Wednesday, March 31, 2021

An Interview with Alicia Beckman (Leslie Budewitz) by E. B. Davis


When four women separated by tragedy reunite at a lakeside Montana lodge, murder forces them to confront everything they thought they knew about the terrifying accident that tore them apart, in Agatha Award-winning author Alicia Beckman's suspense debut.

Twenty-five years ago, during a celebratory weekend at historic Whitetail Lodge, Sarah McCaskill had a vision. A dream. A nightmare. When a young man was killed, Sarah's guilt over having ignored the warning in her dreams devastated her. Her friendships with her closest friends, and her sister, fell apart as she worked to build a new life in a new city. But she never stopped loving Whitetail Lodge on the shores of Bitterroot Lake.

Now that she's a young widow, her mother urges her to return to the lodge for healing. But when she arrives, she's greeted by an old friend--and by news of a murder that's clearly tied to that tragic day she'll never forget.

And the dreams are back, too. What dangers are they warning of this time? As Sarah and her friends dig into the history of the lodge and the McCaskill family, they uncover a legacy of secrets and make a discovery that gives a chilling new meaning to the dreams. Now, they can no longer ignore the ominous portents from the past that point to a danger more present than any of them could know.


Bitterroot Lake is a murder mystery. But it also combines with the historical and women’s literature genres, both with mystical elements. I’m beginning to look forward to these combined genre novels because they add dimensions to the story.


The book is dedicated to Ramona DeFelice Long. A long time ago, Ramona blogged here at WWK, and later, I employed her as my editor. Writing mystery is a small world, so I thought I’d know the writer, but I’d never heard of Alicia Beckman. When I turned the last page, the author was revealed—Leslie Budewitz was writing as Alicia Beckman. Blow me down!


I’ve interviewed Leslie here on books from both of her cozy mystery series. I know Leslie lives in Montana and went to school in Seattle, the settings of her series, but the writing and combined genres was so different from her usual writing, I didn’t put the two together.


For the first time, please welcome Alicia Beckman to WWK. For about the fourth time, please welcome Leslie Budewitz to WWK.                                                                                      E. B. Davis


Why this book—so different from your other series?


I love both my Food Lovers’ Village and Spice Shop series, and a few of my short stories form a historical series as well. As writers, we all have many stories to tell, and sometimes, they take a different tone or require a different structure. I’d long wanted to explore how women’s friendships evolve over time, something that’s been central in my life. I do that in my cozies, particularly in The Solace of Bay Leaves, the 5th Spice Shop book. But while I think the cozy is pretty flexible and can touch on social justice issues and difficult emotions, I also wanted to take a deeper dive beneath the surface of a family and a community to sometimes-uncomfortable places, into the fractures and the scars, and the ways we find to live with them.  


The book is structured by days of the week, a week in which the murder is solved, but in which many stories are revealed. Why that structure?

In the fall of 2019, I read Strangers at the Gate by Catriona McPherson, which uses a similar structure. When I start a book, I often think about what’s struck me in recent reads, and I realized that structure would work well here. It implies from the start that we’re going to dive right into the problem, whatever it is; that time element helps raise the stakes and, I hope, adds a bit of drive and compulsion to the story.


Main character Sarah McCaskill Carter is a new widow at the age of forty-seven. Do you have friends that are widows? Did you use them for researching what widows feel and face in the earliest stages of their grief?


I am a big advocate of emotional research, mining our memories and observations for insights into human experience, as well as reading books and articles about loss and grief. Though, fortunately, I have no close friends who were widowed at Sarah’s age, I’ve certainly watched older women, including my mother, sister-in-law, and friends who’ve been through the experience. A dear friend’s husband was diagnosed with cancer when their children were about the age of Sarah’s children—he’s doing quite well, thank goodness—but I saw the fear and the rawness that evoked, and imagined what the next stages might bring. Writing fiction requires the practice of empathy, which can be wrenching but is also deeply gratifying. If you do it well, and truly connect with the characters, then readers will connect with them, too, and have a satisfying emotional experience—which is, after all, one of the reasons we read.  


Historically, Sarah’s family—the McCaskills—have been wealthy sawmill owners and employers, wealthy enough to have predecessors who willed them a lodge with cabins and acreage on the other side of Bitterroot Lake from their hometown of Deer Park. The camp started as a summer home and continued in that capacity for generations. Although Sarah wants to help her mother inventory the lodge and plan its future, she isn’t prepared for the cleaning. Why haven’t the lodge and cabins been maintained over the years?


