It’s hard to imagine a better launch atmosphere for this week’s publication of Killing Trail, the first novel from Colorado’s own Margaret Mizushima.
In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly called it a “strong debut” and praised the “brisk plot” and “perceptive” skills of lead investigator Mattie Lu Cobb. “It’s impossible not to fall in love with Robo,” concluded Publisher’s Weekly, referring to the K-9 lead character who is Mattie’s four-legged sidekick.
More stars rained down from Library Journal, which also named Killing Trail their Debut Mystery of the Month. For icing on the cake, the book was nominated for a 2015 RT Reviewer’s choice award for Best First Mystery, to be announced at the 2016 Romantic Times convention in April.
How’s that for a launch? After all the advance praise, my review follows. (Spoiler alert: I won’t be disagreeing with Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal or RT). First, however, Margaret was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book and her writing process.
Question: Where did you get the idea for Killing Trail?
Margaret Mizushima: The idea for Killing Trail: A Timber Creek K-9 Mystery was conceived in our veterinary clinic and born at my kitchen table. My husband is a vet, and one of his clients told him that rural, law enforcement jurisdictions and national forest rangers were buying narcotics detection dogs to counteract drug trafficking through our Colorado forests. My husband shared this conversation with me at lunch, and from it sprang the premise for my mystery series: a sheriff’s department acquires a narcotics detection dog to combat drug trafficking through its mountain community.
Question: What was your thought process about dreaming up a town, Timber Creek, rather than use a real one?
Margaret Mizushima: I grew up on a cattle ranch that bordered a small mountain town near the Colorado Continental Divide. Some of the characteristics of this community inspired the fictional setting of Timber Creek, but it didn’t quite feel right. I wanted the town to border national forest and for some of the buildings to abut hillsides. So I borrowed characteristics from several towns in Colorado—Creede, South Fork, Del Norte—and created Timber Creek. I like being able to design the topography needed to enhance the setting for each story in the series.
Question: How did you go about the research regarding K-9 police dogs? Were you surprised at their capabilities?
Margaret Mizushima: Years ago, my husband and I trained one of our dogs, Ilsa, in search and rescue. That’s where I learned how these amazing animals scent humans on the ground and through the air. I was also fortunate to be invited to shadow Police Chief Joe Clingan who owns Fort Collins Protection Dogs. Joe gave us a copy of his book on police dog training which is chock-full of examples of these dogs’ capabilities as well as some humorous stories. Another friend, Retired Officer/Trainer Beth Gaede, let me shadow her while she worked with handlers, teaching their dogs to track and search for evidence. And Senior Deputy Head K-9 Trainer Gordon Carroll of the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Department—who is also a writer—answered long lists of questions for me during his valuable time off.
Question: How did you go about developing Robo and Deputy Mattie Cobb as characters?
Margaret Mizushima: Conversations with Beth Gaede inspired this duo. Beth captivated me with tales of her late partner, Robo, and their work in Bellingham, WA. Robo had been deafened in a warehouse explosion that forced his retirement, but she kept him as a pet until he died of old age. The winner of many patrol dog competitions, he must have been an amazing police service dog. Beth granted her permission for me to share his name with my fictional dog hero. I developed Mattie Cobb’s personality by using characteristics described in Helen Palmer’s book, The Enneagram. Mattie is a type one, which Palmer has labeled The Perfectionist. This book provides a wealth of personality types, childhood backgrounds, and character traits to spark a writer’s imagination.
Question: How about the development of Cole Walker, DVM?
Margaret Mizushima: I’ve been married to veterinarian Charles Mizushima for thirty-four years. Though I pursued my own career as a speech pathologist, I’ve acted as Charlie’s impromptu assistant countless times for emergencies, starting as early as our first date. Charlie provides veterinary consultation for helping Cole Walker know what to do. For Cole’s personality traits, I turned to Palmer’s work again, assigning him type eight, The Boss. (I’ll never tell if my husband shares this type with my character.)
Question: What’s the background story behind getting your first book published? Have you been at it for a while? What advice would you have for those working on their first?
Margaret Mizushima: I’ve been at this fiction-writing gig for a long time, since retiring from speech therapy right around the turn of the century. My best advice to writers working on their first is to join writing organizations like Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and to study their craft through workshops and conferences. I connected with both my agent and publisher at writing conferences. I pitched Killing Trail to Matt Martz of Crooked Lane Books at the 2014 RMFW conference, his assistant Nike Power suggested revisions and asked for a resubmit, and they offered a contract for the first two books in the series soon after. The Killing Trail release date is set for December 8, 2015.
Question: Who are your favorite writers? Have you always been interested in mysteries?
Margaret Mizushima: I became obsessed with mysteries, suspense, and thrillers about fifteen years ago. I also like true crime documentaries on television; I record them to watch in the evenings. I love Margaret Coel’s mysteries and eagerly await each new edition in her series set on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation. Her work inspired me to use two protagonists (with a love interest) that solve crimes together. I also like the Joanna Brady mysteries by JA Jance, the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child, and anything written by Robert Crais. Other authors that I must read are Bonnie Hearn Hill, Bill Crider, David Thurlo, Tana French, Michael Connelly, Jeffrey Deaver, and Jonathan Kellerman. Oh, and I mustn’t forget Sue Grafton, Janet Evanovich, Robert B. Parker, and Elly Griffiths. And wonderful crime fiction writers from RMFW: CT Jorgensen, Chris Goff, Patricia Stoltey, Susan Spann, Warren Hammond… Ach! There are too many to list here!
Question: The cover says “A Timber Creek K-9 Mystery.” So, what’s next?
Margaret Mizushima: Book two of the series is in the hands of my editors, Matt Martz and Nike Power of Crooked Lane Books. It is scheduled to release on September 13, 2016. The title hasn’t cleared all channels for approval yet, but I should be able to start talking about that on Facebook and Twitter soon. Please join me there.
Timber Creek Sheriff Deputy Mattie Lu Cobb has a new partner. “Born in Russia, he was a handsome guy: straight black hair, intense brown eyes, and white teeth that flashed when he grinned.” In fact, the new partner “was the only one in the department who could outrun her in a cross-country foot race.”
Mattie’s new partner is Robo. A German shepherd. Together, they form the first K-9 unit ever mobilized in the small fictional Colorado town of Timber Creek. Robo is new but Mattie knows the town—she spent her childhood there, in foster care. She approaches friendships tentatively and with trepidation. She likes “prickly things” like the yucca and cholla in her backyard. She’s cool to the touch, unexcitable too. Robo, of course, knows of no such human concerns and becomes Mattie’s dependable nose on the clue-finding trail. The story starts with a bang as Robo discovers a wounded fellow canine guarding the dead body of a teenage girl. It’s the local vet, Cole Walker, who recognizes the wounded dog and then the dog, well, expels several white balloons that contain a substance like “sand or powder.”
Mattie’s upbringing gives her weight and a solid grounded feeling. She is no “golly gee” cozy mystery heroine. Even though we have a rough idea where this story is headed from early on, Margaret Mizushima portrays the Cobb-Robo relationship with robust dynamics. Robo fills certain gaps in Mattie’s life (including her dreams) and it’s the fine balance between her inquisitiveness and his tracking skills that give Killing Trail its drive. You will learn a few things about training police dogs—and it’s interesting. Note that despite the gritty-sounding title, this is a fairly genteel story. I’d give it a PG rating. The next book in the series is due in September of 2016 and all readers of this one will certainly hope that Mattie adds a human or two to those she’s willing to trust beyond her dependable dog.
I am really looking forward to reading Killing Trail! Congratulations, Margaret.
Yes, excited to read it!