Book Review: Entangled by J. Evan Stuart

What makes for a good mystery? For me, it is having a sleuth who is memorable. Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Sam Spade, Phryne Fisher, Kinsey Milhone, Nick and Nora Charles, Mr and Mrs North, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Morse, Inspector Barnaby, Matt Scudder.

I don’t remember the individual cases, the puzzles the detectives solved, I remember the detectives themselves. They are colorful, unique, quirky, and have a splash of panache.

For me, the characters make the story and therefore I tend to be quite forgiving if the puzzle is less than perfect, because I don’t really care about the puzzle anyway. And this holds true for me no matter what genre I read. Give me interesting characters and I am happy, just like that proverbial clam. The story is only there to make the character shine. It is as Ray Bradbury said, create your character, let him do his thing, and there is the story.

In Entangled by J Evan Stuart, Detective Sonya Reisler is just such a sleuth. She’s memorable. She has a strong sense of justice. She wants to prove herself and is willing to take risks to do so. And she has a past.

We love angst-filled detectives, don’t we? Matt Scudder, Jackson Brody, Phryne Fisher, Aimée Leduc, my own Justinia Wright. A past the detective is trying to hold at bay or run from. A haunting past he or she can’t get rid of any more than they can get rid of their brains.

Sonya has a past. A past which forces her to make decisions she might not otherwise make and to trust people no normal police detective would trust. And that’s what makes Entangled such a good read. It is the rollercoaster ride we emotionally share with Sonya as she tries to find the real killer instead of hanging it on the easy and innocent victim which the lazy sheriff wants to do — and at the same time deal with her demons.

Not that Entangled isn’t a good story in its own right, for it is. The storyline kept me on the edge of my seat. A classic howdunit, with a whizz-bang ending. What is significant, in my opinion, is that the story is the perfect stage on which the characters can do their thing and in the process tell us their stories. To me, that is the work of a superb writer.

This debut novel by J Evan Stuart is not only exquisite entertainment, it goes deeper and addresses what touches us as human beings most deeply: namely, relationships; both their significance and importance to us as social creatures. For even the most misanthropic curmudgeon amongst us still responds to a kind word and a gentle touch.

Entangled by J Evan Stuart is very highly recommended. The book is truly a cut above and one not to be missed.

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Let’s Sample a Murder!

Next week I’ll publish The Conspiracy Game, the 4th book in the Justinia Wright, PI series.

Back in 1982, when I read Raleigh Bond’s story “Meet Athalia Goode”, the editor of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine made the complaint there weren’t enough female detectives. Which, at the time, was very true. Other than Miss Marple and a Sharon McCone mystery, the only other female sleuths were out of print Victorians.

However, 1982 was a seminal year. For it saw the appearance of the second Sharon McCone mystery and the introduction of Kinsey Milhone and V. I. Warshawski. Since then, there has been an explosion of female sleuths to the point where they now seem to dominate the field.

Justinia Wright was born in 1982, in the hopes she’d be my claim to fame. Unfortunately another seven years would pass before her first adventure, Festival of Death, was committed to paper. And in so doing came the realization my fiction writing skills were not yet up to the task.

Another twenty-five years would pass before I’d re-write and much improve Festival of Death. Now there are three novels, three novellas, and five short stories chronicling her adventures.

I hope the two initial chapters from The Conspiracy Game wet your appetite to read more of the stories of my favorite characters: Justinia and Harry Wright. Enjoy the sample!

The Conspiracy Game

The Conspiracy Game1 online-copy

1
She’s Not Here

Friday Night into Saturday Morning
September 19th to 20th

Cut a flatworm in half and you get two flatworms. Unfortunately, private investigation agencies aren’t flatworms. Take the best detective out of the agency and you’re left with an agency that doesn’t have its best detective.

Which helps explain why Bea, my wife and assistant, was at home in the office holding down the fort, while Ed Hafner and I were sitting in my car waiting for a man by the name of Darren Clay to emerge from the bar we’d tracked him to. I was getting paid all of $475 to find the guy and serve him the summons. And because Ed was sitting next to me, I wouldn’t get to keep all of it.

Ed is one of the three freelancers Tina hired when she needed extra hands, feet, ears, and eyes. Only Tina didn’t hire him. I did. Harry Wright, the guy now running Wright Investigations.

“Any idea when she’s coming back?” Ed took a bite out of his burger. The “she” he was referring to was Tina, my sister, and the Justinia Wright behind Wright Investigations.

“No. I don’t even know where the hell she is, Ed.”

“I don’t mean to pry, but that must’ve been one helluva big fight she and Lieutenant Swenson had.”

“It was big. In fact, it was gargantuan.”

Tina and Cal Swenson have been on and off lovers since before I came to live and work with her, some half-dozen years ago. Through it all, they remained friends. However, this time was different. Not only did Cal read her the riot act for withholding evidence and obstructing justice, he threatened to yank her license, and told her he was sleeping with his partner and wouldn’t be coming back to live with her. Couple the threat and the revelation with the fact Tina pulled a gun on him and, yeah, it was very much one helluva big fight.

