Monday, January 8, 2018

Start the New Year With New Mysteries

January can be a frigidly bleak start to the new year, but it's also a great month to stay cozily indoors enjoying the year's first crop of mystery debuts. For fans of J.D. Robb's Detective Eve Dallas, and her sexy husband Roarke, January brings a 46th entry in the Robb series: Dark in Death. A young woman is murdered with an ice pick during a screening of Hitchcock’s "Psycho" (during the most appropriate scene), and Dallas soon finds a link between the murder and a recent strangulation—with both deaths echoing scenes written by an author of procedural thrillers. Every mother's nightmare propels the tense Two Girls Down by Louisa Luna: Single mother Jamie Brandt leaves her 8- and 10-year-old daughters in the car for a few minutes while she buys a birthday present, and returns to find they've vanished. Brandt's sister enlists tough-as-nails bounty hunter Alice Vega to find the girls, and, when the police resist her help, Alice teams up with a disgraced former cop named Max Caplan. If you want to tap into marital nightmares instead, January offers a twisty psychological thriller in The Wife by Alafair Burke. After a tragic past, Angela is enjoying a quiet life with her son when she meets and marries Jason. Several years later, Jason’s writing career takes off and puts the family in an uncomfortable spotlight as several women make troubling accusations against Jason, and Angela realizes she may not know her husband as well as she thinks. Finally, for a dark exploration of how family legacies can shape us (and destroy us), read A Map of the Dark by Karen Ellis. When a teenage girl named Ruby disappears under mysterious circumstances, FBI agent Elsa Myers takes the case even though she’s already struggling with a dying father and dysfunctional family. As Ruby’s case unfolds, it stirs up long-buried secrets, and Elsa’s own painful history threatens to derail her investigation and her life. For a list of more mysteries and thrillers ahead in 2018, see

Thursday, January 4, 2018

True Crime, or Fact Stranger Than Fiction

We're in an era when the lines between fact and fiction, truth and falsehood (alternative facts for some), seem more blurred than usual. When it comes to murder, the fictional tale is certainly easier to swallow, with mysteries solved, with good and evil clearly delineated, and with resolution cathartic and triumphant. On the other hand, the best of the true crime genre, going beyond prurient and sensational tabloid fare, exposes disturbing realities and forces readers to consider tough questions involving family, society and justice--often without clear answers. Consider Kate Summerscale's The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer, winner of the 2017 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime Book. In 1895, Robert Coombes (age 13) and his brother Nattie (age 12) kill their mother and go on a 10-day spree--eating at coffee houses, visiting the seaside and attending the theater. When their mother's decomposed body is finally discovered in an upstairs bedroom, Robert coolly confesses to stabbing her, while Nattie takes a plea and gives evidence against his brother. In his insanity defense, the court hears testimony about Robert's severe headaches, his fascination with violent criminals, and his passion for "penny dreadful" pulp fiction violence. He seems to feel no remorse, his laughing courtroom demeanor chills, and neither the prosecution nor the defense can find a motive. He is sentenced to Broadmoor, the infamous criminal lunatic asylum. Released as an adult, he moves to Australia and joins the army during World War I, becoming a band leader and stretcher-bearer, and earning medals for his courage under fire. He also later informally adopts a neighbor’s child when he sees the child abused. The journey from child killer to wartime hero is one of the tale's great mysteries, certainly unimaginable by Victorian theories about the "Wicked Boy." Another impressive fact crime book about the same time period is The Devil in the White City by Eric Larson, intertwining the story of the architect of Chicago's 1893 World’s Fair with one of the earliest serial killers, contrasting harbingers of our "modern" age. I also loved Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, a Southern Gothic murder set in Savannah, GA, high society. And of course, there's In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, the 1966 classic that launched the genre with an exploration of a family massacred in a small Kansas town and the dark hearts of two killers, a great read even if later criticized for sacrificing factual truth to storytelling truth. For more examples of top true crime writing, see

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Holiday Merriment Via Bad Sex in Fiction Award

I usually blog about mystery or thriller writing, but during the holiday season, the dark side of human nature just seems an inappropriate topic. Luckily, even serious fiction can create light moments, especially when authors struggle (and fall) in coming up with new ways to describe sex scenes. So for some holiday merriment, I'll pass along excerpts from the annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award, established back in 1993 by London's Literary Review. The 2017 winner is American author Christopher Bollen for The Destroyers and a scene in which protagonist Ian describes his male equipment as a "billiard rack," creating some confusion over how many balls were involved. In the same scene, Bollen describes the female love interest's skin as "tan like water stains in a bathtub," which is erotic only for those who like their love action a tad grimy. The runner-up nominees include The Seventh Function of Language by Prix Goncourt winner Laurent Binet, who calls a felating female a "mouth-machine" and has a male lover whisper "with an authority that he has never felt before: 'Let’s construct an assemblage.'" The purpose of the award is to "draw attention to poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction," hopefully to inspire writers to do better.  Alas, every year there are still plenty of nominees! For more laughable, cringeworthy or simply baffling excerpts from 2017's nominees, see

— just wasn’t written badly enough, calling the sex "very discreet". 

