Charles Dickens in the Age of Covid-19

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epic of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…*" it is the time of Covid-19, it is the test of our age, and it is the calling for hope, for a shared hope that the best virtues of humanity will prevail – love, compassion, kindness, consideration – that we may look back and say what we witnessed and what we did were far, far better things because they were done in service to one another.
Stay home – Stay safe

A Tale of Two Cities

The Day Babe Ruth Died in Asheville

One thing I enjoy about writing fiction is not just making things up but rather discovering historical facts that can fuel a fictional story.

The Sam Blackman series revolves around the Past creating murderous consequences in the Present. The events don't have to be major, but they do have to be interesting. Such is the case of the story of how Babe Ruth died in Asheville, North Carolina.

In the spring of 1925, the Bambino and his Yankee teammates were traveling by rail from training in Florida back to New York. Along the way, exhibition games were scheduled to build excitement and generate revenue in the days leading up to the season opener.

After stopping in Knoxville, Tennessee, the team continued by train to Asheville. Evidently, Babe Ruth consumed so many hotdogs and drank so much beer en route that he collapsed in the Asheville depot. He was carried to the Battery Park Hotel and word rippled through the reporters that Ruth had died. The news spread like wildfire around the globe. For twenty-four hours, Babe Ruth was dead in Asheville.

Then the facts caught up with the fiction. The Babe had an intestinal abscess severely exacerbated by his horrendous diet. He would not return to the team until June. One reporter dubbed it, "The bellyache heard round the world." I ask you, how many towns are famous for who didn't die in them?

But that trip to Asheville wasn't his last. In 1931, the Babe and teammate Lou Gehrig played exhibition games, each hitting homeruns in historic McCormick Field. And that leads to the "what if?" question – who got those homerun baseballs? If autographed by those giants of the sport, what would they be worth today? And though Babe Ruth escaped death in Asheville, would someone else tied to the game not be so lucky?

It's a mystery to me and one worth exploring. Stay tuned….

What's Snew?

When I was in college, a friend of mine used the corniest opening line to start a conversation with a woman whom he found interesting. In all seriousness, he said, "Excuse me, but you've got some snew on your shoulder."
Alarmed, the woman checked each shoulder, and, seeing nothing, asked, "What's snew?"
"Not much. What's new with you?"
Would you believe the couple are nearing their fiftieth wedding anniversary?

"What's new?" It's a question to consider as we enter 2019. A new resolution? A new diet? A new exercise regiment? A re
newal of lapsed friendships? For me, one thing will be plotting and writing a new book for 2020. Not only will I experience new things in my life, but also in my characters' lives as well. A new year means new discoveries for these people who have grown very real to me. They have pasts that shape their futures. And whether the story happens in the worlds of Sam Blackman's Asheville detective agency or Buryin' Barry's small-town funeral home, new events will create conflict for them and those they love.

At this point, I don't know who will take centerstage or what challenges they will face, but we will share this New Year's resolution, that a resolution of the story will be completed within the year. And that my characters and I will be wiser for the shared adventure.

Then I'll look for more snew. It's bound to be hiding somewhere at hand. All I have to ask is "What's new?"

The Real-Life Story Behind the Sam Blackman Mystery Series

“The Past is never dead. It’s not even past.“
William Faulkner –
Requiem for a Nun

The three rode together down the western North Carolina mountainside in the old truck – a Model T converted into a hearse. One man was black, a funeral director from Asheville. One man, the driver, and his ten-year-old son were white and from the neighboring town of Brevard. The black man had come to the white man, also a funeral director, desperately seeking help to transport a body to Georgia. All he had were a horse and wagon. None of the white funeral homes in Asheville would help him. So, in 1919, through the heart of the Jim Crow South, the three made an eight-hour trek on a mission of mercy.

Rampant segregation meant no public place where they could eat. Arrangements had to be made with the deceased's relatives for lunch along the journey. At noon, they pulled up to a sharecropper’s cabin. An intergenerational gathering greeted them. The patriarch of the black family led the white man and boy into the cabin’s front room. They saw no furniture except for a plank board table and two chairs. There were only two place settings.

“You and your son will eat first and we will wait out in the yard.”

The pronouncement caught the guests by surprise. “There’s more room at the table,” the white man protested. “Or we can all eat outside.”

“No, sir. You’re doing a favor for our family. This is the way we want to honor you.”

So, the man and his boy sat down and ate while everyone else stood in the dusty yard.

The man who told me this story was ninety years old. He had been that ten-year-old child. His adventure was a haunting indictment of my native South and the historic racism that seems to refuse to die. Also, that nearly one-hundred-year-old lunch is garnished with irony – the three stopped because they couldn’t eat together and they wound up not eating together. But what struck me the most was the lesson my elderly friend learned. His father told him later, “Son, sometimes the only thing people have to offer is their hospitality, and you always, always take it.”

