Saturday, 05 December 2020

Like many others, I have been trying to carve out some time to clean, declutter and organize during this pandemic.

And like many, I have had intermediate success. A little bit here, some there, time to stop. First few weeks my husband and I put out more than 12 bags of recyclable paper. And that went on for at least 6 weeks. Now, down to a bag or two, usually filled with recent newspapers.

Last week, I had another surge that resulted in 6 recycling bags.

So naturally, during this organizing, my mind turned to mysteries.

First, I have little regard for Marie Kondo’s decluttering theory about discarding things that don’t spark joy. I like stuff. My stuff gives me joy, whether I have used that stuff recently or 10 years ago.

Yes, I attach sentimental feelings to a lot of stuff.

If you do too, great.

If you don’t, that’s fine, too.

Just don’t tell me that I must feel so good to get rid of stuff.

No. I feel good about myself all the time.

If that purging makes you feel better about yourself—OK, fine. Though why didn’t you feel good about yourself all along? And if you feel you have too much stuff, stop shopping.
OK, back to mysteries.


Hallie Ephron’s 2019 novel Careful What You Wish For (Wm. Morrow) may have been one of the first to use Kondo’s philosophy as a plot device. I say “may have been” because once I get too decisive an astute reader will come up with more ideas.

In her sixth novel, Ephron delivers an in-depth look at how an emotional attachment to things affects people. Emily Harlow was happiest when she was paring down her belongings.

So much joy in that action that she and her partner Becca Jain started the business, Freeze-Frame Clutter Kickers to help others be organized.

What doesn’t bring Emily joy is her husband Frank’s obsession with his stuff.

Their basement is overstuffed with stuff, mainly because of Frank’s “compulsive yard-sale-ing.” But Emily has a hard-fast rule—do not touch another’s property unless they give you permission. And that goes for her own home, too.

Hired to clean out a storage unit, Emily and her partners find body hidden among all the stuff that may have been stolen years before.

Ephron keeps the suspense high and the fear factor dangling with each visit to the storage unit. Anyone who has rented one of those storage units and visited it at night, knows that sense of dread grows with each ding of the elevator, each car that arrives.

Ephron’s Careful What You Wish For is a stand-alone but there are at least two series wrapped around decluttering.

Ritter Ames’ Organized for Murder series features organization expert Kate McKenzie whose new business Stacked in Your Favor is part of the plan for her family to make a fresh start in her husband’s small hometown in Vermont.

Organized for Picnic Panic is the sixth and latest in this cozy series. In Organized for Picnic Panic, The Vermont town of Hazelton is planning its popular annual Labor Day Picnic.

Kate has put her organizing skills to work helping her family and neighbors enjoy the community event. The McKenzies are still new to the town and are anxious to be a part of this tradition. Of course, the picnic won’t go as smoothly as hoped.


British writer Simon Brett’s latest series has the tagline of “The Decluttering Mysteries” and revolve around, you guessed it, a declutter.

Clutter Corpse, which came out June 2020, introduces Ellen Curtis, whose business is helping people who are running out of space.

According to the novel’s description, “As a declutterer, she is used to encountering all sorts of weird and wonderful objects in the course of her work. What she has never before encountered is a dead body.”

When Ellen finds a young woman’s body in an over-cluttered apartment, suspicion lands on the deceased homeowner's son, recently released from prison.

Actually, I think reading about decluttering is more fun than decluttering.

Cleaning Up With Authors
Oline H Cogdill
Monday, 23 November 2020

Authors Charlaine Harris and Jeffery Deaver have been named the 2021 Grand Masters and the Malice Domestic conference will receive the Raven Award, the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) announced today.

They will receive their awards at the 75th Annual Edgar Awards Ceremony, which will be held April 29, 2021.

Mystery Scene congratulations Harris, Deaver and Malice Domestic.

