by Cynthia Chow
This week we have a review of a new mystery by Janet Dawson, along with an interesting interview with Janet. Details at the end of the post on how to enter to win a signed copy of the book and a link to order it from Amazon.
The Sacrificial Daughter by Janet Dawson
Review by Cynthia Chow
Kay Dexter has seen the toll aging can take on an entire family. Her own father suffered from Alzheimer’s for years, with his denial making his care a stressful, emotionally draining experience. It also led her into becoming a geriatric care manager in Rocoso County, her hometown in northern Sierra Nevada. With a master’s degree in social welfare and a former Alameda County social worker, Kay coordinates with another social worker and an RN to manage long-term health care for seniors and their families. Depending on their individual situations, that can mean occasional visits, daily health care assistants, or residential care. Her newest client Sheryl Garvin doesn’t know what they need, only that she is frustrated and near the breaking point after her mother Betty has set multiple kitchen fires and driven her car into a grocery store.
Kay soon learns that Sheryl is less than forthcoming with the truth concerning her mother and their situation, though. Despite claiming to be the “sacrificial daughter” – the unmarried child usually left responsible for caring for an aging parent – Sheryl has a cousin who lives nearby and even a sister who frequently visits. Sheryl’s relationship with her sibling Hallie is acrimonious to say the least, with the latter having married Sheryl’s ex-boyfriend and always playing the rebel to Sheryl’s good-girl. Kay knows how vicious families can become when battling over parents and inheritances, and she witnesses one of the sister’s verbal battles. But even Kay couldn’t have predicted that she would find Hallie’s bloody body, or Sheryl practically standing over it at the time. Sheryl’s discretion with the truth has Kay uncertain of her innocence, especially when she learns of Sheryl’s plans to convert family land into condos. A holographic will further complicates matters, especially when Kay learns that someone may have been stealing form Betty all along. While empathetically juggling other clients and maintaining her own personal life which includes three adorable cats, Kay determines that everyone seems to have been lying about their presence in the old mining town.
This first in a new series by one of my favorite mystery authors will definitely hit home for many readers. Dealing with an aging parent is an experience that is challenging for everyone involved, especially as roles reverse, authority is challenged, and the memories of who the person used to be fade. Kay handles every one of her cases with a blend of compassion and practicality, respecting her client’s independence while also ensuring their health and comfort. The mystery itself is skillfully weaved throughout the novel, introducing issues on legalized marijuana, Lost Woman Creek property, and resentful family members. Kay herself is an extremely likable and admirable woman, navigating the emotionally turbulent waters with humor and good sense. It is her dedication to protecting others that leads her into a violent confrontation with a criminal, despite warnings from her friendly local police. This award-winning author has crafted a new series that immediately draws in readers with its original premise and an extraordinary heroine. Whether writing private detective novels, historical mysteries, or books of suspense, readers can always rely on the author’s extensive writing experience and background in journalism for compelling and entertaining reads.
Interview with author Janet Dawson:
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Janet: Much of my life. I started writing stories when I was in elementary school. This continued through junior high and high school into my college years. After college, I started to get very serious about it, aiming toward publication. Short stories and first, then I tried my hand at a novel. Then another. Finally, the third novel I wrote became my first published novel.
KRL: When did your first novel come out, what was it called, and would you tell us a little about it?
Janet: My first novel was Kindred Crimes. It took me about two years to write, going through six or seven rewrites. In fall 1989, I submitted it for the St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America contest for Best First Private Eye Novel and won! I got a phone call from St. Martin’s telling me I’d won the contest, and could I be at Bouchercon in Philadelphia at the end of the week to accept the award? Of course, I could!
The book had another rewrite, based on the editor’s notes, and it was published in June 1990. In the book, my private eye, Jeri Howard, is hired to find a woman who has gone missing. Jeri delves into the woman’s past and finds all sorts of secrets around the woman’s dysfunctional family.
KRL: How cool! Have you always written mysteries/suspense and if not, what else have you written?
