Life, Death, & Crime Fiction

When we write about life and death, as we do as crime writers, it’s often with a cavalier sort of attitude. It’s fiction. It doesn’t mean we hate people, want them dead, think like psychopaths, or even think that much about homicide. In some way it’s a trick we play on ourselves and our readers. For the most part it works, it’s accepted. But every so often death touches of each of us. As writers, if we are sensitive to these feelings, it gives us pause.

Sometimes these moments jar us from afar. That’s what happened to me after the events of September 11, 2001. I had just taken my youngest son to college and, I’m not ashamed to say, had shed more than a few tears onboard the plane home. Then I went to the Montana Festival of the Book. I had a recipe in the Montana Humanities cookbook, Eat Our Words, a brownie recipe with a secret ingredient that the Festival folks had whipped up for the writers reception. A group of French writers came to Missoula, making the fest even more fun. I went home on Sunday. Tuesday morning, everything changed.

The days and weeks after the tragedies of September 11th put my writing on hold. I couldn’t pretend that murder, violent death, was “funny” or “cute” or merely curious. It all seemed too significant, too tragic for my words. Definitely too tragic to make mock of, to whip into a silly little fiction.

In our own lives death comes to us all. While sad and painful, it doesn’t have to be sudden, violent, or awful. Not only do we face our own ends but we all have family members, friends, and acquaintances who die. It reminds us that life is short and precious. Death is part of life. It makes us human, this knowledge. Maybe that’s why as crime and mystery writers we are fascinated with it, with the finite nature of living, the crazy, dazzling moments when we feel so alive.

Thcrime fictionis is the gift of mystery fiction, an ability to give us a glimpse of the inevitable, to come to terms with the limitations of our existence, to help us understand that we will not always be here. That we should get it together now, love the people we love, do the things we want to achieve, because life ends at some point.

I often say that I like crime fiction because of its dramatic qualities, those intense moments that make us see what a person is really like, in fiction or real life. Have you ever been disappointed by the way a person acted when push came to shove, or been surprised and pleased when they stepped up and did whatever hard deeds were necessary? I have, and if you haven’t, you will, sooner than you hope. There are moments in life where you suddenly understand what people are made of. Sometimes it cheers you, warms you. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Mystery fiction doesn’t need to be hyper-realistic to give us insight into our own lives. There are so many kinds of mysteries: comic, romantic, thrillers, the puzzle, the cozy. But the story should provide some genuine emotion about life, what it means to be human, and what it means to lose someone you love forever.

Because crime fiction is about life. And its exact opposite: death. And how we, as humans, deal with it all.


Looking for a writing conference? Come to Bozeman on June 6 for the Get Published Conference with featured speakers Leslie Budewitz, Barbara Daniels, Kat Martin, and more. I’ll be talking about small press and self-publishing. See you there.

Novelist, take me away

Does setting matter?

Re-play time! Originally posted at Lois Winston’s blog, Killer Crafts & Crafty Killersfrenchstamps

As a writer and reader I enjoy the “take-me-away” aspect of new and different places in fiction. Off to a foreign land without all the inconveniences of travel. I’ve used settings as far away as Moldova but my two novels set in France are close to my heart.

The books feature Americans but they rely as much on their setting as almost anything else. This France, far from the stylish boulevards of Paris and the sunny beaches of the Côte d’Azur, is the Dordogne province, originally called the Perigord. This southwestern region is a fertile land known for its wine, foie gras, duck confit, and black truffles. Its back roads wind through deep canyons, with villages clinging to cliffs. Here the Hundred Years War was fought and Nazis laid waste to the land. Remnants of war and violence remain.

Much of the first book, Blackbird Fly, is centered around small village life. In the second book, out this month, the Bennett sisters, all five lawyers, take on a walking tour of the Dordogne. Merle Bennett, the middle sister, is turning fifty. The “girl” in the title of the sequel, The Girl in the Empty Dress, is a law colleague of one sister. Secretive, demanding, and a bit rude, she hasn’t made many friends. Her secrets become the key to unraveling several mysteries.

monpazierHistory really comes alive in these old places where the ‘bastide’ walls are still solid after 800 years. But the delicacies of this area are the real delights. Black Perigord truffles are famous around the world. Difficult to harvest, they are becoming more scarce as climate change alters their natural habitat in these sunny hills and valleys.

Dogs are often trained today to hunt truffles. A highly-trained truffle dog is very valuable to any truffle hunter. In The Girl in the Empty Dress the women come across an injured dog in the ditch. This dog, they soon find out, is famous for its truffling exploits. How it got to be injured and out on its own sets off the mystery.

I went on a French walking tour myself. Six women, a love of wine and cheese, and winding trails through the vineyards made for a fabulous time. Afterward I saw a ‘Sixty Minutes’ story on truffles. One man, a dog owner who had his prized truffle dog stolen, really got to me. He searched for years in vain for his dog. I decided to write about a stolen truffle dog. I couldn’t figure out how to come at the story, then the walking tour came back to me. The dynamics of a small group are always interesting. The sixth wheel, the woman who is secretive and annoying, sets up the conflict. As a writer once you come up with the central conflict you’re off to the races. Bennett Sisters covers

A delicious setting doesn’t hurt of course.

