Holey Tales: 7 Literary Sleuths Are on the Case for Mystery Month

For a few weeks earlier this year, a mysterious tunnel in Toronto captured the nation's imagination. There is something about a hole in the ground that suggests infinite possibility, an empty space into which all kinds of stories can be projected. A point that is proven by the seven writers who responded to our Hole in the Ground Challenge for Mystery Month. These writers' task was to use a mysterious hole as a starting point for a mystery and to put their literary detectives be on the case. The hole's specifics—where, what, and why—would be determined by the literary universe in which their detectives exist, providing our readers with an idea of what to expect from these writers' new novels, and the detectives themselves with a bit of an extra-textual challenge. 

The results are wildly diverse, a lot of fun, and make for some excellent short reads. 

*****

The Corpse With the Sapphire Eyes

A Hole in the Ground, by Cathy Ace

It all began just before 8:00 AM when I looked out of my office window from the school of criminology at the University of Vancouver. See a group of undergrads standing in a circle peering at the floor? Chances are something’s up. Sipping lukewarm coffee, I opened my window to hear what was being said.

The discussion involved the copious use of the word "like" but was inconclusive. I decided to investigate. As soon as I appeared, the group melted away, and I had the hole to myself. It was perfectly round and smooth-sided. Deep, too.

I didn’t need my eidetic memory to know that nothing had been placed in that spot before the hole had appeared. I also knew the hole hadn’t been there at 9:00 PM the night before, because I’d passed that way to get my car. Someone had to have created it during the deeper hours of darkness.

My specialty is criminal psychology as applied to profiling victims, so holes aren’t really my forte. But people are, and I noticed that one figure had been a fixed point among the swirling throngs, though his thumbs were dancing across a hand-held device. Without turning to look at him directly, I walked around the hole, allowing myself the chance to study him with my peripheral vision. Dusty, expensive shoes; manicured hands with a few grazes; laptop satchel with a fancy logo shouting BLOG O’THE SPHERE; facial hair that probably demanded constant trimming and shaping. His micro-expressions told me he knew about the hole.

I did my best "Panicked Professor" act. "Can someone call security?" I shouted. "I just dropped a ring down there." I burst into mock tears. The too-hip student rushed to my side.

"Hey, be cool. I’ll get it," he said, almost calmly. "Just wait a little while." His eyes rested on the offices of the university’s radio station, then returned to his iPhone.

"You mean until they send someone to interview a handy bystander—you—about this hole?" I asked pointedly.

His "No," might as well have been "Yes."

I let it rip. "You made this hole last night. You’ve been blogging about it, probably posting all over social media. You aim to get yourself onto the university radio, maybe even a local station. It’ll make you a little bit more of a star. I’ll make sure they get your name right when I report you. Will that help your digital presence? You should have been more careful when you drilled it—there’s concrete dust on your shoes and you’ve cut your hands. And the personal grooming? It screams 'desperate to be noticed.'"

"It’s just a prank," he said, almost managing a smile.

"Tell that to security," I said. "Here they are now. Fancy a selfie with the hole before they haul you away? I’m sure it would look great on Instagram."

Busted!

About Cait and Cathy: Like her criminologist Cait Morgan, Cathy Ace is Welsh Canadian. Together they’ve discovered Corpses with a Silver Tongue (France), Golden Nose (BC's vineyards), Emerald Thumb (Mexico), Platinum Hair (Vegas), and Sapphire Eyes (Wales). October brings one with a Diamond Hand (Hawaiian cruise). Traditional mysteries with contemporary settings, for armchair traveler. 

*****

Book Cover A Pitying of Doves

Dead Duck, by Steve Burrows

"It’s a dead duck, Sir, at the base of a big tree. Well a duckling, actually. We’re thinking a woodpecker did it. There’s a hole in the tree."

On the other end of the phone, Detective Chief Inspector Domenic Jejeune pondered the idea. "Woodpeckers don’t kill ducks, Sergeant. Any sign of woodchips around the hole, or at the base of the tree?"

Maik took a quick look around, but the carpet of the pines seemed unblemished. Except for the body, of course. “I can’t see any.”

"Not a woodpecker’s hole, then. The killer might be an owl, though. Some species of owls live in holes in trees. Is there any sign of injury on the duckling?"

"None,” said Maik. “If I had to guess, I’d say broken neck."

Maik waited while Jejeune pondered this information.

"If an owl had killed it, there would be marks on the duckling’s body, plenty of them." Jejeune paused for a moment, and Maik knew his bird-watching DCI was wishing he could be out here himself, to study the evidence. "This hole, Sergeant, can you describe it?"

