Not long after my first novel, Buster Midnight’s Café was published, Colorado mystery writer John Dunning and his wonderful wife, Helen, invited Bob and me to a dinner party. The other guests included Diane Mott Davidson, who had just published her novel Dying for Chocolate; Warwick Downing, who wrote mysteries about a special prosecutors’ unit based in Denver; and thriller author Michael Allegretto. Why, I wondered at the end of the evening, am I the only author in this room who can’t write a mystery? On the way home, I got the glimmer of an idea for my own mystery and spent the next six months working on it. I’m sorry to say it was a dud, possibly the worst book I’ve ever attempted.
So you can imagine my thrill that I’ve written a publishable mystery at last – Fallen Women. And it took only 22 years! The publication date is October 22.
Here’s what the publisher, St. Martin’s Press, says about the book:
“It’s the spring of 1885 when wealthy New York socialite Beret Osmundsen first sets foot in a Denver police station. Just days before, she received the terrible news that her estranged younger sister, Lillie, had died. The telegram from her aunt and uncle was brief, stating only that Lillie had passed away suddenly and there was no need for Beret to make the long trip west. Soon, a sordid story is revealed when Beret comes across a scandal sheet with the details of a brutal murder of a prostitute named “Lillie Brown” in the brothel where she lived. Upon a closer read, Beret becomes convinced that “Lillie Brown” was in fact her sister, and her murderer has not been caught.
Her investigation takes her from the dangerous, seedy underworld of Denver’s tenderloin to the highest levels of Denver society. Along the way, Beret learns the depths of Lillie’s depravity and must reconcile these with her memories of the innocent young girl of their youth, all while never losing site of fingering the murderer. With the help of detective Mick McCauley, Beret ultimately unearths the truth about the sister she couldn’t save and exposes the darkest side of Gilded Age ambition in the Mile High City in the process.”
Of course the book takes place in Denver. Where else would I set it? As I said in my last newsletter, I started researching Denver prostitution nearly 50 years ago and have been intrigued with it ever since. Besides, I’ve included historic restaurants and houses, hotels and other landmarks that I’ve turned up in my research for other nonfiction books.
Still, this is not a book on prostitution, any more than my other novels have been on quilting. Prostitution, like quilting, is part of the background. It adds richness and definition to the novel, but the real story is about the characters.
Beret—the name comes from a western Colorado librarian; I knew when I heard it that I had to use it for a character—is tough and straight-forward and lacks sentimentality. She can be defiant when she needs to be. She is loyal and has a sense of family, but those things don’t stop her from seeking the truth. I like to think there is some of me in her, although she is a whole lot thinner and her hair hasn’t turned grey.
I don’t remember where the idea for the book came from, but I do remember when I got the ending. I was walking down Seventh Avenue in Denver to a Women’s Forum breakfast a couple of years ago, contemplating the novel I had started to write, when I thought, “What if…?” and changed the identify of the killer.
The working title, incidentally, was Holladay Street. Holladay Street was Denver’s red-light district, named for freighter Ben Holladay. But my agent warned that readers seeing that title—even though the spelling of Holladay was different from holiday—might think this was a Christmas book. Big surprise!
But novels come from such remarks, and so my next novel, which will be published in 2014 about this time, will indeed be a Christmas book. —SD
True Sisters, Sandra’s 2012 novel about the 1856 Mormon handcart trek, is the winner of this year’s Willa Award for Historical Fiction, presented by Women Writing the West. This is Sandra’s third Willa. She won last year for The Bride’s House and in 2006 for New Mercies. All three awards are in the Historical Fiction category.
At the same time, The Quilt Walk is a finalist for the Willa Award in the Children’s Fiction and Nonfiction category. The Quilt Walk is Sandra’s young reader novel about a girl who comes west in the 1860s.
Awards will be presented at WWW’s annual conference in Kansas City, Oct. 12.
Sandra will sign a contract with Sleeping Bear Press to publish a second young reader novel. The story is about Tomi Itano, a Japanese girl who along with her family is sent to a Japanese relocation camp during World War II. Although she is horrified at her treatment and angry at her country, Tomi develops strengths she did not know she had. She realizes no one can take away her love of her family and country.
The story, which is not yet titled, takes place in southeastern Colorado in a camp named Tallgrass, the same relocation camp Sandra used in her acclaimed adult novel, Tallgrass.
Sleeping Bear Press published Sandra’s first children’s book, the award-winning The Quilt Walk. —SD
Sweet Thunder. By Ivan Doig. Riverhead Books.
I love Ivan Doig’s nonfiction books about growing up in Montana. I’m less crazy about his fiction—that is I was until I read Sweet Thunder. Of course, part of the reason I like this book so much is it takes place in Butte, Montana, one of my favorite places. Doig captures the grit and energy, the brawny life, the coal-filled black skies and black snow of America’s premier copper town. And he uses it all as the backdrop for a story of a crusading newspaper and corporate greed.
Doig resurrects Morris Morgan from a previous novel. Morris is an erudite, somewhat larcenous young man who has gone through ill-gotten gains and needs a job to support his bride. He finds it on a union-backed newspaper that fights copper giant Anaconda Co. In the 1920s, when Sweet Thunder is set, Anaconda controls not only Butte but Montana and its legislature.
The story itself is worth the read. Butte is the icing on the cake. I always like the icing best.
Compound Fractures. By Stephen White. Dutton.
This is number 20 in Stephen White’s best-selling Alan Gregory mystery series, and unfortunately for us, it’s also the last. White announced a year ago that Compound Fractures would end the series about Boulder psychologist Alan Gregory. More’s the pity, because this just might be the best one. At the end of number 19, Alan’s wife, Lauren, was shot by Alan’s partner, Diane, who apparently mistook Lauren for her husband’s mistress. Now Alan must plan her funeral, all the while worrying that he will be implicated in a murder that took place a few books back. Despite the grim scenario, Compound Fractures is filled with humor, and it contains White’s best writing. While Alan may ride off into the sunset—on a bike, of course; after all, this is Boulder, Colorado—White is not done with writing.—SD