Sarah and her siblings’ lives have gone in different directions, with the sisters leaving Deer Park and the brother busy with the business and his own family. I suspect that their father’s death a few years before our story begins affected their connection to Whitetail Lodge as well, since it had been his family’s place. Peggy, their mother, has had some disquieting experiences in the lodge over the years, which have also contributed. Family property can be a great joy and connecting force, but it can also be a burden, especially financially. Here in Montana, some historic lodges have become commercial properties while others have passed into the control of community preservation groups. A few, happily, remain in family hands or have found other owners who treasure them. 


Sarah also isn’t prepared to run into her old friend Janine, who she finds camped out in one of the cabins, on the run from a murder scene. Even though Janine left Deer Park, where she, too, grew up, her history is well known there. In small towns, does history forever label you? Does trying to maintain privacy aid and abet the gossip mongers? 


Oh, yes, both those things can happen. Deer Park is a truly small town, well under 5,000, although it expands with tourists and summer people in season, which brings a different set of tensions. Small towns can have long memories.


Because of her history, Janine is afraid to go to the authorities after finding the body of a man the women knew when they were college age. Was it the attempted rape of her by the victim or her mother’s history that made Janine run from the scene?


Both. Janine is keenly aware that society dismisses some people, and that social labels can be passed from one generation to the next. She’s not sure how much she can trust Deer Park to have changed. That’s not an unreasonable fear, I think, when the past is so tragic and has so deeply scarred her. Of course, this is part of the burden Renee Harper carries as well.


Much like Janine, Sarah finds her history also hinders her, an unexpected slap. She’s looked upon as perfect, had it easy, married a man who became wealthy, had perfect children—and when others put Janine down for her poor history, others put Sarah down as being too high and mighty—even her younger sister Holly. How can it go both ways, and in each case, they are innocent? Cases of schadenfreude?


The biggest rift is between the sisters. Each knows she’s judging the other harshly, and wonders if that’s fair. Do they justify their actions—and their words—to themselves? They have in the past, but now that they’re face-to-face, they’re forced to acknowledge that they haven’t lived up to their expectations, in Sarah’s case, or been fully honest, in Holly’s. I’m fascinated by the layers within a long-term relationship, and the sometimes-profound impact of misperception and miscommunication.


The other three women seem to have kept more in touch with each other than Sarah has kept close to them. She feels guilty, but then she also lived in Seattle. Did she isolate herself or did the others exclude her?

A little of both, I think. It’s often the case that within a small cluster of friends, some bonds are stronger than others. Janine and Nic were united by being the outsiders, and of course, they both lived in Montana and saw each other, although Janine left for a while. And sometimes, physical distance becomes an excuse and emotional distance a habit.


Without spoilers, it’s fair to say that Sarah’s brother, Connor, and her late husband, Jeremy, make an important decision affecting her without telling her. They don’t seem particularly sexist, and yet their actions are troubling in a way. Why the secrecy? 


Quite simply, they think they’re protecting her, both by sparing her the decision and by the decision they make. When we try to protect people from painful emotions, we often create another layer of pain, missing an opportunity to connect on a deeper level and implicitly telling them we didn’t trust them to make good decisions.


Being human can involve some painful ambiguity and contradiction at times, can’t it?


Sarah finds two situations that she believes are mystical or self-invented to be real. The first are her dreams that she believes are warnings, and they may be that. The second are signs from her late husband. Do many new widows receive tangible proof from a dead spouse?


Turns out they do. After my sister-in-law’s husband died shortly before Christmas a few years ago, she often found an ornament from the holiday tree sitting on the floor, too far away to have simply fallen, or elsewhere in the room; she interpreted the incidents as a sign that he was thinking of her, and occasionally, that he wanted her to reach out to the person who had given them that ornament, which she did, always discovering that her call came at an important time. Other widows have told me similar stories. And it isn’t just widows—the story in the book of the artist who painted the angel clouds her murdered sister sent her was told to me by the artist. And I choose to believe that my mother, who adored bunnies, had a hand in the surprising number of snowshoe hares we saw around our house in the months after she died. (My pen name, by the way, is a tribute to her and her mother’s family.)


