Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

“The Science of Sherlock Holmes” new edition

August 6, 2016

Sterling Publishing, owned by Barnes and Nobel, will bring out new hardcover edition of my book “Science of Sherlock Holmes” in January 2017.

I’m looking forward to seeing it !

“Yes” to the Wise Woman of Ys” !

May 24, 2016

The Wise Woman of Ys

Had great fun recently reading “The Wise Woman of Ys” by R.A. Forde. An engaging  British forensic psychologist who writes historical novels on the side, his everyday name is “Robert”.



Below is  a chat I had with him. EJW

EJ:  How is Ys pronounced, and how do we know?

Robert: We don’t know exactly how it was pronounced in the fifth century, but the tale is known today in France, where it is pronounced “eece”, to rhyme with “fleece”. Originally it would have been a Breton word, and probably written “Ker-Is”. “Ker” is a Breton word simply meaning “town”. It is related to the Welsh “Caer”, which occurs in place names like Caernarvon and Caerphilly. Breton and Welsh are so closely related that speakers of the two languages can often understand each other quite well. This goes back to the period of the events related in “Wise-Woman” and “the Dream of Macsen”. During this time Britain was subject to invasions by the Saxons and Irish, and many British people (who spoke a language similar to Welsh) emigrated to the north-west corner of France, hence the name Brittany. It was known locally as “Armorica”, which roughly means “the land facing the sea”. The area was considerably depopulated at that time, following a popular uprising in which many people had been killed or enslaved. The Roman authorities were quite keen to have somebody settle there, in order to defend it. Many towns in present day Brittany and Normandy have names of British origin. Quite a few others have names which originated as the names of Roman army units.


EJ: What first piqued your interest in legends of this period?

 Robert: Many years ago as a teenager I read an account of the legend of Ys, which is quite widely known in France, especially Brittany. The legend comes from the same period as the legends around King Arthur in Britain (the fifth century, shortly after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire). It was about 20 years before I began to write the story.

EJ: How do you research background? Do you rely on primary


And if so –how do you get access?

Robert: I read a great deal of history. This includes not just political history, wars, kings, etc, but also social history. For example, I have a book on the practice of medicine in the ancient world, and another about wild plants and their medicinal uses. Both of these came in useful when writing “Wise-Woman”. I have had to buy a lot of books!

 There are some books which reproduce original documents. Where the originals themselves exist they are preserved in museums, of course. Most of them are written in Latin, but the published versions provide a translation. Since I studied Latin to the age of 17 in school I have been able to check on some of the translations, some of which are 19th century and a bit too free for my taste. The period of “Wise-Woman” is not well recorded by contemporary writers, but there are some contemporary records, mostly written by monks. British writers sometimes forget that there are continental sources; for example, I found useful material in “The History of the Franks” by the monk Gregory of Tours. 

A very useful thing which I did was to draw a timeline on a very large sheet of paper, so that each time I read something which might be useful and had a known or strongly suspected date I entered it on the timeline. This meant that I gradually drew up a picture of the historical events, including things like battles and plagues, which I could work into my story. I think it is important to do this, even if you end up not using most of the material, because it creates the illusion of a complete world. Your characters have a cultural background, to which they make reference on occasions, and don’t just exist in isolation. A supremely effective example of this is Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”. He created a history, culture, and even invented languages. Most of what he did doesn’t actually appear in the story, or not in any detail, but it creates an atmosphere of credibility.

 I collected far more information than I needed for “Wise-Woman”, but I used quite a bit of that in my second book, “The Dream of Macsen”, even though it was set about 100 years earlier. Much of the historical and cultural information was still applicable. I think it’s very important not to shoehorn in all the information you’ve collected, as it becomes pretty stodgy, but if you carry on writing in the same genre it will probably all come in useful in the end.

EJ: I know you are a skilled singer of folk songs-do you find they provide insight in to this era?

Robert:  Not really. Some British folk songs do have roots far back in history, although most are actually more recent. However, although the origins of some songs go back a long way, they are not a description of anything very useful to historical fiction writers. It is more that there are scraps, references or traces of ancient legends.

EJ: How much of your literary work is fiction, and how much do you consider accurate history?