Janet: I have primarily written mysteries/suspense, although that first effort novel was not. It was about a family in conflict. I also have a number of plots in mind that are historical novels and historical mysteries. Right now, I have two works in progress, a Jeri Howard novel and the opening chapters of a historical novel about Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War, subjects that have fascinated me for years. When I was in junior high, I read a book by Walter Noble Burns, The Saga of Billy the Kid, and it left its mark! I’m determined to give readers my version of events.
KRL: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book?
Janet: The new book is called The Sacrificial Daughter and my protagonist, Kay Dexter, is a geriatric care manager. Like many adults who are in what I like to call upper middle age, over the years I have looked after aging parents. My father passed away about 15 years ago but my mother, who is in her 90s, is still living, fiercely independent and determined to stay in her own home. Neither my brother nor I live in close proximity, so we’re doing that long-distance caregiving thing.
A geriatric care manager is a professional who works with elderly clients and their families. Kay is unmarried and in her 50s. I like the idea of using a woman who has never been married, though she does have a relationship with a history professor at the local college. She also has an independent elderly mother who lives alone. As for the setting, I have used real places in my other novels: the Greater Bay Area for the Jeri Howard series and the California Zephyr series. Kay lives and works in a fictional city, Rocoso, in the Sierra Nevada. It’s really fun to make up a place and arrange the town and the surrounding landscape the way I want.
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take
away from your work?
Janet: A bit of both. I want to tell a good story and keep the readers turning those pages, but I also include social issues in my books. One of those issues is dealing with elderly family members. I think The Sacrificial Daughter will resonate with readers who have parented their own parents, who are wondering what to do when Mom or Dad leaves on the stove burners or can’t drive any more.
I have dealt with a lot of issues in the Jeri Howard and California Zephyr books featuring Zephyrette Jill McLeod. Waterfront development in Oakland was a big part of Jeri’s case in Water Signs, and the latest Zephyr book, Death Above the Line, talks about the blacklist and its effect on moviemaking in the 1940s and 1950s.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just work whenever you can?
Janet: When I decided to get serious about writing, I put myself on a schedule. I decided I was more creative in the morning, so I started getting up early to write in the mornings before going to work at my day job. I did that for 30-plus years, over a variety of jobs. I retired from my day job seven years ago and I still treat writing as a job, working Monday through Friday and sometimes on weekends.
KRL: What is your ideal time to write?
Janet: It’s no longer the wee hours of the morning! I was into serious sleep deprivation by the time I retired, as I had been getting up at 4 a.m. Now I sleep in to a tolerable 7 a.m. I start work mid-morning and since I retired, I find that afternoons are some of my most productive times.
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?
Janet: I don’t call it an outline, but I suppose it might be. I start a book with an idea in mind and I write whatever comes into my head. After a while, a structure begins to emerge, along with the characters and the setting. At some point I create a timeline, to tell me what happens before the book starts, where the book begins, and what comes when. All of this can be moved around, of course. I remember when I was writing Witness to Evil, where Jeri goes to Bakersfield in search of a missing teen, I got stuck in the Bakersfield section. I knew that Jeri had to go to Los Angeles to follow a lead, so I jumped ahead and sent Jeri on her journey. That loosened things up and I wrote seven chapters in short order. Then I knew where I had to go back and fill in scenes and clues in the Bakersfield section.
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Janet: I had a very good jump off the diving board in winning the St. Martin’s Contest. It got me a lot of attention at the start. I had only just finished the book and started querying agents at the time. The difficult part was staying published. I was dropped by St. Martin’s and then Fawcett Books. My agent dropped me as well. I had a gap of 11 years between books. During that time, I kept writing and found a home with Perseverance Press, which published nine books. The publishing landscape has changed so much that I’m striking out on my own. Bodie Blue Books is a publishing company that consists of me and another author, D. Z. Church. So, I’m publishing my own books, which has been a lot of work and is also very rewarding!
KRL: Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
Janet: When I entered the St. Martin’s contest, I thought I hadn’t won, because I got a rejection slip from St. Martin’s Press, a form letter that looked as though I’d submitted the novel to St. Martin’s rather than entering the contest. This arrived along with what looked like a photocopy or a photocopy of my manuscript. A few days later, I got the phone call from St. Martin’s telling me I’d won.