Four days later, Tina packed a suitcase and left. Not one word as to where she was going or what she’d be doing. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Just said, “goodbye”, and that she’d be in touch. And keep in touch she did, up until six weeks ago. A weekly text message saying she was fine and then, “I’ll be out of touch for awhile. Always remember, I love you, Harry. Bea, too.” And that was it. Now nothing and I’m worried sick about her.

Bea and I have done what we can to keep the home fires burning. We’ve fed her cats. We’ve kept the agency open taking whatever work comes our way. It’s not a lot, though. Without Tina, Wright Investigations is just one among many. The work, such as it is, does keep Bea and me in practice. We’ve also learned shorthand. Just in case. One can’t always use a digital recorder and being able to take down a conversation in shorthand seemed to me to have its advantages.

Ed was shaking his big head. “Yeah, that’s too bad. Me and the missus, we have us a doozy every now and then. But we always work it out. Got the kids, ya know?”

“Kids make a difference.”

“They sure do. Makes ya think about something other than yourself.”

Our quarry emerged from the bar. “Okay, Ed, here we go.”

We got out of the car and made for the intended recipient of the summons I had in my hand. He was preoccupied with the hotty on his arm. Ed and I moved in. He got behind the couple and I positioned myself in front.

“Darren Clay?” I asked.

“Who wants to know?”

“I do. I have something for you, if you’re Darren Clay.”

“Get the hell outta my face.”

He took a swing at me and I got out of the way just in time.

Ed grabbed him and the hotty started screaming. I turned to her and she took off running back to the bar. A crowd was beginning to gather. Ed had Clay in a half-nelson. I shoved the papers into Clay’s jacket pocket, told him he was served, and headed for my car. Ed let him go and the clown ran up behind me, pushed me down, and smacked my left cheek with his fist when I started to get up. That was before Ed caught up and koshed him a good one. Clay dropped to the pavement like a sack of groceries.

A guy from the crowd charged Ed and got backhanded by Ed’s sap. He too lay crumpled on the ground.

A siren was blaring and a cop car pulled into the bar’s parking lot, screeching to a halt. The crowd vanished at the same time an amplified voice told everyone to freeze.

“Aw, hell,” Ed muttered.

We froze and two officers got out, guns drawn. They got within ten feet of us when one of them said, “Harry Wright, is that you?”

I recognized the voice and face. “Hi, Josh. Yeah, it’s me.”

“What the hell’s going on?” Josh motioned to his partner and they holstered their weapons.

“Just serving a summons to this fellow.” I pointed to Clay. “He didn’t want to be served. Took a swing at me, I served him, then he pushed me down and punched me. Ed, here, incapacitated him.”

“And that guy?” Josh point to the other fellow, who was now picking himself up off the pavement.

“He attacked Ed and Ed defended himself.”

“Ed work for you?” Josh asked.

“Yes.”

Josh turned to his partner. “They’re okay, Seth. I know Harry. Helped stop my daughter from being kidnapped four years ago.”

Clay was getting up. “I want to press charges. They attacked me.”

Josh turned to Clay. “Were you served a summons?”

“It’s in his coat pocket,” I volunteered.

“What’s the summons for?” Josh asked.

“Domestic violence,” I answered.

“Shit.” Josh’s tone of voice and the look on his face were not at all friendly. “Get the hell outta here before I beat the crap out of you myself.”

Clay spat. “Cops. Mofo bastards.”

“Get the hell outta here and get out fast.” Josh’s voice was quiet, but there was plenty of emotion in it and not the kind indicating he wanted to be best friends.

Clay and the other fellow left.

Josh turned to me. “Nothing to worry about, Harry. Go home and get some ice on that shiner.”

“Thanks, Josh.”

We shook hands.

Ed and I got into my Focus. I started it up, put it in drive, and began the trip to Ed’s place to drop him off.

“So you rescued his daughter?” Ed asked.

“Stinky, actually. I was there, but Stinky’s the one who talked the guy into letting her go.”

“Yeah, that’ll earn ya some points. Sure miss Stinky. Wasn’t much to look at. Sure did get results, though.”

“That he did. Our lucky night Josh answered the call.”

“Yeah. Should buy a lottery ticket.”

“Maybe two.”

“Yeah. Maybe two.”

***

The time was twelve after two when I walked through the back door. The lights were on, which meant Bea was waiting for me. Buddy, her Affenpinscher, greeted me, tail wagging. I scratched behind his ears and walked on in to the living room, where I found my honey lying on the couch with Isis, Tina’s Sphinx cat, cuddled next to her, both sound asleep. I leaned down and kissed her.

“Hi, Hon, I’m home. Let’s go to bed.”

Her eyes fluttered open. “Hi, Harry.” She reached up to touch my face. “Oh, my God! Harry, you’re hurt! Let me get ice.” She got off the couch. “Lie down.”

“Bea—”

“Lie down. I’m taking care of my man.”

I couldn’t help but smile. “Okay, Buttercup.”

