Saturday, September 29, 2012

Cheryl Crane, IMITATION OF DEATH: Hollywood Mystery

Cheryl Crane is almost a distraction from her own books. Daughter of classic actress Lana Turner and actor-restaurateur Josef Stephen Crane, she and her mother also endured a murder trial that took over the news for a long time.

But Crane's writing is pure traditional mystery work, and a satisfying read. IMITATION OF DEATH is the second in her series featuring Hollywood Realtor Nikki Harper, whose famous actress mother can be quite a distraction from both real estate sales and accidental amateur sleuthing. Harper is sensible, savvy, and manages to keep an affectionate partnership with her mother, through all the complications of a job that takes her into the homes of the very wealthy, and her detective efforts that also take her to homes of blue-collar immigrant workers. Of course, there are also the complications that come with her mother Victoria, and Victoria's devoted assistants, like the loyal and handsome Amondo, who just may be more than an ordinary bodyguard. When murder takes place in the adjoining back yard (during a party, of course!), Nikki can't help getting drawn in to protect people she cares about:
By the time Amondo returned with a pair of shoes for Nikki (Bruno Magli vintage black flats, which went fabulously with her sweats and tee) the police had arrived in full force. The alley was full: black-and-white Beverly Hills precinct cars, two ambulances, and several unmarked police cars. Nikki sent Amondo back to the house to retrieve her cell phone and take her dogs out while she remained to answer the police officers' questions ... without giving up any information on Jorge. She needed to talk to him, first. Better yet, she needed to see him. But first, she had to deal with this mess.
Standing up for the Mexican Americans who are essential members of her mother's household, investigating an apparent frame job, and dodging danger, Nikki is an alluring protagonist whose sense of fashion, sense of humor, and sense of what's gone awry are all finely tuned.

And best of all, this series is maturing into a delicious portrait of healthy mother–daughter dynamics, in spite of the crime fiction atmosphere. I enjoy the deftly sketched moments like this one: "Nikki sighed, not quite comfortable with the emotion she heard in her mother's voice. It seemed as if she'd spent half her life trying to get Victoria's attention, but that spotlight, when she found it, was always too intense." Most of the time, these thoughtful asides fit quite nicely with the well-plotted crime-solving that Nikki pursues -- and the friendly affections that Crane portrays serve as a good counterweight to the grim reality of untimely death and racial profiling that Nikki witnesses.

As with Crane's first Nikki Harper novel, The Bad Always Die Twice, I picked up the book because I couldn't resist seeing what Crane would reveal about "her" Hollywood. And then, I just plain fell for the good-hearted characters and the clever twists of plot. Here's an enjoyable book for the bedside table that won't send you into the dark front rooms with a flashlight to check the locks -- but may send you to the kitchen to fix a modest midnight snack, so you can stay up and enjoy a few more chapters. At least, that's how it works at my house -- and at Nikki's!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Calendar Alert: Guest Posts and Author Event

October is just a few rainstorms away, and the mountain foliage is gorgeous here in Vermont. There's a lot to celebrate. Here at the blog, two guest authors next week enliven the stream:
*Monday October 1, Donna Fletcher Crow, on "a sense of place" in writing mysteries.
*Friday October 5, Carole Shmurak, on academic sleuths.
Both are intriguing, and I'm excited to share them. A reminder to guests: If you put your e-mail into the sign-up slot, you'll automatically get each post from the blog, landing in your e-mail. Great way to stay current ...

Also coming up in October: Yours truly will commute to the Brattleboro Literary Festival (Oct. 12-14) while the Boss holds the fort. I've got great companions for the weekend:

From Oct. 13 to Oct. 20, we're celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Dilys Award by reviewing a batch of award winners -- this is given by IMBA, the Independent Mystery Booksellers Assocation, each year to the book that the members have most enjoyed selling. We're especially honoring S.J. Rozan's book Ghost Hero this year, and we'll be giving away two signed copies of the book at our event for Archer Mayor on Oct. 20.

Yes, on October 20 at 2 pm, Kingdom Books welcomes Archer Mayor and his 23rd Joe Gunther book, PARADISE CITY (watch for the review as we get a bit close to the date). Please mark your calendar -- we'd love to have you join us.

