Biggers’ The Black Camel: Clues True and False

I have been reading the Charlie Chan mysteries of Earl Derr Biggers’ for the fourth time (having read them the first time when I was sixteen), and I’ve been blogging about them, concentrating on my reactions during the fourth reading. (See Behind That Curtain: Richness and Texture.)

unknown-1The Black Camel, Biggers’ fourth Chan novel, is one of the three that I’ve remembered the solution of since I first read the books (the other two being The House Without a Key and The Keeper of the Keys). Up until now, I always considered this the least intriguing of his mysteries, though I’m not sure why. I suspect my original lack of enthusiasm for the book had something to do with Tarneverro the Great, self-styled fortune teller to Hollywood stars. If you look at drawings of Tarneverro on book covers and depictions of him in movie posters, you can see that he’s made to look like an evil villain.

In my first three readings I thought of Tarneverro as cunning, manipulative, and unlikeable. On the fourth reading, though, I felt admiration for his quest for justice as well as for his quick thinking and his skills at deflection and misdirection. Moreover, on the fourth reading I greatly enjoyed watching the way Tarneverro thinks he can outwit Chan when, in fact, he can’t

Tarneverro is a great name for the fortune teller. The first half reminds me of tarnish, whose root means dark or dull; the second half reminds me of any of the roots meaning true or speaking truly as, for example, veracity. Part of Tarneverro speaks the truth. The other part darkens, dulls, or stains that truth.

As intriguing as Tarneverro is, it’s not the fortune teller I want to concentrate on, but the outline of The Black Camel, which I offered in my previous blog, Outline: The Black Camel. In that blog I boldfaced some information and italicized other information — and challenged the reader to figure out what the boldface and italics indicated.

If you read the outline, you’ll see that Biggers did a masterful job of plotting the story of Shelah Fane’s murder and tying it to the murder of Denny Mayo three years earlier. Sometimes mystery writers make the villain the main adversary of the detective. This is a risky ploy because at some point in the novel readers will begin to suspect that the person who seems to be obstructing the investigation is the perpetrator of the deed. Biggers, instead of developing Shelah Fane’s murderer as Chan’s adversary, developed Chan’s “helper” (Tarneverro) as his adversary. This helper is almost as observant as Chan himself, with excellent powers of deduction and the will and skill to act quickly. It is this helper, Tarneverro, who lays down the false clues which hamper the investigation. It is Tarneverro’s aim that Chan never solve the crime of who murdered Shelah Fane. The false clues are in italics in the outline.

unknown-6However, it isn’t the fact that somebody (even a “helper”) is laying down false clues that make The Black Camel such a satisfyingly plotted book. What makes the plotting so satisfying is that the very first thing Tarneverro tells Chan about the murder of Denny Mayo is absolutely true — he, Tarneverro, hopes to reveal the name of the murderer that very evening. Neither Chan nor the reader have any reason to doubt this statement. Chan and the reader accept it as true. Which it is.

But after the murder occurs, everything that Tarneverro tells Chan is false: that Shelah Fane hid in Mayo’s apartment the night of the murder; that she promised to write the name of the murderer in a letter; that the murderer of Denny Mayo also murdered Shelah Fane. Lies, lies, lies . . . but oh so believable lies. Lies that, once you accept the truth of Tarneverro’s first statement, seem to follow so logically that nobody questions them. The lies  rest on the very solid, unshakable truth of what the fortune teller first tells Chan: that he hopes to reveal the name of the person who murdered Denny Mayo.

The construction of the plot is brilliant.

Although Tarneverro is the person shielding the murderer of Shelah Fane, and the character who is most misdirecting the investigation, Biggers further complicates the plot by adding other characters who are also telling lies or withholding the truth. The person telling lies is Julie O’Neill. Those withholding crucial evidence are Smith and Robert Fyfe.

The pace of The Black Camel is brisk: the whole novel takes place in less than 48 hours. The wit is delicious, especially the exchanges between Chan and Tarneverro. The scenes of Chan with his three eldest children are delightful: they speak in slang, which he abhors. The scenes between Chan and the Chief of Police show how respected Charlie is, and show what a good working relationship he has with his boss. And the Chief’s repeated desires to “break Tarneverro’s alibi” (with Charlie always replying that the alibi is unbreakable) add a great deal of reader anticipation: each time I read the book, I keep expecting Chan to break the unbreakable alibi! The reader keeps thinking not that the alibi is solid, but that it will be broken.

