by Cynthia Chow
This week we have a review of the the latest mystery by Mary Jane Maffini, Death Plans a Perfect Trip, along with an interesting interview with Mary Jane. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of the book, and a link to purchase it from Amazon.
Death Plans a Perfect Trip: A Charlotte Adams Mystery by Mary Jane Maffini
Review by Cynthia Chow
For over a week, professional organizer Charlotte Adams has been having nightmares that have her awakening in panic and dripping in sweat. Something from her childhood is continuing to terrorize her today, and she knows that it must be linked to her mother having missed their regular phone calls for the past two Tuesdays. Charlotte’s friends try to ease her worries by insisting that this unreliable behavior is a characteristic of the impulsive, many-time-married, best-selling author. Esme Adams’ agent is more agitated than concerned over his client’s missed deadlines, but Charlotte worries their past has caught up with them. While her boyfriend Jack suggests that dreams are just dreams and that her mother may have built up a fictional history for them, Charlotte still hides an emergency to-go bag that she was taught to keep as child. It’s hard to ignore the danger when Charlotte’s house is completely trashed and a Molotov cocktail thrown into it, but some of her friends still try to convince her that it’s a bunch of coincidences.
Despite having built her entire life around being organized, planned, and with everything categorized into lists, Charlotte makes the decision to track down her mother to her favorite places in Europe. Even though he may have his doubts, Jack leaves his CYCotics cycle shop in Upstate New York to follow Charlotte on her spur-of-the-moment trip as they follow the memories Charlotte has of Esme’s past dalliances. Jack is more focused on which new meal and restaurant he can visit than watching Charlotte’s back, so it’s up to her to question Esme’s past acquaintances as they venture through Paris, Portugal, and Spain. Back home police have made her and Jack persons of interest in a case of arson and multiple murders, so Charlotte is risking everything to find her mother and uncover the secrets that have been haunting them for decades.
This sixth in the series is a strong departure from the previous entries, as while it includes travel and organizing tips, much more time is spent on an Amazing Race type of adventure through Europe. The fragility of Charlotte’s emotional state has never been more apparent, but the reasoning for it becomes clearer to Jack and to readers. A lifetime based on a false identity and the need to abandon everything at a moment’s notice has resulted in Charlotte’s need for plans, backup plans, and emergency lists for when that all fails. While it has made her a sought-after professional organizer, it hasn’t been great for her mental health. That makes it all the more frustrating when her friends seem to ignore her fears, even if they aren’t aware of her complicated history. Providing both relief to the suspense and envy for those unable to travel are the outstanding descriptions of Lisbon and Milan, centers of fashion and mouth-watering cuisine. The fast race through Europe as Charlotte and Jack don costumes, dodge possible killers, and interrogate suspects can be both an entry point for new readers to the series and a satisfying end for fans who appreciate a mix of mystery, espionage, and world travel.
Interview with Mary Jane Maffini:
Mary Jane: I’ve been writing fiction for most of my life, although I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing. I thought it was homework. My How I Spent My Summer Vacation essay featured a private investigator named Mike Chisel. According to family lore, I later sold the essay to my brother for his own use. Not sure if it’s true but in any case, we have both since gone straight. At work, people used to ask me if I was a writer and I would just shake my head. I started learning to write mysteries in the mid-eighties when I was under the impression that there was money in it. Later I realized I would have to continue writing them for love and I would have to learn the craft. It’s not nearly as easy as it looks. Just ask those stinky manuscripts in my bottom drawer.
KRL: How long have you been writing?
KRL: When did your first novel come out, what was it called, and would you tell us a little about it?
Mary Jane: My first novel came out in 1999. It was called Speak Ill of the Dead and it was the first Camilla MacPhee mystery, set in Canada’s capital (that’s how we spell it). Camilla is a crochety widowed lawyer with a large bossy family and the world’s worst office assistant, Alvin Ferguson. For some reason, readers are fond of Alvin. Camilla runs an advocacy agency for victims of violent crime and she is passionate about justice and also about keeping her sisters off her back. Camilla survived and thrived and the seventh book, You Light Up My Death will be out in October 2022.
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense and if not, what else have you written?
Mary Jane: I have always read and loved mysteries. One of my jobs required me to select them for our library region and I was surprised and thrilled that I got paid for this wonderful task. Later I co-owned a mystery bookstore with my friend Linda Wiken/Essie Lang/Erika Chase. All to say, I am trying to avoid telling you that I once wrote the world’s worst romance novel. How bad could it have been, you ask? Well, it was so bad that even I couldn’t read it.
KRL: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series?
