Author Vicki Delany took early retirement from her job as a systems analyst in the high-pressure financial world to take a year off travelling across North Americ before finally settling down in bucolic Prince Edward County, Ontario, where "she rarely wears a watch." Her two mystery series take full advantage of the rural Canadian settings where she lives, including the historical Klondike Gold Rush mysteries and the Smith and Winters novels, set in a traditional British Columbia village.
Negative Image is the fourth Smith and Winters installment featuring the young Constable Molly Smith and her mentor, hard-edged Trafalgar City Police Sergeant John Winters, whose wife Eliza is a former supermodel. The story centers on famous photographer Rudolph Steiner who arrives in town to reconnect with the woman who left him twenty-five years ago (to marry another man), none other than Eliza Winters. When Steiner is found murdered in his luxury hotel room, suspicion falls on Eliza, and Sergeant Winters is forced into the most difficult decision of his life: loyalty to his job or to his wife. Meanwhile, Constable Molly Smith has her own troubles including a series of breakins has the peaceful town in an uproar, her overprotective Mountie boyfriend who is fighting with her colleagues and a vengeful stalker watching her every move.
Vicki's on a promotional tour for the novel and stopped by In Reference to Murder for a chat.
IRTM: Negative Image is a book that explores the meaning of family, as well as the forces that bind or separate them. Without giving too much of the plot away, can you elaborate on that theme?
VD: Family dynamics are important in all my books. I like to explore various types of families and relationships and ask what works and what doesn’t. In Negative Image I ask the question: What would you do if you believe the person you trust most in the world has betrayed you? What would you do if you discover that the person you trust most in the world believes you capable of betrayal?
A visitor to Trafalgar is murdered and Sergeant John Winters begins to fear that Eliza, his wife of twenty-five years, isn’t the woman he thinks she is. Another long term marriage ends, and a new relationship is getting off to a very rocky start. Part of the reason I love writing, and reading, crime fiction is that a mystery novel is a perfect way of exploring the human psyche under pressure. Let’s see what a suspicion of murder does to a happily married couple or what happens to young love when the female partner works in a traditional male field.
IRTM: The Molly Smith books are set in the fictional town of Trafalgar, British Columbia, which is based on the real town of Nelson. Have you based any fictional characters on real-life personalities, and/or do people in Nelson ever ask if they've become fodder for your writing?
VD: With one exception, I don’t use real life people in my books. Here’s a line from Winter of Secrets, the third book in the series:
Slightly ahead and to her right a bright red Toyota Echo, dotted with magnetic black circles that made the car look like a giant ladybug, backed out of a parking space. The ladybug hit a patch of ice and slid downhill, very slowly, coming to rest against the bumper of the police car. A tall, slim middle-aged woman climbed out, spiked purple hair, red coat, blue scarf, yellow mittens, and clanging jewelry.
That is a friend of mine, and such a well-known and well-loved person in town I thought it would be fun to include her. I let her read the paragraph first and got her permission to describe her. I have a good relationship with the Nelson City Police and they always say things like they should dress nicely today so they look good in my book. Generally speaking the people in my life are far too boring to provide much fodder for a crime novel.
IRTM: One of the challenges of setting a crime fiction series in a more rural setting is how to work in a series of plausible and unusual murders and/or other crimes in a succession of books (I grew up in a town with a small population—almost exactly the same as Nelson—where violent crime is somewhat rare, so I speak from experience). How do you set about finding plots and storylines that can arise organically from such a setting?
VD: That can be a problem for sure. Trafalgar, like Nelson, is a tourist town and also sees a lot of transients passing through. In Winter of Secrets it’s a group of university students on Christmas vacation who run into trouble, and in Negative Image it’s a photographer in town to do a feature on mountain tourism. I want these to be realistic police novels and not have the townsfolk dropping dead all over the place. On the other hand, the books are fiction. In Nelson, no one can quite remember when the last murder was.
IRTM: You've indicated that generally speaking, Canadian books, even police procedurals, are concerned as much with personalities and relationships as with solving the crime. What other differences do you see between Canadian crime fiction authors and those from the U.S. or other countries?
VD: Canadian crime writing tends, generally, to be neither as soft nor as hard as American mystery novels. There are not many, if any, real cozies published in Canada although there are Canadian cozy writers published in the U.S. On the other end of the spectrum, you don’t get many really hard-boiled or noir crime novels set in Canada. Louise Penny’s books are a good example: she created a lovely little village and populated it with interesting people who have very intricate relationships. Generalizing again, but you are more likely in Canadian books to have a resolution arrived at by the detective solving the crime following the clues and by observing the people, than a shoot out with the bad guy. My opinion only. Others may differ.
IRTM: You are currently writing two books a year, which is a pretty amazing schedule. Do you write more than one book at a time or finish one before starting another, and do you find it difficult to keep the two sets of plots and characters separate?
VD: I write one series at a time, but I sometimes have to interrupt one to return to the other when I get the edits back from the editor or the proof. I do find that I have to write one in its entirely before starting the next. I don’t have trouble with plots and characters but I do with tone. The Klondike books are intended to be comedies. The Molly Smiths are not, and I find it hard to keep things light after dealing with very serious issues, not so hard to go the other way. So what I do is find a couple of humorous books to read and that seems to help lighten my mood.
IRTM: One of your greatest pet peeves in mystery fiction is the author who is too much in love with his or her character. Not mentioning names, of course, what do you mean by that and how do you avoid this in your own work?
VD: A tough question. It’s something you almost can’t quite put your finger on, but somehow the character just seems to be too good and too perfect, and everyone (in the book) thinks they’re so special. I guess the way to avoid it is to create a complex, conflicted character and have them make mistakes and not always be perfect.
IRTM: You also blogged recently about a desire to avoid crime fiction labels, i.e. "murder mysteries" vs. "cozies" vs. psychological suspense or adventure novels. Unfortunately, most agents and publishers these days almost demand that they be able to classify a manuscript in a specific category. What do you feel is lost in this rigid classification process for writers and readers?
VD: What I worry about is formula. It’s a struggle for us as crime writers to get recognition from the literary ‘establishment’ (particularly in Canada) and the idea that a crime novel must follow a formula doesn’t help. So many good books overlap sub-genres that if you are classifying a book by its subgenre, readers of other sub-genres might not even find that book that they might well love. Also what happens if books get mis-classified or one person interprets a sub-genre as meaning something different than what other people interpret it as? Where this came about is that someone in an organization I belong to thought police procedural means extensive forensics (like CSI or Kath Reichs) and mis-categorized my books very badly.
IRTM: Your next book in the Constable Molly Smith book, the fifth, is titled Among the Departed and deals with a reopened police investigation into a man's disappearance, and how the lives of the missing man's wife and two children were destroyed by the case. How do you see Smith and your other characters evolving over time?
VD: As far as I know Molly Smith is unique in police procedurals as she is young and green and very naïve. She is on probation in the first two books. I did that because first of all I want to explore issues of growing up as a young woman today (I have three daughters in that age group). For example in Negative Image her boyfriend, who is also a cop, is so over-protective she worries about what would happen if they were in a situation together. I want to have lots of opportunity to have her grow as a woman and as a police officer. So I see Molly changing a lot over the course of the series. John Winters, not so much, he’s been a cop for almost thirty years and is pretty much set in his ways. Although I do hope that he and Lucky Smith, Molly’s hippie mother, learn from each other, and each have some of their prejudices reduced. Lucky, by the way, is in for some big changes.
Vicki's book Negative Image, published by Poison Pen Press, is due in stores this week, and you can also catch her postings on the crime fiction blog Type M for Murder.