranch. The raccoons that he treed at night with gleeful barks, the squirrels whose walnuts he would dig up and chew like a bone.
Lord become a canine gigolo, lavishing love on all the ranch’s creatures.
Born to herd, he constantly dashed along the river or between the vines, organizing the progress of any creature he could spot. Quail scattered at his approach, gophers ducked back into their burrows, butterflies drifted higher as he bounded into the air to move them this way or that.
Herding was Lords passion and the bigger the thing, the better the challenge.
One morning as the lingering fog lifted, a UPS truck sped down the drive, a challenge that Lord could not ignore. Barking with delight and nipping at the tires he tried to swerve the truck to the side of the driveway.
Lord dashed in too close tripping under the truck’s front bumper. The driver unable to avoid hitting Lord rolled over him with a sickening thump.
Twisted and broken, Lord lay on the drive his tongue still lapping the air, his eyes bewildered, his hind leg twitching, then turning still.
I scooped him up and hugged him to my chest wishing desperately for one more swish of his tongue, one more wag of his butt.
I felt his last shudder. It was over.
He slumped, limp in my arms, his legs dangling in weird directions from his crushed pelvis.
“I’ll miss you, Lord,” I whispered in his ear, tears rolling down my cheeks and dripping from my chin.
I buried Lord under an ancient oak tree and within sight of my perch on the porch. I filled my glass with pinot to the rim, with eyes still pooling tears I stared at the mound of freshly piled soil.
A blue Jay scolded from an over-hanging branch, a haunting requiem bidding Lord farewell.
I looked at the two dog biscuits, Lord’s favorites that I placed next to his Frisbee on top of the mound. Two squirrels scurried down from the tree and scooped the soft dirt, reverently burying the biscuits.
Their heads popped up at a sound from the river. I followed their gaze. From beneath the trunk of a fallen tree, hidden in shadows, I spotted the outline of the skunk. The squirrels twitched their tails, alerted by scraping from the gravel drive. The porcupine shuffled past casting the burial mound a passing glance then disappeared into the mustard growing beneath the vines in the vineyard.
I looked back at the still squawking jay and caught a glimpse of the raccoon peering from behind a branch.
I re-filled my glass and walked over to the grave. I could feel eyes watching me. Lord’s friends mourning from afar, hidden yet present. I stood over the Lord’s grave alone.
A butterfly floated by.
My fingers twitched as I took Lord’s epithet scribbled on the back of a box of his favorite kibble and nailed it to the tree.
Lord my best buddy, I’ll miss you, dear friend
When we first met, I never thought it would end.
Now you are gone, and impossible to replace
Life without you, I’m not sure I can face
Your blunt little butt and eyes mismatched
All that is left, this note I have scratched
Lord you were my Shepherd
A friend so true
Never a day— that I won’t miss you.
Mike, if I may steal your words— you were a friend and “never a day—that I won’t miss you.”
I’ve never taught at a university, but I know what schools are like. After I won my MA, I accepted a position as a non-credit teacher at a local community college. Wow! I was stoked—I planned to put all that theory into practice and knew my school would celebrate my work and dedication.
Let’s just say I was delusional. It didn’t take long to discover I was regarded lower in status than that broke second cousin on the doorstep. Like credit staff, non-credit teachers are expected to attend meetings, plan, assess and report but for half the hourly pay. As Alma, a character in Oink, says, “It’s all work, low pay, and no respect.”
It’s always a delight to meet a protagonist that embodies my own values. Emily Addams is a professor of women’s studies at Arbor State University. Founded as an agricultural college in Northern California, it is rapidly shedding its reputation as an easygoing and humane community as the university adopts the worldviews of the corporations funding research into new technologies and cuts funds to the small programs.
A new Vice Provost has come aboard and Emily and her colleagues from the interdisciplinary programs face a difficult and perplexing choice for funding purposes. If they don’t choose, they may lose their programs, but even if they come in under the umbrella of Humanities or Social Sciences, they will have to prove their programs worthy of receiving funds. One way or the other, the warm community built over the years looks doomed. Building community and fighting injustice are important to Emily and she’s spent her career doing both, especially through cooking and eating.
