Tag Archives: Questionable Minds

That is a little more like it!

This week went a lot better than September, as witness I made my hours for this week. And they were productive hours too.

It helped that I wasn’t nibbled to death by ducks like I was so much of September. I had a dental appointment (teeth are great!) Wednesday, deposit a state and federal tax refund, then went to lunch … which did waste some extra time as the appointment was for today (I’ve no idea how I made that mistake). The state refund was one we originally received during the pandemic, then never cashed so I had to go through a lot of hoops to get a replacement check (which is cool, for something like that NC Department of Revenue should have hoops).

Using my revised outline, I rewrote the first five chapters of Impossible Takes a Little Longer. It’s the part of the book that’s most together so it didn’t require huge amounts of rewriting. Nevertheless there’s no question the changes — letting the evil fake angel escape, outing KC as the superhero Champion — improved things. Hopefully I’ll build on them for the next section.

I had less success working on my short story Obalus. I have a clear sense of my protagonist, Evelyn Holt’s arc and who her adversary is, but the details? Crickets. Evelyn’s opposing the bad guy but I have no idea what she has to do to beat him or what obstacles he has to throw in her way. I tried doodling and coming up with ideas, sitting and thinking … nothing’s worked so far.

I got some Leaf articles done and most of the promotional material for Questionable Minds. Plus I have two Atomic Junkshop blog posts out, one on the Justice Society of America’s almost-revival in 1965, the other on the stereotype of Silver Age adventures as innocuous and harmless.

Oh, and last weekend I bought a new printer to replace our deceased one. I lucked out at Office Depot and was able to order the exact one I wanted; today I got it plugged in and set up … only it can’t hook up to the Wi-Fi yet. I will leave that to TYG who has the expertise to understand router and firewall stuff.

Despite that, a good week: let’s hope all month is this awesome!

#SFWApro. Covers by Jim Mooney and Mike Sekowsky.

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Questionable Minds: policing in the Victorian age

Like much about the Victorian era, police work in the era of Questionable Minds is very different.

Traditionally British policing was local. Each parish had its own constabulary, usually a small one, typically working part-time and paid very little. Private bounty hunters, AKA thief-takers, were a shady lot (Lucy Moore’s Thieves’ Opera shows how shady Jonathan Wild, self-proclaimed “thief-taker general” was.) None of which worked effectively to control crime.

In the mid-1700s Henry Fielding, a justice at the Bow Street Court, took the radical step of setting up the Bow Street Runners, the country’s first paid, professional force. They were more effective than thief-takers and constables but in 1829, the Metropolitan Police took over policing. The Runners disbanded a decade later.

The Metropolitan Police were not popular. Policing itself was not popular, as Sue Wise details in The Italian Boy. Napoleon had used a secret police to great effect; there were fear that British police might turn into the same kind of tyrannical jackboot. Was England really giving these people the power to tell private citizens “stay away from this crime scene!” or “answer my questions?” Wasn’t that despotism?

Police were also decidedly “common” lower class individuals. To many people they were only marginally better than the crooks they chased. This attitude continued in fiction on into the 20th century, where the amateur detective was automatically of a higher order of ability and quality than a mere policeman (as I mentioned in a previous post, Miss Grey of Scotland Yard is determined to change that perception).

And the principles of policing were pretty bizarre by 19th century standards. Investigators traditionally got their man by being on the scene and chasing the thief down, or by using informants.  The idea of interrogating someone about their whereabouts or searching their homes for evidence was radically different. People didn’t like the idea; a lot of cops had trouble grasping it.

CSI was just as alien. It wasn’t until 1879 that French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon introduced a system for identifying criminals by distinctive body measurements, such as their middle-finger length or size of the head. Fingerprinting didn’t become standard until the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1888 that a French researcher established bullets fired by the same gun have the same markings.

All of this plays a role the world of Questionable Minds, where mentalist powers (psionics) have recently become a thing. The Mentalist Investigation Department (MID) deals with crimes involving mentalism but doesn’t use the mentalists on its team to investigate ordinary crimes, even where they could help. There are simply too many crimes where an object reader or a clairvoyant could make a difference.

