Daryl Anderson

I'm a USA Today Bestselling mystery writer. I live in a quiet corner of north Florida with my husband and two spoiled dogs.

The Hollow Places

The other day I was looking for something dark and spooky to add to my TBR pile. I came across The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher. The cover was creepy and the blurb had a hell of a hook, but when I read that the story was inspired by Algernon Blackwood’s novella The Willows, I clicked the buy button.

And am I glad I did because The Hollow Places is nothing less than  a horror tour-de-force.

Like a lot of horror novels, this one opens with a woman in trouble, in this case thirty-something Kara, who is about to get divorced. When her quirky Uncle Earl  invites her to stay with him at his Glory to God Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosities, and Taxidermy, she accepts. Not long after, Kara discovers a portal in a wall leading to a nightmare world that can’t exist, but does. 

The story is told from Kara’s point of view, and I can’t recall when I’ve encountered a more relatable or likeable narrator. The other characters are equally engaging, and the imaginative plot reads a little like an LSD trip. But where Kingfisher excels is in her creation of atmosphere. 

The strange museum is a chicken-fried homage to the Cabinets of Curiosities from earlier days. With her loving descriptions of jackalope and taxidermied mice dressed like soldiers, Kingfisher brings the quirky museum alive–literally and figuratively.  But she really shines with her chilling portrayal of the nightmare world beyond the portal. All too often, horror writers fail to describe the Big Bad, but  Kingfisher delivers, including some very nasty bits that.

In the end credit, Kingfisher credits Algernon Blackwood’s novella The Willows as inspiration for her story. Curious, I went back and reread Blackwood’s tale. Despite the difference in tone–THP is infused with a snarky attitude that would have shocked Blackwood–it is a legitimate and worthy offspring to Blackwood’s nineteenth-century horror classic.

Each story creates a nightmare world that is both familiar and strange, which is the essence of the uncanny. Travelers in these dark realms learn that the world is neither safe nor sane, but a dangerous place where nightmares roam.  A place of terror, but also of wonder.

I loved it.

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Boston Marathon

Patriot’s Day, 2021

Boston Marathon

“Get going. Get up and walk if you have to, but finish the damned race.”

-Ron Hill to Jerome Drayton during the 1970 Boston Marathon

If it’s April, it must be Boston!

If this were a normal April, Boston would be getting ready for its annual marathon. New flash—this isn’t a normal April, and the race will be run in October instead of on Patriot’s Day. Even so, I’ve caught myself looking at photos of past marathons.

My husband Steve and I have gone to the Marathon many times—he as a runner and me as cheerleader. I have so many memories that they clump together like fistfuls of wet sand. Though there is one Boston Marathon that stands apart.

That year we stayed in a small cozy hotel on Beacon Street, within walking distance of the finish. As usual, Steve left in the predawn chill so that he and the other runners could be bussed to the starting point in Hopkinton.

In previous marathons, I would have amused myself for a few hours. One year I went to a baseball game at Fenway; another I walked Freedom Trail, past the Old North Church and the USS Constitution. When I was done sightseeing, I’d join the other spectators on Boylston Street to cheer my husband and the other racers home.

All work and no play?

On this particular marathon day, I was in my small hotel room, tapping away on my laptop. The copy edits to my first published novel Murder in Mystic Cove were due the next morning. Once I finished with the edits, I’d be able to enjoy the rest of my vacation, starting with hoisting a couple of brews at Doyle’s Irish Pub later than night.

Doyle’s Irish Pub

I finished my edits around 3 o’clock, which was also around the time my husband expected to finish. But before that, I needed coffee. I’d prefer Starbucks, but the complimentary hotel coffee was downstairs—and it was, you know, free.

The tired guy behind the front desk opened an eye and nodded. I nodded back and made a beeline for the urn, which had just enough coffee for a decent cup. I was squeezing out the dregs when a couple burst through the door like two refugees from War of the Worlds. The woman wore jeans and a jacket; the man cocooned inside a silver warming cloak used by the runners. I smiled in the way strangers do, but she was having none of that.