If you haven’t already read The Black Camel, now is the time to enjoy it. And if you have, perhaps now is the time to reread it.

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Barbara Gregorich has more to say about not making the villain the main adversary in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

Judging a Book: Like, Really Judging a Book

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My basic grid

Twice in my life I’ve accepted a request to serve as judge for an annual mystery award. The first time was during the 1980s, when I served as one of the five judges to determine the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Mystery Novel. The Edgar is given by the Mystery Writers of America (MWA). The second time was this year (2016), when I served as one of three judges to determine the Shamus Award for Best First Private Eye Novel. The Shamus is given by the Private Eye Writers of America (PWA).

For the Edgar Award I read approximately 200 submitted novels. There were more than 200 submitted, but some weren’t eligible (mainly because they weren’t mystery novels). The reading and evaluating of those novels was difficult, especially because the novels didn’t arrive at my doorstep at an even rate of, say, 20 a month. Instead, the bulk of them arrived after September — and the voting took place at the end of December. During some days I read one novel all morning long, finished in mid-afternoon, and started another novel in the evening.

For the Shamus Award I read about 20 novels. Here, too, some weren’t eligible (because they weren’t private eye novels). Instead of having a twelve-month reading period, as with the Edgar, I had about a four-month reading period, with voting due at the end of May, 2016. Still, even though in both cases I read each eligible novel from beginning to end, it was far easier to read 20 novels in four months than it was to read 200 novels in twelve months.

The real question in judging books for a contest, however, isn’t the number of books submitted — it’s how to evaluate them while reading, how to remember them, and, ultimately, how to rank them at the end of all the reading.

Conceivably a person reading 20 books in four months could remember what she thought of each and list her top five choices without having taken notes of any kind. She could, for example, stack the books in piles as she read them, the best going in the #1 pile, the good-but-not-best going in the #2 pile, and the others going in the #3 pile. Then, when the time came to vote, she could quickly skim the books in the #1 pile to refresh her memory, then rank them in the order she thought best.

I don’t think anybody could do this with 200 books, though.

And because my first book-judging experience was with the 200 books, I developed a chart and filled it out for each book. I kept the filled-out charts (and not the novels themselves) in three different stacks.

Somewhere along the route of computer upgrades, system upgrades, and word-processing upgrades, I lost the chart I developed for the Edgar judging. But when asked to read and judge books for the Shamus, I had almost no difficulty reconstructing it.

My approach was to read each book from beginning to end, thinking about it as I read. After I finished, I would fill in the chart by marking an X within each box. I also used the space within each box to more accurately record my impressions. To the left end of Average brought that aspect of a book close to Very Good. To the right end brought that aspect close to Poor.

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Not a contender

Above is an example of how I filled out the chart for one of the books. I have left off the title, author, etc., because I don’t want to identify the book, I simply want to use it as an illustration. It was not a contender, as you can infer from my ratings and comments.

Many people think that a book that deserves an award will be so good, so clearly dominant, that everybody will agree and vote it #1. This is certainly possible: there are years in which all the judges vote for the same book as #1. But it’s also possible, and in fact likely, that judges will vote for different books as #1.

The book with the highest number of points wins the vote and therefore the award. That is to say, each first-choice book receives 5 points; each second choice 4 points; and so on down to each fifth choice, which receives 1 point. It’s possible that a novel all five judges rank as #2 ends up being the winner. Therefore, it’s not a matter of simply voting for the novel one considers best, and not caring about the other four. A judge must think carefully about each of his final five choices, and think hard about how he would rank them.

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The book I ranked first

I found that the best way for me to rank the books in order was by evaluating them as I read them, recording my judgements, and then examining both the novels and their charts before voting. Above is my chart evaluation of the novel that I ranked first. It’s also the novel that received the Shamus Award for Best First Private Eye Novel.

