Saint Nicholas

Several years ago, I penned a tale titled Saint Nicholas which I post every year as a holiday greeting to friends near and far. Knowing that many folks find the holidays a bit overwhelming, I wrote this seasonal short story to remind us all what is truly important and to provide an emotional lift to those in need. If I’ve done my job well, this story will put a smile on your face and some warmth in your hearts. Feel free to share if you think it might mean something to others. Here’s wishing you and yours a safe and happy holiday season.

Bruce Robert Coffin

I’ve always believed that it’s part of the human condition to focus on the negative. Maybe it has something to do with our upbringing, although upon reflection we are all raised very differently so perhaps not. Whatever it is, it definitely exists in each of us. How else can we explain the age old news reporting axiom “if it bleeds it leads?” Police officers are even more inclined to focus on the negative. Being exposed to it day in and day out tends to make one jaded. But, I’m getting way ahead of myself. I should probably begin by telling you a little bit about me before I tell you my story.

My name is Crispin Mallory and, in case you haven’t already guessed, I am a police officer. I’ve been with the same department for thirty years, pushing a cruiser around, investigating motor vehicle accidents, breaking up domestics, chasing down criminals, and writing the occasional traffic citation.

One day, several years back, I was working a double shift. Cops aren’t paid all that well and when an overtime opportunity presents itself most of us are quick to say yes. It was December twenty-fourth and I had just finished my first tour. I’d returned to the station to attend roll call before heading back out for another eight hours. I was tired and not in a particularly festive mood, mostly due to the fact that I had to work on Christmas, which meant my wife and two children would be celebrating without me. Another holiday missed. Such is the life of a cop. Anyway, the sergeant held me back after the briefing, said he had a task for me. I was instructed to return some valuables to a local home for the aged. Apparently one of the nursing staff had confessed to stealing jewelry from some of the residents at the home, to support her drug habit. See what I mean? All negative. The sergeant provided me with the name of the medical administrator and asked me to deliver the items to him.

After checking out a squad car and loading my gear, I got on the radio and requested that the dispatcher show me 10-6 (busy) on assignment. I drove toward the nursing home, stopping long enough to grab a drive through coffee along the way.

I parked in the lot and made my way inside. The receptionist was talking to one of the orderlies and they both turned as I entered.

“Hello officer,” the receptionist said. “Merry Christmas.”

I returned the greeting.

“What can I do for you?” she asked.

“I’m looking for Mr. Ashby,” I said. “I’m supposed to deliver something to him.”

“I’ll try his extension.”

I wandered around the lobby as she tried to locate Ashby. Everything was brightly painted and decorated for the season. In one corner stood a small lit Christmas tree from which emanated the pleasant scent of balsam. I wondered if the employees were still allowed to call it a Christmas tree.

“Officer,” the receptionist called out.


“Mr. Ashby will be right out.”

I thanked her and continued to look around. Ashby walked up to me and introduced himself as the facility’s head administrator. I explained my purpose for being there and he led me back to his office so we could talk in private.

Once we were seated, I handed him the package and an evidence slip explaining that he needed to sign for the items.

“I am so pleased that your detectives were able to recover so many of the things that our former employee took. I’m sure you can imagine how much these items mean to the residents here. Some of these pieces of jewelry aren’t all that valuable, but they represent gifts from and memories of loved ones. As I’m sure you know, some things are worth far more than money.”

I agreed. After going through each of the items he signed for them and returned the evidence sheet to me. I stood, preparing to leave, when he stopped me.

“I don’t suppose you’d be willing to do me one small favor, would you, officer?”

I wondered why I would need to do another favor for him. After all, I’d just returned a number of stolen items. Shouldn’t that have been sufficient?

“I really do need to get back on the road, Mr. Ashby,” I said.

“You’re right. I shouldn’t impose. You’ve got places to go I imagine.”

Now verbally he was letting me off the hook, but his tone and facial expression told another story. I knew he was attempting reverse psychology on me. Something my wife and I did to our kids daily.

“What do you need?” I asked.

“It’ll only take a second. I promise. But it will mean so much to her.”

Ashby proceeded to tell me about an eighty-one-year-old patient named Ruth Perkins. Mrs. Perkins was suffering from Alzheimer’s.

