Janis Thornton continues writing her Elmwood Confidential series. We were first introduced to Elmwood Gazette editor, Crystal Cropper and her friends in book one, Dust Bunnies and Dead Bodies, when it was published in 2014. The second book in the series is Dead Air and Double Dares, which was released last month.
Janis also is the author of two local history books, Images of America: Tipton County and Images of America: Frankfort, and is a contributor to Undeniably Indiana, a bicentennial project from Indiana University Press. In the works for a 2018 release is No Place Like Murder, a collection of 15 true crime stories that rocked the East-Central Indiana counties of Clinton, Hamilton, Howard, Madison, and Tipton between 1869 and 1950.
She is a member of Sisters in Crime, the Indiana Writers Center, the Midwest Writers Workshop Planning Committee, the Tipton County Historical Society, and the Tipton County Chamber of Commerce. She lives in a small, Indiana town not unlike Elmwood.
And we begin with, what inspired you to create the character of Elmwood Gazette editor Crystal Cropper?
When I started planning my first novel, “Dust Bunnies & Dead Bodies,” I knew my protagonist would reflect much of my views and background so I could tell the story with a reasonable degree of authority. I knew right away my protagonist would be a professional, single woman about my age, only way funnier and smarter, much more headstrong and courageous, and with life experience that both overlapped and far exceeded my own. I had been the editor of a small-town newspaper and was well acquainted with the access the job afforded me to stick my nose into everyone’s business. So I felt a Boomer-aged, female editor with a serious background in crime reporting would provide plenty of situations that would translate to story possibilities.
Tell us about the type of news we might read in the Gazette.
Elmwood, Indiana, isn’t nearly the hotbed of criminal activity that big, Indiana cities like Indianapolis or Michigan City are, but when crime does rear its ugly head in Elmwood, the Gazette is on the job, sorting it out for its readers. For example, the Gazette scored lots of points two or three years ago by reporting that a former city councilman’s brother, who was Elmwood’s animal control officer, had been routinely picking up dogs and selling them to an out-of-state pharmaceutical company for drug experimentation. Likewise, the readers were delighted when the Gazette outed a local used-car dealer for turning back the odometers on his inventory, not to mention the all-you-can-eat buffet caught recycling its patrons’ leftovers back to the serving table. In addition to the shocking stories, the Gazette also provides lots of good news, like boys and girls softball, concerts in the park, and a large helping of chicken-noodle news.
How does a small town react to a woman as editor of the local paper?
Because Crystal hails from Elmwood and is deeply rooted there, the majority of the community accepted her with open arms as the Gazette’s editor. Others, however, such as the smarmy, deposed Mayor Head and the recently deceased radio station owner, Horace Ogilvie, never quite warmed up to the idea.
What type of life does she have?
Crystal is a bit of a workaholic and spends a lot of time alone. But don’t feel sorry for her. That’s how she likes it. Although she’s a loner, she has great friends and a full life. During the fall and winter, she and her three girlfriends bowl weekly in the Gutter Chicks Bowling League at Rosie’s Bowl-O-Drome, and more recently, they formed a team for the Elmwood Ladies’ Summer Horseshoe Pitching League. Besides that, there’s lots to do in Elmwood … it has a lovely library, plenty of high school sports to cheer for, a family-owned movie theater, an annual festival, holiday celebrations, plus it seems there’s always a mystery to keep her busy. And then there’s Verl—Crystal’s life-long, best friend, whom she enjoys spending time with bickering, reminiscing, and laughing.
How did she become an amateur sleuth?
Crystal fell into the crime beat when she went to work at a West Coast daily newspaper some thirty years ago. Although she was a novice at the start, she kept her head down, her eyes open, and her mouth shut. She quickly earned the respect of her editor, her readers, and law enforcement authorities, who trusted her reporting and discretion. Crystal became one of the rare reporters police looked to as an asset, rather than a liability. She loved her work and thrived on it.
I see this as part of a series. Tell us about the first book, Dust Bunnies & Dead Bodies.
In a nutshell, late one night, cleaning lady Gertie Tyroo, the Elmwood Gazette’s number one confidential tipster, phones Editor Crystal Cropper to tell her she has just swept up the missing clue to a 21-year-old, unsolved murder. But before Gertie can reveal what it is, she is attacked and left for dead. While she is comatose for the rest of the novel, Crystal starts snooping around to learn what Gertie found, where she found it, what it means, and who wants to keep it quiet. She uncovers a trail of dirt and gossip that leads her straight to the doorsteps of Elmwood’s most prominent people, a clamorous upheaval of secrets, and the shocking answer that finally brings closure to the case.
