Tuesday, 31 October 2023

Tess Gerritsen

It all began with a voice in her head. Having written more than 30 novels in an illustrious career that’s spanned nearly four decades, Tess Gerritsen knew better than to tune it out. Instead, she tuned in—and then she committed that voice to paper. The result is The Spy Coast—the first book in a new series for Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint. Inspired by the community of retired spies that make their home in her coastal Maine town—and following an unexpected return to Rizzoli & Isles with 2022’s Listen to Me—Gerritsen introduces an enigmatic new heroine.

Maggie Bird is living as a recluse on a chicken farm in New England after having left the CIA following a mission gone wrong. But when a dead body turns up in her driveway, the message is clear: somebody knows who she is, where she lives, and what she’s done.

With local authorities (deliberately) stymied, Maggie and the “Martini Club”—a small group of fellow former operatives—must put their old skills to the test. But solving this present-day murder mystery means looking to the past, and Maggie’s haunted history. Can she finally put those ghosts to rest or will her newfound solitude be forever shattered?

Tess Gerritsen was kind enough to reveal all the intel on her new spy thriller to Mystery Scene feature writer John B. Valeri.

John B. Valeri for Mystery Scene: The Spy Coast is the first in a new series (The Martini Club) following many years of having alternated Rizzoli & Isles books with standalone novels. What compelled you to enter into a new and continuing saga? And how did you endeavor to establish a world that could sustain both singular book and series storytelling?

Tess Gerritsen: The story was inspired by a peculiar feature of my town in Maine. Soon after I moved here, several decades ago, I discovered that a surprising number of CIA retirees live here. I've heard various explanations for why they've chosen Maine, and perhaps they're all true. ("It's a place where people respect your privacy. It's far from any nuclear targets. It's long been a location for safe houses.")

I thought about what stories they could tell, and wondered what retirement is like for them. That's when I heard the voice of Maggie Bird in my head: I'm not the woman I used to be. And that launched the novel for me, as I let Maggie's voice tell the story of her past, and of her troubled present. When I started writing the book, I didn't know it would turn into a series. It's the characters who pulled me in, who charmed me, and by the end of The Spy Coast, I wanted to watch what they did next.

Mystery Scene Issue 138 Rizzoli & IslesYou’ve written many books across a multitude of subgenres, from romantic suspense and historical fiction to police procedurals and medical/scientific thrillers. Here, you tackle a new area: espionage. Tell us about the real-life entry point into this enigmatic realm. How did you go about capturing the physical, emotional, and operative realities of the spy trade in an authentic way?

Instead of focusing on the technical and operational details of spycraft, I wanted to write about the emotional and psychological stresses of being a spy. How does it affect your friendships, your romantic relationships? How can you trust that this new friend you've made doesn't have secondary gain from the relationship?

My undergraduate degree in college was cultural anthropology, so that colors my approach whenever I write about a new occupation. I want to know what it's like to be part of the "tribe," and my research strategy was to start off by reading memoirs by retired spies. Of course I also researched operational details and global issues like the London Laundromat and Russian operations in the west, but it was Maggie's emotional journey that was the real heart of the story.

Readers will come to know your main character, Maggie Bird, in both her retirement years and the prime of her career as a spy. How did this construct allow you to explore age and gender stereotypes? In what ways does Maggie use these (mis)perceptions to her advantage throughout the different stages of her life?

That construct of past/present allowed me to show how Maggie became the woman she is today. At the start, we know her as only a Maine chicken farmer who happens to be very good with a rifle. As fresh details about her are revealed, the reader realizes she's more than just a farmer, and she has a group of friends, also retirees, who seem to be a bit peculiar as well. We start off thinking, "Oh, they're just old retired folks."

And that is how older people are so often viewed in American society: "They're just retired folks." That's the stereotype I want to smash in this book, a stereotype that, ironically enough, works to Maggie's advantage because she's underestimated by local police chief Jo Thibodeau. Being underestimated, it turns out, is actually a superpower for Maggie and her friends.

Tess Gerritsen

Despite her extraordinary skills and training, Maggie is human—and therefore subject to the same insecurities and weaknesses as the rest of us. How does her personal life create opportunities for peril—and, in non-spoiler terms, what hold does the past have on the present?

