Monthly Archives: June 2013

RUN TO GROUND Wins Benjamin Franklin Silver Award

RTG 300X450

RUN TO GROUND has been awarded the Benjamin Franklin Silver Award in the Mystery/Suspense category.

I am honored and humbled. This is a wonderful surprise.

Now back to work on the next book.


Posted by on June 28, 2013 in Writing


Are Bite Marks Junk Science?

The forensic examination of bite marks left on victims, both alive and deceased, is being brought into question. If someone has an unusual tooth pattern and leaves bite marks on a victim, it seems logical that a match between the tooth pattern and the bite mark pattern would indicate that this person was the one who did the biting. And that just might be the case.



The poster boy for serial killers, Ted Bundy, had an unusual dental pattern and was convicted in part on bite mark evidence. No doubt old Ted was guilty but was the bite mark evidence used against him reliable?


Bundy's Teeth

Bundy’s Teeth


It comes down to exactly how accurate these comparisons are?



It mostly depends on the “quality and clarity” of the bite mark and the skill, experience, and attention to detail of the observer. The key being that it varies from case to case and from examiner to examiner. Forensic science doesn’t like such unpredictable variability. In general, such variability means that either the technique is not useful or accurate, or the protocols for making the comparison are inexact. Time will tell, but a couple of upcoming court rulings could derail the entire process. We shall see.

AZ Daily Star

The Daily



Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Write a Killer Thriller Opening

Your thriller is coming along really well. You’ve written a first draft or are well into it, and you’re starting to think of actually letting others read it. Way to go! Now it’s time to go back and revise your opening pages to make them as riveting and intriguing as they can be.

I can’t emphasize enough how critical your first pages are. They can literally make or break your sales for that book – and maybe future ones. Why? Because after glancing at the front and back cover, potential readers, agents, publishers, and buyers will read your opening page or two to decide whether or not to buy your book. Readers are less and less patient, and with all the excellent books out there, if they’re not intrigued by the first few pages, they’ll reject yours and go on to another.

As James N. Frey says, “A gripping opening is not simply a good thing for your story. It’s absolutely essential.”


Writing a Killer Thriller_May '13


So what are the essential ingredients of a gripping opening?

Your first page – in fact, your first paragraph – needs to immerse your readers in the story right away, engage them emotionally, and hook them in so they not only want to but need to continue.

For that to happen, several factors come into play.

~ Tell us whose story it is. First, readers want to know right away who’s the protagonist, the one they’ll be rooting for. Put is in the head of the main character in the first sentence, certainly the first paragraphs. Readers expect that the first person they meet is the one they’ll identify with and bond with, so start right out in the point of view of your lead character.

~ Situate us right away. And readers want to know immediately where and when that first scene is taking place, and what’s going on. So be sure you’ve answered the four W’s within the first few paragraphs: who, what, where, and when – and in an engaging way. Don’t confuse or annoy your readers right off the bat by making them wonder who’s the main person in the story, what’s going on at that moment, and where and when it’s happening.

~ But not in a happy scene. Introduce some tension and conflict right away. Your lead character wants or needs something and it’s not happening. She’s starting to get stressed because…

~ Make us care about your protagonist. Give readers a hero they’ll really want to root for and worry about. He should be sympathetic, interesting, and charismatic, but with inner conflict and baggage. Show us his hopes, dreams, worries, and fears as soon as you can.

~ Give us characters in action. Don’t start with your heroine alone, contemplating her life. That’s too static and just not engaging or dynamic enough. Put her in a compelling scene with someone significant in real time, with tension, dialogue, actions, and reactions. That way, we get a feel for her personality and a glimpse into her world and her place in it.

~ Avoid neutral, detached descriptions or explanations. Don’t address the readers as an omniscient narrator, telling us about the setting, the weather, or the hero from afar. In fact, don’t tell us anything on the first pages – show us what’s going on through the actions and dialogue of your characters. Filter the descriptions of your hero’s surroundings through his perceptions, reactions, mood, and attitude.

~ Set the tone for the whole book. Your opening paragraphs need to establish the overall tone and mood of this story. Readers need to get a feel early on as to what they’re getting into, not only in terms of character and plot but also from your overall approach and attitude. They don’t want any nasty surprises later on.

~ Upset her world. Then, within the first chapter, throw your main character a major curveball. Show something or someone threatening her or people close to her, or other, innocent people. Force your hero to make some difficult, even agonizing decisions. And keep us in her head so we feel her worries or fear or anger or confusion, followed hopefully by strategizing, courage, determination, and actions.

~ Make us relate. For maximum reader involvement, introduce a situation of injustice that implicates your protagonist as primary problem-solver. Injustice is something all readers can identify with, and they want to vicariously fight it through a resourceful, courageous, determined hero or heroine.

