M.M. Gornell: One Of Our Own!

by Jill Amadio

madelineI had the pleasure of getting to know one of our Writers in Residence bloggers, M.M. Gornell, more in depth last month and decided to write up my talk with her for the monthly column I write for a UK magazine called Mystery People.

I thought you might like to know what I discovered about Madeline so herewith is the story. The magazine included a photo of her and one of her book covers.

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U.S. Route 66

“The United States is such a whacking great country it encompasses every type of climate and terrain from deserts to glaciers, providing settings for crime writers in sand, mountains, seas, and snow.

Officially founded in 1776 and with archaeologists discovering tribes who lived here as long ago as seven millennia, America’s history of pioneers, gold miners, railway barons, and migrants continue to capture the imagination of writers. The push West from the East coast, where 100 or so Puritans from England disembarked from the Mayflower in 1620, has inspired books, movies, poetry, and songs, and created myths and legends.

How did these brave souls travel across the vast, undeveloped country?  One answer: Route 66.

route-66-2264400__340One of the most famous, nostalgic, fascinating and historic highways that wagon trains of homesteaders traveled, along with migrants seeking fortunes in gold mines, land, and new opportunities, U.S. Route 66 was originally a 2,500-mile dirt trail that ran from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California. It was eventually smothered in asphalt and became known as the Mother Road, and the Main Street of America, passing through a total of seven states.

John Steinbeck memorialized Route 66 in his masterpiece, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, in which he described sharecroppers’ gritty hardships and hopes. It is said that there was no symbol more loaded with meaning in Steinbeck’s novel than Route 66.

Many over the years have jumped on the bandwagon (forgive the pun) from the Rolling Stones, the Shakers, and other British bands who wrote hits about Route 66. Currently the BBC is preparing to launch another “The Hairy Bikers” show starring the popular cooks who will be riding their motorbikes along the renowned U.S. highway; no doubt pausing at the famed old diners along the way.

Crime writer M.M. Gornell

One author who actually lives smack on Route 66 in a small community called Newberry Springs in the western Mojave Desert is crime writer M.M. Gornell, Madeline to her friends. A typical oasis in the desert, the small town’s surrounding area boasts man-made lakes, farms, and ranches, and is about 100 miles south of Death Valley.

perfectAlthough her former residences have included other towns and the Sierra Nevada with its rich palette of Red Rock Canyon (the setting for her thriller, DEATH OF A PERFECT MAN), Madeline’s move to Newberry Springs inspired her to set the majority of her eight crime novels, including two series, along the famed highway. “For me, setting definitely comes first, then the story,” she said.

“Through some serendipitous miracle, probably springing from tiredness, the cost, and most importantly the feel of the place, we ended up in Newberry Springs. I come from Chicago, where Route 66 starts, and now I live at the end of it in California. I’m nowhere near to being an expert on the Road, not like real ‘roadies,’ and I’ve never driven the entire route, but in my mind, heart, and emotions the act of crossing this vast country has taken hold of my mind as a symbol for the hardiness and determination of the people who took it on, especially in those early days.”

As it proved for Steinbeck, Madeline said the name itself – Route 66 – is a pretty awesome beacon, leading the way in her writing adventures. “It is a constant writing inspiration.”

The multi-award-winning author’s first published work, including an Honorary Mention at the London Book Festival, was a short story in Alfred Hitchcock Magazine, which led to her debut crime novel, UNCLE SI’S SECRET. “It’s set in the majestic Cascade Mountain range where the seas of evergreen forests and the seemingly boundless waterways all combined to send my creative juices continually a-whirring”.

California and Route 66 beckoned…

liesBut California and Route 66 beckoned in the 1990s, due to mental pictures and expectations she had of the Mother Road twenty years earlier. It was not as easy as she had imagined, but new settings presented themselves and the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains provided magnificent, magical scenery, inspiring her “Raven” mystery series, then LIES OF CONVENIENCE, and more recently her “Rhodes” mystery series.

dead.route-66-1238115__340Although the romance of the route was a fixed American landmark, it was soon bypassed by the new Interstate Highway System which either paralleled it, resurfaced portions, or went elsewhere, leaving Route 66 abandoned and lined with ghost gas stations and tiny deserted communities. Eventually, it was officially designated as “ceasing to exist.” But you can’t keep an icon like the Mother Road down. It was rediscovered by musicians, hippies, artists, movie makers, and writers.

Madeline is an avid fan of British novelists P.D. James, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Marion Chesney, and others of the Golden Age.  She is published by Aberdeen Bay which describes her books as literary mysteries. “My intent is usually to write a murder mystery but they’ve all somehow gotten out of hand and ended up more what I call ‘character studies’.

Why ravens?

r.ravensAsked if any of her life experiences have crept into her stories, and what exactly was her attractions to ravens, Madeline responds with a smile. Those two things fit together in perfect harmony.

c.ravens“Ravens are indeed a prime example of life experiences creeping into my story-lines, even into the titles, RETICENCE OF RAVENS  and COUNSEL OF RAVENS. 

