Monday, 10 April 2023

Jesse Q. Sutanto

Jesse Q. Sutanto has written what is so far one of my favorite reads of 2023. Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers is hilarious, sweet, and anchored by the utterly fabulous character of Vera Wong, who owns a tiny tea store in San Francisco. Sutanto has written books for young adults and middle grade readers, as well as adults, and her book Dial A for Aunties is being adapted into a film with Nahnatchka Khan (Fresh Off the Boat and Always Be My Maybe) for Netflix. This year alone Sutanto has four books being published, so I am truly grateful she had a moment to sit down and answer a few questions.

Robing Agnew for Mystery Scene: I just loved this book! Vera’s voice is so strong and she just gets inside your head. Can you talk about creating her?

Jesse Q. Sutanto: Vera was almost unfairly easy to create, because she is basically my mom combined with a dash of my dad, with the dial turned up to 100. All of her little snippets of wisdom, such as believing that drinking cold water would freeze the fats in your arteries and give you heart disease, are practically direct quotes from my parents. Just FYI, my parents would like all of you to stop drinking cold water.

I loved the characters so much, I wasn’t even thinking about the mystery part. However there is a mystery here: What was important to you as you were crafting the puzzle part of the novel?

This was the first time I’d ever written a whodunit, so it was a very tricky process for me! The most important thing for me while writing was to make it possible that any of the other four characters might be the killer. That nearly broke my brain.

Vera Wong's Unsolicited Advice for Murderers by Jesse Q. SutantoYou got your start in young adult novels. What are the differences between writing young adult books as opposed to novels for adults? I’ve noticed that YA authors who cross over to “grown up” books come equipped with the gift of pacing their books.

I haven’t had to change much between each age category. I certainly don’t “dumb down” the writing or anything like that. The main thing I do is to be very aware of the different boundaries and life goals that come with each age category. For example, in YA, my characters are all in high school, which comes with a certain set of rules. They usually have curfews, they have to abide by school rules, etc., and this naturally helps to shape the story.

I loved the setting of Vera's little tea room. There’s a great amount of detail about the different teas. Can you talk about that a bit? Research? Personal love for tea?

My grandparents all came from China, and my maternal grandfather felt strongly that I should be able to brew and serve Chinese tea competently, so I grew up learning about a lot of different Chinese teas. When I was 16, I went on a trip to China with my family and we visited a tea farm, where I learned even more about various Chinese teas. So I came into the book already with a good foundation of knowledge, not just about Chinese tea, but also about quite a few of the ingredients that Vera uses in the book. I still had to do a bit of research, but I was pleased to find that for the most part, my research served to affirm what I’d learned from my grandfather years ago.

I also loved the food. It’s a book where the food practically jumps off the page. Are you a cook yourself? Did you make yourself hungry when you were writing about it? I got hungry reading it!

I do cook, but not the complicated dishes that Vera does! I live in Indonesia now, so I have easy access to a lot of Chinese food, but this wasn’t the case when I lived in Oxford, England. I was sooo homesick then. The dishes that I put in the book are ones that I missed very, very much when I was away from home. Total comfort food for the soul.

This book was sweet, but not in a corny way. It’s well balanced by humor. Can you talk about creating that balance?

I started out by creating broken characters; everyone in the book is broken in their own way, even Vera. And from there, I sought to make them more whole by the end of the book. The humor came naturally, because again, I was always channeling my parents, and I’d just ask myself: “What would mama say in this situation?” So I didn’t really think too much about creating a balance, it was just based on whatever felt right for the scene.

Did you have a favorite character to write, other than Vera? All of them undergo some kind of transformation or growth which must have been fun to write.

My favorite character to write other than Vera would have to be Sana. Did you spot the self-insert, by the way? Sana’s mom is a writer who obnoxiously releases four books a year…ha ha! Sorry, I crack myself up. I was very tickled when I came up with the idea of Sana’s mother, and I really enjoyed exploring how having a mom like that might put extra pressure on poor Sana. (I hope I’m never like that toward my own daughters.)

What’s your favorite thing about sitting down to write every day? And what is your least favorite?

My favorite part is when you get into this magical state where everything falls away and you’re fully absorbed into the story. The words flow out faster than your fingers can type, and it’s a beautiful feeling chasing the story as it rushes out of you. Truly, nothing better than that sensation. My least favorite is some days, the words come out fighting every step of the way. I don’t know why, but sometimes it just happens, and on those days, I have to grit my teeth and grind all the way through until I hit my word count goal.

Can you name a book that was transformational for you, as a reader or as a writer?

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. It transformed the entire suspense genre for me. I used to love the genre, but it was so dominated by male authors and after a while, all of the graphic rape scenes got to me. Then I picked up Gone Girl, and it blew my mind. Blew everything else out of the water. I’d never come across anything so diabolical, so complicated, and so well-thought-out. Pure genius. We’re so blessed to have Gillian Flynn’s books.

What’s next for you? A vacation? Will there be another Vera book? (I hope!)

