It’s a Mystery: After I’m Gone, by Laura Lippman

After I'm GoneAfter I’m Gone by Laura Lippman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After I’m Gone is Laura Lippman’s 20th novel, and her experience and finely developed skills sparkle in this seamless family saga that at its heart is a murder mystery. Set in Baltimore, the book opens in the 1960s with the whirlwind courtship of Felix Brewer and Bambi Gottschalk. Felix builds a shady but lucrative business involving strip clubs gambling, and while he loves Bambi and their three daughters, he suffers no guilt over his womanizing on the side. Bambi loves Felix, and is willing to live with his infidelities in order to enjoy the lavish life that he provides for her, which includes hobnobbing with Baltimore’s elite. The pivot point in their story occurs about a third of the way into the novel, when Felix goes on the lam to avoid a prison sentence. The rest of the book focuses on the lives of the five women he left in his wake – wife, daughters, and mistress, an exotic dancer with the professional name Julia Romeo. While the whereabouts of Felix are unknown, the real mystery emerges ten years later, when Julie vanishes, widely assumed to have joined her lover at his hideout. Until, that is, her body is discovered in Leakin Park in 2001.

Talented author Lippman has devised some winning characters, all imperfect, all too human, but all well developed and interesting. She is able to even-handedly make both wife and mistress strong and sympathetic, and even Felix and his complicit friends are not without their redeeming features. She knows the highs, lows, and in-betweens of relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, siblings and friends. And she can spin out the intricacies of a murder investigation with nary a red herring.

Beautifully composed, After I’m Gone stands out head and shoulders  in this very crowded genre.

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It’s Halloween again: The Real Ghost of Nathan Hale

Nathan Hale is remembered today as the 21 year old volunteer spy who was hanged in New York by the British in 1776. I often used to wonder how someone facing imminent death could come up with such last words as, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” After I joined the staff at the Hale Homestead Museum in Coventry, CT, where Nathan was born and grew up, I learned that, while a student at Yale, Hale studied ancient cultures and may have acted in the play “Cato”, by Joseph Addison, which is all about dying for one’s country. Nathan’s words were probably a quote or a paraphrase from that play, which would have been instantly recognized by any educated man, English or American. When Patrick Henry said “Give me liberty or give me death”, he was quoting from the same play.

Nathan was buried in an unmarked grave in New York City, the exact site of which is unknown to this day. While there are numerous little anecdotes about Hale family ghosts, I’ve never heard any about Nathan himself. But there is a kind of ghost or shade of him that can be easily seen by anyone on the 2nd floor of his family’s home. This is the story.

Nathan was not the only Hale son to die as a result of the War for Independence. Five of his 7 brothers also fought with the army, and his older brother Joseph, who was fortunate enough to return home and father 3 daughters, died several years later. Joseph had been a prisoner of war for a time, held captive in one of the infamous British prison ships anchored off New Jersey. Prisoners who survived often suffered lingering illnesses of various types, and it’s believed that Joseph brought consumption (tuberculosis) home, a disease that was notoriously contagious, and that killed him and, as the years passed, the greater part of the Hale family.

After Joseph’s early death, his widow came to live with her husband’s family at Hale Homestead, staying with her 3 little girls until her remarriage. At that time, for reasons unknown, one of the daughters, Rebecca, remained behind in Coventry. She grew up on the farm, leaving only at the time of her marriage around 1800. By the time she returned once more to Coventry, she was getting on in years. She left a letter telling an intriguing story from her childhood. Rebecca wrote that, on the back of her chamber door was a “shadow portrait” of her by-then famous Uncle Nathan. When she visited the house, now owned by strangers, she looked for the image, but, to her great disappointment, it had been painted over. Rebecca’s letter describes her disappointment and her belief that it was gone forever.

Some 70 years later, the man who restored the house to its 18th century style was shown Rebecca’s letter. Immediately he started hunting for this mysterious image, and when he had the paint removed from the door, (Rebecca described its location), a silhouette etched into the wood in pencil came to light.

It seems strange to modern thinking that someone would draw on a door this way, but it actually seems to have been customary among English families. Thomas Hardy wrote a poem about a mother who took her son’s silhouette upon a wal, before he left for war.

But is this really a likeness of Nathan Hale? Who knows – you can draw your own conclusion. But I’m pretty positive that it’s either his likeness or one of his brothers’. At any rate, every time I show the mystery man to visitors, I feel Nate’s presence, at least in spirit.

Great Nonfiction: Rebel Yell, by S. C. Gwynne

Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall JacksonTom Fool to Stonewall
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Thomas J. Jackson was an unlikely hero. Though after graduating from West Point he distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War, peace time turned him into a pedantic teacher at Virginia Military Academy. A socially awkward man with tendencies toward hypochondria, Prof. Jackson was baited by his students and called “Tom Fool.” His religious fervency, which he frequently expressed in words, further distanced him from others. (Hindsight is better than foresight, and today, some historians speculate that he may have had a form of autism.) At the start of the Civil War, he was refused a position of command. After his astonishing first campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, people began to view Jackson in a new way. After First Manassas, he and his unit, comprised of many of his former VMI students, became known as the Stonewall Brigade for their refusal to back down under heavy fire. Once Robert E. Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia, he was quick to recognize Jackson’s brilliant ability to manage and win battles, even when grossly outnumbered. If Jackson had survived the loss of an arm at Chancellorsville, who knows how the war would have played out. Imagine Stonewall Jackson vs. U. S. Grant. But when Jackson died, it had a profound effect on the South, where many viewed his loss as the beginning of the end.

