Thursday, May 10, 2018

Revisiting Fave Books Celebrating Great Moms

This weekend is Mother's Day and my previous blog post was on the bleak bad-mom side (talking about filicide) as is typical of many murder mystery characters and plots. But there's also the mother whom we all would like to have, or grow up to be. Unfortunately, the traits that make a "good mother," per experts, are dauntingly demanding: empathetic, patient, emotionally strong and resilient, humble, respectful of others, authoritative without being authoritarian, supportive, and, of course, loving. We know most of our mothers, and ourselves as parents, fall short of those goals from time to time. Maybe it's easier to avoid the things that make for really bad mothering: neglectful, abusive, overprotective, aloof, partial, overindulgent, interfering, untrustworthy, and so on. In thinking about motherly role models, I found myself turning to favorite, formative childhood reading. Everyone wants to meet the brave and kind Ma of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie, the brilliant yet supportive scientist Mrs. Murry of A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle, the family rock Marmee in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, or adoptive parent Marilla's love-beneath-a-stern-exterior in Anne of Green Gables from L.M. Montgomery. More recently, readers can embrace the warm but fiercely protective Mrs. Weasley of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. So for timely Mother's Day inspiration, why not reacquaint yourself, or younger readers, with some top moms (and dads) in literature? Check out

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Mother's Day Lauds Bond With Deadly Breaks

In May, Mother's Day celebrates what most of us see as a sacred bond, natural and social, between mothers and children. But that bond is more tenuous than we like to think. A study in Forensic Science International looked at filicide cases (killing of a child by a parent) between 1976 and 2007 and found they occur about 500 times a year in the United States, with more than 40% of the murders committed by mothers. Cheryl Meyer, co-author of several books on the subject, said it's probable that a mother kills a child once every three days in the U.S. Filicide expert and forensic psychiatrist Phillip J. Resnick identifies five major reasons a mother might kill her child. One motive is misguided altruism--believing death is in the child's best interest, either based on the reality of a child's terminal illness or a conviction the child needs to be saved from a cruel world, especially if the parent intends to commit suicide. Of course, acute psychosis is another explanation, such as when a mother thinks her child is demon-possessed or obeys "voices." Sometimes the killer mom just wants to be rid of an unwanted child seen as a hindrance. Or perhaps the killing is the accidental result of cruel physical abuse or neglect. The least common motive is spousal revenge a la Medea: a mother killing her child to exact revenge on her spouse. Maternal filicide is a common theme in the true crime genre, and it has played a key role in well-known fiction works such as Toni Morrison's Beloved or Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island. In recent fiction, there's Veronique Olmi's haunting Beside the Sea, which captures the twisted altruism of a single mother who takes her beloved two sons on a last fun-filled trip to the seaside before freeing them from what she sees as an uncaring and dangerous world. Best-selling author Tami Hoag offers The Boy, in which detectives must solve the question of whether a mother, who ran panicked into the night after an alleged intruder killed her 7-year-old son, is suffering an unfathomable loss or is guilty of an unthinkable crime. Little Deaths by Emma Flint focuses on Ruth Malone, a single mother in 1965 Queens, NY, who works long hours as a cocktail waitress and insists she woke up to find her two small children missing. When their bodies are discovered, the lead detective concludes Malone is the killer, but a dogged tabloid reporter questions whether the unhappy mother is a killer, victim of circumstance or pawn of something more sinister. The Big Girls by Susanna Moore addresses both the destructive power of maternal instinct and our cult of celebrity by bringing together four characters at a women's prison: a woman serving a life sentence for murder of her children; the female chief of psychiatry; a male corrections desiring the psychiatrist, and an ambitious Hollywood starlet contacted by the convicted killer. For more on filicide in America, see

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Sleepwalking Murder in Fact & Fiction

