by Cynthia Chow
This week we have a review of House of Desire By Margaret Lucke along with an interesting interview with Margaret. Details at the end of the post on how to enter to win a copy of House of Desire and a link to purchase it.
House of Desire: A Claire Scanlan Haunted House Mystery by Margaret Lucke
Review by Cynthia Chow
In 1896, a young woman escapes from the traumas of her life by retreating to the secret place at the top of Chez Celeste’s tower stairs. Led to this magical place by a woman calling herself Granny Jo, Roxanne spies upon the unbelievable world that is present-day San Francisco. It is there at a fundraising ball by the Bay Area Preservation Alliance that real estate agent Claire Scanlan happens to glance upon the mysterious woman, who wears an amethyst necklace nearly identical to her own. Before she can investigate, though, Claire is called away to woo the Burnham heirs who will decide the fate of their family’s Burnham Mansion. As it happens, Ellie Burnham is already being seduced – but in the more traditional, more illicit manner – by Claire’s attorney brother-in-law. Despite worrying that her sister’s heart is about to be broken, Claire can’t help but herself be charmed by Simon Thatcher, the Executive Director of BAPA. The potential of that relationship is cut short when Simon’s body is found not long after the fundraiser, beaten to death at the Burnham Mansion.
Despite having suppressed her ability to see and hear ghosts for years, Claire still senses the presence of the unearthly. That is why she shouldn’t have been too surprised that two figures not of this time were also witnesses to Simon’s death, nor that even death stops Granny Jo from leaving her beloved home. With the fate of the historical mansion on the line, Claire becomes as invested in solving the murder as she is in the disappearing figures from another era.
Three very different women narrate this mystery, each struggling against the expected conventions for women. The scenes of abuse and harassment are uncomfortable to read, yet they are sensitively handled and necessary for the novel. Just as outrageous as the behavior of Lady Celeste’s clients are the overtures and remarks by Claire’s coworker, who without nepotistic ties would probably be sued or arrested. The viewpoints from Claire, Roxanne, and even Ellie are so fascinating and compelling that readers will be on their side and hoping that they find the escapes they seek. Time travel, ghosts, and a traditional mystery all combine into a very absorbing and very satisfying read. Expect an extraordinary adventure into the past that delves into the crimes of the present with this unique genre-crossing novel.
Interview with Margaret Lucke:
KRL: How long have you been writing?
ML: I’ve been writing just about all my life. I produced my first book when I was five, as a birthday gift for my dad. It was called We Are Going to a Birthday Party, and it was about—well, you can guess. I dictated the story to my mom, who typed it out leaving room for me to illustrate the pages. We bound it in oilcloth covers, tying in the pages with yarn. A few years ago, I received an unexpected package in the mail. I opened it and found this book, which Dad discovered as he was downsizing. It now sits proudly in my office bookshelf.
KRL: When did your first novel come out? What was it called? Can you tell us a little about it?
ML: My first novel was A Relative Stranger, and it came out way back in 1991. It stars Jess Randolph, a San Francisco artist who works as a private investigator to support her art habit. She considers both of her dual careers to be ways to search for the truth. In this book, the father who walked out on her as a small child reaches out for her help when he becomes the prime suspect in a socialite’s murder. As I wrote it, I became aware that how she will come to terms with having her long-absent father suddenly show up in her life was as important to the story as what she does to try to solve the murder.
Since then, Jess has appeared in several short stories, a novella called A Fair Day for Murder, which appears in the anthology Happy Homicides 3, and my 2017 novel, Snow Angel. In Snow Angel, seven-year-old Amy goes missing right before her father is scheduled to testify in a high-profile murder trial. Jess has been giving Amy art lessons and has come to think of her as a little sister. Her search for the child takes her from San Francisco to the snowbound Sierra and deep into the hearts of two shattered families.
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense? If not what else have you written?
ML: Most of my fiction has a home on the mystery/suspense shelf and I’m very happy to have it there.
I’ve also written two how-to books on writing—Writing Mysteries and Schaum’s Quick Guide to Writing Great Short Stories—with more to come.
Beyond that, I’ve written articles for magazines and newspapers, marketing brochures, strategic plans, training materials, policies-and-procedures manuals, grant applications, scripts for mystery weekends, and the list goes on. Every job and freelance gig on my resume has involved working with words.
KRL: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series?
ML: One evening I was dining out with a fellow writer and an editor. As we chatted about characters who could anchor an interesting series of novels, this idea popped up: a real estate agent who specializes in haunted houses. Claire Scanlan immediately began to take shape in my mind. By the time I got home, I knew her name and many details of her biography, as well as the first glimmerings of the plot that became her first book, House of Whispers.
