Saturday, March 31, 2018

Hurray for the Agatha Best First Nominees!

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: How great is this? I can tell you with absolute certainty, that nowhere on the planet are there five happier women than the nominees for the Agatha Award Best First  Novel.
Oh. When you've worked and worked and worried and worried, and then the phone call comes...oh. It is a life-changing moment.
So it looks like I am typing, but I am really standing and cheering and leading the standing ovation for our fabulous wonderful talented Agatha Best First nominees.
Hurray!  and now, I am thrilled to let you meet them all.  With a very tantalizing question for all of us!

NOMINEES:  Thanks for having us on Jungle Red Writers! As we bask in the glow of our Agatha Best First Novel nominations, we thought it would be fun to share our first bylines. Such great variety, just like our books!
 We’d love to hear about your first foray into writing. Was it life-changing? Funny? The bite that gave you the writing bug? Please share!

Micki Browning
As long as I can disregard a poem published in my elementary school anthology, my first byline was in 1986 for “The Call of the Sea,” an essay on underwater sound that went to press in The Diver magazine. It was magical to learn the very first article I’d ever submitted had been accepted. It still makes me smile to think that my first foray into publishing and my debut novel both involved scuba diving.

V.M. Burns
My first byline (or the first one I remember) was for an editorial I wrote for a school newspaper (middle or high school – it’s all fuzzy). I wrote a commentary on student athletes and SAT scores. At the time there was a lot of public discussion about requirements that student athletes needed to maintain a minimum GPA and SAT/ACT score to receive college scholarships. I felt the standards weren’t that high and athletes should be held to a similar standard as other students pursuing college educations. Interestingly, in The Plot is Murder, Samantha Washington’s assistant, Dawson Alexander is a student athlete who is placed on academic probation and Sam and Nana Jo tutor him. I guess, I’ve been writing this book a lot longer than I realized. 

Kellye Garrett
I have known I wanted to write since I was five years-old. In the ensuing thirty-plus years, I have probably attempted every form of writing except for poetry, which is honestly probably for the best. I used to start and immediately discard stories as a kid. My mom still has them somewhere in her garage. They are definitely blackmail material. I vaguely remember winning some award for an essay contest at a local Jack and Jill event. I can’t remember what the topic but I must have known a lot about it at the time! One “first byline” I will never forget is my first television credit. I was a staff writer on a CBS show called Cold Case, which was known for using flashbacks to key periods of American history. My episode was about the World War II Japanese internment camps that falsely imprisoned many American citizens solely because of the color of their skin. It’s such an important and painful part of our history, yet also one we often ignore. So I was happy to be able to help spotlight it on national TV.

Laura Oles
There’s something special about going to your favorite bookstore in search of a magazine and being able to flip through it to find your byline. When I was asked to be a columnist for Digital Camera Magazine back in the late 1990’s, I felt I had reached an important professional goal. I remember taking a trip to my local Hasting’s to search for it on the newsstand. I purchased a copy of the first issue with my new column, even though the publisher had also sent copies. More recently, writing a guest column for Writer’s Digest was such a special experience. As a faithful reader of that magazine for so many years, being asked to contribute was a huge thrill.  Seeing a WD tweet promoting my article? You bet I took a screenshot of that! I’m just not that cool to pretend it wasn’t a big deal.

Kathleen Valenti
Early in my writing career, I dabbled in journalism, writing articles for local papers and a piece for a national car magazine. But it wasn’t until I consistently wrote for my supper that I felt that I had somehow made it. The irony? There was no byline at all.
My first experience with the no-byline-byline was as a junior copywriter on my very first assignment. The task: write a TV spot for a cable company to promote its on-time guarantee. My creative director gave me carte blanche. “Just write something funny,” he said. “And good.”
So I did. The anonymity allowed me to turn off my internal editor and take chances I would never have taken if my name accompanied the spot, which went on to win awards. It was the writing equivalent of “Dance like no one’s watching,” and I loved it—and continued loving it for more than two decades.
Fast forward to today. My name is front and center—literally—on my book. To say that it took some getting used to is a serious understatement. I even asked for the size of my name to be reduced on the book cover! Now that I’m out in the world, I’ve made peace with having a public byline. I’m even enjoying it. After all, my heart is already on those pages. It makes sense that my name is, too.  

