Guest Post by Kay Kendall
T. Jefferson Parker, the bestselling author of 20 crime novels, confided to me last week that his two mysteries that touched on the Vietnam War had “my readers staying away in droves.” Needless to say, he never tried a third.
His words made me feel a little better—one of the maxims I live by is “misery loves company.” You see, my debut novel, just published by Stairway Press this spring, has that war as a backdrop. I had guessed it wouldn’t be a big draw as subject matter, but I had no idea how many people would tell me they never read anything to do with that conflict.
Mr. Parker was a headline speaker at ThrillerFest 2013, and I was an International Thriller Debut Author of the class of 2013. Our paths intersected, and we spoke for a long time. In all his conversation, what stayed with me, word for word, was his line about readers avoiding the subject of a war that Americans know we didn’t win. Were the sacrifices worth it? Let’s just not think about it.
Within the mystery genre, historical fiction is my personal favorite. Many authors locate their sleuths and spymasters during the wars of the twentieth century. The two world wars and the Cold War all have hundreds of novels set during those times. The only significant war era of last century not “taken,” not overrun with mysteries, occurred in Vietnam. Using the home front during that war was a comparatively empty niche, and I concluded I needed to fill it with my mysteries.
I wanted to show what life was like for young women of that era—not the type who made headlines, the Hanoi Janes or Angela Davises, but the moderates who nonetheless got swept along by the tides of history during the turbulent sixties. All that turmoil lends itself to drama, intrigue, and murder. I figured that if readers could enjoy mysteries set during war eras, then Vietnam would be no different. But America was victorious in World Wars I and II and the Cold War.
The heartwarming part about my debut novel—and there is one, thank goodness—is that people who do read Desolation Row—An Austin Starr Mystery enjoy it a lot. My reviews are excellent, and no one online has trashed my writing or my subject matter. (I’m knocking on wood. No need to take chances.)
Only yesterday I learned that a veteran of the Vietnam War was so engrossed in reading it that he stayed up all night to finish, then called his sister-in-law the next morning and showered my book with praise for ten minutes. She is my friend and a writer of exquisite short stories. When she read and loved my mystery, she thought he might enjoy it too. And he did.
So, the bottom line for me is that even if T. Jefferson Parker had warned me ahead of time to stay clear of the war that many have compared to a quagmire, I would not have paid his advice any heed. The story of Desolation Row had to come to light. I had to write that book so that the others that were waiting in line behind it, more or less patiently, could have their turn too.
The British statesman and philosopher Edmond Burke wrote, “Those who do not know history are destined to repeat it.” As well, how can you hope to understand how we got where we are now when you don’t understand where we came from?
Events that happened in the sixties and early seventies still echo down the decades today. Just as some describe America’s battles in Iraq as “the Vietnam War in the sand,” the upheavals of women’s liberation have not ended.
That is why I am setting my next Austin Starr mystery in 1970. This time murder occurs in a women’s liberation consciousness raising group. Trouble ensues. Clearly I believe in serving up a little history in a setting of a long-gone world with my murder and mayhem.
There were not even answering machines, let alone cell phones and DVRs. Imagine that! How cool. How quaint.
ABOUT DESOLATION ROW—AN AUSTIN STARR MYSTERY
In 1968 a young bride from Texas uses her CIA-honed skills to catch the real killer when her husband lands in a Canadian jail for murdering the draft-resisting son of a United States senator.
No activist herself, Austin is homesick, drowning in culture shock, and now, her husband has been accused of murdering a fellow draft resister, the black-sheep son of a U.S. Senator. Alone and ill-equipped to negotiate in a foreign country, she is befriended by Larissa Klimenko, the daughter of Austin's Russian history professor.
The Mounties aren't supposed to harass draft-age boys but the truth is very different, especially when political pressure is applied by both the victim's father and the Canadian prime minister's office. They may have a reputation for always getting their man, but Austin is convinced this time they have the wrong one. Once courted by the CIA, and a lover of mystery and espionage novels, Austin launches her own investigation into the murder. When ominous letters warning her to stop her sleuthing turn into death threats, Austin must find the real killer or risk losing everything. Her love-and her life-are on the line.