Friday, 19 August 2022

Welcome! This is my debut column. I’m excited to be on the case tracking nonfiction titles for Mystery Scene. My opener features works about Golden Age legends and a contemporary genre superstar, plus a pair of infamous murderers whose nearly century-old crime continues to warrant serious scrutiny.

Nothing but the NightNothing but the Night: Leopold & Loeb and the Truth Behind the Murder That Rocked 1920s America
by Greg King and Penny Wilson
St. Martin’s Press, September 2022, $29.99

Nothing but the Night: Leopold & Loeb and the Truth Behind the Murder That Rocked 1920s America
is a compelling examination of a 1924 kidnapping and murder that was so troubling, so perplexing, it altered the perception of crime and criminals.

The authors, who previously teamed for The Last Voyage of the Andrea Doria (2020), explore the complex Leopold-Loeb friendship, the machinations behind their crime, the ensuing investigation and trial, and its strange aftermath. Original source materials, including court records, were re-examined; modern forensics were applied.

Poor Bobby Franks, whose prize possession was a baseball autographed by Babe Ruth, had just finishing playing ball when he happened into view as the would-be kidnappers cruised an upscale neighborhood. No matter that the 14-year-old was Loeb’s second cousin.

Sons of affluence, college students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb carried out the brazen kidnapping and ensuing brutal murder simply for the thrill of it—then turned on each other during the trial that riveted their Chicago hometown.

Once arrested, the two became celebrities—giving breezy jailhouse interviews, and having outside meals and cigarettes delivered to their cells. If they were oblivious to the seriousness of the charges against them, their wealthy parents weren’t. They enlisted defense attorney Clarence Darrow.

For the first time, psychiatry played a role in a major trial. (At one point the Hearst newspaper attempted to coerce Sigmund Freud to attend and comment on the proceedings.) An array of “experts” dissected the defendants’ volatile relationship and their “perversions”—a code word for homosexuality. The media invited phrenologists and astrologers to weigh in.

Darrow’s grandstanding saved the duo from the death penalty, but the authors ably refute accounts that his closing argument was a masterwork of oratory. They also argue against the long-held theory that Loeb was the duo’s driving force. Following Loeb’s savage death in prison, Leopold literally rewrote history, granting interviews and producing an autobiography in which he pointed the finger at a man no longer able to counter his assertions.

A significant work about what was dubbed “the crime of the century”—a case that continues to resonate, having inspired countless TV shows, movies, and mystery title—Nothing but the Night will appeal to both serious students of crime, as well as true crime buffs.

Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive WomanAgatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman
by Lucy Worsley
Pegasus Crime, September 2022, $29.95


Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman reveals the whos and whys behind the queen of crime, a woman who hid her complexities beneath the guise of being ordinary. Imagine, when prompted to clarify her profession on official forms, Christie used to write “housewife.”

This engaging biography is exhaustively researched (the 30 pages of source notes are in teensy type) and appropriate for both fans and rookies alike. Popular British historian Lucy Worsley convincingly links Christie’s life events to the storylines and characters that made her a worldwide brand.

Some of the details of Christie’s life are familiar—including the time she spent working as a Red Cross volunteer in a hospital pharmacy during World War I (and later, World War II). No wonder she had knowledge of lethal toxins—or that they would inevitably permeate her works. (Of her 66 detective novels, 41 deal with a murder or attempted suicide by poisoning.) Previous biographies have also chronicled Christie’s two marriages, including her travels to and from Iraq with second husband-archaeologist Max Mallowan, who was 14 years younger.

But Worsley does more than move with Christie through early family turmoil, motherhood, the chapters of her writing career (the 1930s were Christie’s zenith), and pressures wrought by fame (including Christie’s controversial 1926 disappearance, which occurred not long after her first husband asked for a divorce). She assiduously underscores the constraints, challenges, and social mores of the time, providing context for Christie’s 85-year life.