“She’s all alone now,” Ashby said. “Her husband passed last year. They had one son, Nicholas, and he was a police officer. Nicholas was killed during a shootout many years ago. Apparently, he would visit her every Christmas, whether he was working or not and it meant the world to her. Her Alzheimer’s is advanced but she still manages to put several good days together each month. I have no idea how she does it, but she does.”

I sat down again as he continued.

“Every month since the death of her husband, just prior to the twenty-fifth, she gets it into her head that Christmas is approaching. She gets so excited and makes a point to tell all of the staff that her son is coming to visit. She even has a lighted ceramic tree that she makes us put up in her room. Of course when the twenty-fifth passes and Nicholas doesn’t show up her condition quickly worsens and she reverts back to her former state. It really is quite sad.”

“What do you want me to do?” I asked. “I’m not her son.”

“I know that, but I thought it might cheer her up to get a visit from an officer in uniform. If you could just stop by and wish her a Merry Christmas.”

I only wanted to get back to my comfort zone. Back to my cruiser. I really wasn’t enjoying the idea of popping in on an already confused old woman, possibly making her situation worse. But Ashby’s attempt at reverse psychology must have worked because I found myself saying okay.

He told me that he’d introduce me, then he led me down the hall to her room. I followed, amid the stares and whispers of the other residents. Each of them probably wondering what the cop was doing there. At last he stopped and entered a room. The sign on the door said R. Perkins and a white ceramic tree stood on the table under the window. As I rounded the corner I saw her sitting up in bed, wearing a festive green robe over a red sweater. She was wearing makeup and it looked like she had just paid a visit to the hair dresser. She looked dignified and radiant, like someone waiting to be called upon, not at all what I had expected.

“Mrs. Perkins,” Ashby said. “I’ve brought you a visitor.”

She turned toward me and her blue eyes lit up instantly. “Nicholas,” she cried out. “My Saint Nicholas, I knew you’d come. Didn’t I say he would come? Oh, this is the best Christmas ever.”

She held her arms out to me as I approached the bed. Awkwardly, I bent down toward her. She hugged me tightly, even kissed me on the cheek.

“Merry Christmas,” I said, as I felt myself blushing.

“I should leave the two of you alone now,” Ashby said, as he left.

I sat down in the chair beside the bed and she began asking me all sorts of questions. I was afraid that I might say the wrong thing, but as time passed it became obvious that nothing I said would lessen her faith that I was her son. We talked for close to an hour. I told her all about my family and about my work. She asked if I remembered this thing or that and of course I told her I did. The smile never left her face.

I stayed with her until she began to tire. All the excitement had worn her out. She hugged me again and made me promise to return the following day. Christmas Day. I promised that I would and kissed her on the cheek. I returned to my cruiser and radioed that I was back in service. My heart was full and I was happier than I’d been in a long while. It was clear that my visit to Ruth Perkins had had a positive effect on both of us. I no longer cared that I’d be missing this Christmas with my own family. Don’t get me wrong, I still wanted to be with them, but after visiting a lonely old woman I realized I had no right to complain. There would be other Christmases to spend with my family. Mrs. Perkins’ family was gone leaving her with only memories.

I returned to work the following day. Christmas Day turned out to be busier than any of us had imagined. A light snowfall had left the roads slick resulting in many accidents. The calls for service were already piling up by the time I hit the street.

It was nearly one in the afternoon before I was finally able to take a lunch break. I grabbed a sandwich and a couple of eggnogs at the local market before heading over to see Mrs. Perkins. I was excited about being able to keep my promise to her and looking forward to seeing her face light up at the sight of me.

I parked in the nearly vacant lot and headed inside. The receptionist was a different girl than the one I’d spoken to the previous day. Holiday help I assumed. She asked if she could help me and I politely declined. “Thank you but I’m all set. Just visiting someone.”

I walked down the corridor to her room, stopping as I reached her door. The room was empty. Her personal belongings were gone and the nameplate was missing from the door. I felt like someone had knocked the wind out of me.

“Can I help you, officer?” a soft female voice asked from behind me.

I turned and saw a young orderly. “I’m looking for Mrs. Perkins. Ruth Perkins. Has she been moved?”

“Are you a relative?”

I pondered her question before answering. “Sort of. I just visited her yesterday.”

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Mrs. Perkins passed away last night.”


