MysteryPeople Q&A with J. A. Jance

~Q&A Conducted by Scott Butki

Let me start this with a confession: This is my first J.A. Jance book. I have seen her books at the library and at the bookstore and always made a mental note to read her books. I’ve finally gotten around to it. I read her latest, Moving Target, and the stride she’s hit after publishing forty-nine other titles over the last thirty years produced a really fun read.

So, when I was given a chance to interview her for MysteryPeople, I made sure to ask where readers should start when jumping into one of her four current mystery series.

All that aside, Moving Target is a great novel with some interesting twists and fascinating characters, and it didn’t seem to matter much that it was well into an established series. An added bonus: part of the book was set in Austin and the Austin area.

I would like to thank J. A. Jance for the chance to interview her, and School Librarian Mary Zell for help with the questions.

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MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did this story develop?

JA JANCE: The story started with my husband sending me an article about the dark web — how to access it; what’s available on it.  That put me on the trail of Lance Tucker, a kid who develops GHOST (Go Hide On Server Technology) which is a program allowing users to access the dark web without leaving any cyber footprints.

MP: How would you summarize this book?

JAJ: From what I said above, it sounds like a techno-thriller, but it’s really a story about the people involved- some good and some very bad. Lance Tucker, the teenaged hacker who invented GHOST, is targeted by people who want to control his program.  He’s in a juvenile detention facility and facing a bleak future at the beginning of this book. It’s up to Ali Reynolds and her fiancé, B. Simpson, to keep him safe and get him on track to a better future.

MP: One part of the story is about a school district requiring students to wear GPS devices so they can be tracked, watched or helped. What do you think about such policies?

JAJ: Lance Tucker and I are on the same page on this one.  (Since I created Lance Tucker, that’s hardly a surprise!)  I personally feel that the kinds of programs that compel students to wear any kind of tracking device is an unfair invasion of their privacy.

MP: This is the first book of yours I’ve read and it’s several books into one of your series (the Ali Reynolds series). Where should readers new to you start? At the beginning of the series or can they just jump in anywhere?

JAJ: I always recommend readers start at the beginning, in this case with Edge of Evil.  In that one, Ali, a long time news anchor in LA, is booted off her news desk because she’s considered to be over-the-hill. When her marriage ends at the same time her career does, she goes home to Sedona as she looks for what she’s going to do with the rest of her life.  This is a book about losing your dream in middle age and going about finding another one.

MP: As an Austin resident of five years I got excited at the events based in and around Austin. Have you been here?

JAJ: Yes, I was there a year ago in November for the first F1 race on the Track of Americas.  Loved the race; loved Austin.  I was also there this past September on the book tour for Second Watch.

MP: How does your police-trained protagonist differ from many other protagonists in the mystery genre?

JAJ: I think my protagonists are people first and cops second.  They live complicated lives with family, friends, church and community commitments, and pets.  A lot of the other police procedural folks seem to be loners living lonely lives and living only to work.  I strive to have balance in my life, and I want my characters to have the same thing.

MP: What kind of research do you do for books like this?

JAJ: As much as necessary.

MP: This is your 50th book in 30 years. That’s an amazing output. That comes out to almost two books a year. How are you able to write so fast? Or is there another reason you’re able to put out so many books?

JAJ: I’ve always loved writing — it’s been my dream since second grade — and most of the time, since I’m living my dream, it doesn’t seem like work.  But I agree, 50 books in thirty years is pretty remarkable; especially for someone who wasn’t allowed in the Creative Writing program at the University of Arizona in 1964 because I was a “girl!”

MP: Is Wikipedia accurate in saying you use your initials for your pen name because a publisher told you that disclosing your gender would be a liability for a book about a male detective?

JAJ: That is correct.  That’s what I was told by the marketing folks at Avon books in 1983.  Going by J.A. Jance rather than Judith Ann Jance has saved me a ton of time over the years.  J.A. Jance is much easier to autograph than Judith Ann Jance.

 

MysteryPeople Q&A with Hilary Davidson

Today is the release day of our April Pick Of The Month, Blood Always Tells  by Hilary Davidson.  It is an interesting take on family, shared history, and story telling itself. Hilary was kind enough to talk about the book with a for a few questions.

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MYSTERYPEOPLE: Which came first, the story or the way you decided to tell it?

