Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Burcell Revives Weston’s Mismatched Cops

As British author Martin Edwards observed the other day, “there’s nothing new” in today’s fictionists penning fresh works about long-established detectives. “People other than [Arthur] Conan Doyle started writing about Sherlock Holmes a very long time ago,” Edwards said in his blog. “But it's fair to say that continuation novels have become much more popular, and common, in recent years. So we have new James Bond stories, written by a variety of very distinguished writers, new Hercule Poirot stories from Sophie [Hannah], new [Lord Peter] Wimsey stories from Jill Paton Walsh, new Albert Campion stories by Mike Ripley, and so on.”

Now add to that inventory of continuation novels The Last Good Place (Brash), a brand-new, fourth Al Krug/Casey Kellog tale by Robin Burcell--who I interviewed for my new Kirkus Reviews column. You don’t remember Krug and Kellog? They were the seemingly mismatched Santa Monica, California, police detectives created by Carolyn Weston in Poor, Poor Ophelia (1972), who went on to appear in two additional police procedurals, Susannah Screaming (1975) and Rouse the Demon (1976). More memorably, Krug and Kellog were the models for Lieutenant Michael Stone and Assistant Inspector Steve Keller in the 1970s TV crime drama The Streets of San Francisco, played by Karl Malden and Michael Douglas, respectively. The 1972 pilot film for that ABC-TV series closely follows the plot of Poor, Poor Ophelia.

Weston died back in 2001 at age 80, and long before then her novels had fallen out of print and into obscurity. But they weren’t wholly forgotten. In fact, they remained much on the mind of author-screenwriter Lee Goldberg, who in the fall of 2014 launched independent publishing house Brash Books with his friend and fellow novelist, Joel Goldman. “I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and my father was an anchorman on KPIX [TV],” Goldberg recalled during an interview I did with him last year. “So, naturally, as a kid, I was a big fan of The Streets of San Francisco. And when I saw that the TV series was based on three books by Carolyn Weston, I snapped those up and devoured them. They’ve been on my shelf ever since. They are great police procedurals that won acclaim in the 1970s--a time when there weren’t a lot of female crime writers out there, certainly not many getting the kind of attention that she was or inspiring a hit TV series. And yet, even though everybody knows about The Streets of San Francisco, nobody remembers Carolyn Weston’s books, perhaps because she never wrote any more books after those three procedurals. … They were at the top of my list when we launched Brash. We acquired all the rights to Carolyn’s books from her heirs and decided to continue the series. Joel and I both knew the perfect writer for the job: our old friend Robin Burcell. We had no one else in mind (which also shows how much Joel and I think alike). Not only is Robin an acclaimed crime novelist, but she’s a cop in Northern California, too. Who could possibly be a better choice?”

Indeed, Burcell--who worked with the police department in the wine country town of Lodi, California, before becoming a criminal investigator for the County of Sacramento (a job from which she retired in January 2010)--has always brought a cop’s sensibilities and knowledge to her fiction, as well as a talent for suspense-building. That’s been true whether she was writing about San Francisco homicide investigator Kate Gillespie (Cold Case, 2004) or FBI Special Agent and forensic artist Sydney Fitzpatrick (The Kill Order, 2013). And it’s no less true in The Last Good Place, which is due for official release in the States next week. Synopsizing the plot of this new Krug/Kellog novel, I write in Kirkus that it
finds its two protagonists--now working for the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD), in tribute to the TV show--digging into the case of a woman whose murder might be part of a string of strangulations occurring around Bay Area landmarks. Complicating matters, the deceased may have been engaged in an affair with her neighbor, and she volunteered at the local office of a U.S. congressman who wants to stay clear of the whole sordid business. The publicity surrounding this inquiry puts pressure on Krug and Kellog both, but it’s the latter who seems to struggle most, due partly to the distraction of his trying to win a promotion in rank. While Burcell’s efforts to meld the protagonists from Streets with Weston’s counterparts can jar at times, The Last Good Place is a craftily constructed procedural that bears the tone of Weston’s fiction without slavishly imitating it.
Earlier this month I sent Burcell a number of questions via e-mail, not only about her law-enforcement and writing history, but about the lessons she’s learned as a novelist. Most of our discussion about The Last Good Place can be found in today’s Kirkus column, but the remainder of our exchange is presented below.

(Left) Robin Burcell, photographed by Peter Rozovsky.

J. Kingston Pierce: Do you live in San Francisco proper, or somewhere else in that area?

Robin Burcell: I live just east. Actually, I’m located near Sacramento. But way back when, I used to live in South San Francisco (actually attended South San Francisco High School) and still visit the city regularly, as it’s less than a two-hour drive away.

