Archive for February, 2010

The Murderer Next Door: The Only Real Mystery is Why Nobody Stopped Her Sooner.

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

Like a lot of people who write mystery and suspense novels for a living, I regularly comb the news for true crime stories that might someday form the basis of either a down-the-road Mike McCabe thriller or possibly a stand-alone. When I find one, I cut and paste it into something I call my “What If?” file. When the news recently broke about the murders recently committed by Dr. Amy Bishop, I thought to myself this might be the basis of something interesting.  Here was an educated professor and scientist and a mother of four children who, supposedly without warning, gunned down six of her colleagues at a University of Alabama faculty meeting, killing three and wounding three others, two critically.

The only problem with the story is that it wasn’t without warning.  There was lots of warning that Bishop was the kind of deranged person who would do almost anything to retaliate against people she felt had wronged her. According to a report by Shaila Dewan, Stephanie Saul and Katie Zezima. in the New York Times, “Dr. Bishop had shown evidence that the smallest of slights could set off a disproportionate and occasionally violent reaction, according to numerous interviews with colleagues and others who know her. Her life seemed to veer wildly between moments of cold fury and scientific brilliance, between rage at perceived slights and empathy for her students.”

In 1986, when Bishop was twenty-one, she shot and killed her eighteen year old brother with a shotgun in their home allegedly after a family argument.  It’s been chargesd that the incident was never adequately investigated by local police, possibly because Bishop came from a locally prominent family in Braintree, MA. Eight years later, in 1994, Bishop and her husband were suspected as the culprits in a mail bomb plot against a doctor she worked with at Harvard Medical School. The bomb failed to go off and no one was ever charged here either. In 2002 she finally was charged, this time with assault, after punching a woman in the face in an IHOP restaurant because the woman had taken the last child booster seat. She was never convicted.

According to those who knew her, Bishop flew into frequent rages over perceived slights. And after the Huntsville shooting, some in the University’s Biology Department feared that she might have booby-trapped the science building with some kind of “Herpes Bomb.”  Apparently, she had threatened to do just that.

The real mystery is why nobody chose to say or do anything about Bishop before she finally exploded in a frenzy of gunfire. She’d been hired by the University of Alabama without anyone questioning or even being aware of her history of irrational behavior. Why? My guess is, as my fictional hero, Detective Sergeant Mike McCabe puts it In The Chill of Night, “It’s a familiar scenario. Citizens not wanting to get involved. Too polite. Too fearful. Too lazy. It was a problem for police departments across the country.  It bugged the hell out of McCabe but it was tough to figure out what to do about it.”

The Amy Bishop killings were a preventable tragedy. Could they ever become the basis of a future novel? Some sort of female version of American Psycho?  Maybe. Well-educated female killers with a few screws loose often make interesting villains. Just look at Chelsea Cain’s Gretchen Lowell and Basic Instinct’s Catherine Tramell for proof.  However, for now, the cut and paste on Ms. Bishop will remain in my “What If” pile.  Her crimes are too recent and the pain they caused too raw for me to do anything with them anytime soon

Insomnia and The Fine Art of Writing Murder Mysteries.

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

Did you ever wonder what it takes to write a successful murder mystery? Or a series of murder mysteries or suspense thrillers featuring the likes of  Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, Tess Gerritsen’s Jane Rizzoli or Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski?  One answer is not sleeping. Ms. Paretsky once noted the secret to her success as a writer (or at least one secret) was the inability to sleep.  And the longer I ply this particular trade, the more I think she’s right.

Every time I come to a point in one of my books where I can’t figure out what’s going to happen next, I find the best way to come up with an answer is by lying awake in the dark and obsessing about it.  I do this a lot. And it always seems to lead to something that works better than anything I thought of during my normal waking or working hours. I know full well that if I just lie there and eventually fall sleep, I’ll forget what I thought of. So I get out of bed,  be it two AM or three AM or four AM, and trundle into my writing room where I wake up my sleeping laptop and write out the idea in some detail. I hate it but it works.

Right now. I’m trying to work out the basics of the plot for my third McCabe thriller (as yet untitled).  In this book, McCabe’s daughter, Casey, has grown into a drop-dead gorgeous sixteen-year-old boasting her mother’s good looks, her father’s stubborness and her own brand new driver’s license.

In the book, Casey falls for a really hot nineteen-year-old who’s definitely the wrong kind of guy.  And it gets her into trouble (No, not that kind of trouble) and, for the past week or so, I’ve been unable to figure out how to get her out of it.

At three-eighteen in the morning an idea came to me.  Thankful for the gift, I got up and went to work, beating most of the local farmers, fishermen and lobstermen to the punch by a good forty minutes or so.

What’s the difference between a mystery (or whodunit), and a thriller or a novel of suspense?

Sunday, February 14th, 2010

A dear old friend of mine recently read THE CUTTING and commented that he loved the book, loved the characters, and loved the suspense. Said it kept him on the edge of the seat and couldn’t wait for McCabe#2 (THE CHILL OF NIGHT-which comes out June 22nd…more about that later). However, he said, he had one problem.  He knew who the bad guy was pretty early on in the game. Why did I give it way?

I responded that my reason was that THE CUTTING was more of a suspense thriller than a mystery or whodunit.  “What’s the difference?” he asked, “I thought they were pretty much the same thing.”

Looking at emails I’ve received since THE CUTTING came out last summer, I discovered there’s a fair amount of confusion on this issue.  While there’s no official answer, here’s an unofficial answer or at least my own personal opinion.

A mystery, according to Hayman, depends on the hero solving an intellectual puzzle that leads him to discover “Whodunit.”  Action is often minimal.  The sleuth is seldom, if ever, in physical danger and the reader is kept guessing until the end.  Reader satisfaction is derived from guessing the answer before the sleuth does or, failing that, enjoying the unraveling of the mystery and going back to look over the subtle clues the author sprinkled in along the way. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is, of course, the progenitor of many of the best sleuths out there. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are also among the earliest and most famous.

A thriller or novel of suspense keeps the readers interest by ratcheting up the action and putting someone’s life in imminent danger.  Sometimes it’s the hero. Sometimes it’s an innocent by stander or potential victim.  What’s kept so many readers glued to THE CUTTING  is the awful suspense of the ticking clock, not knowing whether McCabe can save poor Lucinda Cassidy from a horrible death before time runs out.  That kind of tension definitely makes THE CUTTING much more of a thriller than a mystery.

Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books and John Sandford’s Prey novels are examples of other books that are thrillers much more than mysteries.

Needless to say there’s a lot of overlap and many books blend a little of both.  Mine do.  But, going forward, readers can expect most of the books in the Mike McCabe series, like THE CUTTING and the upcoming THE CHILL OF NIGHT,  will fall firmly into the thriller camp.

Hope that helps to clear up the issue.