Mystery Mastery

Tucsonan Shannon Baker's new novel is getting her compared to Craig Johnson, C.J. Box and Linda Castillo

Author interview by Jim Nintzel

Author Shannon Baker, who moved to the Tucson area after attending the Tucson Festival of Books a few times, is set to release Stripped Bare, a mystery novel introducing Kate Fox, a Nebraska rancher who takes over her husband's job of sheriff after he's shot in the first chapter. The book, the first in an anticipated series, is drawing comparisons Craig Johnson's Longmire series, C.J. Box's Joe Pickett novels and Linda Castillo's Kate Burkholder's books. Baker will be signing copies of the book at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 8, at Clue's Unlimited, 3154 E. Fort Lowell Road.

Set the stage for us: What is Stripped Bare all about?

Kate is a woman sheriff in a very small town in Nebraska. She's got a lot of brothers and sisters, so she's related to everybody in the county and everybody is related to her. She's a rancher when the book opens and she thinks she has it made, she's got everything she's ever wanted her whole life, and of course it all falls to pieces with a phone call in chapter 1 and her husband, who is the sheriff, has been shot and her niece has gone missing and there's a rancher dead.

You lived in the Nebraska Sandhills yourself. What brought you there?

I got married. As a young, impressionable, naïve college student, I fell head over heels in love with this guy and I thought, well, I'm adaptable and I can live anywhere, so I got married and moved out to Nebraska and that was like moving to an entirely different country. In some ways, it was like the land that time forgot. I'd grown up in big cities, so I had all these visions of me going to a city after college. I had a business degree and I was going to climb the corporate ladder and become a wildly successful businesswoman. But I got married and moved to a ranch and learned how to ride a horse and cook some pot roast and do all that kind of stuff.

You've been getting some great praise for Stripped Bare. Where did the idea come from?

I left the Sandhills about 13 years ago, the reason being that the man I had fallen head over heels in love with—after 20 years of marriage—decided to have an affair that went on for a really long time in this town of 300 people. I was the third-to-the-last person to know about it. I was only ahead of one of my daughters and his parents, who were in Mexico at the time. So I left on a little bit of sour note, I had a little bit of bitterness. (laughs) But I always wanted to write about the Sandhills because it's just a unique place. They have their own culture and their own lifestyle and I found it very humorous in a lot of ways, but I had to wait for quite a while until my sense of humor came back. Kate just kind of showed up in my head one day and she was fully formed and she had this entire family that went with her. So she just kind of said, "Now it's time."

Are we going to see more of her?

Oh yeah. This is a series, so the second one will come out next year, I think about this time. A murder takes place on the Burlington Sante Fe Railroad.

Your other mystery series is set closer to home, in Northern Arizona. What are those books about and why did you set them there?

My books are kind of a lagging indicator of where I've lived. When I moved to Flagstaff, I got really interested in the snowmaking there. They wanted to do manmade snow on the Snowbowl, and there are 12 tribes to whom the mountain is sacred to. So I saw all this conflict going on. I was working for the Grand Canyon Trust, which is nonprofit environmental conservation organization. So I wrote that book and I sold it and I thought it was a stand-alone thriller, but the publisher who bought it said, "No, it's a mystery and is it a series?" And I said, "Is the sky blue?"

When did you first decide you wanted to be a novelist?

In college, I had an English teacher who told me I should be an English major. I said, yeah, yeah. I wanted to earn a living. But I moved to the Sandhills and there wasn't a whole lot for me to do and what there was for me to do—well, it's a very patriarchal society, so it was like, wow, "You can do this but you can't do that, and you can't do that." So I just started to write and I didn't have any aspirations of actually writing a book, but I got a job working at the courthouse with the Treasurer. She didn't want me to have anything to do with the books, even though I had an accounting degree. But I worked three hours a day and I was supposed to help people who came to register vehicles or something. Which hardly anybody did, in a county of 1,000 people. So she wanted me to look busy but she didn't want to read a book, so I just sat there writing books so I'd look busy. And then about 20 years ago, I hooked up with the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and that's when they started to teach me how to really write.

A Desperate Call

An excerpt from Tucson author Shannon Baker’s new mystery novel, Stripped Bare

I've never trusted happiness. Just when you think you've corralled that mustang, she busts through the fence and leaves you with splinters. I should have seen it coming.

