Thursday, 17 December 2020

Susan Cox is the author of the Theo Bogart mysteries, and winner of the Minotaur/Mystery Writers of America First Novel Prize for The Man on the Washing Machine.

Theo Bogart, the lead in Susan Cox's series, is a British expat hiding out from a family tragedy in San Francisco, making a new life for herself. Cox is a vivid, engaging writer, and seemingly fearless. I love the way she tells a story, throwing everything into it, and coming out with a great narrative in the process. Her new book is The Man in the Microwave Oven.

Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: What was it like to win the St Martin's/MWA First Novel Prize? Was this your first approach to publication? What was the process like?

Susan Cox: It was validating, exciting, and yes, life-changing.

No one who knows me well will be surprised by this, but I need a solid eight or nine hours of sleep a night. I’m not an early riser and I’m definitely not a night owl, but as a friend once told me, I can rock 11 am like nobody’s business! All of which meant that, unlike some writers who can somehow add four hours at the beginning or end of their day in order to write, I took a leap of faith instead.

I left my job as a nonprofit fundraiser and gave myself 18 months to be a full-time writer. I never even considered writing anything except a mystery and when I read about the MWA/Minotaur Books contest for an unpublished first crime novel, I was all in. I submitted the manuscript in December knowing I’d have until the end of March, when the results were decided, to dream about being a published author. (In the same way, buying a lottery ticket lets you enjoy your world cruise and new home on a Bali lagoon until someone else’s numbers are chosen.) I almost forgot about the contest in the months that followed, until I received a telephone call from Minotaur Press at three o’clock in the afternoon on the last day of March.

I can’t say enough about the effort that goes into choosing the winner of this award. Hundreds of submitted manuscripts are given to a committee of Mystery Writer of America authors. They read and rate the novels and submit their top candidates to the editorial staff at Minotaur Press. Once there, the manuscripts are read again and the winner picked from the short list. The prize is substantial—a $10,000 contract with one of the New York publishing industry’s top names. A winner isn’t chosen every year, which, if anything, adds extra prestige to the thrill of having your novel chosen.

It has been quite a bit of time between the publication of our first book and this one. Can you talk about that a little bit?

It’s quite a harrowing story. I wrote my second Theo Bogart mystery and was about to send it to my editor when I had a burglary at my home. I wasn’t saving my documents to the cloud at the time, and the burglar came into my home while I was asleep and stole all of my small electronics, including my phone and e-reader, my two laptops, and the external hard drive back-up, too. He even got the memory stick I was using as a backup to the backup; I kept it in my purse, with the idea that I could grab it and run in the event of a fire, but the burglar stole my purse, too. I lost everything I had been working on for years—not only the completed manuscript for The Man in the Microwave Oven, but several other half-finished novels, too.

I know there are people who can bounce back right away from something like this, but I learned I’m not one of them. It took me a long time to regroup before I could rewrite the novel from scratch using some handwritten notes and my memory. In a way, it was lucky that I had so recently finished the novel because it was fairly fresh in my mind. By the time I had rewritten it, I found it almost impossible to recreate my other novels. My laptops have never been recovered, although the burglar was eventually caught. Perhaps I’ll use the story in a novel some day.

I love your heroine, Theo Bogart, with her nod to both the British and the American detective traditions. You've made her an expat—a stranger in a strange land, perfect for a detective. How did you come up with and develop her character?

I wanted to write a mystery with a San Francisco setting, partly because I lived there for so long and love it. It’s a young city, and its founding families weren’t aristocrats or religious leaders or anything really, except blue-collar working people. They were grocers or tailors or they made shovels and pickaxes. They were all from somewhere else and a lot of them fled some disaster back home or wanted to build something new out of nothing. Maybe because of that history, San Francisco is still welcoming to everyone and doesn’t ask too many questions. It seemed like the perfect place for someone with secrets to hide, so in a way, San Francisco formed Theo, even though she was born 5,000 miles away.

I haven't read the first book, but in this book you do flesh out her backstory a bit, and the reason she's fled England. Do you plan to circle back to that part of her story at any point?

