Dust Off the Bones

By Paul Howarth – Responsibility, redemption, and squandered chances are among the themes in Paul Howarth’s second novel, which will live in your memory long after turning the last page. Just as indelible is the portrait of the Australian outback—the dust and drought—and the hardness and hardiness of the people who take up residence in such a hostile environment.

Billie and Tommy McBride, ages sixteen and fourteen, respectively, arrive at their remote home to find their mother and father shot dead, and their younger sister Mary, dying. The Native Police arrive to investigate, headed by a sociopathic white inspector named Noone. The police claim to believe that the crime was committed by an aboriginal group called the Kurrong, and set off in pursuit, taking the teenagers with them.

Eventually, they find the group and slaughter them—men, women, and children alike, upwards of a hundred people, except for a few women they keep alive for other purposes. The boys are made complicit in these depredations and the subsequent revisions of events. The rest of the novel is about how the McBride boys cope with that guilt and horror.

Noone remains a dominant presence in their lives, even though they rarely see him. He has insisted the boys split up and have nothing to do with each other or he will return and kill them, any family they have, and everyone they care about. They believe him.

Billie marries successfully to a widow with a sizeable station. Tommy, with his black companion Arthur, has a job on another distant station, where he’s putting up fencing under the thumb of a vindictive overseer. In a confrontation Tommy inadvertently kills the overseer. He and Arthur flee, and, with the telegraph likely one step ahead of them, lie low.

What modest successes either young man achieves are tainted by the anxiety that the annihilation of the Kurrong will come to light, that Noone will decide they are a risk to his position and he and his minions will track them down, and, in Tommy’s case, that the murder he committed will come out. If you’re familiar with the writing of Cormac McCarthy or Donald Ray Pollock, you may find Howarth’s bracing writing style similar. Reading this book is like having all your veins and arteries cleaned out, cleared of everything easy and soft. While the writing is hard as a diamond, it’s also beautiful and properly paced to magnify the weight of the men’s actions.

Her Sister’s Shadow

If you’re a fan of books with an unreliable narrator, you’re in luck with Catherine Wimpeney’s debut thriller. She draws on her experiences and insights as a psychotherapist to create a nuanced portrait of a woman with profound and initially unappreciated mental health challenges.

Kay is a Senior Investigating Officer in the Manchester police force, a bit uneasy with her partner, DI Matt Anderson, whom she believes is too ambitious (wants her job), and with their commanding officer, Barbara Dean (may give it to him). Granted, Kay seems more than a bit paranoid when she sees Matt and Barbara talking with each other. But she’s been in a shaky mental state since her older sister Helen’s suicide.

About ten months earlier, Helen jumped to her death from a parking structure. Helen suffered from depression for many years, but Kay never anticipated she’d do this. Kay knows she played a role in Helen’s troubled psychiatric history, which contributes to her grief and guilt over Helen’s death. Kay has missed a number of appointments with the therapist her department hoped would get her back on track. That, combined with Kay’s current somewhat erratic mental state, convinces Barbara to require that she take some time off.

Fate seems to play a cruel trick on Kay when she spots another woman at the top of a parking structure, looking prepared to jump. She rushes to the woman’s aid. If she couldn’t save her sister, perhaps she can save this woman. The woman’s name is Ava, and Kay finally talks her down. Ava’s reveals she’s being tormented by her ex-husband, Adrian McGrath, a wealthy property developer. She is terrified of him and the men he has following her. To Kay’s surprise, she knows McGrath, whom she holds partly responsible for the torture death of a young boy.

Kay planned to pursue her mental health recovery in Scotland at a vacation home that’s been in her family for generations. Quiet. Fabulous views. Now, she invites Ava to join her. No one will have a clue that’s where she’s hiding.

Author Wimpeney delves into a lot of backstory, not just about Kay, but Adrian too, and I’m not sure all of it was necessary. She made a good choice in letting Kay narrate most of the story in first-person. You get a strong sense of her perspective, which makes the book work. A few very short chapters take other points of view, but make the narration feel choppy.

When Kay finds Helen’s journal in the vacation house and begins to read, her mental state is stressed almost beyond endurance. The pressure on Kay continues to mount—protecting Ava, salvaging her career, repairing relationships, dealing with Adrian, heading off a nosy reporter.

Her Sister’s Shadow is unquestionably a psychological thriller, and you may conclude it emphasizes the psychological elements at the expense of the thriller elements. Yet, the unpredictable consequences of Kay’s mental state will keep the pages turning.

