by Sandra Murphy
This week we have a review of Hell and High Water by Keenan Powell, along with an interesting interview with Keenan. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of the book, and links to purchase it.
Hell and High Water: A Maeve Malloy Mystery by Keenan Powell
Review by Sandra Murphy
Maeve Malloy is an attorney in Alaska, complete with endless hours, never enough sleep, and, as a defense attorney, some really nasty clients. When she manages to get a not guilty vote for one, based on a witness statement, she’s pleased—until she finds an overlooked note that proves the witness perjured himself. When her former client kills someone, the bar association comes after Maeve.
She’s lucky to only receive a suspension instead of being disbarred. The problem wasn’t just a lying witness but that she didn’t report it once it was discovered—and that she missed the note because she drank herself to sleep every night during the trial.
Now the suspension is over, but she’s not sure she wants to be a lawyer again. Her team, including Tom, her investigator, has scattered. On a whim, she applies for a job as a kitchen helper/dishwasher at an island lodge. It’s quite a comedown from attorney to kitchen help but she’s focused on fresh air, exercise, and being around people who aren’t criminals until she can decide what’s next.
That plan went out the window on the first day. The lodge is owned by Lester and Bernie (Bernadette), with Grace as the manager. Guests include Sister Iggy and Sister Clare, Francis Nolan, author of a book about plants, there to give a lecture, and Sheila and Roger, on a short vacation.
From the moment Maeve steps foot on the island, nothing goes right. The generator is on the blink, cell phone service is spotty, the staff and guests seem to have secrets, and there are rumors of a bear on the prowl. Oh yeah, the pineapple express, a storm with hurricane strength winds and endless rain, has turned in their direction. They’re stranded.
The next morning, one of the guests is missing. A search soon discovers the bear dragging a body through the woods. They do manage to recover the body but the bear is innocent. The realization that one of the very few people in the lodge is a killer means trust no one.
It’s a struggle for Maeve to stay sober since almost everyone at the lodge is a heavy drinker or alcoholic. Since Maeve is an outsider, has a law background, and knows the State Trooper in charge, she’s tasked with taking statements from the suspects, each of whom have a secret or two.
This is the fourth book in the series. Maeve is a likable character, although flawed, with a strong sense of right and wrong. Her investigator, Tom, is the pragmatic one who tries to keep her in line. The plot is complex with all the threads coming together in the end. A satisfying read and a new twist on the “you’ve all been brought here because” theme.
Interview with Keenan Powell:
KRL: How long have you been writing?
KP: I started writing my first book in 2012 at a mature age. I had toyed with the idea of writing in high school but found the study of English in college painfully dull. So I ended up majoring in broadcasting and the going on to law school. In 2009, there had been a series of a dozen homeless deaths in the summer just about one a week, which is weird in Alaska. The police kept saying they all died of natural causes and no one was ever prosecuted. Then in 2012, I was sitting in a law seminar where two attorneys were arguing about a case they had and I realized how someone could have murdered homeless people and gotten away with it. That was germ of my idea for Deadly Solution. I wrote three chapters, got stuck, and realized I didn’t know the first thing about writing a book. So I set out to learn.
KRL: When did your first novel come out? What was it called? Can you tell us a little about it?
KP: My first book, Deadly Solution, was released in 2018. It was the first in the Maeve Malloy Alaska Mystery series, set in contemporary Anchorage. Maeve is a young criminal defense attorney in private practice, having recently left her job with the Public Defender’s Office. She takes over a case that is going to trial in three weeks in which the defendant, a homeless Aleut man, is accused of beating his drinking buddy to death.
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense? If not what else have you written?
KP: I’ve only written crime fiction. Maybe it’s the lawyer in me, but the framework of crime fiction fits neatly into my paradigm. The cool thing about crime fiction is that you can talk about whatever you want to talk about and you can employ the tropes, or not, as they suit your story. You can take an oft-written subgenre, such as country estate or Gothic, and make it yours. Crime fiction subgenres are versatile yet comforting for new writers because you have a structure and the tropes you can rely upon to frame your story.
KRL: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series?
KP: I practice law in Anchorage, Alaska. When it occurred to me to start writing, I thought it was best to write what I know in terms of characters, plots, and settings while I studied the craft of writing. Placing your first books in a different time era or place would require heavy research and would complicate development of your voice and rhythm, I think.
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
KP: I need to feel vested in my story to devote years of work into it so there is a big issue that matters to me in all my stories. Perhaps if you added up the hours, it would only total a year to write a book, but things come up, like revising other stories or promotion or real life, that force me to drop the novel for a while and come back to it so it has to be a story that I’m committed enough to so that I can dive back in.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
KP: I’m smartest from 4:30 a.m. to about 7:00 a.m. so I devote as much of that time as I can to writing. On weekdays before the virus, the time would be interrupted with getting the kid to school and getting me to the office. Even on weekends, that is my favorite time to write when it seems like the world belongs only to me. Sometimes, if I’m fired up and have the time, I’ll come back for another session later in the morning.
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?
