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When a Character Takes on a Life of His Own

I had an interesting discussion with a co-worker a week or so ago. We were chatting about books and writing (as we so often do) and she asked if I’d ever had a character take on a life of its own and go in a direction I didn’t originally anticipate. I was about to answer ‘no, we plan too much for that’, when I realized it had happened to us in the form of Medical Examiner Dr. Edward Rowe.

Rowe was introduced as a minor character in our first series book, DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT. When a murder is committed, clearly an autopsy needs to be done, so we always planned for someone to fill this role. It was only when I went down to Boston on one of my research trips and learned how budget constraints actually affected the Office of the Medical Examiner that Rowe really started to come into his own. The truth of the matter in Massachusetts is they don’t send out a medical examiner or coroner to see the body in situ following a suspicious death; they simply don’t have the budget to support that. Instead, techs go out, collect the body and bring it back to the morgue in south Boston to be autopsied at a later time. It’s an incredibly problematic technique that we illustrated in an early scene between Matt and Leigh:


A few minutes later, Leigh came back to stand beside Matt. “They’re on their way. They understand that we’re in a hurry, so they’ll get here as fast as possible. I also called the M.E.’s office to keep Rowe in the loop.”

“Does he want to check out the site before we start?”

“Rowe?” She started to turn away. “He and his staff don’t come out to sites.”

Matt reached out, catching her arm to stop her. “What do you mean ‘they don’t come out to sites’? Then who does liver temp, lividity, and rigor to determine time of death in a fresh victim?”

“No one.”


Leigh shook off his hand. “Jurisdictions that can afford it send the M.E. or an assistant to a crime scene to do an on-site examination of the body to help establish time of death. Unfortunately, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts doesn’t have that in the budget.”

“Then who comes out to get the body?”

“The M.E.’s office will send a couple of techs to properly bag the body and transport it to the morgue. Once there, they do as-is photos, take fingerprints, and then toe-tag the body before storing it in the cooler. And that’s all they do until the autopsy, which can be days later. But that’s not all.”

“I can’t believe it. There’s more?”

“They base time of death on L.S.A.—the time the victim was last seen alive.”

Matt gaped at her in disbelief. “That’s incredibly inaccurate.”

“I know. So does Rowe. He’s well aware that they’re losing convictions because they can’t nail down time of death more precisely. He’s argued for additional funding to cover this for years, but no one is listening. This is just the reality of what the budget will allow and the constraints we have to work with. Anyway, when it comes to this particular case, Rowe will fully review all photos, evidence reports, and your written report as soon as it hits his desk, and will consult with you personally at that time.”

“I’m . . . appalled. I haven’t worked with the police a lot but I know colleagues back in Tennessee who do. That’s not how they do it there.”

“It shouldn’t be how we do it here. That’s why Rowe’s trying to change it.”

I confess that pretty much everything going through Matt’s mind in that scene was what went through mine when I heard about their protocols. But it gave us an opportunity to flesh out what started as a minor character. So, instead of settling for the status quo, Rowe takes time out his own schedule to attend to as many deaths as he can, hoping to prove those cases have a better conviction rate, and better funding will be the downstream result. Justice means something to Rowe and he’ll do what he can to obtain it for his victims even at his own personal cost. So we started seeing Rowe at all our major crime scenes, starting with the first fresh victim in DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT and continuing in every series installment from that point on. Reader reaction has shown us that Rowe is one of our most beloved minor characters.

However, Rowe’s character really stepped into the stoplight in TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER when it turned out he was a history buff and could be the team’s guide into the world of Prohibition era Boston and the Mobs. It wasn’t something we planned, it just… evolved, led to a degree by the character as I was writing him. It was a great development of a much loved character and we’re thrilled with how it turned out. Some characters initially seem like sketched-in placeholders whereas some characters spring forth as nearly complete personas from the first moment they hit the page—Rowe is definitely that kind of character.