JKP: How many years did you spend working in California law enforcement, not only as a police officer but as a detective, a hostage negotiator, and an FBI-trained forensic artist?

RB: Just shy of 27 years total. (I think my retirement papers showed 26.85 years or something.)

JKP: Where and when did you begin your police career?

RB: I started out as the first female officer for the Lodi Police Department in 1983. I spent 18 years there before leaving to work for the County of Sacramento as a criminal investigator. (This title would be equivalent to an investigator for the district attorney.) I retired from Sacramento County.

JKP: And how did you become a cop in the first place? Was it something you had long dreamed of doing, or was it a more unexpected choice of career?

RB: Ha! I definitely fell into it. I was a bookkeeper for a large chain hardware store, full-time (while I dreamed of writing books one day--and not really knowing what I was going to be when I grew up). I also worked part-time at an ice-skating rink so that I could skate for free. (I loved ice skating!) One of the parents who brought her children in for lessons was married to a sheriff’s deputy, and she seemed to think I would make a good cop. When she found out Lodi was hiring, she not only told me to apply, but bugged me every day, asking me if I had applied yet. I finally did just to get some peace. Honestly, I never thought I’d be hired. And I have it on good authority that the powers that be in Lodi never thought they’d be hiring me. They didn’t want any women on the force back then. But that’s a different story (and a bit too long for this interview). Let’s just say when push came to shove, they couldn’t come up with a reason not to hire me. I passed the written [exam], the physical (thanks to ice skating!), and the oral interview.

JKP: Did you develop an interest in writing fiction when you were young, or was that something that came to you later in life?

RB: I can’t remember a time I didn’t want to write. I just wasn’t sure how to go about it in order to be published. I started my “writing career” in elementary school, drawing postage-size pictures on my desk and imagining a story that went with them. (Yes, I was that girl. The one always day-dreaming. Lucky for my academic record, I was a quick study and managed to skate by in most lessons.) I was already learning about destroying evidence back then. Writing on the desk was a huge violation of school rules, so I became very adept at learning how to erase my tiny pictures with a little spit and a good swipe of my thumb.

JKP: I find it interesting that your first novel, When Midnight Comes (1995), was basically a work of romance fiction, featuring a Miami detective who--while investigating a series of homicides--“suffers a freak accident that sends her back to the middle of 19th-century London and into the arms of Captain Brice Montgomery.” At the time, were you intending to make a career of writing romance novels? If so, what turned you toward crime fiction, instead?

RB: Somewhere along the way I had switched from reading mysteries to reading romance and really thought it might be a good way to break into the writing field. I sold that first book, Midnight, in 1994, and told my husband that I have my foot in the publishing world door and we can have that second child now. I became pregnant fairly quickly and gave birth to twins in 1995 (a few months before Midnight was released). I really tried to write more romances, but had no success. Undoubtedly a few factors came into play, the first being there was far more murder than romance in the following books. Not sure if it had to do with the lack of sleep in my life (two babies?), but at the time, romance was the last thing I was thinking about. In fact, it was a couple of years before I was able to even get back to writing. By the time I did start, books on murder and mayhem seemed to be a better fit. (I like to think it’s because of my job description, as opposed to my children or home life that made me switch genres.)

JKP: After Midnight you published Every Move She Makes (1999), the opening installment in your series starring a San Francisco Police homicide investigator, Inspector Kate Gillespie. What was it about Gillespie that made you want to follow her through three more books?

RB: While researching Midnight (which originally started off in San Francisco, before the editor had me change it to Miami), I discovered that San Francisco PD had never had a woman working homicide. I was surprised, mostly because SFPD seemed such a progressive department. And because I was the first female officer to work for my department, and knew how difficult it was to break those barriers, I thought I could write a book about what it might be like for the first woman to work homicide in San Francisco. Having spent the last several years before that reading romance, however, I wasn’t aware that Laurie R. King had already written a book about the first female homicide investigator for SFPD. (Coincidentally, both our characters are named Kate. My character started off as Fran, but my editor didn’t like it and asked for a stronger name. I submitted a list, one of which was Kate. Wouldn’t you know, that’s the one she picked.)

I knew from experience it would take a while for Kate to feel comfortable working in this males-only club. Based on my experiences as the only woman on the [Lodi] force (and later, the only female detective), I knew there would be men who didn’t want Kate there, and who would go out of their way to make sure she knew it. I figured it would take Kate at least that long to wade through the growing pains of this new position.

