Thursday, September 5, 2019

Mysteries Go Back to School for Campus Carnage

It's back-to-school time for campuses across the nation, and, frankly, there are few better settings for mystery plots than academia: ambitious academics; the corrupting influence of money; and the tangled relationships and pasts of young students. There were some good topical entries in the campus thriller category in 2019, starting with Dervia McTiernan's The Scholar, in which a woman found murdered on a college campus is identified as the heir to a fortune and the child of the university's biggest funder. There's also A Student of History by Nina Revoyr about a broke young student thrilled to land a research assistant gig with one of Los Angeles' ultra-rich, only to discover dark secrets that force him to decide how far he will go to protect his future. From 2018, there is Beth Gutcheon's The Affliction. At the troubled Rye Manor School for Girls, a former headmaster of a prestigious New York City private school is sent to assess the school’s problems only to find a teacher dead in the school’s swimming pool, a teacher with the "affliction" of nonstop chattering. From 2017 comes Ruth Ware's The Lying Game in which three former girl classmates at a remote boarding school near the English Channel receive a summoning text from the fourth member of their clique, drawing them back to her home near the school, where her father, the art teacher, was a formative influence on all of the women. The reunited friends soon revisit old secrets from their shared pastime, the lying game, in which they purposely fibbed to faculty and students to see what they could get away with. Finally, one of my faves for psychological chills, Tana French, offers 2014's The Secret Place in which her Dublin Murder Squad is called to a high school after an anonymous post claims to know who killed a popular boy the year before, drawing the detectives into a strange and dangerous underworld of teenage girls. For a broader compilation of examples, including top authors such as Dorothy Sayers, P.D. James, Amanda Cross and Donna Tartt, see

Monday, August 19, 2019

Mysteries to Read Before Summer Officially Ends

Summer is coming to a close, so set aside time for a few mystery indulgences before back-to-school and back-to-work. I'm betting on some proven favorites. One is a book I missed at the end of last year: Tana French's The Witch Elm. After happy-go-lucky Toby surprises two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead, he retreats to the family ancestral home to recover from his injuries and care for a dying uncle. But then a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree, detectives arrive, and Toby's beliefs about the past are challenged. As a fan of Karin Slaughter, I want to read her latest The Last Widow, too: First a scientist for the Center for Disease Control is abducted and then bombs blast the Atlanta neighborhood of the FBI and CDC. Medical examiner Sara Linton and investigator Will Trent are unraveling a deadly conspiracy when Sara is abducted, and Will must go undercover to save her and thousands of innocent lives. Plus, I'm putting the reliable Jo Nesbo on my list with the latest installment in his Harry Hole series, Knife, which plunges Harry, even though relegated to cold cases, into new danger. A new author I'd like to try is Ruth Ware. Ware's Turn of the Key is about a young woman who takes a live-in nanny post with an ideal family at a luxurious home in the Scottish Highlands, only to find herself in a nightmare that ends with a child dead and herself on trial for murder. For a very different locale, the reviewer-lauded Into the Jungle by Erica Ferencik takes readers to Bolivia, where a heroine running from her past arrives to take a teaching gig that falls through. She ends up following her lover into the depths of the jungle--and a fight for survival. For a different kind of primal confrontation, there's Daniela Petrova's Her Daughter's Mother. Lana meets and befriends her daughter's anonymous egg donor Katya in New York City. When Katya suddenly disappears, Lana begins to dig obsessively into her past, drawing the suspicion of police and unearthing shocking secrets. Meanwhile, parallel stories twist in a deadly knot in the opioid-plagued rural Kansas town of Laura McHugh's The Wolf Wants In as Sadie Keller tries to find out how her brother died, 18-year-old Henley Pettit desperately seeks to escape her family's crimes, and the police keep finding bones in the woods. For more ideas, see

