Good Times I Remember*


As I post this, it’s Thursday, or as lots of social media users say, Throwback Thursday. So I thought it might be fun to take a ‘throwback’ look at some famous crime writers and see what they were like when they were young. What you’re about to see are 10 pictures of people who grew up to become famous crime fiction authors. Can you guess who they all are? If you’d like to, you can vote in the polls that go with the pictures. I’ll post the correct answers tomorrow. Ready? Let’s turn on the time machine…










And finally…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from James Pankow’s Old Days, made famous by Chicago.


Filed under Uncategorized

And I’m Standing Here For All the World to See*

Main CharacterThe lovely and talented D.S. Nelson, and her sleuth Blake Heatherington have invited me to be a part of the ‘Meet the Main Character’ Blog Tour, and my own sleuth Joel Williams and I couldn’t be more excited and honoured. 

Blake Heatherington is a retired milliner who lives in the village of Tuesbury. He’s got a real eye for his clients’ personalities and characters, which is why he was successful at creating just the right hats for them. He still loves creating hats, but he keeps getting drawn into mysteries…   Do go visit D.S. Nelson’s terrific blog and find out more about her, about Blake Heatherington, and about the writing process. 

Now, since it’s really Joel Williams who’s being interviewed here, I’m going to go get some errands done and let him answer these questions:


What is your name? Are you a fictional or historical character?


I’m Joel Williams. You won’t find my name in any history books or journal articles, so I guess that makes me fictional. But if you ask Margot, I’m very real.


When and where is your story set?


I live and work in the Pennsylvania (USA) college town of Tilton. I’m a professor of criminal justice at Tilton University, where I’ve been teaching for the last eight years.


What should we know about you?


To be honest, I’m a rather private person, but here’s a little about me. I come from a blue-collar, working class family. While I was in high school I decided I wanted to be a cop. The TV cop shows made it look like an interesting – OK, let’s be honest, cool – career, and at the time, I didn’t see myself as the ‘university type.’ Ironic, isn’t it?  Besides, I really liked the idea of solving cases. I wouldn’t call myself a serious crime novel fan, but I did like reading mysteries.

I trained as a police officer and had a solid eighteen years on the force – made detective after five years. That’s how I met my wife, Laura, actually. She’s an Assistant District Attorney. She was in law school doing an internship when we met. I’d been working a murder case, and she was assigned to collect the facts for the DA’s office. We got married three years later.

Eighteen years is a long time to be a cop, and I started to feel myself burning out a little. It was definitely time for a change. I’d  gone to school at night anyway to get my undergraduate degree, and I decided I liked the college setting. Then after I got my degree, I was invited to do a couple of presentations for undergraduate criminal justice students and that was all it took. It wasn’t easy, but I went to school full-time, got my Ph.D. and now I’m the ‘professor type’ I hadn’t imagined I would be. And I love it.


What is the main conflict? What messes up your life?


They say, ‘Once a cop, always a cop,’ and I guess that’s true. Murder may be glorified on TV and in films, but in real life, it’s ugly and it scars everyone who’s left behind. I hate to see that happen, and when it does, I can’t resist trying to get some answers for the people who have to live with the aftermath. And I can’t help it – I’m curious.  Even my wife will tell you that I can’t leave things alone.

Oh, and anyone who tells you that being a professor is easy has never tried it. There are always student issues, campus politics, research work, and meetings. And paperwork. But we won’t talk about the paperwork; I think it’s the thing I like least about my job.


What is your personal goal?


My main area of interest is the juvenile justice system in the US. I’ve done some research on it – even had a book accepted for publication. We need to do something to make the system work better, so that young people who make stupid mistakes don’t get thrown away by the system. Young offenders are not the same as adults. At the same time, though, there are some truly dangerous kids out there who really are a threat. We need to face that problem too. It’s a difficult balance, and presents some hard challenges. I’d love to be a part of solving this problem and I try to, when I’m not teaching, at meetings, or solving other cases…


Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?


