Guest Post: Mally Becker, author of The Turncoat’s Widow

Please join me in welcoming New Jersey-based novelist Mally Becker to the blog. She writes historical fiction, an author with Level Best Books, and The Turncoat’s Widow is her debut novel.

Mally has been a publicist, a freelance magazine writer, an attorney and, later, an advocate for children in foster care. She was awarded the Leon B. Burstein/MWA-NY Scholarship for Mystery Writing.

I had the privilege of an early reading of The Turncoat’s Widow. Highly recommended!

Q1. On your web site, you mentioned that reading a letter inspired your debut novel, The Turncoat’s Widow. Tell us a little about that experience.

Ever been arrested just for traveling to New York City? Me, neither.

So it took me aback when I found an indictment for the Revolutionary War-era crime of traveling into New York “without permission or passport” in a collection of letters at the Morristown National Historical Park, where I was volunteering.

If you grew up just outside New York City, like I did, then you probably remember that first trip into the city without your parents. I know I do. It was, and probably still is, a teenage rite of passage, a promise that independence isn’t far off. How could traveling into the city be a crime?

One of the Park’s historians told me that the government made travel from NJ into British-controlled NYC without approval a crime to clamp down on out-of-control levels of spying and smuggling. Historians believe, he said, that fewer than 50% of the residents here in New Jersey supported independence during the War for Independence. And that true for all the colonies south of New England, another historian added.

Spying, smuggling and a divided nation? Suddenly, the late 18th century felt very much like the present moment, and that document became the spark for my story about General Washington’s most reluctant spy, a young widow who races time and traitors to uncover a plot that threatens the new nation.

Q2. Besides writing, you share something in common with Alafair Burke, Meg Gardiner, Leslie Karst, Shannon Kirk, Keenan Powell, and Lisa Scottoline—and to be fair, let’s include two men, Andrew Anselmi and Scott Turow. That’s right, you are (or were) a reformed lawyer. I would think lawyers would be hard readers to please. Tell us, why do you think so many lawyers become writers, and what or whom do you enjoy reading?

In my experience, a lot of litigators are already storytellers. “This is what happened,” trial lawyers tell the judge or a jury, shaping the facts as they go. “And this is why my client should prevail.” It’s not that far a journey from that kind of story based on fact to fiction. Plus having firsthand experience of criminal law and procedure is darn helpful if you’re writing about murder.

I enjoy all the authors you’ve mentioned. Also Lyndsay Faye, Eleanor Kuhns, C.J. Sansom, and Susanna Calkins. And I loved your first Shane Cleary mystery, Dirty Old Town. By the time this blog is posted, I’ll have read your next book in the series. I’m looking forward to that.

Q3.You created a remarkable heroine, Becca Parcell. She is outspoken, modern and yet of her time. What research did you do for her character?

I’m glad you like Becca. Widows were the only women allowed to own property back then, so I made Becca a young widow. That fact alone gives her more independence than most women had in the 18th century. Becca also has a talent for numbers, which would have been unusual but not unheard of.

I dove into online resources and books to help me shape my book’s female characters. Jill Lepore’s excellent Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin made a big impression on me. She tells the story of Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister and about women’s lives in general during this time period.

Q4. One thing I love about historical fiction is that I always learn something new. In The Turncoat’s Wife, I learned that, contrary to what I read about Washington in Valley Forge in 1777, the winter he and his men experienced in Morristown during 1779-80 was the coldest winter in America in the eighteenth century. Is there anything you learned about the era of the Revolutionary War that surprised you and you’d like to share with us?

I didn’t know that the tip of Manhattan – up to a quarter of the buildings in New York City -burned to the ground in September 1776, within days of Washington and his men fleeing from the city and the British taking over. Some residents who remained lived in tents made from sails, leading to the area’s nickname, Canvas Town.

How could I resist? A few scenes of The Turncoat’s Widow are set in the burned ruins of lower Manhattan.

Q5. Describe your writing routine?

In the Before Time, I’d head to the library or a coffee shop after breakfast to write for a few hours. Now, I write at the dining room table, which is the least used room in the house and contains the fewest distractions. And afternoon walks around the neighborhood are where I decide what happens next or figure out how to fix a plot problem. That’s one part of my writing routine that the pandemic hasn’t changed.

Q6. Congratulations again. You’ve completed your first novel. Can we expect more of Becca, or are you onto something else?

