Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Release date read! MURDER AT THE MENA HOUSE, by Erica Ruth Neubauer

We’ve been waiting for this moment for months, maybe years – the release of Erica Ruth Neubauer’s Murder at the Mena House. Boswell met Neubauer when we started selling books for Murder + Mayhem, the longtime Milwaukee mystery conference (currently on hiatus). Since then, she’s interviewed several authors for our Thrillwaukee series. We were celebrating the release of Mena with not one, not two, but three events. A launch at the store on Saturday, a multi-author lunch at the Woman’s Club the day before, and a joint event with Erica Ruth and two of her fellow mystery writers in June, while they did an old-fashioned bookstore road trip. That one might still be happening! Maybe.

And instead? A blog post. We had three great reads on Neubauer’s debut and two of us wrote up recommendations. First up is Chris Lee: “A roaring ‘20s vacation to an Egyptian resort is marred by murder, and our intrepid heroine, being herself implicated, must engage in a bit of serious sleuthing to clear her name, all the while avoiding the company of handsome men. While this novel will fit in well for readers of historical mysteries, don’t let the cozy trappings fool you – Neubauer isn’t afraid of the dark. She leans into themes drawn from classic noir, revealing the dark intentions and everyday evils hidden beneath charming exteriors and slick veneers. Here’s a mystery that’s a cut above the rest of its class, and with a first adventure this pitch-perfect, you’ll want to book passage ASAP to follow Jane Wunderly to the ends of the earth.”

And here’s my take on Murder at the Mena House: “When newly widowed Jane Wunderly is offered a chance for an Egyptian vacation with her Aunt Millie, she jumps at the chance. The Mena House resort offers many chances to mingle with visitors, and Jane catches the eye of Redvers, a gentleman whose last relationship was undone by his banker’s hours, and the scorn of Anna, a flirt who also might have her sights on Redvers. But the whirl of socializing can be a bit exhausting, especially when it is packaged with card sharks, blackmailers, antiquities thieves, and at least one murderer. This delightful new historical mystery series highlights a charming heroine, albeit one with secrets up her sleeve, and features colorful characters, a picturesque setting, sparkling wit, and a healthy dose of suspense.” (Daniel Goldin)

This book really is just what you need right now – a classic historical mystery with a delightful heroine. And you don’t have to worry about wanting more; the next two books in the series are already written. I sent a few questions to Neubauer, and she was gracious enough to write back. First up, I asked her about subgenre. It seems to me that publishers seem to prefer thrillers over mysteries. It feels like I’m inundated with advance reading copies of the former and it’s hard to find anything of the latter.

Erica Ruth Neubauer: “I was a reviewer for many years, so I did understand that the market heavily favors thrillers and even domestic suspense right now. But I kept reminding myself of the sage advice I had been given to write what I wanted to read. And this was what I wanted to read. And it's also how I wanted to spend a big chunk of time - living in Egypt with these characters, who I really like. If I had tried to write a thriller it wouldn't have worked, because it wouldn't have been authentic.”

DCG: And here’s the obvious follow-up – 1920s Egypt? How did you pick the time period?

ERN: “My dad raised me on Masterpiece Mystery and Agatha Christie and old black and white movies - especially the detective ones. (Truly, that whole Edward Gorey opening to Masterpiece Mystery with the woman wailing on the tomb is very emblematic of my childhood.) Somewhere along the way I picked up very romantic ideas about Egypt, but especially the 1920s. I could just see a hotel with slow fans turning overhead and everyone elegantly dressed and sipping cocktails on the terrace, but someone winds up dead. I could still swear I've seen a movie set in Egypt like this, but I've yet to find the one that matches what I remember. So I wrote it instead.”

DCG: The 1920s is quite decade for fiction. Boswell is fans of your friend Susanna Calkins, whose Murder Knocks Twice is set in 1920s Chicago. Looking forward to her follow-up, The Fate of a Flapper, which is currently scheduled for late July.

And now to head into the writerly weeds. Plotter or pantser?

ERN: I'm a pantser. I didn't even know who my murderer was until I was more than halfway done with the first draft. When I start writing, I might have some broad ideas about what I want to happen or where I want to go, but I find that I can't write to an outline well. I tried with book three and it was so hard for me to do that I'm going right back to my pantsing ways.

DCG: Without a plot, how did the book take form? I'm guessing Jane was a big part of it. Is she based on someone? Oh, come on, I see a little bit of you.

ERN: I did start with Jane. And like me, I wanted her to be a little bit older, to have already seen some life, which would put her past the age of a young, flamboyant flapper, but still with plenty of life left in her. I didn't mean to base her on anyone, but I'm sure I've unintentionally written something of myself into her. (Especially anywhere she's a smart-aleck.)

DCG: Who were your writerly inspirations? Not who are your favorite writers, but who did you read who made you say, I want to write something like that!

ERN: I can remember exactly where I was when this happened. My best friend Beth, a librarian, and I were sitting on my back porch reading one summer afternoon a few years ago. We like to read at the same time and occasionally take a break and fill the other in on what is happening in the book each of us is reading--always different books. I was reading Murder at the Brightwell, by Ashley Weaver and I kept putting it down and saying, "This. I want to write something like this." Beth and I started brainstorming Jane that very afternoon. (We were so loud and laughing so much that my neighbors slammed their windows shut.) 

Prior to her writing career, Weaver worked at Greendale Public Library.

DCG: I really enjoyed a lot of your bit characters. Did you have characters mapped out as you were writing or was that pantsed too? Who are your favorites? When this book is a hit and you get a contract for ten more and then they ask you to do a spinoff series like Jeff Kinney did, who would you most want to be at the center of your story?

ERN: My main characters I did a lot of background work on, figuring out who they were and what their stories were. My side characters were very much pantsed, although once they came to me, I added them to my worksheet of characters and tried to do the same thing--figure out who they are.

As unpleasant as Aunt Millie can be, I have a real soft spot for her. She *is* based on someone I knew and was fond of despite how difficult they were. But I can't really see her carrying her own series. But I also really liked my vaudeville characters, Charlie and Deanna. I could see them having their own series, and even if they don't, I suspect they will make a reappearance down the line.

DCG: I can hear the sparkling repartee already.

Want to know even more? Visit Rochelle Melander’s Write Now! Blog for the latest in her Writers at Work series, where you'll learn lots more about Mena and Neubauer. And yes, you can buy Murder at the Mena House at Boswell.  It's Boswell Best for at least the next two weeks.

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