Category Archives: Elly Griffiths

Circus Life, Under the Big Top World*

CircusesThere’s something about a circus that can capture the imagination. The trapeze and other acts, the glittering costumes, the illusions, it’s all got something magical about it for a lot of people. At the same time, ‘circus people’ have often been seen as ‘not quite like the rest of us.’ They’re itinerant, they tend to keep to themselves, and they don’t always fit in.  And behind the scenes, the circus life is one of hard work, no real roots, and sometimes grimy, even ugly, surroundings. And yet, on the surface, the circus can look so enticing that it’s little wonder plenty of young people have dreamed of being clowns, acrobats or high-wire walkers.

It’s also little wonder we see plenty of circuses popping up in crime fiction. If you grew up reading Enid Blyton, you probably remember that circuses are a part of those children’s mystery stories. But we also see them in adult crime fiction.

For example, in Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes, New York City Homicide Bureau police officer Tom Shawn is taking a late-night walk when he encounters a young woman about to jump off a bridge. She allows him to persuade her to come with him rather than jump; he then takes her to an all-night diner where she tells him her story. She is Jean Reid, only child of wealthy Harlan Reid. Although her mother died when she was very young, she’s had a more or less happy life until recently. Her father has met Jeremiah Tompkins, who is, as he puts it, cursed with the ability to see the future. Since that time, Harlan Reid has become obsessed with knowing the future; and now, Tompkins has predicted his death. Reid’s been told he will die at midnight on a certain day, and his daughter can no longer stand to see what’s happened to him since then. Shawn tries to help the Reids as much as he can, including investigating Tompkins. After all, Reid is a rich man, and it’s quite likely that someone is trying to manipulate him for his money. If it’s not Tompkins, it may be someone else. The trail leads to an itinerant carnival – a ‘tent show,’ but by the time the police get there, the whole show has moved on.  The police track down the performers, and it’s interesting to see how the operation is portrayed in this story.

In Clayton Rawson’s The Headless Lady, a young woman calling herself Mildred Christine comes to Merlini the Magician’s magic shop. She wants to purchase a particular illusion: ‘The Headless Lady.’ Merlini is reluctant to sell it to her, since it’s his only demonstration model. But she insists, and is willing to pay an exorbitant amount of money. Merlini finally agrees on the condition that she answer a few questions. She says that if she decides to do so, she’ll come back later. Merlini and his friend Ross Harte investigate, and trace the woman to an itinerant circus. It turns out that she is a circus performer, Pauline Hannum, daughter of the circus’ late owner Major Hannum.  When it comes out that Hannum was murdered, and that the killer might not be done, Merlini and Harte get involved in a behind-the-scenes circus mystery.

Jo Nesbø’s The Bat has Oslo police inspector Harry Hole travel to Sydney, where he’s been seconded to observe the investigation into the murder of a Norwegian national, Inger Holter. In the process of looking into her murder, the police find that there’ve been other, similar murders. If they are all connected, then the police could be dealing with a very dangerous killer. Hole and his Australian hosts have to ‘join the dots’ to find out what links all the victims, and one lead takes them to a circus that’s been giving performances in several different parts of the region. One of the things that we see in this novel is the ‘fringe’ nature of a lot of circus performers. Many of them don’t mix in with ‘the rest of us.’

Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher goes undercover at Farrell’s Circus and Wild Beast Show in Blood and Circuses. In one plot thread of that novel, a few of the side show performers who travel around with the circus are concerned about some of the goings-on there. There’ve been several ‘accidents,’ including a broken tightrope, a fire, and a horse that suddenly died. The performers want Phryne to find out why the circus seems to be cursed, and who would want it to be ruined. She goes undercover as a trick rider, without access to her money, her title or her usual friends. As she finds out what’s happening at the circus, readers get a look at what circus life is like for the various performers.

Private investigator Dandelion ‘Dandy’ Gilver also investigates some nefarious circus goings-on in Catriona McPherson’s The Winter Ground. The Cooke family circus is spending the winter on the grounds of Blackcraig Estate. They’re happy for a safe place to stay, and willing to do some shows for the current owners in exchange. And Dandy’s two sons are excited that they’ll get the chance to see the circus. Then, some frightening things begin to happen, and Mrs. Cooke wants an end to it. So she asks Dandy to find out what’s behind it all. That’s when Anastacia ‘Ana,’ the bareback rider, falls from her mount and is killed. It’s set up to look like a tragic accident, but Dandy soon discovers that it isn’t accidental at all.

