Now, trash whatever bucolic image is in your head and start over with James Ziskin’s three novels about young (but not so innocent) Ellie Stone, who will out-bulldog the bulldogs. I met James at Left Coast Crime and got my hands on the second mystery in his series, No Stone Unturned, and then got to read the new one, Stone Cold Dead, that came out earlier this month.
These are rollicking, fast-paced books with what appears to be Ziskin’s signature style—a rich plot, a full cast of characters, and a dynamite ability to yank us all back to a time of hot lead and inky newsprint. As James says in the Q & A below, he wanted “constant, realistic” conflict in the stories (and he delivers, like a fat Sunday edition).
A review of Stone Cold Dead follows. (I previously reviewed No Stone Unturned here.)
By the way, the last Q & A with Tim Johnston presented the case of a pure seat-of-the-pants writer. Ziskin, however, is a meticulous plotter. Let the battle begin.
Question: Okay, we’ll start you off easy because you look like a decent guy. Why 1960, 1961? Do you enjoy the research?
James Ziskin: Thanks, Mark. And you’re quite tall.
In fact, I do enjoy the research. It means I can justify watching old TV shows and movies, listening to some great old music, and browsing through Sears catalogues and newspaper clippings that have nothing necessarily to do with my books. It’s all “background research.” Nostalgia plays a part in it, too; I love reading and writing about times gone by, but I chose the exact year of 1960 to accommodate an important subplot in the first book, Styx & Stone. I needed a fifteen-year gap between the end of World War II and the start of the story. The time also had to jibe with a much more limited role of women in the workplace. I wanted to set this series before the Women’s Liberation Movement and the sexual revolution. 1960 worked perfectly for that. And it’s the year I was born.
Question: No cell phones, no emails, no texting, no DNA evidence—how do you go about developing the evidence trail you’re going to use given the era you’re writing about?
James Ziskin: Before I begin writing an Ellie Stone book, I plot out the story, starting with the solution. I actually spend a great deal of time searching for that eureka moment, the piece of evidence that proves beyond a doubt who the guilty party is, even without modern technological aids. Then I work backward to outline the story. That way, I hope, the solution doesn’t seem forced or unbelievable. To the reader, the entire narrative should feel natural, as though everything I’ve written leading up to the end contributes to the conclusion, and I haven’t resorted to some kind of deus ex machina device or tacked something on at the last minute. So, in the case of Ellie, I can’t use techniques that more modern detectives might have at their disposal. Still, for her time, she uses what technology she can: her camera, for instance, and the telephone. But most of her digging is the old fashioned kind. The kind that gets her hands dirty: pawing through newspaper archives, public records, breaking a window here or there, and even raking her fingers through the mud of the victim’s makeshift, shallow grave. And, of course, Ellie uses people to solve her cases. She confronts suspects and asks them difficult questions that often get her into trouble.
Question: Ellie Stone—where did the inspiration come from?
James Ziskin: The genesis of the Ellie Stone mysteries came so long ago that I don’t rightly remember the exact moment. She’s not based on any real person, for sure. What I do recall is wanting to tell a story that provided constant, realistic conflict for my main character. Without conflict, there’s nothing at stake in the story. The fact that Ellie Stone is a young woman in 1960, trying to make it as a reporter instead of, say, a typist, gives me ample opportunity to show her butting her head daily against condescension or, worse, outright discrimination. In addition to the difficulty of solving a crime, Ellie has to prove herself constantly. Remember that at that time, many companies required their young female employees to be single, for fear that their husbands might make them quit or that they would leave to start a family. A double dose of lose-lose unfairness for women. That said, the world was about to change. 1960 is just two years before Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl came out, so there were certainly “modern girls” like Ellie at that time. But New Holland, the small upstate New York town where Ellie lives and works, is a provincial place, at least several years behind a big city like New York. 1960 in New Holland probably felt more like 1950 for a career girl. Maybe even earlier. That’s bound to create conflict and notoriety for Ellie in her community, which is good for the story.
James Ziskin: Tips? Prepare to work very hard. Readers will challenge you on it. And learn about fashion. Just kidding. The Ellie Stone books are about solving crimes, not what she’s wearing. The thing I try to do when writing in Ellie’s voice is to imagine what a woman I admire would do in certain situations. How her gender and appearance might affect her behavior, and how the behavior of others toward her might affect her. I’ve learned a lot about empathy writing a female protagonist. I don’t think I do a perfect job, but I hope she’s a believable and likable character. And Ellie — a woman — is certainly the smartest, funniest character in the books. I think that’s supremely believable.
As for whether this series would work with a male protagonist, I think it might. But it would be about something totally different. Just another guy — even a fascinating guy — trying to solve crimes in 1960 and dealing with the difficulties the case presents. But it wouldn’t be about overcoming the other daily obstacles a woman deals with.
Question: One of the things I admire about both books (#2 and #3) that I’ve read is how well populated they are—Ellie runs into a lot of folks and lots of possibilities for both murder investigations. And that means (I imagine) that you must keep track of many stories within your story to make sure everyone is in the right place at the right time, partly because Ellie is so good at building timelines. How do you keep track of it all?
