Higher Mysteries

Last month, you may recall, I urged you to drop what you were doing and come to listen to four fabulous ladies (or anyway, three fabulous ladies and me) talk about how we use religion and theology when writing crime fiction.  There’s a podcast on its way, but the excellent video has just gone up on YouTube.

The talk is a part of the lecture series bearing the name of my late husband, who taught religious studies in Africa and California, and dedicated his life to the dialogue between the world’s religions.  He lived and breathed theology, and although he didn’t really “get” fiction, could count on the fingers of one hand the novels he read apart from his wife’s (Things Fall Apart and The Satanic Verses were about it), and was never really convinced that what I was doing wasn’t actually the result of some very arcane research, he would have adored the discussion the four of us had.

It’s also the kind of panel I most enjoy, with both laughter and substance.  Thanks to the videographers Amy and Zena (the alpha and omega of the video world?) and to the Santa Cruz Public Library for hosting the event.  I hope you get even a scrap as much pleasure out of it as the four of us did.

The Mystery of a Good Event

What makes for a good event?  Well, it helps when a moderator is working with three wicked smart women with lightning-fast tongues and a great sense of humor.SONY DSC

And it also helps when the crowd is equally quick on their feet and genuinely interested in the subject. (This shows about half those who eventually crowded in.)SONY DSC

(A moderator who has read the books and thought about the questions helps, too…)SONY DSC

It helps keep the energy high, in all directions.SONY DSC

And lays the groundwork for another in the King Lecture series, next year.SONY DSC

Cartloads of thanks to (left to right above) Sharan Newman, Julia Spencer-Fleming, and Zoë Ferraris for their willingness to come and talk God and crime (writing).  And to The Planners (you know who you are), but especially to the Santa Cruz librarians, for inviting us to take over their building and for helping us spread the word, and to the Friends of the Santa Cruz Public Library, for handling the book sales and providing a noble variety of food and drink.  You ladies made the evening perfect.

Those of you who came out, thank you, and I hope you had even half as much fun as we did.  And for those of you who missed it, we’ll have podcasts and a video as soon as the hard-working volunteers manage to process them for you—when they’re up, I’ll post here and let you know.

There are days, and nights, when I love my job.  Last night was one of those.


Higher Mysteries, Santa Cruz style

Tuesday night finds me in rapt conversation with three other Ladies of Mystery, talking about how we use religion and theology in our crime fiction, and why.  The panel will be podcast, and possibly videotaped (yes yes, I know they don’t use tape any more…) but if you’re anywhere in the vicinity, come and join us for a night of library splendor.

The local paper has an article about it, here, and the details (with a printable flyer) are here.


“Clash of the Books,” Part II

(For part I of Sabrina Flynn’s award-winning “Clash of the Books,” scroll down to yesterday’s post, or wait until Tuesday for the entire story.)




“Run, you fools!”

A lash of flame descended with a sizzling snap.  The detectives and librarian ran, taking cover in the Natural Sciences aisle.  Black smoke gathered, writhing upwards.  The building’s extensive sprinkler system surged to the defense.  A deluge of cold rain charged the Balrog.

“By God,” Holmes drawled.  “What was in my drink?”

“I shouldn’t have fallen asleep watching Star Trek with Lee,” Kate said.

“This is not a dream, Inspector Martinelli,” Merrily trembled, “and you are not tripping, Mr. Holmes.”

“I should think not.  I’m standing as we speak.”

“Wait,” Kate eyed the tall, immaculately dressed older man.  “Mr Holmes?  Are you another one of those Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts?”

“I am Sherlock Holmes, Madame.”

A rumbling interrupted the great debate.  The marble floor erupted, throwing earth and crawling vine into the hordes of fiction.  A massive beanstalk took root, grasping upwards with throbbing intensity.  Sprouts attacked the sprinkler system, threading their disastrous way through piping and electrical circuits.  The rain spluttered to a premature drip.  Flame surged anew, licking hungrily at soggy bindings.

