Review: "Smoke Kings" by Jahmal Mayfield
Benjamin Boulden

Smoke Kings
by Jahmal Mayfield
Melville House, February 2024, $19.99

Jahmal Mayfield’s debut novel Smoke Kings is a slash-and-burn thriller seeping raw emotion, tension, and good intent gone bad. When Darius, a promising young black teenager enrolled to attend Rutgers, is brutally murdered without any obvious reason other than blatant, hateful racism, his older brother, Joshua, and his cousin, Nate, make a pact for revenge. They form a political action committee with their friends Rachel and Isiah to support minority political candidates across the country. The PAC is really a cover for their extracurricular activities, which is identifying, kidnapping, and forcing the descendants of the perpetrators of past racial violence to pay reparations to the descendants of the victims of that violence.

The quartet believe punishing those who have gained an advantage from past racism will balance the scales for Darius’s death and benefit minority, especially Black, communities. But with each successful operation, Nate, the team’s de facto leader, becomes more and more reckless and violent until his rage flares and sends a planned kidnapping into chaos. Afterwards, the group finds itself in a moral quandary and what seemed so obviously right when they began is seeming less certain. Things get worse when a nasty white supremacist gang and a former Alabama cop turned private eye track them down.

Smoke Kings is that rare thriller where the emotional impact of the story and characters is as important as the suspense. The tensions between the characters, particularly between Nate and Isiah add texture and realism. The story deals adroitly with cultural racism in the United States, never shirking from diverse perspectives about its causes and solutions. But Smoke Kings is, at its heart, a scorching thriller with twists and turns, secrets, character damnations and character redemptions, that will keep the most jaded reader turning its pages deep into the inky stillness of the night.


Teri Duerr
2024-01-29 18:38:13
Agatha Award Nominees Announced for Malice Domestic 36
Teri Duerr

Malice Domestic logo

A hearty congratulations to all the nominees of this year's Agatha Awards! The Agatha Awards celebrate traditional mysteries, loosely defined as mysteries that contain no explicit sex, excessive gore, or gratuitous violence. Winners will be announced Saturday, April 27, 2024, during Malice Domestic 36 in Bethesda, Maryland.

Best Contemporary Mystery Novel

Wined and Died in New Orleans, by Ellen Byron (Berkley)
Helpless, by Annette Dashofy (Level Best Books)
The Weekend Retreat, by Tara Laskowski (Graydon House Books)
Case of the Bleus, by Korina Moss (St. Martins Press)
The Raven Thief, by Gigi Pandian (Minotaur Books)

Best Historical Mystery Novel

Death Among the Ruins, by Susanna Calkins (Severn House)
Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Lord, by Celeste Connally (Minotaur Books)
I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died, by Amanda Flower (Berkley)
Time's Undoing, by Cheryl A. Head (Dutton)
The Mistress of Bhatia House, by Sujata Massey (Soho Crime)

Best First Mystery Novel

Glory Be, by Danielle Arceneaux (Pegasus Crime)
The Hint of Light, by Kristin Kisska (Lake Union Publishing)
Dutch Threat, by Josh Pachter (Genius Book Publishing)
Crime and Parchment, by Daphne Silver (Level Best Books)
Mother-Daughter Murder Night, by Nina Simon (William Morrow)

Best Children's/Young Adult Mystery Novel

Myrtle, Means, and Opportunity, by Elizabeth C. Bunce (Algonquin Young Readers)
The Sasquatch of Hawthorne Elementary, by K. B. Jackson (Reycraft Books)
Araña and Spider-Man 2099, by Alex Segura (Marvel Press)
The Mystery of the Radcliffe Riddle, by Taryn Souders (Sourcebooks Young Readers)
Enola Holmes and the Mark of the Mongoose, by Nancy Springer (Wednesday Books)

Best Mystery Short Story

"The Knife Sharpener," by Shelley Costa (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, July/August 2023)
"A Good Judge of Character," by Tina deBellegarde, Malice Domestic 17: Murder Most Traditional, ed. by Verena Rose, Rita Owens, and Shawn Reilly Simmons (Wildside Press)
"Real Courage," by Barb Goffman (Black Cat Mystery Magazine #14)
"Ticket to Ride," by Dru Ann Love and Kristopher Zgorski, Happiness is a Warm Gun, ed. by Josh Pachter (Down & Out Books)
"Shamu, World's Greatest Detective," by Richie Narvaez, Killin' Time in San Diego, Bouchercon Anthology 2023, ed. by Holly West (Down & Out Books)

Best Mystery Nonfiction

Finders: Justice, Faith, and Identity in Irish Crime Fiction, by Anjili Babbar (Syracuse University Press)
Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder, by David Bordwell (Columbia University Press)
A Mystery of Mysteries: The Death and Life of Edgar Allan Poe, by Mark Dawidziak (St. Martins Press)
Fallen Angel: The Life of Edgar Allan Poe, by Robert Morgan (LSU Press)

Teri Duerr
2024-02-06 17:27:37
Love Hurts: 10 Films Where Love Doesn't Conquer All
Pat H. Broeske

Love is in the air, right? Hearts, flowers, Cupid. But Cupid’s arrows can be deadly . . . and some couplings are incendiary.

With that, my recommendation of 10 mystery-crime movies, adapted from books, in which romantic duos—and love triangles—remind us that love doesn’t always conquer all.

1. Double Indemnity (1944)

Barbara Stanwyck is Phyllis Dietrichson, a housewife whose anklet bracelet lets us know that she’s got more on her mind that housekeeping—the better to seductively enlist insurance agent Walter Neff (played terrifically against type by Fred MacMurray) to help her get rid of her hubby.

Double Indemnity is based on a 1936 novella first appearing in the pages of Liberty magazine by hardboiled master James M. Cain. The story was inspired by the real life Snyder-Gray 1927 murder case.

Director Billy Wilder adapted the screenplay with that other crime king, Raymond Chandler. Widely hailed as the ultimate film noir—never mind that it didn’t win any of the Oscars for which it was nominated—Double Indemnity is unique in that we’re in on the scheme from the beginning. No whodunit, it’s a “how are they gonna catch ’em,” as insurance investigator and Neff mentor Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), follows the clues, and his instincts.

Great period details, with famed locales—that’s the beloved Bradbury Building in Downtown L.A., as home to the Pacific All Risk Insurance Company—captured by stunning cinematography, and set to Miklos Rozsa’s brassy score, make this a noir lovers’ Valentine.


2. Body Heat (1981)

“You're not too smart, are you? I like that in a man.” That’s Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) making a savvy assessment of Ned Racine (William Hurt), the disreputable lawyer who will become her lover, and her partner in a plot to kill her older, wealthy husband (Richard Crenna).

This neo-noir, which marked the debut of writer-director Lawrence Kasdan (today helming Star Wars product), is so obviously inspired by Double Indemnity that we couldn’t not include it in our listing. There’s even a knowing wink with the casting of Crenna, who starred in a 1973 TV movie remake of the 1944 original.

Set during a heatwave in a Florida seaside community, where everyone comments on the sweltering temperatures (and no one turns up the air conditioning!), the film gets a lot of mileage from the R-rated couplings of Hurt and the oft-nude Turner. This was her film debut and springboard into a tenure as a screen siren.

The lush and sultry score by John Barry is the perfect accompaniment to heated passion—and violence—and there’s fine work from the supporting cast, including Ted Danson and J.A. Preston, as a prosecutor and detective, respectively. And look for a young scene-stealing Mickey Rourke as an engaging ex-con who gives Racine advice that he really ought to have taken.


3. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

At first deemed un-filmable by the censors, the story of a drifter who falls for the wife of a highway tavern owner, conspiring with her to kill her husband, teams an incandescent Lana Turner and darkly rugged John Garfield. Their kisses and clinches (which reportedly took place off camera as well as on), were shockers for the day.

As with Double Indemnity, James M. Cain had the 1927 Snyder-Gray case in mind when he wrote his 1934 novel. The book (which has the same title) underwent softening from page to screen, but there’s nothing toned down about Turner and Garfield, who are mesmerizing. Director Tay Garnett worked in multiple genres over a four-decade career, but nothing he did tops this one.

Cain devotees might want to track down two unofficial adaptations—the French Le Dernier Tournant (aka The Last Turning, 1939) and the Italian Ossessione (aka Obsession, 1943). Give the 1981 remake, starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, a pass. It’s a snooze.


4. Out of the Past (1947)

Deep shadows, overriding pessimism, and an iconic femme fatale make this another noir classic.

The picture benefits from the third teaming of director Jacques Tourneau and cinematographer Nicholas Musaraca; they’d previously done the haunting Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943). Along with its terrific look, Out of the Past has a complex love triangle—as Kirk Douglas and Robert Mitchum vie for Jane Greer.

Douglas is gangster Whit Sterling. Mitchum is Jeff Bailey, a gas station owner in a mountain community, who used to be known as Jeff Markham, private eye. In a protracted flashback we learn how Markham was hired to find Sterling’s girlfriend, Kathie Moffat (Greer), who fled after stealing $40,000 from him—and shooting him.

Sterling says he has no plans to hurt Moffat. As he tells Markham, “I just want her back. When you see her, you’ll understand better.” The investigation takes Markham to Mexico, where he at last glimpses his target: “And then I saw her, coming out of the sun, and I knew why Whit didn’t care about that 40 grand.”

The story shifts from the present to the past, and back again—and has convoluted plot twists. But there’s nothing perplexing about Kathie Moffat: she is pure evil. In time Jeff tells her, “You’re like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another.”

Geoffrey Homes, unsung crime writer of the thirties and forties (search out the Robin Bishop mysteries), authored the book, Build My Gallows High, on which this is based. Homes was better known as screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring, who is credited with the Out of the Past script. Though there were multiple rewrites from scribes including James M. Cain. Yeah, that guy!


5. Gone Girl (2014)

For a toxic twosome, there’s no topping Nick and Amy Dunne. As depicted by the intrepid Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, the Dunnes also score mighty high in the realm of the unreliable narrator.

Director David Fincher knows his way around dark themes. Consider The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011), Zodiac (2007), Fight Club (1999) and (phew!) Seven (1995). With Gone Girl he’s in familiar subversive territory, aided by a crafty screenplay by Gillian Flynn, adapted from her 2012 page-turner.

The story is told from both Nick and Amy POVs—hers from her diary. Are they the happiest couple on earth, save for a few bumps due to career and family woes, or… the most vicious? Amy’s mysterious disappearance, on the couple’s fifth anniversary, puts the union in the media spotlight. Did she meet foul play at the hands of a stranger? Or, as certain revelations come into play, did Nick hurt his wife?

Like Russian nesting dolls, the storyline keeps leading us to side stories—and then layers beneath the layers. Moving it along is the adept cast, including Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Neil Patrick Harris and, in a humdinger of a role, Tyler Perry (aka the cross-dressing Madea!) as a high-profile criminal lawyer. And how can we not mention the sinister, throbbing score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and Amy Dunne’s musings, such as, “He actually expected me to love him unconditionally.”


6. Pretty Poison (1968)

An ad tagline calls Pretty Poison “A shook-up story of the up-tight generation.” That’s as exemplified by Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld as mismatched lovebirds, one with a propensity to kill.

Considered an oddity when it was released, the film finds supposedly reformed arsonist Dennis Pitt—who served time for burning down his aunt’s house, with her inside it—working for a chemical plant in a small American town. The overrun is spilling into the local waters; fancying himself a secret agent, Pitt decides to investigate. Then he meets beautiful teenage drum majorette Sue Ann (Weld), whom he christens a kind of junior agent. Like the chemicals polluting the waters, Pitt and Sue Ann are a dangerous combination, and she is especially lethal.

Based on a slender 1967 novel, She Let Him Continue by Steven Geller, the movie came out just a year after Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway blasted their way into pop culture history as the stars of Bonnie and Clyde. As a result of its timing, some critics saw Dennis and Sue Ann as counterculture outlaws, with the added components of mental illness—and unrepentant violence.

Directed by Noel Black, whose only credit at the time was the short, Oscar-nominated Skaterdater (the first film about skateboarding), Pretty Poison was bolstered by the fact that its producer, Laurence Turman, had just done The Graduate. The screenplay, by Lorenzo Semple Jr, creator of TV’s Batman series, won the New York Film Critics Circle Award.


7. The 39 Steps (1935)

Very loosely adapted from the novel of the same name, a game-changing 1915 thriller, this is the film that, per its director Alfred Hitchcock, “invented the Hitchcock style”—that’s a man wrongly accused, who goes on the run with bad guys and law enforcement in pursuit. Along the way he encounters an icy cool blonde.

The 39 Steps begins with Robert Donat as Richard Hannay, in attendance at a show at London’s Music Hall. A disruption causes the audience to have to exit the building. That’s when a mysterious woman sidles up to Hannay, asking if she can come home with him. He has no way of knowing that the next day he’ll be accused of her murder.

Eluding authorities on a train headed to Scotland, he meets an attractive woman (Madeleine Carroll, the prototype Hitchcock blonde) who refuses to believe his story. They’ll eventually become handcuffed together, emotionally as well as physically. And the chase is on, the beginning of an extremely clever and action-packed mystery, with the requisite cameo by the rotund filmmaker.

The screenplay, by Hitchcock and his then-frequent collaborator, Charles Bennett, makes many changes to the source book, including inventing the blonde (!). But per a 1978 Hitchcock interview, Scottish author John Buchan—Governor General of Canada when the film was made—sent the filmmaker a note, saying he’d improved on the book. In fact, The 39 Steps is a significant work, on paper and on film. The book led to popular sequels, a stage production, a radio play, and multiple remakes. Of Hitchcock’s adaptation, screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown) has said, “It's not much of an exaggeration to say that all contemporary escapist entertainment begins with The 39 Steps.”


8. Laura (1944)

The quintessential tale of obsessive love undeterred by death brought acclaim to director-producer Otto Preminger, and earned an Oscar for its lush black and white cinematography by Joseph LaShelle. Based on the novel by Vera Caspary, which was initially a play, the film was one of five American-made crime dramas that so impacted the French film critic Nico Frank that he coined the term film noir. (Double Indemnity was also among that lineup.)

When enigmatic advertising executive Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) is found dead—a shotgun blast to her face—Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) questions those who knew her. Their compelling accounts of Laura, and a gorgeous portrait of her, lead to McPherson’s obsessive fascination with the dead woman. And then, after he has fallen asleep at night in her empty apartment, slumped across from the mesmerizing painting, a very much alive Laura enters the room. Thus confounding the mystery.

The stunning Tierney and stalwart Andrews are surrounded by a trio of co-stars who, like heat-seeking missiles, hone in on one another, in a fight for the most vivid screen moments. Clifton Webb is Waldo Lydecker, Laura’s mentor, confidante, and Svengali. He is in love with his creation. So is Vincent Price, as Laura’s smarmy, too handsome fiancé Shelby Carpenter, formerly the gigolo of Laura’s conniving aunt, played by Judith Anderson.

