Special Guest: Catriona McPherson

Liz here. We love Catriona McPherson here at Mysteristas. No matter what she’s writing – historical, funny contemporary or creepy thriller. She’s one of the nicest people ever. Seriously, I’ve seen her injured, in slings, and boots, and there is never not a smile on her face. And that accent! I can listen to her talk for…hours, literally. So when she asked to visit the blog again, well, it wasn’t a hard decision.

T:The Fun in Dysfuntion

I wasn’t aware of doing it, and I certainly didn’t plan it, but last year, for some reason, I wrote a functional family! I know. The Doyles, in Strangers at the Gate, are a good man and a good woman, happily married, weathering their challenges, supportive parents to a decent, resourceful, empathic child.

Of course there are other people in the book too. There are the Dudgeons. And no matter how low we set the bar, how hard we work at acknowledging human frailty, and how unjudgmental we try to be, the Dudgeons . . . how can I put it? . . . suck.

The contrast between the Doyles and Dudgeons got me thinking about my favourite dysfunctional families in mysteries. There are plenty to choose from. In fact, it’s a bit of a stretch to find a happy family in crime fiction. Or any fiction. I came up with: the Chopras in Vaseem Khan’s Baby Ganesh series – a good man and his good wife and their happy marriage; the eponymous family in Ngaio Marsh’s A Surfeit of Lampreys – a bit bonkers and annoying but loyal and loving to the core; and the Carters in Angie Thomas’s barnstorming debut The Hate U Give – kind, brave, funny, affectionate people, sticking together come what may.

But I’ve got to admit, if Inspector Chopra didn’t have his awful colleagues, the Lampreys didn’t have their mad aunt, and Starr Carter didn’t go to school with such snotty monsters, the books would be much less compelling. Messed-up folk have always beguiled us: from Medea through the Macbeths, all the way to the Lannisters. Dysfunction rules!

So. Here is my personal top five of dysfunctional families in crime fiction.

5. The Turnmills in The Arrangement by Robyn Harding.

I just read this book last week (preparing to moderate a panel on domestic noir at Bouchercon (I love my “job”)) and it’s a brilliant slow-mo car crash. We can only watch and wince as Gabe, Celeste and Violet Turnmill make an exponentially appalling, but satisfyingly plausible, series of decisions. And they’re not even the screwed-up ones! I don’t suppose anyone reading this is swithering about how good an idea it is for a mum and daughter to stay in the Hamptons full-time while the dad gets himself a pad in Manhattan, but if you are – take a squint at The Arrangement before you go signing any leases, eh?

4. The Symmingtons in The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie.

I only started rolling my eyes about the Turnmills last week; I’ve been hating the Symmingtons for forty years. Mrs S. regrets her first marriage and wishes she could put it behind her now that she’s got a respectable new husband and two perfect little boys. The trouble is, she’s also got Megan, her daughter from husband number one, and – try as you might – young women of twenty don’t disappear in a puff of smoke just because you want them to. The cruelty required to act as if someone in your house doesn’t exist isn’t any less cruel because you do it subtly. And another thing: that second husband might be wealthy and suitable-looking, but Mrs Symmington’s ability to pick a winner has not, in fact, improved. Not at all.

3. The Jacksons in The Darkest Secret by Alex Marwood.

But the Symmingtons look like the Ingalls compared with this lot. They are a cold narcissist of a patriarch (if he’d “gone to Mankato” and stayed there it would have been better all round), his feckless first wife, his ineffectual second wife, some avid contenders for the post of third wife, and a troop of kids who are just so much trouble to take care of, don’t you know? The heartless solution dreamed up by this bunch of over-privileged wazzocks will drop your jaw and you’ll keep reading into the night to watch it go wrong for them and see them try to escape their come-uppance. I should say, there are people to love here too, in Marwood’s excellent third novel, but you’ll have to keep reading a bit before you find them.

2. The Hillyards in A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine.

 This is the first domestic noir I ever read, back in 1986, and it blew me away. Not just me, either, since it won the Edgar for best novel that year.  Vera and Eden, the sisters at the heart of the book, don’t really get how to do family. Vera is obsessed with her sister and neglects her first child. She goes too far the other way with her second child, mistaking devotion for affection. And Eden, once she decides she wants a child, truly believes she can just pick one. They’ve got the self-awareness of a pair of lamps, but when it comes to cunning, they make Lady Macbeth look schlubby. After thirty years of other writers – me included – dredging the depths of human hopelessness, like Baroness Rendell taught us to, this one still shines.

