A New Mexico Mystery Review: Zia Summer by Rudolfo Anaya

A mystery with many layers, the first of Anaya’s Sonny Baca novels is crime fiction and also literary fiction with mythical depths. At one level, it’s the story of a young private detective’s search for his cousin’s killer; at the other level, it’s the story of his spiritual development and reconnection with his traditional culture and his ancestors. The story also reflects on the ecological and ethical challenges facing New Mexico as some seek to develop it and others to preserve and protect it. The sacredness of earth, sun and water, and their spiritual place in human hearts, is as important as the question of who committed the crime, and even inseparable from it.

Sonny Baca, great grandson of the famous Elefgo Baca, is—like his bisabuelo—a flawed hero. Sonny is still maturing as a man and in his profession, learning from his mistakes, but at the same time he’s smart, perceptive, and courageous, and he thinks a lot about both the world around him and the struggles within him. For a reader used to the pace of most crime fiction, this occasional descent into deep wells of thought may feel digressive, but Sonny’s insights are part of the story. Most of the time, the pace is intense and the story flies along.

One way Anaya sustains the flow is that he never translates or explains the Spanish words and phrases his characters sprinkle throughout their conversation. This not only kept the pace and the authenticity, but taught me. I began to understand them as I read. (If you’re not a Spanish speaker, notice how you figured out bisabuelo already.)

Though they have full personalities, there’s an archetypal quality to the characters. Sonny’s neighbor don Eliseo is the Wise Old Man, human and believable, not idealized. His spirituality is both transcendent and earth-bound. Rita, Sonny’s girlfriend, comes close to seeming too perfect, a strong, loving, nurturing goddess, but she’s written as seen by a man in love with her. The villains of the story are the inversions of these benevolent archetypes, making them some of the most disturbing criminals I’ve come across in a mystery.

The writing is engaging, as one would expect from a literary master like Anaya. The first chapter, however, is the weakest, heavy with backstory. Don’t let the slow start deter you. After that, the story comes alive. While the crime is horrific, the fullness of Sonny’s life and circle of friends balance this element with humor, love, and mystical wisdom.

*****

New Mexico Magazine recently profiled Anaya in a wonderful and thorough article, linked here.

 

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Virginia King: Mything in Action

The First LieVirginia King Portrait

Intrigued by the blend of world mythologies in Virginia King’s mystical psychological mystery, The First Lie, I asked her to write a guest post on how she wove mythical elements into her fiction. Virginia’s answer to that question follows.

*****

Everyone, soon or late, sits down to a banquet of consequences. Robert Louis Stevenson

In The First Lie, Australian girl Selkie Moon has run away to Hawaii to escape a destructive relationship but she’s landed herself in the middle of a mythical nightmare. Her name already has mythic origins – her mother named her after the selkies, the Celtic seal people who peel off their skins and dance in the moonlight on human legs. Ironic, since Selkie almost drowned as a toddler and has been afraid of the sea ever since.

Now that she’s arrived in Hawaii, with mythical symbols lurking under every lava rock, a series of bizarre events beset her. It all begins when a voice wakes her from a dream: Someone is trying to kill you.

The First Lie was originally set in Sydney, my home town. The writing was going through a flat patch so I decided to re-energize by grabbing a camera and visiting all the locations in the story—a whole day on the road. The outcome of that fateful excursion wasn’t what I expected. I came home and burst into tears. None of the places spoke to me.

In desperation I dropped Selkie into a whole new location, Hawaii, and the story came to life. She was now a stranger in a strange place, so I was on a journey of discovery too. My editor wasn’t too sure about it: You’ve got an Australian main character in a Hawaiian setting, but you’re drawing on Irish/Scottish mythology (selkies); it’s difficult to make those disparate elements fit together cohesively. She suggested moving the story to Ireland or giving Selkie a Hawaiian name, but I did the opposite. I made it work.