Definitely. Parts of her past will come back to haunt her and cause even more trouble for her in Theo #3.

Is the neighborhood in San Francisco a real one, or an amalgam of a real neighborhood? The details feel real.

Thank you! It’s completely imaginary, although in a way, Theo lives in the building my husband and I lived in for nearly 15 years, in a different neighborhood. Like Theo, we used to live on a hill (It’s hard to find somewhere completely flat there!) and I'd look out of our top-floor back window onto the backyards of the other buildings on our block and imagine how it would look if all the yards were combined into a single, large garden space. Fabian Gardens is definitely the result of that fantasy! I chose to place it on a block of Polk Street because it’s an interesting neighborhood of small shops and restaurants, near the California Street cable car line, close to a bus route, within easy reach of the Tenderloin, Chinatown, the Civic Center, and even the Financial District. It’s a neighborhood, in other words, where anything can happen.

I loved that you weren't afraid to change up what was happening in different parts of the novel. By turns it's an espionage novel, a girl finding herself novel, and a (sort of) traditional cozy novel. What was the through line for you when you were plotting your book—what was most important?

I wanted to develop a story line for Theo’s grandfather, one of my favorite characters from the first novel, The Man on the Washing Machine. He isn’t a warm and fuzzy kind of grandad, quite the opposite in many ways, and I thought if he was somehow suspected of murder, he and Theo’s relationship would develop further, perhaps in surprising ways. We know from a few hints in the first novel that he had a background in espionage and I thought it would make an interesting secondary plot alongside the murder investigation. I was able to use some of the (very few) stories my father told me about his own undercover activities, too.

I love the people who surround Theo—Nat, her grandfather, her employees and friends. This is traditional for a cozy mystery, but in your case it's so grounded and really feels organic. How did you develop what I call a character matrix for her?

Perhaps it feels organic because that’s how it grew. She starts in The Man on the Washing Machine as a stranger to the city and all the people she knows are introduced to us almost as she meets them. As the story develops the characters acquire greater or less importance to Theo and the plot more or less at the same time.

Who are your influences, mystery wise?

The Golden Age of detective fiction is a great favorite. It may be strange considering that I love a good murder and I create characters who do the very worst things, often for the worst of motives, but I enjoy reading about, and writing, characters who behave honorably. Agatha Christie—each of her books is a master class in plotting--Dorothy Sayers, Dick Francis, Peter Lovesey.

Can you name a book that was transformational for you?

Oddly enough, I can’t remember the title, but it was an Agatha Christie mystery. I was about 15 I think, and I had been reading science fiction a lot—probably because my dad was a great reader of science fiction—when I found myself on a station platform in London with nothing to read. In our family, the thought of a three-hour journey without a book was the stuff of nightmares. I had three minutes to catch my train and enough money in my pocket to buy one book, so I grabbed an Agatha Christie novel at random. By the end of the trip—I have no recollection where I was headed—I was a fan. I switched from science fiction to mysteries in the space of that journey and never went back.

Finally, what's next for Theo? I hope we can look forward to another book!

Her third adventure is already underway. I’m trying to think of a working title for it and I need a sinister appliance!

Susan Cox's first mystery novel, The Man on the Washing Machine, won the Mystery Writers of America/Minotaur Books First Crime Novel Award. Before that, Cox was a newspaper reporter, designed marketing and public relations for a safari park, raised funds for nonprofit organizations, and was president of the Palm Beach County (Fla.) Attractions Association. She previously served on the board of the Florida chapter, Women’s National Book Association. When not writing, you can often find her gardening or enjoying time with her family and their standard poodle Picasso and cat Midnight.

Susan Cox and the Theo Bogart Series
Saturday, 12 December 2020

The importance of location in mysteries can never be stressed enough.

Mysteries that give us a sense of place make that area—be it a city, region or country—a true character that effects the plot and the people who inhabit the story.

And that place can vary from author to author. Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles is different from Robert Crais and a different city than that of Denise Hamilton or Rachel Howzell Hall or Steph Cha. And these different visions make for more involving novels.