“My library is in ruins!” Merrily shrieked.

“Madame, when one’s nervous system is subjected to hallucinatory compounds, it is best to remain calm.  The worst of the effects will wear off with time,” Holmes reasoned, and then narrowed his eyes at a line of goblins scrambling overhead.  One paused, brandishing a maw of fangs.  Holmes regarded it coolly, dismissed it from his mind, and pulled his pipe and tobacco pouch from his pocket.  When the creature persisted, Kate pointed her gun, and fired, dropping goblin to the floor at their feet.  The rest scattered like flies.

“I will not calm myself, Mr. Holmes,” Merrily growled.  “That light-alien has destroyed my library, and the Red Death is killing my favorite characters.”  As the words left her lips, the Red Death swept through the raging tide of battle, touching foes at random.  His hand fell upon a gentlewoman and her dark-haired defender, sending them writhing to the floor.  “He’s just murdered Mr Darcy and Miss Bennet!”  Merrily nearly fainted.

A slice of flame sizzled overhead, halving the shelves an inch above Holmes’ greying hair.  The three were buried in a mound of smoldering paper and blackened bindings.

“If this is a dream,” Kate coughed, “then it’s a painful one.”

Holmes pushed the books aside, ripped a burning page from Twilight, then used it as tinder to light his pipe, before throwing the book at a troublesome faerie.  Book smacked into faerie, sending both spiraling to the ground.  Holmes, Martinelli, and the librarian moved to a safer aisle, past religious studies, through horror, and onto mystery.

“I’m not so sure this is a dream anymore,” Kate said.

“It is lunacy,” Holmes deduced.

“Look,” Merrily interjected, “humor me for a moment and let us pretend this is an intellectual exercise.  How do you propose to stop this?”

“They are your books, Madame,” murmured Holmes around the stem of his pipe.  “I suggest you restore order.”

“Some help would be appreciated.”

A brute of scale and claw slammed into the end of the shelves.  Metal gave, books flew, pages opened, and fiction grew.

“What precisely do you expect us to do?”

Merrily never had the chance to answer, nor did she have an idea, for a tall, blond-haired woman darted past, skidded, and reversed course, diving into their aisle.  A massive claw swiped the space she had vacated.  A mouth of rot appeared in its stead, bellowing frustration, and hammering at the shelving.  Kate fired her gun, bullets bounced off the brute’s armor, ricocheting off stone and zipping dangerously close to their heads.


“Holmes,” the blue-eyed new arrival gasped, “what on earth did you slip into my drink?”

“I did nothing of the sort.  You’re supposed to be in Los Angeles.”

“Have you gone mad?  We were celebrating the New Year in Sussex.”

“Run!” Merrily screamed.  The armored brute tore the shelving off its foundations, and the four darted, scrambling up the spiraling metal stair.

“Who’s she?” asked Kate.

“My wife.”

“This is the wife you mentioned in your manuscript?”  Kate eyed the younger woman appreciatively.

“Mary Russell.”

“Kate Martinelli.”

The two women shook hands.  The Librarian prayed, and the Great Detective smoked his pipe in thought.

“You’re on fire, Holmes.”

“Since this is a dream, it does not bear consideration.”  Two seconds later, Holmes cursed in pain, and batted at the flames on his coat.  “Perhaps not,” he conceded with a grimace.

“What was that light-creature near your desk?”

“I think it was an alien,” Merrily replied.

“Of no nationality I recognize.”

“No, not that kind.  An alien of the Martian variety.  It called me a jailer.  And I’m certainly not a jailer, I’m a librarian.”

The armored brute roared, rolling a blood shot eye at the four.  The other orb bled from where a familiar knife had pricked its eye.  Its roar seized their hearts.  The four moved rapidly down the aisles along the second floor, catching glimpses of a blackened husk battling a sword wielding wizard.

