Category Archives: Stella Duffy

And Your Loyalties Are Divided*

One very effective way that authors add tension to their stories is to create divided loyalties for their characters. It’s a little harder if the protagonist is a police officer or a judge. For those characters, there are official policies about being involved in cases where one has a personal interest. But it can be done. It can also be done if the sleuth is a PI or an amateur sleuth. And when it’s done well, that plot point can add suspense to a novel. It can also add a layer of character development.

For example, I was recently privileged to read Brian Stoddart’s A Greater God, the fourth in his Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series. It’s just come out, by the way. This novel takes place in India during the 1920s, the last years of the British Raj. In one plot line, Le Fanu returns to his ‘home base’ in Madras (today’s Chennai) to face several severe challenges. One of them is that there is increased bigotry and worse against Muslims. And the Inspector General of the Madras Police, Arthur Jepson, isn’t making things any easier. He’s hardline racist and determined to keep the British firmly in control. All of this creates a major problem for Le Fanu’s colleague, Mohammad ‘Habi’ Habibullah. Habi is a dedicated member of the police force who does his job very well. He is also a friend to Le Fanu. But Habi is Muslim, and it’s his people who are paying a terrible price right now. His loyalties are divided, and several people on the force are not sure he can be trusted. It all makes for real tension in this novel.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to France at the request of Paul Renauld. He writes that his life is in danger and begs Poirot to come to his aid. By the time Poirot and Hastings get there, though, it’s too late; Renauld has been murdered. Poirot works with the police to find out who the killer is and what the motive is. In the meantime, Hastings has a personal situation of his own. He’s met a young woman who calls herself Cinderella, and he finds himself quite attracted to her, although he doesn’t acknowledge it at first. That creates a problem for him when he discovers that she may not be telling him everything about herself. In fact, she may even know more about Renauld’s murder than she’s letting on. It all creates tension between Hastings and Poirot as Poirot gets closer to the truth about what really happened.

The ‘Nicci French’ writing team’s Blue Monday introduces London psychologist Frieda Klein. In one plot thread, she is working with a new client, a man named Alan Dekker. Among other things, he’s been having troubling dreams that focus on having his own son – a boy who looks just like him. In real life, Dekker and his wife, Carrie, haven’t had any children, and Dekker doesn’t want to adopt. He and Klein start the difficult work of ‘unpacking’ his views about having children, and of making connections with things from Dekker’s past. Then, four-year-old Matthew Faraday goes missing. Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Malcolm Karlsson and his team investigate, but there are no good clues. The only case that bears any resemblance to this one is twenty-two years old, and it may not be related at all. But on the chance it is, Karlsson and his team do look back at it. When Klein learns of Matthew’s disappearance, she is faced with a real ‘divided loyalties’ problem. On the one hand, she is dedicated to her profession, and that means respecting her client’s confidentiality. On the other hand, she believes that what she knows about Dekker may help to find Matthew Faraday, or at least find out what happened to him. She finally opts to contact Karlsson, and, each in a different way, the two find answers. But her decision is not taken at all lightly.

Nicole Watson’s The Boundary begins as Justice Bruce Brosnan is hearing the case of the Corowa people, who have claimed the right to Brisbane’s Merston Park. A development company wants the land, but the Corrowa say that the land is theirs. Brosnan rules against them, and just a few hours later, is killed. Then, there are other deaths, all of people involved in the case. Police officer Jason Matthews is one of the investigating officers, and this puts him in a real situation of divided loyalties. On the one hand, he is a police officer, sworn to uphold the law, and dedicated to doing so. But he is Aboriginal. So, he has strong feelings about the Corrowa people’s claim. He finds it very difficult to investigate people he feels have been greatly wronged – his own people. He does his job, but it’s not without difficulty.

