Mystery of the Month – Blood River

It’s Brisbane, 1999. Three men have been savagely murdered during a flood. Lara Ocean, a fledgling homicide detective of seven months and her veteran partner, Billy Waterson, arrest seventeen-year-old student, Jen White. The media labels Jen ‘The Slayer’ and she is sentenced to life in prison.

Twenty years later and Queensland is in drought. Jen is released on parole and Lara is now the Police Commissioner. The Attorney-General threatens to terminate the president of the parole board and all its members unless they put Jen back in prison. Meanwhile, The Slayer plans to take advantage of Jen’s release – they will kill again, unless Jen can find a way to stop them.

Blood River is the first standalone novel from Australian author, writer and producer, Tony Cavanaugh, who is the author of the Darian Richards series. He is also responsible for a long list of memorable Australian productions including the award-winning mini-series The Day of the Roses and the story of the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain, Through My Eyes, as well as a writer/editor for the television game show series Cluedo, which, despite what his website bio states, I haven’t forgotten and it wasn’t dreadful!

Female detectives are becoming more prevalent in Australian crime fiction, with Sarah Bailey’s Gemma Woodstock novels (The Dark Lake, Into the Night), and James Patterson and Candice Fox’s Detective Harriet Blue series topping recent bestseller lists. Lara Ocean is another intriguing, flawed and carefully rendered protagonist, a tenacious detective with a complicated backstory spurred by rebellion – drug use and dangerous boyfriends. We meet her in 1999 through the eyes of another character – “the youngest detective in the Squad, ever, a twentysomething Asian with dyed blonde hair”. She’s busy trying to balance the pressure from her traditionalist mother to get married and have babies with her desire to work her way to the top of the police force.

Blood River bounces between many different viewpoints with the narrative separated into five parts, each beginning with lyrics from the African-American spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep”. It’s the first person narration from Lara and from Jen that drive the story forward – both engaging characters with strong voices. There are also scenes with an omniscient viewpoint scattered throughout, including two graduate engineers who stand staring at the rising waters of the Wivenhoe Dam, trying to decide if they should open the sluice gates. The effect of these varying viewpoints is as though the reader is watching a movie, which is hardly surprising given Cavanaugh’s lucrative career writing and producing for screen. He also has an excellent and almost disturbing grasp of the voice of The Slayer to the point where, on several occasions, I nearly skipped to the next section because I couldn’t bear to be inside their twisted mind any longer.

With the majority of Australian crime fiction set in and around Sydney or Melbourne, I was interested to read a novel set in Brisbane, especially having enjoyed recent local crime drama, Harrow (ABC), which is filmed predominately in Brisbane. The Blood River murders occur at the iconic Kangaroo Point cliffs and the Brisbane Botanical Gardens, with several other notable locations also featured – the Breakfast Creek Hotel, Racecourse Road and the upmarket suburb of Ascot. The feel of Brisbane is expertly painted onto the page with descriptions of jacaranda trees lining the footpaths, tumble-down Queenslanders, and of course, the sub-tropical humidity and fierce heat of a Brisbane summer. The fictional murders are grounded in real-life local crimes, some of the gruesome details being quite similar to the 1989 Brisbane ‘Vampire Killer’.

In an interview with Hachette, Tony Cavanaugh states he was keen to explore the notion of the doppelgänger and there are many dualities and contrasts throughout Blood River – 1999 versus 2019, the odd coupling of Lara and Billy, flood versus drought; and within the lives of each main character – Lara’s chequered past is the opposite side of the coin to her professional and upstanding future as a Police Commissioner; Jen’s innocence versus the necessity for her to find the killer inside so she can have a future; and, the real killer, who is living a lie and waits like a dormant volcano ready to wake up for one last hurrah.

Another thing I found clever were the name choices for each character – an Ocean and a Waterson introduced during a flood, and I think the real name of The Slayer may have been chosen due to it’s connection to a drought, but I won’t say anything further here in case I give it away.

