Saturday, June 30, 2012

Suicide or Homicide? Evidence that CSIs Consider

Charlotte Hinger here, welcoming our guest blogger Tom Adair. From investigating the shootings at Columbine High School to locating gravesites in the remote back country of the Rockies, Tom Adair has lived a life most crime authors only write about. An internationally recognized forensic scientist, he has a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and a Master’s degree in Entomology. He has served as the president of the Association for Crime Scene Reconstruction, Rocky Mountain Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts, and the Rocky Mountain Division of the International Association for Identification. While in law enforcement he was board certified as a senior crime scene analyst, was one of only 40 board-certified bloodstain pattern analysts and one of 80 board-certified footwear examiners worldwide. In addition to writing over 60 scientific papers, he has served as the editor of an international peer-reviewed science journal. Over his 15 year career he has been interviewed by and consulted for television, text books, novels, magazines, and newspaper articles as well as documentaries on the Discovery Channel and National Geographic. He continues to teach and conduct research in the forensic sciences. When he’s not writing he enjoys hunting, hiking, fishing, and camping in Colorado’s back country with his wife and chocolate lab.

Suicide or Homicide?

Any death investigation is challenging. Aside from the complexities of the crime scene there are the living "victims" (like family members of the deceased) who can add a tremendous amount of stress to the investigation. That is never more true than when the family or the public believes the manner of death to be different than the evidence suggests. There is no way to predict how others will judge a death and I suppose that adds to the stress too. I've investigated deaths where the manner (suicide/homicide) was obvious but others interpreted the evidence differently. Suicides are extremely emotional. Loved ones can experience a whole range of emotions like sorrow, anger, even guilt. The most powerful can be denial. No one wants to think that a family member would decide to end their life. If the victim is a public figure or celebrity then the ante goes up. The public's perception of a celebrity may be the polar opposite of reality. In fact, some people falsely believe that a rich and successful celebrity couldn't possibly contemplate ending their "charmed life". When that happens the fans may believe the death was a homicide. In homicide cases, the only person who typically wants to suggest "suicide" is the killer. In fact, if a family member or friend continues to "push" the idea of suicide (when the evidence of homicide is clear) then they quickly become a suspect.

Either way, it makes no difference to the CSI. We want to find the truth, whatever that may be. I should mention that none of these conditions may tip the scales one way or another by themselves. In fact, there are some deaths in which the manner can not be determined (hence the term undetermined). It isn't necessarily the lack of data. It may simply be that a key piece of evidence can be viewed both ways. A gunshot wound t the head could be homicide or suicide depending on certain indicators. Just because the gun may be next to the body doesn't necessarily prove suicide. Additionally, I have seen some truly bizarre death scenes in which the victim chose an unusual or extremely painful way to end their life. These are the exceptions to the rule however. So what kinds of evidence do CSIs look for when evaluating a death?


The central aspect of suicide is the absence of actions by another person. In simple terms that means that the victim must be physically and mentally capable of completing all of the actions comprising the act. In gunshot suicides the victim must obviously have access and familiarity with the firearm and ammunition. But that isn't enough. If they used a rifle or shotgun then their arm has to be able to reach the trigger to function the weapon. If the barrel length is 38" but their arm length is only 30" then there is a problem. Likewise, the distance between the weapon muzzle and victim must be believable. If the gun was fired from over three feet away then it's hard to argue suicide. Suicides are all about the victim. As such, understanding the victim's life history becomes very important. There are a few things that an investigator has to consider regarding the victim.
  • A history of suicide attempts, depression, mental illness, etc. 
  • Recent traumatic events such as loss of job, financial troubles, loss of a loved one, troubled relationships, etc.
In addition to that there is the scene to consider. Because suicide is a personally motivated act the scene should be devoid of any other motive for the death. That means there shouldn't be anything of value missing (robbery). There shouldn't be signs of a struggle (defensive wounds). Now sometimes a suicidal person may break valuables or overturn furniture as an act of frustration or depression but there should be no evidence of another person present. There should be no evidence of forced entry to the scene. Any injuries should be consistent with the method of taking their life. It isn't enough that investigators find an empty pill bottle next to a victim. The autopsy must reveal that a fatal level of said drug was present in their system before proving suicide. Everything on scene and at autopsy must confirm that the victim could and did take their own life without evidence of others involvement.


Unlike suicide, homicide requires a killer and an unwilling victim. Homicide is motivated by any number of things like jealousy, revenge, profit, contempt, not to mention plain old homicidal mania. There may be evidence of forced entry or a violent struggle. If the killing is incidental to the main motivation for the crime (such as home invasion robbery) then there may be evidence of ransacking or items of value that have been stolen. Homicide may be for the purpose of eliminating a witness so we will look for evidence of things like rape or whether the victim is scheduled to testify in a criminal trial or witnessed a criminal act. Most criminals also take the murder weapon with them when they leave (although not always). So the absence of a weapon may support a finding of homicide along with other conditions.

Because homicides require a killer, there should be clear evidence left from that killer such as blood, semen, shoe impressions, fingerprints, etc. A victim may have the killer's skin under their fingernails. The killer's boot prints may be on the floor next to the body. In some cases the killer may try to cover up the crime by staging or even setting fire to the crime scene. Obviously, we talk to friends, family, co-workers and others to see if the victim had any enemies. The motives for some killings are years in the making. In these cases, motivations for rivalries, jealously, or revenge may be well known and documented. You still have to find the evidence though. Ultimately, the evidence directs investigators to the proper manner of death. That is, if they find it. Differentiating a suicide from a homicide might hinge on one or two pieces of evidence. If those items are not present or recognized then investigators may get it wrong. This is good news for authors. By writing a scene in such a way that these clues are missed we can change the direction of the story. Then, when the item is found again the story makes a U-turn and the readers straps in for a roller coaster ride. Consider ways you can introduce this challenge. Maybe a victim takes their life with an expensive gun and the reporting party steals it. Whatever you choose don't be afraid to get a little creative. I assure you the reader will appreciate the effort.

Tom also blogs at Forensics4fiction and the Crime Fiction Collective. Check out his website at

Friday, June 29, 2012

Going Grey

I’m going Grey, in more ways than one. My hair is a given, but I’m referring to the trilogy dominating the best seller list. Certainly, I plan to read these books. For the same reason that I always read runaway best sellers. I want to know why they have hit the lists.

The attraction has to be more than sex. There are jillions of books in this ilk. So what is it? Plot? Characterization? A degree of titillation that I won’t understand until I turn the pages?
My dominate trait is curiosity.

Frankie recently posted about the dilemma of deciding which books to read. A lady after my own heart. So many books, so little time.
My “method” is not set in stone, but after Frankie’s post, I thought about my process. At the top of my list are books I’m dying to read for my own pleasure. Right now, that’s Bring Up the Bodies, second in the trilogy by Hilary Mantel. I love historical novels and complicated mysteries with complex settings. My daughters try to find the ideal gift of a “psychological literary mystery.”

Secondly, I’ll read mega-award winning books. I’ll love some of these, but not all. Usually, I find the Edgar winners to be top-notch. If a book that has won extensive critical praise doesn’t have a decent plot I feel cheated.  I hate books that wallow in self-pity for about 400 pages.
I adore classics with protagonists struggling with moral decisions. Oh, to have contemporary readers who would appreciate the lavish styles and subtle characterization employed by our predecessors.