• • • • •

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Celebrating a Life

The death of a mystery writer: it sounds like the title of a novel (and has been used.) But in this case it is Real Life. It’s a sad but expected part of living, part of knowing lots of people a little over the years as well as having your own close clan. Illness, accidents, and tragedy, well, they exist. Like it or not.

Last week a writer I knew took his own life. A heartbreaking part of the human story. I wasn’t close to Jerry Healy – who wrote under his own name, Jeremiah Healy and a pseudonym Terry Devane – but he was outgoing and friendly and like many newbies he befriended me somewhere along the line, at conventions and conferences. Among other things he’d been an MP in the Army and didn’t mind if you gave his bicep a squeeze. He liked everyone and had a big booming voice and a laugh to match. Once a law professor (always a law professor…?) he could lecture on topics he loved, crime writing, lawyering, and tennis.

In 2006 I was in Europe for an extended time and my husband and I joined the International Crime Writers in Zaragoza, Spain. It was a small group, about 25 or 30 writers plus spouses. We had a great time on that trip, visiting Goya’s childhood home and looking at his etchings, eating traditional Spanish food at a fancy winery, and being feted by the governor in the fabulous capitol building with its trumpeting valets and painted ceilings.

It will surprise no one who knew Jerry that he made a few impromptu speeches during that trip. After awhile the Bulgarian crime writer who bore a striking resemblance to Boris Yeltsin would raise a glass and call out, “Jerry Jerry USA,” with a twinkle in his eye whenever Jerry stood to speak.  Jerry led the IACW for some five years and was known to crime writers from Iceland to Bulgaria, Italy to Cuba. Naturally his last name sometimes became ‘USA!’ He would have liked that, the old Army MP in him, I think.

BluntDarts-small-97x150In celebration of Jerry’s life and work I am giving away a copy of his first book, the one that introduced him and his private eye, John Francis Cuddy, to the world. Of Blunt Darts the New York Times said, “Mr. Healy writes so well that he tends to transcend the cliches…The plotting is impeccable, and everything comes together to make BLUNT DARTS one of the outstanding first mysteries of the year.” Booklist said, “Healy offers a hard-hitting plot full of clever twists and turns. For readers who like the hard-boiled style shorn of any nouvelle flourishes.” 

Jerry will live on through his books. I can’t wait to read them all. Sign up for the mailing list to enter to win BLUNT DARTS. Everyone on the list as of September 7 will be entered.

Who are you, and why should I read your book?

It’s a deluge, a tsunami of books. How do you pick one to read? How do you, as a writer, find what makes you unique, what makes a reader connect with your special voice? I explored this over at the Thalia Press Authors Co-op, a space I share with my colleagues Katy Munger, Gary Phillips, Kate Flora, J.D. Rhoades, Sarah Shaber, Taffy Cannon, and Sparkle Hayter.

Read more of Who are you and why should I read your book?

Re-working a classic, with murder

Like Janeites everywhere I asked for ‘Death Comes to Pemberley,’ by P.D. James, for Christmas. How could I resist, my favorite characters from ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ reworked by one of my favorite crime writers? As the publisher said: “A rare meeting of literary genius: P. D. James, long among the most admired mystery writers of our time, draws the characters of Jane Austen’s beloved novel Pride and Prejudice into a tale of murder and emotional mayhem.” A concept novel that couldn’t miss. Or could it?

Attracting readers (and buyers) is one thing. Dame Phyllis’s publishers in the UK and the US knew what they were doing, releasing it during the big holiday book-buying season. I just wish the experience had matched the expectations.

Nothing is awful about ‘Death Comes to Pemberley,’ but nothing is all that great either. The story begins as Darcy and Elizabeth have been happily married for six years and have two young sons (which in aristocratic fashion they love but rarely see.)  On the eve of a ball at Pemberley the youngest Bennet sister, Lydia, arrives in typical fashion: in a crisis and hysterical. Her husband Wickham and old beau Captain Denny have disappeared in the woods nearby and gunshots were heard.

But before this action James feels it’s necessary to recap the entire story of ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ This was unnecessary in my opinion. A classic novel, one of the most widely read in the English language, and the entire reason for the current work? It’s a fair assumption that the story is known by readers. If not, hey, go read it, people! Or watch one of half a dozen movies. The recap just made me antsy for the story.

Which would be fine if the rest of the story lived up to the original. That was silly of me, wasn’t it, to hope for an experience as magical as ‘Pride and Prejudice?’ Ah, I didn’t really, but yeah, okay, a little. The joy of the original was in the characters, their wit and charm and sparkling repartee. None of that wit and charm transmits in James’s prose. Darcy is upright and proper but little else. Elizabeth is a great hostess. Lydia is annoying. Wickham is a bad boy. But none of them live and breathe.

Even that might be okay if we were experiencing a classic PD James mystery, full of intelligent, cagy people and twists and turns. Unfortunately the entire story leads up to Wickham’s trial, mostly angst and historical facts about the English legal system. At one point James almost gives a dissertation on appellate courts. It’s just, sadly, dry as toast. And when it’s all over she favors us with a conversation between Darcy and Elizabeth to wrap things up, and wrap and endlessly wrap.

P.D. James is my hero! At 91 she is still writing novels. Maybe she’ll go back to  Adam Dalgleish and modern problems. Many writers have written continuations of Austen novels before her, and more will probably in the future. If ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ is any indication we’d all do better to go read Jane’s ouevre — again. They never disappoint.