We tend to be fairly major planners, so we don’t have the advantage of pantsers by just letting our characters lead the way through the story. This was definitely a situation where a single character took the bit in his teeth and grabbed some of the control right out of my hands. For other writers in the group, has this ever happened to you?




Whoo hoo! *throws confetti* TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER is now out! The fourth installment of the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries throws Matt and Leigh into a case with strong ties to the past. The story brings not only students Kiko, Paul and Juka into the investigation, but also one of our most popular minor characters, Medical Examiner Dr. Edward Rowe, who turns out to be the perfect guide to the world of Prohibition and the Mob wars of the 1930s:


Prohibition was a time of clandestine excess—short skirts, drinking, dancing . . . and death. But a murder committed so many years ago still has the power to reverberate decades later with deadly consequences.

It’s a double surprise for Trooper Leigh Abbott as she investigates a cold case and discovers two murder victims in a historic nineteenth-century building. Together with forensic anthropologist Matt Lowell and medical examiner Dr. Edward Rowe, she uncovers the secrets of a long-forgotten, Prohibition-era speakeasy in the same building. But when the two victims are discovered to be relatives—their deaths separated by over eighty years—the case deepens, and suddenly the speakeasy is revealed as ground zero for a cascade of crimes through the decades. When a murder committed nearly forty years ago comes under fresh scrutiny, the team realizes that an innocent man was wrongly imprisoned and the real murderer is still at large. Now they must solve three murders spanning over eighty years if they hope to set a wronged man free.

Available in hardcover and eBook, you can find TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER on line at Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon.co.uk, and Barnes and Noble, and in stores at Chapters/Indigo and at your local independent sellers!

For those wanting some supplemental content to accompany the book, I’ve posted a new picture gallery from my trip to Lynn in November 2013 when we were doing final finishing touches on the manuscript. Many of the real locations from the novel can be found here: http://www.jenjdanna.com/picture-gallery/lynn-massachusetts/.

And for anyone in the Southern Ontario area, we’re celebrating the book’s release on March 8, 2015 at 2pm at A Different Drummer Books at 513 Locust Street in Burlington, Ontario. Hope to see some of you there!

Photo credit: Pixietart


The History Behind TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER: Part 3– Speakeasy Culture

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been highlighting some of the history behind TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER since it plays a major part in both the case and it’s resolution. So far we’ve talked about why Prohibition started, and the challenges of enforcing the law when not only the criminals but also law enforcement were breaking the law. This week, we want to talk about speakeasies and the culture that flourished around them.

By the strictest definition of the word, a speakeasy was an establishment that illegally sold alcohol during Prohibition. But in reality, that term could apply to anything from the most basic gin joint that sold only the hardest and harshest (including potentially poisonous) of drinks, to the snazziest nightclubs featuring high profile performers. These were permanent establishments, often controlled directly by the mobs, so while competition was fierce, secrecy was key. Unless local law enforcement was already on the take, it was crucial that they were kept in the dark to prevent clubs from being raided. This would not only mean the loss of whatever alcohol was on site, but also the loss of the location as well, all of which added up to a huge financial disaster and jail sentences for anyone connected with the operation.

Many of these establishments tried to hide under the guise of legitimate businesses like cafés, or literally went underground into basements or into upper floors of buildings. Word of mouth was the main form of advertisement, with entrance to the establishment often depending on a whispered password to the goon guarding the front door.

Entertainment at a speakeasy (beside the alcohol) often came in the form of floorshows, especially jazz bands. Jazz was a relatively new musical form at the time and was very popular. So the twin draws of illegal drinks and a hot band was very attractive. Some speakeasies were world class clubs in their own right, and while most closed down for good once Prohibition was repealed, some establishments still exist today. New York’s 21 Club is an example: Originally opened in 1922 as a speakeasy by cousins Jack Kreindler and Charlie Berns, it was raided twice during Prohibition, but Kreindler and Berns were never caught. After Prohibition ended, they turned the club into a legitimate business and continued to own and run it for another fifty years before selling it to new owners.