Bastet, the cat, Janine’s baking, and wine seem to be the only sources of creature comforts for the women. Do those shared comforts assist in keeping the peace among the women?


What a lovely insight! Those things, along with poring over the newly-discovered journal, albums, and letters from a century ago help them reconnect and restore their friendship. Those moments remind them that they have much more in common than the memory of the tragedy that tore them apart, and reassure them that their bonds are not hopelessly severed, that they can depend on each other again.


When Sarah finds her great grandmother Caro’s journal, she discovers that Caro and her friends had founded the Lakeside Ladies’ Aid Society, a group of wealthy women who loaned money to poorer women in need before social security and welfare were promulgated. Were there groups such as this around during the 1920s through the Depression era?


Women’s social and community clubs were hugely important from roughly the 1880s through the 1960s and ‘70s, but especially in new towns and rural communities in the west. Pioneering was often lonely and isolating, and farm and ranch women sometimes went weeks or even months without seeing another woman. I remembered my own mother’s involvement in church groups and the ways that good deeds were often done behind the scenes. It wasn’t much of a stretch to create the Lakeside Ladies’ Aid Society, a sort of secret “good works” club.  


Sarah also learns that she isn’t the only one suffering nightmares. Is this a true haunting since it’s recurred over the last 100 years?


One theory about such visitations is that they are tied to the site of an unsolved or unrectified death. That’s very much the case here, though I think I can say without giving too much away that what the spirit—if I can call it that—wants is not revenge, but a sort of fulfillment.


Is Bitterroot Lake the first in a series?


The book came about in a bit of an unusual way. My agent and I pitched a traditional mystery series, and got some interest, but Terri Bischoff at Crooked Lane thought the first in the series had the potential to be a standalone. I’d been very much interested in that, and after working with Terri at Midnight Ink, I trusted her judgment. Writing a standalone is different from writing a series—each decision, from setting to tone to subplots and more, can be made with just the one story in mind, and all the story questions need to be answered, since this is the one time your reader will meet these characters. And the tone and voice are different from my series books, which is probably why you didn’t recognize me as the author—I love that, by the way! So while the series potential exists, I have no plans for a series now.


What are you writing now?


I’m finishing edits for Carried to the Grave, a collection of Food Lovers’ Village short stories slated for summer; it includes a historical prequel set in 1910 featuring the contemporary protagonist’s great-grandparents. And I’m writing the next Spice Shop mystery, which should be out in spring 2022.


Thanks for having me here today, Elaine, and for great questions!


Tuesday, March 30, 2021

What We're Reading Now by WWK Authors

 As the Crow Flies by Craig Johnson


I came late to the Longmire series – both the Netflix and the written versions. I’ve binged on the Netflix series. Now I’m working my way through the books. In As the Crow Flies, Walt Longmire’s boots return to Wyoming ground following their brief forays into more mystical areas. Walt and Henry are location hunting for Cady’s wedding. While photographing scenes, a body clutching a bundle that turns out to be a baby falls from cliff. The mother is killed, the baby survives. Although Walt is the Absaroka County Sheriff, this death occurs on reservation land in Montana. Walt has no jurisdiction. The Tribal Chief of Police is a greenhorn who appeals to Walt for assistance and the investigation is on. It’s wonderful to have the Sheriff back in full cop mode and for an Easterner like me, to learn a few facts about tribal policing and justice along the way. The book is well written and engaging, although I could do with a bit more of Henry Standing Bear!

Kait Carson



The Man Who Came Uptown by George Pelecanos.


One of the main characters is Anna, a librarian who works with the inmate population in a DC jail (possibly based on the now-closed Lorton.)


It's the encouraging story of a man whose life was turned around by his discovery while incarcerated of the satisfaction that reading books can provide. He uses the new insight to change his life for the better. Upon his release, he struggles to overcome his past and people who think he owes them.


I'm enjoying the story and the setting, although there are a few times when my corrections-security radar blasts. Like the armed guards (shouldn't they be correctional officers?) in the chapel. Under ordinary circumstances, firearms are never permitted within the secure perimeter. Inmates can out-number officers 50 to 1 in some instances. It makes the officer a target; if someone wants that gun, he will get it, no problem, the officer be damned.