HILARY DAVIDSON: The story came first, and it came about in a way that was very unusual for me. I was actually working on another book that featured Desmond Edgars in a relatively small but essential role. But he was such an intriguing, compelling character that he and his backstory started taking over that book. I realized I was more interested in Desmond and his world than the book I was writing, and I made the gut-wrenching decision to set aside the 40,000 words of it and work on Blood Always Tells instead.

The structure of Blood Always Tells evolved organically. Even though it was the character of Desmond that brought me to the book, I realized that it would never work if his sister, Dominique Monaghan, didn’t have as strong a voice as he did.

MP: What was the biggest difference between writing Blood Always Tells and the Lily Moore books?

HD: One major difference was that I went into this knowing so much more of the story than I ever did with any of the Lily Moore books. That was simply because substantial parts of it originated as Desmond’s backstory in that unfinished book I set aside. I can’t say that nothing changed — there were some major shifts from what I originally envisioned. But being more certain of the story I was telling meant that I felt freer to play with the narrative. I love writing from Lily’s point of view, but it means that there’s no way for scenes she’s not witnessing to make it into those books. Blood Always Tells is told in the close third person, so readers still get inside the characters’ heads, but because the perspective changes, it means the essential action is always onstage.

MP: Point of view is not only part of the structure, it also differentiates the characters by how they see the same thing or person differently. What did you want to explore with point of view?

HD: There were a couple of things. One is that I wanted each section of the book to be revealed through the eyes of the character who has the most to gain or lose. The stakes are incredibly high for each of the three characters who control the narrative. In some ways, they couldn’t be more different, and yet each character makes a major sacrifice at some point in the story.

I was also fascinated with questions of memory, and how what you hold in your mind shapes your identity. The characters in the book remember essential events and people in completely different ways. I dedicated the book to my grandmother for several reasons, one of them being that it was her death that made me think about how differently two people in the same family could interpret the same action so differently. My brothers and I all loved her, but we have such distinctly different memories of her. That led to conversations about other things from our childhood and how we remembered or interpreted things in completely opposite ways.

MP: The first part of this book has more of the noirish vibe of many of your short stories. What was it like sustaining a darker tone for a longer period of time?

I thought it would be hard to do that, so I was surprised by how much I liked it. In my short stories, the reader is often inside the head of a criminal, and when you first meet Dominique, you know she’s planning something bad for her boyfriend. But her motivations are complex, and the more time I spent with her, the more I understood her and sympathized. Plus, her plans are interrupted by people who’ve got far worse intentions. The scenes after she and her boyfriend are kidnapped were sometimes harrowing to write, and what got me through them was Dominique’s sense of humor. It’s ironic that Dominique’s section of the story is the most noirish and yet the funniest.

MP: Many of your characters in this book, the Lily Moore series, and your short work come from broken homes. What draws you to family dysfunction?

HD: I was lucky to grow up with supportive parents and a close family, but that’s not the case for many of my friends, and for other members of my own family. I’m not so much drawn to dysfunction as I am to resilience. What really drives me is, what keeps people going when they’ve gone through tragic circumstances? My grandmother lost one of her children when he was thirteen years old, and that was something that marked her for life. It didn’t make her any less of a fighter or a powerhouse character, but a loss like that casts a long shadow. I want to explore how people live under a shadow like that.

MP:  What’s in store for your readers next?

HD: I’m working on another standalone novel right now. If you like my dark side, you’ll be glad to know that goes into some very dark places. I’ve got several short stories coming out soon. There’s one in Ellery Queen called “My Sweet Angel of Death” about a serial killer at work in the Andes mountains. I’m also in a collection that David Cranmer is putting together in memory of his nephew, and in Trouble in the Heartland, an anthology edited by Joe Clifford featuring stories inspired by Bruce Springsteen songs. I never stray far from my dark roots.

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Blood Always Tells is available now on our shelves & online via bookpeople.com. Hilary Davidson will be in our store on Thursday, April 14 at 6:30pm in our third floor event space to speak about & sign copies of Blood Always Tells

Hard Word Book Club Goes to Norway with Jo Nesbo & THE REDBREAST

On April 30th, The Hard Word Book Club leaves our normal American environs for one of the foremost practitioners of Scandinavian Noir. Jo Nesbo has rocked crime fiction readers around the world with his Harry Hole series. We will be reading his first book ever published in the States, The Redbreast.