His story stuck with me and I needed to exorcise it somehow. The Faulkner quote has a companion from the last line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s
The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

My friend’s story fit how the past pulls us back as we struggle in vain against its relentless presence. So I created a contemporary story featuring a white Iraqi war veteran and amputee, Sam Blackman, who meets an African-American woman, Nakayla Robertson, whose sister has been murdered. The only clue, a 90-year-old journal written by a boy about his trip with his father as they help a black funeral director transport a body from Asheville to Georgia.
Blackman’s Coffin provided the means for me to use the true story as the genesis for a mystery novel.

I was pleased with the result, the reviews were good, but then my editor informed me that I wasn’t finished with Sam Blackman. She knew before I did that Sam had more stories to tell. I decided to continue looking at events in the past that create crimes in the present. The rich history of Asheville, North Carolina, and the surrounding mountains have provided opportunities to use factual events to create fictional consequences. And Sam and Nakayla became an interracial couple and co-owners of The Blackman and Robertson Detective Agency.

Their cases have highlighted F. Scott Fitzgerald's visits to Asheville when Zelda was in psychiatric treatment. They've solved a mystery involving Carl Sandburg's mountain farm and its history dating back to the Confederacy. As an interracial couple, they've faced a killer from the days when such relationships were banned by law, and they've untangled the complexity of crimes motivated by a miscarriage of justice that released a guilty man to prey upon innocents.

My new Sam Blackman novel, Hidden Scars, features one of the most unprecedented chapters of western North Carolina history: the establishment of the revolutionary Black Mountain College that held the arts at its core while offering imaginative approaches to the sciences and humanities alike. Founded in 1933, it attracted world-renowned educators fleeing Nazi Germany. Albert Einstein served on the Board of Advisors. Buckminster Fuller created his first geodesic dome there. Although it closed in 1957, in part due to government actions stemming from The Red Scare unleashed by Joe McCarthy, its impact carries into the twenty-first century and is celebrated through the Black Mountain College Museum in Asheville.

Sam and Nakayla become enmeshed in its history when an eighty-year-old woman asks them to look into the death of her brother. The challenge – her brother died in 1948 as a Black Mountain College student. But a film production crew is producing a movie using the college as the setting. Old-timers help with research. When one of them is murdered and the film suffers sabotage, Sam and Nakayla realize their own lives are in jeopardy and past sins reveal hidden scars. Indeed, "the Past is never dead. It's not even past."

This article first appeared in The Bookreporter ( on October 12, 2017.

How To Kill Your Reader

Danger is a crucial element in a mystery novel. A killer is on the loose and no one is safe. But sometimes the killer can be the writer, and the victim, the reader.

I'm talking about when the author turns into a preacher and the story becomes a sermon. Now I am not against using a mystery novel for social commentary. Writing doesn't happen in a moral vacuum, and, after all, isn't a mystery a morality play? As fellow North Carolina author Margaret Maron said there is no topic that can't be dealt with in a mystery novel. The problem occurs when the author's opinions come across so heavy handedly that the issue is not the context for the story but the story becomes the platform for the issue, robbing the reader of the opportunity to draw his or her own conclusions.

One safer technique is to draw from the Past as a way to compare and contrast issues in the Present. I love F. Scott Fitzgerald's last line in
The Great Gatsby – "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the Past." And William Faulkner's line from Requiem for a Nun – "The Past is never dead. It's not even Past." Pulling the Past into the Present is the way I've structured my Sam Blackman series, and the technique has allowed the reader to examine issues within the context of a story. For example, the 1967 Supreme Court ruling on Loving v. Virginia struck down the old Confederate states' ban on interracial marriage. My novel, A Murder in Passing, investigates a murder that occurred because of that ruling, but Sam and Nakayla, my interracial couple, happened to be investigating that death at the same time North Carolina was voting for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. The parallels were clear for the readers to see on their own.

In my new Sam Blackman book,
Hidden Scars, I wanted to address an issue that concerns me, namely the direction of education in North Carolina, where budgets are being slashed in public schools and universities for liberal and fine arts programs. I believe it is important to encourage the imagination and for students to learn how to think and express and not just what to think and express. The book uses famed Black Mountain College as the backdrop for a crime in the Present. For those not familiar with it, the small college near Asheville, NC, existed from 1933 to 1957, had the arts at its core, but taught science, math, and design, combining the imaginative with the pragmatic. Albert Einstein was on the Board of Advisers, world-renowned professors who fled Nazi Germany were on the faculty, and luminaries like Buckminster Fuller were involved in workshops which created his first successful geodesic dome. In the midst of a murder investigation, Sam and Nakayla learn the history of this revolutionary institution, and I hope the reader comes to appreciate its legacy as well.

The only preaching I hope I do in this book comes in what I consider a more appropriate venue - ACKNOWLEDGMENTS. "In the age of The Art of the Deal, the art of being – being loved, being compassionate, being welcoming – is an art I hope all the heroes of my stories personify, and an art we can practice and defend with the assurance that we, readers and writers alike, are on the right side of history."