Maik craned his neck up. "About 30 feet above the ground, I’d say. Six inches in diameter. To be honest, the hole looks like it’s been there a long time. Wait, there’s something hanging out of it, just at the rim." Maik shaded his eyes and peered up intently. "Green, almost like pond weed. Can’t be though, obviously."

There was a long silence on the other end of the phone. He’s getting there, thought Maik; he’s got an idea and he’s trying to fit the facts into it, trying them on for size.

"Sergeant,” said Jejeune guardedly, "Can you tell me what the conditions are like directly beneath the hole, at the base of the tree."

"Soft," said Maik, testing it out with his feet, "Spongy. It’s a carpet of pine needles."

"Yes," said Jejeune. "I thought it might be." Maik could almost hear his DCI smiling on the other end of the phone line. “I think we’re in the clear on this one, Sergeant. The hole is a Wood Duck’s nest."

"A duck’s nest, in a hole 40 feet up a tree in a forest?" Maik was incredulous.

"Wood Ducks nest in abandoned tree holes in forests. When the ducklings are ready to leave the nest, they still can’t fly, so they simply jump down out of the hole to the ground below. Most make it. It seems that this one, sadly, didn’t. You can wrap up your investigation, Sergeant. It’s death by misadventure."

Maik looked at the small duckling sadly. "Shouldn’t I at least get somebody in to take care of the body?"

"No need, Sergeant," said Jejeune quietly. "Nature will take care of that."

Maik turned off his phone and shook his head. He wondered if his DCI would ever cease to amaze him. Probably not, he thought. But then, neither would birds or nature. He turned and headed off for home. 

About Detective Chief Inspector Domenic Jejeune: Inspector Domenic Jejeune’s success has made him a poster boy for the U.K. police service. The problem is Jejeune doesn’t really want to be a detective at all; he much prefers watching birds.

About Steve Burrows: Steve Burrows has pursued his birdwatching hobby on five continents. He is a former editor of the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society Magazine and a contributing field editor for Asian Geographic. Steve now lives in Oshawa, Ontario.

*****

Book Cover Ruined Abbey

In Yer Hole, by Anne Emery 

"Father Burke, your evidence is that you left Durty Nelly’s pub in Halifax at 11:40 PM on the night in question, and this hole was 'just there'?"

"I did, and it was."

"Can you tell us how much you had to drink at Durty Nelly’s that night?"

"I had a few scoops."

"Of?"

"Jameson whiskey, and a few pints of Guinness."

"Earlier on, we heard that there was a particularly attractive woman in the bar. We’ll call her Lady X. And that Lady X had been paying quite a bit of attention to my client. But, after you arrived, she had eyes only for you. The evidence further shows that my client, the plaintiff in this lawsuit, said to you, 'I’ll tell your bishop you’re a boozer and a womanizer.' And your reply was, 'You will, in yer hole.' Could you tell the court what you meant by 'in yer hole'?"

"Doesn’t mean anything."

"Come now, Father, you’re an educated man. Words mean something. So?"

"A close approximation would be 'in yer arse.'"

"And yet it wasn’t an arse that opened up behind the pub that night and swallowed the plaintiff, causing him serious personal injury, was it, Father Burke?"

"If there was an arse, I didn’t see it."

"Engineers examining the site say they cannot explain how the hole got there. How it was created. Can you?"

"God works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform."

"God made this hole?'

"God made your hole, Mr. Collins."

"I would ask Your Lordship to admonish this witness to respect the decorum of the court."

"The witness is so admonished."

"So, Father Burke, what you were really saying to the plaintiff was..."

"I was saying, 'You won’t be informing on me to the bishop.'"

"Father Burke, it is part of your belief system that there is a world beyond this one, a world of the spirit, as it were?"

"Any eejit knows that."

"So. Did you, or did you not, use your priestly powers to call upon the Almighty, or some other supernatural force, to open up the earth and swallow my client in retribution for his jibe in the pub?"

"I would not have wasted supernatural intervention on a bar brawl, Mr. Collins. I’d have booted him in the hole myself, if I’d been of a mind to. But I didn’t."

"Have you been to Durty Nelly’s recently?"

"Is the Pope Catholic?"

"Have any of the other patrons threatened you since the night in question?

"Nobody ever messed with me again."

"Is there a hole near the pub now?"

"Nope."

"No further questions."