1.The Corleones in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.

Come on! Who else could it be? It sometimes seems that the dysfunctional families we love to loathe are stuffed with rotten women and useless men, but Puzo’s masterpiece is an exception. Here there are rotten men – murderous, faithless, blinkered, grasping, selfish, rotten men – and the useless women who pander to them, cover for them, pray for their (alleged) souls, and generally enable them. Actually on reflection the women are pretty rotten too. But the book is anything but. The fact of every character being held in a death-grip by family loyalty makes for a genuinely pulse-pounding psychological thriller; the fact that the raison d’être of the Corleones is so venal, so grubby, so small – makes the whole thing a tragedy. I don’t often cry when I’m reading, but The Godfather gets me every time.

So what do you think of my top five? And what did I miss? I’m getting ready to spend the rest of the day going “d’oh” like the patriarch of the most functional fictional family ever.


Catriona McPherson is the national best-selling and multi-award-winning author of the Dandy Gilver series of preposterous detective stories, set in her native Scotland in the 1930s. She also writes darker contemporary suspense novels, of which Strangers at the Gate is the latest. Also, eight years after immigrating to the US and settling in California, Catriona began the Last Ditch series, written about a completely fictional Scottish woman who moves to a completely fictional west-coast college town.

Catriona is a member of MWA, CWA and SoA, and a proud lifetime member and former national president of Sisters in Crime, committed to advancing equity and inclusion for women, writers of colour, LGBTQ+ writers and writers with disability in the mystery community.


Pumpkin spice…everything

Liz here, thoroughly enjoying the teasing onset of fall in southwestern PA.

When asked, “What is your favorite season?” the answer is easy: autumn. I love almost everything about it. The nip in the early morning air. Sweaters. Boots. Turtlenecks. The riot of color on a forested mountainside as Mother Nature dons her finery. The dry smell of leaves that are about to fall. The sharp tang of smoke from a wood fire. The tantalizing scent of hot spiced cider. (The only thing I don’t like about fall is what comes after, but we’ll let that go.)

In recent years, fall brings something else, something that will divide a room faster than asking for opinions on use of the Oxford comma: pumpkin spice.

It’s everywhere: coffee, cereal, lattes, bagels, cookies, donuts, syrups, non-dairy creamer, candles…you name it. One of these days an enterprising person will market pumpkin-spice perfume.

Now don’t get me wrong. In the Great Pumpkin Spice debate I am in the “yea” camp. I love a good pumpkin-spice chai latte. A delicious bagel thickly covered in cream cheese. My local bakery makes delicious pumpkin-spice mini-cheesecakes.

If only it didn’t come so soon.

“But Liz,” you say, “September is half over. October will be here before you know it. Is it really soon?”

Ah, dear readers, if only that were the case. See, all of the pictures in this post were snapped in…wait for it…August.

Yes, August. We had not yet had our first full week of school, and pumpkin-spice mania had descended.

I remember when September meant apples. A trip for fresh-pressed cider and an apple donut. Hot mulled cider to warm you up on a cool fall night. An apple-cinnamon coffee cake. Younger me did not care if it was homemade or out of a box (to be honest, older me doesn’t care either).

No more. Move over, apples. Here comes pumpkin (See the lonely box of maple Cheerios in the below picture? Another forgotten flavor of fall.)

Now in the rush that is the retail word, we careen madly from season to another, barely stopping to appreciate the bounty of where we are.

Bathing suits make their appearance in catalogs about February. Heaven forbid you go on vacation in August and need a new suit. Good luck.

Those sweaters and boots? Retailers start advertising those in July. Sorry Land’s End. When it’s 100 degrees out with 95% humidity, it’s hard to get jazzed about a new sweater, even if it is made of the finest cashmere in the world.

But that’s not the worst. No, no it isn’t. This also greeted my eyes on that sultry August afternoon.

What’s next, Christmas decorations in September (don’t answer that)?

Just where did my grocery think I was going to put that chocolate? Even with air-conditioning, it’d melt in my cabinet. Freeze it? Oh, and did they think my will-power was enough to make it last two whole months?


