Getting fresh with a familiar favourite

The continued popularity of crime fiction is driving authors to find something new and different to tempt readers and feed their voracious appetites.

It was no different twenty years ago when I created Kent Fisher. The competition was not quite so intense then, but the desire to find something fresh and to stand out from the masses was just as strong.

Driven by a love of murder mysteries by authors like Agatha Christie and Colin Dexter, I wanted to create a detective as unique as Miss Marple or Morse to solve the most baffling cases. I also wanted to remain faithful to that familiar favourite, the classic whodunit.

No pressure then.

The idea for an environmental health officer (EHO) who solved crimes crystallised over many months while I was out on my district in the South Downs of East Sussex. EHOs are enforcement officers who deal mainly with environmental and public health issues, including the safety of the food offered to the public, health and safety in the workplace, pollution and substandard housing.

It’s a wide-ranging remit, but one that offers opportunities. People die from food poisoning and accidents at work. Frustrated residents have shot their neighbours for playing music too loud.

Unfortunately, working for a local council is hardly glamorous.

And let’s face it, you wouldn’t nip down to the town hall, ask to see an EHO, and report a murder, would you?

But how about a murder disguised as a work accident that’s investigated by an EHO?

Now that’s an entirely different proposition.

No AccidentNo Accident became the starting point for the Kent Fisher murder mystery series. Once he’d solved a murder, he had earned his stripes. He was then open to requests from family friends to track down a wife who had gone missing. (No Bodies).

The variety of businesses and premises EHOs visit offered possibilities – theme parks, luxury care homes, restaurants and hotels, public houses, caravan sites, children’s homes, farms, estate agents,. These have all featured in the murder mysteries.

Then there’s his life outside of work. As an environmentalist, I wanted to make this a key driver in Kent’s life. The animal sanctuary where he lives offers more possibilities to push environmental and welfare themes, setting Kent apart from other detectives.

I hoped his work, the backstory and the characters involved would make the stories more interesting to readers.

HarveyHe adopts one of the dogs he rescued – a West Highland white terrier, who becomes Columbo in honour of Kent’s favourite TV detective.

Kent Fisher was certainly different, if not unique, but would readers embrace him?

A strong element of humour might help. Ask anyone who works for a council or in the public sector and they’ll tell you a sense of humour is essential.

That left the plot. I wanted to give readers a traditional murder mystery with the usual crop of suspects, red herrings and a complex investigation that would keep people guessing till the exciting climax and reveal.

After all, that was the starting point, what I wanted to write.

Imagine my delight, and relief, when No Accident was first published in June 2016. Crime Fiction Lover posted the following review.

“Expect sharp dialogue and irreverent humour in this whodunit which manages to pay homage to the traditional murder mystery, while striking a contemporary and irreverent note.”

This was music to my ears.

Feedback and reviews told me readers loved the backstory and characters. What I didn’t realise at the time was how significant they would become.


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The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie

19th July 2021.

The second Hercule Poirot story, published in 1923, is a complex murder mystery where nothing is ever as it seems. On two occasions, Poirot seems to have solved the murder, only to discover something new which turns everything on its head and forces him to start again.

Talk about a masterclass in how to wrong foot the reader.

It all starts with a cry for help from France. Hastings and Poirot arrive to discover a murder with the body lying on an adjoining golf course. All is not quite as it seems, though French detective Giraud seems to have worked it all out with this forensic approach to crime scene investigation.

The rivalry between the two detectives adds another layer of intrigue and entertainment to the story. Then there’s Hastings, losing his heart to a woman he meets on a train. She returns later to be part of the plot and a possible murder suspect, along with the man’s son, wife and next door neighbour.

The story is ably narrated by Hastings, who struggles to keep up with the deductions of his friend, Poirot. It allows Agatha Christie the chance to recap on what Poirot has deduced, helping the reader to keep up with the complexities of the investigation. But then we discover a new piece of evidence that casts doubt on all the great detective has deduced.