I mingled the mythical elements across the cultures to see what happened. I don’t plan when I write because it stifles psychological layers emerging in the story. Instead, if I get an idea— no matter how bizarre—I drop it into the manuscript and let it ride, let it niggle away at me until something pops. It’s incredible how connections form—usually in the middle of the night—each time adding another layer of depth. I wake most mornings and decipher the notes I’ve scribbled while half asleep.

In Chapter One, Selkie sees something strange in a mirror. It once belonged to a Kahuna and has special powers. Mirrors feature in many real Hawaiian encounters with the supernatural and they drip with symbolism in fairy tales—remember the queen in Snow White. I allowed aspects of these elements to create their own consequences. The mirror inspires some mythic scenes later in the book.

The First Lie is not a retelling of the selkie myth, but selkies create their own psychological thread. The myth involves a fisherman stealing a selkie’s pelt as the selkies dance in the moonlight. When one selkie can’t find her skin, she has to go with him and be his wife. Then seven years later, she finds where he’s hidden it and returns to the sea without looking back. This is an issue of identity, of theft, of soul. I used these concepts to add depth to this modern mystery.

Pele, the volcano goddess, has been encountered by many real Hawaiians. She’s associated with warnings of danger, such as house fires and other mishaps. Selkie is being stalked by a mysterious woman. Could she be Pele? Then there’s the landslide on the highway that sends Selkie and her friends in the opposite direction. Or could the stalker be warning Selkie about one of her new friends?

For a Celtic connection, I created a fictional Hawaiian beach named by a homesick Irishman—only to remember in the middle of the night that there’s a place in Sydney with the same name, just near Selkie’s childhood home. Spooky! And there are monk seals in Hawaii—they’re aumakuas or animal spirit guides that look out for the living. Meanwhile in Europe, scientists have theorised that the sirens in The Odyssey, who lured sailors to their deaths with their singing, may have been based on the moaning of monk seals. Greek mythology too? Yes, because the oceans are interconnected. Add another layer.

Just to make my editor’s head spin, Selkie has a fondness for Chinese food. Chinese mythology adds another thread to the mystery. Cowry shells, hugely symbolic in the islands and around the world, were used to create the Chinese symbol for money—survival in a strange place is an element in the story. And the cooks in Selkie’s favourite noodle bar see something in her aura that no-one else can see—old friend from far away—the Chinese phrase for a memory. It plunges Selkie into a deep investigation of her past.

I had no idea how The First Lie would end until all the mythical layers and threads collided in the last chapter. I just had to trust that the banquet of consequences would be—as the Irish might describe it—grand.

*****

Bio:

Virginia King has lived most of her life in Sydney, but has travelled to many places. Sheʼs been a teacher, an unemployed ex-teacher, a producer of audio-books, a writer of fifty-plus childrenʼs books, and an award-winning publisher. These days sheʼs a full-time writer who paints a bit, living in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney with her husband.

Web site: http://www.selkiemoon.com

Sales link: http://www.amazon.com/First-Selkie-Moon-Mystery-Book-ebook/dp/B00K1VC20Y

*****

Next week, Virginia King and Marion Eaton and I will be doing a give-away for the first book in each of our series. Details will be posted Tuesday. (Marion was featured in an interview last month. https://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com/2015/03/24/interview-with-m-l-eaton-the-mysterious-marsh ) We are fans of each other’s work and want to share that enjoyment with other readers who enjoy a touch of the mystical in a mystery.

 

 

Interview with M.L. Eaton: The Mysterious Marsh

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In my post a few weeks ago on the conventions in mystery, I mentioned a fascinating book that breaks many of them, When the Clocks Stopped by M.L. Eaton. This mystical mystery takes place in the village of Rype-on Marsh in the south of England. Lawyer Hazel Dawkins is anticipating some peaceful time off before the birth of her first child. When she agrees to a little part-time work, she finds herself drawn into troubling events in the lives of her clients—and in the past. The distant past. Mysteriously, she encounters Annie, a woman who lived more than two centuries ago when Rype-on Marsh was a violent place, dominated by gangs of smugglers. With multiple layers of both time and crime, it’s an amazing and original tale. I’m happy to have Marion Eaton as my guest today. In late April we’ll be doing a ten-day sale and a three-book give-away together with a third mystical mystery author, the innovative Australian writer Virginia King. We’ve enjoyed each other’s work and are excited to introduce our readers to books we think they’ll also enjoy.

