My Book: a Slippery Business
Jo Hiestand

hiestand_joJo Hiestand tries a crowbar for Horns of a Dilemma


Golden Age mystery author Ngaio Marsh researched the murder method for her book Scales of Justice in her front garden, stabbing a variety of large melons with a shooting stick to observe the “head wounds” created by the stick’s pointed tip.

Perhaps my method of death wasn’t as exotic, but my murder setting needed a bit of research. And, not being a burglar or home handyperson, I didn’t possess the necessary weapon. So I trotted over to my unsuspecting hardware store to purchase the tool for my trade.

I needed to know what it felt like trying to budge a one-ton boulder, slipping in the mud, using a crowbar. Of course, in my book, Horns of a Dilemma, there are a dozen beefy guys employed for the task, using not only crowbars but also stout ropes. But even as a lone female, I felt I should at least get a feel for the undertaking.

Horns of a Dilemma, the fifth novel in the Taylor & Graham English series, revolves around the custom of turning the Devil’s Stone, which lies in a churchyard and weighs well over a ton. According to legend the stone was dropped in the churchyard by the Devil, and must be moved every year or else misfortune will strike the village. The real English village of Shebbear, in Devon, has moved their Devil’s Stone every year since the custom began (documented back to 1454 at least), except for one year during WWI. That year misfortune did strike the village and nearby farms, so maybe there’s something to the custom.

Even though I’ve been to England nearly a dozen times and have lived there, I never participated in or saw that Devil’s Stone turning, so I had to do the best I could with my backyard, a single crowbar, and a fallen pine tree standing in for the stone.

hiestand_hornsofadilemmaTrying to imitate the conditions of my fictional murder scene, I soaked the ground around the tree trunk with water, creating a mud puddle a hippo would be pleased to wallow in. I let the water seep into the ground for about an hour, then flooded the area again, hoping to get a deep, gooey mess. I did this twice more. Around 10:00 p.m., dressed in old clothes, I went outside armed with my crowbar and a lit lantern. I walked around the trunk, figuring out the best method of attack. Even though I’d chopped off the major limbs, the remaining small branches—complete with needles, pine cones, and a bird’s nest—still looked like my hair does first thing in the morning. But I figured if I got the trunk to roll, the branches near the top would just go along for the ride instead of acting as some type of arboreal brake. Since there was really no “better side” to the thing, I set down the lantern, put on my leather work gloves, and grabbed the crowbar.

I will swear until my dying day that as soon as I bent down to crowbar the tree the night got darker and the wind whipped up. Was that a coyote watching me just beyond the reach of the lantern rays? And that noise overheard—surely that was just an owl or bat. Raccoons don’t attack humans, do they?

I’m sure I presented an odd sight to anyone who might have been gazing outside at that moment. A woman, illuminated by a lantern, trying to shift a 30-foot pine tree with a crowbar, sliding around in mud (and where did she get mud?—it hadn’t rained for weeks) in the dark of night, mumbling mild expletives. I’m still amazed no one phoned the police, reporting me for either burying a body or bludgeoning someone to death.

I jabbed at the tree trunk long enough to fall several times, muddy most of my clothes and hair, skin my knuckles, and strain my back and shoulders. Even though it wasn’t exactly a one-ton stone in a churchyard, at least I now knew what my characters would feel. And the way my muscles were screaming, it was most likely bloody murder.

Horns of a Dilemma (Hilliard & Harris, $30.95) was published in April 2007.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Spring Issue #99.

Teri Duerr
2012-02-28 18:33:01

Jo Hiestand tries a crowbar for Horns of a Dilemma

My Book: a Theory About Thrillers
David Morrell


morrell_davidDavid Morrell's tale of the crypt


In 2004 at the Toronto Bouchercon, Gayle Lynds and I helped found the International Thriller Writers organization. Subsequently, I had ample opportunity to think about the nature of thrillers and explore the theory that genres can be identified by the emotions they evoke: horror/fear, romance/sentiment, science fiction/awe, mysteries/puzzlement, thrillers/exhilaration, etc. I’m still trying to figure out the primary emotion of westerns, and you might disagree about some of the pairings. Science fiction and awe? Some visions of the future have been depressing more than awe-inspiring. But you get the idea.

There’s another way to look at genres, and that’s in terms of their structures. For thrillers, my favorite structural description comes from an unexpected source, the postmodernist author John Barth. In the late 1960s, I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on his work and often find myself referring to his narrative theories when I’m trying to solve a problem in my fiction. In an essay about Tobias Smollett’s 1748 novel The Adventures of Roderick Random, Barth wrote that the “ancient, most profoundly lifelike human sports, the obstacle race and the scavenger hunt” are also the oldest and most appealing for storytellers.

When I read that passage, something in my imagination raised its head. What a perfect way to describe a thriller, I thought. An obstacle race and a scavenger hunt. The hero or heroine overcomes hurdles in a race against time to complete a scavenger hunt for a treasure that can take countless forms—a rescued loved one, an averted disaster, a secret that saves an innocent person from being executed. I can’t think of a satisfying thriller that doesn’t fit that concept. So it was inevitable, I suppose, that one day I would write a book in which an obstacle race and a scavenger hunt were literal plot elements. To emphasize my intention, I even used the title Scavenger.

How literal? Consider this passage in which an elderly professor addicted to video games reads from the back of a game called Scavenger and unknowingly describes the novel she is in. “Scavenger is a life-and-death obstacle race and scavenger hunt in which the characters use high-tech instruments to discover a lost hundred-year-old time capsule. In the process, they learn that Time is the true scavenger.”

Time. I recall the excitement this idea created in me. If a thriller was an obstacle race against time and if my plot was a literal scavenger hunt, then why couldn’t the object of the hunt be time itself? Of course, time is an abstract concept, difficult to dramatize, but a time capsule isn’t, and Lord knows, there are plenty of fascinating stories behind time capsules. Consider the Crypt of Civilization, a project envisioned in 1936 by Thornwell Jacobs, the president of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta.

morrell_scavengerTroubled by the Great Depression and the expansionist military policies of Germany, Italy, and Japan, Jacobs became so concerned about the survival of the world that he arranged for a drained indoor swimming pool to be filled with hundreds of thousands of microfilmed pages of encyclopedias along with such everyday objects as a toilet brush, a lipstick, a grapefruit corer, a fly swatter, Lincoln Logs, and an ampule of Budweiser beer.

It took four years to fill the swimming pool. When its stainless steel door was finally welded shut in 1940, Jacobs said, “The world is engaged in burying our civilization forever, and here in this crypt we leave it to you.” But by 1970, the Crypt was virtually forgotten until a graduate student, Paul Hudson, snuck into the basement of a campus building to do some urban exploring and was startled to see his flashlight reflect off an eerily shiny door. Thanks to Hudson, who went on to become Olgethorpe’s registrar and a founder of the International Time Capsule Society, that basement was opened to the public. Students now pass the Crypt every day, though none will ever see its contents because it isn’t scheduled to be opened for 6,000 years.

Although the Crypt was finally remembered, thousands of other time capsules have not been as lucky. One town misplaced 17 of them. In another, all the members of a committee that buried a capsule died before they could tell anyone its location. In yet another, a time capsule was buried in a street. Its plaque used to be visible. In a perfect illustration of the layers of time, subsequent street repairs put pavement over the plaque. Now no one remembers where the time capsule is.

Lost time. Forgotten time. Those are treasures worthy to be hunted. In Scavenger, my version of the Crypt of Civilization is called the Sepulcher of Worldly Desires. It’s been missing for a hundred years, but as my characters are forced to follow clues in a desperate 40-hour hunt to try to find the time capsule, they discover that sometimes the past is buried for a reason. An obstacle race against time. A scavenger hunt to find time. It isn’t often that the metaphors for a genre become literal plot elements in an example of that genre. I confess that made me smile.

Scavenger by David Morrell (Vanguard Press, March 2007, $24.95)


This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Spring Issue #99.

Teri Duerr
2012-02-28 18:56:55

morrell_davidDavid Morrell's tale of the crypt

My Book: Every Woman’s Worst Nightmare
Roberta Isleib

isleib_roberta_smallRoberta Isleib


Sometimes a powerful personal experience percolates for years, lying in wait for the right moment to work its way into a book. I can trace one event quite directly in the first Rebecca Butterman advice column mystery, Deadly Advice.

My first marriage petered out twenty years ago during the last year of my graduate program in clinical psychology. I took the cats and moved from our cozy starter home, which had included a dog, a garden, and a wood stove, to a tiny apartment in a row of tiny apartments. No families here, just single folks, and not the kind who led swinging singles’ lives.

The separation didn’t have a dramatic “War of the Roses” kind of climax, but it felt plenty sad all the same. Questions circled: Was I doing the right thing? Would I always be alone? If I disappeared, would anyone notice I was missing?

Answers drifted in: Yes, I was making the right move. Someday I’d sort this out and find a relationship that fired on all its cylinders. And please, lose the melodrama! This was a period of pulling in, marshalling the interior troops, mustering energy for my dissertation and internship—I was not seeking new friends.

Every morning, my taciturn next-door neighbor left for work at 7:30, returning by 6:00. She had no visitors and rarely went out. We never really talked, just nodded our polite hellos. She didn’t bring over a “welcome to the neighborhood” casserole. Some nights she’d appear outside on the sidewalk between her car and her apartment and grill one hamburger. Medium well, I’d think, considering the time it sat on the coals. We might have exchanged a word or two about the weather. How sad, I’d think. Is that me? I’d wonder next.

I returned to my apartment from the library one evening and noticed a small U-Haul parked in front of my neighbor’s apartment. An older couple was loading the contents of her place into the van. I waved but didn’t ask questions. It wasn’t my business.

isleib_deadlyadviceOver coffee the next morning, I skimmed the Gainesville Sun as usual. My attention was drawn to a small article near the bottom of an interior page. Based on the address listed in the paper, I realized that my neighbor had shot herself several days earlier. Her dead body had lain in the apartment next to mine for over 48 hours before someone found her.

I felt shocked and sad. What if I’d tried harder to connect with her? Could I have saved her? What private misery led her to take her life in such a violent way? Isn’t this every single woman’s worst nightmare—dead two days and no one even notices you’re gone?

Twenty years later, that’s where Deadly Advice begins. When Dr. Rebecca Butterman returns home to find her neighbor an apparent suicide, she’s wracked with guilt. As a psychologist and advice columnist, she should have been able to help the young woman. But the young woman’s mother suspects foul play, and soon persuades Rebecca to investigate. Before long, the newly single Rebecca wishes she had someone to advise her as she navigates her neighbor’s world of speed-dating and blogging, where no one is who they claim to be.

She doesn’t save her neighbor—as I didn’t save mine—but she resolves to unravel the story behind this woman’s tragic end. And that’s why I love reading and writing mysteries. A story that’s rife with loose threads in real life can be all tied up in a hopeful way in the book.

Deadly Advice (Berkely Prime Crime) is in bookstores now. Roberta Isleib is also the author of the Agatha and Anthony-nominated Cassie Burdette mysteries.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Spring Issue #99.

Teri Duerr
2012-02-29 18:19:40

Roberta Isleib

My Book: an Idea to Die For
Simon Wood

wood_simon_confidentialSimon Wood's Viatical Notion


A fascination for the odd and the obscure drives my writing. I’m always on the lookout for strange but real occurrences that would make for a really interesting story. When I discovered the unusual business world of viatical settlements, lightning struck and I knew I had a novel.