It’s easy to feel a little sorry for Hastings, whose struggles and efforts to form his own theories often result in gentle admonishment from Poirot and his superior intellect. But Hastings has to struggle with the investigation to ensure the author doesn’t give too much away too soon.

And, when the mystery is finally solved, you can’t help wondering how you missed all the clues.

This is a first rate whodunit that’s so complex, I wondered how Agatha Christie planned and worked it all out with such clarity and detail. But that’s why she’s known as the Queen of Crime. Her easy to read, direct style, takes you straight to the heart of matters without frills. Her characterisation is as succinct, creating believable characters and plenty of suspects.

But it’s her grasp of the small details that ultimately solve the crime that impressed me the most. Not once, did I truly feel I knew the identity of the murderer or the motive for the killings. Then again, it didn’t matter. This was such a complex, yet fascinating story that swept me along until it was time to reveal everything.

Description

On a French golf course, a millionaire is found stabbed in the back…

An urgent cry for help brings Poirot to France. But he arrives too late to save his client, whose brutally stabbed body now lies face downwards in a shallow grave on a golf course.

But why is the dead man wearing his son’s overcoat? And who was the impassioned love-letter in the pocket for? Before Poirot can answer these questions, the case is turned upside down by the discovery of a second, identically murdered corpse…

The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie

Nobody’s Child by Janet Dawson

1st July 2021.

In this fifth outing in the series, Oakland private investigator, Jeri Howard, takes on her most difficult case and client. Naomi Smith, an emotionless alcoholic, believes the body found buried on a building site is her daughter, Maureen, who has disappeared.

When Jeri finds out Maureen was pregnant, the investigation turns to finding the girl. But with her mother dead, it’s going to be anything but straightforward.

You always get so much more than a murder investigation with Jeri Howard, as she tackles social issues along the way. This is 1995 and her investigations take her into the homeless community, which has become a major challenge for California. People are sleeping rough, being attacked and dying. HIV and AIDS is a growing problem that’s getting out of control.

With dogged determination, Jeri slowly pieces together Maureen’s movements over the past 18 months, uncovering lies, deceit and acts of kindness that help her piece together what happened to both mother and child.

The detail and issues surrounding homeless people is vividly brought to life through the characters Jeri encounters, providing an often moving and troublesome backdrop to the main investigation. Without ducking the issues or taking sides, the author paints some very vivid pictures.

But ultimately, this is a murder investigation, and a very satisfying one after a torturous investigation.

This is a complex and compelling read that covers a lot of ground, but it’s well worth the effort.

Description

It’s Christmas in San Francisco, and stalwart Bay Area PI Jeri Howard is having a tough time locating her holiday cheer. Maybe it’s her recent birthday. 34’s no 44, but it’s not 24 either. Maybe it’s seasonal depression. The incessant, chilly northern California rain isn’t exactly helping. And neither is the flu. Plus, there’s the investigating business.

Jeri’s most recent all-absorbing puzzler happens to revolve around her prickliest client to date: Naomi Smith is a well-to-do woman from Piedmont—she’s rich, slender to the point of emaciation, and her cold, hard stare yields no secrets. Her voice doesn’t yield much either—truth to tell, working with Naomi is like squeezing blood from a stone.

Basically, she’s the most disagreeable woman—and possibly most aggravating client—Jeri’s ever met, let alone worked with. But you can’t be picky when you’re writing checks to cover groceries.

Ms. Smith wants Jeri to look into the details surrounding the decomposing corpse of a young woman recently uncovered by a couple of construction workers in an Oakland fire zone. Deadpan, Naomi suggests the Jane Doe might be her long-lost daughter Maureen—and she wants Jeri to investigate (in the name of family discretion).

Maureen would be twenty-one years old. She ran away from her well-ordered life just three months before she was due to graduate from high school. And her mother hasn’t heard from her for a full month—but why she hasn’t gone to the authorities is a mystery.