Elly Griffiths’ new series featuring magician Max Mephisto begins with The Zig Zag Girl. It’s 1950, and Max is on the circuit, touring with fortune-tellers, dancers, sword-swallowers and so on. He’s called in to help when the body of a woman is discovered cut up and deposited in the Left Luggage section of Brighton Station. To DI Edgar Stephans, it looks like a macabre re-enactment of an old magic trick, The Zig Zag Girl, so he asks Max to help find out who might be responsible. At first, Max is very reluctant to get involved. As he puts it,

‘I don’t like the police.’

But he agrees, and as he and Stephens investigate, readers find out about life on the performing circuit during the early 1950s.

As you can see, the circus can be an exciting place, but underneath the glitter and the show, there can be real danger. Which circus stories have stayed with you?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Journey’s Faithfully.


Filed under Catriona McPherson, Clayton Rawson, Cornell Woolrich, Elly Griffiths, Jo Nesbø, Kerry Greenwood

You Got That Right*

AccuracyIn Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the murder of wealthy Emily Arundell. She’s left behind several relatives who are desperate for their share of her money, and who have very good motive for getting her out of their way. It’s a complicated case, and one evening, Hastings suggests that the two of them take their minds off the investigation and go to see a play. Poirot agrees and they duly attend. However, there’s one problem: Hastings  has chosen a crook play.

‘There is one piece of advice I offer to all my readers. Never take a soldier to a military play, a sailor to a naval play, a Scotsman to a Scottish play, a detective to a thriller – and an actor to any play whatsoever!’

Poirot gets very frustrated with the plot, claiming that the whole case could have been solved before the end of the first act.

This shows, I think, how we all bring our expertise into what we do in the rest of our lives. Certainly research suggests that we tap our knowledge, background and expertise when we read. People in general are not passive when they read. They interact with what they read; and, however unconsciously, compare it to what they know from real life. This doesn’t mean that readers are never willing to set aside disbelief. But a lot of readers do get cranky if the author isn’t more or less accurate.

For example, you may or may not know that my professional background has been mostly in the world of education. So I’m particularly ‘tuned in,’ for lack of a better phrase, when I read crime novels that take place in academia. And, if I’m being honest, I’m probably less patient with such novels when the author doesn’t portray that world accurately. I bring what I know to the reading process, as we all do, so I notice it more when what I know isn’t reflected in what’s in the book. That’s why I have a particular appreciation for work like Christine Poulson’s, Gail Bowen’s and Elly Griffiths’, whose novels have an academic context. In part because of the authors’ experiences in academia, the context is authentic, and that makes those novels more believable.

It’s the same, I would imagine, for just about any profession. For instance, the law profession varies from place to place, and certainly from country to country. But there are certain things about what lawyers do and don’t do that are, I think, a little more universal. And a well-written legal novel reflects that reality. I would suspect that attorneys who read crime fiction are ‘tuned in’ to those aspects of legal novels, and probably not patient when the author isn’t authentic. Not being an attorney myself, I can’t speak from expertise. But the works of authors such as Robert Rotenberg, John Grisham, Scott Turow and (in his Mickey Haller novels) Michael Connelly strike me as being realistic.

One might say the same thing about crime novels that take place in the health care and medical community. Physicians, paramedics, nurses and other health care providers who read crime fiction probably get very impatient with crime novels that don’t depict that world accurately. And they’re probably quite pleased with the authenticity of writers such as Katherine Howell, Michael Crichton and Michael Palmer.

I could go on and on with examples, but I think the point’s made. Whatever your profession or work background is, you’re likely to bring it to your reading, and you may very well find yourself noticing it particularly when someone isn’t accurate.

What about law enforcers who also read crime fiction? Most crime writers aren’t police officers (although some of course are or have been). And yet, if you think about it, just about every crime novel involves police presence, at least just a little. And some focus quite a lot more than others do on police activity. Some of those novels give a more authentic portrait of police life than others do. So my unsophisticated guess would be that there is plenty of frustration among law enforcement people when it comes to the way what they do is portrayed.

You’ll notice that all of the authors mentioned thus far have a professional background in the area that’s the focus of their books. For instance, Howell has been a paramedic, Rotenberg is a criminal lawyer, and Bowen has been a professor. Does this mean that you need to be a member of a given profession to write about it accurately? I don’t think so.