Have you continued with the same characters? Added new ones?
Yes, Book 2 stars the same ensemble cast introduced in Book 1: Crystal, Verl, Gertie, Bud, Clip, and Crystal’s three best galpals — Auggie, Richelle, and Shay — as well as cameos by Crystal’s bowling rivals and the former Elmwood mayor. Book 2 introduces Crystal’s granddaughter, Jordan Hightower, who Crystal previously hadn’t known even existed. I’m planning to bring Jordan into the ensemble beginning with Book 3.
In your second book, “Dead Air & Double Dares,” the owner of the local radio station is killed. What was it about Horace Q. Ogilvie that someone wanted him dead?
Ogilvie had a nasty habit of broadcasting live editorials revealing the most sensitive and hurtful secrets of highly regarded Elmwood residents for the purpose of ruining them. So … why wouldn’t someone want him dead?
Why would anyone want to get to the truth of his death if all he cared about was destroying people’s reputations?
A friend of Crystal’s actually suggested offering a reward for the murderer, but she hadn’t been referring to the kind of reward offered to bring the killer in. Rather she was suggesting giving a reward “as a sort of thank-you gift.” The suggestion was meant to be funny, but there was a hint of honesty to it because Ogilvie had been the most reviled man in Elmwood for more than 50 years. Despite that fact, Crystal was determined to find the killer, because her good friend, Clip Parker, had publicly threatened to kill Ogilvie a day before the murder. Crystal knew Clip was incapable of such a heinous act, but she needed to prove his innocence before the town had a chance to make assumptions and incorrectly put 2 + 2 together.
Why is he such an angry man?
Ogilvie is very complicated. He made a terrible decision more than 50 years before, which led to the death of his only child — a son. Ogilvie’s guilt and self-hatred were unbearable, and so he turned it outward, recycling it as an excuse to hurt everyone around him. Conversely, what’s fascinating about Ogilvie is that residing deep in his soul is a part of him that’s decent and good. Readers will understand when they near the end of the book.
How does Crystal get involved in the case?
To get involved with the murder case, Crystal needs only to ask her best friend, Sheriff Verlin Wallace, to let her poke around. The request, as always, sets Verl off with a chorus of huffs and puffs, but it is all part of a bogus protest designed to help him retain his dignity. Crystal is an expert at criminal investigation, and she brings a fresh eye to every case she covers. Verlin rarely will admit it, but he needs her.
Does the local sheriff or the police tell her to back off?
More or less. Verl asks Crystal to back off after he informs her that circumstantial evidence points to her friend, Clip Parker, as Horace’s killer. But Crystal will have no part of it and convinces Verl to make a deal with her. He agrees to give her 48 hours to find the real killer. From that moment on, the clock is ticking.
Does she understand she’s putting herself in grave danger?
Danger isn’t something Crystal prepares for. She tends to improvise in the face of danger and stare it straight in the eye until it blinks.
What did you love about writing this book? What was the most difficult part to write?
I love the characters, and I love plopping them into challenging situations and watching them deal with it. Sigmund Freud would probably say each one is a figment of my personality, and he’d probably be right. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t feel as comfortable writing them. That aside, I especially adore writing Crystal. I enjoy poring my experiences, feelings, views, etc. into her, and, in return, she acts on them without regard to what the other characters think—something I would never have the nerve to do. The most difficult part to write is “The End,” and saying goodbye to my “friends.”
Are you already working on the next book in the series?
I’m easing into it. As my father used to say, Book 3 is a sparkle in my eye.
What mystery authors do you follow?
I’ll always love Sue Grafton. Over the years, her protagonist, Kinzey Milhone, has brought me hours of reading pleasure. It makes me sad that Sue is running out of letters. I’m also a huge fan of Michael Connelly and William Kent Krueger. In addition, I enjoy works by Terence Faherty, Jess Lourey, Julie Hyzy, Susan Furlong, Lori Rader Day, D.E. Johnson, and Larry Sweazy. And now that I’ve become acquainted with you, I’ll be adding you to my list of authors to follow. Thank you for this opportunity to introduce myself and my characters to you and your readers. It’s been great fun!