Rabbit Holes of Research

by Isabella Maldonado

I was recently on a panel of authors at the ThrillerFest conference in New York City. The subject was “Google, Experts, or Travel: Researching Your Novel.” We all had a lively discussion about the methods we preferred as well as the pros and cons of each.

Everyone in the room, published or not, had at one time or another veered into the same pitfall: Rabbit Holes of Research. The topic resonated so well because writers are curious by nature. As a former law enforcement officer, I’m doubly blessed—or cursed, depending on your perspective—with an overload of curiosity.

All the panelists recounted stories of research we conducted. Some of us traveled around the world extensively, while others interviewed experts in the field. Everyone used online research to fill in the gaps or form the basis for the travels or interviews we conducted. I described time spent at the firing range putting thousands of rounds of ammunition through various weapons over years on the job. To be honest though, I would have gladly traded some of that experience for a research trip to Paris, London, or Rome. Maybe someday…

Every author has stories of research binges, and I’m no different. My newest novel, THE FALCON, features an FBI agent hunting a serial killer, but it also involves ancient Egyptian culture and the sport of falconry, among many other topics.

There were times when I was tempted to spend days on end steeped in the fascinating history of Egypt. Such a rich culture called to my author’s heart and mind, but a deadline for the manuscript forced me not to give into temptation. I had to cull my research down to the most critical elements to keep the story moving. I did, however, consult Egyptologist Malayna Evans, who reviewed my story to ensure it did not stray too far from historical facts.

Falconry presented its own temptations. I’ve been a fan of raptors since I did a book report in high school discussing how William Shakespeare used falconry techniques in The Taming of the Shrew. As a former police hostage negotiator, I also received training in Stockholm Syndrome. All this information went into creating a villain many readers have said is one of the creepiest they’ve ever encountered.

The challenge is to use enough detail to pique the reader’s interest, but not so much that it seems like a scholarly text. Thriller readers expect a fast pace. Bogging the story down in minutia stops the momentum. On the other hand, my work features FBI agents, so there is an element of police procedure, which allows readers an insider’s view into a methodical, detailed criminal investigation.

The balancing act is difficult because readers are smart and inquisitive. As a fan of crime fiction, I feel the same way. A good mystery gives me a chance to match wits with the detective as well as learn about times, places, and events that are unfamiliar.

As a lifelong learner, the drive to gather information never ends. The novel I’m working on now, A KILLER’S GAME, features exotic poisons, the dark web, and the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in Manhattan.

For this story, I’m consulting a retired FBI agent who worked out of the New York JTTF. I also traveled to lower Manhattan where I used my phone’s camera to record a chase scene that will take place in the opening chapter. Now the scene will have the ring of reality, even for those who are not familiar with the area.

As I stood in front of the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building with my phone, I knew full well my movements were being recorded on surveillance cameras. The entire area is filled with sensitive locations, and I had no doubt that I was being watched. Between this sort of personal reconnaissance and the online searches I conduct into such subjects as explosives, toxins, and weapons, I figure there will be a knock at my door from the FBI one day.

My only hope is that they’ll look me up, realize I’m a retired police captain and an FBI National Academy graduate, and—most importantly—an author. They’ll heave a collective sigh and move on to the next suspicious person.

Have you ever found yourself going down rabbit holes of research?

Odds and Ends

by Roger Johns

First, a huge and hearty welcome to Jim L’Etoile, as the newest member of the blog. He’s a fine writer with an interesting background. I’m thrilled he’s come aboard, and I look forward to reading his posts on the blog.

Second, as I continue working on my next book, I’ve branched out into writing short stories—a prospect that frightened me for years. So much to say, with so little room to say it. A lifelong reader of short fiction, in general, and short crime fiction in particular, I eventually set my fears aside and dove in. And now, I’m hooked. With so many what-if story ideas piling up in my tomorrow file, bugging me, but so few of them suited to carry the load of a book-length narrative, I’ve finally found a way to set them free. All the stories are crime fiction, and some of it is rather grim, but my latest, The Memory Thief, has a touch of science fiction to it. It’s about a time in the near future when kidnap victims can be rescued by having their minds remotely extracted and downloaded into new brains in new bodies. But what happens if the new brain doesn’t have enough memory capacity to accommodate the rescued mind? Well . . . someone has to edit the mind, and who knows what they’ll find when they do. Interestingly, the story appears in neither a crime fiction magazine, nor a science fiction magazine, but in “After Dinner Conversation”—a magazine devoted to ethics. And even, stranger, it has a happy ending—not something I’ve ever attempted before.

And third, I had a chance to do some giving back, yesterday. After over 140 live author events in the last six years, I was able to pass along some of my road-tested lessons on book promotion—all of them learned the hard way—to a group of up-and-coming writers at an event hosted by the Georgia Writers Museum. The depth and breadth of the imaginations and experiences of the attendees was inspiring. They’ve got great stories to tell, and I can’t wait to see them in print.