“There’s been an explosion—just now!”

“Whaaat?” the clerk asked.

Her words tumbled out. They’d been walking back to the hotel when something boomed, a deep-throated roar that roiled Boylston Street and beyond. “First one blast, then another! Someone said it was a bomb.”

“Where was it?” I asked, though I had a pretty clear idea where.

She glanced at her companion, who held his silence. “We didn’t see, but it had to be near the finish line. That’s the direction people are running from.“

People were running? I thought crazily.

The world seemed to drop away. From someplace far away, the clerk and the woman went back-and-forth. I took the stairs, coffee slurping over my hand. My mind a jumble of thought and raw emotion.

It was three o’clock—around the time when my husband expected to finish. So there was a more than even chance he’d been near the explosion. Was he hurt? Possibly. Was he worse than hurt? Also possible. Was I stranded alone in a city far from my home—my previous life amputated in one fell stroke?

In the room, I remembered that my husband’s cell was with his belongings. I tried the number. After several rings, the recording answered. “Shit,” I muttered, then told myself it was okay. Steve hadn’t picked up his bag yet, that’s all. I was about to dial again when the phone in my hand rang.

“It’s okay,” my husband said. “I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

With the sound of Steve’s voice, my own personal nightmare vanished. Yet with one tweak in the timeline, that bad day could have been much, much worse for my husband and I. As bad as it was for so many other. My husband was safe because he’d left the runner’s area just before the first bomb went off. And because of my deadline, I was also safe.

While I’d long thought of writing as a lifesaver, on this day, writing had literally saved my life.

So what’s the moral of my story?

Maybe that life turns on a dime. At some point, everybody’s ticket comes due, and nobody knows when that day will come. So what’s the use in stressing out? Just run your race to the finish, and don’t be too concerned about that dark shadow on your heels. He’ll catch up with you eventually.

And you’ll probably never even see him coming.

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a cloudy night sky

Moons & Mystery

Sunshine State Murder series

Are you a moon gazer?

I certainly am. There are few things as beautiful and mysterious as a full moon in a clear sky. But’s it’s also a powerful symbol that I often use in my writing.

In my novel Murder Comes to Elysium, a blood moon rises over Grubber County, Florida. While most of the county gets ready for a moon-gazing party, PI Addie Gorsky tries to ignore it. As she observes, there is enough blood in the world, without the moon getting in on the action. On the night of the blood moon, Addie finds herself in a tight situation. After a close escape, she reflects:

At last, I slipped from the side door and into the night. It felt good, like diving into a cold lake on a hot day, but my relief was short-lived. My eyes traveled upward, to the full moon tinged in red, glaring down like a bloody eye. I hadn’t escaped it after all. The blood moon at China Rose had followed me here.

from Murder Comes to Elysium

Later that night Addie returns to her home base at China Rose, where the moon-gazing party is just wrapping up. After the learned astronomer finally ends his lecture, her thoughts again return to the moon:

The learned astronomer fell silent at last, thank God. His droning voice had worn on my last nerve and on his audience as well, judging from the measly applause. What were all his big words worth after all? The truth of this October night was written in black skies, stars that gleamed like broken glass, and a full moon tinted red—a hunter’s moon. And a hunter’s moon demanded blood.

from Murder Comes to Elysium

On the next clear night, go outside and watch the show that humans have watched for eons. Until then, enjoy this little video, taken on a December night several years ago.

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Raven against a mon

Grip the Wicked

Quoth the Raven, Nevermore

Edgar Allan poe

The Raven is English!

Grip was Charles Dickens’ beloved pet raven: Grip the Clever, Grip the Knowing, Grip the Wicked. This mischievous bird with an impressive vocabulary was the great writer’s boon companion.

Sadly, one night in 1841, Grip died after a brief and violent illness, probably caused the bird’s propensity to eat paint. (At that time, paints were especially toxic, with some containing high levels of arsenic–a fact that comes into play in my supernatural mystery The Murderer’s Apprentice.)