Julia Keller, A KILLING IN THE HILLS: West Virginia Crime Fiction, Top Notch

When the front cover of a book has a blurb from Scott Turow, who can resist looking inside it? And when it starts as solidly as Julia Keller's first work of crime fiction, A KILLING IN THE HILLS, I'm glad to get lost in the pages. Last but not least, I love the cover -- my one visit to West Virginia convinced me it was nothing at all like my home state of Vermont, but the cover might as well be painted from a view near my own ridge.

So much for the starters. The good news is, every chapter of A KILLING IN THE HILLS is active, paced for taut suspense, highly believable, and worth the read. My only quarrel with the book was its last page, which I thought was too soft for a book this crisp and fierce and good. Small quarrel.

Bell Elkins, divorced with a teenaged daughter, holds the job of prosecutor in Acker's Gap, West Virginia. Like most small towns along the coasts of America (and increasingly, the heartland towns are getting the same thing), Acker's Gap is facing drug problems that stun the law enforcement professionals, attract the teens, and feed the wallets of the crude and manipulative. Bell's been aggressively working against the organized drug marketers that are overrunning her region -- struggling to cut off the dealers, and never even close to who's behind the many arms of evil.

The drawback, for this driven and tough-minded professional, is that she's spending so many hours at her job that her own daughter finds it easy to feel neglected by a mom who puts her job first. As the book opens, Carla's playing with her food at the diner where she's supposed to meet her mother -- who is, of course, late again. And the killing this teen witnesses is so sickening and shocking, it almost knocks her back onto her mother's side of things. Almost.

Meanwhile, the killer is having a blast.
Chill was flying high. He felt like he did after sex: nerved up, wound tight, polished to a high gloss. Some men got sleepy. Not Chill. He got antsy.

He'd just killed three people. And gotten away clean. ... Nobody touched him. Nobody ever would.
Unexpectedly, an unrelated case puts Bell into danger as she follows up on depositions, trying to decide whether to charge a mentally handicapped young man with murder in the death of his playmate. On her way back down a mountainside of hairpin turns, nursing her Explorer carefully along the narrow road, she reaches the most challenging curve and slows for it:
Without moving her head, her eyes flicked up to check the rearview mirror. Her heart gave a panicky lurch.

There was now a car right behind her. What the h---? she thought. She checked the mirror again. No mistake. The car wasn't slowing down. It seemed, in fact, to be speeding up. And it was right on track to smash into the back of the Explorer, just as Bell's momentum slung her into the nastiest curve on the mountain.
The gap between Bell and her daughter will plunge both of them into even more danger, as the novel deepens, always sustaining its powerful pace.

Julia Keller won a Pulitzer Prize during her journalism career, for a three-part series that she wrote for the Chicago Tribune. Although A KILLING IN THE HILLS is her first mystery, her narrative skills and sense of pace are already well developed. This book goes on the re-read shelf, to be savored again; I'm looking forward to Keller's future books, too. Check her website (pretty basic, so far) at

Thursday, September 20, 2012

John Knauf, THE ROPEWALK: Suspense in a Maine Winter

There is no place quite as empty as a school over vacation  -- especially when you believe you are the only one in the building. History teacher Egan Drummond, divorced and accustomed to being alone, chooses to stay in an old rope factory-turned-boarding school on the Maine coast during the bitter weather of Christmas break, to push forward in the research that he thinks will finally make his name in his field.

But all too soon, Drummond finds he is sharing the building with another teacher, Margaret, and her strange young daughter. And Margaret insists there is at least one more person on hand as well, tracking the night-time corridors and trying to get into her living quarters.

Skeptical but willing to play the resourceful man on scene, Drummond attempts to find out what's going on -- and swiftly discovers he is way over his head, historically, mythologically, and in terms of courageous and heroic expectations. (Flag for those whose interests focus on Native American history and beliefs: THE ROPEWALK includes a generous amount of material involving the Abenaki.)

This is an author-published book of nearly 500 pages, and I suspect a mainstream publisher would have cut it by 25 percent. The plot would have moved faster, and the tension perhaps would have held at a higher pitch. Yet the book is highly suspenseful as it is, and after two readings (hey, I couldn't decide about it ... it happens), I think the length does the job well: The tale is tautly spun, the character reactions as realistic as they are disturbing, and the paranormal complications all too believable, considering the dark aspects of local history and prehistory that Drummund investigates.

