Q & A (City of Ghosts)

Here we are, back with CITY OF GHOSTS, the third Miranda Corbie novel. It’s been awhile. You’ve endured a tough three years in your hiatus between books. Can you talk about it?

Simply put, I lost my parents. They were my best friends, my strongest supporters and half of my family. I have no brothers and sisters, no close cousins, nothing of the sort. I lost them within a month of each other, both to cancer. I had to take some time off and learn how to live with the loss.

That must have been devastating.

It still is. Grief therapy has helped, but the most dreadful part of loss is its permanence. The state of bereavement never changes, just the degree to which it dictates our lives on a daily basis. My grief overwhelmed me. It took time and the support of my partner and loving friends to be able to reemerge and reconnect with writing again.

Did writing CITY OF GHOSTS help you with the grief? I know the novel deals with Miranda’s search for her mother …

Writing is a double-edged sword. In order to craft a novel or story, you need to open up your subconscious—not an easy thing when your subconscious is full of terrible pain. But it is also meditative and therapeutic, and I certainly think that the grief made me even more empathetic toward and understanding of Miranda … not only her desire for an actual family, but the PTSD she suffered after her experiences in Spain and losing Johnny.

So tell us about the book. Miranda is searching for her mother, trying to get to England, when she gets a knock on her door … 

And it’s the State Department! Not an entity you would expect in Miranda’s office. But she owes someone a favor, and he’s come to collect. The bait is a large amount of money and a ticket to England … exactly what she needs if she hopes to find her mother. A ship ticket was very hard to come by—the Blitz has just begun, and U-Boats are patrolling the Atlantic, sinking even neutral passenger liners.

OK, money and a ticket. What’s the catch?

[laughs] There always is one, and this one’s a doozy. She’s supposed to follow and report on a possible Nazi spy—a chemistry professor and art collector from U.C. Berkeley.

The assignment propels her into the murky world of art thieves and collectors (often the same thing), art labeling and art looting by the Nazis … the Nazis devalued most modern art (they called it “degenerate”) even as they looted other masterworks from overrun nations. They also stole “degenerate” art so they could sell it to collectors from other countries, including the U.S … money that helped finance the war and, ultimately, the Holocaust.

Wow … seems like The Monuments Men was just the tip of the iceberg!

The book was actually part of my research. But as a nation, we didn’t officially come into the story behind it until very near the end of the war. CITY OF GHOSTS suggests that some people already knew what was going on.

And it raises questions about art—what it is, who owns it, why it is important—in a way that I hope is thrilling and suspenseful as well as thoughtful and intellectually stimulating. To me, that’s what good literature does—engage the reader on many different platforms simultaneously.

Speaking of which, CITY OF SECRETS won the Golden Nugget for Best Mystery Set in California against formidable competition, including Michael Connelly …

Yes, that was quite something. I’m always tremendously honored to be nominated for any award … readers have so many fine books and authors to choose from.  CITY OF GHOSTS is, on a few levels, my homage to The Maltese Falcon, and I always hope my newest book is my best to date. Of course, it never feels that way when you’re writing it …

Is CITY OF GHOSTS still set in California?

For the most part, yes. Although Miranda does wind up in Reno … and let me tell you, Reno in 1940 was a heck of a place to research. She’s there courtesy of the City of San Francisco streamliner, which ran from San Francisco to Chicago as the fastest thing on the tracks. She also is framed for a murder on the train …

Cool! Train scenes in mysteries are classic!

[laughs] Yeah. As a writer, I like experimenting with the tropes of the genre and putting a unique “Miranda” stamp on them. I had a lot of fun with the research. I’m a big train buff.

So do real people appear in this novel as well?

Yep. Fritz Wiedemann, Hitler’s commanding officer in World War I, was the Consulate General of San Francisco … his mistress was Princess Stephanie von Hohenlohe, a notorious spy—and in some ways, rather like a German Wallis Simpson. Both Fritz and Stephanie make an appearance in CITY OF GHOSTS … when Miranda crashes a Nazi costume party!

Oh, boy … that’s a scene I can see on film! So does Miranda find her mother?

No spoilers! [laughs] I will say that some mysteries of Miranda’s past are revealed in this novel. In some ways, it’s the last of a trilogy that began with CITY OF DRAGONS. Miranda is Miranda, of course … but she’s also absorbed the lessons of her last three cases and the life she’s led to this point. She’s grown … and, dare I say, healed a little by the end of the novel.

So what’s next for “one of crime fiction’s most arresting heroines”, as Library Journal called her? Another trilogy? Are we headed for 1941 and Pearl Harbor?

Well, on the immediate horizon is a short story prequel to CITY OF GHOSTS, which I hope to get out in e-form—similar to “Memory Book”—just before the launch of the novel. This would cover Miranda’s first case, something readers have been asking for. Miranda herself is heading toward 1941—we’re late in 1940 at the opening of the next book, tentatively titled CITY OF SHARKS. And yes [laughs], Alcatraz plays a role in that novel.

I’d like to continue writing Miranda for as long as I can keep writing—much depends, as always, on the support of the reading public. I hope her readership and fan base continue to grow … I have stories in mind for 1941 and beyond, plus there’s that other favor she owes to Mickey Cohen!

Finally, as always, anything in particular you want readers to take away from CITY OF GHOSTS?

I always want my readers to be entertained. But here, I’d also like them to think about the questions the book raises … about art, about culture, about rights, about history. Many of the paintings I describe in the novel are still actually lost—just like those that were recently discovered in a Munich hoard, the masterworks I mention may someday be found in an apartment in Switzerland or a cave in Austria or a basement of a museum in Russia. We don’t know. But we do owe it to the artists—and the art they create—to keep looking.