Lenin’s Harem: Book review, conversation with William Burton McCormick, and reflections on my Latvian heritage

For this installment of Fiction Favorites & Awesome Authors, I welcome William Burton McCormick to VBlog. McCormick writes suspenseful historical fiction of considerable depth and intelligence in beautiful prose. His works should be on your “To Read” list!

I was first introduced to Bill McCormick’s fiction when we shared the pages of EQMM’s August 2016 issue, which included my story, “Journal Entry, Franklin DeWitt,” about a Soviet ballerina who defected during the Cold War. McCormick’s story, “Voices in the Cistern,” takes us back to ancient times, 50 A.D., where a war is raging in the city of Chersonesus between the Romans and the Scythians. The setting for this edge-of-your-seat tale of thievery and murder is a most unusual place, inside a great, underground cistern containing the city’s water supply. I loved the voice and pace of this story and was impressed by the author’s handling of my favorite theme in fiction: moral dilemma. In my legal thrillers, prosecutor Dana Hargrove is often faced with impossible choices between her personal life and professional ethics. You won’t want to miss the moral dilemma McCormick poses at the end of “Voices in the Cistern”—it’s a real whopper!

McCormick chooses historical settings for his fiction, and his work is meticulously researched. He holds a degree in ancient studies from Brown University, an MA in novel writing from the University of Manchester, and has lived abroad for many years, experiencing firsthand the countries and cultures in his fiction. Here lies another reason I was compelled to read more of his work. A personal reason. McCormick has lived in Latvia for several years and has studied Latvian history extensively.

My late father, Gunārs Ķēmanis, was a Latvian WWII refugee. He lived in a displaced persons camp in Germany from 1944 to 1949 and emigrated to the United States, where he met and married my mother and became a successful engineer. His gratitude to the U.S. was manifested by his complete Americanization; he did not speak Latvian at home, and did not observe Latvian traditions or holidays. In retrospect, I believe this was a coping mechanism for wartime trauma—even after Latvia regained its independence in 1990, my father did not want to visit because of lasting bitterness over the Soviet occupation. Our family name was Americanized, removing the diacritical marks and changing the spoken emphasis from the first syllable to the middle syllable, and my surname did not take on the feminine declension. (In Latvia, it would be written this way: Ķēmane). Conversations with my father and late aunt gave me secondhand knowledge of the Latvian wartime experience, some of which is woven into the stories “My Latvian Aunt” and “Stolen Afternoon” in my collection Dust of the Universe. I’ve also included a second-generation Latvian in my upcoming novel, the fourth Dana Hargrove legal mystery.

McCormick’s short story “Blue Amber,” set in 1910, and his novel Lenin’s Harem, spanning 1905-1941, are works incorporating Latvian history and characters. “Blue Amber” was a Derringer Award finalist in the category of long story. Here, the author pits the protagonist, a Latvian political prisoner, against impossible odds, likely death in either of two ways: at the hand of his Russian captors or in an escape attempt through the frigid waters of the Baltic Sea. This compelling and suspenseful tale kept me turning the pages.

McCormick’s novel Lenin’s Harem vividly portrays the traumatic events spanning the years from the first Russian Revolution in 1905 through WWI, and the Latvian declaration of independence in 1918 through the first Soviet occupation of Latvia at the beginning of WWII. The story is told from the point of view of Wiktor Rooks, a Baltic-German from a wealthy aristocratic family. The action starts with a Latvian uprising against the landowners when Wiktor is a young boy. His family loses the estate. Wiktor becomes a career soldier and ultimately joins the Red Latvian Riflemen, nicknamed “Lenin’s Harem.” As the novel progresses, Wiktor finds more distance from his aristocratic roots, loses his prejudices as he forms personal relationships with Latvians in his regiment, and falls in love with a Latvian woman, Kaiva, who believes in communism. The novel contains impressive insights into relationships that are fraught with conflicting societal and political tensions. One of my favorite scenes is the dinner party where Wiktor introduces his fiancée Kaiva to the family. All is going reasonably well, the family almost accepts her, when a family member mentions that he has petitioned the League of Nations for the return of the family’s land, “illegally seized” by the Latvian government. Idealistic Kaiva innocently professes puzzlement: “Your life seems more than comfortable. Why do you need more?” She observes that their land, which once supported a single family, now supports several Latvian families: “It’s simply a better use of the land.” Who could argue with that? Well, the insult is ultimately tempered somewhat when Kaiva is asked to consider how she felt when she was thrown from her home and became a refugee, causing her to admit that the loss of home is traumatic, no matter what the reason.