The following is an excerpt from TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER. In it, Trooper Leigh Abbott and Medical Examiner Dr. Edward Rowe investigate a newly discovered Prohibition-era speakeasy, hidden away for almost eighty years. But then they find something mysterious about the back room…

Stepping away from the wall, Leigh turned off her flashlight and slid it into her pocket as she simply tried to take it all in.

A dark wood bar stood at one end of the room, its long smooth surface dulled by dust and grime. A tall square bottle with a yellowed label lay on its side, cork removed and precious contents long since spilled. At the far end of the bar, a sepia poster reading “Alfred E. Smith for President—Honest. Able. Fearless.” hung over an open brass case with several disintegrating cigarettes still tucked inside.

Plaster columns topped by decorative capitals studded the outer walls. Tables were tucked between the columns, and the chairs around them—some tipped over, several broken—told a tale of rough handling and a rapid exit. A lone shoe—black leather with what must have been a scandalously high heel for the time—lay under one of the chairs shoved against the wall.

A blackjack table stood against another wall, scattered playing cards spread over the crumbling green felt surface, and a stack of chips still in the slots. Behind the table, a mural depicting Roman ruins splashed across the wall: crumbling archways, weathered statuary, and toppled Tuscan columns, all painted in cascading shades of blue.

A single forlorn music stand stood on a small raised dais in the back corner, as if waiting for the band to return.

Leigh circled behind the bar. Underneath, dusty shot glasses were stacked in rows, and two beer kegs were tucked under the long stretch of the bar, brass taps tarnished with age. Leigh grasped one of the smooth wood handles and pulled, but not even a single drop leaked out. Large glass jugs littered the floor behind the bar, some tipped over carelessly on their sides. Several wooden crates labeled by out-of-state wineries were stacked haphazardly in the far corner.

Seeing a slip of paper under one of the kegs, she tried to catch it with her fingertips. It took several tries before she drew out a two-dollar bill. Pulling out her flashlight, Leigh aimed it at the bill to study the details. “Get a load of this.”

She passed Rowe the bill over the bar. He aimed his own flashlight at it, examining it carefully. “Two-dollar bill, series nineteen-twenty-nine.” He looked up at Leigh. “That was the first year those bills were printed at their current size. Before that, they were quite a bit bigger.” He flipped the bill over. “Look at that. Monticello on the back, not the Declaration of Independence. Probably not worth much on the open market, but worth an awful lot to a collector.”

“Finders keepers as far as I’m concerned,” she said, and then purposely turned her back on Rowe to examine a poster from the Salt Lake Brewing Company, extolling its Old German lager as “The American Beauty Beer” and promising a restful night’s sleep, a stimulated appetite, and a “nourishing and strengthening tonic for mother and baby.” That last left Leigh staring open-mouthed long enough that when she turned around, Rowe was standing alongside the blackjack table and the two-dollar bill was nowhere in sight.

Coming out from behind the bar, Leigh stood in the middle of the room. As she turned in a slow circle, she felt thrown back in time, a black and white movie playing in her mind as she scanned the room. A tall, broad man in a dark shirt with a white towel thrown over his shoulder stood behind the bar, backlit by rows of gleaming bottles of golden whiskey and ruby wine. Men in London drape suits holding lowball glasses sat at tables across from sparkling women sipping goblets of wine while brandishing long, slender cigarette holders. In the corner a four-piece brass band was blasting out the latest jazz tune. Women with short hair and shorter skirts crowded the dance floor, doing the Charleston and the Black Bottom. The smoky air was full of laughter and song.

“Abbott, I think you should see this.”

Leigh shook her head and the music died away to a mere echo from the past. Her eyes focused once again on the dim, abandoned room. But there was no sign of Rowe and his voice was muffled, although she wasn’t sure if it was from the music in her head or from his location. “Where are you?”

Rowe poked his head out from a swinging door behind the bar. “Over here. There’s a storage room in the back.”

She followed him into a flurry of tipped boxes and spilled bottles. She stopped in the doorway. “Wow. If we had questions before about whether this place was raided . . .”

