Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Time to Relax With Summer's New Mysteries

I'll admit that I have been lax in posting--overcome by summer heat and lethargy. But with a vacation ahead, I got busy looking for new mysteries to take along. I'm a fan of Scandinavian authors, so I quickly picked up the latest Jo Nesbo fare, The Thirst, in which Inspector Harry Hole hunts down a serial murderer targeting female victims on Tinder. Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, best-selling author of Moriarty and Trigger Mortis, is described as a "classic whodunit worthy of Agatha Christie," so you know I was intrigued. In the Horowitz tale, the editor of a manuscript by a popular crime author, who sets his tales in Christie-style English villages, begins to suspect that the writer's latest fiction has hidden clues to a real murder. Far from English villages, Kristen Lepionka's "uniquely compelling" The Last Place You Look features a tough bisexual private investigator who must solve a 15-year-old murder case in time to save an innocent man from death row. Meanwhile, The Child is the latest offering from New York Times best-selling author Fiona Barton and starts with the discovery of a tiny skeleton by a workman, launching London-based journalist Kate Waters on the trail of a decades-old crime and the darker mystery that underlies it. I also gravitated to The Marsh King's Daughter by Karen Dionne, because it takes me back to old haunts in Michigan and is described as "sure to thrill fans of The Girl on the Train." The title alludes to the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about a child born to a monster and an innocent, and Dionne's psychological thriller follows Helen Pelletier, who lives in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula wilds, on her search for her father, an escaped convict who had kidnapped her mother and kept her captive for years. For more new summer mystery options, check out

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Sport of Catching Red Herrings

Red herrings swim happily about in mystery fiction pools and challenge readers to net them. FYI, the origin of the term "red herring"--in this case meaning a clue that leads mystery readers towards a false conclusion--is supposedly based on the use of a kipper (a pungent, reddish smoked fish) to train hounds, either to follow a scent despite distractions or to divert them from the correct scent. Most authors are not so obligingly obvious as Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code, where he creates the red herring Bishop Aringarosa, a highly suspicious cleric, and names him for a red/pink (rosa) herring (aringa) in Italian! Apropos of the dog training origin of "red herring," Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles, about a family supposedly cursed by a demonic hound, contains famous red herrings in an escaped convict and a sketchy butler. However, Agatha Christie is really the queen of red herrings. Just a few examples: In The ABC Murders, the alphabetical order of murders is a red herring planted by the killer to fool the police (and the reader), while The Moving Finger's poison pen letters are red herrings that fail to hid the murderer's true motive from the sharp-eyed Miss Marple. In Death on the Nile, when an heiress is murdered on a Nile cruise packed with suspects, Hercules Poirot uses his "little grey cells" to spot red herrings like the bad blood between the heiress's husband and jilted fiancee. Another good example is found in The Withdrawing Room by bestseller Charlotte MacLeod. The red herrings begin with Barnwell Augustus Quiffen, an obnoxious old lodger at young Sarah Keeling's Beacon Hill boardinghouse full of eccentrics. Quiffen dies suddenly by falling under a train, but a bag lady appears to tell Sarah that it was no accident, that she saw an unknown person push Quiffen to his death. Next the lodger replacing Quiffen is murdered in a random street mugging. Sarah and her friend Max Bittersohn investigate, uncovering a carefully planned crime. In more recent fiction, red herrings dart through last year's New York Times' bestseller I Let You Go, a debut novel by Clare Mackintosh. The novel begins with a grim prologue about the hit-and-run death of a 5-year-old boy in Bristol, leaving police with few clues to a crime witnessed only by the boy's distraught single mother. The story is next narrated by Jenna Gray, who has escaped to an isolated shack on the Welsh coast to try to forget her traumatic memories, while another narrative follows the police doggedly investigating. Spoiler alert: There's a big plot twist ahead! For more examples of red herrings in popular books, TV shows, movies and even video games, check out