Many years have passed since that Christmas. I’m still a police officer with the same department. Heck, I’ve been on so long now that I get every Christmas off. I’ve never forgotten Ruth Perkins or her gift to me. Oh, I know what your thinking. That it was I who gave her one last visit with her son. But I think of it a it differently. I believe Mrs. Perkins is the one who bestowed a great gift on me. She restored my faith in humanity, helped me appreciate what I have. Her belief that I was her son was so strong and so real that I couldn’t help but feel the same love for her in return. Her faith and her love changed me forever. And isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

First Do No Harm

December represents a slow month for jury trials around my courthouse. We don’t call jurors down during the last two weeks of the year. The adage of the “holiday juror” slips into the courthouse psyche around December 1st. The Holiday Juror is the notion that all the goodwill- among-people” sentimentality of the season will overwhelm evidence and adversely affect outcomes. Perhaps, it merely rationalizes ignoring the work people don’t want to do anyway.

As a result, it proved a bit of a challenge to find the Trial of the Month for December. Yet, on December 9th, 1946 a case began which stands as the opposite of goodwill among peoples. In a courtroom in Nuremberg, Germany, the second of the war crimes trials began. On trial this time were twenty-three leading German physicians and administrators for their willing participation in pseudo-scientific medical experiments and euthanasia against captured peoples deemed by the Nazis to be “Unworthy of Life.”

The Nazi concentration camp at Ravensbruck was a model women’s camp with manicured lawns, flower beds and peacocks. The facade presented a picture of decent treatment for observers from the International Red Cross. Within the hospital walls, however, fiendish medical experiments were conducted. The experiments, conducted without the consent of the patients involved deliberately infecting leg bones and muscles, often by sewing wood, glass or rusting metal into tissue to cause gangrene. Conducted under the direction of Dr. Herta Oberheuser, the tested women were left maimed. They became known as Ravensbruck Rabbits because they served as the laboratory animals. (Others would contend that they earned the moniker because the procedures required them forever to hop in order to travel about on ruined legs.) In the camp the pretty, young Oberheuser became known as ” der Teufel mit dem Engelsgesicht” (the devil with the face of an angel). judges_nuremberg_trial

As the world learned of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany’s other crimes near the end of the war, it became apparent that the existing rules of post-war justice were not adequate for the atrocities committed, events which Winston Churchill called, a “crime without a name”. A new method of balancing the scales must be developed. The Nuremberg Trials became the first time that defendants could be charged with “crimes against humanity.”

Herta Oberheuser, a dermatologist who dreamt of a career as a surgeon became one of twenty-three doctors and administrators put to trial in the second Nuremberg Trial. She stood alongside nineteen other physicians and three administrators. Other notorious experiments included both high-altitude and freezing “studies,” both tests resulted in the planned deaths of the test subjects.

The opening statement by Brigadier General Telford Taylor, the Chief Counsel for the prosecution sets out crimes against humanity.

“The defendants in this case are charged with murders, tortures, and other atrocities committed in the name of medical science. The victims of these crimes are numbered in the hundreds of thousands. A handful only are still alive; a few of the survivors will appear in this courtroom. But most of these miserable victims were slaughtered outright or died in the course of the tortures to which they were subjected. For the most part they are nameless dead. To their murderers, these wretched people were not individuals at all. They came in wholesale lots and were treated worse than animals.”

At the end of the trial, sixteen of the twenty-three defendants were convicted. Seven were executed while the others received prison terms. In their final judgment decrying the experiments, the judges announced what has become known as The Nuremberg Code, ten ethical principles governing experiments on humans. The voluntary consent of the subjects became the first principle of such research. Some have argued that The Doctors’ Trial marks the beginning of biomedical ethics.

Both those of us who practice in the criminal field and those who write about it, must, on occasion, think about the criminal mind. The Doctors’ Trial provides few answers but offers a perch from which to consider the subject. Physicians, learned in and devoted to healing, became remorseless killers. The transformation is at once fascinating and a frightening commentary on humanity. A single answer during Oberheuser’s cross examination gives us a glimpse into the mindset.

   …I was told by Prof. Gebhardt, as I have already said in my direct interrogation, that it had been ordered on the highest level, that the state had ordered it, and that it was legal and, in any case, that the experiments were not supposed to be dangerous, and besides, that they were Poles who had been sentenced to death…

The workaday quality to Oberheuser’s answer, represents the slippery slope of evil. The veneer of research and learning, the subjugation to authority and the devaluing of the test subjects made the most atrocious actions possible. The metaphor seems stark. Cruel medical experiments sewed poison into the bodies of prisoners while the devaluing of human life sewed a toxin into the souls of the doctors and staff who ultimately stood trial.

