Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Steven F. Havill at the Poisoned Pen

In November, Steven F. Havill appeared with other Southwestern authors at the Poisoned Pen. My summary of Havill's appearance is perfect for DETECTIVES AROUND THE WORLD week.

Barbara Peters introduced Steven Havill. His first book, Heartshot, came out in 1991. Peters said when she was dating her husband, Rob, she thought they were going to live in New Mexico, since he went to St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Instead, they ended up in Scottsdale.

Heartshot is set in Ruidoso, New Mexico, in southwestern New Mexico. Havill said in the Posados County novels, he invented his own county. That's a hoot for a fiction writer. But, he forgot an important element. He didn't put a railroad there, and that could have been a nifty plot device. Peters reminded him he
had all kinds of small airports. He said if you fly over New Mexico, there are all kinds of small gas company runways, because they would fly in to check on the gas. Drug runners and student pilots love those short little runways, but they have to remember they're very short, usually with barbed wire.

Havill made Posados County a border county. His character in Heartshot, Bill Gastner, was sheriff, but he was not a young man when the series started. . Gastner was already 60, smoked too much, and had a heart attack in the book. Then he sold it, and had no clue for the followup. In Bitter Recoil, Gastner is recovering. It's the only book set outside of Posados County. But, Havill locked himself into a real-time series, and Bill is getting older. But, the series that started out as a Bill Gastner mystery is now a Posados County series. In the first book in the series, Deputy Estelle Reyes is single. As time passes, she's engaged, married, then gets pregnant and has kids. Gastner retired from the sheriff's department, and took a job as a livestock inspector. Estelle Reyes-Guzman took over the series as the new Undersheriff, and Bobby Torres is the Sheriff.

The action in the latest book, Red, Green, or Murder, goes back in time. It takes place immediately after Dead Weight, and before Bag Limit. Red and green are chile choices in New Mexico, and one of them will kill you, which is where the title comes from. The book didn't fit in the sequence. It was a transition book, and St. Martin's Press didn't want to publish it since it was out of sequence. So Barbara published it with Poisoned Pen Press. She said it was weird to step into a series as editor, when it was a series she read as a reader. Havill said sometimes an author goes too long before running into a hard-core editor. Stephen King said, "Editors may be wrong, but they're always right." Steven Havill said he listened to Barbara Peters, and thinks it's a better book because of that. Barbara said as an editor, she's a really good reader, and if she doesn't get it, others won't either.

According to Havill, the art of the writing business is storytelling. A good editor finds places where the story is too opaque. An editor says, the story loses me. Find a way to get me back. A good editor finds a way to write stuff without putting their footprints all over it.

Havill had a good editing story. he wrote a western Timber Blood, published by Walker in New York. His editor sent him one of those dread four page letters, single-spaced. It said, I like it, like it, like it, however the story is set in winter, but you don't know much about how much snow falls there on average. You have horses prancing through snow, and men walking through thigh high snow. Havill never thought of that. He made the amount of snow in the manuscript consistent.

Barbara mentioned that Havill is taking a different route for a new series, setting Race for the Dying in the Pacific Northwest in the late 19th century. Havill said he wasn't leaving Posadas County forever. It has the highest crime rate in the U.S., he thinks.

But, he's always been interested in the history of medicine. It's a hobby. So, he wrote an historical medical adventure. He found a report done by the AMA called Nostrums and Quackery. It included things such as mail-order diagnoses, and getting the desperately ill hooked on drugs.

The protagonist in Race for the Dying is a University of Pennsylvania medical school graduate, Dr. Parks. He made him a graduate of that school because Havill owns an 1890 edition of Modern Surgery, written by Dr. Roberts, who was on the faculty there. Havill's character, as a graduate of the school, would own a copy of that book. And, the book gave Havill the mindset and medicines of 1891.

Dr. Parks went to the Puget Sound area because his father suggested it. He wanted to practice trauma medicine, and the lumber industry would provide a danger. A rule for a writer is that it has to be an uncomfortable life for the hero. Dr. Parks is hideously hurt, and has to cope while trying to treat new patients.

From there, the conversation went to medicines and Coca Cola, and the early ingredients. In 1910, fussing babies were given opium. Havill said, well look at the trip they've taken, and where they've just been. Wouldn't you be fussy?

During the Civil War, there was no anesthesia. Speed was important in surgery; how fast you could do things. Surgery was sometimes so fast, and so rough, that it would put back the convalescence.

Steven Havill said there will be more Posadas County books, but there will also be sequels to Race for the Dying.

Steven Havill will be one of the Guests of Honor at Left Coast Crime in March 2011 when it's held in Santa Fe.

Check out the other blogs participating in DETECTIVES AROUND THE WORLD. Jen has links to all of them, along with information about the scavenger hunt, here.


Jen Forbus said...

That's funny how the series came to be. I guess you have to be careful of things like that, huh? I know I've heard several panel discussions on whether characters should age with their books. I guess Havill could have opted to have his characters not age, but it sounds like this choice was one that gave him more flexibility in the end anyway. Cool!

I mentioned yesterday that the series made me think of the Walt Longmire series. Johnson has the same thing in his series. Walt, his sheriff, is older and has been sheriff for 25 years, maybe? I'm not sure if that's exactly right, but it's something like that.

Thanks so much for posting this Lesa. I'm one of those people who likes to know a bit about the authors to better understand their writing. It really does make a difference in how you hear the books you read!

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I think medical history is interesting, too! Gross, but interesting. :) I recently toured Old Salem and visited a doctor's house there...fascinating!

Thanks for introducing us to Steven, Lesa.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Lesa said...


You're really staying busy this week, dropping in at each blog. Thank you! And, you're keeping all of us busy as we check out the various blogs.

I know. I know. I'm going to get to that Walt Longmire series. Each time you write, you make it sound better. At the moment, though, I'm in the middle of the new Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, and I have a couple others going at the same time.

Have fun this week, Jen. You won't have a chance to get in any trouble, with all the time you have to spend online. (smile)

Lesa said...

My pleasure, Elizabeth. You have such eclectic taste in history and books. It's fun to have you your comments here.

Beth F said...

The medical practices during the Civil War always fascinate me. It is astonishing how many men died from infections rather than from the fighting itself.

Lesa said...

Unlike you and Elizabeth, I find the medical practices hard to read about. But, then, I don't even like medical shows. Just too squemish.

Beth Hoffman said...

This was quite interesting, Lesa. I'm a bit like you and Beth F. combined; Though I'm fascinated by the harsh medical practices of that era, I often get a bit sick to my stomach.

Thank you for introducing us to Mr. Havill, I enjoyed this post very much!

Audrey said...

I will be adding Steven Havill to my must read mystery author's list after your thorough review of his medical mystery book. Another great thriller coming out on April 15th is by author David Curry Kahn, who has written an intriguing murder mystery about a wealthy woman who turns to the dark underworld of drugs. Her parents are murdered because of her bad choices, which sends her on a journey to escape the drug lords. Looks like it will be a real page turner.

Lesa said...

Thank you, Beth! I'm glad you enjoyed it. Always fun to introduce authors.

Lesa said...


I'm glad you're adding Steven Havill to your list. And, thanks for the heads up about David Kahn's book.

Kay said...

Lesa, you said that HEARTSHOT is set in Ruidoso, NM. Are all of the books set there or just that one? We vacation there and I would be interested.

The new series sounds interesting too.

Lesa said...


I'm afraid although I'm covering Havill's books, I don't remember Ruidoso because I just think of the books as Posadas County mysteries. Lousy answer for you, isn't it? I still think you might like the books!

Anonymous said...

HeartShot is not set in Ruidoso, NM. It isn't set anywhere. Havill just created a place in the southern part of New Mexico to be near the Mexico border and called it Posadas County. I don't care for books where the author takes great liberties with our State counties and towns, not to mention the geographical terrain. Jonathan Miller is another author who creates new places and towns within our State borders. I don't have much respect for these types of writers. On the other hand Michael McGarrity is right on in his book, Mexican Hat. Silver City and Deming have never been described so well. Although now the old hospital in Silver has been taken down.
Tony Hillerman, Max Evans and Louis L'Amour are the masters of New Mexico Stories. If they wrote you can go see it and experience the story first hand! I wish Havill and Miller would move somewhere else and pick on another community far away from my beloved New Mexico.
Penny McCauley
Grant County, New Mexico

Gary said...

Hey gang! Amazon is advertising as a new release "One Perfect Shot", due in January. The reviews indicate that it has Gastner still on the job and about to become associated with Estelle. I have followed the series from the beginning and Bill Gastner retired several books ago. Please someone unconfuse me.

Anonymous said...

JUst found this author.. now have read most of his books.. good stuff