Legal standards are struggling to keep up. Using human telegraphy (telepathy in our terms) on a suspect without consent is considered a blatant violation of the right against self-incrimination. I haven’t thought about them — it’s not relevant to the plot of the book — but there are probably similar rules in place governing the use of object-reading and clairvoyance in police investigations.

#SFWApro. Cover by Samantha Collins.

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The week, the ducks, the month, the rain

So Hurricane Ian reached us today. Bad, and a downed tree took out the power for a couple of hours, though nowhere near as bad as that gorgeous Pat Broderick cover.

This was one of those weeks where I was nibbled to death by ducks. Three morning appointments — automotive, dog evaluation, booster and flu shots — which coupled with the problem of getting started later in the morning (as I mentioned last week),  takes big chunks out of what’s normally my most productive time. Tuesday, when I took the car in, it was early enough that doing anything after we finished with the dogs just didn’t seem worth it — I’d barely be able to focus before I had to leave.

The car is VW Golf, one of those subject to the rigged emissions system, and a dealer email said it was due for the second part of the government-mandated fix. Surprise! — when I got to the dealer the service department took a look at the car’s history and said we’d already gotten the fix. So I blew the morning for nothing.

On the plus side, I am boosted and flu-protected. All those chumps who declared covid is no worse than the flu must never have had influenza because the two times I had it were unbelievably horrible.

Work, you say? Better than I’d have expected. A lot of promotional work on Questionable Minds, which I hope to wrap up next week. I sat down and re-outlined the next draft of Impossible Takes a Little Longer and dang, it looks very promising. I’ve upped the stakes, added some plot complications and I’ve thought of one twist that might lead to a sequel, as well as removing a plot thread that wasn’t fitting well into the book. I finished Don’t Pay the Ferryman, now retitled Shadows Reflected In Darkness, and submitted it to Fantasy and Science Fiction. I’ve never succeeded with any of my submissions, but perhaps this will be the time. If not, it’s short enough (under 4,000 words) there are several other potential markets.

I also posted on Atomic Junkshop about DC and Marvel discarding potentially good characters; blogging about The Unwritten Vertigo series; and last week speculating whether even “ordinary” people in the DCU and MU are superhuman by our standards.

And a Con-Tinual panel on mythological tropes is live on Facebook.

And in really good news, my new MacBook Air arrived at the Apple Store last weekend. It is sooo nice having a computer where the keyboard doesn’t stick constantly, and a battery that lets me go untethered.

So productive, but those wasted hours always frustrate me. Ditto for the month: I got nothing done on Impossible before this week and I’d planned to do a lot. Nor did I get any rewriting done on Obalus. Of course, with my stuttering keyboard, taking Snowdrop to the vet, etc., that’s understandable.

Bring on October. Fingers crossed for more writing done

#SFWApro. Questionable Minds cover by Samantha Collins. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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Questionable Minds and Victorian pseudo-science

One of the things that fascinates me about the Victorians is the way they combined major scientific and technological breakthroughs with crackpot pseudoscience.Not that they saw it this way themselves, of course. The theories they embraced seemed just as rational and scientific as evolution, which was one of those breakthroughs. For example, criminologist and physician Cesare Lombroso developed a theory that criminals were atavistic throwbacks to a lower level of evolution — i.e., black or Native American. Savages with minds too primitive to grasp the principles of law that came relatively easily to white dudes. Science historian Stephen Jay Gould wrote (I forget in which of his books) that this had a real impact on criminal sentencing: obviously a superior man who, say, killed his wife in a fit of jealousy shouldn’t be sentenced the same way as a career criminal who killed routinely.

Cynthia Eagle Russett’s Sexual Science shows how Victorian scientists studying gender differences though they were being perfectly rational in exploring the roots of women’s inferiority. Was it their smaller brains? Their immaturity (obviously the lack of beards showed women were like immature men)? The way reproduction drained energy from their brains? The fatal flaw in all their theories was that they started from the assumption women were self-evidently less intelligent than men; that assumption warped all their supposedly objective science (I get into this and later sexual-difference theories a lot in Undead Sexist Cliches).

Victorians believed in spiritualism, phrenology, aether and that masturbation could reduce you to idiocy (draining too much bodily energy to think). They believed in a variety of psychic powers loosely classed as “mesmerism,” as Alison Winter details in her book Mesmerism.

