Interview With Meredith Lee

Shrouded Authors Dodge Terrorists & Rack Up Frequent Flyer Miles

The authors of Shrouded, the Austin writing team of Dixie Lee Evatt and Sue Meredith Cleveland, dodged terrorists, persisted even when itineraries almost fell apart, and racked up frequent flyer miles to research their debut mystery. Evatt and Cleveland write under the pen name Meredith Lee.

Mystery People Scott: Shrouded introduces Crispin Leads, a scrappy graduate student with a penchant for finding trouble in some of our favorite European cities. How did you manage the multiple locations necessary for the plot?

Sue: When we began mapping out the plot that became Shrouded, we knew it wouldn’t ring true unless we walked where the characters walked. We were ready to travel. What we didn’t count on was how the havoc of world events and family tragedy would influence our story. Our protagonist studies burial rituals. It became personal for me when I lost a fifth family member during the early days of writing this book. Numb, I planned a trip to France and Italy with friends. Ten days before my departure, terrorists flew into the World Trade Center. I thought long and hard about whether or not to cancel. I decided to step into the unknown and met my traveling companions at Boston’s Logan Airport. The terminal and our flight were nearly empty. Ghostly. Yet, as we toured France and then Italy, people embraced us and raised their glasses to America, as if we were a proxy for an injured nation. I’m sure that sense of tenderness and loss made its way into what I wrote about Italy and France. How could it not?

Dixie: Picasso’s masterpiece, Guernica, makes a cameo appearance in our plot, so I made it a point to include a visit to the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid while in Spain. The plan seemed innocuous enough. However, a few days before I’d been in Pamplona as a visiting lecturer at the Universidad de Navarra, roaming Old Town one evening, looking for inspiration from the ghost of Papa Hemingway, I wandered into the middle of an ETA demonstration. The militant Basque separatist group set off explosives and police were chasing members through the narrow stone streets. A local woman, who could tell I was a clueless tourist, grabbed me by the arm and pulled me to safety. I’ll confess I was both frightened and exhilarated by the episode. I didn’t realize its full impact until I stood before Guernica a few days later. I’d first seen the painting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the 1970s where it lived on temporary loan because Picasso wouldn’t allow his masterpiece to hang in Spain as long as Franco ruled. Now, instead of making logistical notes (Crispin comes in that door, exits there, etc.) it was as if I was seeing the massacre of Basque innocents for the first time. Influenced by what had happened on the streets of Pamplona, I wrote pages of emotional prose. Most of this stream of consciousness found its way to the “cutting room floor.” As Carol Dawson reminds us, meaning often lingers like a shadow, cast by the words that are no longer on the page.

MPS: In what other ways did your travels influence your writing?

Sue: Two come to mind. Time. Perspective. Travel, spread out over years, took more time than writing, as did the perspective I gained by ruminating on what I’d observed about myself as I navigated other cultures. Whether I travel abroad, or to a neighboring town, it is the history of the place and people that I find riveting. The stories embody the best and worst of what the human race is capable of achieving. Often those stories are found on tombstones and in crypts.

MPS: At the end of Shrouded you give us a sneak preview of the next Crispin Leads adventure, Digging up the Dead. Am I right to assume it takes place in Egypt? If so, did Meredith Lee run into Middle East trouble while scouting location?

Dixie: Of course. I was making plans to go with a tour group to see Giza, Luxor, Valley of the Kings and Abu Simbel at the same time the Bush Administration was beating the drums of war with its WMD case against Iraq. The day before I was set to fly out, every person in the tour group cancelled. I checked with a Syracuse University colleague who had worked at the State Department with Colin Powell. He assured me that as long as I didn’t linger, I would be safe. So I went, a Globus “tour group” of one. My last night in Cairo, the streets were already attracting anti-war demonstrations. Time to go home. A few days later the U.S. launched Shock and Awe.

BookPeople will host a book signing for the authors of Shrouded at 7 p.m. on November 10, 2017.  More information about Meredith Lee and Shrouded can be found at


Guest Post: Terry Shames on Sisters in Crime

We’re wrapping up our 30th Anniversary tribute to Sisters In Crime with essays from its members. We go to the president of the northern California chapter and MysteryPeople favorite, Terry Shames. Terry is known for her books featuring Samuel Craddock, an widowed police chief in a central Texas town. In her essay, Terry talks about being at one of the founding meetings of Sisters In Crime.

sisters in crime logo

Thirty years ago two writer friends convinced me to attend Bouchercon in Baltimore. They told me I’d have a blast. As an aspiring mystery writer, I’d not only learn a lot, but I’d meet lots of mystery writers and fans. They were right. I met writers I was in awe of, and found them to be warm and friendly. I was in heaven. As a beginner, I soaked up not just the atmosphere, but the information I heard on panels I attended.

What I remember most about the conference, though, is that my friends invited me to tag along to hear writer Sarah Paretsky talk about an idea for a new organization that would be geared to supporting female crime writers. It was common knowledge that although half of crime writers were women, the lion’s share of awards, reviews, interviews, and buzz went to male writers. Sarah wanted to change that.