Then I’ll track down best-sellers by new authors. Rarely do they make my irresistible list, but I want to know why they have caught the imagination of the reading public. There has to be a reason. I don’t bother to read most of the authors of a series again after I’ve analyzed their style and learned from them. James Patterson is in this category. He’s good—just not my cup of tea. In a writing class I taught, I asked the students to pay attention to the way he could turn a whole plot with a one word  one sentence paragraph. Really!
I read a lot of really poorly written history books because I must. I read books written by friends. Some I praise and with others I shut my mouth. I read books I’ve agreed to review, or blurb.

I have a pile of books—often free—that will just get twenty pages if I don’t like them. Then they go to the library’s used book sale.
My agent once said I needed to read more. A jaw-dropping statement, because I have always read all the time. She meant read more widely. Not just literature. I needed to read more junk, explore more genres, learn, learn, learn. How do western writers describe landscapes, romance writers manage to make trite plots seem fresh, and sci-fi writers make alternate universes seem real?

I’m jillionth in line at the library to check out Grey. I signed up to show my approval and support for our adventurous board, even though I intend to buy the books.  Bucking the trend, I’m going to purchase Grey in hard copy, instead of downloading.
I’ll put it right next to The House on the Prairie, The Satanic Verses, Mein Kampf, and any other book I take a notion to read

Thursday, June 28, 2012


On Friday evening, five years after my novel Out of Bounds was published, I got an email offering a contract for my manuscript This One Day.

I never anticipated waiting five years between series. For a guy who likes to work and tries to write everyday, five years is a long time to spend wondering if your first five books were a fluke.

The timeline goes like this: I completed Out of Bounds, my final Jack Austin novel, in December of 2006 and began working on a novel featuring a single mother and U.S. Border Patrol agent. That book was titled Valley of the Shadow. I liked that book—still do—and an agent took it on. My Jack Austin books had been published with a university press, so I knew commercial houses would be underwhelmed by my sales record, and I suggested we submit under a pseudonym. The agent insisted we use my name. The results were predictable. As he shopped Valley, I wrote the sequel, Blight. Four years into the submission process, the agent told me we should have used a pseudonym. As one would imagine, I'm representing myself for the time being.

I wrote This One Day in 2010 while waiting word on the border patrol books. This was my pitch paragraph: In This One Day, former police officer Max Tyger—now a Connecticut-based PI who makes ends meet by teaching criminal justice at a community college at night—has recently been diagnosed with esophageal cancer, a rare form. Max has lost forty pounds and, due to his own failings, the love of his life, all within the past six months. On top of his physical and personal trials, he continues to be haunted by the suicide of a former student. This is when police officer Helen Baxter enters his office and offers a case she won’t touch: Tommy Lewis, a junior at the prestigious Blaise School, is said to be missing by his art teacher. However, the teen’s parents and school officials deny the claim. Max is initially skeptical, but he has failed one teenage boy already. Years earlier, when Hutch Hillsdale ran away, Max let him go. Now nothing will bring him back. Redemption can come in many forms. And Max, who is facing his own mortality, sees a chance at it in the search for Tommy Lewis.

My wife has a way of putting things into perspective. For the past five years, she has shrugged and said, "You chose a field that's so subjective." She's right, of course. But fellow writers know what the current publishing climate is like, and my colleagues at Type M for Murder and beyond have been there to offer advice and encouragement.

So as I start to negotiate the sale of This One Day to Five Star/Gale, I want to say thanks to Rick, Hannah, and the rest of the team at Type M and to Tess Gerritsen, S.J. Rozan, Brendan DuBois, and Reed Farrell Coleman. It is often said that the mystery community is a tight-knit group.

I can vouch for that.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Decalogue for the Construction of a Detective Novel

I am finally at the end of my five-week trip to the UK promoting my Vicky Hill series. I've spent a lot of time in tiny motels dotted around the English countryside. I know I've missed a couple of posts and I apologize. It's not been easy finding wi-fi connections—or even phone signals in some places. What has been lovely however, is the number of bricks and mortar stores still in existence in rural areas. Even better—the enthusiasm that booksellers seem to have for authors on the road. I even came across a mobile library in the small Cornish fishing port of Port Isaac.

The weather has been predictably unpredictable with a lot of rain but I don't mind. One of the last places I stayed was a tiny cottage filled with scores of old books. One jumped off the shelf called "The Book of Literary Lists" by Nicolas Parsons. I opened it at random and had to quote Ronald Knox (b.1888 - d. 1957) "Decalogue for the Construction of a Detective Novel." 

1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor  must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.
8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have duly prepared for them. 

Lovely stuff and a  list I will add to my ever increasing list of tips from the masters. But for now, the sun has suddenly broken through so I must get down to the beach for a last game of rounders. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Can you stand a bit more on the language front?

I found Aline’s post yesterday really fascinating and thought-provoking. As communications between countries headed into hyperdrive with the dawn of the internet age, it only makes sense that language would change. Since one of the driving forces of American culture is to sell American products and the country’s lifestyle to the rest of the world, it doubly makes sense that American English is swamping its foreign cousins.

We see it in Canada with American spelling of words now being the common style in nearly all our print publications, whereas when I moved to this country from the States in 1971, I had to play a lot of catch up so that university profs wouldn’t red mark everything I gave them. Now, I’d probably have no trouble using the spelling I grew up with. Besides, being a language junkie, I enjoyed learning all the new Canadian words for commonplace things. I still have trouble with some of them, though, catching myself using “paper napkin” instead of “serviette” or “sneakers” instead of “running shoes”. Now I notice Canadian kids using “sneakers” all the time. Why? Because they watch more American-made entertainment than Canadian.

Can anything be done about it? Sadly, no. The richness of the English language diminishes every year as vocabulary in general usage drops. Sure, words are going to drop out of use (if not style) and new ones will take their place, but it is a fact that the bulk of new words coined are related to technology and science. We’re losing a lot of words that have nothing to do with these things.

However, the real question is: as writers, can we make this new reality work for us? Do we have to keep dumbing down our writing in order for readers to understand us without a dictionary at their elbow. (I remember doing this when reading Forster in university, and at times it got very irritating, even if it was interesting.)

Barbara and I have both written Rapid Reads novellas, short works of fiction for those with poor English reading skills. Naturally, one of the key components was much more basic vocabulary than we would normally use. My basic rule became: if it has more than three syllables, find another word. Setting out on the project, I believed that my writing would be severely compromised. But you know what? By the time the ms was accepted by my editor, I was pretty proud of what I’d accomplished. I’ll bet Barbara was, too. The little things do read rather well. Would I want to have to write like this all the time? Absolutely not, but I wouldn’t mind doing it again. Having to strip it all down and still have my prose work well was rather exhilarating. It also fundamentally changed the way I write. I look at every single word now, and if it ain’t pulling its weight, out it comes.

Should we keep using arcane words in our writing? I think so, especially when their use enriches a story by expanding the sense of place or character. We may have to fight with our editors over saying it that way, but I’m sorry, “Your readers will have to look that word up!” or “I’ve never heard it said that way before!” are not adequate reasons to water down a bit of richness in a novel’s prose.