Into the kitchen she went and Isis was relegated to the floor where she was joined by Prudy, Tina’s Maine Coon, Manley, Tina’s Manx, and Buddy. The critters sat in a row looking at me to see what all the fuss was about. In a minute Bea came back with an ice bag and towel. She put the ice on my face and I held it there.

“Get the Arnica from the medicine cabinet, would you please? It’ll take care of the bruising or at least lessen it.”

“Okay.” And off she went. Soon my little Bea was back with the medicine and a spoon. She sat next to me on the couch. At five-three and not even a hundred pounds, she doesn’t take up much room. I put a couple tablets into my mouth and let them dissolve under my tongue.

“Speaking of ‘Buttercup’,” Bea said, “Cal stopped by earlier.”

“He did? What did he want?”

“He wanted to see Tina. I told him she wasn’t home and I didn’t know when she’d be back. He seemed at a loss for words, so I invited him in. He then asked if she’d be available tomorrow.

“I said, ‘I don’t think so, Cal. She’s not here.’

“He said, ‘Look, Bea, I know you’re—’

“And I said, ‘Honest, Cal, she’s not here. Hasn’t been for months.’

“When I said that he mouthed the word ‘months’ and sat on the deacon’s bench. I said, ‘Yeah. She’s been gone for like six months, I think.’

“He was like in shock and just sat there for awhile. I sat next to him. I held his hand. I think he needed it.”

“Probably.”

“Then he asked if she was seeing someone and I told him I didn’t know because we haven’t heard from her in like six weeks. He turned his head and looked at me and said, ‘Really?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ He looked down at his hands and put the hand I wasn’t holding over mine.

“He was quiet for quite awhile, finally he said, ‘I’ve really messed this up. Nikki and I aren’t seeing each other anymore. She’s even gone back to Vice and uh, I… Aw, shit, Bea. I love Tina and I really screwed things up royal.’

“I said, ‘You were pretty shitty to her, Cal, and hurt her really bad.’

“His voice was very soft. I almost didn’t catch it. He said, ‘I know.’

“Then he got kind of official and said, ‘You haven’t heard from her in six weeks? Have you notified anyone?’

“I said, ‘Cal, who can we notify? We don’t have any idea where she is.’

“He stood and said, ‘I’ll see what I can find out. I’ll let you know.’

“We said goodbye to each other and he left.”

“Interesting, hon. It might be a case of too little too late. Tina isn’t going to forget what he did and to be honest I can’t blame her.”

“I know, Harry. That’s what’s so sad. I thought I messed up relationships. Those two… They take the cake. They’re crazy in love with each other and constantly blow it up.”

“Yes, they do. It’s pretty bizarre if you ask me.”

“It is. Let me see your face.”

I took away the ice and she leaned down and kissed the bruise.

“That’s to make the owie go away.”

She moved to my lips and kissed them. I put my arms around her and kissed her back. The kiss deepened and when our lips parted, she murmured, “I love you, Harry.”

I whispered back, “I love you, Beatrice.”

She giggled. “That’s a mouthful.”

“It is.”

“Here. Let me fill your mouth with something else.” She kissed me, filling my mouth with her probing tongue. She started to withdraw and I sucked it in, held it, then let go.

She sat up and took off her shirt and I lightly ran my fingers across her bare flat chest. Her little nipples were erect and hard. I raised my head and kissed each one.

“Take me to bed, Harry.” She stood.

I got off the couch, scooped her up in my arms, and climbed the stairs to our room, kissing her all the way. Then, in our bed, we loved each other for a long, long time.

***

Bea is the most passionate person I know. In our lovemaking it is no holds barred with her. And to think she was so insecure when I first met her. All she needed was someone to accept her and love her for who she is. When I did, she burst into bloom. She’s become a confident woman and doesn’t take much crap from anyone.

Before she came into my life, things were okay. Now? Without her, life would be a great big black hole.

Tina and Cal are the same really. They love each other and are good together. However, each one is afraid of something and, whatever it is, it tears apart two people who should be together and too often aren’t.

2
Liquid Night

Early Sunday Morning
September 21st

The alarm went off at six. Early for a Sunday morning, I know, but Bea and I were working on a case. We needed to be at Summer Tollefson’s townhouse to photograph dew on Dale Arneson’s car, as well as the “V” I’d marked with permanent marker on the rear passenger-side tire. All this to prove Dale was violating his separation agreement with his soon to be ex-wife, Judith. She was of the opinion Dale’s girlfriend, Summer, was a bad influence on little Jimmy Arneson. Therefore, when Dale had weekend visitation, there was no Summer. At least that was the agreement.

In actuality, in Dale’s world there was nothing but Summer. And this was the second weekend we’d caught Dale, Summer, and little Jimmy spending, hopefully, for their sake, quality time together. Two more weekends of photographing the separation agreement violation and we’ll have earned our three grand and Judith will have gotten her proof to ball-bust the man who once was the love of her life.

I parked the car on the street. The wind was gusty and the temp was in the mid-fifties with an overcast sky. Probably no dew to photograph. A few people were out and about. Joggers, walkers, a cyclist. A walker waved and said, “Good morning”. I waved back.