Retired from legal practice and semi-retired from holistic therapy—although she still teaches Reiki and other workshops—Marion lives close to the sea in the beautiful East Sussex countryside with a long-suffering husband, a lazy saluki and an urge to write into the small hours.

MLE: Thanks so much for your interest in my book and particularly for thinking up all these wonderful questions. I‘m really looking forward to answering them, so I’m going to dive straight in ….

AF: Your book is historical at two levels, being set in 1976 and slipping in time to 1747. To what extent is it based on real historical events?

MLE: I had to smile when I read this … because I remember many events of 1976 perfectly and it doesn’t seem like a historical period. But, of course it is!

I think perhaps it is best for me to come clean from the start. The book was originally going to be a memoir of the first year when I set up in practice on my own account as a country solicitor (attorney). I’m sure you can guess the date? 1976. I had written a few chapters— very badly and in very stilted language, because after all, I was a lawyer— when I suddenly found myself writing something far more exciting and definitely inaccurate. Not a memoir at all. I stopped and thought about it for a minute or two and then decided that I might as well enjoy myself. Who would be interested in the memoir of a country solicitor, anyway? But hidden away in my memory were a lot of interesting stories that I had encountered around that time. It seemed second nature to stitch them into the story. So the short answer is yes, the story is based on real historical events of 1976. Later, when Annie came into the story, she arrived complete with her own personality and history. It was then that I had to do considerable research to check that the background and events surrounding her in 1747 were as accurate as possible.

AF: I like the fact that the mysterious phenomena in your book happen to people who have no expectation of them, no belief that such things are possible or that time is anything but a linear march. Have you ever had even a hint of this kind of mystical experience? If not, what’s the origin of this aspect of the story?

MLE: When I was a child, my mother used to tell me stories of when she was a little girl. Many of them had to do with her experience of ghosts and other psychic phenomena. I always longed to have similar experiences but I was a sensible, pragmatic child and despite all my efforts nothing similar ever seemed to happen to me. Until, one day I was looking over a house … and the rest is in the story!

AF: Did you set out to write a murder-less mystery? There’s crime and deception in your book, but this isn’t the standard whodunit. How conscious were you of breaking some of the conventions of the mystery genre, while keeping others?

MLE: To be honest, I didn’t actually give much thought to genre when I was writing the book. As I’ve mentioned, I was writing for the sheer joy of writing and the mystery evolved naturally. I suppose that as a lawyer it was my bread-and-butter work to solve problems and difficulties so that was a good starting point. The book had to be interesting for me, as well as for my readers. But in the end I had little choice: my characters fleshed themselves out and made their own decisions about the story!

AF: Tell me about your research concerning the eighteenth century smugglers. Did you do it in the Romney Marsh area? How did you go about reconstructing the speech of the time and place? Is Annie’s role in the Owlers unusual?

MLE: I still live near Romney Marsh. This part of Britain (Kent and East Sussex) is wreathed in history and we are fortunate in having great local museums and local history societies, all of which were very helpful both in giving information and pointing me in the direction of contemporary accounts and records of smugglers.

I have always been fascinated by local and family history and my forebears have lived in this part of the world for generations, so I was brought up on tales from the past. Being close to the continent of Europe, for hundreds of years smuggling was a way of life for many people in this area. (Indeed, only yesterday, there was an item on the news about the foiling of a smuggling gang at Dover, very close to the Marsh).

I have no doubt that, then as now, it was a raw and violent occupation and there were many criminal gangs involved, but over the centuries it has become as romanticized as Robin Hood. Smugglers called themselves ‘Gentlemen Free Traders’ and at one time in the eighteenth century practically the whole local community was involved one way or the other. It was the ‘Preventatives’—Government enforcement officers—who were seen as ‘the baddies’.