So what are viatical settlements and what makes them so special? In a sense, they’re a reverse insurance arrangement. If you own a life insurance policy and you want to cash it in, you go to a viatical settlement agent who will find someone to buy it. The buyer will give you pennies on the dollar for your policy and take over the monthly dues on your life insurance. In return, they will become the beneficiary when you die. The closer you are to the grave, the bigger the payout.

Viatical settlements were aimed at the elderly and the terminally ill to cover final expenses and make their last days comfortable, but the industry really took off in the late '80s and '90s when HMOs weren’t covering AIDS and HIV patients. Patients needed money for treatment and viatical settlements provided the perfect vehicle for that. The industry hit the skids in the late '90s when breakthroughs in AIDS drugs extended life expectancies and the payout times increased.

I saw the beauty and the beast in this arrangement. Viaticals give people a second shot at life, or at least a comfortable end, allowing them to live out their life worry free. On the other hand, viatical settlements are a truly ghoulish proposal. Some companies ran late-night advertisements telling people how they could make money quick. See a 25-percent return on your money in 12 months or less. To the investor, that sounds great. But to achieve that return, someone has to die. There is no way to ignore the fact that the policy buyer is profiteering off the dead.

I came across viatical settlements on a TV news magazine show. The feature was well done. The story covered all the parties involved in one of these arrangements. They interviewed a person with HIV who had sold their life insurance as well as a retired couple who had purchased several policies through a middleman who arranged the sales. It was great to see a person who’d had one foot over the threshold of death’s door come back from the brink after selling his policy. It was shocking watching the retired couple who had sunk their retirement fund into viatical settlements. They displayed vehement disgust for the people they’d paid good money to who hadn’t had the good graces to die as predicted.

wood_accidentswaitingtohappenThe news clip ended with a kicker and it was that kicker that really grabbed my attention. The middleman is supposed to keep the identities of the buyer and seller confidential. The man with HIV who’d sold his life insurance produced a birthday card. It had arrived unsigned on his last birthday. The message was simple and to the point. It said: “Why aren’t you dead yet?”

I couldn’t let this go. There was a book here. Viatical settlements presented a very interesting concept. Criminals aren’t the only ones with a price on their heads. Everyone is worth more dead than alive, thanks to their life insurance. And what if the beneficiaries can’t afford to wait to inherit? A murder would lead someone to the beneficiary, but an accidental death wouldn’t.

For Accidents Waiting to Happen, I stretched the rules concerning viatical settlements a bit to create a cat and mouse thriller. Made rules surrounding viaticals much more far ranging. Essentially, anyone could qualify. In the book, Josh Michaels takes a bribe to pay for his newborn child’s medical expenses. His secretary blackmails him when she learns of the bribe. To pay her off, Josh sells his life insurance policy. Years later, when the bribe, the blackmail, and the policy sale are long forgotten, he’s driving home when he’s forced off the road by another vehicle into a river. Instead of helping Josh, the driver gives him the thumbs-down gesture and drives off. Josh survives the accident and learns he’s not the only having accidents. The one thing these people have in common is that they’ve all made a viatical settlement in their past.

Usually, truth is stranger than fiction, and I love that, but if I can get a hold of it, I’ll make that fiction a little stranger.

Accidents Waiting to Happen by Simon Wood (Dorchester, March 2007, $7.99)

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Spring Issue #99.

Teri Duerr
2012-02-29 18:49:20

Simon Wood's Viatical Notion

My Book: On being Led to Murder
Rosemary Miner



My good friend, mystery writer Anne White, has a habit of saying, “That would be a good place for a murder!” So when she saw my article for Adirondack Life about tanneries in the 19th century, you can guess what she said.

And in the first chapter of my first mystery, Once Upon a Time to Die For, a body is discovered in a steaming tanning vat.

Anne and I met in a writing class with Pulitzer prize winner Oscar Hijuelos as our instructor. Oscar told us to take a few minutes and write down a surprising moment we had experienced. I thought he would ask us to develop it for homework. Instead he told us to give it to the person on your right (that was Anne), who would take it home and turn it into a story. Our friendship began that night and it wasn’t long before I discovered Anne had an interest in mysteries.

Once Upon a Time to Die For is set in the Adirondack hamlet where I live, in 1873, when it is just awakening to tourism with new inns and hotels. The tannery gave Irish immigrants jobs and a roof over their head.

My amateur sleuth, Grace Wickham, is recently back from a year of medical school. She supports herself as an herbalist and if asked, calls herself an herbal doctor interested in preventive medicine. She writes for a local newspaper, which brings her a small income. Many of her patients pay her with homegrown food, or fish and venison, in a sort of barter system. Her father was the local doctor for years, and Grace is seen as taking his place, which is why she’s called to the local tannery after an accident.

I want the reader to imagine how dark and dismal the tannery looks after workers have gone home and Grace, six feet tall with fiery red hair, stands surveying the equipment in eerie silence while shadows hang on the wall like bats. The manager hands her a lantern and she walks across the slippery floor between the many steaming tanning vats connected by a series of pipes. And there’s the body!

miner_onceuponatimetodieforWithin minutes, my amateur sleuth is joined by a half dozen men stomping into the room and peering down at the body. This is my opportunity to set up suspects and motives, for the men who gather all have a reason to dislike or hate the dead man.

The hotel owner, Ambrose Baldoon, arrives with the others. Baldoon’s hotel sits on the corner across from the general store, and a few doors from Grace’s house. He’s one of the few men taller than Grace’s six feet, and he is Grace’s close friend and Watson.

Luckily for me, there were several historical figures in the area at the time the story happens and I take advantage of them. Winslow Homer was painting watercolors while staying in the Adirondacks, and one of Grace’s suspects works as a guide for him. One of Grace’s friends is Susan B. Anthony, who lived and taught in nearby Washington County. After being arrested for voting in the 1872 election, she is traveling the country lecturing for women’s rights. I use some of Anthony’s own words in her correspondence with Grace, who agrees with Susan that “a woman should have her own purse.”

But back to Anne. We don’t barter plots, but we do talk about writing whenever we get together. This historical cozy is dedicated “To Anne, who led me to crime.”


Once Upon a Time to Die For, 2007
Lies and Logs to Die For, 2009
Adirondacks Rubies to Die For, 2012

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Spring Issue #99.

Teri Duerr
2012-02-29 19:09:18

miner_rosemaryRosemary Miner shares the genesis of her 19th-century historical series' amateur sleuth, Grace Wickham.

My Book: a Basketful of Motivation
Beth Groundwater

groundwater_bethBeth Groundwater


When an author writes an amateur sleuth mystery, the first problem to solve is how in the world that amateur, who has no training or expertise in detective work, will become involved in investigating a crime. What possible motivation could that amateur have to interfere in a police investigation?

This was the conundrum I faced in plotting A Real Basket Case. To involve Claire Hanover, my 46-year-old gift-basket designer, in a crime, I literally dropped the dead body in her lap. The victim is a handsome young massage therapist, giving Claire a massage in her home. I placed the gun used to commit the murder in her husband’s hand, sprinkled on some gunshot residue, and let him protest that he was innocent.

The police conclude it’s a simple case of a jealous spouse shooting his wife’s lover. Claire’s husband convinces her of his innocence, but she has two puzzles to solve: how to convince her husband that she wasn’t having an affair and how to convince the police that they’re holding the wrong person.

I also had two puzzles to solve. The first was how to get Claire into her underwear, laying on her bed, receiving a massage from the hunk that all the ladies at the gym drool over, and yet keep her innocent of all wrong-doing or breaking her marriage vows. I enlisted her conniving friend, Ellen, to box Claire into accepting a gift certificate for a massage, and the masseur himself to worm his way into Claire’s home. The second problem was how to put the murder weapon in her husband’s hand and motivate him to fire it, while still leaving him innocent of the crime.

I’ve always been a puzzle addict. I love to solve puzzles of all types—jigsaw, crossword, sudoku, you name it. On our last vacation, my husband hid the jigsaw puzzles in the condo so I wouldn’t stay up all night finishing one. It was natural for me to choose mystery for my writing genre, where I could design not only a difficult puzzle, but also its solution. Taking the reader along for the ride as the sleuth puts the pieces together is a true joy.

groundwater_arealbasketcaseDesigning a gift basket that forms a pleasing whole and is a true fulfillment of the receiver’s desires is also a joyful solution to a puzzle—what to give that special someone. Like Claire, I design gift baskets to give to friends and family and donate to charity auctions. But I don’t have a part-time business like she does, and I was far from talented at building gift baskets when I started writing the manuscript.

To learn more about the art and the business of gift basketry, I researched gift-basket trade associations, visited gift-basket stores and websites, read how-to books on setting up your own gift-basket business, and lurked on gift-basketry email loops. I distilled the design tips for building perfect gift baskets down to the ten that I list on the “Articles” page of my website. Tips such as “Include something for each of the senses: taste, smell, touch, sight, sound” and “Never put foods in the same basket with strongly scented candles or bath products” may sound straightforward, but I’ve found that if I don’t go through the checklist whenever I build a basket, I usually forget one or more of the tips.

Now I practice the art of building gift baskets by giving them away to subscribers of my email newsletter. For every 100 new subscribers, I draw a winner, who may choose one of three themes—chocoholic, mystery lover, or relax-a-bath. Most choose the mystery lover theme, but my favorite is the chocoholic. While shopping for out-of-the-ordinary chocolate foods, I invariably pick up something for myself, too. After all, what better way to celebrate creating a gift for someone special than to give a small present to yourself?

A Real Basket Case is my gift to fellow mystery readers, neatly tied up with a pretty bow.

Beth Groundwater has more information about gift baskets and her mysteries at her website. A Real Basket Case is available from Five Star Publishing for $25.95.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Spring Issue #99.

Teri Duerr
2012-02-29 19:33:11

Beth Groundwater

My Book: in Memory of a Friend
Kate Pepper

pepper_kate_smallKate Pepper


Two years ago I opened the morning newspaper and was riveted to a story about a woman who was murdered while taking an early afternoon walk on a country road in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Being a crime writer, I am always drawn to such stories. But immediately there was more about this one that leapt off the page. She was killed one town over from where I spent my first two years of college so I knew the area fairly well and was aware of how unusual a murder was in that peaceful country setting. The victim had been visiting a friend for the weekend but lived only blocks from my home in Brooklyn. She was also close to my age.

Then I read her name and my heart stopped. She was my friend.

I reread her name, her age, mention of the street where she lived near me, and the road where she bled to death after a stranger—who to this day has not been found—cut her throat and left her to die.

I hadn’t seen her for a while. She was divorced and lived alone, a successful executive who was always a pleasure to be with. We had met at work 15 years earlier and spent time outside the office becoming better acquainted. I had sat in her sunny apartment in Brooklyn when she first bought it. She got to know the man who would become my husband and the father of the children whose busy lives would pull mine away from so many friends. Last time I ran into her, she was on her way back from a white sale at a local department store, happy with her purchases. She was always smiling. She had become one of the friends I kept meaning to get together with but I was always too busy to pick up the phone and make the date.

It was impossible to imagine her attacked as she was, to picture her bleeding to death on a country road. But as the weeks went on I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I could see her and hear her standing in front of me with her shopping bag. I couldn’t believe she no longer existed. I was angry with myself for having postponed getting together with her. I missed her.

pepper_heresheliesWriting has always had a strong therapeutic element for me. And so I put the shock and sorrow over my friend’s death into the novel I was then planning, a story about identity theft between twin sisters that came to include a murder on a Berkshires road. When the protagonist Annie thinks about the victim, renamed Zara, I put myself into Annie’s head and thus into seeing, hearing, smelling, and feeling distance of my friend’s murder.