“It was raided all right, no question. But I wanted to show you this.” He pointed at the wall at the far end of the room.

Leigh picked her way through the crates to stand as close as possible. “What about it?”

“Did you notice that while the walls out there are plaster, the walls in here are just plain brick?”

“Sure. Why gussy up the storeroom when just plain brick will do?”

“Fair enough. But why is this wall different?”

Leigh stood back to look more closely at the room as a whole. The front and side walls of the room were composed of rough bricks in varying shades. But the back wall was uniform in color and texture, and the mortar was shades lighter in tone. “Good question.” She ran her fingers over the bricks on a side wall and then over the back wall. “These bricks feel different. Smoother.”

“I want to try something.” Rowe slipped out of the room, returning moments later with a wooden baseball bat.

Leigh stared at him, dumbstruck. “Where on earth did that come from?”

“Behind the bar. I bet the barkeep kept it around just in case things got out of hand. In the rush to leave, it got left behind.”

“Or after everyone was taken out,” Leigh said. “What exactly did you have in mind?”

“I want to test that wall.” Rowe put the bat down, tip to the floor, and casually leaned on the flat end of the grip. “Why would that wall be different?”

“It wouldn’t be if it went up at the same time.”

“Exactly my point.” He picked up the bat, cradling it in both hands and frowned. “An antique Louisville Slugger. Now this is a crying shame.” He tossed the bat in the air, deftly catching it in both hands, choked up, and swung it at the side wall. The bat hit with a loud clunk and a few flakes of brick fell from the surface to tumble out of sight behind a crate.

He moved to the back wall, tightened his grip, and swung again. The bat connected with the brick with a decidedly higher pitch. Rowe’s raised eyebrows gave Leigh an I told you so look and moved on to the third wall, then the fourth.

They had their answer.



The History Behind TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER: Part 2– Law Enforcement in Prohibition

This week we’re continuing on with our series of posts on the background behind TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER, out next week in both hardcover and eBook.  Last week we talked about the reasons for Prohibition that led to the 18th Amendment to the Constitution to the United States. This week we’re going to look at the actual legislation and the considerable challenges this legislation raised regarding enforcement. We’re also going to share a few tidbits from the novel, in this case, trivia bits that come from the chapter titles that hold some fascinating pieces of information.

The legislation behind the 18th Amendment was the Volstead Act, also called the National Prohibition Act. While the Amendment proper banned the production, storage, transportation or sale of intoxicating liquors, the Volstead act provided for its enforcement. According to the act, any beverage with greater than 0.5% alcohol was included. Of note, personal ownership of intoxicating beverages and actual consumption was not illegal.

The sudden termination of sales of alcohol through legitimate business afforded the black market and the mob a huge opportunity. These were people who had no interest in obeying the law in the first place and realized the incredible potential for commerce. The government might not allow the sale of alcohol, but the truth of the matter was that people still wanted to drink and would go to great lengths to do so. As we showed in last week’s excerpt, people were willing to roll the dice and take their chances with death for the opportunity to escape the dreary reality of their Depression-era lives. It was also a well-known ‘secret’ that many within the realms of government, the same people who legislated the Volstead Act, were not willing to cease drinking themselves. But these were people who could afford to purchase safe—but incredibly expensive, black market alcohol—and had the connections to arrange the transaction. It was the poor, scrambling to find anything to fill the gap, who died in the attempt.

Transgressions began as soon as the Volstead Act became law. The very first documented infringement occurred fifty-nine minutes after the Act became law when a train was robbed of $100,000 of ‘medicinal’ whiskey. Backdoor deals, violence, and robberies became the name of the game. Rival mobs would often try to steal from each other, and murder and crime rates soared. Gangsters like Chicago’s Al Capone first became rich on proceeds from their illegal activities and then became superstars in the public’s eye when they often used their ill-gotten gains to open soup kitchens for the starving and impoverished. A whole industry sprung up around the transport of international alcohols into the U.S. overland across borders from Canada and Mexico, and by water into any available port.