Robert: I think that depends on the story. “Wise-Woman” was based on a legend, not on history. I tried to make it realistic by providing an historical background which was as accurate as I could make it, but the events which actually happen to the central characters are invented. With “The Dream of Macsen” it was slightly different, because the characters were actual historical characters about whom something is known. We do not have the full picture, but we certainly know about some historical events in the lives of those characters, and I tried not to change anything. Inevitably, where only the main events are known, one has to fill in the details, but I tried not to contradict the known history.

EJ: You have written these books from a woman’s point of view.

Why?  Was this a deliberate choice?

Robert: It was forced on to me by circumstances, really. In “Wise-Woman” the central character is female. Without wishing to give too much of the plot away, there were reasons why I did not want to write it from her point of view. However, I wanted to write it from the point of view of someone who was close to her, a close friend or companion. No one could have occupied that position in those days without being another woman (or girl, as the story starts when they are quite young).

In “The Dream of Macsen” the character of Macsen is male, but again there were plot related reasons why I couldn’t write it from his point of view. I decided to adopt the point of view of his wife, Helena, as he was thought to have been married to a highborn British woman, although a Spaniard himself. After “Wise-Woman” I suppose it came more easily too.

EJ:   There’s serious conflict and violence in your stories. You are a forensic psychologist  as well as an author, and spend a good  of time in the courtroom. Do you see the present criminal justice system in the UK as having gradually evolved from ancient practices?

Robert: I think it might be more accurate to say that it evolved in a series of fits and starts. There was nothing gradual about Magna Carta, for example. It was pretty much a case of the barons mounting a rebellion and telling King John to sign it or else. It did, and still does, provide for some curbs on the power of the state. But as late as the 18th century there was still no right to a defence lawyer, and no prosecution service. Criminal cases were brought by private individuals, who were rewarded by the court in the event of a conviction. Unsurprisingly, the system was riddled with corruption, and there is little doubt that many innocent people were condemned on the basis of trumped up charges. The system also changed because of public feeling in many cases. For example, the death penalty was available for several hundred offences in the early 19th century. Public feeling grew against the imposition of a death penalty for minor offences, with the result that blatantly guilty people were being acquitted by juries who refused to send them to the gallows for, say, a minor theft. The government was left with little option but to wipe a lot of capital offences off the statute book. They had also lost the American colonies (!) as a place to send convicted felons, but fortunately discovered Australia just in time to start sending them there. Even so, there was a growing movement against cruel and unusual punishment. One of my favourite stories from this period is about a woman who stole from a shop in order to buy food for her children (there being no public welfare at that time). The jury convicted her and a fine was imposed, which she would have been unable to pay. She would probably have been transported to Australia in lieu of payment, but the jury passed the hat round and paid her fine, effecting her immediate release!

EJ:  How did you decide to publish on Kindle?

Robert: I became aware of the Kindle self-publishing scheme because I saw it mentioned when visiting the Amazon website. I had got back the rights to “Wise-Woman” after its original publication in print, so I was able to reissue it myself. Then I began to wonder about some other books. “Macsen” had not been published in print, so I followed up with that.

EJ:   What are your plans for future books?

Robert: After “Macsen” I decided to branch out into a different genre. I have always been a keen science fiction reader, and for a while was attached to the British military in West Berlin. I began to formulate some ideas for a science-fiction/horror story set in the North of England. This resulted in a third novel which has now been published on Kindle as “The Devil’s Issue”. This is set in the early 1990s and is therefore quite different from the earlier books.I haven’t given up on historical books, and I still love that Romano-British period, so it is quite likely that more will follow.


The books may be viewed on  R.A. Forde’s Amazon author’s page:

 EJ Wagner, as usual,PursuingVerity05

Murder Between the Lines

November 22, 2014

SOSH Mr. Turkey Boston HandwritingMURDER BETWEEN THE LINES E.J. Wagner ( A version of this article appeared in the fall issue of Mystery Readers Journal)

Frankly,the shiny, hard slick ones that can be picked up anywhere don t excite me very much. I like them mature. I nurse a serious fondness for the crinkles of experience. And I have no objection to a bit of slackness in the spine or softening in the middle.
If they exude a slight aroma of old tobacco or brandy that ‘s fine with me. I positively appreciate deep lines.
And what s written between them.
I dig old books.

