Sunday, May 3, 2020

Isolation Can Deepen a Mystery's Impact

If you're like me, you're finding the isolation of social distancing increasingly tiresome, but it certainly improves understanding of why social, mental and physical isolation is such a powerful element in mystery writing. In a strange way it's also comforting; current isolation is lonely and boring, but at least danger is kept at bay, outside of a secure personal space. Not so, with mysteries and thrillers! For example, the great Agatha Christie traps 10 characters on a mysterious island as they are killed off one by one in And Then There Were None. In the lesser known The Sittaford Mystery, Christie puts six people in an isolated snowbound house on the moors. They amuse themselves with a seance until "spirits" announce the murder of a neighbor, and one of the group walks six miles through snow to check on the potential victim, who is indeed dead. There are motives aplenty; it's the means that seem impossible. Or try Ruth Ware's claustrophobic The Woman in Cabin 10 about a woman travel-magazine writer on an exclusive luxury cruise assignment. She believes she has witnessed a woman being thrown overboard, but when all passengers are accounted for, the ship sails on, trapping her at sea where something (or someone) has gone terribly wrong. Smilla's Sense of Snow, by Peter Hoeg, combines the icy loneliness of Greenland with a young sleuth, Smilla Jasperson, who is herself socially and emotionally distant and living far from her roots in Copenhagen. When she becomes convinced that a six-year-old boy, a Greenlander like herself, did not accidentally fall to his death from a building, Smilla follows clues back to Greenland, where an explosive secret waits under the ice. In the aptly named Isolation, an entry in Mary Anna Evans' Faye Longchamp series, archaeologist Faye Longchamp-Mantooth is on her Florida island home struggling to recover from a personal loss when a close friend at the local marina is brutally murdered. Faye must reach back over a century into her family's history to fight an insidious danger. A disturbing gothic homage to isolation comes in Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island. During the summer of 1954, two U.S. Marshals arrive on the island, now a hospital for the criminally insane, to investigate the disappearance of a murderess patient as a hurricane bears down. Unreliable narrators lead the reader into a nightmare maze of madness and Cold War paranoia. And just this year, Australian Jaye Ford debuts Beyond Fear about Jodie Cramer, a teen survivor of a terrifying assault by three strangers, who 17 years later joins three girlfriends for a fun weekend in a secluded cabin. When the isolation reawakens her fears, she tries to convince her friends they are in danger, but they dismiss her foreboding as flashbacksuntil two men knock at the door. For more fiction with themes of isolation, loneliness and alienation, see

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Use Fun Nonfiction to Cure at-Home Blues

Many folks tell me their forced COVID-19 at-home time has become 1) a surprising reprieve from their usual hectic life, or 2) a numbing stretch of isolated boredom. It means, either way, there's more room for contemplation, enrichment and education in our lives, and there are some bestselling nonfiction books waiting to not only help fill the void but provide perspective in our current crisis. Just start with picks on the New York Times' nonfiction bestsellers list. For those obsessed with understanding pandemic challenges, there's The Great Influenza, by John M. Barry, an overview of the 1918 flu epidemic and a cautionary tale for the current large-scale outbreak. For those obsessed with the unifying power of great rhetoric and leadership (or lack of both), there is No. 1 on the list, The Splendid and the Vile, by the inimitable Erik Larson, about how British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, with stirring and calculated speeches, brought his nation back from the brink during the 12 turbulent months of the Blitz, stretching from May of 1940 to May of 1941, based not only on documents of the powerful but moving stories of the powerless he inspired. Meanwhile, the Smithsonian Magazine has some nonfiction suggestions that may be apropos, too, such as Roadside Americans: The Rise and Fall of Hitchhiking in a Changing Nation, by Jack Reid. If you are my age or older, you can remember when hitchhiking was still a common mode of travel for the young, poor or free-spirited, relying on an assumption of communal good will. Reid traces its evolution from the Great Depression to the mid-1970s, when hitchhiking became a "taboo form of mobility reserved for desperate and often unsavory individuals." The shift in attitudes corresponds to a shift in culture and politics that is still with us, and it's worth considering the price of that loss of communal trust now that we must all pull together. And if you're looking to find and inspire your inner warrior in a crisis, read The War Queens: Extraordinary Women Who Ruled the Battlefield, by father-daughter duo Jonathan W. Jordan and Emily Anne Jordan. The authors present women leaders, from England’s Elizabeth I to modern figures like Golda Meir, who defied gender conventions to protect their kingdoms and even lead troops on the battlefield. For more ideas, see

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Bored in Quarantine? Try Armchair-Travel Fiction

