Monday, September 20, 2010

Interview with Mystery Author Debbi Mack

I'm thrilled to be posting this interview today with crime/mystery author Debbi Mack. I first met Debbi at a launch party and signing for the mystery anthology, Chesapeake Crimes: They Had it Comin'. We are two of the twenty authors with stories published in that fine collection of tantalizing tales. (Sorry, I couldn't help myself). Since then I have read her short story collection, Five Uneasy Pieces and popular hardboiled mystery novel, Identity Crisis and am now officially a fan.

K: Welcome Debbi. Thank you for doing this interview today. And congratulations on your success with Identity Crisis. You’ve been #1 in the Hardboiled category for Kindle books on Amazon for quite sometime now!

Debbi: Thanks, Karen! I really appreciate the opportunity to be interviewed here.

My novel hit #1 in the hardboiled mystery category in the Kindle Store at the most unexpected time. I was on vacation out West and hadn't been doing a lick of marketing or much online activity of any sort (something I usually do a little bit every day) for about a week and a half. We had free wi-fi in our motel room, so I figured I'd check on how my book was doing. I absolutely floored to see it had risen to #1 in that category among Kindle books. It was about a week later (August 13, to be exact – not that I'm keeping close track or anything – LOL) that the book first hit #1 in the hardboiled mystery category on all of Amazon. It's gone up and down at times, but for the most part it's managed to stay at the top of that category since then.

K: So tell me about Hardboiled mysteries. What is the style that generally classifies a piece of fiction as Hardboiled?

Debbi: When I think of hardboiled mystery, I tend to think of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the authors who set the standards for that genre. Generally, the protagonists are tough, cynical and are trying to do the "right" thing, according to their own moral code. The stories tend to involve gritty and often unpleasant realities, while the protagonists try to maintain their own standards of goodness in a less-than-perfect world. The standards set by Hammett and Chandler have been followed (and, in many cases, expanded upon to include non-white and female protagonists) by authors like Robert B. Parker, Robert Crais, Reed Farrel Coleman, Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Walter Mosley, Mercedes Lambert and many others.

K: What drew you to that genre?

Debbi: My introduction to the hardboiled mystery genre was through movies and television. I think my first exposure must have been the television show "Honey West." The very notion of a tough female private eye with a male sidekick and a really cool convertible was totally awe-inspiring to me as a child. I've always liked old movies like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon. While I was in college, I had the opportunity to take a couple of film classes, including one about films of the 1940s. I read up quite a bit on noir and got to see many of the classics, like Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce and some films that weren't mysteries as such, but dealt in hard decisions and a protagonist trying to uphold a personal credo in a situation in which the odds seemed to be stacked against them, such as High Noon or the Hitchcock classic Shadow of a Doubt (an Alfred Hitchcock film, in which a young woman's discovery that her beloved uncle may be a murderer is set against the backdrop of a small town in which things aren't quite as peaceful as they appear).

When I began reading the books making up the hardboiled mystery genre, I found I could easily relate to the protagonists. (Not sure what this says about me or my life, but it's probably nothing good. LOL) I thoroughly enjoyed the way the stories explored the gray areas between what's right and wrong and depicted the essentially good, if flawed, protagonist trying to navigate through the maze of choices, in an often corrupt world.

K: Sam McRae, the main character in Identity Crisis, is a female attorney. She’s a tough chick. Are very strong lead female characters in Hardboiled mysteries very common?

Debbi: Off-hand, I can't think of a mystery in that genre with a female lead character who isn't tough. Hardboiled mysteries involve tough situations, so if the protagonist isn't tough, she's not going to make a very satisfying heroine.

That said, I don't think the lead character has to be a superwoman. Usually, the lead characters in hardboiled mysteries are flawed in some way. In addition, female protagonists in this genre don't have to be completely stoic. In fact, I think I show a bit more of Sam's vulnerabilities and sensitive side in Least Wanted, the upcoming sequel to Identity Crisis.

K: You are an attorney, as is Sam McRae. I’m assuming you don’t have to do much legal research when writing her stories. Or am I wrong? Do you still find you still have to do a good amount of legal research?

