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Events, News, Blog

Book Highlight 5: The Sweet Scent of Murder

While St. Martin's Press, Inc. was in the process of publishing My First Murder, I was told to write the next Mavis Davis mystery because it was going to be a series. Though I was running for judge, practicing law, being a mother and a wife, I scratched out the sequel. The assistant editor accepted what I submitted, saying "it would do" and advised me to start on the third one.

A year later, I was midway through the third book when St. Martin's rejected the second one.

No one ever said why. My series became an "orphan." I tried to find another publisher, but generally if you publish the first of a series with one publisher, no one else will pick up the series. One editor I met at a conference did take it and held on to it for a year before rejecting it. Finally I shelved it. Being the first woman to run for judge in my county, much less to win, I was in high demand as a speaker. I was married and had two children. Somewhere in there I became the President of the Southwest Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, which took up even more of my time.

In 2005, Five Star Mysteries published a mystery of mine in hardback. In 2006, they published it in paperback. I thought if they published one of my novels, maybe they would publish another. I pulled out the second Mavis novel and read through it. I realized then why St. Martin's had rejected it! Why hadn't my editor, the assistant editor, or my agent told me it needed a lot of work?

People often ask where do I get my ideas? Over the twelve years I served on the family court bench, I heard many cases of spousal and child abuse, both sexual and physical. In some cases, a party would make allegations in order to get the upper hand in a custody fight. Sometimes the allegations were proven to be true. Other times, the allegations were shown to be false.

Cases involving allegations of child abuse are just about the hardest cases to come into court. They're heart breaking no matter which way the case goes. Just an allegation alone is devastating.

I was idealistic when I started practicing law. I was going to only represent women, because women had been so mistreated over the years. My eyes were opened quickly. My first court appointment was a misdemeanor wherein every time the father tried to exercise his court-ordered visitation with his daughter, the mother would call the police and have him arrested for criminal trespass. In another case, the mother alleged the father had abused the children. She fled to Europe with the kids and didn't return until they were grown. The abuse issue was never litigated because the father didn't have enough money to fight. I saw cases where one person married the other for his or her money. And cases where people were just flat out mean. People and their witnesses often lied in court. Hateful things happen on both sides. Either parent can be the accuser or the abuser, the perpetrator or the victim.

I engaged in what-ifs. Suffice it to say that after I revised the second Mavis book and renamed it, in 2007 Five Star Mysteries published the hardback of The Sweet Scent of Murder, a novel full of murder, kidnapping and sexual abuse allegations, criminal convictions, fraud, manipulation, you name it. Five Star Mysteries quit publishing paperback novels, so in 2015 I had a new cover designed and published the e-book, followed by the paperback in 2018.

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Book Highlight 4: Ledbetter Street

Many parts of Ledbetter Street were inspired by events in my life. Here are some of them:

In the '60s, when I was in high school, girls who became pregnant were sent away to deliver and give up their babies. I often wondered what it would take for a woman to get her child back after surrendering him for adoption. When I was on the bench, I heard several heart-breaking cases involving contested custody and adoptions.

I volunteered at my class reunions and had conversations with people who were conflicted about seeing old beaus and/or reliving old experiences and reviving old resentments. No matter how old we get to be, we still have human emotions and attachments.

I have witnessed the suffering of those inflicted with Alzheimer's and many forms of cancer.

Once, an autistic boy, the subject of a Children's Protective Services case, came to my court and wandered around, in and out, and even in and out of my chambers while I heard the facts of his case. Though I have known other people on the spectrum, I've never been able to get Robert out of my mind.

Having sat on a family court bench, I heard numerous family violence cases. We had a trial once involving the termination of parental rights of a mother (the father relinquished) who couldn't protect the children (or herself) from their father. Though social services worked with her, and even though I spoke with her, she was emotionally unable to break away from his influence. She knew she was going to lose her children forever (and even that he might someday kill her) and yet left the courthouse with him after the trial ended.

I love to haunt pre-owned clothing stores in whatever cities I visit, even in other countries. Seeing how they are run and what they offer is a real treat for me.

From 1998 to 2003, I lived on a street that was undergoing a metamorphosis from the "old downtown" to an arts and entertainment district. There I met artists, musicians, antique and gift shop owners, restaurant owners, and even homeless people eating out of dumpsters.

What's depicted in Ledbetter Street is fiction but has a basis in what I witnessed on Post Office Street in Galveston, as well as my life's experiences set out above. https://www.postofficedistrict.com/

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Book Highlight 3: Unaware

The inspiration for UNAWARE came when I was in my first year of practicing law. I took mostly criminal and probate court appointments, and was hired on a few criminal cases, a few civil cases, and "family" law cases.

Just like in the novel, one day a beautiful, twenty-something, blonde-haired woman came to talk to me about a divorce. Her husband worked on the wharves. He'd been violent with her. Her husband thought he could get away with anything. She was scared. He had threatened to rip her guts out with a cotton hook. Later, she told me he'd threatened me as well.