Suffering cabin fever after only a short time of at-home lockdown due to COVID-19? Armchair travel is a proven antidote available to fiction readers. And, for me, given the current downbeat national mood, that also means the exotic locales need to be spiced with romance, whimsy and humor. One choice from my book club (when will we meet in person again?) is the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Less by Andrew Sean Greer. The author lyrically describes the journey of failed novelist Arthur Less after he accepts invitations to half-baked literary events around the world just to avoid the wedding of his ex-boyfriend. Less ends up in humorous misadventures in France, Germany, Morocco, India and an Arabian Sea island. This satirical novel is, at bottom, a love story, and I think we all need a little more laughter and romance right now. Or how about an old favorite: A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle. The author writes about realizing a long-cherished dream of moving into a 200-year-old stone farmhouse in the Provence region of France. Even if you've never longed for a house in the south of France, as you vicariously experience the pleasures of the culture, from cuisine to goat racing, don't be surprised if you are inspired to add French cooking experiments to your quarantine diet. 13 Little Blue Envelopes by bestselling author Maureen Johnson is another European romp that will take you back to youthful days when hostel beds, backpacking and minimal budget meant adventure not discomfort. Johnson's heroine Ginny Blackstone receives a little blue envelope from her deceased Aunt Peg, with $1000 cash for a passport and a plane ticket, and a letter instructing her to retrieve twelve other envelopes abroad. So Ginny begins a backpacking adventure from London to Edinburgh to Amsterdam and beyond, discovering stories about her aunt's past along the wayand even more about herself, of course. Finally, readers can head to the Orient with New York Times bestseller Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan. This love story/family drama set among the super-rich in Singapore also satisfies the armchair traveler with tours of Singapore's famed locales and food markets, as well as visits to neighboring Macau and Hong Kong. For some more armchair-travel ideas, see

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Quarantines Can't Stop Sleuths, or Mystery Fans

As mystery fans across the country find themselves in quarantine conditions because of the novel coronavirus, they can enjoy reading about detectives in similar situations. Pandemics don't stop murderers or sleuthsor authors' imaginations. For example, Lydia Kang's Beautiful Poison is set in New York during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. Young socialite Allene begins to suspect poison, and not the flu, is responsible for her social circle's spike in deaths, all accompanied by mysterious notes. She recruits friends Jasper, an apprentice medical examiner, and Birdie, a woman of fragile health, to investigate. As deaths and suspicions mount, they must race to find the culprit before one of them becomes the next victim. In Black Death, author M.J Trow re-imagines playwright Christopher Marlowe as a Tudor-era sleuth. In the midst of a plague outbreak in 16th century London, Marlowe feels duty-bound to investigate the baffling death of a former Cambridge scholar who sent him a desperate letter before dying. S.D. Sykes' Plague Land also uses the plague as part of its mystery landscape, but this time the setting is Medieval Kent. After the plague deaths of his father and two older brothers, 17-year-old Oswald de Lacy is called back from childhood exile in a monastery to take on the role of Lord of Somerhill Manor, a place transformed by pestilence and neglect. But before he can move forward, he is confronted by the shocking death of a young woman whom the village priest claims was killed by demonic dog-headed men. Oswald must deal with political intrigue and family secrets, and the death of second women, before he finds the truth. Jumping back to modern Texas, Quarantined, by Joe McKinney, imagines that a deadly flu outbreak has caused the military to completely quarantine San Antonio, Texas. While working on burial statistics at San Antonio's mass graveyard, Detective Lily Harris finds a murder victim hidden among the plague dead and soon also discovers a corrupt local government conspiracy to hide the truth of a new deadly flu strain. She must lead her family through rioting streets and beyond the quarantine walls with news that might save the rest of society. For more fiction with disease/virus motifs, see

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Pandemics Inspire Fear — and Fiction

Worried about the novel coronavirus becoming a global pandemic? Remember that humanity has faced such crises before, and authors have used them as explorations of the attendant personal and social dislocation. Going all the way back to the Black Death, the bubonic plague that decimated Europe periodically from the Middle Ages through the 18th century, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Geraldine Brooks offers Years of Wonder, about a housemaid named Anna Frith in an isolated village outside London in 1666, where a contaminated bolt of cloth brings the disease that soon reaches into every household. Anna must confront the disintegration of her community, superstitious witch-hunting, the lure of illicit love and a fight for survival. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 inspired another Pulitzer winner, Katherine Ann Porter, in Pale Horse, Pale Rider. It's about the relationship between a Denver, Colorado, newspaper woman, Miranda, and a soldier, Adam. Miranda becomes sick and delirious with the flu, but recovers, only to find that Adam has died of the disease, which he likely caught while tending to her. Meanwhile, Pulitzer winner Philip Roth's Nemesis recalls the impact of the 1944 polio epidemic on a closely knit Newark Jewish community as its children are threatened with paralysis, lifelong disability and death. Protagonist Bucky Cantor, a 23-year-old teacher devoted to his charges, joins his girlfriend at a polio-free summer camp only to have the disease follow him there and alter the course of his life. La Peste (The Plague) by Albert Camus is considered a classic that explores the human condition as a plague sweeps the French Algerian city of Oran, and characters, ranging from doctors to vacationers to fugitives, struggle with love and loss, isolation and social responsibility, selfishness and sacrifice. Of course, no one beats Stephen King for dystopian terror, and The Stand takes place in a world in which 99% of the world's population has been wiped out by a mutated strain of super-flu. Survivors now must choose between the leadership of Mother Abagail, a benevolent 108-year-old woman, and Randall Flagg, the "Dark Man" who delights in chaos and violence. Finally, circling back to our usual mystery theme, there is EVO by Diane May. Livio Marchiori, a homicide detective in Verona, Italy, is battling "The Hypnotist," a serial killer who never touches his victims and leaves no evidence except detailed videos of his murders. So Marchiori is initially pleased to partner with Captain Victor Miller from Interpol, only to discover that illegal CIA genetic engineering has created the serial killer with mind control powers and a terrifying threat to humanity. For acclaimed nonfiction books on pandemics, see