James Ziskin: With great care. (Smiles.) I love to provide a variety of suspects, even if some are eliminated from contention more easily than others. I like the blur that an investigator faces at the start of a case. No idea what’s happened. Who’s involved, why, where, etc. The fun, then, is following her as she sharpens the focus step by step, until all is clear. Many books today are more about how the good guy gets the bad guy, without much mystery about who the bad guy actually is. I actually love books like those, but the Ellie Stone Mysteries are a different flavor of crime fiction.
I keep track of the suspects by plotting them all on the book’s timeline. The timeline may change somewhat along the way if I come up with a better idea, and sometimes that will wreak havoc with who was where when. Once you’ve broken the original timeline, you’ve got to look very carefully for any connections or consequences that may have been severed as a result. For example, in No Stone Unturned the night of the murder presented lots of challenges for me. If one detail changed, e.g. the time the motel owner said the Late Show ended on TV, I had to go back and fix the arrivals and departures of everyone who visited Jordan Shaw’s motel room that night.
Question: Plotter or seat-of-the-pants writer? And why?
James Ziskin: Plotter. Have to be. Though I make changes to the plot during the actual writing process, think of some new scenes, come up with better ideas, the ending doesn’t change. Picture a Dorothy Sayers novel. The intricacies and importance of train timetables, the tides, who was seen where and when and by whom…That’s why I plot. I want to be that good, even knowing that I never will be.
Question: Most overlooked contemporary writer? Okay, doesn’t have to be the ‘most,’ but care to name one? Or two? Which writers inspire you? Favorite mystery writer?
James Ziskin: There are so many wonderful writers out there. So many great mysteristi I’ve met and whose books I’ve enjoyed over the past few years. But I would have to say that Lynne Raimondo, who writes the superb Mark Angelotti books (Dante’s Wood, Dante’s Poison, and Dante’s Dilemma) deserves a much larger audience. Among the smartest crime fiction you’ll read. I love her books.
For inspiration, I look to Dorothy Sayers, of course, and Graham Greene. Dick Francis, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, P. G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, Twain, Melville, Hergé, Dante Alighieri, and Columbo. And countless others.
Question: Is Ellie going to keep making the world a better place? What’s next?
James Ziskin: Yes. Next up for Ellie is Heart of Stone (summer 2016 from Seventh Street Books), set on an Adirondack lake in August 1961. Drawn into the investigation of the odd diving deaths of two unrelated vacationers, Ellie wades into a slippery morass of gone-to-ground fellow travelers, free-love intellectuals, and rabid John Birchers. She navigates old grudges and Cold War passions, lost ideals and betrayed loves, sticking her nose where it’s unwanted and putting herself in jeopardy. But this time, it’s her heart that’s at risk.
James W. Ziskin is the author of the Ellie Stone Mysteries, STYX & STONE (2013), NO STONE UNTURNED (2014, nominated for the Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original 2015), and STONE COLD DEAD (2015), all from Seventh Street Books. HEART OF STONE is due in summer 2016.
More about James Ziskin.
With a keen eye for details and the tenacity of a whole fleet of investigative reporters, Ellie Stone gives fresh definition to the meaning of relentless. She’s a reporter by job title and a crime solver at heart. Where the two mix, fine, but none of those other lazy reporters better try to step on her beat or pretend they’ve done the real work.
Stone Cold Dead picks up a few weeks after Ellie wrapped things up in No Stone Unturned and again Ellie gets her nose onto a case, this time of a missing girl. In fact, it’s Ellie’s work and reputation at The New Holland Republic in upstate New York that has drawn the mother of missing 15-year-old Darleen Hicks to ask for Ellie’s help.
It’s 1960, spilling into 1961 and here’s where things get fun and the series gets memorable—enjoying the references to events and people of the era and watching a reporter at work in a much more straightforward time.
The writing zips along, matching Ellie’s easy energy. James Ziskin populates the story with a full-blown cast of possible suspects for Ellie’s consideration. Ellie is brash, fearless and, at times, a tad reckless. She’s had flings, and isn’t afraid of some fun, but her job swamps every other desire. She’s fussy about her music, her drink and her reputation.
At Ellie’s core is a sterling talent at building timelines around a crime and sorting through the dead ends, the dud players and the most obscure details. No wonder she “has a thing” for Paul Drake, the dogged TV investigator from the Perry Mason series. Even when she’s “bruised like an old peach kicked down the hill,” she’s raring to go. Ellie Stone put the metal in mettle. She combines guts and brains as she pieces together the whole story; these are stories for readers who relish a solid puzzle.
The Hicks case leads Ellie to high school, to neighbors, to reform school. She has a natural talent at getting people to talk. This time around, “real” reporting crowds her world—basketball games to cover, society pages that need work. (No surprise, she keeps her eyes and ears open during the detours, too.) She’s fends off stalkers, chats up sources, brushes off envious colleagues and dances around angry, skeptical editors. The themes touch on the changing roles and options for women and what they are—and are not—allowed to do. Chin up and questions ready, Ellie stays hard on the trail. It’s freezing outside but nothing is going to leave Ellie out in the cold.