Deep in the heart of Texas there’s a tiny canine sleuth on the case.
I loved talking to Texas cozy mystery author Cat Clayton about her mystery series featuring dog groomer Steely Lamarr and her loyal companion, a Chihuahua named Cuff. The Steely and Cuff mysteries are perfect for mystery lovers who like a dash of romance and a splash of quirkiness in their books.
Cat’s interview is perfectly timed because I think we all need a dose of the comfort that comes from reading about dogs, their loving owners, and mysteries that have a tidy resolution!
In the introduction, I mention some of my favorite comforting mystery novels, podcasts, TV shows and movies with the intention of providing suggestions for comfort if you need it in these challenging times.
This week’s mystery author
Cat Clayton writes from somewhere deep in the heart of Texas, crafting a literary crossroads where mystery, humor, the paranormal, and a dash of romance intersect. She adores her family, spoils her (half-dozen +1) pets, is a self-proclaimed coffee snob, and a thrift store junky. When she’s not writing, she’s thinking about writing, and when she’s not doing either, she attempts CrossFit.
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 How to Leash a Thief
I declared it pie o’clock somewhere and shoved a forkful of Very Berry Scrumptious in my mouth, as I attempted to decipher the troubled expression on my boyfriend’s face, while he spat hushed, clipped words into his cell phone. The same phone issued to him by the Buckleville Police Department. Even though I couldn’t hear anything, it didn’t take Sherlock to figure out the unidentified caller had delivered bad news. Trouble had arrived in Buckleville.
To distract my curiosity, I dug in for another bite. The yummy combination of buttery crust and the yin-yang of sweet and tart touched my soul. In my book, pie made everything better.
I leaned in, listening to Nick’s phone call. My cheeky Chihuahua, Cuff, sat perched on my lap. His head followed my fork back and forth, bulging amber eyes begging.
Nick backed up a few paces—enough to evade my prying ears.
Moments ago, we’d been arguing over the fact he’d caught me going through his things. Again. I couldn’t help myself. Recently, I’d found a receipt for a bouquet of long-stemmed red roses from the Crazy Daisy. A bouquet I’d never received.
Nick’s Bull Mastiff, Trigger, snoozed in the kitchen. His massive body lay sprawled on the tile floor, drooling. Cuff had been a moment of weakness while driving out of the Buckleville Food’s parking lot. One glimpse at the older male pup caged in a rickety-wired monstrosity, and I melted. It was love at first sight.
“Who is it?” I whispered to Nick. I set my pie plate down on the counter and put Cuff on the floor. He padded over next to Trigger and collapsed. He lowered his tiny muzzle between his two front paws and eyed me.
With his cell phone glued to his ear, Nick scowled.
I glanced over at the framed picture of us from last Christmas. I’d met Nick Campbell last winter at the downtown Holiday Stroll after he’d transferred to Buckleville PD. My first real, intimate relationship, and I intended to make it last. Before Nick, I was a 25-year-old virgin, a hopeless old-school romantic; it still happens. Despite “friendly advice” and “prayerful thought” from others, who thought we were moving too quickly, I tumbled head over boot heels in love.
But our romance had taken a turn for bitter and questionable, like milk gone blinky.
Glaring in my direction, Nick reached over and snatched the small notepad he carried while on duty.
No stranger to trouble, I recognized the look.
Ocean blue eyes narrowed under furrowed brows. His jaw clenched and his hand moved in quick, jerky motions as he jotted down details.
“Yes, Sir,” Nick said.
He only called one person “Sir.”
And there was only one reason the chief called Nick when he was off duty.
My eyes shifted to Nick’s brass badge on the counter. When I closed my eyes, I could see Pop and Mama’s gleaming badges when they both served on the Buckleville PD. Pop had retired soon after Mama had her accident.
I reached up, searching for the sterling silver heart-shaped locket around my neck. It had been my mother’s before she’d died. I opened the tiny heart, revealing a picture of me on one side and a picture of my sister Stoney on the other. We must’ve been five and ten years old at the time they took the pictures. I fastened it closed with a snap, fighting back the tears.
“I got it, Sir.” Nick’s voice yanked me back to reality, his eyes flicking in my direction, his jaw tense.
