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Guest Post by J.L. Greger: When Murder is All in the Family

Gang members, drug dealers, and robbers are the most common murderers in novels. Yet, the FBI has reported nearly a quarter of the 13,000 murder victims in the U.S. in 2010 were killed by family members. An additional 28% were killed by someone they knew. Does that surprise you?

By J.L. Greger

Dirty Holy Water
by J.L. Greger

Gang members, drug dealers, and robbers are the most common murderers in novels. Yet, the FBI has reported nearly a quarter of the 13,000 murder victims in the U.S. in 2010 were killed by family members. An additional 28% were killed by someone they knew. Does that surprise you?

Now here’s more surprising statistics from the Department of Justice for 1998-2002. Most family violence offenders were white (79%), and most were thirty or older (62%).

Should more authors of murder mysteries focus on family violence?

You have to answer that question. I can tell you once I decided to write about family violence in DIRTY HOLY WATER, I quickly realized I was creating psychological mystery. It was hard to distinguish victims from villains. What’s more the mystery seemed much more personal to me (and I hope readers) than most mysteries. Although I don’t know any convicted robbers or sex offenders, I (and I suspect everyone else) know at least one pretty obnoxious family member who given the right circumstances could be pretty violent.

Now read this opening excerpt from my new novel DIRTY HOLY WATER. Does Lurleen appear to be a victim or a perpetrator of family violence?

Lurleen Jansen must have been a pretty woman once. Now Sara Almquist could see little attractive about Lurleen, except her expressive green eyes. Lurleen had called Monday and almost demanded that Sara drive her to El Santuario de Chimayó this week. Sara had hesitated but finally agreed to the field trip because Lurleen needed a friend.

Although Sara had pushed the front passenger seat of her Subaru Forester back to the maximum, Lurleen looked like she was a piece of pimento stuffed in a green olive. Her face was red as she tried to close the clamp shut on the seat belt that strained around her green camouflage cargo pants and T-shirt. “Should have brought my seat belt extender along. Too much work to walk back inside for it.”

Sara felt a twinge of guilt. She considered volunteering to get the seat belt extender but knew she wouldn’t. Lurleen had been her neighbor in the adults-only community of La Bendita until Lurleen and her husband Pete decided about five years ago that the two- and three-bedroom houses of the gated neighborhood were too small to meet their needs. It wasn’t jealousy that kept Sara from looking for the seat belt extender in Lurleen’s large house. Her reasons were simpler—she knew it would be difficult to locate something small, like a seat belt extender, among the stack of boxes and piles of junk in the house. She was also afraid what she might find. Lurleen didn’t waste time cleaning her house and only hired someone to clean it when a new infestation problem appeared. Some sort of pest, usually bigger than ants, appeared every year.

Lurleen appeared to hold her breath and clicked the seat belt shut. “Pete’s being tight with me.” She smiled. “But I’ll get what I want.”

Before Sara could make a catty comment, such as you must have asked for the moon this time, Lurleen changed the subject. “Thanks for agreeing to take me to Chimayó to get some holy dirt for Matt. He’s talking less these days.”

Sara gave a soft sigh because Lurleen had reminded her why they were making this trip. Lurleen’s daughter Mitzi had become a foster parent for a one-year-old girl named Kayla almost twelve years ago. About that time, Kayla’s biological parents had another child Matt. He was born addicted to cocaine and quickly displayed developmental delays. The New Mexico Children, Youth, and Families Department, better known as CYFD, had decided the two children must be kept together, and Mitzi had reluctantly agreed to become Matt’s foster care mother, too. When she was five, Kayla had been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. Eventually Mitzi had adopted both children. Lurleen had been supportive of Mitzi and her two adopted children during the long adoption process.

Sara admired both women because it took guts to adopt special needs children. Although Sara doubted the holy dirt dispensed from a small pit at El Santuario de Chimayó had curative properties, she recognized faith was sometimes effective in helping patients.

Chimayó was north of Santa Fe, almost a two-hour drive from La Bendita. Since 1816, pilgrims had claimed the dirt there had healing powers. Now the adobe chapel built around the pit with holy dirt was probably the most important pilgrimage site in the United States.

Sara had visited Chimayó several times because the drive in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains was scenic and a nearby restaurant was excellent. Sara also recognized Lurleen needed a chance to vent her feelings more than Matt needed the holy dirt. So, she drove north and mainly listened.

(The rest of Chapter 1 of Dirty Holy Water).

Buy DIRTY HOLY WATER (paperback or ebook) at:

About DIRTY HOLY WATER: Life is complicated for Sara Almquist in this romantic and psychological mystery. She’s about to become engaged and leave for a vacation in India when she becomes the chief suspect in the murder of a friend. Only the friend and her family, well to put it politely, have a couple of dark secrets. Sara soon realizes the difference between a villain and a victim can be small – alarmingly small, especially in a dysfunctional family. 

The Kirkus review is: “A thought-provoking, disturbing, and engaging mystery with a likable, strong-willed female lead”  

Bio: J.L. Greger is a biology professor and research administrator from the University of Wisconsin-Madison turned novelist. She has consulted on scientific issues worldwide and loves to travel. Thus, she likes to include both science and her travel experiences in her thriller/mystery novels in the Science Traveler series. Award-winning books in the series include: 

The Flu Is Coming

Murder: A Way to Lose Weight


Riddled with Clues

A Pound of Flesh, Sorta 

Learn more at:

By Thonie Hevron

Mysteries to keep you reading through the night.

9 replies on “Guest Post by J.L. Greger: When Murder is All in the Family”

Dysfunctional families, especially with families members involved in, or the victims of, crime, are kind of my sweet spot, so you had me before word one. Just bought your book on Kindle. Can’t wait to read it.

Just your introduction provided me with some information about domestic violence that I was unaware of before today. I’m going to forward to a friend who supervises a domestic violence unit. Thanks

Welcome to Thonie's world!

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