Greg Randall and I were were going to be on a panel together when the 2020 Left Coast Crime convention was shut down for COVID. To prepare, I read the first of Randall’s Alex Polonia Thrillers, Venice Black and loved it. Imagine how excited I was to bump into him this year in Albuquerque and be gifted a copy of Toulouse For Death, #3 of the Sharon O’Mara series. This is what I love about LCC—you meet someone one year and in another year they’re giving you books they think you’ll like, based on a conversation the year before. Greg and I must have talked about art, travel, and strong female protagonists, because Toulouse For Death has all that. Although the book was first published in 2011, the plot is a twist on a classic theme: good vs. evil and is as relevant in 2022 as it has been since biblical times.
A Toulouse Lautrec painting stolen by the Nazis. A dying man’s wish. Old evils return to the twenty-first century.
Facilitator Sharon O’Mara is hired by a client who wishes to remain anonymous. She is to facilitate the return of five stolen impressionist paintings, one of them by Toulouse-Lautrec, to the rightful owners. The family doesn’t know the paintings exist—they had been originally stolen by the Nazis in 1938. Of course, a find like this makes the news and, in South America, a Nazi survivor sees the report and starts making plans. This could be the link to the lost Nazi treasure—the greatest treasure trove from World War II lost since the allies took Germany. And the treasure is the key to fulfilling a dream of resurrecting the Reich by a clandestine group of New Nazis.
Sharon makes contact with the family per instructions, but before she can deliver the paintings, they are robbed at gunpoint from the delivery van by 4 leather-clad motorcyclists in the hotel garage. Sharon puts two and two together, realizing there is more to her client’s secret treasure than a few paintings. Sharon and helper Kevin Bryan, fly to Paris to meet with the client’s associate for answers, but again, they are attacked. The chase is on: from Paris to the fertile vineyards of the Napa Valley. Something is going down, and Sharon and her team are going to stop it. “After seventy years an American GI and a Nazi SS soldier are again pitted against each other.”
Sharon O’Mara is an ex-military police officer, Iraq vet and now an insurance investigator and “facilitator” for hire. She’s tough, smart, and can be counted on to get the job done. A fiery red-head, she’s bold, brassy—a risk taker, as well as confident, honest and valorous. She’s who you’d want leading your team—because she’s not afraid to act. And if you are an action fan, Toulouse For Death is action packed, fast paced and plenty suspense filled to send your heart racing. This book has been compared to Monuments Men. It’s an oblique comparison, but the book’s premise doesn’t feel so far-fetched after all the shenanigans in U.S. politics in the last few years. One reviewer says of the missing treasure, “Makes one want to grab a metal detector and fly off to Germany.” It makes me say, “the world isn’t safe from megalomaniacs who want to take over.” In this novel, good triumphs. I’m looking forward to more of Sharon O’Mara. She’ll vanquish the baddies and leave me feeling like the world has been made a little safer. At least until the evening news.
Michigan born and Chicago raised, Randall has made the San Francisco Bay Area his home with his wife for the last 45 years. The Randalls operate an independent publishing company, Windsor Hill Publishing. He is a cover designer and artist as well as an author. His books often look at how the past impacts the present, and he’s authored over 20 books. His young adult novel, Elk River, won awards from the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) and Northern California Book Publishers Association (BAIPA).
A blackmailed Court of Appeals judge from the 9th Circuit, a French art exchange student with something to sell, and Mari E, investigator with an agenda of her own, sets another Towles jigsaw puzzle of characters, clues, motivations, and surprises in motion.
Mari E is Marissa Ellwyn, wealthy owner of the prestigious Marissa Ellwyn Gallery, but when a former detective, her soon-to-be partner knocks, it’s on the door of her work-trailer in a seedy section of L.A.’s Fashion District. They’ve both got things to hide, but she needs back up and he has the skills. Mari is being followed by a dark grey van and has received threatening messages—obviously someone objects to her investigation, but for Mari, “The fate of my family and my heart depended on it.”
