by Sandra Murphy
This week we have a review of the latest Jane Lawless mystery by Ellen Hart, Fever in the Dark. We also have an interesting interview with Ellen. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of Fever in the Dark. We also have a link to order it from Amazon, and from an indie bookstore where a portion goes to help support KRL.
Fever in the Dark: Jane Lawless Mystery series by Ellen Hart
Review by Sandra Murphy
Jane Lawless owns a restaurant. Usually, she’s hands-on managing, it but after being injured recently, it’s been on auto-pilot as a manager handles things for her. Jane also has a private detective’s license, but her last case left her stressed with PTSD, so she’ll take time off from investigating and get back to the food business.
Unfortunately, she lacks the energy and interest to do as much as needs to be done. When a friend asks for her advice regarding stalker-type letters, she offers to help in spite of herself. The letters escalate in tone and are enough to scare anyone.
Fiona and Annie are a couple. Fiona’s marriage proposal was posted on You Tube and went viral as other same-sex couples shared and tweeted about it. The response is overwhelming, especially to Annie who is a very private person. Gawkers are found on the roof, staring into the skylight, and a chorus of women serenade the couple early in the morning.
When Annie’s entire family shows up, it’s Annie’s worst nightmare. Fiona doesn’t know what caused the rift, but it’s serious enough that Annie’s never spoken of her family at all. Now, her father, sister, brother-in-law, nephew, and the nanny are on the doorstep. To avoid their “fans,” Annie and Fiona are staying with Cordelia, Fiona’s employer and owner of the local theater. Luckily, Cordelia is a generous hostess with a very large home—Annie’s family moves right in too.
When her brother-in-law’s body is found in his car, at the front gates at Cordelia’s, Annie is a suspect because of past secrets. She’s not the only one, of course. He’s a psychiatrist and there’s a stalker patient, the patient’s husband, Annie’s sister and father, and Annie’s friend Sharif. As Jane looks into the death, more suspects turn up. He was not a well-liked man.
This is Hart’s thirty-first book. Starting at the beginning gives readers insight into Jane’s growth as a person, an investigator, and friend but starting with this book is no problem. Backstory is explained briefly but with enough detail to catch readers up on relationships. Jane and Cordelia are such different people, it’s amazing they get along, but they do and complement each other’s style to bring out the best traits. Jane is usually very competent so to see her with flashbacks and difficulty in making decisions or following through shows an unexpected side of her personality.
There’s enough of a hint of the next book to have readers wanting more and soon. Jane’s life is about to change again. Only time will tell if it’s for the better.
Interview with Ellen Hart:
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Ellen: I started writing my first book, Hallowed Murder, in 1987.
KRL: When did your first novel come out? Can you tell us a little about it?
Ellen: My first mystery came out in the fall of 1989. At the time I started writing, I never really thought the book would ever be published. I’d always wanted to write a novel and I figured, if I didn’t try, I’d get to the end of my life with a huge regret. The idea for the book came to me when I was working as the kitchen manager at a sorority at the University of Minnesota. (I have a Chef degree).
My partner and I went to a Take Back the Night march. While there, I happened to notice one of the young women from the sorority, someone I knew, walking around wearing a lavender armband, which designated her as a lesbian. I knew she wasn’t out at the sorority house, so I got to thinking about what it must be like to be in the closet in that kind of environment. The story evolved from there.
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense? If not what else have you written?
Ellen: Always mysteries.
KRL: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series? Please tell us a little about the setting and main character for your most recent book.
Ellen: I write a series, so the main characters remain the same throughout. Jane Lawless is a restaurant owner in Minneapolis, and in the later books, has become a licensed P.I., which she works at when someone comes to her with something that interests her. She’s in her mid-forties, single (though she had a partner for ten years, until the woman died).
