Author and former jockey Sasscer Hill has been inspired by both her literary heroes and her real life when it comes to writing her horse racing thrillers.
Anyone who knows me well knows what a loon I am about the late author Dick Francis. He was a champion jockey in the UK, who rode for the Queen Mother among others, before he became a bestselling author.
My guest today, Sasscer Hill, shies away from comparisons to Francis, but I suspect her horse racing novels might appeal to Dick Francis fans among my listeners. Sasscer endeared herself to me by not only citing Francis during our interview, but also two of my other favorite authors; Robert B. Parker and Walter Farley. Our conversation felt like a match made in heaven. ;-)
In other mystery novel news, It’s a Mystery Podcast guest Peter Bartram (episode #27) has a new trilogy of books out this month in his Colin Crampton 1960s journalism series. You can learn more about the Morning, Noon, and Night trilogy at ColinCrampton.com.
Click on any of the book covers to go to Sasscer’s books on Amazon.
You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.
Transcription of Interview with Sasscer Hill
Alexandra: Hi, mystery readers, this is It’s a Mystery Podcast. I’m your host Alexandra Amor, and I’m here today with Sasscer Hill. Hi, Sasscer.
Sasscer: Hi, how are you?
Alexandra: I’m good. How are you?
Sasscer: I’m feeling very well, thank you.
Alexandra: Oh, good. Well, let me give our listeners an introduction to you.
Author Sasscer Hill was involved in horse racing as an amateur jockey and has been a racehorse breeder for most of her life. She sets her novels against a background of big money, gambling, and horse racing.
Her mystery and suspense thrillers have received multiple award nominations. Her first book in the Nikki Latrelle series, “Full Mortality” was nominated for both an Agatha and a Macavity Best First Book Award. Sasscer has written a new series for St. Martin’s Minotaur. One of the new books in this Fia McKee series won the Carrie McCray 2015 Competition for First Chapter of a Novel, as well as the 2015 Claymore Award Nomination. The first book in the series, “Flamingo Road,” was published April 18th, 2017, and we’ll talk about that a little later in the interview.
I want to start out first to talk about the Nikki Latrelle book. Tell us a little bit about Nikki and her background.
Sasscer: Nikki is younger than my new heroine, Fia McKee. Nikki is only 23 years old, and her story is that her mother died when she was very young and left her in the hands of a stepfather, who was also, it turned out, once the mother was gone, she knew for sure that he was a pedophile, and before she’d only been…knew something was wrong.
So what she did was in the middle of the night, she escaped out of her window and ran through the streets of Baltimore, you know, in bad areas, and made it to Pimlico Race Track and, climbed over the wire fence, and dropped down into the back stretch of Pimlico, and somehow managed to make a new life for herself because she couldn’t go home.
Alexandra: She was a teenager when this happened, correct?
Sasscer: Yes, she was 13 when that happened. And the first story opens when she’s 23 and she’s become a jockey. Interestingly enough after I did the whole three series for Wildside Press, and I got the rights back, and I redid the covers and published the books myself. I wrote a prequel, which does go back to when Nikki was 13.
I really enjoyed doing it because I had always had the story in the back of my mind. You know how when you’re an author, you’re supposed to write all the backstory ahead of time not in the book? And I had, and it was such a great backstory. I thought this could make a novella. So that’s what I did. I turned it into a novella.
Alexandra: Yeah, I saw that on Amazon, and I just thought that was so intriguing.
When you wrote that novella, kind of developing Nikki’s backstory, did you learn anything new that you hadn’t known about her?
Sasscer: I guess I learned more about how hard it is for a youngster with no money, no ID. I mean, then I really got into that instead of it just being, you know, that’s what happened or I mean, I was suddenly living in her life of what it was like and how people would help her out, which they do at the race track.
People at the track, it’s kind of like running away to the circus. I mean, there are some there that will take advantage of you, but there are some there who will really help you out and make things work.
Alexandra: And why did she end up at the race track? Did she have an interest in horses?
Sasscer: She did. Her mother loved horses, and when she was quite young, her mother started taking her to Pimlico to watch the ponies run. And in the summer, they would even take a bus along the Washington-Baltimore Parkway and go to Laurel, Maryland and watch the horses race there.
And it was one of the places, when things got bad, when her mother remarried this creep, it’s one of the things that she could remember as a wonderful time of her life when they would go to the track together, and how much fun they would have, and how beautiful the horses were, and how excited, you know, the people would be at the races. So that’s why she ran back there. She had felt safe and happy there.
Alexandra: Oh, that’s fascinating to me. And I mean, you bring up the issue of when we’re 13 years old, we don’t have any identification and no bank accounts and it’s not legal for us to work or anything.
