by Lorie Lewis Ham
We wind up our Pride Month coverage of LGBTQ+ mysteries with Seven Suspects by Renee James. Renee and her character are both transgender. After the review we have a very interesting interview with Renee! Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win either a print or kindle copy of Seven Suspects, and a link to purchase it from Amazon.
Seven Suspects by Renee James
Review by Lorie Ham
As Pride Month comes to an end, we at KRL have one more LGBTQ+ related mystery review to share! This one not only features a transgender main character, but is written by transgender author, Renee James.
Bobbi Logan runs a very successful salon and life seems to be going better for her of late, except for her bad luck in her love life. Recently the love of her life left her, and she has had a series of bad one-night stands. She fears that the one night stands have come back to bite her when someone begins to stalk her. Bobbie is no stranger to bad things happening, having survived rape, a murder investigation, as well as bullying and bigotry for being transgender. But she is also strong, and determined to never be a victim again, so she starts trying to figure out who could be stalking her.
The threats become more bold, violent, and personal as time passes. Bobbie comes up with a list of six suspects and begins to investigate on her own, despite the concern of her best friend. The idea that things come in sevens keeps bugging Bobbi though–she feels like she is missing a seventh suspect but can’t come up with one. Things get even worse when her business and her home are vandalized. It doesn’t help that her “niece” Roberta, who is the daughter of her former spouse Betsy, is staying with her at the moment. She begins to fear for Roberta’s safety so she sends her to the home of her conservative grandparents until she can catch the stalker.
Bobbi is a wonderful character! She is sassy, funny, intelligent, and strong, despite what she has gone through. The story is complex and filled with twists and turns that has the reader puzzled right along with Bobbi. I do get a little frustrated with her for putting herself at risk so much, but can understand her feeling that the police might not be taking it seriously enough. Seven Suspects gives readers a real look inside the mind of a transgender character and I feel like I walked away with a lot more knowledge and understanding-though of course, no one who isn’t transgender could ever fully understand. I could have done with a bit less graphic sex, but it did fit the character and the story so it made sense to be there.
If you are looking for an interesting mystery with great characters, that also takes you into a world you may not be familiar with, don’t miss Seven Suspects! The end will keep you on the edge of your seat quickly flipping pages to see what happens. I look forward to going back to read the previous books in this series, and look forward to the next one as well.
Interview with author Renee James:
KRL: Did you set out to write a series featuring a transgender character because you felt it was important to write something that represented the transgender community in a realistic way, or because it was a character that you could personally most relate to?
Renee: I wanted to put a general reading audience in the mind and body of a transsexual woman, so they could get beyond what they think they see when they encounter a trans person in their lives. Prior to my first book (Transition to Murder, 2012), trans people were presented as clowns or sex workers in movies and fiction. I wanted people to know, we’re people just like everyone else, and many of us are witty, intelligent and courageous. My goal was to educate the general public and, hopefully, create some empathy.
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Renee: Pretty much all my adult life. I made my living as a magazine writer and editor for something like forty years before taking up long fiction. My first novel was the product of a fictional diary I began writing while I was still in the magazine business. The diary imagined what my life might have been like if I had chosen to transition to female at the age of 38, after my first marriage ended.
I wrote the diary on business trips and became engrossed in it. I had written forty-thousand words when the thought occurred to me that I had created an interesting character, and that her year of transition was full of the kinds of conflicts that make for rich storytelling. So sometime around 2010, I started writing a novel about a Chicago woman’s very difficult year of transition. It was set in the early 2000s, when even Chicago was not quite ready for trans people.
KRL: When did your first novel come out? What was it called? Can you tell us a little about it?
Renee: I self-published Coming Out Can Be Murder in 2012 using the excellent services of Windy City Publishing. It’s about Bobbi Logan, a Chicago hairdresser who comes out as transsexual after a trans friend is brutally beaten to death. When the police show little interest in solving the crime, Bobbi takes up the cause and becomes the next target of the murderer. Self-publishing is no walk in the park, but I got some encouragement from the experience. Coming Out Can Be Murder won the Chicago Writers Association book of the year award for Indie fiction, and two awards from Foreword Reviews. It was republished with a plot change in 2014 as Transition to Murder by Riverdale Avenue Books.
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense? If not what else have you written?
Renee: All of my Renee James books have been Bobbi Logan suspense novels. The fourth will go to the publisher this fall and hopefully be issued next year. I have also written under a male byline, releasing a literary fiction title in 2017 and a co-authored biography back in the Nineties.
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.