Stay safe, everyone. Wishing you all the best,

Roger

ROGER JOHNS is the author of the Wallace Hartman Mysteries, Dark River Rising and River of Secrets, from St. Martin’s Press. He is the 2018 Georgia Author of the Year (Detective·Mystery Category), a two-time Finalist for Killer Nashville’s Silver Falchion Award, and runner-up for the 2019 Frank Yerby Fiction Award. His short fiction has been published by, among others, the Saturday Evening Post, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Mystery Weekly Magazine, and Dark City Crime & Mystery Magazine, After Dinner Conversation. Roger’s articles and interviews about writing and career management appear in Southern Literary Review, Writer Unboxed, and Southern Writers Magazine. Please visit him at: http://www.rogerjohnsbooks.com.

Police Media Relations

By Brian Thiem

Like many people, I’ve been following the Uvalde school shooting. Many friends have asked me to weigh in on the police response, but I’m reluctant to critique other officers when I wasn’t there and know only a little. Additional details came out a few days ago, which significantly changed the narrative of the police response. I’m sure more will be made available to the public in the days to come.

Although there will certainly be reviews of the police tactics at the scene, preparations that had or had not been done by the school and law enforcement to prepare for critical incidents, command and control of multi-agency major incidents (who was in charge?), and police-media relations.

When I worked for Oakland Police Department, all officers were permitted to talk to the press. However there were rules and protocols. For instance, when I was a Homicide investigator, we were allowed to talk to the media about the homicide we were the primary investigator of. When I commanded the Homicide unit, I was permitted to talk to the media about all the homicide cases we investigated and homicides in general.

I dealt to the media a lot. After a major incident, it was not unusual to see my serious face (only psychopaths smile when talking about murder) on all four major network news programs and read my quotes in the next day’s Bay Area newspapers. Here are some things I learned about police-media relations.

The Media was not my friend—but they weren’t my enemy either. They have a vital role in a free society, and that role is not the same as law enforcement’s. Even though I knew our objectives were sometimes at odds, many journalists became friends—friends I still keep in touch with in retirement. When I took over the Homicide unit, relations with the media were strained, so I reached out to the local affiliates of the major TV networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX) and local papers (San Francisco Chronicle and others), and invited their journalists and news directors to my office. I asked what I could do to make their job easier and to improve our relationship. I took many of their suggestions.

Never lie to the Media. That didn’t mean I had to answer all their questions whenever they asked. I wouldn’t tell them, for instance, the caliber of a murder weapon because it could compromise the integrity of the investigation. I wouldn’t tell them a murder victim’s name because they coroner had to first notify the next of kin. When cops lie to the media, they immediately think we’re covering up something. Not only will they then dig harder, but they will also lose any trust they had with the police.

Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know. Many times, I rolled up to a major scene and was quickly surrounded by reporters with microphones and cameras in hand asking me what happened. My standard response was, “I just got here—I don’t know,” as I ducked under the yellow tape. Once things settled down and I had handled my job managing the scene, I’d return and tell them what I could.

Admitting you don’t know seems to be an uncommon response to the media these days. There often appears to be a competition among public official at major incidents scenes over who can get the most facetime with the media. I understand it to a degree with politicians who are constantly running for reelection. Getting their faces on TV or their names in print for free beats the cost of campaign adds.

But as professional law enforcement officers, we should not get sucked into this race for information to feed the media. When I see politicians and the heads of law enforcement agencies providing details about a critical incident to the media shortly after a gunman is neutralized, I cringe. In my experience, you can get quick information or accurate information in the aftermath of a critical incident, but not both

.

Explain our processes. I can’t blame the media for wanting to know everything immediately, but it is incumbent upon us in law enforcement to pass on only what we know. Don’t guess. Don’t pass on preliminary information as verified facts. And set realistic expectations. Explain that dozens of officers were on the scene performing dozens of different tasks, and until someone can read and analyze their reports (reports that aren’t written while they’re still working the scene), many details are unavailable. Witnesses need to be interviewed and formal statements taken. Crime scene technicians need to process the scene and collect evidence, which can take days after a major incident. Radio logs, police body cams and cell phone video must be reviewed.

The Uvalde incident was very complex. I counted at least ten law enforcement agencies at that scene. It will take time to sort out exactly who did what and when. It will take even longer to answer the many whys. The details will come out, and it will surely result in some lessons learned and some procedures that can be done better in the future, not only about a police response to and tactics at school shootings, as well as command and control of major incidents, but also about how to better work with the media during and after major critical incidents.  

CrimeConn

Happy Monday to you all. Bruce Robert Coffin here, manning the helm of Murder Books this week.


I just returned from a fabulous weekend away attending CrimeConn, a New York/Connecticut-based mystery lovers’ conference. If you haven’t attended, trust me when I tell you it should be on your to-do list. The conference, held at the beautiful Ferguson Library in Stamford, Connecticut, was sponsored by the New York Chapter of Mystery Writers of America and Friends of the Ferguson Library.


Despite an unfortunate scheduling conflict overlapping CrimeConn and ThrillerFest, Stamford had a formidable A-list of guest authors, many of whom jumped back and forth between the two conferences. CrimeConn attendees included New York Times bestselling author Tess Gerritsen (who is resurrecting Rizzoli & Isles with a July release of LISTEN TO ME), Reed Farrel Coleman, Wendy Walker, Desmond Hall, Alison Gaylin, Chris Knopf, Chandra Prasad, Jill Fletcher, Charles Salzberg, Wendy Corsi Staub, Deborah Goodrich Royce, Shari Randall, Michelle Clark, George Dawes Green, Emily Arsenault, Lauri Faria Stolarz, Bridget Brisnahan, Joaquin DeOliveira, John Valeri, and yours truly.