Well, Margot’s waiting for news about one of my stories. We won’t know all the details until we learn whether it will be published. But I can tell you that she and I have decided to call it Dying to See You, at least for now. It’s about the time I worked with two colleagues from two other schools on a research project. We were studying Second Chance, a Philadelphia alternative school program for students who’d gotten in trouble. We were doing some background reading when we found out about a student there who’d been killed two years earlier. The more we looked into that death, the more trouble we found.


When can we expect the book to be published?


That I can’t say yet, for a number of reasons. But Margot has a big mouth. I’m sure she’ll tell you as soon as we find out.

While you’re waiting, though, you can catch up on my other stories Publish or Perish and B-Very Flat.

Oh – sorry. Time to get ready for my department meeting. It’s been a pleasure. Here’s Margot to say a few final things.


Thanks, Joel. And thanks, D.S. for inviting us to be a part of this meme. Now it’s my turn to pass the baton to other writers and ask them to introduce us to their main characters. Here are a few that you may find interesting: 


Jill Edmondson’s Sasha Jackson

K.B. Owen’s Concordia Wells

Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney

So I’m inviting these authors to share more about them. At the least, you’ll want to pay those authors’ blogs a visit!



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Shameless.


Filed under Uncategorized

You Can Always Depend on Me*

Enabled DetectivesNot long ago, I had an interesting comment exchange with FictionFan at FictionFan’s Book Reviews and Cleo at Cleopatra Loves Books. Both blogs, by the way, are excellent resources for honest, interesting and thoughtful book reviews. If you love reading, you’ll want those blogs on your blog roll.

Our conversation was about what I’ll call fictional police enablers: supervisors who enable maverick cops. In real life of course, there are limits to what a police officer is allowed to do in the course of an investigation, and there are rules that govern how police are supposed to get evidence, deal with suspects and the like. And while those policies aren’t always followed, there are real consequences for cops who don’t.

In fiction though, it doesn’t always work out that way. There are plenty of fictional maverick cops, and although their supervisors don’t always like what they do, they usually keep those police officers from getting in real trouble.

We see this for instance in more than one of Arthur Upfield’s Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte mysteries. Bony works for the Queensland Police, and is often sent out to crime scenes in remote towns and rural areas. He knows very well that official police policy doesn’t always work in those places, and he knows even better that they don’t work among the Aboriginal people who are sometimes concerned in his cases. And Bony would rather solve cases than stick strictly to the letter of the law. So in that sense he’s a maverick. His unorthodox ways do get him into trouble with the ‘higher ups’ at times, but they don’t cost him his job. One reason for that is that he’s a brilliant detective. He gets the job done. Another is that despite the fact that his supervisor gets exasperated with his refusal to go along with policy, he knows that Bony’s the best at what he does. So he protects him.

Carol O’Connell’s NYPD homicide detective Kathy Mallory is another example of a maverick detective. She’s had a very dark, troubled background and matters were made worse when her surrogate father, police detective Louis Markowitz, was killed in the line of duty. Mallory is arguably a sociopath and has little regard for departmental policy. In many ways, you might call her a supervisor’s nightmare. But she is good at catching ‘bad guys’ and she is unafraid to go up against some very nasty people. What’s more, she’s protected by her mentor (and Markowitz’ former partner) Detective Riker. Riker knows about her past, and he has his own share of issues, so he has some sympathy for her. And that’s part of why he enables her, if you want to put it that way.

Fans of Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole will know that he’s broken just about every policy there is. He’s gotten too close to cases, done patently illegal things, and more. And that’s not to mention his struggles with alcohol and drugs. Despite all of that, he’s a brilliant detective. In fact, he’s about the best there is when it comes to serial killers and other ‘unusual’ sorts of murders. That’s part of why his boss Bjarne Møller protects him as much as he does. Møller knows that Hole will get the job done if he can just stay on a somewhat even keel (and sometimes, even if he can’t). What’s more, he knows that Hole’s colleagues respect his ability.

Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest seldom follows policy. As it is, she’s independent and sometimes rash. Add to that her knowledge of the part of Australia’s Outback where she lives, and it’s easy to see why she’s not much of a one to do what she’s told to do if it makes no sense to her. When we first meet Tempest in Diamond Dove (AKA Moonlight Downs), she’s just returned to the Moonlight Downs Aboriginal encampment after some time away. She gets involved in a murder case when the group’s leader Lincoln Flinders is murdered. In the process of finding out who killed the victim and why, she meets Superintendent Tom MacGillivray. He sees that Tempest has a lot of practical knowledge and that she’s smart and gutsy. That’s part of the reason he protects her, even enables her, when he can. There’s also the fact that she has a fairly strong instinct for tracking down leads. But MacGillivray can’t do much to enable Tempest in Gunshot Road. He’s been sidelined by injury, so Tempest comes temporarily under the command of Bruce Cockburn. She quickly finds out that Cockburn won’t enable her at all when the team is called to the scene of a murder at Green Swamp Well. Cocburn is satisfied that the death was the tragic result of a drunken quarrel. Tempest isn’t sure that’s true. And in this novel, she learns among other things that being a maverick can be costly.

And I don’t think it would be possible to discuss maverick police detectives without mentioning Ian Rankin’s John Rebus. Rebus fans will know that he is much more interested in finding out the truth about the cases he works than he is about following policy. There are plenty of instances in which he takes his own approach to dealing with ‘bad guys,’ tracking down leads and so on. Sometimes he’s enabled, mostly because the people he works with know he’s a very good detective, and that he won’t give up on a case. But even the legendary Rebus isn’t enabled all of the time. When he lets his temper get the best of him in Resurrection Men, he’s sent off to Tulliallan Police College as a last-ditch effort to ‘reform’ him. And he’s certainly not enabled in Black and Blue when he turns up some unpleasant truths about a ‘bent’ senior officer. He’s sent off to investigate the murder of an oilman instead of being assigned the more prestigious case of a killer who seems to be copying a serial killer from years earlier. That doesn’t stop Rebus though…

I know I haven’t mentioned all of the fictional police mavericks there are (I know, I know, fans of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch). But just from these few examples, we can see that some are more enabled by their superiors than others. Some push the limits of what they’re allowed to do more than others. And of course some stretch credibility more than others. But they arguably have in common that someone in authority sees that their detective skills and their integrity outweigh their unwillingness/inability to play by the book, so to speak. And as challenging as it can be, that’s reason enough for some people to protect a cop who doesn’t always ‘mind the manners.’

What do you think of the premise of the maverick cop who’s protected by someone in charge? Does it make sense?

Thanks, FictionFan and Cleo, for the inspiration!



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lamont Dozier and Brian and Eddie Holland’s Reach Out (I’ll be There), made popular by The Four Tops.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Arthur Upfield, Carol O'Connell, Ian Rankin, Jo Nesbø, Michael Connelly

In The Spotlight: Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case

>In the Spotlight: Peter Robinson's Gallows ViewHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Murder trials are important and sometimes very high-profile. Lawyers who want to make a name for themselves know that winning a big murder case can do much for their reputations. A chance at a case like that is a real coup, especially for a young lawyer. To get a sense of what that’s like, let’s turn today’s spotlight on Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case.

At first it doesn’t seem as though there will be much of a case. Italian immigrant Fabrizio Collini has lived for years in his adopted home of Böblingen, Germany, where he’s worked as a toolmaker. One day he travels to Berlin’s Hotel Adlon, where he goes to one of the suites and shoots Jean-Baptiste Meyer. He’s promptly arrested and taken into custody.

Fledgling attorney Caspar Leinen is on standby duty for legal aid when he gets a call from the local examining magistrate. Collini has no attorney and German law requires that he be represented. Leinen goes to meet with his new client only to find that Collini isn’t going to be very helpful.

Collini admits straightaway that he shot the victim and that he doesn’t want a lawyer. That in itself is strange enough. What is even more unusual is that Collini doesn’t give any motive. In fact, he says nearly nothing and seems quite content to take whatever punishment the German justice system metes out. The examining magistrate doesn’t expect Leinen to do much more than ‘rubber stamp’ the proceedings to ensure that his client is treated fairly. And there’s good reason for that attitude: Collini has freely admitted he committed the murder and offers no explanation. But Leinen wants


‘…to put on a robe and defend his clients.’