Here and there Worsley sounds a bit like a tipsy fangirl—as when she calls the young Agatha “a total man-magnet”—but she doesn’t sidestep Christie’s flaws, personal and professional (e.g., Christie’s antisemitism led to her American publisher asking for revisions). Like one of the legendary mystery writer’s own well-crafted characters, Christie is ever-worthy of scrutiny—a total biographer-magnet.

The Science of Murder: The Forensics of Agatha ChristieThe Science of Murder: The Forensics of Agatha Christie
by Carla Valentine

Sourcebooks, May 2022, $16.99

Howdunit elements are the focus of The Science of Murder: The Forensics of Agatha Christie. Author Carla Valentine, a pathology technician who once worked as a mortician (and wrote about it in The Chick and the Dead), credits Christie’s works for her own love of forensics.

Christie was known to have read the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, who was a master of the art of detection. So did Dr. Edmond Locard, the French “criminalist” (aka forensic scientist) who formulated the theory that “every contact leaves a trace.” Did Christie also read Locard’s pioneering works? Her writings indicate more than a passing knowledge of forensics.

Valentine’s chapters on such essential tale-tellers as fingerprints, trace evidence, ballistics, and blood spatter highlight the topics’ appearances in Christie’s works, and discuss aspects of the science the mystery writer got correct and those she didn’t. Valentine then describes the evolution of the history of modern forensic disciplines.

Source materials include books and articles about Christie and forensics, including medical journals and Christie’s own writings—with myriad examples of the author’s clever use of evidence, such as a unique scent in the Hercule Poirot novel Lord Edgware Dies.

This analysis of forensics via Christie’s works is both shrewd and illuminating.

A Sherlock Holmes Notebook: A Cornucopia of SherlockaniaA Sherlock Holmes Notebook: A Cornucopia of Sherlockania
by Gary Lovisi
Stark House Press, May 2022, $15.95

A Sherlock Holmes Notebook: A Cornucopia of Sherlockania is a must-have for devoted fans. It will also appeal to pop culture buffs who want to know more about the vast reach of the famed resident of Baker Street.

The 22-article compilation celebrates Holmes collectables. The focus is on books, as well as materials such as playbills and photo cards. Just shy of 200 pages, the helpful compendium offers plenty of “Did you know?” data. It comes complete with photos (lots of book covers) of many of the materials.

Lovisi has written extensively about Holmes and his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and was nominated for an Edgar for a Holmes short story—one of his own pastiches. Curious about others? Those covered in this book include Sherlock Holmes in Dallas (1980) by Edmund Aubrey (yes, it’s about what transpired in 1963) and Daniel Stashower’s The Adventure of the Ectoplasmic Man (1985), which has Holmes working with Houdini—an apt collaboration, considering that Arthur Conan Doyle and Houdini knew each another.

In addition to The Great Detective, other Doyle creations warrant attention. The piece on Professor George Edward Challenger of The Lost World showcases print memorabilia from the 1924 silent film adaptation. Another article is devoted to Doyle’s hardboiled Pinkerton man, Birdy Edwards, who predated the tough guy PI’s unleashed by Hammett and Chandler.

A look at the Holmes titles published from 1895 to 1920 by Tauchnitz, which were known for their non-illustrative covers, details the company’s role in the evolution of the mass market paperback. Another piece spotlights picture cards that were packaged with chocolates from a Spanish Barcelona candymaker more than 80 years ago. Yes, there are photos of them.

This lively and authoritative survey could lead Holmes buffs to seek out some of the referenced titles. The Giant Rat of Sumatra, anyone?

James PattersonJames Patterson
by James Patterson
Little, Brown and Company, June 2022, $29

Last but far from least—because, as he likes to remind, he’s the world’s bestselling author—there’s James Patterson, a memoir that will appeal to avid readers of the author’s multitudinous titles, including his mystery-crime and thrillers.

Written in Patterson’s trademark style—short, conversational sentences within short, breezy paragraphs—the book’s concise chapters aren’t always chronological and there’s some repetition as the author reveals how he came to be so… James Patterson.