I attempted to peek at his notepad as he flipped it closed.
A text came through on my cell phone from my friend Daniel. I tried to call Samson @ the shop, but he won’t pick up. I think I left the door unlocked. Ugh… sawry! We lived closer to town than Daniel. I replied to his text. No worries—I’ll go check!
I glanced at my keys on the countertop, two big eyes on the brass poodle face key chain stared back at me. Six months ago, after my Grandma Gertie had caught her hair on fire lighting a cigarette with the gas stove burner, she signed over her dog grooming business to me and moved herself into a retirement home. Along with the help of Daniel, my head groomer, I was the proud owner of Scrubadub: Three Pups in a Tub.
Nick’s sudden movement caught my attention as he ducked around the corner and disappeared into the hall.
I clambered up onto the counter and pressed my ear against the wall. I squeezed my eyes shut, hoping to sharpen my sense of hearing. I heard Nick’s harsh whispers. Murder. Dead body. Steely’s shop.
I inhaled, pulling the air deep into my lungs and pushed out an audible exhale. Now was not the time to panic. I begged my asthmatic lungs to behave. I slid off the counter and robotically began wiping it down, my mind racing at a dizzying speed.
Did he say murder? At the shop? A wave of nausea rolled over in the pit of my stomach.
“Hello! Did you hear me?” Nick said, snapping his fingers.
“Sorry. Didn’t hear you come back in. Must’ve been in a daze.” I tossed the sponge in the sink, trying to ignore the heaviness pressing down on my lungs. Inhale… exhale…
“I’ll say. That countertop shines like polished chrome.” Nick grabbed his keys from the hook on the wall.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Police business. But I might need you to run into town later. For now, stay here and keep your phone on.”
He was out the front door before I could respond and tell him I needed to go check the front door of the shop.
Cuff yipped at me, his sickle-shaped tail wagging.
I tossed the fork into the sink, shoved the pie in the fridge, and dashed to the window. The black Dodge truck backed up, a loaded shotgun mounted in the back window, like a Texas badge of honor. I waited for Nick to turn out of the gravel drive, then high-tailed it out of the kitchen.
Cuff yapped, nipping at my heels.
I made a beeline for the living room. Just as I reached to switch on the police scanner, Cuff tangled himself between my bare feet, sending me flying headfirst into the desk. My head cracked against the unforgiving oak.
“Son of a—”
Uh uh uh.
“—biscuit eater!” Agonizing pain ricocheted through my head. Dizzy, I slumped against the desk.
Cuff licked my hands, offering a sincere apology.
You okay, Chiquita? A tiny, squeaky voice echoed in my head.
“Who said that?” I glanced around the room. Tiny white flashes filled my vision. An obvious result of my head-on collision with the desk. But where did that voice come from?
Nobody answered, and the room was empty, except me and Cuff. I closed my eyes and patted Cuff between his ears, soothing my own frazzled nerves. His tiny head trembled beneath my hand.
“It’s okay, little buddy.” I reached up and rubbed the goose egg forming on my forehead. “I think I’ll survive.”
I heaved myself off the floor and sagged into the desk chair, switching to station three of the police scanner. They mentioned the break-in at my shop. My heart skipped a beat. I monitored the female dispatcher and the officers discussing the situation and the whereabouts of the dead body.
A male voice sounded over the radio. “Be advised we have identified the body. Officer Tripp says his name is Samson. Last name unknown. No identification found on the body.”
“Do you mean ‘Sweater Man’?” the dispatcher asked.
“Affirmative. We found the victim in the empty apartment above Ms. Lamarr’s shop. Blunt force trauma to the head.”
I let out the breath I’d been holding and choked back a sob. “Sweater Man” was none other than Scrubadub’s night janitor and a friend. Samson had a gentle soul and always kept to himself. No matter what the temperature, he’d always worn sweaters.
I closed my eyes and wished the news I’d heard wasn’t real. I recalled the first time we’d met Samson.
One night last winter after closing up the shop, we discovered Samson and his huge black and white fluffy mongrel, a cross between a Great Pyrenees and poodle that Daniel called a “Pyre-doodle,” huddled up against the back of the building, shivering. Daniel and I invited him and his pup in for a cup of hot coffee and a dog treat. We all hit it off, and Virgil, his giant scruffy beast of a dog was no more vicious than a mouse. Samson had agreed to clean the shop every evening after close, and in return, Virgil would get a deluxe Daniel special groom every two weeks. I’d invited them to bunk in Gramma Gertie’s old apartment above the shop.