But sometimes it’s the location that is the constant as different characters inhabit the landscape.

Jeff Abbott has set his last three stand-alone novels in the affluent Lakehaven neighborhood of Austin, Texas.

The novels have focused on different families but Lakehaven has remained the constant. While Lakehaven doesn’t change, its influence affects Abbott’s characters differently.

Abbott’s latest novel Never Ask Me, which also is his 20th novel, shows the secrets that run rampant through Lakehaven.

Never Ask Me revolves around Iris and Kyle Pollitt and their much-loved teenage children, Julia and Grant, whose lives are changed when their neighbor Danielle Roberts is murdered; her body found in a neighborhood part. An adoption consultant, Danielle had facilitated many neighborhood couples seeking international adoptions, including the Pollitts.

In Zoom book event a couple of months ago, Abbott discussed his use of Lakehaven, which is fictional though based on a composite of several Austin neighborhoods. Abbott said the use of Lakehaven allows him to show “a spectrum of all kinds of people.”

But he keeps it simple so the location resonates with many readers, he said.

And the real residents of Austin have picked up on Lakehaven. “People in Austin argue which neighborhood is the fictional Lakehaven,” he said.

Abbott is not telling.

The Hollows, a quaint fictional town outside of New York City that seethes with family secrets and rife, has been a long-time background of Lisa Unger’s novels.

In an interview for Mystery Scene, (2012 Summer issue, No. 125) Unger explained The Hollows, which played prominently in Fragile (2010) and Darkness, My Old Friend (2011). Also, In the Blood, Crazy Love You, The Whispering Hollows, and Ink and Bone.

“At first The Hollows was just a place where the story was happening. It was not dissimilar from the place I grew up, but it was kind of a dreamlike combination of where I grew up and what might have been the place. The Hollows has an energy and in some ways an agenda. It’s not malicious but it also isn’t benevolent. The Hollows encourages paths to cross,” she said.

Although she has set some novels elsewhere, Unger often returns to The Hollows. “I definitely will return to The Hollows and I don’t say that lightly. I already know what will happen next there.”

In another interview, Unger said that “The Hollows keep calling me back.”

Unger also writes about The Hollows on her web site.

Unger’s latest novel Confessions on the 7:45 is set in New York City. The plot is jumpstarted when Selena Murphy Selena finds a seat on a train next to a woman who calls herself Martha. She feels an instant connection to “Martha” and the two start spilling secrets. Selena reveals that her husband is having an affair with their nanny while Martha is having an affair with her boss.

Trading secrets seems safe as Selena thinks she will never see Martha again.  

“Sometimes a stranger was the safest place in your life,” muses Selena Murphy, whose encounter with a stranger on a train leads to a vortex of pain.”

Of course, nothing is safe in an Unger novel.

And despite the New York City setting, Unger works in a mention of The Hollows, which will thrill her readers.

Bull Mountain and McFalls County, located in northern Georgia’s Waymore Valley, has made a sturdy background for Brian Panowich’s three novels, Bull Mountain (2015), Like Lions (2019) and Hard Cash Valley (2020).

The area has fit well will with the criminal enterprises that have thrived in this region, especially with the violent Burroughs family who have controlled the area for generations.

Hard Cash Valley revolves around Dane Kirby, a life-long resident and ex-arson investigator for McFalls County.

Consulting on a brutal murder in a Jacksonville, Florida, he and FBI Special Agent Roselita Velasquez begin an investigation that leads back to the criminal circles of his own backyard.

Hideo Yokoyama sets his stories in the same tumultuous Japanese police precinct.

Prefecture D is a quartet of novellas set in 1998. Through these four tales, Yokoyama explores moral ambiguity, interdepartmental police politics, ethics, investigations and the various motives of the police detectives.

The four novellas in Prefecture D are written as if they are stand-alones but the connective tissue links each to the next.

Yokoyama first found an audience with Six Four, about a cold kidnapping case that shed light on police corruption in Japan. Six Four unfolded over 14 years and clocked in at 576 pages.