Sarah’s talk was inspiring. It wasn’t mean-spirited. There was no talk of men not deserving recognition. It was about women deserving a share of the goodies. There were men in the audience as well; men who came to cheer on women, who they thought deserved better as well.

I, along with most of the women there, signed up enthusiastically for the new organization, Sisters in Crime. How could I have known that thirty years later I would be president of our northern California chapter of what has become a vibrant national organization.

The value I have received from Sisters in Crime is immeasurable. I’ve met both women and men dedicated to the idea that when one succeeds, we all succeed. When I started writing in earnest several years after that initial conference, I heard about a sub-group of the organization called The Guppies (the great unpublished). This was a group of women writers who were determined to be published. They wanted to help each other by exchanging information, tips on agents and publishers who were eager to hear from new writers; conferences and workshops that were especially helpful. The membership also exchanged virtual hugs when someone was disappointed; advice; warnings of predatory people in the publishing field; and finally, high fives when someone had success. The membership also included seasoned writers who wanted to participate in giving unpublished writers all the help they could.

This has been my experience through the years with Sisters in Crime. The dedication to supporting sister writers succeed was not just an empty slogan. I see it play out daily, in the email list serve where people ask for advice and opinions, and receive thoughtful responses. When you ask a “sister” for help, there’s always someone listening and willing to step up. Members are eager to exchange manuscripts for mutual critiques. They alert other members to valuable workshops. They ask compelling questions about writing and publishing, and many members join in the conversation.

From that meeting thirty years ago to the present Sisters in Crime has grown to a national force for women in the crime writing field. I am proud to be a part of it. In fact, I have just completed a week long retreat with six other “sisters” whom I would never have met had it not been for Sisters in Crime.

Sisters In Crime: Guest Post from VP Noreen Cedeno

We continue celebrating the 30th Anniversary Of Sisters In Crime by posting a guest blog from The Heart Of Texas Members (a.k.a. HotSinc) with it’s current vice president Noreen Cedeno, who gives a candid look at the group events open to the public that occur on our BookPeople third floor every second Sunday of the month.

Sisters in Crime, NOT a Group of Female Ex-convicts

Sisters in Crime is celebrating its 30th Anniversary. Who are Sisters in Crime and what do we do?

Once a visitor inquired at our meeting: Is this a meeting for female ex-convicts?

Uhhmm, no. We are writers and readers of crime fiction. All writers and readers of crime fiction are welcome to join. Our meetings are open to the public. And yes, male members are welcome to join and be our siblings in crime.

Another visitor wrote to me after a meeting: “I was a bit surprised to find not a women’s political meeting but a mixed gathering for a talk on hypnotism!!”

Well, yes, our meetings are not women-only political rallies. We are here to support female crime writers in a variety of practical ways, but we don’t discriminate, so everyone is welcome at our meetings.

One way we help our writers improve their craft is by widening their knowledge base. Writers can’t research a topic that they don’t know exists, have never heard of, or can’t imagine. Conversely, some topics are so involved, attempting research leads to outdated or overwhelming amounts of information. Therefore, at some of our meetings, we strive to help crime writers improve their craft by succinctly presenting topics that may be useful in a story.

So yes, you might walk into a meeting on hypnosis presented by a psychologist. We’ve had presentations on poisons, drones, and what different caliber bullets do to the human body. We’ve had a JAG lawyer introduce us to the military justice system. We’ve had guest speakers from just about every law enforcement group we can find.

Accuracy and authenticity are vital in writing! Nothing annoys a reader faster than an author getting details wrong. The Austin Police Department Bomb Squad was particularly nice, bringing not only their dog, Dax, but also “det cord” and C-4 for us to pass around during their presentation. It’s easier to write accurately about something you’ve touched with your own hands or seen with your own eyes. Hearing about law enforcement directly from the officers and agents who work in the field exposes us to the language and look, and the concerns and personalities of the men and women who serve as first responders. Those details are invaluable to any crime writer trying to create authentic characters and accurate depictions of how law enforcement agents handle crime.

As I mentioned before, we welcome crime fiction readers too! Sisters in Crime is open to both male and female readers of crime fiction. Therefore, we try to present subjects our non-writing members will enjoy hearing about. Luckily, most crime fiction readers also enjoy hearing presentations by law enforcement officers.

We occasionally have authors as guest speakers too. These authors may be locally known, nationally known, or internationally known. Last year, through an arrangement with the national Sisters in Crime organization, we had Rhys Bowen come and speak about her writing. We will have local authors who are members read selections of their work at our October 8th celebration of Sisters in Crime’s Anniversary.

Other things we offer writers:

Sometimes we have presentations specifically geared toward our writers. Those topics have included everything from marketing strategies to producing audiobooks.

We provide a place for authors to meet each other and discuss problems or share news. Authors have found critique partners and fellowship at our meetings. Our local newsletter includes industry news, writing tips, and information about opportunities to submit work for publication.