Let’s consider some of the highly regarded crime series out there. Ed McBain is, as you’ll know doubt know, the creator of the 87th Precinct series, which many people regard as a superior series. Its focus is police detectives and their lives, and the crimes they investigate. McBain was never, at least to my knowledge, in law enforcement. And yet this series is often held up as an example of an excellent police procedural series.

Jussi Adler-Olsen has done a number of things with his career, including music, business and publishing. He’s never, to my knowledge, been a police detective. Still, his Carl Mørck novels are very highly regarded police procedurals. Not being in law enforcement myself, I can’t vouch conclusively for their authenticity. But they certainly have the hallmarks of the police procedural, including life at the precinct, policy and so on.

Sara Paretsky isn’t a private investigator. Her background was in political science and history before she turned her focus to writing. But as any fan will tell you, her V.I. Warshawski series is very well-regarded, and gives readers a great deal of information about the ins and outs of private investigation. These are just a few examples; there are dozens of others. But I think just these few serve to show that some authors have written extremely credible work about professions that aren’t in their backgrounds. The key here really seems to be doing effective research (and of course, telling a well-written story!).

What about you? When you read a novel about people who do what you do professionally, do you pay extra attention to the details? Do you get frustrated when the author isn’t accurate?


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Lynyrd Skynyrd song.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Elly Griffiths, Gail Bowen, John Grisham, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Katherine Howell, Michael Connelly, Michael Crichton, Michael Palmer, Robert Rotenberg, Sara Paretsky, Scott Turow

You’re Living in the Present Tense*

Stories In the Present TenseHave you noticed that there seems to be a trend in crime fiction towards telling stories in the present tense? Using the present tense is not a brand-new phenomenon in the genre. Still, it seems that many modern crime writers make that choice. Some writers claim that using the present tense conveys more immediacy, and allows a certain character depth. Other writers choose it for other reasons.

Use of the present tense is by no means universally popular though. Traditionally, publishers have frowned on that choice, requesting instead the use of the past tense. And lots of readers dislike reading books told in the present tense. It’s certainly not a settled question.

That said though, there are a lot of writers who’ve used that option. For instance, Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind is told in the present tense. It’s the story of the Anderson family, whose lives are changed forever when four-year-old Gemma Anderson goes missing during a school picnic one terrible day. A massive search is undertaken, but no trace of the girl is ever found – not even a body. The Andersons try to move on as best they can, but they are left shattered. Seventeen years later, Gemma’s older sister Stephanie is a fledgling psychologist who lives and works in Dunedin. She begins working with a new patient, Elisabeth Clark, only to learn that she, too, had a younger sister who disappeared at a young age. Against her better professional judgement, Stephanie decides to lay her own ghosts to rest and find out who is responsible for the abductions. Her journey takes her back to her home town of Wanaka; and as she finds out the truth, she also slowly begins the healing process.

Michael Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin/Vincent Ruiz series is also told in the present tense. It begins with The Suspect. In that novel, the body of Catherine McBride is pulled out of London’s Grand Union Canal. DI Vincent Ruiz discovers that she was a patient of psychologist Joe O’Loughlin, and wants his help in the matter. Then there’s another murder; this time O’Loughlin is clearly implicated. Ruiz already had questions about O’Loughlin, and now it seems that those suspicions are confirmed. Since the story is told from O’Loughlin’s point of view, I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say that he is innocent and is being cleverly set up. The question, of course, is by whom and why. It’s an interesting pairing of these two protagonists, and as fans will know, it’s a fruitful partnership.

Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising, which takes place in 1981, is the story of Houston area lawyer Jay Porter. One night, he takes his pregnant wife Bernadine ‘Bernie’ out for a bayou cruise to celebrate her birthday. During the trip, they hear a woman’s screams and then gunfire. Then they see a woman tumble into the water. Almost by instinct, Jay rescues her and they return to the boat dock. The woman says very little about herself, and claims that she’ll be fine. But she does consent to be taken to the nearest police station. After she’s dropped off there, the Porters return home. The next morning. Porter learns of a fatal shooting in the area where they rescued the young woman. He doesn’t want to be involved, but ends up drawn into the case, which turns out to be a complicated web of corruption and greed at high levels. This story is told in the present tense; but, interestingly, its follow-up, Pleasantville, is not. That novel takes up Porter’s story fifteen years after the events of Black Water Rising.

Chris Grabenstein’s John Ceepak/Danny Boyle novels are also told in the present tense, from Boyle’s point of view. Beginning with Tilt a Whirl, this series takes place in fictional Sea Haven, New Jersey, and features Boyle, who starts out as an extra ‘summer cop,’ hired to help deal with the tourists. As the series goes on, he becomes a full-time member of the Police Department, and works under the supervision of John Ceepak. These novels are told in the way that you might tell a friend about something that happened to you (e.g. ‘So there I am, sitting at the café, when these two guys come in. They go up to the counter and order…’).