I'd suggest this as good reading for anyone who's interested in how difficult it can be to change direction once one has a criminal history under his/her belt.

K. M. Rockwood


The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths


Since I adore all Elly Griffiths’ books, especially the Ruth Galloway series, I couldn’t wait for the release of The Postscript Murders, second in the Harbinder Kaur series about a gay Sikh ? detective sergeant in the West Sussex Constabulary.


Told from multiple points of view in present tense (Griffiths nails it—not an easy task), the story revolves around Peggy Smith, a 90-year-old woman, nicknamed the “Murder Consultant” because she helped mystery authors come up with unique ways of killing people.


When Peggy is found dead one morning, no one is surprised—except her Ukrainian caregiver, Natalka Kolisnyk, a refugee and cryptocurrency genius, who is convinced Peggy was murdered.


DS Kaur is skeptical until Natalka and Peggy’s neighbor, ex-monk-turned-barista Benedict Cole, are held at gunpoint in Peggy’s apartment by an intruder who makes off with an obscure, out-of-print Golden Age mystery entitled Thank Heaven, Fasting.


When another literary murder is discovered, two investigations proceed along different tracks—the official investigation, led by DS Kaur, and the unofficial investigation, with Natalka, Benedict, and suave 80-year-old ex-radio-commentator Edwin Fitzgerald teaming up to follow clues that include a mysterious white Ford Fiesta, a literary festival in Scotland, and Peggy’s son, who seems in a hurry to get rid of his mother’s vast collection of mysteries.


Besides Griffith’s gorgeous writing, I love her wit and her wonderful characters. Fans of Agatha Christie, Anthony Horowitz, and Richard Osmond (The Thursday Murder Club) will love this new series as much as I do.

Connie Berry


Big Little Spies by Krista Davis


This book is all about secrets of the past, kept in the past. Main character Holly, who is in her late twenties, co-owns the Sugar Maple Inn with her grandmother, Oma. Guests come to the Inn to vacation with their pets in the Western North Carolina town of Wagtail. The town caters to tourists who want to vacation with their dogs and cats. There are no cars allowed in Wagtail. Residents and tourists park their cars in a lot outside of town and use golf carts to get around. Wagtail is a closed set, much like English mysteries set at country houses.


Wagtail Animal Guardians (WAG), an animal rescue organization, was started by a resident, a recently deceased wife of a local judge. The annual fundraiser/adoption charity ball has been organized by five women from the Raleigh branch of WAG, who are staying at Holly’s Inn for the festivities. When a murder occurs, people Holly cares about are implicated. Holly tracks the killer, but her animal friends help. She can interpret their behavior far better than the human animals.


This series is a fun read with all the creature comforts of a cozy mystery. Self-indulge yourself and pick up this book when the tiresome times we live in get you down.

                                                                                                                                    E. B. Davis  


All the Devils Are Here by Louise Penny

I've just finished listening to Louise Penny's All the Devils Are Here. What a marvelous book! Both a mystery and a thrilling suspense, this novel has to be one of the best in the Chief Inspector Gamache series.


In this, the sixteenth and most recent novel in the series, Armand Gamache and his entire family are in Paris. The have just had dinner with Gamache's godfather, Stephen Horowitz, both a wealthy industrialist and whistle blower, when Stephen is struck by a vehicle while they are crossing a street. Gamache believes it was a deliberate hit. His suspicions grow when a man is found murdered in Stephen's apartment. What was Stephen investigating? The issue is complex. It involves many powerful people and impacts the safety of thousands of people. There are touching emotional issues too: Armand's healing relationship with his son; the birth of a granddaughter. It's no wonder that Louise's books win so many awards.

                                                                                    Marilyn Levinson


An Extravagant Death by Charles Finch (Minotaur)

I have loved Charles Finch's Lenox mysteries since I read the first one years ago. But this newest addition to the series is so different and so beautifully written. An Extravagant Death presents London
Detective Charles Lenox at the top of his game, recognized even across the Atlantic for his amazing crime solving abilities. And the author, Charles Finch, is at the top of his game also.
Lenox is at a watershed moment: he is fifty years old with a wife and two daughters. For a man of the Victorian era with much lower life expectancy than now, he is already in a position where he is looking back on his life and sorting through his triumphs and regrets.