On the road almost directly in front of the house was a white outline of Zara’s body. I was shocked to see this because I hadn’t noticed it last night though they must have drawn it while she was still laying there. I had been aware of the unnatural angles of her limbs, the deep bloody slice in her throat, and the presence of all the people, but not this painted-on caricature of the last action of a woman’s life. Here she lies.

I called the novel Here She Lies for different reasons. I was disturbed by the thought that a woman of such vitality could be struck down unexpectedly, her life reduced to an outline that washes away in the rain. There is a scene in which Annie photographs shadows shifting above the outline, trying and failing to capture a moment in time that strikes her as somehow essential. There is an existential despair in that effort, of course—the impossibility of grasping life and death as it flows around us, rendering absurd our efforts to “organize our lives.” Another reason for the title is the sense that, as the story progresses and Annie becomes a victim of identity theft, she realizes that the difference between truth and lies in her life is as shifting as the shadows over Zara’s fading outline.

In preparing to write this piece, I returned to a commemorative website created by my friend’s family and was reminded of a fact I had misplaced in the truth/fiction negotiation that goes on in a novelist’s mind as she transforms feelings, perceptions, and experiences into art—the exact date of my friend’s death: May 1, 2005. In a scheduling coincidence of which I was unaware until that moment, the publication date of Here She Lies is May 1, 2007—precisely two years from the day my friend was murdered.

Kate Pepper’s Here She Lies (May 2007, $7.99) is published by Onyx books.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Spring Issue #99.

Teri Duerr
2012-02-29 22:24:06

Kate Pepper

My Book: Agent Brantley and Me
Scott Nicholson

nicholson_scottScott Nicholson talks to the Feds


I’m fortunate as a journalist to meet a wide array of people, and I’ve found they love to talk about their professions. Most are willing to help when they hear I am a writer, though I usually get a fairly sanitized version and still must rely heavily on my imagination. But those people provide details, language, and philosophy that you’d never find in a textbook.

I met retired FBI Agent Alan Brantley in 2004 when I did a newspaper story on him. He now operates a consulting business but at one time worked under John Douglas, the noted agent who served as the model for Thomas Harris’s fictional FBI profilers. Brantley interviewed a number of captured killers and endured personal threats and manipulative taunts. He also had field experience and underwent the typical tough training required at Quantico.

At the time I met Brantley, the novel that became They Hunger was not even a grain of sand in the folds of my frontal lobe. But about a year later, I was casting about for an idea for my next book, and wanted to do something set in the remote Southern Appalachians where I live and play.

I came up with a rafting expedition, but I also decid-ed to draw on the FBI manhunt for Eric Rudolph, the Olympic bomber who hid away in the mountain wilderness and eluded capture for nearly three years.

A key character in the story is Ace Goodall, undereducated religious militant and abortion clinic bomber. Because of a copycat bombing across the country, my FBI is short on resources, and sends a pair of undervalued agents to the wilderness to follow up on a longshot tip that sets them on Goodall’s trail.

That’s when I started consulting Brantley, first telling him the rough idea and asking his thoughts. He drafted a typical team for such a mission: a piss-and-vinegar “Super SWAT” guy paired with a more bookish but still well-trained new recruit, as well as the process they would use to predict Goodall’s behavior. He also gave me a rundown of the equipment they’d likely carry, including firearms and communications gear. At this point I was hesitant to take up more of his time, but he volunteered to read the parts of the book where the agents appeared.

nicholson_theyhungerWe met at a coffee shop to go over his notes, and I quickly realized he preferred the agents to look polished, heroic, and dignified, which was not what I wanted. In fact, one of the richer elements of the story is the crack-up of the veteran agent, who becomes as delusional as the killer he is chasing.

Most fascinating was when Brantley upbraided me for using certain phrases. “Your agent cusses too much,” he said, though I noticed he worked a few expletives into our conversation. He edited my “clusterfuck” to the preferred nomenclature of “boondoggle.” Interestingly, he claimed that “agents refer to headquarters as ‘HQ’ or simply ‘headquarters,’” but later on, as he relaxed, he called it “the Puzzle Palace in D.C.” Of course, I put that phrase in the book before the coffee was cold!

I needed my characters isolated, unable to punch a radio and call in the cavalry. The FBI has some of the finest equipment in the world, so it took a little creativity to make that happen. Brantley’s advice not only brought this realism to the work, it added an extra plot twist that helps build to the payoff.

In retrospect, I realize he may even have served up the original slumbering seed of the story. In our original newspaper interview he told me that myths of vampires, demons, and werewolves grew from gruesome murders, with people ascribing the deaths to supernatural forces because that was easier to understand. “They couldn’t accept that another human being could do that,” he said.

I’ve never wanted to be an FBI agent, as admirable as those agents are. Thanks to Alan Brantley, I got the benefit of 30 years’ experience for the price of a few phone calls. He’s the first person listed on the acknowledgements page of They Hunger, and while it’s my name on the cover in big letters, Brantley and hundreds of other people have shaped and informed my worldview. They play no small part in bringing my stories to life.

They Hunger by Scott Nicholson (Pinnacle Books, April 2007, $6.99)

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Spring Issue #99.

Teri Duerr
2012-02-29 22:38:26

Scott Nicholson talks to the Feds

My Book: Cowboys and Idiots
Steve Hockensmith

hockensmith_steveSteve Hockensmith


“Write what you know,” they say. Which has always led me to suspect that they—whoever “they” are—are idiots. It’s hard to write what you know if, like me, you don’t really know much of anything.

Star Trek trivia. The Green Lantern oath. How to make a killer pot of chili. It’s hardly Pulitzer material. If I followed “their” advice, I’d be writing books about a thirtysomething slob whose most exciting life experience so far has been sitting in the same row as Larry “Bud” Melman at a 1989 screening of Great Balls of Fire!

So instead I write about cowboys.

Before I dreamed up crime-busting drovers Big Red and Old Red Amlingmeyer (the heroes of my mystery/Western novels Holmes on the Range and On the Wrong Track), everything I knew about cowboys I’d picked up from either movies or commercials for Time-Life Books’ Old West collection. And, of course, most of what I “learned” from them wasn’t even true. (In real life, anyone who rode into a cattle town dressed like Gene Autry would immediately find himself riding right back out—on a rail. And as it turns out, John Wesley Hardin wasn’t so mean he once shot a man just for snoring. The guy was breaking into Hardin’s room at the time, which is awfully hard to do when asleep.)

Yet there was one thing I truly did know about cowboys when I decided to write about them: I liked them. I always had, thanks to both a father and grandfather with an insatiable appetite for B Westerns. Forget Sesame Street. I was raised on The Rifleman and Roy Rogers matinee filler.

Between 1970 and 1977, my mom never had to even ask me what I wanted to be for Halloween. She just had to buy a bigger cowboy outfit. (A very un-PC “hobo” get-up finally broke the cowboy streak in 1978. After that, I always opted for the classic Teenage Boy Who Puts on a Cheap Plastic Mask and Calls It a Costume So He Can Scam Free Candy Off the Neighbors Even Though He’s Really Much Too Old for This Sort of Thing.)

So even though I knew next to nothing about authentic cowboy life when Big Red and Old Red first lassoed my imagination, I was willing to learn. Today, my shelves are lined with books about the Old West, and I’ve spent hundreds of hours pouring over cowboy journals, biographies, and old photographs.

hockensmith_onthewrongtrackYet I still can’t saddle a horse or tie a diamond hitch or brand a steer. I never wear a Stetson or cowboy boots or leather chaps. I never refer to friends as “pardner” and I don’t chew tobacco or use words like “vamoose,” “tarnation,” “flapdoodle,” or even plain old “ain’t.”

I am not a cowboy.

But after writing two novels and several short stories about the Amlingmeyers, I feel like I do know cowboys. Two of them, anyway. My cowboys—my characters. And that’s what that mysterious, bossy, idiotic “they” ought to be talking about. Knowledge is a wonderful thing to have, but it’s not going to get you through to a finished draft of a 90,000-word novel. Only passion can do that.

So it’s not “Write what you know.” It’s “Write what you’d like to know about.” Or, to put it a bit more cynically, “Write what you can research and think about and wrestle with for months upon months upon months without losing your freakin’ mind!”

Or, to be utterly uncynical about it, write what you love.

And that ain’t no flapdoodle, pardner.

Steve Hockensmith’s On the Wrong Track ($23.95), released by St. Martin’s Minotaur

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Spring Issue #99.

Teri Duerr
2012-02-29 22:57:41

Steve Hockensmith

Cara Black
Tom Nolan

black_cara-credit-laura-skayhanFrancophile Cara Black writes popular police procedurals starring a young Parisian detective Aimée Leduc. The newest Leduc novel is Murder at the Lanterne Rouge (March 2012). Mystery Scene caught up with Black in this 2010 profile.

Photo: Laura Skayhan

In the popular mystery books written by San Francisco author Cara Black, a twenty-something Parisian detective named Aimée Leduc disinters dark deeds of decades past to find clues to 1990s events.

It’s also possible, somewhat in the style of Aimée Leduc, to trace the beginnings of Cara Black’s Paris-oriented career to events in the youth of a girl born in Chicago and raised in Northern California.

When Cara Black was growing up in the Bay Area, her father, a sales manager (“He could sell anything,” his daughter says) was an avid Francophile: “He’d make us watch that Jacques Tati film [Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday] countless times,” she remembers. Later, Black’s father joined with friends to found a winery. As a teen, Cara attended a Catholic school where nuns spoke and taught archaic French. And Cara had an uncle who’d studied art in Paris under the GI Bill with Georges Braque (until, according to family lore, he had the temerity to ask that great painter to turn up the heat in his frigid studio).

“My parents weren’t stereotypical, at least my dad wasn’t,” Cara Black says. “I always felt there was a bigger world than where we lived in a California suburb. And maybe that kind of opened my eyes.”

The culturally aware Cara grew up a constant reader, with Charlotte Brontë and Oscar Wilde among her favorite authors. At 16, she fell in love with Promise at Dawn, a book by contemporary French novelist Romain Gary, and wrote its author a fan letter which his American publisher forwarded. Gary sent back a thank-you note which included his Paris address: 108 Rue du Bac.

les_deux_magots_cr_robyn_leeMeanwhile, Cara’s father, who had read a lot of F. Scott Fitzgerald (a one-time Paris resident), had become a fan of detective fiction, especially the works of Dick Francis and P.D. James. “You ought to try one,” he told his daughter. But Cara had other interests.

After junior college, she embarked on several years’ travel: working in Switzerland, studying in Japan, visiting France.

Café Les Deux Magots, Paris. Photo: Robyn Lee.

She was 19 the first time she went to Paris, she says: “We slept under the bridge, you know; it was the days when you were hitchhiking around … I went to 108 Rue du Bac, Monsieur Gary’s address, and went inside the building. It was just incredible—these stairs that went up, this red carpet, the stained-glass window. Here I am in jeans, and I knock on the door and there he was: very handsome man, very charismatic…this black hair…blue-turquoise eyes, and he looked at me and he said, ‘Do I know you?’”

The novelist took his young visitor to the corner café, where he ordered for her what he ordered himself. “So I had my first cigar, and my first espresso with Romain Gary!” Black recalls. “And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, this is what it’s like to be a writer in Paris….’”

She started keeping a journal—but lost it. “I was too much into living,” she says now. “I always thinking, ‘Some day I’m going to write this down,’ and—nothing.”

Done with world wandering, Cara returned to Northern California, graduated from San Francisco State, became a preschool teacher, married a bookseller—then returned to Paris in 1984 to visit an old friend.

cafe_angelina_parisThe woman took Cara to the Marais district, where sagging, soot-stained 17th-century buildings surrounded them. “We walked into this narrow street,” Black says, “and it opened up—and we were in the Place des Vosges…this arcaded 17th-century square. There was grass, and fountains gurgling, and pitted stone—and I felt, in this strange way, that I was back home.”

