Ever get the feeling that you’re being watched? If you’re on a modern American street, the answer is probably yes. With cell phones, body cameras and home and business security systems, cameras have played a pivotal role in law enforcement lately.
According to a CBS News report from December 2019, there were 70 million surveillance cameras in use in the United States. That’s on par with China, which has one camera for every 4.1 persons. The United States has one camera for every 4.6 persons. Who controls those cameras is more of a mixed bag in the states – with private citizens, businesses, organizations and the government contributing to the numbers.
I sat down with a recently retired homicide detective from an average mid-sized American city to see what those numbers mean for criminal investigations.
Q: With both public and private cameras are you sometimes able to piece together the whereabouts of suspects, victims, and witnesses?
A: Yes. One of the things that I noticed during my time in the homicide squad is that we were more often able to ascertain vehicles’ or people’s whereabouts based on cameras. Many times we were able to gather up all those videos, and paint a clear picture for a jury on what the suspect’s timeline was before and after a crime.
Q: Can you give me an example of such a timeline?
A: We had a murder that occurred in a house. The suspect was driven there by another person. For this investigation, based on cameras from a store, we ascertained who was driving the vehicle. We tracked the vehicle to literally all around the homicide scene at the time of the murder. Using our intelligence analysts, we gathered up the pictures and videos and were able to provide a video of the travels of the vehicle that wasn’t just chopped up bits and pieces of information. It looked almost like a short movie of the travel of the suspects.
Q: This was using both private and personal home video cameras?
A: Yes, along with businesses in the area.
Q: How did you get that footage?
A: We used to do neighborhood canvases to look for eyewitnesses to crimes, to see if they heard or saw anything. But now it’s also a video canvas because a person may not have been home at the time of the crime, but they’d tell us, “I have a video camera.” You’d glean tons of information off of those.
Q: Is it fair to say that at any given moment when you’re walking down a street you’re probably on camera?
A: Yes, and a lot of the newer cameras that businesses use not only record video but also audio. We had another case where there were people talking out in front of a store, and we could hear what they were saying.
Q: Do you think cameras are the future of policing?
A: It’s not the future of policing, it’s the future of society. Everything is on video now. It’s very difficult to not be tracked by either a public or private entity, and by that, I mean cameras.
Does the presence of cameras reduce or deter crime? Some studies say evidence shows that the introduction of cameras in an area leads to a decrease in crime. Others suggest that any reductions is due to displacement, that the criminals find less surveilled places to commit their crimes. One thing that can’t be argued is that video surveillance has become a permanent part of the law enforcement landscape.
Lissa Marie Redmond is a retired cold case homicide detective. The author of the Cold Case Investigation series, Lissa also wrote the standalone thriller The Secrets They Left Behind. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and publications.
April may be a bad month to set sail on a cruise ship. Setting aside the dangers of exposure to a pandemic, the month doesn’t have a particularly good track record. The Titanic sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on April 15th, 1912. For April’s Trial of the Month, I’d like to focus on another fateful cruise and the litigation which followed.
On April 19th, 1841, the William Brown lay off the coast of Newfoundland. At approximately 10:00 pm, the ship struck an iceberg. Aboard the cargo ship were 17 crewmen and 65 passengers, Scottish immigrants hoping to make a new life in Philadelphia, the William Brown’s intended port.
As the ship flooded, the jolly boat (a smaller lifeboat with a sail) and longboat were lowered into the sea. The captain, second mate, seven of the crew and one passenger climbed into the jolly boat. The first mate, the remaining crew and 33 of the passengers jammed aboard the longboat. The passengers were dressed mostly in their nightclothes.
31 passengers were left stranded aboard the William Brown. It sank within an hour.
When the next day broke, the captain and crew sailed off in the jolly boat. Captain Harris’ final instruction before abandoning the surviving passengers was to obey First Mate Rhodes’ commands.
The ice of the North Atlantic lay all around them, threatening to crush the small craft.
Then, the long boat began to leak.
Then it began to rain.
Everyone desperately bailed water out of the boat. By Tuesday night, Rhodes decided that passengers needed to be thrown overboard to lighten the craft. 14 male passengers ultimately were tossed into the Atlantic. The crew spared the married men, casting only single men overboard. Among those sacrificed was Frank Askin who reportedly struggled and thrashed violently to remain on the boat. Eventually, he went over the side as well as his sisters. They, apparently, chose to accompany their kin. None of the crew were evicted from the boat.
On Wednesday morning, the longboat’s survivors were plucked by a ship named the Crescent. By accounts, the ship was sighted approximately 30 minutes after the last man had been thrown overboard. The rescued passengers were delivered to their original destination, Philadelphia. (The jolly was rescued later by a French fishing boat.)
In Philadelphia, several of the surviving passengers demanded that the district attorney prosecute this catastrophe. (A 1790 law prohibited sailors from committing manslaughter at sea. The punishment could be three years imprisonment and $1,000 dollar fine.) Alexander Holmes was the only sailor from the William Brown who could be found in the jurisdiction. He was charged with unlawful but not malicious homicide.