Sisters in Crime helps writers succeed by providing them opportunities to present their work. We showcase our local members work at festivals and conferences. Here in Austin, that means we will have a table at the Texas Book Festival in November. I’m only discussing the local chapter benefits. Opportunities abound at the national level as well. I’ve sent books to large conferences that I otherwise would not have had any access to or ability to attend because Sisters in Crime solicited members’ work for the conferences. Sisters in Crime works to ensure their members have opportunities that they might not otherwise have. In fact, the benefits available at the national level would be a whole other blog post.

So, if you like to write or read crime fiction, mysteries, police procedurals, cozies, thrillers, suspense, hardboilednoir, amateur sleuths, or private detectives, you are welcome to come to a Sisters in Crime meeting, usually held on the second Sunday of the month at Book People at 2:15 in the afternoon on the third floor.  You don’t even need to be a female ex-convict to come!

My Head is a Choir and All the Singers are Singing Different Songs: MysteryPeople Q&A with Joe Ide


  • Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Joe Ide burst onto the mystery scene last year with his debut Isaiah Quintabe mystery, IQ, a Holmesian puzzler set in South Central LA. A bunch of us quickly blazed our way through IQ – with its well-rounded characters, stylish action sequences, clever heists, weaponized pit bulls, and foggy-minded celebrities, what’s not to love?

Now Ide is back with the second in the series, Righteousin which IQ and his reluctant side-kick Dodson go on a wild road trip to Vegas to try and rescue a deep-in-debt DJ and her doofus boyfriend after they mess with forces beyond their clearance level. IQ wants a chance to rescue his brother’s ex-fiancee’s wayward little sister, while Dodson just wants a break from home before his new baby is born, but both get more than they bargained for as gangs, gamblers and grim-faced traffickers all converge on the lucky-in-love, unlucky-in-gambling Vegas couple and their LA protectors. Interwoven are new developments in Isaiah’s understanding of his brother’s untimely death. 

Joe Ide mixes his choreographed action sequences with meditations on love, isolation, and friendship, for a surprisingly moving story that we’ve chosen as our MysteryPeople Pick of the Month for October. Thanks to Joe Ide and the folks at Mulholland, we got a chance to ask a few questions about the book and the series.

  • Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Molly Odintz: I loved the madcap adventure that Isaiah and Dodson take to Vegas. What was your inspiration for the Vegas setting and their road trip through the sleaziest of cities? What kind of research did you do for the Vegas parts?

Joe Ide: I wanted to take Isaiah out of the hood and put him someplace where he have to deal with new situations and different kinds of characters. The more he’s a fish out of water, the more obstacles he has to overcome. There’s that old adage, no conflict, no story. Putting it in another location is a challenge for me. How to use the enviroment to advance the story. Embarrassingly, I did very little research on Vegas. For me ( like Isaiah) the town is “Too bright, too loud, too colossal.” Also like Isaiah, I bought a dog for 99cents and it was as big as a cat. The visuals I took from photographs and videos. As an aside, my Mom loved Vegas. She enjoyed being up at two in the morning, going anywhere she wanted. She had secret pockets in her pants to keep to her money away safe and foil the pickpockets.

MO: Dodson’s romance is unlikely, but the story of his courtship makes his successful wooing of his practical girlfriend believable. Which came first in the writing process, Dodson’s part in Isaiah’s adventure, or his new romance?

JI: I knew Dodson would be involved. He’s Isaiah’s Dr. Watson after all. But I like characters with full emotional lives. I want them to deal with the same problems we all deal with – like relationships. Giving him a romance seemed natural and the book is structured in a way that I that I could write about it.

MO: Both IQ and Righteous initially destabilize the reader’s expectations with two seemingly disparate plots, but then bring them together at the end in just the right way. Do you have extensive outlines before you even start writing? How do you tie it all together?

JI: I start with vaguest idea for a story and then I ask myself questions: Where does this take place? Who are the clients? Who are the bad guys? What do the bad guys want? What are the major problems Isaiah has to confront? And so on, and while I’m figuring these things out I’m making vague, random notes. About a character’s looks or a possible scene or piece of dialogue or whatever occurs to me. Think of it as a pointillist painting. I’m putting dots on the canvas and after I have lots and lots of them, the canvas starts to take shape, and at a certain point, I have to decide, is this a book or isn’t it? I’ve thrown a few away and started over, but when I have the makings of a book, I start writing as fast as I can. If I don’t know something I skip it and keep going until I have the creakiest skeleton of a story with missing limbs. But when I’m done, I have a structure on which I can build. Subplots occur to me as I’m writing and become more dots until they’re little canvases themselves and I see ways to knit them together, things I didn’t know when I started. I’m always thinking ahead, asking myself, where will this go? How will it be resolved? I’m making the process seem much more linear than it is. My head is a choir and all the singers are singing different songs. It takes them a long time before they’re on the singing the same tune. I recommend my methods to no one.