Her friend wanted to show her something else: They walked to a street where the signs were in Hebrew and Yiddish. “She pointed to an apartment upstairs and said, ‘That’s where my mother lived during the German occupation, during World War II. She was Jewish, and she was 14, and one day, 1943, she came home from school and her apartment was empty; none of her family was there.’”

The building’s concierge said she didn’t know where the girl’s parents and siblings had gone, but she fed and helped the girl, who lived there alone for the last year of the war—after which she learned her family had died in Auschwitz.

“I heard this story,” says Black, who isn’t Jewish, “and I thought, ‘Fourteen years old! What would that be like?’ I never really forgot that.”

Another decade passed. Cara and her husband became parents of a son. The Blacks returned to France for a month in Provence. The country was changing. Its past was catching up with its present; old sins from the war period were being acknowledged.

On the eve of their return to San Francisco, Cara and family stayed in Paris for one night—in the Marais. “I was back in that Place des Vosges,” she says, “and this time the moonlight was hitting the stone, and that whole story came back to me. And I thought...what if I had lived during that time? What if I had a young son? What if I had to put food on his table? Just what would it be like?”

france_1939_stampCara’s past was catching up to her too: After all these years, she wanted to create—to tell this story that moved her. But how? She’d never made good on her vow to write fiction and at this late date didn’t think she could. And yet—

“I’d started reading mystery novels,” she says. “I was reading a lot of P.D. James. And I thought, ‘Well, her books are novels; sure, there’s crime, and murder—but there’s also psychological depth, and social comment.’”

Back home in the Bay Area, she attended mystery writing conferences at Book Passage, an independent bookstore in Corte Madera, where professionals including Judy Greber (aka Jillian Roberts), Marilyn Wallace, and Carolyn Wheat encouraged her fledgling efforts. “People offered really constructive criticism,” she says. “You know, I was a young mother; but when I was away for these four days, I was—a writer. I could talk [about] my ideas and was taken for real, do you know what I’m saying? It wasn’t just a dream.”

But there was much to learn: how to shape dialogue, set a scene, maintain tone. Cara joined a Berkeley writing group and worked three and a half years on her book, which featured a young, half-French, computer-savvy investigator named Aimée in the early 1990s: the time when Cara herself began revisiting and researching Paris.

Some people in that city were willing to speak with her, she says, and some would not. “I got the whole gamut,” Cara remembers, “...because I wasn’t published, I had no credentials. It’s really taken a long time to form connections, but you know in France it’s about who you know, and whose brother’s uncle’s son-in-law knew this thing. And a lot of it [involves] introductions: they’re very traditional. But I persisted. At that time, before we had email, I had to write letters—in this archaic French—to meet people and set up appointments.”

Her persistence paid off. In ensuing trips (Black now visits Paris twice a year), she’s made and maintained many French contacts, from people in the upper reaches of government to folks who love to explore underground sewers. During her most recent stay, she says, “I got to visit the crime-scene unit at the Quai des Orfèvres: you know, where [Georges Simenon’s fictional] Inspector Maigret had his office? That was fascinating; I spent four hours there. And that was again through a connection of a connection; and it took six months. But they were very nice and really helpful.”

paris_mosaic_smallBack in 1999, without benefit of agent, Cara Black sold her book Murder in the Marais to Soho Press, a firm specializing in mystery fiction set in foreign countries.

She’d fulfilled her youthful promise to write a book; now she thought her work was done. But her Soho editor surprised her: “[She] said, ‘Well, where’s Aimée going next?’ I said, ‘What?’ ‘Yeah, where’s the next book gonna be set?’”

“How about Belleville?” the new author blurted, naming the Parisian district where she’d often stayed at a friend’s apartment.

So, this time in much less than three and a half years, Murder in Belleville was written and published—and after that, eight more Aimée Leduc mysteries, each set in a different one of Paris’s 20 arrondissements, all taking place in the 1990s. The just-published Murder in the Palais Royal has Aimée dealing with criminal acts stemming from old events in Murder in the Marais.

Cara’s found no shortage of crimes for Aimée to investigate in those turbulent ’90s. “I was really intrigued by how France was changing,” she remembers of that period. “Joining the EU, and these secrets coming up after the war. [The President of France, Jacques] Chirac gave the speech in ’95, where he actually apologized and admitted France had maybe done some things wrong during the Occupation. So a lot of things were hidden, but they were starting to come out. I was hearing lots of stories.

black_murderatlanternerouge"I had met this man who was in the Ministry of Interior, a man who’s wracked by guilt, and he started talking to me and telling me about what he had to do for his job—which was to kick out illegal immigrants who were on a hunger strike in a church. He himself had been born in a displaced-persons camp after the war; he was a brilliant guy, but very messed-up psychologically. I started thinking about telling his story, of what he was going through, which I [eventually] fictionalized.”

In learning about such people and events, Black found that her original passion for storytelling somehow “just kept going.” But she isn’t sure when or even whether she’ll bring her heroine into the 21st century, with its more advanced technologies and post-9/11 concerns. “I don’t know; I’m really thinking about what I’m going to do.”

But one gets the sense that so long as Cara and Aimée attend to the past, their future will take care of itself.


The Aimée Leduc Investigations
Murder in the Marais, 1999
Murder in Belleville, 2000
Murder in the Sentier, 2002
Murder in the Bastille, 2003
Murder in Clichy, 2005
Murder in Montmartre, 2006
Murder on the Ile Saint-Louis, 2007
Murder in the Rue de Paradis, 2008
Murder in the Latin Quarter, 2009
Murder in the Palais Royal, 2010
Murder in Passy, 2011
Murder at the Lanterne Rouge, March 2012

Tom Nolan is the author of Ross Macdonald: A Biography (Scribner) and editor of Ross Macdonald’s The Archer Files: The Complete Short Stories of Lew Archer, Private Investigator (Crippen & Landru).

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Spring Issue #114.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-01 18:21:39

paris_mosaic_small Francophile Cara Black writes popular police procedurals starring Parisian detective Aimée Leduc.

My Book: Genesis of a Pi
Ed Lynskey

lynskey_edEd Lynskey offers a Frank assessment


I set out to create my PI, Frank Johnson from the imaginary Pelham, Virginia, as a regular guy.

He owns a double-wide trailer because he likes its low upkeep. He drives a pickup truck (good gas mileage). He’s divorced, and a recovering boozer.

PI work, at best, generates an irregular income. Therefore Frank needed a day job. Having once worked for Sam Cummins, the late international arms merchant, I decided to make Frank a gunsmith. But Frank isn’t a gun geek, or nut. It’s just a job he does to keep his bill collectors at bay.

Frank needed cop experience in his background to be a credible PI. For nearly two decades, I’d worked with a guy who’d been an MP, and he had a raft of stories to share on slow afternoons. So I fitted Frank with an MP stint at Fort Riley, Kansas, where I spent some time myself.

I thought I could use Frank’s friends to characterize him, so Gerald Peyton entered the novels. Gerald, ostensibly a bail bond enforcer (aka bounty hunter), is a hulking man always up for some rough fun. When Frank gets jammed up, Gerald is always ready to help.

A new dilemma arose. Given his skimpy bank account, Frank lacks the funds to go chase down the clues. That’s when Robert Gatlin joined Frank’s motley retinue. A billionaire attorney with posh offices in the foxhunt country near Middleburg, the burly Gatlin is on a mission to represent the underdog and downtrodden. Gatlin loves to play to the cameras of Court TV and rub elbows with attendees of A-list parties. Knowing a powerful, well-connected lawyer like Gatlin also allows Frank to escape his various legal scrapes.

lynskey_thebluecheerFrank enjoys his life and friends in Pelham. But he has wanderlust and often grows restless. Fortunately Gatlin can finance Frank’s trips abroad. Traveling allows Frank to interact in different environments and new foreign locales. I never believe Frank can roust out enough crimes and murders in Pelham.

In The Blue Cheer he’s moved to the West Virginia mountains to stay in a log cabin and clashes with a racist cult. Later, he takes on a missing person’s case by flying to Turkey in Troglodytes (Mundania Press, 2008). Frank had once been stationed at Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey so he knows the lay of the land. In fact, Frank’s overseas assignments grant him a certain worldly knowledge, so that he doesn’t feel ill at ease when outside his hometown.

Frank has no immediate family. A drunken driver killed his parents in an auto accident when he was a kid. One distant cousin goes to jail in The Blue Cheer. A different cousin is murdered in the upcoming book Pelham Fell Here. I doubt if he’ll age much. He’s content to hang suspended in that grand bachelor’s age of his early thirties. Who wouldn’t?

The Blue Cheer by Ed Lynskey (Point Blank, February 2007, $26.95)

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #98.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-01 21:28:25

Ed Lynskey offers a Frank assessment

My Book: Mister Persistence
Jack Getze

getze_jackJack Getze the call he's been waiting for


Over a woe-is-me, three-martini lunch 20 years ago, a pal and fellow disgruntled stockbroker told me a tale that became the basis for my debut novel, Big Numbers.

A half-eaten olive spat from my mouth even before I heard the punch line. “Say that again?”

“Jim was a stock-jockey like the rest of us, living hand-to-mouth, until his richest client died,” my pal said. “One week after the client’s funeral, Jim started dating the rich new widow.”

I picked up my errant and twice-bitten green olive.

“And Jim married her?”

“Yup,” my friend said.

Bottoms up on my third martini. “That sounds like a novel.”

“A noir tale of greed.”

Maybe it was the times. The mid-1980s celebrated renewed and sharp economic growth, even greed in my opinion. Or maybe it was just my own greed, my desire to escape the dismally frustrating and soulfully repugnant stock and bond trade. Dialing for dollars, we used to call it. Income based solely on commissions. Believe me, avarice gets nurtured daily when you watch your salary go back to zero every month.

“God, that really sounds like a novel,” I said again five minutes later. I imagined movies with famous redheads, a handsome young star as hero. Piles of cash. Boats. Stolen securities.

“You should write it,” my friend said.

Well, I did. In less than a year. I found an agent willing to shop it to publishers, too, but that first version written two decades ago failed to sell in three years of trying. The character was unlikeable, we heard over and over. Greed is not a quality Americans want for their heroes.

I started and finished four other manuscripts over the next two decades, and none sold. I’d reached my lowest point in 30-plus years of total disappointment writing fiction. I’d been working with a new agent for two years, on a thriller, and she declared my latest draft completely awry.

“What were you thinking?” she said.

After she made me stop crying, my agent suggested I pull something old from a drawer and work on that for a while, give the thriller a rest. I eventually recovered, did some thinking, called the agent back, and told her about two or three old projects including the original version of Big Numbers.

getze_bignumbers“I like the one about the stockbroker,” she said.

Some friends call me Mr. Persistence. Almost a dozen unpublished manuscripts. No sale in 38 years. I put aside my thriller and trudged ahead with a rewrite of that old failed mystery, Big Numbers. In two weeks I knew I was onto something special. I couldn’t stop writing. I was making myself laugh in the wee hours of darkness. I couldn’t wait to show the opening to my agent.

When she read the first 30 pages, with its down-and-out protagonist trying to provide for his estranged children, my agent said, “This is funny. This is you. This is what I’ve been waiting for.”

Six months later I got the call I’d been waiting for. Hilliard & Harris wanted to publish my novel.

The novel I began to write 20 years earlier over martinis and lurid gossip.