And then there’s Stella Duffy’s The Hidden Room. Laurie and Martha have a successful marriage and have raised three children. Everything seems to be going well until Laurie’s past comes back to haunt her. She was raised in a cult in the US, not leaving it permanently until she was a young adult. So, she is still impacted by her experience. Still, she and Martha have built a good life together. Then, Laurie and Martha begin to be concerned about their oldest child, Hope. She recently broke up with her boyfriend, so they expected there’d be a rough patch. But Hope has become obsessed with dance. She’s not eating properly, she’s not getting enough sleep, and she’s dancing and doing other exercise more than is good for her. As if that’s not enough, someone from Laurie’s past has found her. And that’s when she feels, even after all this time, a bit of divided loyalty. She loves her family deeply and will do anything to protect them. But she still feels the ‘pull’ of her old life, and that comes back, in a way.

And that’s the thing about divided loyalties. They impact one’s perspective, and they can make for very difficult decisions. But, in fiction, they can also make for interesting plot points and layers of character development.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Lucksmiths’ The Cassingle Revival.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Brian Stoddart, Nicci French, Nicole Watson, Stella Duffy

Set That Baggage Down*

All of us have a past that we bring into relationships. And once in a while, that ‘baggage’ impacts those relationships. Even when a partner knows the truth about a person’s past, it can still come back to haunt, so to speak. And having a partner who has a lot of past ‘baggage’ can be a challenge.

There many examples of this dynamic in crime fiction, and it’s not hard to see why. It can make for interesting tension and suspense in a story. And there are plenty of opportunities for adding character layers. Sometimes, that past ‘baggage’ can even be a plot point.

It is in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men. Hilton Cubitt is worried about his wife, Elsie. Before they married, she told him that she had had some ‘unpleasant associations’ in her past, although she reassured him that she had done nothing shameful herself. She also told him that she didn’t want to discuss her past; that was a condition of marriage for her. Cubitt agreed, and all was well at first. But lately, Elsie’s been getting some cryptic letters that are frightening her. She won’t say what they’re about; and, since they’re written in a sort of hieroglyphic code, her husband can’t work that out for himself. So, he takes the problem to Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is working on the code when matters get more urgent. Whoever’s writing the letters has written more messages, this time on the windowsills of the Cubitt home. One night, a tragedy occurs and Cubitt is shot. Holmes uses the code to lure the killer and find out the truth about what happened.

Lady Elsa Dittisham, whom we meet in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, also has a past. Years ago, she had an affair with a famous painter named Amyas Crale. One afternoon, he was poisoned. His wife, Caroline, was arrested, tried, and convicted in the matter, and died in prison a year later. Elsa was a witness in the investigation, so she gave evidence in court, and took quite a lot of nasty criticism for breaking up the Crale home. Now, she is married to Lord Dittisham, who knows about the case. While he doesn’t deny what happened, he wants to leave it all in the past. So, he’s none too pleased when Hercule Poirot wants to interview Elsa about Crale’s murder. Poirot’s been hired by the Crales’ daughter, Carla Lemarchant, to re-open the case, because Carla believes that her mother was innocent. Although Lord Dittisham is opposed to the idea, Elsa is eager to tell her story. She and the other people who were present at the time of the murder write out their accounts of what happened. They also speak to Poirot. From those recollections, Poirot pieces together the truth about the matter.

Megan Abbott’s Die a Little introduces readers to Bill King. He and his sister, Lora, have always been close, so he hopes she’ll be happy for him when he falls in love with a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant named Alice Steele. Right from the start, Lora has concerns about Alice, but she tells herself it’s because she’s too protective of her brother. Then, Bill and Alice get married. Lora tries to be nice to her new sister-in-law, mostly for Bill’s sake. But, she soon learns some things about Alice that make her uneasy. Bill doesn’t seem to be badly bothered by his wife’s past, and she is, as he sees it, good to him. The more Lora finds out, though, the more repulsed she is. At the same time, though, she’s drawn to Alice’s life. Then, there’s a murder, and Alice could be mixed up in it. Lora tells herself she wants to look after her brother, so she starts asking questions about the murder. And she finds herself pulled even deeper into Alice’s story.

