Guest Author – Susan Elia MacNeal

My series’ heroine, Maggie Hope, has been through a lot in the eight novels of the series—most recently falsely imprisoned on a Scottish island. Before that she was held by the Gestapo in Paris, and before that she went up against a serial killer in London. And then of course there’s the war itself. Which is why for her ninth outing, THE KING’S JUSTICE, I wanted to not only write a new thriller/mystery—but also show the toll Maggie’s experiences have taken on her.

PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is the modern name for what in Maggie’s time was called “shell shock.” And although I sometimes describe Maggie as “Nancy Drew meets James Bond,” one thing that makes Maggie different is that all of her experiences, both good and bad, have changed her as a person. (As opposed to Nancy and James, who, while wonderful, remain static characters, regardless of how much danger they’ve be in and trauma they’ve survived.) In this novel, she tries to ignore her psychic damage by quitting the secret agent game, smoking non-stop, drinking too much, and riding much too fast on a motorcycle. But eventually she has to come to terms with her past, her trauma, her fears, and her vulnerabilities.

THE KING’S JUSTICE takes place during March of 1943, in London. The Blitz is over, but the war continues—and unexploded bombs can be found all over the city—just waiting for something to set them off. I have Maggie working as a bomb defuser, a job desperately needed in London at the time, —and also because Maggie’s a bit of an unexploded bomb, too. To defuse herself, she needs to work through her past traumas, some brought to light by a stolen violin and a new serial killer.

This killer is dropping suitcases full of bones in the Thames, and they’re washing up on the banks, sometimes half-buried in sand and silt. Some of the “mudlarkers” of London—those who dig on the riverbanks for lost historic treasures like Roman coins, medieval pottery shards, and Elizabethan rings—find the suitcases with the bones, and report them to Scotland Yard. Maggie’s beau, DCI James Durgin takes the case, and Maggie is ultimately recruited to help, because of a connection to someone from her past.

Like unexploded bombs, I really loved working in the metaphor of mudlarking—sifting through trash to find treasure. I think Maggie’s coming to grips with the traumas of her past was a lot like mudlarking—she has to excavate a lot of “dirt,” before she can find her “treasure”—a return to, well, not her old self, of course—but someone who’s experienced trauma, processed it, and come through the other side.

Without giving anything away, in the novel’s first scene, we meet Maggie as she’s in a deep pit, defusing a bomb. By the last scene, she’s looking down on London from the observation deck of the Monument to the Great Fire of London. Like the city itself, Maggie has gone through disaster and rebuilt, now stronger, smarter, and more compassionate. I hope readers will find her journey inspiring.

In THE KING’S JUSTICE, the ninth book in the acclaimed Maggie Hope mystery seriesby Susan Elia MacNeal (Bantam Hardcover; On Sale 2/25/2020),our heroine is on edge. Maggie has returned to London after being imprisoned on a remote island for knowing confidential SOE information, but she is traumatized by her experience. As Maggie takes a break from spying, she starts to behave more and more recklessly. She drinks too much, speeds through the streets on her motorcycle, and joins a squad tasked with defusing unexploded bombs left in London from the Blitz.

When conscientious objectors to the war start disappearing, Maggie is determined to stay out of it. But as human bones start washing up on the shores of the Thames inside of suitcases, it becomes clear that a serial killer is afoot, and Maggie must put aside her hesitations and get to work. Little does Maggie know that this investigation will force her to conquer her demons and face her past in order to solve the case.

Susan Elia MacNeal is the New York Times bestselling author of the Maggie Hope mysteries. MacNeal won the Barry Award and has been nominated for the Edgar, Macavity, Agatha, Left Coast Crime, Dilys, and ITW Thriller awards. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and son. •

Twitter: @SusanMacNeal • Instagram: susaneliamacneal

Guest Author- Lisa Lieberman

Cruising for Fun and Profit

by Lisa Lieberman

King Mongkut’s Palace in Siam

Historical mysteries are travel literature with a kick. You get to visit a different locale, exploring a distant place AND era. New vistas, new sensations: you want to experience it all and, to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, you don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.

