The author’s dilemma: how to inform readers about a new book without a big-budget advertising budget? Ironically, perhaps, the answer is to give away copies for free!
And so, I’m running a book giveaway contest on Goodreads for my new book until September 14, 2021. The prize is one of 20 autographed paperback copies of Murder In the Haunted Chamber, a historical mystery set in 1910 Baltimore. This is the second book in the Sarah Kennecott and Jack Harden Mystery series. To enter, click over to the contest website: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/330860-murder-in-the-haunted-chamber.
Dr. Sarah Kennecott is a brilliant young pathologist determined to get justice for murder victims despite her social awkwardness and trouble communicating with people. Jack Harden is a hard-boiled private dick suffering from what would now be called PTSD after witnessing a massacre overseas. The two form an unlikely friendship as they hunt criminals in early twentieth-century Baltimore.
The book opens with Sarah affirming disbelief in ghosts. But when her dead sister appears in a dream and correctly forecasts a murder, Sarah must find the killer. At the center of the mystery is a spiritual medium with hidden motives and a stunning secret.
Haunted memories push Jack Hardin near emotional collapse. The medium draws him in with a promise to contact his ghosts during a séance, an event that turns deadly.
The case tests their detective partnership as Sarah and Jack move from seedy saloons, to high society parlors, to confrontations with what might—or might not—be the supernatural. Everything, including their relationship and their lives, hinges on thwarting a killer who is deceptive, clever, and brutal.
The first book in the series is Into the Suffering City, which is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle versions.
One more thing about the giveaway noted above: it is open to readers in both the US and Canada.
In 1915 a government study on illicit sex left Baltimore “naked and exposed.” The Maryland Vice Commission, in the words of one excitable observer, had spent “three years stripping the clothes off” the city, and the official report presented a mountain of evidence about prostitution and other furtive sexual activities.
The immediate public reaction was one of denial. Mayor James Harry Preston, quoted in The Baltimore Sun, labeled the report “a scandalous libel on life in Baltimore.” The head of the police chimed in, stating “these conditions do not exist” and swearing that his force kept a diligent eye on “questionable houses” to “arrest those who enter it for immoral purposes.”
Some reacted to the allegations with full-throated outrage. A grand jury summoned the commission chairman with a demand for the names of those interviewed in the study with an intent to interrogate them. “A heated argument followed” between the chairman and prosecutors, but no names were released.
Contemporary newspapers focused on the report’s findings in connection with streetwalkers and “questionable houses.” But the commission also reported on what it termed “clandestine prostitution,” which included the common practice of successful men keeping mistresses. This revelation no doubt made city leaders uncomfortable.
A powerful group of reformers refused to let the issue fade from view. Leading the charge was Dr. Howard A. Kelly, a prominent Johns Hopkins Hospital doctor and teetotaling moral crusader. Kelly was deeply religious and was known, when stopped at a red traffic light, to ask cab drivers “when you get to the gate of heaven, will there be a red light or a green light?” With the city keeping the report under wraps, Kelly published The Double Shame of Baltimore: Her Unpublished Vice Report and Her Utter Indifference. “Vice in low theatrical shows and sex immorality is literally eating the heart out of our city life,” he wrote. “For the first time in her life, Baltimore has gazed into a clear glass and beheld her natural face.”
Kelly reprinted two articles by Winthrop D. Lane, a pioneering social worker, who struck an even higher level of moral outrage. Lane wrote that the commission found “supposedly respectable” citizens, including many men “in high station,” were in fact sexual predators. They seduced stenographers and other young girls who worked for them. They preyed upon waitresses, salesgirls, and switchboard operators. They took women to private offices for immoral purposes. And a shocking number of “supposedly respectable women” solicited the attention of such men.
The city’s denial of the findings deeply aggrieved Kelly and Lane. “Apparently Baltimore did not know that she had ‘a body of flesh and blood and weakness’ … the discovery has been too much for her,” wrote Lane. Both held out hope that the report would be published so that “cities of similar characteristics and greater imagination” could benefit.