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The book I ranked second

Above is my evaluation of the novel I ranked second. As you can see by my notes, I thought the novel I ranked second was a good book, but I was critical of some weaknesses in the plot. I might read another book by this author, I might not. But I will read another book by the winner, because her characters and their situations were compelling. And her writing is excellent. She was, by the way, in my opinion the only one out of 20-some authors who wrote a mystery filled with tension. In fiction, tension is essential to a good story. If there’s no tension about what’s going to happen . . . who cares?

Now that the Shamus Award judging is done and the winners in each category were announced at the 2016 Bouchercon, I can put my master grid away. Until, perhaps, I need to use it again.

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Barbara Gregorich does not discuss award judging in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. But she does talk about how to develop characters, plot, and tension, and the importance of the solution.

Behind That Curtain: Richness and Texture

In previous blogs I’ve analyzed my fourth reading of Earl Derr Biggers’ first two Charlie Chan novels, a series of only six books due to Biggers’ early death.

Technically speaking, Biggers didn’t have a series after he wrote The Chinese Parrot: he had a sequel, which does not yet equal a series. But Biggers did write a third Chan novel, Behind That Curtain, and thus created a series. In The House Without a Key: Four and Counting I mentioned that Biggers didn’t yet fully know his protagonist, Charlie Chan. In The Chinese Parrot: Biggers’ Big Decisions I analyzed the decisions the author made as he wrote a sequel and moved toward a series.

Behind That Curtain illustrates that by his third mystery Biggers was totally in control of his plotting and his characters, particularly his protagonist. It is, I think, a flawlessly plotted and written book, rich in texture.

9780897335843In music, texture is the richness of all that’s going on at the same time that melody and beat are occurring. In literature texture (or lack of) is the manner in which all the different parts of the work combine to produce a final effect. A story with texture is a story with multiple threads  woven together: these could be threads of plot, character, allusions, foreshadowing, or repetition. A story with texture contains vivid language; contains characters whom the reader is engaged with and remembers vividly; contains conflicts that are interwoven so that when events and character converge at the end, the reader feels something like — Yes, this was wonderful! I could feel it coming. Reading a textured novel is the literary equivalent of rubbing a tightly-woven wool tweed between one’s fingers. The nubs and ridges, the rise and fall, the zig and zag of the cloth offer great sensual pleasure. So, too, does a textured novel.

In my first three readings of Behind That Curtain, starting with my first reading at the age of sixteen, I can’t say that I consciously noticed the texture. But in my fourth reading, this was what I noticed most: how Biggers wove a very satisfyingly textured book out of plot, character, and language.

PLOT — Of Bigger’s first three mysteries, this one is the most ambitious plot-wise. It involves a murder from 16 years ago, a seemingly unrelated disappearance from 15 years ago, and a murder that occurs early in the book as the first two events are being discussed and re-investigated.

Behind That Curtain features four separate investigators, only one of them a member of the San Francisco Police Department. (The story is set in San Francisco.) The other three consist of humble visitor Charlie Chan of the Honolulu Police Department; Sir Frederic Bruce, retired Scotland Yard inspector; and active Scotland Yard Inspector Duff. These investigators are on the trail of different crimes, and they approach them in different ways. Sir Frederic wants to solve the disappearance case above all. . . and that is what gets him murdered. Captain Flannery of the SFPD wants to solve the murder of Sir Frederic and pooh-poohs the other cases. Charlie Chan wants to solve the meaning of the single clue that Sir Frederic left behind. And Inspector Duff seems to want to study Charlie Chan as well as catch the murderer of Sir Frederic. That’s a lot of investigators pursuing a lot of paths that, the reader hopes, will end up with one solution.

Not only are there four different investigators in Behind That Curtain, but almost every one of the many interesting suspects is guilty. Of something. This, too, makes for texture.

Woven into the story are the plot elements dealing with Charlie Chan’s strong desire to return home to Honolulu to see, for the first time, his newly born eleventh child, a son. What should be a direct matter of Charlie’s boarding the weekly ship that sails for Honolulu is anything but easy, anything but direct.