The haunting quality of the eponymous Laura, and Tierney’s portrayal, inspired a hit song that to this day remains as memorable as the film.


9. No Man of Her Own (1950)

Barbara Stanwyck was making a series of melodramas in her early forties, a concession that she was no longer the temptress of her youth. But her acting chops were in no way diminished, as proven by this forgotten noir gem, adeptly directed by Mitchell Leisen.

The film opens with voice over narration that hints at trouble. As Stanwyck’s character, Helen Ferguson relates: “Summer nights are pleasant in Caulfield. They smell of heliotrope and jasmine, honeysuckle and clover. …Oh, yes, the summer nights are pleasant in Caulfield, but not for us. Not for us.”

The story flashes back. Unmarried and pregnant, Ferguson goes to her boyfriend’s apartment. The rat (Lyle Bettger) won’t answer the door, but slips her an envelope containing a train ticket.

Ferguson is on a train, en route to San Francisco when she’s befriended by a married and pregnant couple. They’ve been living overseas, and are on the way to see his family. This will be their first meeting with their son’s wife, Patrice.

The out-of-wedlock pregnancy, a train crash with multiple deaths and a case of mistaken identity follow. And then comes Ferguson’s (well, she’s now known as Patrice) romance with the handsome John Lund. All this might seem soap opera-ish, until the unexpected plot twists (blackmail, a gun...).

The screenplay was based on the book I Married a Dead Man (great title, right?) by mystery maestro Cornell Woolrich under his pseudonym William Irish. The book was itself a reworking of "They Call Me Patrice," a short story that appeared in a 1946 issue of Today’s Woman magazine. Creating a distinctly female-centric noir, the screenplay was written by Sally Benson (Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt) and Catherine Turney (who contributed to the Mildred Pierce screenplay), in collaboration with Leisen.


10. The Thin Man (1934)

To finish this feast we’re raising a glass to mystery film’s ultimate true loves, William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles.

The film that introduced the pair in their signature roles, The Thin Man is a hybrid: part drawing room comedy, part mystery, with a lot of witty banter and cocktails, it’s also a character-driven foray. Never mind that we don’t know all that much about Nick and Nora’s background, save that he was a detective in San Francisco, and she inherited “a small-gauge railroad” and “a lot of other things” that Nick now manages. What’s important is that, aside from their dedication to each other, they’re also great at solving crimes, and clever repartee.

The witty, fast-paced script, only loosely based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, was appropriately from another terrific team, husband and wife Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich. (For the uninitiated: Nick is not the “thin” man of the title. That’s the person they’re looking for. However, after the film’s success, in subsequent sequels Nick is affectionately known by the moniker.)

The template for all those romantically-teamed crime solvers who once roamed prime-time TV (Hart to Hart, Remington Steele, Castle, and more), Nick and Nora went on to appear in five additional films, a long running radio show and a 1950s TV series.

Clearly, romance and mystery are a winning combination—especially when cocktails are served.

A regular Mystery Scene contributor, Pat H. Broeske is a veteran journalist-author who has interviewed a slew of film noir greats, including Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum. She still has the swizzle sticks from her extended lunch with Mitchum.


Teri Duerr
2024-02-12 15:27:54
Jonathan Kellerman's Delaware & Milo Return in "The Ghost Orchid"
John B. Valeri

Kellerman tests one of crime fiction's oldest friendships in the 39th outing for Dr. Delaware and Detective Sturgis

Jonathan Kellerman, like his enduring protagonist, Dr. Alex Delaware, is a man of two worlds. A clinical psychologist, he also solves crimes through his keen analysis of human behavior—albeit vicariously. Delaware, also a child psychologist, often assists the LAPD in their investigative work and has now headlined 39 books in as many years in what has become America’s longest running crime series. It’s proved a fruitful pairing between creator and character. Kellerman’s books—now numbering 50, including collaborations with his wife, Faye Kellerman, son, Jesse Kellerman, children’s stories, and nonfiction—have sold more than 90 million copies worldwide and garnered accolades including the Anthony, Edgar, and Goldwyn awards; further, Kellerman is a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association.

If the author’s newest is any indication, neither he nor Delaware have any intentions of stopping—or even slowing down. In The Ghost Orchid (Ballantine Books, 2024), Delaware—still recovering from a near-fatal encounter while working a case—is summoned to a poolside crime scene in Bel Air by homicide detective and close personal friend Milo Sturgis (acknowledged as the mainstream mystery fiction’s first openly gay police office at the series’ inception). There, he finds two dead bodies, both shot through the heart at close range. And while nothing initially jumps out as unusual enough to warrant his involvement, the ensuing investigation reveals that each victim has a past that could have been prologue to murder. As their killer remains at large, Delaware and Sturgis endeavor to identify the true target in the hopes that doing so will lead them to the perpetrator before he or she can strike again.

Now, Jonathan Kellerman discusses The Ghost Orchid and the ways in which melding psychology with police procedure has kept things fresh throughout four decades of popular and prolific output.

John B. Valeri for Mystery Scene: The Ghost Orchid finds your longtime protagonist, Dr. Alex Delaware, recovering from a near-fatal encounter. What is the impact of such a trauma, not only on Alex but his intimates—and how does this set the stage for what’s to come?

Jonathan Kellerman: The impact of trauma varies from person to person. PTSD has received a lot of attention but the truth is, most people don’t experience it. Often it depends upon the availability of quick emotional support and Alex benefits from the support he receives from Robin as well as from his own robust constitution. Milo is experiencing a whole different side-effect: guilt. Because it was police work that nearly killed his best friend. This creates… shall we say a bit of tension between them? And that informs The Ghost Orchid.

Det. Milo Sturgis (reluctantly) invites Alex to consult on a double-homicide case in which the question isn’t simply one of whodunit, but of which victim was the intended target. Tell us about the significance of this double mystery and why knowing the killer’s intent is critical for identification purposes.

Any homicide detective will tell you that learning about the victim is one of the most important factors in closing a homicide. The challenge, here, is that we have two victims to learn about and no idea if both of them or one of them was the primary target. If the latter, which one? I like to make things difficult for Alex and Milo.

Alex and Milo’s partnership allows for a two-pronged approach to crime-solving: psychological and procedural. How do these aspects play off one another—and what does their working relationship illustrate about the importance of open-mindedness and the pooling of resources?

The Delaware novels comprise, to my knowledge, the longest-running crime series in American, possibly worldwide, history. I believe that the unique relationship between Alex and Milo is a major reason for that. It goes beyond the pooling of resources. There’s a deep friendship as well as trust that has been earned over scores of successful collaborations.

Alex and his romantic partner, Robin, are both obsessive about their work, albeit to different ends. How has this influenced the course of their relationship?

I think apathetic characters lead to boring stories so I’ve always oriented myself toward driven, even borderline obsessive protagonists. Is any of that autobiographical?

In addition to the murder investigation, Alex is asked to advocate for a teenage adoptee whose indifferent parents are divorcing. Without moving into spoiler territory, how do these two separate cases underscore the book’s theme(s)—and what is your approach to balancing Alex’s two worlds so that each is done justice within the narrative?

You’re one 100% correct. I aim to show the two worlds inhabited by Alex in order to illuminate him as a person. I write crime novels so obviously his criminal investigation needs to be the main focus. But he is a psychologist and I’d like to show how psychologists actually function, having been one for many years. One of my reasons, decades ago, for creating the first Delaware novel was to (finally) portray the world of psychology in a realistic manner. Back then, that was absent in books, movies, and TV. Alas, for the most part, it still is.

