Mystery of the Month – Rules for Perfect Murders

What if writing a blog post could end in murder?

Malcolm ‘Mal’ Kershaw works at a Boston book store that specialises in mysteries, which is where Special Agent Gwen Mulvey finds him one wintry day. She wants to talk to Mal about a blog he wrote a few years ago – a list of eight perfect murders from popular mystery novels. Turns out someone has been inspired by Mal’s list, using it as a blueprint to commit real crimes. Mal is quick to offer his cooperation, agreeing to help Agent Mulvey in the hunt to find a twisted killer. But just like one of the big reveals in Malcolm’s favourite murders, the truth of what’s really going on is entirely unexpected.

Peter Swanson, author of The Kind Worth Killing and Before She Knew Him, uses his latest thriller Rules for Perfect Murders as an homage to Golden Age crime fiction authors like Agatha Christie and Patricia Highsmith, and contemporary bestsellers such as Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. For those readers familiar with the books on Mal’s list, it’s a welcome tribute, but for those who haven’t, there are some necessary spoilers.

Like all good psychological thrillers, Rules for Perfect Murders hinges on its intriguing narrator. And like all good narrators, Mal is an unreliable one. He even deliberately acknowledges this trend, questioning how the sudden popularity of unreliable narrators makes it seem as though “the omission of facts from a narrative hadn’t been the bedrock upon which psychological thrillers have been built for over a century”, citing Rebecca as an example well before Gone Girl ever hit the bestseller list.

As Mal throws us random pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, the full picture slowly becomes clearer, with each reveal more shocking that the one before. And as we learn more about Mal, and his deceased wife, Claire, it becomes eerily apparent that all of the characters are somehow connected to the murders. For the savvy readers who like to act as sleuth, there are plenty of opportunities to guess whodunit but the final twist may come as a surprise.

Peter Swanson demonstrates his expert knowledge of suspense thrillers and murder mysteries with a tale of vengeance, guilt and addiction, cleverly balancing some very dark moments with Mal’s mild-mannered narration. Rules for Perfect Murders is a truly fun read (as fun as a book about getting away with murder can be) and just the kind of perfect escapism for your self-isolation, or a great choice for your online book club.

Rules for Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson is published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and is published under the title Eight Perfect Murders in the US.

Standout Simile:

When (spoiler) first killed Eric Atwell, it was like popping a bottle of champagne. The cork was never going to go back into the bottle.

5 Must-Haves in A Psychological Thriller

The ‘psychological thriller’ isn’t a new genre, but it has seen an increase in popularity in the last decade or so. You know the books I’m talking about — the covers have large lettering, the titles usually include words like ‘Lies’ and ‘Secrets’, and the stories often involve female protagonists.

I recently penned a blog post about how I’ve decided to rewrite my cosy mystery novel as a psychological thriller. For inspiration, I’ve binge-read all of Ruth Ware‘s books. Ruth is the bestselling author of five psychological thrillers (In A Dark Dark Wood, The Lying Game, The Woman in Cabin 10, The Death of Mrs Westaway, and The Turn of the Key). Using her novels as examples (spoiler-free), I’ve come up with a list of 5 must-have elements in a psychological thriller.

1 – An ominous prologue.

These prologues set the tone for the rest of the novel and raise questions in the reader’s mind. They might be a scene from the long-ago past, or a taste of things to come. In Ruth Ware’s first novel, In A Dark Dark Wood, the main character wakes up in a hospital bed, unable to remember anything. How did she get there and why is she so badly injured? The story then returns to a time before the events of the prologue. The Lying Game opens with a a body part washing up on the beach. Using a prologue can be contentious, with several judges of novel competitions saying to leave them out. But perhaps Ruth Ware’s success suggests otherwise?

2 – An unreliable narrator.

It’s an unsettling experience reading a book where you aren’t certain you can believe the main character. They might be lying (e.g. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn) or they might have some kind of personal issue, such as a drinking dependency that triggers memory loss (e.g. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins). Ruth Ware has used this device to great effect in The Woman in Cabin 10, where the main character, Lo Blacklock, is certain she’s witnessed a murder. Only problem is that she’s a heavy drinker and no one believes her. In The Turn of the Key, the narrator tells the story through a long letter to a lawyer and it soon becomes apparent she’s omitted some major details about her life.

3 – An isolated setting.

There are several classic thriller novels that are famous for their use of isolated settings (e.g. The Shining by Stephen King). These stories play on the fear of being alone when there’s no one to call for help. All of Ruth Ware’s books use setting to create tension. For example, in The Turn of the Key, the main character is a nanny to three young children in a remote Scottish house. If she called the police, it would be a very long time before they arrived. The Woman in Cabin 10 is set on an elite cruise ship in the middle of the ocean with no phone reception. Add a murderer to the mix and you can be certain things won’t end well.

