by Kathleen Costa
This week we have a review of the latest mystery by Anna Celeste Burke, and an interesting interview with Anna. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win an ebook or print copy of A Dead Cousin, and a link to purchase it from Amazon.
A Dead Cousin: A Jessica Huntington Desert Cities Mystery
Review by Kathleen Costa
“Life’s an extravaganza! You can never tell what’s coming next. Figuring out how to hang tough and make the most of the wild ride is our greatest challenge and always an adventure.”
—Quote from Anna Celeste Burke’s website Desert Cities Mysteries
In 2013, Anna Celeste Burke first introduced her Jessica Huntington Desert Cities Mystery series with A Dead Husband. Set in marvelous Palm Springs, we meet thirty-something Jessica Huntington dealing with a struggling law career along with more than a few personal tragedies. She heads to the home in which she grew up, and surrounded by the beauty of the desert, she finds murders also have taken refuge among the blooming cacti. She discovers she has an amateur talent partnered with her “cat pack.” The series is somewhat unique in that the crime is very personal to someone, and in some way personal to Jessica. It gives her an emotional connection. Very engaging!
A Dead Cousin earns 5/5 Deadly Abductions…Engaging, Clever!
“They took him away!” An exciting read from fav author Anna Celeste Burke who brings fans a clever, entertaining mystery! Jessica is reveling in the idea that life has calmed down…then she is awoken by a phone call. Detective Frank Fontana’s daughter Evie calls, hiding in the closet, whispering her dad has been abducted. From there Jessica, joined by family and the “Cat Pack” group, follows clues, some leading to peril, to discover corruption, deception, questionable activities, missing money, and…murder! As a standalone in the series there are enough references to background and character connection to engage any newbie, but it is the fifth book, so life has moved on and characters are established. Anna’s first-person narrative provides excellent descriptions along with Jessica’s inner thoughts, and her dialogue illustrates tone, personality, and emotion. Together her writing makes this a real page-turner! But it’s not all nail-biting “Watch out!” screams, there are sprinkles of humor that will allow you to catch your breath. I thoroughly enjoyed this newest book. Jessica is engaging and clever, the sidekicks are a “kick,” the mystery is contemporary, and recipes! There’s a mini cookbook included with several entree options (one Vegan, one breakfast), a variety of rice and quinoa sides, and Salted Caramel Turtle Brownies desserts!
Be a Big Fan!
Anna Celeste Burke also pens two other very entertaining series that should not be missed. The Georgie Shaw Mystery follows a delightful middle-aged dynamo who is the public relations exec for Catmmando Tom, the cartoon figure and iconic figure at Marvelous Marley World. But Anna adds a bit of humor in the face of disaster…and murder! In the Corsario Cove, set on the California Coast, we are engaged with Kim and Brien, a younger married couple, who along with surfing find themselves investigating murder. All three series offer different aged characters and different settings, but include the same well-written adventure, humor, and realism. You’ll be hooked, too.
Like, Visit, and Follow, Oh, my!
Facebook – Anna Celeste Burke
Website – Desert Cities Mystery/Anna Celeste Burke
Twitter – @aburke59
Our Guest…Anna Celeste Burke, USA Today & Wall Street Journal Bestselling author of the Jessica Huntington Desert Cities Mystery series
KRL: It is great to have with us Anna Celeste Burke, author of the very entertaining Jessica Huntington Desert Cities Mystery series, celebrating the new release of the fifth book, A Dead Cousin. Can you give us a mini biography for Anna Celeste Burke? Who is she and what influenced her to become a writer?
Anna: I was an early reader so I’m sure my interest in writing stemmed from reading so many wonderful books. I vividly remember how delighted I was to receive my first library card. We didn’t have much money to buy books, and I couldn’t believe the library let me leave with a stack of books. Not to mention, I could come back and get more!
To be honest, I had a bad experience with a high school composition course and never considered writing as a career. Instead, I backed into writing for a living when I chose a career as a professor and research scientist. It was my second year in graduate school that I realized writing was an integral part of the career I’d chosen. One of my mentors made that very clear when I was struggling with an assignment. His advice: “Just write the story your data are telling us.”
