I don’t read cozies. The words “cozy” and “mystery” don’t even go together, in my book. Like jumbo shrimp. Which is it? My mystery reading started with Patricia Highsmith, James M. Cain and early Elmore Leonard. I like ‘em gritty and, for the most part, I like ‘em dark. That’s just me. There’s a big audience out there for lighter stuff; fine. The Difficult Sister didn’t seem like it was up my alley, but when Judy Nedry dropped me an email, I thought I could at least take a look. Her website didn’t use that dreaded word. “A Novel of Suspense…” Hmmm. I was a bit concerned at first. Two women on the road, lots of café and eating scenes. This sure seemed like a typical cozy set-up (not that I’m any expert). There’s a missing sister and the trail leads to a village down the Oregon coast, etc. But there was something gritty and truth-telling about Emma Golden that pulled me along and soon, well, darkness came over the land. A review of The Difficult Sister follows. First, a Q & A with Judy Nedry.
Question: The Difficult Sister starts with what I would call a typical set up for a cozy mystery. And then all hell breaks loose and we’re in the middle of a Lee Child action thriller. Was this your plan from the start as you wrote?
Judy Nedry: Interesting—I’ve never read Lee Child. I guess I’d call my style Traditional English Mystery. In life and in writing, I’ve never been one for making a showy first impression. It’s difficult for me to get all the action out there in the first page or ten. I’ve tried, believe me, but I am much more comfortable setting the stage first and telling the story in the timeline in which it happens—which is, we begin with two late middle-age women, kind of average. If you saw them on the street you wouldn’t give them a second look. They start out doing what I would have done in the same circumstances—go down to where Aurora was last known to be, have a look around, talk to the police if necessary. They do that, and then things start happening to them. With each incident they back off, regroup, and go out again. Each time the stakes get higher. And then, as you say, all hell breaks loose. But the reader had to know something bad was going to happen because these gals weren’t giving up and neither side would give an inch. These are women with a mission. I’ve always thought that women just like those two would be great fighting terrorists. And you saw what happened when one of them got a gun.
Question: When are you going to apologize to all the genteel readers out there?
Judy Nedry: I try to write things that could really happen. Novels have to be a little over the top, but I don’t feel any apologizing is required. Readers should not underestimate a book just because the stars are two old ladies.
Question: What inspired this particular tale and don’t give out any spoilers but, brine? Where did you come up with that?
Judy Nedry: I get my ideas from the news media. Life is weirder than anything I could make up. Ten years ago a woman disappeared from the town I lived in. She was 54, divorced, and lonely. She met a guy on the internet, moved to Montana with him, and after a few weeks she dropped out of sight. The sister went looking for her and found her jewelry in a pawn shop. I never found out the end of the story, but I didn’t need to. The barrel thing really happened too, here in Portland about 20 years ago, only I’m pretty certain there was no brine. Jeffrey Dahmer? That guy who held those three girls captive for 10 years? Come on, this kind of stuff happens.
Question: What do you think of these mystery categorizations—cozy, hard-boiled, noir, suspense, etc.?
Judy Nedry: I like all these genres, plus spy-thrillers. I cut my teeth on cozies because I absolutely love the idea of the amateur sleuth. I think of “Rebecca” as a cozy, until it morphs into suspense. But I’ve read some pathetically dull cozies and think the genre as a whole needs a big kick in the butt. Hard-boiled—if that’s Michael Connelly, bring it on! Noir? I fashioned Emma as a bit of a noir character. That was my intent by the end of this book. If I had ended it differently, she wouldn’t be able to be who she is AND it would be like about 10 other series out there—good series, but just sayin.’ Suspense? Wonderful! To me, the best mysteries, thrillers, etc. often have elements of different genres. The main thing is that the author tell the truth. If an author is going to lead a reader somewhere, deliver the goods. (I hope that makes sense. I’ve read cozies where there wasn’t even a crime. In one instance I was ready to rip the author’s lungs out after she’d had us running up and down the east coast of England for nothing.)
