by Lorie Lewis Ham
This week we are pleased to have the chance to interview mystery author Alex Matthews, review her latest book Healer’s Heresy & give away a copy of the book. Check the end of this article for information on entering to win.
Lorie: When did your first novel come out? A little about it?
Alex: The first novel in my Cassidy McCabe series, Secret’s Shadow, came out in ’96. I’m a therapist, so of course Cass is a therapist too. The only way readers can tell us apart is that Cass is younger and has better hair.
Almost before I knew I was going to write a book, I knew what the plot would center on: a client suicide. This was a nightmare fear that had haunted me for some time. A therapist’s top priority is to keep her clients safe. I knew that if I slipped up and one of my clients died by their (okay, I know it should be his or her, but don’t you hate that construction?) own hand, I’d never forgive myself.
So, you may ask, what does suicide have to do with murder? Read Secret’s Shadow and find out.
And—BTW—the only suicide I’ve ever had to deal with was the fictional one in my book.
Lorie: A little more about the characters?
Alex: My latest book is Healer’s Heresy, tenth in the series. Cass has remained the protagonist throughout, but sometimes Zach Moran, her partner in crime solving, has taken the lead.
Cass and Zach emerged as voices in my head before I ever put a word on paper. I didn’t have to create characters, they were simply there, fully developed, usually on opposite sides of any issue: Cass, the soft-hearted empathic therapist; Zach, the cynical tough-minded investigative reporter.
At the beginning, various clients are beleaguered by the dropping of dead bodies and Zach is dragging Cass into his investigations of these deaths. Three books later, she’s learned the tricks of the investigation trade and is competing with him. Who is the better sleuth remains forever in doubt.
One of the oddest things about these two characters is that, in the early books, some readers complained that Cass wasn’t believable as a therapist. But nobody ever said I got Zach’s work as a reporter wrong, even though I picked up all my information about reporting from TV and the movies.
Lorie: What about the cat?
Alex: The three main characters—Cass, Zach, and Starshine, a calico cat—meet in Secret’s Shadow. In the opening scene, Cass discovers a diminutive cat on her doorstep. Although she doesn’t like cats, the calico slips in and before long, Cass, who can never let herself be vulnerable with humans (therapists often have that problem) is talking out her problems with the cat.
Starshine has no interest in murders. She’s a normal cat, which is to say that she’s totally self-centered, and she flips back and forth between being Cass’s comforter and Cass’s tormentor.
The existence of a cat in my series does not mean that my books are cozies. They’ve been described as edgy, gripping, suspenseful. The role of Starshine is to present a slice of ordinary life amidst the heinous contours of the mystery.
She’s also in my books because I can’t imagine life without a cat.
Lorie: What kind of research do you do?
Alex: Some authors love to do research. I am not among them. I would far prefer to make things up than to have to Google information or read long boring factual accounts. My primary way of researching is to find somebody who is a repository of the information I need and get them to tell me or go to the places I need to set scenes, such as my recent visit to the Chicago Morgue.
The other way I do research is by acting out violent encounters with my husband, who takes on the role of villain. (No, we don’t do bondage or S & M.)
Early on I realized I couldn’t describe what violent situations smelled/sounded/felt like unless I had some experience of them. So my helpful husband has duct-taped my wrists and driven me around in the trunk of our car, subdued and kidnapped me, thrown me onto the floor of a van and carted me off to a stormy forest preserve. The only thing I’ve refused to do in the furtherance of my art is to slide down a muddy bank into a river.
Lorie: What brought you to choose the setting?
Alex: I love the setting of my books, which is my hometown village, Oak Park. It has received national recognition for its success in welcoming people of all races, sexual preferences, nationalities, ages, and income levels. On our block alone we’ve had white families, black families, a Moslim family, new babies, a centenarian, and a token dysfunctional family. Oak Park is a community of idealists.
But what makes it most interesting as a setting is that it also has an underbelly. I live only one block from the border between Oak Park and the West Side of Chicago. And crime overflows our border as easily as water runs downhill.
Oak Park has a sense of mission. A sense of identity. And it can also be a dangerous place to live, as Cass discovers when she is mugged outside her garage.
Did you notice I managed to describe Oak Park without ever mentioning Frank Lloyd Wright or Ernest Hemingway?
Lorie: What do you want readers to take away from your books?
A. How people tick
B. What makes them do the weird and bizarre things they do
C. How multifaceted and contradictory human beings are
D. What makes relationships fall apart
E. What makes them work
Lorie: Advise to aspiring writers?
Alex: Realtors have “Location, location, location,” and writers should have “Motivation, motivation, motivation.” One of the main things that separates good books from barely adequate books is clear motivation. In real life, people are driven to do what they do by inner wants and needs. In poorly written fiction, characters are driven by whatever makes the plot work. Think through the WHY of your characters’ behavior and make sure it is interesting, believable and transparent.
Healer’s Heresy by Alex Matthews
In the latest Cassidy McCabe mystery novel Healer’s Heresy, psychotherapist Cassidy is awakened in the middle of the night by one of her former patients. The patient, Jordan Wenzlaff, claims he went to the house of his former love, Dr. Claudia Leavitt, and when he found her door open, he went inside where he found her dead on the floor. Though he claims he didn’t kill her, he asks Cassidy to destroy her files on him because he knows it will incriminate him. Despite her reporter husband’s objections, she believes her patient and sets out to find out what really happened. The fact that Claudia had a restraining order against Jordan doesn’t help the situation.
As Cassidy and husband Zach investigate, they find out that Claudia wasn’t what she appeared to be and had a pattern of picking up men and then dumping them after only a few months. As they uncover the truth and more of Claudia’s secrets, they also find themselves fighting for their lives.
I love this series for many reasons—the relationship between Cassidy and Zach is wonderful and fun, the way a character who is a psychotherapist can delve into why people do what they do, their cat, Cassidy’s love of peanut butter cups, and her delightful grandmother. The mystery in Healer’s Heresy is well crafted, filled with action, and keeps you guessing ‘til the end. My only complaint with this book is that I wish there had been more of Cassidy’s grandma.
I look forward to the next Cassidy McCabe book!
To enter to win a copy of Healer’s Heresy, simply email KRL at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Healer”, or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen January 15, 2012. U.S. residents only.
If you love mysteries, why not check out Left Coast Crime: Mystery Conference in Sacramento, March 29-April 1, 2012. Registration is only $225 & day passes can be purchased for $75 for Friday and Saturday panel sessions. Registration information can be found at the conventionwebsite, or by sending an email to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.