Release day! Today’s the day for the print version of the anthology, The Best Laid Plans, edited by Canadian mystery writer Judy Penz Sheluk. She’s collected 21 stories from popular short story writers, and if you like your crime and chills in small bites, you’ll enjoy this! Here’s a quick rundown of these entertaining tales.
About my story, “Who They Are Now”: When an aging sportscaster is murdered in his bed under cover of a vicious Florida hurricane, is someone after his priceless collection of baseball memorabilia? The Delray Beach police are on the case, aided by his neighbor, a feisty but no-longer-young Hollywood star.
Forensic psychologist Louis Schlesinger
of John Jay College of Criminal Law spoke to the NY chapter of Mystery Writers
of America after dinner last week. Yesterday, I summarized his points about staging a
homicide scene and undoing a murder—both aspects of criminality that writers
may find useful in their diabolical plotting. Here’s more.
Schlesinger has written about foreign object insertions, a
topic he considered not suitable to delve into in a postprandial talk, except
to say that about half are not discovered until autopsy and the moths found in
the throats of The Silence of the Lambs
killer’s victims were not realistic. Why not? I wonder. He’s published an
article on this topic, and if you’re super-curious, you can access
the full article here.
Serial and Sexual
Serial and sexual homicides often involve rituals and follow
a pattern—a “signature.” The murder alone is not psychologically sufficient to
fulfill the killer’s intent. Creating any kind of an elaborate crime scene
tableau requires time, which increases the risk of apprehension. Taking this
extra risk shows how important that aspect of the crime is to him.
Recall Douglas Preston’s true-crime book, The
Monster of Florence, about a series of 16 (at least) murders that took
place in north Italy between 1968 and 1985. The killer’s victims often had
complicated wounds that would have taken some time to inflict, yet as I recall,
the bodies were found in well frequented lovers’ lanes. It was a mystery how he
got away with it for so long. (Preston’s book describes the horribly botched investigation
masterminded by prosecutor Giuliano Mignini. Over the course of Mignini’s “investigation,”
he prosecuted some 20 individuals, all of whom were subsequently acquitted. If
his name rings a bell, Mignini was also responsible for the mishandling of the
case against Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito.)
But just because a serial killer has a signature, he may
vary it occasionally, depending on circumstances. These variations crop up
anywhere in the series of killings and can take many forms, making
identification of all the victims in a challenge for your fictional
Psychopathic serial killers are typically of average
intelligence, Schlesinger said, with Ted Bundy the exception that proves the
rule. What they’re very smart about is masking their pathology. Maybe that’s
why a killer’s neighbors and co-workers always say, “He seemed like such a normal
Schlesinger pointed to several trends of interest to crime
writers. Advances in emergency medicine that have helped save injured military
personnel on the battlefield have been imported to our city hospitals. Many
people whose injuries would have been fatal a few years ago now can be saved. That’s
the good news, partly responsible for holding murder rates down.
The bad news is that, despite more police and better analytic techniques, only about 60 percent of murder cases are cleared by an arrest. It isn’t that the police aren’t doing a good job. Back when most murders occurred between people who knew each other, police investigations had something to go on. Today, the increases in random shootings, drive-by killings, drug killings, and gang warfare mean that, absent a confession, the responsible party is forever a question mark. And, they lack the dramatic possibilities of a 20-year feud between neighbors, a wronged lover, or jealous sibling.
The audience’s murder weapons are pen and keyboard, members
of the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America. They came together last
week to hear Louis Schlesinger, professor of psychology at Manhattan’s John Jay
College of Criminal Justice, present some of his insights as a forensic
psychologist—very useful stuff for people who write crime stories.
Staging a Homicide
He talked about “crime
scene staging,” when killers try to make a murder look like something else—for examples, as if the a victim died
in a fire, in an auto accident, during a robbery, or by suicide.
