by Terrance Mc Arthur
This week we have a review of Desolation Row by mystery author Kay Kendall. We also have a fun interview with Kay, and at the end of this post there are details on how to win a copy of Desolation Row.
Desolation Row By Kay Kendall
The fish-out-of-water/stranger-in-a-strange-land character has always been a good starting point for fiction. Kay Kendall’s Desolation Row takes Austin Starr out of the water of Texas and drops her into the strange land of Toronto, because Austin’s draft-resisting husband (He doesn’t like being called a draft “dodger.”) brings her there during the Vietnam War era. The people celebrate Decoration Day instead of Veterans Day, women use the “washroom” instead of the “ladies room,” and the mailboxes are red (with a crown on them) instead of blue (with an eagle).
When the radical son of a prominent US senator is murdered, Austin finds the body…and her husband is arrested. The police are convinced they have the right man, but Austin refuses to believe it. Buoyed by all the Nancy Drew mysteries she had read as a girl, and the training and advice she received when she almost joined the CIA, Austin decides to solve the case and prove the Canadians wrong. She gets help from a Russian émigré professor and his drop-dead-gorgeous daughter who uses her looks with no shame when she thinks the cause is just.
Kendall captures the cold and presents it so that you can even feel it in California, and she definitely has a lock on some of my memories of the 1960’s (I know what they say: “If you can remember the Sixties…you weren’t there.” I read about it in Life magazine, and I looked at the pictures).
Austin has to go up against the senator and his flunkies, work her way around the warnings of the Toronto Police detective sergeant who begins to listen to her suspicions and the clues she digs up, get past the resistance of the dead man’s fellow ex-pats and try to overcome the urge to listen to her parents and go home where she would be safe.
The solution, the truth behind the murder, is sad but it makes sense. Kendall has built a good foundation for further Austin Starr mysteries. The next one will be called Rainy Day Women, after another Bob Dylan song. Austin Starr will return and she’ll get her man, even when the Mounties don’t.
Interview with Kay Kendall:
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Kay: To answer adequately, I’ll insert some qualifiers. I began with my own version of The Night Before Christmas at age seven. Later I wrote essays, lots of English major/then history grad student papers, then news releases and annual reports during my long career as a public relations executive. In 1998 I began writing fiction. Gloria Steinem said it best: “Writing is the only thing I do that I don’t feel like I should be doing something else.”
KRL: When did your first novel come out?
Kay: My first novel is Desolation Row-An Austin Starr Mystery, was published in March 2013 by Stairway Press of Seattle. After Austin marries her college boyfriend, they move from their native Texas to a foreign country. She has trouble coping with so much change—and then her husband is jailed for murder. Alone, far from home, Austin must find the real killer. When she also becomes a captive, things go from bad to worse. Danger stalks two young lives and a new marriage. This fraught love story rages through social upheaval and anti-war protests. Canada in 1968–surprisingly hazardous.
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense? If not what else have you written?
Kay: My first completed fiction manuscript was a literary novel. It did not sell. I put it away and gave up writing fiction, but only temporarily. I still felt called to write so I took up genre writing. I devoured nothing but mysteries for two whole years and then began to write my own.
KRL: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your book/series? Can you tell us a little about the setting and main character?
Kay: Within the mystery genre, historical fiction is what I like to read best. Many authors locate their sleuths and their spymasters during the great wars of the twentieth century. The two world wars and Cold War are amply represented in mysteries and spy fiction. The Vietnam War is comparatively not “taken.” Besides it is the era I grew up in. I decided it was an historic niche that needed filling and that I was the one to do the filling. I wanted to show what life was like for young women of that era, the late sixties—not the type who made headlines, the Angela Davises and Hanoi Janes, but the moderates who nonetheless got swept along by the tides of history during that turbulent time. All that turmoil lends itself to drama, intrigue…and murder.
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
Kay: I’m an anomaly in this modern world. I love learning about the past. It helps me understand how we got from back there to here. If I can tell an entertaining story that has some accurate historical detail to it, then I figure it’s an easy way to help people swallow some history that I think they should be aware of.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
Kay: Pretty much I write whenever I can. That said, I do have a pattern, based on sharing a house with a husband who is now retired and, although respectful of my writing life, deserves attention. Generally I write from noon until six in the evening.
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?
Kay:I work from a basic outline. It’s like a road map. I know the basic route but add colorful detail—and red herrings—as I travel down that road.
KRL: If you had your ideal, what time of day would you prefer to write?
Kay:What works is the noon-to-evening writing, as noted. However, in an ideal world I’d continue into late night. When I’m revising for publication under an editor’s hand—a stage I adore—then I can write for forty-eight hours straight—with brief timeouts for an occasional nap.
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published?
Kay:Oh heck yes! Almost everyone does!
KRL: Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
Kay:A well-respected publishing house for mysteries almost took my book, Desolation Row. Four people were in the review process. Three editors liked it, the fourth—the head honcho—did not. When she and I talked on the phone, she voiced two quibbles. First, she didn’t like that it was set in Canada, since “Americans don’t want to read about Canada.” (I bit my tongue to keep from saying—“You’ve heard of Louise Penny, haven’t you?”) Then she said that my writing about draft resisters during the Vietnam War did not tally with her memories. She concluded by saying that she usually didn’t revisit a manuscript, but if I made some changes, she would review mine again. I thanked her and hung up. She and I would not have been a marriage made in publishing heaven. Two weeks later I had a contract from Ken Coffman, publisher of Stairway Books in Seattle, and he and his crew are ideal to work with.
KRL: Most interesting book signing story-in a bookstore or other venue?
