New Mexico Mystery Author Interview: Anne Hillerman

Last week I reviewed Rock with Wings by Anne Hillerman. She is an award-winning reporter, the author of several non-fiction books, and the daughter of New York Times bestselling author Tony Hillerman. She lives in Santa Fe, and this is her second novel. This week I’m delighted to have her as my guest for an interview.Uncropped AnneHillerman author photo credit Felicia Lujan

  AF: I appreciate the Navajo glossary in the back of Rock with Wings. I’ve heard the language spoken, and I cannot begin to reproduce the sounds even when I know a word and what it means.  Do you speak Navajo?

AH: Just a very few words.

AF: Which language do Chee and Bernie speak at home? Do they slip back and forth—English and Navajo for different kinds of topics?

AH: Yes, they slip back and forth—English when they are talking about work and financial discussions; Navajo for more important matters of the heart.

AF: One of things I enjoy in your books is the way you portray family and friendships. Several years ago I read your father’s wonderfully titled autobiography, Seldom Disappointed, and I recall that you grew up in a large family. Remind me how many siblings.

AH: I have two sisters and three brothers.

AF: Would you say this has affected your writing? In what way?

AH I believe almost everything you experience in life helps you in some way as a writer (and a person, for that matter), although you may not realize its value at the time. Growing up as the big sister to such a diverse group of siblings helped me learn how to negotiate and compromise—skills I later discovered I needed in the world of commercial publishing. Also, because we were a busy, lively household, I learned how to focus despite chaos. The amazing and unexpected things that happen in a large family certainly honed my sense of humor. And, of course, the diverse personalities I shared dinner with each night might have given me ideas for a few characters.

AF: You’ve attended citizens’ police academies and learned from members of the Navajo Nation police and other police forces in northern New Mexico. What are some of the most surprising things they taught you? The most useful for you as a writer?

AH: The most surprising, and most useful too, was their absolute willingness to let an outsider civilian like me into the club. I was humbled by the openness of the officers I spoke with who shared their insights into both law enforcement and human nature. I was swept away by their passion for and commitment to their work, especially officers who were involved with the very difficult assignments relating to domestic violence. I never appreciated the dichotomy in basic police work, where officers can go from static boredom to high adrenalin situations in a matter of seconds. I enjoyed learning about technology used in law enforcement but getting some insight into how cops size up suspects, witnesses, and victims and how they can usually tell when people are lying helped me even more.

AF: Both your books are set in June, the hot windy time before the rains. Are you one of those people who loves the windy season?

AH: No, no, no. Wind is not my friend! It makes me restless, stirs up the pollen from the juniper trees that surround my Santa Fe house, and rolls the tumbleweeds across the highways, creating traffic trouble.  I used June as a setting in both those books because it’s a season of suspense here in the dry Southwest. Temperatures spike in June. If we’re lucky, late June eventually and after much anticipation and broken promises, brings the start of summer rain.

AF: Do you have a favorite time of year, and what makes it special in your part of the world?

AH:  I enjoy the change of seasons and Santa Fe is great for that. I love the transition from winter to spring, the discovery of those early hyacinths in my garden when the nights are still way below freezing, and the way daffodils survive April snow and keep smiling. Summer’s long days and beautiful crimson sunsets remind me of why our mountains, the Sangre de Cristos and the Sandias, are named for blood and watermelon. I enjoy the contrast between summer days in the 90s and nights cool enough to require a blanket. July’s dramatic thunderstorms, usually more sound and light than moisture, sometimes create enough rain to turn the arroyos into running streams. Fall brings more eye-popping contrasts, the brilliant yellow of the shimmering aspen leaves against the deep blue sky. Crisp days scented with apples and pungent smoke of pinon and cedar in the fireplace—and a big pot of green chile simmering for dinner.  I love winter, too. Unlike many places, Santa Fe seldom goes two days in a row without sun. I love the diamond sparkle of fresh snow, the quiet discovery of rabbit and bird tracks along the road, and those crystal-clear winter nights with millions of stars, each with a story to tell.

AF: Tell me about your favorite trading post, roadside restaurant, or other out-of-the way place in the Four Corners Region that most people might not have heard of.

AH: So many places, I hardly know where to start, but I’ll give it a try. I love the old trading post at Toadlena, N.M.  with its beautiful setting at the base of the mountains. The owners and the staff reflect an attitude of hospitality that’s hard to beat. I always try to stop at Teec Nos Pos, N.M. and the Keems Canyon, Az. trading posts when I’m out that way. They always have some surprises. The Hubble Trading Post in Ganado, Arizona always makes me smile. I try to talk advantage of tours to visit the Hubble home when I’m there. It’s like a step into the past. I enjoy the Tuba City Trading Post (also in Arizona) with its wonderful collection of books, and the Code Talker Museum that shares the building. Across the walk is another of my favorite places, Navajo Interactive Museum. It’s filled with wonderful exhibits and videos in which the Navajo people tell their own history starting with their creation stories.  I love to stop for lunch at Earl’s on old Route 66 in Gallup, N.M. The food good, and you can shop while you eat because the restaurant invites native artists sell their jewelry, pottery, sculpture, etc. from table to table. I like the restaurant at the Quality Inn in Window Rock (AZ) with its sweet little patio garden, and the eclectic food at The Junction in Chinle (AZ).