With camera in hand, I walked up the drive which separated the two sets of quad homes. Dale Arneson’s car was in the same spot where it was last night when I’d taken a picture of it with the house number. A look at the “V” indicated the vehicle hadn’t moved. I took pictures of the “V”, of the car and house number, and that’s when I realized someone was in the car.

“Great, Harry,” I said to myself. “You’re slipping up in your old age.”

How long had the person been there? Why hadn’t he or she started the car? And why hadn’t I noticed. Too doggone eager to take the pictures and skedaddle on back home. I took a closer look. The person was a man sitting behind the wheel. And the man was Dale Arneson. He wasn’t moving. He didn’t see me, even though his eyes were wide open. My guess as to why he was’t moving and didn’t see me was that it had something to do with the fact the front of his shirt was very wet with what looked like blood.

***

Lieutenant Cal Swenson of Minneapolis Homicide, the same Cal Swenson who broke my sister’s heart, had finished taking Bea’s and my statements, told us he was working on trying to locate Tina, and said we were free to go. And go we did.

On the way back to home, sweet home, I decided to let the police break the news to our client that her husband was dead and her son, along with her husband’s girlfriend, was missing. The information wasn’t something I wanted to give Judith Arneson at eight o’clock on a Sunday morning. Besides, I was just a wee bit pissed someone had stiffed us out of fifteen hundred bucks and felt my tax dollars needed to do some work. So let the Minneapolis police department tell Judith her kid’s missing.

When we arrived at the little mansion on West Franklin, which we call home, there was a strange car parked at the curb and end of the walk to the front door. Bea stopped and I got out of her little Fiat. While she parked in the garage, I walked all around the machine that was a chunk of solidified liquid night. Bea joined me.

“What is it, Harry?”

“At first guess, I’d say it’s a car.”

She hit my arm. “Of course it’s a car, silly. What kind of car?”

“An expensive one, is my guess.”

“Like the Maserati I gave you, which you never drive?”

“Yeah. Kind of. Only I have a feeling this machine would make the price tag on the Maserati look like chump change.”

I looked at the symbol but it didn’t conjure up any automakers I was familiar with. My car’s a Ford. Yes, Bea gave me the late Alicia Harris’ Maserati. The late Alicia being Bea’s former hife, which is a Tina-ism for the spouse in a same sex marriage. And Bea is right. I never drive the thing. Rarely drive it is probably more accurate. Mostly because where I’m often required to go it’s risky to drive a junker, let alone a car costing an eighth of a million bucks. Besides, I’m a Ford guy and I like my Focus wagon. I do have to say one thing, though: in looking at the vehicle before me, no one at Ford could even dream of something like this. The machine parked at the curb was a creation of true exotic beauty.

The piece of sculpted midnight was unoccupied. I shrugged, took a look up and down the street, and concluded the car probably belonged to someone visiting one of our neighbors and the person was just rude enough to park the thing in front of our walk.

“Come on, Babe, let’s go in and get some breakfast.”

Holding hands, Bea and I walked up the walk to the house. She had her key ready, unlocked the front door, and I pushed it open. Our noses took in the smell of bacon. Bea and I looked at each other and ran to the kitchen. There was Tina, cooking eggs and bacon. Buddy was sitting at her feet hoping for a handout, along with all three of her cats.

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Interview with J. Evan Stuart!

One of the best books I read last year was Entangled, the debut novel of J. Evan Stuart. I enjoy character-driven mysteries and Entangled fits the bill to a T. And today, I’m excited to bring to you this interview with a very talented up and coming writer. Without further ado, meet J. Evan Stuart!

cover copy web

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’ve always been a reader. From the time I was young I always had a love for books and would look forward to escaping into make believe worlds. I can’t say I’ve always wanted to write and just kind of started on a whim. For awhile I was tutoring students and a boy I was working with had an assignment to write a story beginning and the focus was on conflict. We came up with an initial scene taking place in a restroom where two boys confront each other and an iPod ends up being dropped in a toilet. For whatever reason the scene stayed with me and a year later I took pen to paper and wrote it out. Once I got started that was it. I have been writing for about six years now.

What is the name of your latest book and what inspired it?

My debut novel is Entangled. About three years ago I found a small news article in the newspaper. It was no more than a couple hundred words about a thirteen year old boy in a small Kansas ranching and farming town who was accused of murdering his parents and shooting his siblings. The article struck a chord with me, so I cut it out and saved it. Months later I wrote what would be the first chapter. It was a year after that I began to write the story.

How would you categorize your book?

It is a police procedural mystery with strong thriller and suspense elements. Because one of the dual protagonists is an eighteen year old accused of killing his parents and is on the run, it could easily crossover into YA. I think it would also appeal to those who like to read romantic suspense, as long as they want a story that is heavy on suspense and want a romance that is subtle. Minus bulging muscles and various other body parts.

Introduce us to your lead protagonists.  What is it about these character(s) that appeal to you as a writer?