The Redbreast was the first book to have the hard drinking, depressive yet tenacious cop, Harry Hole, out in his own Oslo stomping ground. Due to his past indiscretions, he’s put on a “light” routine assignment of surveillance of a group of “skin-heads.” The assignment becomes tied to the murders of several WWII vets, leading Harry into a plot that involves his country’s dark past.

Our discussion will start at 7PM on Wednesday, April 3Oth on BookPeople’s third floor. The book is 10% off for those who participate. Our co-host, Chris Mattix, is a die hard Nesbo fan, so there will be much to discuss.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Steven Saylor

 

 

~Q&A conducted by Scott Butki

I am new to Steven Saylor’s books, but I am quickly becoming a fan. Saylor is most known for his Roma Sub Rosa series, historical mysteries based in ancient Rome. Steven Saylor will be at Book People tonight. He’ll be speaking about & signing copies of his new book in the series, Raiders of the Nile.

I quite enjoyed this one. He does a wonderful job bringing ancient history alive in the book. I investigated more into Saylor and the other stories he’s written in preparation for the interview.

Saylor divides his time between Austin and Berkeley, CA. An earlier historical fiction novel A Twist at the End, focuses on a particularly crazy time in Austin’s history. Set in the 19th century, the story focuses on William Porter (who would later become O. Henry), an Austin resident at that time, and tells the stories of a series of murders. The serial murder was referred to as the “Servant Girl Annihilator,” by the press. The novel is both engaging and chilling. I recommended to learn a bit of the darker side of Austin.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did this story develop?

STEVEN SAYLOR: My last novel, The Seven Wonders, was a prequel to the Roma Sub Rosa series, going back to the younger days of Gordianus the Finder, sleuth of ancient Rome. Raiders of the Nile picks up where The Seven Wonders left off, with Gordianus now twenty-two years old and far from Rome, living in Alexandria, the capital of Egypt–at that time the most sophisticated and exciting city on earth. When his beloved concubine, Bethesda, is kidnapped, Gordianus ventures into the wilds of the Nile Delta to rescue her, encountering treacherous innkeepers, ill-tempered camels, a particularly vicious crocodile, and the mysterious leader of a bandit gang, who lures Gordianus into a plot to steal the golden sarcophagus of Alexander the Great.

There’s no murder mystery per se in this novel, but there are plenty of murders, and mysteries, and we see the young Gordianus just beginning to come into his own as a master sleuth. I’d say this novel is equal parts mystery, adventure, and romance, set in a very exotic time and place.

MP: Why did you decide to write a series of books based so long ago?

SS: From childhood, I always loved movies and books about the ancient world, especially Rome. When I got to the University of Texas at Austin, I majored in history, which was like a dream–I could hardly believe I was being allowed to spend all my time reading and writing about Greek mythology or the French Revolution, to name just a couple of my favorite courses.

When I finally took my first trip to Rome, the experience of walking though the ancient ruins was electrifying. I got back home and immediately began reading a book about murder trials in ancient Rome, and one of those cases inspired me to write my first novel, Roman Blood, for which I invented my series sleuth, Gordianus the Finder. Almost 25 years later, Roman Blood is still in print and Gordianus is still solving crimes, with the series translated into over twenty languages.

MP:  How far have you planned out this series?

SS: I’m actually only one book ahead right now–the sequel to Raiders of the Nile, which will take young Gordianus to the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor at the exact moment when Rome’s mortal enemy, King Mithridates, is secretly plotting a surprise massacre of every Roman in Asia Minor–all 80,000 of them–in a single day. How will Gordianus escape? I have to keep writing to find out.

MP: How do you do research on your Nile series?

SS: There’s been very little in the way of archaeological excavation in the city of Alexandria (except underwater in the harbor), so we mostly have to rely on virtual reconstructions of such wonders as the great Pharos Lighthouse. And the whole nature of the Nile Delta has changed since the building of the Aswan Dam, which stopped the annual flooding of the Nile. So most of the research for this particular story and setting was literary, which gave me an excuse to spend lots of time at the university libraries in Austin and Berkeley, my two home towns.

MP: Are Bethesda and Gordianus based on anyone specific?