Emily learns that Peter Elliott, a Professor of Plant Biology has been found face down in one of the school’s pigpens, presumably poisoned. The rumor says a group opposing genetically engineered crops is behind the poisoning as Elliott is researching GMO corn and a staunch supporter of Syndicon, the major GMO seed controller. Emily had learned about the GMO issues at a panel on GMOs and wondered, “was it GMOs themselves or the policies of the corporations that produced them— the relentless focus on profit, the resistance to regulation, the absence of concern for harming, or even helping, others… “ that gave GMOs a bad name?
But Emily has other worries. Forty something with a young daughter and recently divorced, she’s getting into the dating game. As we meet her, she’s worried that her hair-do has flattened (I empathize with that) because she’s meeting mathematics professor Wilmer Crane after work for their first date. Crane tells Emily about finding Elliot in the pigpen clutching a piece of cornbread, which turns out to contain goat cheese and caramelized onions—Emily’s signature recipe.
Emily is named a suspect and rallies her community with food and camaraderie to investigate what really happened. She learns Elliot was receiving secret corporate funding for his new strain of genetically modified corn, he’d betrayed two of his women students and his highly accomplished wife through his philandering, as well as the Save the Fields organization gunning for him.
Named one of the funniest books coming this spring by BookBub.Com, author J.L. Newton describes the first of the Emily Addams series, “Culminating in a twist as curvy as a pig’s tail, Oink: A Food for Thought Mystery is at once a sly send-up of the corporatized university and a reminder of why community belongs at that heart of human life.” She makes a good case for community and organic food, punctuating her points with delectable recipes at the end of each chapter. Her language is both accessible and intelligent, Emily and her colleagues sound like professors, parents and friends in realistic dialog and witty narration. I appreciated the thoughtful and often humorous look at two important themes, the corporatization of campuses and GMOs.
Newton does not support corporate influenced universities, but she does make a case for the potential for GMO foods to feed the world. Respected scientific societies, including the National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization, have concluded that the GMO crops on the market are safe to eat. Even pundit Michael Pollan said recently the technology itself may not fundamentally pose a greater health threat than other forms of plant breeding. “ I think most of the problems arise from the way we’re choosing to apply it, what we’re using it for, and how we’re framing the problems that it is being used to solve.”
Cozy mystery fans, fans of food novels, and readers concerned with the health of our world and its people will enjoy the twisting plot and the delicious dishes shared throughout the novel. I’m working my way through the recipes and reliving the scenes as I cook. Part of that enjoyment comes through the vivid sense of place Newton has created. At times her description becomes lush and lyrical as she details the flora and fauna, the climate and the bucolic campus.
Emily Addams comes alive on the page. She is intelligent, caring, witty, concerned and a great cook. She connects with people through sincerity and food and doesn’t try to be more than her capabilities. She fears, questions herself, doesn’t give up easily and does what is right. I’m really pleased to find a new voice in Emily Addams who I can both identify with and share a corn and cherry scone!
Congratulations to J.L. Newton for her debut of what I’m hoping is a long-lived series of Food for Thought Mysteries. Smart, timely, readable but not dumbed-down—“Oink is a celebration of community connected to the joy of food and fellowship.”—Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber, authors of The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. Oink is out today. Pick up your copy at Amazon or your local bookstore. And if you’re local, join J.L. Newton for her launch of Oink In Berkeley.
I didn’t think it could get any better than a wedding in Mexico turned murder mystery, but Marla Cooper has proven me wrong with the second Kelsey McKenna, Destination Wedding Mysteries, Dying on the Vine. This time Kelsey and her intrepid crew solve a crime close to home—the Napa Valley—Wine Country.
The Napa Valley is possibly one of the most beautiful places on earth. I’m lucky enough to drive through it every week to work, and lately the vines have broken into bud, the mustard has begun to bloom and the fruit trees have exploded into clouds of flower. The wineries have put on their party dresses, welcoming the start of tourist season— locals are flocking out to partake of the spring bounty exuberantly sprouting around us.
