Monday, September 25, 2017

Can Illegitimacy Drive Modern Mystery Plots?

Illegitimacy and the consequential stigmas of extramarital children have played a key role in the works of great authors, including Shakespeare, Voltaire, Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Hardy, to name but a few. Some noted mystery writers also have used out-of-wedlock birth as a plot centerpiece, including Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White and Dorothy L. Sayers' The Nine Tailors. But there's no arguing that times have changed. As of 2015, 40.3% of all births in the U.S. occurred outside of marriage (compared with 7% in 1940). And today's illegitimacy rates are even higher for most European countries. The majority of births (over 50%) are outside of marriage in Iceland, Estonia, Bulgaria, Slovenia, France, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Portugal, and nearly half of births also are extramarital in the Netherlands, Czech Republic, United Kingdom, Belgium, Hungary, Spain, Austria and Finland. As out-of-wedlock birth has become more commonplace, the social and legal status of illegitimate children, unwed mothers and cohabiting couples has improved. In the United States, for example, U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the 1970s found that most legal disabilities imposed on illegitimacy violated the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause. Yet extramarital children can still provide mystery writers with murder motives. Even the old "Secret Shame" plot can be updated. For example, while illegitimacy alone may no longer be as socially unacceptable, illegitimacy resulting from other taboos--such as incest, rape or even adultery--can create a secret that someone will murder to conceal or avenge. Another plot device that still resonates is "The Unwanted Heir." When there is an inheritance to divide, even legitimate siblings can turn on each other, and a family outsider who stakes a claim can spark more than rude confrontations. "Cain and Abel" is one of the oldest plots around, so it's easy to imagine bitter feelings between marital and extramarital siblings going to lethal lengths as they vie with each other for social status, financial gain or parental affection. Finally, there's the traditional "Revenge" plot. Although many loving couples raise happy children outside of marriage today, there are less sanguine situations in which the violent feelings of a spurned lover, a betrayed spouse or an abandoned child can lead to murder. For more famous fiction works with an illegitimacy theme, see

Friday, September 15, 2017

Perfect Crime? Disguising Murder Isn't Easy

Murder disguised as suicide, accident or natural death is a popular trope of mystery fiction and TV crime drama. In murder mystery plots, common "perfect crime" accidents include the trusty fall down the stairs or over a cliff; the bathtub head-injury slip or electrocution; drowning (the at-home convenience of tubs and pools is popular, but lonely spots of ocean and river are handy, too); the traffic accident (ranging from car crash to pedestrian hit-and-run); the accidental medication overdose or unknowingly ingested deadly allergen; the hunting accident (if VP Dick Cheney can misfire...); and, a new favorite, strangulation covered up as an autoerotic asphyxia hanging. Mystery writers can find many models from real crime cases. For example, the less than godly Pastor Arthur Schirmer used different types of accidents to cover disposal of two wives: Wife No. 1 died from a catastrophic "fall down the stairs" in 1999, a murder which escaped punishment until it was revisited after Schirmer was convicted of killing wife No. 2 with a crowbar and staging a car accident in 2008 to cover up the injuries. We can't know how many murders go undetected, but the "perfect crime" killer today needs to jump through more hoops than ever, and the mystery writer can deliver more clues to an ace detective, thanks to forensics and society's ever-expanding technological surveillance. Of course, the killer must make sure there are no fingerprints, DNA (blood, saliva, hair, etc.), or fibers in incriminating places. Plus, in staging the crime, the murderer now needs to be aware of the ubiquitous security cameras recording movements for gas stations, stores, ATMs, hotels, and even neighbors. To avoid being caught in a lie, perpetrators also need to worry about telltale credit card receipts and even bar codes that will direct police to an incriminating purchase or location and timing contradiction. A murderer's alibi today can be checked against location tracking via mobile phone and car anti-theft device, while suspicious Internet interactions leave telltale cyber tracks. And, if in search of a perfect alibi, a killer hires/persuades someone else to create an "accidental death," then the murderous instigator is either in thrall to a potential blackmailer and betrayer--or forced to plan another perfect murder! For an interesting discussion, see

Friday, September 8, 2017

Natural Disaster Is Key Player in These Mysteries

Despite the heroic responses to hurricanes Harvey and Irma, it's a sad truth that the chaos created by natural disaster also unleashes and provides cover for human predators. So it's no surprise that mystery writers sometimes use a powerful natural menace--whether shaking earth, raging waters or roaring winds--to heighten suspense and complicate detection in their plots. For example, The Weatherman, by best-selling author Steve Thayer, is a collision of man-made and natural mayhem: Two tortured Vietnam vets, one a television meteorologist with an eerie gift for reading the weather and the other a news producer with a disfigured face, both love the same beautiful cop-turned-reporter. When fierce weather events coincide with murders, the meteorologist is accused, and the disfigured vet and lovely reporter join forces to investigate. In The Breathtaker by Alice Blanchard, a massive tornado strikes a small Oklahoma town and leaves behind three mutilated bodies in a ruined farmhouse. Police Chief Charlie Grover assumes the victims were impaled by flying debris, until evidence proves they were brutally murdered. Grover must enlist the aid of a tornado-chasing scientist to stalk a murderer who conspires with nature to conceal terrible crimes. The drama of Hurricane Katrina (plus a New Orleans setting) have inspired many fictional tales. Certainly, Hurricane by Jewell Parker Rhodes deftly weaves the region's natural and supernatural forces in her mystery plot. Dr. Marie Levant, great-great granddaughter of voodoo queen Marie Laveau, awakens from a nightmare, goes for a drive to clear her head, and finds a crime scene: a couple and their baby killed in the village of DeLaire. She reports the murders to the local deputy and sheriff, and meets the ailing Nana, a voodoo practitioner who's foreseen Marie's arrival. As Marie focuses on the local mystery, an approaching hurricane threatens wider death and destruction. Dead Man's Island, by Carolyn Hart, puts a very different sleuth in the eye of a hurricane: Henrietta O'Dwyer Collins, a widowed former reporter, is invited by an old beau, a media magnate, to his private island off the coast of South Carolina to help him figure out who is trying to kill him. As a monster hurricane hits the island, plot and storm naturally peak together. And if you're hungry for disaster thrills with a dash of romance, there's Chris Fey's Disaster Crimes Series, including Hurricane Crimes, Seismic Crimes, Tsunami Crimes, etc. For more options, see

