Sunday, May 25, 2014

Doing It At the Dixie Dew--Ruth Moose--Review

Doing It at the Dixie Dew.  Ruth Moose.  Minotaur Books, St. Martin’s Press.  Hardback $24.99; 272 pp.  ISBN-978-1466846555. E-book also available.

I’ve read a lot of mysteries since I got hooked on them back in 1980, and Ruth Moose’s Doing It At the Dixie Dew is unique.  To see its cover one might think “cute” and “cozy,” but you won’t be able to fit it neatly into a category.  It defies all the patterns and stereotypes.  I have never read a mystery like it.  Ruth has been publishing short stories and poetry for years, and now she’s a mystery writer.  Then this first one was the winner of the Malice Domestic First Best Traditional Mystery Award from St. Martin’s Press.  She doesn’t break the rules.  The sleuth is there, the victim, the suspects, the search for whodunit, some close calls for Beth Henry, the owner of the new Dixie Dew Bed and Breakfast in Littleboro, North Carolina, as she tries to figure out who killed her eighty-plus year-old guest on the first night she was open.

The thing is that the murder and the solution aren’t what make the narrative plunge forward.  It’s the voice, the vitality of the language, the authority of the writer.  We are mesmerized by the words themselves, the easy but compelling pace of the sentences that carry us along so nonchalantly but with a powerful grip that won’t let go.

The dialog is funny, unexpected, wild, and yet completely natural, alive, believable. Ruth’s tale springs out of that strong Southern oral tradition and its literary giants like Faulkner, but she writes nothing like any of them.  The plot is original, the characters are familiar to a degree if you read Southern literature but very much their own selves, They push the edge, break all the stereotypes even when they seem to fill them.  You almost don’t care whether the mystery is solved or not.  Blasphemy?  Maybe, but the genre gets a new lease on life in this book, and then there are the metaphors.  Only a writer with her own way of seeing and naming human experience can nail the things we know, that yet time after time are always fresh, always give us a way of seeing that we didn’t have before.

Here are some examples:

“He knows his jewelry.  He probably teethed on it.” (146)

Wisteria hid a lot of latticework that had not been painted in years–a step away from toothpicks for termites. (146)

Verna was your pillar of the community.  She was your Sunday School teacher type.  Your first grade teacher.  Your mama when your mama wasn’t around.  When the Verna Crowells of the community went bad, the rest of the world was heading downhill and racing like a bobsled. (179-80)

“Who says I have a mama?  I may have sprung fully formed from the loins of Apollo.” (180)

“I suspected both of us could hang regrets like rags from every bush we passed.” (183)

As in a Russian novel I read once, the dead still live.  Beth’s grandmother, who raised her, Mary Alice, is as much character as any of the living people in the book.

There’s a love theme, but it’s very understated.  It’s all in the behavior, not in the words.  A lot of today’s “cozies” feature a romance between a hunk who appears and makes the heroine sleuth swoon, then wonder: is he a bad guy or a good guy?

Scott, who like Ida Plum, shows up to help and charges very little, is definitely a good guy.  We know even if Beth has some doubts. Then Beth comes to like and trust him.  He reveals his character by his behavior which is kind and always helpful.  He worries about Beth and tries to warn her that the world out there in this small familiar town is not safe any more.  He’s not a man who has to rescue, though he sometimes wants to.  He listens when Beth insists she’s going to do whatever she is bent on doing by herself.  The traditional mystery bans “explicit sex,” and the love between Beth and Scott is at the other extreme, and yet there is early a subtle sexual attraction.

I am reminded of the way Jane Austen gives us those sentences with a sting in their tail, of Zora Neale Hurston’s reveling in folk metaphors and making up her own.  You’re in for a treat in this one.  In every way Dixie Dew is strong as fiction, in setting, characters, plot, and keeping you reading, but if you think any of it is predictable, think again.