That's exactly how I wanted to approach the espionage genre: When the personal collides with the professional, the result is catastrophe. From the start, I felt that Maggie is a haunted person, that she lives with ghosts from her past. My primary emotion as I wrote her character was sadness. As a working spy, she's quick, she's smart, she's capable, she's patriotic. But as a human being, she's vulnerable. As are we all.

The book’s primary setting, coastal Maine, is one that you’re intimately familiar with. In a general sense, how do you see place as an enhancement to plot—and, more specifically, in what ways does The Spy Coast’s desolate midwinter backdrop underscore the tonal and thematic elements you were hoping to capture?

I've lived in Maine for 33 years now, and I'm so glad to finally be able to feature this beautiful landscape in a story. There's an almost mythical element to this place, perhaps inspired by Stephen King stories. There are small, isolated towns and harsh weather and stoic Yankees here. There's also a mixing of locals and people from away, with inevitable conflicts between them. So yes, it is a wonderful setting for a story—or a series.

Given the international implications at play, there’s also a bit of globetrotting throughout the story. What was your approach to capturing a rich sense of international culture and intrigue despite the fragmented nature of the narrative?

I've been to all the places I write about in The Spy Coast: Bangkok, Istanbul, Gümüslük, London, Como. My visits there were never for research, but always for pleasure, and sometimes the most authentic way to describe a place isn't about geographical accuracy, but rather about sensory memory. What did Bangkok smell like? What does the sand feel like on a Turkish beach? It's those memories I mined for the story, because those are the same memories Maggie would have as well.

During the writing of this book, you shared on social media that you’d reached a point of frustration and uncertainty—which you said inevitably happens at some stage of every project. How have you learned to overcome these nagging doubts? And what advice would you offer other, perhaps less seasoned, writers, in terms of conquering their own inner demons?

I have those doubts with every book I write! In fact, I just went through a similarly tough patch with the book I'm finishing now. My chaotic process is partly to blame. I don't have an outline, and I write by the seat of my pants, which means I don't know what happens next. I have to get there to find out, and then I get stuck. The way I've dealt with it in the past is to simply walk away from the story. Take a walk, take a long drive, lie on the couch and stare at the ceiling. It's always scary because it feels like I've "lost the touch," that I'll never write another book. But then I remember that I've done this 30 times before, and I've always managed to get unstuck. I just have to have faith that I will manage it this time as well.

Leave us with a teaser: What comes next?

I'm finishing up The Summer Guests, a sequel. Once again it features Maggie and her band of retired spies, as well as police chief Jo Thibodeau, working together to find a missing girl—only to uncover a skeleton of a long-lost woman.

Tess Gerritsen began to write fiction and in 1987, her first novel, Call After Midnight. Her first medical thriller, Harvest, was released in hardcover in 1996, and it marked her debut on the New York Times bestseller list. Her novels have hit bestseller lists ever since. Among her titles are Gravity, The Surgeon, Vanish, The Bone Garden, and The Spy Coast. Her books have been translated into 40 languages, and more than 40 million copies have been sold around the world. Her series of novels featuring homicide detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles inspired the hit TNT television series Rizzoli & Isles, starring Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander. Gerritsen has won the Nero Wolfe Award (for Vanish) and the Rita Award (for The Surgeon). She and her son Josh produced a feature-length documentary, Magnificent Beast, about the ancient origins of the pig taboo. It aired on PBS channels around the country. Their previous film, Island Zero, was a feature-length horror movie that was released in 2018.

John B ValeriJohn B. Valeri is a lifelong lover of books and the people who write them and the host of Central Booking, where he interviews authors and other industry insiders. Valeri is a contributor to CrimeReads, Crimespree Magazine, Criminal Element, Mystery Scene MagazineThe National Book Review, The New York Journal of BooksThe News and TimesThe Strand Magazine, and Suspense Magazine. He regularly moderates author events and book discussions at bookstores and libraries throughout Connecticut, and serves on the planning committee for CrimeCONN, a one-day reader/writer mystery conference cosponsored by Mystery Writers of America/New York Chapter.