SS: Every fictional character–male or female, hero or villain–is a projection of his or her creator. We all have a lot of people inside us, yet we get to live only one life. Fiction lets us slip into someone else’s skin, so to speak. That’s why we read novels, and also why we write them–to experience more life, through imagination.

MP: I was impressed you managed to have an ancient version of a car chase, albeit with camels instead. Was that fun to write?

SS: Poor Gordianus, framed for murder, ends up in a headlong chase, making one hair-breadth escape after another–it’s a bit like those chase scenes in Return of the Jedi or Raiders of the Lost Ark. I find that kind of action writing to be a great technical challenge–describing the movement of people and objects through space is the hardest kind of writing, I think. It’s probably very hard to film, as well.

MP: I first heard of you soon after I moved to Austin and I heard about your O. Henry book with its Austin connections. How did you learn about the murders and go about researching those crimes?

SS: That book was A Twist at the End, a novel based on the killings of the so-called Servant Girl Annihilator which terrified the city of Austin in the 1880s. These were America’s first reported serial murders. O. Henry was living here at the time, and I decided to make him a major character in the story.

I first learned about the murders when I came across a brief mention of them in an old picture book about Austin; but when I tried to learn more, I couldn’t find any book or even an article about the killings. That set me on the trail, and the more I researched, digging through old newspapers and court records, the more I found myself immersed not just in the story of the murders, but in Austin of the 1880s, a time and place never depicted in fiction. I wrote A Twist at the End as a sort of valentine to the city of Austin as it used to be, warts and all.

Since Twist was published in 2000, there’s been an explosion of interest in those crimes. I was recently interviewed by the PBS series History Detectives, which is producing an hour-long show about the Austin servant girl killings to air sometime this summer.

MP: Was that fun to write? Any plans for other books based in Austin?

SS: Researching and writing A Twist at the End was one of the great joys of my life. In some ways, it was a like a long vacation from my day-job–writing about ancient Rome! I would like to write another historical epic set in Austin some day, about the early days of the Texas Republic.

MP: What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing a series versus stand-alone books?

SS: The stand-alone author must always be wondering: what will I write next? But with a series, especially a historical series, you can see the road far ahead, and the question is: how many books will it take to get there?

When I wrote Roman Blood in 1991, I could never have imagined there would eventually be a dozen novels and two volumes of short stories about Gordianus the Finder. Such a long series allows a writer to build complex relationships between the characters, and to cover a huge arc of history, in this case from the bloody collapse of the Roman Republic to the rise of Julius Caesar. Gordianus gets to see a lot of history, as do the readers.

Gordianus also get older as the series progresses, aging from his thirties to his sixties–but now, with the prequels, he’s young again, which as close I’ll come to regaining my own youth. I rather enjoy being twenty-two again, if only through my alter ego.

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Raiders of the Nile is available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Steven Saylor will be at the store tonight, Mar 31 at 7PM speaking & signing copies of the book. Visit our website for more info & to order your signed copy.

Scott Butki’s Top 5 Mysteries Of 2013

1. The Last Word by Lisa Lutz
I have been bragging about and promoting Lisa Lutz’s Spellman Family series for each of her books  and have interviewed her for each one, as well. The last interview, done when she came to BookPeople in 2013, is available over on blogcritics.org. Her books are as funny as Carl Hiaasen’s Bad Monkey, which almost made this list, and the late Donald Westlake’s. If you need a laugh – and who doesn’t – this will help get you one.

2. A Serpent’s Tooth by Craig Johnson
Craig Johnson’s Longmire series continues to impress and amaze; so it should be no surprise that the television series, Longmire, is also quite good. Johnson is also a hit with BookPeople readers (although the beer that accompanies his annual visits to BookPeople may help). I was at BookPeople the last time he came to town, and I wrote about it over on blogcritics.org.

3. The Broken Places by Ace Atkins
Ace Atkins continues his Quinn Colson series with The Broken Places. He’s also been charged with continuing the Spenser series inherited from the Robert Parker estate following his passing. He manages to impress by continuing to write two deep characters in very interesting stories. The Broken Places finds Quinn Colson, who served as an Army Ranger for 10 years before returning to his home in Mississippi, now in the position of county sheriff. I had the chance to interview Ace Atkins about both.