Dickens’ account of the raven’s final hours is heartrending. In a letter to a friend, he related how Grip spent his last moments repeating his favorite phrase: Hello, old girl. When Grip croaked his last, Dickens was grief-stricken.

A Kind of Immortality?

Remembering is an integral part of grieving. Upon Grip’s death, Dickens was so distraught he had the raven stuffed and mounted. But he also bequeathed another kind of immortality upon his friend–a literary one—when Dickens wrote the talking raven Grip into his novel Barnaby Rudge.

And this is when the plot thickens.

On to America

Though Edgar Allan Poe is best known as a poet and scribbler of weird tales, he was also a renowned literary critic, perhaps the finest this country has ever produced. As such, he reviewed Mr. Dickens’ latest book Barnaby Rudge.

For those unfamiliar with Dickens’ story, the simple-minded title character drops in and out of the narrative but is always accompanied by his raven Grip. In one telling passage, Barnaby says: “Any time of night, you may see his (Grip) eyes in my dark room, shining like two sparks. And every night, and all night too, he’s broad awake, talking to himself, thinking what he shall do to-morrow, where we shall go, and what he shall steal, and hide, and bury.”

At any rate, in his review, Poe complains that the raven is not featured in the story nearly enough, suggesting that Grip might have been Poe’s favorite character. He also observes that the bird’s “croakings are to be frequently, appropriately, and prophetically heard in the course of the narrative.” As Poe wrote those words, were the first glimmers of his Raven already coming to life in his fevered brain?

Poe’s “The Raven”

A short time later, Poe published his immortal poem “The Raven,” which earned him fame and admiration, but no money. Within four short years, Poe would be dead. Found dying on a Baltimore street in the cold dawn of the lonesome October.

After Poe and Dickens were turned to dust, Grip’s remains found their way to American. Today Grip the Raven, muse to Dickens and Poe, perches proudly in the Free Library of Philadelphia Rare Book Department. He is kept company by a great collection of original editions, some of which were penned by the men who loved him best: Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe's Raven
The Raven outside of the Poe house in Philly

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Furious Hours

Harper Lee’s Furious Hours

portrait of author Harper Lee
Harper Lee

In Furious Hours, Casey Cep has uncovered a little-known event in the life of famed American writer Harper Lee.

Worst Writer’s Block Ever!

After writing To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Harper Lee famously struggled with her second book. While Go Set a Watchman (2015) was initially promoted as a sequel to her first novel, it was obvious to those with even a fleeting knowledge of Lee’s career that it was the first and very rough draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. Apart from those two books, Lee produced a smattering of brief essays, with her last missive an open letter to Oprah Winfrey.

And yet according to friends and family, Little Nelle Harper Lee was always writing, always pecking away at her typewriter. In Furious Hours, Casey Cep reveals that for several years Lee obsessively worked on a true-crime book about an African-American preacher named Willie Maxwell who purportedly murdered five family members for insurance money. With the aid of a clever lawyer and a disinterested society, Maxwell escaped justice for years, fomenting fear in the black community. But the Reverend’s crimes finally caught up with him one June day in 1977.

On that day, Maxwell attended the funeral of his latest victim, his own sixteen-year-old stepdaughter. As the attendees singled past the casket, an aggrieved relative named Robert Burns shot Maxwell dead. Burns was arrested on the spot by the deputies hired to work traffic at the funeral.

The Trial

Upon reading of the case, Harper Lee caught the next train to Alabama for Burns’ murder trial, which she attended faithfully. And in a twist that a mystery writer can only envy, Robert Burns was acquitted–despite the hundreds of witnesses to the deadly act. The acquittal was due in no small part to his defense attorney. The same attorney who had previously defended the Reverend. This story had more legs than a centipede!

On the surface, Lee appears remarkably qualified to tell this story of Southern injustice. Along with her undeniable literary gifts, she was also the daughter of a lawyer who had come to within one semester of obtaining her law degree. After the year-long trial, Lee spent another year or two researching the complicated and intriguing case. With file cases stuffed with interviews and transcripts, months turned into years as she worked and reworked her material.

