Saturday, 04 April 2020 14:06

As the world deals with this dreadful pandemic, most of us are doing what we should—staying home, venturing out only when necessary, and staying six feet away from others. Don’t forget, if going to a store, wear gloves and a mask.

We have new terms and acronyms for our lives—Shelter in Place (SIP) and Work from Home (WFH).

And let me pause here for a big shout-out and thank you to the heroes of 2020—health-care workers, first responders, caregivers, truck drivers, grocery store and pharmacy staffs, janitors, car repair people, veterinarians, and the others who are helping to keep the world going.

Now, back to the blog.

With no live theater, movie houses, or other entertainment available, many of us may be reading more than ever.

Reading, of course, is a solitary action that can be done anywhere, and the escapism it offers is huge.

For mystery fans, reading is just part of the daily fabric.

While mysteries are always in style, the genre is even more suited for these trying times when isolation is your daily job.

No hopping on a plane for travel, no stays at hotels, no going to a restaurant for a sit-down meal. But we can do all that vicariously through books.

The mystery genre has always embraced isolation—or being an outsider—through it’s the characters who often set themselves apart from society.

Sometimes it’s the lone wolf such as Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade or Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch—both detectives, one private, one cop, who have separated themselves from the rest of society, who operate on their own instincts and whose close friends are few.

Certainly, Ian Rankin’s now-retired Edinburgh police detective John Rebus has never quite fit in.

Charles Todd’s Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge continues to hide the fact that his time as a soldier during World War I left him shell-shocked. During that time, what we now know is PTSD was considered an act of cowardice—fortunately, we now know that this not true.

Rutledge would have much in common with Nick Petrie’s action-packed series about former Marine Peter Ash. Petrie’s novels give a perceptive look at a man dealing with the aftermath of serving in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Laura Lippman’s Baltimore private detective Tess Monaghan revels in her antisocial nature.

V.I. Warshawski, the heroine of Sara Paretsky’s long-running series, is as much a private detective as she is a social justice warrior.

Kathleen Kent’s novels about Dallas narcotics detective Betty Rhyzyk explores how a cop deals with her desperate need for the support of her patient, devoted girlfriend and that of her police partner as she recovers from a near-death experience. But her default is to push away those she most needs.

Prickly, socially inept film editor Marissa Dahl just doesn’t know how to deal with others. Never mind her habit of making inappropriate comments, no matter who she is talking to. Marissa also makes Elizabeth Little’s Pretty as a Picture an exciting locked-room mystery.

Sometimes that sense of isolation comes from other situations.

Take Linda Castillo’s series about Police Chief Kate Burkholder of Painters Mill, Ohio, whose jurisdiction includes the local Amish community. Raised Amish, Kate left the community, but always must acknowledge that a part of her will “always be Amish.” While she maintains much respect for the Amish, she also is aware of the problems that can fester among the people.

Adam Abramowitz’s series about a bicycle messenger is isolated in the genre just because that job may seem a most unlikely sleuth. But his character Zesty Meyers’ background also makes him an outsider—his mother was a revolutionary bank robber who went missing for decades, his father ran Boston’s best underground poker games and was a political fixer. And his brother, Zero, runs a moving and storage company that hires ex-convicts.

Rebecca James’ The Woman in the Mirror starts with a heroine who is isolated by several situations. In 1947, Alice Miller arrives at Winterbourne Hall, a mysterious manor located on the coast of Cornwall, to care for the twin children of moody widower Jonathan de Grey. This idyllic sounding location and job soon gives way to secrets that haunt the family.

Jess Montgomery’s beautifully plotted novels center on strong women facing impossible odds in the stark Appalachian Ohio coal-mining country during 1925. Montgomery’s novels, her debut The Widows (2019) with the equally perceptive The Hollows (2020), have the feeling of an old-fashioned Western.

Joanna Schaffhausen’s three terrific novels revolve around Ellery Hathaway, forever haunted by being the only survivor of a serial killer who kidnapped and tortured her when she was 14 years old before being rescued by FBI profiler Reed Markham. Ellery changed her name and became a police detective, but those emotional scars have never gone away.

