R.J. Lee’s Distractions

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Every author brings their own tone to the book “Distractions” posts. It’s interesting to see the books they highlight. R. J. Lee, author of the Bridge to Death cozy mysteries shares his suggestions today. You can find his books, and his book suggestions, through the Web Store. While his mysteries are cozies, and any reader can enjoy them, if you play bridge, you might really want to check out Lee’s books. https://store.poisonedpen.com/

R. J. Lee follows in the mystery-writing footsteps of his father, R. Keene Lee, who wrote fighter pilot and detective stories for Fiction House, publishers of Wings Magazine and other pulp fiction periodicals in the late ’40s and ’50s. Lee was born and grew up in the Mississippi River port of Natchez but also spent thirty years living in the Crescent City of New Orleans. A graduate of the University of the South (Sewanee) where he studied creative writing under Sewanee Review editor, Andrew Lytle, Lee now resides in Oxford, Mississippi.

Lee kicks off his Distractions post with a beloved author. Check it out.

*****

DISTRACTIONS (FOR POISONED PEN COLUMN)

The pandemic would seem to be something a professional author should be used to. After all, we do a lot of sheltering in place on our own, whether single or married, with or without children to deal with as well. But the thing is, many of us try to fit in a bit of travel to get fresh angles on settings for our scenes; bits of dialogue we can rework at our pleasure.  And the pandemic has cut that off, too.

So, I’ve been left with working on the fourth cozy mystery in my current contract with Kensington; and reading a few other authors when I need to take a break from my universe that I must inhabit for a living. I have three novels that I have been dipping in and out of for those breaks, each one a different genre and each appealing to a different part of my brain.

First, there is AFTER THE FUNERAL: A HERCULE POIROT MYSTERY by Agatha Christie, of course. (Harper Collins)  

I first became interested in Christie’s work while I was living and working in Europe right after college graduation. I was teaching on an Army base as Civilian Personnel and had access to the base library.  There, I checked out and read every Christie mystery they had; and when I returned to the States the next year, I caught up with the rest in the New Orleans library system. Since I am now a cozy mystery writer, I find it refreshing to reread a Christie mystery because reading is writing. While I do not plagiarize, I get a great deal of benefit from seeing how another mystery writer gets characters from place to place and solves the problems inherent in pacing: one must unspool enough to keep the reader interested but not so much that the reader guesses the solution too soon (or perhaps at all.)

In AFTER THE FUNERAL, Christie’s setting is classic, the characters archetypal. The Abernethie family of Enderby Hall has gathered for the reading of the will. That is often the starting point for many cozies: someone has already died, and money/property are at stake. In this case, a particular relative named Cora suspects that the dead benefactor was actually murdered; but before she gets to delve deeply into the matter, she, too, is dispatched. At that point, the redoubtable Hercule Poirot is introduced to help solve the crimes and prevent others from happening.

Christie was perhaps superior in providing twists at the end of her novels, and I have endeavored to do the same with my series. Although it had been decades since I had read AFTER THE FUNERAL, I found that the solution did not occur to me until very late in the novel—perhaps a testament to how well Christie always covered her tracks. Not only that, but between the time I had first read the mystery and now, DOWNTON ABBEY had captured the imagination of the American viewing public.  Thus, my affection for things British had only grown, and I felt like I was taking a little vacation to the UK.

Next, I’ve been having a great deal of fun indulging my fascination with the world of film in the form of ROTTEN MOVIES WE LOVE by the editor of ROTTEN TOMATOES (Running Press Adult).

There are different categories, lovingly and sarcastically treated within—but the emphasis is on movies that are so bad, they are actually entertaining in some perverse way. Some of the movies will be familiar to the average American, while others will be revelations—again, not necessarily in a complimentary fashion. For instance, though Tom Hanks has won two Oscars and has been nominated for others, not every film he made was a winner. THE ‘BURBS is a case in point. This ‘trying too hard to be zany’ comedy about the suburbs also trapped Carrie Fisher within its celluloid walls, and I remember seeing it when it first came out. About the only thing I can remember is things exploding (as in bombs), but it was not supposed to be one of those action-adventure-adrenalin features.  (But the bomb part was appropriate.)

There are 101 films critically reviewed in this tome, some with tongue-in cheek, and others with tongue stuck straight out, but it’s the sort of reading that can make you blush at some guilty pleasure of a movie you’ve enjoyed. I have a collection of 350 films at home that I can watch when the mood strikes me, and almost none of them would appear in this collection. One or two might, however, because like the title suggest, some of these movies are so rotten, they are irresistible. Besides, the pandemic is so stressful that it is sometimes a relief to watch something that is irredeemable and going nowhere fast.

