Author Renee Pawlish (and our very special guest Harley the cat) and I have a great chat today about her comic noir detective series, her new mystery series featuring a hard-boiled detective in the WW II era and much more.
Renee is a prolific author and a huge fan of the mystery genre. She’s been reading mysteries her whole life and it shows in the thoughtful way she’s created the detective for her longest running series, the Reed Ferguson Mysteries. Reed is a smart aleck, as Renee describes him, who is different than many other traditional noir detectives; he’s not a recovering alcoholic and he has a loving wife and family. Renee and I discuss Reed’s connection to other noir detectives like Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, Columbo, Jim Rockford and more.
I forgot to ask Renee about the ‘punny’ titles to some of her books. You can see some of those shown below, like The Postman Always Brings Dice and The Maltese Felon. I love an author with a sense of humour!!
Mystery fans will be thrilled to know that Renee has started a page on her website aimed and offering readers mystery novels each month at a bargain price. Each month she features new mystery novels that are either free or on special for $0.99. You can check out this month’s deals here.
You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.
Transcript of Interview with Renee
Alexandra: Hi, mystery readers. I’m Alexandra Amor. This is It’s A Mystery podcast, and I’m here today with Renee Pawlish. Hi, Renee.
Renee: Hi, how are you?
Alexandra: Very well, how are you?
Renee: Doing just great.
Alexandra: Good, and I should say we’re here with Renee and Harley, who’s there in the background.
Renee: That’s right, yeah, yeah.
Alexandra: That’s fantastic. I just want to explain to everybody that I have a bit of a cold, so I have a cold lozenge in my mouth. If I sound a little weird, that’s what’s going on there. Let me introduce our listeners to you.
Renee Pawlish is the award-winning author of the best-selling “Reed Ferguson Mystery” series and other mysteries and stories. Critics have said that Renee is a promising new voice in the comic murder mystery genre and a powerful storyteller. Her book, and I might mispronounce this, “Nephilim Genesis of Evil”, is that right?
Renee: It’s Nephilim.
Alexandra: Nephilim, “Nephilim Genesis of Evil” has been compared to Stephen King and Frank Peretti. Renee was born in California but has lived most of her life in Colorado. So I’m really excited to have you here today, Renee, to talk about your “Reed Ferguson Mysteries”.
Alexandra: The thing that really attracted them to me is they’re in that sort of comic noir genre, and I’m a huge Robert B. Parker fan. He’s not with us any longer, of course.
I wondered was there a particular author like Raymond Chandler or somebody who inspired you?
Renee: Yeah, kind of a lot of the classic authors. I actually wrote the first book in the series, “This Doesn’t Happen In The Movies”, gosh like 14 years ago. I was influenced by Sue Grafton. I’ve met her a number of times back when she was just getting going and another one was a local author here named, John Dunning who wrote the “Booked To Die”, the “Bookman’s Series” I guess they call it. And I was trying to come up with a detective that was a little bit funny, a little bit of a smart ass, and Reed was sort of born out of that.
And part of that was trying to go, “Okay, why would this guy want to be a detective?” Because when I wrote the first novel, nobody had done stories where it was the detective’s very first case. It might be the very first case you’re reading about, but it wasn’t their first case. And so I was trying to make it different. And with that, was, “Well, what would make him want to become a detective so bad?” And that was kind of the whole liking Humphrey Bogart and film noir and stuff like that. And then, as I’ve written the books, I’ve read more of the classics like Chandler and James M. Cain and people like that.
Alexandra: You were looking for a unique way to tell a story and weren’t necessarily wanting specifically to write in this genre, is that what you would say?
Renee: Well not necessarily in noir, not at first. It kind of came out of seeing the reception for the first book. And really the funny thing is that it’s almost in a way created a new genre or maybe there’s a few of us out there. You think of noir as a very dark type of book or story, and mine and Parker, I guess, some of those, there’s definitely the comedic elements in it.
I almost wish Amazon would create a comedic noir category because there definitely is the noir element to this story. But at least with Reed Ferguson, he’s a bit of a smart aleck, too. He definitely has a sense of humor.
Alexandra: Tell us a little bit more about him. I noticed in one description, I think it was you that had described him as that he had a lot of flaws.
“He’s far from perfect,” I think that was the phrase that you used. So what’s going on with him?