Rachel Howzell Hall’s series about LAPD homicide cop Elouise “Lou” Norton explores a woman always on the outside. That sense of aloneness also permeates her standalone They All Fall Down that pays homage to Agatha Christie but with a new approach and diverse characters.

Emotional isolation and a remote setting are at the heart of Owen Laukkanen’s new series about Former Marine Jess Winslow, a Marine veteran with acute PTSD, Mason Burke, a newly released convict and a mixed-breed dog named Lucy. All three are looking for refuge and redemption.

After a seven-year hiatus, Julia Spencer-Fleming’s return to her popular characters Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson and her husband, Russ Van Alstyne, police chief of Millers Kill, New York, is most welcome. Hid From Our Eyes illustrates how each is an important part of their community yet also isolated.

That’s just a few of the detectives and sleuths for whom isolation and being an outsider is part of their DNA.

Mysteries also let us travel to different worlds and cultures, making the world come to us.

Naomi Hirahara’s “Iced in Paradise” showed us the life of a multicultural family who live on the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i. Hirahara’s usual series is about a Japanese-American gardener, Mas Arai, a survivor of the atomic bomb but American-born and now living in Los Angeles.

We can also travel to Iceland with Arnaldur Indriðason, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, or Ragnar Jonasson; Paris with Cara Black; London with a variety of authors; Venice with Christopher Bollen; Ireland with Tana French or Olivia Kiernan; Vancouver with Sheena Kamal; Australia with Christian White or Jane Harper.

Again, that’s just a few of the places we can visit while we shelter in place.

Happy reading and, everyone, stay healthy.

Mysteries Now More than Ever
By Oline H. Cogdill
Thursday, 02 April 2020 17:39

Books are essential for those of us love to read. And read we do, especially during this time when staying home is the order of the day.

And let me pause here for a big shout-out and thank you to the heroes of 2020—health-care workers, first responders, caregivers, truck drivers, grocery store and pharmacy staffs, janitors and trash workers, postal and delivery folks, car repair people, veterinarians, and the others who are helping to keep the world going.

Back to the blog.

Those of us who love to read also love to visit bookstores, to walk among the aisles, finding new worlds, new characters.

James Patterson knows the value of bookstores and his latest project is to help independent booksellers.

Mega bestseller Patterson will be making a personal donation of $500,000 to help save independent bookstores across the country. Patterson has partnered with the Book Industry Charitable (Binc) Foundation and the American Booksellers Association (ABA) to promote the campaign.

During the next few weeks, Patterson will ask writers, readers, and book lovers to contribute to #SaveIndieBookstores.

The campaign will run through April 30, at which point Binc will distribute the total funds raised to eligible independent bookstores.

More information is at

“In these uncertain times, it’s up to all of us to do our part and to help those in need however we can,” Patterson stated in a press release.

“The White House is concerned about saving the airline industry and big businesses—I get that. But I’m concerned about the survival of independent bookstores, which are at the heart of main streets across the country.

He added, “I believe that books are essential. They make us kinder, more empathetic human beings. And they have the power to take us away—even momentarily—from feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and scared. I hope that the funds we raise keep bookstores alive at a time when we need them the most.”

American Booksellers Association CEO Allison K Hill added in the press release, “This support for independent bookstores is incredibly generous. We are grateful to Mr. Patterson and Binc and we feel very lucky to have them as part of our bookselling family. It is especially meaningful to have this support from people who recognize the cultural contributions of independent bookstores, and who appreciate the vital role that independent bookstores play in connecting readers to books, and in creating community. This fund will help ensure that this good work continues.”

Pam French, executive director of the Binc Foundation, added, “We are honored and humbled to work with Mr. Patterson and the ABA to ensure the generosity of book people across the nation goes directly to bookstores that are fighting to survive. In these unprecedented times, bookstores are more vital to the well-being of their communities than ever.”