I ‘m a crime historian; researching ,writing and lecturing about old crimes is my job. That makes old books my necessary and loved accomplices. Mostly I m enamored of antiquarian medical books, law books, and cookery books as they abound with subtle hints of ancient criminal events. Especially cookery books. It was common in the past for readers to write in the margins and between the lines of their books, to enclose notes between the leaves. Officially known as marginalia, and traditionally frowned on by parents and librarians, these often provide me with signs of the sinister. For instance, in an 19th century book on cooking I find a note that water hemlock looks remarkably like parsnips, but smells like very much like carrots. (The note is written , of course,in a delicate, ornate hand) It is tucked cozily next to a recipe for parsnip and carrot soup. The directions say to cook the vegetables in broth until soft ,to puree the soup, and then pass it through a sieve lined with cloth. Finish by dusting with grated nutmeg.
Was this written by a careful, good cook, or a clever homicidal one? A few pages later, a note in the same hand appears in the margin . It is for a tea to cure croup. It includes hollyhock blossoms, sassafras, and 4 grams of lobelia. The directions say to administer a large spoon every fifteen minutes until the symptoms abate . Considering that lobelia, also known in the vernacular as “puke weed ” and “vomit wort” is toxic at that dose, I figure that the symptoms abated pretty quickly. Old medical books frequently close with a section entitled “llustrative cases” . These are often a wonderful source of macabre anecdotes, and as they are annotated, easy to trace back to the original source and authenticate.
In C.M Tidy s 1882 text on Medical Jurisprudence, for instance, there is a tale from the Annals d Hygiene,1847, of a mother who was accused of pouring melted pewter, (tin 3 parts, lead 7 parts,melting point, 350 F) into the right ear of her “idiot son” while he slept. Amazingly, the child recovered. The fate of the mother was not stated, giving us latitude to imagine. Where does one find such historical riches? The internet, it s true, has a lot of offerings, but that seems to me sort of like cheating. Anyway, it spoils the fun of a hunt. Antiquarian book shops and plain old “used book stores” are rapidly disappearing , to my great sorrow. In the past I spent many happy dust covered hours in “Good Times Book Shop” in Port Jefferson Long Island, and the many shops on Charing Cross in London. But there are still a few left, and there are book fairs where the old time dealers gather. I always ask for reader ‘s copies, as I am a not a collector but a researcher. Reader ‘s copies are a lot cheaper and more apt to have interesting marginalia. Some “bookies” work out of their homes, where books are often stacked on every reachable surface.One of my most intriguing finds was stored under the dealer s bed-he ‘d run out of space elsewhere. There between the dealer’ s bedroom slippers and the mother of all dust mice, I discovered ” The Champion Text on Embalming” published in 1900. Along with fascinating information on the techniques of the funerary arts in the 19th century, it contained a compelling photograph . Labeled “Injecting the arterial system through the radial artery” , the picture shows a corpse flanked by two suspended articulated skeletons -and a few professorial looking bearded men. The deceased, who also sports a beard, is modestly covered by a sheet up to his neck. His face is as peaceful as that of a chap having a manicure.

Seated by the body,apparently injecting the embalming fluid, is a woman, elegantly attired in a mutton sleeved embroidered dress, accessorized by a pearl necklace. A wide brimmed, light colored hat adorned with flowers and leaves perches on her head-.(A dove may be involved in the hat-the photo isn’t clear enough to be sure) A large light colored cloth carefully covers her lap, evidently to prevent staining. Who says women didn t have professional opportunities in the Victorian age?

With such treasures available, is it any wonder I am dedicated to searching for them-reading between the lines, finding murder in the margins?

The End

EJ Wagner is the author of the Edgar winning “The Science of Sherlock Holmes”Her work has appeared in Ellery Queen, The Lancet, and Smithsonian Magazine among others. She frequently consults for television on criminal history.
Web site:

Digging up Dead Lawyers

November 11, 2012

                          Digging Up Dead Lawyers

                           by E. J. Wagner

Long dead lawyers won’t sue. They are unlikely to make you look foolish on a witness stand. They won’t object if you poke through their papers. And the papers of long-dead lawyers often contain intriguing details about historic crimes—clues often left out of the official records. It’s just such seductive traces that challenge me.

