The Last Best Book — Musselled Out and Fogged Inn, by Barbara Ross

The latest in an occasional series of books that turn my crank, and which I think you’ll like, too.

Product DetailsMusselled Out (2015) and Fogged Inn (2016) by Barbara Ross (Kensington Books), the 3d and 4th in the Maine Clam Bake mysteries. I love this series. Barb Ross is writing some of the smartest cozies around. Julia Snowden took a break from her career in venture capital in NYC to return to her Maine hometown to help her widowed mother, sister, and brother-in-law brink the family’s clambake business back from the brink. She’s succeeded, but not without personal peril, murder, and unexpected romance. In Musselled Out, her boss’s patience is running out, and she’s got to decide whether to stay—while investigating the death of a potential competitor, the disappearance of a local lobsterman, and the strange doings of her own mother.

Product DetailsObviously, she stayed, or there would be no fourth book! In Fogged Inn, Julia investigates a death that appears to be closely linked to four couples determined to deny any connection with the dead man—or each other. Fogged Inn explores old friendships and new tensions. The author set herself two challenges—one obvious on the first page, the other on the last—and meets them both beautifully. This book is nominated for an Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel, and deservedly. I’m in awe. (Next up: Iced Under, published in December 2016.)

Saturday Writing Quote — on fear


“Go forth, the tellers of tales,
And seize whatever the heart longs for.
Have no fear.
Everything exists.
And everything is true.
And the earth is only a little dust under our feet.”

– WB Yeats, “The Celtic Twilight”

(Turns out fear is such a player in art and writing that I had another month’s worth of ear-catching quotes.)

Truth May Be Stranger Than Fiction — guest, Lisa Black

Time to welcome back my guest, Lisa Black, forensic scientist by day and thriller writer by night. Not surprisingly, Lisa’s become fascinated with the case of the Black Dahlia, and she uses it to tell us about the differences between real-life investigation and creating a fictional case, below. Here’s the scoop on her newest book, Unpunished, published by Kensington Books this week!  

unpunished       It begins with the kind of bizarre death that makes headlines—literally. A copy editor at the Cleveland Herald is found hanging above the grinding wheels of the newspaper assembly line. Forensic investigator Maggie Gardiner has her suspicions about this apparent suicide inside the tsunami of tensions that is the news industry today—and when the evidence suggests murder, Maggie has no choice but to place her trust in the one person she doesn’t trust at all….

Jack Renner is a killer with a conscience, a vigilante with his own code of honor. He has only one problem: Maggie knows his secret. She insists he enforce the law, not subvert it. But when more newspaper employees are slain, Jack may be the only person who can help Maggie unmask the killer–even if Jack is still checking names off his own private list.


By Lisa Black

Wdahliariting murder mysteries means I can make up everything I need to happen. Sometimes that involves juggling some logistics—actually it always means juggling some logistics—but if some plot twist is really giving me a problem, I can simply rewrite it. True crime, however, stubbornly refuses to dot every i or even consider crossing every t. Take the case of the Black Dahlia, which I have been researching for a presentation at the Sleuthfest mystery writer’s convention.

First there was the nightclub owner who ran a sort of free boarding house for young starlets. He employed them in his burlesque show where they hoped to be spotted by those elusive Hollywood agents. No red flags there, right? But according to him he had a house full of these girls, overseen by his long-time girlfriend, and the address book with his embossed name on the cover found in Beth’s luggage had been ‘liberated’ from his desk without his knowledge. Certainly none of these budding starlets ever complained of harsh treatment at his hands. But this was 1947. Women didn’t complain about much—it didn’t help, and only got them more of the same.

policeThen there was the control freak/charming-when-he-wants-to-be Dr. George Hodel. Though married (always temporarily; he tended to abandon wives like used razor blades) he had a habit of picking up young beauties to photograph them. As a surgeon he certainly had the means to rent a room for the killing and a car to transport the body, and for motive you need look no further than his fascination with the Marquis de Sade. Unfortunately we don’t even have an embossed address book in the way of hard proof that Hodel ever met Beth Short.

Then there’s the tall, skinny guy with a limp. Not kidding. A tall guy with a limp turns up in a number of places in Beth’s timeline and also in the narrative surrounding some other L.A. murders. But in the days before cell phone cameras made selfies ubiquitous, ‘tall, thin and with a limp’ was the most detailed description available to detectives. But this was only a year or two out from WWII, so there were probably quite a number of veterans with leg injuries. And with average daily caloric intake at near-record lows around this time, it woulsuspectsdn’t be surprising if most people had figures we would envy in today’s TV-watching, corn-syrup-sweetened world. So that doesn’t really narrow it down.

Of course there’s always the mob. As in any large city they had a presence, and with a girl like Beth looking for a way into the studios it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see her cozying up to a made man at a nightclub. Unfortunately, imagination is most of what we have. Like any well-brought up girl, Beth didn’t kiss and tell. She often made reference to ex-boyfriends, even jealous ex-boyfriends, but never named names.

Then there’s Arnold Smith, aka, Jack Anderson Wilson, who supposedly sent an informant to the cops to relay his tale. This informant, unnamed in the books, said that Arnold Smith said that a guy he knew named Al Morrison told Smith, in great detail, how he had killed Beth Short. Smith, incidentally, was described by the informant as tall, thin, and walking with a limp, and detectives figured this Al Morrison never existed and served the “I’m not asking for me, but for a friend of mine” purpose. Most significantly, he knows details of Beth’s anatomy that the police never leaked. Unfortunately the cops never got to speak to Wilson directly. He would only meet the informant by chance at a bar and though the informant, with cops around him, kept waiting, Smith didn’t show. Instead he continued a bad habit of smoking in bed and set his hotel room on fire, taking his secrets into the next life.