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

What If Social Media Turns Murderous?

Social media use has become so ubiquitous that it's no wonder mystery plots are mining social networking for clues, motives and even psychological weaponry. One example is the Social Media Murders Series by Angela Clarke, starting with Follow Me. If you think social media feeds fame monsters, you'll appreciate a plot in which recent graduate Freddie, who is trying to get her journalism career started via online contacts and posts, bumps into old friend Nasreen, now a police officer, and seeks a scoop by following her to a crime scene where a dead man lies slumped over his computer. Social media-savvy Freddie realizes the victim was a troll and finds the Twitter account of the "Hashtag Murderer," who takes credit for the murder and posts cryptic clues to the next target, titillating press and public. Freddie and Nasreen are soon in the crosshairs as they race to catch the fame-crazed killer. Or, maybe you fear that some folks in your social network of "friends" are playing unfriendly games. Then you won't find any comfort in The Other Twin by L.V. Hay. In the British thriller, Poppy returns home after her sister India dies from a fall off a railway bridge and hacks into her sister's laptop seeking the truth about her death. Poppy finds a social media world where resentments are played out online, identities are made and remade, and secrets outnumber truths. Now if you're a person who feels vulnerable to online-savvy miscreants, join tech-impaired, retired Detective Bill Hodges of Mr. Mercedes, the first entry in Stephen King's Bill Hodges Trilogy. In an unsolved case at the end of Hodges' career, the "Mercedes Killer" used a stolen Mercedes to mow down a crowd of people waiting outside a job fair. Miserable in retirement, Hodges is jolted back to life by taunting messages from the killer and drawn into a cat-and-mouse game on an anonymous social media chat site, leading to a race to stop a psychopath. Maybe you're worried social posts are attracting undesirable followers who'll try to move from virtual to actual contact. Then you'll be terrified by The Secrets She Keeps from Michael Robotham. Unwed and pregnant Agatha, who works part-time stocking shelves at a grocery store, is fascinated by chic customer Meghan, who writes a droll parenting blog and boasts two perfect children and a happy marriage. When Agatha learns her blog idol is pregnant again, and that their due dates fall within the same month, she approaches the unsuspecting Meghan and sets something terrible in motion. Or test your social nerves with Caroline Kepnes' novel You. Beautiful Guinevere Beck shops in a New York bookstore where smitten employee Joe "Googles" the name on her credit card. Joe soon finds all he needs to know from her public Facebook account and constant Tweets. He begins to orchestrate meetings and events designed to push her into his arms, and removes any obstacles to his passion--even if it means murder. For thrillers featuring social media, check out

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Hospital Settings: Scary Prescriptions for Murder

I've been taking some time off from blogging during my summer vacation, but I got a burst of inspiration after spending a day last week in the hospital with my elderly father. It was nothing serious, but the visit reminded me why hospital settings are so chillingly apt for murder mysteries: so many potentially lethal means at hand, so many plausible explanations for death, and so much institutional and personal power over life and death. What could go wrong? Medical murder mysteries answer that question with truly inventive plots. And it's no surprise that many best-selling medical mystery authors are medically trained. Start with physician-turned-novelist Robin Cook. In his first best-seller, Coma, set in a Boston hospital, a young woman intern begins investigating suspicious comas following routine surgery and is soon marked for death herself. Best-selling physician-writer Michael Palmer also plays on our fears of medical power run amok in Extreme Measures, which is about an ambitious young doctor confronted by an elite medical clique who will stop at nothing--including murder and mutilation--to protect their secrets. Harvard Medical School-trained Michael Crichton, of Jurassic Park and Andromeda Strain fame, actually started his writing career with the Edgar Award-winning A Case of Need, in which the pathologist protagonist tries to prove the innocence of a friend accused of killing a woman in a botched abortion (then illegal). Another medico-turned-writer is urologist Kelly Parsons; his first mystery, Doing Harm, is about an ambitious hospital chief resident playing cat and mouse with a killer, and it won good reviews from the likes of Stephen King. So what about female authors? At the top of any list is multi-award-winning author P.D. James, who put her experience in hospital administration to good use in books such as A Mind to Murder (set in a psychiatric clinic), Shroud for a Nightingale (set in a nursing school), and The Private Patient (set in a plastic surgery clinic). Also on the distaff side, physician author J.L. DeLozier offers a unique protagonist in Dr. Persephone Smith, a psychologist with the gift (or curse) of enhanced empathy. In Storm Shelter, Smith is deployed to an abandoned air hangar turned medical shelter during a massive hurricane, but she soon has something more terrifying to deal than the storm as staff and evacuees begin disappearing--and turning up as mutilated corpses. For more ideas, check out these blogger suggestions:

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