There’s nothing better than a classic noir detective mystery!
Repeat guest Renee Pawlish joins me today to read from the first book in her Reed Ferguson noir mystery series, This Doesn’t Happen in the Movies. If you love stories in the vein of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, you’re going to love Renee’s books.
We discuss the Reed Ferguson series and her historical mystery series featuring detective Dewey Webb, which interestingly is a spin off from the Reed books.
This week’s mystery author
Although born in California, Renee Pawlish has lived in Colorado most of her life. She went to college and graduate school locally, and currently lives in her dream home in the foothills west of Denver. Renee used to be a counselor, with a focus on teen sexual abuse issues and substance abuse, but then she moved into the IT field and never looked back.
Renee writes in several genres that include mystery, horror, action-adventure, and historical mystery.
To learn more about Renee and her books, visit her website ReneePawlish.com
Press play (above) to listen to the show, or read the transcript below. Remember you can also subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts. And listen on Stitcher, Android, Google Podcasts, TuneIn, and Spotify.
You can also click here to listen to the interview on YouTube.
Excerpt from This Doesn’t Happen in the Movies
“I want you to find my dead husband.”
“Excuse me?” That was my first reaction.
“I want you to find my husband. He’s dead, and I need to know where he is.” She spoke in a voice one sexy note below middle C.
“Uh-huh.” That was my second reaction. Really slick.
Moments before, when I saw her standing in the outer room, waiting to come into my office, I had the feeling she’d be trouble. And now, with that intro, I knew it.
“He’s dead, and I need you to find him.” If she wasn’t tired of the repetition, I was, but I couldn’t seem to get my mouth working. She sat in the cushy black leather chair on the other side of my desk, exhaling money with every sultry breath. She had beautiful blond hair with just a hint of darker color at the roots, blue eyes like a cold mountain lake, and a smile that would slay Adonis. I’d like to say that a beautiful woman couldn’t influence me by her beauty alone. I’d like to say it, but I can’t.
“Why didn’t you come see me yesterday?” I asked. Her eyes widened in surprise. This detective misses nothing, I thought, mentally patting myself on the back. She didn’t know that I’d definitely noticed her yesterday eating at a deli across the street. I had been staring out the window, and there she was.
The shoulders of her red designer jacket went up a half-inch and back down, then her full lips curled into the trace of a smile. “I came here to see you, but you were leaving for lunch. I followed you, and then I lost my nerve.”
“I see you’ve regained it.” I’ve never been one to place too much importance on my looks, but I suddenly wished I could run a comb through my hair, put on a nicer shirt, and splash on a little cologne. And change my eye color – hazel – boring. It sounded like someone’s old, spinster aunt, not an eye color.
She nodded. “Yes. I have to find out about my husband. He’s dead, I know it. I just know it.” Her tone swayed as if in a cool breeze, with no hint of the desperation that should’ve been carried in the words.
“But he’s also missing,” I said in a tone bordering on flippant, as I leaned forward to unlock the desk drawer where I kept spare change, paper clips, and my favorite gold pen. Maybe writing things down would help me concentrate. But I caught a whiff of something elegant coming from her direction, and the key I was holding missed the lock by a good two inches. I hoped she didn’t see my blunder. I felt my face getting warm and assumed my cheeks were turning crimson. I hoped she didn’t see that either.
Perhaps I was being too glib because she glanced back toward the door as if she had mistaken my office for another. “This is the Ferguson Detective Agency? You are Reed Ferguson?”
“It is and I am.” I smiled in my most assured manner, then immediately questioned what I was doing. This woman was making no sense and here I was, flirting with her like a high-school jock. I glanced behind her at the framed movie poster from the The Big Sleep, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. It was one of my favorites, and I hung the poster in my office as a sort of inspiration. I wanted to be as cool as Bogie. I wondered what he would do right now.
She puckered pink lips at me. “I need your help.”
“That’s what I’m here for.” Now I sounded cocky.