MO: I’ve heard there’s plans for a TV series in the making (which I will absolutely watch and hopefully binge watch!). What stage is the planning at? Who are your ideal casting choices?

The TV world moves at its own pace. I don’t know what they’re actually doing and where they are in the process. Every time a production makes an advance, another compromise is made with the original material. It’s too aggrevating and time consuming to worry about that stuff. I’ll stick to writing books.

MO: So I love Sherlock Holmes, and I love that you’re inspired by the stories, but not beholden to them. In particular, at the end of Righteous (and I promise there are no spoilers in this question) Isaiah is helped not just by his grasp of logic, but by (it seems to me) perfectly timed random fate. How much do you draw on the Sherlock canon, and how much do you like to change things up?

I’m not conscious of drawing on Sherlock. His influence is mixed in with a dozens, hundreds of others, including my own life experience. I don’t really decide how much of this and how much that. It just comes out that way. That sounds simplistic but it’s not. It’s the result of everything that’s ever happened to me put in a blender until it’s all unrecognizable and poured on to the pages.

MO: You have a love of South Central LA drawn from your experiences growing up in the area – tell us about your setting. Which came first to you when you were developing the series, the character or the area?

Chicken and the egg. As you say, I grew up in the hood and I loved Sherlock Holmes. I read all fifty six stories and four novels multiple times. When I decided to write a book there was never any question it would be Sherlock in the Hood.

MO: You have such perfectly choreographed shootouts and fight scenes – how do you plan out the action in your books?

It helps that I was a screenwriter. A set piece in a movie is structured the same as a set piece in a book. It has three acts. Act one lays out the premise, the situation. Act two is the action playing itself out, escalating in intensity until the end of the act where all seems lost for the good guys. In Act three, the good guys rise again and justice wins the day. Maybe. Having that as a base, I start my planning by thinking about outcomes. What do I want happen during the sequence? How do I want it to end? Then I identify the players and what each of them wants. I pick a location that serves these purposes and then I play chess with the pieces. If so and so does this, what’s so and so’s response? How does so and so get from A to B? What’s the most surprising, creative way for these things to happen? Sometimes I draw annotated diagrams. It’s about being specific and patient. Again, the process isn’t close to being that logical or organized.

MO: Obviously Arthur Conan Doyle is one of your writing inspirations, but you seem to draw from a diverse array of genres, and your voice is all your own – tell us about your influences.

All the writers you’d expect. Walter Moseley, Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly, Raymond Chandler, Don Winslow, James Lee Burke, Chester Himes, John LeCarre (spy novels are just crime novels in another country) James Ellroy, Dennis Lehane, Octavia Butler and on and on and on. Other kinds of books as well. Chris Cleaves, Donna Tart, Toni Morrison, Sarah Waters, Janet Fitch, Amor Towles, William Styron, Cormac McCarthy – also on and on and on and on. I like storytellers and interesting writing.

MO: Poor Sherlock. His love life is in shambles. Will he ever find love?

Yes, he will! But he will tormented, frightened and flummoxed, (like anybody else that’s in love).

MO: What’s next for the series? It seems like Isaiah’s resolved some of the lingering questions about his brother’s death and is ready for the bigtime in terms of investigations.

My original plan was for the characters to grow from book to book. In IQ, Isaiah is very isolated because of a tremendous burden of guilt. At the end of the book, he sets the guilt aside. In Righteous, he realizes he’s lonely and makes his first awkward attempts at reaching out. In IQ, Dodson learns that he and his girlfriend are having a baby. In Righteous, he has to deal with fatherhood. IQ3 will continue that growth. Of course, there will always be new bad guys and adventures but I don’t know as Isaiah ever take on really big investigations, ones of say, national importance. There are many other writers, like LeCarre, who do that way better than I could ever hope to. Isaiah’s cases will remain in the middle in terms of size. That’s where he (and I) feel most comfortable.

You can find copies of Righteous on our shelves and via

Q&A with Thomas Mullen

Thomas Mullen’s Darktown found critical acclaim when it came out last year, winning fans in crime fiction and “the literary set” alike. His second novel of the first black officers serving in a Jim Crow, Atlanta, proves their is much to mine in the subject. Our Matthew Turbeville caught up with Mr. Mullen to talk about, research, race, and writing.

Matthew Turbeville: I’ve been reading your novels for a while, but was especially intrigued by your Darktown series.  Can you tell me a little about what inspired these novels?

Thomas Mullen: A few years ago I was reading a book on Atlanta history called Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn by Gary Pomerantz. It’s a big book that traces 150 years of ATL via two prominent families, one black and one white. In the middle is a four-page passage that covers the circumstances around the 1948 hiring of Atlanta’s first eight African-American police officers, and, most interesting to me, the insulting Jim Crow restrictions they operated under: they could only patrol “colored neighborhoods,” they only worked the night shift, they could not drive squad cars, and they could not set foot in the police headquarters and instead had to operate their own makeshift precinct in the basement of a YMCA in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood (where Martin Luther King Jr. grew up). Last but not least, they could not arrest white people. If, God forbid, they ever saw a white person committing a crime, they were supposed to call in white officers to help. But the idea was that since this was a time of such strict segregation, and they were patrolling black neighborhoods, they shouldn’t even see any white folks, let alone white lawbreakers.