Another author who uses present tense is John Burdett, whose Sonchai Jitpleecheep series takes place in modern Bangkok. Sonchai is a member of the Royal Thai Police. He is also an observant Buddhist who tries to live his life according to those principles. Beginning with Bangkok 8, the series chronicles some of Sonchai’s cases as well as his own personal development. The novels are told in the first person, so we see the events clearly from his point of view. Burdett also uses the present tense/first person as a tool to convey interesting information to the reader. More than once in the series, Sonchai figuratively turns to the reader and offers ‘asides’ on Buddhism, Thai society and philosophy.

And then there’s Ernesto Mallo. His Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano series takes place in late 1970’s Argentina. Lescano is a police officer at a very dangerous time. The far-right military government does not hesitate to silence any opposition, however illusory. And since everyone is trying to stay alive, very few people can be trusted not to ‘sell out’ others. Against this backdrop, Lescano is just trying to do his job and solve cases.  The series begins with Needle in a Haystack, in which Lescano investigates the death of a successful moneylender and pawn broker, Elías Biterman. Every effort is made to make his death look like an Army hit so that the police will leave the case alone, as they so often do. But enough things are different about this case that Lescano stars asking very risky questions.

There are many other novels and series, too, that are written in the present tense (I know, I know, fans of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway novels). Some people enjoy the use of that tense; some people really dislike it. Others don’t really notice, or care, one way or the other.

What do you think about this? I’ve put a little poll here so that you can speak up, and I’d love your input. After a week or two, I’ll do a follow-up post on your answers.


Writers, do you use present tense? Why or why not?

ps. A special thanks goes out to FictionFan, at FictionFan’s Book Reviews, for the inspiration for this post.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Geddy Lee’s The Present Tense.


Filed under Attica Locke, Elly Griffiths, Ernesto Mallo, John Burdett, Michael Robotham, Paddy Richardson

You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)*

Police in Supporting RolesFor obvious reasons, police characters play critical roles in crime fiction. Even when the main character is a PI or perhaps amateur sleuth, we see a lot of police presence. It’s a bit tricky to write a story where the police play an important role, but aren’t main characters. On the one hand, the author wants the protagonist to be the main focus of attention, which means that character needs to be featured and developed. On the other, readers know that it’s the police who have the authority to make arrests, and who have the resources and government sanction to go after criminals. Most readers want their crime fiction plots to reflect that. And they want their police characters to be more than caricatures. It’s interesting to see how different authors have integrated police character when they are not (co)protagonists.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s police characters are arguably often used to highlight just how skilled his Sherlock Holmes is. Holmes fans will know that he has, in general, little respect for the police. He works most often with Inspector Tobias Gregson and of course with Inspector Lestrade, and refers to them as,

‘…the pick of a bad lot.’

To Holmes, the police of Scotland Yard are thick-headed and miss obvious evidence. Gergson and Lestrade are, perhaps, less guilty. At least they notice when things don’t add up. But even so, they certainly don’t save the day. That’s Holmes’ role.

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are definitely the ‘stars’ of his series. But Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Purley Stebbins also play roles in the stories. Rarely does Wolfe approve of what they do, although both he and Goodwin depend on them for actual arrests. And as fans will know, Cramer, Stebbins and Lieutenant Rowcliff aren’t always happy about what Wolfe and Goodwin do, either. In this series, the police play a more integral role than just making Wolfe, Goodwin and their team look good. And that makes sense, given how important police are to crime detection. They’re not bumbling imbeciles, either (‘though Wolfe might beg to differ at times). Rather, they add tension and sometimes conflict to the stories.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot gets ‘top billing’ in most of the novels and stories that feature him. But the police certainly play integral roles, although not as ‘co-stars.’ And although Poirot is not at all modest about his own powers of deduction, he does have respect for police detectives whom he considers to be good at their jobs. And he often says that the police have more resources at their disposal than he does; in fact, he frequently suggests that his clients go to the police. Chief Inspector Japp is perhaps the best-known of Poirot’s police associates. But he’s not the only recurring police character. There’s also Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence. And of course, other police characters make one-time appearances. In just about all of those cases, the police play a supporting role, but an important one. We may not get much of a look at their home lives or what it’s like at the police station, but they do matter in the stories. It’s interesting too that Christie created a mix of skilled detectives (such as Japp) whom Poirot respects, and detectives for whom he has little liking (Am I right, fans of The Murder on the Links?).