AF: In continuing the series your father wrote, you’ve mastered the inner worlds of Bernie Manuelito and Jim Chee, and I found the glimpse into the workings of Joe Leaphorn’s mind in his little notebook in Spider Woman’s Daughter strangely touching—the intimacy of the ordinary. That orderly little book, without an emotional or private word in it, often just numbers and sketches, still made me think you knew him inside-out. Do you plan to use him as a point-of-view character in the future?

AH: Yes. I’m looking forward to writing about him. He was the character my Dad loved best, and I needed a few novels under my belt before venturing into his complex mind.

AF: What was the greatest challenge in making the transition from writing nonfiction to writing fiction? How has your earlier background helped you as a novelist?

AH: For Spider Woman’s Daughter, my greatest challenge was making the little voice that kept telling me “you’re not Tony Hillerman” understand that I could continue the series without being my Dad. That some changes and my own voice would be OK as long as I was true to the spirit of his work.  I knew there were many, many people who loved Dad’s work and would be highly skeptical of a new kid taking on his characters.  I’ve been touched and humbled by the notes I’ve received from many of them, telling me they were glad to see their favorite Navajo detective back on the job. The research I did for the non-fiction book I wrote about Dad and his work, Tony Hillerman’s Landscape, On the Road with Chee and Leaphorn, was enormously helpful. I didn’t realize when I wrote it that I would write a novel, but it paved the way. That book gave me an excuse to re-read all of Dad’s novels closely and to travel to places he loved in Navajoland and elsewhere in our beautiful Southwest. Also, because I had completed book-length manuscripts before, I know what to expect in terms of time commitment on a big project. Having dealt with New York editors before, I had some insight into the business end of publishing.  All that helped with the transition.

AF: I particularly liked the role of certain plants in Rock with Wings. One of your nonfiction books is on the Gardens of Santa Fe. Your protagonist Bernie Manuelito is interested in plants; she studied botany in college. I’m looking for the roots, pardon the pun, of this synchronicity.

AH: I loved writing Gardens of Santa Fe and the gardeners I interviewed taught me to appreciate plants in a new way. Luckily for me, Dad had established and developed Bernie’s interest in botany and the natural world in several of his novels. I’m glad he did, because it gave me a nice hook for Rock with Wings. The little cactus I mention is real, by the way, and actually is an endangered species.RockWithWings hc c

AF: Some writers start with a plan, others improvise, and some work with a blend of structure and free play. Tell me about your process of creating a story.

AH: For me, it’s a conglomeration of trying to plan, trying to be organized and efficient, and listening to inspiration when it comes, even if it means major revisions. With  Spider Woman’s Daughter, I was guided by the knowledge that Bernadette Manuelito needed to solve the crime and that the crime had to be a big deal.  I knew I wanted to use Chaco Canyon as one of my settings, so that led me to consider a plot that involved archaeology. Archaeology in turn, led me to use Santa Fe as another setting because the city is filled with museums stuffed with artifacts,  and I knew it would provide a nice contrast to the rural reservation substations and to isolated Chaco Canyon.  In Rock with Wings, I wanted to build on Bernie’s interest in plants. Then, I decided to take the reader to Monument Valley, a beautiful setting Dad never used. The story grew from there.

AF: The colorful supporting characters give so much life to your stories. Do these characters just show up? Do they surprise you? Do you intentionally build them?

AH: I’d like to stretch the truth and say I’m smart enough to build my supporting cast based on a long-range plan for the series, but, mostly, they just show up. A couple minor characters in Spider Woman’s Daughter come back in Rock with Wings.

AF: Do you have an idea for the setting of your next book?

AH: Yes. I think it will open at a big basketball game in Shiprock, and then move to Tuba City, an interesting town on the border of Hopiland and a good place to stop on the way to the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon may get in there, too.

AF: Thank you for such thoughtful answers. I look forward to the next book.

A New Mexico Mystery Review: Rock with Wings

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The opening scene of Anne Hillerman’s new mystery hooked me immediately. When Officer Bernie Manuelito stops a driver for speeding, the man’s peculiar behavior, and the rifle and two boxes of dirt in his trunk, set up the first pieces in a complex puzzle.  Two related mysteries seem separate at first, linked only by the fact the Bernie is working on one case and her husband Jim Chee on the other—which takes place on the set of a zombie movie being filmed in Monument Valley. The plot is well crafted, with plenty of twists and red herrings, but there’s more to this book: the characters, their relationships, and the settings.

The author has a gift for portraying vivid personalities and writes with insight into family and friendships. It’s not easy to write a happy marriage and keep it interesting for a reader—conflicted relationships provide a lot more material—but she does it well with Chee and Bernie. The ongoing stories of Bernie’s aging mother and troubled sister are woven into the mystery plot in a natural and effective way. Joe Leaphorn remains a powerful presence. Though nothing is written in his point of view, readers who’ve known him for many years and many books can feel his continuity and integrity. He may be in the background, but his dignity, determination and astuteness haven’t faded, nor has his importance to the younger officers he mentored.

As in Spider Woman’s Daughter, Hillerman peoples this book with memorable secondary characters, such as Chee’s entrepreneurial clan relative Paul, and the very traditional Mr. Tso.

