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At Home and in Paris

Updated: Sep 4, 2022


In Honor of Halloween, I am sharing my Favorite mystery authors… . .

Ever since the Fall debut of my first mystery novel -- Couched in Blood -- readers have sent photos of themselves with my books, both the memoir and the murder mystery. These photos became the centerpiece of my last blog post and the source of inspiration for creating a piece that let my readers in on my writing philosophy and process.

So many readers have written emails asking who my favorite mystery writers are, perhaps wanting to discern some of the influences upon my story of Detective Ralph Orloff, other than the fact of my former profession as a psychoanayst in Los Angeles. But I must preface this post with a confession; My little mystery novel falls in the category of “cozy”, while much of what I have enjoyed reading is much more on the side of hard-boiled and leans toward blood-and-guts violence.

So with that distinction out in the open, I will respond to my readers’ curiosity in celebration of the coming of Halloween by revealing ten of my favorite mystery writers and some of their central characters, not in any particular order but just as they happen to come to mind as I write. Perhaps if I don’t detect the thread that runs between these books and weaves throughout my own, you may be able to find what links them all together and perhaps will share your insights with me.


The first author that comes to mind is Patricia Highsmith, perhaps because I was exposed to her work almost before I could read. She was well known for her psychological thrillers, and her first novel, Strangers on a Train, was adapted for film by Alfred Hitchcock. It was my introduction to her work, owing to the fact that I had two much-older sisters who dragged this 'tag-along-too-loo' everywhere they went. Back in the late forties and early fifties, this was known as childcare! I can still recall brushing my sister Carole’s hair in exchange for her agreement to allow me to sit up in bed with her to watch "Strangers on a Train" and so many other films that were way above my age-rating. Several more Highsmith thrillers went on to be produced for the silver screen, most notably The Talented Mister Ripley, which was published in 1955 and adapted for film numerous times, most successfully in 1999.

I loved the title character whose pseudo-innocence and boyish charm reminded me of yet another character in a mystery by the French novelist Julien Green. Green’s character, Fabien Especel, in Green's spooky novel If I Were You, was very much like Tom Ripley; He was underprivileged and filled with envy of those who had more wealth or position than he did. He would steal their identities until it’s suited him to make the leap into the body of another to escape the police and adopt an even more envied personage, over and over again. The famous psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein, in her paper “On Identification” used this fictional character to exemplify a fantastic version of the use of 'projective identification' as a defense against unbearable envy. Of course she was quoting the English translation of Green’s book, which was marvelously executed by J. F. H. McEwen.

Another favorite of mine, and one whose work inspired at least two papers that I published, is the German Author Patrick Suskind. He is probably most famous for his 1985 novel Perfume, the Story of a Murderer. This incredibly original period piece, which takes place in 18th century France, is the story of a character named Jean-Baptiste Grenouille,

born to an unwed mother who "delivers him beneath a swarm of flies and amid the offal and fish heads” in the marketplace where she works. Although utterly dejected from birth, Grenouille develops an exceptional talent for discerning olfactory sensations. However, since he himself has no odor whatsoever, he murders and steals from his victims, especially beautiful young women, their own particular fragrance. Just as Melanie Klein utilized Green’s novel to exemplify and illustrate the concept of 'projective identification', I used Suskind's character and his tragic and horrifying story to illustrate the concept of 'adhesive identification', an even more primitive defense against intolerable loss, and perhaps even unbearable, primeval forms of envy.


Unlike Tom Ripley, Grenouille’s story doesn’t end well, and there are no sequels that could possibly follow the shocking finale. But like Highsmith, Susskind possesses an amazing talent for taking us to an era and a locale with such vivid descriptions that we can’t help but fall for these vicious murderers.They are utterly captivating and alluring, although they are clearly the epitome of sociopathy.

Next in mind is Patricia Cornwell, who is probably one of the most famous murder mystery writers, if only because she took the genre to a new level with her very first Kay Scarpetta novel Postmortem, blending modern forensics and the science of criminology in a manner that has had a formidable influence on other novelists and especially on TV producers. My favorite Scarpetta novels are the first nine, Postmortem through Point of Origin. One of her most memorable villains is Temple Gault, who I believe is tied with Hannibal Lecter as two of the coldest, creepiest bad guys in the genre. And speaking of Hannibal Lecter, Halloween simply wouldn’t be spooky without him. Dr. Lecter, played with conviction by Anthony Hopkins in the film version, was a serial killer created by serial novelist Thomas Harris. Lecter was distinguished by his cannibalistic streak.