Holmes admitted to helping throw Askin overboard. He argued, however, that his actions were necessary. Evidence showed that he was the last of the crew to leave the William Brown and that he had run back aboard the sinking vessel to rescue the daughter of one of the women aboard the long boat. Others attested that he gave away most of his clothing to the women in the boat to ward off exposure. Holmes reportedly took over command of the longboat when the first mate cracked under the pressure of the challenges. Evidence showed that he was a leader among the men hurling passengers into the icy waters of the Atlantic.
Prosecutors argued that the longboat was in no immediate danger of sinking. The boat, after all, did not capsize during the struggle to toss the unwilling passengers overboard. The sailors should also have prioritized the life of the passengers above their own. Their duty to the passengers exceeded their claim to life itself.
The jury deliberated 16 hours before finding Holmes guilty of homicide. The judge, following the jury’s appeal for leniency, gave him six months imprisonment and a $20 fine. President John Tyler subsequently pardoned him. Holmes returned to the life of a sailor. He was the only person prosecuted in connection with the sinking of the William Brown.
The case of Alexander Holmes turned on the idea that self-preservation may not be reason enough to justify homicide. The long boat of the William Brown offered stark choices for those aboard. Fictional lifeboats have routinely been used to force characters into hard decisions. It reveals sacrifice, honor, cowardice, as well as the breaking point of the human spirit. The story of the William Brown has been made into movies at least three times (beginning in 1937 with Gary Cooper as the character facing a murder trial for his choices aboard the lifeboat.) Hitchcock used the device as well.
As writers we can use the cramped space of the lifeboat to magnify the tension, both internal and external, within a scene. All conflict is within arm’s reach. For readers, thinking about those desperate circumstances, we are compelled to ask what we might have done. Alexander Holmes survived those moments. Fred Askin and others did not. For the human drama played out in that small space, the William Brown is my Trial-of-the-Month.
Since this blog caters mostly to the writing and fiction community, the phrase “Writer’s Block” will be familiar to you, I’m sure. Today, I’m having the opposite problem. As I sat down to write my turn at the Murder-Books.com blog, I didn’t go through my normal process. I have a folder where I keep snippets of ideas I have along the way. Sometimes, it goes into the folder for my current work in progress. Sometimes, it goes into a folder for a new story I’ve been pondering for a while but just haven’t cracked the code yet. Sometimes, I have a cool idea for a character beat, clever dialogue exchange, compelling opening line, etc., and I just don’t have a home for it at the moment. So that goes into my “Unspecified Ideas” folder. And of course, I have a folder for future Blog Post Ideas.
So I went to my Blog folder, and saw some topics I’d been saving for a while. I have one fun one about secret knowledge hiding all around us. I have a rather silly one about words and language, the stock-in-trade of a writer. But as I sifted through these ideas, I couldn’t escape the real-world events exploding around us.
In my day job, I’m an international investigations and security consultant. My job is to help people look out for dangerous risk facing their offices, homes, and personal safety, then come up with plans to mitigate those risks. In that capacity, I regularly monitor news media, law enforcement contacts, Regional Security Officers and FBI Legal Attachés at US Embassies around the world, intelligence sources, and my own proprietary network of colleagues. I do this to stay abreast of emerging threats so I can give proper guidance. It’s useful for my work, but a common side effect is that sometimes, as some other writer once said, “the abyss looks back.” It’s easy to get a little overcome by all the dark things happening.
I’ve written here before about how I think that generally speaking, the world is safer than it has ever been. The statistics still say that’s true. But as I sat to write my post today, I couldn’t ignore the feeling I was having despite any evidence to the contrary: things are bad.
Mass shootings. Racially charged violence. Civil unrest. Global pandemic. International conflict over nuclear facilities. Chinese labor camps. Thwarted coup in Belarus. The list goes on and on, and trust me as a professional in the field, the deeper you look, the more you’ll find.
Again, this was less about those facts. Yes, bad things are happening, but bad things have always happened throughout human history. The facts do support the notion that the world is objectively safer today. So where was my feeling coming from? Only when I tried to compare it to previous, similar feelings did I obtain some degree of clarity.
When I was about eleven years old, my family lived in a small brick house in a pleasant middle-class neighborhood near Lafayette, LA. It was the first time in my life I’d lived in a “neighborhood,” as opposed to a very rural area. The novelty of having friends I could see with a mere bike ride was a rare treat for me. I had a small bedroom that faced the street, with a view of the modest homes across from our rental house.
One day, from one of those homes, I heard a loud, flat noise. I didn’t know what it was, and I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it. Until I heard sirens, and saw several police cruisers and an ambulance arrive at the house, lights flashing red and blue through my window. What I ultimately learned was that the two teenage brothers who lived in the house across from me were playing with a handgun. As a “joke”, one pointed the pistol at the other and pulled the trigger, killing his brother. Of all the grim things I saw play out that afternoon, two images stood out to me the most.
The first was when the boys’ mother arrived at the house. She was met by police officers in the driveway, and seeing the mix of fear, grief, panic, and rage from that poor woman is not something I’ll ever forget. The next came later, after all but one police car had left the scene. A blue minivan showed up at the house, bearing a sign for a business that specialized in crime scene cleanup. Something about seeing that van made me marvel at how there was enough violence in our comparatively small, quiet community to support such a niche business, and it made real in my mind how gruesome the scene inside must have been.