Then, Prime Minister Disraeli sends him on a mission to America, a land he has often wanted to see. While there, he finds himself in Newport, Rhode Island among the old and new rich in their “cottages” that dwarf the landscape. It is the time of the Astors and the Vanderbilts, an era so different from the knighted and landed families Lenox knows in England. Then a murder occurs, and Lenox is called in to help solve it. A beautiful girl in the blush of youth has been found dead. As Lenox applies his detective skills in a new and unfamiliar landscape, he begins to question so much that has been important to him.

There is a melancholy tone to this book that wasn't apparent in earlier stories. It seemed appropriate for a man looking back at his life. I loved the lyrical style of the author, the ease with which he described the period, the way he inhabited his detective completely, and the familiar characters we have come to love. 

Susan Van Kirk

Monday, March 29, 2021

The Unexpected Turn by Nancy L. Eady

 For 30 years, I have lived various places between Alexander City, Alabama and Montgomery, Alabama. Unremarkable for some, but for a Navy brat who moved every two to three years until she was 16, miraculous. Also, for 30 years, I have worked at the same building at the same firm. And in spite of such a confined geographical area, we have found jobs in the area that allowed my husband’s career to grow as well. If you had asked me six months ago, I would have said that we would spend the rest of our lives somewhere along this 50-mile stretch of road. Heck, I would have said the same thing last week when I wrote my last post. And I have been actively helping my husband search for a new job since October and praying for new opportunities and vistas for my family. We’ve always found a job for him in this area.

There are drawbacks to certainty. The biggest one for me was eventually retiring in the small town where we live. It’s nice enough, but the hour to two-hour round trip to go to Publix or Home Depot wears you down. I’m not from here, which makes friendship-making harder, especially right now during COVID, especially when coupled with the fact that I drive 45 minutes each way to work, and my husband drives an hour and 20 minutes one way.

There are positives to certainty. I don’t ever expect to love a house the way I love the house we live in. While friendship-making is harder, it’s not impossible and I have good friends here. And the building and people I work with are my home, too.

But, out of the blue, an opportunity has opened in the Birmingham area for my husband, and we are taking it. When the job offer first came, we felt like a dog must feel when he finally catches a car he is chasing. We didn’t know quite what to do with it. I’m still a little shell-shocked, caught somewhere between “Holy crap! I have a lot of stuff to get done,” and “Hot Dog! We’ll finally live in a bigger place.”  Not to mention navigating all the “what-ifs”—what if the house takes months to sell? What if we can’t find a decent house in the new area we can afford? What if our daughter is miserable up there once we move?

There are drawbacks to uncertainty. Worries pop up daily, imagined and real. The sense of continuity you had, before the uncertainty, departs. Familiar things look different. I saw my 15-year-old house one way last week and differently this week. You don’t quite realize how much needs to be done around a house until you get it ready to sell.

There are positives to uncertainty. It galvanizes you into action and tantalizes you with possibilities. Your soul stretches to reach new, unforeseen places. You take the most familiar things around you less for granted.

As a writer, the shift from certainty to uncertainty gives me new insights into my characters. It helps me empathize with my characters as I place them (deliberately, with malice aforethought) in difficult situations. It helps me understand more ways to describe to you, the reader, the feelings my character experiences. It gives me ideas on how characters are going to deal with the situation(s) I have placed them in. And it shows me why I am a sucker for happy endings. I would like nothing better than to end this next (hopefully brief) season of uncertainty with the words,” And they all lived happily ever after!”

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Refilling the Well by Annette Dashofy

My friend, Gigi Pandian, mentioned a while back that she has learned to take one day a week off from writing. I used to do that too, knowing the importance of refilling the well. But when Gigi wrote about it, I started thinking…when was the last time I took a real day off? Oh, I’ve taken a few half days. I would write in the morning and then spend the afternoon watching TV with my husband. But a full day? And somewhere “out?”

 It has to have been almost a year. I mean seriously. Where would we go? Out to eat or see a movie? Not happening. No visiting family or friends either. Last summer, we’d go for a drive and find a place to take a walk. But not far away. And if there was a crowd, we’d turn around and head home.

 It’s been a long year.

 And a long winter. I’ve started to feel the strain.

So I declared last Sunday a mental health day. Fishing season is almost here (which means I won’t see much of my husband on weekends), and he wanted to scout out the river and creeks where he’ll be casting flies. Off we went.

