by Sandra Murphy
This week we have a review of Secret Lives By Mark de Castrique along with an interesting interview with Mark. 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.
Secret Lives by Mark de Castrique
Review by Sandra Murphy
Ethel is in her 70s, and runs a boarding house for federal agents temporarily assigned in Washington, DC. Jesse, her double-first-cousin-twice-removed, is staying with her while he attends college. He’s on a video chat with his girlfriend who’s out of the country when a noise loud enough to be an explosion happens right beneath his window. It wasn’t an explosion. It was gunshots. And a Secret Service agent is bleeding out on the sidewalk.
Jesse is astonished at Ethel’s transformation. Everything he thought he knew about her is wrong. She had already called for an ambulance and police, told him how to apply pressure to the wound, and knew when the agent died. She analyzed the evidence, told Jesse what to say and do, then called the head of the Secret Service, and let the police think she was overcome by what happened. That was an excuse to go back into the house to search the agent’s room before the police can get to it.
Ethel finds a duffle bag full of cash under the bed and puts it in her room until she can figure out what was really going on.
Jesse’s assaulted, the money goes missing, there’s the message the agent whispered before he died, something about crypto currency, and that’s just the beginning.
Ethel is not just someone you’d like as a friend but someone you’d like to be when you are heading into your 70s. There’s nothing feeble about her although she can give that impression when needed. Jesse is continually surprised as all his preconceived ideas about older women are turned upside down.
There’s action, humor, clues, and red herrings enough to keep you turning the pages faster and faster to find out what happens next while not wanting the story to end. De Castrique says a chance remark from a stranger on a plane gave him the idea for the storyline. I’m glad it did. This is a book I’ll read again and again. De Castrique has written several series but this is the first book for Ethel.
I hope there’s a second book, followed by many more, and soon. I know Ethel has a lot more stories to tell. This is sure to be on my Best of List for this year.
Interview with Mark de Castrique:
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Mark: I started writing mystery novels in the mid-1990s. These were “learning experiences” as I went through three or four manuscripts that now reside on a floppy disk somewhere in the attic.
KRL: When did your first novel come out, what was it called, and would you tell us a little about it?
Mark: My first novel, DANGEROUS UNDERTAKING, came out in 2003. The main character, Barry Clayton, has returned home to a small town in the Western North Carolina mountains to run the family funeral home. His father developed early onset Alzheimer’s and Barry had to give up his career in law enforcement to keep the business running.
However, crime happens in small towns and Barry finds himself immersed in a murder case when a distraught relative appears at a funeral and guns down his siblings before escaping. What or rather who drove the young man to commit the deadly rampage? And why did he also target Barry, wounding him with a final shot that almost sent Barry to his own funeral home? There are seven books in the series and things are always lively at the funeral home.
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense and if not, what else have you written?
Mark: My career has been in broadcasting and film production, so I have experience producing and writing video projects. It’s storytelling, whether with a camera or a pen, and I think documentary writing and novel writing complement one another.
KRL: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series?
Mark: My latest book, SECRET LIVES, is set in the Washington, DC area. The character, ex-FBI agent Ethel Fiona Crestwater rents rooms in her house to Secret Service and FBI agents on temporary assignment in DC. Whereas most of my other books are set in the Appalachian Mountains and the city of Asheville, Ethel dictated that the story be in DC.
So, setting grew out of character. That character evolved out of a conversation on a plane with a woman who was going to visit her great aunt who rented out rooms to government law enforcement agents. I thought that was an intriguing character, especially if I made her ex-FBI and that she had been renting rooms for over fifty years, including fellow agents who are now high up in the governmental hierarchy. Ethel’s a real pistol and I’ve enjoyed getting to know her.
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to experience from your work?
Mark: I would like for readers to be entertained but also learn something in the process. If I’m going to be working on a story for a year or so, it has to be interesting to me or it won’t be interesting to readers. Ethel’s plot line involves the darker side of cryptocurrency. Other stories bring to light Asheville’s history of once being the headquarters for the largest fascist organization in the nation. Others are of freed slaves after the Civil War setting up a commune in the North Carolina mountains ruled by a king and queen – or the dangers posed by Artificial Intelligence.
Mystery writer Margaret Maron observed that there is no topic or theme that can’t be explored in a mystery novel. I think she’s right. You just don’t want those other dimensions to get in the way of the entertainment experience.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just work whenever you can?