Among the book’s snapshots and musings: His grandmother used to say, “Hungry dogs run faster.” While attending Vanderbilt University he had long hair, a beard, and wore bell bottoms and flip-flops. At a literary soiree he once saw Norman Mailer and James Baldwin get into a physical altercation.

As for his working habits, Patterson keeps a file titled IDEAS and considers five to six ideas per book, then opts for one or two. He outlines, doing 50 to 80 pages a book, and at least four drafts using a No. 2 pencil.

He isn’t thrilled with Hollywood’s adaptations of his works and makes no apologies for working with (his many) coauthors. He is passionate about the need for kids to learn to read and backs up that crusade with his participation (including financial) in various literacy programs. For that, alone, Patterson deserves his fame. l

Pat H. Broeske is a lifelong mystery devotee and reviewer whose own crime fiction was recently published in Black Cat Weekly. The coauthor of bestselling biographies of Howard Hughes and Elvis Presley, she is a former Hollywood journalist and producer of reality-based true crime TV. A Southern California native, she lives in Orange County where she teaches film analysis for a community college.

Just the Facts: Nonfiction Books Reviewed
Pat H. Broeske
just-the-facts-nonfiction-books-reviewed
Monday, 15 August 2022

Kayte Nunn

Kayte Nunn is the author of six novels, but The Only Child is her first venture into historical crime fiction.

The Only Child is set in Puget Sound in both 1949 and 2013, and focuses on what was in the past a mother and baby house run by nuns, and in the present is a house being rehabbed by a mother and daughter as a hotel. The daughter, Frankie Gray, is a cop, and though she hasn’t yet begun her new job in Puget Sound, she becomes involved when a tiny skeleton is found on the property. The book is both haunting and relevant.

Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: Why set the book on Puget Sound? I loved the setting, but just wondered, as it looks like you have lived many places in the world.

Kayte Nunn: When I began my research, I came across a book called The Girls Who Went Away, by Ann Fessler, which focused on the real-life experiences of American girls and women forced to give up their babies for adoption in the 1950s and ’60s. I knew after reading that, that I wanted to set my novel in the United States. I had lived in Tacoma, Washington, as a girl, and have very strong memories of the area. I needed a fairly isolated place, and so to set it on an island in Puget Sound made perfect sense.

And why 2013 for the present timeline, rather than 2022?

This was from an age-timeline point of view. For one of the nuns from the 1949 timeline to still be alive, I couldn’t push the near-present timeline out too far. In 1949 there was a terrible snowstorm in the Pacific Northwest, and that was central to the story, and I wanted a 1950s setting as it was a time when girls were still very much under the rule of their parents in a way that they perhaps weren’t so much in the 1960s.

I loved that The Only Child was very much about various types of human connection and the importance of those connections. Can you talk about that a bit?

It was one of the elements I came across in my research—how the lack of knowledge about your family background and heritage can be incredibly traumatic. It struck me how important it is to have those connections, something I have taken for granted in my life. I was also interested in writing about the generational connections between women and their experiences of motherhood—and to contrast the connection that Brigid [a pregnant 16-year-old in 1949] feels to her baby with that of Frankie’s more ambivalent attitude toward motherhood.

This is certainly timely, as the United States looks to be banning abortion in a large number of states. Was that top of mind as you wrote the novel?

Absolutely—I have watched on with fury, horror, and despair as the balance of the Supreme Court has changed over the past few years and could see exactly what it was going to mean for the reproductive rights of women and girls. Even though I could see the overturn of Roe v. Wade coming, it was still a shock. The fact that it has happened in the United States is a lesson to the rest of the world that women’s rights can be eroded anywhere.

On that same thread, I thought the way you let the reader live the girls’ reality in the ’50s instead of pounding them over the head with it made the whole thing more powerful. Was that conscious, to avoid having the book be a polemic, or more of an artistic or narrative choice?

I think it’s important as a novelist not to be didactic, but to show through carefully researched example, the reality of a situation through your characters.

The Only Child by Kayte NunnHow did you research these mother and baby homes? What did you find out that really surprised you?

