Category Archives: Stella Duffy

I Wanna Be Online, Be Online*

Not very long ago, I was joking around with my granddaughter. At one point, she wanted to stop the goofiness so that she could tell me something she really wanted me to know. Her way of letting me know that was to say, ‘Pause game! Pause game!’ Among other things, it was a real reminder to me that the generations often do communicate very differently. And just that one comment is also, at least to me, an example of how much the digital age has impacted the way people communicate, especially young people.

If you’re around young people, you probably already know that. And it’s interesting to see how that sort of communication has crept into contemporary crime fiction. Arguably, there’s always been a difference between the way the generations communicate, but technology has certainly affected that gap.

In Stella Duffy’s The Hidden Room, for instance, we are introduced to Laurie and Martha, who’ve been married for some time, and are the proud parents of three teenage children. Life isn’t perfect (what life ever is?), but it’s a loving, caring family. And for Laurie, it’s therapaeutic. She grew up in a cult in the American desert, and didn’t permanently leave the group until she was a young adult. It’s been a difficult adjustment for her, but she’s done well. Everything changes when she and Martha begin to be concerned about their oldest daughter, Hope. She’s not eating or sleeping properly, and she’s become obsessed with dancing, to the point where it’s no longer healthy. Hope isn’t interested in listening to her parents’ good advice, though. As if that weren’t enough, a person from Laurie’s past has found her, and could very well rip the family apart. Now, Laurie will have to find a way to protect her family without revealing too much of her past. In the novel, we see the differences between the way Martha and Laurie communicate with each other and others, and the way that Hope does. And that change – the use of technology to reach out – plays a role in what happens.

Nathan Blackwell’s The Sound of Her Voice is the story of Auckland police detective Matt Buchanan. He’s seen some of the worst that people can do to each other, and it’s had a real impact on him. He’s got some symptoms of PTSD, and he works hard to keep himself in focus and doing his job. The one case that keeps him ‘on the job’ is the 1999 disappearance of Samantha Coates. She went missing one day while she was walking home from school, and has never been found. Not even a body has turned up. Every chance he has, Buchanan tries to follow up on the case, but so far, there’s been very little. Then, a few leads do start to surface. And it turns out that this case, and some other cases he’s working, could be much bigger and involved than he thought. Through it all, Buchanan stays human, if I can put it that way, through his relationship with his daughter, Hailey. He’s been raising her on his own since his wife died of cancer, and the two have a loving relationship. And it’s interesting to see how he reaches out to communicate with her in the way that she finds most comfortable. They text frequently, and he’s even learned some of the acronyms and other characteristics of today’s technologically-based communication. It’s part of what keeps them in contact.

Charity Norman’s See You in September begins as Cassy Howells plans a trip to New Zealand with her boyfriend, Hamish. They’ve just finished university, and want to have a chance to explore the world a little before settling down to adult responsibilities. The trip begins well enough, but it’s not long before there’s some tension between the two. Then, Cassy discovers to her shock that she’s pregnant. Hamish wants no part of being a father, so Cassy is left in a foreign country, alone and expecting a baby. She’s taken in by a group of people who live in an eco-friendly, completely sustainable commune. At first, it’s agreed that she’ll stay just until she gets on her feet and makes some decisions. But, as time goes by, she’s more and more drawn in to the cult’s lifestyle. Eventually, she chooses to join the group permanently. Meanwhile, Cassy’s parents, Diana and Mike, are very worried about her because she hasn’t been in contact with them. Her younger sister, Tara, is worried, too, and increasingly angry at the hurt Cassy is causing her family. Both Diana and Mike make trips from the UK, where they live, to New Zealand, to try to get Cassy to come home with them. The question is, though, whether they will succeed before what the cult leader has called the Last Day. If not, it could spell disaster. In this novel, it’s interesting to see the differences between the way Cassy’s parents try to reach her, and the way Tara does. Diana and Mike do send email, but they also make personal visits. Tara, on the other hand, uses Facebook and other online communication.

The main focus of Kazuhiro Kiuchi’s Shield of Straw is a train trip that Tokyo police detective Kazuki Mekari makes from Fukuoka to Tokyo. This is no ordinary journey, though. He and his team have been sent to Fuuoka to bring back a prisoner named Kunihide Kiyomaru, who is responsible for raping and murdering the granddaughter of wealthy business magnate Takaoki Ninagawa. Devastated by this loss, Ninagawa has placed a very public one-billion-yen bounty on Kiyomaru’s head. He’s even arranged to have a website built that explains the matter. Ads are placed in newspapers, too. As you can imagine, it’s a very tempting offer, and many people want their chance at the money. So, Mekari and his team will have to work quickly and carefully if they’re to bring their prisoner back alive. Throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how people, especially younger people, use technology such as GPS mapping and other apps to try to locate the team. It’s not that the older characters use no technology – they do. But the difference between generations is there.

Many young people have developed relationships that are completely online. For instance, one of the central plot points in Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? is an online forum called Netmammy. It’s a support group for new mums, and Yvonne Mulhern is grateful for the group’s camaraderie and advice when she finds out about it. She and her husband, Gerry, have recently moved from London to Dublin, and she hasn’t made a lot of ‘real life’ friends. It doesn’t help that, with Gerry busy with his new job, she’s the one who does most of the care for their infant daughter. When one of the group’s members goes ‘off the grid,’ Yvonne is just as concerned as she would be if she had met the woman personally. But the police can’t do much at first. Then, the body of an unknown woman is discovered in an empty apartment. If it’s the same person, this has all sorts of implications for Netmammy…

Modern technology has really changed the way people communicate. And, if you look at the way young people do so, you see that those advances have a powerful impact. That can make for real generational differences.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Houndmouth’s Modern Love.


Filed under Charity Norman, Kazuhiro Kiuchi, Nathan Blackell, Sinéad Crowley, 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