If you enjoy historical fiction, tales of war and revolution, political intrigue, psychological suspense, action, family saga, or any of the above, you’ll find it all in Lenin’s Harem, along with a tender love story, all packaged in beautiful prose.

And now, I’ll let Bill McCormick tell us what went into the creation of this superb novel.

Welcome to VBlog, Bill! I find it fascinating that you have chosen to live abroad for years at a time to write historical fiction about the countries you are experiencing firsthand. What led you to make such a dramatic life choice, and what led you to choose Latvia, in particular?

I have always wanted to travel, and I have always wanted a creative occupation. I’m sure those aren’t unusual traits in a writer. Merging them was always a long-term goal for how I wanted to live my life.

Bill at the monument to the Red Latvian Riflemen

As for my interest in Latvia, I was living in Alexandria, Virginia at the time and working on an outline for a sort of generic spy thriller I had dreamed up. In researching a setting for this story, I went to the Latvian Museum in Rockville, Maryland, and bought several books on Latvian history. I was moved about what I learned. I had little knowledge of the cruel events that occurred there. Because of the World Wars, Russian Revolution, Russian Civil War, Holocaust, Soviet deportations to the Gulag, and the exodus of the Baltic-Germans, Latvia lost more than a quarter of its population during the first half of the twentieth century. And I found tragic irony in the story of the Red Latvian Riflemen, who rescued the Bolsheviks time-and-time again and were key in the formation of the Red Army, only to be murdered by Stalin in his purges. After reading this, I ripped up my plan for a spy thriller and decided to write a serious historical novel. At the time, there was little information available on the internet on this era in Latvian history, and what was available was usually in Russian with a decidedly Soviet perspective. So, with a detour through Manchester, England to learn the writing craft, I moved to Latvia. I did not want to depend on third or fourth-hand sources. I wanted total immersion to see the places, the culture, and do the research myself. I arrived in Rīga, knowing no one, without a job, apartment, or command of the language, but determined to write a book that would illustrate to the English-speaking world what happened in Latvia in the twentieth century. I worked with historians, museums, archivists, and interviewed survivors and family members of some of the later events. It quickly went from a novel to a very personal experience. I have since lived in Russia, Estonia and Ukraine, but Latvia, and Rīga in particular, is still the place I think of as home outside of the United States.

I was surprised by the reception the novel received from the Latvian community. I spoke about the book and the history behind it at the Latvian Embassy to the United States in January of 2013. The Latvian Museum, where it all started for me, was kind enough to host a book event. Zvaigzne ABC, Latvia’s largest publisher, published a Latvian-language edition which did quite well, and the book was included in the permanent library of the Latvian War Museum in Rīga. As a foreigner, writing about the history of another nation, I continue to be amazed at the book’s acceptance. It’s still the thing I’m most proud of in my career.

The novel also was well-received in the English-speaking world. Former Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, sent me a note saying he enjoyed Lenin’s Harem so much he read it twice. Gregg Popovich, head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, liked it enough to send me a bottle of wine. Good word from all quarters.

Lenin’s Harem spans the years from 1905 through 1941. During this period, like many in its history, Latvia was a pawn in an endless struggle for control by Germany and Russia. The protagonist of the novel is Wiktor Rooks, a Baltic-German who grew up in a wealthy family that owned land in present-day Latvia, worked by Latvian servants. What led to your decision to tell this story from the point of view of a Baltic-German rather than a Latvian or a Russian?