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels feature Wimsey, and later, Harriet Vane, as protagonists. But Inspector Charles Parker is an important supporting character. In Clouds of Witness, where we first meet him, Parker is called in to help the local police find the killer of Dennis Cathcart. The victim was the fiancé of Lady Mary Wimsey, Lord Peter’s sister; and at one point, the evidence seems to implicate her. Luckily for both her and Parker (who has fallen in love with her), it turns out that Cathcart’s murderer was someone else. As the series goes on, Parker marries Lady Mary, and he and Wimsey become friends. That makes things a bit awkward in Strong Poison, when Parker gets solid evidence that mystery novelist Harriet Vane has poisoned her former lover Philip Boyes. Wimsey has fallen in love with the accused, and is determined to clear her name so that he can marry her. And Parker’s made out the case against her. Still, they do work together, and in the end, Parker helps Wimsey find the truth about the murder. In this series, Parker plays the role of friend, sometimes-confidant, and professional resource for Wimsey.

The protagonist of Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… mysteries is newspaper columnist James ‘Qwilll’ Qwilleran. Circumstances have placed him in Pickax, a small town in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ The stories are told from Qwill’s perspective, and he’s the one who often puts the pieces of the puzzle together. But one of the important supporting characters in the series is Police Chief Andrew Brodie. Qwill respects Brodie as an intelligent police professional, and he lets Brodie and his team do the evidence-gathering and arresting. Brodie may not be a main protagonist in this series, but he does have a key supporting role. Especially in series such as this, where the protagonist is an amateur sleuth, the presence of a recurring police-officer character adds realism.

It does in K.B. Owen’s series, too. These historical mysteries, which take place at the very end of the 19th Century, feature Concordia Wells, a teacher at Hartford (Connecticut)’s Women’s College. She herself is, of course, not on the police force. And during the era in which she lives, it’s considered unseemly for ladies to be interested in crime and detection anyway. But she is insatiably curious, and does get drawn into murder as it touches those she knows. She’s made a friend of Lieutenant Aaron Capshaw, who is married to her best friend Sophie. Capshaw isn’t the main character of this series. But he plays an important role, since he has access to information that isn’t available to civilians. In that sense, his presence in the stories makes the series more realistic.

You’ll notice I’m not mentioning series such as Stuart Palmer’s, Elly Griffiths’ or Martha Grimes’, which feature recurring police characters. That’s because in those cases and cases like them, the police character really is one of the protagonists. That dynamic can be highly effective. But it’s also interesting to look at cases where the police are supporting players. Which ones have stayed with you?

NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Elly Griffiths, K.B. Owen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Martha Grimes, Rex Stout, Stuart Palmer

We Could Learn From Digging Down*

Archaeoloists and AnthropologistsA recent article I read reported on the discovery of the 430,000-year-old remains of a murder victim in a cave in Spain. One of the things this finding suggests is that people have been killing one another for a very, very long time. That violent aspect of human nature is (at least) another post in itself.

Another thing that the article made clear is that modern science can reveal a great deal about ancient life – but not everything. In this case, experts have established how the victim was probably killed, and what the likely weapon might have been. But with an ancient murder like that, there’s no way to tell who the killer was or what the motive was. We can suppose, but there’s no longer any evidence to bear on those matters.

And in real life, that’s the sort of unanswered question that forensic archaeologists often face. How does that translate into crime fiction? After all, crime fiction fans usually want answers to the who/how/whydunnit questions that come up in a novel. Not every tiny thread needs to be knotted, but most fans want to know what’s behind a murder.

Some authors manage that balance by writing about murders that aren’t so ancient. For instance, Aaron Elkins’ Gideon Oliver is a forensic anthropologist whose main interest when the series starts is the study of ancient human remains and fossils. He’s very good at what he does, and in Fellowship of Fear, that skill helps him solve a very modern mystery involving international intrigue and espionage. In Twenty Blue Devils, he is called to Tahiti to help solve the murder of coffee plantation manager Brian Scott. Oliver has the skills to make very solid deductions about ancient remains. But the murders he investigates are recent enough that he can also draw conclusions about motives and so forth as well.

