Monday, September 16, 2013

Ann Parker, Silver Lies

Review and interview

Some make a killing while some just get killed in this western mystery set in Leadville, Colorado, during the silver rush of 1879-1880. And the mysteries multiply after the novel’s central character, a saloon owner, finds there’s a body in the frozen mud outside her alley door.

In the pages of this novel, author Ann Parker has persuasively created a whole social world sprung into being by the discovery of silver in the Rocky Mountains. Inez Stannert and her partner, Abe Jackson, keep the beer and whiskey flowing at the Silver Queen for everyone from the silver barons to the Cornish miners who labor underground.

At the novel’s start, Bridgette O’Malley is the cook in the kitchen supplying bread and stew. And on Saturday nights, the town’s leading citizens gather for a game of high-stakes poker, with Inez dealing the cards. However, a third partner in the business, Inez’ husband, has gone missing for most of a year.

Leadville, Colorado, c1880
Plot. The death of an apparently decent and trustworthy assayer is passed off as an accident by the town’s truculent marshal. But it leaves Inez more than a little curious, especially when the man’s office has been broken into and ransacked. Something suspicious is going on in town, and she is determined to find out how it came to have fatal consequences for the assayer.

The mystery deepens as we meet more characters. A newcomer to town, the Reverend J. B. Sands, raises a number of questions as he seems unusually worldly for a man of the cloth. Thoroughly handsome, he is also something of a lady-killer, and Inez finds herself being romanced by the man.

Romance. Male readers unused to romance fiction will find the story shifting into quite another key as Rev. Sands and Inez flirt with intimacy and then yield to it. Love scenes are way different when told from a woman’s point of view. There’s maybe nothing in fiction more revealing of the gender gap.

For one thing, romance emerges from a field of sexual politics in which men are used to dominating and—especially in the frontier West—outnumbering women. Hollis, the town marshal, is an extreme example, openly hostile to women. Sands, by contrast, is a smooth operator, and there’s some question whether his real motives might be sharply at variance with his polished manner.

Intimacy requires both trust and surrender. When it leads to unmet expectations and fear of betrayal, there is a heavy debt of injured pride. That leads to stormy scenes between mismatched lovers, and this novel has its share of them.

Street scene, Leadville
Themes. Injured pride may well have been the title of the novel, as it runs as a theme from beginning to end. Discussing Milton’s Paradise Lost, one character describes the fallen angel, Lucifer, as the victim of it. And injured pride is a condition that sooner or later gets most of the novel’s characters into difficulty, including Inez.

The wintry weather is another constant theme in the novel, as characters trudge through the town’s frozen streets. Snow is forever falling, and we are often reminded of the cost to the hems of full-length skirts as women navigate the sludge and mud-caked walks.

An after-Christmas soiree at one of the town’s hotels offers a welcome reprieve from the weather. The chapters describing this elegant event are a genuine pleasure, from the Eden-like greenery and the invited guests in evening dress to the string quartet enthusiastically mangling Vivaldi and Mozart. For contrast, there’s the overheated and dimly lit interior of the town’s high-class whorehouse.

Snow, Leadville, August 1882
Women. Parker picks as a point of view character a woman who would have the freedom and independence of few other women on the frontier. As a saloon owner, she is freer to mingle with the rougher elements of town and much less constrained by the requirements of respectability.

Still, as a woman, she deals with being openly stared at by ill-mannered men, and she is also vulnerable on the worst streets of town. Thus, she carries firearms, sometimes concealed, sometimes not. For anonymity, she sometimes dresses as a man. This gets her access at night to a whorehouse, where she is in search of information from one of the prostitutes.

She is also not answerable to the most exacting dictates of Victorian morality. Having Abe Jackson, a black man, as a business partner would have raised eyebrows among readers of frontier fiction 100 years ago. Her affair with Rev. Sands would have absolutely shocked them. A married woman tempted to extramarital sex—and with a man of God—would have branded her as a “fallen woman.” The thrills she feels when being touched by him and her awareness of his body in and out of his clothes would have branded her as wanton.