That didn’t happen. Opposition to the report was so intense the commission never dared publish its findings.
Controversy over the report receded quickly, arguably with the total defeat of both opposing viewpoints. The moral reformers hit a high-water mark with the start of prohibition in 1920, but their influence faded as the measure failed. And the Baltimore sin-deniers lost whatever credibility they had with the surging popularity of “The Block,” the city’s famous burlesque locale (and red-light district).
A single typescript original of the vice commission report rests on a shelf of the Special Collections Department of the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore. The research appears rigorous and through, and while there are period-typical judgments as to “perversion” and “low intelligence,” information is presented with an objective intent.
The report is a unique document, historically invaluable, with dozens of transcribed interviews about why women went into prostitution, what their lives were like as prostitutes, how much money they made, and their physical experience of sex with customers. The document also has a commendable focus on public health concerns, political corruption, harassment of women in the workplace, and the evils of income inequality.
While failing to convince Baltimore of its “flesh and blood and weakness,” the vice commission succeeded far beyond its wildest imagination in creating a priceless historical record of the city and it’s all too human residents.
What we now call autism has long existed among humans. But medicine only began noticing the particular set of physical and mental traits associated with autism within the last 100 years.
This issue has special relevance to me. I have an adult child diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (the diagnosis has shifted over the years from Pervasive Developmental Disorder, to Asperger Syndrome, to others I have forgotten). Trying to get help in the mid-1980s was a struggle—very few doctors and no schools I dealt with had any experience with a child that we now say is “on the spectrum.” Gradually I learned more, and found that the condition was not as unique as it first seemed.
This got me wondering—how would a person on the autism spectrum have fared before there was any awareness of the condition? I channeled my interest into a novel set in 1909, Into the Suffering City: A Novel of Baltimore, with a protagonist I imagined as autistic. My character, Sarah Kennecott, could not have been diagnosed as such in 1909 because the concept had not yet been invented. But I am confident that people such as her existed at the time.
The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders identified Autism Spectrum Disorder in 2013. This is the latest of many (often, in hindsight, ludicrously inept) attempts by the medical profession to categorize a particular set of physical and mental traits. Children and adults with autism have difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication. What follows is a non-exhaustive list of such traits as listed in the DSM:
Challenges in understanding or appropriately using:
Tone of voice
Expressions not meant to be taken literally
Additional social challenges can include difficulty with:
Recognizing emotions in others
Expressing one’s own emotions
Seeking emotional comfort
Understanding social cues
Feeling overwhelmed in social situations
Gauging personal space (appropriate distance between people)
Repetitive body movements (e.g. rocking, flapping, spinning, running back and forth)
Many clinicians and advocates hail use of the term “spectrum” because an autistic person is like any other—they are a unique individual with their own way of being in the world. As Dr. Stephen Shore has noted, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Those with autism range from people who are fully disabled to those who are highly functional and have great success in life.
I represent Sarah as gifted academically. While many, perhaps most, people diagnosed with ASD have lower than average intelligence (as measured by tests), there is evidence that some with autism have exceptional intellects, including “increased sensory and visual-spatial abilities, enhanced synaptic functions, increased attentional focus, high socioeconomic status, more deliberative decision-making, [and] professional and occupational interests in engineering and physical sciences.”
Broad public awareness of autism dates to the 1988 film Rain Main, which starred Dustin Hoffman as an intensely awkward savant who could perform amazing, but highly selective, mental tasks. The film was useful for educating the public about autism, but also led to a general assumption that every autistic person was just like the Hoffman character. What we now call autism was largely unknown among the public prior to 1988. I know that from personal experience.
The first mention of autism in the DSM appeared in the 1980 edition. During the 1960s and 1970s autism was cruelly blamed on “refrigerator mothers” who failed to love their kids enough. Autism was also linked to schizophrenia as late as the 1970s. Leo Kanner in 1943 described a group of largely intelligent children who craved aloneness and “persistent sameness;” he called this “infantile autism.”