~ Bring in the villain. Finally, introduce your adversary within the first two chapters. It’s best to put us right in his point of view, but I advise against revealing his identity right away – keep the readers guessing along with the hero, for more tension, suspense and intrigue.

To recap: So think of a gripping, stressful opening situation for your protagonist that creates empathy and identification for him and raises intriguing story questions. Then show that scene in real time, with tension, action, and dialogue, through the eyes and ears and heart of your protagonist.

And write tight. Don’t rev your engines at the beginning or let your opening sequence drag on. Get in there and be ruthless with your cutting, taking out anything that doesn’t drive the story forward or contribute to characterization. Start late and end early.

That’s a tall order, all for a first page. But the business of thriller writing is extremely competitive, so your opening needs to be stellar to stand out in the crowd. Don’t waste it with long, meandering descriptive passages about the scenery or weather, or with a character waking up in the morning thinking about his life. And whatever you do, don’t use those precious first pages to explain anything to your readers. This is where “show, don’t tell” is crucial.

Readers and writers – Do you have any other suggestions for a killer thriller opening?


Jodie no glasses (2)


Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, with the updated, expanded edition now available in e-book and paperback on Amazon; and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER, available in paperback, for Kindle, and in other e-book formats

For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website.


Posted by on June 21, 2013 in Guest Blogger, Writing


Prosopagnosia: I See You But Who Are You?



Heather Sellers doesn’t know who she is. I mean she knows, but she can’t recognize her own reflection in the mirror. Or the faces of others. She suffers from Prosopagnosia, or face blindness. It’s not as uncommon as you might think, but most often it is mild and only slightly aggravating.

Acquired prosopagnosia often results from head trauma, stroke, or developmental prosopagnosia (as Heather Sellers has) seems to genetically determined and begins at a young age, before the development of normal facial recognition abilities. How do these folks recognize family and friends? And themselves? Usually by some combination of voice, clothing, hair style, mannerisms, walking gate, body language, or some combination of these and other cues.

Here is an interesting video of someone who has this malady.


Fast Bullets and Broken Glass

Crime scene reconstruction is an art and a science. If investigators can determine what happened, to whom, when, where, and how, they are well down the road to solving the case. Ballistic trajectories are often part of this analysis.



What was a bullet’s direction of travel? Was the gun fired inside the house or outside? Better yet, what was the speed of the bullet? Directionality can refute or support suspect alibis and witness statements and bullet speed can narrow the type of weapon used when the bullet itself is not available.

It has been known for many years the glass fracture patterns can reveal directionality but now there seems to be a method for determining the projectile’s speed. Very cool technology.


Howdunnit 200X267



The lab might also be asked to determine how and why a glass object, such as window, fractured. The pattern of the breaks and cracks seen in a window give the examiner a clue as to the speed and direction of the impact; this helps him determine what object likely caused the break. Was the object moving at a low velocity, such as a rock or fi st, or at a higher rate, such as a bullet or explosive shrapnel?

Cracks in windows and other flat plates of glass tend to be radial and concentric.

Radial cracks spread outward from the point of impact in a spoke-like configuration. Concentric cracks are a series of progressively larger circles around the point of impact. Overall, the cracked window might look like a spider web.

Certain characteristics of a break allow the examiner to determine the direction from which the impact came. This can be critically important in crime scene reconstruction. Did the bullet penetrate the window from outside in, or was it fired from within the house? Did a perpetrator break the window and enter, or did someone within the house break the window in an attempt to stage the scene and make a domestic homicide look like a breaking-and-entering murder?

Stress-fracture lines known as conchoidal lines, which radiate away from the impact site (see Figure 15-3), can help make this determination. Viewed through the thickness of the glass, these lines tend to curve out and away from the point of impact. Looking more closely at these conchoidal fractures, smaller lines that radiate in a perpendicular direction from edges that face away from the impact site may be seen. These are called hackle marks.

15-3 Conchordial fracture lines jpeg

Figure 15-3: Conchoidal fracture lines. Conchoidal fracture lines tend to curve out and away from the point of impact. Hackle marks also reveal the direction from which the force was applied.


If a projectile such as a bullet strikes a window and penetrates it, but does not completely shatter it, it may leave a hole with or without surrounding fracture lines. On the side of approach, the bullet creates a rather clean hole, while on the opposite side, a small cone-shaped plug of glass is forced out. Simple visual inspection of the impact site reveals the projectile’s direction of travel.

If multiple bullets or other projectiles fracture the glass, it is often possible to determine the order in which they struck. Typically, the radial fractures caused by the second object do not cross those of the first. That is, they end when they encounter glass that is already fractured (see Figure 15-4).