Which is why I am here with Bill, (who is not only my husband, but also my tech support, research colleague, and cheerleader), tramping through an ancient cemetery in Salem, Massachusetts. We are looking for the tomb of Joseph White. The victim of a notorious murder in 1830, which made legal history, he is said by some historians to lie cozily near to the graves of his assailants. Several witnesses in the case, as well as their legal advisors, are believed to rest here too—it seems very “en famille.”

It is unusually hot for May, and the bugs swarm hungrily. The cemetery is gated and locked on three sides—the one side left open leads to a steep hill covered with loose stones and weeds. As we climb, an insect slides down my bra and stings. I smack at it, lose my balance and fall hard, skinning a knee.. Bill, is, as usual, absolutely determined, and grabbing my hand pulls me up the path. “I’ll bet it’s over there,” he says, pointing at a great slab of grey stone in the distance”.

I’m a crime historian, which means that I research, write about, and present to audiences, old criminal cases. In my passion for accuracy, I plow through antique legal documents, medical books, and law treatises. I dig up dead lawyers (metaphorically, of course) and their extensive notes (literally). As that  consummate attorney, Aaron Burr, wisely observed, “What is written, remains.” It’s all happy grist for my mill.

In the course of research I often find myself in very odd and sometimes disconcerting places, and I’ve learned to equip myself with the proper tools. Some helpful points.

Old cemeteries, sometimes in the dead of winter, can be icy. I advise sturdy boots with treads, warm coat and hat and scarf . Gloves, too—preferably those flexible enough to write in.

Autopsy rooms, (bring change of clothes and cologne for trip home as latex gloves and aprons do nothing to prevent odor from clinging)

Rare book rooms of libraries and historical societies, (always wear clothes with pockets for tissues. Bring antihistamine, as violently sneezing on ancient primary documents is frowned upon. Carry many sharp pencils as pens are not allowed, and be prepared to check your other things (the curators and librarians could teach the TSA a thing or two about security). Take a laptop. A magnifying glass (Shades of Sherlock!) can be very useful when you’re trying to decipher faded writing smaller than a paramecium’s navel.

Old abandoned mines—very cold, may be contaminated—bring warm sweater, scarf, surgical mask)

Courtrooms: check rules before you go. Old Bailey, in London, for instance won’t allow bags, so wear clothes with pockets for your stuff)

Books and dictionaries on criminal law and medicine, are necessary aides, if you want to write about criminal history.

Now it is only a matter finding just  the right case. For me, it starts insidiously, like a summer cold. I’ll wander into a second hand book store, promising myself that this time I will do nothing but browse. Maybe buy some light reading. I pet the resident cat, note the atmospheric dust coating the stock. I saunter past poetry . . . art appreciation . . . self improvement . . .

And then I find I’ve arrived in the section on criminal law. The shelves here groan with moldering trial transcripts and collections of crime reports from long discontinued newspapers. There are boxes of letters- the writing faded, cramped. They lean against journals composed centuries ago and cluttered with clippings and mementos. The journals are jammed against the battered memoirs of ancient jurists, of old time detectives, and sometimes, those of the murdered or their killers. All of it the detritus of long ago trials and treachery. And I know that if I allow myself to linger, (as inevitably I will), I’ll discover, on these shelves, in these boxes, accounts of cases that will take over my life—It’s just a matter of choosing one to focus on.

My interest is usually sparked by a forensic anomaly, a missing fact, an odd pathology report, an obviously inadequate cross-examination in a capital case.

For instance:

Consider the well known English case of George Joseph Smith, accused in 1915, of serially drowning his wives in their baths. (He then callously compounded the heinous crimes after the fact, by playing “Nearer My God to Thee” on the harmonium.)

Smith is described by historians of his day as simple-minded. But his method of drowning grown women in small bathtubs by sudden vigorous submersion was only established by the eminent pathologist, Sir Bernard Spilsbury, after lengthy and dangerous experiments performed on an unusually dedicated nurse.

