Janice Hamrick’s series featuring Jocelyn Shore (or her “Death” series, as you might call it), is a breath of fresh air. It borrows elements from several subgenres and plants them in the traditional mystery form. In her latest, Death Rides Again, the Austin high school teacher is back in her small Texas hometown, dealing with her family and their relationships as much as she does with murder. If that sounds too “cozy” or soft, there’s gun play, drug cartels, and a great action climax with a lion (trust me, it works). Janice was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book, Texas, and family. For the record, she is the only only author I know who redacts her own swear words.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: Death Rides Again is your most Texas book. As a transplant, what makes living in the Lone Star state a unique experience?
JANICE HAMRICK: I LOVE Texas. Living here is a constant reminder of the American experience and the character and strength of the people that settled the West. I can’t drive five minutes outside the city without wondering how the heck people traveled even half an hour through such harsh country, let alone for weeks on end. The land itself is completely unforgiving. The creeks are dry ninety-five percent of the time; the other five percent they’re flash flooding. The plants are designed to kill you – if they aren’t poisonous, they’re covered in thorns. The animals are worse. Fire ants, snakes, coyotes, hawks – we’ve got ‘em all. We’re actually warned not to leave small dogs outside because they can be scooped up by birds of prey. (I have a little dog, but she’s chunky enough that it would take a pterodactyl to lift her, and the last time I checked even Texas doesn’t have those.) The best thing is that Texans seem to take it all in stride.
MP: What makes it a great state to write about?
JH: Everything’s bigger (and better) in Texas! For one thing, Texans have a real sense of state pride and identity. I travel a great deal, and no matter where I go, everyone “knows” Texas. I think a lot of Europeans secretly believe that we still ride horses and carry guns – an impression I would never try to correct, because on a certain level it just seems right. For writers, Texas is less a setting and more of a character in its own right. Who wouldn’t love writing about it?
MP: One thing I loved about the book is while Jocelyn’s love for her family is evident, she can believe many of them are capable of blackmail and murder. What did you want to explore with family dynamics in this book?
JH: Family dynamics are always rich fodder for a writer. I think most of us deeply believe that we ourselves are completely normal, while other people (especially family members) are bat-sh** crazy. Family members are simply the crazies we can’t avoid, especially around the holidays. Jocelyn is a lot of fun because she has a pretty realistic opinion of people in general and of her relatives in particular. The fact that she believes some family members are capable of blackmail and murder doesn’t in any way lessen her love and probably actually increases her respect for them.
MP: Every time I start to give Jocelyn’s cousin, Kyla, the benefit of the doubt, she does something extremely self centered or puts Jocelyn in an uncomfortable situation. What does the relationship between the two of them provide for you?
JH: Although they’re cousins, Kyla and Jocelyn are closer than most sisters, and they have a certain amount of sibling rivalry going on most of the time. You’ve heard the old joke about an older brother protecting the younger one from a bully and saying “No one beats up my brother…except me.” Kyla is a lot like that. She loves Jocelyn, but she’s not above poking the bear, whether for her own amusement or because she thinks Jocelyn needs a sharp nudge. For Jocelyn, Kyla is the fun, adventurous, flamboyant soul that she’d like to be, if she had the nerve and the complete lack of social filters. For a writer, that kind of complex relationship provides infinite possibilities.
MP: While you get categorized as a “cozy” or “light” mystery author, your books have enough gunfire, beatings, corruption, and drug cartels to keep a hard boiled fan like myself engaged. How would you describe the series?
JH: I think of the books as traditional mysteries with a dash of humor and romance, and I think they are a little edgier than the typical “cozy” mystery. I’m actually happy they don’t easily fit into a category, because I’d like readers to consider the stories and characters individually and not start with a lot of preconceived ideas. Of course, it bites me in the…well, you know what…when a reader gets upset by something they weren’t expecting.
MP: What makeS Jocelyn a character worth returning to for you?
JH: I love Jocelyn’s blend of optimism and realism. She has a lot of insight into the people around her, and she is perfectly able to see the darker side of their characters and motivations, but at the same time she honestly likes most of them. Even for people she actually does distrust or dislike, she is still able to feel some empathy or understanding. Her ability to take the good with the bad is the key to all her relationships as well as to much of the humor in the book. I also really like the way in which she was feeling pretty fragile and damaged after her divorce (in Death on Tour), but has slowly started regaining her sense of confidence and strength without ever turning bitter.
If you have your own questions for Janice, she’ll be here at BookPeople, this Wednesday, June 19th at 7pm signing and discussing Death Rides Again. Join us!