I have to admit, I served as a beta reader for TG Wolff’s, Exacting Justice. But it wasn’t this book that actually turned my head to TG’s writing. Written under the name Anita DeVito, her short story, “Screwed Up,” in the fourth SinC Guppy Anthology, Fish Out of Water, had me laughing out loud. I loved it and wrote to tell her how much I enjoyed that story. I’ve accepted requests from fellow writers to beta read—with trepidation. But knowing how well TG wrote, I had no qualms accepting when she asked me to read her novel. What I didn’t know—Exacting Justice was an entirely different kettle of fish from her LOL short.
Vigilante murder of drug dealers. TG’s main character, a homicide detective, Jesus De La Cruz, is in the cross-hairs. The case is high profile, political, and pointed. Cruz knows the victims after coming off years as an undercover narcotics officer, but that doesn’t help or hinder his investigation when heads are mounted on the gateways to the city. The case is deliciously complex, no easy answers, and Cruz can only do his job.
How did the deal with Down & Out Books come about?
The deal with Down & Out happened thanks to a writer friend, Kyra Jacobs, who saw a call for queries. She knew of them through an acquaintance of hers, Les Edgerton, who published with Down & Out. Cruz (my nickname for both the man and the book) was complete and Kyra had read a very early version. With her encouragement, I submitted him. We all know the chances of a query working are around lightning-to-one. Well, I was certainly struck six weeks later when they asked to see the whole manuscript. I nearly panicked. Cruz was too long. Eeek! What should I do?!?! Kyra told me to submit him and say thank you. I did. Weeks later, the email that I thought was a thanks-but-no-thanks letter was an offer to publish.
You live(d) in Cleveland. Was there an incident that precipitated this story?I selected Cleveland for the setting because I needed a place I knew intimately. Exacting Justice is a serial killer story. I didn’t just need one crime scene, I needed many. World building isn’t my thing, but I love places that capture my imagination. Cleveland has always done that for me.
The story itself is about more than a killer, it’s about the police that pursue and the victims. With so much news and information being disseminated through social media, the multi-dimensional aspects of the people involved-criminals, cops, victims- are lost. The sad circumstances of Tamir Rice’s death in 2014 was a heavy influence on the portrayal of police, victims, friends, and families.
You wrote the story using multiple POVs. Which ones, and why?
The story is written from two points of view. Det. Jesus De La Cruz is the dominant voice. We see everything he sees. His experiences are interspersed with diary entries from the killer. The lives of the two characters are indelibly linked from the time Cruz sets foot on the first crime scene. As the killer gains success, Cruz faces increased pressure. When Cruz asserts control, the killer reacts. The reader has deeper insights to the story than Cruz does himself. He makes mistakes, well, if not mistakes, wrong moves. Perhaps the best analogy is the game Battleship. The reader is looking over the players shoulders, knowing that the torpedo is missing the target.
As far as why I wrote it this way…the killer demanded a role in this book. The killer is nothing as simple or one-dimensional as a killing machine. The diary entries aren’t the rantings of a mad-person but are a testament to the struggles with depression, obligation, and making a difference in a community.
Cruz was an undercover narcotics officer. He keeps his private and professional lives separate. Why does that cause him grief with his mom? If he explained would that solve her problem with him?
Although it isn’t explored in this book, Cruz’s father died in a single car accident when he was about twelve. He became the man of the house. Who is to say how much his mother really expected from him and how much a young boy internalized and took on himself, but the end result is that Jesus De La Cruz is a man for whom the man’s role is to take care of his family. His family is immensely proud when he is recruited by the Cleveland police and when he has success working against the illegal drug culture. The gritty side of his life is something that he sees as a negative, and so decides it will never touch his family.
If he explained his life, would it solve his problems with his mother? Yes, I think it would greatly reduce the stress between them. She, being who she is, would probably start bringing him advertisements for different jobs to “help.” Being self-sufficient is fundamental to Cruz’s character. As is often the case, it is his greatest strength and his greatest weakness.
Who is Dr. Oscar? Is he Cruz’s doctor or friend?
Dr. Oscar Bollier is Cruz’s AA Sponsor. Bollier attended to Cruz when he was hospitalized after the drug bust that went bad and re-directed Cruz’s career. Bollier can come off as elitist, but he certainly doesn’t see himself that way. While he cares deeply about people and their welfare, he doesn’t care if he has their approval. He did in his twenties and into his thirties, which lead him into the bottle. Now in his fifties, he doesn’t give a damn about saying the right things and climbing ladders.
Had Cruz been outed in his undercover role?
No. Cruz’s first stint undercover ended in a chaotic, nightmare of a drug bust where an engine block met his face. He was unconscious when he was dragged out and, more or less, disappeared from his undercover life. In the second incarnation, he says he went to Southern Ohio to live with family while he recovered. When this story ends, his cover is still intact—not that there is a plan to use it again. Yet.
Why does Cruz want to be “Calm, Collected, and Content?”