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Oh, I am so happy for all of you! Reds and 
Readers, chime in! On best firsts, on your first bylines, or just to 
say congratulations. And hey--who will we all see at Malice? 
Now, meet your talented  nominees!  

Micki Browning

A retired police captain, Micki Browning writes the Mer Cavallo Mystery series set in the Florida Keys. In addition to the Agatha nomination for Best First Novel, Adrift has won both the Daphne du Maurier and the Royal Palm Literary Awards. Beached, her second novel, launched January 2018. Micki’s work has appeared in dive magazines, anthologies, mystery magazines, and textbooks. She lives in South Florida with her partner in crime and a vast array of scuba equipment she uses for “research.” Learn more about Micki at

Marine biologist-turned-divemaster Meredith Cavallo thought adjusting to a laid-back life in the Florida Keys would be a breeze. But when the host of a ghost-hunting documentary crew hires her as a safety diver and then vanishes during the midnight dive, Mer’s caught in a storm of supernatural intrigue. Determined to find a rational explanation, Mer approaches the man’s disappearance as any scientist would—by asking questions, gathering data, and deducing the truth. But the victim’s life is as shrouded in mystery as his disappearance. Still, something happened under the water and before long, she’s in over her head. When someone tries to kill her, she knows the truth is about to surface. Maybe dead men do tell tales.

V.M. Burns

V.M. (Valerie) Burns was born in Northwestern Indiana and spent many years in Southwestern Michigan on the Lake Michigan shoreline. She is a lover of dogs, British historic cozies, and scones with clotted cream. After many years in the Midwest she went in search of milder winters and currently lives in Eastern Tennessee with her poodles. Receiving the Agatha nomination for Best First Novel has been a dream come true. Valerie is a member of Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and a lifetime member of Sisters in Crime. Readers can learn more by visiting her website at

The Plot is Murder
Samantha Washington has dreamed of owning a mystery bookstore for as long as she can remember. And as she prepares for the store’s grand opening, she’s also realizing another dream—penning a cozy mystery set in England between the wars. While Samantha hires employees and fills the shelves with the latest mysteries, quick-witted Lady Penelope Marsh, long-overshadowed by her beautiful sister Daphne, refuses to lose the besotted Victor Carlston to her sibling's charms. When one of Daphne's suitors is murdered in a maze, Penelope steps in to solve the labyrinthine puzzle and win Victor. But as Samantha indulges her imagination, the unimaginable happens in real life. A shady realtor turns up dead in her backyard, and the police suspect her—after all, the owner of a mystery bookstore might know a thing or two about murder. Aided by her feisty grandmother and an enthusiastic ensemble of colorful retirees, Samantha is determined to close the case before she opens her store. But will she live to conclude her own story when the killer has a revised ending in mind for her?

Kellye Garrett

Kellye Garrett writes the Detective by Day mysteries about a semi-famous, mega-broke black actress who takes on the deadliest role of her life: Homicide Detective. The first, Hollywood Homicide, won the 2018 Lefty Award for Best Debut Mystery Novel and was recently nominated for Agatha and Barry awards. The second, Hollywood Ending, will be released on August 8, 2018 from Midnight Ink. Prior to writing novels, Kellye spent eight years working in Hollywood, including a stint writing for the TV drama Cold Case. The New Jersey native now works for a leading media company in New York City and serves on the national Board of Directors for Sisters in Crime. You can learn more about her at and


Hollywood Homicide
Actress Dayna Anderson’s Deadly New Role: Homicide Detective
Dayna Anderson doesn’t set out to solve a murder. All the semifamous, mega-broke actress wants is to help her parents keep their house. So after witnessing a deadly hit-and-run, she pursues the fifteen grand reward. But Dayna soon finds herself doing a full-on investigation, wanting more than just money—she wants justice for the victim. She chases down leads at paparazzi hot spots, celeb homes, and movie premieres, loving every second of it—until someone tries to kill her. And there are no second takes in real life.