The story starts with the reader being introduced to Connor Evans. He’s a high school kid who hates ranching and small town life in Ashlin, Nebraska. While his father expects him to follow in his footsteps of carrying on the family ranch, Connor has no interest in ranching which often puts him at odds with his father. The only escape he has from the boredom and his strained relationship with his dad is sneaking out to drink with his friends which often leads to them getting in trouble with the local authorities. When his parents are murdered all the evidence points to him and he finds himself on the run trying to deal with his grief and avoid being caught.

Sonya Reisler is a newly promoted detective with the Nebraska State Patrol. She wants to credit her ambition and dedication as the reasons for her promotion but, when she finds her new partner is her former mentor and lover, she has her doubts whether she truly earned her promotion. Sonya is sent to Ashlin to look over a murder investigation case before it is sent to the DA. She begins to notice small things that make her question whether Connor Evans committed the crime and gets the okay to conduct her own investigation. The nature of the crime hits close to home for Sonya and has her facing memories and demons she’s spent a lifetime burying. When her path crosses with Connor’s, professional lines become blurred. What starts out as an opportunity for her to prove to herself she earned her promotion, quickly escalates into something that could end her career altogether.

I think readers will find Connor the easier of the two to understand. Through flashbacks and his actions in the present, we see a teenager trying deal with his world being turned upside down and the aloneness he feels. Sonya is more of a mystery. She has a past that readers only see glimpses of, but we really only see her in the present. Something is fueling her desire to solve the case but we don’t know what it is until the very end. I think Sonya and Connor play off of each other well throughout the entire novel.

How did the book come to be titled?  Or, how does the title relate to the story?

Entangled is a good description of what happens to Sonya when she lets this case become personal and gets so deeply involved it becomes impossible to free herself from it.

Tell us more about the cover design.  How involved were you with creating the cover?

I was very involved in the cover design and sketched out how I wanted the characters positioned and what elements needed to be present. I sent my sketches to Ronnell Porter who expanded on my ideas and created the final product. I think his addition of the yellow police tape across Connor was a great idea. Connor, in many ways, is a danger to Sonya, causing her to cross many lines when it comes to this case. I think the cover really conveys what readers will find in the story.

Describe your writing process.

In a word? Chaotic. I work in scenes, usually starting with the dialogue that occurs between characters then slowly fleshing it out. I often don’t know the exact setting or even where in the story that particular scene will take place. I just picture it and know it will happen somewhere in the story. As more scenes form and are fleshed out, I continue to build on them, rearranging them until the story starts to come together. Then it’s a matter of stitching everything together. This method tends to give me more flexibility than if I were to work in a linear fashion.

How much research did you put into your book/series?

I ended up doing quite a bit of research for this story starting with the setting. I looked at many states where cattle ranching is done and Nebraska seemed to fit the bill for the other story elements I needed. While Ashlin is a fictional town along with some other features, many other places mentioned are real. I also had to do some research on the Nebraska State Patrol and some legal elements. My main goal was to make the story plausible and believable as possible.

What is the best advice received as an author?

I’ve been very fortunate in that I have had good support in my writing journey and have gotten a lot of good advice along the way. One of the best pieces of advice I received was to trust your readers. As a novice I was guilty of overwriting and over explaining because I was unsure of myself as a writer and wanted to make sure my readers understood what I was saying. Once I trusted that the readers would get what I was saying without my spoon feeding them, my writing greatly improved.

What specific authors or books influence how you write today?

This is a tough question. I think everything I read, good or bad, becomes part of the collective. I can tell if I really like a book because I will want to reread it again immediately. With the subsequent read I will really try and figure out what it is the author is doing that makes me love the story. One author that does come to mind that I found particularly interesting when it comes to writing style is Lisa McMann. In her book Wake, I was really taken with the brevity of her writing and how she used very short sentences that packed a lot of punch. I think that tends to stick with me when I write.

What types of genres do you read now for pleasure and do they influence what you write today?

I’m still a huge fan of YA and MG (middle grade) literature and I also love fantasy. For the most part I will read anything that sounds interesting.  I’m partial to character driven stories, so as long as I like the characters it really doesn’t matter the genre. As for what I write, I started with writing fantasy and paranormal because that was what I read most. Writing a police procedural mystery came as kind of a surprise for me since that is the genre I read the least.

What is next for you?

Currently I am working on the second book in the series entitled Enmeshed. I am hoping to complete it sometime in 2016.

Where you can buy Entangled and get in touch with J. Evan Stuart!

Entangled on Amazon!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/jevanstuart

Website: http://jevanstuartauthor.blogspot.com/

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Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries

Having just published the third book in my Justinia Wright, PI series and two short stories which take us back to a time before the series begins, I’ve had mysteries on my mind. And of late, I’ve been watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.

I find the showed delightful. The characters are superbly drawn. They have history. They have issues. They are like real people. The mystery, on the other hand, is usually light and often flawed. On one episode, Miss Fisher gets an important clue by looking at a typewriter ribbon – a carbon typewriter ribbon. Oh, did I mention the era is the 1920s? Now that is what I call I gaping plot hole. But in spite of such faux pas, I thoroughly enjoy the show because the characters are so very lifelike. And the show is really about the characters.

