Saturday, January 19, 2019

Winter Can Be a Deadly Season

While crime generally proliferates as the temperature climbs, statistically peaking in summer, homicide is a less seasonal crop, a year-round blight on the human condition. Certainly, mystery authors find winter's bleak landscapes and frozen isolation apt settings for murder. And winter does have its own emotionally toxic aspects, such as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) depression and cabin fever, a very real condition per scientists. The isolation, lack of socialization and boredom when bad weather traps people indoors alone or with the same faces can express itself as cabin fever's irritability, restlessness, excessive sleepiness and negative feelings. Documented cases among Arctic and Antarctic scientists and explorers have included attacking each other with hammers, poisoning a colleague to death, and burning a research station to the ground, per a recent Popular Science article. Mystery and thriller authors have used frigid settings for some outstandingly chilly novels, and any list would have to start with Stephen King's The Shining, in which Jack Torrance goes murderously mad as caretaker of a creepy, snow-bound hotel. The Scandinavians naturally dominate wintertime mysteries. Keep hot cocoa handy to offset the chill of Blood on Snow by Jo Nesbo, writer of the Harry Hole detective series, about a surprisingly sympathetic contract killer; Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell, which launched the famed Kurt Wallander series with gruesome murders in a cold, remote farmhouse; and Peter Hoeg's Smilla's Sense of Snow about exotic Smilla's obsessive tracking of murder clues and secrets from Copenhagen to her icy origins in Greenland. Of course, Russia's snowy steppes and oppressive society are perfect for deadly doings, and Martin Cruz Smith's classic Gorky Park is a good example; Soviet detective Arkady Renko investigates three mutilated, frozen corpses in Gorky Park, a Moscow amusement park, and ends up battling both the KGB and ruthless Americans. In the snowy Pyrenees, acclaimed French author Bernard Minier has crafted a haunting tale with The Frozen Dead, in which a charismatic city cop must make connections between a series of gruesome murders, strange doings at an insane asylum, and a tale of madness and revenge from the past. Of course, England has a raft of wintry mysteries from the likes of Agatha Christie and P.D. James, but more recently there's Robert Bryndza's The Girl in the Ice, introducing Detective Erika Foster as she begins to investigate the discovery of a beautiful young socialite's body beneath ice in a South London park--and soon finds the trail of a serial killer. For mysteries debuting this winter, whether they feature frigid temperatures or not, see

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Reading Resolution: Exploring Women Writers

Time to make those 2019 reading resolutions! I've decided that one of my resolutions will be a conscious effort to read fiction by and about women. After all, 2019 is seeing a record 102 women sworn into House, California Rep. Nancy Pelosi making history by returning as House Speaker, another Women's March organizing for Jan. 19, and the #MeToo movement bearing fruit as at least 11 states pass new protections against workplace harassment. I'll start with women authors receiving 2018 fiction awards. For example, the 2018 Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award went to Attica Locke for Bluebird, Bluebird, about an explosive intersection of love, race, and justice in East Texas. The 2018 Man-Booker International Prize honored Olga Tokarczuk for Flights, which interweaves haunting characters and stories to create a meditation on what it means to be a traveler in both space and time. Kamila Shamsie won the 2018 Women's Prize for Fiction for her Home Fire, a reworking of Sophocles' Greek tragedy Antigone. Joan Silber won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction last year for Improvement, a novel about a young single mother living in New York, her eccentric aunt, and unexpected implications of their decisions. In Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, winner of the National Book Award, the unnamed protagonist loses her longtime best friend and fellow writer to suicide and finds herself responsible for his Great Dane, bonding with the dog to deal with grief. The Reading Women podcast named All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva, a genre-busting collection of stories about struggles with fate, as its 2018 fiction winner. For more ideas on women-oriented reading, try the "2019 Reading Women Challenge" at…/

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Best Travel Books Are More Than Guides