In Håkan Östlundh’s The Intruder, we are introduced to Malin Andersson, her husband, Henrik Kjellander, and their two children, Ellen and Axel. They return from a two-month trip only to find that their Fårö Island home has been left in a mess, with some things missing, trash everywhere, and more. At first, it looks as though it’s a case of terrible temporary tenants. But then, Malin finds a photograph that’s been deliberately defaced. Now, it looks as though this could be a very personal violation of their home. So, they call in the police. Gotland police detectives Fredrik Broman and Sara Oskarsson begin to look into the case. They’re following up on some leads when Ellen goes missing. Now, the stakes are a lot higher, and everyone searches frantically for the girl. And it turns out that it all has to do with ‘baggage’ from the past that quite probably should have been shared – but wasn’t.

And then there’s Stella Duffy’s The Hidden Room. Laurie and Martha have been married for a long time, and have raised three children, Hope, Ana, and Jack. They’ve had their differences, as couples do, but they a strong bond. Martha knows that Laurie comes from an unusual background. Adopted from China, she was raised in a cult in the American desert. The group was led by a charismatic man named Abraham, and it had a strict code for dress, activities, and more. Laurie left the cult as a young woman, and Martha knows that her years there still have an impact on her. But she doesn’t know everything about Laurie’s experiences. And that means trouble when the past catches up with Laurie, and someone she hasn’t seen for years turns up again. This could spell disaster for the family, and Laurie is determined to protect the ones she loves.

And that’s the thing about having a partner with ‘baggage.’ You never know when it can come up again or impact the relationship. And it’s interesting to see how that dynamic adds to a crime novel.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by David Crosby.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Håkan Östlundh, Megan Abbott, Stella Duffy

In The Spotlight: Stella Duffy’s The Hidden Room

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. This week, we’re continuing our special look at the finalists for this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel. Today, let’s turn the spotlight on Stella Duffy’s The Hidden Room.

Laurie and Martha have a successful marriage and are loving parents to three teenage children: Hope, Ana, and Jack. Laurie has gotten serious notice as an architect and is starting to enjoy some real success. And she’s finally found some peace. Originally adopted from China, she grew up in a cult, in the American desert. She left the cult, but then returned. It wasn’t until later, in her early adult years, that she made a permanent break. For her, Martha and the children represent the solid normal life she never had.

It’s a good life, too. They’ve got a beautiful home in the country, just the sort of place they want. And Laurie does love her work. Things begin to fray a bit when she and Martha begin to be concerned about Hope. She recently broke up with her boyfriend, so it was to be expected that she’d have a rough time. But she’s now become obsessed with dance. She’s not eating properly, she’s exercising and dancing more than is good for her and is showing other signs that worry her parents.

As if that’s not enough, Laurie learns that her past has caught up with her. Someone she knew long ago, and has been avoiding for years, has found her. And that could spell disaster for her and her family. Now, Laurie is faced with some awful choices. Can she protect her family without revealing too much of her past? And what will those secrets mean for her relationship with Martha? In the meantime, Martha isn’t telling Laurie everything, either. As it turns out, the secrets both are keeping could turn into tragedy for everyone.

This isn’t a traditional crime story, where there is a crime – often murder – and an investigation. That said, though, there are crimes committed in the novel, and we slowly learn about them as we learn the truth about both Laurie and Martha. But this isn’t a case of a guilty person being caught and then led away in handcuffs. Readers who prefer books that end in that way will notice this.

One of the major elements in the story is its depiction of life in a cult. The group that raised Laurie was run by a charismatic man named Abraham, and Duffy shows how his magnetism impacted everyone. At the same time as Laurie was terrified of him, and wanted to get away, she was also deeply drawn to him. Life in the group was quite regimented, with everyone having tasks to do, and very clear expectations for dress, conduct, and so on. Duffy shares the details of what it’s like to live this sort of life, and readers get a chance to ‘go inside,’ so to speak. Since Laurie grew up this way, she didn’t see it as anything but normal, and that still has an impact on her sometimes. But it wasn’t normal at all, and she knows that, too. Her experiences in the cult have left permanent marks on her personality and her reactions to life.