This isn’t a post about guns, pro or con. In my personal opinion, the violence we see in our world has more to do with the condition of our hearts than it does with the methods we choose. I was raised with guns, and see them as a tool. But I also know they are a tool that comes with a heavy responsibility. I was once consulting with a Fortune 100 CEO at his townhouse in New Orleans in the wild, lawless days in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A building next to his had been destroyed, and an encampment of transient people had taken up residence in the rubble. New Orleans was seeing an incredible spike in violent crime at the time, much of it involved those transient people displaced by the storm. The CEO was worried, and asked me to review his home security. He also asked me if he should get a gun for protection. I told him of what I’d seen across the street. I reminded him that he had grandkids that visited this townhome. And I asked him if he was prepared to commit to the training, storage, and discipline that should necessarily come with owning a firearm. He ultimately declined to get one.
Again, I am not making any kind of political statement here, nor do I have any answers. I’m just recalling that the feeling I have when I look at what’s going on in the world today is the same feeling I had as an eleven-year-old boy watching a family destroyed from my bedroom window. I think what I’m realizing now is the same as I began to understand then: the danger to those two boys didn’t come from beyond their walls. The risk came from within.
I believe the same is true in our country today. The problem we’re having is with ourselves. The dissention, strife, polarization and demonization of people who simply hold opinions other than our own. The refusal of empathy. The rush to judge and reluctance to seek understanding. The tribalism that runs so deep. We seem to be a house divided; how then can we stand?
The story of those two brothers will always stay with me. The very first brothers, Cain and Abel, had that same strife we’re having today, and one killed the other. When the killer was confronted, even then, he offered no apology. No remorse. Not even an acknowledgment of his actions. He forsook any burden he had for his brother, asking “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Looks like we’re still asking ourselves that question today.
A few years ago, just before I shut my laptop for the evening, I opened an anonymous e-mail. The sender warned that he had hacked into my computer and compiled a log of all the inappropriate websites I had been frequenting. Unless I sent a specified amount of bitcoin to a provided address, the nameless writer would send the information to my wife and expose me to the world. I could pay the price or face the consequences. The choice was mine.
I was being blackmailed!
Fortunately for me, I’m a lot less interesting than the sender of that hoax e-mail may have hoped. A listing of the websites I frequent would more likely make excellent bedtime reading than lead to an epic scandal. But FBI data shows that others may have far more interesting search habits than I do. The year I received that e-mail, over 50,000 people reported falling victim to the same ploy, paying a total of over $80 million dollars to buy their blackmailers’ silence. Last year, according to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, the number of victims topped 75,000.
While it has reached new heights, or perhaps new depths, in the internet age, the crime of blackmail traces back some 500 years. The original blackmailers were neither anonymous nor particularly subtle. In the 1500’s, some enterprising Scottish chiefs visited local farmers and gave them the option of paying a tribute or having their estates plundered. At the time, the word “mail” meant “payment” or “rent,” and many farmers willingly paid this black rent, or “black mail,” to ensure their protection.
Over time, blackmailers changed the nature of their intimidation, threatening not to do physical violence but rather to expose or embarrass those who failed to meet their demands. One of the earliest American victims of a blackmail plot was Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first Treasury Secretary and the inspiration for a certain Broadway musical you may have heard of. In 1791, the married Hamilton had a steamy affair with a woman named Maria Reynolds. When Mr. Reynolds caught wind of the matter, he made Hamilton an offer—pay me for my silence or I’ll expose your adultery and ruin your reputation. Although Hamilton eventually did admit to the affair, his first response was to grab his checkbook, paying one-third of his annual income in an effort to buy Reynolds’ silence.
Returning to the present day, text messages, e-mails and compromising selfies provide a treasure trove for would be blackmailers. Hollywood agents report that their clients are routinely blackmailed, with former lovers, disgruntled employees, or hackers threatening to release damaging recordings or photos. Many simply pay the requested amounts and view them as a cost of maintaining their public image. Billionaire Jeff Bezos recently joined the list of targets, accusing the National Enquirer of threatening to publish private photos and text messages between the married Bezos and his married girlfriend, Lauren Sanchez. Although the world’s richest man likely could have met any blackmail demand, he instead released the information himself, exposing his secrets but ending the alleged extortion. Two divorces soon ensued.
Drawing upon this rich history and current relevance, I made the crime of blackmail a central theme in my debut novel. The wealthy widow of a U.S. Senator has both a very dark secret and nearly endless resources with which to protect it. When a blackmailer threatens to expose her, she must ask herself what price she is willing to pay for silence. How much is a secret worth? To what lengths would she go to protect her reputation?
Jeff Cooper is a lawyer, law professor and author of published fiction and nonfiction. His debut novel, After the Fact, was a finalist for the Daphne du Maurier Award for Mystery/Suspense. Look for it in early 2022 from Red Adept Publishing. Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JeffCooperCT
Happy Springtime, Everyone. I’m doing something a bit different this week. Over the years I’ve interviewed quite a few crime fiction authors, for the blog. Today, I’m interviewing myself. At the end of the interview (which is about writing short stories, sort of), I’ve included a (very) short story, which I hope you enjoy. So, without further ado, please join me in welcoming me to the blog:
MB: Roger, thank you for joining us on MurderBooks this week.
ROGER: Thanks, Roger. I love this blog and I’ve always wanted to be interviewed for it, so I’m thrilled to be here.