 After a two-hour drive to the Laurel Highlands, I placed a takeout lunch order on my phone. We ate in the parking lot. Then we headed into the wilderness.

I totally understand why my husband loves it here. I’m tempted to come with him and just sit on the bank and read.

 And then we came across this.

There’s a story there. My husband and I started making one up as we strolled back to the car. Neither of us knows the person memorialized by that cross, but we can imagine what he was like.

 And that’s the point of a mental health day. Refilling the well. Finding inspiration for new stories or clearing the cobwebs to better focus on the ones in progress.

 Fellow writers, do you take time away from your pages to refill the well? Dear readers, have you ever stumbled across something that made you wonder about the story behind it? Please share.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Pandemic Pros and Cons by Kait Carson

I collect sayings. My office file cabinets are covered with them. They stay until my cats decide they are wonderful play toys at which point they disappear. Two of my favorites are life begins at the end of your comfort zone (attributed to Neale Donald Walasch) and pray that you live in interesting times (attributed to a Chinese curse).


Interesting times, indeed. A year ago this month, I worked as a paralegal for a national law firm. I’d been at that job since 2004. It was hectic, crazy, and fulfilling. In my spare time—I wrote mysteries. On March 12, 2020, the firm announced that effective Friday, March 13th, it would transition all employees to work-from-home status. The projected reopening date was March 27th. As it turned out, the employees are still working from home, and I am now a full-time writer.


Nothing much about our current life resembles pre-pandemic times. Balancing on the knife-edge between the new and old world has been yeast for the bread of ideas. In pre-pandemic? days, the entrance to my bank lobby had a sign banning hoods (worn over the head) and sunglasses. Now it sports one declaring face masks covering the nose and mouth are mandatory. How much of the new reality should writers reflect in their writing? Will readers want to be reminded of life in the time of masks and social distance, or will they want to escape to pre-pandemic normality? It’s a tough call, and one that each writer of contemporary fiction has to answer for themselves.


The question has been hotly debated in Zoom meetings and Facebook groups. I’ve heard arguments on both sides of the issue. Some writers are concerned that if they address pandemic life their writing will be dated before it’s released. Others are concerned that by ignoring the pandemic, their writing will lack veracity and will anger readers. These are both valid concerns. Genre mystery writers have expressed a third consideration. Reader expectations. Noir and traditional readers accept the grittier aspects of the world on the page. The pandemic would not be out of place.


Cozy writers labor in a different field. Ours is the world of suggestion. Deaths take place off the page. We are kind to children and animals. We understand the conventions of our art, and the sensibilities of our readers. The world of the pandemic is harsh. We have been separated from our loved ones. We have been unable to offer empathy and kindness to the suffering. It is difficult to shape a cozy pandemic world, but will readers expect it?


Given the time lag between writing and publication, the question is an open one. I’ve not yet found references to the pandemic in my reading. That could change as books written post January 2020 come to market. My decision as a writer is to avoid including the pandemic. This is not as difficult as it sounds as my books are not date specific. They can comfortably exist in a parallel universe to real time. It will be interesting to see how others reflect these times at the end of the comfort zone.


Readers and writers, what are your pandemic preferences? Do you want to see them on the page or not?

Thursday, March 25, 2021

If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium by Connie Berry


If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium.

Who remembers the 1969 movie starring Suzanne Pleshette, Ian McShane (Lovejoy) and loads of other famous actors, including a young Patricia Routledge (Keeping Up Appearances)? The story is about a British tour guide (McShane) who ushers a busload of American tourists around Europe—nine countries in eighteen days—and falls for one of them (Pleshette, naturally).


We watched it again last night. It wasn’t the best movie I’ve ever seen, but what got me thinking about it is the month of March.


If it’s March, I should be in England.


We’ve been traveling to the UK twice a year—March and October—for a number of years. Last spring when COVID hit, we had to cancel our trip. Ditto October. This March as well.


My plan had been to do some research along the Suffolk coast, a main setting in my WIP. I’ve talked about this before. It’s not difficult to learn the history of a place, find interesting facts, and view photographs online; but there’s something about actually being there—smelling the sea, feeling the wind in your face, exploring seaside villages, tasting the food, meeting people, listening to their speech patterns, asking questions. You can’t get this from books. Or the internet. Fortunately, I have sources: a detective inspector in the Suffolk Constabulary; a practicing solicitor; an assistant priest in the Church of England; a contact in the Suffolk Coroner’s Court. This helps, but it doesn’t take the place of being there.