So I expect to see “fairy cakes” in Aline’s next novel if it’s appropriate for her characters to use that phrase. To be quite honest, I think it’s much more vivid than “cupcakes” anyway. I’ll bet fairy cakes taste better than their American cousins, too.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The death of a language

It was the playwright George Bernard Shaw who described Britain and America as 'two countries divided by a common language.'  No longer, it seems.

A recent study showed that Scottish children are now saying 'garbage' not 'rubbish', 'cookies' not 'biscuits' and 'trashcan' not 'bin'.  'Fairy cakes' are now 'cupcakes' – I suppose that's understandable!

We live in a global community and we benefit from it, but the sad part is what we lose at the same time. Whole languages disappear, for a start.

My own grandparents, from the island of Islay on Scotland's west coast, had Gaelic as their first language but when they moved to Glasgow didn't teach it to their children, believing it would 'hold them back' and used it only as a secret language between thesmeselves when it was something they didn't want the children to hear.  My mother had a smattering of Gaelic phrases; I have none. The story was repeated all over Scotland and it was the death of a language in three generations. I could learn it now, when great efforts are being made to revive it, but it would feel artificial.

My own sadness is about the disappearance of dialect.  Like every writer I have a love affair with words, the more vivid the better.  The different areas of Scotland all had their own special vocabulary, and I glory in words like 'peelie-wally' for sick-looking, 'collieshangie' for a rowdy argument, 'sotter' for a complete mess, and especially  'hochmagandy' for – well, what in the Enlgish venacular would be described as 'a bit of how's-your-father.' (Don't ask me – I don't know either.)

When I was young, Scots dialect words were in constant use. I still use them myself, but mostly now for considered effect.  My children probably – but only probably – know what they mean but don't use them at all.  Another kind of language dies.

I'm sure Canada and the United States have the same tradition of local vocabularies.  Are they disappearing too?  If you have any good examples, please share them – I collect colourful words and the more people use them the longer they will live.

Once everyone speaks the same English, it will certainly be easier to understand what people are saying.  But don't you think it will be a bit dull?

Saturday, June 23, 2012

No Communication Breakdown

I have a lot of books on my TBR pile, most of which are fiction. Occasionally a nonfiction book sneaks in, and the latest was Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga by Stephen Davis. I read the book as research for a freelance assignment about a group of young men who form a band. Since I'm neither an audiophile nor a musician, I decided that I better educate myself about the business.

We fiction writers pride ourselves on plucking the emotional strings of the reader and it was a surprise that a true story like Hammer was able to punch me in the guts over and over again.

Like many American teenagers of my era, Led Zeppelin formed a significant portion of my coming-of-age soundtrack though I never paid much attention to their personal melodramas. I can remember when I first heard them and so they appeared to me fully formed and complete, like children of Zeus. Of course there is a back story, and it was astonishing to learn the many what-ifs along the way. Like Rod Stewart was almost their lead singer. That in the early days LZ crossed paths with a shy, out-of-work piano player named Elton John. They were stalked by a mousy lost soul who as it turned out, was Squeaky Fromme, the woman who later tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford. The original name of the group was the New Yardbirds and after much confusion over their identity, the Led Zeppelin moniker was chosen as a joke. Robert Plant showed up for his first auditions spattered with asphalt from his day job on a road crew. John Bonham helped at his father's construction company and carried bricks to bulk up. Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones cut their teeth as studio musicians and got to witness first hand the consequences of fame's excesses, which helped them navigate the trials of future stardom. They both shared a reputation as cheapskates.

It's tempting to try and make the Led Zeppelin story conform to the mold of a tragic tale. But in truth, everything runs its course. No one is immune from tragedy, every life has a sad ending, and even this super group was no different. Still, I felt genuine sorrow for these rock stars when I read how Fate hit them hard, and their millions were of little help to ease the heartache.

One example: on August 4, 1975, Robert Plant, his wife and two children were in a car crash while vacationing in Greece. Seriously injured, they lay beside the road until a passing farmer loaded them in the back of his fruit truck for a long ride to the hospital. Plant and family were in convalescence for months, and the group had to cancel a major tour. Two years later, Plant lost his son Karac to a viral infection, and the incident cascaded into events that led to LZ never playing in the US again.

Not all their stories deserve pity. Drummer John Bonham became a drunken bully, frequently beating up women, and to no surprise, died of alcohol poisoning at the age of thirty-one.

Looking back on the Led Zeppelin story, the plot--as it were--unfolded with the spectacle and sordid theater of a Harold Robbins' pot boiler. It would be a challenge for any of us novelists to think of a tale as rich and complex.

Friday, June 22, 2012

First Impressions

A few years ago, I did take a cruise out of Miami with the idea that I would write a book set on board a ship. I had done some research, and I was able to speak to a member of the crew who explained what happens to a body that goes in the water in the wrong place. But by the time I arrived back on shore, my enthusiasm for the book was gone. Rick's post and Barbara's about story ideas has gotten me thinking about why the book fizzled even before I sat down to try to write it. In retrospect, I think the problem was that the novel that I wanted to write was not a book I could set on a modern cruise ship. I wanted to write an old-fashion romantic suspense novel, heavy on mystery, atmospheric, but without post-9/11 security and surveillance cameras. It didn't occur to me at the time that I should simply write a book set in the past. Much more research required, but also much more what I had in mind. Something to think about. Thank you, Rick and Barbara.

Now, if only I had the solution to my current problem with the book I'm supposed to be working on – the dreaded first line. I have the plot, the suspects, the motive, and the killer. I have enough of the characters' bios to begin to flesh them out on the page. I even have the title. But I don't have the first line.

So I go to my bookshelves and open a few books at random. The comforting part about this creative procrastination is that I always discover a few books with lackluster first lines. Finding several of these helps my confidence.

But I hope I'll also be inspired by terrific first lines. Each of the first lines below makes me want to keep reading. I want to know the answer to a question or hear more of a distinctive voice.

“When Edward Carney said good-bye to his wife, Percey, he never thought it would be the last time he’d see her.”
Jeffrey Deaver, The Coffin Dancer

“Bennie Rosato shuddered when she caught sight of the place.”
Lisa Scottoline, Mistaken Identity

“The letter from Tally came on the day Bert Checkov died.”
Dick Francis, Forfeit

“Coming back from the dead isn’t as easy as they make it seem in the movies.”
Christa Faust, Money Shot

“It was the most elegant office I’d ever seen, but the flowers on the desk made me think about death.”
Valerie Wilson Wesley, Easier to Kill

“I was surprised to see a white man walk into Joppy’s bar.”
Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress

“Word traveled fast in a river town with thirteen saloons.”
Bland Simpson, The Mystery of Nell Cropsey 

“If one lives in Galloway, one either fishes or paints.”
Dorothy L. Sayers, The Five Red Herrings 

 “On Wednesday, Helen met a woman who could not frown.”
Elaine Viets, Shop till You Drop

Reading other writer’s first lines always sends me back to my own. This time I wrote them down to see if I could spot a pattern that I fell into over the course of the five books in my Lizzie Stuart series. Here they are in order:

“Rituals for the Dead and Dying. I scrawled those words across the yellow page of a legal pad one robins-chirping, tulips-blooming afternoon in May.”
Death’s Favorite Child [two lines if one counts the period]

“If dead grandmothers were supposed to be sweet comforting presences, Hester Rose, my grandmother had not been paying attention when that particular celestial lesson was taught.”
A Dead Man’s Honor [a bit long-winded, but makes the point]

“We’ve all seen or met him by now.”
Old Murders [from the letter to the editor that opens the book]

“When the dog began to howl, did Becca want to howl too?”
You Should Have Died on Monday [my favorite of my first lines]

“John’s woman?” Bobby pulled his glance away from the night ocean, shimmering, iridescent. “Her name’s Lizzzie, right?”
Forty Acres and a Soggy Grave [first chapter in third person]

Okay, no pattern I can discern. That’s probably good, but not particularly helpful.