Even I left my computer to attend a medieval
birthday party at St. Helena’s Castello di Amarosa, a 13th century castle brought over and assembled by the Sattui family, I pictured the disaster if barrels started rolling. Kings, queens, ladies, nuns, even the Pope wouldn’t be safe—I was reading Dying on the Vine at the time.
Ok, so they don’t wear medieval costume in the book, but danger lurks in the real lives of wedding planners! Kelsey McKenna isn’t coddling a bride in an exotic setting as the story opens; she’s helping out her friend Brody, a wedding photographer, at his booth at the Wine Country Wedding Faire. She isn’t looking for clients, more interested in the cupcakes, but she’s approached by Haley Bennett and Christopher Riegert in a pinch because her father has fired the planner, Babs Norton. Kelsey can’t say no but, as Babs is the “Queen of Wine Country Weddings,” she calls on Babs to smooth the water and collect Babs’ files. Unfortunately, Babs lies dead on her office floor.
The wedding planning community is small and buzzing by the time Kelsey attends the funeral. There, she is accused by Babs’ assistant, Stefan, of murdering his boss. Because she found the body, Kelsey’s a person of interest. She will have to clear her name and enlists Brody and her new assistant, Laurel, to help.
Meanwhile, the wedding looms and Kelsey and Laurel don’t know any of the details. Simple things like who is the caterer? Where are the flowers coming from? The couple left everything up to Babs and the file isn’t accessible. Kelsey needs to do some sleuthing just to find out what still needs to be done for the wedding and as she uncovers the plan, she also uncovers secrets that send her down one wrong turn after the next.
It’s when another planner is attacked that Kelsey starts to fear for her own life, but it’s too late to turn back. The wedding must go on. And in the end, it does, but with that expected Cooper twist!
Cooper has crafted another funny, smart and on trend cozy mystery. This book may be better than the last, pointing to an author who takes her craft seriously. While the Dying on the Vine is often hilarious, Cooper has woven chilling suspense and heart thumping pacing throughout, balanced out with plenty of descriptions and opportunities to slow down and get to know the characters. The twists and turns kept me reading almost all night and the big climax was a total surprise. I didn’t see it coming—those Cooperesque red herrings again (but I missed the tequila donkey this time).
I fell in love with Kelsey and Brody in, Terror in Taffeta, and I’m pleased to get to know them better in this second of the series. Kelsey proves her integrity and again demonstrates her professionalism, but we also see her more vulnerable side. She needs her friends to help solve this murder. The three, Kelsey and her two sidekicks, Brody and Laurel are well characterized and create an agreeable synergy. Each personality is distinctly portrayed through their actions and the crisp, modern dialog. Kelsey’s and Brody’s banter reminds me of siblings or best friends, funny and familiar. Laurel is new to the scene, but she holds her own, proving her mettle through her trustworthiness, initiative and competence.
Dying on the Vine is a delicious late harvest Zinfandel boasting notes of humor and suspense, full-bodied character and a sweet finish. Marla Cooper and Kelsey McKenna don’t disappoint.
Congratulations Marla Cooper! Dying on the Vine published yesterday and I’m already hankering for my next destination. Might it be Kelsey’s own dream wedding? Where will we cozy-up next?
P.S. Don’t you love Cooper’s book covers?! Read my review of Terror in Taffeta here.
Now and again I like to showcase the wonderful writings of my Upper Napa Valley writing workshop attendees. The following poem is by Theresa Cordova Ortez, a member of our Napa Valley College class, Autobiographical Writing, held at Rianda House, St. Helena’s Senior Center. Theresa writes Flash Memoir, scenes of her life and family. This is her first poem and it captures the beauty I’m blessed to experience every day as I drive to work. I hope Theresa’s poem inspires you to visit the Napa Valley this spring.
