By Diane Holmes
Sandra Parshall’s latest thriller begins with a feral dog pack under the silver moonlight and half-hidden by dark shadow. They seem to warn that there are some acts even good people cannot control. And there are some things that bad people must pay for.
Under the Dog Star, this fourth book in Sandra’s series featuring Veterinarian Rachel Goddard and Deputy Sheriff Tom Bridger, is superb at doing what thrillers do so well: showing how good people can and do risk their lives to stop innocents from being hurt.
Veterinarian Rachel Goddard can’t stand by while animals suffer — and she feels equally driven to act if she believes a child is mistreated. In Under the Dog Star, she makes deadly enemies when she scrambles to save feral dogs wrongly accused of killing a prominent doctor, helps Deputy Sheriff Tom Bridger track down an illegal dogfighting operation, and at the same time becomes entangled in the sad lives of the murdered doctor’s adopted children.
This fast-paced suspense novel, praised by Kirkus Reviews for “spine-chilling tension from cover to cover,” is also a story about the meaning of family, the power of compassion, and the duty we have to the animals that share our lives.
“Believable, sympathetic protagonists; a beautifully evoked setting; a haunting crime–Under the Dog Star is one of the un-put-down-able reads of the year.” –Deborah Crombie, author of Necessary as Blood
“Well-paced… unsettling.” –Publishers Weekly
Sandra’s first book in this series, The Heat of the Moon, received the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Publishers Weekly called it “mesmerizing… a frightening psychological mystery.” Booklist called it “captivating… a standout debut.”
Her second book, Disturbing the Dead, was a finalist for the Benjamin Franklin Award, given by the Independent Book Publishers Association. Kirkus called it “Fast-paced, chilling, and compulsively readable.” Publishers Weekly called it “Dark, suspenseful… a lethal Gothic drama.” Library Journal gave it a starred review, praising it for “edge-of-the-seat suspense” and compared it to Karin Slaughter’s novels.
And her third book, Broken Places, was a mystery finalist for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award. It received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly (“a suspenseful tale distinguished by its sharp prose”) and Library Journal (“grips readers from the opening page with a suspenseful plot that will leave them breathless”).
I recently had an opportunity to interview Sandra for TheBigThrill:
Every author is driven by an idea or scene that drives them to write the book, and I know you’re driven by your passion for animals and children. Tell us about the idea (and themes) behind your novel.
The children in the book aren’t physically abused, but they are deeply damaged by their parents’ coldness and disapproval. Every child in a loveless home copes, or fails to cope, in his or her own way, and the destructive effects will spill over into the larger society. I wanted to show the impact of a toxic emotional environment on five very different children.
As for the dogs in the story, I grew up in the south, where dogfighting is widespread, and I currently live in Virginia, where Michael Vick’s dogfighting operation was located. I don’t want anybody to believe that Vick’s arrest, imprisonment, and alleged transformation into a crusader for animal rights marked the end of dogfighting in this state. It continues, in Virginia and many other places, and I’m infuriated and frustrated that so little has been done to stop it.
At the same time, I’m terribly saddened that thousands of pets have been abandoned in the past few years because their owners have lost their jobs and homes. Some people mistakenly believe they’re giving their pets a chance to survive if they turn them loose in a rural area. But these are pets, incapable of fending for themselves. This problem has barely been acknowledged, much less addressed.
This will be your fourth novel, after a long career as a reporter. Tell us about the journey in writing the latest in this series. Smooth sailing or more like a twisted prison escape?
Very little about my writing life has been smooth sailing. Getting published took a long time, and I feel the pressure to produce good books if I want to stay published.
I agonize over every word, every page, every plot turn. When I finish a book, I’m positive I’ll never be able to do it again, and for a long time after I start writing something new I’m sure I can’t turn it into a publishable, readable story.
With Under the Dog Star, I was writing about issues that touched me on a deep emotional level, and I had to present those issues in the context of a coherent, entertaining mystery. It was exhausting and difficult, but I hope I pulled it off.
How can we see the influences of your life in your characters? What aspect or character is most like you?