Navajo culture and language are integral to the story and the protagonists’ lives and world views. I liked the way Bernie relates to Mr. Tso as an honored elder, not just a potential witness. The dialogue in English that represents conversation in Navajo is respectful even when intimate, as if every word is framed in a space of meaning and thought.

The sense of place is perfect, from the movie-making, tourism and geologic beauty in Monument Valley to Mr. Tso’s little house near Ship Rock. This couldn’t be set anywhere else.

Midway through the book, Bernie’s mother’s neighbor, Mrs. Darkwater, is working on crossword. A clue in the puzzle provides a clue not only to an element of the plot, but to a deeper theme in the book. The word could be applied to Mr. Tso as well as to something Bernie discovers in those boxes of dirt, as progress and preservation, old ways and new, intermingle or collide. This is a mystery with substance, true to the Hillerman tradition, a strong addition to the series.


Look for my interview with Anne Hillerman next week.

A New Mexico Mystery Review: Spider Woman’s Daughter

While continuing the characters and settings from Tony Hillerman’s books, Anne Hillerman has her own style and voice as a writer. I didn’t feel as if I was reading one of her father’s books, but I felt fully at home with her mastery of the series. She has the understanding of Navajo culture that’s central to the stories, and she knows the characters well. Jim Chee, Joe Leaphorn and Bernie Manuelito are familiar and fully developed, with touches ranging from Chee’s off-beat humor to Joe Leaphorn’s meticulously detailed little notebook to Chee and Bernie’s deep spirituality. Even the secondary characters like Captain Largo are immediately recognizable as the same people from the earlier part of the series.

The setting is portrayed vividly— the land, the cities, the small towns, and the people. Accurate details and human touches make the places come alive. The bone-jarring washboard roads going to Chaco Canyon have livestock wandering them. A local can’t give directions for driving in downtown Santa Fe. The groundskeeper Mark Yazzie, a minor character, stood out as delightfully real and original. The tenacious and amusingly ferocious Gloria Benally is another unforgettable supporting character. Even if I weren’t a New Mexican, I think Hillerman’s writing would make me hear the voices, feel the air, and see and smell the place, from the plants in Santa Fe gardens to the hot wind in June before the rains come.

This book kept me awake at night reading it, and I found myself thinking about it between times, wondering what would happen next. The suspense is effectively structured, but it’s depth of the relationships that make the story powerful.  Bernie’s dedication isn’t just to her job, but to people, and that dedication drives the story.

It was intriguing to see characters from Tony Hillerman’s A Thief of Time come back. I hadn’t read it for a long time, and think it would have been fun to re-read it before entering this story. I’m going to rediscover it after instead.


If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I follow a review with an author interview. My interview with Anne Hillerman will come later, paired with a review of her next book, Rock with Wings.

A New Mexico Mystery Author Interview: Rebecca Grace


BeckyMartinez-1DeadMansRules-4Last week I reviewed Rebecca Grace’s Dead Man’s Rules. This week I’m happy to have her for an interview about the book and her writing life.

Rebecca Grace is the pseudonym of Becky Martinez, a former broadcast journalist who has worked in TV newsrooms from San Diego to Seattle and from Denver to Los Angeles with a stop in Las Vegas for good measure. After 30 years she left the newsroom for five years in public relations before turning to the world of fiction writing full time. She also teaches writing classes online and has presented workshops at a number of writing conferences.  Her short story, “Trouble in the Rockies” was part of an anthology, The Trouble with Romance, that was a 2006 New Mexico Book Award finalist. Her latest book, is Dead Man’s Rules, was published by The Wild Rose Press. It is the first of a three book series. Her next book will be a humorous cozy mystery, Blues at 11, coming in January 2015 from The Wild Rose Press.

AF: How has your background in journalism has influenced you as a fiction writer? I’m curious about the thinking processes, the writing skills, and the research skills, as well as the authenticity it brings to Cere’s character.

RG: When I first started writing stories at the age of 12, I knew I would always want to write in some form. That turned me to majoring in journalism in college where I worked for the school newspaper, the CSU Collegian, and I never looked back. A lucky break got me into television where I had the opportunity to work with some great news people who helped me with my writing.  Several skills I learned as a journalist have carried over into my fiction writing. One was making certain that each sentence made sense and being willing to edit whatever was written. That made it easier for me when it came time to work with an editor. I always knew things could be written differently and I was willing to improve. Another thing I learned was to re-read my work out loud. It might make people around me crazy to hear me reading my work as I write, but in a TV newsroom lots of us did it so we knew how it would sound on the air. It also helps to pick out awkward phrasing, and it’s great for dialogue.  Being a journalist also made me a slave to deadlines. You couldn’t just say you didn’t feel like writing and you might do it later. You didn’t have the luxury of waiting. You had to write no matter what every single day. And I pretty much do that. If I’m not writing every day, I miss it. When I’m not writing, I’m researching. As a journalist I’m very aware of my surroundings and the people around me and always looking for a story (or book) in almost any situation. That partly influenced my view of Cere. I can see her looking for a story, even in an old newspaper story. But not just any story—a story that helps her career.

AF: How much of you shows up in Cere?