Neither is what I did in the first book in the new series, where I started with the date and the weather. A risky beginning, but my editor thinks it works. After all, it’s 2019 and really hot, and the book begins with the morning news because something has happened. That was the only way I could make it work. Another writer might have begun differently and done it better. But I kept coming back to that newscast.

Not what I’m going to do in the second book in the series. In this one, my victim is dead in a park in the middle of a blizzard and his body is about to be found. But I don’t have that first line. An image but no words… Maybe if I go back to the title. The second character in the scene…Okay, I’ve got to go try to figure this out.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Ideas worth their salt

Barbara here. I love the way the mystery writer’s mind works. We share that very special dark sensibility that lets us see possibilities for murder, and more importantly for mystery, in the smallest daily events. Take the recent blogs about cruise ships. Who else but we twisted souls would see fertile ground for intrigue and cover-up in such a lavish, pampered world?

People are always asking writers where we get our ideas from. The truth is, from everywhere. From newspaper snippets, from cellphone conversations overheard on the bus, from lonely people in coffee shops, from that tempting cliff along the lake… The reality is, we get far more ideas than we have time for, so hopefully only the best survive the first few seconds of scrutiny. Because ideas come not from out there somewhere, in some vast repository of undeveloped plot ideas, but from our own inventive minds. Anything can be the germ of an idea once a writer set his mind to it.

To test this, pick any page of the newspaper at random, find the article at the bottom of the page, and see what comes to you. If your mind turns to suspects and motives and possible suspects even if you are reading a story about baby pandas in the zoo, then you have the makings of a crime writer. Another test, pick four words at random from the dictionary. Hopefully some of them will be nouns and verbs. Spin a story that connects them. Throw a death in, and…

The next step is to play with the idea, tease it apart, expand it like a spider spinning a web, to see how far it will take you and what intrigue and suspense you can capture within its threads. Not every idea is worthy of a 300 page novel. Some, simple and circumscribed, make a perfect short story. Some have depth and mileage enough for that wonderful form that has recently been revived – the novella. Longer and more complex than a short story, but still more limited in characters, time, setting and plot than a full novel.

How does a writer know that their idea has enough “meat” for a full novel? I am not fond of analyzing my writing process, perhaps because of a superstition that if I look at it too closely, I will lose that magic voice in myself that whispers the stories to me. I’ve described my writing process as “fly by the seat of my pants”, which means I jump in and start writing once I have the germ of an idea and the opening scene in my head. I work without an outline, without knowing where the story is going or how it will end, without knowing whodunit.

But the truth is that I have already toyed with this idea a fair amount before I start to write. I have asked myself what characters I need, at a bare minimum, to tell this story, and what kinds of conflicts and dramas are likely to occur. So I do have some vague, up-in-the-air notion of what the shape of the story will be, and whether there is likely to be enough excitement, interesting characters, and complexities to sustain a novel.

But the most important question I ask myself about an idea in its prenatal stages is whether it has resonance. Do I care about it? Do I want to spend a year of my life exploring it, and three hundred pages writing about it? Does it touch a chord in me, stir feelings strong enough to propel me through the difficult stages of the writing. And will it touch others? Is it a big enough theme to connect to universal human emotions – desperation, sorrow, yearning, struggle, hope – emotions not only that others can relate to but care about as well. Some people think that crime fiction is all about murder and mayhem, but it’s not. Truly great stories are about struggle, choice, failure, and triumph.

And it’s your characters who must ultimately tell that tale.  

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Cruise ships: the perfect place for the perfect murder?

In my daily morning perusal of overnight news, I ran across this article: Families search for cruise ship passengers lost at sea. With Tom’s posting of yesterday priming the pump, I’ve spent nearly an hour just thinking about the plot possibilities.

Cruise ship lines have been taking black eyes left and right over the past year, from that ship that ran aground off Tuscany to the one that passed by those fishermen adrift in the ocean off South America. In between are stories of mysterious disappearances of passengers from cruise ships and that’s the topic of this article. Pretty frightening stuff, isn’t it?

In pondering the contents of the article, it’s pretty obvious that this situation is very fertile ground for the crime writer. Think about it: all these hundreds of transient people – not to mention the transient crews (I didn’t know about that), everyone fairly anonymous. Throw in a host who has no vested interest in calling attention to any potential problems, almost no police oversight, muddy legal jurisdiction, and it’s all aboard this movable city. If anyone were inclined to do murder, it really is the perfect set-up. Tom posits that it is rather difficult to commit the perfect murder. Now here am I presenting a place that could well be the basis of Murdering Someone for Dummies book.

One thing not mentioned in the article is something that was told to me by an aspiring author, Denise Willson, with whom I had a long conversation at Bloody Words two weeks ago. Seems that if you find yourself going overboard on one of those big cruise ships, and you want an outside chance of surviving, you’d better go over the railing from the front third of the ship and wind up as far away as possible. If you “disembark accidentally” any farther back than that, you will not survive, period. Apparently, everyone who works on cruise ships knows this little fact. Somehow it didn’t make it into the The Star article mentioned above. The vested interests in the cruise industry obviously don’t want this to be common knowledge and the reporter didn’t dig deeply enough.

So here’s fertile ground for an enterprising writer, and a bit of a contest sponsored by moi: how many different scenarios for a crime novel (or a series) can readers of Type M come up with based on what I’ve set out here? Come on now, don’t be shy! The prize will be a copy of my new novel, The Fallen One, when it comes out this September. (Sorry, the ARCs are all gone.)

Personally, I’ve never had an inclination to go on a cruise. It’s not the way my wife and I prefer to travel, but you certainly won’t catch me on one of them now. Not that I have any fear of my wife doing me personal injury or anything...

Monday, June 18, 2012

The (Im)Perfect Crime

As a writer of mystery fiction - even if mostly wordless for the past year - I am, like most of my writerly colleagues more than a little interested in the concept of the "perfect crime". The perfect crime, by at least one definition, is defined as a crime committed by someone, and recognised as a crime by the authorities and the general public, but which is never "solved". Evidence is in hand, clues of greater or lesser import abound, but no one can identify the perpetrator. Or if he/she is identified, even arrested, arraigned and brought to trial, he/she is acquitted and walks away. Possibly even to enjoy the "spoils" of his/her criminal act. A near infinity of variations on this theme abound in print and on film. (Or, citing modern technology, on disc, or in digital format.)