Friday, June 23, 2017

Mysteries From the Viewpoint of a Witness

Most murder mysteries focus on the victim, the killer and the sleuth (detective, PI, prosecutor, etc.). But there is a third group of essential characters: the witnesses. Authors present witnesses and their narratives to the readers for evaluation based on the same elements used by legal teams. First, expertise and experience are key to witness credibility, ranging from specialized education to ordinary familiarity. Witnesses are also evaluated in terms of consistency, meaning both consistent telling of his or her story by the witness and consistency with input from other witnesses. A certain level of detail makes a witness more believable, too--as long as details don't vary with each telling. Readers (and jurors) also judge reliability by witness "demeanor," or a gut "feel" evoked by dress, body language, speaking style, and assumptions (perhaps wrong) about social, racial or ethnic background. Finally, perceived "neutrality" counts in how much weight readers are going to give to a witness; readers are more likely to suspect self-serving bias if the witness has a clear stake in the outcome, such as financial gain or a personal relationship. Witnesses don't have to be supporting cast members in mystery fiction. Authors can choose to unfold a story from the viewpoint of a witness for a number of good reasons: to mislead with partial or unreliable narration, to hide or highlight the reasoning of the detective, or to create empathy and emotional tension. A recent example of this is The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, in which the main character Rachel witnesses a shocking scene involving a couple she has observed during her daily train commute past their neighborhood, but her emotional problems, drinking and personal bias cause the police (and the reader) to question her reliability as a narrator. Another example where witnesses take center stage is Agatha Christie's Murder in Retrospect, in which Hercule Poirot solves the 16-year-old murder of a philandering painter, for which his wife was convicted, based solely on narratives of five witnesses. If you want a witness protagonist plus romance, check out The Witness by Nora Roberts, about a young woman who flees after witnessing a Russian mob killing and emerges years later in a small Ozarks town as a quirky freelance programmer protected by high-tech security systems, guard dog and firearms--and so she naturally attracts the sexy local police chief! Unfortunately, fictional justice does not necessarily mimic reality in terms of credible witnesses. Check out these 10 famous lying witnesses, and the miscarriages of justice that resulted from their false testimony:

Thursday, June 15, 2017

'Impossible Murders' Challenge Mystery Buffs

The "impossible murder" or the "locked room murder" is a fun mystery plot device that includes early examples such as Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone and Arthur Conan Doyle outings with Sherlock Holmes. These mystery puzzlers generally include a victim who is apparently alone, or a murderer who inexplicably disappears, and suspects who have solid alibis and/or could not have logically committed the crime. "Impossible murder" purists turn up their noses at any explanations that rely on supernatural agents, hokey secret passages, or gimmicks like Edgar Allan Poe's killer orangutan in The Murders in the Rue Morgue. John Dickson Carr is a master of the "locked room" tale. Consider his 1935 puzzler The Hollow Man about a professor found murdered in a room locked from the inside, with people apparently present in the hall outside during the murder, and the ground below the room's window covered in unbroken snow. Similarly, award-winning French author Paul Halter specializes in "impossible murders" and began his career with The Fourth Door: The Houdini Murders, in which seemingly impossible murders are believed to be the work of a reincarnated Houdini--until Dr. Alan Twist unveils the rational solution. Ellery Queen penned a doozy with The King Is Dead, in which a wealthy munitions magnate, whose brother threatens to shoot him at midnight, locks himself in a hermetically sealed office. When the brother, under constant observation, pulls the trigger of an empty gun at midnight, the magnate is hit by a bullet, proved to be from the same gun, in his sealed room, where no gun is found. Two Japanese authors of impossible murder stories include Soji Shimada and Keigo Higashino. Shimada's The Tokyo Zodiac Murders challenges the reader to explain a cycle of gruesome "impossible" murders that begin with the locked-room death of an artist and continue to take the lives of his relatives over four decades. In Higashino’s Salvation of a Saint, the murderer's identity is known, but she has a seemingly unbreakable alibi: She was on the other side of Japan at the time of the murder. For a list of more "locked room" mysteries, check out

Friday, June 2, 2017

Avoiding Cliches in Mystery Plot Twists

There's nothing worse than a mystery "plot twist" that you can see coming for many chapters ahead. There is an art to the plot twist that requires writers to avoid the obvious (the cruel stepfather) and gimmicks ("it was just a dream") and then to plant clues that obscure, redirect or contradict suspicions so that the final twist surprises and impresses readers by fitting the right puzzle pieces into a believable solution. Although there are very few plot devices that are completely original, some plot twists slip more easily into cliche if attempted by less skilled mystery writers. Here are some of my pet peeves. The first is a mystery tale that, in a desperate effort to create a twist, injects some last-minute new suspect, deus ex machina event, or unrealistic "coincidence." This abuses the basic mystery-solving pact with the reader. But I'm equally irritated by authors who create so many suspicious characters, red herring clues and dead-end turns that following the plot line becomes mentally exhausting. Then the eventual solution of the mystery goes from an "aha" moment to an "at long last" moment. Plot twists often focus on one of four characters: the victim, the suspect, the detective or the narrator. For victims, there's the old "I'm not really dead" resurrection (usually because the victim was trying to fool the law, an enemy, a loved one or an insurance company). Other victim surprises include mistaken identity or a twin/doppelganger killing. In the wrong hands, the not-a-real-victim twist undermines the mystery and reader interest. When it comes to suspects, plot surprises often involve a guilty "but who would ever think" character (the granny, the kid, the pretty girl) or a not-guilty "but sure looks like a villain" character, a la Harry Potter's Professor Snape. Writers can unwittingly flag a suspect by overly disguising a character as either too nice or too nasty. When it's the detective who delivers the plot twist, a dusty ploy is the surprise appearance of a character or motive from the detective's "tortured past." That so many fictional detectives are tortured (alcoholics, loners, etc. ) is another cliche worth discussing elsewhere! Finally, there's the "unreliable" narrator. This plot device has created some classics, like Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, but it's not easy to pull off (please don't have the killer's creepy italicized commentary throughout a story). And finally, it is not really a plot twist when a death ruled to be accidental or a suicide turns out to be (shock) a homicide. We know we're reading a "murder mystery" after all. For some examples of mysteries with critically acclaimed plot twists, see the

