By L.J. Sellers
In THE SCARLET PEPPER, White House gardener Casey Calhoun solves a double mystery: Who is tampering with the garden? And who killed the investigative reporter? Author Dorothy St. James draws on years of government work, as well several visits to the White House, to create this richly detailed and engaging series.
“One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from my work as an urban planner is to develop the setting of a story the same way I’d develop the main character,” says St. James. “A community is as alive as a person. Cities, towns, and villages have quirks, unique personalities, and as rich of a back story as any character in a book.”
St. James writes in both the mystery and romance genres and has been nominated for wards such as Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award, National Reader’s Choice Award, and The Romance Reviews Today Perfect 10! Award.
In THE SCARLET PEPPER, she combined two “real” White House conspiracy theories to create a plot that again brings together gardening and murder. Here’s more about the story in the author’s own words:
Tell us about your visit to the White House. Did it inspire this series?
As much as I’d like to take credit for this series, I can’t. I was invited to write it by my editor. It was one of those rare and wonderful “being in the right place at the right time” events. So although Washington D.C. has long been one of my favorite and frequent destinations, both for vacations and work, I’d never taken the effort to arrange a White House tour. It wasn’t until after the series had sold to Berkley Prime Crime that I decided I needed on-the-ground experience.
I’ve since had my senator arrange a White House tour. And then this past Christmas, I was invited to attend a holiday tweetup at the White House, where I got a more thorough tour of the White House and the surrounding offices as well as had the opportunity to meet several White House officials. It was a once in a lifetime experience!
But what’s really important to me for this series is getting intimately acquainted with the gardens. Luckily, the White House gardens are opened to the public twice a year (both in the spring and the fall). It’s a relaxed tour. And several gardeners and volunteers are on hand to answer all sorts of oddball questions.
Did a particular incident or issue inspire the plot?
I like to read conspiracy theories. When I was doing research for THE SCARLET PEPPER I read several conspiracy theories surrounding various White House officials. One conspiracy theory claims that a member of President Clinton’s administration didn’t commit suicide but was actually murdered. This story—which after reviewing the facts I don’t believe is true—started my imagination going. What if? What if? What if a reporter was found in a nearby park, the victim of an apparent suicide? And what if his death was actually a murder?
I also came across a more recent conspiracy theory that the First Lady’s Kitchen Garden was actually faked and that the gardeners had been sneaking in at night and planting healthy, bigger plants that they’d purchased elsewhere. Silly, I know, but the stories are out there. And some people believe it.
For THE SCARLET PEPPER, I combined the two conspiracy theories. What if the murdered reporter is the same reporter who started the rumor that Casey is faking her work in the First Lady’s vegetable garden in order to promote hers (and the First Lady’s) grow-organic campaign? What would happen then?
What kind of research do you do? Do you try to keep the stories grounded in real physical or political scenarios?
Besides the research trips, I read memoirs of past White House employees, I’ve interviewed journalists who have White House/D.C. experience, and have read every sort of website, research book that I can get my hands on. The information is out there, but it’s spread out in a million little pieces.
Both books in this series have ripped-from-the-headlines political scenarios. FLOWERBED OF STATE involved a drama with the banking industry, and in THE SCARLET PEPPER a White House correspondent is murdered, opening a discussion on the power of the press.
While these are real issues that our nation’s leaders are facing, I never forget that my books are cozy mysteries. I keep things light. The reader might learn about the issues, but everything remains nonpartisan. The focus is on the garden and the murder mystery. As I’ve said, my books are lighthearted and, well, a little goofy. And I like it that way.
Tell us about your character and what makes her tick.
My amateur sleuth for the White House Gardener Mysteries is Casey Calhoun. She’s a southern organic gardener who has been hired by the First Lady to bring organic gardening to the First Lawn. She has a dark, mysterious past she refuses to acknowledge and yet still haunts her. Gardening brings her peace. Whenever she’s nervous or upset, she gardens. It’s her escape from the demons of her past. But it’s those same demons that, in the long run, spur her to fight for justice.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently writing the third book in the White House Gardener Mystery series, OAK AND DAGGER. What do holes in the South Lawn, a lost letter from Dolley Madison, and an ex-spy have in common? In the spring of 2013, Casey is going to find out how those three seemingly unconnected events in her life add up to betrayal…and murder.
Mystery author Dorothy St. James was born in New York but raised in South Carolina. She makes her home on an artsy island community in South Carolina with her husband, horribly spoiled dogs and fluffy cat. Her novels have been called “spunky,” “fast-paced,” and “appealing.”
To learn more about Dorothy, please visit her website.