“I seem to have attracted the attention of a beast resembling Grendel,” Mary Russell confided as they raced down the stacks.

“Perhaps you should not have thrown your knife at its eye, Russell.”

“I gave fair warning, Holmes.”

They stopped, breathless, huddling in Art History.

“These are characters from the stack of fiction books that were sitting on my desk.”

“We are not fictional,” Holmes and Russell snapped as one.

“Fiction or non-fiction, your admirer is tearing the floor apart.”

“Since this is a dream, presumably mine, I refuse to be intimidated by a myth,” Mary Russell declared, planting her boots firmly on the grate.   “I’ll distract Grendel, Holmes, while you and these ladies figure out how to stop this madness.”  She drove her elbow into a fire emergency station, yanking the shiny red axe from its resting place.  “There is only one way to deal with a Grendel.”  As quickly as she had appeared, the lanky blond darted towards the railing, disappearing over its side with axe in hand.

“Your wife is certainly something.”

“Assuming this is her dream, I’m inclined to agree,” Holmes remarked drily.



(Tomorrow: Part Three, in which Merrily chews her fingernails and Chaos reigns.)

Contest winner: “Clash of the Books”

Every year we run a contest celebrating National Library Week, asking readers to talk about their love for libraries.  This year I posed the challenge of explaining what “library” means,  to someone like a Martian—and said that there would be extra points if the essay/poem/etc mentioned Kate Martinelli, whose 20th anniversary 2013 is.

I loved all your entries, which were without exception heartfelt, affectionate, appreciative expressions of Library Love.  But I only had one prize—a set of all five Martinelli novels—and so I had to choose one.  And here it is: Sabrina Flynn’s “Clash of the Books.”

Because it’s a nice and long, I’ve divided it into four episodes, which you can read today, tomorrow, Monday, and Tuesday.  After that, I’ll put a pdf of the entire story on the web site for a while, with Sabrina’s blessing.

Enjoy—and as you read, you can be planning your own entry into next year’s Library contest, when Mary Russell turns 20!



Clash of the Books

by Sabrina Flynn

With the editorial eye of Merrily the (presently retired) Librarian


         A Presence drifted beside the moon, puzzling over the unknown.  Its thoughts spiraled along the stars, plunging down a luminescent waterfall.  Far below, the starlight pooled, gathering around a solid stone building.  It seemed a cage.

The Presence seeped through the cracks in the stone.  Its thoughts explored the prisoners who stood upright in dark holding cells.  Their spines were straight, one pressing against the next in cold, multitiered prison blocks.  The hush was tangible, a silence that could be heard, filled with a million minds whispering of their lives before imprisonment.  This could not be endured.  A Savior descended, bearing the key to their freedom.  Liberation was nigh.


            A curly-haired woman sat at her desk.  She had remained after hours to work, but in actuality, she was reading, surrounded by a warm pool of light.  The lapel of her stylish coat bore a tag, proclaiming her as Merrily the Librarian.  She turned a page in her book, absorbed in a world of detectives and murder.

An irritating light niggled at the edges of her vision.  The intrusion grew persistent, growing brighter until it blurred the pages.  Merrily glanced up, severing the connection between mind and word.

A figure approached.  Man or woman, she did not know, human or animal, she could not say.  Its skin glowed like sun through parchment, its veins were elegant letters that swirled beneath the light, from runes to hieroglyphs, of every language ever spoken and those yet born.

Merrily’s mouth fell open.  The book slipped from her numb fingertips, tumbling onto the floor.  The being of light extended an arm, long fingers uncurled, revealing an inky cube in the palm of its ever changing hand.  Letters drifted into the space between librarian and figure, shifting to form words, rearranging into comprehension.

I have come to free the prisoners.  Do not interfere, Jailer, for I am their Savior.

            Merrily recovered the use of her legs, but not her lips.  She bolted to her feet, knocking a cart of books over, scattering their bindings across the floor.