The mystery of The Slayer’s identity had me intrigued and as it turns out, I did correctly guess the killer earlier in the novel (an instinctive choice), but then became distracted by red herrings, only to discover I’d been right at the start. The author has planted enough crafty clues to enable the reader to guess correctly – but beware of sneaky misdirection (or if you prefer, you can enjoy being tricked).

A solid piece of entertaining, clever, and thoughtful crime fiction, Blood River was a story I read quickly, eager to find out what was going to happen, and which stayed with me long after I’d finished.

Blood River by Tony Cavanaugh is published by Hachette Australia.

Standout Simile:

‘Yes?’ I said to Billy, still looking out the window at the mass of brown river water, flowing under the Victoria Bridge on its journey downstream to the ocean like an impatient humbering flow of low beasts.

Final Thoughts Reading My Final Draft

Some time ago I wrote a blog post First Thoughts Reading My First Draft. I shared some of the earth-shattering thoughts that popped into my mind during my very first proper read through. It was amazing. Check it out.

Now, many moons later, I’ve read my novel about 26,359 times and it’s beginning to lose all meaning. I may as well be looking at Egyptian hieroglyphs. (I’d rather be looking at Egyptian hieroglyphs because they are fascinating). I’ve also lost count of which draft number I am up to, and have been referring to this one as Eleventy-Threeve. The final draft. Final – meaning it’s at a stage where I can’t go much further without involving someone else, whether that be beta readers, editors, etc. Not actually final, in that it’s going to be published like this. Oh ho ho, no no no.

Without further ado, here are some (fairly superficial) thoughts I had, and recorded, while reading Draft Eleventy-Threeve:

  • There’s a bit of drinking that occurs in my novel, and for some reason, the characters just love to hold their glasses ‘aloft’. They can’t just hold their glasses. They hold them ‘aloft’. Despite this observation, there are not too many spillages of the contents of the glass, only a few.
  • Many things are ‘wedged’ – shoes into suitcases, people between other people, bottles of wine (drinks again) onto tables… There is an overall sense that everything is very cramped and therefore, that objects must be wedged in order to fit amongst other objects.
  • I am very specific about which hand characters hold things in. I’ve got a character holding a bag in their right hand and a plate of chips in their left hand. And another character has a phone in their left hand and their right hand is in their pocket. I’m apparently unable to leave readers wondering what the right hand is doing, if I’ve placed an object into their left hand, and vice versa.
  • It’s breezy in the fictional town of Coveton where my novel is set. I counted 23 breezes in total. Breezes occur daily in real life – multiple times per day, in fact. I’m even witnessing a breeze this very moment. Therefore, this is totally acceptable in fiction, no? Readers will surely question the realism of the setting if there hasn’t been a breeze in a while.
  • Not only are characters holding things specifically in their right and/or left hands, they are also turning. A lot. They turn to other characters frequently. Over 100 times in 300 pages of story. But – how else will the reader know who they are talking to or looking at, if they don’t turn to face them, riiiight?
  • If I thought turning was in excess, imagine how shocked I was to discover 135 instances of sitting. But be honest – are you sitting right now?
  • And speaking of sitting, all the chairs in Coveton are swivel chairs. Everyone is swivelling in their damn chairs.
  • A mention of ‘two halves’. Well, yes. Isn’t that obvious?
  • All the characters are ‘making their way’. They ‘make their way’ down a hallway. They ‘make their way’ across the lawn. This phrase will ‘make it’s way’ off the page with a bit of help from the backspace key.
  • A caution on research. Double check your facts! I was certain that ‘sating’ was an exciting new fabric I hadn’t heard of but it turns out that it was a misspelling of ‘satin’. Look, I don’t know much about sewing or fabric. But what I do now know, is that main character Sylvie’s dress is made of satin, not sating. Thank you.
  • My girl Sylvie has some pent up aggression. At least five times in the story, she mentions wanting to slap someone or shake some sense into them. And you know what? I’m leaving those in.
  • Everyone is still pretty sweaty.
  • Again, I can still read this a lot faster than I would a published book. Why? Is it because I know what’s going to happen? Is it because I’ve essentially memorised it?
  • Good news. The story works a lot better in first person. (At the first draft read-through, it was in third person).