I know what you future mystery novelists are thinking: Holy weak manuscripts, Jack! It better not take me 38 years and 11 freaking novels to break into print.

Trust me, it won’t. For the first 30 of those 38 years, I just wrote my stories. I didn’t read any books or magazines on writing fiction. I didn’t attend workshops or writing seminars. Craft? It wasn’t until I attended Writers Retreat Workshop in 1998 and began to network that I realized that writing fiction requires a set of skills needing study and practice.

If you are a writer, a future mystery novelist, you already know about craft or you wouldn’t be reading Mystery Scene. So don’t worry about those rejections. Just keep going.

You’re way ahead of my schedule.

Jack Getze is a former reporter and stockbroker and the author of Big Numbers (Hilliard and Harris, $28.95, 2007).

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #98.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-01 21:47:40

Jack Getze the call he's been waiting for

My Book: Retirement Homes Are Murder
Mike Befeler

befeler_mikeMike Befeler


When I had to relocate my mother and stepfather to a retirement home, I met many interesting characters and experienced, firsthand, the pathos and humor of the aging process. This inspired me to write a murder mystery set in a retirement home. The protagonist, Paul Jacobson, must become an amateur sleuth to clear himself as a murder suspect when he finds a dead body in the trash chute of a retirement home.

My stepfather suffered from short-term memory loss, and I spent three days walking with him from his new room in the retirement home down to the Jacuzzi so that he could remember the path on his own. We had fascinating conversations about his experiences in World War II flying into Burma and eating water-buffalo meat, but he couldn’t remember where he’d put his glasses half an hour before. His favorite saying was, “Getting old isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but it sure beats the alternative.”

My initial concept was a relationship story of three widowed men who eat together at a retirement home and three women who eat at a separate table. Each of the three men had aging challenges including short-term memory loss, macular degeneration, and incontinence. It quickly evolved into a murder mystery, and the protagonist had the challenge of solving the murder when he couldn’t remember anything from the day before.

befeler_retirementhomesaremurderThe novel explores the issues of aging in a humorous fashion while demonstrating that octogenarians can still be active and creative, and can experience romance and friendship. Paul develops the means of overcoming his short-term memory problems, including keeping a daily journal and relying on others for help. He enjoys getting to know his precocious 12-year-old granddaughter, Jennifer. She makes suggestions on how to solve the murder, uses the Internet to help her grandfather (he refuses to touch a computer) and secretly reads his journal—including a description of his love life.

As Paul’s snooping and short-term memory loss get him in trouble with the local police, Jennifer and his new friends help him solve an expanding list of crimes. Paul finds romance as he struggles to escape a murderer intent on a repeat performance.

The novel takes place in Hawaii, providing the setting for the climax when Paul, who hates going in the ocean, must face his greatest fear to save his friend and escape the killer.

Retirement Homes Are Murder by Mike Befeler (Five Star Press, January 2007, $25.95)

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #98.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-01 22:08:21

Mike Befeler

A Correction From Lawrence Block
Lawrence Blcok


Before I close this saga of my days at The Scott Meredith Literary Agency, I need to offer a correction. Some months ago I attributed "Rattlesnake Cave," the error-ridden story created as a test for job applicants at Scott Meredith, to the late science fiction writer Lester Del Rey. The byline, transparent enough it would seem, was "Ray D. Lester," and it was common knowledge in the office that Del Rey, an agency client and former employee, had written the piece.

Kate Stine was good enough to point me to an interview Ed Gorman had done with Stephen Marlowe, shortly before Marlowe's death; in it, Marlowe claimed authorship of "Rattlesnake Cave." Did I want to amend my column accordingly?

No, I said. I was sure it was Del Rey, everyone had always known it was Del Rey, and I'd had enough experience with people misremembering the remote past to believe Marlowe had done just that.

Stephen MarloweSo the piece stayed as I wrote it, and when it appeared my friend Barry Malzberg (who knows more about the workings and history of that agency than anyone else ever did, not excepting Scott) put me straight. Steve Marlowe did indeed write it, and the byline was his way of giving Del Rey one in the eye.

I stand corrected. And it may seem a small point, but the damn story has been read by thousands upon thousands of people, including many leading lights of the publishing world. Might as well get it right!

-- excerpted from "The Murders in Memory Lane: Those Scott Meredith Days, Part III," in Mystery Scene 2012 Winter Issue #123.

Brian Skupin
2012-03-08 21:51:31


Before I close this saga of my days at The Scott Meredith Literary Agency, I need to offer a correction. Some months ago I attributed "Rattlesnake Cave," the error-ridden story created as a test for job applicants at Scott Meredith, to the late science fiction writer Lester Del Rey. The byline, transparent enough it would seem, was "Ray D. Lester," and it was common knowledge in the office that Del Rey, an agency client and former employee, had written the piece.

Kate Stine was good enough to point me to an interview Ed Gorman had done with Stephen Marlowe, shortly before Marlowe's death; in it, Marlowe claimed authorship of "Rattlesnake Cave." Did I want to amend my column accordingly?

No, I said. I was sure it was Del Rey, everyone had always known it was Del Rey, and I'd had enough experience with people misremembering the remote past to believe Marlowe had done just that.

Stephen MarloweSo the piece stayed as I wrote it, and when it appeared my friend Barry Malzberg (who knows more about the workings and history of that agency than anyone else ever did, not excepting Scott) put me straight. Steve Marlowe did indeed write it, and the byline was his way of giving Del Rey one in the eye.

I stand corrected. And it may seem a small point, but the damn story has been read by thousands upon thousands of people, including many leading lights of the publishing world. Might as well get it right!

-- excerpted from "The Murders in Memory Lane: Those Scott Meredith Days, Part III," in Mystery Scene 2012 Winter Issue #123.

My Book: Dead Head
Allen Wyler

wyler_allenAllen Wyler


From a very young age, when other kids wanted to be firemen or policemen, I wanted to become a physician—a family practitioner, no less. By my second year of medical school I realized that my temperament narrowed my choices tremendously. I felt more comfortable trying to be intensely good at a few things rather than pretty good at a lot of things. Given that, I decided whatever I did, I would specialize. By then my interest in the nervous system made everything else pale in comparison, giving me only three choices: neurology, neurosurgery, or psychiatry.

Once again my choice was dictated by my personality. I am action oriented. Like most surgeons, I like to meet problems straight on, treat them, and then move on. The choice was clear: neurosurgery. This personality trait is probably one of the reasons I’m also drawn to thrillers.

What I try to do is bring the reader into the OR to see neurosurgery from a realistic point of view. Several readers have asked if the situations and characters in my first book, Deadly Errors, were based on my own experiences. The answer is: absolutely.

One day during a dreary meeting, I started thinking, what might be the consequence if a hacker was able to penetrate a hospital’s computer system? Better yet, what if a hospital’s software was really flawed and no one knew about it?

This idea turned out to be the kernel for the plot of Deadly Errors.

wyler_deadheadThe kernel for my new book, Dead Head, came about in an entirely different way. I was in New York, returning to the Flatiron building after a delightful lunch with my editor when she offered, “Have you considered writing a story about keeping a severed head alive? If anyone could write that one, it’d be you.”

Strange idea, I thought. But, one that had the potential to be a “high concept.” Immediately, I flashed on The Tomorrow File, a 1973 novel by Lawrence Sanders—his only attempt at science fiction—before his very successful Deadly Sin series. Re-reading it 32 years later, I was shocked at how off the mark some of his technology predictions were, though they seemed plausible at the time. One of the issues he never addressed scientifically was how the detached head—devoid of lungs to drive the vocal cords—could communicate.

Then I remembered a couple of scientific publications by a neurosurgeon in Cleveland in which he described his attempts to transplant animal heads with the ultimate goal of using this as a way of treating patients with high quadriplegia (never mind where he might obtain the donor bodies).

As I dug further, I discovered that in 1987 the United States awarded patent number 4,666,425 to inventor Chet Flemming, for a device “which provides a physical and biochemical support for an animal’s head which has been ‘discorporated’ (i.e., severed from its body).” I downloaded the patent off the Internet. It made for some interesting reading.

I put these gruesome facts together with a reason for keeping a human head alive—for the information in its brain—and that combination gave me Dead Head.

Dead Head by Allen Wyler (Forge, Feb. 2007, $7.99)

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #98.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-13 20:04:21

Allen Wyler

My Book: Homicide 69
Sam Reaves

reaves_sam_smallSam Reaves' detective wears no flowers in his hair

It is the summer of 1969, not the best of times for Chicago homicide detective Michael Dooley. With a son in the Marines in Vietnam, a marriage going sour, and an ever-expanding case load, he’s got plenty to forget when he drinks. A mobster’s girlfriend is brutally murdered and Dooley’s suspicion that this is more than a sex killing takes him into the deep waters of corruption and mob intrigue. The hallucinatory last year of the '60s plays out in the background as Dooley refuses to give up on a case nobody wants solved.

Homicide 69 is a big book, the longest I’ve written and the product of a lot of research. It is also a “prequel” to my last novel, Dooley’s Back. That book was written as a stand-alone. I had absolutely no intention of writing a series, but I did give Frank Dooley a family, which was a first for me. I’d always written about alienated loners, but this was a homecoming story that cried out for a family. Years ago I had an Irish-American girlfriend who was from a big extended family of Chicago police officers. Thus, when I started writing a book about a Chicago cop, he naturally became Irish and had a family with other cops in it. As I worked on Dooley’s Back, the family aspect started to take on more importance, and eventually I knew I was just going to have to write more about them.

reaves_homicide69Then, when the 30-year anniversaries of things like the moon landing, the Manson murders, and Woodstock started coming up, I started thinking about what a strange year 1969 had been, and got an idea for a novel, a sort of cops-and-mobsters epic set against the background of all the wacky things that were happening back then. And there were the Dooleys, just waiting for me. So in Homicide 69 we see Frank as a 15-year-old kid, while his brother Kevin is offstage in Vietnam, and their father Mike Dooley is the hero of the book. I’d like to do a whole series about the family, covering the years between 1969 and the present. It would be a cop series but also a kind of panoramic view of Chicago life over those decades.

In writing Homicide 69, I worked closely with John DiMaggio, a retired Chicago police officer who served on the department from the '50s through the '80s. John provided me with reams of material and vetted the chapters as they were written, insuring that the novel provides an accurate picture of the day-to-day life of a Chicago homicide dick in the late '60s. I also consulted with experts on organized crime, including Arthur Bilek, a Chicago law enforcement legend who made his reputation fighting the Outfit in the '60s and knew several of the figures portrayed in the novel personally. While the particular premise which drives the plot is fictional, the depiction of the power struggle in the post-Giancana Outfit is accurate.

My hope is that it all makes for a good novel about a man and his family and a city on the brink of big changes. 1969 was the high-water mark of the Vietnam war and of mob influence in Chicago, the end of our innocence and the beginning of the rest of our lives. In Homicide 69 I’ve tried to convey a little of the lunatic quality of the times in a story of an old-fashioned honest cop at work.

Homicide 69 by Sam Reaves (Carroll & Graf, January 2007, $26.95)

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #98.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-13 20:32:03

Sam Reaves' detective wears no flowers in his hair

My Book: Climb Every Mountain...and Building, Too
Twist Phelan


phelan_twistTwist Phelan between a rock and a hard place

Writers often go to great lengths for research—that’s my excuse for how I was almost arrested last summer.

In my legal-themed Pinnacle Peak mysteries, each book features a different sport. For me, part of the fun is actually experiencing the sport I write about. For Heir Apparent, I learned to team rope and entered a rodeo. For Family Claims, I rode my bike from the Pacific to the Atlantic Coast in less than a month.