Finally, I have met the author of the third novel I’ve read recently—Connor Judson Garrett—at a book festival in January.  His work—FALLING UP IN THE CITY OF ANGELS—(Lucid Press) has a CATCHER IN THE RYE echo about it, although the subject matter is somewhat more literary.

Young Tony is an aspiring writer who moves from his native city of Atlanta to Southern California (Santa Barbara, Malibu, Venice Beach) in search of his dream. Although he hasn’t much money to undertake his adventure, he has going for him the energy that being a perfectionist and a romantic can provide those who have not sustained too many blows to the ego. Garrett’s style is dense, almost poetic at times, and encourages introspection while reading. It is a different universe than the one I must create for my mysteries, which demand justification for every little detail.

Garrett can indulge quirks and tangents that do not have to be tied up neatly at the end or even while Tony’s journey is underway. It is an intense exercise in trying to hurdle the high bar while encountering the reality of learning how to get off the ground and then land on one’s feet without too much in the way of injury. I am so much farther along in life than Tony is, but I can remember the obstacles of my earlier years; and Garrett brings them back to me with his extremely effective prose.

*****

Quite a bit of variety in R.J. Lee’s selections. Now, let me introduce you to his books. Again, you can find the two published, along with the forthcoming book in the series, through the Web Store. https://bit.ly/306LrBd

Grand Slam Murders was the first in the Bridge to Death series.

After four bridge players are poisoned, newspaper reporter Wendy Winchester sets out to catch a killer who’s not playing with a full deck . . .
 
When the four wealthy widows who make up the venerable Rosalie Bridge Club never get up from their card table, this quiet Mississippi town has its first quadruple homicide. Who put cyanide in their sugar bowl? An aspiring member and kibitzer with the exclusive club, Wendy takes a personal interest in finding justice for the ladies.
 
She also has a professional motivation. A frustrated society columnist for the Rosalie Citizen, she’s ready to deal herself a better hand as an investigative reporter. This could be her big break. Plus, she has a card or two up her sleeve: her sometimes boyfriend is a detective and her dad is the local chief of police.
 
Partnering up with the men in her life, Wendy starts shuffling through suspects and turning over secrets long held close to the chest by the ladies. But when a wild card tries to take her out of the game, Wendy decides it’s time to up the ante before she’s the next one to go down . . 

*****

Playing the Devil was just released last month.

Reporter and bridge player Wendy Winchester once again plays ace detective when a country club member is murdered in a hot tub . . .
 
Now an investigative reporter for the Rosalie Citizen in the Mississippi River port of Rosalie, Wendy still likes to unwind over a game of cards. Following the demise of the Rosalie Bridge Club, she’s started her own group at the Rosalie Country Club. During the first meeting of the Country Club Bridge Players, the dummy has barely been laid down when another dummy gets in a scuffle at the bar across the room. Bridge player Carly Ogle’s husband Brent is at it again.
 
After the club’s new female golf pro breaks up the fight, Brent storms off to soak in a hot tub. But Carly soon finds the bullying Brent dead in the water, clubbed over the head with the pestle the barkeep uses to crush leaves for mint juleps.
 
Racist, sexist, homophobic, and an all-around lout, Brent made enough enemies to fill a bridge tournament. So Wendy has to play her cards right to get the story—and stay out of hot water long enough to put the squeeze on the killer . . .

*****

Are you hooked? Cold Reading Murder will be released in February. Keep it in mind for your pre-orders in a few months.

In the third Bridge to Death Mystery by R.J. Lee, Bridge expert and small town investigative reporter Wendy Winchester must put her amateur sleuthing skills to the test while investigating the death of a flamboyant psychic…

Bridge expert and investigative reporter Wendy Winchester knows a thing or two about navigating life along the Mississippi River, but murder isn’t something she foresees…

Who could have predicted it? The daughter of Police Chief Bax Winchester married to a cop–Detective Ross Rierson. It’s a beautiful wedding, and the newlyweds are in bliss–even if they do have to postpone their Hawaiian honeymoon for now. In the meantime, Wendy is teaching a group of newbies the game of bridge so they can join the Rosalie Country Club Bridge Bunch.

One of the newcomers, flamboyant psychic Aurelia Spangler, invites the group to meet at her new home. The historic Overview mansion sits atop the High Bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, and the local lore is that it’s possibly haunted, definitely cursed by the original builder, who fell down the stairs to his death. Unfortunately, the house is about to claim another life.

Following a night of bridge practice and cold readings by their clairvoyant host, Aurelia is found dead in her home by Wendy, a suicide note and cocaine residue by her corpse. But Wendy, an investigative reporter for the Rosalie Citizen, doesn’t buy it. The scene seems phonier than Aurelia’s act, and now Wendy needs to call the bluff of a cold-blooded killer playing a psychic bid…