Doing It at the Dixie Dew is Ruth Moose’s first novel.  It was published by St. Martin’s Press in May 2014, after she won the $10,000 Malice Domestic First Best Traditional Mystery award in 2013.  In the past forty years she has published 1200 poems, short stories, book reviews, and columns.  She has three collections of short stories: The Wreath Ribbon Quilt, Dreaming in Color, and Neighbors and Other Strangers.  She has had her work published in Holland, South Africa, England, and Denmark as well as all over the U.S.  Of her six collections of poetry, the most recent is The Librarian and other Poems.  She received a MacDowell fellowship, and in 2009, a prestigious Chapman fellowship for teaching. Originally from Albemarle, she now lives in Pittsboro, North Carolina, where she continues to write and teach since her retirement from the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Creative Writing Department in 2010.  With an authentic Southern voice, her characters resonate the humor and tragedy of everyday lives.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Malice Domestic 26 May 2-4, 2014

Malice Social Issues Panel, May 3.  Left to right: Linda O. Johnston, John Clement, Debra H. Goldstein, Nancy Cohen, and Judy Hogan.  Photo by Sharon Ewing.



I was lucky this year.  The twenty-sixth Malice Domestic convention was my fifth Malice, as it’s called.  I’m still a comparative newcomer to the world of the traditional mystery, but I have two mysteries in print now, and two of the acclaimed authors of the genre, Julia Spencer-Fleming and Carolyn Hart, have given me wonderful back cover blurbs, plus this year in the winter issue, Mystery Scene Magazine’s small press columnist Betty Webb reviewed Farm Fresh and Fatal.  

I knew before I went that I would be on the “social issues” panel, which fit me to a tee.  The moderator was Debra H. Goldstein, an author I already knew, who had been with me on the academic mystery panel back in 2012, when I was the moderator and Killer Frost wasn’t out yet.  When it was published, Barb Goffman, the program chair for Malice, put me on the sidekick panel, and I got to talk about Penny Weaver’s lively friend Sammie Hargrave.

When you have at least two books out, or enough stories in print, you can sign up for the Malice Go-Round, and then names are drawn, as only forty-two authors can participate each year.  My name was drawn.  I was worried about that one, though eager to do it.  We each have two minutes to talk about our book, and we go, with a partner, to twenty tables.  They call it “speed dating,” but I didn’t know what that was.  There are eight people at each table, and we hand out bookmarks.  I was giving out two, and my partner, my friend Gloria Alden, was handing out three, since she has three books out.  I offered to hand out all the bookmarks while she went first.  I had decided, in a noisy room, with forty-two authors yelling about their books that I’d make my speech short and use simple sentences which were easy to memorize.  I practiced a lot.  It went:  

Hi, I’m Judy Hogan

Penny Weaver is a postmenopausal zest woman.

Farm Fresh and Fatal is my second novel. 

Mystery Scene magazine called it “fascinating.” 

In my series an interracial group of activists works on  local issues.

At the Farmers’ Market, things go from bad to worse.  

The obnoxious poultry agent is poisoned.  

Was it the fruit punch? 

Did the market manager do it?  She says no but is arrested.  

Will the state ag people shut them down?  

Penny and her sidekick Sammie work frantically to catch the poisoner.  

Who put black nightshade in the punch?

Carolyn Hart says I write in the tradition of Margaret Maron.  

I’m on the social issues panel tomorrow at 3 o’clock.

Farm Fresh and Fatal shows how genetically modified seeds threaten our food supply.  

That left a few seconds for questions.  In earlier years at the go-round table, I had felt overwhelmed by the frantic pace of the authors, though I did learn of some authors whose books I wanted to read.  Before I went, my friend Carol had said to be sure and drink some water between tables, and they gave us water bottles, but carrying the slippery bookmarks and my copy of Farm Fresh and Fatal, I didn’t have the dexterity to manage the water bottle, too.  I did get the bookmarks distributed and only dropped them twice.  People helped me pick them up.

My first anxiety was relieved when I got to the hotel via the Metro by 8:30, in plenty of time to register, deliver my consignment copies to the bookstore Mystery Loves Company, in the dealers’ room, and even store my rolling backpack and free convention books in Gloria’s room in the hotel, and still get to the go-round by 9:35–our deadline.  We did this for an hour and a half, which was work, but not bad, and some people responded a lot–I could tell by their eyes.