Before taking a brief look at the perfect - or imperfect - crime, though, I will go back to my last post. The one on Luka Rocco Magnotta - real name, Eric Clinton Kirk Newman - the Ontario native, soon to be 30 years old, who committed a heinous crime by murdering a Chinese student named Jun Lin - also known as Lin Jun. And then dismembering the victim's body and mailing parts to various places in Canada. And also apparently filming the murder and the mutilation, and posting the gruesome images online. A horrendous crime for sure. And one that originally gave authorities, and the public, real concern that this might be the start of something really terrible - a series of like murders. Magnotta even posted a how-to "manual" on how to disappear, and there were legitimate fears that he might do just that. As it turned out, though, Magnotta did not commit anything like a perfect crime. He left a container load of clues behind him, was videotaped entering an airport in Paris, and was arrested scant days later in an internet cafe in Berlin, reading articles about himself on the internet. A most imperfect crime by a most imperfect individual.

German police mugshot of Magnotta taken following his arrest in Berlin.

The Berlin Police mugshot of Luka
Magnotta taken following his arrest.

Just what motivated Magnotta to do what he did is a subject that will be studied and debated for years to come. The word "narcissist" was used in a number of artcles. And there's not much doubt that this was a factor. Perhaps even the factor in the crime. If so, he has now achieved a degree of ghastly fame: he even has an extensive profile on Wikipedia:

This past week, the Canadian public was horrified by another horrendous murder. And one that was as imperfect as the Magnotta crime.

On the mroning of Friday, June 22, Travis Brandon Baumgartner, an employee with a security company in Edmonton, Alberta, gunned down four co-workers while delivering cash to an ATM in a mall attached to the University of Alberta. Three of the people who were shot died at the scene; one is still in critical condition in hospital.

Apprehended: Travis Baumgartner was stopped near a border crossing in Lynden, Washington

            Travis Brandon Baumgartner

Baumgartner's crime, was, if anything, even less "perfect" than Magnotta's. He was arrested the next afternoon, Saturday, when he tried to enter the United States at a border crossing at Lynden, Washington, near Abbotsford, B.C. Technically - if that's not an inappropriate term to use in a crime as awful as this - Baumgartner did everything wrong. He arrived at the broder crossing in the same blue Ford F-150 pickup that the police had issued a description of. The truck had Baumgartner's mother's licence plate on the back, and that plate number had been entered into an electronic file that was shared with U.S. and Canadian authorities. He used his own driver's licence as identification at the border. The truck's licence plate was scanned by an automated system at the border crossing and set off a security alarm. The some $330,000 that Baumgartner had in his backpack in the truck would do him no good at all.

The U.S.Customs and Border Protection agent on duty at the time commented: "Sometimes you have to scratch your head and wonder why people (wanted by the police) would knowingly come up and make contact with law enforcement."

Which brings up an interesting point. Where writers of crime fiction often (usually?) create criminals who are intelligent and thoughtful individuals who plan their crimes carefully, in real life that is exactly what does not usually transpire. I can recall a lecture our local writers' group - Ottawa's Capital Crime Writers - received some years ago from a police officer. His principal point? Most criminals are not very bright people. They possess aberrant personalities, they act on impulse, they really don't think very much about what they are doing, and they leave plenty of evidence behind that leads to their arrest and conviction. And thank heavens for that. As much as we loathe and fear the Luka Magnottas and the Travis Baumgartners of the world, we can at least be grateful that their stupidity and carelessness - and vanity? - does them in, and rather quickly.

But to go back to the concept of the perfect crime. It has been argued that the really "perfect crime" is one that takes place without anyone knowing that a crime has been committed. For example, a wife murders her husband - or vice versa - and it presents as an unfortunate accident. Which brings an end to the investigation. Perfect, indeed!

A variation could involve a company employee who embezzles a large amount of money and hides it in the accounting records. No one ever knows that a crime has been committed. Or - a variation on that theme -the company does find out, but hushes the whole thing up rather than face the embarrassment - and loss of business - that would come with the public's finding out that the embezzlement actually took place.

Along this line, some would argue that the financial "meltdown" that occurred starting in about 2008 constituted a series of "perfect crimes"; the banking systems in various countries - notably the United States - lost billions of dollars in speculative activities, the taxpayer reimbursed the banks through government bailouts, and many of the executives involved went on to receive large bonuses. And few if any of the leading individuals were ever punished. Damn near perfect, a cynic might say.

The stories abound. Books are written, documentaries are filmed. Writers, actors, producers, directors and technicians all make money from the "enterprise". As the late Kurt Vonnegut might have intoned, "So it goes."

And - since I am something of a movie buff - at least one very good film has come out of the experience - Margin Call:

A film really worth catching.

Wikipedia - of course - has an entry on the "perfect crime":

It's worth looking at. One interesting example is the "locked room" murder. The body is inside the room, and the door is locked, apparently from the inside. Dr. Gideon Fell, the fictional creation of John Dickson Carr, is a master at solving locked-room mysteries. Carr's The Hollow Man has been selected (by 17 reviewers) as the best locked-room mystery ever. (It is now on my to-read list.) Carr, however, selected the French writer Gaston Leroux's The Mystery of the Yellow Room as his personal favourite.

In The Hollow Man, Dr. Fell explains how a crime of this sort could be set up and carried out:
An illusion, simple but effective. The murderer, after committing his crime, has locked the door from the outside and kept the key. It is assumed, however, that the key is still in the lock on the inside. The murderer, who is first to raise a scare and find the body, smashes the upper glass panel of the door, puts his hand through with the key concealed in it, and finds the key in the lock inside, by which he opens the door. This device has also been used with the breaking of a panel out of an ordinary wooden door.
I hope I am not giving anything away by providing this quote. I guess I will find out when I have an opportunity to read Carr's novel.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Books and More Books

 I have a problem. I’ve had this problem for years, and it only gets worse as I get older. My problem is deciding what book to read next. This indecisiveness is more distressing now than it was when I was younger. You see, I always thought I would “catch up.” That one day I would have read all those “classics” of American Literature and World Literature that I’d been hearing about since grammar school. That I would be "well-read." I did read many of those books in high school and college. But I read some of them too early to fully understand the plots or the characters. I’m convinced that if I went back to read those books now I would take so much more from the reading than the first time. So I’m torn between re-reading some classics, or going on to the ones that I’ve never opened.

 And then there are the New York Times best-sellers that everyone talks about. I feel socially inept when I find myself in the midst of one of those discussions at a party and can only nod and try to recall what I read in the reviews. But those best-selling books that everyone is talking about seem to be coming out more quickly than they used to. Before I can get to the first book by a hot new author, the sequel is out. And, there is the larger question of why I should read a book that everyone is talking about – Shades of Gray, for example – when it doesn’t sound like a book that I would find interesting. On the other hand, I could be wrong. And maybe I’m getting stuck in my reading rut and reading best-sellers would expand my horizons and keep me up to date on popular culture references.   

Then there is that third category of books – mysteries. I know I should be reading the latest Dennis Lehane or Lee Child or Margaret Maron or Nancy Pickard. Thing is, there are so many great writers – including my colleagues on this website – who I ought to keep up with. And I get their books at conferences and buy them at bookstores. And I do that year after year. And the books pile up and spill out of my bookshelves. And I’m so far behind in multiple series that I will never catch up. And then I read a book by a writer that I haven't read before – for example, Peter Robinson’s In a Dry Season – because I’ve been asked to lead a book discussion. And suddenly, I have another mystery writer whose books I’ll be adding to my pile.