Still, when I tromped across the back porch, feeling grateful to be out of the frosty night air, I wasn't worrying about my world turning into a sloppy, wet pile of manure. My calving ratio sat at a hundred percent so far this year. Maybe I could convince Ted to take a week off after the election and head down to a beach someplace, anyplace away from cattle and family and sheriffing.

The house lights weren't on when I'd trudged from the barn. Carly was supposed to be home working on the term paper she'd blown off last semester. Using her charm, Carly had convinced the English teacher to give her another chance. If she didn't finish the paper this time, though, she wouldn't graduate, and my dear niece would be living with me forever.

I pried off one cowboy boot and dropped it to the porch floor, wondering how to motivate Carly without pushing too hard. The jangle of the phone penetrated the door to the house. I could have ignored it, but if Ted didn't answer his cell, the county sheriff's number rolled over to the landline installed in our house. I burst through the door and thudded across the kitchen. With one boot on, one boot off, I flew into the closet-turned-office and grabbed the old-fashioned receiver. "Sheriff's phone."

"Listen, Kate, Uncle Bud and Aunt Twyla are planning Easter at their place and I told them you'd bring that seven-layer salad."

As far as the Fox family was concerned, you can run but you can't hide. "Hi, Louise." My older sister. One of them, anyway. "We've talked about you using the sheriff's phone only for emergencies. Right?"

The reminder was as effective as ever. "You won't answer your cell. Let me talk to Carly."

"Carly's not here." Where was she, anyway? And where was Ted?

I stretched the phone cord. Grand County didn't believe in fancy equipment like cordless phones. They sprang for Ted's cell phone, but he wasn't supposed to use it for personal calls. I slapped on the light, squinting into the tiny living room. Several books were scattered on the floor. A potted plant spilled dirt onto the worn carpet and the throw from the threadbare couch puddled in the middle of the living room. The chaos seemed unusual, even for Hurricane Carly.

"Where is she?" Louise asked.

"Not sure." Maybe I wasn't fit to be a guardian, but I thought a girl destined to graduate from high school in a month ought to have a fair bit of autonomy. Course, with Carly's history, I was balancing on barbed wire there.

Louise paused to build up steam. "You should supervise her better. She needs—"

A syllable blanked from her lecture. "Gotta cut you off," I said. "The sheriff's second line."

I punched line two, expecting another one of my siblings, who'd also been warned against using the official sheriff's line. "Sheriff's office."

"Oh God, oh God, oh God!" Sobbing, hysterical. A woman blubbered into the phone. "Oh God!"

It took a moment to recognize the voice. It wasn't one of my favorites. "Roxy?"

More sobbing. "He's dead. He's dead. I think. Oh God."

"It's Kate. Who's dead? Where are you?"

"Kate. Oh my God. Blood!"

My skin chilled and my scalp prickled, despite knowing Roxy's penchant for drama. As Ted's old high-school girlfriend, and by some unfortunate quirk of fate, Carly's stepmother, she'd been plaguing me for years. "Roxy!" I yelled, trying to shock her hysterics away.

It didn't work. "I don't know who to call. I came home and the door was open. There's blood everywhere."

"Whose blood? Where are you?"

She finally sounded as if someone caught her with a grappling hook and dragged her slowly down to the ground. "I'm at Eldon's."

Eldon Edwards was her father-in-law. Their houses were only one hundred yards apart and a good half hour from the nearest town. "Is he hurt?"

She started to sob again. "He's dead. He's been shot."

Dead? Eldon? No. My brain tried to push the words away. This was definitely a job for the sheriff. "Okay, hang on. I don't know where Ted is, but I'll find him and get him out there right away."

"He's shot." Roxy sounded like she jumped on the panic wagon again.

"I'll get an ambulance and find Ted."

She wailed out his name. "Ted."

"Stay calm and he'll be there soon."

"He's bleeding. Oh God, he's dying!"

I'd often wanted to slap Roxy, but this time I could probably get away with it. "I thought you said he's dead."

"No, Eldon is dead." Sob, sob.

"Then who is dying?" Maybe Ted was buying drinks at the Long Branch, since it was campaign season. Or visiting his mother in Broken Butte, more than an hour's drive away. I ran through a list of places he might be.

"Ted!" Roxy shrieked into the phone.

That's when her stampeding words started to make sense. "Ted what?"

"He's shot. And there's blood everywhere!"

I dropped the phone and didn't hear whatever else she said.

Copyright © 2016 by Shannon Baker. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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