It’s exciting to have The Turncoat’s Widow out in the world. I’m writing the next Becca Parcell story, which takes place in Philadelphia. I’m also working on the second draft of a contemporary mystery with a protagonist who’s a female attorney.

Mally Becker at Level Best Books

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Guest Post from William Ade: Making a Bad Man Good

An incident fifty years ago planted the seed for the plot of my novel Art of Absolution. I was in college, employed part-time at a large residential institution for the intellectually disabled. I worked at a cottage that housed adolescents, most were non-verbal and all operated at the lowest levels of intellectual functioning. Because of their vulnerability, the building had multiple locked doors, and the larger property was behind high fencing. Nonetheless, some individual residents were labeled “runners” because they’d bolt for outdoors if they had a chance.

One day I arrived to work and was told about a resident who’d escaped the previous evening. She was maybe fifteen if I remember correctly. She scaled the fence and later the next day, was found miles away along a country road. Further medical examination revealed she’d been a victim of sexual assault. That horrible event forever stayed with me.

Years later, as I started to get serious about my writing, I wondered if I could create a novel from that incident. As I mulled the project over in my mind, I decided to tell the story from the perpetrator’s perspective. Not so much as a study of evil, but as one man’s pursuit of forgiveness, asking the question, does one monstrous act forever make a man a monster?

My approach to the character, named Michael, gyrated through numerous early drafts. Initially, I devoted chapters to how he became a moral derelict and described the night he committed his crime. I revised, jumping ahead several decades to the present, incorporating the backstory of a cruel childhood to explain his initial moral weakness. I introduced Kate, his wife, as the positive influence that led him to a higher moral plane as an adult. As Michael’s part of the story opens, we learn he’s a business person who’s generous, patient, and kind, almost to a fault. He’s a wonderful husband and a loving father to his daughter. Although Michael had redeemed himself, he’d never forgiven himself.

No matter how I built Michael, I knew he had to have his day of reckoning. Readers would demand nothing less if I expected them ever to grant him understanding.

As a consequence, my plotting significantly increased the impact of another female character, Bailey. She was recently widowed and had a college-aged son, Teddy. Although she did not know Michael, they would eventually meet due to Teddy’s curiosity about his birth. Bailey had flaws, and her on-going machinations colored her as duplicitous at best. But, she inevitably became the character I knew readers would be cheering. I sure did. During the eighteen months of revision and plotting, Bailey became an equal to Michael in importance and word count.

I have to admit that my efforts at making Michael a sympathetic character floundered and probably failed. He does secure a penance that I hope readers feel is appropriate, but I imagine they shake their heads, thinking he’s suffered too much to hate, but not enough to forgive.

My pursuit of empathetic protagonists with weak morals and sinister motives hasn’t stopped with my last novel. In May 2021, Level Best Books will be publishing my book, Do It for Daisy. The main character, Tommy Lyle, is another character abused by life and intent on walking the straight and narrow. Unlike Michael, Tommy isn’t a monster. That moniker belongs to his sister, Daisy.

Sometimes I wonder why I have this interest in morally corrupt protagonists. How much of these stories reflect curiosity or a deeper issue with my personality. I have to believe, like most authors, I’m visiting an imaginary world when I write. My life, both the internal and external parts, is too boring. Trying to understand bad people is much more fun.

William Ade at Level Best Books 

His web site

 

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Excerpt 2 from SYMPHONY ROAD, A Shane Cleary Mystery

The doorknob clicked and two suits off the rack at Filene’s Basement downtown appeared. Tie, black and knotted perfectly, and pressed white shirt walked in first. His sidekick followed him. Same black tie, but his knot, a simple four-in-hand, looked as if it had been looped and pulled through with broken fingers and his shirt was wrinkled, ironed by elephants.

            “Sergeant said you wanted to see James Constantino.”

            “I did and I do.”

            “May we ask why you wish to speak with him?”

            “Professional matter.”

            I played the part. Minimalistic answers to these boys left little to twist and use against Jimmy or me. No introductions, no names from them, also told me this meeting never happened. Their word against mine, and I’d better have patience for Jimmy’s sake. Sloppy Cop left the room, leaving his partner with me for a staring contest.

            “He’s in for arson.”

            “So I was told.”

            “And homicide.”

            “So I heard.”