Needless to say, the reason retailers pull these stunts is because people buy the goods. If retailers weren’t making money off pumping-spice pudding, it wouldn’t be on the shelves.

So let’s change it. Boycott. No pumpkin-spice before October 1. Not in coffee, cereal, pudding…nothing. No Boo-berry or Count Chocula. No Halloween-wrapped Hershey’s minis.

None of it. Let September have her due. Bring on the apples and cinnamon. Plenty of time for the pumpkin-spice parade in October.

Who’s with me?

Why does everything happen at once?

Liz, here, who is starting to think she’s lost her mind.

So, I’m sitting at my computer this morning and I don’t see a Mysteristas post in my mailbox. “Hmm,” I think. “I wonder if something is messed up.”

Something’s messed up all right. Me.

Last week, things were a bit insane with the release and launch of Heaven Has No Rage. Don’t get me wrong – it was great. But trying to remember what blog I was visiting that day, checking frequently to respond to comments (and being petrified I’d miss something), then making sure the promo materials were in and everything was ready for my big party on Saturday, well, it got hectic.

But didn’t the display look nice?

Then just as I thought I had it all under control, it was time to move The Girl into her first apartment for the start of her sophomore year of college. It was a pretty smooth process, but it did take all of yesterday.

So I had a blog post all planned and…it just didn’t happen. You get this instead.

I need a new planning system.

Readers, how do you keep track of the chaos in your life? Or do you just suck it up and do your best?

Happy book birthday to me!

Throw the confetti and pop the cork on the champagne! Heaven Has No Rage is out today!

A year ago, I was celebrating the release of my debut, Root of All Evil, and running around like a chicken with my head cut off. I was obsessed with making this The Best Launch Ever. You know, since I’d been dreaming of it for so long.

I don’t know if it was the best ever, but it was pretty darn good and I still get warm fuzzy feelings thinking about it.

This year is a lot more low key. No big huge cake and booze, just cookies and water/tea/coffee. Still having a party (this Saturday) at Mystery Lovers Bookshop. Still a little nervous about what to wear, what to say, and whether the books will show up on time (what author doesn’t worry about these things?).

But I’m trying to be more organized and less…uptight. It’s a day of celebration, right? Time to kick back and for one day not worry about the next book, or editing, or plot holes, or, or, or…

I thought I was doing okay, too. After all, this is the second book. I’ve already launched a book once. I learned all sorts of lessons. Piece of cake, right?

Uh, not so much. I tried to be more organized on my pre-launch marketing, send out press releases and media pitch requests. I even participated on a three-month program to help me get better at these things.

So why do I feel like I’m all thumbs once again?

But I did manage to get the ARCs out and what lovely things people are saying. Aside from the fantastic blurb from fellow Mysterista Kathleen Valenti, there’s this from Dru Ann Love:

With visually descriptive narrative, the author knows how to tell a story with engaging dialogue and action-filled tale that never let go, until the very end. This well-written drama reached a feverish pitch as the story came to its conclusion and I was holding my breath as I watched it play out. Well done. I enjoyed this book and I look forward to more adventures with Jim, Sally and the gang in this terrific series.

Dru Ann Love, Dru’s Book Musings

Kristopher Zgorski, from BOLO Books had kind words, too:

Milliron writes a tightly-coiled plot with evocative language that readers can easily sink into. With Heaven Has No Rage, she stakes her claim for a long-running series featuring these flawed, but loveable, characters.

Kristopher Zgorski, BOLO Books

I’ve taken notes on what worked and what didn’t because in a year, I’ll be doing this all over again for book three. But for now, let’s party, right?

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I celebrate the little things on the way to publication: finishing the first draft, finishing the last revision, submitting to the publisher, etc. But release day feels like the checkered flag, the finish line on the marathon. The book is OUT!

Now to wait for the first reader reviews. In the meantime, anybody want a cookie?

Giveaway time! Tell me your fave way of celebrating a milestone achievement and you could win a signed copy of Heaven Has No Rage! (US residents only, sorry. Please include your email address in your comment.)

Take care of you

That sounds familiar. I think it was a line in a movie, “Pretty Woman” maybe?

And it’s true.

We often think we are taking care of ourselves. We eat properly. We get up regularly to move, since writing is a very sedentary occupation (some of us have little devices to remind us to do this, others use standing desks). We drink water. We exercise by swimming or walking or running or yoga or whatever.

Except we neglect one critical piece. Our mental health.