Laura Oles
Laura Oles is a photo industry journalist who spent twenty years covering tech and trends before turning to crime fiction. She served as a columnist for numerous photography magazines and publications. Laura’s short stories have appeared in several anthologies, including Murder on Wheels, which won the Silver Falchion Award in 2016. Her debut mystery, Daughters of Bad Men, is a Claymore Award Finalist and an Agatha nominee for Best First Novel. She is also a Writers’ League of Texas Award Finalist. Laura is a member of Austin Mystery Writers, Sisters in Crime and Writers’ League of Texas. Laura lives on the edge of the Texas Hill Country with her husband, daughter and twin sons. Visit her online at

Daughters of Bad Men
Jamie Rush understands what it takes to disappear because her parents taught her that long ago. Leveraging her knowledge of why and how people run from their own lives, Jamie has built a business based on bringing those in hiding back to answer for their actions. She takes pride in using her skills to work both inside and outside the law.
When her estranged brother, Brian, calls and says his daughter is missing, Jamie initially turns down the case. Kristen has always been a bit wild, frequently dropping off the grid then showing up a few days later. But Brian swears this time is different, and even though Jamie vowed years ago to keep her conniving sibling at arm’s length, she can’t walk away if Kristen could be in real trouble.

As Jamie begins digging into Kristen’s life, she uncovers her niece’s most guarded secrets. Uncovering the truth will put a target on Jamie’s back and endanger the lives of those she loves.

Kathleen Valenti
Kathleen Valenti is the author of the Maggie O’Malley mystery series. The series’ first book, Agatha- and Lefty-nominated Protocol, introduces us to Maggie, a pharmaceutical researcher with a new job, a used phone, and a deadly problem. The series’ second book, 39 Winks, releases May 22. When Kathleen isn’t writing page-turning mysteries that combine humor and suspense, she works as a nationally award-winning advertising copywriter. She lives in Oregon with her family where she pretends to enjoy running. Learn more at

Freshly minted college graduate Maggie O’Malley embarks on a career fueled by professional ambition and a desire to escape the past. As a pharmaceutical researcher, she’s determined to save lives from the shelter of her lab. But on her very first day she’s pulled into a world of uncertainty. Reminders appear on her phone for meetings she’s never scheduled with people she’s never met.
People who end up dead.

With help from her best friend, Maggie discovers the victims on her phone are connected to each other and her new employer. She soon unearths a treacherous plot that threatens her mission—and her life. Maggie must unlock deadly secrets to stop horrific abuses of power before death comes calling for her.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Is Winning The Only Thing?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  When I first met Jonathan, he challenged me, oh so casually, to a game of Scrabble. Oh, yeah, I thought. I got you. (Mind you, we were early on in our relationship.) Sure, I said. Secretly rubbing my hands in anticipation.
Because I am really good at Scrabble. And I wanted to win.

Jonathan proceeded to wipe the floor with me, It was such a rout, seriously, that at one point I grabbed the board and called out “Earthquake! Earthquake!”

Our relationship survived that, but I am none the less competitive. Thank goodness I am not alone.

Charles Salzberg—and I am such a fan!—has new book out called Second Story Man. And Reds and readers, you will love it.

And some of it--about a master burglar and his nemesis--is about the dangers of needing to win.

        by Charles Salzberg
Here’s my dirty little secret: I am, by nature, very competitive. Not the win at-any-cost kind of competitive, but competitive enough where losing hurts way more than it should.

So, yes, I own up to wanting to win. But I come by it legitimately, because winning is an American obsession. As UCLA football coach Red Saunders once said, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” (this quote has often been attributed to legendary Green Bay Packers coach, Vince Lombardi, but it was Saunders who said it first) and this attitude is as American as apple pie, our national mantra, if you will. Not only do we hate to lose, but the word “loser” has become a particularly nasty epithet.

Everything, no matter how mundane, how inconsequential, becomes a contest, with a winner and a loser. Think about all the reality shows on TV. Survivor. The Bachelor. American Idol. Top Chef. The Voice. The Amazing Race. They’re not about reality, they’re about winning…and losing.

This need to come out on top is not something I’m particularly proud of and so I do my best to hide it, as if being competitive, wanting to be the best, is something to be ashamed of. Well, maybe it is, if it’s unchecked. What do we lose sight of if all that’s important is winning? Should coming out on top be so important to us?

As a kid, I was a pretty fair tennis player. Not the best, but good enough to know that when I got out there on the court there was a pretty good chance I’d win, or at least be competitive. Often, I’d play with Mike Winters, an excellent athlete. When he’d miss a shot, you’d know it. He’d curse, throw his racquet, sometimes bang it into the ground as if he wanted to bury it six feet under. 