And since the crime occurred 60 years ago, witnesses cannot be re-questioned for more details, no phone records or hotel registries have survived, and the autopsy report was never made public so we can’t even be sure what is myth and what is fact in the swirl of cyberspace language regarding the life and death of Beth Short.

No wonder I write fiction.

PS If you want to know more about the Black Dahlia murder and the evidence that exists implicating these and other suspects, come to MWA’s Sleuthfest in Boca Raton this February!

Lisa and powderAbout Lisa: Lisa Black has spent over 20 years in forensic science, first at the coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio and now as a certified latent print examiner and CSI at a Florida police dept. Her books have been translated into 6 languages, one reached the NYT Bestseller’s List and one has been optioned for film and a possible TV series. Find out more on her website, , and chat with her on Twitter, @LisaBlackAuthor.

Saturday Writing Quote — on fear

IMGP1963“We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for the final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us…. The transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation and that always seems fraught with danger. We fear the very visibility without which we also cannot truly live … and that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which is also the source of our greatest strength.”

— Audre Lorde, American poet and activist, 1934-92


Saturday Writing Quote — on fear

IMGP1939“[T]he more we try to pretend that fear doesn’t and shouldn’t exist, the more we hurt our own chances to create whatever it is [we] dream about. … I don’t think fear is a shameful thing that we must rid ourselves of. It is a natural part of taking the risks that writers do. And the logical reaction to fear should indeed be bravery.”

– Dan Blank, Writer Unboxed, 6/27/14

Saturday Writing Quote — on fear

IMGP2188“I have come to understand that creativity and fear will forever be linked — because creativity always asks us to move in directions of unknown outcome, and fear HATES unknown outcome.

I have made peace with that reality.

All of which is to say: I really don’t believe in fearlessness.

I don’t think it’s a wise or sane goal.”

— Elizabeth Gilbert, on Facebook, 1/4/15

The Last Best Reads—My Favorite Books of 2016

IMGP1761“The Last Best Book” is my occasional post on a favorite recent read — playing on one of Montana’s many nicknames, The Last Best Place.  A handful were published in 2016; others go back a few years. I’ve included audio books—yes, listening to a book is reading it, albeit a different experience. And I love audios—the narrators create their own worlds for me, and I get to read books, especially nonfiction, that I might not otherwise pick up.

Of 57 titles, including 46 novels or story collections, 18 were published in 2016 and 13 in 2015. (One will come out in 2017.) Yay—I’m catching up! No doubt I’ll still have read like a demon this spring to be ready to vote for the Agatha Awards, especially since only one of those 2016 titles was a first book. But books from earlier years rose to the top as well, so I’m listing my faves, in no particular order, regardless of when they were published.

The Last Bus to Wisdom, Ivan Doig (2015) Alas, the last novel by the great Montana writer, but a fitting end to a storied career. IMO, Doig was at his best when writing in the voice of a young boy—here, Donal Cameron, age 11, sent by “dog bus” (the Greyhound) from north-central Montana to a great-aunt he’s never met in Wisconsin, in 1951. Part road trip, part buddy story, part coming–of-age novel, with Doig’s keen eye and ear—pure delight.

The Orphan Train, Cristina Baker Kline (2013) An intriguing snippet of history, with a surprising modern parallel. 

Whistling Past the Graveyard, Susan Crandall (2014) Hmm. The third historical coming-of-age novel on the list. A different time and place—Mississippi, 1963—but just as powerful.

Little Pretty Things (2015) and The Day I Died (2017), Lori Rader-Day. The winner of the Mary Higgins Clark Award for 2015 is a major new talent.

Wilde Lake, Laura Lippman (2016) Not sure whether I’m more impressed by the story or its structure. Masterful.

The Ex, Alafair Burke (2016) Smart and wicked—a great combo.

Down River, John Hart (2007, audio) and A Killing at Cotton Hill, Terry Shames (2013) Two authors who deserve to be better known. Set in North Carolina (Hart) and Texas (Shames), both books convey their authors’ love of the land as well as their deep understanding of crime and family.

Two fun historical mysteries: Murder in Morningside Heights, Victoria Thompson (2016), the 15th or 16th Gaslight Mystery, and Delivering the Truth, Edith Maxwell (2016), the first Quaker Midwife Mystery.

And I’m finally catching up with Deborah Crombie and Jacqueline Winspear, reading several books by each this year, every one a true joy.

A special mention for a short story collection, All the Wrong Places, by Molly Giles (2015). Giles’ stories are smart, funny, with an amazing range and dialogue that makes my writerly heart churn with envy. I met Molly this past summer on a perfect evening on a friend’s deck overlooking the Swan River, and am so happy that I liked the stories as much as I like the woman herself!

What were your favorite reads of the past year? 

Saturday Writing Quote — on fear

IMGP2435Many of us set goals and resolutions this time of year. And while many of us do form new, productive habits as a result, we are occasionally blocked by fear. So, for January, a few of my favorite quotes on fear and writing.

“The thing is, fear can’t hurt you anymore than a dream.”

– Jack, in Lord of the Flies, by William Golding (1954)