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Linda Barnes has written 16 mystery novels, 12 featuring her 6'1" redheaded Boston private eye Carlotta Carlyle, and four featuring actor/detective Michael Spraggue, an amateur sleuth. In addition to best selling mysteries, she has also written award- winning plays and short stories.
Barnes's celebrated Carlotta Carlyle first appeared in 1985 with the award-winning short story
Lucky Penny. Since then, Barnes has written ten Carlotta Carlyle mystery novels: A Trouble of Fools (1987), The Snake Tattoo (1989), the Boston Globe bestsellers Coyote (1991) and Steel Guitar (1993), Snapshot (1994), Hardware (1995) and Cold Case (1997), which also appeared on The Boston Globe bestseller list. Flashpoint came out in 1999. The Big Dig was published in 2002, followed by Deep Pockets in 2004, Heart of the World (2006), and Lie Down with the Devil (2008).
Among her many honors, Barnes won the Anthony Award and nominations for both the Shamus Award and the American Mystery Award for Best Short Story for "Lucky Penny" in 1985. In 1987 she received the American Mystery Award for Best Private Eye Novel and nominations for the Edgar, "Anthony, and Shamus awards for A Trouble of Fools. The Snake Tattoo was named one of the outstanding books of 1990 by The London Times.
Linda Barnes lives near Boston with her husband and son. She can be reached at www.lindabarnes.com.
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Hear Linda read from HEART OF THE WORLD (mp3)
Library Journal Talks to Linda Barnes - June 13, 2006
Although she is the author of two popular mystery series and was recently elected the president of the Private Eye Writers of America, Linda Barnes has never quite gotten the critical attention she deserves. Her latest mystery, Heart of the World, may change that. Somewhat different from Barnes's other series books, it takes her six-foot-tall, redheaded Boston PI, Carlotta Carlyle, to Colombia on the trail of her missing "little sister." —Andi Shechter
Read the full interview at LibraryJournal.com
A 1999 Interview with Linda Barnes: Author of FLASHPOINT
Q: FLASHPOINT is your eighth Carlotta Carlyle novel. How did the series come about?
A: Ever since I wedged my foot in the door with my first mystery, I'd wanted to try my hand at a first person female detective. My then-publisher was less than eager. I auditioned Carlotta in a short story called "Lucky Penny" that languished unpublished for three years. It was sold during that period, several times, to magazines that folded. It became known as a kiss-of-death story. When I switched agents over an entirely different matter, I sent "Lucky Penny" to my new rep who loved it and sold it to a magazine that did not fold. It was nominated for every mystery award around, and my publisher suddenly showed almost as much interest in acquiring a Carlotta novel as I had in writing one.
Q: Carlotta is a six-one redheaded cop turned private investigator who plays the blues guitar. How did you come up with her? Has she changed over time?
A: Tall was a given. I'm five-eleven, and I wanted a woman who could handle herself in physical situations. I've always found that my height gives me an intimidating advantage. She's redheaded because red is the fantasy hair color of all women who have no desire to be goody-two-shoes blondes. Blues guitar is what I listen to — and what I play to get me through the night. (Carlotta plays better than I do, but she practices more so I don't mind.) She made her debut in 1986 and here we are in 1999; yes, she has changed, but not as much as she might have had she aged thirteen years during that time. Due to the kindness of fiction, she remains in her thirties. (Due to relentless volleyball, she remains in excellent shape.) When I revisit her, it's with the same anticipation I feel at meeting an old friend after a long absence. She may have had new lovers, seen new films, sung new songs, but the person she was when we first connected will still be there at the core.
Q: In FLASHPOINT Carlotta encounters ruthless entertainment and real estate moguls who stand to benefit from an old woman's death. How did you come up with this idea?
A: Affordable rent is a hot issue in the Cambridge-Boston axis. I use it to write about money — and how money changes the way people look at everything. What makes a person, a home, a painting, valuable? Is there anything that is not for sale in the nineties? As a writer, I'm aware of how the marketplace creates and defines "successful" work. As a private operative, an observer of many different societal strata, Carlotta gets to train her eye on the successful and the less successful, to arrive at her own definition of success.