CHARACTER — The decisions that Biggers made in writing his second mystery novel bore fruit in this one. In The House Without a Key we learn that Charlie Chan is highly intelligent, highly respected by those he works with, proud of his heritage, and willing to call out those who treat him in a racist way. In The Chinese Parrot we see more examples of Charlie’s pride in his heritage, learn more about his patience, and learn about his relationship with other members of the Chinese-American community. We also learn about Charlie’s ability to hone in on “the essential clue.”

In the third novel Biggers developed even more of Charlie’s character, so much so that we begin to feel deep empathy for this good person and good detective who is is not perfect. When employing a tiny bit of fakery to get the information he wants, Charlie is outsmarted by a young Chinese-American Boy Scout. When he is about to board the ship to Honolulu, eager to return home, Charlie allows himself to be manipulated into staying after the Assistant District Attorney coldly states that Charlie is leaving because he’s not smart enough to solve the case. Chan knows that the words are meant to goad him into changing his mind. He doesn’t want to change his mind . . . but he can’t let this statement go unchallenged. His pride is not only in his heritage, but in his own abilities.

Chan is a man who does the right thing, even though the matter is not his responsibility, and even though he wants to be on board that Hawaii-bound ocean liner. There is a certain weight and sometimes a certain sadness to a character who always does the right thing, even though doing so runs against his most fervent desires. Out of the first three Chan novels, this is the one that gives us the most texture in Charlie’s character. Each time I read the novel and come to its final paragraph, I feel tears in my eyes.

“Aloha,” he called. “Until we meet again.” His fat face shone with joy. The big ship paused, trembled, and set out for Hawaii.

LANGUAGE — Biggers was an above-average writer in his genre at the time. His stories are laced with great wit, with clever plotting, with foreshadowing, turnabouts, and dozens of misdirections. His sentences are more than serviceable: they do their job of moving the story forward while at the same time helping create the flavor of the setting and characters.

87c8d93b34e60b34717d82d37a5f667dIn Behind That Curtain Biggers wove deep texture into the story through the use of language, primarily the language of Charlie Chan’s aphorisms. These observations on life, these words of wisdom, this advice on how to live — these things form the warp through which the rest of the story is woven.

That Biggers realized the importance of Charlie’s aphorisms to characterization, to plot development (they make the reader think), and to language is evident when you realize that the first novel has perhaps a dozen aphorisms; the second has about the same number. Behind That Curtain has three times as many sayings as either of the first two books: more than the first two books combined.

Biggers added the large number of aphorisms to his third novel, and to each of the subsequent ones, because he realized that in doing so he was adding significantly to the texture of his art. Among my favorites from Behind That Curtain are the following:

• Muddy water, unwisely stirred, grows darker still.

• It is always darkest underneath the lamp.

• Guessing is poor business that often leads to lengthy saunters down the positively wrong path.

When it came to his craft, Earl Derr Biggers did not guess. He knew what elements and qualities were required to tell a good story, and he employed them well.

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Barbara Gregorich employs both music and texture in her mystery, Sound Proof.

The Chinese Parrot: Biggers’ Big Decisions

Photo by L. Miguel Bugallo Sanchez

African grey parrot. Photo by L. Miguel Bugallo Sanchez.

When I was sixteen years old I read Earl Derr Biggers’ first Charlie Chan mystery, The House Without a Key. And then I read his second mystery featuring Chinese-Hawaiian police detective Charlie Chan — The Chinese Parrot. The bilingual parrot (Chinese and English) is an African grey parrot, though most book covers take liberties and depict it as a more colorful bird.

In The House Without a Key: Four and Counting, I detailed how I read each of Biggers’ six mysteries four times, in order, and how, because I was growing older and presumably smarter as I read them, I saw more within each novel each time around. What I saw in my third and fourth readings of The Chinese Parrot was that Biggers made some important navigational decisions in his second Chan novel: decisions that would determine the direction of future novels in the series.

Despite the fact that the reading public was crazy about Charlie Chan after just one novel, Biggers himself was not sure he wanted to write a sequel. He feared that if he did so, the Chan-crazed public would then demand another. And another, and another after that. His fear, as he expressed it to his editor David Laurance Chambers, was that the public would then accept nothing but Chan novels from him. His freedom to write novels such as his earlier ones (non-mystery novels which put him on the literary map) would be gone. This is, in fact, what happened . . . but the telling of it is another story.