My brother was a sleepwalker, and I still remember with unease my childhood encounters with him in the night--appearing silently in my room, shuffling past down a dark hall, mumbling to unseen companions as he moved blind-eyed through his dream world. The strange phenomenon of sleepwalking has been the basis for real and fictional murder mysteries. One of the most famous cases of homicidal sleepwalking was that of Kenneth James Parks, a married 23-year-old Canadian man who left his bed in the early morning hours of May 1987, and, still asleep, drove to his in-laws' home where he assaulted his father-in-law and stabbed his mother-in-law to death. The next thing he said he could recall was arriving at the police station, saying “I think I have killed some people...” Despite skepticism of his sleepwalking defense, his consistent story, lack of motive, the testimony of sleep specialists and abnormal EEG readings resulted in his acquittal by a jury. Sleepwalking has captivated fictional mystery writers as well. In last year's The Sleepwalker by Chris Bohjalian, Annalee Ahlberg goes missing, and her daughters assume another sleepwalking incident. Annalee's husband flies home from a business trip, and search parties comb the nearby woods, but only a small swatch of nightshirt fabric hanging from a tree branch is found. Drawn to a detective who continues to stop by, her older daughter begins to wonder about the detective's motives, why no body has been found, and why incidents seem to occur when her father is absent. Another eerie entry from 2013 is The Nightwalker by Sebastian Fitzek: Leon Nader had been violent as a young man while sleepwalking but believes he has been cured by psychiatric treatment—until his wife disappears from their apartment. Nader fits a movement-activated camera to his forehead, and when he looks at the video the next morning, he makes an unimaginable discovery about his nocturnal personality. In 2011, B. Michael Radburn published The Crossing set in Tasmania. Traumatized by the disappearance of his daughter, Taylor Bridges' marriage breaks down, and he exiles himself to Tasmania's Glorys Crossing as the only national park ranger in an isolated town slowly disappearing under the rising waters of a new dam project. Taylor is a chronic sleepwalker, and when another young girl of the same age as his lost daughter goes missing, he begins to worry about his unknown behavior while sleepwalking. Among the more traditional novels about sleepwalking homicide are The Ivory Dagger by Patricia Wentworth, in which her sleuth Miss Silver solves the case of a young woman, prone to sleepwalking, who is accused of murdering her wealthy (but disagreeable) fiance, and I've Heard That Song Before by Mary Higgins Clark, in which a young woman who begins to doubt her new husband's suspicious nighttime wanderings, especially since he is connected with a vanished former girlfriend, a drowned wife, and bodies newly discovered on his estate. For more true stories of homicidal sleepwalking, see

Monday, April 9, 2018

How Mystery Writers Can Color in Emotion

Passing through a bookstore, I noted the now-common section devoted to adult coloring books, and I began to think about the role of color in fiction writing, including mysteries.  Color has a proven ability to evoke emotion; there's a reason fast-food logos and ads lean toward appetite-stimulating red and yellow, business materials opt for a trust-inspiring blue, and European prisons paint their walls a calming pink. But the power of color is not limited to the visual arts, online and offline advertising, or interior decor. When we read, we create pictures in our minds, and mystery authors' descriptions of settings, characters and clues are rarely black-and-white snapshots. The color of a suspect's dress, the colors of a winter forest or tropical jungle, or the color of a murder-scene carpet can offer both symbolic meaning that enriches the plot and clues to solving the mystery. A character's color choices can be used to reveal personality traits or emotional states, for example; note that psychiatrist Carl Jung found that introverts and extroverts prefer different colors--blue and red respectively. So if the writer introduces a woman wearing red, she probably does not want to be a wallflower. Sometimes the contrast between color choices and character hint at deception or conflict. Is the big guy in a pink shirt just supremely confident, disguising his aggression or hinting at a less masculine side? Doubt that color has a place in even the most "noir" of mysteries? Consider color's frequent evocative use in mystery titles. As an example, Walter Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress sets up tension before the first page by pairing the evil and power of "devil" with the trustworthy and inviting aspects associated with "blue." Meanwhile, P.D. James' The Black Tower purposely paints the tower black--the color of power, death, and evil--to create a looming gloom.  (For the literary, it also evokes W.B Yeats' poem of the same name where "in the tomb the dark grows blacker.") Some mystery writers even make color a title theme, such as Ann Cleeves' Shetland series, which includes Blue Lightning, Red Bones, White Nights, and Raven Black. John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series uses color in all 21 titles, starting with The Deep Blue Good-by through National Book Award-winner The Green Ripper to the final The Lonely Silver Rain. One caveat on coloring fiction prose: Be aware that color psychology differs by culture. For example, white is the color of purity and innocence in Western cultures and the color of death and mourning in Eastern cultures. For a quick overview of color psychology, see

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Top Psychological Thrillers Have a Feminine Face