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One P.I.’s Life

Sheila Wysocki, a death investigator based in Nashville, talked about her work a few weeks ago at the Killer Nashville Conference, and it was full of ideas to start crime fiction writers’ juices flowing.

Although she lives in central Tennessee, she doesn’t work cases based there; for safety reasons, the work she does is all out-of-state (a couple of stories right there).

Her clients are the families of victims. All of the victims are cold cases. Some of the victims died many years before, and some have grown cold because the police have stopped investigating. Sheila apparently believes some of them weren’t very thoroughly investigated from the outset.

No matter how much family members miss them and want a resolution, they can be powerless to make that happen.They are often financially strapped, some because they were poor to begin with, and others because they have been repeatedly taken advantage of by unscrupulous investigators. One of Wysocki’s first tasks is to establish trust.

Several factors influence whether she will take on a specific case. One is whether it’s a case she can take to the public—in other words, will it be effective in ginning up some public sentiment toward reopening the investigation? The families will have already tried to persuade the police to keep up their efforts and have gotten nowhere. Public pressure can’t hurt.

She assesses whether the family includes some strong personalities the police won’t want to tangle with, or whether it has the money to sue the police, which could result in a court order to investigate further. It takes from $300,000 to $500,000 to take a police department to court, she said, which is out of reach for most families. This is where cable tv dollars can help. The popularity of cold case programming means producers are looking for interesting stories, and the network will underwrite the necessary investigation.

These lawsuits enable Wysocki to gain access to official documents and reports, and she reads all of them. She said she often finds that the police haven’t interviewed anyone. She called her approach “crowdsourcing” justice, because she involves families, volunteer investigators, and a variety of other experts in fields like 911 call analysis. She may produce a podcast, which has sometimes proved an effective way to get tips.

She started on this career path after solving the murder of her former college roommate, a case that had gone unsolved for twenty-six years. Thinking about all the pain involved in that murder, she must have pivoted to the 266,000 other unsolved murders in the United States—a number that grows by about 6,000 per year—and found her calling.

Diverse Diversions: 3 Entertaining Crime Stories

Gunslinger: Killer’s Requiem

By AW Hart, pen name of Michael Black. I miss good stories about the Old West, which were such a feature of American life a half-century ago and before. Take a trip back there with this new novel, featuring Hart’s gunslinger character, River Hicks. Hicks is returning to the Oregon home town where he’s wanted for murders he didn’t commit. In tow are teenage twins Connor and Abby, whom he rescued from an abusive situation in Texas. The trio faces a deadly opponent in Hicks’s brother, the town’s wealthiest man, exploiter of lumber-mill workers, and, secretly, father of the twins. A whole corral of colorful and memorable characters head toward a showdown between Hicks and his allies and anti-union hired guns. Amazon link here.

That Darkness

By Lisa Black – I enjoyed her informative presentations at Killer Nashville, but had never read one of her books. Her experiences as a crime scene investigator really comes through in 2016’s That Darkness, as her protagonist, Maggie Gardiner, ekes every bit of information out of the scant clues (look out for those cat hairs!) in a series of unexplained murders of men with impressive violent crime rap sheets. You’ll know from the beginning that the killer she’s pitted herself against is Cleveland detective Jack Renner, fed up with the justice system’s failure to get these violent characters off the streets and taking matters into his own hands. Maggie soon begins to suspect a police vigilante, but who is it? She sets up quite an interesting cat-and-mouse game between herself and Renner, and both are challenged to reconcile the differences between law and justice. Amazon link here.

Queen’s Gambit

By Bradley Harper – No, not the tv movie, but a 2019 thriller set in England in 1897, in which a pair of sleuths try to foil an assassination attempt against Queen Victoria. Margaret Harkness is called upon by an old friend—Professor Joseph Bell, who in real life was an inspiration for Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes—to help identify a German anarchist bent upon killing the queen, an act the anarchist deems “propaganda by deed.” The story, set at the colorful time of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebration, offers a prime opportunity for royal pomp and for the anarchist’s dark doings. Can Harkness and Bell outwit the determined killer? Masterfully entertaining and with a helpful map. Amazon link here.

I Saw It at the Movies

Bernie

My original impetus for seeing Richard Linklater’s 2012 movie Bernie (trailer) was that at least some of it was filmed in Smithville, an east Texas town named after my great great grandfather, William Smith (as was Smithville, Mississippi). Smithville is in Bastrop County, where a lot of movies made in Texas are filmed. Add to that, it’s based on a true crime My interest was piqued.

