by Cynthia Chow
This week we have a review of the latest Forensic Handwriting mystery by Sheila Lowe along with an interesting interview with Sheila. Details at the end of the post on how to enter to win an ebook copy of the book, and a link to order it from Amazon.
Dead Letters: A Forensic Handwriting Mystery by Sheila Lowe
Review by Cynthia Chow
When this thrilling novel opens, young Monica Bennett is thrilled to be on an Egyptian archeological dig usually reserved only for advanced graduate students. Enchanted as the gifted Monica is with the 1470 BC Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple of one of the few ruling queens, Monica is just as charmed by the handsome Teaching Assistant Colin Vine. After a day spent seeing the exotic sights and attractions of Luxor, they are abruptly hurtled into a car accident that leaves them bruised and Colin arrested.
Things aren’t much better back home in Pima County, California, where Monica’s father’s high school reunion leaves one man dead and Pete Bennett in jail. Pete had motive, means, and opportunity to kill the detested Mitch Graham, and twenty years didn’t make their animosity any less combative. Pete reaches out to his sister – and Monica’s beloved Aunt Claudia Rose – for help hiring an attorney and keeping his arrest a secret from the rest of the family. Hiding the truth from Monica won’t be too much of a problem since the young woman has herself gone missing, with neither the head of her archaeological dig nor that of Colin’s knowing the couple’s whereabouts. With Pete’s fate in the capable hands of the savvy and deceptively ruthless lawyer Robin Cross, Claudia takes the next flight out to Egypt for the trip of dreams that has become a nightmare.
Bookended with Pete’s murder case, the center of this novel is a thriller that hurtles through the exquisite cities of Egypt, Italy, and London. Chapters alternate between Monica’s harrowing adventures and Claudia’s attempt to track her down, using the skills she has learned through her profession and past investigation. A renowned forensic handwriting expert, Claudia is able to use her analysis of handwriting to detect not just to authenticate signatures but to diagnose personalities and physical ailments. Her husband, homicide detective Joel Jovanic, remains at home to advise and lend his own professional support, but it’s truly Monica and Claudia who propel the action as they come up against illegal artifact sales, the pillaging of excavations, and the bureaucracy of international investigations. Monica is a chip off of her aunt’s block as they both outmaneuver thugs and preserve priceless treasures.
Readers who adore the works by mystery author and archaeologist Elizabeth Peters will adore this eighth installment of the forensic handwriting series, which highlights the amazing aspects of forensic handwriting and illegal artifact sales. An additional plot twist amps up the action and the threats, compelling readers to read through the night to the last page. Extraordinary heroines, fascinating handwriting analysis, and thrilling action make this a standout of the series.
Interview with Sheila Lowe:
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Sheila: I started writing stories when I was fourteen. I was a Beatlemaniac and I wrote about being married to Ringo (!).
KRL: How fun! When did your first novel come out, what was it called, and would you tell us a little about it?
Sheila: Poison Pen was published in 2006 by a small startup press called Capital Crime. Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review and called it a “Dynamite debut.” That brought it to the attention of an editor at Penguin, who re-released it under their Obsidian imprint, followed by the next three. Poison Pen introduces Claudia Rose, a forensic handwriting examiner, and LAPD homicide detective, Joel Jovanic, who becomes her love interest.
Here’s the description:
Can handwriting be faked to make murder look like suicide? When Claudia’s old enemy, Hollywood agent Lindsey Alexander, is found dead in her hot tub, police rule it a suicide. But Lindsey’s business partner isn’t buying it and hires Claudia to analyze the handwriting in the note found near her body. When she uncovers evidence of Lindsey’s secret second business, this twisty tale entangles Claudia in a far darker scenario than she bargained for.
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense and if not, what else have you written?
Sheila: As a professional handwriting analyst, I wrote many nonfiction articles and monographs about handwriting psychology. My first two published books were nonfiction on that topic, as well as four subsequent ones. I’ve also published two titles in the Beyond the Veil series, the second of which, Proof of Life, is paranormal suspense.
KRL: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series?
Sheila: My new book, Dead Letters, takes Claudia from Egypt to Gibraltar to the UK when she goes on a desperate hunt for her young niece. Eighteen-year-old Monica has gone missing from an archaeological dig site with a young man whose shady past spills into the present. Unexpectedly, Claudia’s skills as a forensic handwriting examiner are needed to help Britain’s MI6 foil a deadly terrorist plot in which Monica may become a casualty.