It was Annie herself who spoke to me of her role in the Owlers, but from the accounts and tales of the rival gangs of smugglers it is clear that women were often involved. Although most acted as signalers, lookouts and scouts, there were others who worked alongside their men in landing smuggled goods from the boats.

On a personal note, I remember my own grandfather telling me how his father would sometimes warn him that he might hear unusual sounds in the night and if he did, to stay in his bed and put his head under the pillow. And always, the next morning there would be strange horses in the stable in place of their own horses. But beneath a stack of hay would be found a small barrel of brandy or a bolt of silk cloth. The horses would be returned a day or two later, when the other horses would also be returned to their owners.

I was lucky to have contemporary records to help me with reconstructing the speech of the time, and also to recall the local Kentish accent that surrounded me in my childhood. It’s rather sad that such accents are now fast disappearing from common use, but some of the older people in the area still speak in the same way.

AF: The village life and scenery is beautifully portrayed, with vivid details of the buildings and gardens. I’ve never been to a small English village but your book made me feels as if I had. The architecture in Rype-on-Marsh is integral to the plot. How did you work this in? I’m curious to know if there are places that served as models, or this was a blend of reality and invention.

MLE: I’m thrilled that you were able to identify with the area and town in When the Clocks Stopped. To me, as to many others who live there, Romney Marsh has its own very distinct identity—almost its own character—and there’s no doubt at all in my mind that the town on which I based Rype-in-the-Marsh also has its own personality. Both the Marsh and the town feel to me to be a huge part of the story, as well as the history that surrounds them. I did embroider details onto the fabric of the town, the most significant being the King’s Ditch, but most of the description of the town and its building and streets are accurate enough to be recognizable to local people. There really are dikes crisscrossing the Marsh as well as secret passages centering on the church.

AF: You had a lot of choices in how you could have told this story. It could have been third person, past tense all the way, in both time periods. You could have told the story in 1976 entirely as a simple crime mystery without the time slips, and there still would have been a good plot. How did you go about making all these choices, using the various voices and points of view? Why present tense for the glimpses of the past?

MLE: I didn’t seem to have a choice while I was writing. It seemed important to write in the first person, partly for immediacy and partly because of the limitations of doing so which meant that my protagonist, Hazel, was often baffled by what was going on. I felt her confusion added to the mystery.

Then, gradually, the layers of the past rose up like a miasma from the earth and I realized that there was another interweaving story begging to be told. Annie spoke to me in poetic language, closely linked as she is to Nature and the Earth. I felt I needed some way of emphasizing the differences and similarities between my two women protagonists, but wasn’t quite sure how this could be done. In the end, I simply listened to Annie’s voice—and the present tense flowed from my pen, mostly because the past seemed co-existent with the present. To me, it was as though the dramatic events of the past had stamped themselves on the fabric of time, eternally interwoven with the current time, ever present, ever available to those who listen. I hope the use of the present tense helps to convey a little of this feeling to my readers.

AF: The legal detail was intriguing. I enjoyed learning about special Will paper and the origin of the term “red tape” as well as seeing how Hazel’s work as a solicitor brings her so naturally into the center of the mystery. What’s your background in law? Is this the type of work you did? What’s the most colorful story that you can share from your legal work?

MLE: I’m glad you found the legal detail intriguing. I hoped it would be interesting and entertaining as well as helping to convey the way that Hazel has been taught to think and act.

I qualified as a solicitor in 1973 and, as I have mentioned already, set up my own practice on Romney Marsh in 1976. Law and legal practice in England and Wales have changed so much with the coming of computers and the internet that I wanted to preserve a little of its uniqueness for future generations. I also wanted to correct the current myth about lawyers generally: that they are all in it for money. I know many solicitors for whom the most important consideration is their clients’ welfare.

All I can say is that most of the incidents in the book are based on true stories.

AF: I’m pretty sure this is the only book I’ve ever read in which the protagonist is very, very pregnant. Her condition affected everything, and yet didn’t stop her from anything. This is another writing choice I’d like to know more about.