Patterson probably needs little introduction as his books have been a mainstay of best-sellers lists for decades, from his Alex Cross series to the hundreds of novels on which he has teamed up with other writers.

To be considered for a grant, ABA member bookstores can visit to fill out a short application form beginning April 10 and continuing through April 27. Funds will be distributed to eligible stores by May 15.

Photo of James Patterson by Stephanie Diani

James Patterson and ABA's #SaveIndieBookstores Campaign to Give Booksellers Emergency Grants
Oline H. Cogdill
Thursday, 02 April 2020 03:01

Lori Rader-DayIn her five-novel career, Lori Rader-Day has been nominated for the Anthony, Edgar, Mary Higgins Clark, Anthony, Barry, and Macavity awards.

Rader-Day has won two of the most prestigious, taking home an Anthony Award and the Mary Higgins Clark Award. When I finally picked up book three, The Day I Died (2017), I became a fan of her cleverly set up and beautifully written psychological thrillers. Her new book, The Lucky One, was published in February 2020 and it may be her best yet. She recently took the time to share with Mystery Scene a bit about her writing and the new book.

Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: Many of your books seem, to me, to be about a quest for identity on the part of the main character. Can you talk about why that's important to you as a writer?

Lori Rader-Day: The search for identity is just the kind of story I like to read. Maybe it has to do with my own psychology? It seems to me, though, that most stories are about a search for self on some level or another—what choices will a character make, based on what they learn about themselves? That’s just what story is. Maybe you’ve pinpointed the elusive line where stories transcend the genre (emphasis for sarcasm). If they engage with that question, they transcend this invisible line so many claim to see.

In The Lucky One , you write about two characters, both on a quest for identity. Was it difficult to write two, rather than one, central character and keep both of their different issues on the front burner, so to speak?

The difficulty of this story was definitely magnified by having the two protagonists, both looking for something they can’t admit they need. In some ways, Alice and Merrily are very different people, but they were also almost the same age, grappling with some of the bigger questions about where they were in their lives and who they might turn out to be. The difficulty becomes, How do I as the author make sure each character seems like herself and not just like the other? So they had to have different backgrounds, different family structures, different interests, desires, disappointments, and grief. That’s the fun part, though. Pacing them through their own story arcs was the challenging part.

You write psychological thrillers, but your books also have a strong traditional mystery element, the thread of which seems especially tricky in The Lucky One. I imagine there's a different intellectual discipline involved in putting together the pure mystery element. Can you talk about that a bit?

I think you have pinpointed the narrow ledge of what constitutes one of my books and why my publicists probably despair of me. Are they mysteries? Are they thrillers? Am I a marketing nightmare? I just tell stories the way I want to read them, and the way I imagine an average person might experience them. That’s probably the thriller part. The mystery part is the spine of the story that has brought us to this thriller-ish moment and then the investigation (such as it is) to find out what’s happened and why. I can get quite caught up in trying to make my characters sleuth, but they usually don’t want to do that. They want the truth, but they are much more interested in why things are the way they are than how they find out any one clue.

I've heard you talk about setting yourself a "challenge" as you writesomething I know Agatha Christie, for one, did as well. (She was challenged to write the trick in Murder of Roger Ackroyd, for example, by her brother-in-law). Do you always set yourself a different challenge? And if so, what favorite challenges have you set for yourself?

I have said a few times too often perhaps that I give myself “intellectual exercises” for each book. Does that sound pretentious? I should stop saying that. The exercise for The Lucky One was to write in third person, something I had never done successfully for a novel draft. It was interesting to try, and it generated some of the book’s best bits, I think. I’m not sure how I could have told it any other way, but that’s hindsight, having the story twist and turn as it did. For Under a Dark Sky, I wanted to challenge myself to have an Agatha Christie-level of suspects. That was a sincere challenge, to have six to eight people in all the major scenes—to keep track of them, to understand how they are feeling and reacting to whatever is happening. We should give Agatha a lot more credit for pulling that off. And if anyone thinks they can know whodunit from the very beginning of that book, well, congratulations, because I didn’t know until I wrote the end.

