If you’ve ever wanted to ask some of the world’s greatest mystery writers for their advice on writing, Howdunit: A Master Class in Crime Writing by Members of The Detection Club is the book for you. Founded in the early 1920s, and it is likely the world’s foremost and most elite mystery writers organization. You must be invited to join and originally only people from the UK could be members. It’s really more like a social club than anything else as it was created as a way for the members to get together for a very nice dinner. This book however, it not simple dinner reading. With advice on every aspect of writing from motives, people, plots, and places, to writing with a partner, challenges, and publishing there is great advice in every essay. You see, each of the famous authors, including Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin, G.K. Chesterton, P.D. James, Ann Cleeves, Ngaio Marsh, John Dickson Carr, Dorothy L. Sayers, and many more, have written short essays full of wisdom, help, and personal stories. Whether you’ve published no books (there’s also advice on short stories) or a hundred books, there’s something here for you.
I enjoy mysteries coming from unexpected writers. In the past I’ve read some from A.A. Milne and Gore Vidal with several more on my list. When I heard that Gypsy Rose Lee, perhaps the most famous stripper that ever lived, had written a mystery, it immediately jumped to the top of my list. They say you should write what you know, and she did. In The G-String Murders, Gypsy inserts herself right into the story as both the narrator and main character (but not the detective). Written in the Golden Age of Mystery, in 1941, she’s working at a burlesque house in New York City where other strippers are murdered. Gypsy does an amazing job with this book by weaving a story filled with suspects, red herrings, and real clues. It’s all there for you. You also learn about the world of burlesque shows. This is a well-done, fair play mystery. It was probably scandalous in its time and the movie adaptation, starring Barbara Stanwyck had to be renamed to Lady of Burlesque because “G-String” couldn’t get past the censors. The G-String Murders is worth your time. 5 stars.
2020 was a strange year for all of us. For many, including me, the best laid plans disappeared. My writing space turned into my working space overnight when the day job sent us all to work from home. It was near impossible to sit in my home office all day and then again at night to pound out the words. And, living in a small townhouse, I had no where that I could sit and write like I needed.
The bright side in all this is my reading went nuts. My Goodreads reading goal was 25 books. In the end, I hit 264% of my goal by reading 66 books. You can see my complete 2020 reading list here. But before I get to my favorite books of the year (listed in no particular order), I want to talk about one book I read but not on my best list that deserves mention.
n 1995, Mystery Writers of America polled their membership and made a list of the Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time. Despite that fact that it technically isn’t a novel, number one on the list was The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sixty-two short stories and four novels (today they’d be novellas) make up the collection. First published between 1887 and 1927, Sir Arthur’s stories caught the fancy of people all across England. In fact, when Holmes was killed off, the public demanded more, so Holmes disappearance was explained away and his investigations started up again. I knew that I’d never be able to read Holmes straight through so I planned to read one book, one Holmes, one book, one Holmes, lather, rinse, repeat. Under my original goal, I wouldn’t have finished the book, but thanks to reading more, I finished. I do not rank Holmes anywhere near the best I read this year, but note because at 1077 pages in the edition I have, it’s a big accomplishment.
Best Novels of 2020
One of my favorite authors is Anthony Horowitz. He created the series Foyle’s War and wrote many of the episodes for Midsommer Murders. His book Moonflower Murders is a sequel to his great book Magpie Murders. We again follow Susan Ryeland, now a retired publisher, as she’s called back the the UK to solve the disappearance tied to dead author Alan Conway. Having solved Conway’s murder years before, and as his former publisher, Susan knew Conway best. She returns to the UK to investigate. The great trick of this book is it’s actually two novels in one. You read the first half, containing the story of Susan, then pause while you read the novel “written” by Conway, then return to Susan’s story. It makes for great fiction and is fun to read.
If you haven’t read any of the Flavia de Luce books by Alan Bradley, you’re missing out. Flavia is an eleven year old girl living in one of those quaint English villages just a few years after World War II. She fancies herself a chemist, having discovered her uncle’s lab in an abandoned upper floor of the family mansion. When I need just a delightful, quick read story, I pick up a Flavia story. In A Red Herring Without Mustard, the third book in the series, Flavia asks a gypsy woman to tell her fortune. She later stumbles across her dead body. In typical Flavia fashion, she sets out to solve the murder. Red herrings pile up and it was fun to sort through the clues to figure out who the killer was before Flavia can.
In the Wake of Captain Lord, Johnny Worthen again takes us on a comedic ride with his detective Tony Flaner. This time, Tony is on an Alaska cruise with his stand-up comedian friends. Tony laments the trouble he’ll be in with his girlfriend as he didn’t tell her he was going to cruise. To complicate matters, the ship is filled with rabid groupies who are part of a multi-level marketing pyramid scheme. Of course, a murder occurs, and as the only detective on board, Tony is soon roped in to find the killer. Worthen does a fantastic job of weaving in clues, both real and fake, into the complicated plot. This is the best Tony yet and I look forward to more to come. Worthen is a mostly undiscovered writer who deserves a bigger audience.
You’re likely familiar with stories of quaint English hamlets that have more than their share of murders. Well, murder also occurs in Three Pines, Quebec, Canada and Chief Inspector Armand Gamarche always shows up to solve the crime. In A Fatal Grace, the second novel in Louise Penny’s amazing series, Gamache investigates the killing of writer and self-named self-help guru CC Poitiers who was electrocuted on a frozen lake in plain sight of the entire town. Poitiers had alienated everyone in the town so there is no lack of suspects. Gamache must also find the connection between the victim and a homeless woman who was killed on the streets of Montreal. It all adds up to a great mystery by one of the best writers of our time.
Published in February, 1995, you may have to search to find a copy of Now You See It… by Richard Matheson but if you can get a copy, you’re in for a great read. Delacorte, once one of the greatest magicians, now afflicted by disease that forced him to retire, has called his family and friends to his home. Macabre tricks bring twists and murder and soon not even Delacorte can tell what’s real and what isn’t.
Sophie Hannah writes some of the best psychological murder thrillers today. She doesn’t disappoint with The Next to Die. A serial killer, who the police have called “Billy Dead Mates” seeks out best friends and kills them both. With the public in a panic and some white books with mysterious clues, the police try in vain to identify a suspect. But when stand-up comedian Kim Tribbeck gets one of the white books, she wonders why she’s being targeted. After all, she has no friends and doesn’t trust anyone. Will Kim survive? Will police identify and arrest the killer? Hannah, as usual, does an amazing job building the suspense and keeps you turning the pages.
I read lots of debut novels. Most of them are just okay. Splinter in the Blood is an exception. Ashley Dyer writes a mystery that is down right creepy, but I couldn’t put it down. Detective Greg Carver has spent months looking for the Torn Killer. When he’s shot in his home, his partner, Ruth Lake, cleans up the scene instead of calling for help. She then leaves. But one problem. Carver didn’t die. When he wakes up, he has no memory of the shooting and Lake is now leading the investigation to find the Thorn Killer. Ruth is keeping a deadly secret and isn’t talking and more people will die.
Tara Laskowski’s debut novel One Night Gone is another one of those amazing first timers that you must read. I’m not alone in this recommendation as it won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel and was a finalist for the Lefty Award and the Simon and Schuster Mary Higgins Clark Award. The book jumps back and forth between two stories. Decades ago, Maureen Haddaway arrived at a New Jersey beach town to restart her life. Then, one day, she just disappeared. In the present day, Allison Simpson has gone through a nasty divorce and quit her job as a TV weather reporter. She arrives at the same town, also to restart her life. Soon their two stories intersect in frightening, deadly ways.
Another big prize winner, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Based on a true story, The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, follows Elwood Curtis, a black boy in 1960s Tallahassee. When he’s wrongly accused and convicted of stealing a car, he’s sent to the Nickel Academy, a reformatory that is anything but pleasant. He makes friends with Turner, who becomes his only salvation. This book is a fascinating look into the racial discrimination of the 60s. The book shows why Whitehead is one of America’s greatest novelists today and his multiple Pulitzer Prizes are evidence that he is.