I was stymied when my niece moved her family to a small town in the Texas Hill Country some years ago. Why would anyone leave the Bay Area for a couple acres of scrub oak and a pickup truck in a town so small you’ve missed it if you yawn? Not that I have anything against small towns. I grew up in Ross so long ago it still retained a small town character. We knew everybody, and people looked out for each other. Eddie’s Ross Grocery and the Sunday social in the Rectory after church were rich in gossip. Officer Flowers kept the peace and investigated crimes—usually something to do with petty theft.
But still—my family has taken up residence in a small town several states away? I didn’t get it—that is, until I discovered Terry Shames’s delightful mystery series set in a small Texas town.
Shames won the Macavity Award for best first novel in 2013 for A Killing at Cotton Hill, the first Samuel Craddock mystery set in Jarrett Creek. She has since published The Last Death of Jack Harbin, Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek, A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge, and The Necessary Murder of Nonie Blake, all chronicling the slow as molasses lifestyle and the dark secrets festering below the veneer of peacefulness of this sleepy town.
Shames’s fascination with the town where her grandfather was mayor and where she grew up is clear through her precise documentation of the details of small town life in Jarrett Creek. She’s created a cast of characters that could represent any small American town, yet are inextricably bound to Jarrett Creek, starting with the hero, Samuel Craddock. He’s an unpretentious widower, the town’s retired police chief, who has been called out of retirement after Jarrett Creek runs out of money. He’s old fashioned and gentlemanly, prefers the company of women and his cattle, and is at home sipping lemonade and eating berry-filled buns in his neighbor, Loretta’s, kitchen while she gossips about everyone in town. In fact, she’s a prime source of intelligence when Craddock is investigating a murder.
It’s Loretta who has her finger on the pulse of the town when Nonie Blake returns to Jarrett Creek after a twenty-year stint in a private mental institution. She’d tried to hang her little sister when she was fourteen. Loretta declares, “She was a dangerous girl and she’ll be a dangerous woman.” Within a week, Nonie turns up dead in the Blake family’s stock pond and Chief Craddock finds few clues. One thing is certain, Nonie was murdered and her reclusive family remains tight-lipped about her, the committal, and why she had come home.
Samuel Craddock’s method of investigation is from the old school. He’s stumped, and he’s saddled with a rookie cop, Maria Trevino, who comes with attitude and ideas about how police work should be done. Trevino wants to look for hard evidence using methods that make Craddock uncomfortable and worse, make him feel old. He begins to question himself and fears he’s losing his edge to age. It takes some detecting but the two (and a little dog) uncover the layers of lies and cover-ups that go back a generation to finally reveal why Nonie Blake’s murder was necessary.
I fell in love with Samuel Craddock and Jarrett Creek in A Killing at Cotton Hill and the feeling has persisted through five books. It’s the authentic small-town vibe and the folksy dialog combined with Shames’s adept ability to plot a surprising and quirky murder investigation, coupled with her masterful characterization that makes the series shine. I feel like I’ve lived in Jarrett Creek—and now my darling (and only) niece and her brood (dogs included) live there.
To read my entire review, please visit:
The Mystery Readers Journal, Volume 32, No. 34, Winter 2016-2017
And be sure to catch up with Terry Shames. Book 6 of the Samuel Craddock Series has just come out:
Last night while my husband and I watched the Best of Antiques Road Show, I suffered a serious sugar Jones. I twitched and squirmed, fighting the itch, but when that dear old fellow from Pensacola brought out his grandmother’s collection of cookie jars, I had to eat something sweet.
“I think I’ll put the dinner dishes in the dishwasher,” I said and slithered to the kitchen. David wasn’t paying any attention to me so I tiptoed into the pantry to see what I could find. There’s a stash of goodies tucked behind the canned tomatoes, a place David never goes.
I forget about this hidey-hole most of the time, especially since I’ve been tracking everything I eat, but the urge for sweets had reached beyond my resistance. I opened the pantry door, flipped on the light, and inched myself into the former half-bath now painted bright orange and fitted with an Elfa shelving system. Past the cookbooks and extra shopping bags. Past the flat of V8 juice and containers of Comet cleanser. Past the two bales of paper towels (we both brought home a supply from Costco last week). I reached my trembling hand into the shelves. I felt over the beans, the tuna, the mushrooms and way into a corner darker than the shadow of Sonoma Mountain. I felt behind the crushed tomatoes with basil, the tomato garlic puree, and the diced tomatoes with chipotle. I nudged the edge of a paper bag and tugged. It pulled free and bounced across the tops of the cans and into the light. Candy!
