Why did a young man in 1969 Ontario fall off a monstrous railway trestle bridge and the rural retreat at which he was staying is hiding behind their Dickensian cryptics and buried secrets? Why does a stable full of their horses seem – unstable? Detective Inspector Philip Steele, his new partner Trevor, a much-closeted gay man, and Phil’s elderly godmother P.J. from New Brunswick are determined to find out. Diverse characters, dialects, and fascinating rural areas of Canada abound, as in the first book in this JUST (e)STATE mystery series.
“…a rich mix of humor, action and mystery.” – Leigh Turner, author of thrillers ‘Blood Summit’ and ‘Palladium’
“Johnson is one of the most imaginative writers I know. The intrigue and deception here make Just A STALE MATE, while bordering on a cozy, more a whodunnit with hidden literary clues. Set in a traditional ‘country house’ that is meant to rehabilitate, not exterminate.” – author and former social worker Remy C. Garner
” In Just A STALE MATE, J. Ivanel Johnson’s amateur sleuth, Polly Jane Whistler (P.J.), steps up to the plate in fine fashion and goes undercover to assist her godson, Detective Inspector Steele, and his partner, Detective Inspector Ames, as they search for the truth behind an improbable suicide.
It’s not too long, however, until the bodies start piling up, and it becomes evident that something evil resides at Bayham Brook House, a rehab facility specializing in helping drug addicts get clean. Secrets reaching back a quarter of a century merge with a present-day criminal enterprise. No one is safe, everyone is a suspect, and everyone has secrets, including D.I. Ames.
Just A STALE MATE is more than a chess term. It’s a heck of a good read.” – Karen K. Brees, author of the WWII MI6 Agent Katrin Nissen series
J. Ivanel Johnson recently spent some time with The Big Thrill discussing her latest thriller, JUST A STALE MATE.
Can you pinpoint a moment or incident that sparked the idea for this book?
While the first book in the series took 75 years to write (beginning with the first drafting and plotting by my grandmother), this second one, Just A STALE MATE, was one of those like you hear some authors mention, where it ‘seemed to write itself’. The first draft took only five weeks and the ideas and clues kept pouring in so that I’d have to wake up in the middle of the night and jot more notes. The setting was easy as it was based on where I spent the first 20 years of my life. Many of the characters were also based loosely on people I knew from that area. But the plot and the mystery just spilled out.
I do hope after several other drafts and revisions, though, that it doesn’t SEEM like I wrote it that fast!
A novel is such a major undertaking; there’s the writing of it, of course, then you’re spending months and months revising, polishing, and then promoting it. How did you know this was the book you wanted to spend the next couple of years on?
I just love literary clues in other books I read. When I got the Dickens ideas and connections, I had so much fun researching and reminding myself of fun and funny names from that author, one of the first, of course, to write mystery and great suspense in his books. This is the kind of mystery book I’ve always loved reading, and trying to solve. So I hope it is that for my own readers.
Were there any particular books, movies, or songs that were knocking around in your head while you were writing this one?
As I said above, just the many Dickens works I’ve studied as a Lit major, and of course the Christies are always with me. As for songs, I was also preparing to workshop my musical Rough Notes with professional actors later in 2022 when I wrote this book, so any ear-worms in my head at the time were from my own songs, or from the fabulous arrangements Canadian Cameron Slipp was composing for them.
When you first created your protagonist for this book, did you see an empty space in crime lit that you wanted to fill? What can you share about the inspiration for that character?
That’s an easy one, because as has been widely publicized with the first book in this JUST (e)STATE mystery series (Just A STILL LIFE), my grandmother drafted D.I. Philip Steele 75 years ago. She also partly created P.J., but when she wrote her notes in 1947 about these two characters, she was always called Polly Jane, and was Phil’s aunt, not his godmother. She also wasn’t quite so bubbly OR nosy as I’ve made her. And Phil didn’t have many characteristics, certainly not of a negative quality, so I’ve been working on adding his sarcasm and occasional snobbishness into his personality, as well as his enjoyment of literary quotations and their double meanings.
In addition to a great read, what do you hope readers will take away from this story?
Pure enjoyment, fun, satisfaction in solving the mystery if they can. And a consistent ploy I like to include is a different real-life murder case somewhere in Canada mentioned as Phil’s previous work. So perhaps some interested readers will research those True Crime cases, give the victims of those 1960s murders some consideration.
But also, I do always want readers to contemplate the difficulties experienced by many of my diverse characters, their lived experiences being meted out in small doses in all my works, whether short, long, in verse, sung, or for the stage.
Lastly, I’ve also added more animals to this sequel/prequel, with a special passion of mine getting quite a feature – that of therapeutic riding, or as it’s still called in the UK, Riding for the Disabled.
What can you share about what you’re working on next?
Phil is carrying around a chip or two on his broad shoulders. His relationship with his parents has been strained in the past, his father his now dead. He must gradually work on the relationship with his mother, in both this second and in the third book of the series (a further prequel). Also, mentioned fleetingly in both books already – his murdered fiance ‘Rainey’. So a teaser in both books re: this, and now I must deal with that! So, I’m planning on writing about her and that particular case in the third book which will take place in the Yukon, as Rainey was an Inuit detective near Dawson City, where I once spent a winter.
J. Ivanel Johnson is the pen name for an author/playwright/song-writer living with disability who now resides on a remote farm in the Appalachians of New Brunswick, Canada. She strives always to write about marginalized and culturally-diverse characters, many based on people from the First Nations, inner city or mountain communities where she has previously lived and taught across the UK, USA and Canada (including in SW Ontario on a rural property such as the one described in this novel.) Her historical Canadian musical Rough Notes, also set in both New Brunswick and Ontario, was just workshopped professionally thanks to a national grant, and the first book of the JUST (e)STATE mysteries (actually taking place after Just A STALE MATE, in 1971) came out in September of 2022 by Black Rose Writing.
To learn more about the author and her work, please visit her website.