15-4 Intersecting fracture lines jpeg

Figure 15-4: Intersecting fracture lines. Impact radial fracture lines end abruptly at those produced by a previous impact. In this case, fracture B followed fracture A.


These findings can be extremely important in corroborating or refuting suspect and witness statements and in reconstructing the events surrounding the crime. They can also be useful in assigning culpability.

Let’s say two gang members decide to do a drive-by shooting of a rival gang member while he is sitting in his car. The driver fires through the victim’s car window and begins to drive away. His accomplice then takes the gun and fires again. Both bullets pass through the window and strike the victim, one in the shoulder and the other in the head, killing him. Since both bullets came from the same gun and both men have gunshot residue on their hands (see Chapter Sixteen: Firearms Examination, “Gunshot Residues”), which of the shooters was the actual killer? Was it the first bullet (the driver) or the second (the passenger)? The dilemma is resolved when analysis of the fracture lines in the victim’s car window reveal that the second bullet was the killing shot.



Posted by on June 14, 2013 in Crime Scene, Firearms Analysis


Q and A: Can My ME Determine If a Child Died From Exposure As Opposed To Being Locked in a Heated Vehicle?

Q: In my story, a police officer is on the scene where the body of a 3 year old child was found among the rocks and weeds of a dried up riverbed in Southern California. It is early summer. Can the CSI techs or the ME determine if the child died from being locked up in a heated car rather than from exposure to the elements where the body was found?

Jack Dietz, Production Coordinator, Las Vegas, NV

A: The simple answer is that this is not very likely however there might be a way. Much depends on the condition of the body. If it is severely decayed or has become skeletal, the ME would have little to work with and there would be no way to determine exactly where the death occurred. In either case the death would be from that catchall term “exposure.” What that means is that the victim died from lack of water or food, with water of course being the most important. Exposure deaths are almost always due to severe dehydration.

However, if the child is found within a day or two of death, the body would be more or less intact and the ME might be able to estimate where the death had occurred, given the two choices you outlined. One difference would be insect activity. If the child died in the trunk as opposed to being exposed outdoors there would be less insect activity for the amount of time since death than would be expected from an exposed corpse. If the ME determined that the child had been dead for 2 or 3 days yet there was essentially no insect activity, it would mean that she had been in a protected environment, such as an enclosed car or car trunk, for those 2 or 3 days and only exposed for maybe a few hours. On the other hand, if he found insect activity that matched his estimate of the time since death, this would favor her being in an exposed environment for those 2 to 3 days. It’s not that flies can’t get into car trunks, it’s just that most trunks are so well sealed, fly access would be very limited, if at all.

On a similar note, predatory animals would not be able to attack the body while it was in the car but if exposed predator feeding on an exposed body is fairly common. Coyotes are everywhere. Predator activity would suggest a longer period of environmental exposure.



One circumstance that might be interesting for you would be if the child died in either the trunk or on the floorboard of the car. As she died from hyperthermia and dehydration, she would increasingly gasp for breath toward the end of her life and could inhale carpet fibers from the trunk lining or floor carpets. This would not happen if death occurred while exposed outside. This would of course require that the body be in fairly good condition. I think as long as you have the body found within a few days, the decay process would not have progressed far enough for the lungs to be destroyed and the medical examiner might see these fibers during his microscopic examination of lung tissue. Once he found these fibers, he would know that the victim had inhaled them and therefore was alive while in the car. So finding the fibers would at least allow the medical examiner to guess that she had been in the car near or shortly before her death.



Another interesting thing about this scenario is that the ME could then analyze these fibers physically, optically, and chemically and determine the manufacturer of the carpet and this in turn could lead to the car manufacturer and even the make and model year–or at least a narrow range of years since car manufacturers change their products quite frequently. This would greatly help your police officer develop suspects.



DNA in a NY Minute

DNA Analyzer


Writers often send me questions about DNA, and most include something about the turn around time for DNA analysis. Ten years ago the answer was weeks, five years ago hours, and now it seems only minutes are required.

Engineers at the University of Washington and scientists at NanoFracture, a company in Bellevue, WA, have developed a DNA extractor that uses electrodes and not spinning centrifuges to perform the critical and time-consuming step of removing DNA from any body fluid. And it does so in only a couple of minutes. Then on to a sequencer and before you know it you have a DNA profile.

Though not commercially available yet, this technology exists and it will be interesting to see how it progresses. Of course, it’s fiction-ready right now.


Posted by on June 4, 2013 in DNA, High Tech Forensics


ThrillerFest Schedule

Here is this year’s ThrillerFest Schedule. Looks like a fun week.

If you haven’t signed up yet, do.

2013MasterTFGrid5-26-2013-2 copy-1

2013MasterTFGrid5-26-2013-2 copy-2

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Posted by on June 2, 2013 in Writing

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