Based in Ottawa, Peggy Blair had a career as a human rights lawyer before she became a crime novelist. Though she battled to get it published, her debut The Beggar’s Opera (Midnight in Havana here in the UK) won plaudits far behond Canada’s borders and was shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger in 2010. It features a Cuban detective solving a murder in which a Canadian holidaymaker is the prime suspect. The author was on our list of new Canadian writers to watch in 2012, and now her second Ramirez novel is about to be released. We asked her about The Poisoned Pawn, Inspector Ramirez, and her career in crime fiction so far…
Your first Ramirez novel, The Beggar’s Opera, was really well received. What was that like for you as a new crime author?
The book was rejected by publishers and agents 156 times before I finally gave up querying and entered it in the CWA Debut Dagger competition in the UK where it was shortlisted. I met Ian Rankin in a bar in Harrogate, England, the night I found out I hadn’t won, and that chance encounter ended up with me being represented by his agent and the book being picked up by several publishers. When it gets a great review or I hear from a reader who says, ‘I like it,’ all I can think is that I’m glad I didn’t give up.
What drew you to write about Cuba?
I honestly think Cuba is one of the most interesting places on the planet. First of all, it’s a dictatorship but also a vacation spot, so that has inherent tensions that give rise to conflict, and conflict and tension is what draws readers in. The hard part of setting a crime story there is that information about how its police force functions is limited. I had to make stuff up but make it as believable as possible and hope readers will suspend disbelief and come along for the ride.
Now The Poisoned Pawn is coming, what do you hope crime fiction lovers will love about that book?
The book gives us a deeper look into the characters, for sure. People who were unsure about Ramirez and whether they liked him or not will get more information about his ethics and his relationships. The plot is complicated. I hope readers like that.
Tell us more about Ramirez and his gift – the ability to hear the voices of murder victims…
The early drafts of The Beggar’s Opera had hints of his gift, but only that. There was a scene, for example, where Ramirez was in the morgue and starts to figure out who did it, and imagines the dead child pulling on his arm saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’
When the book wasn’t getting traction with agents, I had to sit back and try to figure out what I was doing wrong. I realised that most of us read fiction to escape, and that means either creating characters who are larger than life or putting ordinary people in extraordinary situations. I decided to tease out that side of things. Having Ramirez see the dead funnily enough made him come alive.
In the Poisoned Pawn Ramirez ends up in Canada, where things are very different to Cuba. What’s that like for him?
I think he’s in awe of how much we have, and how much we waste. He comes from a country that’s had extreme shortages for all of his life.
You were a human rights lawyer in Canada. What made you want to write crime novels and how did you get started?
I’m actually not a lawyer anymore. I was doing Indian residential school hearings as an adjudicator for many years, and hearing stories of children being sexually and physically abused day in and day out got to me. I left my position and was at an age where I didn’t really have any clients, and had no idea what I would do next. My daughter came home from university after I’d been sitting on my rear-end for six months and said, ‘Mom, you have to do something.’ The words, ‘I’ll write a book,’ just popped out. Less than a month later, I had a first draft of The Beggar’s Opera and a year later, it was on the hot list at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
What are the most important things you’ve learned so far, as a crime writer?
Persistence. The only way to guarantee failure is to give up.
What’s next for you and Ramirez?
Hungry Ghosts will be out in June in Canada. In it, Ramirez investigates the death of a prostitute and discovers he’s dealing with a series of similar murders. Meanwhile, on an Indian reserve in northern Canada, a similar investigation is taking place. I have some new characters in it that I really love: an older criminal profiler and a Chinese entymologist.
The fourth book is now written in draft. It’s called Umbrella Man, and it’s an espionage/thriller where a CIA plot to knock off Raul Castro is overheard by Russian intelligence. It’s very different from the others – definitely an action story and a bit of a romp.
The Poinsoned Pawn will be published on 27 February. Watch for our review soon.