The Savior placed the inky cube on the desk, and tapped its top with a long finger that ended with a dot.  The cube cracked into a thousand splintering lines of molten gold.

Pages fluttered, shelves shook, the library shuddered.  Letters rose from the pages of print with tornado like force.  Merrily retreated from the alphabetic cyclone, tripped over the scattered books, and fell to the floor.

The churning letters took shape over the open book she had been reading. Two figures emerged from The Art of Detection.  One was tall and lean and decidedly male.  The other was short and athletic and most assuredly female.

“What the devil?” the first demanded.  Undaunted by the winds, he swept a steely gaze over the cavernous stacks, and finally pinned the Savior with steadfast skepticism.  Sherlock Holmes concluded that someone had introduced a hallucinatory element into his champagne at the dance hall.

Kate Martinelli spotted an immediate threat, placed herself between the terrified woman on the floor and the towering lunatic of light, and drew her gun.

“Inspector Martinelli, SFPD.  Put your hands up!”

The figure did not move.  Holmes glanced between policewoman and illusion, and calmly moved to assist the fallen librarian to her feet.

Wind battered the three.  A raven flew from between the pages of another book, croaking, “Nevermore!”  A herald of chaos followed by a mélange of fiction.

Out stepped the Red Death in all his glorious tatters.  The armies of Agincourt washed over the main floor like a ferocious tide.  Goblins swarmed, and hobbits scattered.  A pillar of shadow and flame raged between the stacks, and a grey-bearded man in pointy hat skidded to a stop.

“Run, you fools!”



(Tomorrow: Part II, in which Mr Darcy is murdered and Inspector Kate Martinelli appreciates Miss Mary Russell.)

Library contest, V and VI

I said in the rules of the contest that mention of one of my books wouldn’t give a person any extra points, but…

I loved the depiction of childhood glee in Susan M’s piece, since who wouldn’t love a secret passageway into a world of books?  But honestly, I had to recognize Kathy Eliot, who made the mistake of wandering into a library’s annual sale, and had her life taken over.

Two women who lifted the lid into a new world, and fell inside.

Susan M:

My childhood library had a built-in window seat.  One day I noticed that it had a pull-ring on top of the seat and the entire seat was actually hinged.  I lifted the seat/lid and found the storage was crammed with books, wonderful books!  I still remember the thrill of discovery. I also wondered why no one had told me that there were more books inside the bench, it seemed like something everyone should be told about.  My current favorite library doesn’t have secret storage in a window seat, but it does have a fireplace and the most wonderful staff in Tulsa.  I still love discovering new and exciting books at my local library!

And Kathy Eliot: Once Upon a Book Sale

Our largest library is the one at the University: it’s the best stacked, best catalogued and most up to date. Once, they were having a book sale to clear some of their older copies, and I came across this book called ‘The Moor’.

I put in on the shelf until I finished my Bachelors. I had lost interest in Sherlock Holmes for a number of years, but reading that novel rekindled all the love I had for the great detective. I hunted the rest of the series down, and spent a number of tortured months waiting until I had them all, so I could read them in the correct order.

Nowadays I’m pursuing my Masters in Modern and Contemporary Literature and Criticism. And my dissertation will be about Holmes Canon vis-a-vis Russell Kanon. My tutor tells me that it is very possible for a single book to change the course of your studying career completely. That library book sale completely changed the course my studies would have taken, and consequently had a very large impact on my life. Libraries are, simply put, unopened treasure throves, simply waiting for anyone one willing and brave enough to come tug at their lid.

Thrills in the library stacks

The fourth winner in last month’s library contest is Beth Anne, whose piece offers insight into the richness and humanity of archival research.