Alexandra: So she was obviously thrown in the deep end and must be a very resourceful person.
Sasscer: Well, she ended up getting a job working anything she could do for a trainer, and they will do that. You know, they’ve taken on young people who are underage and given them something to do. If they look at you and you’re like a stray puppy that needs help, there are people who will help you out at the race track, just like at the circus.
It does kind of work that way, because they can get away with it. The back stretch is a walled off area, and you don’t have like child services and people like that coming in. They can get away with certain things that would be harder to do in a regular neighborhood.
Alexandra: Right. Yeah, makes sense.
Did she go to school after that?
Sasscer: She was in school, and what she did after she ran away was she read a lot, and she got her GED, you know, through the mail or however you do to get a GED when you’re not in school. And she was always well-read because when she was quite young her mother got her a job at a riding school that was a very posh riding school for well-to-do young ladies.
Her mother was a cook in the kitchen, and she managed to get Nikki a job on weekends, and cleaning stalls and doing anything she could so that she gets some riding lessons, because like her mother, she was horse-crazy. So by the time she got to Pimlico, she knew how to ride, and she had a natural ability and a gift. So that made it easier for her to move forward at Pimlico over the years.
Alexandra: And then we jump forward to “Full Mortality.” And how old is she when that book starts?
Alexandra: Okay, so it’s about 10 years later.
Sasscer: 10 years later, yeah.
Alexandra: Yeah, and she’s a jockey, and she’s doing well in her career. Is that right?
Sasscer: Fairly well. She’s not the greatest jockey that ever came down the pike. She has a lot of natural ability, a lot of intuition, but she doesn’t have that predatory drive, you know, to drive a horse to the finish no matter what. That’s not really in her psyche as much as it could be.
If she has any sense that a horse might be a little off or a little sore, it’s hard for her to push it, whereas a lot of the jockeys, you know, we’re gonna win no matter what, and if the horse breaks down, you know, so be it. And, fortunately, there aren’t too many jockeys like that.
Alexandra: Tell us a little bit about how she gets mixed up in murder in the first book.
Sasscer: Oh, gosh. You know, it’s been so long since I wrote that. There was a ring of insurance fraud people, people running insurance fraud, killing horses for insurance money, and that has gone on both in the show world, more in the show world and the polo pony world of all things than in horse racing world. But they will kill a horse, and they will get it insurance for a lot of money, and then they’ll kill it and they’ll collect the insurance, and that, you know…it’s horrible, but, I mean, people are murdered every day of the week for a radio, right? The world is not always a nice place to live in.
So she is determined to do what she can to stop these people, and she’s right in the thick of it. So she does get involved, you know, looking at the lip tattoos on the horses and trying to figure out which one is the ringer and which one isn’t and what they’re doing and…because they’ll do that, too.
They’ll bring in a ringer and run them under somebody else’s name, and a horse that was like a dog, and they’ll run it 30-to-1. It’s thought to be a 30-to1 long shot, you know, and it’s really like 6-to-5 and it’s gonna win, and it does, and they’ll collect a huge amount of betting money. So between that and the insurance fraud, that’s the crime that takes place in that book that she has to deal with.
Alexandra: And then she carries on, obviously, and there are several other books in the series.
Sasscer: Yes, yes. There’s Racing From Death, which is about the use of methamphetamine. And there’s a horrible person who is doing diet cocktails for jockeys who are desperate to keep their weight down. So he’s killing jockeys.
So she gets involved in that because a friend of hers that she likes, it becomes more and more rail-thin trying to make the weight, and then in the middle of a race, she falls off the horse, and she’s dead. So, you know, Nikki has to get involved in that a little bit, too.
She gets caught up in it for a lot of reasons. One of the reasons is her young protege, who’s just an exercise rider, who’s younger than she is, named Lorna. Lorna gets involved with a very, very handsome, sexy young man named Bobby Devane, and he’s just, you know, given her drugs and having sex with her. And unfortunately, his father, which we don’t realize at the time, his father is one of the main bad guys that’s involved in the drug trade that’s killing jockeys.
So it all kind of gets tied together. But it’s a fun book because she has a pet chicken, and she has a cat, and the cat and the chicken get quite drawn to each other because one is what is they call Cochin, which means they have the fluffy feathers down to their toenails. Her cat is a Persian, and they’re both gray, and they look so much alike that, you know, when they lie down on the ground together, you can’t tell which one is which and where one begins and the other ends.
All my books have some humor in them. They have to. I love humor, and it just makes it a whole book because if it’s too dark and too much, you know, you have to have a chicken.
Alexandra: That’s right.