Renee: One of the great benefits of my magazine publishing career was extensive travel abroad, and the more I saw of the great capitols of Europe and Asia and South America, the more I came to realize what a great city Chicago is. So, all of my Bobbi Logan books are set in Chicago, in north side neighborhoods. In the first book, set in the early 2000s, Bobbi’s life is centered in Boystown, a neighborhood in the Lakeview district that was and is the epicenter of LGBT life in Chicago. It was the safest place a transwoman could live in 2000.
In the succeeding books, the radius of Bobbi’s life expands just as the circle of acceptance of trans people expanded in Chicago. So, in Seven Suspects, Bobbi owns a lovely old two-flat in Lakeview, closer to Lake Shore Drive than Boystown, and she owns the three-story brownstone in the very posh and hip River North neighborhood where her salon is located. Most of the main characters in Seven Suspects have appeared in the previous books, but they’re all five years older and in different phases of life. This is especially true of Bobbi, who is successful and secure at last, and Bobbi’s niece, Roberta, who is a precocious 11-year-old now – a full person, with a sense of humor and sassy self-assurance and still the focal point of Bobbi’s life.
The “suspects” represent a variety of character types. I wanted to have two or three villainous types, and three or four people it would be easy to misread at first. The latter is especially important to me because one of the themes of my books is that appearance is only the suggestion of reality. Hopefully, as you read the story, you get a sense of mystery about each person, not just whether or not they are the stalker, but even deeper, what kind of person are they and can we trust Bobbi’s first impressions?
KRL: Have you faced any special challenges writing a series featuring a transgender main character?
Renee: Well, it’s a lot easier to market a book about straight people, that’s for sure. Few men will choose to read a book about a transgender woman, so that eliminated a wide swath of the reading market, and also a lot of agents and editors. Fortunately, women readers are much more curious and empathetic, especially those who like fiction with complex characters. The other thing is, acceptance of trans-people has grown by leaps and bounds since I started trying to market my first book, and I’ve enjoyed great success getting a wonderful agent and a wonderful publisher, and we’re seeing some movement in book sales, too. So, it’s a story in progress and the moral is, keep on truckin’.
KRL: It looks like so far in your books Bobbi has to sort out a mystery that involves either her life in danger or involves someone close to her. Do you plan to continue that as the basis for the mysteries, or do you see Bobbi getting more into solving mysteries that just happen around her that aren’t personal?
Renee: Alas, poor Bobbi is doomed to a life as the damsel in distress, though I will always want her to be a kick-ass damsel who doesn’t back down. I think of my books more as thriller/suspense novels than mysteries, and I use Bobbi’s vulnerability as a transwoman to create the basic conflict in each story. That continues in the next book which I’ll be sending to the publisher this fall – Bobbi will be the target of white nationalists, with one of the mysteries being whether they’re being paid to intimidate her or just doing it as a hate crime.
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work? I personally love how your books provide insight into the life of someone who is transgender.
Renee: It’s really important to me to develop themes and character arcs that inspire readers to think about the world we share. Certainly, I want to help straight people get comfortable around trans people by showing how we share similar values and belief systems. But I also am intrigued by appearance versus reality, and moral issues, and most of all, by how we define ourselves. In my community, many people think their gender defines them, but you can’t let gender be the biggest thing in your life or you won’t have a life. One must be defined by a range of values and actions that give your life meaning and help you connect with others.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
Renee: When I started, I wrote when I could, which was mostly in airports, on airplanes and in hotel rooms during business travel. Since I retired from the magazine business, I write when I want. Generally, I start in the morning and work into mid-afternoon…unless I have an opportunity to spend time with my grandchildren, in which case, everything else gets put on hold. Lately, I’ve done some night writing. I never used to, but now, some nights, it’s very relaxing, and it gets me away from television, which seems like more of a disease than entertainment today.
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?
Renee: I wrote my first book episodically, just sitting down and writing a scene I felt like writing and worrying later about how the scenes fit together and how consistent names and characters were. It was a good way to get my first first-draft done, but oh, my, what a nightmare it was to find and correct all the mistakes. Many of the secondary and tertiary characters had several names in the course of the story and it took forever to get it all straightened out.