The only reading I’m absolutely confident about is the reading I do at work, for my academic research. I know that I need to read a 350+ page dissertation that I got from Interlibrary Loan. I sit that at my desk and read and take notes, and move on to the next “scholarly work.” I have a system. I know why I’m reading. I’m enjoying myself and it’s all good. Lots to read, but I know where I headed. 

But when I’m reading at home, doubt sets in. I just finished re-reading Georgette Heyer’s The Unfinished Clue. I hadn’t read it in years, and I had a wonderful time over the week or so it took me to finish, reading each night in bed until the book fell out of my hand and hit the floor. It felt like pure indulgence because I could have been reading one of the new and never-before-read books on my nightstand.

I find that more and more – when life is too much with me – I am reading for comfort. That often means going back to fondly remembered books that I read years ago. The costs of doing that is that I might very well be missing out on discovering books that I haven't read yet and would like as much or perhaps even more. 

And that's it. The most frustrating thing about my dilemma -- all the books that I don’t have – will never have -- the time to read. As a child, I always hoped that I would find the one book that would explain how the world works. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland came closer to doing that than any other book I've since read.

Here’s a quote about reading from Nora Ephron:

            “Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. . .”

Okay. But my problem is this advice from Henry David Thoreau:

            “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.”

So here’s my new system. I thought of it this evening when I was faced with the nightly decision about what to read. Henceforth, I am going to try a three-prong approach. Like most readers, I always have more than one book going, and here’s my new system:

  1. Read my way through the Edgar, Agatha, and other award-winning mysteries for each year. Start with the oldest and work my way forward. This is going to take a bit of time. But since I’m writing a book about clothing and crime, I can kill the proverbial two birds with this methodical approach. Not only will I read good mysteries and get a sense of how the genre has evolved, I'll also be able to do some research (i.e., the use of clothing in award-winning mysteries).
  2. I’ll “sample” the New York Times best-sellers. I can do a lot of this online with the excerpts provided on the author’s or publisher’s website. I’ll read the first chapter and if it isn’t working for me, then I will have at least given the book a chance. If I like my sample chape, I'll read more of the book. 
  3. I’ll print out those lists provided for college students of “classics” of American and World Literature. Check off the ones I’ve read. And then apply the same sampling approach as for the best-sellers. Classic or not, if it doesn’t grab me by the end of the first chapter, then I’m probably still not ready to read it.
And, finally, when I feel the need and the spirit moves me, I’ll indulge myself by curling up with a favorite author whose book doesn’t fit into my three-prong approach. No guilt or apology needed. Reading is food for the brain. And although some books make us smarter, some books just make us feel as if the world isn’t turning too fast. Some books just help us to believe in magic and love and adventure. And that’s important too.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Best Friends Forever

I'm in Albuquerque at the Western Writers of America Convention. Some of my dearest friends are in this group. It's the oldest American writing organization, and was started around a campfire in the '50s by five of the best-selling western novelists. They discussed editors and market and whatever. The group expanded and their editors joined them. A LOT of business took place at these meetings

It was through my first conference (Santa Fe) in 1982 that I made the connections that enabled me to sell Come Spring, which was about homesteading in Kansas.

A huge number of members at that time actually made a writing novels. Quite a few made about $50,000 dollars a years. They supported families and could afford to go on research trips.

Ah, for the good old days!

Through the years, the composition of the group changed dramatically. The emphasis changed to include academics and non-fiction writers. Then there was an influx of screen writers.

After that there was a deluge of TV script writers and songwriters, then the audio books people lobbied for their rightful place in the line-up. Suddenly the panels changed to marketing. University presses began picking up "Novels of the West" and the books were often award-winning masterpieces.

Times change, the group changed. There was no longer a deluge of New York editors sent by their houses to ferret out the next best-sellers. Fewer contracts were finalized at the bar. The number of agents declined.

Hope is in the air. Cables are making westerns. The History Channel loves the membership. Love the books and love the scripts.

One thing that has not changed is the quality of friendship and generosity in WWA. Ya'all come! Chances are we'll take a liking to you.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Live From Louisville

This week has been crazy. I'm in Louisville, Kentucky, with 1,200 of my closest English teacher friends, scoring Advanced Placement essays. Any free time I have had has been spent writing. Holed up in a hotel room from 6 p.m. on, each day, I have had time to finish the rewrite of a novel. I wrote nearly 40 pages this week, after work, and got some good news. "Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine" purchased my story "Autumn's Crossing," which, ironically, is based on the novel (same title) I just completed. I hope that's a good omen regarding the plot. Back to my stack of papers.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A day late...

Hi there!

Since I missed yesterday (and I was struggling to complete my taxes for the year), and there’s no sign of Hannah today, I thought I’d partially make up for my MIA this week by posting the following funny I ran across last week.

I hope you will all enjoy it…

Monday, June 11, 2012


Over here, we are only just recovering from Diamond Jubilee fever as we celebrated Queen Elizabeth II's sixty years on the throne with all the pomp and circumstance we could muster.

What a country describes as its history is just the story it likes to tell itself.  Britain's narrative has featured both tragedy and comedy over the years but there was no mistaking the category last week end: romance, the love of a nation for its sovereign lady.

I'd have to say some of the manifestations of this affection were a little odd, like subjecting Her Majesty to a three-hour pop concert, when she was seen discreetly inserting ear-plugs.  And then there was the Thames boat pageant.

That told, perhaps, the most significant story in the whole weekend. Of necessity,Britain is a sea-faring nation: thirty per cent of the population live within six miles of the sea; no one more than seventy miles away. We love our boats and the Thames has been our royal river for a thousand years.

Admittedly, the weather was terrible. We saw the Queen using her throne as a windbreak and the ninety-year-old Duke of Edinburgh hospitalised the next day, after standing (all the time) in the cold for two and a half hours.

Despite the teeming rain, 1.2 million people watched from the banks.  But then, our weather is part of our history too.  'God blew his winds and they were scattered,' the first Queen Elizabeth said when storms saved England from the Spanish Armada.

Each different squadron in the procession spoke of our past.  In among the Olympic rowers on the gilded barge, Gloriana, which led it was a soldier, disabled in Afghanistan.  Fifty small boats, rowed by youngsters from all over the world, carried Commonwealth flags.   The unique floating belfry had its peals echoed from churches on either side of the river, then picked up in the shires and on out through the country – ten thousand peals sounding celebration just as at one time they would have signalled danger.  There were tall ships and warships and lifeboats and fireboats.

The most poignant moment was the squadron of 'little boats' – fifty of the original seven hundred, sailed by ordinary folk, that crossed the Channel to Dunkirk in the early days of the war when the army was trapped by the speed of the German advance, saving 350,000 troops when hope was all but gone.  One of the men who answered the call that day and one of the soldiers who was rescued – both in their nineties – weer reunited.

The Queen's barge was of course the focal point, as indeed our monarchs have been a focal point for our history.  In the modern world a monarchy, even a democratic one, is a curious institution, but we like it.  Indeed, if a republic was declared tomorrow, HM would win a presidential election with a landslide majority.

The barge she sat in didn't exactly gleam on the water, given the rain, but the designers had certainly done their best.  The result, to be frank, was a bit kitsch, with red velvet and OTT gold leaf,  but then when it comes to royal occasions we've always liked a bit of bling – scarlet and gold uniforms, gold coaches, crowns with socking great diamonds...