In the late 50’s, Patricia Moyes was on a ski vacation in the Alps, but after being injured she sat and watched skiers on the hill and the lift and came up with the premise for her debut novel, Dead Men Don’t Ski. Inspector Henry Tibbett and his wife head for their own ski vacation in the Italian Alps. But soon a dead body turns up and Tibbett, who is also there on official business, investigates. I thought I had the killer pegged…until they too turn up dead. Moyes has been compared to Agatha Christie and Dead Men Don’t Ski has that Christie feel. As a skier myself, I was pulled to this book and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Speaking of Agatha Christie, I’ll wrap up my favorite novels list with one that the Grand Dame herself named one of her favorites. But I will tell you that Endless Night is unlike any Christie novel you’ve ever read. First, it’s a romance. Michael Rogers happens on heiress Ellie. They fall madly in love, marry, and buy Gypsy’s Acre, despite a warning from a gypsy that no good will come to those who live there. The second thing that sets this book apart from other Christie novels is that the murder doesn’t happen until late in the book. There are plenty of suspects, but Christie throws in a twist that I never saw coming. If you’re a fan of the greatest novelist who ever lived, you need to read Endless Night.
Best Craft Books of 2020
If you’re a pantser who wants to be a plotter, Take Off Your Pants by Libby Hawker will help. The book is short on pages, but full on content. There is lots of good advice to help you get started plotting your novel.
Gail Bowen is one of the great Canadian writers. In her book Sleuth: Gail Bowen on Writing Mysteries, she imparts much of her process but at the same time lots of advice on writing a mystery. And it has the greatest line I’ve ever read in a craft book. When talking about pacing, she writes “There is no Cialis that will cause a flaccid manuscript to suddenly pulse with life”
Scene and sequel, scene and sequel. Every time I hear a writer talk about scenes, it’s always couple with sequel. In Make A Scene, Jordan Rosenfeld goes way past that, talking about different types of scenes, the beginning, middle, and end of a scene. Hands down, one of the best craft books I’ve ever read. You can’t go wrong here.
It was a beautiful summer day in the Hundred Acre Wood and Winnie the Pooh and Piglet had gone to their Thinking Spot to think.
“Think, think,” said Pooh, tapping the side of his head.
“What are you thinking, Pooh?” asked Piglet.
“I think,” said Pooh, “Oh Bother!”
“What is it?” said Piglet.
“I think there’s been a murder,” Pooh decided.
“A m-m-m-murder!?” Piglet exclaimed. “Oh d-d-d-ear.”
“Yes, Piglet. All the huny bees are gone from the huny tree. I think they’ve been murdered.”
Piglet jumped off the log they were sitting on and hid behind it. Pooh put on his deerstalker cap.
“Come along, Piglet. Let us investigate.”
In 1922, two years before publishing the beloved stories of Winnie the Pooh and the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood, A. A. Milne wrote The Red House Mystery. He dedicated it to his father, who loved mystery stories.
The Red House, owned by Mark Ablett, had a number of house guests. One day, he announced to his guests that his estranged brother, Robert, who had been living in Australia for fifteen years, was coming to visit. The guests were not to believe anything Robert told them because he was a scoundrel.
When Robert showed up, the maid escorted him to the office and told to wait while she looked for her master. Moments later, a stranger, Antony Gillingham showed up, looking for his friend Bill Beverley, who was one of the house guests.
As Gillingham was inquiring about his friend, a gunshot rang out. The people in the house rush to the office to find a body laying on the floor. Mark’s friend, secretary, and confidant, Matthew Cayley, looks at the body and declares it is that of Robert. But Mark is no where to be found. Gilligham decides he needs a new occupation and takes up investigating the murder, with Beverley as his side kick.
It’s clear that Milne was heavily influenced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Gillingham and Beverley refer to themselves as Holmes and Watson several times.
You can even see some of Winnie the Pooh here and there, beginning with the opening paragraph,
“In the drowsy heat of the summer afternoon the Red House was taking its siesta. There was a lazy murmur of bees in the flower-borders, a gentle cooing of pigeons in the tops of the elms. From distant lawns came the whir of a mowing-machine, that most restful of all country sounds; making ease the sweeter in that it is taken while others are working.”
While not much of a whodunit, as we know quickly who the killer is, the mystery is where has Mark disappeared to. I did figure it out. I’ve rated it three stars. A. A. Milne went on to become one of the founding members of The Detection Club, the world’s most prestigious mystery writers group. If you’re looking for a mystery from an unlikely place, checkout The Red House Mystery.
Tony Flaner is a slacker. He can’t hold a job. He lost his wife. He didn’t even tell his girlfriend he was going on an Alaska cruise. Will he lose her too? That’s just one question in the third novel of Worthen’s Tony Flaner series.
