Saturday, May 28, 2011

Ray Dix - The Best Defense

Ray Dix is a man who still believes in heroes. As an assistant public defender, he represented individuals who could not afford attorneys. As an assistant capital collateral representative, he reinvestigated convictions and wrote death row appeals. As a writer, he created Woody Thomas, a character he describes as a champion for our time. "Woody is square," he explains. "He believes in truth, love, and a fair fight. He has a code of honor, and he'd be willing to die for it. And he believes in justice - he just doesn't believe he's seen it lately."

Dix did not set out to become a writer. A graduate of Salisbury State College in his home state of Maryland, he spent some time repairing copiers and computers, building boats, and running a boat shop. It wasn't until he was 40 years old that he decided to pursue a legal career. He earned his law degree from Maryland School of Law and began practice as a public defender. He was struck by the strangeness of the job. "When you work on death row, I don't care which side you're on, you're on the fringe because it draws so much emotion from you. You struggle with some really heavy stuff. You take it to bed with you each night, and it never goes away."

For Dix, journaling was one way of coping. He started his journal in 1972 as part of a college English assignment. The class ended, but the journal kept going. It has since grown to over 45 volumes and has become a treasury of story ideas. "Lawyers love to get together and tell war stories, and I was no exception," he says. "I come from a family of storytellers, and people kept telling me I should write a book. I had an idea, and I had a beginning and an end. I figured all I needed was a middle." He started his first novel, Death Row Defender, in 1996. It went through 11 rewrites before its release in October, 2005. The book, praised by the Richmond Times as "a cut above the average," became its publisher's second-highest seller for 2005 and went on to win an EPPIE "Best Mystery" award.

Death Row Defender tells the story of Woody Thomas' attempt to save the life of a down-on-his-luck young man sentenced to die for a rape-murder. After examining the case, Woody comes to believe the young man has been framed. He relives the trial through the transcripts, then locates and questions the witnesses. The case looks solid, but federal agents begin to follow Woody, local police try to frame him, and someone tries to kill him. The novel takes readers on a compelling and harrowing journey through the labyrinth of our legal system. According to Dix, "Nothing happens in the book that hasn't happened somewhere in the country. I wanted the reader to see what really goes on." And what really goes on is extremely unsettling.

Dix's second novel, Tampa Bay Blues, is set for release in December 2011. The idea for the story came to Dix while he was reviewing case law for a Pinellas County court case. The story centers around the murder of Woody's good friend. Woody agrees to represent the confessed murderer, a mutual friend from Alcoholics Anonymous. The novel gives an in-depth look at police interrogation techniques, courtroom tactics, and the relationships within Alcoholics Anonymous.

Dix has also completed his third Woody Thomas novel, Panama City Jump. It grew out of unresolved issues in Death Row Defender and examines how revenge and anger change people. In the story, an enemy from Woody's past seeks revenge by destroying and killing that which Woody loves. Always a defender at heart, but still a former military intelligence agent, Woody knows that often the best defense is a good offense. But is he willing to lose his soul if that good defense becomes murder?

Dix acknowledges that his dual role as lawyer/writer poses a unique set of challenges. "The hardest part of writing for me is finding the time. The first ten pages of a book are hell. But the best part is when it's over and you can look back on what you've written. There's nothing like it." He hopes to retire from full-time law practice soon so that he can spend more time wrtiting and doing other things he enjoys - like sailing, meditating, and walking the beach with his wife, Cynthia. His goal for the future is "to produce one good mystery/suspense novel a year for the next 20 to 30 years." To Dix, there is a clear connection between being a lawyer and being a writer. "We become lawyers because we see things that need to be fixed," he says. "We become writers because we can't always fix them."

For more about Ray Dix, visit his website at

Next: Dorothy Francis - Cozy Up With a Good Mystery

Monday, May 9, 2011

On the Job With Elaine Viets

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to work in a trendy South Florida dress shop? How about in a bookstore, a posh bridal salon or a doggie boutique? Elaine Viets, a Fort Lauderdale native and national best-selling author, has worked all these jobs and more to give readers a glimpse of what life is like for people who work for minimum wage. Throw in a heroine on the run, some colorful South Florida characters, and a murder or two, and you have Viets’ "Dead-End Job" series, a collection of novels that has been described as “Janet Evanovich meets The Fugitive.