Archival research usually consists of long stretches of boredom punctuated by tedium, until bits of evidence start to tumble out of the documents. There is nothing like this sense of discovery, which one eminent scholar described as akin to “the feeling of having sat on a cat.” I was fortunate to experience this many times while carrying out my dissertation research at Oxford. But strangely enough, the things that stick in my memory almost more than the discoveries that were so important to my work were little glimmers of the personal and corporate lives of the fellows and scholars I was studying.

In the documents from one college archive, I followed the career of a clerk called Walter. I read that he cleaned windows, tidied the chapel, helped with the music books, and performed other myriad tasks across a span of several years. And then one day I read the entry in the accounts paying for his funeral. I was shocked. What, Walter dead? I felt rather foolish when I reminded myself that Walter has been food for worms for five hundred years. But I was still sad for the rest of the day; it was like losing a friend who had accompanied me on part of my journey.

Other things also caught my eye, glimpses of what kind of people the college inhabitants were in life, and how they lived. In addition to their studies and religious duties, they had fun: one college had an annual outing on Midsummer’s Day to hunt for strawberries and have a picnic. They cared for their animals, buying medicine to treat a sick horse. They ate things I recognized as food, like mustard and mutton, and things I probably wouldn’t touch if you paid me, like lampreys and herons. (Well, maybe I would eat heron. But definitely not lamprey.) One scholar complained loudly about the Lenten fare in a letter to his elder brother, saying, in effect, “If I have to eat one more piece of salt fish I swear I’m gonna barf.”

And then there were the fingerprints. Every so often, in the margin of a scroll, there is a perfect pattern of whorls and ridges left by a long-ago scribe. Fingerprints were always a joy to find, a unique trace of the living, breathing person who had penned those documents, someone who had had friends and a family, who ate and slept and worked and walked the streets of Oxford, someone who was more than a historical statistic for me to incorporate into my dissertation.

Archives and libraries are grand things, vast repositories of knowledge that can lead to discoveries that change the world. But they also hold many smaller treasures that for all their seeming inconsequence are equally powerful as reminders of our common humanity.

Pirate Kings and library-lovers

The third winner of last month’s National Library Week giveaway, Ashley W. tells us about her “Thrill in the Stacks”:

My most personal library thrill actually happened at an archives. The Archives, to be exact. A friend works at the National Archives and is a specialist in US Department of State records. He was taking me on a behind-the-scenes tour of the stacks, when we passed a section on death records of Americans killed overseas. I asked if that included military personnel killed during peacetime and we stopped to look at the index. My great-great-uncle was a Marine killed in Nicaragua in 1927 – the extent of my knowledge about him from his headstone at Arlington Cemetery. We found a listing which led to the discovery of letters from the Nicaraguan Minister to the Secretary of State with “the most earnest expression of regret for the lamentable loss of those brave men who so generously succumbed in the discharge of their high duty.” It seems that my relative and a Marine Private were killed while defending a town against bandits. It was something unexpected and fascinating.

Day Two of Library Thrills

Our second winner of the National Library Week contest (and there is no rank among the winners, by the way, no first prize or runners-up) is by “EMB”.  And how could it not be, coupling precision with the words “Bodleian” and “mitigation” in its very first sentence–then going on to a mystery involving the Tremulous Hand of Worcester, and a quick exuberant lap around Duke Humfrey’s?  Read on…


One of my greatest library thrills was not in the stacks, though perhaps the fact that the Bodleian has closed stacks is something of a mitigation on that score. Although I’d not only studied palaeography, but also run weekly tutorials for fellow grad students enrolled in the relevant courses, this was my first major research trip, and I was fairly certain that I was broadcasting to all of the other readers in Duke Humfrey’s Library that I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. So, there was an added charge when I finally began to successfully decipher the interlinear notations in the manuscript I was transcribing, an eleventh-century copy of a number of Old English homilies and other religious texts. I needed not only the Old English text, but the thirteenth-century annotations by the gloriously named Tremulous Hand of Worcester and the sixteenth-century notes entered by John Joscelyn, a secretary to Matthew Parker, who was then the Archbishop of Canterbury. Learning to read a new hand is a little bit like shifting into a new gear, and once you’ve done it, everything runs smoothly until the next time you need to shift, but the trick is finding that one word that will fall into place. Sixteenth-century hands, ironically, are often more difficult to read than medieval hands, and I had spent several minutes pushing aside panic before I realized that Joscelyn had merely translated the OE word hiht with a very small hope. As simple as that. I managed to contain my exuberance enough to limit myself to a single, quick circuit along the aisle before sitting back down to the manuscript, but I’ve never forgotten that moment of relief and delight.