In spite of the term "investigates," this is far from a detection novel -- the dark force can't be said to be criminal, although it is powerful and frightening. If I kept a Stephen King collection, I'd shelve THE ROPEWALK on the next shelf.

The book has already picked up an Honorable Mention from the New England Book Festival and another at the New York Book Festival, and if paranormal horror in a highly credible northern New England setting is your niche, find a copy (or two: one to hold in pristine condition, the other to re-read, thumb back and forth in, ponder, as I did with mine). As with many other author-published efforts, THE ROPEWALK leaves me with double strands of curiosity: wondering what would have become of it had the author persisted with a formal publisher and top-notch editor; and wondering what the next novel from Connecticut author and esssayist John Knauf will be like. I'll certainly want to read it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Laurie R. King, GARMENT OF SHADOWS: A Morroccan Adventure

GARMENT OF SHADOWS is the 12th in the series that Laurie R. King offers featuring Sherlock Holmes and his late-in-life wife Mary Russell. The book is a good read as an adventure, with voices that alternate between Russell -- King's principal protagonist -- and Holmes. Evoking the postwar feel of 1924 (with a second war yet to materialize), it takes place entirely in the "exotic" atmosphere of Morocco. At the time, the mountains and deserts and bustling cities of the relatively small Islamic nation were being contested for possession as a colony by both France and Spain (which is just across the Straits of Gibraltar from Morocco). In King's deft hands, the roles of tribal (native Moroccan; Berber and other) conflict are also painted into the picture, with leaders whose descent from the prophet Mohammed could be documented and recognized.

For series readers, the plot follows smoothly from Russell and Holmes's adventures in Palestine, and brings back some compelling characters, as well as the international intrigue that often brushes against the famous detective's life because of his brother Mycroft's service to England. And the opening premise of the book is intriguing: Russell has suffered a severe head injury and doesn't even know her name, let alone her role with the world's most famous detective. Her path toward reconnecting with Holmes is fraught with peril, and she doesn't have any idea why she's being threatened. But she knows, in the way that physical training remains in the body, how to protect herself with hurled missiles, deftly twisted knives, and quick lies.

I think the book is best read as a political adventure, and the abundance of recent novels featuring this time period (crime fiction from Charles Todd and Jacqueline Winspear; postwar recovery novels by Pat Barker) prepares many readers to enter the narrative with perspective and excitement. Descriptions of Moroccan locales abound, including charming ones of marketplaces as Russell attempts to find her way and her memories:
I came to a more lively quarter with open shops. Men sat in some, all wearing the same calf-length, rough-spun robes but occasionally layered with a heavier burnoose. They wore a variety of head-coverings: Some had loosely wrapped lengths of cloth, others wore snug turbans that revealed the crowns of their heads and a single thin plait, some had the rigid caps called tarboosh or fez. The women picking over displays of onions and greens were for the most part veiled, although some went freely bare-faced. They all haggled: over the cost of lemons, the measure of olives, the quality of tin cups. Colourful displays of garments and tools spilt onto the street.
But Russell-without-memories soon questions her own automatic actions of self-preservation: "First an acrobat, now a pick-pocket. Had I escaped from some traveling circus?"

I found the story enjoyable, and the complications and twists to be startling, with a denouement that takes argument over motivations through several layers of complexity and doubt. There's no question that this is a dandy adventure in a little-known country, and fun to read. Readers may also enjoy (as I do!) the many photos that King provides of Morocco within her blog and website, and especially her Pinterest board:

On the other hand, there are two aspects I expected that aren't really in this book. One is the Holmes persona and themes; it would be hard to find any moment in the story that could raise a spirited argument among today's Baker Street Irregulars, for instance, because there is almost nothing that connects to the Sherlock Holmes of A. Conan Doyle's stories. Holmes in fact pursues almost no detection, and what Russell does is mostly dependent on secondary characters who show her what she needs to know or discover. It seems a pity to have abandoned the intrigue of detection, for the sake of the political maneuverings that add up to the "garment of shadows" of the title.

The second gap is the more serious for me, and will probably keep the book off my "keep this to re-read" shelf: There is very little depth of character to Russell here, and her struggles that King has portrayed so well in other titles of the series -- around being a woman in a man's world, defending her academic training, being a Jewish woman in a period of blatant anti-Semitism, working out the issues of a May-November marriage -- have vanished. The story remains on the surface, a travelogue with risks and escapes, rarely with inner conflict and certainly without character growth.