In looking for gifts at Christmas, my kids are baffled by my interest in travel books. After all, they can use Internet search to find highly rated places to visit without the cost and bulk of a book! What they don't seem to realize is that the best books about travel go way beyond tourist info. The best books are explorations of nature, culture, art and philosophy, and are really quests that lead to expanded self-knowledge for the author and, vicariously, for the reader. For example, consider the late TV star Anthony Bourdain's memoir Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to The World of Food and the People Who Cook, in which Bourdain still expresses his long-held convictions about what makes good cooking but also reveals, by meeting people who are less fortunate yet happier than he can ever be, how stepping outside comfort zones can be a road to growth--even if he could not follow that road beyond a premature end. Another classic combination of food and travel is A Moveable Feast (Life Changing Food Adventures Around The World), a collection of 38 short stories from famous chefs, culinary writers and foodies, edited by Don George. This book will definitely spur a foodie travel lust! For women hesitating to travel alone, find the impetus to explore the world solo in A Woman Alone: Travel Tales From Around the Globe, a collection of inspiring tales of female adventure edited by Faith Conlon, Ingrid Emerick and Christina Henry de Tessan. Then maybe you can follow the path of Kate Harris, author of Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road as she spends a year cycling the Silk Road and penning meditations on remote places, history and human borders. Or get inspired by Judith Schlansky's Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will to go where she has not, based on both the factual secrets, enticing and daunting, of 50 isolated islands and her poetic essays on rare wildlife, surprise discoveries and human folly. For those who dream of an African safari, Paul Theroux satisfies in Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town, taking readers on a road trip via rattletrap bus, dugout canoe, cattle truck, armed convoy, ferry, and train, as he details his encounters with dangers, hardships and delays as well as revealing interactions with Africans, aid workers, missionaries, and tourists. Finally, if you want to know less about where to travel and more about why to travel, read Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel, as he discusses the "pleasures of anticipation; the allure of the exotic, and the value of noticing everything," from grand vistas to mundane events, and enriches his own observations with those of famous travelers. For more inspiration, see

Friday, November 30, 2018

How Racial Divides Deepen Mystery Puzzles

In an era when media stories note that our racial schisms are widening, mystery fans can find a revealing echo in mystery/thriller tales. Certainly, the inclusion of racial divisions will let an author increase the difficulties of crime-solving by drawing violent motives from bias, undermining witness reliability, and warping the agents of law and justice. But for the best writers, racial conflicts are an opportunity for more than plotting clever clues and allow them to go beyond genre fiction to address the mysteries of human tribalism. Here are some notable recent novels, starting with 2018 Edgar Award winner Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke. Locke's protagonist Darren Mathews, a black Texas Ranger, is called to a small East Texas town to solve two murders--a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman--that dangerously roil racial resentments and threaten Darren himself. In Celeste Ng's 2015 bestseller Everything I Never Told You, the stock elements of a missing girl in a lake, a local bad boy who was one of the last to see her, and a quiet all-American Ohio town are transformed into the complex portrait of a Chinese-American family destroyed and unable to bring themselves to tell one another, or the police, what they believe is behind the disappearance of a favored child, the focus of all the dreams they were unable to pursue. Prejudice against Native Americans is the backdrop for Red Knife by William Kent Krueger. In this entry in the award-winning Corcoran O'Connor series, private investigator Cork is caught up in a racial gang war in picturesque Tamarack County, MN, when the daughter of a powerful businessman dies from meth addiction and her father vows revenge on the Red Boyz, a gang of Ojibwe youths accused of supplying the fatal drug. When the head of the Red Boyz and his wife are murdered execution-style, Cork, a man of mixed heritage, must uncover the truth to prevent the outbreak of a "red vs. white" war. For more top fiction dealing with racism, racial conflict and discrimination, see the Goodreads recommendations at

Thursday, October 18, 2018

How Memory Offers Clues & Red Herrings

In the recent Brett Kavanaugh hearings, Christine Blasey Ford's testimony accusing Kavanaugh of a teenage sexual assault ignited a public discussion of the reliability of witness and victim memory of traumatic events. Many people seem to think that memory is like a videotape and that gaps undermine credibility, and also that time can erode memory to the point that mistaken identity is likely. Unfortunately, the public discussion is pumping out more misinformation than scientific and experiential fact. While some Kavanaugh backers suggested Ford's story was probably a case of mistaken identity, mistaken identity is unlikely in cases where the perpetrator is known to the victim or witness as in Ford's case. Mistaken identification most frequently occurs when the perpetrator is a stranger, when the accused is of a different race than the victim or witness, and when a weapon is used so that the victim/witness naturally focuses on the threat (knife or gun, for example) rather than the threatening person. Other commentators suggested that the gaps in Ford's memory undermined her credibility for them. Yet scientific research shows that what the brain encodes and is able to retrieve about a trauma is naturally spotty. Specifics such as exact location, date and time (unless tied to a memorable marker such as a holiday or work routine or well-known place) are commonly blurry, while other details are burned into the mind by intense negative emotion and stress. It is also true that memory can be manipulated, that people may fill in missing details from other memories or even be influenced by police and witness cues to create a complete scenario. As a result, testimony with gaps in memory can actually be more reliable, while a detailed story confidently asserted can be taken with a grain of salt. Plus, excess alcohol consumption (as alleged for Kavanaugh and his friend) can black out memory of events even if the person never passes out. For a mystery writer, characters' memories of traumatic events are important for creating both vital clues and red herrings. The starting point of many plots, especially cold case detective stories, involves witnesses and victims with gaps in their memories and conflicting accounts. Plots also make use of confident testimony that turns out to be misleading. Because mystery authors need to make plot twists realistic and believable, they need to avoid the kind of misguided assumptions about memory and trauma currently bandied about by politicians and TV talk chatter. For an easy-to-understand expert take, see