            “I’d advise him to take a plea deal and save everyone a lot of time.” The tall and neat detective decided to do the walk-and-talk to show I was in his house and he made the rules. “When I arrested Jimmy, do you know what he said to me?”

            “Knowing Jimmy, he probably said fuck you.”

            “That’s exactly right. He said fuck you. Nice guy, your client Jimmy. I didn’t quote him in the report, so you could say I cut him some slack. Heat of the moment.”

            To thank him, or agree with him would give him a lever. I said nothing.

           “Now, let’s get to the point, shall we? Jimmy is a pyro. You know it and I know it.”

            He touched his chin. I knew this trick, too. Semantics.

           “Excuse me, alleged arsonist,” he said. “Imagine how it’ll play for Jimmy when the DA explains to a jury how a person dies in a fire, how he smells his own flesh cooking, and how he’ll start coughing and sputtering and gasping for air before he chokes to death.” He stepped close enough that I could smell Maxwell House on his breath. “Not a whole lot of sympathy. I’d love to be there, right up in his face and ask Jimmy who’s fucked now?”

            The detective’s dark brown eyes drilled into me.

            “I’m curious, Detective,” I said. “Did the coroner’s report come in?”

            “It’s coming.”

            “I’ll take that as a no then. I thought you might know something about the deceased in the building since you keep repeating he.” I raised a finger. “That brings up another small matter. Neither of us knows whether he was already dead or not when the building burned down, do we? And one other thing, did you find any traces of accelerant on Jimmy?”

            The detective leaned forward. “What’s your point?”

            I stepped right up and delivered. “It’s called presumption of innocence.”

            The door opened. Partner Slipshod returned. He let the door yawn close. Since Jimmy wasn’t with him, I assumed the next stop was holding.

            Wrong.

            A brief walk, two doors down, I met a proper interrogation room. The sloppy little man eased the door open for me to see Jimmy inside what cops called the box. My escort whispered, “I’ll give you two some privacy.”

            Straight out of the latest research from the psychologists, the room boasted four sharp corners, smooth surfaces and edges. Accommodations included an uncomfortable hardwood chair for Jimmy, its back to the door for the element of surprise. The light fixture hung low and bright, its glare relentless to blind the eyes or toast the top of the head. I walked towards the empty chair. I ran my hand along the tabletop. Jimmy came into view, handcuffed to an eyelet in front of him. His eyes glanced sideways, to a glass window, to remind me there were eavesdroppers. I gave him the slightest nod.

            Jimmy had one look: composed menace. Hair short, shirt tailored, and slacks pressed. The cops had confiscated his wristwatch, belt and shoelaces. The harsh lighting did him no favors. His high cheekbones, long face, hooded eyelids and dark eyes telegraphed violence.

            The bruise on his cheek was as purple as raw steak. The left eye would close up soon. His knuckles were scraped and bloodied. He had gotten a few in. Lawyers used the Socratic method. Boston cops used the Ground and Pound, familiar to Marines.

            “Haven’t had much sleep, have you?”

            Jimmy smirked. “What can I say? Hard mattress, harder pillow, and then somebody wanted to dance, but you know how it is in the dark. Clang, clang, bang, bang, and nobody heard a thing.”

Order SYMPHONY ROAD

Release Date: January 12, 2021 from Level Best Books

The second Shane Cleary Mystery

Trouble comes in threes for Shane Cleary, a former police officer and now, a PI.

Arson. A Missing Person. A cold case.

Two of his clients whom he shouldn’t trust, he does, and the third, whom he should, he can’t.

Shane is up against crooked cops, a notorious slumlord and a mafia boss who want what they want, and then there’s the good guys who may or may not be what they seem.

Praise for SYMPHONY ROAD

“The second installment in this noir series takes us on a gritty journey through mid-seventies Boston, warts and all, and presents Shane Cleary with a complex arson case that proves to be much more than our PI expected. Peppered with the right mix of period detail and sharp, spare prose, Valjan proves he’s the real deal.” – Edwin Hill, Edgar finalist and author of Watch Her

“Ostracized former cop turned PI Shane Cleary navigates the mean streets of Boston’s seedy underbelly in Symphony Road. A brilliant follow up to Dirty Old Town, Valjan’s literary flair and dark humor are on full display.” – Bruce Robert Coffin, award-winning author of the Detective Byron Mysteries

“A private eye mystery steeped in atmosphere and attitude.” – Richie Narvaez, author of Noiryorican

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