The ravens love our backyard, most likely because of the bird seed we set out. They seem to be intelligent and even fanciful. For reasons I can’t articulate, ravens seem rather mystical and mysterious. My writing mind went on from there.

“None of my stories carry “messages” but occasionally it can happen, especially after I select a title, and especially with the Rhodes series. I regard the Mojave and Route 66 as a sanctuary where no-longer-needed pasts are blown away in the dust.”

Like many authors, Madeline chafes at having to spend time promoting and publicizing her mysteries. But she enjoys talking to people in person where she can present them with bookmarks or even a few small samples of the stoneware pottery she creates when not writing.  She attends a few writers conferences and loves England but her favorite celebration is the annual Newberry Springs Pistachio Festival on Route 66. It attracts many Europeans, as well as locals, who are “doing the Route” and exploring its ramshackle old cafes, rental cabins, and trading posts.

It is a sure bet author M.M. Gornell will never run out of inspiration for her mysteries thanks to her choosing to live along this fixture of historic and popular culture.

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M.M. GORNELL

Madeline (M.M.) Gornell is the author of six award-winning mystery novels. Her current literary focus is Route 66 as it traverses California’s Mojave Desert. Madeline is a lifetime lover of mysteries, and besides reading and writing, is also a potter. She lives with her husband and assorted canines in the High Desert. Visit her Her Amazon Page

 

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This article was posted for Jill Amadio by Jackie Houchin

 

 

These Are a Few of My Favorite … Reads

by Jackie Houchin

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages (from Amazon) tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things (reads)

When the dog bites, when the bee stings
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things (reads)
And then I don’t feel so bad” *

 

Who doesn’t know the catchy lyrics to that song? I bet you can even picture Julie Andrews singing them while twirling around. And who of us bibliophiles can’t say we have been transported and uplifted during and after reading those few special books that we cherish in our libraries.

The majority of my all-time fave books are mysteries, the old fashioned, clean, puzzling and often romantic reads that still make me smile just thinking of them.

My very favorite book was written by Mary Stewart** in 1964. But it was a few years earlier that I began my journey into this marvelous writer’s world.

Madam Talk audio 51B6UTiH4GL._SX342_I’d asked a wise librarian in Burbank if there was something beyond Nancy Drew, but kind of like her, that I could read. She looked at this budding, though still gangling young teen, and recommended Mary Stewart’s first book, Madam, Will You Talk? (1955)

I was hooked immediately!

The setting is Southern France and involves a young widow, a lovable mutt, a child in peril, high-speed car chases, and a dark and handsome man who is either villain or saint, and suspense.  Delish!

In less than a week I rushed back to the library to check out more of Mary Stewart’s books, reading down the list as fast as I could. Until I came to THE ONE. My favorite book of all time, re-read at least a half dozen times cover to cover, and often, as the song says, “when the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad…”

Rough Magic Audio; 61gkNEBPKYL._SX342_This Rough Magic (1964), my opiate. ***

I’m not sure what makes my breathing slow when I open the book and settle into a soft chair, but in only a few pages I am deep into the atmosphere I love that is written so well by Mary Stewart in all of her books.

A writer’s hidden retreat on the isle of Corfu in Greece… An old house with secret passages… Wisps of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, quoted by the old recluse playwright living there, that seems to foreshadow the events in the book.

A young woman recovering from a career failure, arrives at the retreat with her sister seeking rest and solace but finding danger and death. Fog along the beach at dawn so thick you can only hear the waves slapping the shore… and the wooden oars of a boat bumping in their cradles, soft murmurs and oaths from its occupants, and grunts as they drag something heavy across the sand and into the trees.

A dolphin’s seeming magical appearances play an important role. And an arrogant and handsome figure, rough in clothes and manner slips in and out of the house at all hours. Is he a killer and smuggler, or a hero?

This is no silly Gothic, but is (to me) outstanding storytelling by a “wordsmith extraordinaire” whose sense of descriptive place is beyond amazing. My favorite read!

 

Next on my list is a puzzle mystery, that just so happens to also have a murder.

marinersCompass2Mariner’s Compass (1999) is Earlene Fowler‘s sixth Benny Harper mystery, set along California’s central coast. Each of her books is named for a quilting pattern although Benny is not a quilter herself. She is a rancher and married to a cop, but she helps maintain a historical museum in town that features old quilts.

What entrances me in this book, unlike any of her other mysteries, is the puzzle. In this story Benny receives a mysterious bequest from a dead stranger. She will inherit his entire estate if she will stay in his home in Morrow Bay for two weeks. Alone. Being alone, abandoned, is something that terrifies Benny.