After some thought Biggers decided that with his earlier books, particularly the highly popular Seven Keys to Baldpate, he had (by choosing not to write a sequel) failed to capitalize on an economic opportunity. He determined to rectify that error by accepting the challenge, and thus he wrote The Chinese Parrot.

All of Earl Derr Biggers’ notes, original manuscripts, and rewrites were destroyed after his death: this was something he had requested of his wife, Eleanor Ladd Biggers, and she was true to her promise. So we don’t really know what Biggers’ thinking was as he set out to write his sequel. But as a writer myself, and as a writer of both mysteries and mainstream novels (as was Biggers), and as one who has studied Biggers’ novels, and as one who has read all the correspondence between Biggers and his editor, I’m going to make some educated guesses regarding Biggers’ navigational decisions.

Here I go.

• If Chan is what the public wants, I’d better spend a bit more time on him, a bit less on other stuff. In Biggers’ first mystery, Chan doesn’t enter the picture until a quarter of the story has been told. In The Chinese Parrot, he enters in the middle of the second chapter. And even though Chan is outside his Honolulu jurisdiction, he is still in charge of the investigation by weight of his knowledge, his insight, and his trustworthiness.

Joshua tree in California desert. Photo by Jarek Tuszynski.

Joshua tree in California desert. Photo by Jarek Tuszynski.

• I like Hawaii, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to set every novel in that little crossroads of the Pacific, beautiful as it is. Biggers probably wanted to explore different settings (even different within the Hawaiian Islands) and incorporate them into his stories, but he couldn’t keep going back to Hawaii to do that. So he looked around (he was living in Pasadena) and decided to incorporate California into the stories.

• I’m good at developing setting and atmosphere, and the public has expected that of me since Seven Keys to Baldpate, so I’ll continue doing what I love with setting and atmosphere. Biggers set the beginning chapters of The Chinese Parrot in San Francisco, with Charlie arriving on the mainland for the first time in his life, but most of the novel is set in California desert country. Biggers creates a desert atmosphere for readers, including not only the flora and fauna, but the temperatures, sunrises and sunsets, mountains, ghost towns, dirt roads, fences, gardens, and abodes.

• All of my previous novels, even The House Without a Key, center around a romance. That’s what the public wants, isn’t it? Even in a mystery? In his second novel Biggers followed the same romance pattern he had followed in all his earlier books (a young man meets an independent-minded young woman), but it’s possible he began to suspect that a mystery required less romance and more investigation. Future Chan novels did, in fact, have less romance and more investigation. The romance in The Chinese Parrot occupies less of the story than did the romance in first Chan novel.

• I had that really clever perfect-murder plot in my first Chan novel, so I’ve got to do something equally clever in this one. Indeed, Biggers did do something equally clever in his second Chan novel. After just one reading of The House Without a Key, I remembered the villain and the motive immediately on subsequent readings. But the second time I read The Chinese Parrot I failed to remember the solution. Likewise the third time.

Unknown-1When I began reading The Chinese Parrot for the fourth time, I remembered (once again) that I didn’t remember who the villain was. I didn’t even remember what the crime was! And that was Bigger’s “equally clever” gambit: he created a plot in which it appears there might be a crime . . . but it isn’t clear what the crime is . . . it isn’t clear who the victim is . . . it isn’t clear who the villain is.

On my fourth reading, I forced myself to close the book and talk out loud to whoever would listen, listing the possibilities. This turned out to be a good thing, because halfway through the novel I recognized that my proposed solution was the only solution that explained everything that had happened thus far.

My proposed solution was, in fact, correct. (And I swear I didn’t remember it from the first three readings.) Having finally figured it out on my own, I’m convinced that, should I read The Chinese Parrot a fifth time, ten or fifteen years from now, I will remember the solution. And if I ever come to write a similar mystery, I’ll remember the plot construction and the clues.

My thanks to Earl Derr Biggers for accepting the challenge of writing a sequel, and for making the decisions he did.

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Barbara Gregorich writes about mystery sequels and decisions in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. You can read a sample chapter here.