Thursday, August 8, 2019

The Dangerous Epidemic of Loneliness

The headlines are so full of stories fretting over the epidemic of mass shootings, hate speech and hate crimes that you may have missed a disturbing story about another epidemic: loneliness. Chronic loneliness is another term for social isolation, for a lack of physical and emotional connection to others, something human beings are biologically programmed to need for physical and mental well-being. Today, according to a new poll by YouGov, 30% of millennials, those aged 23 to 38, say they are lonely, higher than any other generation surveyed. More disturbing, 22% of millennials in the poll said they had zero friends, 27% percent said they had "no close friends," and 30% said they have "no best friends." While not measured by YouGov, the up-and-coming Gen Z also reports high levels of loneliness on other surveys. Chronic loneliness, which has tended to peak naturally with the elderly in the past, seems to be seeping downward. These findings are scary. Research has linked the stress of chronic social isolation to mental and physical health issues such as anxiety, depression, digestive problems, high blood pressure, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, and even premature death via increased risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease. And do we really think that there is no link between social isolation and the proliferation of tribalism and hate? Lonely people trying to make connections are fueling the growth of isolated social media groups, which create no true intimacy but do deliver a warped and ephemeral sense of belonging by defining themselves against the enemy "other," whether by race, gender, politics or sexual orientation. On campuses and at political events, the isolated and angry are susceptible to the toxic embrace of polarized tribes. And what happens when polarized souls, alone and threatened on the social battlefield, have easy access to battlefield weapons and hear an approving signal in the political noise? We should not discount this dark rot in our society. To help yourself, or someone you know, to cope with loneliness, check out this Psychology Today article

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Munchausen by Proxy: Sickened by Love

Munchausen by Proxy (MBP) is a parenting disorder and form of child abuse that may be more common in fiction and television drama than it is in real life, but it makes for fascinating plots and characters, such as Gillian Flynn's monstrously neurotic mother in her psychological thriller Sharp Objects. MBP is when a parent, mainly the mother, either fabricates an illness or induces an illness in her child, sometimes even killing the child. The offending mom usually appears to be a model parent with little or no indication of family discord, and the abusive behavior is clearly premeditated and not a reaction to the child's behavior. There is a high mortality rate for the children, and the tragedy is that they are usually very young and defenseless; the average age of victims is 4 years old. While explanations are complex, MBP often seems to be spurred by an unhealthy desire for attention. Noble mothers tending sick children not only get lots of medical support but also sympathy and help from friends and family, and even media attention. In addition to Flynn's book, other fictional stories about MBP include the newly released thriller Saving Meghan by D.J. Palmer, about a devoted mother who insists she is trying to save her daughter and herself even though the 15-year-old is so frequently ill that MBP is suspected. Figuring out the truth will keep readers turning pages. Also new this year is We Came Here to Forget by Andrea Dunlop, about a young Olympic skier who loses everything when dark secrets about her sister's MBP come to light, a trauma based on Dunlop's experience with her own sister.  The young skier flees to Buenos Aires to reinvent herself, only to become enmeshed with a man keeping dark secrets of his own. Also check out Cradle and All by Zachary Alan Fox, a thriller about a Los Angeles couple with a new baby boy. After a series of mishaps for the baby at home, they are accused of child abuseand then anonymous night-time telephone calls begin. Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon is a Young Adult take on MBP about a 17-year-old girl isolated by an assumed severe immunodeficiency until she finds out the terrible/liberating truth.  For true-crime drama, there is this year's "The Act," starring Patricia Arquette, on Hulu. Episodes are based on the real story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard, who was tortured by her MBP-afflicted mother DeeDeeuntil Gypsy orchestrated mom's murder. For more chilling real-life cases, see

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Fatherhood Is Rare Trait for Fictional Detectives

With Father's Day ahead, I began to think about fatherhood in mystery fiction. It's easy to find murderous or dysfunctional fathers and stepfathers, but what about crime-solving protagonist dads? Alas, research showed that most well-known male sleuths are either eccentric singles a la Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot; hardboiled loners like Philip Marlowe and Mike Hammer; or cerebral commitment-phobes like British inspectors Adam Dalgliesh and Endeavor Morse. Although even the most obsessive detective heroes may indulge in humanizing romance, fatherhood's responsibilities seem to be a plot distraction that authors prefer to avoid! But there are a few famous detectives whose fatherly roles play a part in their character arcs. In the police procedural space, there's Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch series. Bosch's parentless childhood and difficulties in forming relationships inform and give weight to his edgy yet emotional bond with daughter Maddie, who initially lives with Bosch's ex-wife but takes a more important role in later books when she comes to live with him in Los Angeles and starts to emulate her father's police career. In the thriller genre, Tom Clancy's Dr. Jack Ryan—PhD., former Marine, CIA operative extraordinaire and heroic two-term President—also finds time to raise four children, including Jack Ryan Jr., who follows in his father's footsteps and enters the "Ryanverse" book series as an analyst for "the Campus," an off-the-books intelligence agency, where he is a great ally of Ryan Sr., of course. For those who long for a British gentleman as pater familias, there is Ngaio Marsh's Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard, who starts out single in the series debut A Man Lay Dead but marries in later novels and fathers a son Ricky, who plays major roles as a child in Spinsters in Jeopardy and as a young man in Last Ditch.  For dark-humor American fare, check out Slim and Anci, the father-daughter duo in Jason Miller's Little Egypt series set in southern Illinois coal country. Self-styled "redneck detective" and single-father Slim is teamed with his brilliant young daughter Anci, starting with Down Don't Bother Me about a mine owner who pays Slim to unravel the mystery of a dead reporter and missing photographer (sans police and press), and Red Dog, in which Slim tracks a missing pitbull only to find a dognapper with his head blown off. And if you want fatherly care without the blood ties, there is always Father Brown, the insightful Roman Catholic priest and amateur sleuth of 53 short stories by G.K. Chesterton (and a TV series).