4. Shadow of the Alchemist by Jeri Westerson
Jeri Westerson’s Crispin Guest series may seem completely different than most mystery series these days. It is, after all, set during the Middle Ages. But, on many levels, they are not so unusual to the average mystery reader. While existing during 14th-century London, Guest still functions as a private eye for hire back before the industry existed. Instead of computers and phone calls Guest has to visit people and use others to help him see what is going on. But he has the same challenges – people lying, law enforcement not being cooperative – that Spenser and Spellman have. Westerson and I recently compared notes.

5. The Yard by Alex Grecian
This book is fascinating due both to an intriguing plot – someone is killing cops – and because of the setting – London in the late 1880s. Scotland Yard had recently been set up to stop Jack The Ripper, but they failed to stop and capture him, resulting in many residents scornful and skeptical of law enforcement. While there are many reasons to enjoy this book, the most notable one I tell to others is its portrayal of the evolution of crime solving and the Yard’s first forensic pathologist, Dr. Bernard Kingsley.

One of my favorite parts of the book – I promise there are no spoilers here – is when Kingsley describes to skeptical police officers his belief that everyone has unique fingerprints. While mocked for the concept, it does pay off. It’s fun to compare where they were at that point compared to where we are now. It can be compared to the, so-called, “CSI effect” when juries are skeptical of someone’s guilt if there is not DNA or other intrinsic evidence of a person’s guilt.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Tarquin Hall

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In 2012, I received an unsolicited book, The Case of The Deadly Butter Chicken, by Tarquin Hall. I gave it a try, and liked it. It was not a heavy read, but it was fun and charming. Since it was set in India, and also comments on the society there, it felt a bit educational, as well. I had a pleasant interview with the author.

So, when I received a copy of his new book, The Case of the Love Commandos, I quickly agreed to do another email interview. This book has even more social commentary than the last. So, I wanted to make sure to ask questions about the issues raised in the book.

If you want to read a charming and fun book about a detective (Vish Puri) in India who loves to eat, try this book out. A bonus is that Hall always includes a few recipes in the book, as well as a glossary of words used in the book that those not living in India may not know.

Tarquin Hall is a British author and journalist who lives in Delhi. His Vish Puri series has received praise from authors  and critics like Alexander McCall Smith and Marilyn Stassio, crime novel reviewer for The New York Times Book Review.

Here is our interview about The Case of the Love Commandos:

purchase here

MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did this story develop?

TARQUIN HALL: I’d heard of the Love Commandos, a real life charity that works with young people from different castes and religions who want to marry against the wishes of their families.  At the same time, I wanted the fourth book [in the series] to be set in rural India and to explore the caste issue. So, bingo, the two ideas came together. And, I came up with the love story idea: a boy from an untouchable family running off with a high caste girl, with the Love Commandos helping them out.

Then, I read an article about how researchers have been mapping the human genome here in India and how fascinating the findings are proving to be because you’ve had different endogenous groups of people living in the same communities as one another and never mixing for centuries. So, that became a big part of the plot, too.

Basically that’s how I work: I find what I want to talk about, so that each book tells you more and more about India. Then, I try to come up with a decent plot.

MP: How would you summarize the book?

TH: It’s basically about how caste continues to dominate Indian society and politics – less so in the cities. But, to be honest, even in a place like Delhi, it’s a big factor in most communities.  It’s an extraordinary thing, caste, unlike any other system that exists in any other society I’ve come across.  If you’re unfortunate enough to have been born into a low caste, the chances are you will still end up doing the most menial of tasks.  It is changing slowly.  And, there are many, many exceptions.  But, generally speaking, that’s still the case.

MP: Tell me more about the “Love Commandos’…

TH: I spent quite a bit of time with the Love Commandos, seeing how they work. I met run away couples in safe houses here in Delhi.  These couples were on the run from their parents.  Some of them were worried that they would be killed if they were found; that their relatives would do anything to stop them marrying someone from another caste or religion.

You have to remember that 99% of all marriages in India are arranged.  So, the parents and the rest of the family have to give their consent.

MP: Where do yourself stand on the topic of arranged marriage? Why did you decide to include the debate over the topic in this book?

TH: It’s definitely better to have choice in my opinion; to be able to have a say and decide for yourself.  And, obviously, sometimes arranged marriages can be absolutely terrible, with people locked into an awful situation with someone they don’t love – or worse with someone who persecutes them.