On a scale of relative iniquity, however, Parker places her heroine well above the brazen madam of the town’s classiest “parlor house.” She also ranks above the coolly arch proprietor of yet another whorehouse, in Denver, who smokes cigarettes as she discusses the finer points of her trade and her customers.

Prospectors crossing a stream
Style. The tone is straightforward throughout, with an undercurrent of suspense, as the stakes rise and the threat of malice escalates. Now and again there comes an outburst of graphic violence. In the end, as an element of psychopathology is unmasked and takes over, the violence gets pretty nasty.

The novel has a Dickensian cast of characters, including the surprising appearance of none other than Bat Masterson. There are a couple moments of humor, as when the Rev. Sands enters the saloon and Inez hears the newly hired piano player segue into “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” And one of her employees, a back-bar flunky named Ulysses, is called “Useless” by everyone.

The mystery itself is densely plotted, and so many unanswered questions and speculations crop up that even a seasoned mystery reader may well feel bewildered. At the end, a life-threatening crisis takes the focus, leaving several details unexplained. Finally, there’s been so much going on that it takes a couple of chapters of denouement to sum it all up, including the romantic subplot.

Wrapping up. Overall, Silver Lies is enjoyable on many levels, particularly for its portrayal of a booming frontier mining town, crawling with life 24 hours of the day. It was first published in 2003 by Poisoned Pen Press and has recently been released as an ebook. It is currently available at amazon and Barnes&Noble for kindle and the nook, also at Powell's Books and Abebooks. You can visit Ann Parker’s website here.

Ann Parker, Photo by Charles Lucke

Ann Parker has generously agreed to spend some time at BITS today answering questions about the writing of Silver Lies. I'm happy to turn the rest of this post over to her.

Talk about how the idea for this novel suggested itself to you.
Silver Lies, and indeed all the novels that follow, evolved out of a desire to explore this particular area of Colorado—Leadville in particular—during a specific time—the boom years of the Colorado Silver Rush. When I first became interested in this timeframe of Colorado history, we were deep into the dot-com boom here in California, and I was intrigued by the psychological and economic parallels between these particular “get-rich-quick” times of vast enthusiasms and optimism that, to some extent, flies in the face of reality.

Only a few ever rise from rags to riches in any given boom… but many who fall under the spell of overnight success get swept up in the hope that, despite the numbers to the contrary, THEY will be one of the lucky ones. Then, there are the pragmatic types who see the golden opportunity in feeding the dreams… The folks in Leadville, for example, who “mined the miners.”

Did the story come to you all at once or was that a more complex part of the process?
The story evolved as I wrote the first draft. When I pondered the possibility of writing a book, the opening scene came to me in a flash and with a feel in my gut: Here is the beginning. I had no idea why assayer Joe Rose was in such a fix or what he was doing in one of the nastiest back street alleys in Leadville’s red-light district in the darkest hour of a cold winter night, nor who was out to get him.

My writing process… particularly for this first book… was akin to driving in the night with the headlights on. Every chapter I wrote illuminated the next. It wasn’t until the final third of the book that I could see to “the end.” At that point, I grabbed a little yellow sticky note—about two inches square—and scribbled down a handful of key scenes I needed to finish the story. That was as close to an outline as I got for Silver Lies.

Talk a bit about editing and revising. After completing a first draft, did it go through any key changes?
Oh my yes. Since my initial writing process was one of discovery and I wasn’t following a pre-set outline or story arc, my first draft was massive: about 160,000 words (600+ pages). I was told that, for it to be marketable, I had to shrink it down. A lot.

I threw out subplots, stripped out characters that didn’t forward the story, and added another suspect or two (because, despite its length, I really didn’t have enough suspects). I also worked on paring down the language. I tend to be very wordy in my first drafts—channeling the 19th century, perhaps. Even after all this, the end result is still pretty long as far as first novels go: over 110,000 words.
Did anything about the story or characters surprise you as you were writing?
Almost everything! I didn’t expect Reverend Sands to end up being the sort of person he was. I didn’t initially intend Inez to have a son… but there he was! I didn’t think Mark (Inez’s missing husband) and Abe would have the particular little adventure in their past that comes to light in the story. And Angel… well, she was a complete surprise. I didn’t intend anything more than a walk-on part for her, but there you go.