I actually have four books scheduled for publication this year! Vera, the sequel to my MG Fantasy Theo Tan and the Iron Fan, my adult suspense I’m Not Done With You Yet, and my YA rom-com Didn’t See That Coming. I’m so excited about all of them! I finished writing a new book last month, so currently I’m on a break, but I do plan to start writing again sometime in May—an epic fantasy that’s been on my mind for years. Wish me luck because it is going to be a hefty project!

Jesse Q. Sutanto is a Chinese-Indonesian author. As of 2022, she has published six novels, including for adults, young adults, and middle grade readers. Her novel Dial A for Aunties won the 2021 Comedy Women in Print Prize and has been optioned for a film by Netflix. She currently lives in Jakarta with her husband, who is English, and their two children.

Robin AgnewRobin Agnew is a longtime Mystery Scene contributor and was the owner of Aunt Agatha's bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for 26 years. No longer a brick and mortar store, Aunt Agatha has an extensive used book collection is available at and the site is home to more of Robin's writing.


Solicited Advice from Jesse Q. Sutanto
Robin Agnew
Tuesday, 04 April 2023

Sarah Caudwell Hilary Tamar 2023 reissues

Photo by Robert Taylor

Random House Publishing Group has reissued two professor Hilary Tamar novels, Thus Was Adonis Murdered and The Shortest Way to Hades, by Sarah Cauldwell (1939–2000), the pen name of English barrister Sarah Cockburn.

Set in London and narrated by the good professor, each legal whodunit centers on Michael Cantrip, Desmond Ragwort, Selena Jardine, and Timothy Shepherd, a group of junior barristers at the Honourable Society of Lincoln's Inn in London, and their puzzling, clever, and entertaining cases.

“Hilary’s voice was in my head before any of the plots,” Caudwell told writer Martin Edwards in an interview for Mystery Scene Magazine. “I knew from the outset Hilary must be an Oxford don—but of equivocal sex and even equivocal age, resembling that precise, donnish kind of individual who starts being elderly at the age of 22.”

Caudwell made a point in her novels, of making her narrator's gender a non-point. "A protagonist ahead of their time," says the publisher, "Caudwell believed that [gender] was besides the point of the investigation."

Read Edwards' feature "A Most Ingenious Legal Mind: Sarah Caudwell" for more on this groundbreaking, pipe-smoking, subversive author.

Caudwell Giveaway


Sarah Caudwell and Hilary Tamar, Legal Mystery Mavericks, Back in Print After 20 Years—and You Can Win Copies of Both
Mystery Scene
Saturday, 01 April 2023

Chad Zunker

Photo by Amy Melsa

"This is my eighth book and the first time I have created a storyline around a father and daughter. I think I’ve been resistant up to this point to write this type of thriller because it felt too scary real to me. I write from a deeply emotional place."

I’m blessed to have three daughters: two teenagers and one preteen. Although they are the light of my life, I admittedly wanted to have boys when my wife and I first got married. I grew up playing sports and was obsessed with football. I started at quarterback for my high school football team and even pursued this passion through college at the University of Texas. So when it came to having a family, I always envisioned myself tossing the football around with my son for countless hours in the backyard and teaching him how to play the game. To me, that would be the very best of fatherhood.

But I got something different, and better. I knew from the beginning there was something emotionally powerful between a father and a daughter. A unique connection that can’t be explained in simple words. From the start, I have felt a fierce protective instinct inside me when it comes to my daughters. I will absolutely do anything to keep them safe.

All He Has Left by Chad ZunkerAll He Has Left is about Jake Slater, a recently widowed father who suddenly finds his only teenage daughter kidnapped and her cousin murdered. To make matters worse, Jake is the primary suspect. And the only way to clear his name and find Piper is to do it on the run. Crucified by the media, pursued by the FBI, and hunted by an assassin, Jake can feel his desperation escalating with every tick of the clock. The closer he gets to the truth, the more he risks uncovering family betrayals so sinister they’re worth killing for.

This is my eighth book and the first time I have created a storyline around a father and daughter. I think I’ve been resistant up to this point to write this type of thriller because it felt too scary real to me. I write from a deeply emotional place. In each book, I try to connect with my protagonist in every possible way. But this one felt too close to home. I wasn’t sure I could personally handle the intense emotions with this story when all I could envision was myself and my own daughters with each word I put down on the page. It was not easy to write.

But in the end, I think that’s what gives this book its heartbeat. In so many ways, Jake is me and Piper is one of my daughters. So the emotional center of this book is the most genuine of all my thrillers. I believe it brings the story to life, and I hope you will find out for yourself.

All He Has Left, by Chad Zunker (Thomas & Mercer, April 2023)

Chad Zunker studied journalism at the University of Texas, where he was also on the football team. He’s worked for some of the most powerful law firms in the country and invented baby products that are now sold all over the world. He has wanted to write full time since he took his first practice hit as a skinny freshman walk-on from a 6’5, 240 pound senior All-American safety—which crushed both him and his feeble NFL dreams. He lives in Austin with his wife, Katie, and their three daughters, where he is hard at work on his next novel.


My Book: "All He Has Left"
Chad Zunker