That said; I have seen a lot of arranged marriages that work very, very well.  People get on, learn to love one another. When times get tough, I think, sometimes, it helps to feel this sense of commitment to not only your husband or wife but the rest of the extended family.

MP: Some of the capers in your books, especially those involving Mummy, are quite funny. Do you smile or laugh as you write those?

TH: Yes, absolutely.  Sometimes, I just burst out laughing and can’t stop. That’s a great feeling.  In fact, as a writer, I don’t think there’s anything more satisfying.

MP: I found fascinating the explanations of the caste system, the Yadavs and the Brahmins. Can you explain it to our readers, and talk about why you decided to include that topic in this book?

TH: Well, as I show in the book, the power and position of the different castes has shifted in the past 60 or so years.  Traditionally, the Brahmins (the priestly caste) have been at the top.  But, nowadays, that’s not always the case.  Not all Brahmins are necessarily priests. Even if they are, they’re not necessarily that well off.

Because of the affirmative action system set up after India gained its independence from Britain, there have been government job quotas for the lower castes.  So, that’s empowered some of them, and in some areas – it’s hard to generalize – altered the local power structure.

Democracy has also played a big part in bringing change.  The lower castes have become powerful politically as they represent big vote banks.  The Yadavs, whom I write about in the book, are a good example of this.

MP: Was it hard deciding which Hindi words to include in the glossary?

TH: Not really.  Some are absolutely necessary.  You can’t write about, say, caste or Hindiusm without using some words that people outside India are not familiar with.  But, there are others that I include because I think they enhance the sense of place and language.  That’s the case with food, especially.

Also, people here will often mix Hindi and English – use a word that doesn’t translate or for which there’s only really one word, and that’s fun to reproduce.

MP: How about deciding which recipes to include in the book?

TH: That’s tougher.  Because, there are so many that detective Vish Puri likes!  But I generally go with ones that have been mentioned in the book.  To be honest, it’s kind of an afterthought.  But, with book number three, The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken, I obviously had to go with butter chicken!

MP: How would you describe the protagonist, Vish Puri and his competitor?

TH: Puri is in his mid fifties, overweight, extremely pompous, but very honest and sincere.  He’s rather old-fashioned – likes to hang out at his gentleman’s club and drives an old Ambassador car, which is very outdated.  His methods are sometimes a little suspect, and he relies a lot on his undercover team who go into all sorts of situations.

As for his main competitor, Hari, he’s a lot more together in many ways, certainly more polished.  And, he doesn’t suffer from too many scruples.  He wears Italian suits and loafers and doesn’t think much of Puri’s Safari suit

MP: What question do you wish you would get asked more often.. and then go ahead and answer it

TH: Actually I got asked an interesting question, recently.  An elderly gentleman, at a book promotion event – this was in the States – asked me whether I thought people from different countries and cultures were that different from one another.  I think he was asking in the context of terrorism and trying to understand why people wanted to kill innocent civilians.  I answered, along the lines that geneticists have found that we’re about 98% the same.  Skin colour, shape of the nose – that’s all determined by about 2% of our DNA.

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Copies of The Case of the Love Commandos are available on our shelves at BookPeople and via bookpeople.com.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Jeri Westerson: SHADOW OF THE ALCHEMIST

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With Shadow of the Alchemist out this week, Jeri Westerson has written another thriller in a genre she calls “Medieval Noir” that is fascinating and fun to read. We have here an author writing about a male protagonist’s adventures in 14th century London.

I became a fan of Westerson and her Crispin Guest series a few books ago and have been promoting and publicizing her with each book since, including Troubled Bones and Blood Lance.

Crispin Guest is a detective of sorts during the medieval era, a man who was previously a knight. This fall from grace gives an opportunity to talk about class and changes in one’s life.

Jeri was nice enough to let me interview her again, including patiently explaining what was so exciting about alchemy. There’s a character in the book trying to make alchemy work.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did this particular story develop? How would you summarize it to our readers?