Mesmeric theories are the ones most relevant to Questionable Minds, though by the time the novel begins, they’re looked on as crude, clumsy efforts to tap vril, the psychic energy that fuels mentalists’ powers. Lombroso comes up when someone describes Edward Hyde (yes, the Mr. Hyde) as looking like one of Lombroso’s evolutionary throwbacks. And Theosophy founder Helena Blavatsky helped work out the current system for developing mental powers (as I posted about before) — so perhaps her mysticism isn’t as much mumb0-jumbo as in our world.

If/when I write the sequel (let’s see how well this book does), it’ll be interesting to explore more of the Victorians’ odd beliefs.

#SFWApro. Covers by Samantha Collins (top) and Kemp Ward (bottom).

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The law of Proteus: all things change

When I started October, one of my goals was to push my daily output up to six hours of writing from 5.5. Not a huge increase, but an extra 2.5 hours a week isn’t anything to sneeze at.

I’m a little surprised that it worked: I’ve been able to keep up work at that pace, taking breaks so that I don’t fry my mind before work ends for the day. Though the distraction such as dragging Snowdrop to the vet

mean I’ve wound up putting in less total time each week than I normally do. Still, putting in six hours a day in October — far fewer events scheduled — should produce good results.

But as I’ve mentioned before, when you’re living with other people, time management is never smooth. As TYG’s job became increasingly demanding the past couple of years, she’s been getting up earlier — easier to get stuff done when nobody at work is awake to demand help — and going to be earlier. Now she’s in a job which is much less of a pressure cooker. She’s staying awake later and getting up later. Having adjusted to her early cycle, I’m now having to adjust back.

Well, not “have” to. But I like going to bed with her and snuggling, and so I’m staying up later. As I can’t get my body to get up much later — that’s always been a weakness of mine — I sometimes wind up shortchanged on sleep. Then, because TYG’s rising later, we take the dogs out later (dawn shifting later in the morning plays a role in that too) which pushes the time to start work later in the morning.

The best solution would be to start work in the stretch between me finishing breakfast and the dogs coming down. That’s hard to make myself do because I have no idea how much time I’ll have and it’s difficult to start something knowing I might have to cut it short at any second. That may be what it takes, though. I’ll give it a shot next week.

Workwise, this was a routine week. A bunch of articles of Leaf, another of those accounting articles — and my client absolutely gushing about how much they liked last week’s article. That’s always nice. Oh, and I got a request to do an advance review for Questionable Minds so I sent that out Tuesday. Now I just hope they like it …#SFWApro. Cover by Samantha Collins, all rights remain with current holder.

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Clawed by Cats! Clobbered by Computers!

No, not literally clawed, thank goodness. Neither Snowdrop nor Wisp seems inclined to get physical, even when the dogs get in their grill. But Snowdrop did tear up a chunk of writing time for me this week.

As our cats live outdoors most of the time, catching them for the annual checkup is hard. We caught Wisp in July and now it’s Snowdrop’s turn. We couldn’t get him last week but I’d already made a backup appointment for Tuesday the 13th. Monday night, while I was hosting my Shut Up and Write Zoom group, TYG called me down. Some years back she bought a pole-and-lasso contraption to catch Wisp, but it never worked — until now. However, ensnaring Snowdrop in the loop did not get him into the cage for transport so she needed my help.

Eventually we caged him, but not before he’d astonished up by running up the blinds on the French doors and then up the outside of a bookcase. Of course, once he was caught we were in for hours of plaintive meowing, and more in the morning. So my regular morning routine went out the window, plus I was the one who had to take him to the vet (my freelancing schedule is way more flexible than TYG’s time).

It used to be they’d tranquilize the cats before examining them, but they’ve moved away from that now. Which is good, except that meant I stuck around with Snowdrop instead of coming back hours later. You can see him below, looking at me and hoping for rescue. He didn’t get it.To my surprise, he didn’t put up a fight at all, but let the vets examine him, give him his shots and so forth. He’s in great shape (yay!) and not overweight (yay again!). I took him home, then we let him out in the backyard. He didn’t bear us a grudge and was quite happy to accept petting later.