When writing Lenin’s Harem, I was aware that my readership would likely be unfamiliar with Latvian history, culture and their way of life in the early twentieth century. By creating a protagonist who is an outsider to that society, it allowed me more naturally to explain things to the audience within the narrative. As I too was an outsider, Wiktor’s discoveries and observations could to some degree mirror my own. Or contrast my own in interesting ways. And, of course, as a wealthy Baltic-German, the character is right in the middle of all the conflicts of nation, ethnicity, and class, as society radically changes during the upheavals of the era.

The characters are tugged in many directions by conflicting forces: social, nationalist, political, ethnic, familial. There’s also just plain survival at work, the need to adapt to the current regime. Rooks is Baltic-German, yet he ends up fighting for the Russians and falling in love with a Latvian woman, Kaiva, who believes in communism. For a modern-day reader from a stable country like the United States, it may be difficult to imagine why a Baltic-German would end up fighting for the Russians. Can you comment on some of these conflicts?

Historically many Baltic-Germans living within the Russian Empire were officers in the Tsar’s army. The first sons of aristocratic families managed the estates, but the second and later sons needed something to do. It was common for this class to end up as professional soldiers. But, during the World Wars, of course, this meant fighting other Germans. So, here we have an interesting conflict for Wiktor, one that creates mistrust with both the Russians and the Latvians. And then when the Bolshevik Revolution occurs, with its intrinsic class warfare, Wiktor’s aristocratic past puts him in even greater peril. There was a lot I could do with such a character. Wiktor begins the novel with the racist and classist views common to wealthy landowners of the time. But as the novel progresses, those prejudices fall away as he meets new people and experiences tragedy and triumph in the company of other economic and ethnic groups, particularly the Latvian soldiers he learns to survive with. By the middle of the novel his love for the revolutionary Kaiva is plausible. His character arc happens in logical steps, taking Wiktor into worlds he could never have imagined at the beginning of Lenin’s Harem. I think this is what makes him a compelling character.

The novel takes us through the beginning of World War II, during the Soviet occupation and the so-called “Night of Terror,” June 14, 1941, when the Soviets deported thousands of Latvians. In the ending scenes, the Soviets are retreating again, on the eve of a new period of German occupation, 1941-1944, and the future of the protagonists is left to the imagination. I love the ending of the book, the combination of hope and self-determination threatened by a grim reality. Are you planning a sequel to let us know how Wiktor and Kaiva fared? What is your current project?

 I have very rough drafts of two more novels that extend the story through days of the Forest Brothers who resisted the Soviet occupation in the Kurzeme and Latgale regions of Latvia until the early 1950s. I hope to revise those at some point. There is more to tell of Kaiva and Wiktor, but for now, the ambiguous nature of their fate gives Lenin’s Harem an appropriately uncertain ending for what were definitely uncertain times.

I am currently finishing a modern thriller set predominantly in Latvia called KGB Banker, co-written with John Christmas. John is a very brave man, a whistleblower against the Russian mob in Latvia and elsewhere. Many of his experiences have inspired our story of a Latvian-American banker who takes a job in Rīga, only to find himself embroiled in murder and an international conspiracy to destroy the Western economy and re-establish the borders of the Soviet Union. High octane stuff.

One of the key characters in KGB Banker is a Latvian journalist named Santa Ezeriņa. Santa is a popular character of mine, having appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Over My Dead Body, and the story “Matricide & Ice Cream” which is about to be published in the United Kingdom in the CWA Anthology of Short Stories: Mystery Tour by Orenda Books. People are always trying to kill poor Santa but can never quite do it. She’s a damn tough heroine. I’m looking forward to having Santa in her first full-length novel.

After KGB Banker is finished, former U.S. Senator Harry Reid and I are planning to write a true crime western set in our mutual home state of Nevada. That ought to keep me busy through 2020 or so.

We look forward to your next novel, Bill! Thank you for this insight into your work and Latvian history.

 NOW, dear reader, where can you get Lenin’s Harem and short stories by William Burton McCormick? Click the links! Lenin’s Harem (ebook) (hardcover)Ļeņina harems (ebook in Latvian) (print book in Latvian)Blue Amber (ebook); August 2016 issue of EQMM; upcoming CWA Anthology of Short Stories: Mystery TourSanta Ezeriņa story “Hagiophobia” in AHMM.

