Today’s guest is Seattle author Joan Merrill with her debut novel And All That Murder, a Casey McKie Mystery. I had the privilege of helping with the editing process and I can say this is a fun, fast-paced, exciting read.
Synopsis of And All That Murder: Casey McKie is a 36-year-old private investigator who lives in San Francisco’s Chinatown and hangs out at her singer friend’s jazz club in nearby North Beach.
When Dee asks Casey to check into the supposed suicide of a long-time friend, Casey hesitates. She doesn’t buy Dee’s belief that he was murdered, all signs pointing to suicide. But, friendship wins out, and Casey reluctantly agrees, believing it will be easy to disprove Dee’s theory.
After a second body is found, Casey decides Dee may be right – someone is targeting people from the jazz community. As more bodies turn up, Casey follows clues to an Oakland blues club, a Seattle record company, and a Palm Springs gay escort service, her quest ending in a deadly encounter with the killer.
1. Joan, what attracted you to the idea of writing a mystery?
Writing a mystery was something I thought I could do, since, being an avid reader of the genre, I was acquainted with the format.
2. I know you have a background in the music industry. How did this help you in writing your novel?
One of the precepts for writers is to write what you know, so I made the jazz world the ‘milieu’ for the novel. Also, I had a lot of issues about the business I wanted to express.
3. Do you have a background in writing?
Since childhood, I wanted to be a writer, whatever that means. I’ve always enjoyed writing; for example, doing a college paper was fun and not a chore. In my professional career, I’ve written a number of scripts, liner notes, as well as three textbooks. But, to me, being a “writer” means being a writer of fiction. So, those books did not satisfy my lifelong goal. And All That Murder does.
4. Is crafting a mystery harder than writing other fiction?
I haven’t written other fiction, but my guess is that it is harder in the sense that you must create more than one viable suspect, giving them all believable motives and opportunities and making them equally as suspicious as the real killer. I think logic is the most important ingredient of a mystery and being logical the most important qualification for the mystery writer.
5. How do you go about planning your books—do you outline? Do you know the ending before you start?
Based on my limited experience (one book published, one in rough draft) I don’t know if I have developed a pattern. But the first things I did were to decide on the PI’s home base (San Francisco, a city I know and love), the ‘milieu’ (the jazz world), the private investigator’s characteristics, and who will be her confidante. (A PI must have a friend who serves as her “sounding board,” for every so often in a mystery, you have to give a “progress report.”
6. How long did it take you to write this book and get it published?
It took several years to get this book to the point of publication. It was the book I started while in writing class and discussed in my writing group. Also, I didn’t work on it all the time. But now that I have given up my other job, I can concentrate solely on novel writing. I plan to have my second mystery finished by fall. And I have the broad outline for the third one.
7. Why did you decide to self-publish?
I didn’t want to spend a lot of time “selling” the book to agents or publishers; I wanted to get it published and start on my next book. For several years, I worked as a talent agent and manager for jazz artists, where my main occupation was trying to get them gigs. I didn’t want to do any more “selling.” Also, I don’t think self-publishing lessens the gratification of having a book published.
8. What are the pros and cons of doing it this way?
The pros of self-publishing: you can get it done fairly quickly, no need to spend months or even years finding a publisher. The cons: you are entirely on your own. Whatever you write is printed; you don’t have an editor or proof-reader. You make a mistake and there it is for all the world to see. In addition to three friends who read my book, I used a professional writer to copy edit and critique. But the biggest problem for me was proof reading. I had to send my manuscript in three times; I kept discovering typos I’d missed. That cost me time and money. With my next book, I plan to hire a professional proof reader.
9. What do you think the techniques are for making a mystery a good read (one that keeps the reader guessing all the way to the end)?
A mystery novel must keep the plot moving along the inexorable path to the solution to the crime. Each scene should present a step along that path. Also, as I said earlier, you have to present the real killer along with believable suspects, giving them all plausible motive and opportunity, and not make it obvious who is the real culprit. Another challenge is to vary the settings. The PI does a lot of interviewing of suspects and, if the setting is always the same, the reader may become bored. I also think that along with an intriguing plot, a mystery writer should create an interesting ‘milieu,’ to allow the reader to experience a new world. For example, Dick Francis writes about horse racing; Tony Hillerman writes about Native Americans living on reservations; Donna Leon’s mysteries take place in Venice, so we learn a great deal about Italian politics and culture; and Elizabeth George, who is American and lives in the Northwest, sets her mysteries in Great Britain and takes great pains with her descriptions of place.
10. For writers new to the mystery genre, what would you suggest they do in beginning their stories?
To begin, a mystery writer should decide on a) the crime b) how and why it was committed and by whom, c) who will investigate the crime, giving his or her motives for doing so, and d) what he or she will do to uncover the culprit (at least the first steps), and e) the climactic scene, when he catches the perpetrator. Some writers prepare meticulously (Elizabeth George, for example, as she describes in her book “Write Away”) while others outline only loosely. Whichever the approach, I think a mystery writer needs to have a basic plan before beginning a novel. I can’t fully imagine the characters or the actions of the book when not writing. For me, the process of writing inspires creative imagination.
11. What are your favorite authors in this genre?
My favorite authors are Ruth Rendell (who also writes under the name Barbara Vine), Martha Grimes, PD James, Elizabeth George, Donna Leon, Sue Grafton, Patricia Cornwell. I like Dick Francis and Tony Hillerman, although their books have a certain similarity, but I generally prefer woman writers. Some male writers who have achieved great popularity make an obvious appeal to male fantasies, creating situations and scenes that border on pornography.
12. I understand you are planning another book. Will this be a series?
The rough draft of my second book is near completion and I expect to publish it this fall. I have the basic plan for a third in the Casey McKie series. I plan to continue the series so long as I find it challenging.
An excerpt from And All That Murder:
“They found him this morning in his office. Shot in the head. A gun lying next to his hand. With a note. The cops think it might be suicide. But they’re not sure.” Her voice faltered.
The mournful sound of a muted trumpet from the CD player filled the silence. I didn’t know what to say. Her friend was dead. It was tough any way you looked at it.
Dee took a deep breath and seemed to pull herself together. “My ass it’s suicide. That’s bullshit. The po-lice don’t listen.”
I stared at her, my thoughts spinning. I was sorry that Dee had lost her friend, but I thought she was exaggerating. It sounded like suicide to me. I figured she didn’t want to admit it. It was easier to blame the cops.
“But if there was a note –” my voice trailed off.
She only stared at me. She ought to realize that leaving a note indicated suicide, for God’s sake.
We fell silent. Miles Davis’ trumpet sounding louder in the quiet. I stared out at the darkening sky. She was in denial. It was bad enough to mourn a friend, but to believe he was murdered only made it worse.
Her voice was steady and determined. “Casey, I want you to investigate.”
And All That Murder is available at an introductory sales price on Joan’s website and also at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iUniverse online bookstores.