Also vanished into thin air: Maureen’s now-2-year-old daughter, Dyese, and Naomi’s latest beau, Professor Douglas Widener, who disappeared after a romantic weekend getaway to Lake Tahoe—at just about the same time as Naomi’s daughter. Has Maureen run away to follow a man? Perhaps a much older man? Or has she been abused? And if she was murdered, has her toddler been murdered too?

Jeri finds herself delving into a bizarre and heart-wrenching cold case, uncovering social injustice and family secrets so bleak even Christmas can’t snap her out of it.

Nobody's Child by Janet Dawson

More than a Murder Mystery

Isn’t it lovely when readers surprise you?

Here I am, writing murder mysteries for crime fiction lovers, doing my best to create the most baffling and convoluted plots possible. Being a huge fan and admirer of Agatha Christie, I’ve studied her approach and techniques, determined to learn from the best-selling crime writer of all time.

When the reviews and feedback come in, I’m delighted when readers enjoy the plots, the complexity and the unexpected twists that lead to an exciting climax. But many of them love the characters and the backstory. They want Kent Fisher to find the woman of his dreams, to deal with his boss and the bureaucracy at work, and any number of issues the backstory generates.

And Kent’s West Highland white terrier, Columbo, steals every scene he’s in.

Harvey on sofa

Then I discover many of my readers don’t usually read crime fiction.

It’s a bit of a surprise, but a welcome bonus.

When I first started the series, I wanted to create something all the family could enjoy – the kind of TV crime drama that aired at 8pm on a Sunday evening, like Inspector Morse. That’s why there’s no excessive violence, no offensive swearing or graphic sex scenes.

I also wanted Kent Fisher to be rooted to a setting, to a dream and gave him his own animal sanctuary. He needed help, so I gave him a manager. He needed money, so I gave him wealthy parents – landed gentry to conflict with his principles and create some tension. As he was an environmental health officer by profession, there was a team and managers around him.

No AccidentWhen I started the first novel, No Accident, I had no idea how these characters and backstory would influence the books that followed, or the reactions of readers. Sometimes, it seems there’s as much drama in the backstory as the murder mystery.

I soon discovered that with each new book, I had to consider the backstory first. What was happening at Kent’s workplace that needed resolving? Was there anything at his sanctuary to consider? Then there were the main characters – his stepmother, Niamh, who started her own catering business. Gemma, his former lover and sidekick, was never far from his side. His continuing conflict with his manager, Danni, evolved with every book. Other women wandered in and out of his life. Some stayed a little longer.

Then there was his best friend Mike Turner, the retired scenes of crime officer and source of some of the best humour in the stories. When those two got together on the veranda of his beachside bungalow, the fun and humour reached new levels.

I love writing their scenes together.

It’s like writing two books

First, there’s the drama of Kent’s life and those close to him, and a murder to solve.

But the backstory gave me running themes – his romantic dalliances and the effect on those around him. At work, he struggled with government spending cuts, staffing issues and poor management. His sanctuary sometimes threw up problems. He started to outsmart the local police detectives as he solved the murders.

But I loved the backstory issues, tempting Kent with new lovers, discovering more about his past, what made him tick and the results of some of his indiscretions when he was younger. The characters around him could point out his bad points, the blind spots in his character he’d never see. These characters offered alternative opinions and values, adding to the tension.

Elements of the backstory can disrupt his investigations, throw him a curve, land him in deep water. He’s forced into difficult decisions, but that’s just how I like it.

The harder he has to work, the more people he comes into conflict with, the more exciting the story.

The backstory often allowed me to have the occasional cliff hanger ending. The murders are always solved and loose ends tied up. But what’s going on behind the scenes is life. It doesn’t fit into neat boxes. It can’t always be predicted or understood. And it can come along and bite you, as Kent often discovers.

I can spend days, weeks sometimes, working out where the backstory issues would be three or six months time after the end of the last story. What were the outstanding issues to address and how? What issues and drama would they raise?

Once these are decided, it’s time to write.Writer

As I don’t plan ahead, it’s all exciting, not knowing what’s going to happen.