Abernathy is investigating a college student who has died suspiciously along with the disappearances and deaths of two reporters following the case and the trail that leads to the judge. The cases are linked and as they investigate, threats come from all sides, even from Mari’s former handlers at the CIA.
Hot House moves at break-neck speed from its seemingly straightforward investigation into a shadowy mystery. Although the story is infused with humor and delightful touches like Trevor, Mari’s “Human Resources Director,” a German mastiff, the motivations of characters make for a dark and layered plot. Mari and Derek are professional and determined, mostly sticking to legal investigating techniques. Both have secret histories with the LAPD Chief of Detectives, and both think the PD did a poor job of the initial search, but it’s not until the dead coed’s secrets come to light that some of the puzzle pieces form a picture. And it isn’t pretty.
I found Hot House thought provoking and suspenseful. I shouted “Ah Ha!” at the end of Chapter Fifteen when a clue fell into place for me, and I realized how much fun I was having trying to solve the case. Besides the charming banter between Mari and Derek, the book challenged me. I jotted thoughts and reactions while reading: oh, crap, this goes deep, uh-oh, hmmm-so why surveillance? What? What? And finally the shocking end—I just plain: didn’t see it coming!
Hot House is a hot book to read with a cool drink in the hammock on a hot summer’s day.
Mari E and Derek Abernathy (and Trevor) make a great investigative team in this first of the E & A Investigations Series. The next book can’t get into my hands fast enough! Hot House may have surpassed The Unseen as my favorite Towles novel. All I can say is, the books just keep getting better and better! (Don’t miss The Ridderscoming this fall.)
An Interview with Lisa Towles
am: Where did the inspiration for Hot House come from?
LT: My husband gave me a character name he thought of one day (he does that sometimes) – Derek Abernathy. I told him to write the name down and put it on the top shelf of an open file on my desk (so I’d see it every day). 18 months later (LOL!) I started writing Hot House. Why that amount of time, how did my husband know that Derek Abernathy was going to be an important part of my future? That’s part of the mystery and magic of fiction writing…and marriage 🙂
am: Like many of your protagonists, Mari Ellwyn is complicated and has something to prove and something to heal. What draws you to this type of character?
LT: I love this intriguing assessment – prove and heal. You’re right! And when you say it in those terms, I think every good protagonist has these elements. Like real people, fictional characters can have an external face that they show the world (how they want to be seen) and a more personal side of how they authentically feel. For Mari, I think she’s trying to prove that she’s healed from her shot-in-the-line-of-duty trauma and she’s ready for prime time with a new partner. But what I think she’s still working on, in this book, is being able to trust other people, which will be an issue for her as she starts this new relationship with Derek.
am: What defines Hot House as a Psychological thriller?
LT: Hot House could be thought of as a psychological thriller because the story has a psychological component in it as it relates to central victim of the story: Sophie Michaud. The narrative and backstory of Sophie’s mental illness played an integral role in why she was targeted by her killer and ultimately why she died.
am: I find your work to be like jigsaw puzzles. Bits of information need to be identified then tried in different directions to find where they fit. Eventually it all comes together.
LT: I’ve always loved puzzles, and for people who love puzzles, they typically don’t mind the not-knowing and temporary state of confusion when it comes to crime investigation. We look for obvious clues that are visible on the surface. And whether those pan out or not, there are always underlying layers of truth that have been established to conceal a crime and its perpetrators.
am: Do you think your background in IT has you wired to think in non-linear ways?
LT: Such an interesting question. Software engineering, I suppose, is a good metaphor for crime investigation. You write code to develop a new application (writing parallel: a theory), but there’s a significant amount of testing and verification in many different contexts and scenarios to ensure that it actually works (proving the theory, evidence, etc). And on the less linear side, there’s an important component of “debugging”, which is a problem-solving investigation to fix any defects and things that don’t work correctly. And I think this is where the creativity and thinking-out-of-box comes in. Why doesn’t something work as expected? What are the variables that could be playing a role? When it comes to real and fictional criminal investigations, details arise that might not readily fit into a framework you’ve created for a suspect. But often investigators feel or sense a connection that might not be visible by others (a hunch). THIS is the nonlinear part. Not sure if working in IT or just reading mysteries since I was a little girl made be interested in this. I just know the investigations are fascinating and great fun.
am: What draws you to the thriller genre? Do you write in more than one subgenre of thriller?