The panels covered a variety of topics with the central theme being The End of the World as We Knew It. That might sound like a buzzkill, but it wasn’t. In fact, all the panelists shared personal challenges and successes experienced during the past several years. We talked about what has changed and what hasn’t while writing crime fiction during these crazy times. We shared tricks and habits that have allowed us to continue to create. I picked up a few helpful ideas myself. More importantly, it was simply fun and inspiring to be back in the company of scribes and fans of the genre. And there were plenty of fans, both in person and virtual.


My personal thanks to Chris Knopf, Jill Fletcher, Michelle Clark, and the rest of the MWA-NY crew for inviting me to take part.


If you haven’t had the pleasure of attending CrimeConn, whether in person or virtually, it’s high time you did!

Of Booze and Bullets

Beulah May Annan, the prettiest woman ever accused of murder in Chicago, according to 1924 press reports, stood charged with the killing of Harry Kalstedt.

Beulah May, 23 years of age, slender, with bobbed auburn hair, and a slightly upturned nose, had the looks of an angel. Her history, however, suggested something different.

Born in Kentucky, she married at 16, had a child, divorced a year later, and relocated to Louisville. There, she met Albert Annan and agreed to marry him if he’d take her away from Louisville. The couple moved to Chicago in 1920. Annan worked as a mechanic while Beulah May became a bookkeeper for a laundry. There, she met Kalstedt, a co-worker. Besides laundry, they shared a taste for wine during Prohibition. The pair were drinking in her bedroom when an argument erupted. In the words of Maurine Watkins, the Chicago reporter covering the crime, Beulah’s “pursuit of wine, men, and jazz music was interrupted by her glibness with the trigger finger.”

After the shooting, Beulah played a jazz record, “Hula Lou,” on the phonograph for four hours while Kalstedt died. Then she called her husband at work and told him that she had killed a man.

In her first statement to police, Beulah reported that she’d had an ongoing affair with Kalstedt. On the fatal day, he’d come over with bootleg booze. During the drinking, they argued. She called him a four-flusher and a jailbird; Kalstedt had been to prison for a sexual offense. He called her “no-good.” Both raced for a revolver lying on the bed. Beulah reached it first and fired.  

Originally, she told the police that Kalstedt’s advances had forced her to shoot him. Later that night, after sobering up, she admitted she lied. Kalstedt had threatened to leave her and that’s why she killed him.

The police estimated that Kalstedt had been shot at approximately 2:00 pm.  A physician called to the crime scene, arrived at approximately 6:20 pm, and estimated that Kalstedt had been dead for only a half-hour or so. The entry wound was in his back.

Beulah May testified at trial. Dressed in navy blue twill with a bow tied at one side, she took the stand. In a childlike voice, her gentle Kentucky accent explained that Kalstedt appeared at her door drunk. She begged him to leave. He forced her to drink and remained unmoved when she warned him that her husband would murder them both if he found them. Her voice cracking before the jury, she told Kalstedt that she was pregnant. He scoffed, telling her that another woman had sent him to prison with that claim. He wouldn’t go back to the joint, he said. Kalstedt went for the gun. On the stand, Beulah closed her eyes and paled at the images of the final moments. She described in a halting voice how she reached the gun first. Kalstedt still threatened to kill her. She shot.

On cross-examination, she denied the earlier statements to the police. Her supportive husband, Al, sat in the front row of the gallery throughout the trial.

The prosecutor’s closing arguments focused on the ever-changing story of the defendant. The defense painted the picture of the “frail little girl…struggling against a drunken brute.”

The government attorney’s final argument asked the jury to decide whether “you will permit a woman to commit a crime and let her go because she is good looking; you must decide whether you want to let another pretty woman go out and say, ‘I got away with it.’”

The prettiest murderess in Chicago’s history walked. The jury acquitted her on May 24th, 1924. The next day, Beulah May announced that she had left her husband. She married two more times before dying of tuberculosis in 1928.

The case highlights prosecution issues that still remain. Many homicide cases are built out of the morphing story of the defendant. The accused’s guilt is demonstrated through the additions and revisions as the suspect changes his or her account in the face of additional facts the police uncover. Some of my best days in court came when I could wave those varying statements before a jury.

There is, however, always a voucher element. When the government presents a confession, they subtly sponsor the contents. The prosecutor risks the jury latching onto the first version and disregarding the inconsistency.

Young women remain a special challenge to prosecute. The march toward equality may continue, but gender bias remains. In my experience, juries do not like to think that young women are capable of such crimes. A prosecutor can get there, but the hill is steeper.

IMDB

Although the case features some enduring issues for police and prosecutors, the Jazz Age elements of the case hold my attention. “Hula Lou” and four-flusher are not terms we throw about much anymore. They help capture our image of the Roaring Twenties.

Maurine Watkins, the reporter who covered Beulah’s trial as well as that of another accused murderess, Belva Gaertner, transformed her experience into fiction. She wrote the play, Chicago. It premiered in 1927 and featured the character, Roxie Hart. The play was recast as a musical. The film version won six Academy Awards in 2003.