MB: You’ve written two novels, Dark River Rising, and River of Secrets, about a female homicide detective in Baton Rouge. But, I understand you’ve also been writing short stories. Tell us a bit about that.
ROGER: Well, I’m glad you asked me about this. Part of my writing journey has been the extremely personal discovery that I’m one veeeerrrry long-winded son of a gun. That shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me, though. I spent nearly twenty years teaching college, where I absolutely fell in love with the sound of my own voice, so I can go on and on and on about just about anything and every—
MB: Sorry, to interrupt (Whew! Trust me when I tell you that he ain’t kiddin’ about that long-winded business! It’s best not to let him get crankin’, or he will never ever shut up), but we were talking about short stories. The emphasis, here, being on the short part.
ROGER: Right. Sorry. Well, I found that writing novels was very satisfying because it let me exercise my write-till-you-drop tendencies, and it gives an author plenty of room to indulge those cravings to show off their prose styling. Not that my prose styling is any great shakes, but you know what I mean. Short stories, on the other hand, were a terrifying proposition for me, so it was a format I avoided like the plague, until recently. The idea of having to fit a beginning, middle, and an end, with a full story arc, some degree of character development, along with a satisfying resolution, into just a few pages, and then, to—
MB: Yes, yes, I get it. So, let’s concede that somehow you managed to overcome your fear of going short and actually wrote something…uh, non-long. What sorts of stories have you been writing?
ROGER: Interestingly, my earliest stories were tales of revenge. I haven’t got a clue why that holds such fascination for me. I don’t consider myself a vengeful person, but—
MB: Let me stop you there, before you stray into TMI territory, and remind you that this is an interview, not a psychotherapy appointment.
ROGER: (As if I’d let this guy psychoanalyze me, anyway.) So, what I was saying, and I’d appreciate it if you’d let me finish at least one thought before you cut me off again, was that…oh, never mind. Maybe the best way to get across what I’ve been doing is just to show you one of my stories.
MB: Is it short?
ROGER: Of course. Less than 700 words. It’s about a couple looking for a new house. And no, it’s not a revenge tale, although, it might be a murder-for-hire, but that’s all I’m sayin’.
by Roger Johns
My wife Leah set up today’s appointment—the latest in our endless quest to buy a home. The place we’re renting is so cramped and impractical that what used to be happy evenings are now exercises in keeping the lid on. If the lid comes off…well, I don’t want to think about that, but the fact that we can’t agree on a house that suits us both is starting to feel like a bad omen. I push aside the do-or-die feelings the search is stirring up and force myself to believe this could be the one. The online photos perked up Leah’s waning enthusiasm and it looks promising to me too, even though it’s been vacant for a while and it’s a bit out in the sticks.
The owner, Tracy, is meeting us at 1:30. As usual, I’m early. At 1:29, Leah texts that she’ll be late—again. I grin. I bear it. I stuff my annoyance and my phone into my pocket as a black Jeep swings into the driveway. A big dude hops out and saunters over. From the name, I’d expected a woman. I chastise myself for stereotype thinking.
“I’m Anna,” I say, once he introduces himself. After a few minutes in the land of obligatory small talk, we move into the realm of awkward phone-gazing silence. Then, Leah texts again: Traffic sloooowww. Start without me. I tell Tracy the news.
Anxiety surfaces as we climb the steps. Never before have I gone alone into an empty house with a man I don’t know. I consider giving myself another demerit for indulging the all-men-are-predators stereotype, but he is huge. Plus, he knows we’ll be by ourselves until whenever. But he also knows that Leah knows. Right? I award myself the demerit.
“Y’all got kids?” He opens the front door with a key from under the mat. “My wife and me, we got three little ones. Stair steps.” He laughs, seeming not to notice I haven’t answered his question. “The last two’re actually Irish twins.” As if I’d just naturally be fascinated by oblique references to his fondness for postpartum intercourse. I hear the door close behind me.
“Sheila said she wanted all that childbearing business done before she turned twenty-four, so she’d have a…decent shot at…recovering her figure.”
The topic of his halting speech makes me wary. I know how men look at me, so I imagine his words coming slow because he’s preoccupied with what he sees as he checks me out. I turn, ready with a challenging look, but he’s just thumbing at his phone. Oops. Chalk up another stereotypo for Anna. Unless he’s been taking pictures. Of me.
The living room is huge. Running room, if I need it. “Wow. Look at the detail around this fireplace.” I snap a shot of the mantle with my phone. “Gotta text this to Leah.”
Instead, I write: Hurry UP!! Owner creeping me out.
We ooh-ah over the dining room, then move deeper into the house. Somehow, he’s always either behind me or between me and the exit. Reflected in a dark window, I see him leering at his phone. He doesn’t see me watching him. I’d bet money he’s been taking pictures of me, on the sly. Freakin’ perv.
He shows me his phone. How cute. Three small children clustered around a smiling woman next to a swimming pool. Why can’t I give this guy a break? Why doesn’t Leah answer my text?
We end up in the kitchen, chitchatting next to the wall mounted oven, and he turns out to be a pretty funny guy, in a corn-fed kind of way.
“Uh oh.” He sniffs loudly. “You smell gas?”
“Not really.” Not at all, actually. Still nothing from Leah.
He opens the oven and ducks his head in, doing a deep noisy inhale through his nose. “Hmmm. Could be.” He stands back. “Poke your head in. Tell me if you smell it.”