But this doesn’t mean that Laurie is either non-functioning or overly frail. She is bright, successful in her career, and a loving and caring parent. She has a stable relationship with Martha, too, although they have bad moments, as all couples do. Readers who are tired of protagonists who cannot interact or have relationships will be pleased that that doesn’t happen here.

And that’s another important element in the novel: the family and the bonds among them. There are arguments, misunderstandings, bad days, and some resentment. But this isn’t a dysfunctional family where people sabotage one another. The menace – the danger to the family – comes from outside.

And there is real danger. It’s not really so much physical; in fact, there isn’t much physical violence in the novel, although it’s there. The suspense is much more psychological, and so is the tension. I don’t want to say more, for fear of spoilers. But there are moments of real creepiness that come from the psychological tension.

The timeline of the novel isn’t strictly chronological. Some chapters take place in the present, as Martha and Laurie become aware of the danger to them and their family. Other chapters tell Laurie’s story, and we learn, little by little, how she came to be the person she is, and what it all means for her life now. Readers who prefer one timeline will notice this. That said, though, it’s clear (at least to me) which part of the storyline is the focus of each chapter.

It’s also worth noting that the point of view sometimes changes. Much of the story is told from Laurie’s perspective (third person, past tense). Part of it is told from Martha’s (also third person, past tense). Readers who prefer just one point of view will notice this. Readers who prefer to ‘get in the heads’ of more than one character will appreciate it.

The Hidden Room is the story of a family whose future is threatened when a dangerous part of the past comes back to haunt one of its members. It also shows the complications that can come up when people keep secrets, even if they do so to try to protect others. It takes place in the English countryside and in the American Southwest desert and features two strong female protagonists who determined to keep their family safe. But what’s your view? Have you read The Hidden Room? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday, 15 October/Tuesday, 16 October – A Killer Harvest – Paul Cleave

Monday, 22 October/Tuesday, 23 October – Tess – Kirsten McDougall

Monday, 29 October/Tuesday, 30 October – Mistakenly in Mallorca – Roderic Jeffries


Filed under Stella Duffy, The Hidden Room

Taking My Thoughts Back to You Across the Sea*

There’s a lot of excitement here at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…. I’m privileged and humbled to announce that I’m on the judging panel for the 2018 Ngaio Marsh Awards – the top prize for New Zealand crime fiction.

Among lots of other things, it means that I’m reading some fantastic crime fiction from and about New Zealand, and I couldn’t be happier. The longlist for this year’s award has just been announced. Here are the contenders:


Marlborough Man by Alan Carter (Fremantle Press)

Baby by Annaleese Jochems (Vitoria University Press)

See You In September by Charity Norman (Allen & Unwin)

The Lost Taonga by Edmund Bohan (Lucano)

The Easter Make Believers by Finn Bell

The Only Secret Left To Keep by Katherine Hayton

Tess by Kirsten McDougall (Victoria University Press)

The Sound of Her Voice by Nathan Blackell (Mary Egan Publishing)

A Killer Harvest by Paul Cleave (Upstart Press)

The Hidden Room by Stella Duffy (Virago)


It’s a diverse group of writers and stories, and I’m looking forward to diving into these waters!  The shortlist will be announced in July, and the awards will be presented during the writers’ festival, WORD Christchurch, in late August.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, surf’s up and the water looks fine!!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ruru Karaitiana’s Blue Smoke.


