Aloha kakahiaka. Yes, I do realize today is not Monday. In fact, it’s Thursday. I look a four-day break from social media, got on an airplane, and explored the beautiful island of Kauai with my husband and kids. Traveling with a 10-year-old and a 15-year-old was no cup of tea, but returning home to the daily grind is worse. So this week, instead of Mondays are Murder, Thursday is Murder.
This morning I have with me Jerry Last, author and co-author of three murder mysteries, all set in South America.
Laurie: Good morning, Jerry. I’m so happy to have this chance to chat with you. You chose to base all of your mysteries in South America. Does this part of the world hold a special meaning for you?
Jerry: Yes, it does. My wife and I lived in Montevideo, Uruguay and Salta, Argentina for 7 months of a sabbatical leave I took from the University of California several years ago. Thanks to research and training grants from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the Fulbright Commission, I’ve been back to both places, as well as shorter visits to Chile, Peru, and Brazil, to collaborate on teaching and research at least half a dozen times since. So I know the region’s places, people, foods, and wines very well. One of my goals in writing these books is to share my vision of this part of the world, which is a long way from home for people in this hemisphere, with my readers. Montevideo, Salta, Machu Picchu, Iguazu Falls, and Northern Chile’s Atacama Desert have been characters in the books I’ve published thus far. These novels will have succeeded for me if some of you say that you’d like to visit these places because they seem so vivid and real.
Laurie: Reading about a place sure can make me want to visit it.
In The Empanada Affair, your protagonists, Roger Bowman and Suzanne Foster, first meet. They go on to solve two more mysteries together. Tell me a bit about their personalities.
Jerry: Suzanne fits several of the stereotypes of the scientist: an introvert, driven professionally, very intense, very independent, and pretty impatient with a lot of social conventions. She inherited a lot of money about the same time she met Roger, and both of them are earning pretty good salaries, so they are well off financially, which makes traveling and detecting in exotic places on short notice feasible. I think of them as an updated version of Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) from the Thin Man movies, perhaps crossed with characters from TV’s “Welcome Back, Kotter”, but living and working in a much darker and more evil world than was portrayed in the movies. This darker world is probably a world that is much closer to Hammett’s view of The Thin Man than Hollywood’s. Roger is more outgoing than Suzanne, but shares some of the other character traits I noted with her. He is a lot less driven professionally than she is, and in fact has changed careers a lot of times for a man of his age. But he seems to be happy now as a PI.
Laurie: What makes them work so well together?
Jerry: They start off their relationship in the first book based upon a strong sexual attraction. They end the book by becoming each other’s best friend, which means they know and respect each other intimately. That forms the basis for a long-term relationship and their continuing collaboration through the series. They communicate well on several levels: verbal, emotional, and intuitive. They were meant to be together, and somehow they were lucky enough to connect. I have a lot of limitations describing this aspect of their relationship in print, and still have to learn how to do it most effectively.
I tried to explore the sexuality of their early relationship in The Empanada Affair, but Elaine feels that I got too clinical in the sex scenes to capture the romanticism I was trying to portray. I’ve backed off from deliberate sex scenes in the subsequent books, and I think the books and the characters are the better for this change in style. Now they’ve settled into a more mature relationship where holding hands is romantic, and I think that is yet another way they communicate. They need to feel safe when they disagree, or even when they are not fully in accord, as I began to let them do in The Surreal Killer. I’m trying to expand that aspect of their interaction in the next book. Roger has elements of Sherlock Holmes in his deductive abilities, and he’s usually ahead of everyone else in figuring out whodunit, which often requires figuring out motive—why they did it. Suzanne, who is probably more intelligent than Roger, is usually close behind him in solving the murder. However, she is much more intuitive than Roger, which can be either an asset or a liability in solving puzzles like whodunit. Her intuition, which sometimes competes with and often precedes her deductive logic, combines with Roger’s totally logical approach to make them a great team.
Laurie: Are Bowman and Foster anything like you and your wife, or are they completely different personalities?
Jerry: If we ignore the boy-girl thing, I share a good deal in common with Suzanne Foster. Suzanne is the professional me, and I try to take some pains to make her science plausible if not actual. We’re both scientists with degrees in biochemistry, our research areas overlap, we’re both professors at University of California medical schools, and we’re both pretty much focused on our jobs and work. Roger Bowman is the me of my imagination—a lot better athlete, more physical, free to come and go as he wishes, no financial concerns—and very much the real me when it comes to puns, bad jokes, and his analytical mind. Elaine, my wife, inspires Suzanne’s romantic side and will be the model for Suzanne as a mother in upcoming books in the series. I think either Suzanne or Roger is also destined to acquire Elaine’s love for dogs in one of these books, and may even start breeding and showing dogs as a hobby they will share with Elaine.