Renee: Yeah, the thing is he almost, in some ways, has stumbled into the detecting business. He wanted to do it, but he really had no skills. He wasn’t a cop or anything. The best he had going for him was he was pre-law in college, and so sometimes he’s accused of being a bumbling hero. I personally don’t see him that way.
I see him as more of a real character who things don’t always go as you plan and sometimes you get caught in situations where you’re thinking on your feet. Like in one story, he ends up in a dumpster. Most people, I think, can see the comedic elements and think that’s funny.
I had one reviewer who’s like, “Oh, I just quit reading at that point.” But I just thought it was funny. Here’s this guy trying to sneak around an alley and suddenly the bad guys are there and the first thing he can think of to do is dive in the dumpster and hide. And so I think there’s parts of Colombo to him, but a lot of people have said they sort of feel like it’s if you could picture Remington Steele, some of those older TV shows, they see Reed in that. So he’s just kind of an everyday guy who is trying to do a good job, and loves his girlfriend, or now in the series, she’s become his wife. He cleans things up and gets the job done.
Alexandra: Yeah, exactly. And I was going to ask you about that because I noticed we were speaking just before we came online that the 13th book was released today, which today is May 10th, 2016, and I noticed it mentioned his wife in the book.
I thought, “Wow, over 13 books he’s probably gone on quite a journey with you,” and what’s that been like for you?
Renee: It’s interesting because they become real in a sense, the characters do. So yeah, he’s become almost another family member or something like that. And he’s gone from liking this girl who lived across the street to dating her to now they got married.
And there’s a series of other characters, the goofball brothers, that are these two guys that let’s just say the elevator doesn’t reach the top floor. But they’re very loyal friends, and then he’s got a computer nerd best friend, and there’s a couple of other characters. And his mother who’s just always beside herself because he’s the detective and he’s going to get hurt, or he’s going to do drugs, this kind of thing kind of always treating him like he is 15.
And the funny thing is now my reviews if you read them of the latest series people are like, “All the gang’s back.” They just sort of expect everybody to be there. So yeah, they do almost become like family.
Alexandra: Yes, for sure.
I know as a mystery reader myself when someone has a series the length of yours and there are recurring characters, I do get just as attached to the side characters as to the main character.
Renee: Yeah, right ,right. I do, too. I’m a long time mystery series fan and like to see the progression of the characters. And I think if they don’t progress realistically, then you let your readers down, too, because I’ve had times where people have felt, I think, like Reed should be just shooting people, running around with his gun all the time. And I’m like, “That’s not his character.”
He even references at times that he’s sort of like James Garner in the old Rockford Files series. And his comment in the series is always he doesn’t carry a gun because he doesn’t want to have to use it. And that’s kind of Reed, he’ll carry a gun but he really doesn’t want to shoot anybody. If he suddenly blew somebody away now, it wouldn’t fit with his character. It has to progress to that point.
Alexandra: Yes, exactly. And one of the things I know about some other noir characters, and I wondered if this was true for Reed, is that they can be kind of hard-boiled on the outside but smart-alecky, like you’ve said Reed is.
But then Spenser, for example, Robert B. Parker’s character was very much a philosopher underneath, liked poetry, liked to cook, was very retrospective. Does Reed have those two sides to him?
Renee: He’s not real hard-boiled but he does have…there’s times where some of that flashes out, and then he’ll think back on it and almost surprised in himself. He is growing more into that as the series goes on.
It’s kind of funny because sometimes it’s like he’s just a good guy, and I think a piece of what I try to do with the series as well is, for me, so many people create characters, at least within the mystery realm, where there’s gotta be some kind of major flaw with the character like he’s an alcoholic or, he’s divorced, or this or that or the other. And I wanted to go against stereotype, and go let’s just have a guy who’s a good guy, and he wants to stay with his wife, and he likes to have a good time and treat people well and whatever. He just happens to be a detective as well. So he doesn’t have that.
I’ve got another series that is more hard-boiled. The detective is hard-boiled. And it’s a historical mystery series, so it takes place in the late 40s, and he does reference World War II. And he’s not afraid to beat people up or use a gun or something.
Alexandra: Yeah, oh okay.
Renee: There’s Harley back there.
Alexandra: Yes, yes exactly. Not paying attention to us, though, I see.
Renee: Right, yeah. It started to rain, so he’s paying attention to that.
Alexandra: Okay yeah, yeah.
