Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Ngaio's house & Godiva's bloodline: an interview with Jo Hiestand

Welcome to the latest issue of 9mm, the long-running author interview series here on Crime Watch. Earlier this year we hit the 150 interviews mark, and I took a moment to reflect on all the authors who have been interviewed thusfar (full list here), and where I could take 9mm in future.

I have some further terrific interviews 'in the can' already, which will be published soon. Among them will be AK Benedict, Marnie Riches, and VM Giambanco, who all sat in the 'Big Green Chair' with me at Harrogate this year, so lots to look forward to. If you have a favorite crime writer you'd love to see interviewed as part of the 9mm series, please do let me know, and I'll look to make it happen. Requests welcome.

Today, I'm very pleased to welcome Jo Hiestand to Crime Watch. A Missouri native but self-confessed Anglophile, Hiestand writes two crime series, both set in Britain. As well as being an author, she has been heavily involved in the mystery writing community as a teacher at St Louis Community College, founder and first President of the Greater St Louis branch of Sisters in Crime, member of Mystery Writers of America, and newsletter editor for a US-based Ngaio Marsh Society.

Hiestand's first-ever piece of published writing combined her love of travel and crime writing - a feature on visiting Ngaio Marsh's house in New Zealand, for Mystery Scene. Hiestand has a love of Golden Age British mystery writing, particularly from the likes of Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, and Josephine Tey, and this - combined with touring England as a singer - led to Hiestand setting her mystery novels in the UK. She has written nine novels in a series centred on DS Brenna Taylor and DCI Geoffrey Graham of the Derbyshire Constabulary, and another six featuring ex-cop Michael McLaren, who investigates and solves cold cases on his own. Peter Lovesy has called Hiestand's writing "atmospheric" with hallmarks of "immaculate research, attention to detail, and elegant style".

The seventh and eighth instalments in that series, AN UNWILLING SUSPECT and ARRESTED FLIGHT, will be released in 2017. But for now, Jo Hiestand becomes the 162nd author to stare down the barrel of 9mm.


1. Who is your favorite recurring crime fiction hero/detective, and what is it you love about him?
Without a doubt, my favorite is Ngaio Marsh's Detective-Chief Inspector  Roderick Alleyn. There are so many dimensions to him: he's aristocratic, intelligent, tenacious, well-mannered, and has a sense of humor that rises from the murder inquiry every so often. I think he's a refreshingly different sleuth due to his background and the environments/people he investigates. I'd say the country manor house plots drew me to the series at first, even though there were other such story settings by other authors, but they didn't call to me with the same magnitude that Alleyn did. I'd have to put his personality and the story settings down to Marsh's outstanding writing, so perhaps the mixture of all three elements developed my enthusiasm for Alleyn. Maybe add to that the wonderful character of Inspector Fox and Agatha Troy - both are realistically drawn. I'm envious of Marsh's talent for creating character sketches from a few sentences.

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
My mother read to me when I was a child, but I guess the first book I read that I loved and that hooked me was the Sherlock Holmes mystery The Hound of the Baskervilles.  It has all the elements that I like and, whether coincidentally or not, I frequently use in my own books. I loved the eerie setting - bleak  moors, isolated great house, moody weather - and I liked the suspects limited to a handful of people who knew the deceased. That intrigued me, how people could harbor such intense anger or hatred or cunning, be known to the victim and yet the victim wasn't aware of that or the murderer's intent. That added to the mystery, the smiler with the knife under his cloak, as Chaucer put it. And though that roughly defines the cozy genre, I don't really write cozy mysteries, though I do like the closed setting, which I do employ. Of course, I loved the actual "Hound" story, too, but I think the elements intrigued me and stayed with me. From there I read Daphne du Maurier, the Bronte sisters, Mary Stewart, Alexander Dumas, to name a few. But Conan Doyle stuck with me.  I often wonder if first books influence all writers.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything): unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
In my young teen years, my sister and I, along with two next door neighbors, put on puppet shows for children's birthday parties and I wrote the scripts for those. I wrote a few mystery novel manuscripts in my twenties, but they never got farther than my desk and subsequent burial in the recesses of my closet. As an adult, I took a citizens police academy course, did a bunch of ride-alongs with police officers, and wrote an article about that experience, but the magazines and newspapers that I honored with the submissions didn't accept it for print. In 1996, when I returned home from my holiday in New Zealand, I wrote an article that was published in Mystery Scene magazine - I was the first visitor to the Ngaio Marsh House Museum. That was my first piece in print.  A year or so later, my hometown newspaper ran a contest one hot summer, asking for poems about the heat wave.  I did a parody on Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven" and won first place (a hardy handshake and name in the paper). I then wrote an article about one of cats, and it was accepted for publication in a cat magazine. When the Ngaio Marsh Society came along, I wrote some pieces for that. I guess those bits bolstered my literary doubts, so I again tried my hand at a novel. I guess I don't have a large amount of unpublished short stories or articles since my goal was always to be a mystery novelist and I concentrated on that. But I still have those three fledgling manuscripts… somewhere. I'd sell 'em cheap…

4. Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
I love to read, of course, and I enjoy music -- playing my guitar, listening to CDs, and attending music events. I've recently become addicted to researching my genealogy (which is good and bad - I've discovered I come by my aversion to nudity and love of chocolate honestly: my 47th great grandmother was Lady Godiva). Camping and photography are also pleasurable pursuits, as is feeding, watching and sketching my 'backyard menagerie' of birds, chipmunks, raccoons, etc.

5. What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn't initially consider?
Go to some of the hundreds of music venues and listen to the live music. The area hosts a variety of styles, so you can find just about any music you like. Nothing beats listening to live music, in my opinion, and there are so many outstanding musicians here. I'd tell any music lover coming to St Louis to take in a performance at any of these spots. I think you'll be amazed at the diversity and quality of the music.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Wow, what a tough question to answer!  I know who I'd like to see portray my protagonist Michael McLaren and his sidekick Jamie Kydd if the books ever went to the silver screen, but I never thought of an actress portraying me. I guess Amanda Redman would be my choice. We've the same figure, same roundish face shape. and we're blondes… at least she was on 'New Tricks'!  If she can mimic the St Louis accent, she's perfect.

7. Of your writings, which is your favorite, and why?
Right now I'd choose the seventh McLaren mystery, An Unwilling Suspect. McLaren is on holiday in Cumbria, coming to grips with a personal problem. While there he becomes a suspect in a murder case. Through both of these aspects, the reader learns a bit more about him and hopefully is drawn closer to him. I like turning the tables on him, have him be the person under investigation instead of him being the investigator. I also like the "immediacy" aspect of the case vs. his usual poking into a cold case. And the ending is quite exciting, I think, involving Morecambe Bay. This book will be released in 2017.

8. What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication?  Or when you first saw your debut story in book form?
The magazine editor phoned to tell me that my Ngaio Marsh article was accepted. My hands shook as I recradled the phone. After a minute of doing a happy dance, I rang up my parents and my best friend. I think that was the extent of my celebration, though I may've downed a piece of chocolate! I enlarged on the celebration when my first novel came out, though. I had a party with a buffet lunch and cake, the top of which was iced to emulate the Union Jack. About two dozen friends came to join in my excitement. When I unpacked the box of books, in preparation for signing, I discovered the printer had slipped my novel's dust jacket onto another author's book of poetry! And no, the poet didn't get any royalties from that shipment - I returned the books.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
It was an outdoor event.  I had a booth where I was selling my McLaren mysteries.  A guy with a dog comes up. The guy's got a cigarette jammed into his mouth and evidently is interested in looking at a book or two. He's holding the dog lead with his left hand. Well, he obviously wants to pick up a book and thumb through it but he doesn't want ash drifting down from the cigarette in his mouth, coating my books.  So how does he solve this dilemma? He removes the cigarette from his mouth, crams it into his pocket, and proceeds to peruse the novels. It doesn't take long before I notice smoke coming from his pocket and the fabric turning a dark brown color. I say, "Sir, I think your pocket's on fire." Of course he starts dabbing at the inferno. I hand him my bottle of water so he can take care of the inconvenience and safely continue his browsing. He bought a book, though whether it was in gratitude for my firefighting expertise or his interest in McLaren, I'll never know.

Thank you Jo, we appreciate you chatting to Crime Watch

You can read more about Jo Hiestand on her website


  1. Enlightening and fun interview by Jo. I really had to laugh at the last book signing experience she had! I'm a member of the Sisters in Crime chapter she organized and helped run from the very beginning. It's always a joy to learn new things about our esteemed members and authors!

  2. What a wonderful interview. Jo thanks for sharing your interest of all things English and mysterious. Look forward to An Unwilling Suspect in 2017!