“Ana, you should see this,” David yelled from the living room.
“I can’t hear you,” I called back, stalling as I peeked into the stash.
Hmmm. Unwrapped peppermints from before written history. Tiny bags of spicy tamarind candy we got with our check at that place we ate lunch in Mexico City three years before. Half a Figamajig that looked like the rats may have enjoyed the other half (you remember the rats in the walls?) One cornhusk-wrapped mystery candy from the local Mexican market.
Two boxes of NECCO Sweethearts Conversation Hearts addressed: “To: Teacher From: Marisela” a Valentine gift saved from our class celebration last year—because I don’t really like them. But I was desperate. I took one box and pushed the rest of the stash back behind the cans.
You remember those chalky-sweet pastel hearts that come in not quite distinct flavors that we used to give and get in grade school? The ones with catchy sayings stamped on them like BE MINE, MY VALENTINE, LOVE YA and BABY BOY. Well, they’re still around and have some new messages. How about BFF or TOP CHEF or RECIPE 4 LOVE?
I sat back down on the couch, tore into the box and popped a brown MY GIRL heart into my mouth—sweet, but not exactly chocolate. Just like I remembered.
“What are you eating?”
“Valentine’s candy,” I said and passed a blue ROCK OUT over.
“Is this a hint?”
“Let’s go out for dinner this year. Maybe to De Schmire.” I dropped a pink DRESS UP into his outstretched hand and displayed a green GLAM before eating it.
He handed the pink heart back and suggested Cucina Paradiso.
“We went there for our anniversary.” I reminded him. “I’m in the mood for French.”
David helped himself to the box of candy hearts, dumped it out on top of his Sudoku book and sifted with his forefinger until he found the message he wanted— a purple POSH—showed me then ate it. I grabbed a pink one with a slightly garbled message, SO WHAT it looked like, and displayed it.
“You have a tux,” I joked.
He studied the remaining messages and selected SPICE IT UP. “How about Thai. We could go to Sea on the Boulevard.”
I ate several orange hearts in a row: TAKE A WALK, LOSER, WISE UP.
“De Schmire serves French onion soup,” I said, cajoling. David flipped a yellow I CARE heart into my lap. It fell onto the floor and the dog sniffed it then turned her head away. I don’t like the yellow ones very much either—banana. I spied a white TABLE 4 TWO and flicked it back at him.
A purple PLEASE ME flew at me.
I tossed back a yellow NO WAY.
David handed me a green SWEET TALK.
I responded with a blue MY TREAT.
“Ok, you win.” He threw up his hands. “De Schmire it is.” He made a reservation through his Droid. “But I don’t want to dress up.” He handed me a
I passed him a pink OK and gave him a smooch.
I’m saving the white I LOVE YOU for Valentine’s Day.
I believe in serendipity. Throughout the late summer I consumed novels set in Spain in anticipation of my trip. Guidebooks are great for seeing the sights, but novels capture the national character and identify the flavor of a place. Among the books I read were two police procedurals by Antonio Hill and three of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series by Carlos Ruis Zafón. I noticed something labyrinthine and dark about all the books I read. I imagined Spain as the backdrop for a Gothic novel. Then, just before leaving for Barcelona, I had the opportunity to read the manuscript of Blood Allegiance. As I read this bone chilling crime novel set in Silicon Valley, I felt pulled into a dark world of exotic secrets, overwrought emotions, and tingling suspense. This modern-day police procedural—for me—a metonymy for gloom and horror, that is until the end. Could these crimes happen here? I was again reminded of Gothic tales, and I was sucked right in.