For me the best stories are not plot-driven, but character-driven. I don’t give two hoots for the plot. In my mind, the plot is only there because the characters do something. Where’s the plot in Waiting For Godot? The story seems to get along quite nicely without one. Or how about The Remains Of The Day? The plot, such as it is, is merely the vehicle for us to listen to the ruminations of Stevens. Or what about The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress? Lots of plot there and yet the plot is merely the vehicle for Heinlein to present his picture of a libertarian utopia. In that sense, any plot could have worked. The plot in and of itself is non-essential. It’s the characters acting (giving us a plot) that is the real story.

Another example is Raw Head by Ben Willoughby. Willoughby creates two characters, has them do their thing, and the result is a strongly character driven story. Just as Ray Bradbury said it should be.

Christine by Stephen King, in my opinion, is a case of where the plot actually gets in the way of the story. And I think it was probably due to his having to write his book to a certain length for the publisher. But whatever the reason, two-thirds of the way through the book the story was told and yet King went on having the car create more and more senseless havoc, gore, and mayhem. For me, the extended and senseless plot ruined the book. Plot to my mind is highly overrated. Follow the Bradbury formula and your story will be told. After all, that is the real point of the plot. To tell a story. And your characters will do that for you.

So if the writers of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries leave gaping plot holes, why bother watching? I think there are lots of reasons. Namely, the characters. Miss Fisher, a complex rich socialite with the past. Her companion, doc, who is in some ways miss fishers polar opposite. Inspector Jack Robinson, I somewhat stated police detective who gradually appreciates Mrs. Fisher’s talents. Constable Collins, who provides us with comic relief. And the list goes on.

Of course, this setting also contributes to the charm of the series: Melbourne in the 1920s. It is the perfect stage for larger than life liberated woman to walk apart.

There’s lots to like in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. Do give the show a try.

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Justinia Wright and the Maltese Falcon

Who doesn’t enjoy working a puzzle to a satisfying ending? That written, I have to confess I’m not a big fan of puzzles. I enjoy mahjong and I play chess and that is about the extent of my puzzle solving endeavors. So why do I enjoy reading mysteries? A good question that.

I have to confess, when it comes to mysteries, I’m pretty fussy. They pretty much need to be private detective stories told in the first person by the “Watson”. Third person narrative puts me right off. I’ll accept a story told by the detective in the first person. It’s just that it bugs the life out of me when he or she says he or she knows who did it but it won’t tell us.

The other thing I’m fussy about when it comes to mysteries, is that I don’t care a fig about the mystery. We all know the detective is going to solve the crime. So big deal. No matter how puzzling, the detective will undo Gordian Knot.

What I find fascinating is the detective him or herself. If he or she isn’t an interesting person, then the author has lost me. That’s because any story I read must have interesting characters who deal with the nitty-gritty of life. Machinations of plot hold no interest for me. It’s the people. After all, isn’t it people who make life interesting? And if people make life interesting, it is also people who make fiction interesting as well.

So if I don’t particularly like puzzles, why do I write mysteries? After all mysteries are considered to be literary puzzles. I write mysteries because crime and murder are part of life. The dark side of people interacting with people. Macbeth murders the king and sets off a chain of events. We know he won’t get away with it. What interests us is how his life falls apart.

We know Sherlock Holmes will solve the problem. What’s interesting is his interaction with Watson, the suspects, and how he goes about collecting clues.

When I watch a movie directed by Yasujiro Ozu, there is barely any plot to speak of. What’s of interest is the interaction of the characters and how they go about attempting to solve whatever is the problem in the story. And the problem is usually rather mundane.

For me, writing a mystery is no different than writing any other novel. I either start out with the characters or I start out with a scene and then people it. Then, as Ray Bradbury advised, I let my characters do their thing and the result is the story.

In writing my forthcoming Justinia Wright mystery, But Jesus Never Wept, I started with a scene: Tina and Harry’s client has just been murdered by seppuku, Japanese ritual suicide. That is what I started with. Along the way my daughter told me about the Yakuza, Japanese organized crime, I liked the color it could provide, and it entered into the story. How the Yakuza fit in I wasn’t sure, but figured that’s Tina’s job. She’s the detective, after all. I was over halfway through the book and had pretty much exhausted my list of characters before I figured out who did the murder and why. I was on pins and needles wondering if I’d finish the tale without solving the murder. Not really. Because Tina gets the culprit. It’s what detectives do.

Near the end of my short story “Minneapolis’ Finest”, Tina tells Harry:

“First off, Harry, you read too many mystery novels. Every case in those books is a complex puzzle and things blow up and people are being murdered left and right. Real detective work is, for the most part, dull routine. Boring even. If mystery writers wrote what really happened, they wouldn’t sell a damn thing. Cozies are the worst. I pray to God you don’t read cozies.”

“I don’t.”

“Good. Detective work is dull routine mostly because criminals are dull and boring twits with big egos.”