Q: In FLASHPOINT the newspaper plays a big part in how the crime is solved. Do you think that the media influences how the police, district attorneys and private investigators handle real life cases? How does Carlotta work with the media?
A: Why should cops, DA's and PI's be different than the rest of us? Second guessing the media seems to be a national sport, a national compulsion, perhaps. Carlotta, burned by reporters in her time, tries to avoid the press. Me? Here I sit, writing responses that will become part of a package used to intrigue potential interviewers. Dare I tell the truth about my fascinating life as a former CIA operative or should I maintain my top secret clearance by continuing to pose as a suburban wife and mother? (Stay tuned for details at eleven.)
Q: Hollywood writers are taking a beating in these post-Columbine times. Do you feel the need to justify your own work as a crime writer?
A: Agatha Christie was appalled when a poison she'd used in a novel was actually used by a killer who'd read about it in her work. I am endlessly fascinated and repulsed by violence. That's why I do what I do. When I was a child, a teenager was killed on my front lawn, shot by the cop next door. When I was a young adult, a friend of mine killed himself. I've chosen to examine the impulse that drives a few to commit violent acts, while others, who endure far worse, never resort to violence. I've also chosen to draw back from graphic violence. As an author, I vehemently oppose censorship; as a mother I find myself wondering if a line should be drawn. What I truly object to is the generation of baseless fm in a mass audience. I find it appalling that people feel themselves trapped in their homes by the perception that violence rules outside their locked doors. When the "whatever bleeds, leads" principle rules broadcast journalism, the result can be a falsely intimidated population clutching newly "valuable" cell phones.
Q: What does the future hold for Carlotta ? Will there be more adventures?
A: You bet. Right now, Carlotta's undercover, working construction on Boston's Central Artery/Tunnel project. THE BIG DIG will definitely be her next big case.
A Conversation with Linda Barnes, author of SNAPSHOT
Q: SNAPSHOT is the fifth of the Carlotta Carlyle novels, so I assume you've been a working writer for some time. Did you always want to write?
A: When I was seventeen, I won the National Council of Teachers of English Writing award and gave up writing immediately. I guess I figured that any skill so simple it could be mastered at seventeen wasn't worth much. Instead I decided to become a great Shakespearean actress.
Q: Did you ever act for a living?
A: I graduated from the same acting school that has given us Faye Dunaway and Geena Davis, but when it came to hitting the road for New York, I chickened out, and wound up teaching high school drama.
Q: How did you get back to writing?
A: By fiat. As the drama coach, I was required to enter the Massachusetts High School Drama Festival, a one-act play contest sponsored by the Boston Globe. I posted the cast list immediately; I had fifteen students who deserved to be part of any drama festival. Then I went looking for a play, and when I couldn't find one, I wrote one. We kept winning everywhere we performed, and at the state finals a man asked me if I'd be interested in having his company publish the play. I said okay. The one-act is called "Wings" and is still regularly performed around the country.
Q: Why not a career as a playwright?
A: Again, a disinclination to starve to death in a New York garret. Also, the megalomaniacal desire to take complete control of a project. I'd changed from actress to director, seeking control, only to find that directors, to some extent, have to follow the script. Instead of experiencing total control as a playwright, I'd found it necessary to collaborate with set designers, actors, costumers, stage managers. I'd taught for years. I wanted to work alone in a quiet room.
Q: Why crime novels?
A: My mother often asks the same question. First, because I enjoy reading them. Second, because I'm a control-freak and crime novels can be an orderly oasis in an untidy world. But those are the easy answers.
When I was a small child, my next-door neighbor, a Detroit policeman, shot and killed a teenager as he fled across my front lawn. I heard the shot. My parents told me not to look out the window. Of course, I did. I've never gotten the facts straight on that long-ago shooting, but I remember staring at the bloodstains in the grass the next morning.