I don’t worry how the backstory might affect the murder investigations. Kent begins his investigations under the circumstances he’s living in. If there are problems at the sanctuary or at the office, he works around them while he investigates. Sometimes it means sleuthing during work time, which brings its own conflicts and ethical issues, adding to the rich broth of the backstory.

Best of all, as the series progresses, Kent starts to realise the effect solving murders has on those around him. His brushes with death have left wounds that are difficult to heal, creating tensions and emotions he’d always buried to maintain his sanity.

And when something from his past leaps up to bite him on the backside, his murder investigations can become very personal indeed. But that’s a story for another day…


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A hero for today

Have you ever read a book or watched a TV programme and wished you could write something as good?

Inspector MorseNeither had I until I saw the original Inspector Morse series. The superb characterisation, complex and intriguing plots, and the beautiful Oxford settings captivated me. About the same time, BBC 1 aired the Miss Marple series, adapted from Agatha Christie’s books.

Both programmes evoked the same emotion and desire to write a complex murder mystery.

At this point, I should tell you I was already a writer. Not a successful one, unless you include the national short story competition I won at the age of 12. That early enthusiasm and promise never quite materialised into something a publisher would want or take – until Morse and Marple got under my skin.

I sensed a brighter future. But first, I needed a hero for my murder mysteries – someone different, someone flawed but principled, charismatic and up to the job.

Police officer or private investigator?

While I’d worked with the police many times as an environmental health officer (EHO), I had no idea how they investigated murders. With DNA evidence making its mark, I thought I’d leave it those who understood such things.

Sue GraftonEqually, I had no idea how private investigators worked. Sue Grafton’s first novel, A is for Alibi, featuring PI Kinsey Millhone tempted me to create my own investigator. The character was feisty, sassy, funny and quite ruthless in completing any job she took. The books were a joy to read.

Could I create a male version of Kinsey?

It took some time for Kent Fisher to evolve. The name took almost as long to create, but that’s a subject for another day. He was tough, determined, single-minded, hopeless in love, and had a good stock of witty one-liners.

But was he flawed?

In his first outings, he was more like Rambo than Morse. That’ll teach me to make him a former paratrooper. He was married to an unsuitable woman. While it seemed like a good idea at the time for extra conflict, I couldn’t imagine him falling for such a woman. Net result – I failed to write with any conviction.

My attempts to make him a PI fared no better.

Thanks to my healthy appetite for Dick Francis, that left me with one option. Many of his heroes were ordinary people, drawn into adventures and investigations that often put them in grave danger.

Kent Fisher became an EHO

Kent Fisher and ColumboAn environmental health officer conjured up an image of a person in a suit, carrying a clipboard and talking like some dreary, faceless bureaucrat. That was how TV writers saw them at the time. It was hardly an image to inspire readers, was it?

So I gave Kent a past as a hunt saboteur and environmental protestor, who chained himself to trees and bulldozers to stop developers destroying the countryside he loved. This ensured he had as many enemies as he had supporters, offering plenty of storylines for the future.

Without thinking, I knew he would live in an animal sanctuary, confirming his dedication to the natural world.

While I doubt if he’s anyone’s idea of a detective, to me he’s a hero for today. He’s an ordinary person who solves the most complex and difficult murders I can dream up.

This posed another challenge – how would an EHO solve a murder? Let’s be honest, during my long career, no one has ever walked into the council offices and asked me to investigate a murder.

I’ll admit I’ve wanted to murder many awkward members of the public, councillors and restaurateurs and publicans over the years. Luckily, I can now do that in my novels.

Finally it came to me – disguise a murder as a fatal work accident. Kent Fisher goes in to investigate with the police. They pass the investigation to him and he uncovers a murder.

Simple.

But no one believes him, of course, so he has to solve it himself.

It led me to the highly original title of No Accident, which was traditionally published in June 2016.

A fresh approach to the traditional murder mystery

Thoroughly modern, with contemporary themes about protecting wildlife and the environment, Kent Fisher was like no other detective out there. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on how much you like the traumatised police inspectors with pen-pushing superiors that seem to dominate crime fiction these days.