Author S. C. Gwynne is a professional writer but not a trained historian, though you’d never guess it while reading his lively, often riveting account of Stonewall Jackson’s astonishing transformation and accomplishments. Gwynne covers each of his battles in detail, but it is in the study of the many facets, often contradictory, of Jackson’s personality and character that this book really shines. In battle, one singular trait, that of a ferocious, dauntless determination to win at any cost, utterly obscured the eccentricities and foibles that dogged Jackson at all other times. Many biographical accounts of military careers are factual but very dry in the telling, but in Rebel Yell, one never loses the sense of the presence of General Jackson as a man. His demands took a huge toll on his soldiers, and as is generally true of charisma, it’s difficult to grasp exactly why they bonded so strongly to their leader. But that bond held until the day he died.

P.S. Did you know that it was the Stonewall Brigade that devised the infamous Rebel Yell? “On one occasion during the Valley Campaign, while the Stonewall Brigade was in camp, one of its five regiments began yelling. Soon another regiment took it up, and then another, and another, until every member of the entire brigade was delivering the Yell at the top of his lungs. General Jackson came out of his tent, leaned on a fence, and listened. The cacophony continued for several moments and then began dying away. When the last echo had rebounded from the Blue Ridge, old Blue-Light, universally known to be totally tone deaf, turning toward his tent and said “That was the sweetest music I ever heard.” S. C. Gwynne provides a recorded reproduction of the sound early in the audio version of his book.

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More on Connecticut’s Witch Trials

imageFrom Coastal Connecticut magazine, an article dealing with witch scares in 17th century Connecticut. The author, Tom Sobolesky, interviewed me by phone last Friday, in connection with our upcoming Witches and Tombstones tours at Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum in Wethersfield. As per usual, he didn’t get everything quite right, but here is his take on what actually happened.

Fear of Witches in Early Connecticut

Decades before Salem’s witch panic, the fear of witches (wiccaphobia) in early Connecticut was pervasive and contagious. In fact, the state executed more women accused of witchcraft than anyplace else in the colonies. “One of the hardest things for people to understand today,” Connecticut’s State Historian, Walter Woodward, explained to the Litchfield County Times in 2001, “is how ordinary people feared their neighbors enough to kill them—to really believe that the grumpy old lady across the street worked through the devil. The world was a different place then. It was a very permeable time when people believed in the occult.”

In this boiling atmosphere, nine women and two men were marched to the gallows in Connecticut. Two married couples, including John and Joan Carrington of Wethersfield, were among those to meet the hangman. Documentation of their case is thin, but what exists says that John was arrested and fined for bartering a gun with a Native American. Their indictment is similar to many of the time: “thou hast entertained familiarity with Satan . . .”

They were hung in Hartford in 1651.

Before the Carringtons, Mary Johnson of Wethersfield was whipped for theft and, in 1648, confessed to murdering a child. Her indictment included licentiousness, in addition to familiarity with Satan. While in prison, Johnson had a baby boy. Since she didn’t meet the hangman’s noose until 1650, some historians speculate that the baby’s father was the jailer’s son. Linda Pagliuco, a guide at the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum in Wethersfield, who has done a lot of research on the era, conveyed this theory. That son of the head jailer consented to raise the child, and this was agreed to by the court.

The topic of the Wethersfield witches will be covered in a Witches and Tombstones Tour hosted by Webb-Deane-Stevens on October 24 & 25. Reservations are advised.

In that era of fear, neighbors didn’t trust neighbors and looked down on you even if you were struggling. “People were not charitable,” says Pagliuco. “They didn’t like for their neighbor to need charitable assistance.” Many of the women accused were poor. If you were suspected of witchcraft, those neighbors could comprise the jury. If the court’s verdict didn’t call for punishment, the neighbors themselves might inflict it.

The colonial governor, John Winthrop Jr., also believed in witchcraft, but was more skeptical of the specific allegations and thought that the lax evidentiary court standards of that time were insufficient. A newly released book, Prospero’s America: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606-1676, by Walter Woodward, traces how Connecticut’s settlement was influenced by witchcraft, religion, local tribes and more.

“Winthrop was a man ahead of his time,” Pagliuco says. “He dabbled in magic and alchemy,” – things that would make women suspicious. But because he was from a prominent family, he would not be targeted.

The colonists’ attitudes about religion and witchcraft are in sharp contrast to the positions attributed to the present day practice of Wicca. According to, “Satan, or the devil, has absolutely no place in Wicca or witchcraft,” and it, “does not engage itself in criticizing the beliefs of other people…Witches do object to religions that attempt to suppress the religious beliefs of others.”