Filed under Alan Carter, Annaleese Jochems, Charity Norman, Edmund Bohan, Finn Bell, Katherine Hayton, Kirsten McDougall, Nathan Blackell, Paul Cleave, Stella Duffy

There’s No Difference Between Us*

The more a genre evolves, especially as society evolves, the stronger and more vibrant it is. That’s as true of crime fiction as it is of any other genre. When different kinds of authors create a wide variety of characters and plot innovations, the genre grows. So I’ve been very pleased to see the increasing diversity of crime-fictional characters, whether or not they’re the main sleuth(s), which we now see in crime fiction. For example, if we look at the way gay and lesbian characters have been portrayed in crime fiction and how that portrayal has evolved, we can see how the genre has changed and grown.

The integration of gay sleuths and other characters wasn’t really a part of earlier crime fiction. In Agatha Christie’s 1952 release Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, we get just a glimpse of the prevailing views about gay fictional characters. In that novel, Christie’s fictional detective novelist Ariadne Oliver is visiting the village of Broadhinny to collaborate with playwright Robin Upward on an adaptation of one of her novels for the stage.  Here’s one of the many tense conversations they have about the project and about Oliver’s sleuth Sven Hjerson:


‘Ariadne, darling, I did explain all that. It’s not a book, darling, it’s a play… And if we get this tension, this antagonism between Sven Hjerson and this– what’s-her-name?- Karen – you know, all against each other and yet really frightfully attracted – ’
‘Sven Hjerson never cared for women,’ said Mrs. Oliver coldly.
‘But you can’t have him a pansy, darling. Not for this sort of play. I mean, it’s not green bay trees or anything like that. It’s thrills and murders and clean open-air fun.’
The mention of open air had its effect.
‘I’m going out,’ said Mrs. Oliver abruptly. ‘I need air. I need air badly.’”


Oliver gets distracted from her worries about the play by a real-life murder investigation. Superintendent Spence has asked Hercule Poirot to find out the truth behind the killing of a local charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger. Poirot travels to the village and Oliver works with him to find out who the real killer is.

Portrayals of gay crime-fictional characters changed dramatically with Victor Banis’ 1966 release of The Man from C.A.M.P.. This series of stories features special agent Jackie Holmes, the first openly gay secret agent and arguably the first positive depiction of a gay protagonist. For example, in the first story, Holmes is paired with an agent from the U.S. Department of the Treasure to track down a gang of Los Angeles counterfeiters. The stories were originally written as send-ups of the James Bond stories and became very popular. They’re well-written (in my opinion) and their success paved the way for the integration of gay and lesbian sleuths and other characters into other crime fiction.

In the last few decades there’ve been a number of gay and lesbian crime-fictional characters and what’s important is that the fact that they’re gay is not the most important thing about them. For instance, Mark Richard Zubro’s Tom Mason is a Chicago high-school English teacher whose partner is baseball star Scott Carpenter. In Why Isn’t Becky Twitchell Dead, Mason and Carpenter investigate the murder of Susan Warren, a student at Mason’s school. Warren’s boyfriend Jeff Trask, who’s in one of Mason’s classes, is accused of the murder in part because Trask and Warren had a loud quarrel one night just after a party. But Trask claims that he’s innocent, so Mason and Carpenter start asking questions. It turns out that Warren’s death had everything to do with a drugs ring operating at the school. In this series and in Zubro’s other series featuring Chicago cop Paul Turner, the fact that the main characters are gay is treated quite matter-of-factly and without self-consciousness. To put it another way, these characters are sleuths who happen to be gay.

The same is true of Val McDermid’s freelance journalist sleuth Lindsay Gordon. In Report For Murder for instance, Gordon agrees to do a piece on the fundraising activities at Derbyshire House Girls’ School. The school’s in dire need of support to keep its doors open and Gordon needs the money the assignment will bring. Besides, her friend Paddy Callaghan, who invited her in the first place, is a teacher there. So she travels to the school for its fundraising weekend which is to culminate in a Gala Concert.  Everything goes wrong though when famous cellist Lorna Smith-Couper, who’s returned to the school for the benefit event, is murdered. Television personality and author Cordelia Brown is also at the school at Callaghan’s invitation and together Gordon and Brown deal with the unwelcome media attention that the murder brings so the school can stay open. When it becomes clear that finding the murderer is the only way to prevent panic, the two investigate. They also end up becoming romantic partners and their relationship lasts through several novels in the series.

