Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A haunted house story revisited

Counting down to Halloween -- it's a good time to re-read some of my favorite stories of ghosts and haunted houses. Here's a review I posted to Amazon a few months ago.

By Penny Warner

Event planner Presley Parker is your best girl friend. Settle in with a low-fat blueberry muffin and a double latte and let her tell you what she’s planning, how her love life’s going, and what happened at the killer séance she just produced.

It’s a killer in more ways than one. The client is Jonathan Ellington, a computer magnate who wants to launch his new 4-D holographic projector with a séance at the Winchester Mystery House inSan Jose. He plans to have Sarah Winchester, the long-dead owner, “appear” and endorse his product.

 No problem for Presley, who has loyal colleagues to help her pull off such a stunt. Jonathan brings his own crew to operate his top-secret magic machine.

All goes well until Sarah’s appearance goes off the rails. At first she does fine, “materializing” to deliver her infomercial, but the program has been hacked. Sarah begins to accuse one of the guests of serial adultery and general scuzziness.

End of séance, beginning of mayhem. When the programmer operating the 4-D projector is murdered, Presley and the police turn the area upside down looking for the missing suspect.

Presley and her helpful colleagues are a likeable lot. Her romantic interest is Brad, a crime scene cleanup operator who is handy for picking locks, massaging blood stains out of carpet and hot sex. We have to take the author’s word for the hot sex. This is a family-friendly mystery with suicide, murder and serial adultery all offstage.

The setting is a colorful one and Warner manages to get in some of the history without dragging the story. The Winchester House in San Jose was the property of William Winchester of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. He died and left his widow a half-interest in the company and a $20 million inheritance. She used the money to build what became known as the Winchester House – 160 rooms haunted by the spirits of Indians who had been killed by her husband’s rifles. She slept in a different room every night so the spirits couldn’t find her.

An unusual feature of a house filled with unusual features is the “listening tube.” It looks like an exposed plumbing pipe on the ceiling but it runs the length of a wall, turns down in one corner and dead-ends halfway to the floor. Originally added so Sarah Winchester could contact her servants, the tubes became her means of listening in on their conversations wherever she happened to be. A listening tube plays an important role in this story.

Just as colorful is the location of Presley’s business on Treasure Island, which sits on a landfill in San Francisco Bay. Built for the 1938-39 Golden Gate Exposition, Pan American Airways launched the China Clipper from Treasure Island, offering the first commercial air service across the Pacific.

HOW TO SURVIVE A KILLER SÉANCE is so “current” even the diseases are trendy: stroke, Alzheimer’s, sexual addiction, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Fifty years from now someone could pick up this book and get a word picture of life in the Bay Area as it was in the first decade of the 21st century.

It’s a fun read. The author begins each chapter with a party planning tip. My favorite is Tip #8:
(quote) Once the room is prepared, it’s time to join hands and summon the spirits. Use words like, “Our beloved Spirit, commune with us.” Avoid invoking the wrong spirits by saying things like,
“Yoo-hoo. Anybody there?” or “I’d like to speak to Jack the Ripper.” (end quote)

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Making my day -- a review of ABSINTHE OF MALICE

Canadian author Lou Allin posted a wonderful review to the DorothyL listserv. My ABSINTHE OF MALICE character -- Penny Mackenzie -- just loves the attention. Here's Lou's review:

Absinthe of Malice: Deliciously Dangerous
                 Penny Mackenzie lives with her mother and has an unfulfilling job as "Lifestyle" editor on the San Joaquin Valley's local newspaper, The Pearl Outrider. She envies her energetic and driven friend Maxie Harper, who writes the news stories.

                 Both women hunker down in the countryside on a stake-out following a rumor of trouble later that night with a group of young pot smokers: "Digger Potts's cotton field was a thing of beauty. Dense and green, with bits of white fluff popping out of the bolls, it stretched from Peach Orchard Road to a line of cottonwood trees overlooking a dry slough." Problem is, the kids unearth something frightening and flee the scene. The mystery involves a hunk of dirt and a collection of human bones, just recent enough to be a problem. Whatever happened here may involve Pearl's older citizens. Maxie wants to roll the story, but the timid new owner doesn't want anything upsetting his ship. This is a police matter, and his paper needs to cater to local needs, not chase scandals.

                 An old college beau of Penny's has returned to town. Watt Collins, dashing enough to turn any girl's head, now has his own Investigations firm and begins flirting shamelessly with her: "He was as ruggedly handsome as ever. Face just a little thinner maybe, dark hair smudged with gray, same long, thick eyebrows above eyes still hot enough to melt wax. His expensive white cotton shirt was open at the throat, sleeves turned back at the wrists." Best of all, he's divorced. Should she take a second chance on life, or let it pass her by? Even her mother has a love interest.

                 Meanwhile, there's a hot time in the venerable old town. Pearl's 100th anniversary has arrived, and not only has a book been commissioned about the founder, the eccentric Simeon Swann, but a gala "Dinner in the Round" has been planned, the kick-off first course served in his about-to-be-refurbished mansion. His son Layton and daughter-in-law Merrily will preside at the festivities, with Oysters Merrily a specialty: "The sun was almost down, a smear of melon red through the trees. Under crepe myrtles and wisterias dripping purple blossoms, Pearl's business boosters sat at round tables covered with pink linen tablecloths.." The scene is set not for dining but for mayhem.

                 During the gala, someone very dear is discovered dead on the dusty top floor of the mansion. The death is gruesome. What makes it worse is that Penny was on the phone with the victim, but learned nothing about the attack. She vows to find the murderer, perhaps with the help of their neighbour, Chief of Police Barney Press.

                 How far back does the mystery go? Rumors have always surrounded Simeon Swann and how he made his fortune in the Gold Rush, crushing anyone who got into his way. A treasure may be at stake and more than one person involved in protecting a personal fortune. Wherever she goes, Penny is met with more lies than truth. Can she even trust Watt Collins? Is he trying to use her or vice versa?

                 With a wealth of history and a thriving fruit industry, the San Joaquin Valley has been a neglected part of the US for mysteries, and Pat Browning accepts the challenge. In addition to spinning a complex and page-turning plot, she toys expertly with romance between Penny and her old flame. Who could resist liking Penny, with her Audrey Hepburn aspirations?: "I built myself a spectacular hairdo. I stuck the glittery brooch right at the top of it. God help me, I was gorgeous..but it wouldn't work."

                 Browning also captures the woof-and-warp of a small town newsroom, which walks a narrow line between big news and small news for its demanding subscribers as it struggles in the on-line age. This charming and alarming small town with its collection of eccentrics and colorful history is a perfect place to set an amateur sleuth novel. The clever title is a mere appetizer.

Lou Allin


And hallelujah, I'm a bum! A million thanks to the talented and gracious Lou Allin.