FBI profiler, Will Graham, is nearly disemboweled by Lecter in the process of pursuing him, and Will retires from the Bureau due to the trauma that he nearly did not survive. Before his capture, Dr. Lecter had been a respected forensic psychiatrist who went on to become a consultant for the FBI in their search for other serial killers in subsequent cases. The first of Thomas’s novels to feature Dr. Lecter was the Red Dragon, published in 1981, that many did not read before his later works. The plot follows Will, fresh out of retirement bent on the apprehension of an enigmatic serial-killer nicknamed the Tooth Fairy. Lecter goes on to advise Agent Clarise Starling in her pursuit of a bizarre serial killer in the Silence of the Lambs, perhaps Thomas's most famous novel and yes, another brilliant, award-winning film. I fell head over heels for Hannibal because of his brilliance, his wit, his primitive sensuality and his ingenious capacity to fool the cops every time.


Another very longtime favorite of mine was John Sandford's Prey series of thrilling mysteries. His main character, Detective Lucas Davenport, chief investigator of Minnesota's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, is unforgettable. Davenport first appeared in the 1989 novel Rules of Prey.The rules are "Never have a motive. Never follow a discernible pattern. Never carry a weapon after it has been used. Beware of leaving physical evidence". Davenport was unique; He is a loner without a partner and has a knack for identifying with his ‘prey’. Davenport prefers to work outside the established rules of the police force, drives a Porsche to work, a luxury which he can well afford, thanks to his second occupation: creating war games, and is something of a likable womanizer. Since that first novel, I've read at least twenty Davenport mysteries. But I think I may have lost track of Sandford when my reading was almost completely limited to psychoanalytic texts, studied in preparation for teaching or writing my clinical books. Perhaps now that I’m retired, I can catch up to this prolific writer and his one-of-a-kind Detective.


Speaking of prolific mystery writers brings me to two of the best on my list. Early on in his career, Jonathan Kellerman captured my attention with his first Alex Delaware mystery novel, When the Bough Breaks. I had known of Kellerman as a chid psychologist and rumor had it that he'd been called in as the chief consultant in a scandalous investigation of a day care center, where staff members were accused of child molestation. I had also heard that, although Kellerman had been instrumental in the eventual exoneration of these childcare workers, he had suffered a bad case of burnout and had discovered a way to turn his writing talent (as a frequently published and well-respected child psychologist) into a talent for commercial fiction. I followed his Delaware series for many years and, clearly a character rooted in his own identity, and I also developed a strong affection for his gay L.A. police Detective, Milo Sturgis, for whom Deleware became a consultant on many cases. These books were also my first introduction to a French bulldog way before coming into contact with those I encounter daily on the streets of Paris.


However, as much as I was smitten with Jonathan’s book, I was pulled off track by the first novel I read by his wife Faye Kellerman. Her knack for historical fiction was a charming distraction from my usual fare of murder and mayhem. The Quality of Mercy simply took my breath away. Her ingenious plot features Rebecca Lopez, who lives a privileged life in Elizabethan England as the daughter of the queen’s own physician. At the same time she hides the fact that she is a converso who still practices her prohibited Jewish religion. She also has an insatiable lust for excitement that takes her to the bustling streets of London at night dressed in male clothing that affords her the adventures that belong to the domain of 'men only'. One such outing leads her into a dangerous nest of intrigue and murder-most-foul, as well as driving her into the arms of a dashing young actor and playwright by

the name of Will Shakespeare. Of course Will arouses Rebecca's feminine passion for romance. Perhaps not so coincidentally, in a newspaper article many year’s before Faye’s book was published, I had read a report about a Doctor Rodrigo Lopez, who fled the Portuguese Inquisition even though he’d been born a New Christian in a family of conversos in 1525. Lopez settled in England and continued to practice his Jewish traditions in secret no my as the Queen’s physician until 1594, when he was executed before a London crowd on charges that included conspiring to poison the Queen. Of course, I was lead straight to Faye's series of mysteries in which the female character, Rina Lazarus, is an orthodox Jewess (not unlike her creator) who falls for Peter Decker, a goyishe Police Detective (unlike Jonathan Kellerman). Faye Kellerman’s work is ripe with jewish sites (like the ritual bath in the volume of the same name), themes, and characteristics, and is quite original and creative. She too retired from her original career as a dentist to pursue a career as a writer. Two of the four Kellerman children are also published authors. A way with words definitely runs in that family!


