by Grace Topping
Most of us only know what goes on in the nation’s capital from what we read in the paper, see in the news, or portrayed, not always accurately, on TV or in the movies. Colleen Shogan, who has worked as a Senate staffer and at the Library of Congress, writes mysteries set in Washington with an authenticity you don’t always find with other writers. If you haven’t discovered Colleen Shogan’s Whodunit series, you are in for a treat. She has written four books in the series, starting with Stabbing in the Senate. Her fifth book, Gore in the Garden, will be released in July. It was a pleasure interviewing Colleen and hearing about what motivated her to write about murder on Capitol Hill.
Stabbing in the Senate
(First in the Whodunit series)
Life is good for Kit Marshall. She’s a staffer in D.C. for a popular senator, and she lives with an adoring beagle and a brainy boyfriend with a trust fund. Then, one morning, Kit arrives at the office early and finds her boss, Senator Langsford, impaled by a stainless steel replica of an Army attack helicopter. Panicked, she pulls the weapon out of his chest and instantly becomes the prime suspect in his murder. Circumstances back Kit’s claim of innocence, but her photograph has gone viral, and the heat won’t be off until the killer is found. Well-loved though the senator was, suspects abound. Langsford had begun to vote with his conscience, which meant he was often at odds with his party. Not only had the senator decided to quash the ambitions of a major military contractor, but his likely successor is a congressman he trounced in the last election. Then there’s the suspiciously dry-eyed Widow Langsford. Kit’s tabloid infamy horrifies her boyfriend’s upper-crust family, and it could destroy her career. However, she and her free-spirited friend Meg have a more pressing reason to play sleuth. The police are clueless in more ways than one, and Kit worries that the next task on the killer’s agenda will be to end her life.
Welcome, Colleen, to Writers Who Kill.
What inspired you to write the Washington Whodunit series and your first book, Stabbing in the Senate?
As a former Senate staffer, were you a bit nervous about how your book would be received by congressional staffers? What was their reaction?
A bit. But I wrote the book with as much realism as possible, including details that only someone who had worked in Congress would know or understand. I was really heartened that a lot of staff told me they enjoyed the book and appreciated the details I included. A few Members of Congress also read it and loved it – I know some female Senators, in particular, really enjoyed reading it. Of course, I had to play a little fast and loose with a few realities so that I could empower my protagonist sleuth, Kit Marshall. I think most readers of cozy or traditional mysteries understand that reality.
Were you ever tempted to use a pseudonym?
No, absolutely not. One of the underlying goals of my books is to provide readers outside Washington, D.C. with insider knowledge about the inside workings of our nation’s capital. I also want readers to understand that our elected officials and the staff they employ are largely well-meaning, hardworking people. I hope to engender a level of respect about our government. Even if readers don’t like the outcomes emerging from Washington these days, I try to convey that our federal workforce is often trying its best to serve the American people. That’s a message I stand squarely behind.
Working on Capitol Hill has enabled you to write about the Senate and House with great authenticity. Have you ever had people question things you’ve included in your books?
No, but I’ve really enjoyed chasing down a few details for the books. There’s a very unusual murder weapon in Homicide in the House, and I was lucky to speak to a couple high-level congressional staff about it before I wrote the book. K Street Killing features several lobbyists as characters. I spent time with some friends and acquaintances who work as lobbyists before working on that story. I think it helped me get as many details right as possible.
Do you find Washington insiders being more guarded around you once they learn about your writing?
That hasn’t happened yet. Who knows? If I become more famous, maybe people will run away from like they do when they see Bob Woodward coming!
Have you had people tell you they recognize themselves in your books?
Not too much. I am very careful to create original characters in my books. I may adopt behaviors or motivations from people I know well, but I don’t base characters on people I interact with on a regular basis. The only character that is based directly on a living being is Clarence the dog. He is based on my real-life beagle mutt, Conan. I’ve talked to Conan several times about this and he’s comfortable with his portrayal as Clarence as long as I keep paying him royalties in dog biscuits.
You work at the Library of Congress. Did your love of books and experience as a writer influence you to take a position there?