How did Smith know it would work? How did a “simple-minded” man discover the trick? There must have been earlier, similar and sinister efforts not yet known. It makes me wonder about the life spans of his childhood friends, his siblings. Did he have his pet animals, I wonder? Smith was born in Bethnal Green, I discover, and spent time in a reformatory at the age of nine—what techniques did he acquire there?

I could search for the local newspapers published in the years right after his release—if the blitz didn’t destroy them they could be found.

Mr. Marshall Hall was Smith’s defense attorney—did he leave a memoir? Letters? Could I locate them?

Or what about the case of Jeannie Donald, convicted in 1934 Scotland of the murder of a neighbor’s child; largely on the evidence of Sydney Smith, the pathologist. He testified that the asphyxiated victim’s intestines were infected by a rare bacteria, matched by that in the apartment of the accused. At cross examination the defense counsel never explored exactly how rare this bacteria was, or even precisely what it was. There were no questions about the possible presence of the bacteria in other apartments in the tenement building where the crime took place.

Why were these questions not asked? Why was Mr. D. P. Blades, KC, so restrained? Did Blades leave journals? Can I find them? And so it goes . . .

But it’s the Salem Murder I finally choose to write about for Smithsonian Magazine, and that is what has brought Bill and me to the cemetery in Salem. The case is one which formed the basis  of the felony murder rule now accepted in many states. The victim was well-known, very rich, and lauded in fulsome terms by the prosecutor, Daniel Webster. But I have reason to believe the victim was a slave trader. Can I find hard evidence of this? I believe Edgar Allen Poe wrote the “Tell Tale Heart” based on this crime—can I prove that? I believe Daniel Webster unethically mislead the court in this matter-can I establish this? I want to see the murder scene, the burial site..

Bill pulls me across the hot overgrown cemetery to where the grey slab bears the name “Joseph White.” Have we found the correct tomb? Alas, the date is all wrong—it was inscribed years before White’s death. Could it be that of his father? But his father lived, not in Salem, but on the Isles of Shoals—I can see another trip to the White papers in my future.

When we arrive home, five hours later, after a long ferry ride, I make the unhappy discovery of a moribund biting insect in my bra. It traveled all the way from the cemetery with us. I make a note to add insecticide and calamine lotion to the paraphernalia I carry as a I dig up old crimes of forensic interest.

The End

This article first appeared in Mystery Readers Journal, Volume 28, Number 3 Fall 2012

Legal Mysteries II

E.J. Wagner as usual pursuing verity.

Pursuing Verity

E. J. Wagner is the author of Edgar®-winning The Science of Sherlock Holmes. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Lancet, Ellery Queens Mystery Magazine, and Smithsonian magazine. Her web site is at and her blog is at She is working on a novel about the Salem murder. Her article about the case can be seen at HYPERLINK “”

“The Science of Sherlock Holmes” in French !

November 11, 2011

Delighted to tell you that the French translation of The Science of Sherlock Holmes has just been published – it includes an Afterward, about modern forensic practices by Patrick Roget, the head of the Toulouse Crime Laboratory.

French language edition: La Science de Sherlock Holmes translated by Sarah Gurcel published October 2011 by Éditions Le Pommier – ISBN 9782746505520 – publisher’s price 23.00 Euros – publishers web page for the book

It joins a number of other translations, details of which are on my website at

London On My Mind: The City of Sherlock Holmes

July 31, 2011

This article first appeared in Mystery Readers Journal, Volume 27, No. 2, Spring 2011, London Mysteries II issue, published by Mystery Readers International. Issues are available for purchase individually or by subscription.

It’s a typical day for a storyteller and crime historian like me. The setting is an animal preserve on the north shore of Long Island. It is late afternoon in spring. Fifty people, sitting on folding chairs, face me.

I’m perched precariously on a rock to regale them with tales of crime involving the furred and feathered. I’m hoping not to be drowned out by the roar of a caged cougar, or the shrieks of the nearby peacocks, who are evidently in a state of erotic hysteria.

As the sun dips, I describe the mysterious disappearance of the famous bloodhounds, Burgo and Barnaby, while tracking Jack the Ripper through fogbound Victorian London. Inevitably, even in an animal preserve on Long Island, London is part of my story.

London has always been on my mind.