There you have it! Even though it’s not really the final, final draft, I feel a sense of achievement at having gotten to this stage. What happens next remains to be seen. I will reflect on that as I turn to my husband and hold my glass aloft in a toast to my success, while a tranquil autumn breeze floats through the open window. (And I’m legit sitting on a swivel chair right now). Hurrah!

Mystery of the Month – The Stranger Diaries

What if you found a secret message in your diary, only you hadn’t written it?

This is one of many creepy moments in The Stranger Diaries, the first standalone novel from British novelist Elly Griffiths, who is better known for her long-running Ruth Galloway mystery series.

English teacher Clare Cassidy runs a creative writing class in a spooky old building at Talgarth High. She is also writing a biography of Victorian author R.M. Holland, who used to reside in the very same building and whose study has been left eerily untouched since his death. Clare learns her colleague and friend, Ella Elphick has been murdered, and is disturbed to hear there was a note found with Ella’s body with a quote from The Stranger, a short ghost story written by Holland – and one that Clare teaches in her class. When Clare finds a message from a stranger in her private diary, astute detective Harbinder Kaur realises the handwriting matches the note found next to Ella and believes the killer has a connection with Clare.

The story is told from the points of view of Clare, DS Kaur and Georgia, Clare’s fifteen-year-old daughter who, unbeknownst to her mother, is part of a secret group who write online journals. These alternating viewpoints provide an often amusing insight into what Clare and DS Kaur really think of each other and, quite humorously, how wise-beyond-her-years Georgia is playing her mother by telling her what she thinks she wants to hear. There’s also a story within the story – the novel opens with the first pages of The Stranger, setting a mysterious and ominous tone from the outset, continuing in sections throughout the novel before being repeated in full at the conclusion to great dramatic effect.

Clare, Harbinder and Georgia are nuanced, authentic characters with voices that come to life on the page. DS Kaur is particularly readable; still living at home with her parents at thirty-five and spending her spare time scrolling through Facebook and playing Panda Pop. Elly Griffiths (who also teaches creative writing) cleverly uses the opportunity of having a writer main character to reference tropes of the gothic mystery, for example, things happen in threes, and animals often play a significant role because they can sense danger (but are also expendable). Take note, Clare has a beloved pet dog named Herbert.

The mystery of ‘whodunit’ should be a surprise to most readers. There’s plenty of curious suspects, including married head of department, Rick Lewis, who has a habit of developing crushes on members of his staff; tanned and handsome head teacher, Tony Sweetman; and Patrick O’Leary, a sporty student with a crush on Ella. There are also lots of ‘ooh’ moments, one involving the mystery of Holland’s wife, Alice, who haunts the old building at the school (and who may have been murdered by Holland), and a second murder I didn’t see coming despite some crafty foreshadowing.

The Stranger Diaries is a savvy modern take on the traditional gothic mystery and is particularly enjoyable to read because of its engaging and believable characters, incredibly witty voice, and suspenseful plot, with a touch of otherworldly spookiness. I’d love to see DS Kaur in another mystery. Elly Griffiths, you’ve got a new fan.

The Stranger Diaries is published in Australia by Hachette.

Standout Simile: –

He looked, in fact, just like an illustration in a child’s picture book. A white Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy, a creature made by blobbing white paint on the page and adding legs.

‘My Heart Fluttered’ & Other Clichés

My heart fluttered with excitement this week when I received some expert advice on the first three chapters of my manuscript. A particularly useful tip that I was given was to avoid resorting to clichés when portraying the emotions of my main character. One of the most common clichés writers fall prey to is describing emotion using physiological responses. For example, when my main character tells us that her ‘heart fluttered’ or her ‘gut twisted’.

Mary Kole describes eyes, heart, lungs and stomach as the Four Horsemen of the Prose-ocalypse in her article on Kid Lit, stating that emotions described using these parts of the human body appear in every manuscript and the onus is on the reader to come up with something different.