Mary Jane: In Death Plans a Perfect Trip, I wanted to ‘harvest’ Charlotte Adams’s early background and the hints I have planted about her mother over the first five books. I have a fascination with false identities and have always been interested in bank robberies and have done a lot of research into them, especially Canadian and British robbers and their behavior. I thought it was time for Charlotte (who hates to travel) to get out of town and so I sent her to some of my favorite places in Europe: Paris, Lisbon, northern Italy and the magical cliffside villages of Cinque Terre in Liguria. I have visited these places and thought I could remember their more dangerous aspects and work in the great food too. Some of the characters are loosely based on a certain crime reporter, two notorious but widely romanticized bank robbers and a few Canadian crime figures. The others mostly hopped a ride from the earlier books.
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to experience from your work?
Mary Jane: I think our values always seep into our work even when we are being light-hearted or funny. The Charlotte Adams series is intended to entertain and to give some handy organizing information. I have found them useful being naturally chaotic and needing all the help I can get. Contemporary mysteries explore all kinds of issues and the reactions of people to them. I know that they show us that people like our readers, our neighbors, friends, sisters, mothers, and daughters will step up to the plate and do what needs to be done when there’s a crisis or a crime to be solved or prevented. That’s one great message we can take from cozy mysteries, mine included. A second one is the enduring value of strong friendships and community relationships.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just work whenever you can?
Mary Jane: I’d love to have a schedule but I no longer seem to be able to manage it. When I had a day job, I would get up at six am and write for an hour before getting ready for work. I was too wiped at the end of a day to create much but I could be creative for that first hour of the day.
KRL: What is your ideal time to write?
Mary Jane: Strangely, these days I often make great headway after dinner in the evening. If the book is at the editing phase or proofreading phase, earlier in the day is better. I also have breakthroughs the minute I get settled on a train, a plane, ship, or even on a road trip. This is often where the ideas for new books or series emerge.
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?
Mary Jane: I never got the hang of outlining and I suspect I would lose interest the minute I knew what was going to happen. The most useful technique I have now is to give every scene a PowerPoint slide: the left side says what happens in the scene, who is in it and the purpose of that scene and the right side lists date/time/location/weather as well as what senses are engaged, clues or red herrings planted and what might need to be fixed or added. A note can be left to fix something in the next draft. It also helps to avoid time inconsistencies and other continuity problems. I know it’s weird but it works for me and is easy to update.
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Mary Jane: You bet. Lucky for me I had attended a workshop with the great and generous Sue Grafton back in the nineties. She told us that it was her seventh book that finally sold. That eased the devastation I felt with each rejection. I sold my third book. But the good news was that once that sold it was pretty smooth sailing. And my second book also sold.
KRL: Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
Mary Jane: After years of shopping around Speak Ill of the Dead, the first Camilla MacPhee mystery, I had learned not to get excited when a letter (remember the mail?) came in. Heartbreak was always lurking within the stamped self-addressed envelope. On a Friday in October 1998, I received a letter from a publisher with whom I thought I’d stood a chance. But that day we had also just received a good offer to purchase our home on a street where no houses had sold in several years. It was game on and only two weeks to move! I tossed the unopened letter onto my messy desk and got busy with moving plans. Sometime after close of business, I finally opened it with the plan to file it with the other polite rejections, only to read “If Speak Ill of the Dead is still available, we would love to publish it”. Of course, it was after five on a Friday of a long weekend. The office would be closed and there was no way to make a phone call (remember phone calls?) to say YES, thank you! I worried that the offer might evaporate over the weekend, but of course it didn’t. That began an eight-book run with the wonderful Canadian publisher, Sylvia McConnell, of RendezVous Press. Sylvia gave many of us Canadian mystery authors our first break and remains a champion of the mystery world and a friend to this day.
KRL: Most interesting book signing story-in a bookstore or other venue?
Mary Jane: Where to begin? My pal Barbara Fradkin (the Inspector Green and the Amanda Doucette mysteries) and I were doing an Eastern Canadian tour back in 2005 and we had packed our events a bit tightly. We were on my home turf of beautiful Cape Breton Island and had an afternoon signing at the university bookstore in Sydney and another one at the public library on Isle Madame (a scenic island community that projects into the Atlantic at the end of a long causeway) in the evening. As they say, the best laid plans of … That was the day hurricane Wilma slammed Cape Breton and Barbara and I rocked and rolled our way down the highway through the blinding rain and hurricane-force winds, dodging downed trees, small lakes on roads and more. This was also before the days when we all had cellphones. We finally reached the public library at five minutes past our scheduled start time. Leslie, the wonderful librarian was standing on the steps of the library, arms crossed, whipped by wind and looking very worried. We opened the doors of my Mazda MX-6 Mystere and every one of our bookmarks was sucked out the doors by the wild gusts and scattered around the deep puddles in the parking lot. They may still be there. We two drowned rats arrived empty-handed and without dinner to be greeted by a crowd of forty library readers who had been ‘strongly encouraged’ to attend the evening even if they had never heard of us. The library was warm and bright, there were delicious cookies, coffee and tea and a very receptive audience. It was a wonderful night at the end of an excellent but very tiring tour. No wonder I love librarians! I have incorporated some of these elements into the forthcoming Camilla MacPhee book You Light Up My Death (# 7). I’d hate to waste a hurricane.