Cleverly filmed like a Cold Case documentary, it uses interviews with the principals and various townspeople to gradually build up the story. Many of them are outrageously hilarious.

Jack Black does an impressive portrayal of the small town’s genial, much-loved assistant funeral director, Bernie Tiede. Reviewer Roger Ebert said his performance “proves that an actor can be a miraculous thing in the right role.” Out of compassion or greed (depends who’s talking), Bernie takes up with a truly nasty elderly woman (Shirley MacLaine), and is accused of murdering her. Bernie’s nemesis is ambitious district attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey), determined to prosecute, no matter what the townspeople think about the crime. These are the kinds of roles where you can go over-the-top, and the cast does.

Rotten Tomatoes’ critics rating: 88%; audiences: 73%.

The Lost Leonardo

Here’s a story rife with ideas for crime writers! The documentary follows the trail of a painting purchased in 2005 from a New Orleans auction house for $1,175 (trailer). After restoration, it was believed (by some) to be the much-copied “Salvator Mundi” by Leonardo da Vinci. Twelve years later, carrying that identity, it sold at auction for $450,300,000. Now presumed to have been bought by Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, some believe it’s headed for Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The Scandinavian documentarians, led by director Andreas Koefoed, never come to a conclusion about the work’s authenticity—how could they, when the art world remains so sharply divided?

However, it’s the middle of the story in which events become as murky as the overpainting of the possible masterpiece. In 2013, a Swiss art dealer, Yves Bouvier, purchased the painting for around $75 million and sold it to a Russian oligarch  for $127.5 million. The oligarch was displeased with Bouvier’s mark-up and sued. Interestingly, Bouvier ran an international company that specialized in the transportation and storage of art works, luxury goods, and other collectibles, and is currently under investigation in several countries. He exploited the concept of freeports, which rent space (and services) to art collectors and museums. These facilities are outside the control of customs and taxing officials and have come under increasing scrutiny for their possible role in the trafficking of looted Syrian artifacts, tax evasion, and money-laundering.

At present, no one knows for sure where the painting is. Some investigators believe it is in storage in one of Bouvier’s never-neverland storage facilities. Others, that it’s on bin Salman’s yacht. No one knows for sure. Prepare to be astonished!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences: 80%.

False Witness

The standalone thriller begins in the summer of 1998, with the uneasy relationship between Callie and Buddy, which, for his part, seems to revolve solely around sex, rough sex, and keeping his ten-year-old son from knowing what he’s up to.

Then it’s spring 2021, and Callie’s sister Leigh is called on at the last minute to defend an especially brutal serial rapist. Leigh works for a prestigious Atlanta, Georgia, law firm and has only days before jury selection begins. The demeanor of the defendant, Andrew Tenant, puts her off, but she can’t say no without risking her job. Soon she realizes her creepy new client is the grown-up boy from long-ago, when she and Callie were his baby-sitters.

Something bad happened back in 1998, involving Callie and Leigh, and they’ve kept the secret ever since. To Leigh’s dismay, Andrew uses what he knows about it to manipulate her into mounting a vigorous and unethical defense. No matter that she’s convinced he’s guilty.

Leigh is afraid to sabotage the defense in any way, certain that Andrew would not hesitate to harm the people she loves, including Callie. Callie has long-standing substance abuse problems, and some of the most poignant parts of the story are her attempts to calibrate the drugs in her system so she can cope with the demands posed by Andrew’s threats.

There are both good characters and bad in this novel, and the good ones are treated with respect and compassion, despite their flaws. Oh, and wait until you meet Callie and Leigh’s mother! A library full of child-rearing advice wouldn’t have changed her behavior an iota!

The story is set in the midst of the pandemic, and though it’s not about covid, the characters’ everyday lives are affected by it—to mask (or not), the erratic court schedule. The disease is part of the realistic environment of the story. Slaughter, who lives in Atlanta, set the novel there, though it’s not a novel in which place plays a dominant role. Occasionally, the author breaks in and delivers a lecture on, for example, the way drug addiction affects the brain, which derails the story for a few paragraphs and feels unnecessary. Readers put off by cursing will have much to complain about.