Beulah May Annan’s trial concluded this week in 1924. Whether viewed as a time capsule of Prohibition-era Chicago, a continuing study in the prosecution of domestic crimes, or a tutorial on transforming crime reality into crime fiction, her case is my May Trial of the Month.

Mark Thielman


Defending the Indefensible

by Isabella Maldonado

I’ll never forget the day the Nazis came to Northern Virginia. As commander of the police precinct that covered the location where their convention was held that year, it fell to me to uphold the rights of people who did not believe in equal rights. Over 200 guests attended the convention, held in a different city annually.

When the large hotel which was the venue began receiving threats from protestors who were planning to hold a rally of their own and possibly infiltrate and disrupt the convention, hotel security called law enforcement in a panic. As the ranking police official, I created an operations (ops) plan to deal with any potential violence.

We live in an amazing democratic republic. Flawed, yes, but so precious to me that I would lay down my life to defend the community I serve. Including those who criticize it.

The Nazis had a right to rant about White supremacy, and protestors had a right to hurl insults at them. My job was to keep them away from each other and make sure no one got hurt.

Throughout the two-day convention, I laid out specific instructions to event organizers, protest leaders, and hotel staff, meeting with each of them in turn to make sure they understood the ground rules. While doing that, I overheard a couple of speeches from the Nazi group. Most chilling to me was the way the audience cheered the hateful rhetoric.

A couple of generations ago, our nation went to war against the Nazis, who were responsible for the deaths of millions of people. During World War II, thousands of patriotic Americans enlisted to stop Adolf Hitler, who was laying waste to many countries. A scant few decades later I was watching Americans chant his name, wave his party’s banner, and support his deadly agenda. These people spoke in nostalgic terms about “the good old days” when men like their grandfathers were in charge. I couldn’t help but think that their long-deceased grandfathers would be heartsick if they knew their descendants were supporting Nazis—a force many of them had died or been wounded fighting. Their grandfathers would have been repulsed to see them waving a Nazi flag instead of (or beside) an American flag as if the two were equal. As if they were interchangeable.

Utah Beach memorial

In my capacity as the ranking law enforcement official present, I could not express my feelings, although the irony that I was a woman of color forced to make a place for racist and sexist speech was not lost on me. There were times when we had to hold what the police call a skirmish line to prevent protestors from attacking the attendees. Enraged that they couldn’t get into the conference, some of protestors turned their anger toward us shouting accusations that we were Nazi sympathizers.

As if.

Hands down, the most disturbing and surreal moment came during one of my meetings with the convention’s organizer. The demonstrators outside were getting rowdier, and tempers were at the boiling point as the conference neared its end. I needed to make an announcement to the attendees about the ground rules I had established for their departure. They would have to go through a gauntlet to leave the hotel, and the riot that had been brewing might very well spark at that moment.

Not trusting the group’s leader to convey my instructions properly, I told him I needed to address the audience directly. I would also be able to answer any questions and make everything perfectly clear.

The group’s leader walked up on stage and introduced me as “the next speaker.” I was furious as the audience applauded. Did they honestly believe a police captain was there in solidarity with them? Practically vibrating with pent up anger, I made my way to the lectern where the first words out of my mouth made it clear that I was not “the next speaker.” Instead, I was there to inform them about the law as it pertained to their coming and going to the hotel. I advised them there was a growing crowd outside and emotions were running high, and that I had plenty of officers in position and on standby ready to make sure no violence occurred.

Like me, my officers were prepared to be injured or worse to protect the rights of all parties involved, as well as innocent bystanders who just happened to be staying at the hotel that weekend. Officers who were Black, White, Latinx, Native American, Asian and Pacific Islander, Jewish, gay, bisexual, and straight (we did not have any transgender officers on the department at that time) defended people who chanted the name of a maniacal leader who would have had many of them put to death just for being who they were.

That was a tough day. Fortunately, it ended without a riot and, although some jostling occurred, no one was arrested, and no one was hurt. After it was over, I made sure to meet with my officers to assure them that although neither side was happy with our presence, we had done our job, and we had done it professionally. Our democracy is messy at times, and definitely imperfect, but it’s strong.

It still hurts when I see Americans who clearly didn’t pay attention in history class marching around with Nazi flags, goosestepping, and saluting each other with outstretched arms. Whenever I see these events on the news, I remember the day I was called upon to safeguard our Constitution and our liberties by defending the indefensible.

Have you ever found yourself in such a position?

Investigating War Crimes

By Brian Thiem: Watching the nightly news over the past weeks, I was glad to see film showing investigators and “war crimes prosecutors” at the scenes of civilian massacres in Ukraine. Although there is plenty of talk about prosecuting Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials for war crimes, all successful prosecutions must begin with a thorough investigation.

Nineteen years ago, I arrived in Kuwait ten days before the US-led Coalition invaded Iraq. I had been called back to active duty by the Army and was assigned as the deputy commander of the Army CID (US Army Criminal Investigation Command) Group for Iraq and the Middle East. I was also designated the OIC (Officer in Charge) of the War Crimes Investigation Team (WCIT), a special team of military criminal investigators, lawyers, and intelligence analysts tasked by a DoD Special Order to investigate the Iraqi regime for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

We were starting from scratch with little more than intelligence reports and unverified rumors of atrocities the Iraqi regime had committed over the years—atrocities resulting in the deaths and burial in mass graves of as many as 300,000 civilians.