I had a search through my manuscript for instances where I describe emotion using a physiological response. The results made my heart sink.

I found over THIRTY instances where my main character’s heart was doing something wacky, from leaping to stopping, being heavy, jumping around, aching, racing, thudding, lurching, deflating, twisting, dropping – the whole gamut of heart-related things. My poor main character will probably need to seek medical advice by the end of the novel after the rollercoaster ride I’ve sent her poor ticker on.

There are (gasp!) TWENTY-THREE occasions where someone takes a deep breath. I’m furrowing my brow to discover THIRTY-SIX frowns in my manuscript, and I need to see a physio after counting THIRTY-FOUR shrugs altogether. Not to mention rolling my eyes at over TWO HUNDRED mentions of … well, eyes.

But this is realistic, isn’t it? When I’m anxious, my heart does feel like it’s pounding against my rib cage. My stomach does twist! When I’m nervous, I do feel short of breath! I’m not sure I actually shrug that much or roll my eyes every five minutes, but those are my two most frequently used emojis! And besides, all of these things are universal cues that readers understand, right?!?

I searched through a couple of published novels by respectable authors and I did find a few hearts dropping into stomachs and leaping into throats. For example, Robert Galbraith’s Lethal White has a few mentions of a heart beating erratically during a tense situation. In Anthony Horowitz’s The Sentence is Death, I didn’t find any. But then in a recent women’s fiction novel I read, there were over one hundred. Generally speaking, most of the novels I checked had about five descriptions of emotions as a physiological response, which seems fair enough.

So what am I going to do about my main character’s overactive heartbeat, irritable bowel and impending asthma? Well, I’m definitely taking on board the advice I received. It’s time to tidy up my lazy writing.

Robin Patchen is an editor writing for Live Write Thrive, and suggests showing emotions through thoughts and actions. “When you have a very emotional scene, slow it down. Let us hear your character’s every thought. Highlight a few details. Show the actions.” This is hard work, but well worth the effort!

A lot of my references to hearts, eyes, lungs and stomachs can simply be deleted. Another thing I’m experimenting with is describing how the main character feels at a certain point in the story and relating it back to a similar situation in her past. I’m hoping this will be a good way to reveal information about character.

And in another instance, a character in my manuscript was shrugging so much I’ve drawn attention to it in a way that I hope adds humour to the story (e.g. “He’d shrugged so many times that I was worried he might dislocate a shoulder.”)

It’s also worth keeping in mind that a lot of these things can be discussed during a copy edit.

It’s hard to think of creative alternatives, especially since most of them have already been thought of by one or more of the other thousands of talented writers in the world. But when you do create that moment of pure writing gold, it will surely make your heart swell with pride.

Mystery of the Month – The Hunting Party

A New Year’s party in a remote Scottish Highlands lodge turns deadly when one of the partygoers is murdered. Only you won’t learn the identity of the victim, or the murderer, until the end of the novel.

Like all good murder mysteries, The Hunting Party begins with a dead body. The gruesome discovery is made in the snowy wilderness and although we don’t know who it is just yet, we do know it’s one of the thirteen guests staying at the lodge. And although there’s whispers of a serial killer on the loose, we can expect the murderer is (cue ominous music)… among them.

The story is told through the points of view of five main characters, jumping between 2 January 2019, when the body has been found, and the three days beforehand. There’s lodge employee, Heather, the closest thing the novel has to a sleuth, and quiet gamekeeper with a dark past, Doug. Eager-to-please Emma has organised the event for the group of friends, who’ve known each other since their days at Oxford. Flirty mean girl Miranda loves to ruffle a few feathers and “mousey nobody” Katie harbours a secret that will rupture the group of friends forever. Rounding out the party are Emma’s boyfriend, Miranda’s husband and two other couples, including one with a baby.

The Hunting Party is the debut crime novel for Lucy Foley, who usually writes historical fiction. She is evidently well versed in the mystery genre as this story has all the elements of a classic whodunit. The icy Scottish wilderness takes the place of the ‘locked room’; the setting aptly described by the absence of footprints in the snow, dark trees that press in, and the watchful silence of the forest.