And I think that is very much the case. Real crime is boring. Therefore mysteries, to be interesting, are for the most part fantasy. Fictional murders are complicated, done by a mastermind for nefarious ends. No mystery writer writes about a normal murder. If they did, who’d read it?

Because most mystery readers are looking for the puzzle aspect, I don’t specifically call my mysteries “mysteries”. Justinia Wright is a private detective. The books are subtitled “A Justinia Wright, PI Novel”. The focus is on her as a person, not the puzzle. I think of it as I’m writing character-driven private eye stories.

In some ways I see The Maltese Falcon as the model. The Maltese Falcon is full of interesting characters, none of them, including Spade, are particularly likable. I think the mystery itself is weak, overshadowed by the MacGuffin. Did Brigid really kill Spade’s partner? Or did Spade just throw her under the bus? The story is a classic not because of the plot, the puzzle, in my opinion, but due to the interesting characters. And that’s why I read mysteries. And write them, too.

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Justinia Wright, PI

I don’t know how it is for other writers. I can only speak for myself. However, I’d like to think other writers would feel the same. When I create a character the process is very human: a baby is born and he or she slowly matures to adulthood. In other instances, he or she springs forth from my head — as did Athena from the forehead of Zeus. In either case, one thing is clear: I love my children.

The child I have lived with the longest and who I confess I love dearly is Justinia Wright, private eye extraordinaire. Her origins go back to 1982 and Raleigh Bond’s short story “Meet Athalia Goode”. You can read about all that in my post “Out of Thin Air”.

Tina runs Wright Investigations in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her older brother, Harry, is her “Watson” and majordomo. I first chronicled their exploits in 1989 in the novel Festival of Death. Being my first novel, I garnered a couple of rejections, realized it wasn’t very good, and put it back in the drawer where it quietly lay for some 25 years.

Last year I looked at the novel after completing The Rocheport Saga. A lot had changed in 25 years. Technology, society, and me. The novel was hopelessly out of date. Chapter 1 was about all I could salvage intact. So I set the book aside and wrote three novellas to get my head back into Tina and Harry’s world. Those stories form Book 2 in the series, Trio in Death-Sharp Minor. With the novellas completed, I re-wrote Festival of Death. The re-write is far and away better than the original. I published Festival last November and Trio last December.

Sad to say, sales have been poor. Then again readers have a gazillion mysteries to choose from and I’ve done very little marketing. That will come, however.

This month I’m publishing two short stories which chronologically predate Festival of Death. The first I offer free starting today for a week or so: “Minneapolis’s Finest”. Tina solves a mysterious break in for an old friend.

The second story will appear around Thanksgiving. “Sauerkraut Days” has Tina helping the local sheriff with the murder while attempting to set a world record in the sauerkraut eating contest.

Come December, writing time for Christmas, But Jesus Never Wept, number three in the series, will be published. I have the book back from my Beta reader and the cover art is ready to go. All it needs is a couple more read throughs to catch those nasty typos.

I had great fun writing But Jesus Never Wept. Tina is forced to face the demons lingering from her life before she became a private detective. We learn more, too, of Tina’s and Harry’s childhood. Philosophical, ethical, and theological questions abound. And on top of it all, true love takes a left jab and a body punch and is down for the count.

Early next year, the fourth of in the series should make its debut. And just in time for the political season. Campaign espionage and blackmail, with a dash of murder, have Tina and Harry scratching their heads.

I love the private eye novels. I suppose I have Conan Doyle to blame for that. My modest collection of Sherlockiana, Victorian sleuths, and Holmesian pastiches looks over my shoulder as I write this. Perhaps it’s what I want to hear, but I hear those sleuths saying, “Forget the sales. You love her. Tell her story.” And I suppose I shall.

Checkout where you can get the Justinia Wright books on my Novels page!

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Interview with Justinia Wright, PI

Today it is my privilege to interview the famous Minneapolis private investigator, Justinia Wright. I’m sitting in the equally famous oxblood oversize wingback in her office, where many have sat before me in much less happy circumstances.

cwh: Miss Wright, thank you for agreeing to this interview.

JW: You are very welcome.

cwh: To begin, how long have you been a private investigator?

JW: Eight years.

cwh: And before that you worked for the CIA, is that correct?

JW: Yes. I worked seven years for The Company.

cwh: What made you leave and decide to become a PI?

JW: I can’t give you specifics. Let’s just say I didn’t see eye to eye with my boss and what he was asking me to do. As for becoming a PI, I didn’t do that right away. I opened an art gallery and sold art with a partner for two years.

cwh: Where was that?

JW: In San Francisco. When that didn’t work out, I moved to Minneapolis and got my private investigator’s license.

cwh: Why Minneapolis?

JW: The Twin Cities aren’t an overly large metro area, yet are large enough. There is a wonderful mix of cultures and the area offers many opportunities for musical and artistic expression.

cwh: So why become a PI?

JW: From my time in the CIA, I knew how to get information and perform surveillance. In a sense, it was going back to what I knew without all the bureaucracy.

cwh: How is being a spy similar to being a private investigator?

