So Hoist Up the John B. Sails*

voyagesOne of literature’s very interesting plots is what Christopher Booker has called the voyage and return. Booker’s work has its critics, but it is interesting to see how journeys (whether figurative or literal) can change people. We certainly see this sort of structure in crime fiction, and that makes sense when you consider all of the things that can happen on a voyage, no matter how you conceive of that term.

For example, there’s quite a literal voyage and return in Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train. After ten years of service as a paid companion, Katherine Grey inherits a fortune when her employer dies. She decides to use some of the money to travel, and chooses Nice as her destination (she has distant relatives who live there). As she’s taking the famous Blue Train through France, she meets wealthy Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, who has her own reasons for taking the train. During the trip, Ruth is murdered, and Katherine is drawn in to the case. Hercule Poirot is taking the same train, and he works with the police to find out who killed the victim and why. Katherine returns to her village of St. Mary Mead, and takes up another position, but she’s not the same person as when she left. As Poirot points out, she’s no longer an onlooker to life; she takes an active part in it.

Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time features fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone. He has autism, although he’s high-functioning, and is quite accustomed to a certain routine in his life. One day, he discovers that the dog belonging to the people next door is dead. Its owners think he’s responsible, but Christopher knows he isn’t. So, he decides to be a detective, just like Sherlock Holmes, and find out the truth. The trail leads him to several unexpected places, and when he returns, he’s not the same person he was. He still has autism, but he has discovered several important things about himself.

H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote’s First Case serves as a prequel to his series featuring Mumbai police detective Ganesh Ghote. In this novel, Ghote has just been promoted to the rank of Inspector. His supervisor asks him to travel to Mahableshwar and look into a case of suicide on behalf of a friend. It seems Robert Dawkins’ wife Iris killed herself, and he (Dawkins) wants to know why. Since Dawkins is a friend of Ghote’s boss, Ghote feels he has no choice but to look into the matter, although his wife, Protima, is about to give birth to their first child. So, he goes to Mahableshwar and begins to ask questions. He finds that there are reasons for which Iris Dawkins might have wanted to take her own life. Still, the clues don’t add up, and Ghote slowly begins to believe that she was murdered. Now, he has to work out who is responsible. He discovers the truth, and gains some confidence in himself along the way. When he returns to Mumbai, we see that he’s done some maturing, and has a different relationship with his boss than he did at the beginning.

Cathy Ace’s The Corpse With the Silver Tongue is the first of her novels to feature Caitlin ‘Cait’ Morgan. In that novel, Morgan travels from Vancouver, where she teaches at the university, to Nice. There, she’ll attend a symposium and deliver a paper on behalf of a colleague who’s had an accident and can’t travel. One afternoon, she’s at an outdoor café when she has a chance encounter with Alistair Townsend, a former employer. Among other things, he persuades her (mostly against her will) to attend a birthday party he’s hosting for his wife, Tamsin. During the course of the party, Townsend suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. The French police investigate, and Morgan finds herself one of the suspects. Mostly to clear her own name and be free to return to Vancouver, Morgan begins to ask questions. Each in a different way, Morgan and the police work to find out who killed Townsend, and they have several suspects. In the end, Morgan discovers the truth and goes back to Vancouver. But she’s not the same person she was at the beginning of the novel. And we see that this experience will change her life in more ways than she thought.

