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

Friday, April 28, 2017

Join Mystery Gardeners in Rooting Out Evil

Spring blossoms perfume the air, and the garden centers are crowded. Luckily, if you're a mystery lover with a passion for gardening, the shelves are full of fiction to satisfy both interests! Sleuthing gardeners, or gardening sleuths, can find a kindred spirit in Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe, a food-loving armchair detective who is also an ardent cultivator of orchids; if you're new to the series, begin with the seminal first entry, Fer-de-Lance. Or learn some herbalist arts from award-winning Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael, a 12th century English monk with a keen eye for poisonous human and plant secrets (A Morbid Taste for Bones is a good starting point). The English are noted for their gardens and their mysteries, so retired botany professors with detective skills seem to abound. That includes Anthony Eglin's English Garden mysteries featuring retired botany professor Lawrence Kingston (The Alcatraz Rose is an International Book Awards winner); award-winning author E.X. (Elizabeth) Ferrars' Andrew Basnett, another retired botany prof; and John Sherwood's Horticultural series with Celia Grant, a London botanist. Back in the U.S.A., gardening mysteries bloom in the cozy category, including Washington, D.C., gardener and housewife Louise Eldridge, who digs up crime in the Ann Ripley series that debuted with Mulch. Meanwhile, Susan Wittig Albert offers China Bayles, an herbalist and former attorney in Pecan Springs, Texas; the series debut, Thyme of Death, was a finalist for Agatha and Anthony awards. A unique choice is Naomi Hirahara's sleuth Mas Arai, a Hiroshima survivor and Los Angeles gardener. Snakeskin Shamisen won an Edgar Award and was an Anthony Award finalist. For more gardening-themed mysteries, see

Friday, April 21, 2017

Twins Focus the Nature vs. Nurture Mystery

Can "bad genes" destine people to violence and criminality? As a mystery fan, I've never liked that kind of characterization because I want to unravel not only the puzzle of who-done-it but also the why. A genetically predetermined monster just isn't as interesting in terms of motive and plotting. Plus, the "bad genes" theory tends to drift into offensive racial, ethnic and social stereotypes. And, finally, I prefer mystery solutions that deliver justice, and that means supposing free will rather than genetic determinism. Last year, a Boston Globe article by two associate professors of criminal justice approached the controversy head-on, arguing that a genetic basis for crime has not been adequately explored both because scientists do not have the practical or ethical ability to perform randomized controlled trials and because political headwinds cause them to avoid the issue. In the meantime, the best crime-relevant data untangling heritable personality traits (such as aggression) from environmental factors (such as bad parenting) come from identical twin studies. Overall, research finds about 50% of personality traits are heritable and 50% due to environmental factors--so no simple behavior answers from the twins. Perhaps the mystery of genetics-vs.-environment is why twins are an old theme in literature, often using a good one vs. evil one trope. For the curious, here's some mystery fiction with a twin twist: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, where the gothic history of a mysterious family includes the deeply bonded identical twins Adeline (the violent one) and Emmeline (the calm one); John Hart's The Last Child about a 13-year-old boy who embarks on a dangerous quest for his missing twin sister, with help and hindrance from a local detective; The Nightspinners by Lucretia Grindle, in which a teenage girl with a telepathic connection to her brutally murdered twin sister faces an unknown killer; and Lives of the Twins by Rosamond Smith (aka Joyce Carol Oates), the tale of a shallow woman who takes a dangerous path by initiating affairs with identical twin brothers, one gentle and one sadistic, who are estranged by a terrible secret. For more twin-themed books, see

Friday, March 31, 2017

These Mysteries Play April Fool Tricks

Tomorrow is April Fool's Day, and although I've never been a fan of its tradition of pranks (they often seem more cruel than funny), it really is an appropriate day for the mystery writer's penchant for fooling readers via surprise plot twists and red-herring clues. Here are three good novels that specifically play on the April Fool theme. April Fool by William Herbert Deverell, a well-known Canadian author and criminal lawyer, won the 2006 Arthur Ellis Award for best novel. It's just one entry in his series featuring the classically trained, self-doubting Arthur Beauchamp, QC, of the British Columbia criminal bar. Beauchamp is enjoying his retirement as a hobbyist farmer on B.C.’s Garibaldi Island when he is dragged back to court to defend an old client, Nick "the Owl" Faloon, once one of the world’s top jewel thieves. The diminutive Faloon has been accused of the unlikely rape and murder of a psychologist, and the combination of courtroom thriller and whodunit takes the reader on an entertaining ride of twists and turns. Another Canadian favorite of mine, Louise Penny, penned The Cruelest Month (referring to April), which won the 2008 Agatha Award for best novel. It is the third novel in her series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and the small Canadian town of Three Pines. The tale involves a group of friends who visit a haunted house in Three Pines in the hope of ridding it of evil spirits. When one ends up dead, apparently of fright, Gamache and team investigate, and Gamache soon faces some old ghosts of his own. Finally, for fans of historial mystery settings and H.R.F. Keating, the noted English crime fiction writer best known for his series featuring Inspector Ghote of the Bombay CID, there is A Remarkable Case of Burglary. The story begins on the morning of April Fools' Day in 1871, as Val Leary--handsome, charming and broke--notices a young maidservant scrubbing the steps of a home as he walks through one of London's wealthiest districts. He is instantly inspired by the idea of a "remarkable burglary," but the seemingly perfect set-up soon gets complicated in the upstairs-downstairs world of Victorian England. For more April Fool's fare, see