“Over the course of decades, Deaver and Harris have gripped tens of millions of readers while broadening the reach of the genre with transformative books—notably, Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme series, and Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels—and while generously encouraging and supporting fellow writers and the reading public. We’re delighted to recognize their achievements,” stated MWA President Meg Gardiner in the MWA announcement.

MWA’s Grand Master Award represents the pinnacle of achievement in mystery writing and was established to acknowledge important contributions to this genre, as well as for a body of work that is both significant and of consistent high quality, according to the organization’s announcement.

Jeffery Deaver has published more than 40 novels since the early 1990’s, including two series besides the Lincoln Rhyme novels, numerous stand-alone and short story collections.

In the MWA announcement, Deaver said, “When I was a (relatively) young writer new to this business of penning novels, many years ago, the first professional organization I joined was Mystery Writers of America. Signing on felt to me like coming home—being welcomed into a community of fellow authors willing to share their expertise and offer support in a profession that was largely, well, a ‘mystery’ to me.

“Besides, how could I not join? MWA was the real deal; for proof, one had only to look at those in the ranks of the Grand Masters: Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Ellery Queen, James M. Cain . . . and so many others whose works populated my bookshelves. Yet it never once occurred to me, in all my years as a member and my two terms as president, that I might be invited into those very ranks. I wish to express by boundless gratitude to MWA for this honor, which stands, without question, as the high point of my career,” he added.

Charlaine Harris has published 13 novels in the Southern Vampire series (adapted into the popular HBO series True Blood), which proved so popular that at one point her novels took half of the top 10 slots on New York Times’ bestseller list. Her other series include the Aurora Teagarden novels, the Lily Bard (Shakespeare) books, the Midnight Texas trilogy (adapted for television) and numerous others, as well as several standalones.

Harris said in the announcement, “This is like winning the lottery and the Pulitzer Prize in one day. I am so honored and thrilled to join the ranks of revered writers who are Grand Masters. I thank the MWA Board from the bottom of my heart.”

Previous Grand Masters include Barbara Neely, Martin Cruz Smith, William Link, Peter Lovesey, Walter Mosley, Lois Duncan, James Ellroy, Robert Crais, Ken Follett, Martha Grimes, Sara Paretsky, James Lee Burke, Sue Grafton, Stephen King, Mary Higgins Clark, Lawrence Block, P.D. James, Ellery Queen, Daphne du Maurier, Alfred Hitchcock, Graham Greene, and Agatha Christie, to name a few.

The Raven Award recognizes outstanding achievement in the mystery field outside the realm of creative writing.

For 2021, Mystery Writers of America selected the Malice Domestic mystery conference, founded in 1989 and held every spring since. Malice Domestic focuses primarily on traditional mysteries, their authors and fans, and also presents the Agatha Awards, with six categories.

“Who says Friday the 13th is an unlucky day?” said Verena Rose, currently chair of the Malice Domestic Board of Directors. “Certainly, not me. This morning I received a call from Greg Herren, Executive Vice President of Mystery Writers of America, letting me know that Malice Domestic has been selected to receive the Raven Award in 2021. What an absolutely, amazing surprise and as the Chair, I can’t wait to give my fellow Board members the news. This is an honor we are beyond thrilled to receive.”

I have to add that the Raven is my favorite category—and for a selfish reason. I was honored with the Raven in 2013 and make sure I look at the lovely bird every day.
Other Raven winners include Left Coast Crime, Marilyn Stasio  Raven Bookstore in Lawrence, Kansas, Sisters in Crime, Margaret Kinsman, Kathryn Kennison, Aunt Agatha’s Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan,  The Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego, Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore in Chicago, Once Upon a Crime Bookstore in Minneapolis, Mystery Lovers Bookstore in Oakmont, PA, Kate’s Mystery Books in Cambridge, MA, Eudora Welty, Zev Buffman, Bill Clinton and The Poe House in Baltimore, MD.