The pucker turned into a fully developed frown. “I’m very serious, Mr. Ferguson.”
“Reed.” I furrowed my brow and looked at my potential first client with as serious an expression as I could muster. I noticed for the first time that she applied her makeup a bit heavy, in an attempt to cover blemishes.
“Reed,” she said. “Let me explain.” Now we were getting somewhere. I found the gold pen, popped the top off it and scrounged around another drawer for a notepad. “My name is Amanda Ghering.” She spoke in an even tone, bland, like she was reading a grocery list. “My husband, Peter, left on a business trip three weeks ago yesterday. He was supposed to return on Monday, but he didn’t.”
Today was Thursday. I wondered what she’d been doing since Monday. “Did you report this to the police?”
She raised a hand to stop me. “Please. I already have and they gave me the standard response, ‘Give it some time, he’ll show up.’ ”
That one puzzled me. The police wouldn’t file a missing persons case for twenty-four hours, but after that, I was certain they would do something more. “They didn’t do anything?”
“They asked me some questions, said they would make a few calls to the airlines.” Amanda paused. “They were more concerned about my relationship with Peter,” she said, gazing out the window behind me. The only thing she would see was an incredible view of a renovated warehouse across the street. For a brief moment, her face was flushed in as deep a sadness as I’d ever seen. Then it was gone, replaced by a foggy look when she turned back to me. “You see, Peter wasn’t exactly what you’d call a faithful husband.” She frowned, creating wrinkles on an otherwise perfect face. “Well, that’s not completely true. He was faithful, to his libido at least. But not to our marriage.” I paraphrased the last couple of sentences on the notepad. “He travels quite a bit with his company, computer consulting, so he has ample opportunity to dally. And he never tries hard to conceal what he’s doing.”
“Did you tell the police all of this?”
“Yes. I believe that’s why they’re not doing that much. That, and the fact that there appears to be no foul play, has kept them from doing little more than paperwork.”
“You’re afraid they’re not treating his disappearance seriously.”
I scratched my chin with the pen. “I’d have to disagree with you about that.” I didn’t have much experience – okay I didn’t have any experience – but in the tons of detective books I’d read and all the movies I’d seen the police would take someone of Amanda’s obvious wealth with some concern. At least until she gave them a reason not to.
“They don’t have the resources to track him down,” she countered. “That’s left up to me, which is what I’m here to do.”
“And this way you also keep any nasty details private.”
“Why come to me?”
Amanda glanced around the sparsely furnished office and the stark white walls decorated with nothing more than movie posters, as if she were second-guessing her choice of detectives. “You came recommended. I know you’re not licensed but…”
“You don’t have to be in the state of Colorado,” I interrupted. Anyone who wanted to could be a detective here, just hang up a sign. Hell, you didn’t even need a gun. I could testify to that. Never had one, never shot one.
She waved a hand at me. “I don’t care if you’re licensed or not. I know your background. You come from a well-to-do family; you know when to be discreet.”
I came recommended. Now that caught my curiosity. The only thing I’d done was to help a wealthy friend of my father track down an old business partner. It was slightly dangerous but not noteworthy, and at the time I didn’t have an office or a business. I had been between jobs, so I decided to pursue an old dream. I hung up a shingle to try my hand at detecting. I loved old detective novels, had read everything from Rex Stout and Dashiell Hammett to Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain. I’d watched Humphrey Bogart, William Powell, and all the classic film noir movies. I pictured myself just like those great detectives. Well, maybe not. But I was going to try.
“Who recommended me?” I asked. The list was surely small.
“A friend at my club.”
“Paul Burrows. Do you know him?”
I shook my head. “Does he know my father?” I assumed he was someone who’d heard about me helping my father’s friend.
“I don’t know, but Paul said you were good, and that you could use the work.”