Jane’s best friend, Cordelia Thorn, was the creative director for a repertory theater in St. Paul for most of the books, but has since become the part-owner and creator of a new theater space in Minneapolis. I think they make an interesting pair of sleuths. Jane is more cerebral but I still don’t fully understand her, or why she does what she does. Cordelia is more open, very funny, often outrageous. She makes snap judgments, which are often wrong, but sometimes dead-on. Both, I believe, are more vivid in each others company.
As for my newest book, Fever In the Dark, I wanted to write about two women who have married, gone off for a vacation on their one-year anniversary and returned to find that a video that was made of their proposal and marriage has, unbeknownst to them, been put up online and gone viral. It’s a beautiful, emotionally touching video, one that casts a human, young, even sexy light on the subject.
This, set against the context of the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage, would seem on the surface, to be a good thing, an opportunity. One of the women is delighted to have the chance to be interviewed, to have her fifteen minutes of fame devoted to such an important issue in her life.
The other woman, who has been secretive about her family, is not only upset, she refuses to be any part of the growing national spotlight. She shuts down. She hasn’t spoken to anyone in her family in years and wants no part of them, as they seem to want to part of her. She’s done her best to live a quiet life because she doesn’t want anyone of them find her. The video puts that in jeopardy. When her father, her sister and her sister’s husband show up on her doorstep, her worst fears are realized ? and thereby hangs the tale.
KRL: I noticed that you have won many awards in Lesbian fiction, have you faced any special challenges writing lesbian mysteries?
Ellen: It would take a book to answer that question. Yes, of course I’ve faced challenges. If I’d chosen to write a straight, entirely mainstream character, I’m sure my readership would have been larger and I would have made more money. I rarely get invited to book groups.
I’ve spent the last twenty-five years doing book promotion, much of it at libraries in small towns. I like getting out and talking to people. The fact that my main character happens to be gay is one facet of her life, though certainly not the totality, and I write from that perspective. When I comment on this in a talk or on a panel, I’ve often felt an audience physically draw back from me. Some people, over the years, have even refused to talk to me or touch my books, as if they’re made of plutonium. The world is changing. Certainly, as I’ve become better known I’ve seen some of this change as well. It hasn’t always been easy, but I can say, without qualification, that it’s been an adventure!
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
Ellen: Mysteries are popular fiction and they exist to entertain! That has always been my primary focus. That said, I believe fiction is a magical invention which allows us to walk in other people’s shoes, feel and experience something apart from our own lives. When I was just starting out, thinking about what I would write, I came across an interview of PD James. I was fascinated. She talked about “writing within the moral universe.”
Because I have a degree in fundamentalist Christian theology, though I’m no longer a fundamentalist Christian, and because I’m interested in moral and ethical questions, the idea of writing that kind of mystery appealed to me. So, yes, I hope readers are entertained by my stories, but I also hope they come away with something more–something thought–provoking.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
Ellen: As a working writer, you can’t write only when the mood strikes. I typically write two to four hours a day, five to six days a week, usually in the afternoons. If I’m just beginning a novel, I take it more slowly. After the book gets going, and especially toward the end, I write faster. It’s like climbing a steep hill, slow on the way up, but fast–sometimes crushingly so–on the way down.
KRL: Do you outline? If not, do you have some other interesting way that you keep track of what’s going on, or what needs to happen in your book when you are writing it?
Ellen: I’ve taught crime writing for 17 years. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s about fifty-fifty. Fifty percent of people outline and fifty don’t. The people who do outline can’t understand how you could construct a book without one, and those who don’t outline can’t understand why you’d want to. I don’t outline! That said, I do make notes ahead, as far as I can see the story progressing. Those notes act like headlights on a dark highway.
I come to a book very much the way a reader does. I’m learning as I go, as I see the story and the characters develop and deepen. To begin, I need a central crime. I cast the characters in the book around that crime. I think about motives, about emotion, about plot points, clues, the journey ? as much as I can see it.
I love being surprised by something I didn’t anticipate. That’s when I know the book is really cooking and finally, I write to a title. I don’t recommend, or not recommend, that. It simply works for me. I use the title thematically to find my way into the story. That’s why I’m always on the lookout for a title that resonates. I find writing a fascinating process.