Juicy tidbits are drip fed chapter by chapter, like reading a secret journal where characters reveal their innermost thoughts and divulge their true opinions of each other. For example, Miranda tells us she feels a sense of power being the friend others look up to and the one with the perfect life. But supposed best friend Katie tells us Miranda can either “make you feel as though you are borrowing a little of her light” or “she can make you feel like shit, depending on her whim.”

We soon learn the group of longtime friends aren’t as buddy-buddy as they seem, with resentment, bitterness and grudges galore simmering beneath the surface of their drugs and alcohol-fuelled antics. Everyone has something to hide and a reason to want the victim dead, meaning that by about halfway through the novel, we have a pretty good idea who that victim is. The same cannot be said for the identity of the murderer, which should come as a surprise to even the most savvy crime fiction reader.

The Hunting Party successfully modernises the traditional murder mystery. There’s a hefty list of possible suspects, a suitably claustrophobic environment and enough sexy moments to make Agatha Christie blush. A complicated web of red herrings and dramatic twists makes this a thrilling read about friends who think they know everything there is to know about one another but who all wear masks, one murderously so.

Standout Simile: –

She’s so cold that her teeth are chattering with a sound like someone shaking dice.

The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley is published by Harper Collins in Australia.

Does Your Novel Have Lots of Loose Ends?

How awesome is it when you’re reading a book and something dramatic, shocking or intriguing happens and you’re like: “Wow, I can’t wait to read on and find out what THAT was all about!”?

Stories make you feel this way because they introduce narrative questions which keep the reader engaged and in a state of suspense, waiting to find out what happens.

There’s the main narrative question that drives the plot (for example, in a murder mystery it may be “Whodunit?”) and this question is generally answered in the climax of the story.

Other narrative questions may be dramatic questions that aren’t the main narrative question, such as: “Why did Miles get dismissed from the police force?” Or emotional questions, like: “How will Bianca feel when she finds out Sylvie betrayed her?” (Pen and the Pad describes four types of narrative questions here).

Each time something happens in the story that raises a question in the mind of the reader, that question must be answered at some point in the novel.

Sounds obvious, right?

However, you might be a writer like me. I have a habit of thinking: “Wouldn’t it be cool if …?” and then raising loads of narrative questions by making characters do weird and wonderful things, but forgetting to answer half of them, or failing to elaborate how these actions make the characters feel.

Or, I will write about a character doing something or behaving in a certain way because they need to do something to drive the plot forward, only I haven’t thought about the logistics of what they need to do.

At the end of my first draft, I had a lot of great events happening, many of which remained unexplained. (To be fair, I’m writing a mystery and a lot of these were red herrings and thus, not directly related to the main plot).

For example, in the first scene of my novel, the main character observes a man wearing a blood-stained shirt emerge from the front door of his house, struggling to carry a mysterious bundle. He then proceeds to drag the bundle around the side of the house. This raises several questions, an obvious one being: “What is in the bundle?” This is not the main narrative question of the novel, but the answer ties back into the main plot line and is revealed in the climax of the novel.

Another question is: “Why does he bring the bundle out the front of his house and drag it around the side, instead of taking it out the back of his house where he is less likely to be seen?” The actual answer to this question is – because I needed the main character, who is parked outside the house, to see him with the bundle. I had to come up with a plausible explanation for why the character does that, within the context of the story.

I’m currently undertaking a process of making sure all of the questions I’ve raised in my story get answered at some point before the final pages. This involves reading through my manuscript and writing down each narrative question as it arises under the relevant chapter heading. I then mark off whether the narrative question has been answered later in the story, and where it has been answered (e.g. page number, chapter number).

It’s then easier for me to see which narrative questions haven’t been answered, so I know that I have to devise some mind-blowing plot reveals to explain them. Ha ha, no problem, she says.