Writing fiction came later in my career when I discovered that making stuff up was even more fun than scientific and technical writing. It was a great hobby until I retired from The Ohio State University and moved to the beautiful Coachella Valley near Palm Springs. Five years ago, I began writing the first book in the Jessica Huntington Desert Cities Mystery series and I was hopelessly hooked on writing mystery fiction.
KRL: Is there a reason you chose to write in the cozy mystery genre? What is it about cozies that interested you?
Anna: Many of the books I read as I grew up were mysteries—starting with children’s books like Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and Trixie Belden. Those were all “gently told” mysteries. I read voraciously in all sorts of genres—Science Fiction, Horror, Fantasy, Mystery, Suspense, and Thrillers as well as lots of nonfiction. The mystery genre is my favorite.
What I enjoy about the cozy mystery subgenre is the lighthearted nature of the storytelling. Murder and mayhem—often heinous crimes—are set out as puzzles to be solved—whodunit and why? The lightheartedness appeals to me more than stories that aim to shock or that resort to the “gross out” as Stephen King has admitted to doing.
I also enjoy mysteries that are told with irony and humor. I love how Miss Marple handles the know-it-all constables she encounters, although when I read Agatha Christie’s books they were just mysteries to me. It wasn’t until more recently that I became aware of the distinction between cozy and other forms of mystery writing.
I love the fact that Christie’s sleuths don’t escape her deft application of humor either. Christie’s portrayal of the persnickety Hercule Poirot is written with her tongue placed firmly in her cheek as he blusters his way through a case. I read once that Christie claimed Poirot was fashioned after her second husband. Maybe that’s why her humor always seems to belie a fondness for Poirot foibles and all. Poirot’s endlessly patient sidekick, Hastings, doesn’t escape Christie’s comedic streak either.
In the Jessica Huntington series there’s a good deal of suspense as I drop my accidental sleuth into one tangled web of deceit after another. I like to use humor to lighten and liven things up as she and her friends face intrigue and deceit. Because I feature women sleuths in the series I write, romance always finds its way into the stories, too.
KRL: A Dead Husband (2013) was the first book in the Jessica Huntington Mystery series. Then “A Dead Sister” (2014), A Dead Daughter (2015), A Dead Mother (2017), and now A Dead Cousin (2018) round out an engaging set. Can you give us some insights into how the series started? How does the Desert Cities setting define your story? How many more relatives will highlight Jessica’s investigations?
Anna: The Jessica Huntington Desert Cities Mystery series was my first series. It’s set here in the California desert near Palm Springs, which for much of the year passes as something akin to an earthly paradise. The area has attracted more than its share of moguls, movie stars, pop stars, and presidents. I thought it would be interesting to put a member of the monied class in paradise and run her ragged.
Jessica Huntington, an unconventional sleuth with a shopping addiction and panic disorder is a child of wealth and privilege. As she hurtles toward midlife she suddenly finds she’s become a calamity magnet—beginning with the ruthless betrayal by her would-be “master of the universe” husband. Jessica tries to buy her way out of trouble, but she soon learns that money can’t buy happiness or save her neck.
A little spoiled, and way in over her head when she takes up sleuthing, Jessica’s got a heart of gold. Loyal to her friends, resourceful, and intent on overcoming her bad habits, she’s on a mission: If money doesn’t make you happy, what does? Part of the answer to that question is seeking justice for her friends, family members, and clients who fall prey to the well-heeled heels who move in their social circles.
During her initial bumbling as an accidental sleuth, Jessica learns tons about what really matters—at least enough to ask good questions about what life means. One of the luxuries of writing a series is the long “character arc” it provides. The five books give Jessica and her friends the opportunity to grow and develop as characters and hone their skills as sleuths.