RG: I think a part of me shows up in most of my characters, or perhaps my characters have qualities that I wish I had.  The part of Cere that is like me is that person who is determined to find out the truth and get to the bottom of things. I think, though, that I probably wouldn’t carry things as far as she does—that may be the part I wish I was.

AF: What made you choose the northern New Mexico setting?

I grew up in southern Colorado but three of my grandparents were born in New Mexico and we visited there often. Our family vacations were usually spent in the mountains and towns of northern New Mexico. My uncle worked as a cowboy on the Vermijo Park Ranch for years and we would drive over to see him every summer and sometimes camp outside the cabin where he was working. He’d take my dad and brother fishing while my mom and sister and I went hiking in the hills. It was so beautiful and untouched. The fishing was great and sometimes we’d wake up in the morning and there would be deer right outside. I loved that part of the country. Then we would come down into Cimarron or Raton or drive over to Questa, Eagles Nest or Taos. Later my parents retired in Trinidad, Colorado, which is only ten miles from the state border so their favorite places to drive were northern New Mexico. They’d think nothing of going down to Springer or Maxwell for lunch or over to Folsom, or Capulin.

I still have ties to New Mexico because my older brother retired in Santa Fe several years ago. Just like me he loves the region and the special nature of the people who live there. He spends a lot of time exploring and whenever I visit we always hit the road and just see where we end up. When I was there in November we ended up in Abiquiu because he had never been there and he had been reading about Georgia O’Keefe. But we don’t just do the tourist haunts. We like to get on the back roads and just drive.

AF: Is Marco Gonzales based on any historical figure? If not, what inspired you to create this character? He’s dead throughout the whole book and yet he really came to life.

RG: Marco was one of those characters who just seemed to keep growing in my mind for years. He is totally fictional, but the first time I wrote the story it was partly in his viewpoint. He is a tragic figure who kept speaking to me, sort of like that ghost figure that spoke to Cere.

AF: I loved the ghost tour of the old dance hall. I’d have gone on it for sure, if I’d been a kid in Rio Rojo. Have you ever seen a ghost? What do you believe about them?

RG: I’ve never seen a ghost, though I like to believe that some people see them and they might be out there in the form of a spiritual connection.  My description of the ghost tour of the old dance hall was one of those things that was a real life incident—just not the ghost part. There is an old mining company store right outside one of the Vermijo Park gates that you can’t get to anymore where there is an old handprint on the wall. The story was that the handprint was made by a bloody hand, though I don’t know if the person died. My college friends and I sneaked in one late afternoon to see it, and I think I sort of glorified my memory of that afternoon as I described the building. We did see the handprint, though, and it did give us all a spooky sensation.

AF: Freeda lived on a commune for a while as a child. (I notice her name is spelled Freeda, not the normal Frieda. Nice hippie touch.) What made you decide to include this connection to the Taos area hippie communes?

RG: Back in the late 60s and early 70s, my uncle complained about the hippies who would try to settle at Vermijo and he would have to run them off the privately owned ranch, so I was very aware of the hippies in the area. I also spent my early college years at Trinidad State Junior College and we would go over to the Taos area. We also had several communes that sprang up right outside of Trinidad. A few of my buddies were always threatening to drop out and go live off the land until we went over to visit and they saw the primitive living conditions and how hard people were working to survive.

AF: There’s a fair amount of cooking in Dead Man’s Rules. Two of the important secondary characters are restaurateurs, and their establishments come to life on the page.  Are you a good cook? Are these familiar recipes or did you have to research the food?

RG: Okay, I have to admit that I am not much of a cook, but the one thing I can do is make a mean pot of red chile (I actually won a cook-off once) while my younger brother is great with green. My older brother spends much of his time going from place to place in Santa Fe and sampling both!

As for the restaurants, they are a combination of so many places I have visited. As I mentioned, my mom and dad were always going to different small cafés in the small towns in northern New Mexico and I always loved going with them. The food is always tasty and there is plenty of it. My family still loves to visit those small restaurants and cafés when we are down that way.

AF: Red or green?

RG: How about Christmas?  Or for those unfamiliar with that saying, I like both red and green.  It actually depends on my mood at the time.

AF: Tell me about your writing classes. What do you like best about teaching?

I teach classes on a variety of topics. In the past I have taught regularly for Savvy Authors. This month (January) I am teaching a villain class for Colorado Romance Writers.  Next month I will be teaching a class on writing short stories for Maryland Romance Writers.

For me the best part of teaching is watching my students develop. I enjoy their enthusiasm and get a special feeling of accomplishment when one of them says they made a breakthrough in their writing as a result of my teaching.

At the same time, I enjoy learning from my students. There are times I find myself noticing problems in their work and then I realize I am doing the same sort of thing. Helping others also helps me improve my own writing.

AF: I hope to see a lot of Freeda in the next book. Will I? When does it come out?

RG: You’ve hit the nail right on the head. When I first put Freeda into the book I found that I had fallen in love with her as a character. She was everything I would have liked to be if I didn’t have to worry about anything or had someone around like Cere to take care of me. She was such a joy to write that I found she was taking over the story. The only way to calm her down was to give her a book of her own. And that is the second part of my series, Dead Man’s Treasure, as she continues to look for her Dad and get caught up in a mystery of her own. I am putting the finishing touches on it right now and hopefully it will be available within the year.