One afternoon, after we’d completed a particularly close match, he came up to me and asked, “Don’t you care if you win?”
         I was taken aback. Of course, I cared. Who wouldn’t?
“Sure, I do.”
         “Then why don’t you show it?”
         I’d committed a cardinal sin: not publicly showing how much winning meant to me.
Over the years, I’ve realized that, in fact, winning isn’t everything. Wanting to do your best, giving it your all, is. Whether you win or lose tomorrow the sun is still going to come up. You’re still going to have to deal with pretty much the same problems you had before you won. Sure, there’s that initial “top of the world, ma!” feeling, but we all know it doesn’t last very long.

          I wanted to write something about this phenomenon and so, when the idea of writing about a master burglar came to me, I realized I had my chance.
Francis Hoyt is that master burglar. Brilliant, athletic, arrogant, manipulative, he considers himself the best thief, not just today, but of all-time. And perhaps he is. 

Hoyt, a creation of imagination, is really an amalgam of two real-life burglars: the so-called “dinnertime bandit,” and the “silver thief.” In winter, he plies his trade down south, mostly in southern Florida, where the money is. In spring, summer and fall, he comes north, following his wealthy targets. The only time he’s spent in prison was because he didn’t listen to his instincts and let someone else force him to do something he didn’t want to do.

         When Second Story Man opens, Hoyt is headed back north, and right behind him are two lawmen, Charlie Floyd and Manny Perez who, like Hoyt, consider themselves the best at what they do. And so, the stage is set for a classic cat-and-mouse game. Who’s going to win? But more important, how far will each of them go to come out on top?

         Hoyt taunts Floyd and Perez, daring them to catch him. Floyd and Perez take the bait. How each man pushes the envelope in order to win, is at the heart of the novel. The stakes escalate, as the story moves forward. Obviously, I don’t want to give too much away, but I refer you to Machiavelli and the question of,
Do the ends justify the means?

         If I’m at all successful, when you finish reading the book you’ll stop a moment and ask yourself how important winning is to you and, most of all, how important should it be?

HANK: Ooh. May I say--I loved this book? And I am way too competitive. You all know that. As Charles says—how important is it to you to win? Or your spouse, or kids? And what do you think about that?  

Francis Hoyt, arrogant, athletic, brilliant, manipulative and ruthless, is a master burglar. He specializes in stealing high-end silver, breaking into homes that seem impenetrable. He’s never been caught in the act, although he has spent some time in prison on a related charge, time he used to hone his craft and make valuable connections. (Hoyt is based on two real-life master burglars: the so-called Dinnertime Bandit, who only stole when his victims were home, and The Silver Thief, who was only interested in high-end silver). Hoyt follows the money. In the winter, he works down south, primarily in southern Florida and Georgia, around the Atlanta area. Summers, he moves back up north, where he plies his trade in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

One day, Charlie Floyd, brilliant, stubborn, an experienced investigator, who has recently retired from his job with the attorney general’s department for the state of Connecticut, receives a phone call from Manny Perez, a Cuban-American Miami police detective. Perez, who’s worked with Floyd previously, wants to enlist the former investigator in his efforts to put an end to Francis Hoyt’s criminal career. Floyd accepts the offer and they team up to bring Hoyt to justice.

Second Story Man, told in alternating chapters, representing Hoyt’s, Floyd’s and Perez’s points-of-view, develops into a cat-and-mouse contest between the two lawmen and this master burglar. As Floyd and Perez get closer to their prey, Hoyt finds out they’re after him and rather than backing down, he taunts them, daring them to bring him in. As the story develops, the stakes get higher and higher, and Hoyt, who is always concerned about proving he’s the best at what he does, even resorts to murder. Eventually, the story climaxes in a confrontation between the three men.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

One Moment in Time Makes the Difference

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: You know how I got the idea for my first novel? By chance. You know how I met my husband? By total chance. How I got my first reporting job? By chance. All of those, long stories for another day.  Each time, I made a decision that I didn’t realize was a decision. Let alone a life-changing one.
The wonderfully talented Jim Jackson has been thinking about this---for his characters, but also for his own life. Why do we decide what we decide? And do we understand the…

          by  James M. Jackson

Not every decision I have made has been a good one.
Every decision I make has consequences. They may be large or small. I may not even be aware of what they are, but they are there.