During the late 1930s and 1940s Hans Asperger used autism in reference to people with a perceived milder form of the condition that came to be known as Asperger’s syndrome. Eugen Bleuler coined the term autism sometime between 1908 and 1911 (there is disagreement as to exactly when) as a symptom of schizophrenia, another term that Bleuler invented. Bleuler derived autism from the Greek word meaning self, and used it in reference to people who lived in a world that was not accessible to others
But autistic-like behavior was noted long before the term itself came into use. As Kanner noted, “I never discovered autism—it was there before.” Samuel Gridley Howe gets credit for first noticing, prior to the American Civil War, that some people considered “idiots” had a combination of skills and strengths that set them apart from others with intellectual disabilities. Looking back into history, it is arguable that many people, including Michelangelo, Emily Dickinson, Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, and Thomas Jefferson, were autistic. They and other, less famous, people with autism were different than ordinary people. This difference often led to cruel treatment; my character Sarah is variously called odd, strange, peculiar, and even “a spastic little freak.”
The modern neurodiversity movement urges replacement of the term “disorder” with “diversity” to account for neurological strengths and weaknesses and to suggest that variations in brain wiring—such as autism—can be a net positive for individuals and for society as a whole. Neurodiversity and autism advocacy groups share an even more important goal: insisting that people whose minds work differently are treated with respect and compassion.
Women now make up about 60 percent of doctors under 35. The situation was very different in the past.
In her book “Doctors Wanted, No Women Need Apply”: Sexual Barriers in the Medical Profession, 1835-1975, Mary Roth Walsh recounts the terrible difficulty women faced in studying medicine and in working as physicians. During the “golden age” of women physicians in the late nineteenth century, only about ten percent of medical students were female. The percentage dropped significantly in the following decades, mostly, according to Walsh, because male doctors wanted it that way.
I drew upon Walsh’s study and other sources in my depiction of Dr. Sarah Kennecott, the female co-protagonist in my book Into the Suffering City: A Novel of Baltimore. Sarah had an advantage in her quest to become a doctor in the first decade of the twentieth century. She was able to study at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, which was not only one of the best schools in the country—it was also one of the few top-flight institutions that admitted women. This liberal policy was in place only because a group of wealthy Baltimore women conditioned a substantial financial gift on the enrollment of female students.
Sarah is smart and determined. But, as I recount in the story, her talent cuts both ways. A senior faculty member acknowledges her academic success and then humiliates her in packed classroom of her peers with the following diatribe:
“Female success may force men to lose their confidence and their vitality. High-achieving females could drag medicine away from manly progress and toward useless womanly frivolity …. Yes, we can have first-rate women doctors—at great cost to the medical profession. Think of it—the physician of tomorrow might prefer mindless chatter rather than aggressive combat against disease.”
I paraphrased writings from the period conveying this exact sentiment among male doctors. Most men were convinced that women didn’t have “the right stuff” to equal male physicians. It was a confoundingly closed circle: men were seen as better suited to doctoring since the vast majority of doctors were men. Any women considering medicine had few role models to emulate. Toss in the ingrained sexism and misogyny on the part of more than a few male physicians, and the path forward for aspiring females was steep and rocky.
In my novel, Sarah is also on the autism spectrum, a trait unknown and unappreciated at the time. As with her superior intellect, her autism brings advantages and disadvantages. On the negative side, she has trouble interacting socially and comes across as odd to neurotypicals. But she is able to mount a tremendous focus to get things done, as she is unencumbered by the distractions most people face. This is the same kind of autistic “superpower” attributed to teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg. Like Thunberg, Sarah sees issues with fierce moral clarity and has a powerful commitment to justice.
Most women lacking a superpower in the past were effectively shut out of a medical career. With the rise of a more equitable educational and professional environment in recent years, that situation thankfully has changed.