Both Inez and Sands are strongly drawn characters. Talk a bit about where they came from.
When I started the novel, I wanted to create a protagonist who was a strong, morally ambiguous woman. A woman who, in the world of good guys and bad guys, the white hats and the black hats, was more of a shade of grey… sometimes darker, sometimes lighter. Inez has some of the qualities of many of the strong women in my own family history, and of various real-life women who peopled the American West in the 19th century. Pragmatic, impulsive, determined to pursue her own path… and do whatever she needs to do to get there. And still, intensely loyal to those she cares about, and she can care deeply.

Reverend Sands is a bit more of a mystery to me! I originally thought he’d evolve in an entirely different direction, so it just goes to show that the subconscious often “knows best.” Again, there are plenty of 19 th-century men who sometimes worked on the side of the law and then occasionally stepped onto the other side of the line. Wyatt Earp, for instance.

The ministers and “men of the cloth” who ventured into the west and particularly into the boom towns, with successful outcomes, tend to be a colorful lot. Methodist preacher Father John Dyer (the “Snowshoe Itinerant”), for instance, would preach in the saloons to raise money to raise a church. There are some great stories about him in the newspapers of the time. I see Sands coming to his vocation later in life, and much of who he is having been formed during the Civil War.

I would love to write a novel exploring the Civil War years for Justice Sands, and another for Mark Stannert and Abe Jackson. I see the two stories as completely separate, but who knows? Wouldn’t it be interesting if there was an intersection of their paths back in those turbulent war years? Hmmm. Now that’s an idea. Poor Inez spent the war years fuming in New York as a disgruntled debutante. Her story was yet to come…

Has Inez evolved for you in subsequent novels in the series?
She has. I particularly enjoyed exploring her family relationships in the most recent book, Mercury’s Rise. I learned quite a bit more about Inez and her interactions with her sister and other members of her family in that one.

What parts of the novel gave you the most pleasure to write?
I loved writing about the weather! I know, that sounds strange. I also enjoyed coming up with the Paradise Lost bits. And dialogue. I like writing dialogue and action scenes. Inez with the frying pan was fun to write. And the music scenes… The music is my salute to my mother, who played classical piano as I grew up. I was able to re-create some of the feeling I had listening to her practice Chopin, Beethoven, and so on.

Did any parts of the writing present a particular challenge?
I always go through a tough time about halfway through each book… I call it the “muddle in the middle.” If you come across a passage where Inez (or some other character) says, “What the heck is going on?” or some such, that is not just the character talking! ;-) I always thrash through, though. Thank goodness there is the edit and rewrite process to smooth it all out.

What gave you the idea to include Bat Masterson?
I was also reading about the railroad war between the Denver and Rio Grande and Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railways, the focus being which company would get the right of way to lay track through the Royal Gorge and thus be the first to reach Leadville. Bat Masterson’s name popped up, and I started reading more about him.

What impressed me overall about him is how he successfully “morphed” to change with the times, spanning the mid-1800s to early 1920s. Buffalo hunter, gunfighter, gambler, lawman, sports promoter, and lastly a sports writer for the New York Morning Telegraph… It’s fascinating. He was one of those folks who crossed from one side of the law to the other as opportunities arose. He was also apparently roaming around Colorado during the Silver Lies timeframe. The notion of including him in the story arrived rather late in the process, but I just couldn’t resist.

Were you thinking of any other writers while writing this one?
When I settled on writing a mystery novel, I started looking at what other historical mysteries had an “Old West” setting with a female protagonist. In this vein, I came across the late Dianne Day’s Fremont Jones mystery series, which is set in early 1900s San Francisco (and elsewhere). For a list of books in the series, see this link.

I admired the strength of character that Dianne gave Fremont, and used to ponder what might happen to someone like Fremont Jones—an independent woman, with a mind of her own—if she made a series of “bad” choices. So, I had that in mind as I began to fashion the character of Inez.

What were the up- and downsides of choosing a single point-of-view character to tell this story?
At the time I wrote Silver Lies, which was mid- to late-1990s, most mysteries were a single POV (if I recall correctly). Honestly, I had enough on my hands dealing with being in ONE character’s head… I didn’t even consider including other POVs for that first book. Being in close-third POV (experiencing the world through Inez’s eyes) makes red herrings a bit easier to handle… the clue that is ignored or overlooked (for perfectly reasonable reasons), the focus on one suspect or another. The inability to know—for certain—the motives or thoughts of other characters.