I’m the kind of writer who needs to immerse myself in a setting. The third book in my noir series takes place in Saigon, circa 1957, and builds off my favorite Graham Greene novel: Banished from the set of The Quiet American, actress Cara Walden stumbles onto a communist insurgency—and discovers her brother’s young Vietnamese lover right in the thick of it. How could I get myself to Asia?

Lecturing on the ship.

It turns out that luxury cruise lines are always looking for guest lecturers. I put together a a film and lecture series for Silversea entitled “Asia Through Hollywood’s Eyes,” a romp through classic movies featuring Asian characters and stories. From Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan through Cato in the Pink Panther series, pre-Code gems like Shanghai Express starring Marlene Dietrich (“It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily”) and the ever-fascinating Anna May Wong, beloved epics including The Good Earth and Bridge on the River Kwai, musicals including The King and I along with the best-forgotten Road to Singapore not to mention masterpieces based on Somerset Maugham stories and featuring the best leading ladies out there: The Painted Veil (Garbo), Rain (Joan Crawford), The Letter (Bette Davis).

Tai Chi with William

Okay, it took me the better part of a summer to research and write the lectures. I had to watch all the films (poor me . . .) and learn how to rip DVDs to make clips to embed in my presentations. I had to upgrade my wardrobe and get my bridge game back up to snuff. But October 17, 2015 found me at the five-star InterContinental Hotel in Hong Kong, doing Tai Chi by the pool with William to get the kinks out of my body after the nineteen-hour flight. Then I boarded the ship for the eleven-day all-expenses-paid cruise to Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok, Singapore and ports in-between. The highlights of my trip included tagging along as a chaperone on a tour of Hue, retracing Graham Greene’s footsteps through Saigon, and visiting the palace and temple grounds of the King of Siam, followed by a very expensive mojito in Somerset Maugham’s favorite watering hole, Bangkok’s Mandarin Oriental.

What an adventure!

The Glass Forest

A Cara Welden Mystery

Saigon, 1957: Banished from the set of The Quiet American, actress Cara Walden stumbles onto a communist insurgency-and discovers her brother’s young Vietnamese lover right in the thick of it. A bittersweet story of love and betrayal set in the early years of American involvement in the country, Lisa Lieberman’s tribute to Graham Greene shows us a Vietnam already simmering with discontent.

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Lisa Lieberman writes the Cara Walden series of historical mysteries based on old movies and featuring blacklisted Hollywood people on the lam in dangerous international locales. Her books hit the sweet spot between Casablanca and John le Carré. Trained as a modern European cultural and intellectual historian, Lieberman abandoned a perfectly respectable academic career for the life of a vicarious adventurer through perilous times. She has written extensively on postwar Europe and lectures locally on efforts to come to terms with the trauma of the Holocaust in film and literature. She is Vice President of the New England chapter of Sisters in Crime and a member of Mystery Writers of America.

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Guest Blogger- Baird Nuckolls

Researching My Historical Novel

By Baird Nuckolls, author of “Shattered Angel, Morelli’s Private Inquiries, Book 1”

My new novel, Shattered Angel, is set in New York City in 1923. While millions of people have been to New York, even more have seen it in movies, television or photographs. You may feel like you know New York, but I want you to know New York back in the days when my story is set. The Roaring Twenties were a time of great change in society and technology. Society was recovering from the first world war; women had more freedoms, Prohibition had an impact on society’s activities, new jazz music was the rage and new inventions were changing daily life forever.

Doing research is as important as plotting the mystery. You can spend hours or days finding out things that may never make it into the book. For example, we think of the radio as being pretty ubiquitous. Yes, the radio was invented in the late 1800’s, the first radio broadcasts happened in 1906 and the first radio station opened in Philadelphia in 1920. But in 1923, there were few radio stations, fewer programs, and the radios themselves were expensive. So, my detective, Morelli, does NOT have a radio that he can listen to it at night, as he might be doing if the year was 1926 or 1927. Those few years make all the difference.