Yes, Tony is off on an Alaska cruise with his stand-up comedian friends. But because this is a murder mystery, people die. And because they are at sea, Tony is the man to try to solve it. There are several story lines going on, several suspects, and lots of clues. Worthen does a fantastic job weaving these all together and keeps you guessing. Yes, I was surprised at the end. Tony’s signature humor is still here. Tony’s group of quirky friends are here too. It all adds up to the best Tony Flaner story yet.
And I won’t tell you if Tony loses his girlfriend. No spoilers here.
Note: I was provided an advanced copy of this book by the author.
I struggled with the decision to read this due to the stigma surrounding the author, JK Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith. But as many people earlier in the year called her out, they also said this book was transphobic too. How could they know when it hadn’t been released? That was the tipping point for me. Was it transphobic?
Now that I’ve read it, I can say, absolutely not. If anything, it it anti-astrology and pushes the older stereotype of all gay men wearing dresses.
Here’s the story. Forty years ago, Margot Bamborough went missing. It was assumed that serial killer Dennis Creed killed her, but there was no evidence to that and he never admitted it. Fast forward to more modern times, Creed is in a mental hospital and Margot’s disappearance is still unsolved.
Strike’s detective agency is flush with customers but when Margot’s daughter approaches Strike, he and his business partner Robin, take the cold case. At one point, the father of another missing girl who Creed presumably killed, asks for Stike’s help too. The author does a masterful job of weaving the story back and forth, laying down clues and red herrings, pointing the finger and several possible suspects. It’s an intricate, complex story.
In the end, I was right about one of the two missing women but wrong on the other. I’m going to tell you if Creed ended being the killer or not. No spoilers here.
The book is long, at over 900 pages. But you learn more about the lives of Strike and Robin and how they feel about each other. If you love complex puzzle mysteries, this one’s for you.
My friend Ben Ireland, author of the Young Adult Urban Fantasy Billy Blacksmith series asked me via Twitter:
In my WIP I have a murder scene—39 workers slain at a work site—we need my MC and his demonic friend to get into the crime scene. Who would be allowed in? A police officer? A detective? Mulder and Scully? Large outdoor worksite, but it’s pretty remote. They have tents hiding the bodies from anyone that can manage to look over the fence. And my MC has a disguise so he can pass off as a legitimate police officer.
Thanks, Ben. The answer is too complex to be answered via Twitter so I’m posting the response here. I’ll start with general procedures then move into some specifics. Keep in mind that I’m not a law enforcement officer nor do I play one on TV.
The first responder is generally the patrolman. His first job is to clear the site of any danger. They don’t know if the killer is still on site. With a large and/complex site, they may call for backup before doing this. Once danger is cleared, then he will render aid to any victims. They may not be dead, but injured. The first officer will call in the incident and request detectives and maybe an ambulance and paramedics. He will then secure the area to make sure evidence does not get contaminated.
If paramedics and ambulance has been called, they may arrive before the first policeman. They will often attempt to render aid to the victim. This will likely include moving the victim, which can cause loss or contamination of evidence, but keeping the victim alive should be the first priority.
The first officer on the scene will have a clipboard and everyone entering the scene will sign in and out. Name, department, rank, date, and time of entrance and exit are recorded. There should be a single way in and the same way out so as not to contaminate things. On TV you often see the detective drive up to the scene, get out of his car, then lift the crime scene tape to get under it and wander right up to the body. No way it’s done like this. That’s a trope.
The first detectives should get an update from the original officer. They will usually do a visual inspection of the scene and body and may take some pictures with their phones. They’ll generally request forensics and coroner/medical examiner. Additional uniformed officers will be arriving to do crowd and traffic control and help guard the scene. Supervising officers, lieutenants, sergeants, captains, maybe even the chief are likely to show up. They should not go into the scene. They are all supervisors, not investigators. Even the mayor and district attorney should be kept outside the crime scene tape.
The coroner or medical examiner (ME) will be in charge of the body. The homicide detective may request that forensics remove trace evidence from the body before the ME does his examination. Photos of the scene will be taken before any examination of the body. During this time, forensics may inspect the surrounding area.
After the ME has completed his preliminary investigation and taken the body, forensics will inspect the immediate area. Pictures are again taken so they have before and after photos. After this, homicide detectives will again take the single route in and inspect things. They may already know the identity of the victim if ID was found on or near the body.