War Crimes Investigation Team, Baghdad, Iraq, 2003

As with the situation in Ukraine, we did not know what entity (if any) would prosecute and try those responsible. After the completion of the major combat operations, there was no longer an Iraqi government, and therefore there were no law enforcement organizations, no courts, and no legal system in place. It would be more than a year until a new constitution was adopted and new laws passed in Iraq.

Since a nation’s constitution and criminal statutes provide the framework for the manner in which criminal investigations are conducted, we were often operating on our own. We had CID special agents participating in the interrogations of captured Iraqi military, many of whom had knowledge of the war crimes that had been committed and some who were responsible for committing or ordering the acts. Would the new Iraq constitution and laws require an advisement of the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney, as in the US? If their laws would not require it, would we lose a lot of testimonial evidence by advising those in custody they did not need to talk to us? Those, and many more questions we had to answer for ourselves.

CID agents traveled the country to the sites of mass graves while fighting was still ongoing. The agents interviewed the population in the nearby towns, and later, accompanied by military and civilian forensic pathologists and forensic anthropologists, excavated the mass graves and exhumed remains.

Although there are many challenges to conducting criminal investigations in a war zone, the basic job remains the same. Investigators process the crime scene, collect evidence, interview witnesses, and document their investigative actions. When I left Iraq toward the end of 2003, we were beginning the process of turning over our documentation and evidence to the interim Iraqi government. Our reports and evidence were part of cases against Saddam Hussein when he and eleven other senior leaders of the Iraqi regime were charged by the Iraqi Special Tribunal for crimes against humanity in 2004.

Although plans to prosecute Putin for war crimes through the International Court of Justice or the International Criminal Court are premature, it is refreshing to see investigators in Ukraine collecting evidence and documenting the scenes at this time, because a thorough criminal investigation is always the first step toward a successful prosecution and criminal trial.

Murder Books Interview with Hannah Mary McKinnon

Please join me in welcoming bestselling author Hannah Mary McKinnon back to the blog. Hannah is an accomplished novelist who specializes in psychological suspense. She is the author of the rom com Time After Time, and thrillers Sister Dear, Her Secret Son, The Neighbors, and You Will Remember Me. And coming May 24th from MIRA (HarperCollins NA) Never Coming Home, a novel that New York Times bestselling author Lisa Unger calls “Fiendishly clever and deeply chilling.”

Hannah Mary McKinnon

Born in the UK and raised in Switzerland, living in Ontario, Hannah is the former CEO of an IT recruitment company, mother of three, wife of one, and co-creator of First Chapter Fun with Hank Phillippi Ryan.

First comes love. Then comes murder.

Lucas Forester didn’t hate his wife. Michelle was brilliant, sophisticated and beautiful. Sure, she had extravagant spending habits, that petty attitude, a total disregard for anyone below her status. But she also had a lot to offer. Most notably: wealth that only the one percent could comprehend.

For years, Lucas has been honing a flawless plan to inherit Michelle’s fortune. Unfortunately, it involves taking a hit out on her.

Every track is covered, no trace left behind, and now Lucas plays the grieving husband so well he deserves an award. But when a shocking photo and cryptic note show up on his doorstep, Lucas goes from hunter to prey.

Someone is on to him. And they’re closing in.

Bruce: First off, congratulations on your upcoming release, Hannah. It must be gratifying to see the early praise Never Coming Home is getting.

Hannah: Thank you so much, Bruce. I’m absolutely thrilled with the reactions so far. Never Coming Home was such a pleasure to write—I found Lucas to be hilarious—and thank you again for your help in making him even more wicked.

Your life has taken you on quite a journey, living in different countries, managing different careers. When did you first know you wanted to be a writer/novelist?

To be completely honest, writing novels wasn’t on my radar at all until we moved from Switzerland to Canada in 2010. When we arrived here, and my HR start-up company failed, it catapulted me into deciding what I truly wanted to do, and whether I would seize the opportunity to reinvent myself. Although I hadn’t written creatively for years, I realized it was what I wanted to do. I’m so pleased I made that decision because I can’t imagine doing anything else now.

What made you decide to write psychological suspense novels?

My debut was a rom com called Time After Time (2016) a light-hearted story about paths not taken. When we were on submission with that book (meaning my agent had sent it to publishers to see if there was interest), I started writing The Neighbors. It felt much darker and grittier than Time After Time and I realized I wanted to write more suspense novels. I enjoy putting ordinary (fictional) people in extraordinary circumstances and exploring what happens to them, and what they do. Let’s not explore what that says about me as a person…

Your books are full of twists and turns. One would think it might be difficult to keep things straight when plotting. Do you create a detailed plot line of the story ahead of time? Or are you more of a seat of your pants author?

Yikes, just thinking about pantsing an entire book makes me shudder. I’m 100% a plotter. I’m very structured in my approach because I need to know where the story’s going, otherwise I’ll meander around for months trying to figure it out.

In terms of process, my novels start with an idea—something that pops into my head such as a news story for You Will Remember Me, or a specific type of character for Never Coming Home. I noodle the thoughts around for a while as the main characters take shape. The next step is to write an outline. I start by jotting down the big picture plot points, which I then use as stepping-stones to build and write the rest of the outline. I fill out personality questionnaires for my main characters to understand them better, and search for photos on the internet to build a gallery.