Question: Your two main characters, Emma and Melody, are friends but there’s a rich undertow of friction between these two. Have you told your friends they weren’t role models for these two? What inspired their “interesting” relationship?
Judy Nedry: Melody was inspired by a friend of mine—a very dear friend—and she knows it. That aside, I’ve had a couple of difficult friendships where I would get really comfortable with someone and she’d pull the rug out from under me. Sometimes we’re just pissy and we don’t even know why; sometimes it’s deliberate. (The deliberate ones, in my life, are history.) In this case I wove the general harmless pissiness into a highly charged and stressful situation just to see what would happen. It turned into a huge test of a friendship, but I think it worked.
Question: What was your path to publication and how is going out there finding readers?
Judy Nedry: I self-published my first novel in 2009, and this one was nearly done in 2011. Then I found an agent and worked with her for six months. She knew going into it that the book was a tough sell because of the previously published one—and she was right. When her job was done I spent another six months looking for another agent, all the while working on “Sister,” polishing, revising. Then last October an agent said in “Writers’ Digest” if you’ve self-published your first book in a series and think anyone is going to pick up the second, forget it. Nobody had actually said that before in a way I could hear it. I had my e-book out by October 31 and the print version in hand by November 22, and I’m not looking back. (Oh, I had chosen the cover art a few months earlier…just in case.)
Finding readers is the tough part, as you know. Indie writers just don’t have the same access. However, they do succeed in spite of that. I am trying everything I can think of. I love going out and meeting people. I’m lining up some signings, learning something new every day about social media, finding people to review the book. It’s a long process and to keep from driving myself nuts, and to have time to write, I need to pace myself. But I am in it for the long haul. Eventually I will strike that vein of gold to reach all those women readers in their 50s and older who like loyal, determined, but otherwise unremarkable characters they can identify with.
Judy Nedry: Emma’s next adventure is back in Oregon wine country. The first book sold well because of my niche market in winery tasting rooms. There will be some coziness, there will be blood, suspense, and I think even a romance—but not for Emma. This is a world where I was an insider, so I am very comfortable in it.
Do not judge a book by the set-up. Yes, there’s an almond croissant on page two but The Difficult Sister isn’t all bakery shops, teas and polite, innocent snooping. In fact, narrator Emma Golden is in a foul February mood when we meet her. She’s snarky and blunt. She refers to the missing woman Aurora Johnson, sister to Emma’s friend Melody, as a “certifiable whack job” and the fictional town where they poke around is nothing more than a “pathetic little hamlet.”
Emma is a recovering alcoholic, isn’t comfortable in churches and is prone to telling it like it is. She has played the victim for years and is starting to get back on top of her game but is also wary of a natural tendency to play “Director of the Universe.” She’s headstrong. About two-dozen pages in, when the pair of women drive out to the single-wide trailer on Starvation Lane and start mixing it up with Aurora’s last known boyfriend, you start to feel that the PG rating of the first few pages is going to change. And you’re right.
Under Nedry’s control, the action ebbs and flows naturally. The women are observant, pushy and forthright, but also know when to stand back. Emma has an old flame in town who happens to work in law enforcement in this very community and there are some bridges to mend. The over-arching mood is, generally speaking, light. There are lots of eating sequences, thanks to Melody’s interest in food. But soon, violence creeps into the story—first off-screen and then right smack in the middle of the action. The general tone of The Difficult Sister skews civil. But Emma doesn’t flinch when it’s time to get down and dirty to chase down her prey. The contrast makes for a refreshing jolt at the end of The Difficult Sister. Stuff, as they say, happens. Bullets fly. People die. Evil happens. There will be mud, “one slow sucking step” after another. We are a long way from almond croissants and that gives The Difficult Sister an intriguing, palpable edge.