Suzanne Arruda is the author of six novels in the Jade del Cameron series of mysteries set in 1920s Africa. Library Journal describes Arruda’s protagonist, Jade del Cameron as “one of the most appealing heroines to appear in the pages on a mystery.” Of the fifth book in the series, Treasure of the Golden Cheetah, the Richmond Times-Dispatch declared, “Cinematic in its descriptions of Africa, compelling in plot — this is a true whodunit,” while of an earlier series addition the same reviewer noted that Arruda “melds Dinesen’s evocation of a bygone Africa with (Agatha) Christie’s ability to fashion a sharp whodunit.” Jade returns in the sixth installment, The Crocodile’s Last Embrace, due out in paperback original this fall.
A former zookeeper-turned-science teacher and freelance writer, Arruda is also the author of several biographies for young adults. Additionally, she has published science and nature articles for adults and children and is a regular contributor to a weekly newspaper supplement. An avid hiker and outdoorswoman, she lives in Kansas with her husband, twin sons, and a small menagerie of pets.
Suzanne, welcome to Scene of the Crime.
I love your historical setting of Africa in the 1920s. How did you hit on it?
My connection to Africa and old Nairobi is purely in spirit as I write from an historical time frame. It’s a place and time that I grew up playing and reading about. While I did travel to Morocco (The Serpent’s Daughter), I found a vastly different place than the 1920 Morocco in my story. So now my travel is primarily through old documents and newspapers.
Africa is the home of humanity. It resonates antiquity, romance, danger, adventure, and mystery. I love the time frame of early 1920’s, too, because sleuthing and forensics are old-fashioned. Not only might you be attacked and left for a lion to finish off, you’re not going to call for help on your cell phone.
Did you consciously set out to use Africa as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
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 am conscious of the locale. Settings, such as Kilimanjaro (Treasure of the Golden Cheetah), Kenya’s northern volcanoes (Stalking Ivory), Tsavo (Mark of the Lion), and others have actually suggested the plots.
How does Jade del Cameron interact with her surroundings? Is she a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect Jade?
Jade del Cameron is an American: a southwest rancher’s daughter. As an ambulance driver in the front lines, she’s also a survivor of The Great War. Like many war veterans, she’s restless, searching, and Africa’s wild vastness appeals to her. It’s become a second home, a fresh start, and it feeds her spirit. She’s more at ease in Africa than many of the colonists.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
I have received emails from readers (now living in the states) who spent large parts of their lives living in Kenya. They all assume that I’ve done the same, which I find very flattering and highly gratifying.
Of the Jade del Cameron novels, 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?
“Soon after, darkness had swooped down upon the African landscape, a mythical black bird, immense, terrible, and predatory, devouring Jade’s previous cockiness. Her quivering limbs told her this had been one of her less intelligent ideas. Get a grip on yourself. You’ve sat in blinds longer than this before. That was from her head. Her stomach responded with, Yeah, but never as leopard bait. She shivered, her sweat-soaked shirt sucking heat from her body. When she had first entered the cage of lashed limbs, its stifling warmth had stolen every breath. Then, as Africa released its captured heat like a nightly sacrifice to Ngai, the Maker, she longed for some of that warmth. And all just to save a bit of Africa from itself.”
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?
H. Rider Haggard, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Jack London were all masters of bringing the location to life. They certainly influenced my sense of adventure. Among modern authors, the late Tony Hillerman was a genius at bringing the southwest into play.
The Crocodile’s Last Embrace comes out in September with Jade facing two killers: An enemy intent on destroying her and a man-eating crocodile. Jade’s assisting her friend Beverly with a newly-formed Girl Guide troop when she starts receiving packages from a man she saw die during the war. After finding a corpse guarded by a monstrous crocodile, evidence points to murder, but who’s going to believe Jade when she seems to be suffering from delusions?
Suzanne, many thanks for taking time to talk about your books for Scene of the Crime.