As I lean inside, past his beefy fingers coiled around the door handle, I notice his lifeless eyes just as I realize it’s an electric oven.
ROGER JOHNS is the author of the Wallace Hartman Mysteries, Dark River Rising and River of Secrets, from St. Martin’s Press. He is a 2018 Georgia Author of the Year, a two-time Finalist for Killer Nashville’s Silver Falchion Award, and runner-up for the 2019 Frank Yerby Fiction Award. His short fiction appears (or is forthcoming) in the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, the Mystery Weekly Magazine, Dark City Crime & Mystery Magazine, and Viral Literature: Alone Together In Georgia. Roger’s articles and interviews about writing and career management appear in Southern Literary Review, Writer Unboxed, and Southern Writers Magazine. Visit him at: http://www.rogerjohnsbooks.com.
Nature has been trying to poison us since humans first saw a shiny berry and thought, well, that looks yummy. It probably didn’t take long before murderous schemers realized that a dash of this and a pinch of that could rid them of a rival or an inconvenient spouse. With the advent of politics, poison became a political weapon that often altered the lines of royal succession. While homicidal poisoning has fallen out of favor, it hasn’t disappeared—and interest in poisons hasn’t lessened with time.
Many countries have gardens comprised of acres of roses, precisely clipped hedges, riotous blooms, and grand fountains. But there is another, much smaller garden at Alnwick Castle in England that sets it apart from other botanical attractions. The gates of this garden are locked nightly and it’s plants have 24-hour security. Skull and crossbones festoon the imposing black gates that keep visitors from entering without an escort and where simply walking along the garden paths can leave one faint. Welcome to the Alnwick Gardens, or more specifically, its poison garden.
Created by the Jane Percy, the current Duchess of Northumberland, the garden opened in 2005 and was modeled after traditional apothecary gardens. Behind the fence are approximately one hundred toxic, intoxicating and narcotic plants, including many that are commonly found in people’s personal gardens. The poison garden serves several purposes—first and foremost education. Point to a beautiful flowering plant and intone Careful, that will kill you, and now you’ve got someone’s attention.
Historically, poison was an almost perfect murder weapon. Poisons were readily available, difficult to trace, and often didn’t take effect immediately. Arsenic was known to early Romans who added it to drinks. Medieval murderers in Europe frequently extracted juice from the deadly nightshade berries. During the Italian Renaissance, many noble families resorted to poisoning to forward their ambition— perhaps none so brazenly as the Borgias whose poison became known as the “liquor of succession.” It’s no surprise then, that many royal courts employed physicians and alchemists who had only pass through the garden to find many of their poisons of choice.
And poisoning isn’t a thing of the past. There will always be someone who figures out how to weaponize mother nature and invent a delivery device that appears innocent. In 1978 Bulgarian dissident Georgi Ivanov Markov was assassinated on the streets of London by a man weilding a modified umbrella that used compressed air to inject a ricin pellet into the victim’s leg.
Literature is dripping with instances of poison. In Greek mythology, Hercules slew a centaur with an arrow envenomated with the poisonous blood of the Hydra—and in an ironic twist, later died after putting on a shirt saturated with the centaur’s blood. Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare both incorporated poisons into their plays.
Flash forward to Agatha Christie who was notoriously devious in dispatching her characters with poisons. Dame Agatha wrote what she knew—she’d volunteered as a nurse during World War I and qualified as an apothecary’s assistant.
Now for a quick trip over to Webster’s for a definition that we all think we know, but probably don’t fully understand. A poison is a substance that is capable of causing the illness or death of a living organism when introduced or absorbed. Swiss alchemist and physician Paracelsus (1493 – 1541) is considered to be the father of toxicology for recognizing that “all things are poison…only the dose makes a thing not a poison.” Even water, can be poisonous when over-consumed. As medical knowledge broadened, so too did the understanding of the effects of poisons on the body. In 1836, chemist James Marsh developed a test to detect the presence of arsenic in the human body—forever quashing the plans of Victorian poisoners. Since then both natural and synthetic compounds have been widely studied. Today, determining that a person has been poisoned isn’t a problem, determining the criminality of the incident is.
Law enforcement most often encounters poisoning when responding to suicides or drug overdoses—many of which are accidental. So how do investigators tell the difference? As in any death investigation, it takes a careful examination of the scene and attentive interviewing of family and witnesses. The medicolegal autopsy will determine the role a poisonous substance played in the death of the deceased, but it will still fall on the shoulders of the investigator to uncover how the poisoning occurred.
It’s comforting to realize that many of the things that can kill us if taken indiscriminately are the very same substances that have contributed to medical advances and can save us when administered properly. As people get further removed from growing their own food, gardens such as the Alnwick Poison Garden serve an important role. After all, the juicy dark berries of the Atropa bella-donna plant may resemble a blueberry, but you don’t want to eat them. They’ll kill you.
When checking my social media this morning, I saw a video from my hometown police department, Bluffton, South Carolina, announcing a police officer hiring event next weekend. Talking with police professionals around the country, I hear nearly all agencies are struggling to recruit and hire new officers, and many departments are facing severe shortages.
To my police friends, this is not news. To my crime writer friends, this may provide some insight when writing realistic police characters.