The Edgar Awards are named after MWA’s patron saint Edgar Allan Poe and are presented to authors of distinguished work in various categories. MWA is the premier organization for mystery writers, professionals allied to the crime-writing field, aspiring crime writers, and those who are devoted to the genre.

The organization has some 3,000 members including authors, screen and television writers, publishers, editors, and literary agents.

For more information on Mystery Writers of America, please visit the website:

MWA 2021 Grand Masters Jeffery Deaver and Charlaine Harris, Raven Recipient Malice Domestic Announced
Oline H. Cogdill
Sunday, 22 November 2020

Mystery Scene continues its ongoing series in which authors give a behind-the-scenes look at their novels and writing process.

Today, Libby Fischer Hellmann, left, talks about the challenges of writing historical fiction as she does in her latest novel, A Bend in the River.

Hellmann left a career in broadcast news in Washington, D.C., and moved to Chicago more than 35 years ago, where she began to write gritty crime fiction.

She has been a finalist twice for the Anthony and three times for Foreword Magazine's Book of the Year. She has also been nominated for the Agatha, the Shamus, the Daphne, and has won the IPPY and the Readers' Choice Award multiple times. Hellman hosts a TV interview show and conducts writing workshops at libraries and other venues, and has served as the national president of Sisters In Crime. Her books have been translated into Spanish, German, Italian, and Chinese.

Hellmann’s latest novel is A Bend in the River.

A Bend in the River is about two young Vietnamese sisters who flee to Saigon after their village on the Mekong River is burned to the ground in 1968. The only survivors of the massacre that killed their family, the sisters struggle to survive but become estranged, separated by sharply different choices and ideologies. Mai ekes out a living as a GI bar girl, but Tam’s anger festers, and she heads into jungle terrain to fight with the Viet Cong. For nearly 10 years, neither sister knows if the other is alive.

Writing Tips for Historical Novels
How I Learned About Guerilla Booby Traps Without Losing a Limb

“What’s with all these crime authors writing historicals?” I’ve heard this more than once over the past year. Apparently, writing about the past is the latest trend. I never noticed it, but I’ve been alternating between historical and contemporary thrillers for 15 years. So, I took a look around, and, by gosh, it seems to be true.

In May 2019, the New York Times Magazine explored the subject with an article. “Why Are We Living in a Golden Age of Historical Fiction?”

The answer isn’t difficult. The article says, “In tumultuous times, novels tend to look forward to a dystopian future, but authors are increasingly writing about the past.” Certainly, the events of the past four years, upending precedents and norms, have been tumultuous. Some believe we’re already living in a dystopian-ish world. Margaret Atwood aside, why duplicate the misery and oppression such a world presents?

Going backward rather than forward can feel more relevant. There’s a certainty about the past.

While events and facts are often interpreted differently—via historiography—there’s little dispute about the events themselves.

“Alternative facts” don’t carry much weight.

In addition, the genre of historical fiction, crime or not, has widened its reach, allowing writers to focus on historical characters once considered marginal. Many of those characters, sometimes fictional themselves, are unique. As long as the history surrounding them is accurate and credible, it makes for fascinating reading. Still others use history and characters to elicit parallels to the present, both the strengths and the failings. And thriller authors have used historical settings for decades to describe heroic deeds.

I’ve now written five historical novels and about half a dozen historical short stories, but when asked to write about the craft of historical fiction, I come up blank.  For me, writing a historical novel demands the same mastery of craft as any other novel. In some cases, writing a historical novel can even be easier. I’ll explain below. So, I’d rather call these “Tips.” Or How I Learned About Guerilla Booby Traps Without Losing a Limb.”

Choose Your Conflict Carefully
Conflict is the root of every story, even if it’s just a character who wants a glass of water and can’t get it. That applies to historical novels, too.

When I’m conceptualizing a historical novel, I look for the underlying conflict as my premise. In fact, I look for intense, multi-layered conflict. That’s why I focus on revolutions, wars, and other societal conflicts. Not so much because of the existential conflict, but because its effects on a country, a city, a neighborhood, a family, an individual, or all of the above.