Debbi: Believe it or not, being an attorney doesn't mean you don't have to do legal research. Quite the opposite, in fact. Since attorneys don't (and couldn't possibly) have every law and court decision memorized, attorneys have to do legal research and keep up to date on the latest interpretations of the law. Because I didn't do more than a handful of really minor criminal cases when I was practicing and identity theft was an emerging phenomenon when I wrote Identity Crisis, I actually had to do quite a bit of research, just to know what laws were in existence at that time. While I drew on some of my limited experiences with the criminal justice system in developing the story, there was plenty I didn't know about identity theft and theft in general. Not to mention the fact that the law is constantly changing – being amended and reinterpreted by the courts. Which means that whatever is true at the time you write the book may be completely different by the time it's actually published. So … you can try to get it right, but it may end up being different later. Makes you kind of wonder what's the point, right? I guess the point is that the law might not change or you might miss a small, but significant legal detail or customary practice, in which case you'll look kind of foolish (especially as a lawyer and one who should know better) if you get it wrong.

K: How about other types of research, such as forensics, or specifically in the case of Identity Crisis, the Mob. How do you get your information to write realistically in these areas?

Debbi: Ugh. Forensics. Now there's a topic I tend to avoid. It's not hard, actually, for me to write around the forensics, because Sam's an outsider and the cops aren't going to share a whole lot of that information with her. Bottom line: I keep forensic information to the bare minimum needed to tell the story. Which is to say, almost none.

As for the Mob, I did a little research on Mobs up in the New York City area, just to see if any of them were Greek. I wanted to choose an ethnic group other than Italians, because Italians have been so "done." And, I did manage to find a mention of Greek Mob activity up in New York.

Most of the rest of what I wrote about the Mob came from a combination of watching "The Wire," various movies (Midnight Run being one of them) and books (by authors like Elmore Leonard, for instance) and my own imagination. Short answer: I made it up. (smile)

K: What’s next for Sam? Is there another book in the works?

Debbi: Yes, the next book in the series is Least Wanted. In this book, Sam finds an odd link between two seemingly unrelated cases – one in which a black juvenile client from a bad neighborhood is accused of killing her mother and the other in which a white, middle-class client suspected of embezzling from a computer games company is arrested for killing his boss. Her investigation into these cases takes her into the seamy world of girl gangs and computer pornography. However, the real murderers are willing to use brute force to keep Sam from learning everything – and, as the body count grows, Sam races to find out who they are before she becomes the next victim. The book is scheduled to be published in late fall 2010.

K: You’ve also just released a collection of short stories, Five Uneasy Pieces, on Kindle. I just finished reading it myself, by the way, and loved it. How does short story writing differ for you from full length novel writing?

Debbi: First of all, thank you! I'm thrilled you enjoyed the stories. A good review is always a happy thing for any writer.

Short stories are definitely different. They require total economy of words and you have to keep them relatively simple. You can't have too many characters, too much backstory or lots of subplots in them.

I heard someone once make an analogy that went something like this: writing a novel versus a short story is like building a house as compared to a pup tent. That really sums up the major differences to me. A short story is spare, functional and gets to the point, without a lot of backstory or embellishment. That doesn't mean it can't have complications. I like to end my short stories (if at all possible) with some kind of twist. The twist is my attempt to provide the kind of emotional punch that I think the best short stories have.

K: Dare I ask if you have a favorite of the five?

Debbi: Well, you can ask … LOL! Wow. That really is a toughie. Naturally, I'm fond of "Deadly Detour," which was my first published fiction ever. However, I'm also tempted to pick "The Right to Remain Silent," because it was nominated for a Derringer. At the same time, "Sympathy for the Devil" was my attempt to do a kind parody of the hardboiled private eye novel by telling the story from the point of view of the (in this case, totally clueless) "femme fatale" client, which I couldn't recall ever seeing anyone do before, so I think it's my most experimental story. So, um … not sure I can pick a favorite, because I really do like all of them.

K: Would you be willing to give my readers an excerpt from one?