4 – A dead body.

Amidst all the shady behaviour and spooky settings, there’s gotta be a dead body somewhere, right? All of Ruth Ware’s novels involve a murder mystery. Halfway through In A Dark Dark Wood, someone gets shot at a hen party. The Lying Game opens with the discovery of a body part, and in The Death of Mrs Westaway, there‚Äôs a long-lost missing sister — so we can be sure that whatever has happened to her, it isn’t good. In The Turn of the Key, the main character is on trial for the murder of a child, but we don’t find out what really happened until the very end.

5 – A dramatic climax scene.

All suspense novels, not just psychological thrillers, should build towards some kind of showdown between the main character and the antagonist. These scenes have high stakes — think life or death situations. For example, in The Lying Game, the main character and her baby are trapped in a burning house that begins to fall down around them. In The Death of Mrs Westaway, the main character confronts the murderer on a frozen lake.

There are lots of different elements that go into making a thriller/suspense book a real page-turner for the reader. If you read several books by the same author you may notice they follow a specific pattern or formula. Do you have a favourite psychological thriller author? What tropes, techniques or plot devices do they use to amp up the suspense? I’ve finished binge-reading Ruth Ware: who should I binge-read next? Let me know in the comments below.

In the meantime, check out Ruth Ware’s novels — published in Australia by Penguin.

Mystery of the Month – Where the Truth Lies

Dedicated journalist Chrissie O’Brian thinks she’s onto a big story investigating a number of mysterious workplace accidents at the Melbourne Docklands. But her stories keep getting slashed and instead she’s assigned to a profile piece on solo female crane driver, Masina. Things take a sinister turn when Masina tells Chrissie she’s in danger, and then is found dead the next day – another ‘accident’. As Chrissie digs deeper, yet another worker is killed and a bloodied parcel turns up at her desk. She realises she’s onto something – and she has to get to the truth before it gets to her.

Karina Kilmore’s debut novel Where the Truth Lies is crime fiction at its finest with an intriguing mystery at its core – are these really workplace accidents or are they murders? The plot is complicated by an ongoing dispute between the unions and the wharves, missing cargo, dodgy crane records and financial trouble. Could the unions be staging accidents? Or are the wharves involved in large scale fraud?

Main characters in crime fiction typically have a dark past (that’s what makes them so interesting) and Chrissie is no different. She lives alone, self-medicating with alcohol and painkillers, trying to dull the pain from a past trauma, throwing herself into her work and taking comfort in neighbourhood stray cat, Skinny. The successful career she forged in New Zealand hasn’t translated to Australia; her senior position at The Argus newspaper was given to her as a favour and her news director resents her. But Chrissie’s backstory, involving the tragic loss of her husband and her downward spiral into self-blame and depression, is so heart-breaking that the reader cannot help but feel empathy for her and root for her to succeed.

Like Chrissie, Karina Kilmore is a New Zealand native who lives in Melbourne. An experienced journalist, Kilmore uses her knowledge to great advantage with vivid depictions of the newsroom, crammed with desks and people, and buzzing with noise from televisions, radios and phones. She brings the wharves to life with descriptions of the patchwork of coloured corrugated containers and picketers spinning their clicker rattles high in the air, chanting about safety.

The plot ticks along at a fast pace, the suspense increasing as the story speeds towards a revealing conclusion. Chrissie is hit with several gut-wrenching setbacks – just when she seems to be making headway, she’s forced backwards again. But like all compelling protagonists, she ploughs on, undeterred. Karina Kilmore’s confident writing style and talent for telling a great story, teamed with her flawed but extremely likeable main character, makes it easy to see why this novel was shortlisted for the Unpublished Manuscript Award at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards in 2017. Like Chrissie, you’ll be racing to the end to find out who, if anyone, is telling the truth.

Where the Truth Lies by Karina Kilmore is published by Simon & Schuster.

Standout Simile:

She could deal with the visions, the flashbacks, but her other senses remained raw, like bear traps they would jump out of nowhere, crush her throat and screech in her ears.

How to Guess Whodunnit in a Murder Mystery

If you enjoy reading whodunnits like I do, it might be because the puzzle of trying to guess the identity of the murderer has you completely hooked. A well-plotted mystery by a talented writer can have you up all night, turning the pages, demanding to know – who is it? Who is the killer? Will the author thwart you and pull the wool over your eyes? Lead you down the garden path with red herrings and misdirection only to shock you with a startling twist? The suspense is killing us all!

I’ve read (and watched) a lot of murder mysteries and have developed a list of characters you should watch out for if you want to correctly guess the murderer before the big reveal. But if you prefer to be surprised, don’t read on!