Sandy Curtis’ Deadly Tide is the story of Samantha ‘Sam’ Bretton. Her father Allan ‘Tug’ is the owner of a Brisbane-based fishing trawler called Sea Mistress, and the Brettons depend on the income that comes from good catches. Tug is suspected of murdering Ewan McKay, a deckhand from another trawler. He claims he’s not guilty and Sam believes him. But he’s under a cloud of suspicion. What’s more, he broke his leg in the incident surrounding McKay’s death. So, he can’t take Sea Mistress out. After some effort, Sam convinces her father to let her skipper the trawler in his place. Meanwhile, Brisbane cop Chayse Jarrett has been assigned to find out the truth about the McKay murder. He goes undercover and gets a job as deck hand on Sea Mistress, hoping to find out whether Tug Bretton is guilty of murder, and whether he might be connected to the drugs smuggling trade. The trawler goes out, with both Sam and Chayse looking to catch a killer. And the experience changes both of them. It turns out that McKay’s murder is connected with a much bigger case than it seems on the surface.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind. Newly-minted psychiatrist Stephanie Anderson gets a new client, Elisabeth Clark. At first, they don’t make any progress together. But very slowly, Elisabeth starts to talk about herself. And Stephanie finds that her client’s story is hauntingly similar to her own. It seems that years ago, Elisabeth’s younger sister, Gracie, was abducted. No trace of her was ever found, and the experience scarred the whole family. Stephanie lost her own sister, Gemma, seventeen years earlier in a similar way. When she hears Elisabeth’s story, Stephanie decides to lay her own ghosts to rest. She travels from Dunedin to her home town of Wanaka to try to find out who wreaked so much havoc on her family and on the Clark family. Stephanie does find the answers she’s seeking. She also goes through some real personal changes.

And that’s the thing about some voyages. They can take people to places they hadn’t imagined. And they almost always change the voyager.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the traditional Bahamas folk song, The John B Sails. You might be familiar with the Kingston Trio’s recording of it, or that of the Beach Boys.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Cathy Ace, H.R.F. Keating, Mark Haddon, Paddy Richardson, Sandy Curtis

The Heat is On ;-)

desertsIt’s been awfully hot in the Southern Hemisphere. And a lot of folks in the Northern Hemisphere are eagerly awaiting the coming of warmer weather. In both cases, it’s got me thinking of deserts. And that has me thinking of…



…a quiz!  Oh, come on! Stop it right now! There’s no law making you visit this blog, is there?   😉

Not all deserts are hot, of course, but they can all be effective contexts for crime stories. And, as a dedicated crime fiction fan, you know all of your desert-based crime novels, don’t you? Or do you? Take this handy quiz and find out. Match each question to the correct answer, and see how many you get right.


Ready? Put on your sunglasses to begin… if you dare!  😉




Filed under Uncategorized

I Wish You Could See This Great Mystery*

naturalistsThere are some people who are thoroughly at home in nature and with other animals. They understand nature’s rhythms, and can tell you all sorts of the things about the flora and fauna of a given place. In fact, there’s been a proposal that that sort of knowledge is an important intelligence, just as linguistic, mathematical and visual/spatial intelligence are.

Such people can make for very interesting characters in crime fiction. For one thing, they have a perspective on the world that the rest of us don’t always have. For another, their knowledge of nature can be very useful. And such a trait can add a measure of character development.

Any fan of Arthur Upfield’s work can tell you that his sleuth, Queensland Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte, is like that. He is well able, as he puts it, to read ‘the book of the bush.’ He’s as much at home outdoors as he is in a drawing room, and very often gets information others wouldn’t because of that. In novels such as The Bone is Pointed and The Bushman Who Came Back, he uses his naturalist intelligence to find clues, track people, and so on.

And Bony isn’t the only sleuth with a lot of naturalist intelligence. For instance, in Nevada Barr’s Track of the Cat, we first meet US National Park Service Ranger Anna Pigeon. She gave up life in New York City after the tragic death of her husband, and has joined the National Park Service. In that novel, she uses her developing understanding of how nature works to track down the killer of a fellow ranger. And, as the series goes on, she uses other naturalist skills to investigate. One of Pigeon’s major interests is protecting endangered species, and preserving the balance in nature. We see that woven through several of the stories.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe introduces readers to Andrea Curtin. An ex-pat American, she’s moved to Botswana to look for closure. Ten years earlier, she, her husband, and their son, Michael, lived in Botswana for a few years. When it was time to return to the US, Michael decided not to join his parents. He’d fallen in love with the land and wildlife of Botswana, and decided to join an eco-commune there. When he died, police said that a wild animal had likely killed him. But his body has never been found, and now his mother wants to find out the truth so she can move on. She asks Mma Precious Ramotswe to investigate, and Mma Ramotswe agrees to see what she can do. As the novel goes on, we learn how attuned to nature Michael Curtin was. He was certainly more comfortable in the natural world than he would have been, say, in a city. Finding out what became of Michael isn’t easy, but Mma Ramotswe discovers where he lived, tracks down some of the other people who lived there, and finds out the truth.