About one in five domestic homicides is staged, the highest
rate for any type of murder, Schlesinger said. Seems to me the main reason he
could know that is that they aren’t staged very well. Consider how cleverly writer
Gillian Flynn used the idea of staging in Gone
Girl. Amy’s disappearance looked to be the result of a kidnapping after a
pitched battle in her living room. But the physical evidence didn’t quite add
up, so the detectives looked further. One drop of blood in the clean-looking
kitchen prompted them to bring out the luminol, which revealed evidence of mopped-up
blood. Clearly, something else entirely had gone on there. Of course, what really
went on, the reader finds out only much later. A staging double-cross.
Only about five percent of single-victim homicides (not
domestic) are staged, in part because of the greater likelihood of witnesses
may make staging too difficult. Schlesinger’s studies have found no cases of
serial sexual homicide that have been staged, in part because the offenders’ focus
is not on misleading investigators, but on something else entirely.
“Undoing” a Murder
If staging is done to mislead the detectives, symbolic
reversal—or “undoing”—is done, in a sense, to mislead the perpetrator. It’s a
kind of bizarre coping strategy. Especially when a young child has been killed,
a mother (usually) may try to reverse the death by tending to the baby, washing
it, changing its clothing, psychologically telling herself she was a good,
caring mother. Or, she might bandage the child’s injuries (to me, that’s
When the victim is not a child, symbolic reversal is rare,
occurring in about one percent of cases. These acts may be as simple as
covering the victim’s body, putting it on a sofa or bed, or putting a pillow
underneath the victim’s head, for example. In a
study of 975 homicides, 11 such cases were found, with 10 of the 11
offenders male and all of the victims female.
Unfortunately, the undoing, which suggests perpetrators’ guilt
and remorse, came too late.
Tomorrow: Foreign Objects,
Serial and Sexual Homicide, and What’s Trending
Written by RG Belsky – This is former newsman Dick Belsky’s second crime story featuring Pulitzer-Prize winning print journalist Clare Carlson, now significantly reduced in career status by working as the news director for Channel 10 television.
Clare has a wittily cynical, self-deprecating take on her job and the events and people around her, and the novel begins with her musing on why some deaths—those of blonde white females—matter more than others, at least in the news business. Most of the time.
Clare runs a lively morning news meeting, in which the
reporters and staff hammer out which stories to feature that day, absent any
even bigger story breaking. On this particular day, Clare’s assignment editor
Maggie challenges the team to look a little deeper and discover what was
important about the life and death of a person they wouldn’t ordinarily spend
time on, a fifty-four-year-old homeless woman stabbed to death in an ATM
vestibule. Because Clare rises to the challenge, they discover, over time, just
how significant the story of Dora Gayle turns out to be.
The first glimmer there may be more to the homeless woman’s story
than they anticipated comes when Grace Mancuso, a woman Gayle’s polar
opposite—young, beautiful, wealthy, a stockbroker—is brutally murdered. Beside
her body is a list of five names, five people who appear to have nothing in
common, who in fact believe they have never even met. The last name on the list
is Dora Gayle.
Through Clare’s investigative journalism, Belsky expertly
rolls out the stories of all these people, living and dead, and their possible
intersections. Except for Gayle, of course, are they suspects in either murder?
Potential victims? In the process, Belsky lays down enough red herrings to feed
Belsky, who lives and worked in Manhattan for years, knows
his setting well, not just its geography, but its culture down to the
neighborhood level. You may look up from his pages and be surprised to find
yourself somewhere other than Washington Square or the East Village, so
thoroughly is this story imbued with the spirit of New York.
It isn’t a spoiler to say that, in the end, the death of Dora Gayle, a death that ordinarily would have been passed over without journalistic notice, started the novel’s engine, bearing out Clare’s advice to her news team that “there’s a story to every murder.”