Oberheuser_during_sentencingThe Nuremberg Court convicted Herta Oberheuser of war crimes. In a mixed bag of justice, she received a sentence of twenty years in prison. Released after five years, she became a physician in West Germany. Her medical license was subsequently revoked after she was recognized by a Ravensbruck survivor. She died in 1978.

The Doctors’ Trial is my December Trial of the Month. It began December 9th, 1946. (For those who would rather fill their holiday thoughts with more pleasant topics, A Charlie Brown Christmas debuted on CBS December 9th, 1965.)

Mark Thielman

I Spy


It started with a microphone hidden in a pen.  Then, we had to crack a code while the clock ticked down to zero.  We had to dodge laser beams to avoid detection, determine which interviewee was lying to us, and scan through dozens of monitors showing feeds of dozens of cameras to find the man we were looking for.  And then we went to dinner.

My son stayed with me for a week in New York recently, and we had a great time.  A slice of pizza, five miles along the Hudson, attending A Bronx Tale with Chazz actually in the cast that night, it was a wonderful trip.  But by far, one of the highlights was a visit to the new SPYSCAPE, a museum and interactive exhibit of the world of espionage.  As soon as we arrived, the sleek, high-tech feel told us immediately this was no stuffy museum.  We had to register at one of the digital kiosks sprinkled throughout the place.  We would later use those kiosks to play spy-themed games and track our progress through the exhibits.

Once our turn to enter arrived, we were ushered into a small room with a wraparound screen.  A booming voice and short video gave us instructions on our mission, should we choose to accept it, of course.  And surprise, surprise:  when the video was over and the door opened, we were on a different level.  The “room” was also an elevator.

What followed was a self-guided tour of different exhibits, each one highlighting certain elements of espionage and spycraft.  Each section had a featured activity that was related to that topic as well.  And that’s where the real fun was.

The first was code-breaking.  There was a lot of interesting information about Alan Turing and the Enigma machine from World War II, but my son enjoyed more the table where we had to crack a code based on real scenarios from World War I.  If we didn’t get it right, our valuable double agent from the French Resistance wouldn’t be able to convey her vital information.

Then, on to the Deception Detection exhibit.  We learned about body language, common signs of deception, and polygraph machines.  We read about Robert Hanssen, the notorious spy inside the FBI, and how he lived a lie for years.  The activity here was entering a small booth and watching videos of people answering questions, and voting with red and green buttons how truthful we thought they were.

Then, we learned about infiltration and perimeter security.  The activity here was one of the most immersive.  We had to walk through a long, tunnel-like room.  Our mission was to press as many of the buttons along the wall that we could in one minute.  But there were lasers spider-webbing the entire corridor.  Touch just one, and the mission was over!

Finally, we learned about surveillance.  For this activity, we entered a large room withmonitors dozens of video monitors all around us.  In the center of the room, we had to put on a headset and hear instructions like, “Find a man in a white shirt with a backpack.”  Or, “What color coat is the man wearing on Monitor 27?”  As in the other activities, the clock was ticking the seconds away.

Part of my enjoyment was comparing the activities to my real-world experience with some of these topics.  I’ve never worked for our government in an espionage capacity, but in my past role as a private investigator and current role as an international security consultant, I deal with things like video surveillance, deception detection, and perimeter security on a daily basis.  I’ve gone undercover before and been on the defense side of corporate espionage many times, and I have to advise some of the traveling executives I support of how foreign agents may try to steal their secrets.  And nothing can convince me that the first person I met with at the U.S. Embassy in Manila who was there to welcome me wasn’t actually someone in some intelligence capacity screening me to verify my true purpose for being there.

My experience with codebreaking is admittedly thin, though back when I used to review recorded phone calls, I got pretty good at identifying phone numbers by translating the sound of the touchtones by ear.  And I’ve never really had to dodge a laser beam before.  But one time while sneaking onto a bad guy’s ranch, I drove my truck through a cow pasture to avoid a rubber hose on his driveway that would’ve sounded a bell.  That kind of counts, right?

So from this dubiously learned perspective, I have to say the information presented and the activities offered at Spyscape were relatively authentic.  And I can certainly say it was a lot of fun.  Our performance on each event was recorded, and at the end a computer tallied our scores and recommended our proper espionage jobs based on our aptitudes.  I didn’t get “Field Agent,” but I did get “Agent Handler.”  So, no James Bond for me, but I at least can be M.  Maybe Dame Judy Dench can play me in a movie one day.

Of course, like any good museum, we exited through the gift shop, where we saw the aforementioned microphone pen, drone cameras, dissolving paper, disappearing ink, and many more gadgets and paraphernalia.  We didn’t get anything, but we did start watching The Americans that night, so the effect stayed with us.

We here at Murder-Books tend to write more about detectives than secret agents, but as I said above, some of the topics can still translate.  And high stakes, drama, deception, and betrayal can add spice to stories from any genre.  You’ll find it all here, and it will be time well spent!

For this blog alone, I’ll alter my signature:

Keller.  Ben Keller.

In the Spirit of the Thanksgiving Season

by Roger Johns

New Year’s Day is the traditional time to make resolutions but the Thanksgiving holiday has made me reflective about so many things that have happened during the first few years of my journey as a writer, and it’s prompted me to jump the gun and make my resolution now:

Going forward, instead of waiting for the season of thanksgiving, I resolve to be thankful in the moment––to adopt a thankful attitude as a default setting.

A lot has happened that I should be thankful for and, in the endless hustle of trying to ‘make it’, I sometimes wonder if I have been as grateful and as demonstrative of my gratitude as I ought to be. A lot of important and memorable events have occurred for which I am truly thankful, but mostly, it’s the people––the people I’ve known and the new people I’ve met along the way––that inspire this strengthening of a sense of gratitude.

The list of these people is long: fellow writers, bookstore owners and managers and staff, conference and festival organizers, readers I meet at bookstores and mystery conferences and book festivals, everyone who has bought my books, reviewers, everyone at my publishing house, my outside publicist, my agent and her colleagues, the members of my critique groups, interviewers and folks who have invited me onto their blogs, librarians, all of the people who run the professional writing organizations, friends and family who have been unflinchingly supportive, my fellow bloggers at MurderBooks (twenty-five months and we’re still going strong––well done, guys), and all of you who read our blog and take the time to comment or pass us along to others, and a special thanks to Kristopher Zgorski at BOLO Books for his recent and very huge shout-out about Murder Books in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

I had no idea what to expect when I took my first tentative steps into the writer’s world, but any misgivings I might have had were quickly dispelled. It would be difficult to imagine a kinder, more generous, more genuinely supportive group. Writing is a tough and sometimes lonely endeavor, but so many of the people who have crossed my path along the way have made the striving worthwhile.

For those of you taking your first steps into this business, it pays to be a bit cautious, but it also pays to be thankful. Your journey will bring many joys and anxieties, large and small, but I encourage you to look forward, most of all, to the people you will meet. And take the time to let them know how thankful you are for their consideration and their fellowship. It takes a lot of people to make a writing career happen, and the longer you work at it, the more you discover that these people are more than just co-conspirators in your career––they become your friends, they become the inhabitants of your immediate world, they become the people you talk about when you’re telling stories to ‘others’.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

ROGER JOHNS is a former corporate lawyer and retired college professor, and the author of the Wallace Hartman Mysteries from St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books: Dark River Rising (2017) and River of Secrets (2018). He is the 2018 Georgia Author of the Year (Detective-Mystery Category), a 2018 Killer Nashville Readers’ Choice Award nominee, and a finalist for the 2018 Silver Falchion Award for best police procedural. His articles and interviews on writing and the writing life have appeared in Career Author, Criminal Element, Killer Nashville Articles, and the Southern Literary Review. Roger belongs to the Atlanta Writers Club, Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and International Thriller Writers, where he is one of The Fearless Bloggers, and a mentor in the Big Writer program. Please visit him at

It’s Done–Almost

by Brian Thiem

A few days ago I sent the completed manuscript for the first book of a new series to my agent. Now I wait.

People often ask what it takes to publish a book. Writers have different processes, and mine has changed since I began writing. And the first book of Spartina Island Manuscripta new series is different than a second or third book or a stand-alone novel.