The “Really, Really Nice Person”

Who does the main character trust the most? Which characters are they closest to? Think best friends or favourite aunties. The person that the main character calls first when they need help. Someone they tell all their deepest, darkest secrets to. Or sometimes it’s a person who’s well-liked by everyone, the cornerstone of the community. The person who goes out of their way to be helpful with a friendly ear, a cup of tea and a pat on the back. Look out for this character. There’s a good chance that towards the end of the novel, they’ll use those secrets against our protagonist, lace their tea with arsenic or pat them on the back with a dagger.

The “Why Are You Here?”

Mystery writers are clever. Every character in the story has been deliberately included because they serve a specific purpose in driving the plot forward. So if there’s someone in the story who appears in several scenes but you’re halfway through and you think the story would be the same without this character – be suspicious. For example, I recently read a book where the main character’s daughter had a boyfriend. He kept cropping up in scenes. He had dialogue. But he was just there. He didn’t do much. But the point is exactly that – he was there. You get me? He was totally the murderer. Got ya.

The “Sure You Have An Alibi”

If a character has a rock solid alibi and couldn’t possibly have been at the scene of the crime at the time of the murder, then you should be giving them a massive raised eyebrow. If they’re telling you they were out of the country on business for two weeks around 3 January 2018 then I’m telling you they are LYING. Or if four potential suspects can confirm they didn’t leave a locked room all night when Mrs Winterbottom was thrown off the cruise ship, you can be certain that one of them is the killer. In short, if the author is trying to convince you it was physically impossible for it to have been them, then it was totally them.

The “Most Unlikely”

The least likely person is always the most shocking, which makes a great ‘what-the?!’ moment for readers who will be super impressed with the author’s plot twist wizardry. Think – children. I’ve read several murder mysteries where the culprit has been a child. The murderer is a child in my favourite Agatha Christie and in my favourite Victoria Holt. These characters behave as though they’re all sweetness and light and all the other characters are saying, “oh little Mary-Jane, you’re so cute, go and play with your dolls!” But as a reader, you’re getting the major creeps. That’s because you know Mary-Jane is really using human teeth to tile the floor of her doll’s house (yeah, you know what book I’m talking about).

Sometimes it’s easier to guess whodunnit when you become familiar with an author’s writing style. If they write several stories in the same genre, you might notice they stick to a similar formula with their mysteries. Or if you read a series of books with the same sleuth, you might start to recognise a pattern. Have you read any books where you were way off track with who you thought the killer was going to be? What’s been your favourite plot twist? Are there any ‘usual suspects’ I’ve forgotten to mention? Let me know in the comments below.

Mystery of the Month – In the Clearing

Amy is a young girl who has grown up in the Clearing with her family. She will do anything to please her mother, who has great plans for Amy and her brothers and sisters. But when Amy’s new sister joins their special family, her protestations and resistance cause Amy to question everything she has been taught about the outside world. Who can she trust when her own family encourages acts of depravity and violence?

Freya and her son, Billy, live in the bush in a home installed with electric roller shutters and panic buttons. Freya is paranoid that someone is watching her and plotting to abduct her son. It soon becomes clear that Freya was right to be afraid – Billy has gone missing. But who took him? Her ex? A dangerous man from her past? Or could Freya herself be somehow responsible?

Eventually Amy and Freya will unite but it won’t be in the way that you expected. From the chilling first chapter where Amy and her family plot to kidnap a young girl (their new ‘sister’), the story alternates between both viewpoints, and uses excerpts from Amy’s journal to describe horrific episodes of life within the Clearing. They are both unreliable narrators – Freya openly tells the reader that she has learned to wear a mask to appear normal, and Amy is battling what she calls ‘deviant thoughts’. As the novel progresses, we learn more about the secrets they’re hiding, and wonder if what they tell us about themselves and other characters is the truth.

Just like his debut bestseller Call Me Evie, J.P. Pomare has again written a story that will have you scratching your head, demanding to know “what on earth is going on here?” The answer to that question will have you turning page after page after page. A significant reveal occurs around the midpoint that will cause you to re-think everything you’ve just read, and then the twists continue until the very end – just when you think it’s safe to take your hand off the panic switch.

J.P. Pomare has a polished writing style – every sentence feels like it’s been carefully constructed and considered, but without leaving the reader feeling bogged down in description. In the Clearing is an all-consuming read that explores the sinister goings-on of life within a cult, using themes of paranoia, identity, manipulation, loyalty, trust, forgiveness, control and fear to create a truly dark and chilling tale – made even more so by the fact that the events were inspired by a true story.

In the Clearing by J.P. Pomare is published by Hachette.

Standout Simile:

I have a meanness in me, something black and rotten that swells like a lymph node. That’s how I imagine it, as a growth you could cut out.