What I hadn’t anticipated was the part the characters and backstory would play in the hearts and minds of readers. I simply set out to build a world around Kent and fill it with strong, engaging characters that would impact on his life and work.

HarveyAnd that’s before we get to the rescue dog he adopted. Named Columbo after Kent’s favourite TV detective, the West Highland white terrier would become a firm favourite with readers and reviewers.

With his personal life as complex as the murders Kent solved, the story drew in people who didn’t normally read crime. Readers cared about these people, about this world Kent lived in, as much as they enjoyed trying to solve the murders.

But that’s something for another post…


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Don’t Turn your Back on the Ocean by Janet Dawson

13th May 2021.

You’re always guaranteed something different and intriguing with private investigator, Jeri Howard. In this case her investigation has an environmental theme. While on holiday in Monterey, she’s asked to help find someone who’s mutilating pelicans.  Then her cousin, Bobby, becomes the prime suspect in the murder of his lover. And if that’s not enough to keep Jeri occupied, someone’s trying to destroy her mother’s restaurant business with acts of sabotage.

Are all three issues linked or nothing more than coincidence?

Naturally, Jeri focuses on the murder, crossing swords with the local police in the process. Though warned off, she continues to probe and dig, uncovering a growing list of murder suspects with good motives and means. Jeri’s investigation certainly reveals the divisions with the otherwise peaceful Monterey community.

As the case grows bigger, Jeri seeks help from former employer and mentor, Errol, who still has plenty to offer, despite retiring as a private investigator. With him on board, the investigation gains traction until Jeri homes in on the killer for an exciting chase climax.

And yes, there are links to the pelican mutilation and restaurant sabotage, rounding off the investigation nicely.

It’s another detailed, meticulous investigation that reveals Jeri Howard’s determination and guts, alongside her family loyalties and fragilities. It all adds to the depth of the characters and story, leading to a more satisfying read.

Description

WHAT’S THE WORST THING THAT COULD HAPPEN ON A PI’S VACATION?

A dead body on the beach, most likely.

In this riveting fourth mystery in the Jeri Howard Private Investigator Series, Janet Dawson takes readers on a road trip down the California coast to Monterey, where Jeri is looking to catch a respite from the PI life to relax and visit family. Easier said than done. From the first moment of her arrival in the quiet seaside town, nothing is as it seems.

First, some maniac is mutilating brown pelicans on Monterey Bay. Jeri’s cousin, Donna, who works for the Department of Fish and Game, wants Jeri all over the case. And another one too–something even more sinister that went down only miles from Monterey. And Jeri’s other cousin, Bobby, is the prime suspect.

A local fisherman and erratic alcoholic, Bobby is getting into deep water. His girlfriend went missing after the couple had an altercation at a bar up the coast. When a woman’s body washes ashore, it seems to the local cops that Bobby’s involved in both cases.

Suddenly Monterey Bay’s picturesque waters have become a dark and overpowering force for the vacationing detective and her family. The whole town’s awash in secrets, but answers are in as short supply as healthy pelicans. The only thing Jeri knows for sure? Don’t ever turn your back on the ocean.

Don't Turn your back on the Ocean by Janet Dawson

Take a Number by Janet Dawson

7th April 2021.

When Jeri Howard becomes involved in a divorce case, she takes on more than finding the missing $100,000 dollars that Sam has hidden from his wife. He’s a nasty piece of work with a history of brutalising women. Yet on the surface, he’s charming and credible, drawing women to him with consummate ease.

When he’s murdered, Jeri’s job changes to investigator as his wife, Ruth, becomes the prime suspect. It doesn’t take much digging for Jeri to find plenty more suspects, leading to a classic private eye murder mystery tale.

Jeri’s a determined investigator who’s not afraid to speak her mind and ruffle feathers. She burns a lot of shoe leather in this investigation, which becomes more complex by the chapter. While the descriptions of places and journeys often slow the place, the story’s never dull as Jeri’s an engaging character and the plot twists keep you guessing right to the end.