About Collins and Burke: Monty Collins is a lawyer and a blues man in Halifax, and he has heard it all in the courtrooms and the bars. Brennan Burke is an immigrant from Ireland, a priest, a choir director, a drinker, and he comes from an IRA family in Dublin. Collins and Burke have faced off in the courtroom on more than one occasion.

About Anne Emery: Anne Emery is a lawyer and the author of the Collins-Burke mystery series set in Halifax. She has won an Arthur Ellis Award, a silver medal in the Independent Publisher Book Awards, and the 2011 Dartmouth Book Award for Fiction. Her latest book is Ruined Abbey. www.anneemery.com

*****

Book Cover Disappearing Act

The Hole Truth, by Dayle Campbell Gaetz

Hey Girl need your help

The message jolted me from a sound sleep. Vern wasn’t on my contact list but I knew it was him. A man with a drawer full of burner phones, the one person in this world I could always rely on. No questions. No strings. Which is why dawn found me rolling to a stop in his driveway, blinking sleep from my eyes.

Nothing had changed. Rustic log cabin, sagging front porch. Waist-high grass and spiky thistles hiding a dozen ancient cars that decorated his yard.

All except one. A rusted out Jeep YJ with one door missing and four flat tires. A sturdy rope snaked from its front bumper across weeds that lay flattened in front of it.

What—why?

I ran toward it. A narrow path of trampled vegetation led along the passenger side. I followed it, fighting thistles that aimed for my face. Behind the Jeep was a car-sized patch of brown earth with a dark gaping hole in its center. Two feet across, reinforced with metal pipe, it led straight down. A rope ladder tied to the Jeep’s back bumper disappeared into darkness so profound it swallowed the beam of my phone’s flashlight.

I dropped to my knees. "Vern?"  My voice echoed down the hole as I stared into my biggest fear. Tight spaces, underground places.

Ahh ... I lay on my stomach. Leaned into the hole. "Vern?"

A hand touched my shoulder. In one motion I was on my feet, ready to test out my newly-acquired martial arts skills. Swift kick to soft parts. Run like stink.

His hands met over those soft parts. Pale blue eyes squinted between wild gray hair and overgrown beard. "Whoa ... Leena ... Chill."

"Vern? What the hell?"

"Wasn’t me, I swear."

"What wasn’t you?"

"Wasn’t me who robbed the credit union."

"Okay." I grabbed a quick breath. "Want to explain what’s going on? What’s with this hole? Are you stashing drugs down there?"

"Nah." He placed a calming hand on my shoulder. "Back in the day me and my bud, we needed an escape route. I swear it’s been covered up for 30 years."

"Until now."

"Someone moved the Jeep last night. I found it this morning. Leena Girl, I’ll tell all, but we gotta get out of here before they come." He started running.

I followed. "They?"

"The cops. From the hole." Reaching my car he jumped into the passenger seat.

Seconds later I was gripping my steering wheel, bouncing through potholes down his rugged driveway, wondering what I was getting into. "Seriously, Vern. I need the whole truth and I need it now."

"Right. So the tunnel came out near the harbor—‘til some fool plunked a credit union flat on our exit hole."

I slammed on my brakes. Jammed into reverse.

"Vern, we need to meet the cops. You need to tell the truth."

"Whoa ... " he gulped, " ... that’d be the hole truth?"

About Leena O'Neil: Colleen O’Neil was raised in Victoria, BC by a strong-minded single mother and an older sister Colleen always suspected was their mother’s clone. The two women were determined to mold Colleen into a lawyer, just like them. At nineteen she walked away, changed her name to Leena because it felt more like her, and with help from an aging hippie, settled on Salt Spring Island. Three years later Leena has her life in order. Ironically, she works in a law office while studying to obtain her Private Investigator’s license. And she has already solved her first murder case.

About Dayle Campbell Gaetz: Dayle Campbell Gaetz grew up in Victoria and attended the University of Victoria. She has always loved books, both reading and writing them. Her writing career began on Salt Spring Island where she wrote her first 16 novels. For several years she wrote a column for the local weekly newspaper and published the occasional article in children's magazines. Dayle now lives in Campbell River, British Columbia where, in addition to her own writing, she teaches a correspondence course on Writing for Children and Teenagers. Never knowing what idea will strike next, Dayle writes books that range from science fiction to history and from biography to mystery. 

*****

  • Michael Januska's new Border City Blues novel is Maiden Lane
Book Cover Maiden Lane

Ulcer, by Michael Januska

Laforet was on his knees.

"Obviously a bullet wound."

"It doesn’t look like he was moved," said Campbell, looking around the empty room, "So it must have been at fairly close range. Didn’t go through though. Don’t you find that unusual?"

