An Excuse for Murder by Vanessa Westermann

By Charles Salzberg

Vanessa Westermann, author of AN EXCUSE FOR MURDER, knows a lot of words. But when she finished her first draft of her first novel, she found she’d used 128,000 of them. That’s when she knew her work had really just begun.

“In the process of trying to find a publisher, I received some valuable feedback that helped improve my writing style,” she explains. “As with most writers, it took me quite some time to sell my book to a publisher—six years, in fact. A fellow Arthur Ellis Awards judge was kind enough to read through my manuscript and gave me constructive criticism. She pointed out that I was making the mistake many new writers make: my writing was too flowery. So, I learned a valuable lesson: less really is more. I stripped down the prose, taking out excess adjectives and metaphors, and the manuscript went from 128,000 words to 75,000 and my writing was the better for it.”

And so, as it turns out, is the reader.

AN EXCUSE FOR MURDER, which combines elements of three genres—cozy mysteries, thrillers, and romantic suspense—features Kate Rowan, the owner of a small bookstore in a borough of London, and Gary Fenris, owner of a securities firm. Kate lives with her great-aunt, and one day she stumbles across the dead body of a neighbor at the bottom of the basement stairs. At first, it’s suspected he died of natural causes but, of course, Westermann wouldn’t have much of a crime novel if that were the case. Eventually, Kate and Gary team up to find out what really happened to a man who turns out to be a little more than simply an innocent boarder.

Westermann’s background doesn’t exactly scream “crime writer.” She was born and raised in Germany, interspersed with a few years spent living in Ontario (where she now lives in a cottage on a lake) and Atlanta. Her mother is Canadian and her dad is German, which accounts for her pinballing back and forth between Europe and America to visit relatives.

Her father is in public relations and her mother is a bespoke milliner. “I have occasionally taken on the role of hat model for her ‘look book,’” says Westermann, who also has a brother who’s a software developer and web programmer. She completed a master’s degree in English Literature at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Germany, minoring in American Literary History and Sociology. But writing was always on her radar.

“I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember,” she says. “Even before I could spell, I would fill in the words I didn’t know with pictures. When I was 11, I told my mom as we were browsing through a bookstore that one day, my book would be on the shelves. I still can’t believe that dream has now come true.”

Westermann came to crime fiction rather naturally, since she always loved reading it. “I started with Nancy Drew mysteries and moved on to Agatha Christie and Benjamin Black,” she remembers. “In crime novels, the sleuth (normally) finds the answers to questions, solves problems, and puts the world back in order. There’s something wonderful in that.”

When it came time to actually write a novel, she knew exactly what she wanted to do. “I set out knowing I wanted to write a traditional village mystery, with its puzzles and quirky characters, but include the suspense of a thriller,” Westermann says. “In order to accomplish this, I decided to tell the story from two points of view: from the perspective of Gary Fenris, a haunted former bodyguard who commits murder and then has to live with the crime, and Kate Rowan, who found the body.”

Since Westermann grew up in Germany, Canada, and the US, it might seem odd that she’s set her novel in England, but there’s a good reason. “I decided to set the story in England, partially as an homage to classic British crime novels, but also so I could make use of the rich architectural history that exists there,” she says. “Kate is a tenant in a rambling Victorian home that has witnessed generations come and go, and now harbors its own secrets.”

Westermann works from an outline, but she finds the plot develops more naturally when she “listens to my characters. I’ve learned that if I’m having trouble with a scene, I’m trying to make a character do something that doesn’t fit their personality. I edit relentlessly and I normally start with a general idea of what I want to have happen in a chapter and then sketch a rough draft, just getting ideas down on paper. Then I refine the writing, going back to add depth and dimension to the scene.”

Her writing is influenced by Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh. “They’ve all had an influence on the way I write dialogue,” Westermann notes. “I love the wit and banter that’s found in Golden Age detective fiction.” As far as today’s crop of crime writers, she admires Tana French and Louise Penny.

As part of her writing process, Westermann carefully researched the details of running an independent bookstore. “One bookseller recommended I read Carolyn G. Hart’s Death on Demand series to gain insight into what it’s like to own a bookstore,” she says. “I was thrilled, years later, to receive advance praise from Carolyn.”

When she began AN EXCUSE FOR MURDER, Westermann didn’t have a series in mind. But she now says that “it seems Kate and Gary have a different opinion on the matter. They’ve become partners in crime now, and I’m sure it won’t be long before Kate stumbles upon another mystery.”

While she’s drafting some ideas for a sequel to Kate and Gary’s story, Westermann is currently working on a stand-alone crime novel “that features another strong female protagonist as sleuth, a chocolate shop, and a dark secret in the past.

“For now, I plan to continue writing crime fiction. It’s not the violence of the crime, but the emotion that motivated it that intrigues me; the secrets that are exposed with the appearance of a corpse.”

*****

Vanessa Westermann is a former Arthur Ellis Awards judge, and has given a talk on the evolution of women’s crime writing at the Toronto Chapter of Sisters in Crime.

Vanessa’s book review column entitled “Vanessa’s Picks” was published in the monthly newsletter of a popular Toronto mystery-specialty bookstore from 2012 to 2016. The column was developed into a blog, featuring literary reviews and author interviews.

While living in Germany, she attained an M.A. in English Literature and went on to teach creative writing.

She currently lives in Canada and is working on her next novel, while drinking copious amounts of tea.

To learn more about Vanessa and her work, please visit her website.

 

Charles Salzberg

Charles Salzberg, is author of the Shamus Award nominated Swann's Last Song, Swann Dives In, Swann's Lake of Despair, Swann's Way Out, Devil in the Hole, named one of the best crime novels of 2013 by Suspense Magazine, and Second Story Man, winner of the Beverly Hills Book Award for best crime novel of 2018. He is on the Board of MWA-NY.

To learn more, please visit his website.
Charles Salzberg

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