She was right about that. I lived comfortably off an inheritance from my obscenely rich grandparents, plus some smart investments I’d made over the years, so I’d never had a real career. I had always wanted to work in law enforcement, but my parents had talked me out of that. Instead, I got a law degree, flitted from job to job, and disappointed my father because I never stuck with anything. I hoped being a detective would change all that; it was something I’d always wanted to do, but my father still thought I was playing around. I needed to solve a real case to prove him wrong.
“Are you a fan of old movies?” Amanda asked, noticing the posters for the first time.
I nodded. “I like old movies, but especially detective film noir.”
I pointed to a different poster on another wall of The Maltese Falcon, one of Bogie’s most famous movies. “Movies with hard-boiled detectives, dark themes, and dark characters.”
“And dark women?” Amanda said.
I kept a straight face as I gazed at Lauren Bacall. “Yeah, that too.”
“I hope you’re as good as Sam Spade,” Amanda said.
I watched her cross one shapely leg over the other, her red wool skirt edging up her thigh. Trouble. Just like I’d thought before. I should have run out of my own office, but I didn’t. I know what you’re thinking, it’s her beauty. No, it was what she said next that complicated things immensely.
“I’m prepared to pay whatever it takes.” Saying that, she pulled a stack of bills from her purse. I crossed my arms and contemplated her. This sounded like I’d just be chasing after a philandering husband. Not exciting at all, even though I had little basis for making that assumption, other than what I’d read in books. But a voice inside my head said that making money meant it was a real job, right?
I named my daily wage, plus expenses. It was top dollar, but she didn’t blink. And I had my first real case. What would my father say to that?
“Let’s start with you clarifying a couple of things,” I said. Moments before Amanda had inked her name on a standard contract, officially making her my first client. “How do you know your husband’s dead and not just missing?”
Amanda sighed. “Because he would’ve called me, kept in touch, and I haven’t heard a word from him.”
“But if he was out with someone else?”
She shook her head. “No, he always calls. He pretends things are normal. We have our routine and he always follows it. Only this time he didn’t.”
“But he knew?”
“That I knew?”
I nodded. She nodded. “Yes, he knew.”
I resisted the urge to continue the Dr. Seuss rhyme. “So he hasn’t called you, but what makes you jump to the conclusion that his not calling means he’s dead?” I leaned back in my chair, tipping it up on two legs. “What if he wanted to disappear, or he’s fallen in love with someone else and has run off with her?”
Amanda emitted a very unladylike snort. “Peter’s not capable of love, so it’s impossible for him to leave me. Not for that reason, anyway.”
“Have you given him another reason to leave?”
She hesitated. “I was going to kill him.”
We moved out of the realm of boring. The chair legs hit the floor hard. “Excuse me?”
“I was going to kill him,” she repeated. She stared down at her hands and ticked items off on an index finger. “For the insurance money and the inheritance. Well over five million. Besides that, I would get my freedom from the farce of our marriage.” She spoke matter-of-factly, as if she were detailing a cooking recipe. “I was trying to figure out a way to do it. I couldn’t make it look like a suicide, because I’d lose out on the insurance money. I couldn’t murder him, because I couldn’t guarantee getting away with it, and I might not get any money that way either. A domestic dispute gone bad was out of the question because Peter wouldn’t hit a rabid dog, let alone his wife. I was left with creating an accident. Only I never could figure out what to do. Help him lose control and drive off a snowy mountain road? Too much risk for me. Electric shock of some sort? But how could I pull that off? Poison? But with what, and how to keep it from being discovered?” Her breasts lifted and sank in a deep sigh. “I finally gave up,” she said and looked me straight in the eye. “I didn’t do anything.”
Blurting out her plans like that intrigued me. Bogie never had it this easy. “But he’s disappeared,” I came back to the original point. “How do I know that you didn’t have him killed?”
“Why would I hire you?”
“To make it look like you weren’t involved.”
She smiled. “I’m afraid that’s impossible. First of all, I wouldn’t know where to start. And as I said, I gave up the idea of killing him.”
“Then how do you know he’s dead? If he knew you wanted him dead, that’s a lot of motivation not to come home.”
“He didn’t know anything about it.”