KRL: What are your future writing goals?
Mary Jane: I have half-formed plans for a new Camilla MacPhee book and a Charlotte Adams Christmas mystery and one about renovations. I will resume work on a young adult trilogy about a young dog walker who is trying to avoid the attention of the authorities and child welfare until she turns eighteen, as it is not safe for her to go home. Victoria and I are working on a non-fiction book for ‘distracted’ writers.
I am starting another mystery dinner theater play for a local fundraiser and a play about adoption is slowly evolving.
KRL: How interesting! Who are your writing heroes?
Mary Jane: I always love writers who use humor. I value it and believe it is important for us. I grew up on P.G. Wodehouse, Gene Shepherd, and Dorothy Parker. On the serious side, I am filled with admiration for Erik Larson who can take material we all know about and turn it into something freshly mesmerizing and somehow suspenseful, even though we know the outcome. And of course, all my cozy colleagues!
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
Mary Jane: For Charlotte Adams, I always do a lot of work on organizing techniques for whatever the topic of the book focuses on. I had to research the section of Upstate New York where she lives. It is based on Kingston, NY, but fictionalized. I always need to check out any police procedures, ranks and legal issues. Jurisdictions also can be tricky. I read books about the topic, spend a lot of time with Mr. Google and travel if necessary. I visited all the countries in Death Plans a Perfect Trip and wished I could have gone back for more details. There’s nothing like being there. On one trip to Italy for a previous Camilla book, The Dead Don’t Get Out Much, I discovered that there were five different police forces and that the police tape is red and white. Who knew? I also found some great Tuscan ruins that came in handy. Whatever the book, I like to find out about the food and work that in too.
KRL: What do you like to read?
Mary Jane: I read a lot of mysteries (dodging cozies when I am writing one). I love the Canadian ones: Barbara Fradkin, Iona Wishaw, Brenda Chapman, Linda Wiken, Mike Martin, Vicky Delany and many more. I also read a lot of American and British mysteries. I read two to three books a week and I like to change things up.
KRL: What are your favorite TV shows or movies?
Mary Jane: This changes depending on what I am watching. I have to be careful to avoid my own sub-genre (humorous cozies) when writing them. I do love the New Zealand cop show Brokenwood and the Aussie/NZ series My Life is Murder with Lucy Lawless, also the Canadian shows Pretty Hard Cases and Diggstown. My husband and I enjoy the dark British mysteries. On the lighter side, I do watch the film A Christmas Story (thank you, Gene Shepherd) every summer and sometimes even at Christmas. It never disappoints.
KRL: Have you any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Mary Jane: Here are three things I wish I had known when I started:
Finish at least a draft of your project before getting frustrated and thinking you have a better idea. You don’t! Project hopping is just another a form of procrastination.
Write your story and resist the urge to tell it to anyone who will listen. You can let the air out of your storytelling balloon if you talk about it too much. Stay in your chair and write.
Find a respectful, honest critique group (online or in person) and listen to them. You get your turn too!
KRL: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Mary Jane: After years of detective work on multiple DNA sites and family research sites and databases, I was able to find my birth family and was actually able to meet my birth mother and aunties as well as wonderful siblings and cousins on both sides. I already had a very nice family so this is like winning the jackpot. Lucky me! You never know how these things will turn out. And yes, some of it will show up in fiction.
Mary Jane: I always seem to be surrounded by miniature Dachshunds, much like Truffle and Sweet Marie in the Charlotte books. They are immensely amusing and cuddly. Our latest two rescues came to us during the bleakest days of Covid and they saved our sanity. Penny and Ivy spend their days under my desk helping me write when they are not getting into trouble, say sneaking onto the bed.
KRL: Do you have any pets?
KRL: Is there anything you would like to add?
Mary Jane: I’m worried I might not have conveyed how wonderful and valuable I think our mystery writing community is and how lucky we are to be part of it as readers and writers and colleagues. We are much more than entertainment, although we are that too. Thank you, Lorie and KRL for your contributions to this world!
KRL: You are very welcome!
To enter to win a copy of Death Plans a Perfect Trip, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “trip,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen August 20, 2022. U.S. residents only, and you must be 18 or older to enter. If entering via email please include your mailing address in case you win, it will be deleted after the contest. You can read our privacy statement here if you like.
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. Also listen to our new mystery podcast where mystery short stories and first chapters are read by actors! They are also available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and Spotify. A new episode went up this week.
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