Best-selling mystery-thrillers like Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train, Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl and Liane Moriarty's Big Little Lies have won fans and movie renditions because of cleverly deceptive psychological plotting. There's an interesting trend in these novels: To create their surprise twists, the authors rely on the unreliable narration of troubled female protagonists and a claustrophobic domesticity that is distinctly feminine. Forensic evidence, genius detectives, and serial killer foes do not power these story lines. Instead, they turn inward to the dark places of the female psyche and relationships, and maybe it is precisely because of today's #MeToo female empowerment and growing emancipation from female stereotypes (damsel in distress, romantic ingenue, wise-old-lady sleuth) that this female psychological warping has come out of the shadows in the mystery world. If you are a reader who grabs a book when the blurb says "if you loved The Girl on the Train...," check out Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll, a debut novel inspired by Knoll's own life, about a magazine editor forced to unearth her teenage memory of a traumatic assault and confront the mysteries in her own psyche. You may also like What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman, which starts when a woman taken in by the police after a hit-and-run car accident claims to be the victim of a famous missing person's case from decades earlier. Lippman approaches the cold case police procedural in an inventive way that explores the deeper mysteries of human nature. With the sexual predation scandals of women's gymnastics in the news, there's something very topical about You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott, in which the sudden death of a young man in a car accident plunges a tight community of women gymnasts and their parents and coaches into crisis. For more options, see

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Domestic Violence Deaths as Public Health Crisis

White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter recently failed to get a security clearance and was forced out because of evidence of physical abuse of two ex-wives and a girlfriend. Porter did not fit the stereotype that many people have of "wife beaters" as low-status, drunken products of abusive environments. He was a successful, attractive, Harvard-educated scion of good family. I think Porter's long escape from scrutiny reflects to some extent a denial about the frequency and seriousness of domestic violence. But there's a reason mystery writers rarely use spousal abuse in their murder puzzles; it's too common for a challenging plot. There's a reason fictional and real police investigators of female homicides put the husband or boyfriend at the top of the list of suspects. The real mystery of domestic violence is how little priority it is given as a "public health problem." Domestic violence isn't garnering terrifying headlines like mass shootings, but it takes more lives each year. A 2017 report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) showed that about 50% of the female homicides were killed by intimate partners, and the vast majority of those were carried out by a male partner (98%). This female-murder-by-partner epidemic affects all races and ethnic groups as well, per the report. Yet this is not a completely intractable social problem. Consider that, in 10% of cases, violence in the month before the killing provided an opportunity for intervention. First responders could assess risk factors for violence to "facilitate immediate safety planning and to connect women with other services, such as crisis intervention and counseling, housing, medical and legal advocacy," suggests the report. And when it comes to weapons of domestic partner murder, more than half involved firearms and 20% involved some sort of blade. Thus, the report points out, statutes limiting firearm access for people who are under domestic violence restraining orders also could help reduce the risk of homicide. For more CDC data, see

Friday, February 2, 2018

In the Headlines: Kids Shooting Kids at School

There have been a couple of headline stories recently about K-12 school shootings involving minor shooters (a 15-year-old Kentucky boy and 12-year-old L.A. girl). School violence is always disturbing, but the idea of school children shooting each other is especially upsetting. I began to wonder just how common it really was and what steps at prevention we could take short of armed guards. I found some interesting research by Everytown for Gun Safety on K-12 shootings between 2013 and 2015. In that period, an average of two school shootings took place at K-12 schools each month, and, among the shootings in which the age of the shooter was known, 56% (39 of 70) were perpetrated by minors under age 18. Before parents of elementary-school children begin looking askance at their child's classmates, note that it is still rare for a child under the age of 14 to kill anyone, and especially rare for that homicide to take place at school. Approximately 74 children under age 14 commit murder in the United States each year, per other 2017 research. This is less than 1% of all homicide perpetrators. The majority (90%) are boys between the ages of 11 and 14. However, 75% of the time, the child kills someone older, not a school classmate. The older victim/victims are most often relatives (usually a parent or grandparent), adults shot during the commission of crime (usually a robbery or break-in), or victims killed in gang violence. But even one incident of a kid shooting up a school is one tragedy too many. How do we protect children from armed children? The research shows that children's access to guns is a big part of the problem. Guns are the weapon of choice for all child school shooters, about 60% of the time, per Everytown. When the source of the gun was known, more than half of young shooters obtained the gun at home—often because an adult did not store it locked and unloaded. Also, nearly one in six of Everytown's studied school shootings occurred after a confrontation or verbal argument intensified because of the presence of a gun, rather than in spite of it. In fact, the surprise is that more violence does not occur at schools given the common presence of guns on school grounds. A survey by the U.S. Department of Education found that, during the 2009-2010 school year, one in every 30 K-12 schools took serious disciplinary action against at least one student for use or possession of a firearm on school property. For more school shooting research, see