We didn't get the promised fly-past – too dangerous – but somehow it was even more fitting that the finale should be the London  Symphony Orchestra, with a choir of young singers belting out 'Land of Hope and Glory', giving it all they'd got as the rain streamed down their faces.  It was – well, it was awfully British, even if it's a bit difficult to keep a stiff upper lip while you're singing a top A.

Yes, I'm mocking it, a bit.  But with the boats spread out all across the river, just like one of Canaletto's London paintings, and Tower Bridge opening up to salute as the Queen's barge approached, it wasn't just history; it was poetry too.  And I have to confess to a patriotic lump in my throat.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

A Great Opening 20

Robert B. Parker, somewhere in the Spenser series, wrote, "Caffeine, like youth, is wasted on the young." I would add great fiction to his list and call myself guilty.

 I'm rereading a book I haven't picked up in 15 years, The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler, and realize now –after reading The Big Sleep many times – that this is Chandler's masterpiece.

 I am particularly intrigued by the opening three chapters. As opening lines go, this one is no Last Good Kiss: "The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers." Lennox even manages to leave Marlowe for several months at a time throughout the book, yet the narrative never slows.

How does Chandler do it? No crime. No case. Nothing at stake for Marlowe in the opening 20 pages. In fact, in these opening 20 pages, Chandler deviates from everything one comes to expect from this author and from our genre. The book doesn't open with a crime, and no one hires Marlowe. Instead, the novel opens with a drunk, once-wealthy character, Terry Lennox, who admits he married his ex-wife for her money. A sympathetic character? Certainly not on the surface, but there is a pathos in these opening pages that Chandler doesn't typically get credit for. There is something about Lennox that speaks to Marlowe, and when the protagonist is captivated by this down-and-out character, so is the reader, establishing the opening chapters' narrative tension.

 So, again, how does Chandler do it? Readers feel for Lennox. "The steps were still tough on him, but he grinned and panted and made the climb." The grin does it for me. Lennox has nothing left, but he won't quit. Marlowe sees this and won't quit either. It's character over action and plot, and Chandler has us asking questions and wanting more.

 Check out The Long Goodbye if for no other reason than to read a great opening 20 pages.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Of Bodies and Beginnings

Barbara here. Beginning writers are constantly being given bad advice. Every “how-to” book and  “ten tips to successful crime writing” list is full of it. Authors, agents, and editors all think they hold the key to a successful book. And indeed, there is good advice in those how-to books, but there are also clichés, tired formulae, and cheap gimmicks. How is a writer to know the difference and to know how to tease out those bits of wisdom that work for their own unique writing process?

A case in point – how to write the perfect ‘Page One’. This past month, as part of National Crime Writing Month, the CBC held the Page Turner Challenge, in which writers were asked to write the opening 250 words of a novel. CBC was looking for “tension, terror and tantalizing characters”. At Bloody Words Mystery Conference in Toronto this past weekend, a whole panel was devoted to opening scenes.

Writers, both novice and veteran, know that the first page, indeed the first sentence or paragraph, is crucial to capturing the reader’s interest. We know that busy, jaded agents and editors face hundreds of manuscripts a week and rarely look beyond the first page if the story hasn’t caught their interest in that time. We know that readers, perusing books on the shelves or sampling excerpts online, will make a similar decision based on reading the first paragraph or two, as well as the jacket blurb.

That’s a terrifying prospect. As a writer, you have laboured over nearly 100,000 exquisitely chosen words, but they may all be for naught if the first 250 somehow fail the test. You polish them and repolish them until they are raw, as brutal or edgy or funny or poignant as they can be. But polishing is not enough. What those 250 words say about the story you’re about to tell and about the characters they will meet, is the important thing, regardless of how exquisite the words are. Because during that first thirty seconds the reader or editor spends with your book, he is asking “Does this story interest me? Does this character intrigue me?”

That’s the real job of the opening scene. It is not necessarily to create tension, terror or tantalizing characters. It is to draw the reader in with a promise of a good story. But crime writers are constantly told to start the story off with a bang. Jump right into the action and move it forward quickly. Don’t dwell on setting, atmosphere or back story. In fact, some pundits advise dumping the body onto the first page, or at least the first chapter. Novice writers struggle to fit their story into this strait jacket, often tossing the body onto the page with no lead-up or logic, or putting in a creepy prologue to make sure the reader is hooked before embarking to the real meat of their story. Established writers, they are told, can get away with a more subtle or oblique opening, but a beginning writer needs to set the hook right away.

“Rules” like this drive me crazy. There are times when the story cries out to be started with a bang, or a body. It races forward from that high-impact moment and rarely looks back. But there are other stories that call for subtlety, for atmosphere and for shadowy hints of menace. Stories where we have to meet the characters and build up sympathy or concern for them before hurling them over the cliff.

Page One opens the door to the story, so it ought to start at the beginning. It doesn’t have to terrify, but it should intrigue or touch. It ought to start at the moment, or just before the moment, when a character’s life begins to change. It can present a situation slightly off balance – a day starting wrong, a small inconsistency or mystery – so that the reader says “Uh-oh, what’s going on?” or “What’s going to happen?” A question is posed that cries out for an answer. Not just any question, but one with emotional impact that we can care about. Who is the sad young woman standing in front of your father’s grave? Why is the teenager running panicked down the street?

That question is what pulls us into the story, along with the character we meet on that page. If they aren’t there on Page One, all the bodies and bangs in the world won’t make most readers turn the page.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Time and Space Warp

This past weekend, it was my privilege to be the Master of Ceremonies (sounds a lot more impressive than what it actually was, believe me) for the 2012 Bloody Words mystery conference here in Toronto. As always at this event, I enjoyed myself a lot.

 First, is the chance to spend time with people I tend to see only at such conferences. I posted a blog here a few years back about just this. People who write and enjoy genre fiction tend to have conferences and conventions to celebrate the stories we love. People who write Literature don’t get the same opportunities. One really must feel sorry for them. Sitting around with group of authors and fans who love what you love is always a tremendous shot in the arm.

I went to more panels than I usually do. I didn’t want to miss Gayle Lynds two solo performances. She’s a real pro in the thriller game and she did not disappoint. Her panel, Nine Secrets to Writing Bestselling Thrillers, was most excellent and proved how well she knows her craft. It really was one of the most useful panels I’ve ever attended at one of this get-togethers.

But all of that is not what this post is actually about.

Most convention centres, whether in hotels or as free-standing facilities are very odd places. You disappear inside early in the morning and you may not come out again until very late at night. I’ve been to conventions where, if you are also staying in the hotel where it’s being held, you may not go outside for two or three days. It’s as if I’m on a space craft and completely cut off from the outside world. There are no windows, no communications and everyone is focused on one thing only. It is a very odd existence.

Case in point: on Saturday, high drama was taking place at the Eaton Centre, a mere three blocks from our location. I knew absolutely nothing about it until I was just about to leave when another convention goer told me she’d just spoken to her husband in preparation for getting picked up. One man was dead, six others injured (some gravely) and it all caused a horrible stampede when the shooting broke out.

At the hotel, none of us knew a thing about it, and let me tell you, it was quite a jolt.