Susan, a newly retired pediatrician, said she was very worried about children growing up now because of all the GMO [genetically modififed] foods.  I kept running into her, and she said once, “I want to be like you.”

I always like to go to the panels of the Agatha nominees, so I went to the best contemporary mysteries published in 2013.  I was so glad to see Julia Spencer-Fleming, a nominee this year for her novel Through the Evil Days, which I reviewed on my blog back on Sept 15, 2013.  Julia is one of my very favorite mystery writers publishing now.  I first met her here in North Carolina in 2008, thanks to Karen Pullen, who had us to dinner with her.  I enjoy each successive book.  She hadn’t been to Malice since I began going (2009, 2011, 2012, 2013).  

When I went up to her and her husband afterwards, they were so welcoming.  They acted like I was an old friend.  That was a lift. With five hundred mystery writers and fans present, I often feel anonymous.  I do like to tell authors I like how much I enjoy their books, so I did that when I ran into them.  I saw other people I knew, but mostly we simply exchanged a comment or two and went on our way.
I also ran into Carolyn Hart briefly the next day.  I’ve been reviewing on my blog her re-issued mysteries and romantic suspense novels she published first in the 1980s, plus Letter From Home, which came later, and is my favorite so far [Blogs: In 2013:  5/25; 6/8; 7/28; 8/11; 11-3, and in 2014, 2/9.].  Carolyn gave me a great back cover blurb for Farm Fresh and Fatal.  She had the day before returned from the Mystery Writers of America awards 
banquet in New York City, where she was named Grand Master. 

Carolyn introduced me and my Alexandria friend Sharon Ewing to her daughter.  Carolyn graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1958, Sharon and I, in 1959, but we didn’t know Carolyn then. Sharon was in English, I was in Letters (liberal arts), and Carolyn was in Journalism.

These moments of connection, though brief, were what made my Malice time happy. 

On the Saturday of the convention my friend Sharon drove us in early for the SinC [Sisters in Crime] breakfast.  When I ride the Metro, I can’t get to the hotel on the weekend until 8 A.M., and this annual breakfast starts at 7:30, though in past years I’ve never gone hungry.  I’ve belonged to SinC since late 2007, and to the subgroup the Guppies (the Great Unpublished, though some of us are published now).  Due to the Guppies, I found my publisher and got lots of good advice along the way, so I stick around for the companionship and to encourage other writers.  

Half the people at the breakfast were Guppies, and we’d been told to wear boas.  I hadn’t gone looking for a boa, but Gloria offered a lei, so I had that for our photo of some forty-fifty Guppies.  I doubt we could all be seen in that group shoot, but there we were.  So many of us have gone on to be published and even to win mystery awards.  Of the Agathas this year, Guppy Hank Phillipi Ryan won the best contemporary novel for The Wrong Girl; Leslie Budewitz won first best novel for Death Al Dente.  Several other Guppies were nominated for the awards: Amanda Flower (Children’s), Gigi Pandian (best short story), Kendel Lynn (Flaum) and Liz Mugavero for first best, Kaye George (best historical).  We do learn how to be published and to become part of the whole mystery community with the online Guppies.
Sharon and I had sandwiches with us so we could hear the Poison Lady (Luci Zahray) do her presentation on poisonous plants during the lunch hour on Saturday.  She explained that nicotine, which was now sold in concentrated amounts for the new electric cigarettes was deadly and easily obtainable.  We learned that one cigarette butt eaten could kill a child.  Nicotine can kill if you inhale it, eat it, or get it in a patch on your skin.  She discussed castor beans, coyotillo (buckthorn), rosary peas, the saw palmetto, false hellebore. daffodils, iris, and several others, which are all poisonous if eaten.  Some poisonous plants grow in pastures, and animals die so fast the leaves are still in their mouths.

I had looked forward to the “social issues” panel at 3 P.M. on Saturday.  My panel mates were not perhaps as enthusiastic as I was about discussing the issues in our books, although John Clement, who does the Dixie Hemingway cat sitter mysteries, taking on the series when his mother died, seemed to enjoy the focus on the issues, his being the fate of illegal immigrants in Florida, and the illegal sale of rare breeds of birds from Central and South America.  Nancy Cohen, who writes the bad hair day mysteries, admitted to taking up the issue of anti-Semitic bigotry, and she also likes to work in information about early detection of breast cancer, but she stressed she was writing for entertainment. Linda O. Johnston said animal rescue, her series idea, was definitely a social issue.

When Debra asked us which came first, our story idea or the social issue, I said they came together for me.  I was an activist and I used my own experiences.  I had sold at a farmers’ market, and observed the conflict between the organic farmers and the one growing genetically modified vegetables (GMO).  This conflict and what I’d since learned about GMO agriculture came into my book easily enough.  I said I used humor to make my points.  Another panelist said she didn’t want to preach.  Someone asked me if I preached in my books.  

Debra had said that all our books were good reads.  I read them Carolyn Mulford’s comment in her interview questions to me:  “You present issues important to you in your mysteries. Those issues help propel the plot, motivate the characters, and establish the setting.  Even so, the mystery dominates the message, and your endings surprise readers. What techniques did you use in conceiving and writing Farm Fresh and Fatal to assure storytelling didn’t cross over into preaching?”

So when asked about preaching, I said no.  Then I added, “My father was a preacher.”  Everyone laughed.  I added, “One of my students commented that I was like my father in that as a teacher I gathered a little congregation around me.”  The tension in the room relaxed, and I could tell the audience was enjoying me.  Then someone asked if I gave both sides to my issues.  I said, “Of course not.”  I was thinking, there’s no ‘good side’ to air pollution, unsafe nuclear storage, students admitted to college who are unprepared, or GMO foods which have been doused with Roundup.  So I spoke forcefully.  It was rather heady, knowing I’d stolen the audience for a few minutes there.

That night–we got home very late because of the banquet until ten, where they give out the Agatha awards.  I wrote in my diary: “A watershed day, I think.”  I meant that I was connecting in a way that I enjoyed and my audience enjoyed with mystery readers.  I was suddenly known and appreciated in the midst of those five hundred other people, where I spent a significant amount of time feeling alone and anonymous.

I think now that I worried too much and wanted out of the convention more than was possible.  I did get what I needed.  I’m known in a lot of roles–as a teacher, a poet (the “Poet Laureate of the Pittsboro Farmers Market” where I hand out poems weekly).  I’ve been an editor (Carolina Wren Press, 1976-91), and a leader of a brand new writers organization for our state (North Carolina Writers’ Network 1983-87).  I’m a mother, a grandmother, a great grandmother, a farmer, and an activist, and now I’m a mystery novelist with two mysteries in print.  

I do have readers, although so far most of them know me.  It’s a lovely feeling to get the sudden interest in your mysteries from some people who never heard of you until you said something in the go-round or on the panel that resonated with them, and you watched their eyes light up.  You knew you had tweaked their interest.  Then having the support and affection of other mystery authors who like my books and say so in print is a gift, as well as that Mystery Scene review which called Farm Fresh and Fatal “fascinating.”

This was the second year I’d had books for sale at Malice.  I sold none last year.  This year three Farm Fresh and at least one Killer Frost sold, as I signed a copy for my retired pediatrician fan Susan.  At the signing time, I signed a copy for Doris Ann Norris, the 2000-year old librarian, as she calls herself.  She was for many years the librarian liaison for SinC.  She bought both books and came to get the new one signed.  I’ve admired her from afar, so to have her interest–she is a thoughtful, careful reviewer–made me grateful indeed.

My dear friends Sharon and John hosted me, fed me, celebrated with me, and Sharon shared all day Saturday with me.  John sent me home with a load of firewood in the bed of my pickup for my wood cookstove that’s exactly the right size.  So you see I am very lucky.