National Library Week contest, at last

Last month, while I was away in Japan, we ran a contest with the theme “Thrills in the Stacks”—asking for some exciting event that happened in the library.  I read the submissions when I got back 2 weeks ago, but although I don’t do jet lag, I do get really stupid for a while after coming back from a hard trip, and my brain just wouldn’t step up to the judging process.

Problem is, they were all so great.  Even with a brain that’s starting to function again, picking the best is no easy thing.

But I did finally manage to narrow them down to a week’s worth (a work week, that is) plus one.  (I’ll talk about the plus one when the time comes.) And if the concentration is heavily on academia, well, that’s where my own head is at present.

We’ll send an email to the winners today, but I’m going to spread out the posts all week, so you can enjoy them too.

Thanks to everyone who entered, honestly, your pieces were all really great, and I may post them later on, if you don’t mind.

Because it’s all about the libraries, and why we love them.




An Early Memory, by Sabrina


I couldn’t read, so I was promptly dumped off in the picture book section, corralled in by a stack of shelving with books on top, standing upright like staggered crenellations rising all around my patch of faded carpet.  I went to the nearest shelf, pulled out the first book, and looked at the cover: a little boy wearing a furry suit with a tail was dancing with fuzzy monsters under trees.  There were more monsters inside, a boat, and they were all dancing oddly about, however, I wasn’t interested in the pictures.  I brought the book to my nose and inhaled.  It smelled sticky, like the rainbow chairs in the middle of the carpet that I was doing my best to avoid.

I put the book back, taking great care with the bright, mysterious thing, and moved on to the next.  This book was thick, or the pages were at any rate, and there were teeth marks on the moon in the corner, and smudges on the quiet house below.  I opened it and smelled the first page, crinkling my nose in distaste.  Hard pages don’t smell very good; they smell like boxes, and the color was dull where someone’s excited drool had soured and warped the cardboard.  This too, went back on the shelf.

A gleam caught my eye, and I stood on my tippy toes to wrestle this one free.  It was a big book, wide and new, and after I rescued my treasure, it was too unwieldy to carry, so I let it fall and crouched over the big book, staring at the thin man with a striped hat, shirt, and bright blue jeans on the front.  He had brown hair, funny glasses, and was waving, but Oh, that smile was far from friendly.  It was the smile my dog had when he stole my cookie.  The smile my brother’s had when they were up in a tree and I was trying to scramble up a branch I couldn’t even reach.  I detested that smile like lima beans.

Still, there wasn’t a smudge, wrinkle, or stamp on the inside of this book, it was all bright, and the pages were sharp with a smell that sent my toes tingling with appreciation.  I turned the pages, looking at the pictures, full of tiny people with the smirking man standing in every single corner; waving.  I narrowed my eyes at the letters beside him, and although I couldn’t read, I knew that I had to find Waldo.  That was his name, but I didn’t know why, or how I knew.  I searched and scanned the tiny people with striped pants and some with striped hats, or an entire striped set of pajamas, but no one had the red and white striped hat and shirt with blue pants.

By the time I found him, the insides of my cheeks were raw from my teeth, but there he was, ever so obvious now, waving from a sea of stripes, looking not nearly as smug.  I looked down at him, feeling accomplished, full of simple pride, and returned his smile.  I had found Waldo.