Rock climbing fit the plot perfectly for my third book, Spurred Ambition. More specifically, bouldering—climbing without special gear, except for a chalk bag and climbing shoes. For safety’s sake, a crash pad—a six-by-four-foot chunk of foam—is left on the ground below.

I didn’t think learning to rock climb would be that difficult. After all, since retiring from trial law to travel and write, I’d mastered a number of other athletic endeavors: Ironman triathlons, outrigger canoe paddling, distance cycling, and skate-ski marathons, to name a few.

But that was before I learned about my fear of heights. And that I get vertigo, and readily pass out when I’m upside down.

I wanted to start out on a real mountain, not in a climbing gym. However, it was winter and I was in training at the Olympic cross-country ski course in Alberta, Canada. All the nearby mountains were many feet deep in snow. But my ski coach pointed out that Banff National Park is considered among the world’s best ice-climbing sites.

That’s how, 10 days later, I came to be hanging over a fissure in the ice, holding on for dear life, frozen by the weather (minus 20 Celsius) and fear. It was so cold that whenever my eyes watered, my lashes would freeze together. My fingers had gone past tingling to numb, and I couldn’t remember when I’d last felt my toes.

My instructor had chosen a route up a frozen waterfall. He led the way—turning titanium screws into the ice, attaching carabiners to them, feeding the rope through the protection as he ascended. When he reached a safe stopping point, he would secure himself to the ice. Then it was my turn to tie in and begin climbing on belay. Ice axe in each hand—double-headed pick and hammer in the right and pick and adze in the left, tools that I would have mistaken for butcher’s implements in any other setting—I gradually ascended the vertical column of frozen water.

As we approached the top, the ice became increasingly rotten. Setting a screw, my instructor loosened a frozen sheet, sending it crashing down the mountain and exposing a wide expanse of granite. To continue the climb, we’d have to cross over a crack (a fissure in the ice and rock) to the other side of the waterfall. Luckily, an overhang connected the two sections. But because of the conditions, we would have to transverse the span of ice and rock on its underside.

I watched my instructor move deftly across the bottom side of the overhang. Then it was my turn. I started out confidently. Only a few moves and I’m there, I told myself. Halfway across, the Velcro flap on my vest pocket started to come loose—I heard that r-r-r-r-i-p sound when the toothy side pulls away from the fuzzy side. My camera was inside that pocket, and I didn’t want to lose the only photos of our ascent. So I paused mid-bridge to refasten my pocket f­lap.

What they say about “never look down” is true. One glance, and I was as frozen as the ice around me. Worse, the Velcro continued to separate. The noise grated like fingernails on a chalkboard.

Reach down and fasten the flap, my brain directed.

No way, my right hand said.

By now, my climbing instructor had joined the conversation. “Focus—you can do this. Just reach forward with your right axe.”

Despite the cold, I had broken out in a sweat. My heart pounded loudly in my ears.

R-i-p went the Velcro.

Grab the camera! said my brain.

My right hand still refused to move.

As it always does, gravity eventually prevailed. With a final tearing sound, the pocket flap opened and the camera slid out.

One thousand one, one thousand two… I got all the way to three before I heard the camera hit the bottom of the crack.

That was all it took to render the rest of me as immobile as my right hand—full deer-in-headlights mode. It was another five minutes before my instructor—resorting to hypnosis—could talk me across to the other side.

After relocating to a warmer clime, I moved on to bouldering. The pattern was always the same: I would climb about a dozen feet up a rock face—just high enough so that a fall, even cushioned by a crash pad, knocked the breath out of me and left bruises—before peeling off and starting all over again.

My skills improved, and a friend suggested I try buildering. As the name indicates, buildings are the terrain of choice, rather than rocks or cliffs. Buildering can be done with or without aids—years ago, a guy walked up the World Trade Center with suction cups strapped to his hands and feet. It’s also usually illegal, with trespassing the minimum charge.

A climbing mishap left my friend in an ankle cast. Undeterred, I decided to go ahead on my own. Decked out in climbing clothes—black tights and athletic top—I set out late one afternoon for the neighborhood touted as having the most “rock-like” surfaces.

Leaving behind the orange crash pad—I didn’t want to attract attention—I parked the car and sized up my first assault: a two-story restaurant. Fingertips taped for protection, hands coated with chalk from the bag around my waist, I reached for my first hold. The building was faced with brick, and I made it to the first floor window with ease. Elated with success, I quickly descended, then walked to the next building and tried again.

Structures with rock sidings were the easiest, although ridged concrete worked well, too—I almost reached the second floor on one try. Wood shingles gave me slivers, and metal was out of the question.

After about an hour, my fingers were pretty sore, so I decided to call it a night. I was half a block from my car when a vehicle pulled up alongside. One of the occupants shone a flashlight in my eyes.

“Everything all right, ma’am?”

Seeing the light bar on top, I realized it was a patrol car. What a nice town, I thought. The cops watch out for folks walking alone at night.

“Fine, thanks,” I said, expecting the car to drive away. Instead, it pulled over to the curb and two uniformed policemen got out.

phelan_spurredambition“What’s your name?” asked the first, still shining the flashlight in my eyes.

“Twist Phelan,” I responded, squinting against the glare.

“That a real name or street name?”

Street name? “Um, my real one.”

“Mind if we see some ID?”

The part of me that is a card-carrying member of the ACLU minded a lot, but this was neither the time nor place to make a fuss. Besides, I’d left my purse locked in the trunk of my car.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t have any with me.”

“Are you out for a walk, or going somewhere in particular?”

I opted for the truth. “Actually, I was buildering.”

Scarcely had I said the words when the cop pushed me against the nearest building, his flashlight digging into my back. After ordering me to assume “the position”—palms flat against the concrete, feet spread—he frisked me, while his partner talked into his radio.

“No ID, no tools on her,” said the first cop.

I was more furious than afraid. “Illegal search and probable warrant..." I rattled off everything I could remember about the Fourth Amendment from law school and watching Law & Order.

“Take it easy, ma’am. We got a call about a burglar in the neighborhood,” said the second cop. “And you did just tell my partner that’s what you were doing.”

Great, I thought. Of all the cops in town, I had to get stopped by two who were hard of hearing.

“I didn’t say burglary. I said buildering.” My neck muscles were starting to cramp from looking over my shoulder, and I turned to face the two cops.

“And that would be...?” asked the second cop.

“Climbing up the outside of buildings.”

He frowned, puzzled.

“I wanted to see if I could climb up high enough to get in a window,” I added helpfully.

From the look on the first cop’s face, I knew he thought I belonged in the back of the patrol car on my way to lock-up.

My frustration got the better of my forbearance. “Oh, come on! Do I look like a burglar?”

The second cop eyeballed my black pants and shirt, my dark climbing shoes.

“Yeah, pretty much. And as far as no probable cause...”

He nodded toward the wall where my hands had been pressed moments earlier. Two perfect white handprints stood out starkly against the dark brick. Then he pointed down the block. Even though it was twilight, I could see telltale chalk marks on half a dozen buildings.

Uh-oh. I started to babble. “I’m a mystery writer, it’s research...”

The first cop rolled his eyes, but his partner surprised me.

“You’re a mystery writer? I liked The Da Vinci Code.”

“Oh,” I said. “Dan Brown’s book.”

The second cop looked at me with interest. “You know him?”

“He comes to some of the meetings,” I lied, praying he wouldn’t ask me which meetings or, worse, if I could get him Mr. Brown’s autograph. I was pretty sure passing off a forged signature as genuine was at least a misdemeanor, if not a low-grade felony.

The first cop still looked skeptical. How could I convince him that I was climbing for fun and not larceny?

“Look, I can prove I’m a mystery writer,” I said. “My car’s around the corner.”

We proceeded to the car and I retrieved my wallet. Removing my driver’s license, punch card for the local rock climbing gym, and Mystery Writers of America membership card, I handed them to the first cop.

He passed my driver’s license to his partner, who proceeded to recite the information into his radio. The first cop glanced at the climbing gym card, but lingered over my MWA card. I wished the logo were something more professional-looking than a caricature of Edgar Allen Poe.

Clicking off the radio, the second cop nodded to his partner and gave me back my driver’s license. After a long moment, the first cop returned the other two cards, and I let out the breath I had been holding.

“Don’t go climbing up any more buildings,” the first cop said gruffly.

“And you better not put this in a book,” said the second cop, but he was smiling.

“I won’t,” I assured him, quickly getting behind the wheel. I wanted to leave before they asked to search my car.

How would I ever explain that copy of Sisters-in-Crime’s Breaking and Entering on my back seat?

Attorney/athlete Twist Phelan’s latest Pinnacle Peak mystery, Spurred Ambition, was published by Poisoned Pen Press in January 2006 ($24.95).


This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #93.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-13 21:15:29

Twist Phelan between a rock and a hard place

My Book: a Boy and His Hound
Steve Hockensmith


hockensmith_steveSteve Hockensmith


I know it’s probably coming a bit late to be of any use to you, but here’s a little trick I’ve picked up: It’s easy to fake your way through a book report. And you don’t even need Cliff’s Notes to do it.

I learned that lesson in 1981, when I presented my seventh-grade English class with my musical-comedy reimagining of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. My “report” wasn’t based on Jules Verne’s classic novel (at least I assume it’s a classic—I still haven’t read it) and not even on the 1954 James Mason/Kirk Douglas film adaptation. Instead, it was drawn from the illustrations in a Reader’s Digest condensed version of the book and snippets of the movie’s big squid fight that I caught one night on The Wonderful World of Disney.

I got an A.

So a year later, when I was assigned a book report on Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, I knew I didn’t have to waste my time actually reading it. I did, though. I already loved Sherlock Holmes.

Growing up I’d noticed that once every other year or so, my father would pull his worn copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes from the shelf and read it cover to cover. This was no Reader’s Digest version, either. It was the entire canon printed in what looked like three-point type and still weighing more than our dog.

Obviously, there had to be something special between those frayed covers to keep drawing my dad back again and again. So eventually I’d picked the book up myself (just barely managing not to herniate myself in the process) and started reading. And kept reading. I never made it cover to cover—but I didn’t forget Holmes or his adventures. How could you?

hockensmith_holmesonarangeI remained a Holmes fan over the years, reading the stories from time to time, enjoying both the Basil Rathbone films and the Jeremy Brett TV adaptations, even developing a soft spot for the corny mess that is Young Sherlock Holmes. Yet even after I became a mystery writer, with stories popping up regularly in both Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen magazines, I had no desire to write about Holmes myself. Frankly, the idea scared me. I couldn’t imagine putting words in The Man’s mouth. It would be like writing a first-person novel about the life of Jesus.

And I still feel that way—which might surprise folks who know I have a Sherlockian novel coming out from St. Martin’s Minotaur this year. But my book, Holmes on the Range, isn’t a pastiche. In it, Holmes is a distant, mythic figure who inspires a couple of very down-to-earth guys—cowboy brothers in 1893 Montana—to try their hand at “deducifyin’.” The great detective himself never appears, except as a topic of discussion.

Could I write a Holmes novel in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle? I don’t think so. But can I write a novel that pays homage to the Holmes canon even though its own style couldn’t be more different? I think I have.

You see, all it requires is a sincere respect for Conan Doyle and a deep affection for his greatest creation. And that, unlike a book report, you can’t fake.

Steve Hockensmith writes a monthly column for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Holmes on the Range was published by St. Martin’s Minotaur in February 2006, $22.95.


This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #93.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-13 22:00:36

hockensmith_steve"I know it’s probably coming a bit late to be of any use to you, but here’s a little trick I’ve picked up: It’s easy to fake your way through a book report. And you don’t even need Cliff’s Notes to do it."