I started at the Library of Congress working at the Congressional Research Service, the division of the Library that provides Congress with nonpartisan information and analysis about policy and the legislative process. Several years ago, I switched jobs to work in the outreach and public programs division for the entire Library. I really enjoyed working with several initiatives that promote reading, writing, and literacy, including the National Book Festival. One of my all-time favorite experiences was spending a morning with Stephen King. He was incredibly gracious and even bought Homicide in the House on his Kindle when he found out I wrote mysteries!
It’s terrific when your day job complements your own personal interests. The Library of Congress staff is incredibly creative. It has been fun working alongside people who support my fiction writing.
What are some of your duties in your current job as Assistant Deputy Librarian of Collections and Services?
I have diverse responsibilities, which include the National Library Services for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, the Kluge Center for Scholars, and our Library-wide Internship and Fellowship Program. I’m also the Librarian’s representative on the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission. I’m really looking forward to celebrating the 100thanniversary of the nineteenth amendment. It’s an important milestone, and it couldn’t come at a better time in our nation’s history. We need to reflect about the women who fought for the right to vote, and we also need to think critically about women’s political participation and leadership in the future.
How was it seeing your books in the Library of Congress collection?
I love seeing my books in the Library of Congress’s online card catalog. I admit I’ve only seen one of my books in the stacks, and it was quite a long time ago. Your question makes me want to get the call number of Stabbing in the Senate and track it down.
You teach a course on American politics at Georgetown. Do your students know about your background as a mystery writer? Do they question you about it?
I’m sure some do. Everyone knows how to use Google. Sometimes, a student will ask me about my fiction writing or tell me that he or she has read one of my books. I’m always flattered. I thank all of my readers for choosing my novels, since there are so many well written, readily available choices these days.
Your character Kit Marshall rubs elbows with some powerful people in Washington, including her wealthy future in-laws. How do you keep her grounded?
Kit has an eclectic group of friends who help her solve mysteries and stay busy. Her best pal Meg is an entertaining character to write. She’s impetuous, always ready for a party, and flirty. Love interest Doug, a Georgetown history professor, dislikes Kit’s sleuthing initially but then decides to join the fun. Finally, Trevor is a bit of a know-it-all who takes great pleasure in always being right.
Humorous moments in your books provide some comic relief. Did you intend to include humor, or did you find it creeping in and decided to go with it?
I find that everyday life is quite humorous. So, there was no doubt my books were going to contain a few laughs.
In their quest to solve murders, Kit and friends Meg and Trevor visit other places in the Washington area like Mount Vernon, the Smithsonian, and the National Archives. Is there a spot in Washington you find particularly fascinating and would like to include in a book?
The National Arboretum has always been on my list, but there hasn't been an opportunity thus far to include it. One of these days, it will fit in and I’ll get to write a thrilling scene at the Arboretum. Another good spot is Teddy Roosevelt Island. I haven’t figured out how to work that in, either.
What’s next for Kit Marshall? Will we be seeing more of her in future books?
Absolutely. My next book is titled Gore in the Garden and it will be released in July 2019. It’s set at the U.S. Botanic Garden, which is both a beautiful and creepy place. It turns out that plants are downright deadly. Kit Marshall will find that out the hard way.
Thank you, Colleen.
You can learn more about Colleen Shogan and her books at http://www.colleenshogan.com.
Coming in July
Gore in the Garden
(Fifth in the Whodunit series)
After her boss narrowly escaped political defeat, Kit Marshall is settling into life as a busy congressional staffer. While attending an evening reception at the United States Botanic Garden, Kit’s best friend Meg stumbles upon the body of a high-ranking government official. The chairwoman of a congressional committee asks Kit to investigate, and she finds herself once again in the thick of a murder investigation. The complications keep coming with the unexpected arrival of Kit’s younger brother Sebastian, a hippie protestor who seems more concerned about corporate greed than the professional problems he causes for his sister. To make matters even worse, the romantic lives of Kit’s closest friends are driving her crazy, diverting her attention from the mystery she’s been tasked to solve. The search for the killer requires her to tussle with an investigative journalist right out of a noir novel, a congresswoman fixated on getting a statue of James Madison installed on the Capitol grounds, and a bossy botanist who would do anything to protect the plants he loves. When the murderer sends a threatening message to Kit via a highly unusual delivery mechanism, Kit knows she must find the killer or risk the lives of her friends and loved ones.