Even before I made the acquaintance of Mr. Sherlock Holmes in my home territory of the Bronx, even before I read about the Dickensian miseries of workhouses and orphans, my fascinated immersion in the original, acerbic “Mary Poppins” had implanted the city in my very active imagination. London, from the fecund pigeons of Trafalgar Square to the idyllic stretches of Hampstead Heath was in many ways more real to me than the New York in which I lived.

In this fantasy I was aided and abetted by our family housekeeper, who had arrived in the U. S. from Poland by way of London. She made it clear that a napkin was properly called a “serviette,” a diaper a “nappy,” and that the early supper I was fed as a child was actually my “tea.”

In college, my anglophilia grew apace and kept company with my interest in atmospheric homicide. As a theater arts major, I studied dramatic works of Jacobean revenge, Elizabethan hauntings, and Victorian suspense. I was cast as Bella in “Angel Street” (a play set in 1890 London, of course) and played both Ophelia and Lady Macbeth (roles written by a very well-known London-based playwright).

This necessitated long discussions with my pathologist cousin as to the details of death, which led in turn to quite a bit of time in autopsy rooms and crime laboratories. Blood and guts and dramatic literature have a long conjoined history.

Off stage, in between muddling through turgid tomes on the influence of the English monarchy on Globe Theater productions, I delved into crime novels featuring sensitive London detectives with complicated, bittersweet romantic lives. I read accounts of true crimes solved by science, and grew familiar with an entire panoply of Victorian poisoning trials, not to mention the odd bludgeoning and occasional stabbing. I studied the memoirs and biographies of long dead pathologists. I immersed myself in Sherlock Holmes adventures and grew increasingly riveted by the inherent dramatic tension between English understatement, sardonic humor and bloody murder.

Which is most likely why, decades later, weaving these divergent threads together, I found myself in the odd business of writing and performing one‑person presentations about the history and folklore of crime and forensic science—and why my beloved London was always part of the show. I could offer detailed descriptions of Regent’s Park, The Strand, Waterloo Bridge, Whitechapel, and explain exactly how a villain could walk through them, hide in them, live in them. I could conjure up the fog, the sound of footsteps, the splatter of rain on ancient cobblestones.

But this was only an actor’s license—because I had never seen these things for myself.

It was not from want of trying. It was due to a truly rotten sense of timing. It seemed every time my husband, Bill, and I tried to plan a trip to London, a family illness or a crisis at his job or mine interfered.

And I must admit—in the interests of full disclosure—on a few occasions, I managed to sabotage things myself, with my weakness for acquiring black Labrador puppies who needed immediate training during what was supposed to be vacation time. (This wasn’t without advantages—honoring the adage that nothing in a writer’s life should go to waste—I sold an article about such an abortive London trip to the New York Times; “Labrador Love” the editor headed it. The piece was illustrated with a drawing of a Lab pup enthusiastically chewing a picture of the London skyline.)

The worm turned in 1993 just when we were busily planning the imminent wedding of our younger daughter. I was made an offer it would hurt to refuse. It involved a trip to England, first class on the Queen Elizabeth 2, for my husband and me. The work was minimal—I had only to give two lectures on crime during the crossing to Southampton. Bill and I considered, with anguish, the dicey timing. There were invitations to send, dresses to be fitted, flowers to be ordered, seating plans to be decided on. What sort of parents could leave at such a time?

Evidently, our sort. We packed, dumped the wedding arrangements in our two daughters’ willing hands, advised our Resident Labradors, Dickens and Poppins, to be gentle with the house sitter, and headed for the ship. We were armed with a reservation at a Hampstead bed and breakfast, and, courtesy of a pal at the Suffolk County Crime Laboratory a contact number at the Scotland Yard Forensic Science Laboratory, as well as a comprehensive London A to Z.

We arrived in London with an odd sense of home-coming. The city seemed to resonate with echoes of the old crimes whose details I knew so well. The reminders were constant.

The B and B in which we stayed at Frognal and Finchley had been the last address of Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the eminent if controversial pathologist. Sir Bernard had given testimony with fatal results to the accused in over 250 cases, and as Richard Gordon, the physician/author acutely noted, if Spilsbury had been mistaken in only 8 of these, he had been responsible for the loss of more innocent life than Jack the Ripper.