Claire is a reluctant psychic—when she enters a building, she often perceives spirits and strange energies that no one else can detect. For the first book, I wanted a place that wasn’t a typical haunted house, so I chose a contemporary glass-and-redwood home on the edge of the Pacific Ocean in Marin County, just north of San Francisco.
The new book, “House of Desire,” centers on a grand Victorian in San Francisco. When her philandering brother-in-law is accused of murdering a rival there, Claire must risk a perilous journey into the past to find the only witness—a time-traveling “soiled dove” from the 1890s who is invisible to everyone except her.
The house is modeled loosely on a Victorian mansion where I once worked. It is now the headquarters of a historic preservation group, and I was on their staff. I took many liberties with the real house. For instance, unlike my fictional mansion, it was never a secret bordello.
Northern California is rich in stories and full of interesting houses. I can’t imagine ever running out of ideas for the Claire Scanlan Haunted House series.
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
ML: I write primarily to entertain. We all need good entertainment on a regular basis, and I consider providing that to be a service to the reader and a good goal for a writer. At the same time, I believe that larger themes often emerge as a novel is being written, even if the author isn’t always aware of them at the time.
Looking over my Jess Randolph novels, the ones that have been published and the one in the planning stage, I realized they have something to say about the nature of families, both the ones we’re born into and the ones we create for ourselves. The Claire Scanlan books explore the boundaries of reality, which I believe are wider than we tend to give them credit for.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
ML: I strongly advise anyone who’s serious about writing fiction to maintain a schedule. In other words, do as I say and not as I do. The truth is, every time I try to set a schedule, life gets in the way. As a result, I haven’t been as prolific as I’d like to be.
KRL: Do you outline? If not, do you have some other way that you keep track of what’s going on, or what needs to happen in your book when you are writing it?
ML: I think of my planning process as making a map. If I venture into a new book without a map, I’m likely to get lost. Having a map gives me an idea of where my destination is and what direction I need to travel in so I can reach it. Outlines can seem rigid, but a map gives me flexibility. If I hit a roadblock or spot an intriguing byway, I can change my route, or I can decide to head for a different place entirely. A map keeps me from going too far astray, yet when I’m writing the actual book, it doesn’t stop me from making discoveries and having adventures along the way.
I adapted this notion from an article I read years ago by notable mystery author Phyllis A. Whitney, in which she described her writing process. Its title inspired me: A Map Is Not a Journey.
KRL: If you had your ideal, what time of day would you prefer to write?
ML: I’m an owl, not a lark. Waking up in the morning is not my best skill. My prime time seems to be in the afternoon and into the evening. Ideally I’d love to be a morning person and get my writing for the day accomplished early, but I seem to be innately unable to do that.
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
ML: Getting published wasn’t so difficult. It was staying published that was a challenge.
My first novel, A Relative Stranger, was taken on by the first agent I submitted it to (a friend of a friend), and it was a day for celebration when she sold it to St. Martin’s Press. It went on to be nominated for an Anthony Award for Best First Mystery. But my second novel never sold, and the publisher of my third novel went out of business in the midst of our negotiations for its sequel. The publishing world is a strange, constantly changing place. Fortunately, the changes mean that authors have more options than they once did.
KRL: Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
ML: Any acceptance is a great one and worthy of a champagne toast (or whatever your favorite beverage for toasts might be).
On the other hand, no rejection qualifies as great. The one that probably hit me hardest was for House of Desire. The publisher of House of Whispers had planned to publish this one, too, and sent me a contract to review. I signed it and sent it back, expecting the next communication to be the executed contract and a check for the advance. Instead it was an email from my editor; the subject line said, “Not Good News.” It informed me that this small publisher had been purchased by a larger one, and part of the deal required shedding most of its authors. My one consolation: I wasn’t alone in being cast aside.
KRL: Most interesting book signing story—in a bookstore or other venue?
ML: My favorite story of an interaction with a reader didn’t happen at a book signing but came in the form of a letter I received after A Relative Stranger came out. One aspect of that story concerns the reconnection of my main character, Jess Randolph, with the father who abandoned her when she was a small child. The letter writer described how the book inspired him to contact the son he hadn’t seen for 25 years. As a result of reaching out, he had been invited to the son’s wedding. Receiving that letter, and learning that my book had made a difference in someone’s life, was very gratifying.
KRL: Future writing goals?