Sasscer: It helps.
Sasscer: The same thing in the last book, The Sea Horse Trade. There’s a cat that’s…She’s a living in a, you know, week-by-week motel at Gulfstream Park down in Florida, and there’s a couple next door that has this wild cat that’s always, you know, yowling and climbing up the walls and things. So that’s… he’s in that story as well, along with a lot of really nefarious horrible people.
That’s my favorite book. And I’ve noticed that that book has gotten the best, you know, like on Goodreads where they really give you dozens and dozens of reviews, that’s gotten the highest review rating. It’s close to 5 for all the people that have read it because it’s a fun story. And, you know, each book you write, they get better. In fact, actually, I just lied. The highest rating so far is for the last book I wrote, which is the prequel, Racing From Evil, you know. Because you get better. I’ve gotten so much better. Every time I write, I get better. We hope.
Alexandra: No, absolutely. I think that’s true. I know it’s true for me as well. Practice really helps.
Sasscer: It does.
Alexandra: How much do you think your background in horses informs the books?
Sasscer: It does because I learned so much, and I met so many of these people. I met the good people. I met the horrible people. There’s a trainer who I hate deeply. He managed to kill two of my horses. There’s a long story that I won’t tell. You know, we won’t go into that here, but they are out there. And I wrote a short story about him, and he was killed with cobra venom.
Sasscer: In my story.
Alexandra: Oh, in the story.
Sasscer: I killed him, and I enjoyed it. I felt so good when I killed him in the story because he got, you know, he was giving horses cobra venom, which is something that they do to stop pain. And when a horse has a slight injury and they don’t feel pain and you run them, guess what happens? They can break down. So I killed him off, and as most writers say, it’s very satisfying to finally get back at somebody in fiction.
Alexandra: Oh, it absolutely is, yeah.
Are there any other plot points or stories that you’ve pulled from your real life?
Sasscer Hill: Oh, gosh, everything. In the new book, the new Fia McKee book, the horse in there, who’s name is Last Call For Love, is based on a horse that I actually owned called Last Call For Love. Same name, and I describe all of her eccentric difficult character traits that that horse had, and I just use him in the book. It was great. And it was fun. So I put a picture of her winning at Colonial Downs on Facebook the other day, and, you know, I wrote…it was so much fun to be able to write.
So if you’ve read “Flamingo Road” or you’re thinking about reading “Flamingo Road,” here she is. There really is a Last Call For Love. So that was fun. And it’s really nice to be able to bring something you know so well and is so much part of your life. And the other thing that’s so great about it is it makes the research so much easier.
Alexandra: Yeah, because it’s just in your blood. It’s in your life. You know that world backwards and forwards, I imagine.
Sasscer: I do. I do. I was in it for 30, like 32 years. So, yeah, I learned a thing or two.
Alexandra: No kidding. And, I mean, the first author that I was reminded of when I started looking into your books and why I was drawn to them was, of course, Dick Francis, and lots your reviewers draw comparisons to him, and you’ve mentioned on your website that he’s your favorite author.
Sasscer: He is.
Alexandra: Yeah, and he’s such an inspiration, I’m sure, to a writer like yourself who’s writing in that world.
Can you tell us a little bit about how he inspires you?
People say that my books are spare and they’re quick-paced because I don’t go into endless descriptions and family things where I describe 10 generations, and, you know. Those aren’t my kind of books. So I don’t write that kind of book. I like things to move. And he did.
Two of his earliest books were my favorite. They were real horse books. I think my favorite one…gosh, what was that one called? I hate it when something won’t come. It’s the one where the guy was brought up from Australia to pretend to be a stable lad and worked in a stable when they were having problems. So the, you know, British Jockey Club hired him and had him come up to uncover some really bad things that were going on. “For Kicks,” that’s what it was called.
And that’s how he did it. He did it for kicks. And almost got killed for his efforts, but that was the best story. I loved that story.
Alexandra: Yeah, yeah. And I love spare writing, too, and Dick Francis and Robert B. Parker are two of my favorites as well.
Do you ever find that you feel like there’s sort of the spirit of Dick Francis moving through your work or anything like that?
Sasscer: I don’t know. You know, it’s…I loved his books, but you know who I love equally as much, was Walter Farley, who wrote the “Black Stallion” books. I loved his books, and they were so exciting, and I could never put them down.
Dick Francis is the same way. It’s hard to put his books down, and I was very anxious to write that type of book, and people do say that they couldn’t put it down. They stayed up all night reading it. So, you know, that’s such a nice compliment as a writer to get. So I guess in that sense, I’m like him. But I am female, and I’m, you know, I write about a female jockey and female people. Women are my heroines, so that makes it a little different.