JKP: What relationship did you maintain between your real-life police career and your crime fiction? Did some of the things you saw on the job bleed into your stories?

RB: I was constantly running into people who, for various reasons, struck me as the types who would make wonderful characters in a book. (If they only knew what I was thinking, as I stood there, listening to their statements! Not that they had cause to worry. I never stole someone outright. Nor did I ever take a case and use it specifically.) My M.O. for making someone a character was to take the physical characteristics of one person and the personality quirks of another. Kate’s partner in later books, Rocky Markowski, was based on a crime reporter who used to come into our office (his physical appearance; I drew his personality from someone else). I found that if I used this combo approach to my characters, they were more rounded (and sometimes took on a life of their own--always a good thing when writing).

As for events in the books [being] rooted in truth? I know I’m not the only author who has thought that if I put something real in a book, no one’s going to believe it, because it’s too far-fetched. My goal has always been to give an entertaining but realistic portrayal of police work. But when I do use real-life events (and I’ve used several), I always change the details for the books. One that comes to mind is the explosion in Deadly Legacy [2003]. That was based on a similar occurrence in our city, one that landed a couple of our officers in the hospital. There was [also] that time I was in a car accident (the lieutenant was driving and we were broadsided--on my side, of course) and I started passing out, thinking, I’ve got to remember this for the book. Everything’s fair game.

JKP: The Gillespie novels won you two back-to-back Anthony Awards (for Fatal Truth [2002] and Deadly Legacy), along with Barry and Macavity award nominations. Why did you give up that series after Cold Case saw print in 2004?

RB: I’d completed the story arc for Kate. I wanted to write what it was like for her to gain acceptance in this male-dominated field, and maybe get a handle on her personal life. And the real clincher was that I really, really wanted to go to Europe and write it off on my taxes. I couldn’t figure out a way to get a San Francisco cop to investigate a bunch of cases that were rooted in other countries. Maybe one book, but a series? It seemed highly unlikely. I knew I needed to move from a local police department to the FBI. They, at least, had more latitude to hop on a plane and follow a lead into another country.

JKP: So four years passed between your last Gillespie novel and the release of Face of a Killer (2008), your first book starring FBI forensic artist Sydney Fitzpatrick. Did you spend that time dealing with your three daughters, or were you trying to figure out what direction to take next with your fiction writing?

RB: Kids, life, work, it all seemed to happen at once. Since I wanted to start a new series, I wanted to take the time to do it right. But I also realized I wanted to spend a few months to finish a portrait of my children. (Mind you, I was still a full-time law-enforcement officer, so that “few months” translates into how I spent my evenings and weekends, which I normally spent writing.) As a forensic artist, I’d sketched hundreds of suspects over the years for any number of violent crimes and just felt the need to do something that was completely opposite of anything crime-related. Once that portrait was finished, I got to work on Face of a Killer and turned that in to my editor.

Everything was moving right along track. Until … I attended my first ThrillerFest (the annual International Thriller Writers conference), not with any intention of penning a thriller, but because it was the first-ever ThrillerFest [held in June 2006], and a friend had convinced me that I needed to go. In preparation, I read James Rollins’ Map of Bones, which had just been released in paperback. That book inspired me to try my hand at thrillers, and as luck would have it, on the way home from the conference, he and I were on the same plane and he helped me with an intriguing plot that would end up becoming the second in my FBI forensic artist series, The Bone Chamber [2009]. Only problem was that it was a far, far different book than Face of a Killer, which I had recently finished and turned in to my editor (who is also Rollins’ editor). About midway through writing The Bone Chamber, I thought I’d better let her know what was going on, since it wasn’t the book she’d been expecting. She loved the idea and told me to finish it, even though it was a thriller (whereas Face of a Killer was a police procedural similar to the Gillespie books). The gap between the two series came about because after I turned in The Bone Chamber, they liked the larger scope and international thriller aspect of it so much that they asked if I wouldn’t mind bumping up Face of a Killer to thriller status. (It was originally written in first-person, like the Kate Gillespie books. I rewrote the entire book in third-person, then made it more of an international thriller. I like to think I did something write in the changes, because Face of a Killer received a starred review from Library Journal.)

JKP: What’s the most important lesson you learned over the course of composing the Gillespie series that helped you when you started work on your Fitzpatrick tales?