Next, I write a basic manuscript that’s a little over two-thirds of the final word count, then layer and develop until I’m happy calling it a first draft, ready for my editor’s eyes. That stage is incredibly exciting because I know the story will become a thousand times better with her expert input.

Favorite book?

You must be joking! There’s no way I can pick one. Recent favorites include Woman on Fire by Lisa Barr and Things We Do in the Dark by Jennifer Hillier. Both are incredible.

Can you give us examples of authors who have influenced your writing? How so?

I’ll tell you a story about my great friend Jennifer Hillier. Years ago, while waiting for my son at our local library I spotted her debut Creep on a shelf. Intrigued by the cover, I picked it up, read the blurb, took it home and couldn’t put it down. It was a turning point in my writing career. When I was younger, I mainly read thrillers, but after a personal tragedy in my early 20s, I could only stomach light-hearted reads. Creep reminded me of my love of thrillers and gave me that final push I needed to cross over to the dark side while writing The Neighbors.  

Fun fact: a few years later I met Jennifer at Boucheron, and that encounter led to us meeting for coffees and dinners as we live in the same town, and a wonderful friendship ensued. Jennifer is an inspiration, fiercely talented, and I devour her books. I’ll read anything she writes! Blurbing her latest novel Things We Do in the Dark was definitely a highlight of my writing career thus far.

What advice do you have for authors who are considering writing a psychological suspense novel?

Whatever the genre, I’d advise you to read as much and often as you can and listen to audio books. I wrote an article about how the latter make you a better author here. Write, even if you think it’s terrible, because an empty page is impossible to edit. Also, I was advised to read my manuscript out loud. Every. Single. Word. Doing so helps avoid repetition, improves cadence, and zaps stilted dialogue. And share your work. It can be scary, but it’s the only way you’ll get feedback and improve your craft.

I was going to add specifically for psychological suspense, that you should make sure you’re driving the plot forward with every scene and end each chapter on a mini cliff-hanger. Mind you, that’s true for every genre, isn’t it? Whatever you’re writing, give the reader every reason to keep turning those pages, and zero reasons to put the book down.

You embarked on your writing career in 2011. Is there anything you did early on that, given your later experience, you would have done differently?

Honestly, at the beginning I had no clue what I was doing. I had an idea for a novel, and I went for it. I made a ton of mistakes along the way (submitting to agents too early, and not being patient are two examples) and I should have taken creative writing courses far earlier to hone my craft. It probably would have saved me a lot of time and quite possibly rejections from agents. I was naïve in my approach, but I think not knowing how hard it would be was beneficial in some ways because I kept my head down and carried on.

As a series writer I find it pleasant to revisit my characters and their locale with each new novel. I would think that the most difficult part of writing stand-alone novels, as you do, would be getting to know the characters. Do you find that to be the case?

I do a lot of character backstory development during the plotting stages and because I write in first person, I really get into my characters’ psyche. It takes over a year from initial idea to 100% finished product, time interspersed with working on other novels that are at different stages, so get to know my cast well and oftentimes miss them when the book is done.

Have you any plans for a series?

I haven’t written a series thus far, mainly because I feel my stories are complete when they end (although I’ve had multiple requests for a sequel to Sister Dear and You Will Remember Me). I enjoy creating new characters and the worlds they live in, how they’ve become who they are when their story starts. It’s a fun process I don’t think I’ll ever tire of. Will I ever write a series? I’m not sure but never say never!

You’ve had success both as a novelist and a short fiction writer? Which format brings you the most joy? Or do you find them equally gratifying?

Definitely novels. They’re a thousand times harder but the satisfaction is immense. I wrote the majority of short stories during writing workshops, and had fun doing so, but all of my time is now devoted to my novels.

Worst writing advice you’ve been given? Best advice?

Worst: write what you know. It’s incredibly limiting and that’s what we have our imagination for. It’s my job to make stuff up. For example, I know nothing about murdering people (I promise!) but I do so all the time in my books. That being said, you have to research what you don’t know, ask the experts for input, and be very careful and respectful when dealing with characters who have a different background to your own. Having sensitivity readers is so important! My motto is: if in doubt, leave it out.

Best: someone once suggested skipping ahead if I couldn’t get a grasp on a chapter or scene, that I should focus on another part of the manuscript and trust myself enough to backfill later. It was revolutionary, and it beats the heck out of staring at a blank page or shoving my hand in the cookie jar. Nobody said your manuscript has to be written in the order it’s read.

Over two years ago you and Hank Philippi Ryan started a fun promotional opportunity for authors called First Chapter Fun. I and many others have enjoyed watching you both read from other author’s novels. You’ve got quite a following now. Did either of you ever imagine it would become so popular? Do you plan to continue FCF?

It’s been an absolute joy to see—one of the good things that came from the pandemic. I’m beyond thrilled by how it’s grown considering it all started on a whim. Back in March 2020, when Covid first hit Canada, a group of us were discussing how we could help promote one another and give our books a boost. I half-jokingly offered to read the first chapter of their novels live on Facebook and Instagram, a few weeks later Hank joined me, and here we are with 250+ episodes.