ML: I’m several chapters into writing the next Claire Scanlan Haunted Mystery, tentatively titled House of Shadows. After that, some characters are tugging on my mental sleeves to offer glimpses of what will become the next book in my series with artist and private investigator Jess Randolph.
For many years I’ve taught fiction writing classes, and another project I’m embarking on is a series of handbooks for writers based on those classes. Each will deal with a different aspect of the fiction writer’s craft. The one on creating characters is nearly ready to go.
KRL: Writing heroes?
ML: Writing a novel is an act of courage and commitment. Writing one well requires an understanding of the writing craft and a creative approach to storytelling. To me, any writer who succeeds in bringing together the 4 Cs—courage, commitment, craft, and creativity—counts as a hero to me.
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
ML: I think of research as falling into four categories, the four Ls:
Library is my shorthand for all kinds of reading material—books, newspapers, magazines, and the huge amount of material about, well, anything that the Internet puts right at our fingertips. Reading up on a subject is my main research activity.
Lecture refers to author talks, panels at conferences, speakers at meetings, classes, and workshops. I enjoy attending presentations by experts. While the topic they’re talking about might not pertain precisely to what I’m writing at the moment, they add layers to my knowledge of such things as crime, investigation, and the justice system—good things for a mystery writer to know about.
Lunch means finding an expert who can answer my questions directly. Inviting that person to share a meal is a good way to have a relaxed conversation, though if distance is an issue, a phone call or email exchange works better.
Life means learning by doing—visiting the place where you plan to set a scene, trying an activity that your character is skilled at, and drawing on your own experience and expertise to bring your story to life.
KRL: What do you read?
ML: I read a lot of mysteries and thrillers, of course. Those have been my favorite genres since I was a kid working my way through the Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen paperbacks in my mom’s bookcase.
My book club reads mainly literary fiction and the occasional memoir, and I enjoy belonging to that group as a way to expand my reading horizons. Sometimes I branch out even more, into other forms of nonfiction. But every time I finish a book of a different type, I want the next one I read to be a work of crime fiction.
KRL: Favorite TV or movies?
ML: It may come as no surprise that I enjoy crime dramas, whether they’re TV shows or movies. I like comedies, too, though on film more than on TV, since movies don’t have annoying laugh tracks.
I rarely re-watch movies I’ve already seen, but an exception is Cookie’s Fortune, one of Robert Altman’s lesser known films, set in a small Southern town. An old woman’s death sets everyone scrambling to find her will, to keep secrets hidden, and to uncover the truth. The story is told with warmth and humor, and it has a great cast—Patricia Neal, Glenn Close, Julianne Moore, Liv Tyler and Charles S. Dutton just for starters.
KRL: Any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
ML: Read a lot. Get well acquainted with the genre you want to write and learn its strengths, tropes and clichés. Read the acknowledged masters of your genre so you’ll be inspired. Once in a while read a badly written book and analyze its flaws, so you’ll know what not to do. Also read widely beyond your genre to enrich your appreciation and discover new possibilities.
Write a lot. Make a habit of writing regularly. Learn the craft by taking classes and reading how-to-write books and blogs. Find critique groups and beta readers to give you support and feedback, and figure out how to distinguish valuable suggestions from unhelpful ones. But remember that classes and craft books and critique groups can’t substitute for actually putting words on the page.
Keep at it. It’s wonderful to be gifted with both talent and persistence. But if you have to choose only one of those, pick persistence. A less talented writer who perseveres will have much greater success than a brilliant writer who gives up.
So: read a lot, write a lot, and keep on writing.
KRL: Anything you would like to add?
ML: I enjoy connecting with readers and writers, and I’d be happy to have Kings River Life’s readers get in touch.
KRL: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
ML: I don’t know if these would be surprises but here are three fun facts:
* I once had to register with the U.S. State Department as an agent of a foreign government.
* I’ve visited all 50 states and a couple dozen countries on four continents.
* My husband and many friends call me Daphne, the name of a character I played in a college theater production.
KRL: Website? Twitter? Facebook?
To enter to win a copy of House of Desire, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “desire,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen August 15, 2020. USA, Canada or UK 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.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section. And join our mystery Facebook group to keep up with everything mystery we post, and have a chance at some extra giveaways. Be sure to check out our new mystery podcast too with mystery short stories, and first chapters read by local actors. One of Larissa’s books is featured in a past episode. A new episode went up this week.
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Disclosure: This post contains links to an affiliate program, for which we receive a few cents if you make purchases. KRL also receives free copies of most of the books that it reviews, that are provided in exchange for an honest review of the book.