“Who would kill Samson? And what about Virgil?” I said to no one. Gosh, what had happened to the massive, sweet mutt? Virgil needed my help. I could feel it in my bones.
Virgil? What about Virgil? Huh, huh?
I ignored the voice and tried to focus. I had to get to town and quick.
I switched out my shorts and tank top for a pair of jeans and a stretchy black t-shirt. Searching around for the first pair of shoes I could find, I grinned when I spotted my favorite pair of camouflage boots. Sporting four-inch spiked heels and zippers to my knees, the boots rocked. Besides, they added major height to my Thumbelina stature, even if the boots were murder on my feet.
Rushing down the hall, I caught sight of myself in the mirror on the wall. A plum, quarter-sized knot perched above my right eyebrow. “Holy cow, I’m a train wreck.” I raked my fingers through the merlot red tufts of hair, jetting out in all directions.
Hurry, Chiquita! Let’s go!
Disregarding the voice, I headed to the kitchen, Cuff danced around my feet. Jumping up on my leg, he wagged his tail. Such an eager little guy.
I squeezed my eyes shut and counted to ten, hoping the voice would stop. Maybe I should head to the emergency clinic and have my head examined instead of looking for Virgil and checking on the shop. Hearing voices could be a sign of a concussion or worse. I had hit the desk hard.
I glanced into those sweet, brown eyes. His head tilted to the side.
I didn’t mean to do it, Chiquita.
I pushed the unpleasant thought of brain damage and the odd voice to the back of my mind. I grabbed my keys and my handbag, making sure my asthma inhaler was inside, and headed for the door. As I slid the glass door open, thunder rumbled, a hint of rain lingered in the air. Sweltering summer nights often spurred thunderstorms. I crossed my fingers that the bottom of the sky wouldn’t fall out during my drive into town.
“Sorry, boy. Not this time.”
Thunder boomed again. Cuff barked. I peered over at Trigger sprawled on the floor, snoring. An ocean of drool pooled around his flabby muzzle. Trigger could sleep through a hurricane.
Cuff shivered, begging me with his bulging, amber eyes. He cocked his head to the side.
C’mon, Chiquita! I’m worried about Virgil, too!
My pup barked at me.
“Okay, okay.” I bent over and held out my hands. Cuff leaped up into my arms. I traded out the small clutch purse for a paisley sling bag and packed him safely inside. Petite women shouldn’t carry large purses, but when you’re packing—a pooch that is—they come in handy.
Outside, a damp, earthy scent hung in the air; the humidity of the approaching rain suffocated me. The back floodlight streaming through the arching branches of the ancient oak created webbed shadows across the deck. I sprinted through them to my car. I loaded Cuff into my silver Volkswagen Bug and hit the road, driving like a madwoman.
Interview with Cat Clayton
Alexandra: Why don’t we begin by you telling us a little bit about Steely.
Tell us about why you were prompted to write about her, what you like about her, that kind of thing.
Cat: The idea came to me, it’s gotta be probably six years now. The character that I was trying to craft, an amateur sleuth character. I knew I wanted her to be female and I knew I wanted a police department or some type of law enforcement aspect to be involved.
And I myself am married to a police officer. We’ll be married 30 years this year. So I had the idea of writing Steely as a young woman in her mid twenties.
But I had to pick a profession that had absolutely nothing to do with. That’s kind of what I could imagine an amateur sleuth having. So I made her a dog groomer.
The first man that we’re introduced to is Nick. Now, I don’t want to be a spoiler, but he doesn’t last. How about we say that? He’s not very nice. You’ll be able to tell right away. We could tell from their reading that he is definitely not a very nice a nice guy. I don’t know how to say that without spoiling.
So let’s go back to Steely. She is loosely based on my 27 year old daughter who works in the emergency medical services career. That’s her career. She’s an EMT. And then I myself was a young wife of a police officer.