This is your 39th Alex Delaware book in as many years (quite the accomplishment—kudos!). What compels you to return to these characters—and how has the passage of time allowed you to keep things fresh?

Keeping it fresh is easy for me because I love my job and I love writing the Delaware novels. They allow me to tell the stories that appeal to me. Namely those that explore the whydunit in addition to the whodunit. My motto is similar to that of Santana: We ignore the past at our own peril.

Throughout your career you’ve had the privilege of cowriting books not only with your wife, the esteemed Faye Kellerman, but more recently your son, Jesse Kellerman. What appeals to you about the collaborative process—and how have you found working with them to influence your own individual storytelling?

I’ve enjoyed both immensely because Faye and Jesse are immensely talented. It’s like playing in a band: no fun unless your fellow musicians have chops. I don’t believe it’s affected my individual style because collaboration requires a whole new mindset: compromise and sharing. Very different experience from sitting in a room by yourself and typing away.

Leave us with a teaser: What comes next?

Two subsequent Delaware novels are complete and I’m working on another. During Covid, I used isolation to stay extremely busy. I also want to thank you and to thank my wonderful readers who’ve allowed me to work the best job in the world.

John B ValeriJohn B. Valeri is a lifelong lover of books and the people who write them and the host of Central Booking, where he interviews authors and other industry insiders. Valeri is a contributor to CrimeReads, Crimespree Magazine, Criminal Element, Mystery Scene MagazineThe National Book Review, The New York Journal of BooksThe News and TimesThe Strand Magazine, and Suspense Magazine. He regularly moderates author events and book discussions at bookstores and libraries throughout Connecticut, and serves on the planning committee for CrimeCONN, a one-day reader/writer mystery conference cosponsored by Mystery Writers of America/New York Chapter.

Teri Duerr
2024-02-17 09:58:07
Review: "Leave No Trace" by A. J. Landau
Jay Roberts

Leave No Trace
by A.J. Landau
Minotaur Books, February 2024, $28

Leave No Trace, the first novel in the National Parks thriller series, wastes little time in drawing readers into the action. After all, what reader wouldn't be riveted to the page when the Statue of Liberty is blown up in the very first scene of the book!?

This "debut" novel from author A. J. Landau (the pseudonym of writers Jon Land and Jeff Ayers) introduces readers to Special Agent Michael Walker of the National Parks Service, a character who refuses to back down in in the face of overwhelming odds. When we meet Walker, he has been handed a double tragedy: a physical disability and the death of his wife (by an enemy with the political clout to make Walker's life miserable and twist the blame of the death back onto Walker). Once a park ranger before the accident, he now works investigating crimes that take place in the numerous national parks across the United States.

So when he gets the call about Lady Liberty and heads to New York, he's the agent in charge of the scene—that is until the other alphabet agencies get involved in the attack's aftermath. This includes FBI Agent Gina Delgado, who shunts Walker aside for a lack of security clearance. Being sidelined gives the Parks Service agent an unexpected advantage, though, when he ends up running into a crucial bit of evidence...a witness!

As Michael works to stay involved in the case, Walker soon finds himself working with Delgado, the two attempting to protect their witness and his video evidence. Delgado's initial resistance to Walker's involvement set aside, their teamwork makes for an interesting second half of the story. And with her own backstory that lends special insight into the case, Delgado stands out just as much as her partner.

Meanwhile, the action heats up with more attacks across the country on America's cultural landmarks by homegrown terrorists led by the singularly named Jeremiah. To his credit, Landau manages to make Jeremiah and his followers believable—they don't seem like cartoonish central casting characters.

From high-intensity fire fights with terrorists to survival scenes as nature is unleashed, Landau brings to bear any number of gripping set pieces that provide readers with a taut conspiracy, explosive confrontations, and fraught scenes as Michael Walker and Gina Delgado work to uncover the truth. The fast and furious Leave No Trace manages to announce the arrival of this new thriller voice with authority and should leave readers begging for more.


Teri Duerr
2024-02-28 22:33:22
"I'm Gonna Make'em a Movie They Can't Refuse..." 8 Crime Films That Actually Won at the Oscars
Pat H. Broeske

Academy Award Winning Adaptations

This year’s Academy Awards race finds Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon—a verrrry long (206 minutes) crime drama—among the nominated titles. Adapted from David Grann’s 2017 nonfiction book, which is subtitled The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, the film is nominated in 10 categories, including Best Picture.  

Inevitably, there are a lot of politics involved in the vote casting, which is why Flower Moon’s leading lady, Lily Gladstone, will probably rack up a Best Actress win. She would be the first Native American actress to do so, and Oscar loves “firsts.”

However, in its 95-year history, the Academy Awards hasn’t been so lovey-dovey with the mystery-crime genre. I went looking for top-honored genre movies—concentrating on titles adapted from books—and here’s what I found...

1. Rebecca (1940) – Best Picture and more

First published in the UK where it garnered huge sales and enjoyed critical acclaim, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca was on the verge of its United States publication when it was announced the novel was already headed to the screen. Producer David O. Selznick (Gone With the Wind) paid a whopping $50,000 for the rights, after reading the book’s galleys. Then he hired England’s most talked-about director, a young Alfred Hitchcock. No wonder Rebecca was destined for screen success—and Oscar attention.

Starring Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, and Judith Anderson in a chilling performance, the gothic mystery about a young woman who must compete with the memory of—and the mystery surrounding—her husband’s first wife, Rebecca, earned 11 Academy Award nominations. Famed for its no-name narrator (we never learn the protagonist’s name) and its opening line, "Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again," Rebecca nabbed the Best Picture statuette as well as Best Cinematography (George Barnes).

Footnote: Hitchcock was nominated for Best Director for Rebecca and four subsequent films. He never won. Now that’s a crime! 


2. In the Heat of the Night (1967) – Best Picture and more

John Ball’s 1965 book about African American cop Virgil Tibbs won an Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and launched a popular series. It also provided Sidney Poitier, who was then on a roll, with a signature part.

Already an Oscar-winner—and the first African American to be named Best Actor—for 1963’s Lilies of the Field, Poitier starred in three films in 1967. Along with In the Heat of the Night there was To Sir, With Love and later, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. But it was Heat of the Night that had...the heat, earning seven Oscar nominations, winning Best Picture, along with Best Adapted Screenplay (Stirling Silliphant), Best Sound (James Richard), Best Editing (Hal Ashby), and Best Actor. Except, the latter went not to Poitier, but to costar Rod Steiger for his memorable depiction of a racist police chief of a town in Mississippi.

The taut storyline begins with the discovery of a body and the suspicion that Tibbs, stuck in town at a late hour because he missed a train connection, might be a suspect. Turns out he’s a homicide detective from Philadelphia, and he and the local police chief team up to solve the crime. Along the way, they come to understand, and even possibly respect, one another.

In the Heat of the Night remains a strong example of a popular film with a message that doesn’t trample the moviegoers—because it is inherent to the storyline and not employed as a sledgehammer.

Footnote: Inevitably there was a sequel, and a popular TV series starring Carroll O’Connor and Howard Rollins which ran for eight seasons.


3. The French Connection (1971) – Best Picture and more

Robin Moore’s 1969 book about a real-life international narcotics case that played out on the streets of New York City, garnered strong reviews. (“Few police procedure novels . . . are so complete,” wrote the Los Angeles Times’s Robert Kirsch, who called it “a superb piece of journalism.”) Film rights were snapped up and William Friedkin, whose early credits included The Boys in the Band, was named director.