Tell us a little bit about this other series. So set in the 1940s, so historical, which is fun.
Renee: Yeah, it’s the “Dewey Webb Mystery” series. There’s one out and I’m just wrapping up the second one now to take to the editor. And so, he is a private detective, World War II vet. He is married with a young child.
It was kind of interesting because I really didn’t necessarily want to have him married, but I actually created the character in one of the “Reed Ferguson” mysteries back story, that is a present day, past tense novel. So the novel is Reed is approached by a guy who says, “My grandfather was this detective, and I need you to find out some stuff about him.”
The story switches back and forth between now and 1955. I decided then to branch off and write this series, but I had made that character have a wife and a little kid at that point, and it was kind of necessary for back story. But now, I was like, “Okay well, he has to have a kid. I can’t change all of that.” He is hard-boiled and yet the challenge for him is to try and figure out how to not let some of that toughness and hardness that he has spill over into his marriage and with his newborn son.
Alexandra: Do you have plans to extend that series, like to write more? You got the second one, and then more after that?
Renee: I’d like to. Honestly, some of it depends on sales. I don’t want to put a lot into a series if it’s not selling. And this one does okay. It doesn’t do as good as the “Reed Ferguson” series, but I also think it might just be a matter of a little bit of discoverability. If I could get a few in the series, I’d like to see about like if Book Club would take in, and then that might get more eyes on the book. And then if it does well, I can easily see six or eight in the series at least.
Alexandra: Yes, yeah. And getting back to Reed, it fascinates me that over the course of 13 books you’ve spent quite a bit of time with him.
Alexandra: And you said you started writing the first one 14 years ago, I think.
Alexandra: Has it been a challenge to find new adventures for him over the course of that time?
Renee: Well no, and most of it has been written lately because what actually happened is I wrote the first one in about 2001 or 2002, and it kinda sat there. And I wrote “Nephilim” and I self-published that. And this was before Amazon and The Kindle and all of that. And then it was in 2011 that I turned around and started self-publishing, and so I had written book two. So book three and beyond have all been written in the last few years.
And at first, it was hard coming up with stories, not so much anymore. And I think some of that has to do with the pace I’ve been able to keep up. I think, like any muscle, writing becomes easier the more you do it. And honestly, some of it has been too because he loves film noir so much. And if you read the stories, there is always a movie or two that come into play which is some of the play on words in the titles. They all have a reference either to a movie or some kind of a film word in them or reference in them. So like “Reel Estate Rip-Off” is R-E-E-L for film reel and that kind of thing.
Alexandra: Oh, okay.
Renee: Some of where I get my ideas is I’ll go through and read about some of the old film noir movies that are out there and then kind of spin off from there and go, “Oh, Reed could do X,Y, or Z,” and then it suddenly becomes a story.
Alexandra: Right, yes. And he’s a Denver resident, correct?
Alexandra: Yeah, which is…and you’re in Colorado as well?
Renee: Yeah, from that standpoint, write what you know, right?
Alexandra: Exactly, yeah I was just gonna say. Getting back to Robert B. Parker and Spencer, Boston is very much a character in his books. My books are set in British Columbia and, again, the area they’re set in becomes a character.
Do you find that with Denver, or is it just kind of in the background?
Renee: I think in some ways it does become a character, and I try and be careful and try not to get too detailed, but definitely try to give people enough. And I think it’s working because I do get compliments on “I can kind of picture the area having not been to Denver,” or that kind of thing. But I think it’s nice to give a flavor of the area as well.
Alexandra: Yes, I do too, exactly. I’ve never been to Denver, but I’d love to see it.
Renee: Yeah, I’ve not been to British Columbia, but it’s on the list.
Alexandra: You write young adult novels as well, and you’ve written a non-fiction story about a haunted house, I think.
Alexandra: Which is fascinating to me.
Do you feel like mystery is the main genre that you’re drawn to now?
Renee: Yeah, it’s what I grew up reading, I was a voracious reader, a tomboy, so I liked “The Hardy Boys” and not so much “Nancy Drew”. Read a few of those, but I just read a lot of that kind of stuff. And honestly, some of it, if you read enough, there’s some intuitive pieces that you pick up, I think in terms of story, pacing, and stuff like that.