Highlights: 2016

Dear readers, writers, editors, bloggers, friends, and dancers:

As the year comes to a close, regardless of what may have challenged, frustrated, or saddened us, we can be thankful for these enduring gifts we all share: imagination and creativity. The creation and enjoyment of art in any form enlightens and delights us, sustains and enriches us. I am blessed to have had another fulfilling year in my two favorite art forms, fiction and dance.

The highlights include the publication of my new Dana Hargrove novel, Forsaken Oath, and interviews about my work with bloggers Jeff Kivela of Buttonholed Books, Marika from Mystery Sequels, and mystery writer/playwright Nina Mansfield.VSKPaperbacks - Copy


My story “Journal Entry, Franklin DeWitt” (combining my love of dance and mystery!), was published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, …Journal Entry, Franklin DeWitt Aug 2016

and a story on the lighter side, “Ballet, Law, and Mystery,” was posted on EQMM’s blog Something is Going to Happen.


There were many interesting and enlightening events with my fellow mystery writers. To name a few:  The Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine’s 75th Anniversary Symposium, and MWA-NY’s Holiday Revels with Reed Farrel Coleman

I danced injury-free all year and enjoyed many wonderful classes with my favorite teachers at Gibney Dance, including (especially!) Diane’s four hour holiday class! dianes-class-12-22-16In 2017, I look forward to completing another short fiction collection and the fourth Dana Hargrove novel!

I wish everyone a healthy, happy 2017, with many creative, inspiring moments.


Reflections on the 75th Anniversary of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine

On a dismal, drizzly afternoon in Manhattan, an array of editors, authors, artists, and crime fiction aficionados jammed a large meeting room at the Butler Library to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.  Appropriate to the occasion were several surprise visits from beyond the grave (an eerie, other-worldly screeching from the HVAC system), and a chilling reading by Joyce Carol Oates from her story “Big Momma,” a creepy tale from The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror.  Shivers!

In a publishing environment where magazines and journals of short fiction easily come and go, EQMM can be proud of its longevity. The secret (or mystery) of this success was one of the topics explored during the afternoon of panel discussions by notable authors and editors.  Some shared fascinating personal experiences about working with the founders of the magazine, the cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, who collaborated as Ellery Queen. The distinguished panelists included Otto Penzler (proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop and founder of The Mysterious Press), Sarah Weinman (author, editor, and expert on women crime fiction writers), Jeffrey Marks (biographer of Anthony Boucher, at work on a biography of Dannay and Lee), Russell Atwood (ftomrobertsormer managing editor of EQMM), and award-winning authors Jonathan Santlofer, Joseph Goodrich, Josh Pachter, and Charles Ardai.

Especially fun was the slide show of several EQMM covers from different eras of the magazine, along with interior black-and-white illustrations of the stories. Janet Salter Rosenberg, the daughter of cover designer George Salter, gave insight into her father’s creations. Artists Laurie Harden and Tom Roberts discussed their respective works and their appreciation of the artistic freedom EQMM affords them in bringing their visions of the stories to life. Here is an evocative cover by Roberts from the July 2011 issue. The cover for the very first issue, and a clever story about it by Arthur Vidro, can be found on the EQMM blog, Something is Going to Happen, posted on August 31.

The symposium was capped by our trip up to the sixth floor, enticed by the promise of a glass of wine and (the real inducement) an exhibit of EQMM artifacts displayed in a small alcove of the rare book and manuscript library. Of particular interest to me were the yellowing pages of manuscripts, typed out on an old Remington or some such, with Dannay’s edits marked in pencil. Those of you who know of my life as an editor will guess at my delight in seeing Dannay’s flourishes and variances of the universal copyediting symbols and his spot-on word choices!  The exhibit is on display through December 23.

