Thursday, October 18, 2018

How Memory Offers Clues & Red Herrings

In the recent Brett Kavanaugh hearings, Christine Blasey Ford's testimony accusing Kavanaugh of a teenage sexual assault ignited a public discussion of the reliability of witness and victim memory of traumatic events. Many people seem to think that memory is like a videotape and that gaps undermine credibility, and also that time can erode memory to the point that mistaken identity is likely. Unfortunately, the public discussion is pumping out more misinformation than scientific and experiential fact. While some Kavanaugh backers suggested Ford's story was probably a case of mistaken identity, mistaken identity is unlikely in cases where the perpetrator is known to the victim or witness as in Ford's case. Mistaken identification most frequently occurs when the perpetrator is a stranger, when the accused is of a different race than the victim or witness, and when a weapon is used so that the victim/witness naturally focuses on the threat (knife or gun, for example) rather than the threatening person. Other commentators suggested that the gaps in Ford's memory undermined her credibility for them. Yet scientific research shows that what the brain encodes and is able to retrieve about a trauma is naturally spotty. Specifics such as exact location, date and time (unless tied to a memorable marker such as a holiday or work routine or well-known place) are commonly blurry, while other details are burned into the mind by intense negative emotion and stress. It is also true that memory can be manipulated, that people may fill in missing details from other memories or even be influenced by police and witness cues to create a complete scenario. As a result, testimony with gaps in memory can actually be more reliable, while a detailed story confidently asserted can be taken with a grain of salt. Plus, excess alcohol consumption (as alleged for Kavanaugh and his friend) can black out memory of events even if the person never passes out. For a mystery writer, characters' memories of traumatic events are important for creating both vital clues and red herrings. The starting point of many plots, especially cold case detective stories, involves witnesses and victims with gaps in their memories and conflicting accounts. Plots also make use of confident testimony that turns out to be misleading. Because mystery authors need to make plot twists realistic and believable, they need to avoid the kind of misguided assumptions about memory and trauma currently bandied about by politicians and TV talk chatter. For an easy-to-understand expert take, see

Friday, September 21, 2018

Mystery Authors Who Plotted Real Murders

In a made-for-reality-TV tale, romance novelist Nancy Brophy, who once wrote an essay "How to Murder Your Husband," was recently arrested for the actual murder of her husband. It is rare for murder mystery writers to be plotters of real murder, but there have been some noted instances. Anne Perry, one of my favorite authors for her Thomas Pitt and William Monk historical mystery series set in Victorian England, is a convicted murderer, for example. Born Juliet Marion Hulme in 1938 England, Hulme/Perry was convicted at age 15 in 1954 for participating in the murder of her friend's mother but, due to her young age, served only a five-year sentence. At the time of the murder, Hulme's parents had moved the family to New Zealand, but they were in the process of divorcing, and Hulme was going to be sent to South Africa to stay with relatives. Hulme was obsessively close to her friend Pauline Parker at the time (Hulme denies implications of a lesbian relationship), and the two girls did not want to be separated. Somehow their shared devotion and fantasies came to include eliminating Pauline's mother. The two went for a walk with Pauline's mother on an isolated path where Hulme dropped an ornamental stone so that the older woman would lean over to retrieve it. Pauline had planned to hit her mother with half a brick wrapped in a stocking, and the two girls assumed that one blow would kill her. But it took more than 20 blows. After her release from prison, Hulme became a flight attendant, lived in the U.S. for a bit, and eventually settled in a Scottish village with her mother. She created a new name, Anne Perry, using her stepfather's surname and launched a successful writing career with her first mystery novel, The Cater Street Hangman, published in 1979.  The 1994 film "Heavenly Creatures," with Kate Winslet as the teenage Juliet Hulme, is based on the Hulme-Parker murder. Here's an even creepier killer author story:  Noted Chinese crime writer, Liu Yongbiao, 53, received the death penalty this year for the murder of four people in a case that had gone unsolved for nearly two dozen years. The author and an accomplice had killed a couple and their grandson in November 1995 at their family-owned hostel in order to cover up the murder of one of the guests during a robbery. Police finally were able to crack the case by using DNA evidence from a cigarette at the crime scene. "I’ve been waiting for you all this time," Liu told officers when he was arrested in August 2017 at his home. He later admitted that he had used the gory details of the crimes as inspiration for his novels. Maybe he wanted to get caught; his novel The Guilty Secret is about a writer who commits a string of murders!  If you don't hold her past against her, check out Anne Perry's many excellent books at

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