Monday, February 3, 2020

When Mystery Meets Fantasy, It Can Be Magic

Recently, my book club's monthly selection was a fantasy novel. It's not a genre that I commonly read, and this blog is usually about mystery writing. But it sparked curiosity about the many genre-bending offerings labeled "fantasy mystery," where detectives roam magical worlds and use wizardry, vampire/werewolf powers, alien wiles, ESP, or just extraordinary sleuthing skills to solve crimes. For just a taste of this fare, start with last year's best-selling Recursion by Blake Crouch, in which New York City Detective Barry Sutton sets out to find the truth behind what looks like a disease epidemic driving victims mad with memories of lives they've never lived. Sutton begins to realize that he is facing not a pathogen but a threat to the fabric of time itself, and he will need the help of neuroscientist Helena Smith to unlock the mystery and fight growing chaos. Sutton is an ordinary detective faced with the extraordinary, while Jim Butcher's best-selling Harry Dresden series features an extraordinary detective fit to fight extraordinary powers. Dresden is a wizard-for-hire private investigator in a magical Chicago underworld, and Butcher has just added a 16th entry entitled Peace Talks, in which Dresden takes on a security role for the Supernatural nations' peace negotiations and soon faces dark manipulations that endanger not only the talks but the very existence of his home Chicago. Successful YA "Grishaverse" fantasy author Leigh Bardugo debuted her first adult fantasy mystery last year with The Ninth House: Galaxy "Alex" Stern is a school drop-out and sole survivor of a horrific, unsolved multiple homicide when she is offered a chance to attend prestigious Yale University on a full ride by mysterious benefactorsprovided she monitors the activities of Yale secret societies who meet in eight windowless "tombs." As she investigates how the rich and powerful members are tampering with forbidden magic, raising the dead and sometimes preying on the living, she also seeks the motives of her "benefactors." Meanwhile, Charlaine Harris' best-selling Sookie Stackhouse novels offer the Southern gothic charm that inspired HBO's "True Blood" series. We are introduced to Sookie, a Bon Temps, Louisiana, waitress who can read minds, in Dead Until Dark, just as she meets sexy bad-boy vampire Bill and confronts a string of murders. Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union is an original offering, a traditional detective story with fantastical premise and complex layers: Homicide detective Meyer Landsman lives in an imagined federal district in Sitka, Alaska, formed for Jewish refugees after post-Holocaust Israel collapsed in 1948. As the Jewish haven struggles to deal with upcoming reversion to Alaskan control and Landsman faces disaster in his marriage and career, the detective starts to investigate the murder of a chess prodigy neighborand must struggle with the forces of faith, obsession, evil, and salvation. For more options, check out

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Books to Help Keep New Year's Resolutions

At the start of every new year, we tend to make vows to do something to improve our lives or, more selflessly, the lives of otherssomething different, better, transformative. And then we have trouble keeping those promises to ourselves. It's why so many self-help books are published in January, as a recent recent Forbes magazine article points out. Indeed, our areas of desired change are so varied that Amazon has 28 self-help book categories, and so perhaps you should start with the January-release memoir Help Me! by Marianne Power, about reading self-help books to see if the promise of a "perfect existence" could be fulfilled! Forbes also makes some recommendations for achieving common resolution goals. For example, perhaps you want to improve your mental well-being via the popular "mindfulness" (being aware of and controlling your experience in the moment so you are acting not reacting to life), then you can read Love 2.0: Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection by Barbara Fredrickson. Or perhaps you want to be more productive and efficient, so page through Deep WorkRules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. If you want to embrace a healthier lifestyle (better diet, more exercise, bad habits kicked), then Are You Fully Charged? The Three Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life, by Tom Rath, is the book for you. For women who feel glumly mired and need the confidence and will to move forward with any resolution, there is the aptly titled How to Stop Feeling Like Sh*t: 14 Habits that Are Holding You Back from Happiness by Andrea Owen. Maybe you've decided that 2020 is the year to declutter your house and your life, then it's time to turn to tidiness guru Marie Kondo and her best-selling The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Finally, you may want to think about issues beyond the self and, in an increasingly diverse and yet fractured and tribal society, understand the source of our divisions and solutions for increased inclusion. Then Our Search for Belonging: How Our Need to Connect Is Tearing Us Apart, by Howard J. Ross with Jonrobert Tartaglione, offers food for thoughtand action. For more books that can help bolster your new year's resolutions, see