Kay:Earlier in March I spoke at a community college in rural Alabama, followed by a book store event in Nashville. The audiences were the proverbial night and day. The students at Northeast Alabama Community College were attentive but had no idea why America fought a war in Vietnam, had never heard of the “domino theory” that was the rationale for fighting, and 97% hadn’t a clue who on earth the guy named Bob Dylan was. The bookstore audience was comprised of people at minimum in the baby boom cohort, with some even older.
Straddling those two extremes was a fun challenge. The audience at Mysteries & More was great, and they “got” all my historical references and added some of their own. They bought lots of my books too. The way I related to the students was to ask who had family members with military service. In each of five classes, half or more of the students raised their hands. That gave me a base on which to talk. I explained that Desolation Row was a mystery that illustrated the horrors of war and how they could be played out down through the ages and even among people who had never served in the military. I said that my ethos in the book was “anti-war and pro-soldier.” They related well to that and even shared stories of their family members’ PTSD. It was heavy stuff, but they “got” me and my book. Several people from each class bought copies—rewarding for me, not in a monetary sense, though, since I sold them at cost. If I can teach some history to a-historical people by using the guise of a fictional tale, then I am a happy author indeed.
KRL: Future writing goals?
Kay:I’ve embarked on my Austin Starr mystery series. My work in progress is book two, Rainy Day Women. I plan at a minimum four and hope for even more.
KRL: Writing heroes?
Kay:The spy novels of John le Carré are divine. His writing style is fluid, understanding of human nature is acute, and his plotlines twisty. Alan Furst writes about France and Eastern Europe in the thirties, in the long lead up to World War II. I admire how he evokes that time period so that you feel you are really there, and I aspire to do that for the sixties in North America.
Finally, the mysteries of Benjamin Black bring together the gorgeous writing of le Carré and the sense of time and place of Furst. Benjamin Black is the pen name used by the Irish author John Banville for his mysteries. Banville won the massively important Booker Prize in 2005 for his literary novel The Sea, which I read and didn’t care for. However, when this man writes as Benjamin Black and sets his six mysteries in Dublin in the 1950s, I love them. All three men make so-called genre writing a true art form.
Finally, Sara Paretsky has been writing V.I. Warshawski mysteries for almost thirty years. She has a social conscience, and you learn things from her hard boiled private investigator books set in contemporary Chicago. She also has won many awards, deservedly so. She is one of the founders of the group Sisters in Crime, established several decades ago to get women writers recognized in the mystery writing world.
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
Kay:Because I write about an era that I lived through, I do little research. I write from memory, and then when I throw in specific place details or real historical figures, I do a bit of online research to ensure accuracy. For Desolation Row, I had a justice of the Ontario Supreme Court read it to ensure accurate representation of the criminal justice system in Toronto in 1968.
KRL: What do you read?
Kay:Historical fiction, the occasional literary novel, and masses of mysteries and spy stories. Also well-written thrillers, but most of them are just slam-bang things so they don’t interest me much. However, my favorite novels of all time are Jane Eyre and Anna Karenina.
KRL: Favorite TV or movies?
Kay:I was besotted by the recent HBO series True Detectives. The writing was so luscious and the acting superb. I also love The Americans, which began as a bit of a sleeper and now has reached the level of Homeland. I watch most series on PBS and BBC America that are historical. Put someone in an historic costume and I will watch that show. My taste in film runs true to mine in books and television. The film of Dr. Zhivago is probably my all-time favorite film. Blue Jasmine was a film made great by the fantastic non-acting acting of Cate Blanchett. My specialty in graduate school was Russian and Soviet history so a well done film (or book) set in Russia will make me a happy viewer (or reader). Fun factoid: In 1989 I was doing a PR job in Moscow and saw Michelle Pfeiffer and Sean Connery breakfasting together at a fancy hotel for foreigners. They were filming on location for the movie version of John le Carré’s Russia House. A fabulous memory.
KRL: Any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Kay:If you want to write and aspire to get published, practice makes perfect. Write and write and write some more. Never give up. Hang out with accomplished writers, attend book signings and listen to the masters, go to writers’ conferences. Join that world, and you will learn so much from it. The publishing world is very complex and just when I think I know enough, I learn some more. I see this situation stretching into infinity. I will never know enough but it’s fun trying.
KRL: How do you feel about the growing popularity of e-books?
Kay:As long as people read, I am for it. e-books are fine with me. My own reading is probably half the printed book and the other half e-books. I also listen to audio books when I am in the horrid Houston traffic.
KRL: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Kay:I married a Canadian and lived in Canada for two decades, an American in an unexpectedly different land. I also almost worked for the CIA, but decided to study history in graduate school instead. The spy world has always fascinated me, still does, but now I’m glad I didn’t end up there. But I sure do love it in fiction.
KRL: Website? Twitter? Facebook?
KRL: How do you compete in an overcrowded market?
Kay: Unless you are fortunate to be an author of one of the few major publishers left standing, then you have to work your little heart out doing social media and author appearances. Alas, there is so much of that these days, with everyone being told to do that, that research is showing that some of the old PR tricks that worked when e-books were growing hugely don’t work so well anymore.
The rule of thumb now seems to be that you sit down and write another book and it in turn will sell your first book. That is exactly what I’m doing now, writing Desolation Row’s sequel, Rainy Day Women. Austin Starr’s best friend Larissa (acquired in book number one) becomes the prime suspect when murder stalks women’s liberation groups in Seattle and Vancouver. The time is 1969.
Maybe you noticed that my two titles sound like Bob Dylan songs. Yep, that’s what they are. His output is so vast that, somewhat like Shakespeare, you can find anything in his titles to illustrate what you need. I just have to ensure that the titles had been written by the time my books take place. That’s a fun kind of research to do!
To enter to win a copy of Desolation Row, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “Row,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen April 5, 2014. U.S. residents only.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.