We all want what we don’t have. For some it’s money. Others influence or prestige. Still some other it’s a physical beauty. For Cruz, it’s peace of mind. Since long before the accident, he felt like a hamster on a wheel, running, running, running but getting nowhere. Being plucked out of his life took away any semblance of control he had—and make no mistake, Cruz has control issues. Part of beating alcohol is finding a well of calm, collected and content inside of himself.
There were very few true victims in Exacting Justice, but if there was one, it was Haley Parker. But when the reader first meets her, we have little sympathy for her. Why?
This was an insightful question. You are right, she is one of the few real victims. When we first meet her, she has called the police because of a drive-by shooting on her house the night before Halloween. In the time Cruz is with her, we see her be demanding, then reticent, and then shut down under her husband’s sharp glare. If it is hard to have sympathy for Haley, it’s because we see the potential in her and the choices that led her to the beat-down life she has. We are sympathetic when life beats someone down but nearly universally unsympathetic when someone won’t help themselves.
Matt Yablonski worked with Cruz in narcotics. Does the phrase hiding in plain sight capture the massive, bald, and bearded cop?
Yeah, Yablonski doesn’t blend and yet he’s very effective at what he does.
“See that big, bald guy that looks like a Narc?”
“He’s a Narc.”
“No way, man. Too obvious.”
We all make judgements based on appearance. It’s our nature. Yablonski looks like a stereotypical thug or dumb linebacker, and that’s his superpower. He is very smart, resourceful, and quick witted. The bad guys don’t stand a chance.
Aurora Williams, Cruz’s new girlfriend, has problems with him, or maybe his job. Doesn’t he finally have to concede she has a point?
She does have a point. A valid one. This comes back to Cruz’s issue with separating work and private life. He fails at it time and time again because he hasn’t learned the lesson that nobody has two lives. Each of us only gets one. To be successful (however you chose to define success) all the different aspects have to be married together. There is a scene where Cruz screws up big with Aurora. It’s so big, he expects her to break up with him. As painful as it is, he accepts she will leave him without considering that if he changes the way he handles his job, he could keep both. Cruz is a top-notch cop, but when it comes to his relationships, he’s barely out of high school.
What do the criminal profilers say about the suspect?
The profilers say the suspect has strong tendencies to protect those he sees as potential victims. He He does not view himself as a killer or criminal but as a defender. The suspect is careful and deliberate, planning out each act. There is some connection to holidays, although not all. The suspect believes he is righteous and, as such, does not act guilty. You don’t run when you aren’t being chased.may have been a victim himself.
My brother has worked in the drug and alcohol and criminal system his entire career. He is currently a mental health supervisor in a prison. When I had the concept for the suspect, I talked to him about it to ensure the suspects motivations were credible. In Exacting Justice, the suspect has been given a mission from God. Usually when someone talks about a mission or a calling it is to work with poor, feed the hungry, save neglected children. With this suspect, the mission is to protect a city from the evil of drugs. One key to the suspect is…he isn’t acting like a criminal. He’s just a guy, doing the job he was tasked with to the best of his ability.
Why does Cruz consult a grief counselor?
The theory that the crimes are perpetrated from within the drug world falls apart as the victims have little in common. Cruz develops a theory of a crusader, someone who is acting out against drugs violently but methodically. He considers what circumstances could have lead to that first incident and identifies grief as a potential cause.
Cruz realizes that Dr. Chen, who consults for the Cleveland police, draws on information from textbooks and articles. He has lived, to some extent, within the protected walls of the police force. He can cite the theories and case studies but can’t offer the personal insights of one who administers to real people. The gap in his understanding leads him to reach out through Oscar Bollier to a working counselor. The brief session gives him some base for evaluating the potential suspects. He sees a few of the different ways grieving can manifest as coping mechanisms with the suspects. Rage. Depression. Determination to change the system. Disassociation. Sad acceptance. All can be unpredictable but only one killed.
Is Exacting Justice the first of a series? Does the story continue?
Det. Jesus De La Cruz will have a series. While the door on this particular story will stay shut for a few more years, there are plenty of intriguing cases for Cruz and Yablonski to sink their teeth into. The next one is a modern telling of the Medusa legend where the question is…is the Medusa really the monster or a victim in need of a hero. Cruz’s closest friends are divided on the question.
You’ve written short, long, humor, thrillers, police procedural, mystery, etc. What’s your favorite length and subgenre?
I tend to favor longer pieces, 80,000-110,000 words. There is enough word count for a delightfully detailed mystery AND to have a little fun, too. All my stories have humor in them. When it comes to subgenre, it’s easier to say what I don’t like. I don’t like true crime. I don’t like graphic violence in any genre. For me, it’s about the mystery.
If you wanted to live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Of the places I’ve been to so far, I would live in Italy. Either in the Tuscan countryside or Venice. I love the mix of modern and ancient, the freshness of the food, and the musical nature of the language. It would be an amazing life to write mysteries while sipping cappuccino with my afternoon cookies.