You’ll find us in the Facebook group http://www.facebook.com/groups/firstchapterfun and http://www.instagram.com/firstchapterfun. Hank and I read twice a week, every Tuesday and Thursday on both platforms simultaneously at 12.30 pm ET, and already have readings scheduled until summer 2022. All the previously aired episodes are saved and can be viewed at leisure.

It’s a wonderful community where we share the love of books and introduce new and/or new-to-you authors twice a week. Our goal is to keep your “to be read” pile completely out-of-control and, or so we’ve been told, we’re succeeding.

The one thing that surprised me the most about the writing industry is how genuine, welcoming, and helpful authors and readers are. This project is a way of paying it forward.

I’ve spoken with many writers about the “pandemic effect” on their writing. Have the challenges of the past two years changed anything about the way you write, or subject matter explored in your writing?

I’m very fortunate because our sons are older, so them attending school online from home had very little impact on my writing. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to work at the pace I do if Covid had hit a decade ago.

In terms of subject matter, it’s a funny one. I mention the pandemic in Never Coming Home, but only in a couple of sentences. I have no intention of writing a book about a pandemic or incorporating it heavily into any of my stories. I’m hoping for brighter days when it’s all finally behind us for good.

What’s next for you? Do you have another novel in the works?

I certainly do  Book 7 (slated for 2023) is another psychological thriller. It’s about a woman named Frankie who has some anger issues, and writes a list of people she could work to forgive as a therapy exercise. She thinks nothing of it when she loses her list in an Uber, until one by one the individuals become victims of freak accidents. Frankie desperately tries to determine if the tragedies are indeed accidental, and if not, who’s behind them before someone else gets hurt, especially as one of the names on the list is her own… I’m so excited for this next novel and can’t wait for you to meet Frankie and the rest of my cast.

Bruce: Hannah, thank you so much for taking the time to give us the benefit of your thoughts and experience. Best of luck with your new book, Never Coming Home!

Hannah: It’s been a pleasure, Bruce. Thank you!

Hannah Mary McKinnon is a member of International Thriller Writers, Sisters in Crime, and Crime Writers of Canada. To learn more about Hannah, visit her website at https://hannahmarymckinnon.com

Hannah Mary McKinnon was interviewed for Murder Books by Bruce Robert Coffin.

A Diagnosis of Evil

Albert Fish was a horrible human being. He raped and murdered. He performed serial killings, child molestations, and cannibalism. He was a monster wrapped in a surface gentility and a tragic upbringing. The gravity of his offenses makes the debate about nature versus nurture only an academic conversation. Any discussion of his subsequent trial, however, would be incomplete without a brief and sanitized review of his background.

            Albert Fish was born in 1870. His father was four decades older than his mother. A history of mental illness and hospitalizations ran through the Fish family. Albert’s father died in 1875. Unable to care for the boy, Fish’s mother placed him in an orphanage. By accounts, he was beaten and abused by fellow orphans and the staff. At ten, his mother secured a job that paid enough for her to remove Albert from the orphanage. At home, he began engaging in child molestation and other wide-ranging sexual practices. By his twenties, he’d practiced sexual mutilations on himself and others.

            He did find time to marry and father six children. In 1917, his wife left him for a handyman who boarded at the family home. Some may find it remarkable that she lasted seven years. Around this time, he began to have auditory hallucinations. Reportedly, he wrapped himself in a carpet on the instructions of John the Apostle.

            Fish spent time in prison for theft offenses and was sent to a psychiatric hospital following a string of obscene letters he sent to women. He began killing during these years, believing that God commanded him to torture and mutilate.

            Albert Fish had a kindly face, framed by gray hair and a large droopy mustache. The features made him appear trustworthy. In 1928, eighteen-year-old Edward Budd ran a classified ad in a New York paper seeking a job in the country. Answering the ad, Fish appeared at the family’s door. He spun a tale about having retired to a farm and needing assistance. When he returned to the Budd’s house, he met Edward’s younger sister, Grace Budd. He persuaded her parents to allow Grace to accompany him to his niece’s birthday party. She was never seen again.

            Six years later, a letter arrived at the Budd home. Mrs. Budd was illiterate and asked her son, Edward, to read it. The author described developing a taste for human flesh while a deckhand in China. He then described kidnapping, killing, dismembering, and eating Grace Budd. The letter’s stationery and postmark led the police to Fish’s boarding house.  He admitted to murdering the child. The police, subsequently, recovered her remains. Further investigation linked him to at least two other child homicides.

            Albert Fish’s trial for the murder of Grace Budd began on March 11th, 1935, in White Plains, New York. The trial lasted for ten days. Fish pleaded insanity and claimed to have heard voices from God telling him to kill children. According to psychiatric evaluations, Fish was preoccupied with the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. Fish’s sacrificing a child was penance for his own sins.

            The standard for determining insanity at the time was the M’Naghten Rule. In 1843, Daniel M’Naghten tried to kill England’s prime minister, Sir Robert Peel. The test emerged that a criminal defendant was not guilty by reason of insanity if, at the time of the alleged crime, the defendant was so deranged that he or she did not know the nature of his or her actions were wrong.