Filmed on location in NYC, the gritty look of The French Connection influenced countless wannabes. Though acclaimed for its monumental car chase scene, in which cop Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) floors his Pontiac to catch up with an elevated train, the entire film plays out like an extended and breathless pursuit, as Doyle and his partner (Roy Scheider) try to catch the bad guys while using their own questionable tactics.

Named Best Picture, the film also snagged honors for Best Director (which allowed Friedkin to go on to do The Exorcist), Best Adapted Screenplay (Ernest Tidyman), and Best Editing (Gerald B. Greenberg). And Gene Hackman, who’d been building an impressive roster since Bonnie and Clyde, saw his career go into overdrive after being named Best Actor. Two years later there was a sequel, also starring Hackman, this time based on an original screenplay.


4. The Godfather (1972) – Best Picture and more

For cineastes as well as crime film devotees, there’s no topping the Francis Ford Coppola-directed saga of the Corleone dynasty. Based on Mario Puzo’s sprawling (446 pages!) mega-selling 1969 novel, the film takes us prisoner via its complex characters, dark family dynamics, the matter-of-fact brutality of mob rule—and bloodshed galore. All of which is made sweepingly artistic via the cinematography of Gordon Willis and the score (that theme music!) by Nino Rota, as well as the performances of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, John Cazale, Diane Keaton (even with that bad wig), and more. It's a sumptuous Italian feast we can’t get enough of. Which is why there had to be a sequel (see the next entry).

Earning 10 Oscar nominations, it lost in most categories to the period musical Cabaret. But it was The Godfather that captured Best Picture and Best Screenplay Adaptation (a collaboration between Puzo and Coppola). And in what remains a legendary Oscar moment, Best Actor winner Brando was a no-show who nonetheless stole the show by having a Native American woman, in fringed leather and beaded moccasins, take the stage in his place and declare that he declined the honor and was en route to support Native Americans at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. It was a fitting coda for the mob king, and a movie no crime buff can refuse.

Footnote: following the death of Sasheen Littlefeather, the woman who read Brando’s statement, her family repudiated her claim to be of Native American ancestry.


5. The Godfather Part II (1974) – Best Picture and more

C’mon, everybody knows you can’t take down the mob. Once again, Mario Puzo’s novel was the source material, with a screenplay adaptation by the author and director Francis Ford Coppola. But this film is more than a sequel; it’s also a prequel. The parallel stories chart the rise of young Vito Corleone, played by Robert De Niro, who immigrates to New York from his Sicilian homeland, as well as the rise of Corleone son Michael, again depicted by Al Pacino.

A great supporting cast, including Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, and John Cazale (poor Fredo!), and amazing set pieces, like the scenes of Michael’s visit to Cuba, and those at the Corleone compound at Lake Tahoe, adds to the must-see factor. 

Over the years there’s been much debate over which of the two Godfather entries is best. (Yours Truly disavows the third film in the series.) Fans will have to duke it out. As for Oscar wins, the film snatched Best Picture, along with Screenplay Adaptation, Original Dramatic Score (for Nino Rota, natch) and earned De Niro the Best Supporting Actor honor.


6. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – Winner, The Big Five

Based on Thomas Harris’ huge 1988 bestseller, which was a sequel of sorts to his 1981 chiller Red Dragon, the film was a game changer—a pop culture phenomenon in spite of (or because of?) its explicit violence and gore.

Winning the Big Five—Best Picture, Best Director (Jonathan Demme), Best Screenplay Adaptation (Ted Tally), Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), and Best Actress (Jodie Foster)—Silence also became the template for serial killer thrillers.

Hopkins’ performance as Foster’s manipulative mentor has become his signature role. Befitting the film’s iconic status, there have been sequel films and TV shows. And Hannibal is a celeb in his own right—just ask anyone who knows of the film if they’d like some fava beans served with “a nice Chianti.” There’s even a Hannibal Lecter Bobblehead.

Footnote: It was also a milestone in another arena: At the time of its Oscar wins, no other horror film—and this movie straddles that genre—had broken through as Best Picture.


7. No Country for Old Men (2007) – Best Picture and more

The picture was adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed 2005 novel, set in the dusty Texas-Mexico borderlands and involving the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad. The relentless drama follows intertwined journeys of a Texas lawman, a good ol’ boy who happens upon a briefcase filled with cash, and an unrelenting hitman-psychopath who has a perverted code of justice involving a coin toss.

Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, the film stars Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin, and has great supporting turns by Kelly Macdonald and Woody Harrelson.

Nominated in eight Oscar categories, No Country won for four: Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and, for Javier Bardem’s creepy hitman, Best Supporting Actor. Watch out for those coin tosses!


8. Argo (2012) – Best Picture and more

A 1999 memoir called The Master of Disguise, by retired CIA “espionage artist” Tony Mendez—and a 2007 Wired magazine article about Mendez and his exploits—are the basis of Ben Affleck’s third directorial effort. Affleck, who stars in this one, previously helmed adaptations of Dennis Lehane’s 1998 detective novel Gone Baby Gone (for 2007’s film of the same name) and Chuck Hogan’s bank robbery thriller The Prince of Thieves (as 2010’s The Town).

Affleck, who was a Middle Eastern studies major during his college days, says he was immediately drawn to Chris Terrio’s script—an amalgam of spy caper, comedy, hostage drama, and historical thriller. Then there’s the fact that the CIA really did concoct a wild covert effort to free American hostages during the 1979 siege of the American Embassy in Tehran by militant students. “You wouldn’t believe it if it wasn’t true,” Affleck told the L.A. Times, on the eve of the film’s release. “It would just seem like bad storytelling.”

Author Mendez (portrayed by Affleck) was a consultant on the film. After all, he came up with the idea to have the hostages disguised as members of a Hollywood film crew, allegedly in Iran to make a science fiction film called... Argo. It was under that guise that they were spirited out of the country.

Also starring Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, and Alan Arkin, the film won Best Picture, as well as Best Adapted Screenplay (Chris Terrio), and Best Editing (William Goldenberg). This was the second Oscar for Affleck, who—along with pal Matt Damon—won Best Original Screenplay for 1997’s Good Will Hunting. All that, and J.Lo!

A regular Mystery Scene contributor, Pat H. Broeske is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer known for her Hollywood coverage. She’s written countless column inches about the Academy Awards, and has covered the event from both the red carpet and its press room.    




Teri Duerr
2024-03-01 16:28:25
2024 ITW Thriller Award Nominees Announced
Teri Duerr

ITW Thriller Awards

The Thriller Awards celebrate the best in thriller writing from around the world. ITW will announce the winners at ThrillerFest XIX on Saturday, June 1, 2024 at the Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel, New York City. Congratulations to all the nominees!