A cozy mystery series featuring murder and mayhem involving family members is rooted in another tradition inspired by Agatha Christie. Family problems often figure prominently in her tales of murder and mystery—in particular, in the families born to wealth and privilege that Miss Marple steps in to investigate. And, as Jessica points out in her encounter with one of the many detectives who want her to butt out, “It’s not a body, Detective. It’s a somebody.” Every dead body in a mystery is a somebody—someone’s friend or relative. For Jessica Huntington it’s always personal.
Next up, in A Dead Nephew, Jessica has a very curious mystery on her hands. The case of “A Dead Nephew” is dropped into Jessica’s lap by one of the detectives who’s figured out she and her friends possess more than a few skills as investigators. Here’s a snippet that sets up the next book.
“Jessica, I hate to talk about business, but I could use your help.”
“What kind of business?” I asked.
“A legal matter. I have an odd situation with a case I thought I’d closed. The whole case was a strange one from the beginning. There’s a young man in lock up who’s about to go to prison for murder. He was underage when he supposedly committed the murder. The evidence points to him, and his lawyer got him a plea deal that reduced the charges from first to second degree murder. Because he was a minor, the court also showed some leniency when he was sentenced.” The detective paused and took a sip of the beer she was holding.
“Okay, what’s odd about the case?”
“I got a call from the murdered man’s aunt. She claims, we’ve got it all wrong—Louie Jacobs—the guy who’s going to prison—didn’t kill her nephew.”
“It’s uncommon for a relative of the victim to come to the defense of a convicted perpetrator, but it does happen.”
“I know, but it’s even odder than that. Auntie claims she knows who’s really responsible for her nephew’s death.”
“Great! If she has evidence to back up her claim, get it, and haul the real killer in for questioning. Who does she say the guilty party is?”
“This is where it goes past odd to weird. She says it’s ‘The Cleaner Man,’ and he’s done it before.” The skeptical expression I wore got a nod from the detective. “That’s exactly what I expected to see if I went to anyone else with my concerns. I was hoping you’d keep an open mind and check it out before dismissing the woman completely. Given the way you found Scott Bender, I thought you’d have an inside track. The dead nephew is a local tribal member.”
KRL: Your bio mentions your credentials earning you “Dr. Anna Celeste Burke” title. In what way does this background help or hinder your writing?
Anna: As a graduate student and professor, you’re expected to write and publish to get and keep a job. My first book length manuscript was a dissertation about the changing drug and alcohol treatment policy in the United States. Sounds scintillating, doesn’t it?
In the “publish or perish” university environment I gained plenty of experience writing. Some of that came with the pressure of meeting deadlines, with tons of criticism, and rejection. Acceptance rates at the top journals are always low and I got plenty of experience handling rejection or rewriting an article to address criticism from editors and peer reviewers. All that experience was helpful and a tougher hid is useful in the world of fiction writing.
While on balance I believe I became a better writer over the years, the style of writing was very formal. In science you often condition every statement—softening the claims you make about a discovery. I’ve had to loosen up and learn to write without all the ifs, ands, or buts that are expected in scientific and technical writing. There are some other stylistic issues that are different, too, between the nonfiction writing I learned and the fiction I write now.
I find it interesting that many of the questions I had that drove me to become a professor still filter through into my mysteries. My interests in mental health problems, drug and alcohol addiction, family dysfunction, as well as resilience, coping, and recovery still pop up again and again in my fiction. Figuring out whodunit raises similar questions about the motives behind murder and mayhem that intrigued me as a professor.
KRL: The characters you’ve created are so universal. They could be our neighbors, shop owners, family. Do you have a personal connection to any of them? Can we find you in Jessica or one of the other characters? Did you write your characters by taking real-life people and “changing the names to…,” you get my drift?
Anna: My characters always possess elements of real people I’ve known. That’s even true of my villains. Snippets of dialogue are real—some of it borrowed from people I know and some of it overheard while standing in line at Walmart or the airport.