Pagliuco likens today’s bullying to the witch paranoia, saying people are called names or harassed for being perceived as different, just as women were back then. “If you become unpopular, something bad could happen to you. If you’re different and make someone mad,” they may come after you. “If you look at the mechanisms, it’s similar but with a different vocabulary.”

Resources for Further Study

A full list of those accused of witchcraft in colonial Connecticut (and their verdicts) is contained in a report by the Office of Legislative Research, 2006-R-0718. Other sources to research the history of the state’s witchcraft hysteria can be found on the state library website.

A full transcript of the 2008 Judiciary Committee hearing on Senate Joint Resolution No. 26 can be found within this link – (note: you have to scroll about ⅔ of the way through to get to the portion on witchcraft). Copies of supporting documents that were submitted to the committee, including written requests for forgiveness from several present day descendants, can be found here. Included are charts tracing the lineage of two of the descendants, and a brief by UConn history professor, Lawrence Goodheart.

Suggested books on this topic include, Witchcraft Trials of Connecticut, by R. G. Tomlinson, and The Devil on the Shape of a Woman, by Carol F. Karlsen

It’s a Mystery: The False Friend, by Myra Goldberg

The False FriendThe False Friend by Myla Goldberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A few years back a book was published about “mean girls”, the queen bees of junior high who are granted the power to decide who’s cool and who’s decidedly not. When 30 year old Celia Durst, now living and working in Chicago, notices a VW bug on the street, memories of her BFF, Djuna, and her early death, come flooding over her. Accompanying the memories are an acute sense of guilt, for Celia feels responsible for that long ago death. She immediately books a flight home to upstate NY, where she hopes to atone for her actions by confessing to her parents and the friends from her junior high clique. But no one believes her; their memories of the incident don’t match Celia’s.

The False Friend is about a woman’s search for the truth about who she was and who she now is. Narrated from Celia’s point of view, her slow and painful discovery about the child she really was opens questions about the slippery nature of memory and the motives for and the ways in which we wallpaper over the flaws in our own personalities. Celia is the only truly vivid character in the book, though Djuna’s mother comes close. The others, including her too good to be true, all-American boyfriend and her clueless parents, are basically window dressing. Some of the scenes are disturbing, even chilling. Ms. Goldberg is spot on in her portrayal of the social life and behaviors of 11 year old school girls. When the story approaches its close, it comes in the form of an imperfect ending, as imperfect as life itself, and for that reason, it’s very real.

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Thriller: The Whisperer, by Donato Carrisi

The Whisperer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Italian screen writer Donato Carrisi enters the serial killer genre with his first novel, The Whisperer, which has won multiple, well deserved literary prizes and has been published in multiple languages. The angle in which he presents this case is a fresh one, in which two criminology specialists join local police to track down a killer who has murdered 5 young girls and appears to have abducted an 6th. The perpetrator knows much more about the police than they do about him, and he delights in tormenting them with severed arms, dolled up corpses, and dead end leads. This main theme is surrounded by multiple subplots which involve individual investigators on the team, each as compelling and important as the main plot, and just as surprising. As a result, the reader experiences pretty much what the investigators experience. Furthermore, we are never informed as to where these crimes are taking place, though the atmosphere is more European than American; it’s easy, therefore, to understand the fact that this type of evil is universal. This is a tough book to enjoy, because of its horrific chain of evidence, but the constant cycle of dashed hopes, uncertainty, and psychological discoveries make it impossible to abandon. It could easily be the stuff of nightmares, but the writing is controlled enough to avoid turning it into a slasher movie. I wish I could have read The Whisperer in the original Italian, because while the translation is competent enough, you can tell that the translator is not a native speaker of English, and I suspect that some of Carrisi’s polish is dulled in places.

Recommended for readers interested in mysteries that challenge the intellect as well as grab and hold one’s interest. Not an easy book to forget, on par with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

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Fall’s Coming, But Not Just Yet

On this beautiful late August afternoon, during the lull between tour groups at Nathan Hale Homestead in Coventry, CT,  I took a stroll around the museum grounds and noticed quite a few early signs of autumn, which is still three weeks away. Out came my iPhone and I photographed my favorites. Fall is a very evocative season in these parts, actually my favorite, for its warm, dry days and chilly evenings, not to mention the riot of color that surrounds us out here in the country. But that’s still in the future, and today I took much pleasure in the experiencing the last third of our current summer.


Goldenrod begins to bloom in late July to reach its peak around now, bright and full for a few more days before it begins to turn brown. Contrary to popular opinion, goldenrod is not a plant that causes allergies. Up with goldenrod, down with ragweed!


The corn is a high as an elephant’s eye….


Hops! Just about ready for picking, but not enough, alas, to make beer.


Pokeweed, with its prolific crop of berries about to turn purple. I like to use this with school groups, to make ink for our spy class documents.

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Our junior docents are already hard at work preparing for our haunted corn maze, which takes place on late September, early October weekend evenings. Especially fun when there’s no moon, which makes the maze even darker and spookier. First the props, then the costumes. It’s their favorite event of the year, and possibly our most popular.

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