"Depending on the calibre. But considering it wouldn’t have struck bone ... unusual, but not unheard of." The doctor straightened up. “You said the house is slated for demolition?"

"That’s what I heard. The constable who took the call lives nearby. I’ll check with the city when I get back downtown."

"Wonder what he—they were doing here. Identification?"

"None he was carrying. I’ll check in with missing persons too."

 

"I found no bullet."

"But you told me it was a bullet wound. You said there were burns, traces of—"

Laforet shook his head. "There was no bullet."

They were in Laforet’s lab in the basement of Grace Hospital.

"Could it have been removed?"

Laforet set the clipboard down on his desk. "I saw no evidence of any poking or prodding."

"How deep is the hole?"

"Last time I checked, approximately five inches."

"Last time you checked?"

"Campbell, the hole is getting bigger."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean deeper, wider."

Laforet led Campbell to the autopsy table at the other end of the room. "Mind the camera," he said. The doctor’s Kodak VPK was mounted on a tripod and angled down over the torso. He pulled back the sheet. "Good God," he said, "the growth rate is increasing." He immediately snapped another photo.

"Almost eight inches wide, and through his back now." Campbell pulled out his magnifying glass and leaned over, careful not to disturb the measuring tape that the doctor had stretched across the torso. "Laforet, what the hell is this?"

"I’ve no idea."

"Do you have a photo of the bullet wound?"

"No, I only took notes."

"The flesh, the bone, the blood ... where is it?"

"I’ve collected no matter, no fluids. There have been no vapours. The sheet, as you can see, is unstained."

"Is this a virus of some kind? Should you be containing this?"

"There’s been no damage to the instruments, to the table, to the linens ... to me."

Campbell returned to the address just in time to see the small crane swing its wrecking ball one more time at the ramshackle boarding house. The side of the unhappy structure was wide open now. It seemed like overkill; one more swing and the place would likely collapse on itself.

"I have no murder weapon, no suspects, and now no crime scene. Nothing from missing persons. Only a victim that is slowly disappearing, being eaten by a hole."

"He’s more hole now than anything else."

Actually what was on the autopsy table was little more than a chalk outline on a sidewalk.

"In a few minutes it will be like he never existed," said Laforet.

"Almost as if he had simply —"

"Fallen down a hole?"

About Michael Januska: Michael Januska's Border City Blues novels take place in Prohibition-era Windsor and Detroit. Michael Januska was born in Windsor, Ontario. He has worked with books his whole life, both as a bookseller and for several book publishing companies. Stories from Januska's Prohibition-era Border City Blues series of novels and short stories have won two consecutive Scene of the Crime short story prizes. The first Border City Blues book is Riverside Drive. He lives in Toronto.

*****

Book Cover The Drop Zone

A Warrant to Excavate, by Bob Kroll

By the time he got to Laurie Campground, a backhoe had cleared snow from the twelve-by-fourteen-foot campsite and scraped out a two-foot deep hole. Shovels dug the rest.

The forensics team had erected a white, four-walled tent over the dig. Police tape was wrapped around surrounding birch and maple, and defined a perimeter that was fifty feet from the campsite.

Lewis, a drug squad cop, stood outside the tent, smoking. He saw Peterson, a cop has been, now gone private, climb from the Cherokee. He walked to the police tape to meet him. Lewis had the long face of a teen after a disappointing date. He grunted something by way of greeting, and Peterson grunted back. No love lost between them.

"A warrant to excavate didn’t take long," Peterson said, his voice like he carried his balls in a barrel.

"Knowing where to dig helped," Lewis said. He tried for a smile but it wasn’t the smug one Peterson had expected. "The Chief always wondered what happened to Carlisle Martin. I mean not even a drug dealer takes a 30 year vacation."

"Any closer to knowing?" Peterson asked.

"A body, or what’s left of it. Male, mid-30s. We’ll know for sure after the white coats fuck with the bones. The front of the skull’s blown away, if that tells you anything. Two bullet holes in back."

"A pro hit," Peterson said.

"Or an undercover cop who knew how to get it done. I know you talked to Jimmy Stiles. I figure he told you more about what happened here 30 years ago than he told me."

"He’s a drunk speaking in tongues," Peterson said. "He could fill a shrink’s notebook. Jimmy’s chasing ghosts in a jug of Listerine."

"Coming from you he must be a poster boy for AA," Lewis said.

Peterson let it go. He looked at Lewis. "I take it you didn’t find the hollow tips you were looking for."