For the past few days, I’ve felt sluggish. What was it, the weather? No, I felt this way even in the cool of the morning. I reviewed my routine:

  • get up around 6am – check (well, mostly – I’ve been having trouble sleeping again so who am I to argue when the body says “Nope, you’re giving me another hour and that’s final”)
  • feed Koda – check
  • make and consume my yogurt and granola – check
  • make my first cup of tea for the morning – check
  • write for an hour – check
  • check my favorite blogs and social media, including Instagram and Facebook – check
  • start the day job – check

It all seemed in order. And then it hit me.


Image courtesy of Book Catalog on Flickr – used by Creative Commons license

I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. I love it because…

  • it lets me connect with so many friends who live in far-flung places;
  • it lets me keep up with my family, who all live outside Pittsburgh;
  • I get to interact with readers;
  • I participate in Ramona DeFelice Long’s “sprint club,” which keeps me focused on my writing because I have a daily obligation to check in and report;
  • I get to wish Dru Ann Love good morning and receiver her cheery reply;
  • I get to keep up with Dru Ann and BOLO Books on new book news.

I also hate it because…it’s angry.

I scroll past soooo many angry posts. It’s gotten to the point where I hide 2-3 of every 5 of them. Republicans yell at Democrats. Democrats yell at Republicans. The President yells at everybody. Women yell at men. Men yell at women. People yell about the wall, and immigration and the migrant camps. People yell about sports.

It’s exhausting.

I’ve noticed this yelling (and it doesn’t have to be literal yelling) has extended to so much more of our culture. I can’t watch the news anymore, or even listen to it on the radio. I would sell my soul for the return of Walter Cronkite, a man who gave the facts and just the facts. I’m sure old Walter had plenty of opinions, but he saved them for another venue than reporting the news.

I can’t even listen to The Boy’s sports programs. It inevitably leads to yelling (and yes, this times its often literal yelling). Was it a good idea for Kawahi Leonard to sign with the Clippers? Who should worry more about Odell Beckham Jr – the Steelers because of his skill or the Browns because he could become a distraction?

Okay, I get it. It’s important stuff (okay maybe not Odell or Kawahi). We need to be informed. Terrible things are happening and it’s more than Not Right.

But the yelling – it’s wearing me down. So much so that I don’t want to write. I don’t want to read. I don’t want to do anything.

So I signed off Facebook, at least mostly, for the time being. I check my notifications in the morning, say “good morning” to Dru, check in with the Sprint Club, cruise by Dru’s Book Musings and BOLO Books. I post to my author page for the day and respond to reader comments. I check one fan group for my friend Annette Dashofy.

Then I sign off.

Now, admittedly – the pull to just “take a peek” is tough. I used to use Facebook to relieve the my brain at the day job as I switched from task to task (there’s a lot of mental stress in multitasking this way, look it up).

Fortunately, Instagram remains a source of nice pictures – of flowers, dogs, cats, travel, books, and yes, food. But no yelling. And I’ve started playing WordScapes. I’m good with relaxing pictures and crossword-type games.

It’s Day 1. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.

What about you? How to you take care of your mental health when it all gets to be too much?

Sixty days and counting

Actually, fifty-eight days and counting, but that doesn’t make as good of a post title.

Counting to what, you say? To the release of Heaven Has No Rage, the second book in The Laurel Highlands Mysteries. Last Sunday, the fabulous Dru Ann Love helped me reveal the cover.

This is the part of the process where art takes a back seat and business takes over. There are media pitches to send. Editing to be done. Blog posts to arrange. Parties to plan.

Ah, blog posts. And that, dear readers, is what brings us to today’s post. See, I don’t use the services of a professional blog tour company. I set up my own–and I’ve done pretty well at it. But here’s the kicker.

I need to come up with topics.

Preferably different for every site, and preferably different than last year.

I’m here to tell you that one can only talk about the writing process so many times.

Therefore, I’m throwing myself on your mercy. What would you like to hear me talk about on a blog tour? Hit me up with suggestions in the comments. Any and all topics (within reason, let’s not get risque here, this is a family blog) are welcome. If you need a refresher on what I wrote about for Root of All Evil, click here.