Friday, December 15, 2017

A Holiday Sampler of Award-Winning Mysteries

Heading into the holidays, I like to stock up on mysteries to help relax from the season's whirlwind of shopping and socializing, and I always check out the new crop of award winners. This year's Edgar Award for best novel, for example, went to Before the Fall by Noah Hawley, creator of the "Fargo" TV series. A private jet leaves Martha's Vineyard for New York, carrying 11 people, including two multimillionaires and their families as well as one failed artist invitee. It crashes into the Atlantic without even a May Day call, and the only survivors are the artist and the 4-year-old boy he saves. A media frenzy paints the artist by turns hero or villain, while the investigation tries to decide between tragic accident and sinister intention. Meanwhile, the 2017 Edgar Award for best first novel tapped Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry, a novel for fans of The Girl on the Train. Londoner Nora goes to visit her sister in the countryside, only to find her brutally murdered, and Nora soon becomes obsessed and fearful as the search for her sister's killer uncovers dark secrets. if your taste for foreign sleuthing is whetted, try British publishing's Dagger Awards, which selected The Dry by Jane Harper for a Gold Dagger and gave an International Dagger to The Dying Detective by Leif G.W. Persson. In The Dry, Federal Agent Aaron Falk arrives in his Australian hometown for the first time in decades to attend the funeral of his best friend, Luke. Twenty years ago Luke lied to provide Falk with an alibi in a murder accusation. Now, amid an historic drought, Falk reluctantly joins a local detective to investigate Luke’s death and its connection to long-buried mysteries. You have to go north to Scandinavia for The Dying Detective, about a retired detective recovering from a stroke. In a race against mortality, the detective takes on the unsolved murder of a 9-year-old girl, conducting an investigation from his hospital bed with the help of his assistant, Matilda, an amateur sleuth, and Max, an orphan with a personal stake in the case. Meanwhile, the 2017 Anthony Award for best mystery selected Canada's veteran Louise Penny and A Great Reckoning. Penny's Quebec Chief of Homicide Armand Gamache is drawn into the death of a professor that involves an old map, a mysterious stained glass window, four police cadets, and Gamache's past. All together, that's a great trove of top mysteries to explore. For more ideas, see Amazon's mystery/thriller best-sellers:

Monday, December 4, 2017

These Mysteries Use Arson to Fire Up the Plot

The recent California fires in Sonoma County really struck a chord for me. Not only do we have close friends in Santa Rose affected by the fires, but fire is one of my phobias. As a result, I generally don't choose murder mysteries involving arson, whether flames are used to cover up murder evidence, as the main murder weapon, or express a pyromaniac obsession. However, the terror of killers who use fire does spark (no pun intended) a deep desire for apprehension, which makes the solution at the end of these mysteries especially satisfying. Among arson-murder mysteries, 7th Heaven by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro (part of the Women's Murder Club series) is a good example. As Detective Lindsay Boxer and her partner Rich Conklin are searching for leads in California golden boy Michael Campion's disappearance, they are drawn into a series of arson fires that kill suburban couples in wealthy homes. The plot of Douglas Preston's White Fire intriguingly combines modern arson murders and a long-lost Sherlock Holmes story. FBI Special Agent Pendergast comes to help protege Corrie Swanson when her examination of remains from a Colorado town's fabled 19th century grizzly attack on miners turns up shocking results. But the pair soon face modern mayhem as fires burn down multimillion-dollar mansions with families locked inside. Pendergast discovers a long-lost Sherlock Holmes story that may be the key to solving both the mystery of the long-dead miners and the modern-day arson killings as well! Fireproof  by best-selling author Alex Kava brings back his protagonist special agent Maggie O'Dell, who is leading the search for a serial arsonist in Washington, D.C., a search with a personal stake now that Maggie's brother Patrick is back in D.C. and working for a private firefighting company frequently called in to the fires. I'm a sucker for Irish settings like Graham Masterton's Dead Girls Dancing (part of the Kate Maguire series). DCI Maguire investigates the tragic deaths of 13 promising Irish folk dance stars who die when their studio goes up in flames in Cork. A small Australian town is the setting of 2017's Little Secrets by Anna Snoekstra. Would-be journalist Rose Blakey thinks she can win acclaim with a big scoop about strange porcelain doll replicas of the town's daughters that are turning up on doorsteps, terrifying parents already shaken by an arson fire at the town's courthouse, which killed a boy trapped inside. Community paranoia, ugly secrets, a suspicious stranger, and subtle red herrings propel this psychological thriller. For more arson mysteries, see