Now, as to the computer: my laptop has been suffering from keys sticking for a while but it’s been getting really bad lately. I cleaned out the keyboard with compressed air but it didn’t improve things enough, so Monday I ordered a new laptop. Arrival: Wednesday.

Or so I thought. Because I added memory, they couldn’t just take one off the rack and the delivery date is Oct. 5. I didn’t realize that — they didn’t exactly highlight that detail — so Tuesday afternoon after getting back from the vet I just blew work off, ditto Wednesday morning. Why work with a glitchy keyboard when I’d have a smooth-operating computer so soon?

That’s a couple of days I won’t get back. I’m annoyed at my inefficiency, though I still finished one of my paying accounting articles. And I got most of my advance promotional work for Questionable Minds done Monday. I also posted at Atomic Junkshop about the New Mutants team and Richard Powers’ cover art.For really good news, I got my payments from Draft2Digital for a couple of books that sold this summer. And my golem article came out in Jews in Popular Science Fiction at last.I haven’t read it yet but the table of contents looks interesting.Being published makes up for a lot. Have a great weekend everyone.

#SFWApro. Rights to book covers remain with current holder.

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Questionable Minds: Meet the villain

We meet the primary villain of Questionable Minds at the end of the first chapter. First we encounter my protagonist, Simon, at a tense dinner party. Then we meet Polly Nichols, a broken down woman desperate to turn a trick so she’ll have money to pay for a bed for the night.

Unlike the real Polly Nichols — the first victim of Jack the Ripper — this Polly is a mentalist, a “human telegraph” with the power to read thoughts. Trouble is, Victorian snobbery, as I’ve mentioned before, believes the lower classes are fit only to wield gross physical powers such as TK or firestarting (AKA levitation and incendiary). A woman at the rock-bottom of the social order isn’t to be trusted with telepathic ability so she was turned out of the Academy with only a little training.

The result? Polly has a half-formed ability that only picks up thoughts about her, and only negative ones. Her power amplifies even the slightest, fleeting touch of resentment or discomfort and convinces her she’s despised. She’s alienated from everyone, and she’s miserable.

Then she meets Jack and falls in love. Instantly. She happily follows him to a dark spot on the street where he butchers her (I do not use the term casually. There’ll be a trigger warning for violence against women). She’s too happy to resist.

Scotland Yard’s Mentalist Investigation Department initially turns down the Nichols case: there’s no sign that Jack used any sort of mental powers and that’s their field of interest. Simon, however, has the freedom to investigate unofficially and learns some strangely suspicious details. Still, the MID has bigger fish to fry, a telegrapher who’s obtained documents about important international negotiations — the odd murder of one mentalist is hardly in the same league. But then a second murder happens. Psychic probing reveals the victim was in love, so in love she let the murderer kill her. And it’s only getting worse from there.

In the first “finished” version of the novel, I had Jack’s POV crop up in multiple scenes throughout the book, giving some explanation of his motive and showing his mindset. The brutality of the killings is a ruse, to distract the police from his real agenda — but Jack’s POV scenes show he’s lying to himself. He’s a raging misogynist and he’s getting off on cutting women up.

That still comes across, I hope, despite my cutting out most of Jack’s POV scenes. In the years since I wrote the earlier version, I’ve come to dislike villain POVs. Not always, but with serial killers in particular it’s pretty tedious stuff. His superiority, his gloating about the sheeple around him who are his unwitting prey, etc. My guy’s definitely not like that, but even so I wasn’t sure the scenes were necessary. I cut almost all of them.

That’s about all I can say without giving away major spoilers, so I hope it’s enough.

#SFWApro. Cover by Samantha Collins.

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Questionable Minds: the women of my cast

The one thing I don’t like about Questionable Minds (now three months from release date!) is that it’s so white and straight.

I wrote the original manuscript in the late 1990s. Back in those days I didn’t think much about diversity and it shows. I have some Chinese supporting characters and that’s about it.

When I decided to self-publish I thought about revising it but truthfully that was more work than I was willing to do: the goal was to get the book out in the world, not work on it for a couple more years. And it would take at least that much: doing a good job with a POC or gay character in the Victorian age would be a serious challenge, at least for me. If it sells enough to justify a sequel, I’ll do better in the next book.