Spartina Island (the working title, which may—probably will—change when a publisher gets involved) began as an idea about two years ago, shortly after I finished the third book in the Matt Sinclair series. I brainstormed a premise, main characters, and a unique setting with friends, fellow writers, and my agent. I jotted down pages of ideas.

Once my agent gave me the thumbs up, I began creating my story, writing out plot points and other details on a hundred index cards. I shuffled them, resorted them, and continued to rearrange them until the story seemed coherent.

I then wrote a detailed synopsis. The synopsis consisted of the step-by-step plot, subplots, character conflict, and bits of backstory weaved into the story. Writing a synopsis (sort of a readable plot outline) is tough. It requires a lot more thinking than typing, but it makes the subsequent writing so much easier.

My agent read it and sent me some suggested changes. I redid it, and she reviewed it and gave the go-ahead.

I then went into writing mode, where I sat my butt in my desk chair and IMG_0639wrote a minimum of 1000 words a day—well, almost every day—for the next four months.

When the first draft (just shy of 90,000 words) was finished, I took a break to distance myself from it for a week. I then read it and took notes of what I needed to change, delete, and add.

With my notes beside me, I dove into a rewrite. I added scenes, deleted scenes, added descriptions, improved dialogue, made characters more sympathetic, and upped the action.

After a break of a few days, I printed it out—all 320 pages—and read it with a pencil in hand. Four days later, I propped up the binder beside my computer and went to work making the changes from my edited copy. After two long days, I had spellcheck go through it again, and sent it to my agent.

I know it’s far from done. My agent will undoubtable suggest changes—maybe minor or maybe major. She’ll then send it off to publishers who’ve expressed interest, and if we land a contract, their editors will read it and request other changes—maybe minor, but probably major. I know from experience that every change these experts suggest make it a better book.

With luck, Spartina Island could be available in bookstores a year from now. Fingers crossed.

The Lady Goes Courting

The Old Bailey, London’s storied criminal courts building, sits upon the former site of London’s Newgate Prison. Daniel Dafoe was once imprisoned there. The Restoration government burned a pamphlet written by John Milton near the front steps. The building reaches back to the earliest days of British criminal prosecution. At the beginning of each new session, the justices solemnly parade into court carrying bouquets of flowers while the halls are strewn with herbs—a throwback ritual from the days when the fetid smell of the jail must be masked.

From October 20th to November 3rd, 1960 the No. 1 Court in the Old Bailey held the trial of R v. Penguin Books, Ltd. This building, featured in many crime novels, became the setting for a real-life literary drama. The public prosecution of Penguin Books tested the limits of Britain’s Obscene Publications Act of 1959 over the publication of D.H. Lawrence’s, Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

            The book, written in 1928, had been banned as obscene in its unexpurgated form.Front cover of 'Lady Chatterley's Lover', Penguin edition, 1960 Copies carried in from the European continent were seized. In 1960 Penguin Books whose goal, expressed by the publisher was to “produce a book that would sell at the price of 10 cigarettes,” delivered copies to the public prosecutor in advance of publication. The prosecution of Penguin Books followed.

            A jury was seated to hear the case. (In the first tactical move, the Defense did not seek to protect the delicate ears and eyes of genteel British women. They declined to exercise their right to have an all-male jury impaneled in an obscenity case. The jury subsequently consisted of nine men and three women.)  Prior to the start of evidence, the jurors were ushered into the jury room and instructed to read the book. The book must be read in the jury room and copies could not be taken home—it was banned reading material.  Every juror finished reading the book ahead of the allotted time.

The public prosecutors, led by Mervyn Griffith-Jones, called no witness. They had difficulty enlisting experts willing to testify to the book’s obscenity and whether, taking the book on the whole, the obscenity outweighed the public good “in the interests of science, literature, art or learning, or of other objects of general concern”. These were the statutory standards. At the trial’s conclusion, jurors would be posed the common-sense questions of whether the publication as a whole would do any harm and, if so, if its literary merit might still make it worthwhile. Reportedly, the Department of Public Prosecutions sought to call Rudyard Kipling, a stalwart of the Old Guard in Great Britain, but sadly learned that he had been dead since 1936.

The Defense, led by Gerald Gardner, mounted a full-throated response, calling 35 witnesses testifying to the artistic, literary and sociological value of the book. They defended the work, which some called the foulest book in English literature by arguing that it was not obscene. Rather, the Defense maintained that the book represented Lawrence’s public commentary on the England of his day.