Why has EQMM endured?  The panelists and current editor Janet Hutchings agreed on a few key ingredients: a commitment to quality and a wide variety of stories of different styles within the mystery genre.  Wait a minute:  I’m going to ban that word “genre”!  It’s thrown around far too often and stirs up preconceptions that limit a reader’s horizons.  As an author who resists a pigeonhole for her own work, I would do the same for EQMM, unless you take the most expansive view of the term “mystery” as an essential element of compelling writing.  As stated on EQMM’s website, when founders Dannay and Lee were “deciding how to orieeqmmallnationsnt their new magazine, there could not have been any question that its outlook would be global. Both men had cosmopolitan tastes and a knowledge of world literature. It has become part of EQMM lore that Dannay, who soon took over the editing of the magazine, aimed to prove, in its pages, that every great writer in history had written at least one story that could be considered a mystery.”

Jeffrey Marks notes in his essay in the September/October issue that EQMM has published such literary luminaries as William Faulkner, Jorge Luis Borges, Mark Twain, and E.M. Forster, as well as several Pulitzer winners.  This year, in the May issue, we were treated to a reprint of Borges’ iconic story exploring alternate realities, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” which was originally published in EQMM in 1948.

Another masterpiece, Stanley Ellin’s “The Specialty of the House,” is reprinted in the current issue. Beyond these prize reprints, the range of writing that appears monthly in EQMM’s pages includes something for everyone, whether light or dark, police procedural or private eye, cozy or locked room. My taste runs to stories of psychological suspense and intellectual challenge, and I can always find them here. Janet Hutchings has maintained Dannay and Lee’s expansive vision for the magazine and the tradition of high quality. I’m grateful that my own writing, which bears absolutely no resemblance to Agatha Christie’s, has been printed in two issues of EQMM eqmm_sept-oct2013and its e-book anthology, The Crooked Road Volume 3.  I’m also fortunate to have been welcomed into this community of amazing authors. As one of the panelists noted, mystery and crime writers are a really nice bunch of people because we’ve transferred every bit of aggression and nastiness to our fictional characters!

*     *     *

Slightly off-topic, on the subject of anniversaries, I note here that October 26 marks a milestone for me.  A year ago, the print editions of my first two novels, Thursday’s List and Homicide Chart, were released.  To help celebrate, I’m running giveaways for signed copies of the two novels on Goodreads.  Be sure to enter for a chance to win!

Ballet, Law, and Mystery

I was a guest recently on Something is Going to Happen, the preeminent blog of Janet Hutchings, editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.  I share the post with you, below, and you may also click here to view the entire post with Janet’s comments.  Mystery lovers: take the time to scroll through the blog entries on the site: some interesting articles!

Also, check out the exciting July issue of EQMM.  My story, “Journal Entry, Franklin DeWitt,” will appear in the August issue!

Ballet, Law, and Mystery

Before writing fiction, I was a dancer and a lawyer. Still am, both. Oxymoron? You’d be surprised how many attorneys I meet in ballet class. Maybe it’s because law books and toe shoes are both hard—dancing attorneys are gluttons for punishment. On a positive note, ballet and the law share many nicer attributes. An idealized world, perfectionism, intellectual puzzles, exacting discipline, technical precision, and personal expression. The expressive medium of ballet is the more artistic, you might say, but I could debate the point (sounding like a lawyer here, even if we swap “point” for “pointe”).

My experience in the courtroom informs my fiction more often than my experience in the dance studio (although the protagonist in my novels, prosecutor Dana Hargrove, does take a weekly dance class with her sister Cheryl, a Broadway performer). With pleasure, I dove into the world of professional ballet in writing “Journal Entry, Franklin DeWitt,” for EQMM. Memories from the time I owned a dancewear shop came in handy for this story. It could take hours fitting those potential instruments of torture, pointe shoes, on the feet of persnickety ballerinas—always a Cinderella-esque exercise in frustration.

As for this blog piece, I thank Janet Hutchings for humoring my obsession and allowing this small offering, a short-short mystery. The style is not my usual, but like every word buff, I look for any excuse to have fun with language—here, the beautiful language of ballet. Consider, for example, this direction for a lovely petit allegro enchaînement: “Glissade précipitée en avant, temps levé, tombé, saut de chat.” If the ballet instructor were to say it like this—“Quick steps forward, hop, fall, and leap like a cat”—I might just walk out of class.