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Mass Shootings' Only Mystery: The Motive

After the Las Vegas massacre of concert-goers by a heavily armed gunman firing from high in a hotel, it dawned on me that, while there are often fictional treatments of family annihilators or terrorist attackers, mystery writers rarely dwell on the more typical American mass murderer represented by the Las Vegas shooter: a white male using legally purchased firearms. Of course, the who-done-it element is missing, since the shooters are almost always captured or suicides. Second, the means is known; only details on the extent of planning, the existence of confederates, police response, etc., are hashed out after the fact. The victimology and opportunity can offer some hope of detection and prevention if there is a relationship to the killer or his expressed grudge, such as a gathering of workplace, racial, governmental, religious, or familial "enemies." But what if the killer chooses strangers in a place that optimizes kill zone, as in the Las Vegas, 2012 Sandy Hook elementary and 1966 Austin clock tower massacres? Then the opportunity becomes any time and anywhere people gather, and the victims are anybody. So the only mystery left to decipher is the motive. The "armed white male" can be amended to "angry armed white male" or "disturbed armed white male," but what explains the destructive fury? In this country, there are a lot of unhappy loners, losers and loonies, and many own scary arsenals. They all don't aim their bullets at crowds. Unfortunately, no matter how deeply we dig for motive, for a "trigger event," grievance, violent creed or mental aberration, that mass shooting motive is likely to remain incomplete or incomprehensible. So mystery fiction, without satisfying solution or justice to offer, avoids this kind of crime. But the real world pays a terrible penalty for ignoring mass shootings. It's time to talk about the fact that, on average, there is a mass shooting (4+ victims including shooter) every day in America. While dwelling on the everyman "who" and the unknowable "why" is likely to be nonproductive and nonpredictive, we can discuss the very concrete "how." For more about the reality, not the fiction, of gun violence, see these statistics:

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Crime and Mystery Writers Tackle Football

In the latest headlines, American football has collided with politics, corruption and social conflict. So it's no wonder authors have been drawn to the gridiron for murder mystery and crime thriller plots. Consider Paydirt, by Edgar nominee and best-selling author Paul Levine: Bobby Gallagher is a broken man, fired from his prestigious job, disbarred from the legal profession, divorced from the wife he loves, and in debt to the mob. So he decides to win it all back by rigging the Super Bowl. Assisted by his 12-year-old son, he must fix the game, win a huge bet and avoid getting killed. Also focusing on the Super Bowl is Thomas Harris' best-selling thriller Black Sunday (later a movie) about a plot by terrorists to commit mass murder during the Super Bowl in New Orleans, turning the innocuous blimp into a death machine. Harlan Coben, Edgar Award-winner and master of the surprise twist, turns to football with Deal Breaker. Myron Bolitar is a sports agent whose prize client, a rookie football quarterback, is poised on the edge of the big time. Then the young quarterback gets a phone call from a former girlfriend—a woman believed dead—and Myron must confront the dark side of the sports business and unravel dangerous truths about a family tragedy, a woman’s secret, and a man’s lies. Of course, as a University of Michigan grad, I can't resist mentioning Bleeding Maize and Blue by Susan Holtzer. In football-obsessed Ann Arbor, computer consultant Anneke Haagen is swept up in the UM President's Weekend festivities where her boyfriend, police lieutenant Karl Genesko, is set to be honored as one of Michigan's brightest former football stars. Then a student sportswriter breaks the story of an NCAA probe of UM recruiting, and the agency's investigator turns up murdered in the stadium end zone. Anneke uses her analytic mind to help probe deadly secrets and shady deals involving deep alumni pockets. Finally, before either pro football or college football, there is high-school football, the proving ground of young athletes and community pride. In The Prophet by best-selling author Michael Koryta, the murder of a teenage girl  reopens decades-old wounds and forces two estranged brothers, one a bail bondsman on the social fringes and one the beloved coach of the local high school football team, to unite to stop a killer. For more football-themed mysteries and crime thrillers, see