By Denise Mina – In her new deftly plotted crime thriller,
Denise Mina uses a compelling story-within-a-story to draw you in. First-person
narrator Anna McDonald lives in Glasgow with husband Hamish and two young
daughters. Early one morning, she’s listening to a true-crime podcast about the
sinking of the Dana, a private yacht
moored in France’s Île de Ré. The boat suffered an explosion below decks and
sank, drowning a father and his two grown children.
Anna is a dispassionate listener to this story until it mentions
the yacht-owner’s name, Leon Parker. She knows him. Years before, when she worked
as a maid at an exclusive Scottish holiday resort, Parker was a guest, and she
remembers him fondly. “Oh, God, Leon’s laugh. So dark and wild you could drown
a bag of kittens in it.”
Anna can’t reminisce forever, though, she has to awaken the
children and her husband and start their day. In a frenzy of morning
preparations, Anna finally answers the knock at the door. Her best friend
Estelle is there with a roller bag, and Hamish is at the top of the stairs, his
own roller bag beside him.
Hamish is leaving her for Estelle. He’s keeping the house
and the girls. Anna will get money. Throughout this roller-coaster of a story, Mina
effectively conveys Anna’s erratic state of mind, and while her character
doesn’t always make the best decisions, you can believe in her. She’s prickly and charming.
And she has secrets. She wasn’t always Anna McDonald. She
was Sophie Bukaran until she was raped by four footballers. The case attracted
unwanted notoriety, the fans never forgave her, and team owner Gretchen Tiegler
tried to get her killed.
Soon Estelle’s husband Fin Cohen arrives. He’s an instantly
recognizable member of a popular band who is as well known for being anorexic
as for his music. Without thought of logistics or consequences, Anna and Fin
launch into a road trip to flee the reminders of their abandonment. As they
listen to the podcast episodes in the car, Fin also becomes intrigued with the Dana’s sinking and its reputation of
Eventually, the two begin their own series of podcasts, asking new questions about the crime. Thanks to Fin’s celebrity and the almost immediate outing of Anna as Sophie, their forays into pseudo-journalism attract an improbably large audience. Sophie is afraid the attention will spark renewed risk from Tiegler and her minions—not only to her. Her daughters are vulnerable too. Fin tells her she’s being paranoid, until he has a fright of his own. “Now that Fin was scared too, my paranoia never came up again.” Love Sophie’s sly humor!
You’re in for quite an adventure, at times a deadly one,
with Mina’s intriguing tale.
For a quirkier side of Glasgow crime, I’d also recommend the
entertaining adventure of book store clerk, inadvertent murderer, and fugitive
crime-fighter Jen Carter in Russell D. McLean’s Ed’s Dead.
By Alafair Burke – Which is
the better sister? An interesting question, but not one their husband Adam can
answer, because he’s dead. In an intriguing plot complication, both women were
married to the same man, just not at the same time. Nicky married him first, almost
twenty years ago, but her increasingly erratic behavior finally forced Adam to
seek a divorce and custody of their toddler son Ethan. Soon he moved to
Manhattan where Chloe lives, and for a number of years he worked happily and
successfully as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Chloe, now his wife, urged him into a much more lucrative job, a partnership at a white-shoe law firm. Adam hates it. Not only that, something’s gone wrong in their relationship, though you can’t quite put your finger on it—yet.
A bit of a control freak, Chloe doesn’t reveal the cracks in
her armor right away. She’s also a bit of a modern hero, using her magazine to let
not just media darlings, but everyday women tell their sexual abuse and
harassment stories. Misogynistic Twitter trolls make her a target—an unpredictable,
persistent threat lurking in the background.
When Chloe arrives home late one night, Adam has been
murdered, which brings Nicky to Manhattan, hoping to reconnect with her now
sixteen-year-old son and taking up residence in Chloe’s home office. These
temperamentally opposite sisters circle each other like newly introduced
housecats. At least Nicky has stopped the drugs and the drinking, and she’s
started making jewelry to sell on Etsy. In an unexpected rebalancing of the
scales of likability, you may find yourself more sympathetic to Nicky than
Chloe, who works so hard at being perfect.