My Book: Dating Is Murder
Susan McBride

mcbride_susan_smallSusan McBride


Honestly, can you think of a better motive for murder than a broken heart?

Like the saying goes, there’s a thin line between love and hate, and what woman (or man, for that matter) who’s had her feelings trampled hasn’t at least imagined painful ways to torture an ex?

For most crime writers, writing is great therapy. We get to funnel our angst through our prose, and find the closure we never get in real life in the pages of our latest book.

In The Lone Star Lonely Hearts Club, the third Debutante Dropout Mystery featuring society refugee Andy Kendricks and her Chanel-wearing mother Cissy, I get to dip into the frightening world of blind dates, in particular, the upscale matchmaking services that cater to wealthy widows.

Cissy starts losing friends and doesn’t believe their deaths are natural, despite a doctor’s ruling to the contrary. So she ends up masquerading as a resident of a chi-chi retirement village in Dallas to seek clues on why her pals went boots up (and that would be couture boots). Andy thinks her mom is losing her mind and moves into Belle Meade with her, basically to baby-sit, only to realize that things might not be as kosher as they initially seemed.

When Cissy discovers that her bridge chums had both registered with an exclusive dating service, she begins to suspect the killer might be masquerading as Mr. Right, though he’s truly a match made in hell.

So, you wonder, did my research come from my own dating experiences? From meeting too many losers to count? Nursing my own broken heart?

Yes, I put some of that to good use.

But, mostly I used the Web for research, finding the perfect operation in the Chicago area on which to base my fictional Two Hearts, Inc. This set-up specializes in finding compatible women for high-powered men. The one-year contract for arranging dates with local women starts at $10,000. If a wider net needs to be cast, the cost goes up by tens of thousands. Should the client wish to hire a personal matchmaker to jet around the world with him, locating dream dates, the price can climb to an astounding $150,000.

mcbride_lonestarlonelyheartsclubGeez, you’d think with that kind of money, a guy should have no problem attracting teams of eligible gold diggers.

My friend Cindy provided me a glimpse into the Internet dating scene by joining up with several online services, which netted her tons of responses. When she weeded them down through email missives and photos, she ended up with slim pickings. After months of arranging to meet these guys and finding few she was attracted to, she’s decided online dating is a big bust.

I’m still inclined to believe that meeting a potential match through friends or family is the best route, though that becomes trickier the older you get. So I’m trying something else a little different… I was named one of my city’s “top singles” by St. Louis Magazine, which involved a feature spread with photos and a questionnaire.

I’m hoping the perfect guy will see my spiel and ring me up (well, email in this case).

We’ll go out, fall in love, and live happily ever after.

But, if he breaks my heart, I’ll have to kill him.

Update from the author

I am firmly convinced that everything happens for a reason. Like being named a “top single,” which meant attending lots of parties (including an event where I was auctioned off for charity). This, in turn, led to my meeting a really great guy whom I’ve been seeing steadily and I haven’t stopped smiling since. So all’s well that ends well, and I’ve no plans to kill off this one, not yet.

Susan McBride is the author of the Debutante Dropout Mysteries from HarperCollins/Avon, including Blue Blood, winner of the Lefty Award and Anthony Award nominee, and The Good Girl’s Guide to Murder. The Lone Star Lonely Hearts Club was released in February 2006.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #93.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-13 22:14:13

Susan McBride

My Book: Gone to the Dogs
Sue Owens Wright

wright_sueowensSue Owens Wright writes what she loves


How do you know when your writing career has gone totally to the dogs? It could be when your work gets published mostly in wag mags, and your dog lover’s mystery is featured in Dog Fancy’s Popular Dogs series. Another clue might be when you are nominated three out of four years running for a Mighty Maxwell, the coveted medallion awarded annually by the Dog Writers’ Association of America for the best writing about dogs. And you actually win one of those swell dog tags to wear around your neck.

Your career could also be going to the dogs when you’re invited to Basset Hound Waddles, Slobberfests, and Droolapaloozas to speak and autograph your books. Or it could be when you’re contracted by publishers to write more books about dogs. For me, it’s all of the above.

Although it’s been a long, slow waddle between novels, the second book in the Beanie and Cruiser series will be released January 2006 by Tekno/Five Star Press. Sirius About Murder is the sequel to the first novel in the series, Howling Bloody Murder. Like the first book, this one is set at Lake Tahoe and features Native American sleuth Elsie “Beanie” MacBean and her comical basset hound, Cruiser, who helps her sniff out crime.

Here’s a tidbit: Beanie and Cruiser find themselves dewlap-deep in a murder investigation when supporters of a controversial dog park proposed for a coveted tract of Tahoe shoreline are earmarked for death.

The fur starts to fly at a Howloween fund-raiser for Alpine Paws Park when Abigail Haversham, heiress to the lakeside property, is discovered strangled near the Psychic Paws booth after her quarrel with Madame Pawline, a pet psychic with a bone to pick.

At writing seminars I’ve attended over the years, I’ve heard the oft-repeated phrase: “Write what you know.” In the beginning, when you are unsure of yourself and haven’t a clue what to write about, writing what you know is certainly helpful in building your writer’s resume. If I had paid more attention to that advice, it might not have taken me so long to find my groove. However, I think the message might have been clearer to me had those writing instructors advised their students to write about what’s close to the heart.

wright_siriusaboutmurderEdith Wharton wrote, “My little dog—a heartbeat at my feet.” There’s nothing closer to my heart than my dogs. Turns out that my best chance for literary success lay right at my feet all along (as Daisy and Bubba Gump are doing while I’m writing this). It was only when I began writing about what I have adored my entire life, dogs, that my work started gaining some recognition.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I was born on January 2, the day of the year when Sirius, the Dog Star in the constellation Canis Major, appears in the east and orbits across the northern hemisphere. Whenever I feel a little lost on my course, I like to think I’m being watched over by that bright blue eye of the dog leaping up in the night sky.

I also keep a New Yorker cartoon by George Booth displayed near my computer. It shows a writer seated at his makeshift desk. Arms folded across his chest, he puffs on a pipe as he stares at the blank page in the typewriter. Clearly, he’s suffering from writer’s block. Surrounding him in his workspace on the back porch are a dozen dogs of various breeds. Through the open door, where his wife is standing, you can see many more dogs inside the house and others running up and down the stairs. His wife says, “Write About Dogs!” That cartoon has become my mantra. Whenever I’m in doubt about which path I’m meant to follow—and like my bassets, I’ve strayed far afield now and then—Booth’s cartoon reminds me.

Most recently, I’ve been contracted to write two nonfiction books about dogs, and more are forthcoming. What’s Your Dog’s IQ and Bright Ideas for Bored Dogs will be published in 2006 by Adams Media Corporation. My third Beanie and Cruiser mystery is completed, and I’ve embarked on writing the fourth.

Siriusly speaking, my writing career has finally gone to the dogs, and to tell you the dogs-honest truth, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Sirius About Murder, Five Star, January 2006, $25.95

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #93.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-13 22:36:39

Sue Owens Wright writes what she loves

My Book: From Hip Hop to Hot Wired
Jane Isenberg

isenberg_janeJane Isenberg's new-school novel


Last year my friend Ann, an avid scrapbooker, gave her 90-year-old mother a beautiful and thoughtfully assembled album highlighting key moments of the older woman’s life. As I leafed through the painstakingly crafted album, I was amazed. Within the scrapbook Ann’s notoriously short tempered and critical mother had morphed into a paragon of maternal virtue! Ann had always wanted a caring and loving mother, so she organized, captioned, and embellished the memorabilia she had collected and made one up!

That’s similar to what I do when I write. I take the images, ideas, and people who fill my head and my heart and shape them to fit the tale I want to tell. Hot Wired begins when a former student with a grudge disses protagonist Professor Bel Barrett on a community college website. The inspiration for this plot thread came from several articles in both The New York Times and The Seattle Times about websites on which high school and college kids smear one another and sometimes their teachers. As a retired community college prof, it was easy to imagine the ripple effects of such a smear.

In 2004 when I started planning Hot Wired, I was a hip hop virgin. To me, 50 Cent was half a dollar spelled funny, and Eminem a morsel of chocolate meant to be consumed in bulk. Convinced by the media that all rappers were trigger-happy, woman-hating drug thugs, I’d never even listened to a rap song all the way through.

But as hip hop beats, lyrics, films, and fashion gradually became part of mainstream popular culture, I wondered if I were missing something. My ignorance was making me feel out of step, even, dare I say it, old. It was time to lose my hip hop virginity. I learned hip hop history, watched concert videos, and listened to rappers online. Our condo walls pulsated, our floors throbbed, and our sedate, retired neighbors wondered what the ruckus was about. But before they could have us evicted, I was writing rap lyrics, and the student who dissed Bel had become a wannabe rapper.

isenberg_hotwiredAt the same time, the war in Iraq was going from bad to worse, and some of our young soldiers were beginning to come home seriously wounded. According to the newspapers, military recruiters were visiting high schools and colleges trying to encourage young people to enlist. I was and am deeply troubled by this war, so it’s not surprising that a wounded recruit made his way into Hot Wired.

I also have personal preoccupations. My husband Phil and I have five adult children scattered all over the map, and we struggle to stay connected, using the unprecedented array of technical devices available to us. In Hot Wired, Bel’s daughter stops returning Bel’s calls, and her friends’ kids are also incommunicado. I poke gentle fun at the push me/pull you of letting go/holding on that we parents and our kids experience today.

Even though Hot Wired is amusing, like the other seven books in the series, there’s a lot of old fashioned homesickness written between its lines. Five years ago, I retired after nearly four decades of teaching. At first I missed it terribly. I missed my students, my colleagues, my tiny office, and my bare-bones classroom in a gritty section of Jersey City. To make matters worse, three months after I retired, we moved away from Hoboken where we had lived for many years. Then I also missed our home, our neighborhood and neighbors, the perfect brick oven baked pizza and bread, the imperfect but colorful political system, and the proximity to Manhattan. Writing about Bel Barrett’s classroom experiences gives me a chance to think about teaching without actually doing it. Likewise, writing about Hoboken, where Bel lives, enables me to visit there in my head without leaving my condo. In fact, at a reading I’m doing in Hoboken on March 6, 2006, Mayor David Roberts is going to issue a proclamation in recognition of the fact that I’ve written eight novels and a short story, all set in New Jersey’s Mile Square City!

No discussion of what inspired Hot Wired or any other book in the series would be complete without reference to the fact that Bel Barrett was conceived when I had my first hot flash. Back then, nobody was writing fiction about menopausal women, and that infuriated me. So, like my scrapbooking friend Ann, I made up the woman I wanted to read about. Bel is a fiftysomething woman living, loving, and working, in a world that is not always kind to those of us who sweat and forget, even if, like Bel, we solve crimes and keep the world safe for hip hoppers, chocoholics, and mystery lovers alike.

Jane Isenberg is a retired community college English Professor now living in Issaquah, WA, with her husband. Hot Wired was released in November 2005 by HarperCollins.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #93.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-14 15:47:33

Jane Isenberg's new-school novel

My Book: How to Kill Your Clients Without Losing Your Job
Laura Durham

durham_lauraLaura Durham's bride wears black


When people find out that I’m a wedding planner turned mystery writer they usually have lots of questions. As For Better or Hearse, the second book in the Annabelle Archer mystery series, hits the stands people want to know if I’ve really served a dog-shaped wedding cake (yes) or had a bride who made her bridesmaids carry floral tambourines (no) or had a bride order a limo just to transport her wedding dress (scary but true).