I have a real fondness for Jessica’s surrogate mother, Bernadette. She reminds me a little of a woman who took me under her wing when I started working at Walt Disney World. I was a babe in the woods, at 18, and a bit of worry wart, like Jessica. My “surrogate mother” had a tender heart, a raucous sense of humor, and a no-nonsense demeanor like Jessica’s beloved Bernadette.
I’ve felt like a “calamity magnet” at times, and I’m anxiety-prone, so I share those qualities with Jessica. I’ve never had the Black Amex card she carries, but I wish I did! I love extravaganzas and it would be wonderful to take a boatload of friends on a luxury cruise—including a few of my author and reader pals!
KRL: Along with the five books in the series, you have a prequel story Love, A Foot Above the Ground that is said to be great “for fans” of Jessica Huntington. Can you give some background and insights into this book? What does the future hold for Jessica?
Anna: Love a Foot Above the Ground is a tribute to Bernadette who started life out in Mexico. In Baja, to be more specific, and in a little town called San Felipe. I visited San Felipe many, many times while growing up in San Diego. The place was beautiful, a little exotic, and very romantic. At twelve, I had my first serious crush on a boy who was visiting from San Diego with his family.
The setting is a backdrop in to the story of how Bernadette became the remarkable woman she is and how she ended up in Southern California. At nine, Jessica wondered if Bernadette had ever been in love. Bernadette answers that question in the book that’s sweet, tragic, mysterious, and I hope ultimately uplifting. Not all of us are able to find a real “happily ever after” like Bernadette, but then they don’t call her “St. Bernadette” without reason! This book focuses on Bernadette’s backstory, but it also reveals how the bond was formed between Bernadette and Jessica years before the series starts with “A Dead Husband.”
KRL: You also pen the engaging three-book Corsario Cove Cozy Mystery series and my favorite the six-book Georgia Shaw Mysteries. With three series to manage, do you any special tricks to keep things straight? What’s the “Dr. Anna Technique” for writing: schedule, outlines vs post-it notes, or just type?
Anna: I use timelines and spreadsheets to try to keep tabs on the timing of events as well as characters and their characteristics. Timelines are especially important in stories where events happened decades ago. That’s because it’s easy to forget that “earbuds” are new, and hard to remember when smartphones, the Internet, and Facebook became part of our life. Timelines are also useful in tracking what happened when in a murder investigation. Keeping tabs on the whereabouts of the Cat Pack members and suspects is a little easier with a timeline, too.
I use spread sheets to record information about the physical characteristics of the characters in the book. Details, too, about their ages and backgrounds, education, occupation, family relationships get put into a spreadsheet, too. I can always refer to an earlier book when I can’t remember something—like all Jessica’s mother’s last names—but a spread sheet is often easier to use. Having said all this, I have made mistakes. Fortunately, my readers have set me straight and I’ve been able to fix the snafus!
KRL: I am blessed to be a member of “Anna’s ARC Angels,” getting all the news and advanced reader copies before the public. You’re adding Calla Lily Mystery to your group? Can you give us a peek?
Anna: I’m so excited to debut the Calla Lily Mystery series set in Northern California—wine country! I love the Napa and Sonoma Valley area that’s gorgeous and not far from one of my favorite cities, San Francisco! There’s something wild and romantic about a vineyard and the culture of wine and food that characterizes this area of California. Lillian Callahan grew up in the care of her beloved Aunt Lettie before she went off to school in LA and landed a spot in a long-running, daytime soap opera. When everything changes quite suddenly for Lily, she heads back to wine country and faces an unexpected homecoming. Here’s the tagline and blurb for Lily’s Homecoming Under Fire, Calla Lily Mystery #1.
In California’s wine country, someone wants Lily dead.
When Lily Callahan returns home to California’s wine country, sparks fly amid a hail of bullets as she and Deputy U.S. Marshall Austin Jennings take cover.
Money, fame, and love all come into play as motives when Lily and Austin try to find out who sent hired guns to kill Lily. The trouble begins soon after her beloved Aunt Lettie dies and leaves her estate to Lily—is it about the money?