It sold more than one million copies in Japan before being published in the U.S.

Prefecture D is just 274 pages.

The fictional Dublin Murder Squad was the setting for Tana French’s first six novels, beginning with the award-winning In the Woods. That 2007 novel won the best debut crime novel category for the Edgar, Anthony, Barry and Macavity awards.

Each of those first six novels focused on different detectives and how their personal lives affected the investigations.

Going Places With Jeff Abbott, Lisa Unger, and Brian Panowich
Oline H Cogdill
Saturday, 05 December 2020

Like many others, I have been trying to carve out some time to clean, declutter and organize during this pandemic.

And like many, I have had intermediate success. A little bit here, some there, time to stop. First few weeks my husband and I put out more than 12 bags of recyclable paper. And that went on for at least 6 weeks. Now, down to a bag or two, usually filled with recent newspapers.

Last week, I had another surge that resulted in 6 recycling bags.

So naturally, during this organizing, my mind turned to mysteries.

First, I have little regard for Marie Kondo’s decluttering theory about discarding things that don’t spark joy. I like stuff. My stuff gives me joy, whether I have used that stuff recently or 10 years ago.

Yes, I attach sentimental feelings to a lot of stuff.

If you do too, great.

If you don’t, that’s fine, too.

Just don’t tell me that I must feel so good to get rid of stuff.

No. I feel good about myself all the time.

If that purging makes you feel better about yourself—OK, fine. Though why didn’t you feel good about yourself all along? And if you feel you have too much stuff, stop shopping.
OK, back to mysteries.


Hallie Ephron’s 2019 novel Careful What You Wish For (Wm. Morrow) may have been one of the first to use Kondo’s philosophy as a plot device. I say “may have been” because once I get too decisive an astute reader will come up with more ideas.

In her sixth novel, Ephron delivers an in-depth look at how an emotional attachment to things affects people. Emily Harlow was happiest when she was paring down her belongings.

So much joy in that action that she and her partner Becca Jain started the business, Freeze-Frame Clutter Kickers to help others be organized.

What doesn’t bring Emily joy is her husband Frank’s obsession with his stuff.

Their basement is overstuffed with stuff, mainly because of Frank’s “compulsive yard-sale-ing.” But Emily has a hard-fast rule—do not touch another’s property unless they give you permission. And that goes for her own home, too.

Hired to clean out a storage unit, Emily and her partners find body hidden among all the stuff that may have been stolen years before.

Ephron keeps the suspense high and the fear factor dangling with each visit to the storage unit. Anyone who has rented one of those storage units and visited it at night, knows that sense of dread grows with each ding of the elevator, each car that arrives.

Ephron’s Careful What You Wish For is a stand-alone but there are at least two series wrapped around decluttering.

Ritter Ames’ Organized for Murder series features organization expert Kate McKenzie whose new business Stacked in Your Favor is part of the plan for her family to make a fresh start in her husband’s small hometown in Vermont.

Organized for Picnic Panic is the sixth and latest in this cozy series. In Organized for Picnic Panic, The Vermont town of Hazelton is planning its popular annual Labor Day Picnic.

Kate has put her organizing skills to work helping her family and neighbors enjoy the community event. The McKenzies are still new to the town and are anxious to be a part of this tradition. Of course, the picnic won’t go as smoothly as hoped.


British writer Simon Brett’s latest series has the tagline of “The Decluttering Mysteries” and revolve around, you guessed it, a declutter.

Clutter Corpse, which came out June 2020, introduces Ellen Curtis, whose business is helping people who are running out of space.

According to the novel’s description, “As a declutterer, she is used to encountering all sorts of weird and wonderful objects in the course of her work. What she has never before encountered is a dead body.”

When Ellen finds a young woman’s body in an over-cluttered apartment, suspicion lands on the deceased homeowner's son, recently released from prison.

Actually, I think reading about decluttering is more fun than decluttering.

Cleaning Up With Authors
Oline H Cogdill