There’s also Stella Duffy’s South London lesbian sleuth Sarah “Saz” Martin whom we first meet in Calendar Girl. In that novel, Martin decides to take advantage of the Enterprise Allowance, which provides start-up funds for new businesses. Hers will be private detection. She’s soon hired by John Clark to find a mysterious missing woman he knows only as September. Clark tells Martin that he’s been meeting September once a week for dinner for the past few years but she hasn’t been in contact now for six weeks and he’s worried. Martin needs the PI fee so she takes the case. In the meantime, we also meet Maggie Simpson, a stand-up comic who’s met a woman she calls the Woman with the Kelly McGillis Body. Maggie’s very much in love with this woman, who seems unable to get involved in a permanent relationship even though the two women move in together. Saz follows September’s trail to New York, where she finds out that September may have been involved in the drugs and prostitution business. Then there’s a murder. Now Maggie’s story merges with Saz’ as the two women try to solve their respective mysteries.

Anthony Bidulka has also created a gay sleuth, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant. Quant has made several friends in Saskatoon’s gay community. For instance, there’s his mentor, successful clothier Anthony Gatt, who seems to know everyone who is anyone. And there are Mary Quail and Marushka Yabadochka, partners who own and run Colourful Mary’s, a popular local restaurant. In this series, the fact that Quant’s gay is only part of his character and therefore of the novels featuring him. The stories are murder mysteries and that’s where Bidulka keeps the focus. In other words, Quant isn’t a self-consciously-gay PI. Rather, he’s a private investigator who is gay. There’s a big difference and that difference adds to these novels.

There are plenty of other crime fiction novels too that integrate gay and lesbian characters as “supporting cast members.” For instance, Kerry Greenwood’s sleuth Corinna Chapman is a Melbourne baker who lives and works in a Roman-style building called Insula. One of Chapman’s friends is Janet Warren whom Chapman met while she was in the accountancy business. In Heavenly Pleasures, Chapman has dinner with Warren and learns that Warren and her partner Mel are planning to move to Singapore. Along with catching up with an old friend, Chapman also wants some input from Warren about a top accountant leaving a large Melbourne firm and all sorts of rumours about shady dealing. It may be related to some frightening events that have been taking place at Insula so Chapman learns what she can from her friend. And that information proves useful as Chapman and her lover Daniel Cohen track down the truth behind the scary things that have been happening. There are other gay characters in this series too. For instance, in Earthly Delights we meet two of Chapman’s neighbours Kepler Li and his partner Jon, who met during one of Jon’s trips abroad. Greenwood focuses more on the personalities of these characters than she does on the fact that they’re homosexual.

In Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace, we meet Stockholm psychologist Siri Bergman. She’s trying to get through life after the death of her beloved husband Stefan and although she’s managing, she’s not doing what you’d call very well. Then one day she gets a letter that makes it clear she’s being stalked. Other frightening events happen too, culminating with the discovery of the body of Sara Matteus, one of Bergman’s clients, near Bergman’s own home. Bergman and her friend Aina Davidson seek some guidance from another friend Vijay Kumar, with whom Bergman went to graduate school. Kumar is a psychological profiler who gives Bergman valuable help in figuring out who might be stalking her. Kumar is also gay. What’s interesting about this character is that, like the characters in Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series, the fact that he’s gay is treated quite matter-of-factly.

And to me it’s a major step forward in crime fiction when a character is developed as a whole person regardless of that character’s personal life. It’s part of the reason crime fiction has evolved and grown as it has.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bronski Beat’s No Difference. There you go, Sarah!  😉


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Åsa Träff, Camilla Grebe, Kerry Greenwood, Mark Richard Zubro, Stella Duffy, Val McDermid, Victor Banis