On the plus side, I do have several female characters who play large roles in the book alongside Sir Simon Taggart, Bart.

Ann Taggart is Simon’s daughter. Since Agnes’ death Simon’s been devoted to her, a little too much by Victorian standards of parenting. She’s a cheerful, adventurous child whose mentalist power — object-reading — manifested early. Scotland Yard’s Mentalist Investigation Department has occasionally called her in for help, which thrills her: much as Simon tells her she’ll grow up to find a good husband, her dream is to work for the MID. It’s one of her few points of conflict with her papa.

The other is that her power flares up randomly. Simon lives on edge that she’ll touch something or walk somewhere that shows her the true state of affairs between her parents.

Janet McIntyre is Ann’s governess and Simon’s lover. She grew up with a widowed father, a minister in the Presbyterian church who didn’t approve of her independent streak. She left home in her late teens, wound up working as a thief and pickpocket and became a really good one after her powers of levitation (as they called TK in my setting) manifested.  One night she picked the wrong pocket: the owner began beating her to death when Simon rushed in to save her. Something began that night, though neither of them’s willing to use the L-word to describe it.

While it doesn’t play a large role in the book, Janet is well educated and makes an excellent governess. She doesn’t tell Simon she’s also teaching Ann things like how to escape from a locked room, should the occasion arise.

Miss Grey is right hand to Inspector Hudnall at the MID and therefore Ann’s idol. One of her ancestors helped found the Bow Street Runners, London’s proto-police force; her dream is to show that a police force can be an asset to society, not a bunch of thugs no better than the criminals they watch over (yes, I’m aware these days that may leave a sour taste in people’s mouths). Grey is not her name: as her well-bred family would be ashamed at her choice of career (or any career) she chose a pseudonym to protect them.

While Miss Grey is clairvoyant, she’s more valuable to the MID as an expert on mentalism. She’s worked to know the many varieties of mentalist power, including the rarer ones; she also reads novels and penny dreadfuls with mentalist stories so that she knows what the public thinks mentalism can do.

Last but not least is Madam Sara, the sinister scientist and criminal I blogged about previously. She and Simon met during an encounter with one of the various cults that sprung up around mentalism in the belief it’s magic more than science. Together, they escaped being sacrificed. Despite her shady ways, she’s a valuable ally; she finds it useful to occasionally have Ann object-read something. Simon trusts Sara to do what she says, but not an inch beyond that.

More Questionable Minds background stuff soon.

#SFWApro. Cover by Sam Collins.

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I changed my routine. You won’t believe what happened next!

Okay, not anything shocking. But this seems to be one of those clickbait headlines and I can always use more clicks, so …

Last Thursday and Friday I accepted a bunch of articles for the Leaf content provider. However there’s a three day deadline to finishing once I accept them and for a Thursday acceptance that meant Sunday. Much as I hate breaking up my weekend, I decided to take Saturday off, work Sunday, then take Tuesday off instead. Coupled with some personal distractions, I felt very disorganized this entire week.

Nevertheless, it was productive. I got about fourteen Leaf articles done, though it took me longer than it should have — the disorganization, I imagine.

I also went over the corrections to Death Is Like a Box of Chocolates and responded; mostly they were solid choices by the editor. But now there’s a final set — I probably won’t get to them until Monday.

I also completed Phase One of the index, which is going through the manuscript and putting everything in alphabetical order. I prefer doing this before submitting my manuscripts because no matter how carefully I proofread, I always find more errors. That wasn’t an option this time, as I had to push to complete the book by deadline as it was. I feel embarrassed seeing all the errors now.

It went quickly but now comes Phase Two, where I put in the page numbers. It’s slower and absolutely mind-numbing but it has to be done. Plus, of course, proofing the final copy of the text.

It’ll be a busy rest-of-the-month and the promotional effort for Questionable Minds will drag as a result. But first things first.#SFWApro. Bottom cover by Sam Collins, rights to images remain with current holders.

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Questionable Minds: Meet the Protagonist

“Simon Taggart’s plunge into the abyss happened in an instant.