Don’t I sound organised? I assure you, I’m not quite there yet. On my list of narrative questions, there’s a lot of: “Why does such-and-such do this?” And I don’t know yet. But having this checklist makes me feel a bit better and for me, is a step in the right direction to ensuring all loose ends are tied up.

How do you make sure you don’t leave your reader hanging with unanswered narrative questions? Please let me know in the comments below.

Mystery of the Month – The Sentence is Death

“When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” – Daniel Hawthorne

Anthony Horowitz is one of my favourite crime fiction authors so I was very excited to read The Sentence is Death, the follow-up novel to 2017’s The Word is Murder, which introduced us to ex-policeman turned private investigator, Daniel Hawthorne.

A notable feature of this series of murder mysteries is that the author himself, Anthony Horowitz (or ‘Tony’, as Hawthorne calls him) is a character in the book, narrating the story and playing the Watson to Hawthorne’s Sherlock. The conversational narration and references to what we know to be true of Horowitz’s life (his work as screenwriter on the tv series Foyle’s War, for example) has the reader wondering how much of the story is truly fiction. There’s even a detailed Acknowledgement section at the back, which mentions and thanks both fictional and non-fictional people.

In The Word is Murder, Hawthorne asked Tony to be his biographer – to follow his investigation into the murder of a woman and turn the story into a novel. The Sentence is Death begins with Hawthorne interrupting Tony on the set of Foyle’s War and inviting him to document his investigation of the murder of Richard Pryce, a divorce lawyer who has been battered to death with a wine bottle in his Hampstead home. Tony reluctantly agrees, lamenting how writing about Hawthorne means he can’t begin chapters with a surprising turn of events because he has to “stick to the facts as they happened”, which is one of many ironies in this metafiction, also because the (real) Horowitz has many surprising events in store.

Clues are cleverly placed throughout the story leading to the identity of Pryce’s murder and giving the astute reader the opportunity to solve the mystery. The initial list of suspects include a feminist author who publicly threatened Pryce after losing a divorce battle, her ex-husband and Pryce’s boyfriend. When Hawthorne and Tony uncover a link to a fatal caving accident involving Pryce, the scope of suspects widens to include two widows. Meanwhile, Detective Cara Grunshaw is blackmailing Tony for information on the case, desperate to beat Hawthorne in the race to uncover the murderer.

Running parallel to the murder mystery, and just as interesting, is the relationship between Hawthorne and Tony. Tony tells the reader he struggles with the private and abstruse Hawthorne as a main character, finding him unlikeable and unpleasant (he’s homophobic and prone to casual racism), yet he begins to warm to him, describing the man with the perfectly assembled Airfix kits with “the sense of a child playing at being an adult”.

Horowitz doesn’t shy away from the comparisons to Sherlock and Watson (having penned some Holmes novels himself) as Hawthorne is very much like Holmes, noticing those odd little details that others don’t, while Tony plays the bumbling Watson, thinking he’s got it all figured out, when he’s really been thwarted by Hawthorne’s line of seemingly innocuous questions. The novel also pays homage to a few plot points in Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet.

Horowitz relishes the opportunity to poke fun at himself, at literary devices and at crime fiction tropes. Hawthorne describes Tony as “a bit like a travel writer who doesn’t know quite where he is”, characters confuse Horowitz’s best selling spy-kid Alex Rider series, instead calling it Alec Rider and Eric Rider, and possibly my favourite – the playful use of the pathetic fallacy at the very end of the novel. Very clever!

The Sentence is Death is everything I love about crime fiction – a carefully crafted mystery with a flawless solution, and an interesting cast of suspects each with plausible motives for the crime (and some with a few naughty secrets), as well as a sense of fun, loads of witty moments and some lovely descriptions of London.

‘Tony’ is tied to his three-book deal with Hawthorne, so we can expect a third instalment with a similarly clever title coming soon. I’d also love to see a television adaptation – would Anthony Horowitz play himself playing himself?

The Sentence is Death is published in Australia by Penguin.

Standout Simile: –

There was a few seconds’ delay before people realised what happened. Then the crowd recoiled, forming a pattern like an exploding sun.