by Cynthia Chow
This week we have a review of the latest Ellie Stone mystery by James Ziskin, and an interesting interview with James. Details on how to win a copy of No Stone Unturned at the end of this post.
No Stone Unturned: an Ellie Stone Mystery By James W. Ziskin
Being an unmarried, twenty-four year old woman in 1960 isn’t easy, especially when Eleonora “Ellie” Stone is struggling to establish herself as a professional reporter at The New Holland Republic newspaper. Now that her professor father recently died, Ellie knows that she can now never gain his approval and so she is on the brink of giving up and going back home to New York City. Fortunately for Ellie, but tragically for a young socialite, Ellie has the opportunity to make her career when she is the first reporter on the scene when hunters stumble over the body of Jordan Shaw. She was the daughter of a prominent and wealthy judge used to getting his way, and believing that the local sheriff is over his head Judge Shaw wants answers and is willing to take help from anyplace he can find it. On the recommendation of the coroner Doc Fred Peruso, the judge asks Ellie if she would be willing to use her youth and the investigative skills that helped her to solve her own father’s murder to similarly solve that of his daughter’s.
Still reeling from the death of her father and sympathizing, perhaps a little too much, with the judge’s loss of a daughter, Ellie agrees to investigate even as the owner of her own newspaper doubts the intelligence and capabilities of a woman. With Sheriff Frank Olney surprisingly agreeable to Ellie’s efforts as long as she keeps him updated, Ellie follows the clues to a motel where Jordan was seen encountering a series of men. The trail takes Ellie on a surprising path, especially when it leads to Tufts College, where Jordan was suspected of having an affinity for older professors.
The emotional and professional struggles of a young woman in 1960 are highlighted in this very entertaining series, where the division of the sexes actually helps Ellie to see clues that prove to be incomprehensible to the oblivious men. Sexual contraceptives are a sign that a woman was promiscuous, the possibly of date rape is the woman’s responsibility, and “stranger” rape is more of a shame than a crime. The author does take on numerous hefty themes, especially when the racism facing Indian and Pakistani students in an Engineering Department is approached. Ellie is a woman wiser and more mature than a woman her young age should be, but this makes her a believable investigator capable of interrogating others who might be more resistant to older law enforcement officers. This is a fun exploration of the time period where sexism, racism, and elitism dominated even as a generation sought against them. Wry but unrelenting, Ellie is a heroine for any age as this mystery explores a plot relevant for any time period.
Interview with James Ziskin:
KRL: What inspired you to write about the 1960s time period?
JWZ: The early sixties work particularly well with the story I wanted to tell: a bright, spirited young woman who has career ambitions that reach beyond the steno pool. I think it’s interesting and fun to watch Ellie Stone blaze trails at such a place in time, even if she doesn’t realize she’s blazing trails. And it’s a fascinating period in history. 1960 is a year when the world looked to a bright, new future of conveniences, better lives, and new horizons. The world was about to change in ways beyond faster air travel and color television. Ellie Stone is part of that revolution.
KRL: You realistically capture the voice of a twenty-something young woman, two things you are not. Why did you choose her as your main character and how do you ensure that her voice rings true? Do you have an inspiration for her?
JWZ: It’s very challenging to write from the point of view of a character who is much younger than I am, but at least I was young once, at a time not too far from when my books are set. And though I’m not a woman, obviously, all writers write different genders. Just not necessarily the main character in the first person. In these books, I try to avoid stereotypes for Ellie’s “female” interests. It’s a conscious choice on my part. She doesn’t dwell on what she’s wearing or her makeup and hair. Those are not her focus in these books. She’s trying to solve murders.
As for her inspiration, I’ve always admired strong, smart, accomplished women, starting with my mother, who earned her M.D. in 1955. And there have been wonderful teachers and professors along the way, colleagues, and friends. I try to think of their good qualities and imagine some weaknesses to share with my characters. But there’s no single inspiration for Ellie Stone.
KRL: Ellie seems to accept the possibility of date rape as a hazard when socializing with men. Is that something you consciously intended to include in your books in order to highlight the difficulties of being a professional, single woman?
JWZ: Independent women of that era (and obviously many others, including our own) had to deal with straying hands and persistent advances from men. Nobody knew what date rape was in 1960, and people probably didn’t think of it in those terms. I’m not passing judgment on the mores of the time in these books; I’m just trying to describe how one woman, this woman, navigated those waters. But, yes, Ellie takes unwise chances at times, and she’s well aware of the danger.
KRL: You tackle the topic of racial prejudices within the academia. Do you feel that such attitudes have changed since then?
JWZ: Absolutely. Today, academia is known popularly as a progressive, accepting, liberal environment. Whether that’s a cliché or a half-truth is debatable, of course. But in the fifties and sixties, academia was pretty much a white man’s world, just as the rest of American society was. That’s certainly changed. Today there are institutional rules and policies to prevent racism and sexism and all manner of prejudices. In No Stone Unturned, the “racism” is more political or ethnic, religious, I think. It’s the hatred between two neighbors who share a terrible history and a violent future.
KRL: Ellie is still struggling with the loss of her father and never feeling as though she gained his respect. How do you see her handling this in the future? Do you think it affects her romantic life as well?