Since I can’t travel yet, I’ve been reminiscing with our photographs of previous trips. I thought I’d share some with you. We stayed in a restored fourteenth-century weaver’s cottage in Lavenham.

Lavenham, Suffolk, is a delightful village with a rich wool-trading history, a Grade I listed Guildhall (a building of national importance), a medieval house from 1390 on the main square, the picturesque Crooked House (once a tearoom, now for sale—at least it was as of this February), and several outstanding restaurants. 


Armchair travel isn’t travel, but it’s the best we have for now.


I can’t wait to board that big British Airways jet again. Until then I have my memories.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

An Interview with J. C. Kenney

by Grace Topping


During the past year, one of the things I’ve missed the most has been attending mystery conferences and running into friends like J. C. Kenny (aka Jim Cangany). I had the pleasure of meeting Jim at Malice Domestic, a conference of fans and writers of traditional mysteries, and learning about his mystery series, featuring Allie Cobb, a literary agent. Since then, I’ve been following each new book Jim releases, including his most recent one, A Deadly Discovery. Since an in-person Malice isn’t being held this year, I caught up with Jim online. It was a pleasure talking to him about his series. 



A Deadly Discovery

Back Cover Copy


Certain she’s seen more than enough death for one lifetime, literary agent Allie Cobb is ready to close the book on her amateur sleuthing, even when she learns that an unidentified body has been unearthed in a local state park. But when a worn and haunted-looking woman shows up on her doorstep with a grim story about her young daughter’s disappearance twenty years ago—and the police confirm that the recently discovered body is hers—Allie can’t bear to turn the poor woman away.

Determined to uncover the truth about the young woman’s murder, Allie begins delving into the circumstances of her life and those she knew so many years before. And when she meets powerful resistance from those she questions—many of whom are now trusted leaders in her small, tight-knit community—she’s sure she’s on the right track. But as she narrows down the list of suspects, Allie realizes too late that a cold-blooded killer is dead-set on keeping the secrets of the past buried, and it will take all her wit and cunning to avoid becoming the second young woman to meet an untimely end . . .



Welcome back to Writers Who Kill, Jim.


In your Allie Cobb Mystery Series, you’ve included interesting details about Allie’s job as a literary agent, including doing a happy dance when a client gets a book offer. Have you ever worked as an agent? If not, what was your best resource for information about the field?


I haven’t, and I tip my hat to all the hard-working agents out there. It’s a job I couldn’t do. I rely on two resources for information on agent life. First, is my wonderful agent Dawn Dowdle of Blue Ridge Literary Agency. She and I have been working together since 2015. I’ve learned a lot from her simply by talking with her about what she does, as well as paying attention to how she interacts with other clients. Another source is my writer friend, C.H. Armstrong, who’s also a literary agent for The Purcell Agency. Knowing two literary agents has been a big help in writing about Allie’s “day job.”


After having a really bad experience in A Mysterious Mix Up, you would think Allie would be shy of getting involved in another case or would need some prodding. But in A Deadly Discovery, when she hears about the discovery of a body of someone who has been missing for twenty years, she readily agrees to get involved with the investigation. Why? 


I think that, at the end of the day, Allie has a servant’s heart. Given the circumstances around the person who asks for her help, she simply couldn’t say no. Along that line, Allie experienced being bullied growing up, so she has a strong motivation to come to the aid of those who she sees as having been treated unjustly. 


Over the course of the series, Allie has begun experiencing anxiety attacks. What has accounted for that? Besides seeing a counselor, how is she dealing with it?


Allie never intended to become a murder investigator. It was something that just happened. After a while, though, looking death in the eye from such a close distance has begun to wear on her psychologically. The anxiety attacks are a manifestation of that. At the end of A Mysterious Mix Up, she realized she needed help coping with what she’s gone through. Seeking professional counseling has done just that. She’s also been honest with friends and family about her challenges. She understands ignoring her mental health is a prescription for disaster.


Allie turns to use a punching bag. Does taking out her aggression on the bag helping her?