I know Laurie R. King can build more compelling books than this one; I hope her next, which is also in this series, will dip more deeply and give us more of the worthwhile struggle that takes a story into our own layers of inner questions and blossoming strengths.

Party! Party! And Free Books!!!

Kingdom Books is excited to join other members of IMBA, the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association, in celebrating Mystery Week this year, as well as honoring crime fiction author S.J.Rozan and her award-winning book GHOST HERO, and reminding you about the Dilys award -- IMBA's annual recognition of which book its members have most enjoyed selling in the past year. Naturally, Ghost Hero won a Dilys?

For a review of Ghost Hero, click here:

Party details: Kingdom Books will celebrate Mystery Week with IMBA during Oct. 13-20, with reviews on our blog ( each day that focus on S. J. Rozan's books and those of other Dilys-awarded authors. Tour week will climax on Saturday Oct. 20 with an author event here at 2 pm with Vermont author Archer Mayor (and his new book PARADISE CITY), at which there will be a drawing for two books: one of Archer's, and one by S. J. Rozan. If you're coming to Vermont, please let us know so we can save you a seat! and 802-751-8374.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Karen McCullough, Mystery Author, Mutiple Genres

It's a pleasure to welcome Karen McCullough as guest author here today. We share authorship in Stacy Juba's amazing authors' anthology 25 Years in the Rear View Mirror -- and I was excited to discover the wide range of books Karen writes. It works well for her, and she's willing to talk about how the genres blend in her writing life.

Writing Across Genres

I’ve been writing for almost thirty years now and I’ve been published for twenty of those. I write mystery, romantic suspense, paranormal, fantasy, romance, and science fiction. Frequently I combine several genres in the same book. 

Nearly all my books are described with more than a single genre label. A GIFT FOR MURDER is mystery with romantic elements, while A QUESTION OF FIRE is romantic suspense and WIZARD’S BRIDGE is romantic fantasy.  I recently outdid myself for crossing genres with my original ebook, MAGIC, MURDER AND MICROCIRCUITS, which (I swear!) has elements of mystery, fantasy, suspense, adventure, romance, and possibly science fiction.

It’s fun to let my imagination take me wherever it wants to go, but it’s not a great strategy for career success.

Most people who build a following do so by writing a series of similar books or at least books in the same genre. Think Stephen King, Janet Evanovich, J.K. Rowling, etc.  (Some are even accused of writing the same book over and over, but that’s a different blog post.) Most authors find success only when they are known for doing a particular kind of book or series. Not necessarily the same book, but similar to each other in some important ways. Publishers and fans expect it.

So I knew that writing so many different sorts of books would practically guarantee I’d never go far in the publishing world. And yet I’ve done it anyway.

I had to.  
I don’t know if I have a short attention span or get bored easily, but I find it drains me to do two books in a row in the same genre.  I keep wanting to do something new and different with each new story I start. I need a new challenge, a fresh direction.

It’s not like I’ve ever made a decision to write in multiple genres. It’s just worked out that way. I can only write the stories my creative brain comes up with. Apparently I have a wide-ranging imagination, and one that refuses to be contained in the same box time after time. 

When it came down to making a choice between writing what needed to be written and writing what might give me a chance for a more successful career, I chose the path of writing what I had to write. 

Karen McCullough is the author of more than a dozen published novels in the mystery, romantic suspense, and fantasy genres and has won numerous awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and small press publications in the fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. Karen McCullough invites you to visit her website at and her blog at

SPECIAL TREAT: Pick up a free copy of the anthology 25 Years in the Rear View Mirror with this link: At checkout, type this code: KP74F. Many thanks to editor Stacy Juba for making this available!

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Now in Softcover: THE INNOCENT, from Taylor Stevens

I recommend the technologically sophisticated, globally based thrillers by Taylor Stevens pretty often: The Informationist, and The Innocent. Both feature Vanessa Michael Munroe, a consultant whose past gives her invaluable insight that adds to her tech-savvy corporate analyses of terrible situations. The first is set in Africa, and the second in Argentina.

So here's a quick heads-up: The Informationist just came out a couple of weeks ago in softcover. I'll put the cover art here, in case you're browsing a real shelf of books. Crown Publishing/Ballantine sent us a copy; now we've got the usual book-lover dilemma: keep it on our own shelf next to the hardcover, or ... put it in the shop and let someone else have a chance to read it?