She agrees, although her protective hubby-cop is not fond of the idea. Soon Benny is on a strange and dangerous scavenger hunt to find the man’s true identity. The clues he leaves hidden, if carefully followed, lead to more clues in a widening spiral of strange places. The deep mystery they reveal piecemeal is totally captivating. It’s a real stunner when she finally discovers who this Jacob Chandler was, and why he was stalking her.

More than the location in Mariner’s Compass, it’s the entwined maze of clues which makes this one of my favorite books. (BTW, if you look on Fowler’s fan page, this book is the favorite of many of her fans.)

 

Old Bones, maginfierOld Bones (1987) *** by Aaron Elkins is another favorite on my list. His protagonist Gideon Oliver is a forensic anthropologist, but his moniker in the series is “bone doctor.” It is absolutely amazing what you (he) can discover from a set of fresh or ancient bones. Who they were, yes, but more importantly in the book, how, where, when, and why a person becomes bones.

Oliver himself is a big, kind of cute, socially inept “nerd” of a guy, who is brilliant with bones. I like all of his cases, but in this one, it’s the location that grabbed me, chilled me, and after many nightmares, made me book a tour to the real place in France.

Mont St Michel,  the small island off the Western coast of France topped by a towering monastery, is tour-worthy for sure. (The original cover pictures the island.) But it is the incoming tides, racing without warning at a speed faster than a man can run, over quicksand riddled mud, that terrifies me.

Yes, I went there, rode in a bus across the long, straight road from the mainland at low tide, trudged up the steep, winding road to the top, and toured the ancient building with a set of huge bells. Very Nice. Reminded me of Notre Dame.

But I could see those swirly patches of mud and sand from atop the “Mont” and in the distance a dark blue-green smudge. Suddenly I couldn’t wait to get into the bus and race back to mainland safety.

You are not so lucky in Old Bones. You will suffer fear, panic and worse, when you read the final chapters. I dare you! But, it’s the reason this is one of my faves.

 

Christining Day MurderA freaky location again is the reason for my listing The Christening Day Murder (1993) by Lee Harris as a memorable favorite. (All Lee Harris’ Christine Bennett – a former nun – mysteries have a special “day” as their title.) I can’t even remember the mystery, but I remember where a good portion of it takes place.

Thirty years before, the small town of Studsburg was evacuated by the government and flooded to create a reservoir. (Feeling creepy yet?) In this story, a drought has uncovered the town’s forgotten church, along with a gruesome discovery in the dank basement. It is the skeletal remains of a 30-year-old murder.

As Christine tries to piece together the sordid puzzle from the past, the water begins rising again and she is trapped in the basement…..(Gasping scream from me!)

 

Shell SeekersAnd lastly, the wonderfully warm and well-written family saga by the gifted Rosamunde PilcherThe Shell Seekers (1987) **** (all 582 pages ) This is not a mystery, but a lovely women’s novel featuring Penelope Keeling, a 64 year old woman whose days are limited, and whose family does not understand her. A woman whose past is calling her, but whose present threatens to fence her in.

A painting which her children vie for, lusting for the wealth it will bring at her passing, but which is too sweetly precious for Penelope part with, is in the center. Instead of giving it to her children, she uses it – to their chagrin and horror – to fund one last trip into her romantic past.

In the book, sixteen characters have their own section and say. Shell Seekers is not a linear book, so the characters each tell their story, almost as if they are all in a room together, and one steps forward to knit their story into the entire piece. They form a complete picture of “Miss Penelope Keeling,” who speaks last in the book.

These multiple POVs – besides Pilcher’s amazing, evocative, sweeping, tender, gorgeous writing – makes this a favorite. It is the voices of 16 people, separate and yet forever intertwined in the story of one wonderful woman. A tear-jerker. You won’t want it to end. When it does, you’ll fly to the first page and begin again. (PS: Rosamunde Pilcher was 60 when she wrote this book.)

 

Suspense and romance, locations and mystery

Old Bones and bodies, shrouded in history

Villains and heroes revealing their deeds

These are A FEW of my favorite reads.

 

Have you got any favorite reads? What is it that makes them memorable to you? Characters, setting, style, genre, author, the writing…?

 

 

* Richard Rodgers, The Sound of Music, with my words in italics

** Mary Stewart is credited with developing the genre of romantic suspense featuring intelligent, independent, and capable women who don’t fall apart in a crisis. A reviewer wrote, “There is an old-fashioned elegance about Mary Stewart‘s writing. A stately polish with more than a hint of an old 1950’s Hollywood movie.”

*** Mary Stewart‘s mysteries are now all available in audio through Amazon/Audible. Here’s the link to This Rough Magic

**** 1988 Edgar Award Winner – Best Mystery of the year. (“Look out Sherlock Holmes!”)

***** In her introduction, Pilcher writes that she intended The Shell Seekers to be “A big fat novel for women. Something above all, that tapped into my life and the experiences of my generation.”