Absolutely! Working out with the bag helps her in a lot of ways. She’s a tiny woman and uses the workouts to keep her self-defense skills sharp. It also helps her maintain physical fitness. Walking and bike riding are great, but the bag gives her the chance to work on other muscle groups, especially in the upper body. Lastly, the endorphin release that comes with the workouts is a big help. She gets rid of the negative feelings and feels so much better afterward.


Allie often resorts to things like drinking chamomile tea to help her relax and using tea tree shampoo. Is she getting into natural products to help herself? 


Her mom’s a physician, so Allie trusts traditional, science-based medicine. Shortly after moving back to Rushing Creek, she tried some natural products on a whim when she was having trouble sleeping and found they helped her. She doesn’t know if it’s a placebo effect, but she feels better using herbal teas and natural bath products, so she’s not going to question the results. Plus, she buys the products from a friend in town. She’s always happy to help a local business.


I read somewhere that authors use details from their own lives and experiences but start running out of personal material about book seven. Do you draw on your own life for your books? If so, are you running out of material?


My life’s pretty boring, so I ran out of that material a while back. LOL These days, I find myself drawing on the experiences of my family. For example, my wife is a genetic counselor. Her work in the genetics field gave me an idea that became the basis of the plot of A Deadly Discovery. My younger child is studying music education in college. I’m using his love of music in a new series I’m working on.


As a male writer with a female main character, do you ever hear from beta readers or fans that Allie wouldn’t say or do that, etc.?


You know, I don’t. I may have a reason for that. Before I got into mysteries, I published seven novels and one short story in the contemporary romance genre. One of the lessons I learned early on was the importance of taking the time to get inside of a female’s head and really get to know her as a whole person. I ask questions about what she likes to eat, what are her hobbies, what are the things that matter to her on an everyday level. Things like that. I hope the result of that effort comes across on the page.  


Do you use sensitivity readers to ensure you get the female viewpoints or characteristics right?


I used to but haven’t in the past few years. I’d like to think that the lessons I learned over the years get put to use automatically, nowadays. When in doubt, I don’t hesitate to go to my wife for guidance, though.


Fans love Ursula or Ursi, Allie’s cat. She is unusual that she will walk attached to a leash. Have you had or seen a cat that will do that?


I’ve never seen it in person, but my wife did one time when she was in Boston on business. She was so excited, she took a picture and sent it to me. I tried to get my cat, Maria, to walk on a leash, but she had no interest in it. I watch a lot of cat videos and see it in them from time to time. While it’s not a common sight, I get the sense it happens more frequently in large, urban settings where people live in apartments and take their pets outdoors to give them exercise.


Allie follows music groups that someone in my age group probably wouldn’t be familiar with. Are you a fan of these groups, or are you just good at finding the music someone in Allie’s age group would listen to?


A little of both, actually. I love listening to music from young, up-and-coming artists. I joke with my kids, both of whom are fans of classic rock, that I heard those songs enough when I was growing up. I don’t need to hear them again. I also think it's important to be mindful of the fact that Allie’s in her early thirties. That’s young enough for her to be my daughter. I don’t think it would be realistic for her to listen to the same music her parents do.


Allie gets around on her bike. Why only a bike and not a car?


She spent almost a decade living in New York City and found she could get around fine using public transportation. By the time she moved back to Rushing Creek, she’d gotten used to life without a car and didn’t want the expense that comes with owning one. She’s happy to admit that Rushing Creek is so small, she can get around on two wheels most of the time. When she needs four wheels, her family is happy to lend her a car. She always fills the tank as a thank you.


With so many authors writing a number of series, have you given any thought to another series?


Yes. I’m actually just starting work on one. In the new series, the amateur sleuth works in a record store near a college campus. Book one in the series, currently titled Record Store Reckoning, is scheduled for release in March 2022. I’ll be leaning on my younger son heavily for help with this one.


What’s next for Allie and her friends?


I’m about ready to submit book five in the series to my editor. The idea for this one, tentatively called An Unsafe Solution, comes from real life. My wife’s brother lives in the country. He told us how one time he was driving home and almost hit a gun safe that someone had dumped in the middle of the road. Well, that got me to wondering why someone would do that. That scenario forms the basis for An Unsafe Solution, which should be out in January of next year.


Thank you, Jim. Sounds like we have a lot to look forward to from you.


To learn more about J. C. Kenney and links to his books, visit