Meet Maggie Bird, Tess Gerritsen's New Leading Lady in "The Spy Coast"
John B. Valeri
Wednesday, 25 October 2023

Danielle Arceneaux

Danielle Arceneaux’s first novel, Glory Be, is a knockout. Glory Broussard is an older, heavier, African American woman living in Lafayette, Louisiana. She’s sometimes obnoxious, but also fearless and brave. She’s one of the more interesting and fully realized characters I’ve encountered in a long while. She’s not all good, she’s not all bad—in short, she’s human. By the end of her first adventure, you’ll be a little in love with her.

Arceneaux’s prose and storytelling seem far more sophisticated than the author's status as a communications strategist turned debut author might suggest. I loved everything about this book and was thrilled to speak with the author about her new series.

Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: First of all, what is your own background? Did you, by chance, grow up in Louisiana where your novel is set?

Danielle Arceneaux: I am “of” Louisiana, but not technically from Louisiana. My parents and my large family are from in and around Lafayette, and still live there. As a young man, my father enlisted in the military and was stationed in Houston briefly, which was where I was born. When I was a couple years old we moved to a Marine Corps base in Twentynine Palms, California, and that’s where I was raised and lived until I went to college. Most people know this area as Joshua Tree.

In fact, when we moved off the base and into the town itself, we lived on one of the main roads into the Joshua Tree National Park campgrounds. It wasn’t even a national park when I grew up there in the '70s and '80s. It was a national monument, and growing up we called it The Monument. I’m saddened by how touristy it has become. All the real estate is getting snatched up and turned into Airbnbs, but growing up it was still extremely rural, isolated, and wild.

New Orleans Original DaiqurisJust about every summer I’d spend weeks in Louisiana, running amok with my cousins. My grandparents were still sharecroppers in the 1980s, raising livestock and living in a house where we’d fetch well water and use an outhouse. The land is still untouched, and there’s a tree growing through the old house.

I grew up toggling between California and Louisiana, which really helps when writing about the South. I know Louisiana well, but I’m able to keep it at arm’s length. There are things that only exist in Louisiana that I’m still flabbergasted by, like the fact that drive-thru daiquiri establishments are real. The zoning, or lack thereof, always stands out to me when I visit. There are big expensive houses next to junkyards next to a nail salon. Readers will notice these things in Glory Be.

Are you a long time mystery fan, or did you just plunge in? Have you always wanted to write?

I’ve always loved mysteries, devouring Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown as a kid. As an '80s kid there wasn’t a ton of supervision, so I always stayed up late watching shows like Cagney & Lacey, Remington Steele, Hill Street Blues, Murder, She Wrote, etc.

As a child, I announced to anyone who would listen that I wanted to be a writer, but didn’t get my butt properly in a chair until a few years ago. Better late than never, I suppose.

Looking at your website I see you are a longtime brand strategist. Your photo also shows you looking rather young and glamorous—kind of the opposite of Glory (though I see a resemblance to Glory’s daughter, Delphine)!

I’m probably not as young as you think; I am nearly 50! And as for glamorous, that’s kind! On the surface level, I understand why people might identify me with Delphine, Glory’s daughter. I live in Brooklyn and work with clients in public relations and marketing, which requires a certain level of polish, confidence and professionalism.

I have deep empathy for all the characters in Glory Be, but Glory, of course, is the main attraction. There aren’t a lot of women in pop culture who are older, complex, heavier and Black—and unapologetic about all of those things. Culturally we are hyper focused on younger people, but I’ve always enjoyed talking to older women. Someone once told me that the average book buyer is a woman in her 50s, yet we don’t see this represented from a main character perspective. It made me want to write something to and for this audience. I’m also keenly interested in how one ages with some measure of grace, bravery and openness. Glory is a good vessel to explore this because she has a great deal of courage, along with limitations and blind spots.

While there are many typically cozy elements in your novel, it’s not really what I would think of as a cozy, because of the harder edge of some of the circumstances (drugs and dog fighting for example) and the clear-eyed look you take at the racism in the South. What were you envisioning when you sat down to write?

I probably should have thought about this more when I sat down to write it! This conversation about genre has truly caught me by surprise. It’s not something I anticipated or thought through. I had a fun launch event at The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City and the booksellers told me it was their “unclassifiable” pick of the month. And some reviews on Goodreads have said that it’s not a typical cozy. Some readers love this, and others seem a little surprised.