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Special Satisfaction of Solving Cold Cases

The other day I was reading the latest mystery from Tami Hoag, The Bitter Season, including a cold-case investigation of the 25-year-old murder of a sex crimes detective, and I began to think about the fascination of cold cases. Not only are there many TV series, both the fictional and "reality" variety, built around cold cases, there are also many cold-case mysteries by top authors. For example, there is The Drop by Michael Connelly, in which LAPD detective Harry Bosch is asked to look into why DNA from a rape and murder 21-years earlier matches a 29-year-old convicted rapist. Is the new regional crime lab compromised, or is something even darker going on? Kate Atkinson launched her PI Jackson Brodie series with Case Histories, about three investigations--a little girl who went missing 30 years before, a random maniacal attack on an officer worker, and a grisly crime by an overwhelmed new mother--which turn out to have surprise connections. From Harlan Coben, a favorite for plot twists, comes Stay Close, about a detective doggedly pursuing the 17-year-old unsolved disappearance of a husband and father until the hidden secrets of past and present suburban lives disastrously collide. Laura Lippman's After I'm Gone also explores how one man’s disappearance affects his wife, mistress (who later disappears and ends up dead) and daughters, and then ensnares a retired Baltimore detective working the cold cases 36 years later. Similarly, in The Dead Will Tell by Linda Castillo, Chief of Police Kate Burkholder finds that her investigation of an old man's murder links to the tragic past of the abandoned, haunted farm where an Amish father and his four children perished, and his young wife disappeared, 35 years earlier. And finally, one of my favorite forensic mystery writers, Kathy Reichs, offers Bones to Ashes, in which forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan (the inspiration for the "Bones" TV series) works to solve the mystery of a young girl's skeleton. Could she be Brennan's childhood friend who vanished 30 years earlier? Or are the bones tied to a series of cold cases that have left three girls dead and four missing? I find there's a special pleasure in reading about the solution to a cold case. For one, there's the thrill of solving a puzzle that has baffled others. And then there's the satisfaction of the hunt, of capturing the murderer who almost got away. Most important, the long shadow of justice is affirmed, and the mystery ends with cathartic closure to tragic history. In reality as opposed to fiction, many cold cases remain unsolved, and those solved owe less to detective brilliance than to improved forensics, especially DNA, and belated witnesses or confessions. For examples of real cold case solutions, see

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A Salute to Mother-Daughter Writing Teams

Mother's Day is coming, and it always has a bittersweet quality for me because my mother died right after Mother's Day 16 years ago. My mother was not a writer, but she was well-read and critically observant, and I'm sure she could give me valuable advice on my writing if she were still here. So I am naturally envious of the successful mother-daughter writing duos out there. For example, in the mystery fiction arena, there are the equally well-known Mary Higgins Clark and her daughter Carol Higgins Clark, authors of books together and separately. Their first collaboration was Deck the Halls, described by Publishers Weekly as a "amiably lighthearted Christmas ornament of a book," in which Regan Reilly, the dynamic young sleuth from Carol Higgins Clark's novels, accidentally meets Alvirah Meehan, Mary Higgins Clark’s amateur detective, and they team up to solve a Reilly family-linked kidnapping. Another mystery writing duo operates under the pseudonym P. J. Tracy for mother-daughter team Patricia (P. J.) and Traci Lambrecht. Their debut Monkeewrench, which won a Barry Award as Best First Mystery Novel, is a tale of serial killings inspired by the new computer game of software company Monkeewrench, whose eccentric partners have a secret past that may link to the crimes. In the Young Adult space, New York Times bestselling author Suzanne Brockmann teamed up with her daughter Melanie Brockmann to write the paranormal Night Sky series about Skylar Reid, a teenage girl who discovers that she is a Greater-Than, meaning she has scary super-powers. Bestseller Jodi Picoult also collaborated with her daughter, Samantha van Leer, to produce Young Adult fare, starting with Between the Lines, a fairy tale-styled teen romance. Sometimes the mothers and daughters who share writing talent work best as mutual inspirations rather than as co-authors, as seen with the late award-winning writer Carolyn See and her best-seller daughter Lisa See (who also has mystery chops via her Red Princess series). Carolyn and Lisa did share the pen name Monica Highland, too. For more about mothers and daughters in publishing, see