“But you just said that he might not come home because he knew you were trying to kill him.”
She emitted an exasperated sigh. “Peter never knew anything,” she said again.
“How do you know?”
She spoke to me like I was the class dunce. “All Peter knew was that our marriage, and his money, were in jeopardy. When I was considering what I might do to him, I was less,” she struggled to find the right words, “less than kind to him. Cold. Indifferent. He sensed that. Then I decided I was being foolish, so I resumed the game. Things were back to normal, whatever that was. He didn’t have any reason not to come home.”
I sat back again, feeling like I’d missed the answer to a test question. “So I’m supposed to find your presumably dead husband, whom you wanted to kill, but deny that you did, and now that he’s gone, you want him back.”
“Yes,” she said, exasperated.
“Fine,” I said.
I should’ve run, right then. I should’ve, but I didn’t.
Interview with Renee Pawlish
Alexandra: Great job. Thanks, Rene.
Renee: Thank you.
Alexandra: That was book number one in this series.
There are 18 now in total, right? Plus, there’s one novella, maybe two.
Renee: There’s two novellas. One was just it was rereleased this month. That was part of the the old Kindle worlds that Amazon did away with. So I reworked it. That’s called Walk Softly Danger. That was just rereleased. And then there’s five short stories.
Alexandra: Okay. We touched on there in that chapter how Reed is kind of trying to impress his dad. That’s his motivation, or at least prove to his dad that that he can have a real job, as it were.
Do you think that motivation has changed over the course of those books?
Renee: Yes, definitely. As he and the other characters have evolved, he’s finally won his parents’ respect and his brother, who’s naive and always thinks he’s getting himself into trouble and in danger.
And it’s in the last book, The Lady Rambles, that he’s actually asked to help his mother when she’s accused of stealing something that she didn’t. So, he finally wins them over. But it takes time and there’s always that humorous interplay between him and them.
Alexandra: It’s such an interesting proposal that he has his own income. But he loves the film noir and the books by Rex Stout and those kinds of authors. He must also have a penchant for justice.
Do you think in addition to that, he’s not just a ne’er do well, would you say?
Renee: Yes. He comes from a good family. He has a sense of right and wrong. He was going to go into the law profession and decided he did want to do that. But, yes, I think he definitely has a sense of chivalry about him. I’m going to do right. No matter what.
And that that actually comes into play in this latest novella, Walk Softly Danger, because he’s put in the position of possibly helping a vigilante justice group. And he has to decide where does he fall in that spectrum? Is he going to help them?
Alexandra: What was it about the law that didn’t attract him? How come he didn’t go down that road?
Renee: That’s funny you ask that. I really have never particularly expanded on that other than he just he’s a Harvard kid. He and his best friend went to Harvard and his best friend is super smart, into the computer world and I.T..
But Reed just never wanted to to pursue law. He really lived to be a cop, in his well-to-do family. Anyway, that really was going to be okay. As I kind of put out there here in the first book that he decides, okay, I’m going to hang out my shingle and try this detective business anyway.
Alexandra: Is it still true in Colorado that you don’t need a license?
Renee: No. I wrote this book quite a number of years ago, then released it in 2011 with the whole Amazon Kindle e-book reading. But I had a reader actually contact me and say that it changed, but it’s only been in the last couple of years. So I actually wrote that here into one of the more recent novels that he’d gone out of his license.
Alexandra: One of the interesting things about the Reed Ferguson series is that in book 10, which is called Back Story, he looks into a murder in the 1950s. You have a man named Dewey Webb and then you actually spun Dewey Webb off into a historical mystery series.
Tell us a bit about Dewey and what it was about him that grabbed you enough that you wanted to do that?
Renee: I don’t remember exactly how I came up with the idea of Dewey Webb. I just somewhere along the line thought it would be really interesting to have a story where you flashed back and forth between the present day and the past and and solved a case like that.