I think it’s fair to say that it’s a traditional mystery or a cozy with an edge. Somewhere along the way, cozies became a very cliched genre, and I say this with zero snobbery whatsoever. People should read what they enjoy, but the American cozies can be a bit too saccharin in my view. British cozies have more punch. I hope books like Glory Be expand the genre.

With regards to the racism in the book, I was trying to depict the full experience of Glory's life, which has had some triumphs, but a lot of disappointments and racism. Glory’s race, along with her weight and age, makes her invisible and overlooked. These are important elements—not only do they shape her character and motivation, but being disregarded by others also happens to make her a great detective.

I thought it was great that Glory is a bookie—an occupation that I think of as old school, really. But you tie Glory into the community in interesting ways through her profession.

I liked the idea of Glory holding court somewhere on a regular basis, and her job as a bookie gives her a perch to interact with everyone in Lafayette, from the well-to-do to the fringes of society. I did some research into this when I started the book, and apparently the local bookie is still alive and well, even in this moment of online gambling and mass legalization of gambling across the country.

I also liked the novel's moral gray areas. Glory is many things, some of them obnoxious and unpleasant, but by the end of the novel, the reader has really come to love her and be on her side. You flesh out her character and made her so human. Can you talk about that a bit?

I had a lot of fun writing Glory and her characterization was pretty effortless. I have a theory that there are only two groups of people who are allowed to be grumpy and say inappropriate things without getting into too much trouble: children and women of a certain age. Glory has a lot of redeeming qualities, but as you said, she can also be narrow-minded, judgmental, and even petty. We all have parts of our personalities that are not pretty. Most of us have prejudices, inappropriate thoughts, intrusive thinking, jealousies, and resentments. With Glory, all of this is on naked display.

I recently caught Steel Magnolias on television and it occurred to me that Glory is a lot like Ouiser Boudreaux, the Shirley MacLaine character. Ouiser never stops complaining and has a very particular and distinctly Southern point-of-view about how people should behave. Yet as the movie goes on, you do see a softer side to her. You realize that her prickly exterior is more of a knee-jerk reaction to the changing world around her, as opposed to true malevolence. That’s how I think of Glory.

Also, she’s far older than you, I think—I was relating to her myself a good bit as I think I’m closer to her age. The scene where she talks about getting up for church hours early to get ready and get her creaky body moving felt so true! Did you rely on older relatives, perhaps?

Like I said earlier, I’m older than you probably realized! I’m certainly quite creaky in the morning and have issues with plantar fasciitis, so I know what it’s like to wake up with a limp from time to time. But yes, my mother is in her late 70s and it does take her quite a bit of time to get ready in the mornings. A lot of that comes from her.

Glory is full of bluster and confidence in public, and showing those aches and pains reveals a different side to her. Privately, she struggles more than she would ever let on to her acquaintances at church.

I also thought this was a subtle portrayal of grief. Maybe moving past grief doesn’t involve solving a murder, but Glory getting herself moving, and Delphine really looking around at the way her mother is living, all illustrate her grief. Was that a theme in your mind, or did it kind of develop as you wrote?

Yes, this was intentional and part of my quest to make her a complex and visceral character.

We live in a culture of self improvement. Grieving and depressed? Go to therapy, take the meds, and exercise! That’s great in theory, but in practice that’s much harder. Not everyone has access to psychotherapy or meds; and even if they do, there’s still a stigma around those things, especially within certain age groups and even more so within the Black community.

Grief can manifest itself in a lot of different ways, not just the stereotypical sadness that immediately comes to mind. In Glory’s case, her house has become unwieldy. Getting help requires a certain clarity and level of functioning. Delphine provides this clarity, even if it’s forced. And giving Glory a mission also helps.

I did not want to tie this up in too neat a bow. Glory is certainly better by the end of the book, but I think she will struggle with her losses for some time.

I thought the tone of the book, which covers some truly dark subjects, still had a lightness. How did you navigate that divide?

When I first shared it with my writer’s group, I was worried that people found Glory to be so funny. That wasn’t my intent at all, and I can’t write a joke to save my life. I came to realize that the humor comes from the fact that Glory sees the world through a very specific prism, and circumstances in the book force her to confront people and circumstances that she wants nothing to do with. That tension between Glory’s worldview, and the world as it actually is, drives the humor. I stopped worrying about it and let Glory take the wheel. It also lightens up the subject matter.