Friday, September 21, 2018

Mystery Authors Who Plotted Real Murders

In a made-for-reality-TV tale, romance novelist Nancy Brophy, who once wrote an essay "How to Murder Your Husband," was recently arrested for the actual murder of her husband. It is rare for murder mystery writers to be plotters of real murder, but there have been some noted instances. Anne Perry, one of my favorite authors for her Thomas Pitt and William Monk historical mystery series set in Victorian England, is a convicted murderer, for example. Born Juliet Marion Hulme in 1938 England, Hulme/Perry was convicted at age 15 in 1954 for participating in the murder of her friend's mother but, due to her young age, served only a five-year sentence. At the time of the murder, Hulme's parents had moved the family to New Zealand, but they were in the process of divorcing, and Hulme was going to be sent to South Africa to stay with relatives. Hulme was obsessively close to her friend Pauline Parker at the time (Hulme denies implications of a lesbian relationship), and the two girls did not want to be separated. Somehow their shared devotion and fantasies came to include eliminating Pauline's mother. The two went for a walk with Pauline's mother on an isolated path where Hulme dropped an ornamental stone so that the older woman would lean over to retrieve it. Pauline had planned to hit her mother with half a brick wrapped in a stocking, and the two girls assumed that one blow would kill her. But it took more than 20 blows. After her release from prison, Hulme became a flight attendant, lived in the U.S. for a bit, and eventually settled in a Scottish village with her mother. She created a new name, Anne Perry, using her stepfather's surname and launched a successful writing career with her first mystery novel, The Cater Street Hangman, published in 1979.  The 1994 film "Heavenly Creatures," with Kate Winslet as the teenage Juliet Hulme, is based on the Hulme-Parker murder. Here's an even creepier killer author story:  Noted Chinese crime writer, Liu Yongbiao, 53, received the death penalty this year for the murder of four people in a case that had gone unsolved for nearly two dozen years. The author and an accomplice had killed a couple and their grandson in November 1995 at their family-owned hostel in order to cover up the murder of one of the guests during a robbery. Police finally were able to crack the case by using DNA evidence from a cigarette at the crime scene. "I’ve been waiting for you all this time," Liu told officers when he was arrested in August 2017 at his home. He later admitted that he had used the gory details of the crimes as inspiration for his novels. Maybe he wanted to get caught; his novel The Guilty Secret is about a writer who commits a string of murders!  If you don't hold her past against her, check out Anne Perry's many excellent books at

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Family Annihilators Fit a Terrible Pattern

The recent news story about Chris Watts, the Denver-area father accused of killing his pregnant wife and two daughters, is shocking and incomprehensible for most of us. But so-called "family annihilators" actually fit a pattern according to analysis of cases. First of all, the killer is almost always male: a son, father or brother. The killer is emotionally isolated, either because of the family's treatment (such as abuse), the killer's situation (such as financial failure or an affair) or mental illness. While, to the outside world, these killers may appear to be successful and devoted husbands, fathers or sons, the perpetrator is actually consumed with hatred, resentment, shame or a sense of failure, and the crime is usually planned rather than spontaneous, with a time chosen when the family is isolated and unsuspecting. Often, there have been experimental or lesser attacks before the final mayhem, such as unreported domestic violence or a suspicious home fire. The majority of annihilators commit suicidebut some attempt to cover up the crime and shift blame, as Watts did. British research has categorized the family annihilator into four types: the self-righteous killer who exacts revenge on the mother or spouse he blames for breakdown of the family; the disappointed killer who destroys the family he thinks has destroyed his vision of ideal family life, for example by not following religious or cultural customs; the anomic killer who sees his family only as an expression of his own success and status so that they are discarded with economic failure or disgrace; and the paranoid killer who perceives an external threat and wipes out the family in a twisted effort to "protect it." By the way, the most common month for family annihilation is August, so it's good we're coming to an end of this month! Some well-known mystery authors have taken on this disturbing topic. An example is Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, mistress of dark twists and unreliable narrators: Libby Day was seven when her mother and two sisters were murdered. She survived and famously testified that her 15-year-old brother, Ben, was the killer. Twenty-five years later, a group obsessed with notorious crimes hopes to discover details exonerating Ben and is willing to pay Libby to reconnect with the players from that night and report her findings. Libby’s search takes her right back where she started—on the run from a killer. Live to Tell by Lisa Gardner begins one warm summer night in a working-class Boston neighborhood with the brutal murders of four members of a family. The father—and possible suspect—is clinging to life in the ICU. A murder-suicide? Veteran police detective D. D. Warren is certain there are even more disturbing depths to the case. For more on this horrific trend in modern society, you can read Familicidal Hearts by sociologist Neil Websdale.