I first got to know Sarah E. Glenn when I submitted my short stories to two anthologies she put together: Strangely Funny and All Hallows’ Evil. When I found out she had recently written a mystery with her friend Gwen Mayo that would be coming out this month, I contacted her and asked if I could have a copy in advance so I could interview her for Writers Who Kill.
Murder on the Mullet Express is a quirky mystery that had me laughing throughout and also wondering who the murderer was. The story takes place in Florida in the mid 1920’s. The main characters are two friends who were nurses during World War I: Cornelia Pettijohn and her friend Teddy Lawless. Cornelia’s Uncle Percival, a retired professor and inventor, is looking for a home in Florida. When their car breaks down, they ended up taking a train called the Mullet Express to a new housing development that was being promoted. Their biggest problem is keeping Uncle Percival out of trouble. Of course, being a mystery, one of the passengers is given poison on the train and then dies in the same hotel they’re staying in. Cornelia’s uncle becomes a suspect. So she and her friend work to find out who the real murderer is. The book kept me on edge when gangsters become involved – it was during the years of Prohibition when gangsters were fighting for territories.
Gwen, I read that you’re a history junkie, and I’m assuming you chose Florida for the mystery since you both live in Florida. How much research did you have to do to make it as accurate to the times as possible?
My historical mysteries are rooted in the time and place. I want readers to see the lights strung in the branches of live oaks and smell the river. That requires me to do a lot of research before I ever sit down to write out a plot. I like to start with the physical history that still survives: historic buildings, features of the landscape, the vegetation, roads and other travel routes.
Nothing puts you into a place like walking where the characters are going to be and looking at what they would see. After I’ve gathered as much as I can from a visit, I turn to photographs and newspapers from the time. Products used, shops, movies, and people step out of the pages of local papers. Baseball player Dazzy Vance, Sheriff Bowden and mob boss Charlie Wall, along with the land speculators and binder boys, come alive in my head when I’m digging through those historic documents. I hope that comes through when readers open the book.
Sarah, I understand that your great-aunt was a nurse in World War I, and was injured by poison gas during the war. So I’m assuming that was the reason why you chose to have Cornelia and Teddy to be nurses in that war. Is eddy based on your Aunt Dess? How much is Teddy like her?
Cornelia is much, much more like Aunt Dess. She had a strong personality, a no-nonsense approach to life, and a fondness for birdwatching. Teddy has the lung damage, but her fun-loving nature is closer to Nora Charles’ or Auntie Mame’s than my great-aunt’s.
Is Uncle Percival totally fictitious or are some parts of him based on some historical figure or a family member? I found him delightful.
Uncle Percival first appears in Concealed in Ash, the second book in Gwen’s Nessa Donnelly series. I became enamored of him, so we included him in the short stories we wrote for the, Speed City, SinC anthologies. The dynamic between him and the ladies worked very well, so he became an integral part of the novel. He wasn’t based on a specific person, but a personality that distinctive doesn’t come out of nowhere.
Sarah, you have a degree in journalism, and you also worked the reports desk for the Police Department in Lexington, Kentucky – where you learned criminals really are dumb. There were some really dumb crooks in this book. I’m assuming you might have used some of your knowledge from that job. Am I right?
Most people don’t think about the way a crime can go wrong, which is why, World’s Dumbest Crooks, on TruTV never runs out of material. People in law enforcement see this stuff all the time. Sending plans awry was easy with someone as unpredictable as the professor. Charlie Wall, on the other hand, wasn’t dumb. He ran away from home at thirteen, but became a multi-millionaire through sports betting because of his math skills. He built his gambling empire in his twenties.
I’m amazed when I find out that a book is written by two authors. I tried that with one of my sisters, and had to drop that before we got through five chapters. How well did the two of you work together? Did one of you write one of the characters and the other one of the other characters? How long have the two of you been friends?
We’ve have been together since the early 1990s. We do have characters that ‘belong’ more to one of us than the other, and sometimes the dialogue comes from one of us saying a line and the other playing off of it. That happened frequently with the scenes where Teddy is hung over.
Gwen and I have different approaches to writing when we’re working alone. She starts writing from the beginning of the story, and doesn’t skip around. I write down the first scenes that gel in my head and work backwards and forwards from them. Left to my own devices, I often have to move text to get it into the proper chronological order. We’ve had to make adjustments, but I’ve written with other people before, mostly for fun. It helps if the focus is on the story and what serves it.
I liked the author pages at the end that described what some words meant or the places involved that were in your book. I also found it interesting that Gwen was an engineer and brakeman for four years and one of the last engineers to be certified on steam locomotives. No wonder the Mullet Express was included and Professor Pettijohn was so interested in the locomotive. They say write what you know, and you gals certainly did that with this book. Do you have a sequel to this book planned?
I have the plots for two sequels for this junket to Florida. The next book will be Murder at the Million Dollar Pier. The professor wanted to be in St. Petersburg for his birthday, but ended up spending it in jail. They will make it to St. Petersburg and find a world of trouble while mingling with the rich and famous. Sarah has my outline and is working on it now. After that is Ybor City Blues. Teddy is going to be called by her gangster pal Chago, when he gets charged with the brutal murder of a beautiful blues singer he’s been seeing.
I’m looking forward to reading the next in your series. Let me know when it’s out. Thank you for being on Writers Who Kill.
Gwen is also the author of the Nessa Donnelly Mysteries, which I have yet to read, but look forward to doing and is also author of Three Snowbirds stories with Sarah. Sarah has short stories that have appeared in various anthologies.
To order the Murder on the Mullet Express on Amazon go to:https://www.amazon.com/Murder-Mallet-Express-Three-Snowbirds/dp/0
Do you enjoy historical novels?
Have you ever ridden on a train with a steam engine?