Or, is life imitating art? Lily’s trouble-making character in a long-running TV soap was recently killed by a paid hitman. Is a crazed fan trying to end Lily’s life as well as her acting career? Did her agent borrow a page from the script after Lily dismissed him?
Lily’s surprised to find an old flame waiting for her when she returns home. Has he reached the point that if he can’t have her, nobody can? If it’s about an old love that’s become dangerous, the new one that propels Lily and Austin into each other’s arms won’t help.
Life in small town California wine country is a tangled vine of mystery, suspense, and intrigue.
Lily’s Homecoming Under Fire will be released as one of 21 brand new romantic suspense books in the “Love Under Fire Limited Edition Romantic Suspense Box Set.” I’m glad to be involved with this project since half of the profits from sales will go to the wonderful Pets for Vets organization. Lily’s Homecoming Under Fire will be released as a standalone book once the box set is unpublished. I already have plans for the next mystery involving Lily Callahan, Austin Jennings, Judy and Lily’s “diva posse” who will all be back in Buried Secrets, Tangled Vines Calla Lily Mystery #2.
KRL: We know you write, but do you get a chance to read? Is there another author who inspires you or one you might consider a professional or personal hero?
Anna: I have so many favorites. I’ve already mentioned Agatha Christie several times. She’s a truly amazing, pathbreaking author who still sets records as an all-time bestseller. I also enjoy reading books by authors with series featuring women sleuths like Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Jonnie Jacobs, and Rebecca Forster. I love the humor in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, and enjoy books by Mary Higgins Clark and Nora Roberts. David Baldacci’s political thrillers are great—my favorites feature the King and Maxwell team of investigators. Michele Maxwell is a flawed, complex character like my Jessica Huntington, although Michele Maxwell is darker and more angsty than Jessica. James Rollins’ books starring a team of sleuthing scientists are imaginative and engaging. There are so many in the cozy genre I don’t know where to start. I try to keep up with my productive colleagues by reading their new releases, but it’s tough!
KRL: So many authors say writing is all encompassing, and I know you “trained as a chef courtesy of the Walt Disney World University,” but do you have any passions or favorite hobbies you enjoy?
Anna: The job of an author is time consuming. Not just writing and editing but marketing the books I write requires hours and hours. You’ve got to pace yourself, though, since it’s an endurance run and not a sprint. Taking breaks to do other things is important!
I enjoy hiking here in the desert and in the surrounding mountains. I grew up in San Diego and spent many wonderful hours at the beach, body surfing, tide-pooling, and goofing off. I still love a long walk on the beach. I also enjoy visiting The Living Desert here in the Coachella Valley-part zoo, part botanical gardens.
Since San Diego and LA are only a couple of hours away I love visiting the zoos, museums, theaters, and galleries in those cities. The Getty Museum in LA is a favorite spot to visit and so is The San Diego Zoo.
When I’m homebound, I enjoy watching old movies, reruns of Murder She Wrote and Columbo, and mystery series on Acorn TV like The Murdoch Mysteries, Midsomer Murders, Vera, and others.
KRL: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Anna: I’m not sure I’ve mentioned this before, but even though I married a rock musician, I enjoyed other types of music too. In high school, at the urging of our wonderful choir director, I considered preparing for a career as an opera singer.
KRL: This has been great connecting with you. We’ve covered so many topics and had some fun, too. Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
Anna: I hope the upcoming rush of holidays bring a bundle of good things to everyone. It’s such a busy time I also hope we all set aside time to breathe—and read, of course, which is almost as essential as breathing, isn’t it?
KRL: Thank you, Anna, for joining us and sharing a little about yourself and your books.
Anna: Thank you, Kathleen, KRL, and all of you who took the time to drop by and join us!
To enter to win an ebook or print copy of A Dead Cousin, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “dead cousin,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen November 10, 2018. BE SURE TO STATE IF YOU WANT PRINT OR EBOOK. If entering via comment please include your email address, if entering via email be sure to include your mailing address if you prefer a print copy. You can read our privacy statement here if you like.
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