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.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Honeymoons Can Be Murder

I took a brief hiatus from posting to celebrate my youngest son's wedding, but my mystery addict side, seeing the newlyweds' besotted bliss, began to speculate on the honeymoon's place in murder fiction. Some noted mystery/thriller writers have certainly plotted how a love story can transform into tragedy. Best-selling author James Patterson, for one, penned Honeymoon, in which an FBI agent John O'Hara investigates the alluring "black widow" Nora Sinclair, who practices a deadly sorcery on the men she enthralls, including O'Hara. In First to Die, which launched his Women Murder Club series, Patterson brings together a team of four female sleuths--a homicide inspector, a medical examiner, an assistant D.A., and a crime desk reporter--to catch a killer stalking newlyweds in San Francisco. Honeymoon to Nowhere by Akimitsu Takagi, a Soho Crime novel, adds international flavor with a Japanese setting: Etsuko insists on marrying a shy young university lecturer despite her parents' objections that his father was a war criminal and his deceased younger brother a murderer, but then, on their wedding night, the groom leaves in response to an urgent phone call and is still missing in the morning. For a tropical taste, check out Jaden Skye's Death by Honeymoon, first book in the Caribbean Murder series: Cindy and Clint are enjoying a dream honeymoon in Barbados when Clint is drowned in a freak ocean accident. Returning home to her wealthy husband's unfriendly family, Cindy begins to question how well she knew her husband when an anonymous photo of a woman she has never met arrives in the mail. Digging into Clint's e-mails and files, she discovers secrets from his past that convince her that Clint was murdered, and she returns to Barbados to find out what really happened. Of course, mystery queen Agatha Christie leads the way in the famous Death on the Nile, with Hercule Poirot seeking the murderer of a new bride among a river cruise boat's many suspects. For true crime tales of honeymoon murder, check out's 10 cases of spouses committing murder on their honeymoons. One important lesson for honeymooners: If your new beloved convinces you to get a big insurance policy before the honeymoon, avoid romantic trysts near the cruise ship railing or cliff's edge. For details, see

Friday, July 6, 2018

Inspired by July 4, a Salute to Colonial Sleuths

On Independence Day, I began to think about the historical setting of the Founding Fathers , and I realized that I had never read a mystery set in the colonial period. Curious, I began to look for mysteries set during the American Revolutuion, and I found a few that intrigued. For example, there is the Tim Euston series by Roddy Thorleifson, starting with Tim Curious: A Murder Mystery Set in the American Revolution, in which 1777's colonial sleuth and patriot Tim Euston sets out to find the killer of the only witness who can clear his name of a false accusation of robbery and to prove the innocence of the man wrongfully convicted for that witness's murder. On the distaff side of the Revolution, there is Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Murder by Karen Swee, about a 1777 tavern mistress who must solve a puzzle involving spies and traitors to find the killer of an overnight guest. Meanwhile, the female protagonist in Suzanne Adair's Paper Woman, frustrated by the disinterest and suspicion of the occupying British, is drawn into dangerous international espionage in 1780 Georgia as she sets out to solve the murder of her outspoken patriot father, the town printer, who has been killed along with one of his associates and a Spanish assassin. Eliot Pattison introduces readers to the conflicting cultures and injustices of the period leading up to revolution in his Bone Rattler series, starting appropriately with Bone Rattler. Protagonist Duncan McCallum, bound for the New World on a British convict ship in 1750, witnesses a series of murders and apparent suicides among his fellow Scottish prisoners. Determined to follow a trail of clues to justice even while indentured to a British lord on an estate in the New York wilderness, Duncan is soon caught up in the French and Indian War and its factions' physical, psychological, and spiritual battle. You may find it even more satisfying to go beyond fiction to unravel the factual mysteries and fascinating characters and motives behind of our nation's birth. In that case check these 100 top books about the American Revolution:

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Female Con Artists Deliver Thrill Power

I recently watched the all-star female cast romp through "Ocean's 8," and it put me in the mood for more girl-power heist action. The thief/con artist protagonist is popular in fiction and film because we are willing to root for the lawless if they are clever and sympathetic--and if the target is especially unsympathetic, such as a wicked rich person, criminal or corrupt institution. It is especially satisfying when the erstwhile Robin Hood represents the powerless--and I think being female qualifies. When it comes to female-heist books, Bustle Digital Group conveniently put together some suggestions. For example, here's a timely novel from 2016: The Assistants by Camille Perri is about a band of executive assistants who take on their bosses and plot to skim money from their employers to pay off their student loans! In last year's The Ultimatum by best-selling author Karen Robards, Bianca St. Ives has been a con artist prodigy in her scammer father's "family business" but seeks to turn over a new leaf when her father is killed on the job. Alas, the U.S. government thinks he's alive, and Bianca is trapped in a new, dangerous game. A similar plot is featured in Heist Society by best-selling author Ally Carter: Katarina Bishop has been stealing and scamming from childhood but is trying to leave that life behind by enrolling in boarding school--only to be snared in new trouble when a powerful mobster's art is stolen, and her father is the main suspect. Now if you want to be inspired by real-life lady scammers, check out this Mental Floss post about 10 famous female con artists. Some come to a bad end (hanged, beheaded, dying in prison, etc.), but others end up with fame and fortune like the phony "Princess Carabou." And a select few jog the course of history, such as doomed Queen Marie Antoinette's "Affair of the Diamond Necklace" nemesis and Ronald Reagan's iconic "Welfare Queen." See

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Political Thriller Romps Unlike Our Real Ones

If you're like me, you want a summer beach read that will help you forget the current circus of our divisive politics. I assumed that a political thriller would be last book to fit that escapist urge. But, surprise, there are new mystery/thriller books that are both political and capable of taking the reader away to a place of heroism, humor and happy endings. Start with the thriller by former President Bill Clinton and best-selling author James Patterson. Try to ignore Clinton's problematic book tour and any bias you have about the former commander in chief because The President Is Missing is, in the words of the New York Times reviewer, "wildly readable." Its hero, President Jonathan Lincoln Duncan, is so worried about a potentially crippling cyberterror attack that he decides to ditch his protective detail and try to contact the shadowy figures who know about the threat on his own. Readers will enjoy rooting for the presidential character, described by the NYT reviewer as brimming "with humanity, character and stoicism," as he dodges an assassin's bullets and seeks to unmask a traitor in his inner circle of advisers. If you want to step further into fantasy, pick up this improbable, politically inspired mystery: Hope Never Dies by best-selling author Andrew Shaffer. The comic crime tale starts a few months after the 2016 presidential election as former Vice President Joe Biden turns amateur sleuth to investigate the suspicious death of his favorite Amtrak conductor. Naturally, Joe turns to his cerebral buddy former President Barack Obama for help! Or perhaps you long for a covert U.S.-Russia confrontation where the Americans come out on top. Try veteran thriller writer Brad Thor's Spymaster, another entry in his Scot Harvath series. Across Europe, a secret organization has begun attacking diplomats. Meanwhile, Russia implements a daring plan to draw the U.S. into war. It's up to counter-terrorism operative Scot Harvath to once again save the day! For more new (and non-political) mystery/thrillers, see

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