LT: I think the pace, stakes, and vibe of thrillers draws me in as a reader, and that’s what I’m pulled to write as well. My second book, Blackwater Tango, was also a psychological thriller, about a psychologist/profiler investigating a serial killer. I’ve heard from my readers (body in a lobster trap) that this was my creepiest book of all – LOL! The Ghost of Mary Prairie (2007) was very different – what I called a heartland suspense, about a 15 year old boy in rural Oklahoma investigating a ghost he encounters, which leads back to his family’s tangled past. BooksRadar is a great site that shows all of my books, with descriptions, in the order they were published: https://www.booksradar.com/towles-lisa/towles.html
am: You have a full time IT job, how do you manage to publish two books a year?
LT: Honestly it’s a constant struggle. Luckily I’m a night owl and I do most of my writing after 9pm and on weekends when I’m more relaxed and have time to think and reflect about my work in progress. I’ve learned that the Pomodoro Method (writing in 25 minute blasts) works well for me. But it’s a hard negotiation to consistently juggle my day job, writing new work, editing my work, and marketing/promotion.
am: What kind of publishing team do you use?
LT: I’ve had a wonderful experience working with Indies United Publishing House for my last two books and I’m really excited to keep going. And I’m so grateful to have an Editor who I completely trust, some smart beta readers (like you, Ana!), loving friends and family who support me, and a growing community of engaged readers who kindly provide feedback to let me know what I’m doing right, what needs refining, and what’s most important to them. After all, nothing is more important than our readers! 🙂
am: What was your first book?
LT: My first book (published under Lisa Polisar) was published in 2003, a suspense novel called Knee Deep about a body discovered in a mineral mine in rural New Mexico (where I lived for many years).
am: What’s coming next?
LT: My next publication is one of my favorite books, a political thriller called The Ridders, due for release on November 30, 2022.
am: When will the next E &A Investigations book come out?
LT: Book 2 in the E&A series, called Salt Island, will be released by Indies United on June 14, 2023
Don’t miss Hot House—
FIRST PRIZE WINNER of the 2022 Book Fest Awards
WINNER of the Literary Titan GOLD Award for Fiction
Right from the introduction to America: Standing Strong, I knew I‘d be powerfully moved by Robert J. Emery’s book. He says, “There is a worldwide upheaval coming if it’s not already here. This time, it feels different; this time, it feels dangerous. Where are the voices of common sense, reason, and compromise? There was a time when America’s two-party system, for example, worked to advance American society despite philosophical differences. Today there is endless in-fighting and political posturing between the parties that do little to advance the lives of citizens. Enough already.” Exactly—enough already!
I’m not a zealous fan of political essays or social histories, although I’ve read a few important books in my day, and this is one of them. The book is not anything I expected when my fellow Indies United Publishing House author asked me to review. Emery has offered readers a look at our divided society, politics, COVID pandemic, racial tension and eroding trust in our government, leaving it up to us, the reader, to form our own opinions. He punctuates his thoughts and illuminates the facts with quotations from famous authors, movies, politicians, songs,—even Forest Gump— all designed to make the reader think and to put things in perspective. Inspired by columnist David Brooks, “. . .when social trust collapses, nations fail. Can we get it back before it’s too late?” Emery counters with [Brook’s words are] “a call to arms, not with weapons or violence, but as a unified country to meet challenges head-on with honesty, truth, and facts and to roundly reject the voices of the wolves in sheep’s clothing who would lead us in the wrong direction.”
Written with humor and straightforward “plain talk,” America: Standing Strong explores where we are on many fronts and how we got here. Emery includes chapters on Dictators, terrorism, Anger and the Loss of Civility, Guns in America, the environment, Conspiracies Theories & Misinformation, Technology & Social Media, along with the expected chapters on January 6th, The 2020 Election and The Pandemic. He says, “Stay with me; it gets messier as we proceed.” He often opens a chapter with “What went wrong, and what went right.” and often ends a chapter with a call to action and a summary of the consequences of the chapter topic and a final word. In the chapter, Whatever Happened to Common Sense? it ends with this:
are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally
each other’s folly – that is the first law of nature.”