Another little thing that needed a lot of research was cigarettes. If you watch old movies, everyone smoked like chimneys and pre-rolled cigarettes had become popular during WWI, when they were shipped to the troops overseas. They’d even become popular with women in the 1920’s and the long cigarette holders became a major fashion accessory, in part to keep ash off their clothes and prevent their hats from catching fire, but also to look sophisticated. However, there was still a cost factor. Morelli continues to smoke hand rolled cigarettes because it’s cheaper and he would rather spend his money on whiskey. Telephones were available, including pay phones, but deciding who would have one and who wouldn’t, was part of my initial research as well.

The original genesis of the story came from two articles in the NYTimes. One was about a rum-running tugboat seized by government agents and some missing drugs. The other was about a payroll robbery on the subway. As the story continued to develop, I read more and more of the newspapers of the day and decided to add things to the plot. Stories about the politics, including the mayor and the commissions came straight from the pages of the news. The Jack Dempsey heavyweight title fight was a huge event in 1923. I even found film footage of the fight on YouTube, so that I was able to accurately describe the experience of being there.

Ultimately, these details are what make the story feel like it’s set in a real place. The characters are mostly fictional and the story is my own creation, but New York City is alive and truly a character in its own right.


Set amid the growing roar of the 1920’s, a beautiful young flapper named Angel has hired Adriano Morelli, an ex-cop turned private detective, to follow her cheating husband. When Morelli steps into the rarified hush of a Fifth Avenue apartment looking for his client, what he discovers changes the stakes of the game.  

He now has a murder to solve while staying one step ahead of the cops. And with a history of failure, especially when it comes to beautiful women, Morelli is hoping to redeem himself for past sins. From the Cotton Club and the city’s speakeasies to the Polo Grounds where heavyweight Jack Dempsey faces his greatest opponent, the life of New York City comes right off the pages of the newspapers of the day in this riveting historical mystery. 

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Baird Nuckolls has had a multifaceted career, from banking to baking. In addition to writing, she has been a partner and editor for The Wives of Bath Press, as well as an assistant editor for Narrative Magazine. She has previously published short stories, as well as a middle grade novel, “The Dragons of Graham.” She lives in Seattle and Orcas Island, Washington with her husband. 



Author Central

Guest Author – Robin Weaver

Make Your Corpse Behave

I once critiqued a novel where the villain forced the heroine to participate in a tea party with a week-old corpse. Can you say “ewww?”

Or if you know your corpses, you’re saying “uh-uh, no way.” And you’d be correct. Unless the body had been on ice and the tea party occurred in an Antarctica, gases from the decomposing body (and the resulting OMG-what-is-that-smell) would have made that little social gathering impossible.

After I created a stink—nothing nearly as putrid as the tea party corpse—my friend corrected her error, but too many mystery authors treat the dead body without adequately considering the decaying process. We don’t accurately depict the condition of our corpse based on time since demise and environmental conditions.

I didn’t start out to be an expert in rigor mortises (and I use the term expert very loosely). I wrote a novel about a woman with hyperosmia—a hypersensitive sense of smell. My heroine kept scrubbing the floor trying to get rid of an offensive odor. The smell, naturally, was a dead body in the basement (after all, I am a mystery writer). Only I needed to understand exactly how and when the odor would emanate. How long must a poor unfortunate soul be deceased before antiperspirants ceases to work? So I did some research and consulted some “real” experts.

Decomposition begins at the moment of death. When the heart stops, blood no longer flows through the body. Most of the corpse will turn a deadly white (pun intended), but gravity causes the blood to pool in the body parts closest to the ground. The resulting bluish-purple discoloration is called livor mortis. As authors, this makes for some vivid descriptions. Also, the pooling of blood will enable your heroine to know when a body has been moved. If your corpse is lying face-down and your arm-chair detective notices visible pooled blood on the victim’s back—the body “ain’t” where it fell.