AF: I’m looking forward to it. Thanks so much for being my guest.


Buy Links

On the Web   (get help with your writing)

Twitter: @RebeccaGrace55





A New Mexico Mystery Review: Dead Man’s Rules


This is a true genre blend, as much romance as it is mystery. The multiple layers of the plot—ghost story, new love, old loves, a new murder, and a cold case—are woven into a web that keeps tugging on the reader’s curiosity.

I found the primary setting in the small town of Rio Rojo in northern New Mexico authentic, with its mix of Anglo and Hispanic residents and its close village life that is touched but not changed by nearby Taos. In this town with few newcomers and many generations of history, everyone has some kind of connection and many know fragments of each other’s secrets.

Los Angeles-based television reporter Cere Medina and Rafe Tafoya, the sheriff who is her mother’s neighbor in Rio Rojo, come into conflict over her investigation of a cold case on his turf—conflict complicated by attraction. These are people who challenge as well as charm each other. Their exploration of the case integrates all the threads of the story and forces both Rafe and Cere to reexamine some of their choices.

Both the major and minor characters have good reasons to care about the mysteries—those keeping the secrets and those trying to uncover them. The large cast of secondary characters is handled well, giving the town its personality and giving meaning to the friendships and family ties that affect the murder plots. Both the murder victims are complex people who remain fascinating long after death. Even the businesses in Rio Rojo have personalities, especially the Matador, the casual, home-style restaurant where locals hang out. I could see it, hear it, and smell it.

A nice New Mexico touch is the way Cere’s connection with the ghost of Marco Gonzales is handled. A few people are skeptical, and others accept it readily. Her experience is subtle as well as powerful, not overblown. It’s treated fittingly for the Land of Enchantment. Spirits happen.

Dead Man’s Rules is part one of a three-part story. Author Rebecca Grace handled closure on part one well. The major plot lines all get wrapped up. Subplots revolving around some intriguing secondary characters are left open. These are strong and interesting enough to make the sequel appealing, but not central enough to leave gaping holes to frustrate the reader at the end of part one. I understand that Grace teaches some writing skills classes. The way she finessed this difficult balancing act inclines me think she’d be a good teacher.

A New Mexico Mystery Author Interview: Patricia Smith Wood

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Patricia Smith Wood’s father, first as a police officer, and later as a career FBI agent, sparked her own interest in law, solving crime, and mystery. After retiring from a varied and successful business career (including eighteen months working at the FBI, being a security officer at a savings & loan, and owning her own computer business) she attended writing seminars, conferences, and in 2009 graduated from the FBI Citizens’ Academy. Aakenbaaken & Kent published her first mystery, The Easter Egg Murder, on February 14, 2013. Murder on Sagebrush Lane, the second in the series, is finished and awaiting publication.

Last week I reviewed her book and this week she’s here to talk with me about it.

AF: The Easter Egg Murder has one of the most complicated plots I’ve ever read. How did you keep track of it as you wrote? (I picture you with a wall-sized chart covered with color-coded diagrams, or moving some sort of double-layered chess-board of characters around.)

PSW: It really wasn’t a problem for me. I’m a “pantster” and I didn’t map it out. The story simply developed as I wrote. Sometimes I’d start a chapter with a vague idea of it going one way, but it ended up completely different. I would finish and think, “Well, now what?” Then the next idea would just be there, and I’d go with it. I routinely found myself surprised at the twists that came out.

AF: Was there a historical event similar to the murder of Chipper Finn that inspired this book? Are any of the characters from that 1950 part of the plot based, even loosely, on actual people in New Mexico history?

PSW: Definitely! The actual murder of Cricket Coogler happened in Las Cruces, NM in 1949. But her body wasn’t discovered in the desert until sixteen days after she disappeared. Four young men (17-18) found her partially buried body in the desert on the Saturday before Easter when they went rabbit hunting. I used the basics, but changed the details to suit my version. Many of the actual people make an appearance (usually in disguise) in my version. And of course, Cricket’s murder was never solved.

AF: 21st century Albuquerque is the main setting in your book, and easily recognizable. Tell me about Los Huevos. I looked it up and found a rock-climbing site of some apparent difficulty, but no town. Is it based on a real place? Do you have any connection with a little town like that?

PSW: Los Huevos is a completely made up town, located conveniently at the foot of Los Huevos Peak (also fictional). Since the body in my story is discovered on Easter Sunday morning at the foot of Los Huevos Peak, that would be a natural reason to call it The Easter Egg Murder. I had been told I should have a title that stood out, and that seemed to me to fit the bill. I have no connection with such a town, but I suppose the small town of Los Lunas (which is actually southwest of Albuquerque about 20 miles) might have given me the idea.

AF: The story of the murder in 1950 and all the events around it, all the characters involved, could have been a book by itself. Did you ever consider writing it that way? How did you decide to make it a story within the story?

PSW: The story of the actual murder (in 1949) has already been written. In fact, I read everything I could get my hands on about Cricket Coogler’s murder. An excellent book by Paula Moore, titled Cricket in The Web, came out in 2008, right about the time I finished my first draft. I wanted to use some actual things, but ended up fictionalizing most of it. No one in New Mexico who knows about this murder wants to say, on the record, who they think was responsible. It was much more fun (and safer) to make it up.

