Scenes of the Crimes
Enter San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco and go up the stairs to the main lobby. During the holidays, this space is spectacularly decorated with Christmas trees, all of them different. Gently curving staircases lead to two more levels, the first and second tiers. The lobbies at each level have railings looking down at the marble floor of the main lobby.
Whenever I’m there, I think about pushing someone over that railing. In fiction, I hasten to add. I call it mystery writer’s syndrome. With all the plots in my head, I’m constantly looking for scenes for my crimes.
In Death Rides the Zephyr, aboard a moving train in the cold depths of a remote canyon, next to the ice-encrusted Colorado River. Cold Trail takes readers to western Sonoma County, rolling hills covered with apple orchards, wineries, and hidden marijuana plantations.
The Sacrificial Daughter takes place in fictional Rocoso County. I can arrange the scenery the way I want. Though this made-up setting bears a resemblance to real locations in California’s Sierra Nevada and the Colorado Rockies. Niles, California, with its moviemaking and railroad history, appears in A Killing at the Track and Death Above the Line.
The beautiful and rugged Northern California coast appears in Don’t Turn Your Back on the Ocean, where Jeri visits Monterey and Big Sur. In A Credible Threat, she goes to Mendocino, which is where I first saw a sign reading, “Don’t Turn Your Back on the Ocean.” And promptly decided that would be a great title. As to why you don’t turn your back on the ocean—sneaker waves.
So far, I have reined in my impulse to commit fictional mayhem at Davies Symphony Hall. Too many witnesses, I suppose, to manage it during intermission. On the other hand, that would make it interesting. I’m sure if I set my mystery writer’s mind to it, I could figure out something.
There’s Mount Lassen in California, the southernmost active volcano in the Cascade Range. It erupted between 1914-1917 and sent boulders the size of cars into the air. It has Bumpass Hell, a hydrothermal basin with bubbling mud pots and boiling springs.
The East Bay has many parks where nefarious doings could be concealed amid the trees or rocks. And I am intrigued by the mining tunnels hidden under the Hearst Memorial Mining Building on the UC Berkeley campus.
Then there’s Guam. When I was in the Navy in the 1970s, I was stationed on this Pacific island, American territory since the Spanish-American War—and occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army from December 8, 1941 until liberated by American forces in July 1944.
Though the war had been over for 30+ years, it was still present. Tanks rusted at the edge of the reef. Construction excavations often unearthed unexploded bombs. Visiting nearby Saipan, I walked along a bluff and discovered that that the small red rocks were rusting cartridges. I stood at the tops of Suicide and Banzai cliffs, where Japanese civilians and Imperial Army soldiers jumped, to avoid capture by the Americans.
I met Agueda Johnston, who had aided Navy enlisted man George Tweed, as he hid during the occupation. For this, she was interrogated and tortured.
Japanese civilians visited Guam and Saipan looking for bones, hoping to repatriate the remains of their war dead. We called them bone hunters. They built small shrines to the dead. Yes, this is a setting I want to use in a book. And will. The plot is already taking shape in my head.
Still, I keep thinking about Davies Symphony Hall, every time I attend a performance.
D. Z. Church
A Lovely Place to Die
A mystery story doesn’t require death. There are all sorts of mysteries out there to be told, I suspect the real mystery is why humans do what they do to each other. Always, the why … that’s the real story. But this isn’t about the motives or what keeps us reading a mystery, this is about where murder is done.
My current list of doom includes a stormy ocean off Barbados, the High Sierra in spring, a Canadian island in summer, and Vietnam (during the war), a Michigan farm, and north of Big Sur in California. What do these places all have in common? Well, with the exception of the Vietnam War, they are places I love. I admit to a preference for places I know well; I want readers to feel and see the site of the death whether it is yellow gorse or a thunderous shore.
Of course, there are those places that puzzle us, like locked rooms, strangers on trains, islands, lighthouses, wild Scot islands … a very long list, indeed. Isolated places where man goes feral are great for death and revelation. And, the modus of death depends on the tale you tell, a straight up murder mystery, a cozy little afternoon tea and crumpets story, a thriller with heart pounding danger, or maybe a ghost story.
There is this amazing gondola that links the two ski mountains at Whistler, Canada. It is skiing paradise, or is it? If the gondola is stopped by high winds, and the right mix of people are hanging thousands of feet over a chasm, who is left standing when the gondola berths and the doors open.
So many thrillers rely on the ordinary because it is so compelling. We have all walked onto an elevator, or into the stairway of a parking structure, or an airport bathroom and flashed on a crime scene. The difference between everyone else and writers is the writers turn those moments into a tale. So, I am on an elevator with four German speaking men… You’re having dinner at a famous restaurant and a man goes by with a body on a gurney… What’s next?
While fanciful deaths can make great tales, ordinary deaths are often most disturbing, less expected and may have untold consequences. When a dead man infected with cholera is found shot and lying in a stream watched over by lowing cows, it isn’t about his death, but the death of a town.
Or… years ago, my husband and I went hiking in a California coastal park near dusk with our sights set on reaching a pair of towering twin redwood trees. We took off our shoes at a stream, waded across to the trailhead, put the shoes on and kept walking as the light faded, convinced the twin trees were around each new corner. Deep in the trail, the brush swished. We stopped, shrugged, and took a step. The sound again. A quarter-mile later we heard footsteps. We stopped, they stopped. We turned for our car, picking up the pace as we re-cornered all the corners cornered as the footsteps and swishes grew closer. As we neared the stream, a man hailed us. Another answered. We didn’t bother to take off our shoes, just raced through the stream and into our car, a blue Volkswagen beetle now parked next to it. The steps, the voices were so creepy, we shuddered and laughed our way home. Before bed, we flicked on the TV for the late news. The blue Volkswagen flashed on the screen; we sat down with a thud on our couch. And that is how close we came to the Trailside Killer. The young couple in the Volkswagen did not fare so well. Sometimes you just need to keep your mouth shut, your shoes on and run.
You get it by now, the best site for murders may be a neighborhood in New York City, a town known for its witches, a house on a beach, a cliff, a park, well, anywhere in the world.
Recommendations: In My Dreams I Hold a Knife, by Ashley Winstead, the title alone grabbed me. Jessica Miller attends her ten-year college reunion and reconnects with old friends. But looming over them is the unsolved murder of another friend, right before graduation. Watch those friendships unravel. The Chelsea Detective, now streaming on Acorn TV. Adrian Scarborough (an actor I enjoy) stars as DI Max Arnold, who lives on a houseboat on the Thames and rides his bike to work.
D. Z. Church
Recommendations: Yikes! Read something you love over again. I loved the Vicki Barr, Stewardess books for YA back before they called them that. I still have the books. Mystery, blooming romance, a girl in a man’s world, airplanes. Like they were written for me, I swear.
Doings: I’m off to Left Coast Crime in Albuquerque next month, my first convention since the pandemic lockdown started two years ago. I’m on a panel titled “20th Century Historicals.” Right up my train tracks, since I write the Jill McLeod/California Zephyr mysteries. The panel is scheduled for Thursday, April 7, at 1:15 PM.
D. Z. Church
Doings: Well, there are a host of things I should be doing, but mostly I’ve been praying for snow. I think I’ve got a bad case of the winter doldrums, nuanced by fear of drought. But watch this space, there will be doings soon.
Do catch my blog at LadiesofMystery.com every fourth Thursday of the month.