Even within law enforcement, drinking was not verboten. In the following excerpt from TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER, we see that two of the crack members of the U.S. Prohibition Unit were not above enjoying the fruits of their labours:

Chapter Twelve: Izzy and Moe - a very effective team of Prohibition agents. While disguising themselves as vegetable vendors, gravediggers, streetcar conductors, fishermen, icemen, opera singers, and Democratic National Convention delegates, Isidor “Izzy” Einstein and his partner, Moe Smith, made 4,932 arrests and confiscated an estimated 5,000,000 bottles of illegal alcohol. After a busy day rousting Prohibition scofflaws, Izzy and Moe liked to sit back and enjoy their favorite beverages—beer and cocktails.

Companies also found some interesting ways to get around the letter of the law. The following excerpt illustrates an ingenuous example:

Chapter Five: Wine Bricks - a method to skirt the intent of the Eighteenth Amendment. Producing wine at home for personal consumption was not illegal during Prohibition. Wineries and vineyards dehydrated grape juice and compressed it into bricks. Buyers were reminded not to place the reconstituted juice in a cupboard for twenty days because it would ferment and turn into burgundy, sherry, claret, or some other type of wine.

It was completely legal to make up to 200 gallons of in-home wine per year, and many took advantage of that loophole in the Act.

We'll be back next week with our last post in the series as we take a look at how speakeasys became the social center for many during prohibition. But it was a mixed blessing for many:

Chapter Two: Blind Pig - an alternate name for a speakeasy. Possibly called a blind pig because the establishment turned a “blind eye” to Prohibition, or because consuming the often-contaminated illegal alcoholic beverages sold there sometimes caused blindness.

See you then!

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons


The History Behind TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER: Part 1 – Prohibition

Throughout the month of February, we’re going to be previewing TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER, which releases on February 18th in both hardcover and eBook.

The history behind the story is fascinating. While set in modern day, the case is unexpectedly thrown against the backdrop of U.S. Prohibition which took place during the 1920s and 1930s. Prohibition was not strictly an American concept—it has, in fact, been enforced in many countries from Asia, Europe, South America, and Oceania. In North America, both the U.S. and Canada had Prohibition, but, Canada’s was never a national law. Instead, provinces instituted their own short-lived laws, and Prohibition was a thing of the past for Canada by the early 1920s—just about the time the U.S. was getting started. As a result, Canada became one of the pipelines of that fulfilled black-market needs.

Since most North Americans only consider Prohibition to be an American phenomenon, and since that’s the background used for TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER, that’s what we’re solely going to discuss over the next few weeks.

What is Prohibition in the larger sense? Opposed to the commonly held belief, Prohibition did not outlaw the consumption of alcohol. Instead, Prohibition made it illegal to produce, store, transport or sell alcohol to the consumer, who was then legally free to drink it.

Was it a universal law? There were exceptions to the law because alcohols were still used in some manufacturing processes (including dyes and fuels) and for religious rituals, while poisonous denatured or wood alcohol was used in scientific research.

Why was Prohibition needed? Prohibition was a concept that came out of the Temperance movement in the U.S. which began in the 1820s. In its original form, temperance promoted moderation in alcohol consumption, especially in hard spirits, and while they encouraged abstinence from alcohol (called teetotalism), it was not a requirement. But as the years progressed, the movement shifted towards total abstinence, backed by legislation as required. The movement was mostly led by women, who along with their children, had suffered at the hands of husbands who drank away their paychecks or abused their families while drunk. They also claimed that ‘demon alcohol’ was responsible for poverty and destitution, crime, and ill health.

When did Prohibition start? Several states made early attempts at legislation. Maine was the first state to ban alcohol in 1851 and it later served as a model for several other states. During the American Civil War, both the North and the South needed duty from alcohol sales to finance the war effort, so many states repealed those laws. Following, the Civil War, the temperance movement intensified, especially after the formation of the Anti-Saloon League.