Although the police profession has faced hiring challenges before, the presence of current factors makes today’s challenge more difficult than ever. The current anti-police sentiment in the nation makes law enforcement a less desirable profession, which severely limits the pool of qualified people interested in law enforcement. I hear from young people that they would never enter a career where it seems everyone hates you. I also I hear from young officers who are leaving policing because of burnout, (being forced to work excessive mandatory overtime due to staffing shortages and nightly protests), and a lack of support from the community and politicians running their cities.
A second factor is a strong job market, which provides many job opportunities for quality young people. Obviously, I need to couch this as the “pre-pandemic” economy; however, police recruiters I’ve spoken to have not seen any indication that those who lost their jobs during the pandemic have considered law enforcement careers. Most expect their jobs to return as the pandemic eases.
A third factor is the steady erosion of pay and benefits for police officers. Many cities are choosing to spend less of their budgets on law enforcement, and many departments have not seen pay raises in years Likewise, police pensions in many states are less attractive. In Oakland, where I spent twenty-five years, new officers need to work about five years longer than I did to receive a similar pension.
Budget cutbacks are also felt in fewer training opportunities and poorer equipment for officers. I spoke to a lieutenant in Oakland last month and was shocked to learn that some of his investigators are still driving Ford Crown Vics that were already several years old when I retired sixteen years ago.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the need for quality candidates in law enforcement. Departments that drop hiring standards to increase hiring, often end up regretting it with a higher turnover and more instances of misconduct. The job of police officer has never been tougher, more dangerous, and more fraught with criminal and personal liability. The need to hire the best men and women as our police officers has never been greater.
Departments like Bluffton PD are competing with numerous other agencies in the area for a shrinking pool of qualified police officer candidates. But Bluffton has an advantage over many others. It’s a rapidly growing city with an excellent tax base that shows in its modern police facility, new equipment, plentiful training opportunities, and one of the highest salaries in the state.
In Oakland and some other major cities, officers often face hour-long commutes to find affordable housing and decent schools. Bluffton is a safe community with good schools and affordable housing—a place officers can work and raise a family. And most importantly, the community and its leaders support the police, and the individual officers trust their leaders, from the chief of police down, something officers from many departments can’t say.
Although Bluffton must work hard at it, as evidenced by their one-day hiring event, I’m convinced they will be able to attract and hire some great police officers. I wonder, however, if other departments around our country, with more minuses than plusses, will be able to do the same.
Please join me in welcoming bestselling author Hannah Mary McKinnon to the blog. Hannah Mary is an accomplished novelist who specializes in psychological suspense. She is the author of Sister Dear, Her Secret Son, The Neighbors, and Time After Time. And coming May 25th from MIRA (HarperCollins NA) You Will Remember Me, a novel that New York Times bestselling author Lisa Unger calls: “Riveting, smart, and utterly diabolical.”
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.
Forget the truth.
Remember the lies.
He wakes up on a deserted beach in Maryland with a gash on his head and wearing only swim trunks. He can’t remember who he is. Everything—his identity, his life, his loved ones—has been replaced by a dizzying fog of uncertainty. But returning to his Maine hometown in search of the truth uncovers more questions than answers.
Lily Reid thinks she knows her boyfriend, Jack. Until he goes missing one night, and her frantic search reveals that he’s been lying to her since they met, desperate to escape a dark past he’d purposely left behind.
Maya Scott has been trying to find her estranged stepbrother, Asher, since he disappeared without a trace. Having him back, missing memory and all, feels like a miracle. But with a mutual history full of devastating secrets, how far will Maya go to ensure she alone takes them to the grave?
First off, congratulations on your upcoming release, Hannah Mary. It must be gratifying to see the early praise You Will Remember Me is getting.
Your life has taken you on a number of journeys. When did you first know you wanted to be a writer/novelist?
Writing novels wasn’t on my radar 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. After a long while (with a lot of moping about) I realized the answer was to become an author, and I got to work, making a ton of mistakes along the way (more on that later…).
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 out on submission with that book (i.e. my agent had sent it to publishers to see if there was interest), I started writing The Neighbors. I soon realized it was darker, far grittier than Time After Time, and that things may not work out for everybody by the end of the story, which I found more compelling and interesting to write. I didn’t worry too much about switching genres because Time After Time hadn’t sold at that point.
Once I’d finished writing The Neighbors I knew my move to the dark side was permanent. I enjoy putting ordinary (fictional) people in extraordinary circumstances and exploring what might happen to them, and what they might do. I’m not quite sure what that says about me…
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?
Oh, I’m 100% a plotter. I’m very structured, and the more I write, the more I plan. My novels start with an idea—something that pops into my head such as a news story for You Will Remember Me, or a radio segment for Sister Dear—maybe a discussion I overheard. 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 I stick on my pin-board. By this point I’m raring to go.
At first, 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, and send it to my wonderful editor, Emily. That’s when the real editing work begins, which is incredibly exciting because I know the story will become a thousand times better with her expert input.
Just thinking about pantsing an entire book makes me shudder, lol.
No way! I can’t answer that question. There are far too many too choose from. Recent favorites include Caz Frear’s Shed No Tears and Karma Brown’s Recipe for a Perfect Wife.