The ninth author that comes to mind is J.K. Rowling/aka Robert Galbraith (the pseudonym Rowling uses to write her Cormoran Strike mystery novels.) However, have to insist that the Harry Potter books count as mysteries as well,

and excellent mysteries at that. After all, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, amateur detective Harry Potter and his sidekick sleuths Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger are trying to discover who is after the Philosopher’s Stone. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the trio is getting to the bottom of who opened the Chamber of secrets, and so on with the rest of the books. Rowling’s Robert Galbraith books are amazing too, and just like Harry Potter, the stories get darker and better with each new novel (I started with The Silkworm). But I am serious when I ask if you haven’t read Harry Potter yet, what is wrong with you? Rowling doles out a grown up dose of fantasy and fear with seriously grown-up crescendos, especially in The Deadly Hallows that aims straight to the fears in the heart of the child and adolescent in each of us.


My husband and I read the first Harry Potter mystery to each other on a road trip up the coast of California that we took right after 9/11. Rowling’s creative spirit and imaginative plays took us away from the horror on the East Coast, but the suspense mirrored our own after this world shaking event. The combination of flavors was irresistible.


Finally, no list of horror/mystery/thrillers would be complete without one or more short stories, novellas, and novels by Stephen King. I have many favorites, like Green Mile, Dead Zone, and Shawshank Redemption (which have all been successfully adapted to film). But if I have to cite one that leaves us in suspense and is filled with senseless murders, and a mysterious finale, I would have to choose Cell. In this Novel, written after his near fatal accident, King’s mastery of the art of storytelling is, as always, a wonder.

In my experience, King usually writes seductively, as if making love to his reader by unfolding his story with slow hands full of sensation and sensibility. Unlike this style found in most of his books, from the start of reading Cell, I felt as if I were being metaphorically raped and brutally dragged into violent action without a smidgen of foreplay. Shocking, senseless, violence fills the first half-dozen or so pages and I was helpless and disoriented in a Boston I know well, yet did not recognize. To my mind,Cell is by far King's most raw, transgressive work to date.

Many compare it to King's earlier epic, The Stand. But although these novels are similar, in that an apocolyptic event threatens the existence of all mankind as a group of survivors struggle to face the carnage head on (no pun intended here) and to avoid complete catastrophe, Cell is a far more mature dystopian novel. Cell is filled with the incisive and morose observations of a mature adult. Perhaps one might wonder if King’s near fatal accident affected his outlook. Although Misery is most associated with King’s accident, Cell speaks to the intrinsic violence of the human race as a whole, not just one psychotic woman. It is as though the world is out of control and and the worst case cannot be anticipated. Certainly what King experienced in that accident and the subsequent surgeries must have come as an unimaginable event out of nowhere. In Cell King leaves the reader wanting to know the why of these events, but he leaves us with an unresolved ending. The violence is senseless, oppressive, and omnipresent, and unlike in The Stand, there seems to be little promise for a better world.


So now you know some of my favorites. While thinking about their influence on my mystery, the first five authors captivate the reader with villains who are magnetic, pitiful and psychopathic, all at the same time.

In Couched in Blood, there is one such character, but identifying that character would definitely be a spoiler. The next three authors created detectives who, like Detective Ralph Orloff in Couched in Blood are, for different reasons, are like no others in the genre. And the last two authors are both masters of surprise and horror, mystery and fantasy, talents that I can only dream of having when I grow up!


Until next time, please do share with me your favorite mystery authors and tell me why you are so enchanted with them. Just send me an email at judith.mitrani@icloud.com


















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