All the Sinneers Bleed, by S.A. Cosby (Flatiron Books)
Her Deadly Game, by Robert Dugoni (Thomas & Mercer)
It's One of Us, by J.T. Ellison (Harlequin – MIRA Books)
The Secret Hours, by Mick Herron (Soho Crime)
Fixit, by Joe Ide (Mulholland Books)
The Drift, by C.J. Tudor (Ballantine Books)


The Peacock and the Sparrow, by I.S. Berry, read by Pete Simonelli (Atria)
The Last Orphan, by Gregg Hurwitz, read by by Scott Brick (Macmillan)
The Housemaid's Secret, by Freida McFadden, read by Lauryn Allman (Bookouture)
The House of Wolves, by James Patterson and Mike Lupica, read by Ellen Archer (Hachette Audio)
Bad Summer People, by Emma Rosenblum, read by by January LaVoy (Macmillan)


The Peacock and the Sparrow, by I.S. Berry, (Atria)
The Golden Gate, by Amy Chua (Minotaur)
Scorched Grace, by Margot Douaihy (Zando)
Lenny Marks Gets Away With Murder, by Kerryn Mayne (Bantam Books)
Perfect Shot: A Thriller, by Steve Urszenyi (Minotaur)


Hide, by Tracy Clark (Thomas & Mercer)
The Paleontologist, by Luke Dumas (Atria)
The Spy Coast, by Tess Gerritsen (Thomas & Mercer)
To Die For, by Lisa Gray (Thomas & Mercer)
Cave 13: A Joe Ledger and Rogue Team International Novel, by Jonathan Maberry (St. Martin’s Griffin)
Call the Dark, by J. Todd Scott (Thomas & Mercer)


"Slot Machine Fever Dreams" by Chris Bohjalian (Amazon Original Stories)
 "These Cold Strangers" by J.T. Ellison (Amazon Original Stories)
"An Honorable Choice" by Smita Harish Jain (Wildside Press)
"Rush Hour" by Richard Santos (Akashic Books)
"Unknown Caller" by Lisa Unger (Amazon Original Stories)
"One Night in 1965" by Stacy Woodson (Down & Out Books)


Red as Blood, by Sorboni Banerjee and Dominique Richardson (Wolfpack Publishing LLC)
Where He Can't Find You, by Darcy Coates (Sourcebooks Fire)
Where Echoes Die, by Courtney Gould (Wednesday Books)
Where Darkness Blooms, by Andrea Hannah (Wednesday Books)
Stateless, by Elizabeth Wein (Little, Brown & Co.)


The Vulture Fund, by Jeff Buick (self-published)
The Bigamist, by Rona Halsall (Bookouture)
A Good Rush of Blood, by Matt Phillips (RunAmok Books)
Close Her Eyes, by Lisa Regan (Bookouture)
The Killing Room, by Robert Swartwood (Blackstone Publishing)
The In-Laws, by Laura Wolfe (Bookouture)


Teri Duerr
2024-02-29 19:35:05
Review: "Three-Inch Teeth" by C.J. Box
Kurt Anthony Krug

Three-Inch Teeth
by C.J. Box  
G.P. Putnam's Sons, February 2024, $30

Wyoming-based game warden Joe Pickett has his hands full in his 24th novel, Three-Inch Teeth. Not only does he have to deal with a grizzly bear on a deadly rampage, an old enemy named Dallas Cates is out of prison and out for revenge. Cates has a list of names of the six people who helped put him away tattooed to his hand—and Pickett and Nate Romanowski are two of them. If only one member of Pickett’s supporting cast dies, that’s getting off easy.

The description of the bear attacks—especially the one that opens the book—are pretty harrowing, filling the reader with a sense of dread. As Pickett tries to figure out what is motivating the bear attacks and deal with a group of animal rights activists called the Mama Bears, Cates is recruiting a team of hardened criminals to help him with his revenge scheme, including another old enemy of Pickett’s named Axel Soledad. Cates takes advantage of the chaos and panic in the wake of the grizzly’s rampage to exact revenge, leading to quite the showdown at the end.

There is also a subplot involving Pickett’s daughter Sheridan and an enigmatic, bitter old woman named Katy Cotton. This subplot is resolved abruptly (in fact, the ending feels a bit rushed). It would’ve served Box to devote more time to it in the next Pickett novel.

Still, in the grand scheme of things, that’s a small complaint to have. Box writes with an authentic sense of place, having grown up in Wyoming, where he hiked, fished, and hunted. The cliché of writing what you know applies here. He also knows how to ratchet up the tension, writing with a sense of urgency that burns through the pages rather quickly.


Teri Duerr
2024-03-01 22:36:42
"The New Couple in 5B" by Lisa Unger
Kurt Anthony Krug

The New Couple in 5B
by Lisa Unger
Park Row, March 2024, $28.99

On the heels of her novella, Christmas Presents, Lisa Unger delivers another thriller to will keep you up past your bedtime with The New Couple in 5B—a novel that has earned the praise of Buffy the Vampire Slayer herself: Sarah Michelle Gellar!

The novel follows a struggling New York City couple Chad and Rosie Lowan, who inherit luxury apartment at the historic Windermere in Manhattan's Murray Hill neighborhood. As they get settled into their new digs, Chad and Rosie are welcomed with open arms by their neighbors. Yet they soon discover a dark underbelly to their new home—many brutal crimes have happened there, which piques crime writer Rosie’s curiosity. Then there’s the ghost of a boy Rosie encounters in the basement and a seemingly ubiquitous doorman who gives off a creepy vibe. Once fellow tenants end up dead, Rosie takes it upon herself to get to the truth.

Unger has a rich imagination and command of the written word; she is able to describe every minute detail in a scene, as well as what is going on inside a character’s head, yet still keep the story moving forward. She also knows how to inject just the right amount of angst into her novels—one of her trademarks. On top of that, she knows New York City quite well and it shows.

A heady cocktail of Rosemary’s Baby, 666 Park Avenue, Only Murders in the Building (sans the comedic aspects), and Riley Sager’s Lock Every Door, Unger demonstrates what a master of suspense she is by subverting many tropes and keeping readers guessing. The twist she pulls at the end is worthy of Hitchcock himself. And then she pulls another one while you’re still processing the first! She brings it all to a satisfying conclusion that remains long after you finish.

Teri Duerr
2024-03-08 21:29:41
John Pugmire, Publisher, Translator
Brian Skupin

I am sad to report that John Pugmire, Publisher of Locked Room International (LRI), passed away on March 7, 2024, in New York City.

Originally from the United Kingdom, John relocated to Manhattan in the 1980s after a successful executive career at IBM. His interest in locked-room and other impossible crimes was stimulated in 1991 when he learned about Paul Halter, a rising young French writer. Being bilingual in French and English, John read and enjoyed Halter's books so much that he tried to interest publishers in translated versions. Eventually Wildside Press agreed to publish Night of the Wolf (2006), a collection of Halter's short stories, translated into English by Pugmire and noted impossible crime expert Robert Adey.

In 2010, John founded Locked Room International, dedicated to publishing translations of mystery novels featuring impossibilities. At first LRI focused on French mysteries, especially those by Halter, and were all translated by John himself. Later, LRI expanded to publishing mysteries from other languages, including Japanese, Swedish, and Chinese. In addition, LRI published an omnibus edition of Derek Smith's English locked-room mysteries, an English language anthology of locked-room mysteries, The Realm of the Impossible, edited by Pugmire and myself, and a revised edition of Adey's seminal Locked Room Murders bibliography. John's online publication "A Locked Room Library" has been a valuable guide to new readers of impossible mystery fiction, and he was an early proponent of Shin Honkaku, a literary movement in Japan that focusing on the writing of new mystery novels in the classic or Golden Age style.

John was a generous soul, a fine drinking companion, and a good friend.

2024-03-10 14:42:09
Review: "The Truth About the Devlins" by Lisa Scottoline
Kurt Anthony Krug

The Truth About the Devlins by Lisa ScottolineThe Truth About the Devlins
by Lisa Scottoline
G.P. Putnam's Sons, March 2024, $29.95

In her latest novel The Truth About the Devlins, Lisa Scottoline introduces a dysfunctional family that really puts the “fun” in “dysfunctional.” Yeah, that sounds pretty cliché, but it fits. Oh, does it fit! This family is really something else and Scottoline explores those deliciously screwed-up family dynamics with gusto.