Over the course of the case, I met the husband. The husband was rather good-looking, but creepy with scary eyes. He refused to get a lawyer, insisting he'd come to my office to sign any paperwork he needed to sign, which was not my favorite thing with people like him.

I was married with two young daughters. My husband traveled frequently for his job. While the divorce was pending, I had an occasion to be out late one night and was followed home. My husband was out of town. I had no way to defend myself or my kids. Due to some action I took, nothing happened, but the next day I bought a gun. I used to keep it in the table next to my bed, unloaded but with the bullets handy. So you can see the basis for a suspense novel like UNAWARE.

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Book Highlight 2: Murdered Judges of the 20th Century

In 1990, when I was preparing to take the bench, I requested our Galveston County Commissioners fund courthouse security. There were no metal detectors and no screening of people who entered the courts. The only bailiffs were retirees, some, retired law enforcement officers who were armed, others just old men who thankfully weren't armed. Some of the judges kept handguns in their desk drawers. Others just assumed they'd never need protection.

Times were changing, though. I was the first woman to run for judge county wide. I knew if attacked, I'd be unable to fend off an angry man and neither would most court participants. More and more frequently, there were news stories about courthouse violence. A woman was killed by her husband outside a courtroom. Four child support collection employees were shot to death in their office. A man shot and killed two lawyers and injured two appellate justices at a courthouse in Fort Worth in 1992. Our county commissioners didn't see the need for security (or didn't want to spend the money). At one meeting where I showed a TV news show video about the murder of a judge in Florida (Judge Bailey, 1987), one of our county commissioners laughed.

None of the other judges supported me in my request, nor did the district attorney, or even the sheriff, who was charged by statute to protect us. In fact, in a letter to the newspaper, a man asked why I thought we needed security when no one had been killed here yet. (How I was treated is "fictionalized" in my novel Texas Style Justice.) So, I started collecting information about events around the country for the whole of the 20th Century.

During a break at a conference in San Antonio, I trekked to a used bookstore and came across a book about a judge and his wife who had been murdered in Florida (Judge and Mrs. Chillingworth, 1955). I figured if I wrote a book about courthouse violence, perhaps that would convince our county commissioners of the need for some semblance of security for us. For six years, I went to our wonderful Rosenberg Library at least three nights a week and scrolled through microfiche of the New York Times Index for murders for the twentieth century. I wrote letters, made phone calls, filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the FBI, and spent my vacations traveling to places where I'd discovered there'd been incidents. There was so much information on courthouse violence, I had to narrow my book to include only judges who had actually died, not other people who were killed or anyone who had been injured.

Eventually, I was grudgingly given a six-foot-eight-inch tall retired deputy sheriff with a gun. And after I got the U.S. Marshals to do a security study of our county courthouse, which I presented to the commissioners, and after there were more and more well-publicized events occurring all around the country including stabbings and shootings in Texas, our commissioners finally acquiesced. The federal courthouse in Galveston gave us their old metal detectors and other equipment when they got new ones. The equipment was installed on the first floor of the courthouse around the elevator and stairs. That protected those of us in the district and county courts but left employees in other offices and courts in the annex unprotected. A couple of years after I retired from the bench, the commissioners built a new court complex and installed security throughout. Each court now has armed bailiffs.

My book was published two years after I left the bench. Since then, it's been referred to by judges throughout the country, at judicial conferences, and once, two years ago, I even appeared on ID TV as an "expert" on a murder case.

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Book Highlight 1: My First Murder

Back about 30 or so years ago, I had it in my head that I wanted to write romance novels because I enjoyed their escapism and because I saw an article in TV Guide about a romance writer who made $5,000 a book. That was a lot of money back then. Heck, it's a lot of money now! I thought, "Hey, I could do that." I'd been writing in fits and starts for a long time. So I wrote a romance and sent it off. I received a rejection that not only said it was terrible, but to never send her anything again!

Not to be discouraged, I decided I liked to read mysteries and suspense as well. I used to read mysteries from the adult section of the library when I was a child. I was practicing law and came up with an idea for a suspense novel about a female attorney and her client, a serious "Woman in Jeopardy" book, and I submitted it to 50 agents and editors at the same time. While that novel was making the rounds, I decided I'd write a whimsical mystery with an unrestrained female detective who said and did what I often thought and wanted to do but never did. I don't recall where I came up with the name Mavis Davis, but I was goofing around and thought that would be a fun name for a fun detective. I wrote the first chapter, took it to my critique group, and they loved it! 

The actual idea for the mystery itself came from a time when I was unhappy in my personal relationship. My husband had taken the kids on a camping trip, so I had the weekend alone. During that time I got to thinking about running away, and then I got to thinking, "What would make a married woman, an attorney, with two children, leave her family and not tell them where she was going?" The more I thought about it, the more I decided it would have to be something pretty awful. Many women might think of escaping for a while, but not all that want to, actually do it. And if she ran, where would she go? What would she do to make a living? How would she survive without any money, credit cards, her car, with no way for anyone to be able to track her down? So from these questions My First Murder was born with Mavis Davis, a former social worker who had just opened her own office, hired by a café owner who wanted to find out who killed his best waitress.

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