RB: First, how to write a series so that each book can be read as a standalone--out of order, or from the beginning. It’s a balancing act. You want to make sure that the new reader isn’t left behind, but you also want to ensure that the reader who has read the previous books isn’t bored by all the explanations needed for that new reader. One reviewer made mention of this aspect of my books, saying something to the effect of, don’t worry if you don’t know what’s going on, hang in there for the ride, you’ll eventually catch up. (Or words to that effect.)

The other lesson was avoiding the spoiler factor, which is always a danger in reading a series out of order. In the second Gillespie book, I didn’t give much thought to spoilers until a couple of my co-workers were asking me how the book writing was going. I mentioned some scene I was working on and named a couple of characters in it. Another cop happened to overhear the conversation and was upset, because he was reading the first Gillespie book, and now knew that none of the mentioned characters were the killer. That was a big eye-opener for me. When I started the Fitzpatrick series, I was very careful that if I had suspects, red herrings, or big secrets, I needed to take that into consideration as I penned the next novel. (And also not to reveal anything while giving talks at book clubs!) A good example is that the central plot of The Dark Hour [2012, No. 3 in the Fitzpatrick series] happens to solve the mystery of a death first brought up in The Bone Chamber (No. 2). But what if someone picks up the series with books 4 or 5? I didn’t want that to spoil what happened in The Dark Hour. And since it was such a big secret, I had to write it in such a way that no matter what order the books were read in, the revelation/conclusion in The Dark Hour is not answered or even hinted at in earlier or later books.

JKP: Just a few quick questions about The Last Good Place. How did you come to write more books in Carolyn Weston’s renowned Al Krug and Casey Kellog series of police procedurals?

RB: Lee Goldberg and Joel Goldman, the founders of Brash Books, had acquired the rights to the Weston novels to bring them back into print. They realized the series was still relevant and wanted to see it continue. Because I’d already written a number of police procedurals, they called and asked if I might be interested in writing the next in the series. I thought it would be fun to try my hand at updating the Weston characters.

JKP: Do you have a favorite among Weston’s Krug/Kellog novels?

RB: Poor, Poor Ophelia. It was this emerging relationship between Krug and Kellog. I’m sure what I saw is the same thing the developers of the TV show saw that made them want to take the novels and make a series for television.

JKP: Something that struck me as odd while reading The Last Good Place was Sergeant Krug’s widower status. My memory is that his wife was still alive at the end of Rouse the Demon. Was this change in marital status a concession you made in order to bring the books into line with the TV series?

RB: It was. In our reboot, we ignored some things that wouldn’t fly (Krug’s typical actions that would have gotten him fired in present-day times), and added others that seemed more fitting (the mentorship relationship between [Krug and Kellog], and in this case, yes, that Krug is now a widower). One way to look at it is that somewhere between book 3 of Weston’s series, and [this one] of mine, his wife died. And the reboot is why we moved it to San Francisco (where I had more knowledge and background) and brought it into the 21st century. Much has changed since then!

JKP: What’s your commitment to Brash Books? How long would you like to continue writing the Krug/Kellog series?

RB: For as long as the series is successful!

JKP: Can you give readers any hints about what they might expect from your next entry in this series?

RB: No, none as of yet. I’ve thought of a few cases, but I’m not sure if they’re right for the series.

JKP: Do you intend to continue writing your own novels at the same time as you pen more Krug and Kellog novels? If so, how do you intend to balance the two endeavors?

RB: I’m actually working on another project right now. I wish I could work on more than one book at a time--that would be a true balancing act. (I’ve thought about how to do it. Write one book in the morning, the other in the evening. But I’ve never actually succeeded--or even tried.) Right now I’m contracted for a book that I’m co-writing with Clive Cussler (in the Fargo series). I need to finish that before I even contemplate what’s next in store for Krug/Kellog.

JKP: Finally, do you think you’re where you really ought to be in your writing career now, or are there things you would like to have done that you’ve not yet accomplished?

RB: There will always be things I haven’t done that I still want to accomplish. That’s a good thing, I believe. But am I where I think I ought to be? Put it this way. I’m doing what I’ve always dreamed about doing: writing books. And I even get paid for it. I don’t think it gets much better than that!

READ MORE:Robin Burcell Continues Others’ Series” (Mystery Scene).


Ali Karim said...

great feature, considering we've known Robin for a long time know, it's only after this feature piece, I feel I know her work better - thank you Robin and Jeff

Lee Goldberg said...

I've known Robin a long time... and hired her to write THE LAST GOOD PLACE... but until this excellent interview, I knew nothing about WHEN MIDNIGHT COMES or that they used a picture of me for the cover without my consent. I must find a copy of this book and alert my legal team.