In real life, consequences don’t necessarily relate well to our expectations of what should happen given our actions. That’s why we say life isn’t fair. Sometimes, it seems that pure chance makes a huge difference, and yet if we look carefully we might see our own hand’s presence.

UU Fellowship, Hunterdon Co, NJ

When I moved to Cincinnati from New Jersey in June 1993, I shopped for a Unitarian Universalist church. This was before Facebook and Google, so my New Jersey minister provided me a list of the four congregations with addresses and ministers’ names. My two objectives were for a congregation that could help ground me in my new location, and I wanted to sing in the choir, something I hadn’t done since college.
The geographically closest to where I lived was First Church. They had a 10:30 service, and being a morning person, I prefer early services, allowing me more of the rest of the day to do whatever else I want. That first Sunday I got turned around driving the confusing Cincinnati streets (no GPS back then) and arrived late for the 10:30 service. I recalled that another UU church was close by and drove to St. John’s in time for their 11:00 service.

My taste for church architecture runs traditional, which St. John’s is not. And while the service was fine, I still wanted to visit the other churches. My second try for First Church was late that summer. Having gotten lost once, I left with a large cushion and arrived early.

 I entered through the door nearest the parking lot and wasn’t sure how to get to the sanctuary. I wandered around the church. Several people saw me, but everyone appeared busy and disinterested in me. I felt uncomfortable and remembered St. John’s was not far away and had the later service. I drove to St. John’s, was met by a greeter, filled out a name tag. I discovered as I read through the order of service that the congregation was dedicating the new hymnals. The service was a congregational sing led by the choir.
St. John's UU Church
Some of the hymns were familiar and I’m a decent sight reader, and I had a great time singing the bass part. Before I could work my way out of the sanctuary, the choir director caught up to me and said a little bird told her I sang bass. Choir rehearsals were Thursday 7-9, and she’d love it if I could come.

A series of seemingly small decisions led me to what became my Cincinnati church home where I met a foxy alto; we’ve been together for twenty-three years and counting. 

My decisions arriving at that place weren’t all good—I should have overcome my shyness and just asked one of the ladies how to get to First Church’s sanctuary—but they did fit with my character and so are understandable.

When we (or our fictional characters) take actions or make decisions against their better judgement, we begin to experience cognitive dissonance. On the way from First Church to St. John’s, I was kicking myself about how lame it was that I couldn’t just ask one of the ladies how to get to the sanctuary. I’ll never know what I missed at First Church. I’ve since met several of their congregants and enjoyed their company.

I’m a pantser and with my novels, I usually find out what issue I’m writing about only after I complete the first draft. 

Turns out that in Empty Promises I was exploring how Seamus McCree, my series protagonist, would react to a series of actions he takes that increasingly conflict with his core values. Like most of us, he self-justifies his decisions, but as they accumulate, they begin to wear him down. Empty Promises is a deeper and darker novel than the others in the series and that carries risks for me.

Some Seamus McCree fans may be upset that he stumbles and for a time loses his moral compass. Those who prefer story resolutions where all the bad guys receive their just desserts will find justice does not always prevail. It is, however, the story I wanted to write—no, that I had to write. I have faith that most readers are bored with do-gooders who can do no wrong and sociopaths who have no conscience. Even with page-turners like Empty Promises, they want to delve deeper into the human condition, provided it has a satisfying conclusion—even if it’s not exactly the one they would have preferred.

How about you, Reds and their fans: have I gone off the deep end, or are you willing to come along for the ride?

HANK: Well, that's a tantalizing question! Jim will be stopping by today to respond to your comments. He’s also giving away a copy of Empty Promises. Just comment to enter!  (And a foxy alto--that's so great! Love to you both.) So Reds and Readers--did you have a big life-changing moment you never could have predicted?

In Empty Promises Seamus McCree’s first solo bodyguard assignment goes from bad to worse. His client disappears. His granddog finds a buried human bone. Police find a fresh human body.
Seamus risks his own safety and freedom to turn amateur sleuth in hopes he can solve the crimes, fulfill his promise of protection, and win back the love of his life. Wit and grit are on his side, but the clock is ticking . . . and the hit man is on his way.

James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree novels featuring the financial crimes consultant, his family, and friends. The series has been well received by crime fiction readers who like their books darker than cozies and lighter than noir. Jim splits his time between the deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the open spaces of Georgia’s Lowcountry. He is the past president of the 700+ member Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Here's information about Jim and his books!