Tricia Fields writes a mystery series set in West Texas that explores how a small town chief of police, Josie Gray, leading a financially strapped department, deals with the increasing violence across the border in Mexico. Locale is a big part of Fields’ mysteries – the desert and the isolation that comes with it. Fields currently has two books in print. The Territory, which won the Tony Hillerman prize for best first mystery, and Scratchgravel Road.
The Sun-Sentinel dubbed Fields’ first novel the Best Debut Mystery of the Year, and further noted: “Buckle your seatbelts for an off-road trip full of adrenaline. Tough and determined to make her way in today’s Wild West, Josie is the type of police chief you’d want in your hometown, a gutsy new heroine who would be friends with Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon and probably Lori Armstrong’s Mercy Gunderson, too.” The Territory also earned a slough of starred reviews from the trades, including one from Publishers Weekly, whose reviewer observed: “Fields builds suspense with a well-wrought cast of characters who deal with deadly violence that’s particularly frightening for being all-too-believable. And no one does it better than Josie Gray, who persists in the face of unspeakable danger. Readers will want to see much more of her.” Library Journal also noted: “Fields’s rich plotting, nonstop action, and deft characterizations show the personal side of the larger issue of drug cartels on both sides of the border.”
Fields’ second series installment likewise earned critical acclaim. Booklist observed: “Noteworthy for the delineation of the west Texas desert country and the well-drawn cast of characters; Josie Gray is a protagonist worth following.” Further praise came from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: “Captivating. … Fields deftly balances the intriguing intimate relationships among her characters with the broader themes of industrial corruption and greed. With her wild desert settings and her thrilling plot, Fields’ novel is situated somewhere between Western terrain and mystery territory.”
Welcome to Scene of the Crime, Tricia. Lets start things off with a description of your connection to your specific city or locale. How did you come to live there or become interested in it?
The premise for my mystery series is to explore life along the border with Mexico given the current violence and terror caused by the cartels. Juarez, Mexico is considered the most dangerous non-warzone city in the world. And, it is just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. What is amazing to me is that the cartel violence has largely been kept across the border. My fear is, if the cartels do make their way north and establish cells in the US, how will we ever push them back? The money and resources at their disposal is hard to fathom. I’ve been watching the drama in Mexico for many years now. I watched President Fox and President Calderon win elections based upon their ability to stop the cartels, but the cartels have only grown more powerful, spreading their empires further.
I became fascinated with the kind of law enforcement officer it would take to lead one of the small, understaffed, underfunded border town police departments. Granted, the violence is mostly across the border, but much of our 2,000 mile border with Mexico is separated by the Rio Grande, a strip of river eaten away by salt cedar and poor irrigation practices: easy to cross. So when the violence does spread into the US, how do we deal with it? How is daily life impacted? And to up the ante, how might a female chief in a profession typically populated by men, handle the stress?
All of these questions led to the formation of Artemis, Texas, a fictional town located by two present-day ghost towns in far
West Texas. The town is located near the Big Bend National Park, an amazing park with canyons that rival parts of the Grand Canyon. The landscape is extreme – from canyons to mountain ranges strewn across the wide open Chihuahuan desert. I love the area, and the people that live in this remote corner of the world. What a perfect place to spin conflict and set the scene for murder.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
I’m very conscious of writing about the region, the desert and my fictional city of Artemis. Each of these influences the behavior and actions of the characters in the books as I have developed them. Dust storms and mud slides, drought and hundred year floods, heat and isolation, these extremes come together inside Josie and define her in ways that she can’t describe, but that she feels at her core. She’ll never leave Artemis. She belongs in the desert.
Of the novels you have written set in this location, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
The first book in the series, The Territory, sets up the premise for all books to come. Following is a paragraph from that book that explains the title, and lets readers know the specific area that the series covers.
“Josie knew prosecuting crimes over international borders was mired in paperwork, frustration, and pools of money her own department didn’t have. Over the past year, as the border violence increased, the trust among the two cities’ law enforcement agencies had deteriorated. Both countries found the other’s legal system lacking. Mexico blamed the American lust for drugs and lack of gun laws, and the U.S. blamed Mexico’s corrupt government and loss of control on the drug cartels. The blame was somewhere in the middle, so in a strange way, it made sense that the problems had collected and festered like an open wound in the hundred- mile strip of middle ground the locals called the Territory.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
One of my other favorite mystery writers is James Lee Burke. His books are set in Louisiana, in New Iberia Parish. I’ve read so many of his books I feel as if I know his characters and the towns they inhabit as well as I know my own hometown. Reading and studying James Lee Burke is how I learned to develop characters as a natural extension of where they live. Dave Robicheaux, would not be the same cop in Artemis, Texas that he is in New Iberia. And, the same idea is true for Josie. Her introspective, anti-social ways wouldn’t play out in the same way if she were to move to L.A. or Manhattan. The desert feeds her personality, allows her to have the space and freedom to be comfortable with who she is. It isn’t that Josie Gray couldn’t live in New Orleans, but she couldn’t be herself.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
At heart, I’m a small-town Midwesterner. I live in a log cabin on a farm in Indiana where they’ll probably bury me out back under the pine trees someday. I love the seasons in Indiana, even the icy winters. Nothing cozier than the fireplace blazing in the midst of a snow storm and a cautious drive to town for supplies. I love the way that life slows down in the winter – and then spring fever hits with a vengeance come March 1st and anxious gardeners put tomato plants out too early and mow grass that still has the chance of collecting snow before winter loses her final grip. The crocus pop, then the daffodils and tulips and red bud trees. I like the rolling hills and green pasture on our farm, the trails through the woods that lead to morels each May. I think it’s the orderly progression of the seasons, and the constantly looking forward to what comes next that I enjoy so much.
People have asked why I didn’t set my series in Indiana. I wrote a mystery set in small town Indiana, but it didn’t work. I take too much for granted where I live. It was harder to find the nuance and the quirkiness of the people and the places. For me, it’s much harder to notice what makes a place unique when I’ve lived there most of my life. West Texas was a perfect choice for me: I find it beautiful, exotic, completely different from the place that I live now, and it’s a place I enjoy visiting as much for the location as the people. And, I now have a great excuse to travel 1,500 miles each year to visit.
What’s next for your Josie?
Book three in the series will be released next March. The working title is, Wrecked. Here’s the advance book cover description:
Josie Gray experiences every cop’s worst nightmare when her longtime boyfriend, Dillon Reese, is discovered missing, his secretary murdered. Josie relinquishes the case to a fellow officer due to her intimate involvement with the victim. In doing so, she loses her role as primary decision maker during a case that matters more than any other. As the department splits over the focus of the investigation, Josie struggles privately with her own culpability for ignoring suspicions she had about Dillon’s whereabouts the night he disappeared. If she had acted on her instincts, an innocent woman could still be alive.
Josie fears her past involvement with a Mexican cartel may be at the heart of the case. Not until a tough talking ex-cop from Mexico becomes involved do the pieces in the investigation begin to mesh. As she zeros in on a local boy’s missing father, she is shocked to learn she was conned by her worst adversary, and must now negotiate for her lover’s life in a twisted double-cross involving millions. When the politics of law enforcement threaten to paralyze her ability to do the right thing, she makes a cross border trip that puts everything she loves at risk: her job, her lover, her life.
Find out more about the series at Tricia’s homepage.