Guest Post: Annette Dashofy

I credit Annette Dashofy, author of the fabulous Zoe Chambers Mysteries, with a lot in my life. She was one of the first to welcome me into Sisters in Crime. She critiqued my first (never to be published) book and gently taught me there was a lot more to writing a mystery than pushing a noun against a verb. She’s commiserated with me and helped celebrate my successes. And since she’s one of my critique partners, if you’ve ever enjoyed anything I’ve written she’s someone who helped me get there.

All of that means I’m thrilled to host her today as she celebrates the release of her eighth Zoe book, Fair Game. And she’s talking about something a lot of writers can relate to.

An Introvert in an Extrovert’s Life

I’m currently in the middle of a mini book tour (the tour is mini, not the book) for the release of Fair Game, the eighth in my Zoe Chambers Mystery Series. Although I’m a writer, not an actor, I deserve an Oscar for faking my way through all these public speaking gigs. Standing in front of a room of people and chatting about my books does not come naturally.

One of my earliest memories is of meeting the girl who would become my childhood best friend. Her mother brought her to our house to introduce us. I hid behind my mother’s legs. To say I was paralyzingly shy would be accurate.

In grade school, I was the quiet kid. One teacher moved me, so I had to sit in the middle of the rowdy kids, hoping I’d rub off on them. I didn’t. Nor did they rub off on me. I think I lasted two days before pleading with my teacher to move back to my normal seat.

In high school, I was the wallflower at dances—on the rare occasion that I even attended. No one asked me to dance. I was the last one picked for sports.

Well, you get the idea.

The first big step out of my shyness shell came when I joined 4-H. I thought it was simply a way to learn more about horses since I’d recently gotten my first pony. But my club’s leaders had other plans. As in most clubs, finding people to take offices was a challenge. Reluctantly, I was cast into that pool and eventually found myself in the role of vice-president. VPs never have to do much, I reassured myself.

Unless the president is absent. And our president was absent a lot. At least, that’s how I remember it.

Standing up in front of the other kids and leading a meeting was the hardest thing I’d ever done up to that point. But even at the time, I realized it was a defining moment in my life. I could be in a leadership role and not die of embarrassment. Who knew???

A few decades later, I found myself in front of a room, as a yoga teacher. Another defining moment. One of my teaching instructors gave me some words of wisdom that still stick with me. Even if the class doesn’t flow and you forget what you’re supposed to be saying, remind yourself afterward that no one has died. Besides, if I could stand in front of strangers doing downward facing dog in yoga pants, speaking in front of a group of readers while wearing normal clothes should be a piece of cake!

In truth, I still get nervous, sometimes more than others. Don’t even ask me about sitting on a panel with Louise Penny at last year’s Malice Domestic! Sheer. Terror. But I did it. I drew from those moments as an awkward teen in 4-H.

Fair Game is partly set at the county fair and pays homage to my 4-H friends and leaders who encouraged me to come out of my shell and who continue to support me all these years later at local book talks.

And, yes, I still sometimes have to remind myself that while I stuttered and babbled a bit, in the end, no one has died. Except for a few characters in the book. It is a murder mystery after all.


Paramedic Zoe Chambers hoped a week at the Monongahela County Fair, showing her horse and manning the ambulance, would provide a much-needed diversion from recent events that continue to haunt her. An old friend, a bossy nemesis, and a teenage crush from her 4-H days fail to offer the distraction she had in mind. But ever the caregiver, she soon bonds with a troubled teen and a grieving father.

Back in Vance Township, a missing woman turns up dead, leading Police Chief Pete Adams into a journey through her mysterious final hours. With each new clue, the tragic circumstances of her death grow increasingly muddied.

A cryptic phone call leads Pete to join Zoe for an evening at the fairgrounds where the annual school bus demolition derby concludes with a gruesome discovery and a new case that may or may not be connected to the first. Pete’s quest for the motive behind two homicides—and Zoe’s stubborn determination to reunite a family—thrust them both onto a collision course with a violent and desperate felon.


Annette Dashofy is the USA Today best-selling author of the Zoe Chambers mystery series about a paramedic and deputy coroner in rural Pennsylvania’s tight-knit Vance Township. A lifelong resident of Washington County (PA), Annette has garnered four Agatha Award nominations including Best Contemporary Novel of 2018 for Cry Wolf. She’s a member of International Thriller Writers, the Pittsburgh Chapter of Sisters in Crime, and is on the board of directors of Pennwriters. Fair Game (May 2019) is the eighth in her series.