If the novel were made into a movie, whom would you like to see in the lead role?
Well, if time travel were possible, I would love to see Diana Rigg play Inez. If you (or your readers here) have seen D.R. as Mrs. Peel in old “The Avengers” TV series, I think some of the “steel and strength” of Mrs. Peel would work very well for Inez.
As for current-day actresses, I’m flummoxed.

So, I put up an appeal on Facebook. Here are the suggestions that popped up from readers: Sandra Bullock, Anne Hathaway, Rebecca Hall, Dana Delany, Scarlett Johanson, Angie Harmon, Morena Baccarin, Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Stone, Julia Roberts, Summer Glau, Hillary Swank, Minnie Driver, Margot Hemingway, Uma Thurman, Jennifer Garner, Hallie Berry, Molly Culver, Franka Potente, Michelle Rodrigues, Rohna Mitra, Zooey Dechanel, Cobie Smulders, Katherine Heigl, Evan Rachel Wood, Kirsten Dunst, Clare Danes, Meryl Streep (back in the day), Angelica Huston (back in the day), Jodie Foster (back in the day)…. You can see all the suggestions at this link to the Facebook post:

How did you go about deciding on the novel’s title?
Like the novel itself, the title evolved over time. I’d tentatively called it Dead in Leadville (not the greatest, but served as a placeholder). An agent I had briefly (he was unable to interest the New York publishers in it … although he tried) helped a great deal in coming up with the final version. He said Dead In… had to go and asked for a list of possible other titles. One of the suggestions I made was Silver Lies in Leadville. He said, “Shorten it to Silver Lies,” so I did.

It was a great call… I love the title, in that “lies” has several meanings, all of which resonate with the story. However, little did I know that I was now headed down the road of a series with titles composed of “a metal” + “word rhyming with –ies.” I managed to get four that are reasonable: Silver Lies, Iron Ties, Leaden Skies, and the most recent, Mercury’s Rise. The fifth is going to be a challenge.

What were the creative decisions that went into the novel’s cover?
I’m glad that I’m with Poisoned Pen Press, a publisher who asks for cover ideas, and that the Colorado Historical Society (now called History Colorado) has some amazing images of Leadville and Colorado from the timeframe of my novels. When Poisoned Pen Press asked for cover ideas for Silver Lies, I was able to share a number of possible images that I thought would work well.

The one that ended up as the cover was my favorite of the bunch, so I’m glad they chose it! Although taken later (in the 1890s), it shows Leadville “as it would become” and in the winter season. Those “in the know” quickly realized that the mountains had been photoshopped in (they are visible from Leadville, but from a different angle. A little artistic license has been taken, there.).

What are you reading now?
I just finished John le Carre’s A Delicate Truth. I love le Carre’s writing, and I’m very fond of his Cold War novels. I’m now thinking I’ll need to revisit The Spy Who Came In From the Cold fairly soon, just to return to le Carre’s Berlin... Right now, I’m halfway through Good Night, Mr. Holmes, by Carole Nelson Douglas, and enjoying it immensely.

What can your readers expect from you next?
My current fiction project is the fifth in the Silver Rush series, but I must beg readers’ patience. Two kids in college means that when it comes to the writing life, I need to put my “day work” first, and fiction second.

For readers who like your work, which other writers would you recommend to them?
What mostly draws me to a writer is the writing style… I can forgive a lot if the writing engages me. So, short list off the top of my head: Dianne Day (her Fremont Jones series, especially), Sandra Dallas, Martin Cruz Smith, and John le Carre. Of the three, Sandra Dallas writes historical fiction set in the West, so if readers like the setting of Silver Lies and the other Silver Rush novels, I’d suggest picking up a book by Sandra Dallas, and if they like mysteries as well, I’d suggest Dianne Day.

Thanks, Ann. Every success.

Image credits:
Wikimedia Commons
Author's photo: Charles Lucke

Coming up: Pamela Nowak, Changes