But the oddest question has to be “Why would a real-life wedding planner want to write murder?” If you have to ask that you’ve never been involved in planning a wedding. Anyone who has been involved knows that by the end of it there are at least a dozen people you’d like to see dead.

In For Better or Hearse, the temperamental chef that Annabelle Archer is working with meets a cold death by being impaled on an ice sculpture. I’ve run into my share of moody chefs and it was fun finally putting one on ice.

Revenge is the reason I started writing mysteries. One of my real-life MOBs (wedding planner lingo for mother of the bride) was so awful that imagining ways to kill her inspired me to write the first book in the series, Better Off Wed. By the time I finished the manuscript, the original MOB had evolved into a composite of every difficult MOB I’d ever met. I used the horrible hair from one, the overexposed and wrinkled cleavage of another, and the controlling personality of a third. It was thrilling to realize that I could finally kill all the bridezillas and MOBs who had made my job torturous.

Now don’t get me wrong. Most of my brides are delightful, charming girls with lovely mothers to match. Only rarely have I had a bride-to-be or MOB who’s lost her grip on sanity. But those are always the most memorable.

At first I tried to keep my new career as a mystery writer hush-hush. That lasted about all of two seconds. Once word got out, I had brides rushing out to bookstores to buy Better Off Wed. They claimed that they were being supportive, but I knew that they really wanted to see if any of the nutty brides in the book resembled them too closely.

durham_forbetterorhearseA happy by-product of my clients discovering my writing life was that they suddenly became much more easy-going. Even my most high-maintenance brides began tip-toeing around me out of fear that bad behavior would land them in the pages of the next book. Demands turned into pleasantly worded requests, and late night calls to my cell phone became a thing of the past. If I’d known that killing off a few clients in a book was all it took I’d have started writing mysteries years ago.

But my colleagues still provide wild stories. When one of my assistants called to complain about a bride changing her wedding date because Venus was going into retrograde, I’m sure she had no idea she’d be providing a scene in For Better or Hearse.

I originally worried that my wedding industry colleagues wouldn’t be pleased with my lampoon of our business. Luckily, they seemed to share the fantasy of killing off a client. Some of my friends got so into the idea that they began calling me with names of new people I needed to bump off in future books, and creative ways to kill them. I had a florist friend suggest a poisonous flower as a murder weapon, although he thought it would only be powerful enough to knock off a flower girl or ring bearer. Somehow I don’t see myself killing a flower girl in a future Annabelle Archer mystery.

But knowing that I can simply kill someone in the pages of a book allows me to let the worst behavior roll off my back. And for anyone who hasn’t encountered a true bridezilla, that’s really saying something.

Laura Durham’s Annabelle Archer mystery For Better or Hearse, $6.99, was published in March 2006 by Avon Books.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #93.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-14 16:50:15

Laura Durham's bride wears black

My Book: From Opera to Ol’ Opry
Joanne Pence

pence_joanneJoanne Pence


“I Don’t Want Your Body if Your Heart’s Not in It “
—Country-Western song

I married a man I hardly knew. I thought I knew him, but after only 28 days from introduction to wedding, how well can you know anyone? I was young, foolish, and had just moved back to San Francisco... and into my parents’ home. (That, obviously, had something to do with it.) My head and heart, on the other hand, said “love at first sight” was not to be walked away from.

My husband, a San Francisco resident, loved symphony and opera, and was incredibly well read—so much so that this U.C. Berkeley girl was impressed. He had moved to The City (as we native San Franciscans called it) via San Diego, had been born in Columbus, Ohio, and had lived in many different states while growing up. There was nothing surprising about that—most San Franciscans moved there from somewhere else. I was one of the few people in the city who’d been born there!

The, that’s too mild a term...the stunning, jaw-dropping, eyeball-bulging, who-is-this-person shock of my life came when, a few years after our marriage, we took a car ride to Arizona to see the Grand Canyon. I had never been to Arizona. Before getting married I’d lived on my own in Japan, and spent time in both Hong Kong and Korea, but I had never seen much of my own country.

We crossed the California-Arizona border, and a few miles into the state, David found a country-western station on the radio. At this time there was no country-western station in the Bay Area (and there might not be one yet). The sound of it was stranger to me than the drums of a Kabuki play or even Javanese gamelan. Not only had my husband, a man who owns several versions of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, put on the station of his own volition, but then...and this is where I fully understand people who claim they see extraterrestrials...he began to sing along. He knew all the words to nearly every song.

pence_redhotmurderI was shocked. I’ll never forget that visit to Arizona.

In Red Hot Murder, the lucky 13th book in the Angie Amalfi mystery series, Angie gets to experience the kind of surprise I did when she learns that her fiancé, San Francisco Homicide Inspector Paavo Smith, spent time in Arizona as a boy. Now, because of that connection, he has to go back to help a friend. They don’t go to Phoenix or even Tucson, but to a small town in the sun-baked desert near the Colorado River. Of course, there are a few things that only Angie would have to deal with—such as, instead of a herd of cattle, she confronts a herd of ostriches—but that’s what makes Angie and her stories different. Along with the mystery of this town, where deadly secrets have long been hidden under a peaceful facade and now boil to the surface, Angie discovers a part of Paavo she had no idea existed, and her shock is every bit as strong as mine was. Oh, yes—the book also contains some great southwestern recipes, including a pork stew of my “cowboy” husband’s that is beyond delicious.

And yes, we are still married, despite the country-western music (which I’ve actually come to like...sort of....).

Joanne Pence has been back to Arizona many times, and now lives in Idaho. Red Hot Murder was released by Avon Books in February 2006.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #93.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-14 17:04:16

Joanne Pence

My Book: a Sporting Chance
Judith Skillings

skillings_judithJudith Skillings learns to love the racetrack


Marriage certificates should contain the question: “Are you obsessed with sports? If so, which one?” I never asked; my future husband never told. I knew he wasn’t addicted to baseball which was all I needed to know, having overdosed on the Red Sox as a child. Each summer during trips to-and-from Maine I squirmed in the front seat of my father’s Pontiac listening to a slow-talker announce another game over the radio—dragging out every pitch, stolen base, and run batted in. On restless nights I can still hear the voice droning on and on, muffled by the down in my pillow.

In hindsight I should have been more curious about my future partner’s ambivalence, but during our courtship the sports question sat mutely in the back seat like a well-behaved cousin. Once we acquired our first television, however, it jumped up, poked a finger to its chest and announced: “Formula One, open-wheeled racing. I’m here to stay.”

I nodded meekly and went off to make coffee, thinking, “Hey, it could be worse; at least it’s not football.” My husband cajoled: “There are only 16 races between March and October. They air at 7:00 Sunday mornings. Maximum time is two hours.” Okay. Okay. Bagel oozing cream cheese in one hand, crossword puzzle in the other, I’d survive. Or sleep through them trying.

Silly me. Formula One was just the peak of the open-wheel race world. Here in America we’d built an entire series around the Indianapolis 500, a race so famous and of such importance that competing teams spent the month of May practicing at the Speedway. This I learned when I told my husband I was going to Indianapolis to meet with a researcher.

“It’s qualifying for the Indy 500,” he instantly pointed out. I didn’t bother asking if he wanted to tag along: he was salivating. When we arrived at the hotel we found that the researcher I was meeting had left two Indy 500 hats and a cooler of beer for me at the front desk. Taped to it was a note: "Research later. Let’s meet at the track." That’s how my husband fell in love with a woman he’d never met.

skillings_driventomurderThat weekend began my own love affair as well—with open-wheel racing. Sitting high in the stands above turn one I listened to the cars accelerate, flip through the gears, and shoot down the straightaway as faster and faster lap times appeared on giant video screens. The distance muted the engine noise but not the rumble or the sense of speed. My pulse quickened imagining the drivers’ reflexes, their ability to concentrate, and their apparent disdain for death.

When Rebecca Moore, my series heroine, took over her uncle’s automotive restoration shop it was inevitable that she would make her way to Indy. In Driven to Murder she’s there at the Brickyard prepping a vintage Formula One race car for a man whose past is about to catch up with him—with a vengeance. Not surprising, for the magnificent speed machines attract rich, powerful egos and their sycophantic followers.

When the first shot is fired Rebecca’s cop friend Mick—intent on a more romantic status—flies to Indy to protect her. Searching for the sniper from the stands, he’s distracted by the qualifying process. Seduced by it. Perhaps the same way his father had been seduced by baseball. Mick never understood that obsession, but when his father was killed in the line of duty, Mick stored away his collection of notebooks containing the statistics of each season’s games. They’re still wrapped in the attic.

Sometimes you have to sit alone in the stands and absorb a spectacle before you can appreciate another’s passion. Sometimes that’s enough and you connect. Now each year, when Formula One comes to the U.S., we pack up and head to Indy as house guests of that researcher who got me hooked on racing decades ago. Other weekends, from March through October, we make do with televised races: F1, IRL, and CHAMP, the major open-wheel series. Throw in NASCAR and my husband and I can spend most Sundays engrossed in overlapping sporting events that don’t involve a ball.

Once and a while we even turn on a baseball game. Like in the fall of 2004 when the Red Sox took the pennant. Those autumn nights, it was Dad’s voice I heard in my sleep cheering his team on to victory. As he analyzed every pitch, foul ball, and dropped fly, the hum of V-10 engines seemed to fade away into the distance.

Driven to Murder is Judith Skilling’s first mystery and was published by Avon in February 2006.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #93.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-14 17:26:56

Judith Skillings learns to love the racetrack

My Book: Postponing Geezerhood
Jonathan Lowe

lowe_jonathanJonathan Lowe


What if there was a pill that could extend your life by ten years or more? Sound like science fiction?

Well, maybe it’s not, according to Dr. Cynthia Kenyon, a researcher in the field of longevity science. It was after hearing about her work that I began contemplating our obsession with youth. Having just turned 50, and suddenly finding myself on the AARP’s mailing list, I read with heightened interest that Dr. Kenyon had successfully altered the genes of nematodes to produce a 50-percent increase in lifespan. True, I wasn’t exactly a worm, personally, but I also read that Kenyon had cofounded a company called Elixir in an effort to mimic the effect even in midlife mystery novelists.

Great, right?

Anyway, when I heard the name “Elixir,” I imagined—out of the blue—a story about a researcher who extracts a bristlecone pine tree gene, because I’d also read that this particular tree lives thousands of years. I knew the greedy pharmaceutical company in the story would need a transport mechanism for the gene—a method of introducing the gene into humans. So I consulted a scientist at Pfizer, and came up with a modified HIV virus, which would allow the gene to pass the blood/brain barrier without killing the subject. In the book, Geezer, this formula is stolen and secretly tested on a small town in Iowa, with several surprising twists and revelations, including the identify of the thief...and murderer.

lower_geezerBut wait. Novels are about characters, not plot twists. So let me introduce Mr. Alan Dyson, a researcher who works for Tactar Pharmaceuticals. Alan’s an honest guy. His humor is dry. His personal life is awry. Just entering the cusp of middle age, he’s also single and lives for his work. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But things are about to go very wrong for Alan. His computer research files are stolen. Darryl Alexander, a computer programmer at the firm, and one of Alan’s few personal friends, tracks the thief to a PO box in Zion, Iowa. After Alan is reassigned and granted vacation leave, he decides to go there and investigate. He can’t tell Tactar because the stolen files had been on his home computer, against company regulations. How did the theft come about? Well, Alan meets a woman in a bar...

Would I personally take a pill or an injection to live longer? Whenever my neck starts bothering me, for sure. Anything to avoid becoming a geezer before my time.

Geezer was published by Five Star in December 2005.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #93.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-14 17:45:00

Jonathan Lowe