I’ve always been fascinated with Egypt and wanted to use it in a book. Then, I went on a genealogical trip to Gibraltar, where my great-great-grandmother was born, and to England, where I was born, and decided to combine them into a story. I really loved writing this one.
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to experience from your work?
Sheila: My platform is handwriting analysis, and readers often say they learn a lot about what handwriting can reveal about personality. In fact, they complain when they think I don’t put enough handwriting in the books. In Dead Letters, several people have also commented on what they learned about ancient Egypt, so I consider that a bonus.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just work whenever you can?
Sheila: Hah! I am fairly undisciplined, so no, there is no schedule. I make my living as a forensic handwriting examiner, so any work on my desk must come first. I tend to spend a fair amount of time on email and social media, and by mid-late evening I realize I’d better get something written, so I often work until about 1:00 a.m.
KRL: What is your ideal time to write?
Sheila: That depends on whether I have a deadline. My routine is to spend the first two hours of the day on email/social media/banking/working the L.A. Times crossword/breakfast, household chores, in that order. Not so sure it’s ‘ideal,’ but it’s rare for me to start writing before 2 p.m. and often much later.
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?
Sheila: I do outline. I once tried “pantsing” it, but when I suddenly realized that my publisher’s deadline was hot on my heels and I only had five chapters done, I had to start over and make an outline. I use the 3-act structure and draw a graph of the rising and falling tension, noting the plot points that need to occur, and where they come in the story.
Now, having said that, let me assure you, the outline is loose, and it changes. Once I’ve written it, though, I may never refer to it until the book is written and I check it over to make sure I covered everything I wanted to. It’s mainly to get the story fixed in my head. I use a spreadsheet to list the scenes, but before I get that far, I write them out longhand in a spiral notebook, with a paragraph on each scene. Then I write them on index cards that can be shuffled around – not that I bother. By that time, I am ready to start writing. My spreadsheet also has a page for character names and notes.
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Sheila: I could write a book titled ‘My Tortuous Path to Publication.’ Since I had two well-received nonfiction books that had required relatively little effort to get published, I assumed (always a bad idea) fiction would be the same. What I failed to take realize was, the two genres are totally different, and I had a lot to learn about fiction writing. It took about seven years to get Poison Pen published, even after it won in a mystery competition. Yes, getting published was very difficult, and the subject of an entire lecture I’ve presented.
KRL: Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
Sheila: You can judge how ‘great’ it is, but it was at least ironic. I entered Poison Pen in the 2000 Southwest Writers Conference contest, mystery category. When it came in third out of 97 entries, I just knew I would be published instantly! Wrong.
Part of the prize was to be seated at the banquet with the late Sara Ann Freed, head editor at Mysterious Press, and Tom Colman, head editor at Berkeley Prime Crime. They were both charming and said to send them the rest of the book, as the contest required only the first 20 pages. Sara Ann had written a critique that said she loved my characters and called them “slightly over the top in a Jackie Collins kind of way,” (which had not been my intention). Several months later, when I wrote to ask the status of the book, she wrote back to say that she didn’t like the characters. Go figure.
Tom presented the book to his editorial committee on two occasions, and they liked the story, but said the writing “wasn’t strong enough.” It took another six years and numerous rejections to understand what that meant. Once I got it and fixed it, another Penguin imprint bought the first four books in the series.
KRL: Most interesting book signing story-in a bookstore or other venue?
Sheila: At one small venue in Malibu I was surprised by a (legit) film producer. He had seen a notice in the local paper and attended the signing because he was interested in selling my series to TV or movie. Since then, I’ve had two other producers interested, but I’m still waiting for Hollywood to call.
Here’s another experience that might be considered ‘interesting.’ Long ago, I was on my first book tour through several states. Events had (supposedly) been booked by a publicist who shall remain nameless. Several frustrating stops into the tour – bookstores not prepared for me; had done no advertising; didn’t have books; located me upstairs in the back, next to the children’s section, etc. – I arrived at a confirmed location on a Saturday afternoon to find the “indy” store dark and closed. A notice was posted, stating there had been a death in the family. I was feeling terrible for the family when the owner, who was inside, saw me at the door and invited me in.