For my last several books, I’ve used a system where I know where I want to start and kind of where it will end, and I start writing scenes. Somewhere in the first 20,000 words, I stop and add some bullet-points to the “outline”, mostly trying to gauge where various elements of plot will take place. Between 20,000 and 50,000 words, I make up a chart in Word. Each chapter is numbered and logged, including who’s in the chapter, what the essential conflict is, and maybe how the chapter contributes to the arc of the plot and the heroine’s character development. When I’m done with the first draft and first edits, I go back through the chart and try to rate the entertainment value of each scene and chapter. Mostly, that’s an attempt to assess the depth of the conflict and the amount of tension it creates. That exercise is really helpful in identifying material that can be cut, and material that needs to be reworked.
KRL: If you had your ideal, what time of day would you prefer to write?
Renee: My fantasy is to wake up in a cabin in the middle of the Ontario wilderness just before sunrise, make myself a carefully crafted cup of Starbucks coffee, and sip it while I watch the sun come up. Right after sunrise, I’d find a bug-free zone with a good view of a lake or river, and write until one p.m., then go fishing or canoeing. So, the short answer is, mornings.
KRL: Sounds nice except the early morning part lol. Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Renee: Absolutely. We worry a lot in this country about the oppression of minorities, but I don’t think there’s a more oppressed minority than unpublished authors trying to place their first book. We all think it’s something aimed personally – our race, our gender orientation, our religion, our genre…the list is endless, but before it’s any of those things, we’re rejected because we are a terrible risk to a risk-averse industry. Most of our first novels will sell less than 500 copies, and this is not an exaggeration. Something like a million of the 1.3 million books published each year in America sell less than 1,000 copies. Ignorance and arrogance are good tools to bring to bear in facing this challenge. I didn’t realize how bad the odds were, and when I found out, I didn’t care. I self-published my first book and learned a lot about the process, then used networking to solve the agent problem, and the agent to solve the problem getting publishers to read my manuscript. I also worked hard to make sure the manuscripts were worth reading.
KRL: Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
Renee: When my agent was sending out the manuscript for A Kind of Justice, one New York editor sent a rejection letter that began, “Well, the writing isn’t terrible…” I’ve known a few people who would fling insults like that and they were people who paper over their own shortcomings by assuming a mantle of arrogance in denigrating the work of others, so the remark didn’t have the intended affect. It’s important to keep in mind that criticism often says more about the critic than the object of the critique. My agent and I had a good laugh over that and kept soliciting, ultimately finding a home with Oceanview Publishing, which is my dream publisher.
KRL: Most interesting book signing story-in a bookstore or other venue?
Renee: My launch party for A Kind of Justice took place at Centuries & Sleuths in Forest Park, IL, a very cool, diverse Chicago suburb. It was attended by a mixture of straight writing friends, LGBT friends, and people that were just in the store that day. It became kind of a laid-back encounter group session. I’d read a passage, then people would ask questions or just offer thoughts, and it became a community conversation with many voices heard. It was how a town hall meeting should be!
KRL: Future writing goals?
Renee: I’d like to take a crack at a literary novel next, though it has to have a plot. I’ve been working on something based on a wild and crazy R&R I had during the Vietnam war. I’m also thinking of doing another thriller, but this time narrated by Bobbi’s niece, Roberta. We’ll see.
KRL: Writing heroes?
Renee: John Steinbeck. Read the opening one hundred words of Cannery Row!
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
Renee: I do fun stuff. Mainly, I explore parts of Chicago I want to use for my settings. It’s important to do, but it’s also sinfully fun. This is a really great city.
KRL: What do you read?
Renee: I read a lot of books I purchase from authors/teachers who address a writers group I belong to – they’re Chicago authors, many of whom are brilliant and not well known nationally, Lori Rader Day, Rebecca Makkai, and Kelly McNees, to name just three of many. My sister buys me every new Grisham book that comes out, because I marvel at his story-telling genius. I also read the crime fiction stalwarts, though I stop when we get to books where the main character no longer has an interesting arc, or when there’s just too much violence. The most incredible book I’ve read this year is stranger than fiction: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson. It starts with the most mind-boggling first sentence I’ve ever read, and it builds from there. Don’t miss it!
KRL: Favorite TV or movies?
Renee: TV: Downton Abbey and Foyle’s War.
Movies: Fried Green Tomatoes, Apocalypse Now (the greatest war movie ever), Lonesome Dove, Shogun, Steel Magnolias.
KRL: Anything you would like to add?
To enter to win either a print or kindle copy of Seven Suspects, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “suspects,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen July 7, 2018. U.S. residents only for the print copy. If entering via email please include your mailing address (which will only be used to ship the book to you if you win), and if via comment please include your email address. PLEASE STATE IN ENTRY WHETHER YOU WANT PRINT OR KINDLE. You can read our privacy statement here if you like.
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