Image result for thomas mullenThe fiction writer in me immediately asked, well, what if? Life tends not to confine itself to such strictly drawn lines, and I found myself imagining the plot of Darktown¸ in which two of the black rookies do in fact come upon a white criminal, and begin to suspect a white cop helped him murder a young black woman.

Because this was 1948, I felt pretty early on that this had series potential. Darktown is set in this historically overlooked period after the end of World War II but before the Cold War and before the first key victories of the Civil Rights movement. So I found myself thinking of the different stories I could tell if I followed some of these characters over the next 15-20 years and traced how they, the city, the South, and the country changed as a result of the Civil Rights movement—and the white backlash to the movement.

Other inspiration came from the many great books in which writers take the ingredients of the classic hard-boiled murder mystery and do something unexpected and odd with it. Three of my favorite recent novels are Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless BrooklynColson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union; I love how they’re able to do something fun and novel with a classic form this way. And when I learned about the offensive, insane Jim Crow restrictions that Atlanta’s first black officers had to work under, I felt I had the ingredients for my own twist on classic noir.

Finally, I’m a big fan of what I’ve dubbed “totalitarian noir,” or murder mysteries that up the moral ante by placing their hero inside a corrupt, totalitarian regime. Like Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels in Russia, Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series in Nazi Germany, Olen Steinhauer’s series in an unnamed Warsaw Pact country. It occurred to me that I could write my own totalitarian noir right in my own town, because the South was every bit a totalitarian nation if you were black.

MT: I imagine it’s really difficult to write about an issue you can’t directly place yourself in.  How did you prepare to write about Black police officers—from the mid-twentieth century? What research did you have to do to fit yourself into their shoes?

TM: It’s definitely challenging, and it helps that I’d written other historical novels and so had a sense of where and how to start. I’m not the kind of writer who writes autobiographical fiction, where the protagonists are lightly fictionalized versions of myself. Because my books have been set in different times and different places, I’ve always had to work hard to create characters who had very different daily experiences than me, different hopes and dreams and obstacles, different worldviews, different concepts of what was and wasn’t possible in their world.

Research is always a big part of that, to determine what people were dealing with back then, what were the issues of the day, the debate and divisions, the jobs and roles people had, the dreams they could reasonably aspire to.

To learn more about Atlanta’s first black cops and their white counterparts, I found newspaper articles from ’48 and ’50 that offered some great context, but not too much in terms of what life was really like for the black officers, probably because they were hesitant to speak too candidly to the press back then. But in the ‘80s and ‘90s journalists ran some retrospective stories and talked to some of the initial eight African-American officers, most of whom were still living and some of whom were still cops. In those pieces, they didn’t hold back about their mistreatment from white cops and judges. Much of my books’ details about how they did their jobs came from those pieces, and from some recorded interviews two of them gave in the late ‘70s for an oral history project.

Finally, I read lots and lots of books. I’m more of a secondary-source guy, so rather than spending too much time in the archives (which I do some of), I would rather let the real historians do that, then I go and read the big books they write. I have bookshelves full of histories of Atlanta, midcentury America, African-American history, the Civil Rights Era, policing, biographies and memoirs, fiction from that time period, etc. I also read a lot of books about more contemporary issues with race and policing, because I want to make sure I don’t write anything that’s informed by misconceptions about the more recent past, like the war on drugs and our current over-incarceration of African-Americans.

MT: You tend to write largely from historical points-of-view.  What about history—and not the present day—is alluring to you? Do you think mysteries set in different times and places speak more to an audience, or at least differently?

TM: I never set out to be a “historical novelist” — my third book was contemporary, and I do have other contemporary ideas — but yeah, here I am with 5 books now, and 4 were set in the past. It’s a good question I don’t fully know the answer to. Maybe it’s because there’s so much amazing material, so many incredible stories, in our country’s past. Maybe it’s because it gives me an unusual lens through which I, and the reader, can view issues that remain important today, that we’ve also dealt with in the past under different circumstances, and therefore we can make unexpected, nuanced observations about then and now. Maybe it’s to avoid being another writer who just writes autobiographical fiction about myself and life in 2017. I honestly don’t know the answer.

MT: What is your process like when preparing to write a book? How were you able to release two books in the Darktown series so close together?

TM: As noted, I do a ton of research. But what I most love is writing, and I really can’t take doing a huge chunk of research at once, so I parcel it out. With a new idea, I’m likely to do some research first, just enough so I have an understanding of the time period, then I start writing. I do this because I need to know whether I can really write in that time, with these characters, or not; the last thing I’d want to do is spend 6 months on research only to sit down later and find I just can’t find the voice to write it. So once I’ve done some research, and then some writing, and I’m feeling good about the project, I might stop writing and do some more research, to really dive into the era. Then I’ll write again in earnest, occasionally stopping to do some supplemental research if I find there’s a specific topic I realize I need to know more about.