But I have to tell you when John Betancourt of Wildside Press, who bought my first books out, when he did that first book, and he never mentioned a word to me when I saw him, he said, “Here’s your book. Here’s the cover,” and it said, “America’s answer to Dick Francis.” I was like, “Oh, my God, how could you do that? How presumptuous, how arrogant. Oh, God.” So, of course, the first review I had was from “Publisher’s Weekly,” and they said, “Finishes many lengths behind Dick Francis.” So I was like, “Gee, thanks for setting me up.”
Alexandra: Yes, yes, exactly. Oh, dear. Well, it sounds like people have caught on though, and they appreciate your similarities now.
Sasscer: They have.
Alexandra: Yeah, yeah, exactly. So let’s transition.
Tell us about the Fia McKee books. This is a new series and the first book is out as we said. It came out in April. So tell us about that. And you have it right there.
Sasscer: There it is. There it is. And…
Alexandra: Lift it up a little bit. Sasscer, just lift the book up a little bit.
Sasscer: Oh, you can’t see it?
Alexandra: Yeah, yeah, there we go. “Flamingo Road.” Awesome.
Sasscer: Great. I have to look in the little picture.
Alexandra: That’s right.
Sasscer: To the audience, I’m not used to doing Skype, so we’re all doing the best that we can here. :-)
Fia McKee is a little older than Nikki. She’s 32. She also had some childhood father issues in that she loved her father dearly. He was a trainer at Pimlico Racetrack. But he was murdered, and his murder was never solved.
In addition to the fact that he was murdered, her mother, who is a very shallow-grasping woman, walked out on her father when she was, you know, around Nikki’s age, when she lost her mother, for a richer man who had a lot of money. And she walked out on their father, and, of course, she took him to the cleaners, took all the money, and Fia had to leave private school and ended up in school in Baltimore public school system. And she was so angry about when her father was killed and they couldn’t find out what had happened to him. She ended up going to school in Towson, Maryland and studying law enforcement, and she became a cop in Baltimore.
So when the story opened, she is a cop in Baltimore patrolling the main streets at night, and she goes to a square and sees that a man is trying to kill a woman. And she gets out of the car and pins him with her light, and that’s all the thing you’re supposed to do and tries to stop him and he’s apparently high on some sort of drug and just doesn’t even hear.
So she ends up shooting him, and he dies. She ends up being in a lot of trouble with IID for excessive use of force. They suspend her. And then they offer her another job. They wanna get rid of her. IID does.
There’s a guy there, of course, who can’t stand her because she’s a woman and women aren’t supposed to be cops anyway, right? So, they say that the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau has a position for you, and you oughta take it. As in, you better take it because you’re not getting anything else. So she does, and then the story goes on from there.
Alexandra: And that’s how she ends up in Florida?
Sasscer: Yes. The Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, which is actually a United States agency, their mission is to basically save the integrity of horse racing and watch over it. And, of course, with the amount of money that’s involved in betting and horses and the owners and jockeys and everybody, you know, the room for crime, as we discovered in the Nikki books, is rather huge.
So they have her working as an undercover agent, and because she used to gallop horses in the morning at Pimlico for her father, she’s perfect. Which is why they wanted her. She’s perfect to go undercover as an exercise rider at Gulfstream Park down in Florida.
The book goes on from there with several different crimes that end up surrounding her and endangering her, coming at her from different directions. So it’s an interesting story, and people are really liking it a lot. And I’m just hoping, you know, that it will take off more. It’s hard for a first in the series. You either hit big or you just kind of just moderately go along, and, you know, so I’m hoping that the book will start to really sell. It’s done well, but not great.
Alexandra: And you’re planning to write more of these, is that true?
Sasscer: Well, they gave me a two-book deal. So the second one is already finished, and it comes out next spring. It takes place at Saratoga Race Track, and it’s called “The Dark Side of Town.”
Sasscer: Because Saratoga is such a wonderful…I’m going up there in August, and I can’t wait. It is…all, everybody says it’s the place to be in August. It’s the center of the horse racing world in August. Everybody goes up there because the weather’s so perfect and so beautiful, and they all go to Saratoga Race Track. And everybody who’s anybody is up there in August.
That’s where Fia goes, and she, again, gets an undercover job. And by this time, a fellow that she got a little bit close to in the first story becomes much more relevant in her life. He is a very handsome Cuban-American who she’s very, very attracted, but she’s scared to death of him because he is an agent, and, you know, he lies for a living. So how can you ever trust a man like that who comes on to you? But he does. So that adds an extra little bit of intrigue, I think, to the story. And I think it will do well.