Laurie: Is there conflict between Bowman and Foster, or are they a perfectly matched pair?
Jerry: There’s always conflict between people living closely with each other. I’ve not featured it much yet, but Suzanne verbalizes her discomfort with some of the decisions Roger and his friend Eduardo make in Book 3, and her expected participation in extralegal justice. I think we’re going to have some additional conflict in this area in books to come, as well as some discussions about responsibility to a growing family as opposed to just taking off to solve another case. The model for the second issue is my first Fulbright Professorship in Montevideo in 1982, when I left the rest of the family at home. Our boys were very young, too young in my opinion to travel to the antipodes, and we couldn’t afford the expense, I thought then. I think Suzanne will channel Elaine’s feelings on this particular issue in retrospect.
Laurie: You enjoy reading mystery novels. Who are your favorite authors, and which ones have inspired your own writing?
Jerry: My lifelong (at least since I was a teenager) hobby has been reading mystery novels, especially the California mystery novels of my favorite authors, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Michael Connelly, Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series, and Robert Crais, and, wandering out of California, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series and James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux stories. If I had to pick a most inspirational author for me from this list, it would have to be my first love, Ross MacDonald/Kenneth Millar.
Laurie: Robert B. Parker is a favorite of mine.
Are you still employed full time?
Jerry: Yes. And I work in a pretty demanding job. I’m a Professor of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at the University of California’s Medical School at Davis, near Sacramento in Northern California. I have a Ph.D. degree in Biochemistry and do research in asthma and health effects of air pollution on the lungs. I also do ongoing collaborative research in Environmental Toxicology with colleagues in Uruguay and Argentina.
Laurie: With all that going on, how do you find time to write?
Jerry: I honestly don’t know. There’s no system to it. Something strikes me as a centerpiece for a story, as was the case for The Ambivalent Corpse. I actually got the idea for this book’s title and basic premise when my wife and I took a walk in Montevideo in 1999 and I saw that strange juxtaposition of the two monuments. It took a while (about 12 years) for me to find the time to sit down and start writing the book, but the ideas were percolating around in my brain off and on while all of that time was passing. I do a lot of the initial premise of the story and how I’ll organize it in my head before I begin. So, when I find time to sit down and write I can just start writing and let the plot and the characters lead me wherever we’re going in a story. I can stay focused well enough, and I’m well enough organized, to actually write the first draft of a book over a few weekends and the weeknights in between. Most of the time is spent after that editing the dialogue and trying to differentiate the characters into individuals, especially the villains. I’m still experimenting with writing styles to improve this part of what I do.
Laurie: That’s impressive, considering it can take some people years to complete a first draft. What do you like to do when you aren’t working?
Jerry: Well, I write books and try to sell them on social networking sites, of course. And, as I said, Elaine breeds show dogs. Her current dogs we’ve kept are three generations of German Shorthaired Pointers, who love people and love to hunt birds. So, I finally got dragged into hunting pheasant and chukar with our three dogs and a sister (Sarah) of our youngest dog, Schöne. Sarah and Schöne have learned a lot from their mother, Jolie, and their grandmother, Vinia, this year so all four are pretty well trained hunters by now. So is Sarah’s owner John, and so am I. When we’re not hunting, the pointers love to get out and run, so we spend a good deal of time at our local dog park or out in the country where the dogs can get a chance to exercise and work off some energy. We also have three grandchildren between 0 and 5 who fortunately live in Sacramento, so there’s plenty of time spent playing with them, too.
Laurie: That sounds like an ideal lifestyle. Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
Jerry: I’d like to thank you for the chance to talk, albeit virtually, with some readers and some potential readers through your blog. I hope I’ve been able to answer your questions and that some of the folks reading this interview get a chance to visit the Mercosur region, as that part of southern South America is known locally, either as tourists or as book readers.
Here are the links to my books:
The Surreal Killer: http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Surreal-Killer-ebook/dp/B007H21EFO/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1331077632&sr=1-1. CURRENTLY FREE FOR AMAZON PRIME MEMBERS.
The Ambivalent Corpse: http://www.amazon.com/Ambivalent-Corpse-Crime-Meant-ebook/dp/B0060ZFRQG/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1319989507&sr=1-1.
The Empanada Affair: http://www.amazon.com/The-Empanada-Affair ebook/dp/B005BFCVYW/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1312339722&sr=1-1.