I did a lot of reading, watched a documentary and saw the film Philomena early on in the research process. I was surprised by how few rights the girls and women had: how little time they were given to make a decision, how little knowledge they had about getting pregnant and giving birth, and by the fact that during labor, they were often tied down to their beds, given no pain relief, and sometimes forced to give birth alone. That must have been utterly terrifying.

I was riveted by both alternating timelines. How did you balance them and make both compelling?

I wrote each timeline separately, to ensure that each one had a fully fleshed out narrative with a reason for being there. In a sense, each is a story that you could read separately and stands on its own merits. Once I was finished with both, I then wove them together.

What makes you happy when you sit down to write every day? What’s the most difficult part about it?

That I don’t have to commute to an office and that I make my own hours! The difficult part is self-belief, that you have a story worth writing and that you are the one to write it.

Is there a pivotal book in your life? I think all of us who love to read have that book.

I think there are several, including Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, because she was so meek and overlooked, but incredibly strong-minded, and it felt like one of the first "grown-up" books I read as a child. And The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. I picked it up from a random hostel bookcase during a solo backpacking trip to Mexico and became utterly immersed in the landscape of the novel over the course of several days.

And finally, what’s next for you? What can readers look forward to?

I’m just finishing a first draft of a story about three siblings who reunite 20 years after a devastating event that fractured their family.

 

Kayte Nunn is the author of six novels, including The Botanist’s Daughter which was awarded the 2021 Winston Graham Prize for historical fiction. The Only Child is her first historical crime mystery. Born in Singapore, she has lived in England, the United States (in the Pacific Northwest), and now lives in the Northern Rivers of New South Wales, Australia.

 

Kayte Nunn Explores Motherhood and Mystery in "The Only Child"
Robin Agnew
kayte-nunn
Wednesday, 27 July 2022

Carol Goodman

 

"My original idea for a book set on Norton Island was to make it like Agatha Christie’s masterpiece... but I’m not sure I have the detachment and brutal cunning..."

 

Carol Goodman has been writing intelligent and often very scary novels of suspense that take a deep dive into character for more than two decades now. The two-time Mary Higgins Clark Award winner's latest, The Disinvited Guest, is set on a remote Maine island during a second COVID pandemic as a group of friends quarantine together. Much like in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, the body count is high and the storytelling is spectacular.

Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: The Disinvited Guest imagines that we came through a first COVID pandemic only to be hit by another. How did you decide to make that part of your storyline? Were there problems (or perks) of setting a book very slightly in the future?

Carol : Admittedly it was a rather strange idea! It was at the beginning of the pandemic and I felt overwhelmed by what was happening around me, especially to my college students and my daughters and their friends. I found myself wondering how the pandemic would affect the course of their lives. I also felt compelled to write something that made use of what I was seeing and feeling, so somehow I came up with the idea of setting the story in the future. The book circles back to events that occurred during the 2020 pandemic, so I was, in effect, still writing about what was happening around me. Looking back, the strangest assumption I made was that “our” pandemic would end, while now it seems to me that it might well still be with us in some form or another. I suppose that’s the biggest problem of setting something in the future—assuming you know what will happen in between.

In all of your books, many set in New York, setting is a giant part of the story and really seems to shape the tale you are telling. This book takes place on Fever Island, a fictitious, remote place in Maine. Is it based on a place you are familiar with?

Oh yes! In the summer of 2019, I was lucky enough to attend a writer’s retreat on Norton Island off the coast of Maine sponsored by Eastern Frontier and hosted by a wonderfully generous patron of the arts, Steven Dunn. There was nothing on the island but the retreat and it was remote, rugged, and beautiful. I was thinking of writing something set on the island—an Agatha Christie-ish mystery—but I wasn’t satisfied with what I’d written and I put it aside. When the pandemic hit, I thought about what it would be like to shelter at someplace like Norton Island and what problems my cast of characters would run into there.

Disinvited Guest by Carol GoodmanI love the history and folklore you include in your books. Is that the jumping off point for you? What kind of research did you do for this particular book?