Rachel certainly has my love of animals and my stubbornness in pursuit of a goal, but she’s smarter and more capable than I am in every way. I love her and admire her. Tom is stubborn too, and like me, he always wants to see justice done. But he’s brave. I’m a total coward. If somebody pulled a gun on me, I would faint dead away.
Research lover or hater? What were the aspects that required the most research and how did you bring research to life?
I do research as I need to, and I never feel that I have to throw in everything I’ve learned about a subject.
Mason County, my Virginia mountain community, is fictitious, and I like to keep its location vague – it’s somewhere out near Roanoke and Blacksburg – to give myself more freedom in the writing. However, I try to be accurate about the seasons, the weather, the landscape of southwestern Virginia. I check such mundane details as when the deciduous trees leaf out in spring and change color in fall. Of course, when I include any aspect of veterinary medicine, I need to get it right.
For procedural and forensic details, I have a huge collection of reference books – my personal library has a decidedly grisly flavor — and I’ve found Dr. Doug Lyle an invaluable source. If you want to know what a dead body looks like under any conditions, Doug is your go-to guy.
Thriller and Mystery writers love to celebrate their genre and also bring unique stories, worlds, and characters to life. Tell us more about those fresh elements that compelled you to spend months or years writing this story.
When I started planning Under the Dog Star, the two issues I had in mind were the plight of abandoned dogs and the unending curse of illegal dogfighting. I knew a dog would be used as the murder weapon. But I had only a vague idea of who my primary murder victim was and what he might have done that led to his unfortunate demise.
Once I focused on him, his children stepped forward, one by one, to tell me their stories. As odd as it sounds, I began to see similarities between these emotionally starved young people and the abused dogs.
Rachel connects with these kids because she grew up the same way they did, showered with material luxuries but denied parental love and approval. Rachel’s intense emotional involvement with both the dogs and the children, and her willingness to risk her own life to save them, is what propelled the story forward.
As you develop the romance between veterinarian Rachel Goddard and deputy sheriff Tom Bridger, how does it survive such traumatic events?
Tom loves Rachel, and he’s not going to give up on her, even though she hasn’t fully shared her past with him and doesn’t always let him see what she’s feeling. They’re changing each other, little by little. Tom is drawing Rachel out of her emotional hiding place, and she’s teaching him to be less controlling and to respect her ability to take care of herself.
In Under the Dog Star, Rachel’s passion for the abused dogs makes him see that these animals aren’t just a nuisance that has to be disposed of, and they deserve something better than quick euthanasia.
What’s the easiest way for readers to find your book?
I hope readers will look for it in independent mystery bookstores, and if it isn’t on the shelf, ask the store to order it. It’s out in hardcover and trade paperback simultaneously. The Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale, AZ, has signed hardcover copies and can ship anywhere. All my books are available in print from online booksellers, and the first three are also available as e-books.
Give us the scoop on what you’re writing now.
I’m writing a fifth book featuring Rachel, and I’m bringing her sister Michelle into the story, so all those readers who have asked me to explore their relationship and family background further should be pleased. I have two mystery threads going at once in this book, and they’ll come together in what I hope will be a surprising fashion at the end.
After I finish this one, I may want to try a pure suspense novel with new characters – but I’m not necessarily abandoning Rachel.
And finally, if you could have any thriller/mystery author write a story just for you, who would that author be and what would he or she write?
I’m happy to say that I often feel my favorite writers have written books just for me. Thomas H. Cook, Laura Lippman, Tess Gerritsen, Deborah Crombie, John Hart – they never disappoint me. Tom Franklin’s marvelous Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is everything I could ask for in a story.
When I read a book like that, I feel as if the author has given me a beautiful and unforgettable gift.
Thank you, Sandra, and congratulations on an excellent thriller.
Sandra Parshall’s debut mystery, The Heat of the Moon, won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel, despite its distinct lack of coziness. Under the Dog Star is her fourth book featuring veterinarian Rachel Goddard, following Disturbing the Dead and Broken Places. A former newspaper reporter, she lives in the Washington, DC, area with her journalist husband and two cats.
To learn more about Sandra, please visit her website.