That said, I was concerned about her antics being interpreted as silly or slapstick. Delphine, her daughter, helps temper this. She is always there to reign in Glory’s worst instincts. And the darker elements you mentioned, mainly the violence that Glory encounters as part of her investigation, helps to keep the book a mystery and not overly comedic.

Are you thinking (I hope the answer is “Yes.”) that you’ve started a series? I think there is much more you can do with this fabulous character.

Yes, book two is in the works and is on track to be published next fall. Glory will have a whole new set of challenges to navigate!

Finally, can you talk about a book that was transformational for you as a reader or writer?

Flavia de Luce

Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series was a light bulb moment. I thought…here is a character that is funny and whip-smart and flawed, and yet totally lovable. And back to my theory that only children and women of certain age can get away with things…her being 11 really gives this character permission to do some pretty psychotic things with impunity! I’ve read them all, and I can barely remember a single murder or plotline, because Flavia is the star. A mystery writer needs a serviceable plot and murder, but a memorable character will always trump plot.

His books are probably cozier than mine (the English village, the vicar, etc.), but just below the surface the family is dealing with hard circumstances. The mother has died and the father has grown cold and detached. She and her siblings inhabit a falling down mansion in need of repair. Dodger, the household assistant, has trauma from the war and occasionally disappears into his PTSD.

This series was an eye opener for me. It was full of charm and humor, but also a real depth of emotion. When I read his books, I thought, “I’d like to write something like this one day.” I’ve heard rumblings that another installment is on the way, and I hope with all my heart that it’s true.

Danielle Arceneaux lives and works in Brooklyn, New York, and returns to Lafayette frequently.

Robin 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 abebooks.com and the site auntagathas.com is home to more of Robin's writing.

"Glory Be" a Smart Debut from Danielle Arceneaux
Robin Agnew
Monday, 16 October 2023

Judgment Prey
by John Sandford
read by Robert Petkoff
Penguin Audio, 11 hours, unabridged $40

Book 33 in John Sandford’s Prey series finds his heroes, Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers, again dueting, this time assisting local law and the FBI on the hunt for the murderer of a St. Paul, Minnesota, judge and his two young sons. The combination of hard-charging, wealthy (from the sale of a tech device) Davenport and the much more laid-back Flowers is as appealing as always, and their bro repartee has its usual witty potency. In their previous investigation, Righteous Prey (2022), Lucas suffered a bullet wound to his leg from which he is now recovering. When the two lawmen first meet here, Virgil takes one look at the immaculately dressed Lucas, leaning on a cane with a horn handle, and says, “I knew you must have a fashion cane somewhere.... Is there a sword in this one?”

Adding to the novel’s appeal is Virgil's struggle with his secondary career as a budding crime novelist, which includes advice for other would-be fictioneers. Perusing a Mick Herron Slough House novel, he decides the book he’s writing needs better scene settings and characterization. He’d written nonfiction before, but novels were different. “His mother had a sewing machine that had a built-in zigzag stitch, which he thought of as a metaphor for fiction-writing. It wasn’t done in a straight line. You constantly went back and forth. If something needed to be changed, enhanced, made-up, twisted, go back and do it. It’s fiction.”

The author, a bestseller and a Pulitzer Prize-winner under his real name John Roswell Camp, has an unerringly engaging style, but he might have paid more attention to Virgil’s advice. After 32 Preys, his plot here, though intriguing, is a bit thinner than usual. There are a few good twists linking two separate killers and two separate crimes, but the villains themselves aren’t on a par with past protagonists. And the two sleuths’ progress is a bit more haphazard than in the past.

Not particularly helpful, reader Robert Petkoff, though a capable performer with a well-modulated, often-effective delivery, isn’t quite the match for the material as was the series’ previous narrator Robert Ferrone. Ferrone’s hoarser voice added a depth to the prose, while his timing burnished both the furious pace and the funny moments of Preys past.

Dick LochteDick Lochte burst onto the crime-writing scene with Sleeping Dog and has continued to take the genre by storm ever since, becoming a Los Angeles Times bestselling author of 10 books of crime fiction and earning the highest honors a writer can attain in the mystery genre.

Review: "Judgment Prey" by John Sandford
Dick Lochte