Debbi: Gladly! Here's an excerpt from "Sympathy for the Devil." In this story, the protagonist, Lainie Hastings, has been advised by her neighbor, Roz, to seek assistance from a private investigator to confirm whether or not her husband is cheating on her. Lainie is a trifle naïve, but not stupid. So, when she goes to meet the investigator, she isn't quite sure what to expect:

The morning I met the PI, I put on one of my best suits, the one I wore for interviews. It was tailored and flattering without, you know, going overboard. I pulled my long, blonde hair back into a barrette and put on some makeup. Not too much. Roz makes fun of me because, unlike her, I go light on cosmetics. She says I hide my assets. I just tell her I’m married. She laughs and lets it go.
The office was downtown, in a neighborhood that had seen better days. I might have been tempted to choose another PI in a better neighborhood, if I’d had any idea where else to go. Dreary neighborhood aside, I felt better going to someone recommended by a loyal friend like Roz.

Still, I wondered why anyone would have an office in such a depressed part of town. Maybe it was a way to maintain a low profile. Or pay low rent.

His office was in a four-story, brick building, wedged between a hardware store and a funeral parlor. The building directory listed “Greeley Investigations, Suite 23,” in white plastic letters. I noticed several other businesses which had “consulting” or “associates” in their names and little else to suggest what they were.

The stairs seemed dark and forbidding. I’d just read in Women’s World that a lot of rapes take place in dark stairwells. From the look of the place, I would have staked my last paycheck that at least one rape had taken place in the building. I opted for the elevator. The door slid open in slow motion. The ride to the second floor seemed to take forever. I could have run up and down the stairs twice and made a quick visit to the ladies in less time.

I got off and walked down a long hallway marked by identical doors. I stopped at “23,” nailed into the wood like an address on a house. A business card for “Greeley Investigations” was wedged in a metal frame beneath the number.

I walked in. To one side was an unoccupied desk across from a red vinyl sofa, a chair covered in worn, yellow fabric and a fake wood laminated coffee table.

The sofa vinyl made an audible “crunch” as I sat. My reading choices included Soldier of Fortune and Redbook. I picked up the latter and flipped through it. The inner office door opened.

“Mrs. Hastings?"

I looked up. A short, pudgy man in an ill-fitting gray suit filled the doorway. I could smell his sweat from the twenty feet or so separating us.


“I’m Hugo Greeley,” he said, looking me over. He didn’t budge or invite me in. He showed no interest in shaking my hand. I have to confess, the feeling was mutual.

“I’ll be with you in just a moment,” he said and closed the door again.

I checked my watch then turned to the book reviews and had déjà vu when I read the titles. Checking the date, I realized why. The issue was 10 years old.

The door opened. “All right, Mrs. Hastings, I’m ready for you now.”

I followed him in and sat in a straight-backed chair facing his desk. A small metal fan whirred from its perch on a corner file cabinet. The stale air reeked of cigar smoke and Scotch (my husband’s drink of choice too). Mr. Greeley lumbered over to the chair behind his desk and dropped into it. The springs squealed like a chorus of stuck pigs.

“What can I do for you?” he asked.

“It’s my husband,” I said. “I think he’s cheating on me.”

He smiled and leaned back in the chair. It groaned. “I see. What makes you think your husband is cheating on you?”

I told him about the late nights at work, Brant’s stonewalling, the mystery phone calls and Ed’s refusal to talk about it.

Mr. Greeley nodded. “Anything else?”

“Well ... no.”

“That’s not much to go on, is it, Mrs. Hastings?” He cocked his head to one side.

“Surely, there’s more to it than that.”

Aside from Roz’s insight, I had nothing specific to go on. It was more of a feeling.
For some time things had been cooling off between Ed and me. Not that Ed had ever been terribly warm. We rarely spoke, and our sex life had waned. I managed to coax Ed out of complacency every two or three weeks. My self-esteem had eroded to a nub.
I’ve always been self-conscious about my looks. Not that I’m ugly—quite the opposite. People don’t take me seriously because of my appearance, and that hurts. But I’ve always had what it takes to please a man in bed.

In the bedroom, Ed deigned to perform with a kind of military efficiency, like he was doing push-ups. I’ve learned over time how many pumps it will take, plus or minus ten. There was no way I would discuss this with a stranger.

“I just know,” I said after a while. “A wife ... knows.”

“Yeah,” he said. “So I’ve heard.” He looked me over. “How long you been married?”

“Twelve years.”


I shrugged. “Not unhappy.”

“And your husband is a man of means?”

I looked at him. “You mean rich? He makes a good living, but I wouldn’t call us rich.”

“What’s he do?”

“He’s an actuary with Fidelity Insurance.”