Depending on the scene and evidence collection, the police may keep custody of the area anywhere from hours to days. I heard of a case where a body was found in a house and the ME was not available, so police turned on the A/C to keep the house cool and reduce decomposition. Two days later the ME arrived.
Now turning to specifics of Ben’s question. Because the crime scene is in a rural area, the first officer on the scene will probably be a deputy sheriff. It may be difficult to keep the scene clear of wildlife due to the location and size of the area. Thirty-nine bodies is a lot. The Sheriff would likely call for help from neighboring law enforcement, the state Bureau of Investigation, and possibly the FBI. However, the Sheriff will run the investigation as it is his jurisdiction. Several medical examiners would be needed to process the bodies before decomp sets in. The police would have control of the scene probably for several days.
As for your MC, if he could produce the correct ID, real or fake, he could get in with other officers needed to process the scene. Looky-loos, supervisors, DA, etc. would likely be kept far away, maybe several miles, from the fence in case there is any evidence outside of it.
One other thing you should research. There is a difference between a medical examiner and a coroner. The coroner is usually an elected office and pretty much anyone can be elected. In some counties in California, the sheriff is also the coroner. A medical examiner has a medical degree is is usually appointed. Check which one is used where your story take place.
Now, having said all this, it’s your story and you can write it how you want. Thanks for asking, Ben and I hope this answers your question.
I love going to conferences. The energy I bring back to keep writing is wonderful. But my favorite part is meeting old friends and making new ones. I’m hitting up lots of conferences this year. A complete list is here.
One in particular has me excited. It’s the Snake River Writers Conference in Idaho Falls, ID. Yes, it’s a small town and a small conference, but I will be speaking! I have a brand new presentation, Write Crime Right. Here’s what it’s about:
Movies and television are rarely accurate when depicting crime investigations. As authors, we owe it to our readers to get the facts straight. In this presentation, you’ll learn how to keep things accurate, but still allow for some literary creativity. Topics covered include: guns and other weapons, police department organization, medical examiner vs. coroner, forensics, SWAT, and more.
Snake River Writers Conference is September 25-26 and is only $99. Registration opens April 15. I hope to see you there.
Back in October, 2018, I blogged Improve Your Podcast. I suggest you go back and read it. I’ll wait while you do. Now, here we are in January, 2020 and I have some additional recommendations to make your podcast better.
I’ve recently been sampling some crime/mystery fiction podcasts. Some (This was an issue with at least three I sampled) have great content but the sound is so bad, I can’t listen to them. The issue isn’t that the entire podcast is bad, it’s that the podcast has either two hosts or a host and a guest. The sound level on one person is fine, but on the other, it’s so low, I can’t hear what is being said.
Many centuries ago, I was a disk jockey at several commercial radio stations. I learned all about how different inputs have different sound levels. Setting the input volume the same on each of them isn’t enough. It’s the volume that is output from your control board that counts. This one here is very similar to one I used. I could set all the knobs at say, six, but that would not guarantee the sound that came from each input would be the same.
What you need to do is watch the VU meter. The VU stands for Volume Units. The VU meter shows you the sound level of the output. The louder the input, the further to the right the needle will go. You want the sound to be as close to the red line without going into the red line. To have the sound be consistent for all inputs, some will need to have the input volume set at say four while another will need it at eight.
It isn’t enough to have good content in your podcast, you also need good production values. So, if your podcast is one I sampled and you have volume issues, I’ll give you some time to fix them, then I’ll sample it again. If you still have problems, I won’t come back.
Ellery Queen mysteries are classics. The Dutch Shoe Mystery, first published in 1931 is a prime example. An elderly woman, the benefactor to a local hospital, is in a coma due to a fall. As she is readied for surgery, someone strangles her. The entire hospital staff and one of the patients, a local gangster, are suspects. The clues (or clews as the authors wrote it), lead no where. Ellery and his police inspector father are frustrated. When their houseboy says something, it breaks the case for Ellery. As in every Ellery Queen, there is a point where the authors stop the story to tell you that you have all the clues and it’s time for you to figure it out. I had two suspects at that point, one that was correct.
While not the first Ellery Queen mystery, The Dutch Shoe Mystery can still be a place to start enjoying the series.