Taking My Writing Goals Into A New Decade

As I’m planning my new writing goals, I thought I’d go back and reflect upon my original writing goal, which was to write a really good mystery novel – something I could be proud to say I authored. Something my friends could read and say they enjoyed, a real page-turner.

While I’ve now written a mystery novel, and I’m proud of that achievement, I’m not sure I can say it’s a really good mystery novel yet. There’s more work to do. The plan for 2020 will be how we are going to get there.

I’ve got four main things I’m keeping in mind:

  1. Feedback. This year, I received positive feedback on my manuscript from a professional agent. Mere weeks later I received negative feedback on the exact same piece of writing from a different professional – an editor. While I could have chosen to ruminate on the negative feedback, repeatedly visualising the way the editor sat in front of me and kept turning over the pages of my manuscript as though it were soiled toilet paper (okay, maybe I did ruminate too much), I instead sought advice from a third professional, another editor. I wrote a blog post about my experience. It was the best thing that happened to my writing all year and it’s this advice that I will be taking on board to make my manuscript the really good mystery that I set out to write at the start of this journey.
  2. Time management. I’m not good at it. To be fair, I’ve got a child and he’s just started walking but also to be fair, there’s only one of him. Plenty of writers have several walking children and still manage to churn out bestselling fiction. So instead of spending my free time searching for things I’ve misplaced, marvelling at the magical unicorn qualities of mummy bloggers on Instagram, or fretting about the amount of cat hair on the furniture, I need to use my tiny pieces of free time to focus on writing.
  3. Writing colleagues. The online writing community has been a wonderful support from the moment I commenced my writing journey. One of the best things that happened in 2019 was finally meeting some of these jolly good folks in person – my very first online writing pal Natalie Hennekam and my simile friend Sarah Fiddelaers. I also met some lovely writers at a writers retreat and again at a conference (hi Inda!), was honoured to be invited to attend a lady writers lunch, and was asked to join a writing group. I hope to continue meeting with fellow writers in the new year. Who wants to meet me? When’s the next cool hang? Are they called cool hangs?
  4. Continuous learning. I’m ending 2019 by going back to basics. Husband bought me two books (at the recommendation of writer pal Kali Napier) – James N. Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Thriller and How to Write a Damn Good Mystery. Aptly titled novels to help me achieve my goal of writing a really good mystery novel! Frey recommends doing several exercises before you start writing your novel, which I didn’t do at the time because I was too cool and just wanted to start writing the book. But now, as I’m doing rewrites, I’ve decided it’s never uncool to keep learning – so why not give these exercises a go? Hopefully I’ll be spending the rest of the summer character journalling to get into the psyche of my murderer. Happy times.

So that’s how I will be going into 2020 – keeping in mind professional advice, managing my time, making meaningful connections with like-minded writers and going back to basics by doing more writing exercises. I’m also going to do a copywriting course because I think that’d be really neat. Happy New Year!

Mystery of the Month – The Strangers We Know

Charlie’s seemingly perfect life comes to a devastating halt when she discovers her husband, Oliver, has a profile on a dating app. Instead of confronting him, Charlie creates a fake profile on the same app to catch him out. But then something unthinkable happens and suddenly the police want to speak to Charlie. Oliver isn’t the man she thought he was at all; turns out he’s involved with some very dangerous people. Charlie must now find the evidence that will prove her innocence before the real perpetrator catches up to her. But who can she trust?

What follows is a suspenseful pursuit around South West London as Charlie breaks into buildings, downloads secret documents and evades the police, until she ultimately finds herself right in the middle of the danger she has been trying to avoid.

The story is told in an easy, conversational first person narrative from Charlie’s point of view, which is witty and sardonic, and despite her rich and beautiful lifestyle (she’s an actress who works in a vintage clothing store in Notting Hill) has insecurities that make her relatable, ensuring the reader remains invested in her story.

Pip Drysdale, author of the bestselling thriller The Sunday Girl, takes the reader on a journey of cleverly placed cliffhangers as Charlie’s life gets increasingly worse. The writing is imaginative and colourful. Charlie, who thinks in movies and tv, describes her life as though she is playing a role on screen, where everyone you meet is the star of their own film and you’re just an extra. As she tries to act like the heroine of her own story, Charlie soon realises her life has become more crime thriller than romantic comedy.

A riveting roller coaster of relationships gone wrong and what ordinary people do when they’re placed in extraordinary situations, The Strangers We Know is a gripping thriller that you will read in a day and then recommend to all of your friends.

The Strangers We Know by Pip Drysdale is published by Simon and Schuster.

Standout Simile:

And in that moment, my life seemed like one of those tapestries Mum used to do when I was little: beautiful and neat on the front, but a knotted, tangled mess at the back.