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

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Sleepwalking Murder in Fact & Fiction

My brother was a sleepwalker, and I still remember with unease my childhood encounters with him in the night--appearing silently in my room, shuffling past down a dark hall, mumbling to unseen companions as he moved blind-eyed through his dream world. The strange phenomenon of sleepwalking has been the basis for real and fictional murder mysteries. One of the most famous cases of homicidal sleepwalking was that of Kenneth James Parks, a married 23-year-old Canadian man who left his bed in the early morning hours of May 1987, and, still asleep, drove to his in-laws' home where he assaulted his father-in-law and stabbed his mother-in-law to death. The next thing he said he could recall was arriving at the police station, saying “I think I have killed some people...” Despite skepticism of his sleepwalking defense, his consistent story, lack of motive, the testimony of sleep specialists and abnormal EEG readings resulted in his acquittal by a jury. Sleepwalking has captivated fictional mystery writers as well. In last year's The Sleepwalker by Chris Bohjalian, Annalee Ahlberg goes missing, and her daughters assume another sleepwalking incident. Annalee's husband flies home from a business trip, and search parties comb the nearby woods, but only a small swatch of nightshirt fabric hanging from a tree branch is found. Drawn to a detective who continues to stop by, her older daughter begins to wonder about the detective's motives, why no body has been found, and why incidents seem to occur when her father is absent. Another eerie entry from 2013 is The Nightwalker by Sebastian Fitzek: Leon Nader had been violent as a young man while sleepwalking but believes he has been cured by psychiatric treatment—until his wife disappears from their apartment. Nader fits a movement-activated camera to his forehead, and when he looks at the video the next morning, he makes an unimaginable discovery about his nocturnal personality. In 2011, B. Michael Radburn published The Crossing set in Tasmania. Traumatized by the disappearance of his daughter, Taylor Bridges' marriage breaks down, and he exiles himself to Tasmania's Glorys Crossing as the only national park ranger in an isolated town slowly disappearing under the rising waters of a new dam project. Taylor is a chronic sleepwalker, and when another young girl of the same age as his lost daughter goes missing, he begins to worry about his unknown behavior while sleepwalking. Among the more traditional novels about sleepwalking homicide are The Ivory Dagger by Patricia Wentworth, in which her sleuth Miss Silver solves the case of a young woman, prone to sleepwalking, who is accused of murdering her wealthy (but disagreeable) fiance, and I've Heard That Song Before by Mary Higgins Clark, in which a young woman who begins to doubt her new husband's suspicious nighttime wanderings, especially since he is connected with a vanished former girlfriend, a drowned wife, and bodies newly discovered on his estate. For more true stories of homicidal sleepwalking, see

Monday, April 9, 2018

How Mystery Writers Can Color in Emotion

Passing through a bookstore, I noted the now-common section devoted to adult coloring books, and I began to think about the role of color in fiction writing, including mysteries.  Color has a proven ability to evoke emotion; there's a reason fast-food logos and ads lean toward appetite-stimulating red and yellow, business materials opt for a trust-inspiring blue, and European prisons paint their walls a calming pink. But the power of color is not limited to the visual arts, online and offline advertising, or interior decor. When we read, we create pictures in our minds, and mystery authors' descriptions of settings, characters and clues are rarely black-and-white snapshots. The color of a suspect's dress, the colors of a winter forest or tropical jungle, or the color of a murder-scene carpet can offer both symbolic meaning that enriches the plot and clues to solving the mystery. A character's color choices can be used to reveal personality traits or emotional states, for example; note that psychiatrist Carl Jung found that introverts and extroverts prefer different colors--blue and red respectively. So if the writer introduces a woman wearing red, she probably does not want to be a wallflower. Sometimes the contrast between color choices and character hint at deception or conflict. Is the big guy in a pink shirt just supremely confident, disguising his aggression or hinting at a less masculine side? Doubt that color has a place in even the most "noir" of mysteries? Consider color's frequent evocative use in mystery titles. As an example, Walter Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress sets up tension before the first page by pairing the evil and power of "devil" with the trustworthy and inviting aspects associated with "blue." Meanwhile, P.D. James' The Black Tower purposely paints the tower black--the color of power, death, and evil--to create a looming gloom.  (For the literary, it also evokes W.B Yeats' poem of the same name where "in the tomb the dark grows blacker.") Some mystery writers even make color a title theme, such as Ann Cleeves' Shetland series, which includes Blue Lightning, Red Bones, White Nights, and Raven Black. John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series uses color in all 21 titles, starting with The Deep Blue Good-by through National Book Award-winner The Green Ripper to the final The Lonely Silver Rain. One caveat on coloring fiction prose: Be aware that color psychology differs by culture. For example, white is the color of purity and innocence in Western cultures and the color of death and mourning in Eastern cultures. For a quick overview of color psychology, see