The neighborhood of Hampstead whispered murder to me. Finchley Road, for instance, was the scene of the dispatching of Stanley Setty in 1949. He was done in by one Brian Donald Hume, who finished the job by dismembering his victim and wrapping him in parcels, which he then dropped into the sea by plane. The remains were discovered, a trial ensued, but Hume got off—enabling him to kill another chap in Switzerland some time later.

Not far away is the Magdala Tavern, in front of which blonde Ruth Ellis shot and killed her racing car lover David Blakely. She was executed in 1955, the last woman hanged in England. Her post mortem report stated that her body showed “no sign of disease” but betrayed “an odor of brandy.”

Visiting the Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard) Forensic Laboratory in Lambeth, we were taken to lunch by the Deputy Director, and made the interesting discovery that the Met had it’s very own wine label, a nicety not given to NYPD. Walking through the  Lambeth area, I inevitably thought of Dr. Thomas Cream, the physician/serial killer who haunted the neighborhood in 1891, plying unsuspecting ladies of the evening with “pills for their complexion.”

Every part of London reminded me of old cases—Florence Bravo and the fatal glass of Burgundy her husband drank in 1876, Ada Bartlett, and her husband’s mysterious death from chloroform . . . and of course this led us to an afternoon at the Old Bailey where these cases were famously tried, as well as to the pub across the street, to watch the barristers and solicitors lifting lunchtime liquids.

Since that trip, Bill and I have returned to the UK a number of times. When an editor at John Wiley & Sons asked me to write a book on the history of forensic science, to be called The Science of Sherlock Holmes, my first thought was that it gave us a great excuse for another trip.

London was on my mind again.

Bookhampton Mayhem

May 11, 2010

On Saturday 15 May 2010, I’ll appear at Bookhampton Mayhem at two locations – in East Hampton at the Bookhampton bookstore at 41 Main Street  at 4 p.m. in the True Crime session; and in Sag Harbor at the Bookhampton bookstore at 20 Main street at 9 p.m.  in the Dark & Dangerous session.

“The Sherlock Holmes Effect” Revisited

January 28, 2010

“The Sherlock Holmes Effect,” the panel discussion that I moderated at the Mid-Manhattan Library on January 26, was very well attended by an enthusiastic and attentive audience.

Our panel was somewhat different from the original plan, as illness and other difficulties forced last minute changes, but Charles Salzberg, Lyndsay Faye, and Marco Conelli were present and eloquent.

E. J., Lindsay Faye, and Marco Conelli - photo courtesy of Marco Conelli

Among the intriguing disclosures: Lyndsay Faye, author of Dust and Shadows, An Account of the Ripper Killings By Dr. John H. Watson, told us that she did not know whom she would identify as the Ripper until her book was sixty percent written—thus providing her as well as her readers with suspense.

Charles Salzberg, author of Swann’s Last Song, said he too was often surprised by his characters as he wrote, and noted that editors often had strong views about the endings of mysteries, and that writers were often forced to pay attention.

Marco Conelli, who writes the Young Adult series about “Matthew Livingston” and has another career as a NYPD detective, described  how, as an undercover cop, he had used make-up and disguise to infiltrate criminal organizations, just as Sherlock Holmes did.

E. J. and Marco Conelli - photo courtesy of Marco Conelli

In my turn I explained, how in researching historic crimes for my book, The Science of Sherlock Holmes, I sometimes found flaws in ancient primary documents that raised  disturbing questions about the validity  of old verdicts. It is dreadfully upsetting to realize the wrong man was hanged, two hundred years too late to change things.

On a lighter note, about half the audience had seen the new Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey Jr.  The verdict on the film’s artistic success was mixed, but there was agreement that it encouraged a new generation to delve into the Canon. And to read books!

The program, part of a series sponsored jointly by the Mystery Writers of America New York Chapter and the New York Public Library, set a record for attendance.  Proving once again that Sherlock Holmes and his world are much  beloved.