MLE: I was very pregnant when I set up my first practice—the circumstances of which were very similar to those surrounding Hazel, and so it was a ready-made opening to the story, explaining why Hazel became involved with all the events that took place around her.

As the book evolved, I thought about changing this, but by then I had found out how much the pregnancy helped in underlining the difference of my main protagonist from all the usual heroes and heroines in other legal thrillers. I wanted a character who was obviously different, very much a woman in a man’s world, who managed to solve a crime by non-contentious means. Basically she would be an ordinary person in an ordinary town to whom completely unexpected things happen. I feel the pregnancy makes her vulnerable but also gives her an edge. She is determined but protective. She has a reason to be emotional and weak sometimes. There is the frisson of double jeopardy. Above all it makes her ultra-feminine.

AF: Hazel’s dog Poppadum is an important character. Is she based on a real dog that you know? (Your bio says you live with a lazy Saluki, and Poppadum is far from lazy.)

MLE: Poppadum was the very first dog who was truly mine, an unforgettable, wonderful, unique character. She just had to be in the story and I had to use her real name. As you’ve guessed, she was a treasured member of our family. My elder daughter even learned to stand by using Poppadum’s fur to pull herself upright, and then to walk by hanging onto the dog’s tail. Poppadum and she adored each other.

AF: If one were to go to Romney Marsh as a tourist, what would you suggest they see and do?

MLE: Oh there is so much! From Roman Castles to deserted churches sitting alone in the middle of fields; from beautiful wild beaches to the cobbled streets of the ancient Cinqueport towns of Hythe, New Romney, and Rye; from small towns and villages with country pubs where you can eat before a roaring open fire in the winter, or sit surrounded by flowers in a summer garden, to long hikes with gorgeous views along the cliffs of the Saxon Shore; from the strange neighbours of a bird sanctuary, lighthouse and nuclear power station at Greatstone, to soft sandy beaches with drifts of wildflowers, to the huge amazing Victorian follies built at Littlestone; from a miniature public railway to small fishing boats drawn up on the beach and shacks offering fresh fish for sale. There are fields of flowering bulbs in spring, an airport, museums of country life, thick squat Martello towers and boats for hire on the Military Canal, built as a defence against a possible invasion by Napoleon. Ice cream and fish and chips are available everywhere to enjoy in a bracing sea breeze or in the warmth of the summer sun. But for the perfect experience there is nothing better than a full English tea served at Deblyn’s Tea Room on New Romney High Street. Real leaf tea in a teapot or freshly ground coffee, home-made scones, jam and cream, tiny savoury sandwiches, and huge slices of delicious home-made cakes, all served on bone china. Enjoy it in the bower of flowers they call a garden or the cosy beamed front room of the old house that fronts the High Street. Bliss!

AF: What’s your next project?

MLE: My next project is the third in the Mysterious Marsh Series. Its working title is ‘When the Earth Cracked’. I recently discovered a Roman Altar hidden away in the tower of a church on the edge of Romney Marsh so I am going to have to work that into a book sometime. It might be this one, but it might not …

I’ve also been writing a semi-autobiographical series of novellas (The Faraway Lands Series) requested by my daughters about my childhood travels in the 1950s—which are truly historical now. I’m pleased that the first two in the series have been popular, although they’re very different from my Mysterious Marsh Series.

And also on my to-do list:

  • A 1930s Love Story
  • A WWII adventure story
  • A Book of Angel Meditations

AF: Thank you so much for taking time for all these questions.

MLE: No, it is I who should thank you, Amber. It’s been lovely to talk to you and very kind of you to give time and space to this interview. I particularly appreciate it because I love your books and can’t wait to finish the Mae Martin series. On the other hand, I don’t want to as I’ve become very fond of her! You’ll just have to keep writing …

AF: I will. You won’t run out of my books. And from the length of your to-do list, I can happily predict I won’t run out of your books either.

M.L. Eaton’s web site: http://www.marioneaton.com

Her books are available in e-book and paperback:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00DTV52PK

My post on conventions in mystery:

https://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com/2015/02/23/stop-talking-and-shoot-the-guy