KP: I have to be in the story before I can see where it’s going and things change once I’m inside the story so outlining the whole thing ahead of time has not proven valuable to me. So I outline the first few chapters and I pretty much know the climatic scene, but maybe not whodunit. I’ll write a few chapters and then outline the next few. When the first draft is finished, I outline that so that I can see how the story is progressing, or perhaps if there is a point-of-view character that really isn’t needed. Then I adjust and start the next draft.
KRL: If you had your ideal, what time of day would you prefer to write?
KP: Four-thirty a.m. to 7:30 a.m. is ideal. If I didn’t have to go to my day job, I’d put in another session late morning and then spend the afternoon on promotion.
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
KP: I found it extremely difficult to get published in the beginning. I have an Excel spreadsheet of 98 agents I sent queries to on the first book, and maybe a dozen publishers before it was picked up by Level Best Books.
KRL: Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
KP: Maybe not quite on point, but that same book, Deadly Solution, that was rejected by 98 agents and a dozen publishers, won the Malice Domestic-William F. Deeck grant, shortlisted for the Pacific Northwest Writers Assn Literary Contest, was nominated for the Lefty, the Agatha, and short-listed for the Silver Falchion, took first place in the Alaska Professional Communicator communication contest, and third place in the National Press Women’s Association communication contest.
KRL: Most interesting book signing story-in a bookstore or other venue?
KP: An author whom I respect greatly stood in line to get my autograph on a book and I was so flustered, I misspelled my name.
KRL: LOL I could totally see myself doing that too. Future writing goals?
KP: I’m polishing a historical police procedural set in the Berkshires in the late 19th century for querying agents, and then I have a legal thriller knocking around in the back of my mind.
KRL: Writing heroes?
KP: So many! I just finished a masterclass by David Baldacci, and he was so generous with his story of feeling discouraged about whether he’d ever get published. Maybe he’d have to practice law the rest of his life, but he just kept going because he had to. I’m now nursing a big crush on him. It’s an excellent class. I’ve read just about everything published on craft and attended many workshops, but heard useful things from him that I’d never heard before. Louise Penny is another hero. She just kept querying despite her first Inspector Gamache being rejected 50 times in US and look at her now!
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
KP: For my Maeve Malloy series, I brush up on criminal law and procedure. I had practiced criminal defense for several years but have since moved into another area of law. For the third book, Hell and High Water, I have a friend in Seward, Alaska, where the book is set who helped me with details about the setting. For the historical series set in the Berkshires, I visited the locale, have friends who help me out with details, and read a lot of non-fiction about crimes, crime reporting, labor movement, immigration, and the robber barons.
KRL: What do you read?
KP: I read, and listen to audios, of lots of people, many of them Irish, Scottish, and British, and some American including Joe Ide, Dervla McTiernan, Liz Nugent, Claire Allan, Ian Rankin, Denice Mina, Ann Cleeves, Tana French, Louise Penney, Catriona McPherson, Matt Coyle, Bruce Robert Coffin, and James Ziskin to name a few. The other day on Twitter, Ann Cleeves mentioned Mick Herron who writes the Slough House series and I’m half-way through the second book on audio. If Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) had written crime fiction, he would have sounded like Mick Herron. It’s quirky, funny, and smart.
KRL: Favorite TV or movies?
KP: I’m on tenterhooks waiting for the next Line of Duty and Peaky Blinders. I just pulled out my Blu-Ray remastered complete set of Miss Marple to watch again. (Jane Hickson was Miss Marple, thank you.) My go-to for mind candy is “Time Team.” There are 200 plus episodes, many of them on YouTube. It has nothing to do with crime fiction, but it’s entertaining. As for movies, “Knives Out” has ruined me for anything else for a while. And it’s not just the sweater.
KRL: Any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
KP: Keep writing. Study the craft. Buy all the craft books, read them and re-read them. You can save some money by buying them used, which is nice in case you like to mark them up like I do. As for craft workshops, Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference is one of the best. Go to it if you can and sign up for the critiques. Long before you’re published, go to the conventions, make friends, and pay it forward: review and promote your friends on social media. Also, acquaint yourself with the major bloggers and reviewers. And when you get a contract, study promotion. It’ll take a year or so for you to figure out what everyone is talking about, so the sooner you start the better. You’ll be glad you did when your book comes out. Also, be very careful about accepting an offer, especially if you’re not represented. It’s so exciting to get an offer but in the long run, it might not be the best option for you. Research whether that publisher belongs to Mystery Writers of America and International Thriller Writers, because if they aren’t, you are shut out of opportunities offered by those organizations. Research what that publisher does in terms of promotion for its writers. This is important, because only the publisher, and not the author, is permitted to do promotions on Amazon, and because many reviewers will only accept advanced reader copies directly from the publisher.
KRL: Anything you would like to add?
KP: Everyone despairs. There’s a great book, Art and Fear, Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland that every writer should read as well. One nugget I got out of that is: how you feel about your work in progress has absolutely nothing to do with whether it’s any good at that moment. I read that book cover to cover periodically.
KRL: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
KP: Not sure if anyone’s surprised anymore about this, but I was one of the illustrators for the original Dungeons and Dragons. But this may surprise you: I’ve never played the game.
KRL: How cool! Website? Twitter? Facebook?
To enter to win a copy of Hell and High Water, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “water,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen July 18, 2020. 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.
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