Col. Moran, seated at the dining table on Simon’s left, had said something to the Duke of Falsworth about a fellow hunter Moran had known in India committing suicide. Falsworth snidely observed that given the man’s debts, hanging himself had been the only possible solution.

And suddenly Simon was standing in the drawing room again. Staring up at Agnes in her white nightgown, hanging from the ceiling with her tongue protruding, her face blackened. Rage consumed him at the memory, rage at the men who’d brought about his wife’s death. Pearson Bartlett, mesmerist. The Guvnor, who’d given Bartlett his orders. And behind them, the unknown man who’d paid to have Agnes slain.”

So Questionable Minds opens. As you can tell, Simon is not a happy man.

Up until Agnes’ death, Simon’s life was good. The Taggarts are baronets, which is very low-raked as aristocrats go, below even earls. The Taggart baronetcy is old, however, which gives Simon confidence. So does his wealth: the Taggarts are good at marrying rich and Simon’s American mother was a particularly wealthy heiress. Life peers (the title can’t be passed on to the next generation) are often insecure in their new status; a Taggart is never insecure.

Simon’s marriage to Agnes was to further the family fortune. Like so many aristocratic marriages in that era, it was understood that once Agnes provided a male heir “and a spare” she’d be free to take other lovers; he, of course, could take them a lot sooner. It never sunk in that Agnes was in love with him. Finally she took drastic steps to make him aware of it (no details, they involve a major spoiler). This didn’t change his feelings towards her but he did restrain himself from sleeping around. He was still a bit of a flirt, though, so when he came home one night and saw Agnes had apparently killed herself, Simon blamed himself. Clearly he’d given her the wrong idea; in despair she’d committed suicide.

Fortunately Inspector Hudnall of Scotland Yard spotted the signs that she hadn’t acted of her own free will. Bartlett had compelled her to do it. Why? He’d been paid a sizable sum, funneled through the Guv’nor, the mysterious overlord of London crime. Nobody besides the Guv’nor could say who’d put up the money.

From that moment on, Simon has had two goals. One is to find the Guv’nor and learn who had Agnes murdered. It’s not easy: the Guv’nor is Professor Moriarty and even Sherlock Holmes took years to learn that. In my world, Moriarty is ten times as cautious, setting up his organization so that even human telegraphs (i.e., mind readers) can’t learn who he is.

Simon’s second goal, although he doesn’t really think of it as such, is to be a better person. He gives generously to charity, helps investigate crimes even when they don’t involve the Guv’nor and if he ever marries, he intends to marry for love. Though as his mother reminds him, that may not be practical: the Taggart estate and title pass to sons only, and Agnes’ only child is young Ann. If Simon doesn’t beget an heir, his obnoxious, idiot cousin becomes the next baronet and probably spends Hollowcroft, the family estate, into bankruptcy.

Simon’s biggest asset in fighting crime — the reason Scotland Yard puts up with him — is that he has something unique: mental shields. Telegraphs can’t read his mind. Mesmerists can’t control him. Clairvoyants don’t see him. Vampires, mentalists who drain mental energy from other, can’t affect Simon. That’s how he discovered his strange gift: fighting the vampire Asquith Varney, he survived the latter’s attack, then eventually learned why.

The reaction to his gift is mixed. Scotland Yard respects it but many people think of it as a deformity. Mental power is clearly the next great step in human evolution; sure, not everyone has powers yet but to be completely cut off from the evolutionary advance? What did Simon do in his past life that he deserved this curse? He gets several letters a week from spiritualists and others offering to “cure” his condition. But from his point of view, it’s a blessing.

His biggest weakness is that his trauma over finding Agnes hanging manifests in extreme anger. He’s violently assaulted members of the Guv’nor’s organization in hopes of beating information out of them. When the bad guy threatens Ann in Questionable Minds, Simon’s response is not a rational one.

Simon’s biggest fear is that his anger and his urge for revenge are consuming him: if he had to choose between capturing the Guv’nor and saving Ann or his mother, he worries that he’d let them die to bring himself peace. Dealing with his trauma and his fear is the emotional arc of Questionable Minds, just as stopping Jack the Ripper is the plot arc.

Next week: the women of the book.

#SFWApro. Cover by Sam Collins.

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