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. 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 had a total “fan-girl-moment” which led to us meeting for coffees and dinners, and a wonderful friendship ensued. We live in the same town, which is amazing. Jennifer is an inspiration, fiercely talented, and I devour her books. I’ll read anything she writes!
What advice do you have for authors who are considering writing a psychological suspense novel?
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 way too early, and not being patient are just 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. If I’d known, I may not have continued, although I’ve always been determined (my mum would have said “bloody-minded”…).
As a series writer I find it pleasant to revisit my characters and 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? Do you have any plans for a series?
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 well over a year from initial idea to 100% finished product, time interspersed with working on other novels that are at different stages, so I do find I get to know my cast well. 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). 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 I’m certainly not ruling it out.
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. My motto is: if in doubt, leave it out.
Best: write a “puke draft” first and don’t show it to anyone until you’ve cleaned up the mess. It’s liberating to write knowing nobody will ever see that particular version.
About a year 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?
No, and 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, and within a few days I had over 40 daily readings lined up and officially launched First Chapter Fun. I read for 53 days in a row (didn’t think the “must do hair and make-up” thing through very well), introducing viewers to a new novel and author each day.
In May 2020, I teamed up with my partner-in-fictional-crime, powerhouse author Hank Phillippi Ryan. We created a new Facebook group www.facebook.com/groups/firstchapterfun and www.instagram.com/firstchapterfun. We read twice a week, every Tuesday and Thursday (the days with a “T) on both platforms simultaneously at 12.30 pm ET, and already have readings scheduled until the end of 2021. 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.
You can have a drink with any writer (living or dead) who would you choose? Worry not. If you choose a dead one, we’ll reanimate them for you.
Can we all have drinks together at an event like Bouchercon instead, please? That would be my wish, but if you’re forcing me to choose one person…it would be Michelle McNamara, author of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, and who passed in 2016. Her research into the “Golden State Killer” was incredible. Most of all I’d love for her to know he was caught, and her work is considered instrumental in that.
You have another novel coming in 2022. Can you give our readers a glimpse of what that one will be about?
Book 6 (as yet untitled – I find titles are harder than writing the entire book) is in my wonderful editor’s hands. It’s written from the anti-hero’s point-of-view, which I’ve never done before, and is the story of Lucas, who hired a hitman to kill his wife. A month later, Lucas receives a partial photograph of his wife in the mail. Who sent it? What do they know? And, more importantly, what do they want? I can’t wait to introduce you to my characters (and thank you, Bruce, for helping me get away with fictional murder…again!).
Hannah Mary, 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, You Will Remember Me.
Hannah Mary McKinnon is a member of International Thriller Writers, and Crime Writers of Canada.
I normally use this MurderBooks space to write about a Trial-of-the-Month. I enjoy the opportunity to learn a little about a historical trial and to share it. This month, however, I’d like to review the past year. The pandemic brought our world to a halt. I’d like to focus our attention on the virus’ effects on the criminal courts. As citizens we need to be aware of the impacts. Any writer attempting to describe a courthouse these days needs to adjust their description to get the details right.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a criminal magistrate in Tarrant County, Texas. I meet defendants recently charged with criminal offenses. I’m the judicial officer who starts them in the justice system.
Let me acknowledge upfront those who have died, and the people infected. Locally, we have lost law enforcement personnel, attorneys, court staff and, undoubtedly witnesses, victims and defendants. Strictly from the perspective of the criminal courts, we have cases that cannot be resolved satisfactorily because key players, necessary for a just resolution are no longer alive.
The courtrooms of 2019 seem a distant memory: people rubbing shoulders in the hallways; courtrooms full of defendants, family, and spectators; lawyers negotiating in backrooms, and defense attorneys bustling between courts as they juggled multiple defendants. Walking the halls, one found it hard to find a quiet space. Conversations bubbled everywhere—random talk among strangers called as jurors, defense attorneys discussing plea offers with clients in stairwells. Walking those stairs, one would catch the smell of an illicit cigarette as someone hid for a stress smoke. Everywhere, arms sprouted cellphones as people made excuses to someone on the other end of the line. Now, silence pervades the halls. Our sardine approach to docket management has largely been replaced by individually scheduled teleconferences. People are still in the courthouse, just shuttered in offices. The process has been slowed.
Some of the accommodations have been comical. A few weeks back, a Texas attorney went viral when he didn’t turn the “cat filter” off his teleconference. His error taught me that “cat filters” were a thing. In the broader sense, however, it reminded us that we just don’t gather together anymore.
The internet meeting has become a fact for all of us both personally and professionally. Other businesses, however, do not have a constitutionally protected right to confrontation. In my county, we have 20 courts to hear criminal cases. A series of administrative approvals are required to ensure that trials are conducted safely for all participants, especially the jurors. My county, like others, has experienced COVID-19 spikes and other setbacks. Since the start of the pandemic, those 20 courts have completed 2 criminal jury trials.
The Texas Supreme Court’s chief justice predicts that statewide, it will take 3 years to clear the pandemic backlog of cases. Another estimate pegs 102,000 hours of additional judicial work will be required to erase the logjam of cases brought by the virus. Visiting judges could help but government must find the money. The economic slump has hurt tax revenues.
