Kathleen Kent, a well respected historical fiction writer, won over crime fiction fans with her novel The Dime, featuring Dallas Narcotics detective Betty Ryhyz. She returns with Betty in The Burn, with our heroine going rogue to figure out the connection between heroin stolen from the Sinola Cartel and confidential informants that are popping up all over town dead. Kathleen was kind enough to talk about the book and writing with Crime Fiction Coordinator, Scott Montgomery.
Scott Montgomery: How did it feel writing a second novel with Betty Ryhyz opposed to the first?
Kathleen Kent: This is my first series–all of my previous historical fiction novels were stand-alone—and I had to rethink how to structure not only the book I was working on, but future books in the series. An important thing I learned from my editor was that the “Sophomore book” is crucial to keeping a reader’s interest going forward. You may like the first book, but the second will often determine whether you want to read the third, or fourth. Writing The Dime was an exercise in learning the genre of contemporary crime fiction: pacing, narrative tone, and maintaining suspense. But developing The Burn necessitated a deeper dive into not only Betty’s character, but of those who populated her world. There were a lot of rewrites to The Burn to get it right, and I had to remind myself at times to maintain a balance between the darker themes of the book, of which there are plenty, with lighter, more comedic elements.
SM: I really felt the Dallas streets and the working relationships of the narcotics squad. What kind of research did you do?
KK: I grew up in Dallas but moved to New York once I’d finished college. After living and
working in Manhattan for twenty years, I decided to move back to Dallas. Big D had changed drastically in those two decades in terms of urban development. But a lot had stayed the same and was distressingly familiar in terms of social intolerance. Once I had committed to writing a crime novel, I channeled some of my experiences of feeling like an “outsider” into Betty’s character. Doing research with law enforcement proved to be quite a challenge. While writing historical fiction, I found there were always experts willing to talk about their unique knowledge of history. Active law enforcement, especially those working undercover, can’t speak to a civilian about their operations for obvious reasons. One workaround was to talk to retired police officers, one of whom was the first female detective in Dallas. She gave me a lot of hilarious, and hair-raising stories, that I incorporated into both crime novels. My most important source, though, was a close cousin who, in his thirty-year career, worked both narcotics and vice undercover, as well as SWAT. I was also invited to several police retirement parties, and it’s amazing what you can learn by sitting quietly in a corner holding a glass of Jameson whiskey, and just listening to the stories unwind.
SM: I was happy to see Jackie’s uncle play an important part. He’s one of my favorite characters in the series. What do you like about him as a writer?
KK: He’s one of my favorites as well. There’s something noble about people who, despite their frailties and vices, continue fighting to stay afloat, to be useful, to be of service to other people. James Earle has a dignified past as he served in Vietnam as an MP, and he understands the difficulties and pressures prevalent in law enforcement. In many ways he’s a stand in for Betty’s beloved Uncle Benny, the man who was Betty’s polestar growing up. I’m happy to say that James Earle will be a constant character going forward.
SM: You wrote several acclaimed historical novels and fell into this gritty cop series where you both deliver and subvert the genre goods like somebody who has been writing this kind of book for a decade. Were you a fan of the genre before you started?
KK: I’ve always been a huge fan of crime novels, the darker, the better! My sister and I grew up reading, and watching on TV, a lot of British crime series, which our mother read as well. The three of us used to talk at the dinner table about the finer points of Murder Most Foul, often horrifying our dad with the gruesome details. Even in my works of historical fiction I never shied away from violence. The Heretic’s Daughter is based on my nine-times great grandmother, Martha Carrier, who was hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692. The Outcasts is set in post-Civil War Texas and has hangings, torture and murder. The themes of villainy are often the same, regardless of the time period. The challenge for me as a writer, though, was to change the way the story was presented, which is to say I had to pay close attention to pacing, keeping the reader on the edge of his or her seat. I would liken historical fiction writing to a slow and steady burn, while crime writing is often a bonfire at the beginning with liberal applications of gasoline along the way.
SM: What has writing contemporary novels allowed you to do that you couldn’t in the historicals?
KK: I think writing contemporary crime novels has allowed me to indulge in more absurdist fantasies. In my historical novels, I often tried to stay close to the actual true events of the time. This “reality” construct was used as a framework, or scaffolding, to build my fictional story. In both The Dime and The Burn I felt less constricted to that model. Some of the contemporary narrative started as a newspaper headline, for example, but I was able to move the resulting action in unexpected directions. I’ve really enjoyed bumping riiiight up against what stretches credulity.
SM: Has it presented any challenges?
KK: A lot of readers had grown accustomed to my works of historical fiction. And some were surprised at the seemingly abrupt shift to contemporary crime. So, it was a challenge to entice those people to read these latest two novels, especially if they weren’t enthusiastic crime readers to begin with. But, happily, many of those readers have now eagerly embraced Det. Betty and her adventures. I think it points to the importance of having relatable, courageous characters and compelling stories no matter the genre.
About Kathleen Kent: Kathleen Kent is the author of the Edgar Award-nominated The Dime, as well as the bestselling historical novels The Heretic’s Daughter, The Traitor’s Wife, and The Outcasts. Kent lives in Dallas, TX.
About Scott Montgomery: A legendary crime bookseller, Scott Montgomery runs MysteryPeople, the mystery bookstore within BookPeople. He also runs The Hard Word blog, covering hard boiled fiction. Always a crime fiction fan, Scott worked on the sales staff of the acclaimed and influential The Mystery Bookstore in Los Angeles for four years. He is a regular contributor to Crime Reads and his fiction has appeared on the site Shotgun Honey and in the anthologies Murder On Wheels, Lone Star Lawless, and Eyes Of Texas. His Bullet Book, Two Bodies, One Grave, debuted Fall 2019.
The Burn is available for purchase in-store and online now.