The Devlins are a prominent family of attorneys in Philadelphia. There’s Paul, the no-nonsense patriarch and head of the powerful law firm Devlin & Devlin, who’s a respected man in the community; there’s Marie, his wife, also an attorney, and peacemaker; there’s John, the eldest son and golden boy who’s very driven and wants to take over the firm once Paul retires; there’s Gabby, a crusading attorney who takes on pro bono cases and is a staunch champion of the downtrodden.

Finally, there’s the black sheep of the family: TJ, the youngest child. TJ is on parole and a recovering alcoholic who can’t get a job anywhere else but at his family’s law firm, where he’s an investigator. Really, a sinecure. Paul makes it clear that he’s ashamed of TJ. John is not shy about lording his success over him, either.

The book begins with John turning to TJ—now two years sober—for help. John confides to TJ that he accidentally killed an accountant named Neil Lemaire, one of Devlin & Devlin’s clients, in self-defense after confronting Neil with proof of embezzlement. The brothers race to the scene of the crime, only to find Neil’s body is gone. It’s discovered later and his death is ruled a suicide.

John wants to let it go and move on like nothing happened. TJ won’t let it go, however. As a result, John throws TJ under the bus, telling the family he’s relapsed and undermining what little credibility TJ has with Paul and the rest of his family. Then the police get involved. Knowing he’s on parole, TJ has no choice but to cooperate.

With his back against the wall, TJ still continues looking into the murder as a way to redeem himself in the eyes of his family, only to discover a hotbed of corruption, kickbacks, and corporate greed that may well spell the end of Devlin & Devlin—if he doesn’t get himself killed first.

Scottoline creates a flawed yet likable protagonist with TJ. He’s a man who knows he’s an alcoholic and and understands he deserved to go to prison, but feels he’s paid his debt to society. In short, he took full responsibility for himself and his actions. Now thrust into an untenable situation, he’s determined to prove himself to his family all the while fighting the urge to relapse.

Part family drama, part legal thriller, Scottoline proves once again why she’s a master of the genre. You’ll burn through this book in no time flat.

Teri Duerr
2024-03-25 14:41:41
Review: "An Inconvenient Wife" by Karen E. Olson
John B. Valeri

An Inconvenient Wife
by Karen E. Olson
Pegasus Crime, April 2024, $27

Connecticut’s Karen E. Olson has long been one of the most versatile voices in crime fiction. An editor and former newspaper journalist, Olson made her debut with the Sara Ann Freed Memorial Award-winning Sacred Cows (2005)—the first in her traditional mystery series featuring New Haven-based reporter Annie Seymour. Then, Olson wrote the Vegas-set Tattoo Shop cozies (yes, you read that correctly) and the the Black Hat thrillers about a hacker on the run. This spring, she makes a triumphant return with An Inconvenient Wife—a modern retelling of Henry VIII and his ill-fated brides.

Meet Kate Parker. She’s billionaire businessman Hank Tudor’s sixth, and newest, wife. As his former assistant, she’s used to running interference for him—but all that changes with their exchange of vows. The honeymoon is short-lived, when a body is discovered sans head in the marshland that surrounds Tudor's Greenwich summer home. And while that would be a most unfortunate occurrence under any circumstances, it’s also a highly suspicious one, as the decapitated remains of a Jane Doe were also found on his Martha’s Vineyard property years ago. It can’t possibly be coincidence, can it? (Spoiler alert: No.) Sussing out the truth may just be the death of Kate.

Temporarily ensconced at a bed-and-breakfast across from the crime scene—operated by Hank’s fourth wife, Anna Klein, who also cares for his two children from previous marriages—Kate does the unthinkable: She begins to question her husband. After all, two of his previous wives have gone missing and are presumed dead, while a third, Catherine, lives in seclusion. Can it be that his ruthlessness extends beyond the boardroom and into the bedroom? Having come into possession of a diary kept by one of Hank's missing wives, Kate begins to see a different, domineering side to her seemingly solicitous husband. And the final entry is both eerie and potentially prophetic: HE’S GOING TO KILL ME.

Told through the alternating viewpoints of wives' Kate, Anna, and Catherine—along with extracts from the aforementioned diary—Olson offers twists aplenty while illuminating the complex inner lives of the women who outwardly gave up their identities to become Mrs. Tudor. Hank’s pattern is clear: He loved them, until he didn’t. But does that make him a monster? Things are rarely so straightforward—at least in fiction. As the current and former Mrs. Tudors, Kate and Anna, form a tenuous alliance in search of truth, Hank becomes both increasingly distant and demanding. Will Kate break free from his clutches—or will history repeat itself once again?

Karen E. Olson—a self-professed Tudor-era obsessive—achieves something wholly original with An Inconvenient Wife, which is both a crime novel and an astute study in marital relations and power struggles. While it takes its inspiration from Henry VIII and his wives, a king (and killer) who lived more than five hundred years ago, the story is thoroughly modern. Because the motives for murder seldom go out of style—even as the machinations change (or don’t). At the risk of sounding impertinent: You may just lose your head over this book.

Teri Duerr
2024-03-29 20:22:38
Sara Paretsky on V.I. Warshawski's Journey in "Pay Dirt"
Robin Agnew

I discovered Sara Paretsky's books thanks to my mystery-loving father in law. It was 1982, I was fresh out of college, and they just blew the cobwebs off the genre. Paretsky's strong, feminist, no-nonsense V.I. was an instant role model. When my husband and I opened our bookstore Aunt Agatha's a decade later, Paretsky's books were a guiding light—I wanted a store full of books as wonderful as hers.

Twenty-three books on, V.I. and her creator are still breaking ground in Pay Dirt. This time, V.I. is a fish out of water on "holiday" in Kansas, where she stumbles upon a mystery when a college student named Sabrina goes missing. As V.I. investigates, she soon discovers a story about greed, crime, and racism rooted in centuries-old conflict.

It was a real delight that Ms. Paretsky was kind enough to answer some questions about Pay Dirt as well as about her long and accomplished career, which notably also includes the founding of Sisters in Crime in support of women crime writers and many awards, including a CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger, an Anthony Award, and an MWA Grand Master title for lifetime achievement in her craft.

Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: Your first book Indemnity Only and Sue Grafton’s "B" is for Burglar came out the same year. When I first read them, I had just graduated from college and both V.I. and Kinsey seemed like feminist blueprints I wanted to emulate. Were you and Grafton aware of each other back then?

Sara Paretsky: Sue and I were writing before the internet and our early books had very small book runs. It wasn’t until our third books—Killing Orders for me and "C" Is for Corpse for Sue—that we learned about each other’s work. After that, we were so linked in the public mind that Sue joked that we’d been twins in a previous life.

I feel like you laid out lots of things in Indemnity Only that you are still writing about today, but especially V.I. herself and her relentlessly intelligent and fearless personality. What have you learned about her though 22 books? Does she still surprise you? I also wonder about any blending of personalities. I know you are a writer, not a working private eye, but what qualities do you and V.I. share? In my mind’s eye she looks like you.

The biggest challenge with a long series written in the first person is to keep her as a distinct personality from my own. In the early books, she was more insouciant, but in more recent books responsibility lies heavy on her shoulders. As for her appearance, it’s fun that you think that she looks like me. My vision of her is that she’s darker because of her mother’s Italian heritage. Chatto & Windus used an Anglo-Italian model for the cover of Burn Marks, which gets her coloring right in my mind. However, this is a model and she is much too thin.