Like shopping malls, convention centres are designed to focus one’s attention inside, to what’s going on. They don’t want you to be in communication with the outside world. It’s an artificial and ultimately sterile environment. I always feel like a mole, blinking at the unexpected sunlight, whenever I emerge from one of these places. The universe has moved on and I’ve been completely separate from it while inside. Several days later, I’m beginning to feel normal again. It does take that long.

It would be lovely to attend a conference sometime that takes place in a more “normal” environment, maybe even one that would allow panels or presentations to take place in the open air. Remember those times when your teacher might take your class outside in good weather and you’d sit under a tree and have an al fresco class. My fourth grade teacher, Miss Wenzil, did that a lot at the end of our year together. Most of the year’s work had been done due to the fact that she was an incredible teach, so we’d go outside where she’d read to us in the shade of a beech tree.

Perhaps that’s where I learned to love literature and the myriad ways words can be assembled to tell a story. If so, I owe Miss Eva Wenzil a very large debt indeed.

Special thanks to Cheryl Freedman and the whole Bloody Gang for putting on a fantastic event. You done yourselves proud!

Monday, June 04, 2012

Luka Rocco Magnotta

Canada's most recent lurid murder case appears to have started on May 25. That was the day a Chinese university student in Montreal was killed and his body dismembered. The victim's severed left foot was mailed to Conservative Party headquarters in Ottawa, where it was received and opened by a senior party official. There was a note in the package that was described by the investigating police in Ottawa as being the "ramblings of a madman". A second package, containing the victim's left hand was intercepted on its way to Liberal Party headquarters, also in Ottawa. The victim's torso was later found in a suitcase on the street outside the killer's Montreal apartment building. The case dominated the nation's newsmedia for a number of days.

It's difficult to write in depth about a case like this, in advance of more detailed information. But I decided to make the case the subject of today's post because of its obvious link to my two recent posts; one on psychopaths, and the other on serial killers.

Very quickly - this being the age of rapidly disseminated information - a great deal of information (and inevitably some misinformation) about the perpetrator, and about his victim, came forward. One of the principal reasons for the deluge of detailed information is the fact that the killer, one Luka Rocco Magnotta, is in a too-real sense a child of the internet age. Google his name, and you will get a near infinity of "hits". I just did exactly that and got 72,000,000 results in 0.34 seconds.


Some information on Magnotta. He was born Eric Clinton Newman, but changed his name to Magnotta on August 12, 2006. He has gone by a number of other names, including Vladimir Romanov. He was originally from Toronto, but lived in Lindsay, Ontario, where he attended high school. Most recently he lived in Montreal, where he rented an apartment in a working-class district. He has no criminal record in Montreal, but does have a record in Ontario. In 2005, he was convicted on four counts of fraud. He served 16 days in pre-trial custody; after his trial he was given a nine-month conditional sentence, and 12 months probation. He was a self-styled model, and escort - for which, read male prostitute. Reading some of the information on him in the media, he appears to be grossly self-obsessed. The internet is replete with images that he posted himself - including on his own website. He has been quoted as describing himself as "devastatingly good-looking".

He appears to have travelled fairly widely; his website has photos of him in Paris and in Moscow. There are also photos of him in a limousine and in what appears to be a high-end sportscar. On one of his website posts, he claimed to be "...successful beyond my wildest dreams. I travel the world, ride around in limos, have only the most expensive clothing. I've come a long way from eating out of old pizza boxes on the streets." The quote, of course, hints at a troubled life on the streets, a suggestion that seems to relate to a traumatic family situation, and a downward spiral that involved drugs and alcohol. He also claims to have spent time in hospital for a "depressive disorder". He also claimed to have been in an assisted living facility where he was given "the right medication".

Early on in the case, the forensic psychologist who examined the Canadian serial killer and rapist Paul Bernardo, Dr. John Bradford, worried that the nature of the crime committed by Magnotta in Montreal suggested that he might well kill again. "If (the killing) is sexual and he has gone to this extreme, then I think the risk of (his) killing again in a serial way goes higher....So that is my worry about this."

Magnotta's history suggests that this might well be true. There is evidence that some years ago he posted videos of himself killing and mutilating kittens. And in fact, he was being tracked by animal-welfare people who wanted him apprehended. There is an established link between killing and mistreating animals and an escalation to killing humans.

Magnotta also posted on the web, on a gruesome site, what was described by the Montreal police as "the stabbing (of) the victim with an ice pick, then dismembering the body....acts of cannibilism and sexual defiling of the corpse."

And Magnotta's victim? His given name was Lin Jun; his "English name" was Justin Lin.

Lin first came to Canada from Wuhan in east-central China in 2010, and setteld in Montreal in July 2011. He was 33 years old, and he was a student at Montreal's Concordia University where he studied computer science. He had a part-time job as a cashier in a corner store. He is described as "always postive, genuine, hard-working and someone who cared for everyone." How he came into contact with Magnotta is not yet known.

The question arises - for me, at least - as to whether Magnotta is a psychopath. The descriptive "psycho killer" has been used in some of the media articles I have read. From some of what I have read, though, I would doubt that he is an actual psychopath, although the lack of conscience and lack of regret for his crime would place him in that category. There are, however, the comments by a former lover that Magnotta was "manipulative, a liar with a short fuse and often self-destructive." The manipulating and lying qualities fit the pattern of the psychopath, but the "short fuse" and "self-destructive" qualities, do not, in my opinion. His posting his crime on the web would also not seem to come under the definition of a true psychopath; rather, they seem to be the act of someone seeking notoriety. As I understand psychopathy, this does not seem to fit. Authorities may eventually find that there is no neat pigeon hole for Magnotta. He may prove to be one of a kind. At least, we can hope so.

Happily - an odd word to use in this context - it seems very unlikely that Luka Rocco Magnotta will ever graduate to serial-killer status. His apparent quest for fame/notoriety has done him in. His use of the internet to broadcast images of himself has proved to be his undoing. For a man who once posted a kind of how-to list of instructions on "disappearing" from view, he made just about every mistake possible. Within hours of his leaving Montreal, he was tracked to Paris, and later he was video-recorded passing through security in a Paris airport. A number of witnesses in Paris called police with reports that they had seen him in various locations.

Earlier today - June 4th - Magnotta was arrested by Berlin police in an internet cafe in an immigrant quarter in South Berlin. Appropriately, when he was arrested, Magnotta was surfing internet sites about himself.

Members of the media stand outside the Internet cafe where Luka Rocco Magnotta was recognized in the district of Neukoelln in Berlin.

I will give Montreal police spokesman Ian Lafreniere the second-last word on the irony of his being arrested
in an internet cafe. "We knew and always said that he used the web to glorify himself. It was also the web that led to his arrest."

And the last word on Magnotta for this post? I will go to Will Shakespeare for that. The quote is from Macbeth, taken from his fatal encounter with Macduff, whose family Macbeth had killed. It does not exactly fit the Magnotta case, but for me it's close enough:

Then yield thee, coward, and live to be the show and gaze o’ the time. We'll have thee, as our rarer monsters are, painted upon a pole, and underwrit: “Here may you see the tyrant.”

P.S. For an interesting "take" on the Magnotta case, and the apparent public fascination with gruesome killings, check out this column in the Globe and Mail: