Please welcome Carol Lea Benjamin, New Mystery Reader's November featured author and creator of the outstanding series featuring Rachel Alexander and her trusty partner Dashiell!
NMR: Let's start with a brief background of your series for readers who might be unfamiliar with your nine outstanding titles.
CLB: I set out to write about a complex woman who fell into detective work as I had myself years ago and then, at least in Rachelís case, who found the work compelling. Because dogs have always been at the heart of all my own stories, I gave Rachel a dog for a partner and part of the challenge and fun for me has been to see how Dashiell, her pit bull, could fit seamlessly into each of the books. Sometimes, as in Without a Word and in Rachelís interviews with the young boy who witnessed the terrible crime in The Hard Way, Dashiell becomes a bridge, helping Rachel to communicate with someone who might not trust her if he werenít there. Other times Dash uses innate skills, like scenting, to help Rachel solve the case. But the core of the stories is Rachelís detective work and her dedication to finding the answers to the questions she is asked: Who did this? Why did they do it?
NMR: Did you intend for this to be such a long running series from the beginning?
CLB: I never thought about how long it would last. Iím astonished.
NMR: Have you ever been tempted to write a stand-alone fiction novel?
CLB: Last year Larry Block invited me to write a short story for Manhattan Noir, which I did, and I loved writing another central character. So a stand-alone might be in my future.
You were once detective, have you used any of your cases as inspiration for any of your titles?
Rather than actual cases, I used what I learned about undercover work, especially in this new book, The Hard Way. What I learned is that you have to stay in your undercover persona inside and out so that you donít give yourself away by the wrong walk, the wrong gesture, comments or questions that donít fit the character you are ďplaying.Ē You not only have to dress the part. You have to think the part, to be the part. Rachelís experience going deep undercover is one of the most moving parts of the book and not only helps her solve the case, but teaches her things about herself she didnít previously know.
NMR: Dashiell plays a pretty important role in your titles, why did you decide to make him such a prominent focus?
CLB: I just donít know how to envision the world without dogs who play essential roles in the lives of their people. A dog taught me to walk and Iíve been walking with them ever since.
NMR: At what point in your life did you realize that you wanted to write?
CLB: I donít remember not wanting to write.
NMR: Which fictional detectives do you find inspiring?
CLB: Iím most fond of Matt Scudder and Harry Bosch. I guess Iím a sucker for brooding detectives.
NMR: Now a couple of questions about your latest title, The Hard Way; you touch on some very relevant issues with a great deal of compassion, one being homelessness. Do you think this is an issue that simply can't be fixed, or one that perhaps society has just gotten far too used to, thereby finding it easier to ignore as time goes by?
CLB: I donít think homelessness is an easy fix. Poverty exists all over the world and itís a problem that cries out for not only compassion, but a great deal of money and intelligent planning. Some of the people living on the street are simply not capable of taking care of themselves, no matter how much help they might be given. So itís a complex issue. On the other hand, homeless people donít vote so it is easy for the powers that be to put their problems on the back burner.
NMR: Did you actually do any undercover work yourself while researching this issue?
CLB: The writer's best tools are imagination and focus. Passing the homeless, talking to some, seeing their "digs," feeling the cold even through my coat, those things, plus the undercover work I did years ago, gave me what I needed to write this story. I think it's significant that you ask the question - meaning the homeless characters were so real that you thought I must have lived among them in order to write The Hard Way. So, thank you!
NMR: You also deal with the high incidence of homeless veterans, an issue that will hopefully play an important role in the next election along with the lack of benefits being provided; was this an initial intent of your storyline, or did become more involving as you wrote your story?
CLB: When I started writing The Hard Way, I read an article in the New York Times about soldiers who were returning from Iraq and living on the streets. You donít hear that much about this problem and I found it shocking and appalling. Shortly after I read the article, Eddie, the homeless soldier, ďwalked intoĒ The Hard Way. He wasnít part of the initial plan, but there he was and he became the heart of the book. I still think about him, as if I was the one who knew him instead of Rachel. And of course he makes me think about all the other men and women whose lives were taken too young or who came home scarred, either visibly, or the way Eddie was, damaged in a way you couldnít see, but damaged badly nonetheless.
NMR: In this latest title, like many before, even your secondary characters seem to be more real than not; and one must wonder, are any of these characters based upon anyone real?
CLB: The moment you base a character on someone real, unless the real person is merely an inspiration for a character, you lose control. This is not to say the writer can make the character perform according to the needs of the story. That, to me, is really bad writing. What you want is the character to come to life on the page, to stay with the reader long after they have read the last page. This can only happen when the writer and the character are free to let things develop and to surprise each other, something that would not happen if you base a character on a real person. In that case, you would be limited by what you know about that person and even the sensibilities of that person, assuming they might read your book and recognize themselves.
NMR:Of all your characters besides Rachel and Dashiell, which was your favorite?
CLB: Thereís usually a favorite in each story, Madison Spector in Without a Word, Irwin Del Toro, the fabulous red haired dwarf in Fall Guy and Eddie Perkins, the homeless vet, in The Hard Way.
NMR: And maybe you're not ready to divulge this, but if so, is Rachel ever going to fall in love again?
CLB: I think you might find the answer to that question in The Hard Way.
Thank you Carol, we can't wait for the next, and on behalf of all our readers, we'd like to thank you for providing such wonderful titles for our reading pleasure!
Carol Lea Benjamin is the author of the Shamus Award winning Rachel Alexander and Dash mystery series as well as eight best-selling books on dog training. A former dog trainer, she was recently elected to the International Association of Canine Professionals Hall of Fame. Carol lives in Greenwich Village, not too far from where Rachel and Dash live.