Description

Oakland P.I. Jeri Howard dives right into the middle of a brutal womanizer’s divorce proceedings—and murder mystery—in the third instalment of Janet Dawson’s compelling female detective series. And in this particular whodunit, the list of who would gladly have done it just keeps growing.

When Ruth Raynor—the mousy soon-to-be ex-wife of an abusive sailor—calls up Jeri Howard to take on her divorce case, Jeri has reservations. For one, the celebrated Bay area PI has never been a fan of petty divorce investigations. Plus Ruth’s sleek divorce attorney—isn’t exactly Jeri’s cup of tea. But Ruth just happens to be the daughter of a former client. And Jeri is as loyal as she’s bold.

Sam, the soon-to-be ex-husband is a smart, slick, cocky piece of work—and a mean drunk to boot—who basks in attention (especially from women) like a lizard on a rock. Sam at first comes across as dangerously attractive, except for his pale blue, emotionless eyes—a cold, dead giveaway. Turns out Prince Charming broke his wife’s wrist, gave her a black eye, kept their small daughter hungry and in rags—and hid $100,000 when Ruth filed for divorce.

When Sam winds up with a bullet in his back, the prime suspect, naturally, is Ruth. But Jeri, working hard to keep her client out of jail, discovers a line of suspects so long someone who wanted to kill him would have to take a number and get in line.

Take a Number

Kindred Crimes by Janet Dawson

30th December 2020.

This is the first novel in the Jeri Howard private investigator series, set in California. Like many of its contemporaries, the story’s told by Jeri in a direct, no nonsense manner. She’s a streetwise investigator with high principles and a determination to see a job through, even when the client decides he no longer requires her services.

Missing wife, Renee Foster, turns out to be anything but the person her anxious husband portrays. As Jeri digs deeper, encountering more than her fair share of obstacles and challenges, she peels away the layers to reveal family secrets no one wants to share. There’s Mark, the brother, who shot their parents and served fifteen years for the crime. He’s out and building a new life for himself, determined not to return to past events.  Sister Karen, employed in the skin trade, knows more than she’s willing to tell.

Then there’s the husband’s family, who never liked Renee to start with.

And Jeri’s former husband, a cynical copper who still holds a torch for her, can’t help but make life difficult for her, especially when people start dying.

How Jeri makes sense of it all and overcomes the odds makes for a fascinating and entertaining story that’s full of surprises, humour and touching moments that all build to a slick climax and resolution. The characters are sharply drawn and realistic, vulnerable and flawed, but always interesting.

I’m delighted to have discovered this author and I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the series.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys private eye stories by authors like Sue Grafton and Cheryl Bradshaw.

Description

THE PORN STAR, THE MURDERER, AND THE DISAPPEARING WIFE…

Those are just a few of the family members Oakland P.I. Jeri Howard finds herself investigating in a puzzling missing persons case that sprawls throughout the grittier sections of Northern California. For a woman who told her husband she had no relatives, Renee Foster’s actually well-stocked with them….and doozies at that. The whole family—criminals, abusers, and kindly aunts alike– comes alive in Janet Dawson’s first novel, prompting the New York Times to hail it as “a welcome addition to this tough genre.”

There’s clearly a lot more here than the simple matter of a wife disappearing with the grocery money. Smelling a rat or two right from the beginning of this complex and intriguing mystery, the red-haired private detective follows many a twisty trail as Dawson weaves an equally twisty tale, which, to the reader’s delight, just keeps winding back on itself, revealing brand new secrets as fast as ancient skeletons can fall out of closets.

Dawson’s Oakland is damp and properly sinister and Jeri’s as savvy as Sam Spade, with something of Spade’s seen-it-all outlook. What she doesn’t know, her chic lawyer pal, Cassie, can supply; and her cop ex-husband’s on hand to make trouble.

Kindred Crimes by Janet Dawson