JERI WESTERSON: I like to mix up the styles of the books I write, while still keeping it a medieval mystery. It’s easy to fall into something formulaic — Crispin must find a relic, there’s a murder, a bunch of history, blah, blah, blah. So if I mix it up a bit, I keep myself interested as well as the readers. I wanted to write a treasure hunt story at the heart of it, with puzzles and riddles to figure out. But I also like the idea of thriller, of time ticking and running out. Which meant that this time, some chapters are in the point of view of the kidnap victim.And since I am including venerated objects along with relics, it seemed ideal to include the philosopher’s stone among Crispin’s adventures. Alchemy also brings to mind certain mystical qualities that could be woven into an intriguing story.

The blurb:   Once a Knight of the Realm, Crispin Guest was stripped of his title and his lands and now must earn his living with his wits.  In various corners of late fourteenth century London, Guest has become known as The Tracker, a man who can solve any puzzle or find any missing object — for a price. Because of that reputation, Guest is sought out by Nicholas Flamel, a famed alchemist. Both Flamel’s wife and his apprentice are missing, and he wants Guest to find them and bring them home.

Before he can even begin looking, Guest discovers that Flamel’s house has been ransacked. Ancient symbols start appearing on walls and carved into stones around London, and Flamel’s assistant turns up dead, hanging from the rafters with a note pinned to his chest by a dagger. It is a ransom note that promises the safe return of his wife in exchange for the Philosopher’s Stone, which is reputed to turn lead into gold and create the elixir of life. And the kidnappers aren’t the only ones after it. From the highest nobility to Flamel’s fellow alchemists, everyone is seeking the stone for themselves. With the help of his young apprentice, former cut-purse Jack Tucker, Guest must use all his skills and wits to unravel the mystery, rescue Flamel’s kidnapped wife, and find the stone before it falls into unworthy hands.

MP: If memory serves, you always do some research. This time did you do research on alchemy, both its history and how close they came to making it possibly work? What did you learn? Is alchemy going to be possible some day?

JW: Well, technically, on a molecular level, scientists are doing it now. Not necessarily changing lead into gold, but new elements have been created. Some lasting only milliseconds, but still. In the strictest sense, alchemy is the attempt of the medieval person to make sense of the world around them. It is the precursor to the scientific method, while at the same time making use of spiritualism, mysticism, numerology, astrology, and just plain imagination. The alchemist relied on the writings of those that had come before, including the Greek philosophers and Jewish documents of Kabbalah and mythology, that didn’t so much as experiment with science but merely proposed how the world worked, without the benefit of empirical evidence.

It was fun and interesting delving into the history of alchemy and who became its stars.

MP: Will Jack Tucker, Crispin Guest’s apprentice, get his own book or series? He’s become my favorite character.

JW: Jack will, in fact, get his own Young Adult series. They won’t be mysteries but will lean more heavily into the paranormal, taking advantage of Celtic folklore. It’s actually going back to my roots, what started me interested in writing when I was in high school lo these many years ago. I’m in the planning stages of a three-book series, the Jack Tucker Tales: The Dark Peace Series. The first is called The Changling Tithe:

Jack is thrown into a realm he could scarcely have imagined. The legends of faeries were not all golden tales of lovely maidens with butterfly wings. He was well aware of the traps and tricks these ancient souls could play, and how jealous and downright nasty they could be when crossed.  And Jack crossed them. Oh how he crossed them! But he had only done the chivalrous thing and saved the life of a beautiful young girl who was going to be hanged by the sheriffs. She knows nothing about herself, how she came to be on the gibbet, where she comes from, and who she is save for her name: Fia. How was he to know he’d become the target of the wrath of the malicious realm of faeries from the Unseelie Court? Fia is in danger from more than the sheriff’s noose. He takes her on a desperate chase through the streets of fourteenth century London, reluctantly seeking the help from a trio of witches and a young monk, only to enter into the shadowy realm of malevolent faeries, gruesome redcaps, deadly kelpies, and the other denizens of legend, trying to save the girl’s soul, keeping the world of Man safe from the Devil himself, while at the same time trying to save his own skin from being swallowed up in the twilight lands, never to see his own home again.

I guess that’s what he does when Crispin doesn’t know where he is.

MP: What’s your writing regimen like? Do you write each morning, for example?

JW: It’s a job, like any other, and so I start in the morning and tromp into my home office and work to the late afternoon. Sometimes I don’t get much done in the morning hours and work better into early evening. Because I write full time I have that advantage. I try to get in a minimum of ten pages a day. But while I’m doing this I’m also promoting past books, prepping to promote the upcoming book before its release by writing blog posts for a blog tour, doing in-person appearances, and all the promotional blather an author has to do these days. When I can, I write seven days a week.