Photo I received a little awhile ago from Rita Owen, in charge of Malice Publications.  Photographer is Greg Puhl. Here's the panel afterwards.  JH


Saturday, May 10, 2014

First Fracking, Now Coal Ash

This is a cornfield on the Deep River, which joins the Haw River to become the Cape Fear River, and then flows to the coast.  Richard Hayes photographed it. He and I and many others are trying to keep fracking out of North Carolina, and especially out of Lee County.


Coal Ash Dumping in the Cape Fear River by Duke Energy

I had a most enlightening experience last night at Moncure School. I had learned that morning from Pete at NC-WARN [North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network] that our state-wide electric company was going to present a program on coal ash at the local elementary school.

I had returned home from the Malice Domestic mystery convention in Bethesda on the Wednesday, and I had a long list of urgent things to get done Thursday: unload the rest of John’s firewood, sent home with me in my pickup; weed; get to town for my weekly errands, and to the farmers’ market to buy some tomato and pepper plants.  

I debated going to the coal ash program, but Moncure School is only two miles away, and I’ve been worried about Duke Energy being caught illegally pumping 61 million gallons of coal ash waste water in the nearby Cape Fear River, where my drinking water comes from.  The intake for Sanford’s water, which we here in Southeast Chatham and Moncure receive, is not far below where this very toxic substance coal ash wastewater was pumped into the Cape Fear River.  Coal ash contains arsenic, antimony, and boron–all dangerous to human health.

I misread the email messages I received and thought it began at 7:30, but actually this program took place in the Moncure School gym 4:30-7:30.  I got to the school at 7:20, asked the security guard in the parking lot where the coal ash program was, and he pointed me to the main entrance.  He said his job was to protect the cars.  In the entrance hall a woman told me the program was over, and they were packing up.  I did believe it was at 7:30, so that made me angry.  I went into where the blue-shirted Duke Energy employees were packing up, and said, “I want to talk to someone.  I’m upset about the coal ash dumping.”

They heard me and gathered around.  Someone brought me a chair, and the others–ten or so– pulled up chairs.  I was told each one had a different expertise.  Pete had sent me a list of questions, and I had a few of my own, so I started in.  “Will you assure us that the Duke shareholders will pay for cleaning up the coal ash problem and your customers won’t be paying for it?”

“We don’t know yet who will pay for it.”

“Will you assure us that coal ash won’t be dumped on another low-income community like Moncure?”

The answer was that they were studying the problem plant by plant, and would probably solve it by drying out the coal ash.

I said, “Coal ash is always toxic, but I understand that it can be used in bricks, and that our brick companies–two or three in Moncure–import coal ash from outside North Carolina. Couldn’t you supply the brick companies?”

They said that they did send some for making bricks and cinder blocks, but some couldn’t be used that way.

“How many meetings like this are you planning across the state?”

They said, “Five, near the plants, but there are fourteen coal-burning plants.”

I asked if they would be working with citizens.  I had already fussed about the word not getting out well.  “You have our addresses. You send us the calendar with what to do in a nuclear disaster every year, so you can communicate with us besides in your little pamphlet about how wonderful you are.  Why didn’t you?”

No answer.  They said that they publicized it in the newspapers, but they didn’t comment on how they could have reached all the folks in Moncure.  We have an organization of concerned citizens, the Southeast Chatham Citizens Advisory Council, which has both an email list, and a phone tree list, and it would have been easy to get the word out widely.  They’ve attended that meeting in years past so they certainly know about it.

I checked today, and neither last week’s nor yesterday’s paper had any articles about it, but then Diana told me it was an ad, and I found the ad in the May 1 issue of the Chatham News/Record in the sports section, which I never read.  The ad read:  “At the event, you will have an opportunity to hear more about: operations at the retired Cape Fear Plant; our coal ash management plan; how we have modernized the ways we provide you with efficient, reliable power; our work to bring jobs and businesses to the region, as well as support important community causes.  We hope to see you there.  To find out more about our ash management plan, visit” 

My postmaster had talked to one of the employees who was going to set up a booth for this program, and he said he didn’t think it was for the public.  So it was booths?  Not questions and answers?  The staff people I talked to tried to reassure me, but to do that, they lied.  I was not reassured–quite the opposite.