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

2019 Thrillers With a Timely Political Edge

As I follow the news, I sometimes feel that I am entangled in a series of political thriller plots, but ones less satisfying than fiction. In a novel, I can get to a cathartic climax in days; reality is frustratingly slow moving and full of loose ends and conflicting plot lines. So I started looking at this year's crop of political thrillers to satisfy my thirst for truth, justice, and a satisfying finalenovels in line with classics like The Manchurian Candidate, Day of the Jackal or The Hunt for Red October. I'll note five well-reviewed 2019 releases, starting with Daughter of War by Brad Taylor, a former Special Forces officer and a New York Times bestselling author. This entry in Taylor's Pike Logan series has the hero hot on the trail of a North Korean trying to sell sensitive U.S. intelligence to the Syrian regime when he stumbles on plots and counter-plots by both the Syrians and North Koreans to create mass mayhem using a lethal substance called Red Mercury. What about those pesky Russians? Matthew Quirk's The Night Agent answers with an idealistic young FBI agent who sets out to find and stop a Russian mole, only to realize that anyone in the White House may be the traitor! Of course, writers need to include China among their nemeses.  In Killer Thriller by Lee Goldberg, protagonist Ian Ludlow, an action novel author, is in Hong Kong to research his wildest story yet—a deadly global conspiracy by Chinese intelligence to topple the United Statesonly to find that his horrifying scenario is actually in the works and the Chinese believe he’s a super-spy. Trapped in his own thriller, Ian must dodge assassins as he races to prevent disaster. If you harbor dark suspicions of the President, Out of the Dark will be your cup of tea; it's the latest entry in Gregg Hurwitz's Orphan X series featuring Evan Smoak, trained from age 12 as a deadly assassin by the Orphan Program, an off-the-books, deniable-assets operation that he has fled. Evan realizes the government is now killing all the remaining Orphans and their trainers, so he decides to strike back by taking on the program founder, the U.S. President! But the President is not only surrounded by traditional security, he is guarded by Orphan A, the first Orphan Program recruit, setting up a deadly battle for the fate of the country. Finally, for some feminine spycraft, try The Paris Diversion by Chris Pavone. In Paris, American expat Kate Moore, head of a clandestine cadre of operatives behind her homemaker cover, is confronted by a massive terrorist attack only to find that it is not what it seems and that it involves her own family. For more choices, see Amazon's best-seller list at

Friday, April 26, 2019

Weddings More Fatal than Fun in Mysteries

The spring-summer wedding season is gearing up, and mystery writers are ready with their own murderous takes on wedded bliss as deadly secrets surface, relatives and friends feud, and, of course, money is the eternal catalyst tilting marriage to mayhem. Happily, this spring's crop of wedding-inspired mysteries includes some New York Times best-selling authors, starting with one of my favorites, Jonathan Kellerman, with Southern California settings and the unique sleuthing pair of psychologist Alex Delaware and LAPD detective Milo Sturgis. In The Wedding Guest, Sturgis and Delaware must crash a rowdy "Saints and Sinners"-themed wedding reception where a woman has been found with her throat slashed. Hundreds of guests, and the bride and groom, all claim ignorance of the woman's identity and innocence of any crime as Delaware and Sturgis literally try to separate saints from sinners. Also this year, Alan Bradley adds to his amusing and genre-irreverent Flavia de Luce series with The Golden Tresses of the Dead. This time, British 12-year-old chemist/sleuth/busybody Flavia is attending her sister's wedding in a small English town when a human finger turns up in the wedding cake! Of course, more delicious shocks lie ahead to challenge Flavia's detecting skills. Or maybe you want something a little cozier, then check out The Truffle With Weddings, 2019's installment of Laura Durham's Annabelle Archer Wedding Planner series (series debut Better Off Wed won an Agatha for Best First Novel). In her latest caper, society wedding planner Annabelle is struggling to please a demanding bride when a colleague drops dead after eating a poisoned chocolate, and her best friend and caterer Richard Gerard is suspected. For more cozy mystery series with a wedding theme, check out