As for the new book coming out only a year later, that was a happy accident. I started writing Lightning Men about a month after finishing the first polished draft of Darktown, before my agent had even read Darktown. She’s normally a speedy reader but she had a full plate at that time, so by the time she read Darktown and had some edits for me, I’d already written a good 100 pages of the new one. Which meant that, by the time we finalized Darktown and had offers from publishers, I already had a great head start on the second book.

I continue to do lots of research, as there’s really no end to the important works I could be reading about this time period and these topics. Even if I ever felt that I’d caught up, each year brings the publication of several new, important works on the Civil Rights era, race and policing, etc. (For example, two of the nonfiction books that were just nominated for the National Book Award were about Emmet Till and about race and housing, so I’ve read them.) I’m pretty much always in the middle of a book I’m reading for research, and I’m finding that the writing goes a bit faster now that I have a solid knowledge of the era, as well as a pre-established setting and characters.

MT: Darktown seems especially necessary in today’s world—a world filled with hatred, racism, and bigotry.  What would you say Darktown and Lightning Men’s essential messages are? What do you hope readers gather from these books?

TM: It is extremely unfortunate, and enraging, and disappointing, and heart-breaking, and maddening, that we are still having some of the same debates. As I type this, on Monday 9/25/17, the main story is about whether African-American athletes have the right to protest, something that was a hot topic in the 1968 Olympics when some athletes held raised fists during the anthem (one of those athletes was Tommie Smith, a name I sort of borrowed in my books). It shows that these issues run deep, and in my opinion issues of race and power cut to the core of America, what it is today and what it’s always been, which is why I wanted to write the books in the first place, when I started the project in 2012. As for the messages, I’ll let the readers make those judgments themselves. If nothing else, I hope readers come away with a more nuanced understanding of our recent past as well as our present, and a more empathetic mindset about people different from themselves.

MT: In relation to the time period, what was the most difficult aspect of writing Darktown and Lightning Men?

TM: Hey, it’s all hard. And it’s all fun. Writing a novel is never easy, and I take what I do extremely seriously. I know that I’m handling material that can be sensitive, and that I have a responsibility to get it right. I feel extremely fortunate that I get to imagine stories for a living, and I want to make the most of that opportunity. I hope that the books not only entertain people but also illuminate areas of the world that they might not have thought about, illuminate elements of human nature that bind us together.

MT: One of the quotes that opens Lightning Men is concerning The Birth of a Nation, a film which grossly fictionalizes history and inspires the KKK to this day.  What do you think a book like Lightning Men will do for society? Do you think you are playing a role in correcting history?

TM: It feels a tad grandiose to wonder about my books’ impact. I’m just glad that they exist and that people are reading them, and I hope more readers come to the series as I continue it.

And I don’t know that fiction can “correct history,” but I can work hard to present things accurately and honestly. That means avoiding nostalgia, that means refusing to whitewash the past. I recently observed that writing historical fiction is equal parts keepin’ it real and makin’ shit up. The making up is the fiction part, the fact that I’m taking invented characters through an invented plot. But it only works if the surrounding world is real: if it’s historically accurate, if it’s realistic as opposed to nostalgic and sentimental, and if the characters act and think in ways that feel human and alive. I’m not trying to correct history, only to respect it in its fullness, all its glory and ugliness, tragedies and triumphs. With the series, I want to pay homage to overlooked heroes (the Southern African Americans who were willing to serve as policemen despite all that they had to overcome in their Jim Crow cities) and their undeniable triumphs, while never losing sight of all the defeats and tragedies along the way.

MysteryPeople Q&A with J. M. Gulvin

J. M. Gulvin’s new novel, The Long Countis one of our picks for October. Gulvin was kind enough to answer a few questions about this new series featuring Texas Ranger John Q.

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery 


MysteryPeople Scott: Family is an element in both of your protagonists’ lives. What did you want to explore in with the idea?

J.M. Gulvin: You’re right, family is very important for this first novel and the rest of the series. My intention is to create as real a feel to the stories as possible so it’s important to me that all the characters are rounded enough that they could actually have existed. Family, dependents, loved ones and responsibility are all part of that. It’s been my experience during thirty years of travelling the west, that family is extremely important. I believe it is still an integral part of the make-up of the people that we’ve lost just little of in Europe and the UK. I wanted to be true to my understanding of the American spirit, particularly given the fact that I am not a native and am coming at these books from a different perspective altogether.