AF: Harrie has precognitive dreams which add a sense of foreboding to the early part of the story. Was there any additional reason behind your decision to integrate this into the plot? I have this kind of dream myself so I liked that you treat it as only a little unusual. Also, it seemed true to “the woo” of New Mexico to have it in there but not make big deal of it.

PSW: I know several people who have some form of precognition, or “knowing”, about events. It’s always fascinated me and seemed like an interesting story-telling tool to use in fiction. I hoped to convey the mystical atmosphere that weaves it way through New Mexico’s history and culture, from the Anasazi and Chaco Canyon ruins to present day native practices.

AF: Tell me about your research. The illegal gambling and the political corruption in New Mexico back in the fifties were things I really hadn’t heard that much about, and I found them fascinating.

PSW: My father was an FBI agent who was transferred to the Albuquerque Office in 1951, two years after the murder. Events were still transpiring when he arrived here, and he later told me what he knew about the case. I also interviewed many people who lived through that era in New Mexico politics during the period 1949-1950. That included former FBI agents, former residents of Las Cruces, a couple of newspaper men who were around at the time, and even the former governor of New Mexico, who was elected mostly because of the Cricket Coogler murder. I also read books, and watched a film made on the subject: The Silence of Cricket Coogler. The book Cricket in The Web goes into the gambling issue in great detail, but I had also heard a lot about that from the people I interviewed.

AF: I know you have a good background in law enforcement, but you chose to give major roles in solving the mysteries to the two amateur sleuths, though you do include police and FBI. I’d love to know how you made that choice, and how you came around to casting two editors in the role of sleuths.

PSW: I have been a fan of the “cozy” mystery genre since I was a teenager. The cozy requires the sleuth (or sleuths) to be amateur, so it was always my intention to follow that basic rule. My favorite series at that age was the Judy Bolton mystery series by Margaret Sutton. In the early books, she was a teenager like me, and her boyfriend, Peter, helped her solve the mysteries. When they grew up, Peter became an FBI agent. Since my dad was an FBI agent, I thought that was a cool thing to do. Toward the end of the series, Judy and Peter eventually married, and she still managed to help him solve crimes.

As for making my sleuths editors, it seemed the best way to get them involved in a half-century old murder. By editing Senator Lawrence’s book about the murder, it gave them an excuse to become embroiled in digging out the answers. I didn’t stop to think how that might play out over a series, but in the beginning, I didn’t know it would be a series!

AF: Just for fun, I have to include this “outtake.” I made the mistake of asking Pat a question about some other books, and here’s the answer.

PSW: If you “Googled” my name, you might have run across a different Patricia Wood (which is why I insert my maiden name into the mix: Patricia Smith Wood) who has written at least one book (The Lottery) and perhaps more by now. She lives on a boat in Hawaii (which I obviously don’t). But that didn’t stop a local magazine from running a small piece about The Easter Egg Murder in which they stated that the author, Patricia Wood, lives on a boat in Hawaii!

It turns out Patricia Wood is a pretty common name. One day in 2012 I received a phone call from a local television station asking if I was Patricia Wood. I agreed that was me, and they then asked if I was the Patricia Wood who had stolen jewels from luggage at American Airlines and was I headed for federal prison in two weeks. Once I recovered my senses I assured them I was not that particular Patricia Wood, they thanked me and hung up.

AF: Tell me about your newest project.

PSW: My newly finished second book in the series is Murder on Sagebrush Lane. In the first chapter, Harrie McKinsey goes out to retrieve her newspaper at 5 a.m. on a summer morning and finds a small girl playing in her flower beds. She notices a dark stain on the child’s pajamas and teddy bear, and when she realizes it’s blood, her journey to find the child’s parents gets her involved in another murder. Of course, Harrie’s life is never that simple, and before it’s over there’s another murder, a race to uncover a plot to steal top secret data, an attempted kidnapping, and a desperate killer who intends to make Harrie his final victim.

AF: It sounds exciting. I’m glad to know there will be more of Harrie in the future. Let me know when the book comes out. Thanks so much for being my guest.

Pat’s web site:

A New Mexico Mystery Review: The Easter Egg Murder

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The best analogy I can think of for this book is a Rubik’s Cube. As I read it, I knew all the pieces of the puzzle could fit together, but I never did figure out how until the end. It’s the kind of mystery that engages the mind, with intricately constructed interlocking pieces and multiple layers of relationships, motives and history. It has a whodunit within a whodunit, as the team of amateur sleuths, police and FBI in 2000 work out who is behind the unsolved “Easter Egg murder” from 1950, as well as a murder and an attempted murder in their own time. In spite of this complexity there are no loose ends, no holes, and even its surprise ending is set up so the closure comes from the prior events, not out of the blue.

The cascade of events in this story is triggered when Senator Philip Lawrence starts writing two books—his memoir of his life in politics, and a book about a fifty-year-old murder that took place in the small New Mexico town of Los Huevos on Easter Sunday. The second book becomes more important to him than the first, and when word gets out that he’s working on it, the project stirs up some serious trouble. The retired senator’s editors find themselves in the middle of that trouble. I liked the way the two editors’ involvement in solving a mystery was handled. The amateurs don’t outsmart the professionals, but cooperate and communicate with them in a realistic way, as well as occasionally striking out on their own.