YA Mystery/Speculative Fiction: DON'T TURN AROUND, by Michell Gagnon

Michelle Gagnon's thrillers -- The Tunnels, Boneyard, The Gatekeeper, and Kidnap and Ransom -- come with blurbs from well-known writers at the top of the thriller trade, like Harlan Coben and Jeffrey Deaver. With DON'T TURN AROUND she's brought out a "young adult" thriller, with high-tension plot, compelling characters, and a techno motif that gives us a heroine and hero from that mysterious group we love to imagine: the top teenaged hackers.

When 16-year-old Noa Torson wakes up in a strange bed, her chest aching from a mysterious operation,  and an IV dangling from her arm, instead of her trademark jade bracelet, she snaps into action far sooner than anyone around her expects, and in a matter of minutes, she's on the run. But from whom? And what's been done to her body -- and why?

From a background completely different from Noa's street-life self-taught hacker existence, Peter Gregory, wealthy but distressed teen, has only known Noa through the wall of online anonymity. But he knows enough to respect her, and to believe her, even though the story she's engaging him in is scary, powerful, and increasingly dangerous.
The guy scanned the room, eyes glancing off Noa. Had they hesitated before continuing on to the girl behing the counter?

Michelle Gagnon
Maybe she was being paranoid, but it felt like a weird tense energy had overtaken the room. Like something really, really bad was about to happen.
This is the fiction you've been waiting for if you picked up the YA medical thriller Virals from Kathy Reichs but regretted the lack of daring science and Internet stuff in it; or the one you realized might get written after you got a look into We Are Anonymous, the (presumably) nonfiction book that explores the world of hackers. Underneath all that, it's a girl-and-boy suspense thriller with plenty of chase scenes and risk.

Amaze the teen in your life: Give a copy of DON'T TURN AROUND. She or he will be totally amazed that you get this kind of thing.

Oh yeah -- make time to read it yourself, before you give it away. If you've ever savored a medical thriller, a fierce work of speculative fiction, something by Michael Crichton, or (admit it) Jules Verne or Madeleine L'Engle, DON'T TURN AROUND may delight you. I like it -- and I absolutely endorse the cover art, which to me feels like Psycho updated.

One last note: Is a thriller a mystery? After you read this one, let me know how it's shaped your opinion.

Fantastic Event -- Thank You, Carla Neggers!

Every seat was filled for today's author event with Carla Neggers, and an hour of listening flew past, as she offered stories of her writing life (starting by climbing a tree with a pad and pencil -- there were others here who'd started the same way!), her expert sources (from a whiskey pro to a detective to a friend willing to phone the U.S. Marshalls), and her varied series of romantic suspense (and one new series, the Swift River one, that's  romance but not exactly suspense -- more like "puzzles" to unravel).

Although we sold right out of copies of her new title, HERON'S COVE, and its predecessor, Saint's Gate, we'll be restocking. And we still have some copies of Whisper and of Mist. 

And I can hardly wait for two new books from this author, coming soon: the third in the current series, titled Declan's Cross, and a promised e-novella that will be a prequel to all three.

Donna Leon, BEASTLY THINGS: Italy and Animal Cruelty (Another Short Mention)

You'll need a strong stomach for BEASTLY THINGS, this year's offering in the Commissario Guido Brunetti series from Donna Leon. It's not the murder that's so upsetting this time -- and there are plenty of warmly interesting scenes with Signora Elettra at the "office" and Guido's reassuringly sane family at home.

But the murder is rooted in the wholesale animal butchering necessary to feed an omnivorous city, Venice, and the details are powerful. When Brunetti takes along his sidekick Vianello to see what had worried the victim of the crime, they're unprepared for the horror inside the slaughterhouse.
Vianello broke first. He pushed past Brunetti, no longer concerned with Bianchi and his opinion, or any opinion at all, and staggered drunkenly to the door. He pushed at is uselessly, then pounded it twice and gave it a kick. ... Brunetti could see Vianello walking away from them, one hand raised to shoulder height beside him, as if to keep it there, ready to grab on to the wire wall of the walkway should he not be able to continue.
A good read, with all the best reassurances of a sturdy and enjoyable crime/police series, and a disturbing aftertaste that may change your approach to dinner. Glad to see that Leon finally has a pro website, on which there are some great resources to explore:

Tana French, BROKEN HARBOR: Short Mention

US cover

UK cover
There's already been a lot written about Tana French's series of "Dublin Murder Squad" police investigations, and BROKEN HARBOR is the fourth -- this time featuring Detective Michael "Scorcher" Kennedy, along with his trainee partner Richie Curran. Each book draws a new protagonist from the secondary characters of the books before it; Detective Kennedy hasn't yet quite recovered from the debacle revealed in Faithful Place (yes, maybe a little better if you read it first but you don't need to). And his family life is a high-tension act of love and stress, and his interior flattened to survive. Because Mick has given up sexuality for the most part, interestingly, French's personal voice seems to come through more clearly in this one -- a voice of grief and longing for what Ireland could be, but maybe will never see again.

For me, it's been fascinating to pair this with John Kelly's new book on the Irish "potato famine" of 1845/1846, The Graves Are Walking. And of course to keep retracing the fury and violence in Stuart Neville's grim and graphic Irish crime fiction -- where the present is linked so clearly to the colonialism and poverty of the past.

BROKEN HARBOR is especially well titled, for the sense of betrayed safety evoked over and over again in Mick's investigation. I'm glad I read it in summertime, where I could go outside and remember that goodness happens at least as often as disaster. It happens for Detective Kennedy, too, but he has to work a lot harder to find it and it's always escaping him.

Check out the two cover designs, by the way -- US and European. Opinions, anyone?

Saturday, September 08, 2012


Published two weeks ago, already in fifth printing.
There were at least two times during the Canadian pre-release launch party when author Louise Penny had to hush members of her 200-person audience who'd already read THE BEAUTIFUL MYSTERY in advance. He voice rose over theirs in urgent interruption as she warned, "Don't say too much!"

So -- I've just finished reading the book. I wept at the end. And I'm not going to say very much more. Here is what I do need to say about this eighth Chief Inspector Armand Gamache book:

1. This time, you need to read the books that go before ... if you can't make time to read all of them (and I am the first to admit that STILL LIFE, the earliest of the series, starts slowly), at least read the three that precede this one: The Brutal Telling, Bury Your Dead, and A Trick of the Light. It will make a huge difference, I believe, to how deeply this latest book moves you and how clearly you hear and see the interplay of good and evil within it.

2. Ignore the readers and reviewers who are still trying to call this series "cozy" because so much of the action -- none of it in this latest book, though -- takes place in the village of Three Pines. You might with as much sense call Dante's Inferno a romance because it involves a man and a woman.

3. Our local newspaper, The Caledonian-Record, has chosen this season to air a 20-article series on how our beautiful, exhilarating, full-hearted region of Vermont, called the Northeast Kingdom, is also threaded through by disaster. One might say, by evil. Reading THE BEAUTIFUL MYSTERY confirms for me the names of the deepest forms of evil we're seeing in our culture. ... But it also reminds me that we can summon the courage and unity (and faith, by whatever name) to go forward and increase the amount of goodness and light around us.

Thanks, Louise, for daring so much.

Friday, September 07, 2012

When a Suspense Novel Is "Gothic": Vicki Delany and MORE THAN SORROW

This evening we welcome Canadian mystery author Vicki Delany to the Kingdom Books blog, to talk about a subgenre of mysteries that's getting fresh attention. Delany's newest book, MORE THAN SORROW, is a stand-alone (a break from her well-loved Constable Molly Smith series set in British Columbia  and her Yukon historicals), and while all the necessities of suspense are present -- a compelling protagonist, Hannah Manning, whose traumatic brain injury may have ended her career as an international journalist and war correspondent; threats against property and life; criminals with pathological approaches -- there's also a haunting strand of something less common, something airing a scent of evil out of Ontario's past.