I personally found Leigh too repetitive and tiresome with her guilt and self-doubt and her willingness to jump to (consistently wrong) conclusions about what other people are feeling. It felt cliché to make Andrew super-wealthy, and he was over-the-top slimy, but then a psychopath would be extreme, no? Those quibbles aside, the book held my interest and I found more to like than not.

Here’s a recent interview with Karin Slaughter related to this book.

Order False Witness here from Amazon.

Or here from IndieBound.

How Crime Scene Investigations Really Work

Author and former U.S. Army forensic pathologist (and professional Santa) Bradley Harper led a fascinating seminar at the recent Killer Nashville conference that provided a bit of “the inside story” (you should pardon the expression) on autopsies and crime scene investigations.

His opening analogy was an interesting digression with a distinguished pedigree. He said Aristotle maintained there are only three arguments: Blame, Values, and Choice. Fixing blame is what forensics tries to do, and blame always relates to events that happened in the past tense. Values, he said, are always argued in the present tense (“we believe in. . .”), and choices are argued in the future tense. When two people are arguing, if one is using the past tense (blame), and the other is using present or future tense, they will never agree. This is a handy trick to remember next time you’re setting up a fictional confrontation!

Forensics is even older than Aristotle. It began in China about 3000 years ago when a murder occurred, with the assailant presumed to be part of a particular guard unit. The magistrate asked each guard member to lay his sword on a table. Then they waited. Before long, one and only one of the swords was covered with flies, attracted by the invisible traces of blood still on the sword.

Fast-forward to 19th century France and the efforts of numerous men of science to bring scientific methods to the analysis and systematization of crime investigations. Advances in photography, fingerprinting, and the standardization of autopsy procedures elevated the field. These pioneers’ accomplishments soon found their way into literature, starting with Edgar Allan Poe’s detective, C. Auguste Dupin. And then there was Sherlock Holmes. In 1910, a devoted Holmes fan, Frenchman Edmond Locard, set up the world’s first crime lab. You’ll remember Locard as the man who developed the exchange principle: “every contact leaves a trace.”

So what happens with in an autopsy? Harper said the steps include: verify the deceased’s identity (preferably with a thumbprint); take a full-body x-ray; make an external examination; U.S. pathologists use a Y incision and remove the top of the skull to reveal the internal organs and brain, any of which may be taken out for further analysis if necessary; analyze stomach contents, blood, urine, spinal fluid, the vitreous humor of the eye, etc; and take lots of pictures throughout.

Read More:
The Three Basic Issues (from Thank You for Arguing)
The Virtual Autopsy – explore online!
The Exchange Principle
Autopsy: A Screenwriter’s Guide
The Nutshell Studies of Frances Glessner Lee

Short Story Collections: EQMM (Sept/Oct) & Fiction River

reading, apple

For its 80th Anniversary issue, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine assembled almost 200 pages of short stories, book reviews, and blog suggestions. Among my favorite stories this issue were:

  • Jane Jakeman’s “Trick or Treat”—She adds an element of timelessness to her tale of small-town revenge by heading scene breaks with quotes like these: “Beware of meeting a witch underground, for then she is at her most powerful—The Grimoire of Lysbet Malkin.
  • Matt Goldman’s entertaining “Sixteen Lies” (but who’s counting?).in which a savvy private eye unravels the motives that led to the death of a disabled woman, which his client, the dead woman’s sister, believes is suspicious. The fake-supportive banter between the sister and her husband is priceless.
  • “Demon in the Depths,” a novella by William Burton McCormick kept me riveted. A reporter’s Norwegian expedition to investigate her great-grandmother’s death in a mysterious plane crash some 60 years earlier is disrupted by volcanic debris, subzero temperatures, international politics, and a 500-year-old Greenland shark.
  • And I liked John F. Dobbyn’s adventure poem, “Nugget,” which begins: “I’d come in from our claim on the Klondike that week, and I’d made it just under the gun. The trails and the rivers were hell on the dogs, once the icing and snows had begun.”

Fiction River’s latest anthology, Dark and Deadly Passions, deals with crimes that come from emotion—especially extreme emotion. Editor Kristine Kathryn Rusch has a story in the above issue of Ellery Queen, and her long story for Fiction River, “Grief Spam,” was one I couldn’t put down. Other especially good tales included:

  • Annie Reed’s “Missing Carolyn,” which shows just how complicated revenge can be.
  • Lauryn Christopher’s  “Tilting at Windmills,” demonstrating that art can have unexpected value.
  • Michael Warren Lucas’s “Getting Away with It” further shows that the value of art depends on the beholder.