KRL: If you had your ideal, what time of day would you prefer to write?
Ellen: Afternoons, after my brain has had enough coffee.
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Ellen: Actually, no. I had two presses that each wanted my first book. My second book was a different story.
KRL: Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
Ellen: I always tell this story on the first day of my classes because I think it’s instructive. Every writer has an odyssey, and this is part of mine. My first book was published fairly easily. The publisher asked me to write another and so I did. I sent it to them and they sent it back, rejecting it and giving me their thoughts on how I could make it better. I didn’t really agree with their critique, so I put it on the shelf and began a third story.
This time, I figured I knew what they wanted so I set out to write that book. I sent them Vital Lies a year later. Again, they rejected it!
I was confused and thoroughly dismayed. They sent their ideas on how I should change the book. Essentially, they asked me to “beef-up” the feminist parts and add more gay characters. Again I felt this wasn’t good feedback, having more to do with politics than the essential story. I agreed that the book had problems, but again, not with their solutions. I thought about it for quite some time, and then began rewriting.
Here’s what I learned because of these two rejections. My first book, Hallowed Murder, was as flawless as I could make it at the time. It’s a first book, with many first-book problems, but it was good enough to be published.
My second book was rushed. I didn’t take the time with it that it needed and it showed. So I shelved it.
My third book, (which came out as my second), Vital Lies, was essentially my attempt to pander to my publisher’s tastes. I thought I understood what they wanted, but clearly, I didn’t. When I rewrote the book, I took out some of the gay characters because they didn’t work. I cut much of the feminist elements because it slowed the story down. In essence, I pretty much did the opposite of what they suggested ? and here’s the kicker. They took it! I’d strengthened the story, not the politics. I’d written the book I wanted to write.
Those were two huge lessons. First, don’t send off a book hoping your editor will find the nugget of genius in the deck you send them. The book has to be the best you can possibly make it in every way ? and second, you have to write your book!
You can’t pander. You can’t look around and see that X or Y is popular at the moment and try to write some kind of clone. The book you write has to be authentic, has to come from within you. After I learned those two important lessons, I’ve been published ever since.
KRL: Excellent advice! Writing heroes?
Ellen: Oh, so many. I’ve read everything by PD James and used her books to help me learn how to construct a mystery. I took her books apart and did intuitively what I tell my students to do now. And Dennis Lehane. I loved his crime series, and in fact, I’ve used his stories to teach others how to write. More than that, when I’ve had the opportunity to hear him talk and I always come away inspired, wanting to reach higher and dig deeper.
He’s meant a lot to me over the years. While I don’t write like either of these two fine authors, they’ve been my mentors from afar.
KRL: Any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Ellen: Write. Write. Write. Classes can help you with motivation, and understanding craft, but you learn to write by writing. It’s hard work. It’s not always fun. Don’t wait for inspiration. Inspiration will come, but you have to be at your desk writing to take advantage of it.
Some days you’ll think you’re writing Pulitzer Prize winning prose. Some days you’ll think it’s all junk. You can’t listen to either voice. Just keep going. Toughen up. Critique is hard, but you can’t grow as a writer without it. Expect magic to happen. It will, but only if you put in the time.
Read, read, read. Reading will help you learn. The more you write, the more you’ll see what you do well, and don’t do so well. Once you begin to see your weaknesses, your reading will take on new meaning. You’ll begin to see how other writers handle the same issues ? the solutions, often elegant, that they’ve found and you can learn from. Reading like a writer is to see not just the story, but the nuts and bolts, the underlying structure. Anything you do to put off writing is probably a mistake. Write!
KRL: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Ellen: Hmm. Well, perhaps that I read as much non-fiction as I do fiction. Both have to be great stories to keep my attention.
KRL: Website? Twitter? Facebook?
To enter to win a copy of Fever in the Dark, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “fever,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen February 18, 2017. U.S. residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address, and if via comment please include your email address.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.
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