I tried to meld the chapters even to where one chapter would end and hopefully seamlessly go back into them. What Dewey was doing as he was trying to track down a killer. I enjoyed writing about Dewey so much, creating that character and researching. I love history. So it was fun to research Denver in the early 50s and that whole era. And it was it was just delightful to do.
At some point I thought, OK, I need to get another series going, what should I do? And I thought, I’ll take Dewey and I can spin off a bunch of stories about him. But since I had – I’m spoiling this for some people – I chose participants since I had killed them all off, I guess that was in 1950, let me go back several years and then I can have a lot of time to work with him. And so that’s what I did.
I think Web of Deceit is the first book and I think that’s dark. I started that in 1949 and then now I’m up to book eight with that. And I think we’re just into 1951 now.
He’s been a lot of fun because he’s more he’s more hard-boiled. I left most of the humor out of that. But so he’s a guy, though, that he’s trying to do right by his wife and he’s got a baby son. And yet, by the same token, he’s scarred by the war and his experiences in Germany. And some of that comes out, especially when he’s dealing with people on the street and things like that.
Alexandra: You must have learned some interesting things about Denver in Colorado in the late 40s, early 50s by writing these.
Renee: Yes. I wish I had more time. Unfortunately, I still have a full time job. And that’s where the Internet has been a nice thing because you can look a lot of things up.
I have found myself researching a neighborhood or something and the next thing you know, it’s been two hours and I’m like, I should have a chapter written.
A reader might not realize that I’ve spent that long, two hours, researching something to just get a paragraph or a couple of sentences to make it as authentic is as you could get it. But it’s been a lot of fun.
Looking at old pictures and that kind of thing and tying in some old events like I used, I think it’s pronounced Smaldone, was a crime family in Denver here in the 40s and 50s. I think even back in the 30s, I’ve brought them into play in a restaurant that they owned. I try to not make things up if I don’t have to. I’ve tried to use real restaurants and bars and places, buildings as much as I can.
Alexandra: Has Denver retained a lot of its historical buildings and that kind of thing?
Renee: It does. There are quite a number of the buildings that were were built back in the turn of the century or the 20s, 30s and so on, that they may have changed names or been remodeled or things like that. But the original buildings were still there.
I even had a fan write me. He lives in the old new Stetzer Department store building. And it’s been converted into condos. A friend and I went in and he toured us around his condo. And then we got up on the roof and everything that was that was fun.
Alexandra: Now, several of the Reed Furguson books are available in audiobook. And your narrator has the amazing name of Johnny Peppers. So just as a final question, and this is kind of more for my interest.
What was the process like for you, finding a narrator who sounded like Reed Ferguson in your head? Was it really tricky?
Renee: It kind of was. Yeah. Because I had a ton of auditions. It was just trying to get that right flavor and feel it.
You have an idea in your head of what he sounds like and trying to get somebody that was close to that and then especially with this series getting the nuances of that dry wit, because a lot of the dry wit is delivery, and they need to be able to read it to have that come across in them.
I’ve been working on the Dewey Webb. And, it was very different voice. I was looking for a little bit deeper in whatever way to get the feel of this 1950s hardboiled detective. So, yeah, it’s a process to find the right narrator and get all that going.
Alexandra: I’m glad you found somebody you’re happy with.
Renee: Yes, definitely. I hope I hope the readers think so, too.
Alexandra: This has been great. Renee, why don’t you let everyone know where they can find out more about you and your books?
Renee: Right now, all my books are on Amazon. I’m exclusive to them right now. Not necessarily by choice, but that’s how Amazon sometimes sets things up.
And then the audiobooks are through Audible.
You can find out information about me, and you can also get a free book if you sign if you sign up to my newsletter and free to drop at any point to point that out. And that’s at reneepawlish.com and the web site’s in the process of being redone so it’ll be even better.
Alexandra: I’ll put links to the web site and your books in the show notes so people can find them. Thank you so much for talking to me again today. I appreciate it.
Renee: Thank you for having me on. All right. Take care. You, too.
Alexandra: Bye bye.