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(As a prosecutor, in explaining the standard for insanity at trial, I presented an example of a man on trial for stabbing. If proven that the defendant genuinely believed he was stabbing Adolph Hitler, the action would still be illegal. The jury might consider that fact in mitigation. If, however, the defendant believed that he was cutting a watermelon, then he would be not guilty. His derangement would prevent him from knowing that his actions were wrong. No law prevents carving a watermelon.)

            This distinction played itself out in the trial of Albert Fish. The defense put on evidence that Fish’s fetishes and distortions were so extensive that he represented a psychiatric phenomenon. They introduced x-rays showing more than twenty self-embedded needles. Fish’s notions of sin and atonement were so insane that questions of right or wrong disappeared, the defense argued. As a defense alienist (psychiatrist) attempted to explain, Fish’s thought process was that if his actions had been wrong, he would have been stopped as Abraham had once been stopped from killing Isaac, by an angel.

            The prosecution, meanwhile, hammered on the language of the M’Naghten test. In jurisdictions where it remains the law, it still does.  Fish functioned normally in other facets of his life and operated in secret to conceal his crimes. He lured Grace from her home with a string of lies. He knew she was a child at the time of her murder.

            The jury quickly rejected the insanity defense. They convicted Albert Fish on March 22nd, 1935. He was executed at Sing Sing prison in January 1936.

            Insanity is a legal determination and not a medical diagnosis. The Fish case makes this distinction clear. Clearly beset with enough mental issues to fill the DSM 5, he was still determined to be legally sane. The case highlights why the insanity defense is so rarely used by defense attorneys. The evidence, instead, is often presented in mitigation. Some states, like Texas, still use a statutory version of the M’Naghten test. Others have definitions that incorporate both the perceptive and volitional issues surrounding insanity.

            The Fish trial, concluding on March 21st, presents a Hannibal Lecter-like character. It brings the distinctions between law and medicine into focus. The story reminds us that while many in the criminal justice system are there because of misfortune or a lapse of judgment, some defendants are evil. The case presents a gripping tale of tragedy. It is my Trial of the Month for March.

Mark Thielman

A Man of His Wordle

-Ben Keller

WARNING:  This blog is going to get very silly.

I’ve finally done it.  I’ve fallen prey to the hype, I’ve conformed to the crowd.  I started playing Wordle.  And I confess:  I quite enjoy it.  It’s the intersection of wordplay and investigations, and I feel like it’s the game I was born to play. 

I love language.  I love words.  I love wordplay, and clever turns of phrase.  The satisfaction of finding le mot just, the absolutely perfect word for a given situation, is something I feel on a spiritual basis.  Case in point, I can be quite pedantic about the word pedantic

I love foreign languages as well.  True to my Cajun ancestry, I studied French from elementary school through college, and I’ve picked up a little Spanish and Italian along the way.  In my travels around the world, I’ve started a habit I call “collecting” languages.  For my purposes, collecting a language means knowing how to say the local equivalent of hello, goodbye, yes, no, please, thank you and at least one swear word.  It’s pretty fun, and by my last count, I’m up to eleven.  Yes, friends, I can curse around the globe.

As a writer blogging to people in participating or interested in the writing community, my love of words should come as no surprise.  Words are a writer’s stock in trade, arrows in the quiver.  We may spend hours selecting the word that best pulls double- or triple-duty, being descriptive, florid, and consistent with the voice of the work in progress.  And then we might go back and change that word four times, before revising a fifth time back to the original choice. 

So as a lover of words, I thought I would share a random collection of interesting (to me, at least) coincidences, ironies, or otherwise notable features of some of our English words.  Here’s where the silly begins.  I’ll apologize in advance…

  • The words PARENTAL, PATERNAL, and PRENATAL are all anagrams of each other, and their meanings are somewhat related.
  • Speaking of ironic anagrams, TEXAS has the power to levy TAXES, ELVIS LIVES, and a fun one for this site THE DETECTIVES, they DETECT THIEVES.
  • The longest word in the English language is the chemical name of a large protein named Titin.  It’s a staggering 190,000 letters long.  Seriously.
  • There is a group of words called contranyms, which are words that can mean the opposite of themselves.  CLEAVE can mean to adhering to something or splitting something apart.  SANCTION can mean to allow or to prohibit.  CLIP can mean to fasten together or to detach.  I found a list of over a hundred of these online, which is reason enough to have new appreciation for anyone who learns English as a second language.
  • Some words are just fun to say.  These are all real words, I swear:  bumfuzzle, fartlek, sozzled, bumbershoot, cleek, cattywampus, teazel, and sleenwort.
  • More word irony:  misspelled/misspelt is one of the most-misspelled words in the world.
  • LISP is really hard to say with a lisp.
  • POLISH/polish is perhaps the only word which changes pronunciation with capitalization.
  • The word “bed,” in lowercase, visually looks like a bed, with the vertical headboard and footboard.
  • ORANGE is famous for not having an exact rhyme, but other contenders to that throne include MONTH, PURPLE and SILVER.
  • The word SET has 464 meanings in the Oxford English Dictionary.  Sorry again, EASL-ers.
  • SWIMS looks the same upside-down.
  • SARCASM comes from a Greek word that means, “to tear flesh.”  Yeah, that’s real interesting.

Thank you for indulging me in this examination of words.  I hope you found it fascinating,  interesting, intriguing, charming, mesmerizing, enthralling, alluring, captivating or, at the very least, not a total waste of time!