I just finished Pay Dirt and loved seeing V.I out of her element in Kansas. Can you talk about that decision?

It was hard to write about V.I. in Kansas in Pay Dirt. I’d sent her to my hometown in two other books, but there she was just gathering information about Chicago-based crimes. In Pay Dirt, the actual crimes take place in Kansas, and she’s trying to conduct an investigation without any local support. The storyline involves property disputes that date to the Civil War. I thought that it would be easier to sort those out in a small community than in Chicago where tracking 160 years of titles and neighborhood changes and political corruption would have given me a book longer than War and Peace.

All mystery novels are about a problem that must be solved. In Pay Dirt, V.I. has that mystery, but also an added challenge: She’s in a strange town with no connections or people willing to help her uncover leads. Was that a fun challenge for you as a writer?

Yes, as I mention in the previous answer, it was a challenge. I skirted it to some degree with the characters of the two men who run a scrap metal business. They are willing to help out, especially as the crime involves their own livelihood.

You address a social issues in your novels. In this case, the historic reach of racism as it existed then and still exists today. It’s heartbreaking to read about how the world has changed—but not enough. Can you talk about the research for this part of your book?

Pay Dirt was actually inspired by Brent M. S. Campney’s This Is Not Dixie: Racist Violence in Kansas, 1861–1927. I grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, and we were very proud of our abolitionist history. Campney’s book was a reality check. He describes violence perpetrated on African Americans in the decades immediately after the Civil War. It took me eight full drafts of the novel before I had the right storyline, but the story itself was one that I felt impelled to tell.

In your "Afterword" you mention that you cut out some of the historical letters you had originally wanted to include. Was that a hard decision?

That was a very difficult decision. Those Civil War-era characters are very alive in my mind. I have kept all these letters, of course, and hope to use them in another project. The characters in Pay Dirt appear in Bleeding Kansas, which isn’t in the V.I. series. They also play a role in “Trial by Fire” in Love and Other Crimes.

All really good books have a blend of character, setting, and plot. To have one or two without the third makes for a flat read, but you always integrate all three. Where do you start? Do you find an issue you want to include? Do you start with a problem for V.I.?

Thank you for that good opinion. I agree with you, and I struggle to bring all these elements into what I write. Every book starts in a different place. With Pay Dirt, I started with the idea of an historic crime and built the plot and the people around that. In my previous novel, Dead Land, which is also partly set in Kansas, I started with a homeless musician whose singing haunted me.

My book club recently had a long, long discussion about the red wine glasses V.I. has of her mother’s. We felt that established her as a character. How did those glasses pop into your mind?

I can’t remember how those wine glasses came to me. They are a strange legacy to carry while you’re fleeing for your life, as Gabriella had to do. And then, as I read more WWII memoirs, I learned that most refugees had suitcases made of cardboard, and so I spent a lot of time imaging how Gabriella packed them and why they were so important to her. I have my own mental picture of them; I have never found a red wine glass that matched my image and I have searched many places.

The fact that we discussed those wine glasses for so long, means that V.I. is almost a real person to us, with her own background and experiences. That’s an amazing achievement in any kind of writing. I also think a long series allows a writer to create a character that seems very real. (I guess we have Arthur Conan Doyle to thank for that.) What are your thoughts on V.I.’s longevity, as well as the series'?

I can only write about things I care about personally. I’ve occasionally written short stories as head games, but it takes me about 18 months to write a novel. If I don’t care about the problem and the people, there’s nothing to keep me going for the length of the journey. Perhaps my own passion keeps the series fresh.

What book have you read in your life that you feel shaped you as a writer?

That’s a hard question. I’ve read many books that affect how I think about my own life and the larger world, but I’m not sure they’ve influenced me as a writer. For me, writing fiction uses a different part of the mind than I use in responding to other people’s visions. Some of the books that have moved me deeply include: The Last of the Just (André Schwarz-Bart), Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel), and Gilead (Marilynne Robinson). As a child, my favorite writers were Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott. I can still quote the opening to Little Women. I also loved Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. I read this when I was seven and it was my introduction to independent women living their own lives and making their own decisions.

What’s next for V.I.?

V.I. is taking a break. Pay Dirt is so hard on her that I’m sending her to Sardinia for R&R while I write about a different person. What comes next for her could include time in Warsaw to explore her father’s family. It’s possible that she gets involved in a bison rustling scheme.

And finally, do you have a favorite of your books? I’m a big Deadlock fan myself.

Many people, including my beloved friend and mentor, the late Dorothy Salisbury Davis, like Deadlock best. My personal favorite is probably Hard Ball. The crime is set in the summer that I first came to Chicago as a volunteer in the civil rights movement and the characters, ranging from V.I.’s family to Chicago street gang members, came to life for me in a way that I sometimes struggle to achieve.

Robin Agnew is a longtime Mystery Scene contributor and was the owner of Aunt Agatha's bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for 26 years. No longer a brick and mortar store, Aunt Agatha has an extensive used book collection is available at and the site is home to more of Robin's writing.

Teri Duerr
2024-04-02 17:17:13
Fiona Davis on Librarians, Our Literary Heroes
Fiona Davis

Fiona Davis, photo by Deborah Feingold

My family moved around a lot when I was young, but the one constant was that once a week my mother would bundle me and my brother into the car and head to the main library branch of whatever town we were living in. My brother would race to the section on trains, and I’d wander over to Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie. We’d grab as many books as allowed and then wait for my mother to check them out.

I loved the snap of the Mylar covering as the book was opened, followed by the satisfying “chunk” of the mechanical stamp coming down hard on the due date card. Library books protected me, wrapping me in the safe bubble of other stories when I was nervous about attending a new school or making new friends. There were other worlds out there, each novel reminded me. Worlds where I might fit in.

At the time, I couldn’t imagine anything better than being a librarian. To have all of those books to peruse at my pleasure, what an embarrassment of reading riches. Later, while researching a novel, I stumbled upon the existence of the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, which holds literary archives, manuscripts, and printed books of over 400 authors like Vladimir Nabokov, Mark Twain, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The treasures in the Berg Collection offer a window into the creative process. The scratched-out words in a draft of a Walt Whitman poem, for example, or Virginia Woolf’s entries in her diary, remind us that these authors who we revere were human, and that the act of writing is a difficult one, and shouldn’t come easy.

The value of such collections can’t be understated.

After a thief was caught stealing $1.8 million in rare books and manuscripts from Columbia University’s Butler Library in the 1990s, Jean Ashton, the library’s director of rare books and manuscripts, went before the judge and requested a harsher sentence. She explained that the items were worth more than their stated value because they were important pieces of history and culture, and that their loss would have a dramatic impact on scholarly research. The judge was duly impressed, and remanded a longer sentence. Later, a law was passed protecting cultural heritage resources, so that from that point forward, thefts from a museum or library were taken more seriously.

To read a draft of a Walt Whitman poem is an honor and a privilege, one that Ms. Ashton protected. As a child, I looked up to librarians as literary heroes, and that remains true to this day.

Fiona Davis began her career in New York City as an actress, but after getting a master's degree at Columbia Journalism School, she fell in love with writing, eventually settling down as an author of historical fiction. Fiona's books, which included The Lions of Fifth Avenue, Chelsea Girls, and The Masterpiece among others, have been translated into more than a dozen languages. She's a graduate of the College of William & Mary and is based in New York City.

This “Writers on Reading” essay was originally published in “At the Scene” enews August 2020 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers.


Teri Duerr
2024-04-09 15:40:18