You might not expect a lawyer who lives and works in a major city to be particularly attuned to nature. But that’s exactly the case with Åsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson. As this series begins, Martinsson is working for a successful Stockholm law firm. She has a promising career ahead of her, too. Then, she gets word that an old friend from her home town of Kiruna is in trouble and needs her help. Martinsson travels to Kiruna, where she works to find out the truth about a murder and clear her friend’s name. Her return to Kiruna ends up being permanent; and, as the series goes on, we see how comfortable Martinsson is in nature. She understands its rhythms well, and is often more at ease on her own outdoors than she is with other people.

Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest is an Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO). As such, she spends her share of time in nature, and is comfortable there. Even more comfortable in nature is Tempest’s lover, JoJo Kelly, who works for the Park and Wildlife Commission. He has a home, but he spends most of his life outdoors, in different parts of the land he tries to protect. And he is very much at home among the plants and animals he finds there. He can just about always find a place to rest, something to eat, and some shelter.

So can Jay Duggan, whom we meet in Geoffrey Robert’s The Alo Release. He’s a naturalist/environmental activist who’s been working with the Los Angeles-based Millbrook Foundation. That group has been monitoring a company called Vestco, which is about to release a new seed coating. Vestco claims that the seed coating will greatly increase food production and, therefore, drastically reduce world hunger. But the Millbrook Foundation is deeply suspicious of the company and its claims. Still, they can’t seem to do anything to prevent the release. When it becomes clear that the seed coating will be made available, Duggan decides to retire and return to his native New Zealand. He invites two of his Millbrook colleagues to join him for a visit to New Zealand, and the three make the trip. What they don’t know is that they’re about to be framed for the murder of a Vestco employee. When they land in Auckland, they quickly learn that they’re now considered fugitives. So, they go on the run as they try to find out who the real killer is, and try to stop the release of the seed coating if they can. As the novel goes on, we see how well Duggan understands nature. He’s thoroughly attuned to wildlife, and more than once, that knowledge keeps him and his colleagues safe.

Naturalists have a fascinating perspective, and a deep awareness of the rhythms of life. They often see things that the rest of us might no notice. And they can make interesting fictional characters.


In Memoriam…



This post is dedicated to the memory of Steve Irwin, who would have turned 55 as this is posted. His passion for wildlife, his effervescence, and his interest in preserving nature are sorely missed.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Midnight Oil’s Earth and Sun and Moon.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Alexander McCall Smith, Arthur Upfield, Åsa Larsson, Geoffrey Robert, Nevada Barr

In The Spotlight: Meg Gardiner’s China Lake

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Thrillers come in all forms. Some, of course, involve espionage, international conspiracies and the like. But not all of them do. For example, Meg Gardiner’s China Lake, the first in her Evan Delaney series, is an Edgar Award-winning thriller. But it’s not a stereotypical thriller (if there is one). Let’s turn the spotlight on that novel today.

Evan Delaney is a science fiction author and legal researcher who lives and works in Santa Barbara, California. One day, she attends the funeral of an AIDS activist friend. During the observance, a fanatic religious group called the Remnant makes an appearance, picketing and shouting insults. Delaney soon learns, to her shock, that her former sister-in-law, Tabitha, has joined the group. Tabitha left Delaney’s brother, Brian, and their six-year-old son, Luke, and the breakup was hard on everyone. Now, she’s back, and it’s soon clear that she wants Luke. Brian is in the military, and is sometimes deployed overseas. So, his sister is one of Luke’s legal guardians. This means that she’s involved in Tabitha’s dispute with Brian.

This isn’t just a matter of former spouses going to court over custody, either. Tabitha is backed by the Remnant, and they are willing to take drastic measures to get Luke. It’s not long before Delaney finds herself their target. The Remnant engages in all sorts of harassment to try to get Luke, including vandalism, threats, and more.

Then, Pastor Pete is found dead in Brian Delaney’s home. He’s a very likely suspect in the murder, for several good reasons, and is soon arrested. There’s evidence against him, and the Remnant is only too happy to blame him, and by extension, his sister, for the murder. And the police are interested in her as well.

