Denis knows how to make me laugh. We were well on the way to our favorite bookstore, The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, when he asked-- completely out of the blue-- "So... who is this Isabella Maldonado?" (He's learned that coming with me to see authors he's never heard of always means new books for him to read.) I filled him in on a few facts: retired police officer, local author, her books are set here in Phoenix, and her second mystery featuring a Latina police officer, Phoenix Burning, was launching that night so there might be cake. I may be mistaken, but I think he drove a little faster the rest of the way to our destination.
Denis and I reserved our seats, then sat in the back to relax, read, and chat. A cake and goodies table was set up, and a man was busily going through a couple of boxes of what I thought of as props. I could see this was going to be an interesting evening-- especially when many people showed up who were ready to celebrate.
|L to R: Isabella Maldonado & Patrick Millikin|
"It's great to see more Arizona and Phoenix talent and novelists start to come in and fill the void. For a long time, there weren't too many people writing about Phoenix, so it's great to see someone with an extensive police and law enforcement background really doing it right-- and not just North Scottsdale but the entire Phoenix area," host Patrick Millikin said. After discovering that almost everyone (with the exception of Denis) had read the first book in the series, Blood's Echo, Patrick asked Isabella to tell us a bit about her new book, Phoenix Burning.
"As we know at the end of book one, Veranda makes an oath to herself that she will take her secret to the grave. No one will ever know her deep dark secret," Isabella said. "Well, that doesn't play out very well. It's hard to keep secrets like that. Unfortunately, in book two everything blows up in her face and she's scrambling to deal with her department, her own loud, interfering, loving, Latino family, and of course, the Villalobos crime family."
"One of the things I wanted to do was use my own experience in law enforcement when I was involved in a huge, multi-jurisdictional task force where we were trying to track down some really, really bad folks. I wanted to draw from that experience and have a situation in Phoenix where things went so horribly awry that it would necessitate a multi-jurisdictional task force.
"So I asked myself and I asked my friends on the Phoenix police force what could happen, what would be so bad that it would make national headlines? So the book opens with that premise. There's a high-speed pursuit and a shootout, and it goes all the way through Phoenix. I have to warn locals," Maldonado continued, "that I did make up roads. I did that on purpose so I wouldn't cast aspersions on any particular parts of the city. At the end of the pursuit, the gunman runs into a shopping mall that I made up called the Arcadia Shopping Mall. You can tell by the name that it's a high-end, posh place. A cross between Biltmore Fashion Park and Scottsdale Fashion Square. The shootout continues right into the mall with guns blazing and people running and screaming. And yes, it does make national headlines. And then the task force comes in."
"The cartel I've created is more sophisticated than your average cartel. I describe it as the largest cartel in the world. You can think of it as any large family business dynasty, but their business is crime," Maldonado replied. "The father, Hector Villalobos, has come up with his own retirement plan, which is to divide up his cartel between his four adult children. Bartolo was given the drugs sector. Adolfo is the oldest son and was pushed out of the way by Bartolo, but Bartolo gets his in book one. Now it's Adolfo's turn to be in charge. He's the CFO. He does money laundering, gambling, racketeering, and everything else that goes on. The third son, Carlos, is in charge of human trafficking and sex trafficking. Daria is the only female. She's in charge of explosives, of gun running and that sort of thing.
"That's how Hector has set it up where everyone has a part in the division of labor. You'd think it would work, but none of them get along in this family because their father has raised them to be hyper-competitive."
"For those in the audience who aren't acquainted with you, could you talk a little bit about your law enforcement background?" Millikin asked.
|Bella and her nightstick|
"Back then I was one of the few women in the department, so that was quite interesting," Maldonado continued. "I slowly climbed my way through the ranks and over the course of twenty-two years, I eventually became a captain. As captain, I held the title of Gang Council Coordinator; I was a precinct commander; I was the spokesperson for the department at one point; and then when I retired, I was the commander of Special Investigations and Forensics. I had the chance to do a lot of different things in the department. I was a hostage negotiator; I would also do interpreting for some of the detectives. I was exposed to a lot of different things, and I had a very interesting and fun career.
"That's one of the things I wanted to write about. I thought you know what? I want to write about these stories and have them end the way they should end, instead of the way they do end."
|Bella's husband Mike who's head of the Phoenix Crime Lab|
Bella laughed. "Yeah, that guy standing over there wearing the Phoenix Burning t-shirt. He's modeling for me tonight."
"You say 'retired,' so you put in your twenty..." Maldonado nodded, "and did you always have the desire to write and make that a second career?" Millikin asked.
"Yes, absolutely. Since I was a little kid I always knew that I would be a writer at some point. After I retired, I spent five years studying the art and craft of writing. I put a lot of work into it. I joined Sisters in Crime, and that really did a lot to help me hone my skills. I also published three short stories to try to home in on what my style was."
Patrick said, "I always like to ask authors with a law enforcement background if they read police procedurals and really dial in on what they got wrong."
Maldonado laughed. "Yes! I was a lot worse at it before I started writing my own stuff. Now I've learned why they have to do stuff a different way. I'll use an example from the Phoenix Police Department. They've changed their policy, and now if an officer is involved in a fatal shooting, there's nothing unusual about taking that officer off duty for thirty days while they investigate and evaluate. Well-- talk about slowing the plot down! Now I have a much better appreciation of why you have to bend things a little."
"And officers are working more than one investigation at a time," Patrick commented.
"Yes. Not only that, but it's not just two partners working a case. A whole squad will be working it," Maldonado said.
The author fell in love with Phoenix when she moved here, and when she began to write, she realized that few books were set here. She also wanted to ensure that Latino food and culture and family traditions played a big part in her books. "Some people have told me that they always get hungry when they read my books," she laughed.
"I know we have some aspiring writers in the audience," Millikin said. "Do you have any advice for them?"
"You have to really believe in what you're doing," Maldonado said. "And you have to have nerve. A lot of nerve. I pitched directly to editors and publishers at conferences. I was offered a three-book deal right out of the chute, and I was really surprised at that. To get an agent, I went to Thrillerfest in New York City.
"It's kind of like speed dating. You get three minutes-- they set a timer-- to pitch your book, and you need to convince them you're fabulous. In three minutes. And these hardened New York City publishers have heard it all! You have to push the boundaries, but I was able to get an agent."
"Wait a second. Let's back up," Millikin said. "You published your first book without an agent?"
"I got the three-book deal without an agent," Maldonado replied. "I had all sorts of people tell me that I wasn't going to get an agent now that I already had a contract, but I thought to myself, if these people can't see any potential in me they're not right for me to begin with.
"And there were a few in that room filled with agents who said, 'What do you need me for?' and I said to myself, I don't. I don't need you. You don't have any imagination if you can't see anything going forward. But there were four or five who could see, so we'll see what happens."
|The author as police officer|
Then we had a trivia contest in order to earn some fun swag. Unfortunately, I did not know the correct terminology for a nightstick. (PR-24) Lots of fun and laughter filled the remaining part of this event-- including locals' incomprehension of tourists who think 8 oz. of water, a pair of flip-flops, and a tank top are sufficient to go hiking up Camelback Mountain. (This can lead to almost daily mountain rescues. Many people want to pass a Stupid Hiker Law to join Arizona's already existing Stupid Motorist Law.)
When the event drew to a close, Denis and I were glad we'd come... and we left with a slice of tasty launch cake apiece!
|A delicious launch cake|