JWZ: Many people ask me about Ellie’s future love life. They want her to settle down. She hasn’t met Mr. Right yet, but she’s not looking for him either. Time will tell if that changes…
As for her father, Ellie’s taste for men predates any paternal conflicts she may have. But her relationship with him is painful. Wounds may close, but they leave scars.
KRL: On that topic, you refreshingly have Ellie concentrate more on her career than her romantic aspirations. How did you decide to follow that path and do you plan to continue to have her career be her focus?
JWZ: Ellie’s career is important to her, and it hasn’t come close to its pinnacle yet. Count on her continuing as a reporter, perhaps with a bigger newspaper in a bigger market… The sixties will provide new opportunities for women–slowly, in baby steps–and Ellie will be there to pursue them.
KRL: Now for some more general questions-How long have you been writing?
JWZ: I wrote my first novel when I was twelve. It was awful.
KRL: When did your first novel come out? What was it called? Can you tell us a little about it?
JWZ: Styx & Stone was the fifth book I wrote and the first to be published. The others were trainers. Styx & Stone is the first Ellie Stone mystery. It’s a story of murder in a university setting. It came out in 2013.
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense? If not what else have you written?
JWZ: many years ago, I wrote a couple of historical novels (World War I and II), as well as small book about an aging professor coming to grips with life’s disappointments. My first mystery novel is still unpublished, but it did bag me my agent, so I’m eternally grateful to that book and its quirky heroine.
KRL: Tell us a little about the setting and main character for your most recent book.
JWZ: Ellie (Eleonora) Stone, a young journalist working for a small town daily newspaper, in 1960s New Holland, New York. She’s a self-described “modern girl.”
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
JWZ: I hope people will find my books intelligent and learn a little something in each one. But I firmly believe that it is a cardinal sin to bore the reader. The stories must be entertaining, or it’s just an exercise.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
JWZ: I steal moments to write. That’s why I carry my iPad with me everywhere I go. In fact, the next Ellie Stone book, Stone Cold Dead, has been written entirely on my iPad.
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?
JWZ: I make a general outline, then surprise myself over the long haul of writing the book. Better ideas come up all the time, but I don’t stray far from the original ending. It’s how I arrive at the ending that can change.
KRL: If you had your ideal, what time of day would you prefer to write?
JWZ: Given my druthers, I’d write all day.
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
JWZ: Yes. It was a long slog. I needed to improve and mature as a writer. It was a lot effort and revision and learning. Plus, my career was always very demanding, so writing was put on the back burner for many, many years.
KRL: Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
JWZ: I would have to say it was the day I landed my agent, Bill Reiss of John Hawkins and Associates. When I think about being represented by the oldest literary agency in the country, one that has and continues to represent so many legendary authors, from P.G. Wodehouse to Joyce Carol Oates, I still feel as if it’s a writer’s dream.
KRL: Most interesting book signing story-in a bookstore or other venue?
JWZ: I returned to my home town to read and sign books at the Amsterdam Free Library. It was a sweet homecoming. I met friends from grade school whom I hadn’t seen in forty years. It was wonderful.
KRL: Future writing goals?
JWZ: I plan on continuing the Ellie Stone series for several more books, but I also have a big book set in India that I can’t wait to do. A kind of Graham Greene stranger in a strange land, but contemporary.
KRL: Writing heroes?
JWZ: So many. In no particular order: Dorothy Sayers, Graham Greene, Patricia Highsmith, John Steinbeck, Raymond Chandler, Dick Francis, P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie…
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
JWZ: Mostly Internet. I use maps to see street level in cities I can’t get to, and old newspapers and period television shows help. A far cry from the research I did for my first books. That involved going to the library and doing it the old-fashioned way. Hours spent poring over card catalogs and browsing through dusty shelves.
KRL: What do you read?
JWZ: I studied French and Italian literature, I love English literature, and different genres as well. Mostly fiction.
KRL: Favorite TV or movies?
JWZ: I’m not a big follower of television shows, though there are some I watch regularly I always loved Columbo and I watch sports, particularly football and basketball, which I played when I was young. For movies, I like foreign films and anything without a superhero in tights.
KRL: Any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
JWZ: Persevere. Accept the overwhelming probability that your first, second, and even third books won’t be the ones. If you truly want to write, and if you truly persevere, you’ll have a fighting chance to produce the one that sells.
KRL: How do you feel about the growing popularity of e-books?
JWZ: I have no problem with e-books. I look at them as another delivery format, like a digital movie as opposed to a film in a theater. What’s written is more important than how it’s delivered. But I do wish the release of e-books could be staggered. I’d like to see the hard copies have a few months to sell before the digital versions come out.
KRL: Do you read e-books yourself?
JWZ: Absolutely. It’s very convenient to take several books with you on a portable device. And there’s the instant gratification of getting the book right away.
KRL: Anything you would like to add? What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
JWZ: That I’m a middle-aged man who writes like a girl. I love cats.
KRL: Website? Twitter? Facebook?
KRL: How do you compete in an overcrowded market?
JWZ: With great difficulty. That’s why I appreciate the efforts and talent of the team at Seventh Street Books. Everything from editing to marketing to cover design. I feel so fortunate to be part of a great imprint that has published such talented authors.
To enter to win a copy of No Stone Unturned, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “Stone,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen June 21, 2014. U.S. residents only.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.