What's your favorite part of writing a book? What gets you excited to get up every day and keep going?

I am in no way the kind of person who is excited to get up every morning, to do anything. My cup of tea. That’s it. Or a deadline. Deadlines have magical powers to wake you up. What makes me get to work is the story I haven’t quite figured out, but it’s a matter of the story bothering me, begging to be told.

What's your least favorite part?

I rely heavily on revision. Revision as I go along, and after some time away, revision after I’ve written the first draft. By the end of the revision process, I will hate revision and never want to speak its name again, but I do enjoy going to work on a drafted manuscript and making the sentences, the story better right before my own eyes. It’s very satisfying.

The Lucky One hinges partly on a site called The Doe Pages, an online group of folks looking for lost or dead relatives and friends. Is that a real website? How did you discover it?

The Doe Pages is based on the Doe Network, a real site for real online amateur sleuths. We talk about amateur sleuths all the time, but in a much cozier, cheerful, cats-on-the cover sort of way. I was interested in the real people who do this sort of thing, often on top of working jobs and raising families, and often getting results, hard-won results. I had heard about and was fascinated by the story of Todd Matthews and “Tent Girl,” a Jane Doe who was found in Kentucky in 1968. Matthews took the case over from his father-in-law, who discovered the body, and solved that 30-year cold case after ten years of effort, making connections in early internet chat rooms and forums. Today Barbara Ann Hackman Taylor has her name back, and a marked grave her family can visit. I interviewed Todd Matthews for The Lucky One, and now we’re email friends looking forward to talking in person for the first time on stage at Killer Nashville in August.

The hook for The Lucky One is pretty world-class. Can you talk about how the central inspiration came about?

The idea originated with a conversation with my new neighbor, an adorable young mother who announced one day that she had been kidnapped as a child. That certainly got my attention, and started the story of Alice Fine, kidnapped as a child and returned safely (as my neighbor had been, as well). I had been casting around for story ideas and considering a story among the real online sleuths who solve long-cold missing persons and unidentified cases. I had been shopping Doe Network for inspiration when I recognized a face, the face of a girl who had gone missing from my childhood neighborhood. I hadn’t forgotten her, but I was surprised to see her still missing and accounted for on this site.

The story for The Lucky One started to form from those two concepts. Alice Fine is a low-level volunteer, playing at giving back, when she sees a face she recognizes, and it’s the face of her kidnapper, who was never brought to justice.

What writers have been influential to you? What book was transformational?

So many authors have made a difference in the writer I’ve become. Early favorites were Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, Lois Duncan, E.L. Konigsburg, and then Agatha Christie and Mary Higgins Clark. The first transformational book was one of Cleary’s, because noticing her name on the book made me realize, at age six or seven, that people wrote books.

One book that was transformational for me was Christopher Coake’s We’re in Trouble. Chris is a high school friend of mine, and when he published his debut collection of stories in 2006, I realized people from where I’m from could write and publish books; they just had to do the work. I took that opportunity to do the work, seriously, for the first time.

Transformational by content? Probably Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find, which blew my mind. I didn’t realize stories could be like that.

What's up next for you? What are you working on now?

I’m currently revising my first historical, set partly during World War II and based on a little-known bit of history when a group of children evacuated from London lived in Agatha Christie’s summer house, Greenway. I have never done this kind of intense research before, and it’s against my nature to do so, but it’s been an interesting challenge. No firm title or date yet, but it will be out, I believe, early summer 2021. This is an idea I had years ago and I kept waiting for someone else to write it. I’m excited finally to share it with everyone.

Lori Rader-Day is the Edgar Award-nominated and Anthony Award- and Mary Higgins Clark Award-winning author of Under a Dark Sky, The Day I Died, Little Pretty Things, The Black Hour, and The Lucky One. She co-chairs the mystery conference Murder and Mayhem in Chicago and serves as the national president of Sisters in Crime.

Lori-Rader Day, Little Luck, a Lot of Revision, and a Whole Bunch of Talent
Robin Agnew