I kind of melded her personality with old me. You know, back in my 19, 20, you know, 19, I guess I was probably 19 when we got married. I just kind of meshed all of that into one and made the character. And so she’s kind of a mix up of my daughter, my older daughter, and then me as well, like old me.
Alexandra: I could tell right away that animals were important to you because we were only in the first part of chapter one and we’ve already met two dogs.
Cat: And I’m writing a book four. I’ve counted twenty three dogs so far, or animals so far. They’re not all dogs that show up in the stories, but most of them are dogs because it is a dog.
She owns a dog grooming shop. She actually takes it over from her grandparents. So but we do see other animals that show up in the shop.
Alexandra: We were talking just before we started to record about little elements… I don’t know if paranormal is the right word. Unusual elements that we’ve both introduced to some of our books. And one of them, as we heard in that in that excerpt, is that Steely begins to hear Cuff’s voice.
What was the impetus for that?
Cat: When I wrote the first draft, it did not have that element in there. We had Cuff in it. He was a Chihuahua and he had all the qualities that he has now. Except she didn’t hear his thoughts.
The original draft actually had her mother’s spirit talking to her because her mother is deceased. And we learned that right away with the locket, she goes for the locket and chapter one. So and then she kind of drops in a little bit of that story there.
But at first, it was going to be that element. And I don’t know, it just didn’t seem quirky enough.
I had read a book and it was a mystery book. And I want to say it was written. I read the first in her series. I want to say it was JB Lynn and she wrote the Hitwoman series.
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that series.
Alexandra: I think I have.
Cat: She was in a car wreck and she hears all animal voices. And I just remember what a riot that was. I had read book one. And I thought, OK, well, she has a quirky personality already and. Why not try to throw some sort of I kind of used it as like a little bit of a fantasy element at first.
But the other thing that she only hears his thoughts, so when she bumps her head on the desk, does she have a little bit of a TBI?
Or is it her imagination? Nobody else can hear him. Nobody else gets those thoughts. And she certainly doesn’t hear other animals. So I wanted it to be left up to the reader. If it was really his thoughts or it’s in her mind. So it’s something that she’s created on her own. So, yeah, I just thought it was a fun element.
Alexandra: Tell us about Buckleville, Texas.
Cat: I always say Buckleville is somewhere in the great state of Texas.
We live in a very rural community and there are small towns dotted all over the map in this region of Texas, south central Texas. And so there’s a lot of small towns within a 50 mile radius of my home that we frequent all the time. And they’re all charming.
They all have their own little unique qualities, their own set of small town folks and the community and the people that live there. And so what I’ve done is I’ve taken probably, I want to say, five or six of our towns out here, including my own hometown, and kind of meshed them together and tried to pick and choose little pieces of each of the communities that I know and created Buckleville
There’s a lot of big town names that are in our community. And for some reason it’s kind of quirky and funny because it’s like a belt buckle.
There’s a lot of subdivisions in our area. So I put Buckleville smack dab right in the middle of like our community.
I had a reader say, “I can’t find Buckleville on the map. Where is Buckleville?” I mention our hometown and I mention area towns, like Austin and Houston. But it’s fictional.
Alexandra: I thought the name was absolutely perfect for a little Texas town.
I imagine that perhaps there might be some interesting Texan characters, people who get to get interwoven as well.
Cat: Oh, yes. We have some. I know that every area probably has its own unique quality of of people in. But boy, a lot of the characters that I’ve brought into the books I’ve taken a quirk from somebody I’ve met.
I’m a people watcher. I can sit in an airport or a coffee shop and I’m not eavesdropping per say. Well, maybe I am. But just people’s dialogue and their dialect and their mannerisms and their quirkiness.
I absorb all of that and I’ll write it down. I always keep notebooks with me. There’s a lot of people that dropped into these characters. So I have readers that are from this community and they always ask me, I think I know who this is.
I think that’s what that’s one of the great things about being a writer is that they always say write what you know or write what you love or write what you know.
But I write what I experience and the things that that I’ve either dealt with in life or seen in life or heard. I basically write like my life and experience.
Alexandra: People often ask me the same question. I think I know who so-and-so is based on. But as authors, we can never make it that obvious because it could be offensive to the person who read the book.
Cat: Exactly. I don’t want to offend anybody. But people are interesting. And they’re colorful. It’s it’s fun. I love it.