The police detectives clearly hope to pin Adam’s death on Chloe, but when they realize Ethan has lied about where he was the night of his father’s death, they focus laserlike on him. A third strong woman enters the story in the character of Olivia Randall, Ethan’s lawyer. Chloe would like to manage the case, Nicky would like to do something rash, but Olivia stays in charge. But if Ethan didn’t kill his father, who did?
Author Burke’s real-life experience as a prosecutor serves the story well, and the details of the trial and the strategies of the attorneys make for excellent courtroom drama. The pressures of the trial bring forth a few “I didn’t see that coming” surprises too. It’s is an engaging, well-told tale that benefits from Burke’s clear writing style.
The spring crime/thriller/mystery award season is for me means
listening to the many nominees I’ve missed. Below are four recent listens. Good
books, all, but these reviews focus on their strengths as spoken-word products.
Listed in order of preference, my favorite at the top.
1 – Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens (12 hours, 12 minutes) – I fell under the spell of this engrossing novel and Cassandra Campbell’s placid narration. Yes, Owens glosses over the serious difficulties that would be faced by an eight-year-old girl living alone in the North Carolina marsh. With the help of her friend Tate, Kaya teaches herself to read and to record her detailed observations of the marsh’s plant and animal life. In the background, Owens weaves in the investigation of a murder that takes place when Kaya is in her early twenties and, the plot being what it is, you know she’ll be accused of the crime and totally unprepared to defend herself. I was with Kaya’s story all the way up to the end. Though Owens laid the factual groundwork for it, it didn’t make emotional sense. Nevertheless, the story is a fine ride, sensitively and beautifully read.
2 – The Liar’s Girl, by Catherine Ryan Howard (10 hours, 26 minutes) – A nicely plotted thriller about Alison Smith, whose boyfriend, in her first year of college, confessed to a string of murders of young Dublin women. He’s been in a psychiatric institution ever since, but now, ten years on, the murders have started again. The Dublin police visit Alison in the Netherlands where she now lives, saying her boyfriend may be able to help with the current investigation. But he will only talk with her, and they guilt-trip her into returning. Solid reading by a trio of actors: Alana Kerr Collins (mostly), Alan Smyth, and Gary Furlong.
2- (Yes, a tie) – Down the River Unto the Sea, by Walter Mosley (7 hours, 44 minutes) – Loved the narration of this New York tale and its diversity of voices. Disgraced NYPD detective Joe King Oliver, now a private detective, sees a chance to redeem himself and his career with the takedown of a group of crooked cops. And he has the chance to rescue another possibly falsely accused black man. But, it’s New York, so it’s complicated. He finds himself an unlikely ally in a dangerous character named Melquarth Frost whom I liked a lot. Great narrating job by Dion Graham, capturing all the humor and subtleties of Mosley’s wildly colorful characters.
3 – The Witch Elm, by Tana French (22 hours, 7 minutes) – I hadn’t realized this book was so much longer than the others. It sure felt that way. French is such a greatly admired author, I must be missing something when I find her tedious. Only after you’ve invested several hours does evidence of the crime at the book’s center emerge. Perhaps it’s a reflection of how well she wrote the dialog of twenty-something Toby and his cousins—snarky, whining, self-absorbed—or the pitch-perfect rendition narrator Paul Nugent gives it (“Toe-beeee!”), but listening to their endless talk was like fingernails on a blackboard.
By Timothy Jay Smith – Take a walk back in time to Warsaw,
1992, with Timothy Jay Smith’s new crime thriller. The Cold War has recently
ended, but average citizens struggle to figure out the new economic realities.
Nothing quite works yet, and the gray concrete dullness of Soviet brutalist
architecture is made even harsher by the dismal April weather. Politically, old
relationships are unraveling, and chaos in the former Soviet Union and some of
its satellites raises an important question, who’s watching the nukes?