I don’t know anyone in the US (friends or business acquaintances) who don’t appreciate the fact that their nearest and dearest both present and past are an intrinsic part of their identity. Familial ties bind so much more tightly than any shared ideology and I find this whole sense of belonging fascinating. As a mechanism within the plot, it helps to establish context and character history. I learned very early that family isn’t just blood ties, however, it’s a bond that extends to friends, neighbors, and members of a given community. When I first went to Idaho in 1997, I saw how the 1534 inhabitants of a town called Bellevue, made sure that the rent and medical bills were paid for a man named Jeff Farrow, who had been involved in a snow mobile accident and took six months to recover. That sense of responsibility and purpose, of shared community and familial care, is exemplified in the personal response of ordinary Texans to the havoc wrought by Hurricane Harvey. I’ve tried to identify with this (in some small way) in the relationships forged between John Q and his friends and neighbors on the ranch in Wilbarger County.

MPS: You are a Brit who now lives in and writes about the American West. What draws you to it?

JMG: I used to own a cabin on a lake in southern Idaho but had to sell it for various reasons. As soon as I’m able I plan to buy something in Texas or New Mexico. As you so rightly point out I am drawn to the west and always have been. I grew up watching westerns and something about the pioneering spirit, the can-do – have-to, approach to life really struck a chord with me. The first book l I ever read was “Squanto Friend of the Pilgrims” and from that moment I was transfixed. I started to read western novels and then later Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and various true-life accounts of mountain men who lived with Native Americans. A lot later I worked on a ranch close to the cabin where Vardis Fisher wrote “Mountain Man”, which was partial inspiration for the Robert Redford/Sidney Pollack movie “Jeremiah Johnson”. Prior to that I discovered Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy.

That pioneering spirit I mention is still very much in evidence today and I see it in my American friends. I love it, the lack of cynicism, the zest for life; when it’s coupled with the landscape of Texas or New Mexico it just seems to draw me. What’s interesting is that I find writing about the west at my house in Wales UK, to be more inspirational than if I was on the ground. As you’ll know better than me the Texas I’ve tried to create is a landscape from fifty years ago so it’s very different now and I find the physical distance allows my imagination to overcome some of the hurdles of reality.

MPS: What I like about John Q is that he has a sensitive side and a less self assured swagger that you see in most portrayals of Texas Rangers. How did you go about constructing him?

JMG: Man, I could wax lyrical about this one. How long have we got? Seriously, I’ve been working on John Q as a character since 2009. Initially he was loosely based on Ed Cantrell a Wyoming cop in the 1970’s who was actually tried and acquitted of murder after outdrawing another cop Michael Rosa, in a Rock Springs prowl car. Cantrell was the inspiration but gradually John Q morphed into a much younger man and a Texas Ranger. I made the real life Ranger Frank Hamer (Bonnie & Clyde) his god-father deliberately to engender a sense of veracity. Ironically. I had no idea that there was an expression in the US “John Q public”, in the UK we say “Joe Public” and even my New York agent didn’t pick up on the connection. I really like the connotation, inadvertent as it is, because I’ve tried to make Quarrie “a man of the people”.

Having spent so much time developing both him and his relationships, I feel that I know him very well and hopefully that comes across. I gave him the background I did, his son James, Pious and all the folks on the ranch etc to make him as true to life as I could. Yes, he’s tough, and he’s good with firearms because I wanted that old west lawman feel; honesty, a moral compass and overriding sense of integrity. I wanted an unequivocal hero. No navel gazing, a “what you see is what you get” kind of Texan, but also someone who displays the level of humanity you picked up on. I know a lot of cops, both in the US and in the UK, from FBI agents, to county sheriffs, city detectives etc and – I think – that the nature of the job is such that one has to be able to see all sides of the story.

I chose Frank Hamer to be John Q’s godfather for a very specific reason. When WWII broke out Hamer wrote King George VI of England offering a personal bodyguard of retired Rangers in case the Nazis rolled into London. As a Brit, I was hugely flattered by that, and perhaps writing about Texas Rangers is some sort of homage. I don’t know why but there’s something about them as a law enforcement agency that just hits a note with me. That old west toughness, the ability to work alone in inhospitable terrain and extreme circumstances. It’s an important element of the book given how they evolved as a police service. It’s said they’ve been shaped by the enemies they’ve faced and that had to be part of the narrative, but it was vital John Q did not become a caricature hence the sensitivity you pointed out and his ability to empathise with not only victims but those he’s hunting. Hopefully it creates the kind of real-life feel that I mentioned above and it will be an enduring feature of this series.

MPS: How did you decide the period to be the early seventies?

JMG: I chose the 1960’s because at that time there was still much of the old west feel about the Rangers though they were evolving into the modern outfit they are today, and I was able to set that juxtaposition against a backdrop of massive social change in the United States. On a simpler note, though, I’m no lover of technology and computer deduction. I long for the silences that John Q can experience when he’s alone in his car with no cell phone and out of radio contact. One of the things that’s struck me since embarking on this journey however, is how so much of what’s happening today mirrors the time I’m writing about. Someone at the Edinburgh Book Festival pointed out the prescience of my narrative, and I think they have a point given the current political situation.

