Tag: murder


How do you celebrate All Hallows' Evening?

While there seems to be general consensus that the observance of Halloween dates back to Celtic harvest festivals, there is some debate about its exact origins. A quick glance at Wikipedia is enough to overwhelm all but the heartiest of researching souls. Since I’m neither a speaker of Gaelic nor a historian, I’ll leave the details to the experts. Instead, it seems fitting to mark the day with a discussion about what I love most about the holiday.  As someone who writes about murder on an almost daily base, I’m embarrassed to admit that I avoid horror movies and books because they scare me too much. And, yet, every year on October 31st I’m drawn to the spookiest bits of the day. No cute or sexy costumes for me. I like it creepy. One year, when my kids were small, my husband literally blocked me from leaving the apartment to take our then second-grade daughter and pre-k son to the school Halloween party until I made my face less scary. He was afraid I would make the younger kids cry. (I was a ghost that year and had spent a good bit of time with makeup so that I looked like I’d been dead for a few decades). Another year I took my kids trick-or-treating; and we were all characters from Star Wars. I was the Emperor. Not only did I find a perfect ragged walking stick that allowed me to hobble hunched over, but I drew wrinkles and warts on my hands, and rubbed dirt under my nails so that every bit of me looked evil. There was not a dog we met that night that didn’t growl. I took those snarls as compliments. My daughter, now a senior in high school, informed me that my problem with Halloween is that if I dress up (which I don’t always do), I tend to be extra. I’m not entirely sure what that means, because I’m not a fluent speaker of teenagese, but I have a feeling it’s not good. I suspect my plans to be Count Dracula this year may be met with some eye-rolling by my family, who prefer a lower-key approach to the holiday. So, my fellow suspense readers and writers–my friends who like to read and write about death for fun–how do you like to celebrate this centuries-old holiday? Do you carve happy jack-o-lanterns and bob for apples? Or do you like the darker side? Or, maybe, something else in between? No matter how you celebrate: Happy Halloween!      

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Guns, Germs and Lead Pipes

I kill imaginary people for a living. Like John Cusack’s hitman in Grosse Pointe Blank, I’m not quite sure why I do it. Maybe my psychological profile fits a certain “moral flexibility.” I hate doing it with a gun, though.  That’s not to say I haven’t used firearms in my fiction. Guns are efficient, particularly in novels where characters often hit their targets. Readers know what to expect when I mention the gleaming slide of a semi-automatic or a sleek, sloping trigger. And, as American police officers have handguns as part of the uniform, chances favor death by bullet for bad guys (real or invented). My problem with guns in fiction is that they are used all-too-often in the mystery and thriller genres and they deliver death a little impersonally for a psychological suspense book. Shooting someone from five feet away lacks the immediacy that I think readers want when they’ve been inside characters’ heads trying to unravel their thought processes.  I’ve drowned people. There is a certain metaphorical satisfaction to this method of dispensing with marked characters. Sinking beneath the water evokes a burial. The character slips beneath the surface and disappears, the layers of water like fresh shovels of dirt. It also has literary roots (Ophelia in Hamlet, for one). I’ve pushed people off buildings. This method of dispatching with characters has the benefit of working for both women and men. The imaginary person needs only to be someplace precarious and off-balance–in other words in a setting that evokes the atmosphere I’ve been trying to create all book.  I’ve also bludgeoned folks with blunt objects. Writing a scene in which a character was beaten with a lead pipe was extremely difficult for me. I think it took two days to craft and involved looking at head injuries online as well as watching police interviews of suspects in crime of passion killings in which the victims were beaten (YouTube has everything.) I cried a bunch that week. But I think the scene came out with the amount of violence required for the character’s emotional state in the moment.  In a book due out 2018 and currently with my editor, I drugged a character. Employing this method involved reading up on drug side effects and what substances particular pills can and cannot be combined with. The benefit of using this tactic is that I could create considerable tension in the lead up to the death. Would the character imbibe the poison or not? And what if he or she tasted something off? One of the more interesting ways of eliminating a character that I read was in Christine Carbo’s The Wild Inside. It involves a bear and bait–and fortunately for my sensitive stomach happens off-screen, so to speak.  So, writer friends, join me in this morbid discussion. How do you get rid of your victims? Are there any methods that you avoid and why? What are some of the most interesting ways of eliminating characters that you’ve read?  (Also, thanks to Jared Diamond’s book for inspiring my title–even though Guns, Germs and Steel is an amazing historical study of why certain groups of people have experienced a kind of global hegemony and has NOTHING to do with murder mysteries.)          

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Be Careful What You Say; You Might End Up in My Novel

 I struggled to come up with an idea for a blog post today. I mean I had nothing. Nothing struck me as new or blogworthy. I didn’t feel I had anything to say about anything, at least nothing that hadn’t been said countless times already. No new spins, no new twists. Until I decided to get dinner and went out for a sandwich.
My town boasts a lovely cheese market. They sell more varieties of cheese than I imagined possible. Cheese made from milk produced by every animal except yak, I think. Cheese from more countries than you can find on Google Earth. Plain cheese and cheese with add-ins ranging from berries to nuts to nettles to bourbon. Pure cheese nirvana. The market also sells deli meats, salads, pastries, beverages, and heat-and-eat meals. And sandwiches. Which is why I was there. As I waited for my panino (which I just learned is the singular of panini) to come off the grill, a man approached the counter with a tub of grated parmesan cheese. The cashier rang up the cheese and asked the man if he wanted anything else. “No,” the man said. He swiped his card to pay for his cheese and left.
Grated parmesan. That’s all he bought. No pasta, no bread, no wine. Just a single tub of grated parmesan. Who goes to the store and buys only a tub of grated parmesan? What’s he going to do with it? I looked him over—unobtrusively, I hoped. Middle-aged. Handsome. A bit of gray flecked his dark hair and beard. His beard fell into the scruffy category—too heavy to be five o’clock shadow, too scant to be called full. Neat and trim enough to suggest he worked to keep it that way. He wore a nice suit and carried a stainless-steel travel coffee mug. The lid was on but he held it sideways, suggesting he’d finished the contents at some earlier point in his commute. It also suggested he’d just come from the train. If he’d driven, he’d have left the mug in his vehicle. In other words, he looked like an average businessman, no different from some zillion other average commuters. Nothing sinister about him.
But, because this is how my brain works, I immediately started to attribute sinister motive behind buying only a tub of grated parmesan cheese. I decided he was going to mix poison in it and swap it for an unadulterated tub. A regular brain would assume he was planning a spaghetti dinner and simply forgot the parmesan so stopped by the store on the way from work to get some. Or someone was fixing spaghetti for him and called or texted him to say they were out of cheese and please get some on the way home. A regular brain would assume these things. My brain is not regular. My brain writes murder mysteries. A friend once asked me if I spent all my time imagining ways my friends would die if they were characters in my novels. I told him my “friends” have nothing to worry about. But, yeah, I kind of do. Every place I visit is a potential crime scene in some future novel. Every person I see is a model for a fictional victim or suspect. Every overheard conversation becomes the basis for potential dialog or a plot. It’s been said that authors steal lives. Authors steal entire worlds. Everything, even the most mundane situation (and, really, what’s more mundane than buying a tub of cheese?) is fair game for future fiction. And, you know what? I’m not sorry. No apologies. As an introvert, I’ve lived in my head my entire life. I enjoy the stories swirling around in there. I’m not hurting anyone. I don’t shout at strangers, “Hey! Who are you going to poison with that cheese?” Making up stories satisfies my urge to create, fulfills my God complex. The world in my head operates the way I want it to. Good triumphs over evil, the bad guy never gets away with it, repentance and redemption are the rules, not the exceptions, chaos becomes order, wrongs are made right, justice prevails.
So, Mr. Cheese, if you happen to read this, don’t worry. I don’t really think you’re a mad poisoner. My assessment of your food choice may have been influenced by the advanced reader’s copy of fellow Missdemeanor, Cate Holahan’s, new domestic thriller, The Lies She Told. A good domestic thriller makes you suspicious of all things associated with domestic tranquility. You give every mundane action, every scene of commonplace life, the side eye, wondering what darkness lurks beneath the Norman Rockwell-esque veneer. But, please, enjoy your pasta or whatever you plan to sprinkle with parmesan. I’ll keep my thoughts about your purchase to myself. Unless I come across a breaking news headline about the Spaghetti Murders. 

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