Delay is an enemy to justice. Memories fade and closure is denied. Victims cannot move forward and neither can defendants. Imagine an innocent defendant accused of some heinous crime like child abuse. Arrested and charged, he remains in custody needing a trial to exonerate him. He cannot plead, the consequences and stigma are too high. Outside, his life passes by the jail’s barred windows. The child’s emotional recovery is impeded by the pandemic roadblock. Everyone is stuck.
According to recent statistics, three quarters of the inmates occupying my local jail are pretrial. They have been charged but not convicted. They await their day in court. Each under our system of laws is clothed with the presumption of innocence. For most of those cases, there is a victim whose life is also impacted by the delay.
My courtroom looks like a tornado shelter tucked into the basement of the jail. On my workdays, I beam over there via closed-circuit television. I used to walk to the jail. A personal relationship with the jail staff, I believed, benefited both the sheriff’s office and the courts. The virus eliminated that practice. Like everyone else, I’ve gone virtual. Now, through the monitor, I meet defendants, talk to them about their rights and set their bail. A detention officer shuttles the inmates in and out. In addition to the regular security concerns of the jail, the officer now segregates the inmates into COVID-19 positive, COVID-19 exposed, and regular inmates.
The crimes which come before me have changed throughout the pandemic. They have ebbed and flowed in response to the illness. During the height of the quarantine, my driving while intoxicated cases declined. The family violence assaults, however, increased. People still drank, they just got intoxicated at home. Without a bar to fight in, more of them directed their anger and frustration toward loved ones.
On a positive note, mask acceptance seems to be growing. Face coverings are required in the jail. In the early days of the pandemic, many inmates wore their masks like chin straps. Defendants would slide them off and slide them on, challenging the rules. Trustees swept up piles of discarded face covers. Over the past year, however, the mask has become integrated into the jail uniform. Not everyone complies, of course. Rule defiance brought most of the inmates to jail to begin with. They are the exception, at least in the close quarters of my court. Some still wear it below their nose but then, truth be told, who doesn’t on occasion?
Like everything else, COVID-19 has changed criminal justice. (Now, you’re suspicious if you walk into a convenience store or a bank and don’t wear a mask.) As with the rest of society, I wonder which parts will snap back when the pandemic is behind us. What will our new normal be?
Until we know, keep your distance, wear your mask, get your shot. Oh, and stay out of jail.
Hello again. As regular visitors here know, my day job requires me to monitor dangerous situations and emerging risks around the world. I’ve shared some of my observations previous, such as in this prior blog post. As we have left behind a most unusual year in 2020, I thought it would be a good opportunity to look ahead at what 2021 may have to offer.
I consult with a lot of government sources, private security companies, open and restricted intelligence sources, and my own network around the world to keep an eye on potential dangers. Based on this collection of data, here are some of the emerging risks around the world:
Ongoing Effects of COVID
2021 will be a year of uneven recovery as vaccine rollouts create a world of haves and have nots, with pockets of forever COVID at the bottom of the pecking order. Competition will be fierce between nations and within them. State budgets will creak under the weight of their new debt, pushing some countries to the wall, or forcing others into prolonged austerity. The relationships between state and business and between society and business will be critical for companies. If 2021 does not mark the end of the pandemic, it will be the year that determines what is left when the worst is over.
Uncertain US-China Relationship
While 2021 should see superficial stabilization in the US China relationship, the two countries will continue clashing across the current range of issues. Both are quietly eager to reset ties and focus on domestic problems and we can expect resumed cooperation on issues like climate change. China is in its own “critical historical moment” and its domestic challenges outweigh external ones. If a Biden administration focuses on issues like human rights and efforts to coordinate multilateral pressure on China, this will clash with Beijing’s core interests. Retaliation could follow and the cycle of escalation resume.
Terror Threats Continue
Terrorism is an evolving threat and will warrant close monitoring in 2021. COVID-19 has exacerbated many of the existing political, religious and socioeconomic drivers of terrorist violence across regions and this is no time complacency. Of particular note is the increased threat of domestic bad actors. Parties holding simmering tensions across political and social spectrums may feel emboldened by recent disruptions, and violence may become a normalized component of protest.
Risk Goes Digital
The rapid adoption of new technology will continue in 2021, bringing ever greater connectivity. With connectivity comes exposure and rushed procurement will heighten the risks. Regulatory risks, including sanctions and bans on procuring foreign tech, will rise in 2021. Ideological and practical blocks are emerging rapidly. The challenges for business will be opportunities for cyber threat actors. They will capitalize on increased connectivity and hasty solution adoption. In 2021, companies across the world will have to balance the drive for technological innovation with security, integrity and resilience challenges.
The newly-installed Biden administration has signaled it’s willingness to re-engage Iran regarding international sanctions and Iran’s nuclear program. A key issue will be whether the sanctions, resumed by the Trump administration after being lifted by the Obama administration, will be lifted. Despite these sanctions, Iran has breached its mandated cap on uranium enrichment from 3.67% purity to 20% purity, closer to the weapons-grade purity of 90%. Should Iran gain further freedom and resources for their nuclear program, it is likely they will pursue nuclear power aggressively.
As always, we live in a world with great risks. But my career has been founded on the principle of not stoking fear, but provided and grounded and sober view of the risks, so that we may proceed confidently with appropriate mitigation efforts. I look forward to a return to normalcy, to travel, to in-person gathering with friends and family (especially an in-person writers conference!) in the coming year.