When I was twenty-three, a dear friend of mine committed suicide. His death was wholly unexpected, a one-two punch in the gut and the heart that even now leaves me breathless. For years I tried to invent a scenario in which he died some other way, because homicide seemed so preferable to suicide. Sometimes I think I write most of my books about his death.
And finally, I believe there is a JFK effect, a conspiracy, if you will. If you poke around long enough, you'll find that many contemporary crime writers have an unexplained death in their background, as I do, but the current explosion in crime fiction may be attributable to the never satisfactorily explained -- forgive me, Oliver Stone -- assassination of the national father figure.
A: Every time I finish writing a novel, I believe I've discovered a method, a "right" way to work. Then, when I begin again, I find that what I learned in the previous work is never applicable to the new book.
I am a demon outliner, but I find that I seldom follow my outlines.
Q: Do you concentrate on plot, character, or theme?
A: Yes. All. But I begin with theme, with a brief statement of what I want to say. It might be about loyalty or obsession or identity; it's never as simple as whodunnit.
Q: You started out with a male detective, Michael Spraggue. Why the switch to Carlotta Carlyle?
A: Michael Spraggue, a feminist detective who I often describe as Mid-Atlantic in origin, was my thumb-nose response to all the playwrights who'd infuriated me by writing nine male roles for each female role. Spraggue was truly "My Life As A Man;" if I couldn't play Hamlet, by God, I could create an actor/detective who could play Hamlet. I never envisioned him as a series character, and when I sold his first adventure I excitedly told my then-agent about my plans for a female private eye. She and my then-editor agreed: no market.
Very few people write crime fiction for posthumous glory, so I continued to write Spraggue. Finally I could stand it no longer so I wrote a short story, "Lucky Penny," starring Carlotta Carlyle. Auditioning her, if you will, for the lead in a novel. At first "Lucky Penny" was a kiss of death story. It sold. It always sold, but it was never paid for or published. As soon as a magazine bought my story, the magazine would inevitably fold. I started to think my then-editor and then-agent were right.
When I switched agents, over quite another matter, I sent along "Lucky Penny" for a laugh. She sold it to "New Black Mask" in four days. It was published in '85, and nominated for every major mystery award. And that gave me the nerve to switch characters midstream.
From the crush of articles about female PIs, I sometimes think newspaper editors believe that women from every city in the U.S. held a solemn pow-wow and decided it was time for the female detective to emerge. It didn't happen. The feminist movement did happen. Society changed and what I write is a reflection of that change.
Q: Carlotta is a six-foot-one ex-cop with flame red hair. She drives a cab part-time, plays demon volleyball and blues guitar. Is she you?
A: Yes. And no. Carlotta is unusually tall for a woman and so am I. When I was young, my height often made it necessary for me to fend for myself. Adults assumed that since I was so tall, I must be older than I was, more mature. Carlotta and I wear the same shoe size and share a common grandmother. She is far more comfortable with violence than I am. She plays better guitar, but then she practices more.
If I search hard enough, I find bits and pieces of myself in all my characters, heroes, and villains alike. I create my characters very much as an actress creates a role, starting with the material available: my self, my experiences, my family, friends, neighbors, thoughts. The great thing about writing fiction is that I have fewer limitations than any actress alive. I can create characters who are short or tall, black or white, male or female, fat or thin, with no casting director glaring over my shoulder and scolding that I'm working against type.
Q: Will there be more Carlotta novels?
A: Yes. I enjoy writing them. I'm delighted by their success, by their popularity overseas and in translation, by the fan mail I receive. I have another in the works, tentatively titled Hardware. I know that, after Hardware, there will be two more. I tend to see the novels in groups of four; I don't know why. After the eighth Carlotta, I'll re-evaluate. If I'm still interested in her, if I still have unanswered questions about her, if I can continue to make her grow, I'll go on.
If not, well, there's always a play percolating at the back of my mind.