Besides, he wants to win the case. So he prepares to put all of his effort into preparing for the trial.

In the months that follow, the police try to gather evidence of Collini’s guilt. But although they have a confession, they can’t find anything to show that Collini is a dangerous murderer. And neither they nor Leinen can find any sign at all of a motive.

Without much help from his client, Leinen decides to begin at the beginning, and trace Collini’s life from his birthplace in Italy. And it’s there that he begins to get answers. It turns out that Collini’s motivation has everything to do with World War II and Nazi actions in Italy. The question now is how Leinen will defend his client. In the end, the whole case turns on an obscure point of German law – a point that will make this case much more far-reaching than Leinen thought at first. What’s more, the case is related to Leinen’s own past, and presents him with a difficult dilemma.

This is a legal novel, so there is a focus on German law and court procedures. Readers also get a look at the way in which lawyers, magistrates and other legal professionals interact ‘behind the scenes.’ As Leinen prepares his case, there’s also insight into the amount of research and effort that go into the process of getting ready for trail. We also see the ways in which a law can have consequences – sometimes drastic ones – long after it’s enacted.

Another element in this novel is the World War II relationship between Nazi Germany and Italy. It was much more complicated than a simple alliance, especially towards the end of the war. And the scars of that war and the consequences of that relationship play an important role in this story. While most of the novel takes place in the present day, some of it takes place in that earlier time. Readers who prefer only one timeline will notice this. That said though, it’s quite clear when the various events in the novel occur.

The mystery in this novel really isn’t the ‘whodunit’ part. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that this is a clear cut case of one man killing another. It’s the ‘whydunit’ that matters the most, and that will have an important impact on German jurisprudence.

Caspar Leinen’s character and history are important elements in this novel, too. On the one hand, he is the product of a broken marriage and he grew up with a father with whom he’s never been close. He’s also had some real tragedy in his life. At the same time, he’s not a self-pitying heavy drinker determined to destroy himself. He’s young, ambitious, functional and smart. He is also determined to make good on this case.

This isn’t a stereotypical fast-paced legal thriller, where the crusading young attorney goes up against powerful and dangerous enemies and their thugs. Readers who expect surprise attacks, bribe offers and so on will notice that this book isn’t like that.  The suspense lies more in the slow revelation of how much impact one seemingly insignificant law can have, and in people’s willingness (or not) to face the past. Suspense is also built as Leinen gets closer to the link between his own past and the client he’s defending.

This isn’t a long book; the edition I read comes in at just over 200 pages. In part that’s because von Schirach has chosen a spare, matter-of-fact style. That style conveys the reality of what Leinen discovers in a way that a more melodramatic style probably wouldn’t.

The Collini Case is the story of one law and its impact, and one lawyer’s discovery of it years later. It gives readers a look at the modern German justice system, and raises the question of what happens when people have to face the past. But what’s your view? Have you read The Collini Case? If you have, what elements do you see in it?



Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Monday, 4 August/Tuesday 5 August – The Anatomy of Death  – Felicity Young

Monday 11 August/Tuesday 12 August – Salvation of a Saint – Keigo Hagashino

Monday 18 August/Tuesday 19 August – The Bomber – Liza Marklund


Filed under Ferdinand von Schirach, The Collini Case

Home, Where My Thought’s Escaping*

HomebodiesPlenty of crime-fictional characters travel in the course of their work. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, for instance, doesn’t really have a settled place to live. And although Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot likes his home at Whitehaven Mansions, he also travels quite a bit. Fans will know that he solves some of his more famous cases away from home.

But there are some characters who are homebodies. They prefer not to travel, and the comforts of home are far more appealing to them than a luxurious hotel. If you’re a homebody yourself, you know exactly what that’s like. There are plenty of them in crime fiction, too. Here are just a few examples; I’m sure your list will be much longer than mine could be.