Lewis shook his head. "We have his gun, a fucking museum piece."

"But no bullets," Peterson said. "You dug a skull like the one on your shoulders—empty."

"Funny man," Lewis said. "You should do stand up."

Peterson started to walk away.

"Your friend got lucky, Peterson."

Peterson turned, offered a blank smile. "How lucky is it to go 30 years with your head in a bottle?"

"He’s the one who put it there."

"Stiles was a good cop," Peterson said. "Hero citation, and now he’s drinking away what happened undercover."

"We both know what he did here," Lewis urged.

"No bullets, no ballistics," Peterson said. "You got a 30-year-old body and a hole in the ground." He again turned to go.

"No halo," Lewis said. "Jimmy Stiles never wore no halo."

Peterson turned back and looked at him. "When you’re done with the hole, fill it in."

About T.J. Peterson: Peterson is a police detective, haunted by the past, panicky at the present. Drinking three meals a day. He’d been on the job working the streets for 23 years. The crime, the violence, the shame, and the brutality of the street became his normal. The job became who he was. The street was like oxygen, and he’s breathing it to stay alive. He’s living with his nerves on the outside of his skin. And the intense sensations are a psychological torment. His home life no longer fit the man he has become. So he stopped going home. Lost his wife long before she died in a car accident, and his daughter before she became a junkie. He now lives for the chance to reach back and make it right, knowing damn well life does not have a rewind button. 

About Bob Kroll: Bob Kroll has been writing professionally for more than 35 years. His work includes books, stage plays, radio dramas, TV documentaries, as well as historical docu-dramas for Canadian and American museums. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

*****

Book Cover Black Tide Rising

The Black Hole, By R.J. McMillen

Dan Connor would never have found the opening by himself. The sheer walls of the cliff appeared both ancient and impregnable, the black basalt rising straight out of the sea. It was Walker’s keen eye that caught the change in the pattern of the waves—and it was Walker who heard the faint sigh of air deep within the crevice.

"There." He pointed to a rough crack on the cliff face where a narrow opening had appeared.

"He can’t have gone in there!" Dan was already having trouble controlling the dinghy in the surge. To go any closer seemed suicidal.

"Nowhere else he could have gone." Walker had to shout to make himself heard above the roar as the ocean hurled itself against the towering barrier.

"Oh yes he could," Dan muttered. "He could have sunk."

The only thing that prevented him from turning back was the fact that Walker, a man who spent all his time on the ocean and knew it better than anyone Dan had ever met, seemed so confident. That and the fact that James Maxwell, the man they were following, had a small child with him, a child he had snatched from its mother’s house just hours before.

Still, having a compelling reason didn’t make the prospect any more appealing, nor did it reduce the nervousness that was tightening Dan’s muscles and freezing his fingers on the controls. Reluctantly, he turned the inflatable in the direction Walker was pointing.

It was mid-afternoon, the sun high overhead and glinting off the water, but inside the crevice the darkness was complete. Only the faintest glimmer on the lip of an occasional swell, more a memory of light than light itself, told them they had not entered another dimension, one where they seemed suspended in a void, their only reality an unseen wall of rock they could feel with their fingertips. Even sound was muted as they moved deeper and deeper into the earth itself.

It was the splash of a paddle and the faint cry that alerted them. Dan reached for the flashlight he kept under the seat and shone it ahead, watching the thin beam as it bored through the blackness. Forty feet ahead it bounced off the hull of a small boat, the sudden reflection shockingly bright. He raised the light higher and a small, frightened face appeared. Higher still, and there was another, larger one with a scarred cheek and thin beard. Walker had been right. James Maxwell had come here.

About Dan Connor: Dan Connor is an ex-cop who retired when his wife was murdered. Unable to cope with her loss, he tries to lose himself in the maze of islands that lie off the west coast but finds himself drawn back into police work when a woman goes missing.

About R.J. McMillen: Born in England, raised in Australia, she now splits her time between Canada and Mexico where she teaches Creative Writing in between writing mysteries.

May 19, 2015
Books mentioned in this post
The Corpse with the Sapphire Eyes

The Corpse with the Sapphire Eyes

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
More Info
Ruined Abbey

Ruined Abbey

A Collins-Burke Mystery
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback eBook
tagged :
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Disappearing Act

Disappearing Act

A Leena O'Neil Mystery
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
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Maiden Lane

Maiden Lane

Border City Blues
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
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The Drop Zone

The Drop Zone

A T.J. Peterson Mystery
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
tagged : hard-boiled
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Black Tide Rising

Black Tide Rising

edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
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