The death that had shut down my event was their potbellied pig. As a pet owner, I know firsthand what a tremendous loss that is. However – and maybe it’s just me – I would have arranged for someone else to open the store. I’d traveled 1000 miles to be there. At the very least, I couldn’t help wondering why the bookstore owner or the publicist hadn’t given me the courtesy of a heads-up phone call (this was before social media). Happily, I got a better publicist and better results the next time.
These days, and especially in the time of covid, I do lots of events online. But with so many people in California vaccinated, I was delighted to hold an in-person launch party for Dead Letters outdoors on the huge and gorgeous patio at Orozco’s de Ventura Mexican restaurant. About ninety people shared terrific food, great prizes, networking, and books galore – I invited two other local authors to sell their wares, too. I spent so much time signing books that I didn’t have time to visit with anyone (or eat, lol) – that’s a good thing! Everyone enjoyed themselves, and that makes me happy.
KRL: What are your future writing goals?
Sheila: To sell 8 million books :-). I’m not picky! That includes print, ebooks, and audiobooks.
KRL: Who are your writing heroes?
Sheila: John Sandford is my very favorite author because his characters are so real. Tami Hoag, Tess Gerritsen, Deborah Crombie, Jonathan Kellerman, Robert Crais. There are less-well known writers that I’ve come to know personally and admire, including members of my original critique group: Gwen Freeman, Robert Fate, and Bruce Cook. And later critique group members who published: Peter Sexton, Barbara Petty.
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
Sheila: Much is geographical. YouTube is really helpful. In my acknowledgments, I always include those who have posted videos that allowed me to ‘visit’ other places in ways that only the feel of the breeze and the aromas are missing. For example, I found some videos of people driving in Luxor, where part of Dead Letters is set, and was able to see much of what Claudia sees when she goes there. In another of my books, there is a storyline about a microchip that’s embedded in someone’s brain. I found a lot of fascinating material about that. Did you know the army was experimenting on such chips in the 1970s? I didn’t. Stuff like that.
KRL: What do you like to read?
Sheila: I tend to read in a fairly narrow range of books like the ones I write, psychological suspense, police procedural, legal, and medical. In nonfiction, I read spiritual (not religious) books about life after earth.
KRL: What are your favorite TV shows or movies?
Sheila: Aside from some MSNBC shows, the only TV I watch regularly is Grey’s Anatomy. Lately, though, I’ve binged on Manifest. I also loved Dead to Me, Ricky Gervais’ Life After Death, Sex Education, The Kominsky Method, and Atypical.
KRL: Have you any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Sheila: Learn the craft, read lots of books about writing; take classes, attend conferences. Hire an editor in your genre before you submit anything to an agent or publisher, and then listen objectively to their advice. If you don’t agree with it, get a second opinion, but not your mother or your best friend. If two or more people say the same things, they are probably correct. And cut out most of the adverbs – that’s what I learned about what not being ‘strong enough’ means. Adverbs weaken the writing and are lazy. That’s part of “show, don’t tell.”
KRL: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Sheila: One son is a tattoo artist and the other is a pop star in Europe. Many people know that my daughter was killed by her boyfriend in 2000, but they might not know that she is still active in my life from the spirit world – thus, my interest in writing about those themes in Proof of Life.
KRL: Wow that is all fascinating! Pets?
Sheila: Lexie the Evil Cat. Though now she’s nine, some of the evil has faded.
KRL: Is there anything you would like to add?
Sheila: Writing is hard. Selling your writing to a publisher is harder. Marketing it once it’s in print is the hardest of all. Unless you’re writing just for fun, which is okay, you are wasting your time publishing if you don’t spend time, energy, and some money on marketing. And even if you are published by one of the big houses, don’t expect them to do much marketing for you. These days, authors are required to do most of their own publicity. And that’s a whole topic by itself.
KRL: Website? Twitter? Facebook?
Sheila: Books: www.sheilalowebooks.com
Handwriting Analysis: www.sheilalowe.com
YouTube Channel: https://bit.ly/3lfPUc7
To enter to win an ebook copy of Dead Letters, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “letters,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen September 4, 2021. 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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