I’ve read Sue Grafton, and I’ve read a lot of the “Spencer” novels. Read Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais so many of them. And actually, a long time ago when authors would tour more, I met quite a number of them and talked with them here and there about the craft of writing, and that kind of thing. And so, it is the most natural fit for me. I’ve enjoyed writing some other things, but it’s certainly the easiest for me and the most natural fit.
Earlier, you said you met Sue Grafton several times. Were you able to talk to her about writing at all?
Renee: I did. The first time I met her, she was touring for probably “F is for Fugitive”. This was probably the what, like the early 90s or late 80s. I was in college. I’m dating myself. She came to a little bookstore that’s not here anymore, but it was called Murder by the Book. And it was in a little house and so I was able to just kind of sit down with her and nobody was there. And we just chatted and people would come in, and she’d sign something.
She’d talk about how she wrote her first novel. I think it’s kind of well-known now but she was in the middle of a bad divorce, I think it was, plotting ways to kill her ex-husband. But she was sharing that, and we just chatted about that kind of stuff. It was really neat to have somebody go, “You can do it,” and, “Just keep pushing,” and that kind of thing.
Alexandra: Wow, so she was really encouraging?
Renee: Yeah, she’s very nice. I’ve seen her a number of times, not always where I got to really chat with her, but she’s always been very personable.
Alexandra: Oh, that’s lovely. That’s always so nice to hear when you’re fans with somebody that they turn out to be kind of nice.
Alexandra: And she must be…I read her books – “The Alphabet Series” early on – but I stopped a while ago. She must be getting close to zed by now, or Z as you say.
Renee: Yeah, I think “X” is the one that has come out. And interestingly enough, I read them more because I want to find out what happens to Kinsey and Henry. I think a long time ago, she lost sight of how to write a good mystery. I’ll probably make some people mad, but I just don’t know that the mysteries are as compelling as they once were.
And I’ve always said to myself when my readers start saying, “Reed isn’t fun anymore” or whatever, then that’s when we kill the series. Unfortunately, for her, whether she’s liked it or not, she kind of does feel like she has to finish the alphabet.
Alexandra: Exactly, right? It’s a bit of a golden handcuff situation there when you start off with “A is for Alibi”.
Renee: Yeah, absolutely.
Alexandra: Do you know…I wonder if she’ll write anything else, actually, afterwards?
Renee: I’ve heard, and it’s “this person heard this” type of a thing, but I’ve heard her say, or that she’s been quoted as saying, when she reaches Z, she’s done. Because she’s already, I think, in her early 70s.
Alexandra: Oh wow.
Renee: Yeah, so I think she’s kind of like, “I’m retiring at that point.”
Renee: I wonder if she does it, right?
Alexandra: Yeah, no, exactly. Yeah, no kidding. Well, this has been great, Renee. Thank you so much for talking to me today. It’s been great talking to you and Harley. He’s been pretty quiet.
Alexandra: So why don’t you let everyone know where they can find your books.
Renee: Sure, my website is reneepawlish.com, and then right now they’re on Amazon. I’m exclusive with them, but you can always get an app to read Kindle books on other devices.
Alexandra: Right, yes. And then you also have a promotion you wanted to tell us about.
Renee: Right, I’m trying to do this once a month now, and the first one will be this weekend. I just got a bunch of authors together, and we are discounting our books to $0.99. And so people can go to reneepawlish.com/promo, and they can find the books this weekend that are on discount. And there’s no signing up for email lists or anything like that. They can just peruse the book, click on it, and it takes them right to Amazon and they can shop.
Alexandra: Oh wow, fantastic. What a great idea.
Renee: Yeah, I actually got it from somebody else who does science fiction fantasy ones. So I thought, well, the mysteries and thrillers need one, too.
Alexandra: Yes, exactly. Okay, I’ll put a mention of that in the show notes with a link to that page.
And you said the promotion is different every month?
Renee: Right, I think they’ll either be $0.99, or free books, or maybe $0.99 box sets, but it would never…I don’t anticipate it ever being anything other than that.
Alexandra: Okay. And so the other thing is that the stock sort of changes every once in a while?
Alexandra: Okay, cool.
Renee: I try not to feature the same books twice or rotate them through, at least, let a number of months go by before the same book is featured again.
Alexandra: Yeah, okay, fantastic. Well, thanks so much for that. Our listeners, hopefully, will appreciate that. That’s great. So thank you again. Take care.
Renee: Thank you. I appreciate it.
Alexandra: My pleasure. Bye bye.