But I'll let Vicki tell you about this approach:

The Modern Gothic Novel
By Vicki Delany
Sept 2012

Mention Gothic novels to ten people and you’ll get eleven different interpretations of what that means.
About all we seem to agree on is that it doesn’t mean a cozy or a comedy.
In the mid-to-late Twentieth Century the Gothic novel was the sort written by the likes of Victoria Holt or Mary Stewart that I grew up loving. Think of penniless governesses, crumbling Scottish castles, brooding, handsome aristocrats.  A dark secret in the family’s past. Always a dark secret.
Today the Gothic has been updated and the novels I love are sometimes called Modern Gothic, or British Gothic.
First, what they are NOT: No vampires.  No ghost hunters. Not horror. And probably not anyone you might call ‘goth’.
I go with Kate Morton’s definition.  In the afterword to her hugely successful novel The House at Riverton, Kate Morton describes the Gothic:  The haunting of the present by the past; the insistence of family secrets; return of the repressed; the centrality of inheritance (material, psychological and physical); haunted houses (particularly haunting of a metaphorical nature); suspicion concerning new technology and changing methods; the entrapment of women (whether physical or social) and associated claustrophobia; character doubling; the unreliability of memory and the partial nature of history; mysteries and the unseen; confessional narrative; and embedded texts. 
The Modern Gothic can be a ‘dark mystery’ but usually only in the psychological sense.  Michael Koryta calls his brilliant novel So Cold The River a Gothic and it is because it involves many of Morton’s definitions, but in it the paranormal presence is malevolent.  That is defiantly not always, in fact not usually, the case. 
 Haunting of a metaphorical nature.” The modern Gothic may not even have a ghost story or paranormal aspect.  If there is a supernatural element it serves as a device to reveal the secrets of the past to the characters and the reader. 
  Kate Morton’s books, for example, have no paranormal elements.   In many books the suspected paranormal turns out to have a rational explanation after all, as in Carol Goodman’s Arcadia Falls.   In Peter Robinson’s Before the Poison the protagonist is ‘haunted’ not by a ghost but by the story of a woman who lived in his new house sixty years early and was accused of a dreadful crime, a crime that had to do with ‘the entrapment of women’.   If there is a paranormal element it is more likely to be benign or even helpful as in, for example, Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane , rather than dripping evil.
Sometimes, that’s the question.  In my new novel More than Sorrow the protagonist, Hannah Manning, believes there’s something moving down in the dark damp root cellar. But Hannah is recovering from Traumatic Brain Injury caused by an IED explosion in Afghanistan.  So, both the reader and Hannah wonder, is there really a woman down there, or is she only the hallucinations of an injured mind?
 Which would be worse?
Contrary to popular opinion, Gothic doesn’t automatically mean romantic suspense. Romance is often a minor component, if there’s any at all, (e.g. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton or Blood Harvest by S.J. Bolton.)  (Whereas in a Gothic romantic suspense novel, such as written by Susanna Kearsley, the romance is up front and prominent.)
The modern Gothic mystery novel can also be called a ‘psychological suspense’.  What defines it as ‘gothic’ I think is the centrality of setting. There is a house, a hotel, some old building with a long past, and most of the plot centres around and takes place in this building or property.  E.g. Michael Kortya again in The Cypress House .  Tana French’s The Likeness is set almost exclusively in crumbling Irish manor house and has very much to do with the “unreliability of memory” yet there is not the slightest hint of a paranormal element or romance.
Do you love the modern Gothic, or remember much loved books from the past? Why not share some names with us.
Vicki Delany is one of Canada’s most varied and prolific crime writers.  Her popular Constable Molly Smith series (including In the Shadow of the Glacier and Among the Departed) have been optioned for TV by Brightlight Pictures.  She also writes standalone novels of psychological suspense, as well as a light-hearted historical series, (Gold Digger, Gold Mountain), set in the raucous heyday of the Klondike Gold Rush.  
Vicki’s newest book is More than Sorrow, a standalone novel published by Poisoned Pen Press.  In a starred review, Library Journal called the book, “a splendid Gothic thriller.”
Having taken early retirement from her job as a systems analyst in the high-pressure financial world, Vicki is settling down to the rural life in bucolic, Prince Edward County, Ontario where she rarely wears a watch.
Visit Vicki at ,, and twitter: @vickidelany. She blogs about the writing life at One Woman Crime Wave ( 

Thursday, September 06, 2012

If You're Reading Louise Penny, Grab Vicki Delany's New MORE THAN SORROW

I'm a committed fan of Vicki Delany's police series featuring Constable Molly Smith, with its solid traditional mystery format and beguiling protagonist. So I took a leap of faith and picked up her newest title, which is NOT part of that series. Instead, MORE THAN SORROW (Library Journal starred review!) is a gothic novel: that is, a dark, suspenseful work of fiction that hinges on the disturbances within its characters. There may indeed be crime involved also, and that's certainly true of MORE THAN SORROW, where death threats and other criminal activities have destroyed the idyllic back-to-the-land organic commitment at the little vegetable farm owned by Hannah Manning's sister.