Christie’s Miss Marple is rather a homebody. She does travel now and again, but she prefers life in her home in St. Mary Mead. In A Caribbean Mystery, for instance, she’s had a bout with illness, so her generous nephew has arranged for her to stay at the Golden Palm Hotel in the West Indies. On the one hand, Miss Marple knows her nephew is trying to help, and she’s grateful that he cares about her. But on the other, life at the Golden Palm means:


‘Everything the same every day – never anything happening. Not like St. Mary Mead where something was always happening.’


Miss Marple seems happiest in her own surroundings.

Fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe will know that Wolfe is very much of a homebody. He’s got his New York City brownstone house set up the way he wants it, complete with orchid room and elevator. He has a world-class live-in chef, an orchid expert and of course, Archie Goodwin right there. So Wolfe sees very little reason to leave his home. Besides, as Goodwin puts it in Too Many Cooks,


‘He [Wolfe] hated  things that moved, and was fond of arguing that nine times out of ten, the places that people were on their way to were no improvement whatever on those they were coming from.’  


Fortunately, the Wolfe/Goodwin team is successful enough that Wolfe can afford to have anything he needs and most things he wants come to him, rather than the other way round.

There’s an extreme example of a homebody in some of Ellery Queen’s adventures. She is Paula Paris, a famous and very popular Hollywood gossip columnist. We first meet her in The Four of Hearts, when Ellery Queen is looking for some background information on a case. Famous actors Blythe Stuart and John Royle had a stormy relationship for years, but surprised everyone by re-kindling their romance and even marrying. When they are both poisoned, Queen investigates. Paris is the hub for all sorts of information about Hollywood, and she knows everyone who is anyone. What’s interesting though is that she never leaves her home. She is agoraphobic, so going anywhere is out of the question from her point of view. Instead, people come to her. And of course, she makes effective use of the telephone. In the process of the investigation, Queen and Paris begin a friendship that later blossoms into a romance.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe isn’t agoraphobic, but she prefers life in her quiet home on Zebra Drive to just about anything else. She chose her home carefully, and even after she marries, she and her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni live there with their two adopted children. Mma. Ramotswe sometimes travels, but never really very far, and she’s always happy to return to her house and the familiarity of her detective agency office on Tlokweng Road. Mma. Ramotswe finds, too, that she doesn’t have to travel very far to get new clients. Her reputation as the owner of Botswana’s only female-run detective agency has spread, and people often seek her out.

Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move tells the story of science fiction writer Zack Walker and his family. Walker isn’t a coward, but he is concerned about safety. So he’s excited about the family’s planned move to a home in Valley Forest Estates. Life in this suburban community will be less expensive than life in the city, so Walker will be able to write full-time. And he’s convinced his family will be safer in the suburbs. Walker isn’t a ‘do-it-yourself’ sort of person, but he does like being a homebody. Everything changes though when he goes to the development’s sales office to complain about needed repairs to his home. While he’s there, he witnesses an argument between one of the Valley Forest Estates executives and local environmental activist Samuel Spender. Later, Walker finds Spender’s body in a creek, and that’s the beginning of his involvement in a web of fraud, theft and murder. The irony in this novel is that every time Walker tries to get free of this case so he can return to his homebody writing life, he gets in deeper…

Nelson Brunanski’s Small-Town Saskatchewan mysteries feature fishing-lodge owner John ‘Bart’ Bartowski and his wife Rosie. Their lives focus on their home in the small town of Crooked Lake, and on their fishing lodge in the northern part of the province. They’re certainly aware of life outside their own town, but they have no burning desire to be jet-setters. They like their comfortable home life. And that’s what makes it so difficult for Bart when he gets mixed up in murder investigations. On the one hand, he has no desire to upend his life or that of his wife. On the other, he is a devoted and loyal friend, so he finds himself getting involved whether he wants to or not. Still, at heart, Bart likes the comforts of home.

And so do a lot of other crime-fictional characters. Which ones do you like best?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon & Garfunkel’s Homeward Bound.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Ellery Queen, Lee Child, Linwood Barclay, Nelson Brunanski, Rex Stout