Warsaw police, meanwhile, are dealing with a baffling series
of murders. Over just a few weeks, three unidentified young men have been shot
to death, their bodies abandoned on the banks of the Vistula River, one cheek
slit open, all labels expertly cut from their clothing. Now they’ve found a
fourth victim, older this time. By chance, the forensic pathologist noticed the
third victim’s hands bore traces of radiation. Whatever he’d been smuggling, Poland’s
new Solidarity government wants help to stop it.
American aid comes to them from the FBI in the person of Jay
Porter, who in turn calls on the expertise of the local CIA officer—a gay black
man named Kurt Crawford—and the genial Ambassador. There are good interactions
and good humor among the three Americans. They all want to put an end to what seems
to be nuclear material being spirited out of the former Soviet Union—but each
has a totally different way of going about it.
Porter meets an attractive Polish woman, Lilka, who, he
learns, is divorced from her abusive husband, but the apartments in Poland are
so few and so small, so they still live together. The American starts seeing
Lilka, which gives author Smith a vehicle for introducing realistic aspects of
everyday Polish life—the shortages, the cranky cars, the small indulgences, and
the stresses immediately post-communism—one of the most interesting aspects of
the book, in fact.
Perhaps there are a couple too many plot coincidences and
intersections among the cast of characters. All of them remain distinctive and
interesting, though, even the minor ones. Smith’s well described settings put
you right in the scene, whether it’s the drably elegant hotel favored by a
Yugoslav general, a seedy bar in the bowels of the train station, or the riverside
wasteland where the corpses keep washing up.
Photo: “Soviet buttons” by seitbijakaspars, creative commons license.
By Richard Helms – In this fast-paced crime thriller,
award-winning author Richard Helms guides you to the darker corners of New
Orleans, where at any moment the extravagant pleasures of the food, the
culture, and the music can turn deadly.
Pat Gallegher makes just enough money to get by, playing his
cornet in Holliday’s, a seedy French Quarter watering hole. A gambling
addiction caused many of his more recent troubles, but a twelve-step program
has helped him reclaim some normalcy, if you can call it that: “One thing about
being in a recovery program, you meet the most interesting people.”
One of those interesting people is Cabby Jacks, who got him
started in Gamblers Anonymous and insisted he take it seriously. Now Gallegher
believes part of his recovery depends on righting the balance in his life by
doing what he terms “favors.” He has a particular skill in finding people and
things that are lost. One of those people is Cabby Jacks.
History is responsible for Gallegher’s rocky relationships
with the cops. But those are balanced by excellent interactions with his woman
friend, Merlie, with the bar’s owner, Shorty, and with the other musicians. The
dialog in Gallegher’s interactions with friend and foe is full of sly humor,
not always appreciated, but sparkling throughout.
Merlie also needs a favor. She runs a shelter for teenage “runaways,
throwaways, and other destitute children.” One of her charges needs surgery,
but the dad needs to sign the consent and no one can find him. Another job for
Helms builds the tension nicely when tracking down the
father leads Gallegher into the swampy wilderness where an oil pipeline is
being laid. The hunt for Cabby leads him to a ship docked at the port of New
Orleans and unexpected exposure to ultra-violent Brazilian gangs trying for a
toe-hold in Louisiana.
Gallegher is not a lone actor here. He gets help from a
former Secret Service man and calls on his long-time acquaintance Scat Boudreaux,
whom Gallegher believes may be “the most dangerous man in America.” The real
dark horse of the piece is a young guitarist who understands more about
surveillance and guns than any young musician ought to.
Author Helms has a knack for making all these people vivid and interesting. I could read a whole novel about any of them. The plot edges close to spiraling into unbelievability near the end, but the strength of the writing and the characters keeps it together.
When they’re good, thrillers set in interesting foreign
places are like a trip without the airport hassles. Both of these seemed like promising
journeys, and both had good points. If the premise intrigues you, go for it.
***Secrets of the
By Murray Bailey – This is the second of Murray Bailey’s crime thrillers to follow the adventures of Egypt archaeologist Alex MacLure, and it’s clear the author knows his subject.
Secrets of the Dead
begins, not in Egypt, but in Atlanta, Georgia, where a cache of bodies has been
found, eight in all. The victims were buried in a crawl space under The Church
of the Risen Christ. FBI agent Charlie Rebb and her annoying partner Peter
Zhang are immediately brought into the investigation because she’d worked a
previous serial killer case in which the eight victims were murdered in the
same manner as those under the church. They bear a mysterious mark loosely
linked to a local tattoo artist who appears to have fled the country.
Alex MacLure’s research is under way in the town established
by Pharoah Akhenaten and his beautiful wife, Nefertiti. Ancient secrets hide in
the artifacts of the period, and MacLure hopes to reveal them. A stranger claiming
special knowledge asks MacLure to meet him in Cairo, and MacLure follows a
rather obscure trail of breadcrumbs to find the mysterious man. When he enters
the apartment, he finds not an informant, but a dead body. Hard on his heels
are the police, and an uncomfortable time in an Egyptian jail ensues. Bailey’s
vivid description of jail conditions are enough to make you not risk even a
jaywalking ticket in Cairo.
Charlie Rebb is sent to Egypt to work with Cairo police, as
a body has been found there with similar markings as those under the church. Clearly
the two stories are becoming intertwined. Occasional sections are from the
point of view of the killer and his Master, unnecessary in my opinion, and not
Bailey intersperses Rebb’s and MacLure’s narratives with the
story of Yanhamu, an official from 1315 BCE who became the Pharoah’s Keeper of
Secrets. He was given the charge of finding one particular secret, that of
Bailey’s writing moves the action along smoothly. His
authentic passion for the country’s long and complicated ancient history shines
through. It’s a strong contender for your summer beach bag, the kind of book
you don’t want to have to think about too much. That’s partly because Bailey
doesn’t give you much help. The map and schematic of the Great Pyramid are a
step in the right direction. A glossary, perhaps a timeline, would be equally
By John Di Frances
– This is the first book of a trilogy about an international hunt
for a trio of assassins targeting European politicians. As a crime thriller,
the tradecraft of the assassins is detailed and persuasive, and the police
procedural elements also are good. It’s billed as a book that demonstrates
disenchantment with the European Union – the assassination targets are
big EU supporters – but it doesn’t really work as a political thriller, because
there’s very little politics in it. The assassins could just as well be
murdering top chefs or social media gurus.
The assassins are an Irish couple, handsome and strikingly
beautiful, wealthy, elegant, and socially adept (in a too-good-to-be-true way)
and a more rough-around-the-edges German man, who is an expert sniper. The
couple’s first target is Slovakia’s prime minister, killed by a car bomb outside
a Bratislava restaurant. The German accomplishes the second murder, that of the
Polish prime minister. It’s technically difficult, shooting from a distance of
640 meters into a packed stadium of excitable soccer fans.
The three escape to Berlin, several steps ahead of the multiple
security services now on their trail. The cat-and-mouse game is well done and
may carry you through some of the clunky writing. Technical information dumps
show Di Frances did his homework. Yet the weight or length of a rifle is
immaterial, of itself. Such information needs to be brought into the story. Has
the sniper had experience with a rifle of that type, is its length an advantage
or does it make it hard to conceal? Worst was a bullet-point list of 16
variables affecting the soccer stadium shot. Dude, this is fiction!
The plot pulls you forward nevertheless, and Di Frances has a great twist in store. Unfortunately, when you reach the end of Pretense, you’re not at the end of the story. To really understand what’s been going on, you’ll have to read book two and very probably book three. Not sure I’m ready for that.Link to Amazon.