But her true-crime book never got written. It is telling that when her childhood frenemy Truman Capote dies, Lee finally gives up the project. Had she hoped to write a true-crime book that would rival Capote’s brilliant In Cold Blood? Whatever the answer, Lee took it to the grave. Leaving the rest of us to speculate.

At the end of the day, Cep doesn’t have any definitive answers as to why Lee couldn’t or wouldn’t write the book, though she leaves plenty of breadcrumbs that I’m more than willing to follow.

It’s important to remember that Lee was a daughter of the South and its peculiar and unequal system of justice, a system she evoked so effectively in the courtroom scenes in To Kill a Mockingbird. By setting Mockingbird during the Depression, Lee was able to ignore the civil rights movement, thus endowing her novel with the patina of age. In telling the reverend’s twisted story, she wouldn’t have that luxury.

True Crime or Real Fiction?

In my mystery Murder Comes to Elysium, a cold case from the sixties plays a pivotal role in the action. This fictional murder case bears a resemble to Willie Maxwell’s story in that the accused is a Black man. When writing about a Black man in a white justice system, the writer must deal with all the devils in that system. Most often, it’s not simply a question of guilt of innocence.

To write a fair book, Harper Lee would have had to face the harsh truth of the unequal and unjust nature of Southern justice for people of color. This was something she never did in life–or fiction. Although Lee lived during the heady days of the Civil Rights movement, she had virtually nothing to say about it. As she once famously quipped, “Well, it’s better to be silent than to be a fool.”

Perhaps. But there are always those times when a person must speak, or be damned with silence.

My guess is that the truth required to tell Willie Maxwell’s story was one truth too far for Harper Lee. In the end, she couldn’t risk tarnishing her idealized father or his literary doppelganger Atticus Finch. Both of whom were Southern lawyers, after all—participants in an oppressive system of so-called justice.

In a way, Harper Lee lived a life as shuttered and hidden as that of poor, blighted Boo Radley.

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London street scene

The Mousetrap

St. Martin's Theater

This mouse is a lion!

As every mystery fan knows, Agatha Christie’s murder mystery play The Mousetrap holds the record for  the longest running play in the world. It opened in London’s West End in 1952 and ran continuously until March 16, 2020,with other 28,000 performances! It’s said that records are made to be broken, but this sixty-seven year run will surely stand the test of time!

As a lifelong lover of Christie, I’d long wanted to see The Mousetrap, and a few years ago, I got my chance. Even so, I wasn’t sure the play was still fresh enough to entertain. After that many years, things can get a little creaky. Well, I was wrong–dead wrong!

 Built in 1901, the cozy St. Martin’s Theater is the perfect venue for a classic murder mystery. The interior is somehow both intimate and elegant, an Edwardian feast of burnished woods and heavy burgundy curtains flecked with gold. I overheard a woman complaining about the tight seating, but that is the price of communing with the past–a small price, in my view. But as they say, the play’s the thing, and in this classic who-done-it, Dame Agatha doesn’t disappoint.

A juggling act?

Writing a mystery is a bit like juggling, only instead of balls, you’re juggling suspects. The writer strives to keep as many suspects in play as possible so that the reader–or viewer–is never quite sure who the killer is, until the last possible moment. But as the plot grows in complexity, it becomes more and more difficult to keep everything moving–inevitably balls are dropped or discarded as the suspect pool shrinks.

Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie in 1925

 The Mousetrap is a closed mystery. Because of a severe winter storm, the seven characters–along with the intrepid Detective Sergeant Trotter–are marooned at a guesthouse. One of them is a murderer, but which one? Until the play’s closing moments, any one of the suspects could have been the killer–that’s the equivalent of juggling seven balls over two hours. Believe me, that’s a lot of balls! As a mystery writer, I can only stand back in awe.

The Mousetrap is old-school. And maybe it creaks with the conventions of an earlier time. But all the elements that made Agatha Christie great are in this play. For now, there are plans to reopen for performances, hopefully later this year.

So take my advice, and put it on your bucket list. Then once we’ve kicked the Pandemic’s butt, hop the next plane to London.

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