The Dept of Environment and Natural Resources [DENR] fined them for this illegal act, but it took the organization of Riverkeepers to call them on what they were doing.  The Independent of Feb. 26, 2014, had an in-depth article on the ongoing relationship between Duke and DENR, and how both had tried to keep the Riverkeepers out of it when they found violations, and this was going on before an even worse spill on the Dan River.  When the Riverkeepers showed up a few weeks ago on the Cape Fear River, having already photographed them pumping from the coal ash ponds into the stream that feeds into the river, and approached the Duke coal ash ponds, Duke called the Sheriff on them.  Later, the Sheriff admitted that he had no jurisdiction on the water.  The Riverkeepers were in a boat.  

These Duke staff people told me that they didn’t put coal ash in the river.  They were only doing regular maintenance work. 

Furthermore, they claimed the intake for Sanford water was above where the coal ash went in.  My Haw Riverkeeper, Elaine [], says you can see the intake on a google earth photo and that it is located down river from the Cape Fear coal-burning plant (now closed) and the five coal ash ponds, located above the river banks.  So they were caught and fined, but now they say it never happened?

I said, “Your new CEO says you’re going green.  If you’re serious about that, you’ll be doing more wind and solar.  I read in The Washington Post last weekend that this is the way smart businesses are going because of climate change.  N.C. has enough potential wind power to power the whole East Coast.”

I was told some people object to windmills killing birds.  I said, “Better than killing people.” 

Then they said it was too expensive.  I said, “The nuclear plants generate so much terrible waste–that’s expensive, too, and we have to live with it for thousands of years.”

I also mentioned the Florida power plant that years ago gave everyone solar hot water and then took the extra electricity and put it on their grid.  They said if a homeowner put in solar power, they did that, too, and credited his bill.  No plan for Duke to take the lead.  In fact, I understand they were trying to undermine the new “solarize Durham” plan to put solar on all the rooftops at a minimum cost to the homeowners, though I didn’t mention that at the time.

Then I emphasized that I want clean drinking water.  “I want you to care about the people who live in our state and near the plants.”

I also told them they were only doing a PR exercise, and I already knew they weren’t reliable, and often worked hand in glove with the regulators.  I indicated that they hadn’t satisfied me.  Did they believe they could simply lie, and I’d believe them?

Then Marty Clayton, who used to be Progress Energy’s community representative here in Moncure, with whom I fought back in the early 2000s about the unsafe storage of nuclear waste, followed me out, and tried to sweet talk me–I was still so angry.  “How are you?” he asked twice.  Like he cared?  “Fine.”  I got away from him as fast as I could.  The other staff were pulling out of the parking lot, and the security guard, who’d been guarding their cars, was gone.

It was a fluke that I engaged them at all.  What happens to the souls of these mostly young people when they lie like that to an old angry woman worried about her drinking water?  Do they reason they have to follow the company policies and lie or lose their jobs?  Does it disturb their sleep?  Do they even know what really happened? Do they laugh about my rage?  One man looked like he wanted to.  

If they hadn’t violated citizen trust by pumping out that coal ash wastewater, would they have felt the need to have a program in Moncure, which over the years has fought off a landfill three times, a low-level nuclear dump, which took us ten years, terrible air pollution, which the DENR ignored for ten years until citizens went to their county commissioners and fussed, and then the commissioners fussed at the Division of Air Quality, but it still took years for that formaldehyde-polluting plant (Sierra Pine) to be sold and the buyer to put in new equipment to make particle board without giving us air to breathe that made us sick.  

We are tough here.  We know the companies lie to us, and that the regulators need a lot of public pressure to regulate properly.  Right now in this country I begin to believe that only people can take care of people.  At this point in U.S. history, our corporations and corporate money are trying to buy everything, including the courts. We have to refuse it.  Otherwise poor people will become an endangered species.  Actually the threat doesn’t stop at income level.  If the drinking water or the air we breathe is poisoned, we all die sooner or later.  Being rich won’t help anyone then.