As it turned out, there’s a good reason why Elin Barnes’s novel reminded me of the Spanish writers. She’s from Madrid. Blood Allegiance contains elements of modern Gothic fiction: rationality vs. irrationality, guilt, strangeness within the familiar, monsters (human ones in this book), and abjection. What a master of suspense, twisting her plot in surprising directions as it weaves around the central story creating a maze of relationships, motivations, violence, and secrets: the lead Santa Clara criminalist is found dismembered at a local restaurant and the crime scene is tagged with gang graffiti. Detective Darcy Lynch (who we know from the first two books in this series) is wading into unknown territory when he’s sent on loan to CATCH, the Cross-Agency Tactical California Homicide Unit. But the case carries more weight for Darcy than apprehending the man who slaughtered a colleague. If he fails, he won’t be reassigned to the task force and his career could be over.
Another member of the unit is gunned down and a drone crashes into a San Jose Police Department helicopter turning the case into a bloody disaster. Lynch must stop one, or two, of the most vicious California gangs before they execute his entire team.
The characterization is multilayered. Protagonist, Darcy Lynch, and antagonist, Oscar Amaro are complex and individualized. Both are damaged and both have the capacity for “getting the job done” at whatever cost, yet are imbued with deep humanity. The surprise ending showcases these two characters as clouded mirrors of each other. The secondary characters are also rounded: Sorenson, Lynch’s overweight and gritty partner, Quinn, the sergeant with a deep secret that leads him to a crisis of heart, and Chavo Buenavente, of the rival gang and Oscar’s nemesis all have distinct personalities and distinguishable speech patterns. The characters are many, and their relationships are webbed. I found the hierarchy of gang members most interesting and well-researched, as are the portrayals of law enforcement agencies and employees. Barnes does her homework.
Barnes uses language and plot to instill uneasiness and fear in the reader. Her diction is less elaborate and ornate than the Gothic literature of the past. Instead, it reflects the language of everyday life in Silicon Valley in 2017. One reviewer from the Silicon Valley said, “The characters sound and behave like South Bay folks do.” I found the book to be easy to read and authentic in narrative and dialog.
Thematically Blood Allegiance raises serious questions about integrity, honor and the bonds of family and fraternity. It also sheds light on one of elite Northern California’s dirty problems swept under the rug: gangs. There’s a lot to think about after putting the book down—but don’t expect too much pondering during this action packed page-turner!
I’m not a Spanish Literature scholar, but I’m betting Ms. Barnes was introduced to and influenced by the Spanish misterio (mystery) genre in school: serial novels inspired by Eugène Sue’s bestseller Les Mystères de Paris (1841-1843). The genre is in fact a spin-off of 19th century French Gothic fiction and represents an attempt to explore society in an urban context. The misterios actively participated in the discourses of their day, as does the Darcy Lynch Series. Serial novels like the misterios and the Darcy Lynch Series act as foundational narratives that record the new order of society. The misterios presented by the novels were in part the mysteries of the new society in the 1800s, one that its readers were learning to navigate—just like the new cyber world of our century. It’s been said that [Spanish misterios] are stories of patriarchal systems in crisis and the consequences of social transgression and relevant today.
The Gothic form is able to articulate the anxieties of society. Blood Allegiance employs the Gothic tropes of family romance, incarceration and contamination to represent the conflicting ideologies of the 21st century. I congratulate Elin Barnes on taking her place in the venerated tradition of the Spanish misterio—21st Century style!
Elin Barnes grew up in Spain. Her father is a film director and her mother a Swedish author (with a past life as an actress).
After graduating HS, Elin pursued her dream of becoming an airline pilot. When her eyesight impeded her to fly passenger aircrafts, she switched gears and obtained a BA in Philosophy. After a short stint working for a criminal appeals lawyer, Elin returned to Spain to get her MA in International Commerce.
For the last decade she’s worked in technology for companies like, AT&T, T-Mobile, Google, Microsoft, TiVo, and Samsung. She is on the Board of Sisters in Crime Northern California.
Her passions for law, technology, and thrillers inspired Elin to write the Darcy Lynch Series of thrillers set in Silicon Valley, where innovation is always brewing.