My favorite part of writing the books is developing the characters and the town and the descriptions of those types of things. I just find it a very creative process. Coming up with the characters.
Alexandra: Say more about that. Do you like coming up with their motivation or their quirks?
Cat: Yeah, I love it. I have my own quirks. I used to get offended when when somebody would say, oh, you know, she’s quirky or you’re kind of eccentric. I used to get a little offended by that.
But boy, does it set me apart from the norm. I don’t want to be normal because what is normal? Boring. So I’ve kind of embraced my my quirky weirdness. I think it’s a very rich quality to have.
And I just sometimes I just make them up. I have one of the characters, he shows up in all three of the books, but he rides a good old fashioned bicycle. And it’s got a basket on the front that he has made into a garden and he grows seasonal seasonal flowers or vegetables inside his basket garden that he rides and he has a little bell that he rings. And I totally made that up out of my head. I sometimes some interesting work to have.
Alexandra: That’s beautiful.
Cat: Yes. And then the third is How to Fetch a Felon.
Alexandra: Do you have plans for more?
Cat: Yes. Number four – I’ve already drafted it. And so I’m working on kind of tweaking it a little bit before I send it off to the developmental editor. It is called How to Muzzle a Mobster. And it’s actually an extra book.
So the series I only really wanted to be three books and there was an overall story arc that goes all the way from books 1 to 3.
And we finished that up in book 3, but so many of my readers, I tried to start on another and I have started another series of paranormal series, but so many of my readers wanted more from Steely and so I decided to write extras.
At this point I have four and five of the in the works. Four will be out the fall of this year. So the fall of 2020.
Alexandra: Great. Such a nice endorsement that your fans want more.
Cat: Yes. They want more Steely. She does end up having another male in her life. And so they want more him and they want more of Gerty, her grandmother, and they want more Cuff.
I had come up with probably ten titles. I just kept going on with the with the verbs and with the whole dog theme verbs in the titles. So I have 10 titles.
I don’t have them all outlined or mapped or anything like that, but I do have a total of ten titles that I have in my series notebook.
Alexandra: I was just going to say, do you think you’ll write them all? But I guess you don’t know yet.
Cat: I don’t know yet. I’m having a lot of fun. One of my readers gave me the suggestion that they would like to see stories from different characters, though. Like one of the stories from maybe the grandmother’s perspective, because she’s a hoot.
When you guys get to meet Gerty, she’s just a hoot and a half. And she’s actually based on my husband’s grandmother, whose name was Gertrude. She was quite the quite the character herself. They want they want books maybe from Gerty’s perspective or Jackson’s perspective, which is the other male character. It would be kind of fun to have one from Cuff.
I feel like it’s a kind of a wide open landscape that you can explore.
Alexandra: Cat, this has been lovely. Why did you let our listeners know where they can find out more about you and your books?
Cat: OK, great. They can find me at my Web site and it’s CatClayton.com. I’m also on Facebook and Instagram. As Cat Clayton mysteries.
What I tried to do was I tried to pick and choose the social media outlets that channels that I was strong with and that I prefer and that I’m most comfortable with. And Twitter, I’m you know, I’m not very comfortable at Twitter.
Facebook, Instagram, Cat Clayton mysteries. And then they can also follow me on Amazon and on BookBub. Those two places are really nice to follow because they will alert you in an email. When I come out with a new book and I do have another series I’m working on.
My plan is to release two books a year, one for which each series. It will send them a little alerts when there is a new book out.
Alexandra: Yes. And the other one you mentioned, it’s paranormal. Is it mysteries as well?
Cat: Yes, it is. Those those are based on Texas law and legends and ghost stories. We have down in Texas, we have just a plethora. And I know area’s all areas do. But we have the chupacabra. We have that in East Texas. We have the Marfa lights in West Texas. And we have all these different ghost stories.
So I will be traveling to each of the areas and experiencing them on my own. And then I will fictionalize a story about it. The first one comes out in June 2020.
Alexandra: I’ll put links to what you’ve mentioned in the show notes as well.
Cat: Thank you so much.
Alexandra: It’s been lovely chatting with you. Thank you so much.
Cat: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure, Alexandra.