Originally from St. Louis, Viets graduated from the University of Missouri with a degree in journalism. She credits a former teacher with inspiring her to pursue a writing career. “I had a nun for an English teacher," Viets recalls. "She thought I was a good writer and encouraged me to get a job on a newspaper.” Viets followed her advice and spent 27 years working for the St. Louis Post Dispatch. Her three weekly columns were eventually syndicated for United Media in New York. According to Viets, “Working for a newspaper was a good training course. It influenced my dialogue and characters, and it allowed me to see people in many different circumstances.” She also spent some time proofreading medical books, which turned her into “the biggest hypochondriac in St. Louis.”

Then Viets moved to Florida and fell in love with her new state. “Florida has so much natural beauty. I never get over it. It’s nice to live in place where people want to be.” But she acknowledges that this can sometimes cause problems, especially when she’s trying to write. “When you live in Florida, you have a lot more friends who come from out of town. I solved that by getting a really uncomfortable couch.” She especially likes Florida's climate. “I hate snow, and I hate the cold. In St. Louis, the only place I could get warm was in the shower.” Now she warms up at her home on the intracoastal and spends the winter months “sitting by the pool, watching the boats go by.”

Living in Florida also inspired her to pen a series of mystery novels set in the Sunshine State. “I thought of setting the stories in St. Louis, but readers expect the Midwest to have standards, morals and taste," she says. "South Florida has none of these handicaps." Her "Dead-End Jobs" books center around Helen Hawthorne, a formerly successful career woman who runs away from her cheating husband and winds up in South Florida, working minimum-wage jobs in order to stay off the radar. As research, Viets actually does a stint working each job she gives her character. For Shop Till You Drop (2003), the first book in the series, she worked as a salesperson in a dress shop. For her other novels, her jobs have run the gamut from telemarketer to hotel chambermaid. Viets is interested in giving her readers a feel for what it's like to be "the invisible people who work very hard, but nobody sees what they do." And the very worst dead-end job? “If I ever go to hell,” says Viets, “I’ll be a telemarketer.”

On the heels of the success of "Dead-End Jobs," Viets was approached by her publisher to begin a second series. Since her mother was a mystery shopper (a woman who poses as an average shopper to rate a store’s service), Viets used this concept as the basis for her "Mystery Shopper" series. When the first installment, Dying in Style, debuted in 2005, it was tied with Stephen King on the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association's bestseller list. Set in St. Louis, the series takes readers into the “pink collar” world of secret shopping with Josie Marcus, a single mom struggling to make a life for herself and her nine-year-old daughter on a mystery shopper’s salary. “The mystery shopper is supposed to look like an ordinary person. That’s why I made Josie look like a typical mom and housewife,” Viets explains. But there’s nothing typical about the situations Josie becomes involved in. “Josie’s a mystery shopper the way James Bond is a spy. Her life is much more exciting than most.” Viets is currently at work on her seventh "Mystery Shopper" novel, Death on a Platter, which is due out in November, 2011.

Viets' latest release, Pumped for Murder, is her tenth "Dead-End Job" mystery. Praised as "breezy...well-plotted...fueled by Viets' perfect comic timing" (South Florida Sun-Sentinel), the story has a newly-married Helen Hawthorne working at a gym where she's taken a receptionist job as part of an investigation for her fledgling detective agency. At the gym, she is introduced to the world of extreme bodybuilding and discovers she must pump iron to keep her job and keep her eye on a client's errant husband.

When she isn’t busy writing, Viets enjoys reading (particularly Michael Connelly mysteries), walking on the beach, and spending quality time with her husband (actor Don Crinklaw), her two cats, and with other writers. She hopes readers will enjoy her novels as much as she enjoys writing them. “I try to write from a reader’s standpoint and write the kind of books I’d like to read,” she says. “I really enjoy the process. I’m lucky to enjoy what I do for a living.”

And readers will certainly enjoy all the offbeat mystery novels of Elaine Viets.

For more information, visit the author's website at

Next: Ray Dix - The Best Defense