JW: As I mentioned, gathering intelligence and conducting surveillance. Where it differs, is that I have to do my own analysis.

cwh: To date, what has been your most difficult case?

JW: [She rests her chin on steepled fingers for a few moments before answering.] I’d be inclined to say the case Harry has called Festival of Death.

cwh: Harry’s your brother and assistant, right?

JW: Yes, that is correct. He and Bea, his wife, keep the office and household running efficiently. [She pauses.] Although the case he is currently writing up, about the poor murdered minister, was quite puzzling. So either of those.

cwh: Do you investigate yourself or do you have a support team?

JW: A team. The best team. I don’t know where I’d be without David Nagasawa, Gwen Poisson, and Ed Hafner. Or Harry. I do a little field work. Mostly, though, I work as a handler, so to speak, and analyze the information I receive.

cwh: Do you find being a woman to help or hinder you?

JW: I don’t find being a woman to help or hinder. There are many more women in the business now than ever before. What matters is if you get results. And I get results.

cwh: Do you work often with law enforcement?

JW: Yes, I do.

cwh: How would you describe your experience?

JW: Overall, I’d say positive. I’m frequently called in to assist on difficult homicide cases, something I like very much. They especially like getting results and I, of course, get results.

cwh: Do you have a liaison?

JW: Yes, Lieutenant Cal Swenson of Homicide.

cwh: Now, Harry has given us a certain picture of your relationship with Cal. Is that picture accurate?

JW: Cal and I are friends and I think I’ll leave it at that.

cwh: What motivates you as an investigator?

JW: My sense of justice and fairness.

cwh: I understand you can be difficult to work with sometimes. Do you care to comment on that?

JW: [A big smile appears on her face.] Depends on how you define “difficult”. Do I expect competency? Yes. If that is being difficult… [She shrugs.]

cwh: Competency, yes. But what about your interactions with your clients and Lieutenant Swenson? As your brother portrays those interactions, well, it just seems—

JW: That I’m difficult? Well, that’s Harry. He does tend to get a bit melodramatic in my opinion. Sometimes, clients don’t know what they know or what they think they know can impede an investigation. My job is to cut through the crap, so to speak, so I can help them.

cwh: And Cal?

JW: The police are a bureaucracy. Sometimes Cal is a bureaucrat against my better judgement. All in all, I don’t think I’m any more difficult to work with than anyone else.

cwh: You’re an amateur painter and pianist. Any thoughts about going professional?

JW: No. Not really. But I do like painting and performing, so who knows?

cwh: I see our time is up. Thank you very much, Miss Wright for giving us this opportunity to give your fans a bit more information about you.

JW: My pleasure.

You can see Justinia Wright in action in Festival of Death and Trio in Death-Sharp Minor, available on Amazon and soon in other fine online retail establishments.

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Grantchester

I’m fussy when it comes to mysteries. I don’t like them told in the 3rd person. Although I’m okay with limited 3rd person, as in The Maltese Falcon where we basically have Spade’s point of view. I don’t like cozies. They’re unrealistic. Police procedurals aren’t my cup of tea either. Basically I like private eye novels told in the 1st person, preferably by the “Watson”, and where the PI is somewhat quirky or idiosyncratic. The oddest thing, perhaps, about my fussiness with mysteries is I’m not at all interested in the puzzle. I don’t really care if the writer played “fair” or not. I’m interested in the characters. How they interact with the suspects, law enforcement, their partners, and life.

Public television’s Masterpiece Mystery recently concluded a six-part series entitled Grantchester, based on novels by James Runcie. They involve an Anglican priest working with a local police detective to solve murders. That’s the old stuff. What makes Grantchester a success for me are the characters and the time period.

The 1950s (when I was a wee lad) was a complex decade. The Cold War and the fear of nuclear devastation. A time where television began pushing aside radio and movie theaters and sounded the death knell of pulp magazines. A time of the proliferation of labor saving devices in the home, which gave women more time and eventually led to them being able to work outside the home. The ‘50s saw a revival of Victorian prudery which set the stage for the sexual revolution of the ‘60s. Rock and roll began in the ‘50s. There was also a curious mix of optimism and pessimism, not unlike in the ‘30s. I am still waiting for my flying car. It was a complex time and is a great setting for a mystery series.

The characters are well-drawn and interesting people. Even the minor characters are delightful and full of quirks. Canon Sidney Chambers and Inspector Geordie Keating, the main characters, have both served in World War 2. The series addresses coping with the horror of war in a time when PTSD was unheard of and former soldiers were expected to just get on with their lives. Drinking to excess, overwork, nightmares, relationship problems plague our heroes. One gets the impression they are coping, but not necessarily in an overall positive manner.

The mix of setting and characters is so good I don’t really care “whodunit”. I’m satisfied to find out when Sidney and Geordie do. The puzzle doesn’t matter. For me, that is okay. And because the series is so good, I now want to buy the novels. Apparently, others have been taken with the show because it looks as though it will get a second season.

If you’ve seen Grantchester or read the books, chime in and let us know what you think. Also welcome are your thoughts on the mystery genre: is there room for mysteries where the puzzle isn’t important.

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