So back to our corpse… In three to six hours, the muscles become rigid (a.k.a. rigor mortis). Rigor affects the jaw first, then face and neck, the trunk and arms, and finally the legs and feet. If your detective isn’t squeamish, touching the corpse (“ewww” again) to determine what parts are rigid can help determine the time of death—even before the coroner arrives. Rigor peaks at twelve hours, and dissipates after 48 hours. Hint: your stiff is no longer stiff after two days.

Within 24-72 hours things get gory. The internal organs begin to decompose as the body’s remaining oxygen is gobbled up by aerobic microbes, already present in the gizzards before death. Enzymes in the pancreas cause the body’s organs to digest themselves. The cells in the body literally burst open. If you’re like me, you’re thinking, YUCK. But it gets worse. Microbes tag-team these enzymes, turning the body green from the belly onwards.

Only it gets worse. Within three to five days, gases (methane, hydrogen sulfide, mercaptans) produced by the decaying process accumulate and cause the abdomen to distend. The cadaver will have an overall bloated appearance and smell bloody awful. The skin blisters, the tongue protrudes, and pressure forces gases and frothy liquids out the nose, mouth and, eh…other orifices. This same buildup of pressure may also cause the body to rupture. And I won’t even mention the flies and maggots the corpse attracts. Let’s just say the folks producing those zombie shows got a lot of things right.

Within a month, nails and teeth fall out. NOTE: Contrary to popular belief, skin and hair do NOT continue to grow after death. The skin shrinks, making nails and hair “appear” longer. The body starts to dry out. If the cadaver is unprotected, those insects I’m not mentioning will have chowed down on any remaining flesh; moths and bacteria consume the hair. If the body is not protected from the elements, within a year only bones remain. However, those same bones can last a hundred years if the soil is not highly acidic or too warm.
Keep in mind, many conditions affect the rate of deterioration. Corpses last longer in cold, dry environments and zombify really fast in tropical climates. Believe it or not, a body lasts longer in the water than in open air and even longer in the ground. The embalming process can slow the decay, but even the best undertaker is no match for Mother Nature’s recycling machine. Deterioration continues, even in the coffin. Within a year, bones and teeth are usually all that remain

Some corpses, however take an interesting turn. If the body comes into contact with cold earth or water, adipocere can develop. This waxy material is formed when bacteria breaks down tissue and naturally preserves the inner organs. For the writer, adipocere can create an interesting plot twist since the victim will have died much earlier than it seems.

Because so many factors affect rigor mortis, forensic pathologists rely on other methods to determine time of death (TOD), one being body temperature. When the heart stops beating, the body temperature falls about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit each hour until it reaches room temperature. Of course this method is only viable if the corpse is discovered within seventeen hours of death.

Another way to determine TOD is via the corpse’s belly contents. The degree of digestion since the last meal enables examiners to gauge how long the person lived after eating at Taco Bell (which may also be the cause of death). Yet another method to assess TOD is via insect activity, but I’ve already said I won’t talk about that.

I have treated a very serious subject with a large degree of irreverence, but that’s my defense mechanism in high gear. While the idea of the real corpse is disgusting, it’s as important as the real killer. Treat your corpse accurately. As writers, we have an obligation to “get it right.”

In my newest release, Framing Noverta, I took the simple way out. I had my corpse discovered a mere two hours after death—no gory parts, no repulsive odor. I did get the exit wound right though.

Framing NovertaHow can you uphold the law when following the rules will destroy everything worth protecting?

Weary of D.C. murder and mayhem, Cal Henderson trades in his city badge for a sheriff’s star. Regrettably, his Tennessee hometown proves anything but peaceful—a woman is shot dead in her bed and the only viable suspects are his best friend, Noverta, and the love of Cal’s life—the current Mrs. Grace Gardner.

Noverta escapes from jail, making Cal question his efforts to prove the man’s innocence. As more evidence points toward Grace’s involvement in the murder, Cal’s core principles crumble. Can he do the right if his action destroys everything worth protecting?