Delaney soon finds, to her dismay, that the Remnant has plans that go far beyond bringing Luke to live with them. The more she hears about what the members of the Remnant believe, and what they intend, the more danger she sees, and not just for herself and Luke. With the police already suspicious of her, Delaney knows she can’t really count on their support. So, she works with her partner, attorney Jesse Blackburn, to get to the truth, and try to stop the Remnant. The closer they get to the answers, the more dangerous things get. And there are other deaths as the novel unfolds. Still, in the end, we learn who and what lie behind everything. And it turns out that past history plays a big role in what happens.

This is a thriller, and the pacing is consistent with that. There are several unpleasant surprises, narrow escapes, and characters who are not what they seem to be. And there is real danger. Readers who enjoy ‘high octane’ novels will appreciate the twists and turns in the plot. Also consistent with the sort of novel it is, this story is violent in some places. Readers who prefer books with less grit and profanity will notice that. As is the case with some thrillers, there are also some things that some readers may feel stretch credibility. Readers will likely have different opinions about what ‘counts’ as too much of a stretch.

What’s more unsettling than the actual violence in the novel is the way the Remnant operates. This is a far-right, militant Christian group that takes the Christian Bible literally, and is preparing for Armageddon. The members consider themselves soldiers preparing for a war. On the surface, the group appears to do good work. Several members claim that the group rescued them from drugs, gangs, and prostitution. But just beneath the surface is bigotry of all kinds, misogyny, and more. It’s a very dangerous group, and, without spoiling the story, I can say that Delaney isn’t being paranoid in fearing what the group might do.

The histories of some of the characters play roles in the plot, and are important elements in the story. The Delaney siblings are close, although they argue, the way a lot of siblings do. There’s some tension between them over Jesse (he and Brian have a strained relationship), but Brian trusts his sister absolutely. For her part, Evan loves and admires her brother, although she’s not blind to his faults. She is devoted to Luke, and the feeling is mutual.

The story is told from Evan Delaney’s point of view (first person, past tense), so we get to know quite a bit about her. She’s smart and resourceful, with plenty of courage. But readers who are tired of ‘superhero’ protagonists need not fear. She is also vulnerable, and feels the same fear that anyone in danger might experience. She makes mistakes, and sometimes has a habit of being more outspoken than is prudent. And more than once, she relies on help from others; she can’t do it all herself. Still, readers who prefer strong female characters will appreciate Evan Delaney.

The setting for the novel is Santa Barbara and China Lake, which is home to a large US military installation. That location, and Brian Delaney’s profession, mean that readers get a sense of the military life. While the story doesn’t really take place on the base, it plays a role.

This isn’t the sort of story where everything is all right at the end. There are deaths, and the events in the novel mean trauma for several characters. Readers who prefer stories where the ‘bad guys’ are led away in handcuffs will notice that this isn’t that sort of novel. That said, though, we do learn the truth about Pastor Pete’s death, and the other deaths that occur. And there is a feeling that life will go on, and can even be good again.

China Lake is a thriller in which past history and the ambitious plans of a militant religious group combine. It’s set in Central California, in Santa Barbara and China Lake, and features a protagonist who is determined to protect her family and community. But what’s your view? Have you read China Lake? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday, 27 February/Tuesday, 28 February – River of Darkness – Rennie Airth

Monday, 6 March/Tuesday, 7 March – In the Cold Light of Mourning – Elizabeth J. Duncan.

Monday, 13 March/Tuesday, 14 March – L.A. Confidential – James Ellroy


Filed under China Lake, Meg Gardiner

Sorry, I’m Not Here Just Now…

guest-post-20-february-2017Hi, it’s Margot. Sorry I can’t take your visit just now. I’m off visiting Jane Risdon, crime writer, blogger, and expert in the music business. Jane’s also one of the contributing authors for In a Word: Murder, for which I’m most grateful. Please do come pay me a visit at Jane’s. I’ll be talking about the disaster that led to my newest release, Past Tense, and how something good came out of it all.

And, as you’ll be there anyway, do have a look around Jane’s excellent site. You’ll find great flash fiction, photography, and ‘on the road’ stories. And try her short stories, too. You’ll be very glad you did.
I’ll be back tomorrow with In The Spotlight.



Filed under Uncategorized