The prosecution’s cross examination consisted of reading many of the salacious passages and arguing that the plot merely provided padding for descriptions of sexual intercourse. They tallied up the numbers on four-letter words throughout the manuscript. The gulf between those whom George Orwell described as “the striped-trousered ones who rule,” and the emerging post-war society was best illustrated by the oft-quoted questions asked by prosecutor Griffith-Jones. “Would you approve of your young sons, young daughters—because daughters can read as well as boys—reading this book? Is it a book you would have lying around your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”

            After three hours of deliberation, the jury returned a unanimous verdict of not guilty. Over the next three months, Penguin sold three million copies of the book. The finding by the jury ushered in a relaxation of British publishing and what some describe as the beginning of the “permissive society” in Britain. Some mark the end of the trial as the true start of the 1960s.

   headline         The case expanded the tool box of the writer. It is gospel to nod and to agree that this represents a good thing. We might pause to consider this idea—whether we as readers and writers could be content with a bit less explicitness. If we lived in the world of the cozy mystery, where more occurred out-of-view and was alluded to rather than made explicit, would we be the poorer? We can surely agree that literature has killed far fewer people than those ten cigarettes, the book intended to replace. For better or worse, the world was different after R v, Penguin Books Ltd, a trial concluding in early November 1960.

Perhaps the blog should conclude with a profanity laced fusillade, racking up its own four-letter tally.  I will finish instead by declaring R v, Penguin Books Ltd November’s “Trial of the Month”.

Mark Thielman

Interview with Daniella Bernett, author of the Emmeline Kirby-Gregory Longdon Mysteries

Join me in welcoming Daniella Bernett to the blog, today. Daniella is here to tell us about A Checkered Past, the newest title in her Emmeline Kirby-Gregory Longdon mystery series that features a journalist and a jewel thief, as her main characters.

MB: Art and the art world are foundational elements of A Checkered Past. Tell our readers where you learned so much about art?

DB: I’ve been interested in art since I was a kid. I have always wished that I could paint, in oils in the style of the Impressionists. However, I can’t even draw. Therefore, I must admire these masterworks and others in museums. Aside from the Impressionists, among my favorite artists are John Singer Sargent, Jacques Joseph Tissot, John Constable, J.W. Turner, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, and many others who were able to capture light and movement on a canvas. When I gaze at their paintings, they are so vibrant and alive that I can almost hear the susurration of the wind through the trees or the rustle of fabric.

MB: Where did the idea for this story come from?

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DB: I am passionate about the issue of looted Nazi art, as everyone should be about injustice. Sadly, in 2018 we routinely read these stories in the papers. Each one another ugly stigma of shame that the Holocaust was allowed to take place. That’s why it infuriates me when people continue to deny that it ever happened and that its victims are “greedy” for attempting to have THEIR property returned.

I simply attempted to keep the issue alive and to show how it reverberates today. In addition, the resurgence of such sentiments terrifies me. The war is never over for those who suffered, and continue to suffer, because of the injustices perpetrated against them. If we forget, humanity’s soul will be condemned in perpetuity.

I sought to tie my themes of betrayal and injustice together with the introduction of a sinister IRA commander named Doyle, who has a link to the stolen Constable painting in the story. His character leaped to mind when I came across the fascinating fact that the Irish Republican Army collaborated with Abwehr, German military intelligence, during the war.

MB: A Checkered Past has a complex story line. What is your process for creating a story like this? What is the most difficult part of writing such a book?  What is your method for giving your main characters a distinct voice?

DB: I like weaving a nuanced and multilayered plot to give the story a certain richness and because, I suppose, I’m a teeny bit wicked at heart. I like to get the adrenaline rushing through readers’ veins by taking them to the edge of a cliff, leaving them breathless for a few suspended seconds, and then at the last moment veering off in a different direction. The most difficult part is to ensure that all the twists in the tale lead to the same juncture at the end. The reader must have an answer for why the crime was committed. On the other hand, I like to dangle a nugget on the last page to leave readers dying for the next book. Unfair, perhaps. But I did tell you I was naughty. What’s life without a little excitement (at least on the written page)?