“Good paying gig.” Mr. Greeley tortured the chair some more with his fidgeting.

“That’s a handsome suit. Very tasteful. Your husband must do well to buy you such nice clothes.”

I regretted having worn it. He would probably charge me more than his usual fee.

“I wear this for interviews. I’ve been looking for a job for several months.”

“A job?” He seemed surprised.

“Yes, I’m out of work. My last employer laid me off.”

“What did you do?”

“I was an administrative assistant at Sartwell Sausages.”

“Sausages, eh?” He smiled again. “Funny thing about sausages. You can hide all sorts of funny stuff in them. Dirty stuff.”

“Not if you follow FDA guidelines.”

He let go an artificial laugh. “The schoolgirl act is wearing thin, Mrs. Hastings.”

“I don’t understand.”

“The quiet voice. The prim manner. I get the feeling there’s a bit more to you than meets the eye.”

Feeling intimidated, I was speaking softly, even for me. I was wary, maybe even scared. Still I wondered if he could see that I was more than just a pretty face. I blushed. His compliment made me think that there might be something more to him than met my eye. Maybe he was more than just a smelly, fat, poorly dressed gnome.

“I appreciate that, Mr. Greeley.”

“Sure, Mrs. Hastings. Like I’m sure you’d appreciate catching the mister in the act, filing for divorce, getting half his loot, and keeping yourself in nice suits for a long time.”

I sat there, blinking, at a loss for words. What did he care? I felt peeved and thought about leaving. But what were my options?

I smoothed my skirt and sat straighter. “Will you take my case, Mr. Greeley?”

He laughed again. What was so funny? “Okay, Mrs. Hastings. I’ll take your case.”
He took down some information about Ed: his office, his work hours, his close friends and such. We went over the fee agreement. It was a lot of money. But I had to find out if Roz was right. What I would do next, I wasn’t sure.

When I got home, I found Ed. He was in our bed, with my biggest carving knife protruding from his chest.

K: Thank you again, Debbi! If my readers want to learn more about you and your other works, where can they find you on the web?

Debbi: You can read more about me and my work on my Web site (which also features a monthly column) and my blog My Life on the Mid-List. I also have four other blogs, including The Book Grrl, where I post book reviews (and links to reviews I do for Mystery Scene Magazine). You can find the links to all my blogs on the home page to my Web site. My books are available on Amazon, Smashwords, and my Web site. You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter.

And thank you, Karen!

Karen's final word -- I really want to thank Debbi again for doing this interview and giving some insight into her writing world as well as sharing some of her work with us. While I don't like to ruin surprises, I will go ahead and let everyone know TODAY that our Giveaway Wednesday, will be a signed copy of Debbi's Identity Crisis to two lucky winners, so be sure to check in Wednesday and leave your comment to enter.

AND IF YOU HAVE QUESTIONS FOR DEBBI TODAY - leave your comment to this post. She'll be glad to answer your questions!!!

Finally, to purchase Debbi's books from Amazon, CLICK HERE FOR FIVE UNEASY PIECES and HERE FOR IDENTITY CRISIS


Janel said...

What a great interview! I loved learning about Debbi. I don't read many hard-boiled detective stories, but that excerpt was great. I'm hooked!

Good luck with your books, Debbi!

Debbi said...

Thanks, Janel! I'm so glad you enjoyed the interview and excerpt. Maybe I can make a few hard-boiled converts. LOL

Dana King said...

Nicely done, combining an interview and a (virtual) reading in the same piece. Congratulations on hitting Number 1. Twice.

Continued good luck.

Carol-Lynn Rossel said...

Lovely interview, Debbi!

Anonymous said...

I love mysteries and always looking for a new author. Thanks for the interview.

Timothy Hallinan said...

Yay, debbi -- Great interview, great excerpt,

jenny milchman said...

Debbi, I didn't know about the #1 business-guess you are really good about the BSP ;) But that is such a triumph--congrats.

Karen, I understand why you became a fan. And--very nice interview!

Anonymous said...

Came here from the kindlecorner list and I am glad I did. You are on my TBR list.

stacypilot at yahoo dot com

Debbi said...

Thanks everyone! Glad to see a few more commenters weigh in. :)

Karen Cantwell said...

I'm so glad to see all of the people stopping in to comment - great conversation! :-)