I love history and folklore, too, obviously. While those weren’t the jumping off points (the pandemic and the island setting were), like many people, I was drawn to reading about past pandemics to try to understand what we were going through. I came across a reference to a quarantine island off the coast of Maine where the famine ships from Ireland were forced to stop. I thought that would be an interesting bit of history to give “my” island. Once I had the Irish framework, I started thinking about the folklore that those refugees would bring with them to the island. Mix in some colonial witchcraft and I had a lot of great threads to explore.

Many of your books combine running parallel narratives, one past and one present. How do you maintain interest for the reader in each storyline?

[It's] always a challenge. I try to weave connections between the two storylines so that the reader feels that they’re learning about the present through the past and vice versa. And also, quite frankly, I try to make the past parts a little shorter just in case readers are impatient with them.

I love a map and this book has a great one. How did you work with the artist to decide where everything would be? Is a map something you had in your mind as you wrote?

Someone made me a hand drawn map my first night on Norton Island… It has some of the rough contours of the final map of Fever Island. I wanted to give that feeling of traversing a landscape with only a rough map to go by. I drew my own very rough version of the Fever Island map so I could keep track of my characters’ journeys around the island. And then, I asked my daughter, Maggie Vicknair, who’s a very talented artist, to draw a better version of the map. We went back and forth with several rough drafts as she drew and I described. My editor also had some queries and notes that Maggie responded to. I’m so thrilled that her work is in the book!

How present in your mind was Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None as you told your story?

Very present! As I mentioned, my original idea for a book set on Norton Island was to make it like Agatha Christie’s masterpiece. I reread it when I was on the island and reread it again when I started writing my book. I’d have loved to write something very much like it, but when I tried, I found that I didn’t really have the voice for a book like that. I’m not sure I have the detachment and brutal cunning that Christie had. What I did try to take from it was that feeling of being trapped in a limited space and the suspicions that would arise from knowing that someone in your known circle could be a killer.

Your characters are often in their late twenties to early thirties, a time in life when you know sort of where you are going, but maybe aren’t quite there yet. What calls to you when writing about this age?

I’ve written about characters who are older, but quite frankly there’s a limit to how old a character you can write in commercial fiction (or so I’ve been told). I’m not really happy about this restriction and have found some stealthy ways to include older characters in some of my other books—The Night Visitors, for instance, and The Stranger Behind You—in which there are dual narratives that represent younger and older characters. I do like writing about younger characters, too, though, and in this book I was especially interested in how young people would be affected by the pandemic. We’re so shaped by our college years; I can’t help but think about how this generation will be marked by having their education halted during the pandemic.

What makes you happy when you sit down to write every day?

Such a good question! First of all, I have to admit that as grateful as I am to sit down to write (nearly) every day, I also often have a little feeling of dread at the beginning, like the shiver you might have turning on a scary movie. I think it’s a combination of fear that I won’t be able to write and fear of what might come out as I do write. I’ve gotten so used to it that I just acknowledge it (Why hello, Dread, how are you today?) and move on. Some time later—sometimes a matter of minutes but sometimes hours—I’ll come to a moment where I’ll suddenly see the work, or a character in the work, in a whole new way and I’ll see clearly what happens next and what it all means. That’s what makes me happy.

What book was a transformational read for you as a reader or as a writer?

There were many, but I remember very clearly reading Jane Eyre when I was about 13 and loving how angry she was at the beginning. It made me realize that you could write about things that made you angry and that the story of a woman’s journey through life was a worthy subject to write about.

And what’s next? What can readers look forward to?

I’m just finishing the edits on an academic thriller. I guess I wasn’t done with college students quite yet! This one is set in the present, at a college on the edge of the Catskill Mountains near some scary ice caves, and takes place over the winter break at the 25th commemoration of the death of a college professor.

Carol Goodman is the author of 24 novels, including The Widow’s House and The Night Visitors, which both won the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Her books have been translated into 16 languages. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family and teaches at the New School and SUNY New Paltz.

Carol Goodman on Killers of the Human and Viral Kind
Robin Agnew
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