Walter Satterthwait










Walter Satterthwait, mystery writer, Agatha Award nominee and winner of the French Prix du Roman d'Adventures, is on a roll, literally. In a recent interview he told me he is planning to paint the title of his new historical mystery, Masquerade, across a motor home and take it on a six month tour to every mystery bookstore in the country. Honk if you see him!

Serious PR or guileless adventure, you get the feeling Walter Satterthwait loves his life and is in for a wonderful ride. His book jacket photographs and those on his Web site -- which he says do not please him -- show a rugged, sharp-featured guy in a serious scowl. Don't believe it. He is charming and funny and a very nice guy.

I caught up with him in Florida and asked him about his varied books. These include the Joshua Croft series of contemporary mysteries set in Santa Fe including Accustomed to the Dark (1996), and his literate historical mysteries, the newest of which is Masquerade.

Janice Farringer: Your first historical mystery was Miss Lizzie. What do you find interesting about writing this kind of book?

Walter Satterthwait: When I wrote Miss Lizzie, I wasn't thinking about doing a series of historical mysteries. I'd always been fascinated by the Lizzie Borden murders, and I wanted to do a book that used them somehow. At the time, no one else was using historical characters as sleuths, but it seemed like a cool idea to use Lizzie that way. So I did. And then, later, when I was finishing up the second Croft book, I had an idea for a book featuring Oscar Wilde. Maybe, if I hadn't already used one historical figure, I'd never have thought about using another. And after writing Wilde West, I'd established a pattern: a Croft book, then an historical, then another Croft book. It was a pattern with which I was comfortable, and I kept to it.

I don't know that I'm "attracted" to the writing of historical mysteries. I was on a panel at ClueFest, in Dallas, and everyone else on the panel was talking about how much they enjoyed researching. I don't, mostly out of an inherent laziness. But if you get an idea that involves an historical personage, unfortunately you're going to have to spend some time researching him or her, and the time in which he or she lived. Otherwise you'll get a lot of snide letters from more knowledgeable people, pointing out your errors.

Of course, I do always put at least one major error into each of the historicals, so that those knowledgeable people can feel good about spotting it, and about writing me a snide letter.

You've lived in six foreign countries, among them Greece and Kenya. What took you to all those places to live?

Airplanes, mostly.

The way it worked was that I'd write a proposal for a book and get a small advance. Usually, the money wasn't enough for me to stay here in the U.S. and write the book; not full time, anyway. So I'd take the cash and hightail it for someplace cheap, like Greece or Kenya or Thailand. Luckily, those places weren't only cheap, they were also beautiful.

And twice now -- once in Amsterdam and once in Greece -- I've been offered fairly long-term house-sitting situations. Not having to pay rent is a nice incentive for living in a country.

In Escapade and Masquerade, you used historical figures like Harry Houdini and Ernest Hemingway as characters. Do risk takers interest you?

I don't think that I'm particularly interested in risk takers. You'll never see me bungee jumping. But I am kind of interested in egomaniacs. A murderer, almost by definition, is an egomaniac -- some other person's life is, for a murderer, obviously less important than his own. And I like the idea of using an egomaniac to solve the crime. Oscar Wilde and Harry Houdini are both egomaniacs -- although charming ones, I hope -- and I enjoyed putting them into situations in which they had to discover the identity of yet another member of that tribe.

As for Houdini in particular, I've always been interested in stage magic.
When I was a kid, I did it myself. It's a truism that most people are disappointed when they learn how a specific magic trick is pulled off. But, like Amanda in Miss Lizzie, I get a big kick out of learning that.

And I think that there are certain similarities between magicians and writers. They both invent worlds. They both use distraction and sleight of hand. Amanda says somewhere that magic is one of the few situations in which the observer knows that he's being deceived. But the same is also true of mystery novels.

Tell me about Joshua Croft [Satterthwait's Santa Fe private detective] we saw him last in Accustomed to the Dark. How does an author decide not to continue with a successful series character?

The Croft series hasn't really been all that successful, in terms of sales. The other series, represented now by Escapade and Masquerade, has done better. I like the Croft books, and I enjoy writing them; but I like the other books, too; and, when you like doing two things, but one of them sells better, it makes sense to do that one.

St. Martin's, my publisher, has been very good about letting me write whatever I want. They may not know what to make of a book, once I finish it, but they've never suggested that I write one sort of thing to the exclusion of anything else. I have what I think is a very good relationship with my editor there, Reagan Arthur, and I've enjoyed working with her.
A number of readers have told me that they'll miss Joshua. I will, too. And maybe someday I'll miss him so much that I'll bring him back. But clearly, as you probably realize if you've read Accustomed to the Dark, his relationship with Rita [his partner] will be somewhat different.

Escapade introduces readers to a new couple, Jane Turner and Phil Beaumont, both Pinkertons. They show up again in Masquerade. Will there be a third book with them?

Yeah. That one will be set in Munich in 1923, just before the failed Nazi putsch. I'm looking forward to writing it.

Escapade won the Prix du Roman d'Adventures. What it was like to be honored for your writing in France and how do French reviewers and readers differ from their American counterparts?

It felt great. My French publishers threw a terrific party, and took me out to a terrific lunch. I'm a big fan of lunches, especially when publishers buy them, and I had a great time.

I hate to say this, but I think that the reviewers in France -- and in Germany, where my books do fairly well -- are generally a little faster on their feet than American reviewers. I've never really gotten a bad review here in the States -- knock on wood -- but sometimes, even when reviewers like the book, they don't really seem to understand what I'm doing in it, or trying to do.

For example, it was a German reviewer, and not an American, who pointed out that Phil Beaumont's name was stolen from Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Hammett's Ned Beaumont, and that Jane's was stolen from Miss Marple.

In the long run, I suppose, that doesn't matter. At least they spell my
name correctly. Usually.

I don't speak French, so I haven't been able, really, to talk to any of my French readers. Which is a pity. I'd like to know what they think.

Finally, since we are after all online, do you think the Web has affected writers and writing?

Sure. It has to. I love e-mail's ability to provide inexpensive and instant communication. While I was in Greece, I kept in contact with my agent, my editor, and all my friends by e-mail. And I sent the entire manuscript of Masquerade -- 418 double-spaced, Word 6 formatted pages -- to St. Martin's in less than 15 minutes.

Another example. When I was writing Masquerade, I wanted to know which wines would be drinkable in France in the year 1923. So I posted a message to the newsgroup and asked if anyone knew of a book that could answer that question. I got a couple of replies, both of which suggested I look for a certain book. I went to Bibliofind, punched the title of the book into their search form, found it, and ordered it online for $9.00, plus shipping. In less than a week I had the book. A couple of years ago, before the Internet, trying to locate and purchase that book might have taken me several weeks.

So, yeah, the Internet is definitely affecting writers. This one, anyway. I think it's great.

Is it affecting writing? I don't know. I know there are sites which contain Internet-published novels, but I don't know very much about them. | October 1998

Janice A. Farringer is a writer and creative writing teacher living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.


Walter Satterthwait welcomes e-mail or you can visit his Web site.

Read a review of Masquerade.