Simon Beckett’s David Hunter is also a forensic anthropologist. When the series featuring him begins (with The Chemistry of Death), he’s given up his work in forensics and become a small-town doctor in the village of Manham. But he’s drawn back into the profession when one of the town’s residents, Sally Poole, is found brutally murdered. Hunter is somewhat of an outsider, since he’s only been in town for three years. So a certain amount of suspicion comes his way. Then, another woman goes missing. Hunter works with the police both to clear his own name and to find the killer before there’s another victim. In this novel, as well as in the other novels in this series, Hunter investigates murders that are modern enough so that witnesses can be interviewed and so on. The same is true of Kathy Reichs’ Temperence ‘Tempe’ Brennan novels.

What about fictional murders that take place in the more distant past? How can an author credibly ‘fill in the gaps’ as to killer, motive and the like? One way is to use letters, diary entries and other written records. Humans have been using written symbols for many thousands of years, so it’s logical a forensic anthropologist or archaeologist might use those records. That’s what Beverly Connor’s Lindsay Chamberlain does. Chamberlain is a University of Georgia forensic anthropologist whose specialty is archaeology. Beginning with A Rumor of Bones, Chamberlain investigates old (sometimes very old) murders as well as newer murders. She certainly uses forensics clues such as skeletal evidence. But she also uses clues such as diary entries to piece together the whole story of even an ancient murder. Kill Site, which hasn’t been published yet, will focus on a Paleo-Indian dig site. Many Native American nations don’t have what we generally think of as written languages, so it’ll be very interesting to see how Connor approaches that story.

Fans of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series will know that Galloway is a forensic archaeologist associated with the University of North Norfolk. As such, she is interested in ancient sites, and is skilled at reading the stories that remains have to tell. In The Crossing Places, for instance, she uses her knowledge and skills to determine that some newly-discovered bones are not the remains of Lucy Downey, whose disappearance DCI Harry Nelson is investigating. Instead, the bones belong to a girl from the Iron Age, and they suggest all sorts of interesting lines of research for Galloway. At the same time, she also gets caught up in Lucy’s disappearance and investigates that as well as the disappearance of Scarlet Henderson, who’s just recently gone missing. This novel doesn’t tell the reader who the Iron Age girl really was, what her family was like or precisely why she died. Instead, the focus is more on the modern cases. Yet, a lot is suggested by the original discovery, and I can say without spoiling the story that Galloway draws some interesting conclusions based on those ancient remains. Her conclusions are realistic, though.

Some authors, such as Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear, take another approach to telling stories of ancient murders. In their Anasazi trilogy, for instance, there are actually two plot lines. One concerns archaeologist William ‘Dusty’ Stewart, who takes a team on a dig in New Mexico’s Sonoran Desert. His goal is to find out more about the Anasazi people who lived in that desert’s Chaco Canyon. When he and his team discover the remains of eight women who seem to have been buried in a mass grave, forensic anthropologist Dr. Maureen Cole joins the group. Her role will be to study the remains and try to establish how the women died. There isn’t much evidence to suggest who the women were or why they died. But both Cole and Stewart use their skills, as well as what they know about that period of time, to deduce what probably happened. The other plot line ‘fills in the gaps’ about those deaths. It’s the story of 13th Century Anasazi War Chief Browser and his deputy and closest friend Catkin. When they discover an unexpected body in a gravesite intended for Browser’s son, they start to ask questions. Then there’s another attack. Now it seems that a very dangerous force is at work among the Anasazi, and Browser and Catkin work to find out the truth. In this case, the modern-day scientists don’t really have letter, diaries or other written evidence; and they certainly can’t interview suspects or witnesses. So the authors chose to tell the story from the perspective of someone who might have been able to talk to witnesses and suspects. It’s a dual timeline approach, and admittedly, we can’t know precisely what one 13th-Century member of this group might have said to another. But it’s credible because the story is based on things that we do know.

Authors who choose to tell stories of ancient murders do face the challenge of finding credible ways to solve them. There are certainly different approaches to meeting that challenge in a plausible way. It’s interesting to see how authors go about it. Oh, and in an interesting note, Elkins, Reichs, Connor and both Gears are or have been professional archaeologists or anthropologists. It’s fascinating to watch as they weave their experiences into their stories.

ps. I can’t help but think that the late and sorely-missed Maxine Clarke would have found this latest discovery to be really interesting. I wish she were here to read up on it…MC


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jack Johnson’s Traffic in the Sky.




Filed under Aaron Elkins, Beverly COnnor, Elly Griffiths, Kathleen O'Neal Gear, Kathy Reichs, Simon Beckett, W. Michael Gear