MPS: One thing that struck me about the book was it’s mood. Are you aware of creating that when you’re writing or is it simply the result of your writing?

JMG: That’s a really interesting observation. The mood is as important as the voice I use and the way I try to create a sense of rhythm within the narrative. To that end I do work on it, yes. It’s not subconscious, it’s a skill I’ve been trying to hone for a very long time in an attempt to bring as much originality to the page as I can. A lot of people pick up on it and again, the fact that I’m not American, and am coming at this from a slightly different perspective, might be part of why it is so apparent. Hopefully, that’s a good thing and the more I write the character the more that sense of mood will develop.

MPS: From what I can tell, this is your first crime novel. Did you draw from any other writers in the genre?

JMG: Actually, It’s not my first crime novel. I’ve written a few under Jeff Gulvin, all of which are available in the US through Open Road Media. This is the first in this series however, and the first under JM Gulvin. The truth is I don’t read a lot of crime and never have. In my youth, I read the masters Hemingway, Faulkner, Salinger, Steinbeck, etc because I wanted to be the best craftsman I could. They are my influences along with the genius of McCarthy. Rather than reading crime, I watch a lot on TV as some of the current US series are astounding. Steven Zaillian’s “THE NIGHT OF” for example, blew my mind for feel, atmosphere and subtlety of suggestion, and I devour anything Dennis Lehane is involved with. After a long day at my desk I find it easier to soak up something visual rather than sit down and read.

You can find copies of Gulvin’s latest on our shelves and via

Sisters in Crime Turns 30: Guest Post from David Ciambrone

sisters in crime logo

Even though the main goal of Sisters In Crime is to advance female crime fiction authors, it has a large number of male authors who benefit from the group. One member, David Ciambrone, is this week’s guest blogger to celebrate the organization’s 30th anniversary. Below, David gives advise to male writers writing female leads; something his Sisters experience has helped him in.

Male Authors Writing Female Heroines – How Can They Do It?  

Guest Post by David Ciambrone

I have gotten asked, if I as a male who writes female characters, have any advice for writers on how to create believable female characters while avoiding clichés.

My first reply is:

Write all your characters as human beings in all their complexity, especially the female characters.

That’s a good answer, although rarely easy to pull off.

A man writing male heroes is not too hard. But for guys to write believable female characters it can get tricky. First, men, for the most part, do not understand women very well. Second, females can be unpredictable and moody, and, at the same time strong, outgoing, affectionate, intelligent and sometimes sexy. Your female character can run a business, be a doctor or lawyer or a librarian and/or be a housewife and mother and a detective all at the same time. She has dreams and ambition. In most of my novels the lead characters are women. They are the main character or the semi-main characters.

So, after writing multiple mystery novels, here is my advice, such as it is:

Have a good critique partner who is a woman and willing to give you her womanly opinion. Listen and take her advice.

Know your audience. If the story will tend to be read by women, then you must try and make your female character believable to them. Give her qualities the women will like and maybe aspire to or wish they had. If your intended audience is female, make sure to include plenty of personal pronouns—“I,” “you” and “we”—and descriptive terms.

If you want to appeal to a mixed audience, watch out for instances in which the language skews toward your own gender. Make revisions to include a balance of wording that caters to the other sex as well.

Put enough women in the story so that they can talk to each other.

Have female characters in the plot as strong, intelligent, energetic participants, whether as primary or secondary or tertiary characters in both public and private roles within the story.

Have your female characters exist for themselves, not merely as passive adjuncts whose sole function is to serve the males.

Get to know your female characters in depth. Have a clear understanding of who they are and the role they play in the story.  They will write themselves.

In real life, women, act and react in a multiplicity of ways to the circumstances in which they find themselves. The female character in your story should, too. Make her believable. Give her and appropriate background, dreams, and ambition in her personal life.

Write stories that move beyond the idea of gender being the most crucial thing we know about someone or the root of their behavior. Being female in a “man’s world” can have its advantages. She has natural “weapons” she can use against male characters. Use them. Your heroine can act as brave, tough, intelligent, dynamic, or as daring as a man, then slip into a very feminine role. She can do this to gain whatever she wants or needs in the story. But above all, remember…she is a WOMAN. Do NOT sell your female characters short.

Remember, men like to accomplish things and women tend to focus on relationships. BUT, keeping that in mind, blur this stereotype and have your female character go after something with the drive and vigor of a man. In real life women do this all the time.

Because the author is male, it is highly recommended that he get to know multiple women, listen to them, engage with them and learn, as best he can, how they tick. I have melded a couple different women I know into each of my female characters. Each of the “real women” brought something to the fictional character that blended into a believable, standout, strong, loving, daring, spunky, engaging, female character.

David Ciambrone is an award winning, best selling author who has published 20 books, both fiction and nonfiction. He has also written columns for newspapers and business journals. Dave is a member of Sisters in Crime, (he is a sister with a Y chromosome). Latest of his Virginia Davies Quilt Mystery series released is Suspicious Threads.