KRL: Most interesting book signing story-in a bookstore or other venue?
Janet: There are always those venues where the strange person comes in from the street and starts talking about space aliens. I’ve had a few of those.
KRL: What are your future writing goals?
Janet: Keep writing! I have six or eight plots roaming around my head and I really want to write those books.
KRL: Who are your writing heroes?
Janet: I live in the Bay Area and we’ve always had a strong mystery writing community here. Marcia Muller is one of my heroes and she has always been very supportive. When I encountered her first Sharon McCone book, Edwin of the Iron Shoes, I latched onto it. I’d never seen a private eye novel with a woman protagonist before. I like the private eye genre, of course. Ross Macdonald is one of those writers who showed how it’s done.
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
Janet: All sorts. It’s easier now that the Internet is at the ready, but sometimes there’s no substitute for talking to people or going to places. I interviewed two retired Zephyrettes for Death Rides the Zephyr and I’ve also taken the Amtrak version of the CZ back and forth to Colorado, so I’ve seen those landscapes I describe. I have used Niles, a district of Fremont, for a Jeri Howard book as well as the latest California Zephyr book.
While I was writing Death Above the Line, I took a field trip to Niles to walk around and find a location for my fictional building as well as look at the street scenes and determine what my protagonist, Jill McLeod, could see from a certain area. When researching Death Rides the Zephyr, I spent time at the railroad museums in Sacramento as well as Portola, CA, site of the Western Pacific museum. If you give the folks at the WP museum your credit card, they will let you drive a locomotive, so of course I did, and figured out how to use it in the book.
KRL: What do you like to read?
Janet: Mysteries. Lots of mysteries. Also, nonfiction, primarily history. Lately I’ve been working my way through the Karen Pirie books, my Val McDermid, and I have discovered Cathy Ace, who sets her books in Wales and Canada. Right now, I’m reading one of the Alvarez family mysteries by Heather Haven, who is a friend and a delight. Also, my fellow Bodie Blue Books author D. Z. Church, who writes a dynamite series about a military family during the Vietnam era, as well as terrific standalone romantic suspense.
KRL: What are your favorite TV shows or movies?
Janet: I love my British mysteries on Acorn TV and Britbox. Last year’s big discovery was Keeping Faith, a Welsh noir, though not as dark as Hinterland. Eagerly awaiting the third series of that. Just recently watched The Pembrokeshire Murders on Britbox, quite good. A Place to Call Home on Acorn TV, terrific drama from Australia. Heartland on Netflix, wonderful and addictive family drama out of Canada. Also, on Netflix, another British mystery, Broadchurch, and Bloodlines, an American entry, about a Florida family that puts the D in dysfunctional.
KRL: Have you any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Janet: You have to keep at it. Fingers on the keyboard and butt in the chair! Also, learn your craft. When I was first starting out, I took classes in fiction/mystery writing.
KRL: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Janet: I was in the Navy for eight years, four years enlisted and four years an officer. One of my duty stations was Guam and yes, there is a Guam book in my head.
Janet: Currently owned by four cats. Lottie and her two kittens – Bodie and Clio – appeared on my patio after I returned home from a historical research seminar to the fascinating California ghost town of Bodie. I got out the can opener and fed mama and the babies every morning and evening. Two weeks later I caught the kittens. It took another two months to catch mama. The fourth cat is an orange boy named Rufus, who showed up on a friend’s back deck a few years ago. The publishing company is called Bodie Blue Books, after my Bodie and D. Z. Church’s Blue.
KRL: Is there anything you would like to add?
Janet: I think I’ve covered it.
KRL: Website? Twitter? Facebook?
To enter to win a signed copy of The Sacrificial Daughter, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “sacrificial,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen March 13, 2021. U.S. residents only and you must be 18 or older to enter. If you are entering via email please include you mailing address in case you win, it will be deleted after the contest. You can read our privacy statement here if you like. BE AWARE THAT IT WILL TAKE LONGER THAN USUAL FOR WINNERS TO GET THEIR BOOKS DUE TO THE CURRENT CRISIS.
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