Sasscer: I know St. Martin’s did. They thought I was gonna be a big hit.
Alexandra: And what are you working on now? Are you working on another Nikki story?
Sasscer: Well, because I do not yet have a contract for a third in the Fia McKee series, I’m hoping I will get one still. But I’m working on a book about the American Irish travelers, and right here, 40 minutes from my house, there’s a huge enclave of these American Irish travelers that are con artists and real white collar crooks.
They don’t murder people or hurt people, but here’s the typical thing that they’ll do. They’ll come up to your house, and they’ll tell you that they’ve got some great asphalt, and they’d love to do your driveway because they can see that your driveway needs to be redone, and they’ve got top quality materials, and it’s all wonderful, and you can go down street and see where we did Mr. Smith’s house last year and how well it’s held up.
Well, guess what? What they have for you today is not what they gave Mr. Smith. Mr. Smith was like a decoy, sending all these other people to come in, and they have fake license plates, fake ID cards, fake business signs on the sides of their trucks, and they want cash upfront because it’s such a great deal, and it’s so cheap because if they hadn’t had the asphalt from another job, and it’s just for you.
And when they’re gone, you never see them again. And when your driveway crumbles and it’s falling apart, there is no such person as Mr. O’neil. He doesn’t exist. So, that’s what they do, and that’s real. That’s very real. And the one down here in South Carolina is called Murphy Village. So I’ve renamed it Tinker’s Town. And I have a gal who’s 19 in this story, who was born into this, and she’s not real happy about the life she’s forced to lead. So I’m working along in that, and we’ll see how that goes.
Alexandra: Oh, nice. And so it’s not horse-racing-related then?
Sasscer: No. I will put some Gypsy Vanner on horses in the story. I mean, I have to, let’s face it.
Alexandra: Of course, yeah.
Sasscer: But it’s not horse racing, no.
Sasscer: And I do want to write another Nikki. And I’m, you know, if Fia takes off, I have a whole book planned. I even went out to Santa Anita Park near Los Angeles and met with the people out there, and they took me on a tour, and they treated me like royalty.
They’re so nice, and I even have a plot sketch, a good plot sketch to write out there, and, you know, the intrigue of Hollywood, and it would be a story about a movie that’s being filmed about horse racing at Santa Anita Park. And, of course, there will be some real nefarious scumbag producers and, you know, a bad actor so to speak. And again, Fia would be working undercover. So I hope that one can come to pass because, you know, once you sell your rights to a story to a publisher, I don’t own her anymore, right?
Alexandra: Right. Yeah.
Sasscer: So it’s a tough game, but you just keep playing.
Alexandra: That’s right.
Well, this has been amazing, Sasscer, and I have one final question for you, which is a total Dick Francis horse nerd question. So in his books and in your books, the horses always have names, you know, like Moonstruck or whatever. And my understanding was that race horse names were that you had to register them.
Sasscer: Yes, you do.
Alexandra: And so in a novel, if you’re creating a horse name, do you have to make sure that nobody in real life has used it?
Sasscer: No, I just make up names. But in some, I’ve used my own horses’ names that I’ve bred. Like I used Glow West. I used Last Call for Love. I used a number of them.
And then I will say that this was a horse by, you know, a stallion, and then I’ll give like APND a really good stallion or, you know, the grandsire was APND and the Dame was so-and-so, because people in horse racing will know these names, and they know, you know, that it’s, oh, gosh, that’s probably…that has a shot to be a really good horse. And then I’ll just make up a name. And that’s kind of fun. That’s fun.
Alexandra: Oh, that must be…that’s, yeah, that must be a real treat. And thank you for answering that question because since I started reading Dick Francis when I was about 14, and it’s bugged me that whole time.
Sasscer: Everybody did.
Alexandra: So, thank you.
Sasscer: You’re very welcome.
Alexandra: So why don’t you let our listeners know where they can find out more about you and your books?
Sasscer: Oh, the best place to go is right to sasscerhill.com. And, if you can see this, it’s S-A-S-S-C-ER, sasscerhill.com.
Sasscer: And you can go to my Facebook page, “Sasser Hill, author.” It will come up. Or you can just Google Sasscer Hill, and it all comes up. It’s real easy. It’s real easy.
Alexandra: Excellent, yeah. And it’s such a unique name, too, that people won’t have any trouble finding it. I will put links in the show notes as well so people can find your websites and your books.
Sasscer: Oh, thank you. That’s fine.
Alexandra: Great. Well, thank you so much for being here with me today. I really appreciate it.
Sasscer: I really enjoyed it. Thank you.
Alexandra: You’re welcome. Bye bye.