Throw Like a Woman: Book Review

If one were to write a novel about a warrior who somehow entered a walled and fortified city, and sought to function within that city, the first question the writer would have to answer is: How did the hero manage to enter the fortress? A fortress which for nearly two centuries was closed to the hero’s tribe. A fortress whose defenders perhaps catapulted boulders down upon the hero’s tribe if it drew too near. If not boulders, then vats of boiling oil.

The seriousness with which a writer attempts to answer this question is a good sign of the seriousness of the book. In Throw Like a Woman, Susan Petrone answers the question seriously. It is clear that she knows what has happened in both the remote and recent past when female baseball players have pushed the barriers and tried to enter professional baseball, and she uses that knowledge to create a realistic story.

ThrowLikeAWoman copyBrenda Haversham is a 40-year-old recently divorced woman with a low center of gravity. As the mother of two sons, ages nine and thirteen, she struggles to provide them with a few of the perks they were used to when their father’s income supported them. Nothing extravagant: a new baseball glove, an mp3 player as a birthday present, a summer camp that they bike to each morning, and, come September, a few new clothes and supplies for school.

When their father, Ed, fails to show up as promised one Saturday morning to take the boys out, Brenda takes them to the park and pitches to them. When she was a child, her father taught her to pitch, and the kinesthetic memory remains with her. She throws heat to her 13-year-old. And when she takes her sons to Progressive Field to see an Indians-Tigers game, they take turns at a Test Your Speed pitching cage. The 13-year-old is clocked at 48mph, the 9-year-old at 33mph. Brenda then takes a turn and her three pitches are clocked at 79, 77, and 82 mph. She is throwing heat because she is imagining throwing at her ex-husband.

An unknown somebody videotapes this, and the next thing Brenda knows, she’s on YouTube. From there the story escalates. She agrees to pitch for a local team. A sports agent pursues her and signs her. She is signed by the Cleveland Indians and sent to their Class A Lake County Captains as a reliever, and from there to the AAA Clippers team in Columbus. And then: she’s called up.

Not necessarily for her pitching, but because her presence will help sell tickets. Of course, her presence will sell tickets only if she pitches, and pitches well.

Petrone is a good writer, one who understands the art and craft of the novel. Her characters are empathetic. The story moves forward easily, with the reader wondering what will happen next. The baseball conflicts are totally real: Brenda faces what every woman in a formerly-all-male profession faces. For starters, that means disdain, disgust, graphic sexual harassment, juvenile fixation on items such as tampons and jock straps, threats of violence, and the ever-present “invisibleness,” as if she’s not there.

Realistically, not every man behaves in this fashion, and Petrone brings to life not only the women haters, but also just regular men who judge other human beings by their performance, not their sex or the color of their skin. There are plenty of these men in baseball, and it feels good to see them in Petrone’s novel — they are signs of hope.

Throwing Like a Woman is about more than baseball, though. Face it: life is about more than baseball. In Petrone’s story we can see the distance between pampered 20-year-olds and wiser-by-life 40-year-olds. Maturity, or lack of, is one of the themes running through the book. I especially liked the character development in Andy, Brenda’s 13-year-old son, as he begins to take steps into adulthood.

Petrone, along with Stephanie Liscio, writes an Indians-fan blog itspronouncedlajaway, and although there’s no blog in the novel, Petrone is clearly familiar with the media world. In her novel she creates an ESPN show, “Today in Sports,” with host Charlie Bannister. The “transcripts” appear throughout Throw Like a Woman and are great fun.

Brenda Haversham’s name calls to mind Miss Havisham of Dickens’ Great Expectations. Jilted in love, Miss Havisham turns into a bitter character who grips others too tightly, molding them to her wishes and warping their lives. At the beginning of Throw Like a Woman, Brenda Haversham stands on the cusp of her new life. She, too, has been jilted. How will that play out? She is clearly unhappy. Will she become bitter? Will she mold her children into people who cannot experience love?

Or will she understand that life is like the four-seamer — a failure if you grip it too hard. But if you grip it “loosely, gently, to minimize friction between the hand and the ball,” the pitch will fly like a bird.