As for giving my characters a distinct voice, it comes from knowing what motivates them—how they instinctively would think and react in certain situations. It is essential that an author thoroughly understand his or her characters.

MB: How did you decide to make your protagonists a journalist and a jewel thief?

DB: A journalist is inherently curious about many subjects. His or her job is to ask questions to uncover the truth and ensure transparency. Naturally, a journalist would be intrigued by crime, especially murder. The determination to find answers and see that justice is served are all important.

Meanwhile, a jewel thief’s modus operandi are lying and evasion of the law. Isn’t this in stark contrast to a journalist’s reverence for the truth and justice? Most definitely. That’s exactly the point. A portrait in contrasts. Who better than someone on the wrong side of the law to discern the twisted workings of a fellow criminal’s mind? A thief immediately recognizes things that the honest person would never even contemplate. In Gregory’s case, he has a certain code of honor. Murder is an offensive transgression. A line that should never be crossed. Thus, I have two diametrically opposed sleuths who are of one mind when it comes to the taking of a human life: the culprit must pay for the crime, otherwise chaos would reign in the world.

MB: What drew you to this particular foreign setting for your book?


DB: Since I was a kid, I’ve been an Anglophile. I devoured any book that was set in England and I’m a devoted Masterpiece Theater and Mystery fan. I’ve visited London and other parts of the United Kingdom several times. Therefore, when I started writing my own books my characters had to be British. Lead Me Into Danger, Book 1 in my series, also is set in Venice, which is one of my most favorite cities in the world.

MB: Tell our readers about how you came to your writing career? What has been the most satisfying part of your writing experience?

DB: I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was nine years old. The spark that launched me into the writing world was my fourth grade teacher. Once a week, she had Creative Writing hour and gave us different assignments. I absolutely loved it.

In school, I started pursuing my dream by writing short stories (mostly mysteries). After I graduated from college, in the four months it took me to find my first job, I wrote a mystery novel. My first job was as a copywriter at Penguin USA. One day, I plucked up the courage to show my book to one of the editors. She actually read it. She told me that it was better than what she usually sees from first-time writers. However, she said that I should think more in terms of a series. I tried revising the book and submitted it to several agents, who all rejected it. Thus, I chalked it up to a good exercise. But I didn’t forget the editor’s advice. The kernel of the idea for my mystery series featuring journalist Emmeline Kirby and jewel thief Gregory Longdon slowly started swirling around in the back of my head, until one day when all pieces fell into place and Lead Me Into Danger came to life on the printed page.

Lead Me Into Danger, Deadly Legacy and From Beyond The Grave are the first three books in the series. In Lead Me Into Danger, Emmeline and Gregory haven’t seen each other in two years, but she literally runs into him in Venice after witnessing two men try to murder her colleague. Then, Emmeline and Gregory become ensnared in a hunt for a Russian spy in the British Foreign Office. Deadly Legacy, Book 2, is about $100 million in stolen diamonds, revenge and murder. It takes place in London. From Beyond The Grave is set in the seaside resort of Torquay along the English Riviera in Devon. It’s about the deep, dark secrets of Gregory’s past, love, betrayal and, of course, murder.

Meanwhile, I had always enjoyed poetry, especially the Romantics. So I began to dabble with verse and the result was my two collections, Timeless Allure and Silken Reflections.

The most satisfying thing about writing is coming up with a story that will intrigue readers and provide an escape.

MB: What is coming next from the pen of Daniella Bernett?

DB: Book 5 will be released in fall 2019. I’m nearly finished with Book 6. I usually take a couple of months off in between books to allow the next one to percolate in mind. Then, Emmeline and Gregory drag me off on another adventure.

MB: Daniella, thank you for taking the time to give the readers of Murder Books a look at your new mystery.

Daniella Bernett is a member of the Mystery Writers of America New York Chapter. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.S. in Journalism from St. John’s University. Lead Me Into Danger, Deadly Legacy and From Beyond The Grave are the first three books in the Emmeline Kirby-Gregory Longdon mystery series. She also is the author of two poetry collections, Timeless Allure and Silken Reflections. In her professional life, she is the research manager for a nationally prominent engineering, architectural and construction management firm. Daniella is currently working on Emmeline and Gregory’s next adventure. Visit Daniella at or follow her on Facebook at or on Goodreads at

Daniella was interviewed for MurderBooks by Roger Johns.