Mark: I really just work when I can. Everything winds up on my computer, but I alternate between working on a laptop and using a fountain pen in a journal. The nice thing about pen and paper is I can have them with me and take advantage of any opportunity (like waiting in a doctor’s office) to at least write down some ideas if not work directly on a manuscript.
KRL: What is your ideal time to write?
Mark: I write around my other job commitments, and I probably write more frequently in the afternoons. I like to stop when I know exactly what’s going to happen next so that I can quickly gain momentum when I return to the manuscript.
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?
Mark: I don’t fully outline. I have a general idea of where the story needs to be going, and so I’ll “outline” a few chapters ahead. The process for me is one of discovery, finding the story in ways I couldn’t have if I’d created a detailed outline. The characters have things to say that I wouldn’t know in an outline. That’s the fun part for me.
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Mark: It took almost a decade and several manuscripts before I was published, but I enjoy writing, and although no one likes rejections. I kept writing and reading. I also went to grad school in English at an age that made me older than most of my professors. I was interested in narrative theory and how a story is told. Aristotle became a good friend, and I still read his Poetics from time to time.
KRL: Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
Mark: When I did receive an acceptance, it was from Poisoned Pen Press. I had sent them a manuscript that had a personal rejection from Editor-in-Chief Barbara Peters. She said the manuscript wasn’t right for them, gave me a few suggestions for other publishers, and said she would be interested in seeing something else from me. That was definitely encouragement, and because I had proceeded to write a sequel to an unsold manuscript, I quickly submitted the second book.
The response was another rejection but with a recommendation: would I think about combining story elements from both books into one, and would I be willing to work with one of their editors during the process? Of course, I said “Yes”! DANGEROUS UNDERTAKING was the first of twenty-one books with Poisoned Pen Press. They’ve been a great partner.
KRL: Most interesting book signing story-in a bookstore or other venue?
Mark: I guess my most interesting bookstore event was meeting the woman who wheeled my mother into the maternity ward the night I was born. She is in her eighties now, but as a high school student, she’d been working at the small mountain hospital as a volunteer, a “candy striper” back then. I guess you could say she was at the start of my story.
KRL: What are your future writing goals?
Mark: I like what I heard or read was another author’s goal: to write a good book. A good book was defined as a book someone would read again even knowing how it ended!
KRL: Who are your writing heroes?
Mark: There are so many that I’m doing a disservice not mentioning more of them. In the mystery field, I’d highlight Michael Connelly, Anthony Horowitz, and Louise Penny. I always enjoy David Rosenfeld’s Andy Carpenter series, and I’m very impressed with Richard Osman and his Thursday Murder Club.
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
Mark: My research is usually just enough to launch the story. If it involves history, then I try to learn everything about the historical person or event. If it involves police procedure or the culture of a place or business, I try to learn enough to know I’ve created plausible circumstances. I’ll often write the way I’d like something to go, and then research it for veracity or come up with a reason why something happened in a different way.
KRL: What do you like to read?
Mark: I like a variety of books. I’m in a book club and find it invaluable because it makes me read books I otherwise might not have considered. Fiction, non-fiction, it doesn’t matter as long as it is an engaging story. I also enjoy listening to books and find the narrators often enhance the written word through their performances
KRL: What are your favorite TV shows or movies?
Mark: During the era of Covid, my wife and I binged so many British mysteries that we started speaking with British accents. There are so many good crime dramas being produced that the international diversity is amazing, not only from the U.S. and U.K. but also Nordic, French, Italian, Australian, and many other countries. It’s a golden age for streaming.
KRL: Have you any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Mark: The best advice I can give is write and read. Be persistent and don’t get discouraged. If you enjoy writing, you’ll do so whether publishing comes soon, late, or not at all. Look for patterns in critiques you might receive. Let criticism energize you and not discourage you, and continue writing, whether your muse is with you or she’s AWOL.
KRL: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Mark: Early in my career, when I was a TV director, I used to direct professional wrestling – Shakespearean drama at its finest! Also, I directed the pool feed from outside the White House the night President Nixon announced his resignation. I also play the banjo badly.
KRL: Do you have any pets?
Mark: We are dog people and have had five over the years. Currently, Grady, the spoiled miniature schnauzer, is my writing partner. He shares my office although he doesn’t contribute much in the way of plotting.
KRL: Is there anything you would like to add?
Mark: Thanks for the opportunity to talk about books and writing. I hope readers will give Ethel Fiona Crestwater a try, and you can find me online at www.markdecastrique.com and at @markdecastrique on Facebook and Twitter.
To enter to win a copy of Secret Lives, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “secret,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen October 15, 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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