—Voltaire (1694 -1778)—
Writer, historian, and philosopher
Another favorite line of Emery’s is “Make of that what you will.” He isn’t proselytizing or persuading. He’s presenting the facts of our current socio-political life and inspiring us to action by telling it like it is, how it’s been (there’s nothing new under the sun, is there?) and offering steps to right some of our wrongs. As an added bonus, Emery offers a host of books and articles to reference within the text. I read several of them and made a list of many more to catch up on later. That’s because Robert J. Emery has made me a convert.
Rather than sticking my nose into another thriller, now I’m paying attention to real life. How did this happen? Robert J. Emery has written a book that inspired me. The issues are complex but the intent and presentation are simple. America: Standing Strong is fact-filled, often entertaining, and left me feeling hopeful. I highly recommend it. “Make of that what you will.”
What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”
RJE: I have no idea why I began writing little stories in the 5th grade, like the two pages I wrote when my dog died. I attended Catholic school and my homeroom teacher, a nun, was kind enough to read my one- and two-page stories and she encouraged me to keep writing, which I did consistently all through school and my 4 years in the Air Force. It was a fun way to amuse myself. I never gave thought to where it might lead me one day.
am: You eventually broke in to the film industry. Tell us about that.
RJE: It began with a small ad agency I opened in Canton, Ohio. When the first TV station came to town in the mid-sixties we got into the writing and shooting of local TV commercials. I then created a daily morning talk show which I produced and directed for that station. We were fortunate to have a regular flow of Hollywood actors as guests when they were doing summer stock at the Warren Theater in nearby Warren, Ohio.
At some point, I began writing screenplays with no clue what I would do with them. As it turns out, some local businessmen had an interest in investing in an independent motion picture and that’s how I got my first film made. I then spent 4 decades writing, directing, and producing eight motion pictures and over 140 hours of cable network documentaries, and everything in between that had anything to do with film production.
am: Now you’re writing books. Have you come back to your story telling roots?
RJE: Yes. In 2006, I retired and set out to fulfill a life dream of writing books, which I never had time for during my production career. First came four non-fiction books. A NY publisher asked me if I would write on my experiences producing and directing the Starz/Encore 92-episode series, “The Director.” I followed that with my first novel, In the Realm of Eden, a science fiction story about human/alien first contact. Later, I extended the story to 562 pages, changed the name to The Autopsy of Planet Earth, and released it in two volumes via Indies United Publishing House. Next came the dystopian novel Midnight Black, also revised and expanded and released through Indies United.
am: Tell us about your writing process. You write in several genre.
RJE: I admit to being obsessive writing 6-7 hours a day every day when I can. And I’m fortunate to be able to write in any genre when a subject moves me, fiction or non-fiction, like my current book America: Standing Strong, a subject I’m passionate about. America: Standing Strong is a non-fiction examination of what Americans endured between 2015 and today, and how as a country we will come back strong.
When writing fiction, I believe one of my strengths is creating characters because of my background in writing and directing screenplays. I direct my book characters in my head the same way I did when directing actors. For me, it’s the same process. I try to give each character something that sets them apart from the others. It might be how a character looks or how they talk. In Autopsy, for example, I had one character drop the ing’s on all his spoken words. It’s something I work hard at to give readers a visual sense of who each character is. That, I believe, is the challenge each writer faces.
am: What was the inspiration behind America: Standing Strong?
America: Standing Strong came about because all the books that were coming out by investigative reporters, as good as they were, were about the previous American administration. But what about what Americans endured not only politically, but the pandemic, the racial uncertainty, the 2020 election, the Jan 6 insurrection, unemployment, healthcare, inflation? That’s what was missing from the narrative. That is why I became passionate enough about it to spend over a year writing.
am: So what’s next? Will you write more on the troubling times we live in?