EJ Wagner

The Sherlock Holmes Effect

January 24, 2010

On Tuesday January 26, 2010, at 6:30 pm,  I will moderate a panel discussion at the Mid-Manhattan Library entitled “The Sherlock Holmes Effect: How the Arthur Conan Doyle Classics Influence Contemporary Mysteries.”  I will be joined by four other members of the New York Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America: Marco Conelli, Lyndsay Faye, Jonathan Maberry, and Charles Salzberg.  This free program will take place on the 6th floor of the Mid-Manhattan Library.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born a little over 150 years ago, in 1859. His four novels and fifty-six short stories about Sherlock Holmes—known collectively to Holmes enthusiasts as “the Canon”—set the gold standard for great mystery writing, and anticipated much of today’s forensic science practices. Join me and my panel of distinguished mystery authors as we discuss the effects of the Canon on our writings and those of other contemporary mystery writers.

The Mid-Manhattan Library is on 40th Street and 5th Avenue, diagonally across from the main building of the 42nd Street library.

For additional information, see .

The Love Pirate and the Bandit’s Son

October 28, 2009

Laura James is an attorney, crime historian, and the proprietor of Clews, a well-regarded blog on true crime and its history.  Her book, The Love Pirate and the Bandit’s Son, published this year by Union Square Press, is an impeccably researched and engagingly written account of the intertwined lives of Zeo Zoe Wilkins and the son of Jesse James.
According to the dust jacket of the book, “she was Zeo Zoe Wilkins, a beautiful, ruthless woman whose rise and fall in love and larceny scandalized the nation.  He was Jesse James Jr., the twisted son of America’s most legendary outlaw. . . . On the night of March 15, 1924, Zeo Zoe Wilkins was brutally murdered . . . The murder was never officially solved. ”

In the interview, below, my questions are in bold, Laura James’ answers are in plain text.

How and when did you first hear of the case?

A tattered 1950s-era Harlequin true crime paperback had a chapter on Zeo Wilkins titled, “Vampire of Kansas City.” The book was The World’s Worst Women by Bernard O’Donnell. Zeo Zoe was the only American in the book.

How did you go about your very thorough research? And how long did the entire project take you?

Eight years of research, all told. I just dug until I couldn’t think of anything else to find or anywhere else to look.

As you wrote, did you develop any sympathy at all for Zeo Zoe? Do you think she was a sociopath from birth?

Yes I agree she was a psychopath (sociopath), from early childhood. What makes psychopaths so interesting is that they have no qualms whatsoever about violating society’s rules (or causing real damage to others). They enjoy a bizarre sort of freedom to do as they please, though some, like Dr. Zeo Wilkins, end up crossing the line into criminality. To be honest it was hard not to envy some of her character traits, like sheer pluck, but the reality check is that she was a classic psychopath.

The phrase “nymphomania” has been attached to her behavior by critics. Do you agree? or is a double standard at work, in which women with extensive erotic lives are “nymphomaniacs” and men with similar interests are simply virile?

Eight to ten known lovers in less than two years qualifies you for nymphomaniac, at least in the American Midwest, dear!

Zeo Zoe could have succeeded at a more conventional line of work, given her intelligence. Was the money the prize for her—or was it the attraction of being really bad?

Osteopathy was a tool for manipulating, dominating, and controlling her friends, family, lovers, and husbands into feeding her material appetites, but she went beyond that pretty often. She destroyed many of those men in the process and harmed many more. That’s what happens when unbridled greed marries wild opportunities.

I believe this is your first book. As a new author, do you find internet shops such as Amazon a help?

Not at all; since my book was published by a Barnes & Noble affiliate, I wasn’t expecting any though.

Do you read your reviews?

Sure. I skimmed the bad one.

Clews, your excellent blog on historic crime, must take a great deal of time. You are also a mother and a lawyer. How do you manage to organize it all?

20 minutes a day times five years gets you somewhere I guess.

In which branch of law do you specialize?

Insurance defense / insurance coverage (civil)

Do you find book signings and similar events energizing or draining? What is the comment from the public you liked best? The funniest?

I gave a speech at the Kansas City Public Library that was a hoot. I didn’t know whether anyone in the audience wanted to hear me talk about the most famous American gold diggers of all time, their mysterious deaths, or true crime in general, but I was determined to have a great time, and I did.

The study of true crime is often denigrated by the misguided. Would you give your views on this matter?

Those who denigrate the true crime genre usually have a very narrow definition of it. Bookstores and libraries are two places to find very narrow definitions of “true crime.”