The characters are deft sketches, the pace brisk. The pieces of the puzzle keep moving. For those who like their books spare and fast, this will fit the bill. The tension is seldom at a life-threatening level, but it builds steadily to that point. There isn’t a dull moment or a single extra word that could have been cut.

I actually would have liked a few more words. The historical part of the mystery was so interesting I wanted to explore that time and place in more depth. I had a good sense of Harrie—one of the editors who is the primary point of view character—as a whole person, but I didn’t get to know the other major players as well as I would have liked. Almost like a radio play, a good portion of the story is told in dialog. I’m never in a hurry to have a good book end and I wouldn’t have minded if this slender 212 page novel had a little more meat on its bones.


Next week I’ll have an interview with the author, in which she shares some fascinating background on this book.

New Mexico Mystery Author Interview: Donnell Ann Bell

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Donnell Ann Bell grew up in New Mexico and today lives in Colorado. A homebody at heart, she leaves the international thrillers to world travelers, and concentrates on suspense that might happen in her neck of the woods – writing SUSPENSE TOO CLOSE TO HOME.  She is the author of The Past Came Hunting, Deadly Recall and Betrayed, all of which have been e-book best sellers. Her fourth release, Buried Agendas, is due out November 6th and is available for preorder on Amazon Kindle. Her books have won or been nominated for prestigious writing awards, including The Epic Award for Best Thriller Suspense, Greater Detroit’s Booksellers Best for Best First Book and Best Single Title, and the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery Suspense. Along with retired police officer veteran Wally Lind, Donnell co-owns Crimescenewriters, a Yahoo group for mystery/suspense writers.

Last week I reviewed her book, Deadly Recall. This week I’m happy to have her as a guest to talk about that book and about her writing process.

AF: You have some great turns of phrase. Examples: “the kind of woman who invited a man to look but don’t cross,” “catching her mother’s heat-seeking gaze,” and “looking like a poster child for the uncomfortable.”

Are your good lines like this the outcome of slow labor or sudden inspiration?

DB: These are such great questions, Amber.  It depends. Once in a great while something brilliant comes to me; other times what I think is brilliant falls flat and my editor says, “Huh?”

AF:I love your secondary characters. They are never just extras, but real people with personalities. Where did Father Slater come from?  And Mr. Lucero and The General? Did you plan and construct them, did they pop up whole, or somewhere in between?

DB: Oh, thank you!  I loved these secondary characters in Deadly Recall.  Originally, don’t tell anyone, I had planned to eliminate one of these characters.  They were so compelling, and held firm that they wanted to stick around.  They very much came fully developed.  I just knew that Father Slater was from Boston, and came from a family of cops.  Mr. Lucero was the same, and his cat . . . I knew nothing about Russian Blues. Nothing.  But the General had to be Russian to compete with his namesake.

AF: An influential teacher is a key part of Deadly Recall. Did you have a teacher who inspired you or motivated you at some point in your life?

DB: You caught me.  I had the meanest music teacher ever.  I played the piano by ear. I wasn’t a prodigy, but I could listen to a tune and play it afterward. My music teacher highly discouraged that.  Of course she was a nun.  I wasn’t fortunate to have a Sister Beatrice in my life, but I did have two nuns who came awfully close and discovered my love of writing.  When other kids were writing about space aliens and chocolate Chips Ahoy cookies, I was writing about a Texas town surviving a drought.  My sixth and seventh grade teachers, both Ursuline nuns, gave me improv assignments.  “Let’s see what you can do with this.”  They encouraged me, and to a child, that meant everything.

AF: You are one heck of a plotter. No loose ends, no “deus ex machina” solutions. All the gears mesh beautifully. Do you create the storyline first? What’s your process as a writer?

DB:  I had a firm plan where Deadly Recall was going, and knew who the murderer was from the start in the draft.  Then I attended a Donald Maass seminar in Albuquerque.  He said if you know who your killer is, chances are the reader will, too.  I was determined I was right and he was wrong.  But at the very end of the book, I weakened and a different killer showed up.

As for writing, I’m a linear writer. I wrote Deadly Recall scene by scene, and because I knew this topic so well (I’m Catholic) I knew what types of people would surround Eden, my protagonist. What’s more, I knew their mindsets, so out of the books I’ve written, Deadly Recall came the easiest to me. The police procedure was, of course, rough, but I had Crimescenewriters and a lot of help from law enforcement experts.

I should probably tell you here that I encountered a lot of outside obstacles in writing this book. I finaled in a well-known RWA contest with two perfect scores. The coordinator was so excited, and the published judge who judged me said, “I can’t wait to see this in print.”  I truly had my hopes up. What happened later was that the final editor of the contest, out of six finaling entries, gave Deadly Recall an honorable mention. In other words, I came in dead last.

Later, when I pitched the book, another well-known editor said, “Nice idea, now put it under your bed, and write something else. Catholic stories don’t sell.”