Planting Evidence

A larger overlap than you might think exists between plant science and crime investigation. This confluence was suggested at the recent Killer Nashville conference by Jane Bock, Professor Emeritus in the University of Colorado’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

For writers, this field opens new possibilities for developing clues and those arcane hooks that make a story unique. Clues based on plant science can be crucial to a case: Ask Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who was executed for the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby largely on evidence related to the wood used to construct a homemade ladder (still controversial, and there are true believers on both sides).

Botanists get involved in crime investigations for any number of reasons: they’re asked to identify plant-based controlled substances; they’re asked to identify plant material found on a corpse’s body or clothing or at the crime scene; they’re asked to help identify plant cells (from fruits, vegetables, seeds) found inside a body, in the g.i. tract. This reveals not only what the victim ate, but whether it was harmful or poisonous. Where in the gastrointestinal tract the cells are found can help determine time-of-death. If they’re still in the stomach, death probably occurred no more than two hours after a meal. If they’ve moved on, well, let’s not discuss it.

Forensic botanists also are expected to know what grows where and when. A flower out of season suggests it came from somewhere else. (An episode of the BBC mystery Vera used this type of clue.) Do a suspect’s skin, fingernails, clothing, shoes, vehicle, or home contain traces of the same plant material found on the victim? The more anomalous the material is to when and where it’s found, the more likely suspect and victim are connected.

Dr. Bock and her U of C-Boulder colleague, David Norris, published a textbook on this topic in 2012, based on the approximately 50 cases they worked on. Each has served as an expert witness for both the prosecution and the defense in homicide cases. If you want to dig into this further, other more recent resources continue to pursue these seeds of crime.

Further Reading:
Murder Most Florid, by Dr. Mark Spencer (2019)
Plants and Crime: A Green Mystique Forensic Mystery Companion by Alan Graham (2021)

We Begin at the End

The annual lists of crime, mystery, and thriller award winners and nominees always reveal gems I’ve missed, like Chris Whitaker’s much-lauded We Begin at the End. The audio version is narrated by George Newbern with absolute fidelity to the different characters and where their heads are in the moment.

One of the protagonists is Chief Walker, whom everyone calls Walk, the long-time police chief of Cape Haven, a small town on the California coast. Walk, in his mid-forties, tries hard to keep his community from changing. In fact, he’d much prefer to go back in time about thirty years to before the hit-and-run in which his best friend Vincent King killed seven-year-old Sissy Radley.

Vincent received a ten-year sentence at an adult prison, with twenty more tacked on when he killed another inmate in a fight. The novel starts just before Vincent is released from prison and Walk is bringing him home to what promises to be a chilly welcome.

Before he can reclaim his friend, Walk is approached by two children—Duchess Radley, 13, and her brother Robin, five. Their mother has overdosed again, and Walk helps them get her to the hospital. Star Radley has been going off the deep end with increasing frequency. When they were all teenagers, Star and Vincent were a couple, part of a foursome that included Walk and Martha May, and it’s obvious that Walk remains deeply loyal to all of them.

The other main character is Star’s daughter, Duchess, who styles herself an outlaw and goes about proving it. Foul-mouthed and take-no-guff, Duchess has an uncritical eye only for her little brother. He has a lioness defending him.

Tragedy strikes, and Vincent King is once more accused of murder. Despite Walk’s pleading, Vincent won’t say a word in his defense, except that he wants Walk’s former girlfriend, Martha May, to defend him. She’s a family lawyer, and approaching her about Vincent’s case is a difficult journey into the past for them both.

Duchess and Robin are sent to live in Montana with a grandfather they’ve never met, and Duchess is determined not to like him or the ranch or Montana or her new school or anything else. You ache to see her fighting the relationships that would be good for her. You’ve probably known teenagers like this; perhaps you were one yourself.

The story includes many strong secondary characters, some of whom are quite admirable. Even those who do bad things are fully developed and drawn with compassion. Not a roller-coaster of a thriller, this book is more like a slow train through a darkening woods. The journey includes plenty of hazards, both physical and emotional, as it steadily, inexorably, carries you forward. If you take that train ride, you’ll find it’s both moving and memorable. There’s a small, but telling reveal near the end that stopped me, even though it had been in front of me all the time. And if you can do the audio version—do it! Newbern’s narration is flawless.

Order from Amazon here. Or here from your local Indie bookstore.