You will find, at the end of the story, a glossary of the less obvious ballet terms.

Doctor Coppélius Meets an Untimely Death at the Opera House

As the only child of two physicians, Sylvia Musette was destined for a future in the healing arts. So it seemed, until destiny took a detour on the occasion of her eighth birthday, when she was treated to a matinee at the National Ballet. From that moment, every step she took was a chassé toward her dream.

At seventeen, she signs with the company. Passion is no guarantee of talent, and Sylvia’s passion falls short of artistic distinction, her grand jeté an inch below soaring, her port de bras heartfelt but uninspiring. Ever hopeful, she languishes in the corps, one of many cygnettes, sylphs, and Wilis.

In her fifth spring season, the light of good fortune shines upon her. Ballet master Stanislav Gliadilev, towering over the diminutive Sylvia, twirls a waxed end of his mustache and declares: “Friend!” She fights to remain à terre. It’s her first supporting role! One of Swanilda’s six Friends in the comic ballet Coppélia. Her heart nearly sautés from her leotard before the impresario qualifies the offer: “Understudy!” Sylvia wilts.

An exhausting rehearsal schedule fails to wilt Les Amies, who remain remarkably healthy and uninjured while Sylvia shadows them, unnoticed, a fly on the studio mirror. With too much time on her hands, she is, quite unintentionally, on a gradual pas de bourrée couru toward her true calling in life. Nothing escapes her eye.

She studies the principals: prima ballerina Peony Torne in the role of Swanilda, Enrique Dagloose as her fiancé Franz, and Morton Avunculario as Doctor Coppélius. Peony is known for the delicacy of her petite batterie, Enrique for his ballon, and Morton for his danse de caractère. What is the secret of their success? They’re strong and beautiful, Morton the most powerful, a favorite of Gliadilev who always gives him what he wants. Fifteen years older than the others, Morton is made to look 85 on stage with a painted face and a wig of scraggly gray hair, stooped and teetering with the aid of a cane.

Hmm, Sylvia thinks, did this help Peony make it to the top? Perhaps if I cozy up to Morton the way she does, gazing droopingly at him while Enrique scowls with glints of daggers in his slitty eyes . . . ? The whole thing is backward from the story in the ballet. Swanilda isn’t attracted to that crotchety, diabolical inventor, Doctor Coppélius, a disturbing figure with a toyshop full of spooky, life-size mechanical dolls. And Swanilda is the jealous one, not the faithless Franz. He’s duped and smitten by the lifelike doll Coppélia, sitting on the balcony of the toyshop, reading a book.

On the eve of opening night, an hour before full dress, company class is held on stage with portable barres. Peony, Morton, and Enrique plié center stage, and the others fan out from center, the Friends, the Dolls, the townspeople, and finally the understudies, lining the dark edges. Sylvia is a useless appendage, she feels. At least she would like to observe the greats, but they’re barely visible behind all the bodies executing les exercices à la barretendus, dégagés, ronds de jambe and finally, battements en cloche.

A small commotion erupts. Rats! What’s happening over there? Enrique mutters something to Morton, who gives an audible harrumph and stumbles away in the hunched posture of Doctor Coppélius, hand at the back of his neck. The dancers disperse to dressing rooms, wishing each other “merde.” The maître de ballet spies the understudies and shrieks: “Get off the stage!” In the midst of chaos, Sylvia slithers behind a wing, unnoticed.

Second act, it’s the dead of night, and something is astir, a menace of unknown origin. Swanilda and Friends break into the toyshop, setting the mechanical dolls to life. The Troubadour executes a stiff tour en l’air, the Spanish Doll a sharp coupé fouetté raccourci, the Scottish Doll a nervous pas emboîté en tournant. The Doctor bursts in! Friends scatter, Swanilda hides, Franz sneaks in through a window and is caught! Intending mockery, Doctor Coppélius produces two tankards, and they drink heartily to Franz’s love for Coppélia.

