MURDER IN THE SECRET MAZE, first in the new Tory Benning Mystery series, introduces a landscape planner amateur sleuth.
After a whirlwind romance and a glorious wedding at the luxurious Hotel Santa Sofia, California landscape architect Tory Benning is ready to let down her hair, slip into her dancing shoes, and celebrate—until she discovers that her newly minted husband has vanished. The police suspect cold feet and second thoughts are behind Milo’s disappearance, but Tory’s certain he’s met with foul play. Since she designed the plush resort, she knows every nook and cranny of the grounds and adjoining secret maze, and wastes no time delving into her search.
Tory navigates a case with more twists and turns than the maze itself, until the labyrinth of clues leads her to shocking revelations about her husband, her family, and the identity of a killer who is dead set on making her the next victim…
In this interview, Gonda shares insight into this new series with The Big Thrill.
How did you come up with a landscape architect as the protagonist for your new series?
The field of landscape architecture fascinates me. I’ve been able to have an insider’s view of the profession with an architect husband and an older daughter who is a landscape architect. Plus, I thought the analytic and creative skills required to be a good landscape architect were similar to those needed to be a great amateur sleuth.
Having a protagonist with a career I find intrinsically interesting makes writing about it enjoyable, an important consideration when you are writing a series. I can’t see myself growing bored with the profession. It’s a delightful combination of both the left and right brain. Parts of the profession are influenced by the more analytic aspects of architecture, engineering, horticulture, and urban planning, and other parts are influenced more by the artistic aspects of architecture, garden design, and art.
Landscape architects have to be skilled at computer-assisted design in order to create landscape and hardscape blueprints and models. They also have to be knowledgeable about not only flowers, plants, and trees, but also construction issues like grading, drainage systems, stormwater management, and soil. That wealth of knowledge they must possess makes for endless plot possibilities, too, since they have both residential and commercial clients.
Having a daughter in that profession must have helped with the research. How much research did you have to do?
My daughter was a great reader/consultant. She helped immensely with the correct terminology and accurate depiction of what comprises the day-to-day life of a landscape architect. Having a landscape architect in the family was a great benefit since I’d just call her with my questions or text her. Then I’d follow up with online research. Because I’m fascinated with the field, I did have to watch my time management when I conducted research so that I didn’t go too far into the Google rabbit hole of plants native to Southern California.
Killing the love interest at the beginning of the story is a different twist. Why did you decide to do that? Do you think it might be risky?
It’s different for a cozy but not uncommon for other types of mysteries, suspense, and thrillers. And nowadays, I think the cozy genre has many examples of books that stretch the genre. I write stories that I would like to read and I’ve always liked stories that pull me in right away. I like when the author drops a bomb on page one. Especially for the first in the series. The first page of Sue Grafton’s A Is for Alibi, where Kinsey confesses she’s just killed someone, is so powerful and memorable. And first and foremost, my books are mysteries, so any love interest is secondary and its main purpose for being in the story is for how it affects the behavior and arc of the main characters and how it’s intertwined with the plot. I don’t know about risky, but I do think it’s fresh.
I enjoyed your “psychology, Poms and puns” line. I see from the jacket copy that your heroine has a Pom. How did you work the other elements into the story?
That’s a great question! Having trained as a psychologist, I can’t help but focus on the why part of crime. One of my main interests is figuring out why the killer killed. Not only the ostensible motivation but how the criminal’s world view justifies their antisocial behavior in their own mind.
I also use psychology to try to make my characters multi-dimensional, real, and relatable. They are challenged by various emotional and psychological issues that will evolve over the series. For example, my protagonist sees a psychologist to help her deal with her grief. Like me, my protagonist is also a pun-lover and that comes up now and again in her dialogue.
MURDER IN THE SECRET MAZE is your debut (congratulations). Has the release during a pandemic impacted either your writing or your launch plans?
Thank you. It is my first published novel. We had an early stay-at-home mandate in California that occurred almost simultaneously with the national sports shutdown (and my beloved March Madness) so it was a lot to process at first. There definitely was an adjustment and learning curve to a new way of life. It did affect my writing but I’ve settled down now and I’m very grateful to be on track again.
As far as launch plans, I was scheduled to moderate a Left Coast panel (which would have been my first as a published author) on the Analysis of Murder: The Psychology of Crime and to attend their debut author breakfast, so that didn’t happen. But staying at home and being socially responsible comes first, especially considering all the healthcare and other essential workers who put their lives on the line for us all on a daily basis.
Beyond the Page Publishing is an arm of Bookends agent Jessica Faust. What has your experience been working with this hybrid publisher?
Absolutely wonderful! I have a brilliant editor, Bill Harris, who is insightful and kind. I’m a big fan of publishers who are writer advocates!
What’s next for you?
I’m currently writing the second book in the Tory Benning Mystery series, Murder in the Christmas Tree Lot.
Judith Gonda is a mystery writer with a penchant for Pomeranians and puns, so it’s no surprise they pop up in her amateur sleuth mysteries featuring California landscape architect Tory Benning. As for the hot buttered lobster rolls, black tea, and California wine that also pepper her pages, they can be traced to her growing up in Connecticut, London, England, and the San Francisco Bay Area.
Trained as a Ph.D. psychologist, she taps the knowledge gained from her time spent conducting research at USC, heading a human resources department, and running focus groups as a jury consultant to inform her characters and plots.
She currently resides in Southern California with her architecture professor husband and her two rescue Poms/surrogate daughters. Her two human daughters, a landscape architect and a TV writer, live nearby. All, along with crime stories in the news, have inspired her books.
To learn more about her upcoming releases, please visit her website.