The intense conflicts of the Cuban Revolution, the Islamic Revolution, World War Two, the late Sixties, and now the Vietnam War (A Bend in the River) turns some characters into heroes, others into cowards. Intense conflict can lead to violent change and devastating consequences, or in some cases, freedom and justice. I love to imagine the repercussions of such conflict, the people who are affected by them, and how they do or don’t cope with them.

Not all of us are Ken Follett, who seamlessly writes about any historical period he wants. Choosing the period of history, you want to focus on affects the story in a multitude of ways. The language, tone, lifestyle, characters’ behavior, and plot development must be accurate and relevant to the time. I’m drawn to recent history, basically the past hundred years.

As a former video producer and filmmaker, I revel in and study visual materials in my research: photographs, videos, films, audio interviews, all of which proliferated during the past century.

What’s more, periods of intense conflict lend themselves to visual representations. My college thesis (surprise --I majored in history) was about visual propaganda during World War One. Posters about marauding Huns and proud young British soldiers filled my paper. More recently, for A Bitter Veil, I watched the speech Ayatollah Khomeini gave when he returned from Paris after the Shah was deposed. I didn’t understand a word, but his rising pitch and angry expressions coupled with the audience’s reaction was enough. (I read the transcript as well, of course.)

Let Research Drive Plot
Many authors believe that research is the most satisfying part of the writing process.

We can get lost in research.

 My first step, once I’ve decided what era I’m writing about, is to read as much fiction and non-fiction That’s set in the era. I do so more to reassure myself that the era I’ve chosen is “doable”—that I can add something to the body of literature that’s already there. For example, I hesitated writing about World War Two. Yes, it was a period of intense conflict, perhaps the last time we had clarity on who were heroes and who were enemies.

But what could I possibly add to the body of literature that already exists? It wasn’t until I discovered there were German POW camps in most of the states that I realized I could use one to fashion a novella for War, Spies and Bobby Sox. Similarly, I was in Vietnam touring the Cu Chi Tunnels, which connect to the Ho Chi Minh trail, a major North Vietnamese supply route during the Vietnam war, when I realized how the tunnels could be a major part of my story.

Which is why I believe that research drives plot. It’s hugely satisfying to weave actual bits of history into the plot, and I look for opportunities to do that with through my research. In many cases, this makes plotting a historical novel easier. Making the high points of my research “personal” can reveal character as well as drive plot.

Look for Surprises
Finally, I often find unexpected historical surprises that capture my imagination in ways I never expected. For example, in the excellent reference book, Vietnam, A History, author Stanley Karnow interviews a female doctor, who, during the war was an insider with the Diem administration. At the same time, she was a committed Communist, and spied for the North. The idea of a female double agent fascinated me, so I created a similar character who has a huge influence on one of my protagonists.

Another surprise was the fact that the Americans used German shepherds to sniff out Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers in the Cu Chi Tunnels. It worked for a while but then didn’t. Why? The GIs smelled like American soap. The Vietnamese, not so much. When the Vietnamese realized this, they started using American soap to trick the dogs. It worked. The dogs, scenting familiar American odors, no longer raised an alarm.

Finally, I learned, again through research, how the Viet Cong, despite being vastly under supplied compared to American forces, devised booby traps that could kill or seriously maim anyone who stepped or bumped into them. Many of the weapons used in these traps were sharpened bamboo spears smeared with feces to spur infection, spikes, wires, and grenades. The Viet Cong recognized the signs of a nearby trap; Americans didn’t, and they paid a price. That, too, made its way into my book, and as the title of this article indicates, I now know the signs.

I hope these tips help you frame an accurate historical crime novel that’s unique—not only for the period—but also for readers. Historical thrillers and historical crime, like its present-day sibling, offers us plenty of lessons.

Libby Fischer Hellman on Historical Fiction
Oline Cogdill