Recently, Bente Gallagher sent The Big Thrill the following interview about her new novel, A Cutthroat Business.
Tell us about the new book.
It’s the first book in a new series, featuring recovering Southern Belle Savannah Martin. Savannah has always been a good girl, always doing what was expected, fully expecting that if she does everything perfectly, everything will fall into place in its turn. When things don’t work out that way, she starts reassessing everything she’s always believed to be the truth and starts to build the kind of life she wants, not the one she’s expected to have. She gets her real estate license and starts plying her trade, and pretty much immediately finds herself tangled up in a murder mystery, when one of her colleagues is murdered in an empty house and Savannah is the one who stumbles over the body. It’s a part mystery, part romance, part suspense novel, with – according to one early reader – “enough wit and sexual chemistry to rival Janet Evanovich.” Can’t ask for better than that!
This is your first book written under your real name. You also write a successful Do-It-Yourself mystery series as Jennie Bentley. A Cutthroat Business played an indirect part in that coming about didn’t it?
It certainly did! I wrote A Cutthroat Business back in 2005, just after I got my real estate license. I was walking into empty houses with strangers pretty much every day, and having a vivid imagination, it didn’t take long for me to consider all the possibilities for what might be hiding inside. Dead body, escaped convict, crazed ax-murderer, rabid dog… Once I finished the manuscript, my agent started sending it to editors, hoping to find a home for it, and eventually it ended up at Berkley Prime Crime, an imprint of the Penguin Group. They have a very specific focus on mysteries featuring ‘crafts and activities’ – knitting, sewing, baking, cooking, glass blowing, doll collecting, etc. – and my book didn’t fit with the rest of their line. But they liked me and they liked the fact that I had a background in real estate and renovation, and so they asked me if I’d be interested in generating a series about a home renovator for them instead. There are three books in the Do-It-Yourself home renovation mysteries released so far, with at least two more to come.
They say write what you know. You’ve been a realtor and you renovate homes. So is it safe to say you had much of your research in your head?
I’ve owned and renovated nine houses in the past nine years, so yes, there isn’t much I don’t already know when it comes to that end of things. I’m familiar with the various architectural styles, the various Nashville neighborhoods, the ins and outs of Savannah’s new profession. What I have to research are the crime-related parts of the books: the murders, the murder-weapons, the police procedure.
You also live in Nashville. Why does the city work as the setting for this book?
I didn’t pick it specifically because I thought it would work; I chose to write about Nashville because I live here and it was what I knew. That said, I think it works very well as a setting on a lot of levels. Back when I wrote the book, the real estate market in Nashville was very strong. It’s still doing better than in a lot of other areas in the country, although it’s more of a normal market now, rather than the very strong sellers’ market it was back then. Nashville is an interesting city in which to place a series of books. It’s big, but not too big; more like an overgrown small town. There’s been a lot of population growth in the past few years, from other parts of the country, and there’s a small amount of tension between the ‘natives’ and the ‘newcomers.’ People in other parts of the country tend to think of Nashville as Music City – all country music all the time; nothing but country music – but to those of us living here, there’s a lot more to Nashville than that. We have a vibrant art scene, a lot of history, and a lot of industry. Music isn’t the only big industry here, something a lot of people are unaware of. Besides, Nashville offers a lot of different settings, from downtown urban areas and historic neighborhoods to suburban sprawl and rivers, forests, and hills. There’s something for everyone in Nashville.
Did you sometimes get Bente Gallagher and Jennie Bentley confused?
I don’t get myself confused with myself, since I’m pretty much the same person no matter which name I write under. And the styles of the books are similar enough that that’s not a big problem either. The way I write is the way I write, pretty much, with small allowances for the parameters of each genre: cozy mystery for the DIY-books and more of a romantic suspense mystery for A Cutthroat Business. The problem is in keeping the voices of the two protagonists distinct. Both are young women, both narrate the stories in the first person. Both have some of the same traits. My traits, most likely. They’re very different characters, though. Avery Baker, the protagonist in the DIY-series, is a New Yorker born and bred, who lives in Maine where she renovates houses with her boyfriend Derek. She’s very hands-on, not at all afraid to wade in and get dirty, and she’s curious to a fault and quite talkative. Savannah Martin, the main character in A Cutthroat Businessand the other books in that series, is a Southern Belle: elegant, ladylike, reserved, sweet as sugar on the outside and hiding a lot of ‘inappropriate’ thoughts and feelings below the surface. Their two voices are very different, both regionally and because of the different ways they think and see the world. It can be tough, after spending six months in Avery’s head, to remember what Savannah sounds like when I get back to her. Other than that, though, the two settings and casts of characters are distinct enough in my head that I don’t get them mixed up.
Bente Gallagher is a former Realtor and home renovator. As Jennie Bentley, she’s also the nationally bestselling author of the Do-It-Yourself home renovation mysteries from Berkley Prime Crime. She lives in Nashville with a husband and two kids, a hyperactive dog, a killer parakeet, two goldfish and two African dwarf frogs. A native of Norway, she’s been living in the US for more than twenty years, and she still hasn’t been able to kick her native accent.