But it's Hannah who's fascinating here: An internationally recognized war journalist, she's recuperating at her sister's home, from a traumatic brain injury that threatens to rob her of more than her career. Plagued by debilitating migraines, unexpected collapses, and frightening flashbacks to the "IED" that blew her life into grief and loss, Hannah reaches out to an Afghan refugee staying on a neighboring property in the rolling fields and woods of Prince Edward County, Ontario.

If you read my "headline," by now you are saying, "What on earth does this have to do with Louise Penny's books? Is it just that this is another Canadian author?"

Much more than that.

Penny's Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, set in Three Pines, is a dark exploration of how murder arrives within "nice" communities, grows from otherwise tender hearts, roots in compromises of loyalty and integrity. And is seeded by the past. Three Pines, in fact, is named for the three pine trees planted (and since then, re-planted) by "Loyalist" settlers of the region -- British citizens appalled by the rebellion taking place in America. I've mostly ignored that aspect while reading Penny's crime fiction, while chasing her compelling characters and plot. But listening to her last week, I realized that the tension between the Loyalist settlers and today's French Canadians is a large part of the roiling tension underlying her Gamache series.

And that brings me back to Delany's MORE  THAN SORROW, in which Hannah Manning -- unable to make her damaged brain/eye circuits cope with typed pages of today's books -- grows obsessed with old hand-written letters that document the 1784 Loyalist refugees from America, who arrived in Canada and had to put their once-wealthy, cultured lives on hold, while becoming farmers. And for letter writer Maggie Macgregor, whose husband and child are dead and whose "extended family" has brought her to this harsh northern frontier, there are worse consequences than laboring with her hands. Will she be sexually abused as well? Hannah's own brain injury somehow short-circuits into Maggie's life, and the puzzle of three refugees -- Hannah, Maggie, and Afghani Hila Popalzai -- takes on risk and tension, especially threatening to Hannah's ten-year-old niece Lila, who may be the only person who still believes and adores her aunt.

As Hannah begins to grapple with solving the criminal threats to her community, she also struggles to regain her old capacities. And she works against something darker, that ineffable something that makes a modern Gothic novel dig its way into our own doubts and fears.
An explosion. A car on fire. Guns going off. Men firing rifles and cheering the flames on. Women weeping horror. Children screaming, calling for their mothers.
That's Hannah's recollection. But it connects in haunting fashion with the letters in her fist.

So -- not only is this a great read to gather a sense of the Loyalist history that threads through Prince Edward County, Ontario, Canada (and lies under the Louise Penny setting in Three Pines). It's also a disturbing and ultimately confirming exploration of how one woman takes a stand in her own life. Thanks, Vicki Delany; I'll keep thinking of Hannah, as I explore more of your books.

SPECIAL NOTE!! Vicki Delany explores what "the modern Gothic novel" is, and why it is that way, from the point of view of an expert in several fiction genres. Check out her guest post here in the evening on Friday Sept. 7. We've got a lot to enjoy in this!

Calendar Alert: Carla Neggers Sept. 9, Vicki Delany Sept. 7

The newest books are arriving, the book room is getting happily rearranged, and we are very excited to be hosting Carla Neggers -- author of more than 70 books, most recently the highly enjoyable romantic suspense HERON'S COVE (set in Maine) -- here on Sunday Sept. 9 at 1 p.m. Hope you can be here! If you need a signed copy but can't make it to Vermont this time, contact Dave directly and he'll set one aside for you (

By the way, I am fascinated by Carla's Pinterest site: It's a great example of how photos enrich fiction and give us insight into authors and their books. I followed up on the pix on her "Fabulous Russian Jewelry" Pinterest board and found the ring shown here, from the jewelry business Romanov Russia ( What do Russian jewels have to do with suspense? Come on, read the book (or review -- click here) and/or come meet author Carla Neggers!

While you're marking your calendar, TOMORROW EVENING Friday Sept. 7, Canadian mystery author Vicki Delany posts here as our guest, with a thoughtful and knowledgeable contribution on "The Modern Gothic Novel." Yes, that has a lot to do with today's mysteries, as well as a wider range of fiction. Stop in and check it out!