I couldn’t give up on this story, however. It finaled in the 2010 Golden Heart. The book was with a New York publisher at the time, when Bell Bridge Books made an offer on The Past Came Hunting and also Deadly Recall. I was so flattered when the NY editor said, “This is my loss.”  I do feel I made the better choice as a new author. I might have been lost at a larger house.  Bell Bridge Books has really stood behind me and my writing.

AF: As a former New Mexican, what’s your favorite NM memory?

DB: Oh, gosh!  This is probably the hardest question you’ve asked me, Amber.  So many invaluable memories, so many that shaped me.  I grew up in Farmington, New Mexico and attended Sacred Heart Catholic School.  I had so much diversity around me, Hispanic, Navajo, Caucasians. I went roller skating on the reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico. I went out to Navajo Lake to water ski and to swim. I never realized racial tensions existed until I was in high school, which is a terribly sad story and too long for this interview.

I have the utmost respect for the Indian culture, as some of these people were my closest friends. I lived in New Mexico for 18 years. I’ve lived in Farmington, Albuquerque and Las Cruces. My husband grew up in Tucumcari. We’ve traveled every inch of that state in his job. We have family there and it’s home for us. So many wonderful memories.

AF: Tell me about some of the research you did for this book. It seems it must have involved law, police procedures, the Catholic church, music, psychology and medicine.

DB: I am a former court reporter, so I had a good understanding of the law.  I did contact Leslie Budewitz* a time or two and Shaun Kaufman and Colleen Collins.  These people are invaluable resources. I have a dear friend who is psychologist and we talked at length what Eden might have gone through.  Most of it came from experience, though, and from my heart.

AF: Who are your favorite writers? What is it that you like about them?

DB: My favorite writer for International thrillers is Daniel Silva.  I was inspired to write and most probably developed my love of police procedures by Lawrence Sanders of the Deadly Sin series. I love Taylor Caldwell’s epics.  There are so many mystery and romantic suspense authors I probably should quit before I leave someone out.

AF: What are you working on now?

DB: I am writing my first suspense series for Bell Bridge Books.  It’s a challenge and a lot of fun.  I have a romantic suspense release coming out November 6th called Buried Agendas.

AF: Does your husband read your books?

DB: Ha!  He does now that I’m published.  To be fair, I asked him to read my first book, Loving Montana – the one that truly should be, and will continue to be under my bed.  I found it a few hours later on the coffee table, minus a husband.  Later, he returned from the library with “The History of Math.”  I said to him, you would rather read “The History of Math” than my novel?  He said, “You never know what people want to talk about at parties.”  I assumed from there that my work would never be on my chemical engineer husband’s to be read-list. He’s read all of the published books now, and paid me an off-handed compliment, by saying, “Hey, you’ve gotten better.”

AF: Thanks, Donnell. You’ve been a delightful guest.


*Note: Author and lawyer Leslie Budewitz has a blog that will appeal to mystery fans and mystery writers.



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A New Mexico Mystery Review: Deadly Recall

This is the first of a series of New Mexico Mystery features. In true New Mexico fashion, I don’t have schedule, but will post these at random intervals when I find the right books. (If I find a NM book I don’t like, it won’t be featured here, though I may review it elsewhere.) I’ll be following each review with an author interview a week later. The Land of Enchantment is a diverse place, and I hope to share a wide range of stories that highlight its many faces.



 Equal parts mystery and romance, Deadly Recall by Donnell Ann Bell is tightly plotted and suspenseful, and has intriguing three-dimensional characters. With the male lead being a police detective and the female lead a defense attorney, conflict is natural to the plot and situation. (I found this to be a refreshing change after reading a number of romances in which the conflict felt contrived.) Kevin and Eden have a delightful and believable first encounter that sets both the love plot and their interwoven roles in the mystery plot in motion. Their attraction to each other is portrayed with depth, and their relationship in progress is often charming.  Bell has a knack for witty, natural banter between lovers and friends. Eden occasionally makes decisions which made me want to shake her but I could see that was her nature, not a plot contrivance. It made me empathize with Kevin.

The book is set in Albuquerque, showing the city that its residents see. While in some ways the protagonists could be from anywhere, their homes or hobbies have local flair. Eden’s loft near Old Town felt like a real part of the city, and I liked the very Albuquerque detail that Kevin is part-owner of a hot-air balloon. A number of the supporting characters feel like part of the local scene, people who put the quirky in Albuquerque, such as Eden’s client the vegan, tattooed housepainter-and-artist, and her neighbor Mr. Lucero, who thinks his cat is the reincarnation of General MacArthur. The behavior of the chatty, nosy, Chinese food delivery guy struck me as typical of the way people in NM talk to strangers. All of the minor and secondary characters have personalities, even if they are only onstage for a cameo.

The author’s style is sometimes so original and well phrased that I wanted to applaud while reading. Once in a while the wording seems a little hasty or not quite polished, but not often. As a reader who loves the craft of writing, I spent far more time in a state of admiration than I did getting in touch with my inner editor.

The clues and red herrings kept me guessing and thinking in step with the characters as they worked through the layers of mystery. Some romances make it seem as if love is the end of the story. I liked the way this book kept going a little further. Not only the love story and the mystery plot are wrapped up (without a single cliché for wrapping), but also Eden’s inner experience, her rediscovery.

I look forward to reading more of this author’s work. Even if it’s not set in New Mexico.