Franz is passed out when Swanilda appears, impersonating the mechanical doll Coppélia. But the Doctor is not quite himself. Deathly pale, he staggers off stage, totters and collapses behind the façade of the toyshop. With a brisk brisé volé, Swanilda runs to him. The music stops. “Morton, darling!” She cradles the gray-wigged head in her lap and looks up, searching blindly. “Please, somebody, help!” The Doctor needs a doctor. The maître drops to her knees, frantically feeling for a pulse. It appears that Morton est mort.

From center stage, Gliadilev quiets the crowd. “Remain calm! I’ve called for an ambulance.” From behind the curtain, Sylvia discerns, in the tensing of muscle, the pain that the impresario feels for the loss of his friend. Or maybe he’s remembering the inferior quality of Morton’s understudy. Opening night will be a disaster.

“How can this be?” The tear-stained Peony stands, bras croisé, mindlessly stabbing piqués en croix with her right foot. “There!” She points to the tankards. “He’s been poisoned!” She whirls in renversé. “He did it!” Enrique is fingered. But Peony pirouettes anew, unable to make up her mind. “No . . . it has to be him!” She points at the mousy little props man, scratching his head in confusion.

“Wait! You’re wrong.” Sylvia chaînés swiftly out from the wing. Quickly, before Gliadilev can banish her, she grabs the tankards, one at a time, and drinks from each. “It’s water.” She licks her lips. “Maybe a bit of iron oxide.”

Dumbfounded, the company awaits Sylvia’s next move. Like magic, a path to the body is cleared. Sylvia kneels, removes the wig, and palpates gently. “Basilar skull fracture, occipital bone, subdural hematoma likely. Suffered a blow with a blunt instrument. He’s been dying slowly before our eyes.”

There’s a communal gasp amid darting, wary glances. Was it the Troubadour’s lute, the Scottish Doll’s bagpipes, the Spanish Doll’s fan, or that little hardcover book Coppélia was reading? Maybe the assailant used the Doctor’s own cane, or a dismantled section of the barre? Sylvia examines the shape of the injury, mentally calculating height and velocity. She stands to face Enrique, his head drooping en bas. For weeks now she’s been studying him, getting to know every habit and quirk of technique. “You were standing behind Morton at the barre. It was your battement en cloche, wasn’t it? Directed straight to that nice little groove between neck and skull.”

“But,” Enrique protests, “I didn’t mean for him to die!” The suspect attempts an échappé sauté, but Gliadilev seizes him before he can run.

Intentional, reckless or negligent? A question for another day, a question for a jury. With a joyful sissone fermé, the case, for now, is closed. Sylvia is arisen from the corps.

A Literally Figurative Glossary of Ballet Terms

ballon: lightness, the ability to remain suspended in the air.

battements en cloche: beats like a bell. Basically, you swing your leg front and back, very high, like the clapper of a bell; it’s fun and relaxing.

bras croisé: arms crossed.

brisé volé: broken, flying. A beautiful light step with a small beat of the legs.

chaînés: chains, links. These are fast turns in a line, spotting your destination. Really fun to do and a good way to get dizzy if not done properly.

chassé: chase. Slide forward, one foot chasing the other.

coupé fouetté raccourci: literally cut, whip, and shorten. Does this give you any sense of what it looks like? Too difficult to explain.

échappé sauté: escape leap. As you jump, the feet “escape” from fifth position into second.

merde: I don’t need to tell you what this really means. It’s a dancer’s “good luck” wish.

pas de bourrée couru: a series of tiny rapid steps on pointe. When ballerinas look like they’re floating across the stage, this is what they’re doing.

pas emboîté en tournant: a springy, boxed-in step in a circle.

petite batterie: small battery in the sense of beating. There’s a lot of beating in ballet terminology, although it’s far from a violent art form.

piqués en croix: sharp piercing taps with the toe, front, side, back, in the shape of a cross.

renversé: reversed. You wouldn’t think this word is enough to describe the actual movement. It’s a turn with a pitched body and a high, circling leg.

sissone fermé: a leap from two feet into a split, landing on two feet in a closed position.

tour en l’air: turn in the air. Jump straight up, do a full revolution like a pencil, and land. Harder than it looks.