MP: How far out do you have this series planned? For example, do you have a certain idea how many books you’d like this to go, how you’d like things to end, etc? How far out have you written the series?

JW: I think any series can get stale if it goes on too long. I always had a last book in mind and know just what will ultimately happen to the characters. Since I am following the actual historical timeline, it turns out to be seventeen books in all, at this point. That means eleven more to go! Unless I decide to skip a few years, in which case there might be half of that to go. I’ll have to see what the immediate future holds for Crispin and publishers.

MP: Do you have any interest in writing a book outside of the Crispin series?

JW: I do. Lots! I’ve already completed the first in what will be a six book urban fantasy series, The Booke of the Hidden series. It’s got paranormal big time, humor, action, romance and all sorts of fun elements. The first book is called Booke of the Hidden.

Kylie Strange moves all the way from California to Maine to start a new life and discovers an ancient blank book called “The Booke of the Hidden” in the wall of her new herb and tea shop, Strange Herbs & Teas, and suddenly new worlds open up for the feisty young woman…and by that she means different plains of existence releasing dangerous creatures into her world ready to suck the life out of you! Who knew that she’d have to learn to use a crossbow before she figured out her wireless network? Local misfit Wiccans to the rescue! Sort of. But what about the tall, dark stranger who comes into town and can’t seem to stay away from her shop? And what the heck is the Booke of the Hidden anyway?

Plus, I continue to write my gay mystery series under my pen name, Haley Walsh. The Skyler Foxe Mysteries features a young high school English teacher who stumbles into murder and tries to solve them with the help of his fabulous friends and his police detective bff, while navigating the intricacies of romance and relationships, and what it means to be a gay man in this ever-changing cultural revolution. The books are funny, heartwarming, romantic, and fun. There are currently three in the series, with a novella of short stories. I am currently working on the fourth, Foxe Fire, for a fall or winter 2013 release. Details here.

There’s also my other medieval series, a medieval caper called Oswald The Thief. It’s Ocean’s 11 in the Middle Ages with thieves, con men, and loveable scoundrels. My agent is sending that one around, so we’ll see what happens there.

And, of course, the Jack Tucker series.

I keep pretty busy.

And I even have a few more up my sleeve. Not only is it tough getting published, it’s tough staying published and so authors can’t be afraid to branch out, try new things. In fact, it’s a must.

MP: Why did you decide to have a character who is deaf and mute? As someone who works with people with special needs I was excited and appreciative of that move.

JW: I always like Crispin to be faced with the prejudices of his era and have those entrenched ideas get turned on their ears with his personal experience. And Avelyn makes an intriguing romantic foil for him; unafraid, wise, clever.

I noticed this time,perhaps more than with others, just how often they drink wine, which seems to be something they do when they have a social occasion, when they get home, with every meal, etc.? If people these days drank as much as they would they be essentially functional alcoholics, right?

Probably. But I don’t think they drank even as much as our American Revolutionary forefathers. Those guys could put away the ale and rum! Go look it up. The problem was potable water. The Thames was no good for this. Too much waste went into the river. So cisterns to catch rainwater were set up all over London. Ales were not often not as strong, especially when you watered them down; they were sweeter and without hops as a preservative, would go bad quicker. Wine didn’t ferment as long and was less alcoholic as well. Cow and goat’s milk was made into cheese, something that had a longer shelf life with no refrigeration. And juices were for cooking at a time when expensive sugar was considered a spice. Even kids drank wine and ale.

MP: Where are you taking this series next?

JW: Well, that’s a good question on many levels. Ordinarily, I would already have the next one written and in the can. But without a publisher, I have put off writing the next Crispin (Shadow of the Alchemist is the last Crispin to be published by Minotaur Books). I am sad to say that it is not likely we will have the next Crispin in 2014. However, I do have it mapped out and will be writing it at the beginning of the new year. It’s called The Silence of Stones and concerns the missing Stone of Scone from the coronation chair in Westminster Abbey, three witches, a contingent of Scottish spies, and Jack Tucker in some very big trouble.

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Copies of Shadow of the Alchemist and all of Westerson’s books are available on our shelves here at BookPeople and via bookpeople.com.