How was Prohibition legislated? Prohibition became federal law in the United States in 1920, mandated by the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The legislation itself was called the Volstead Act. We’ll look into that in more detail next week as we also look into law enforcement’s challenge to enforce it.

How was Prohibition ended? Despite all the good intentions that started Prohibition, it proved to be immensely unpopular and essentially impossible to enforce. On top of that, crime rates and urban violence soared as the Mob and other gangsters used the black-market to fill the gap previously filled by legal manufacturing. Corruption within law enforcement proved to be an ongoing problem that may have been the final nail in Prohibition’s coffin. According to Chicago’s Chief of Police, an estimated 60% of his officers took part in the illegal bootlegging of alcohol. As a result, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution to the United States repealed the 18th Amendment. To this day, the 18th Amendment remains the only constitutional amendment to have ever been repealed.

Over the next few weeks, we’re going highlight short snippets of TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER that illustrate some of the history we’re discussing. The following excerpt occurs when Leigh enters Matt’s lab at Boston University to find medical examiner Dr. Edward Rowe discussing the case with Matt. To the surprise of the team, Rowe turns out to be a local history buff and he becomes their guide to the 1930s:

     Leigh crossed the room toward them. “And once again, I didn’t expect to see you. You’re like a bad penny—you keep turning up,” she said to Rowe, returning his grin as he set the clavicle back into place.
     “I’m playing hooky.” Rowe raised a gloved finger to his lips. “Don’t tell.” He waggled bushy eyebrows at her and turned back to the remains.
     “Wild horses couldn’t drag it from me. Actually, I’m glad you’re here so we can pick your brain. Does the term ‘blue ruin’ mean anything to you?”
     Rowe straightened, the T-12 vertebra cupped in his left hand. “Sure does, especially if you mean in reference to the speakeasy. It’s an old slang term for what was commonly known in the twenties and thirties as ‘bathtub gin.’”
     “Bathtub gin? Isn’t that a slang term in itself?”
     “Not as much as you’d think. Bathtub gin was basically homemade booze. In its simplest, non-distilled form, it only needed a day or two to age, so you could make it and drink it fairly quickly. It’s a method called ‘cold compounding’: mix grain spirits with something for flavor, like juniper berries—thus the reference to gin—and maybe something as exotic as citrus peel if you had it, and then dilute it out by adding tap water. But they made it in such large containers, they couldn’t fit the bottle under the kitchen faucet, so they’d use the bathtub instead. Thus, ‘bathtub gin.’ If you had the equipment, you could distill this same mixture, which was much safer. If there was any methanol contamination in the mix, it evaporated first during distillation.”
     “It sounds awful.” Leigh wrinkled her nose in disgust.
     “It was awful, but it could get worse. For many, if they couldn’t get their hands on grain spirits, they used denatured alcohol.”
      Now it was Matt’s turn to wince. “That could be a death sentence.”
      “For many it was. Or you could get off lightly and just go blind.”
     “People were that desperate for alcohol they’d drink poison?” Leigh asked.
     “A lot of them didn’t know they were drinking poison. But many of them knew they were taking their chances and did it anyway. It’s hard to describe the desperation of people back then, especially during the Depression. The chance to escape the misery of their daily lives, even if only for a little while, was simply too big a temptation. The worst of it was the Feds got involved in it too.”
     “They knew what was going on. Distilling alcohol was illegal under the Volstead Act but it happened anyway. But because alcohol was needed for scientific research and the production of dyes and fuels, the Feds knowingly poisoned some of that alcohol to discourage it from being used for human consumption. People drank it anyway and died by the tens of thousands. And then the Feds had the nerve to label them ‘deliberate suicides.’”
     “Unbelievable,” Matt muttered.
     “Believe it.” Rowe set down the vertebra and pulled off his gloves. “It was a different time back then and the Feds had the power to do whatever they pretty much wanted.”

See you next week for our next bit of history—law enforcement during Prohibition.

Photo credit: Library of Congress