(Excerpt from author’s talk about his Zack Tolliver, FBI series at Talley Winery)
My murder mystery series Zack Tolliver, FBI began with my novel THE OTHER, which at the time was intended to be just that, a novel.
Because it was conceived in my mind as a single stand-alone project, I saw it as my first and last chance to incorporate everything I personally liked in a good read. Thus we have a murder mystery in the dusty paths and prickly flora of the beautiful wild southwest landscapes of Arizona and southern California, a romance, a good dog, two different nations of indigenous peoples, two main protagonists from completely different cultures, illicit drugs of various types, three different kinds of law enforcement, mummification, salt production, mysticism, shape shifters.
Did I leave anything out?
I didn’t even know if I could write a book. But I could and did. I published it and it sold well and the question of a series arose. That’s when I realized I may have made a mistake putting everything I had into the first book.
Where could I possibly go from there?
Well, I went to San Francisco for MESTACLOCAN, my second book. My son’s family was in the city at the time and I am a trail runner and during each visit I would run in the green spaces¬¬––Golden Gate Park, the Presidio, Twin Peaks, Buena Vista Park. I came to realize one could virtually traverse the city without ever leaving a green space. Hmmm. What if some inhuman predator hid away in those green areas picking off unwary hikers and visitors? Could happen!
So the series was on its way.
By changing my location, I had unwittingly given myself a certain amount of freedom not available to fictional hometown sheriffs or tribal lawmen. My FBI Agent could be called to go wherever he was needed. And I would have a new place to explore, to run the trails, to meet the people, to learn the area history.
I already had plenty of knowledge of the Santa Ynez Valley area. Living in Los Alamos, I spend a lot of time running in the nearby foothills and mountains. For book #3, ZACA, I took a deeper look at the immigration situation, the marijuana growers, the cartels, the Panga boats left on the shore and brought in local law enforcement, the Chumash, and legends and superstitions from Zaca Lake and Zaca Mountain and the wilderness beyond.
Sometimes fiction and real life intertwine. This occurred several times with Zaca, most notably from running trails beyond Colson Canyon off Tepusquet Canyon. In the long, steep arroyos I saw bits of black irrigation tube, passed well traveled unofficial side trails, and even spotted an area of different colored green growth on an inaccessible hillside. This fired my imagination to place an illegal marijuana grow in that area, where my poor Jesús would be made to labor in my novel, and where Pedro the Pacifier, my cartel assassin, would meet the monster that was his doom.
Later on in the novel I had law enforcement raid the site, lowering themselves out of helicopters because of the steep cliffs only to find their quarry had disappeared along a hidden path I named El Camino de Burro. I wrote this novel and published it in 2015.
In 2018 an article appeared in the SUN titled Authorities Destroy 100,000-plus illegal pot plants in Los Padres. It goes on to describe how county sheriff deputies and federal authorities raided remote areas in the mountains just east of Santa Maria. They used helicopters to drop into sites due to the rugged terrain. “There’s really no trails except the ones the illegal growers made,” was one quote. “Their knowledge of the terrain at times surpassed investigators and enforcement teams,” was another.
Apparently I had been spot on.
With Zack Tolliver novel #4, CAT, I wanted to return to the Navajo country, culture, and mysticism I had engaged in THE OTHER. In a manner similar to MESTACLOCAN, where chapters begin with thoughts of the predator, I wanted to take the reader inside the Navajo shape shifter, the Skinwalker. What was it like for a human to become an animal, in this case a great cat, to float down the steep hillsides and fly from pinnacle to outcrop with great leaps. My research took me deep into the mysticism and culture surrounding the Skinwalker, a depraved Navajo priest willing to forego all reasonable humanity to achieve these dark powers. The reality continues to exist in the minds of many Navajo. Navajo Nation Police are still called out to respond to complaints of Skinwalkers.
The plot for UNDER DESERT SAND came to me while visiting a unique area of the Mojave Desert called the Mojave Preserve. The history I stumbled onto so resembled fiction I was hard pressed to create a story from it – but I did. The real story involves what was likely the last actual gunfight of the old west, a town that is now dust, and a cattle empire that hired gunfighters to protect itself from cattle thieves. I jeeped and ran isolated trails far from the nearest gasoline and water and found relics of the real story still in place. The book’s cover illustration could literally be the place the 1925 gunfight took place. Except for a missing bunk house the terrain hasn’t changed. You wonder as you pass through how huge herds of cattle could have grazed and an entire town develop in such a dry, sand-blown place, but they did.
Zack Tolliver is called here to investigate what appears to be a theatrical gunfight fashioned on the original but gone terribly wrong. Two young men are found a distance apart, both dead from a gunshot wound, both holding a pistol with one chamber fired. A closer look, however, suggests it is murder devised to appear as a gunfight. As the investigation deepens, Zack finds the murder/gunfight hides intrigue even more ominous.
I fell into the plot for CANAAN’S SECRET completely by accident. On my return from a trail half marathon held at Page, Arizona, I passed through the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints town of Colorado City without realizing it, although the distinct lack of fast food and service stations in the area did not escape my notice. I stopped at Pipe Spring National Monument on the Kaibab-Paiute Reservation. In actuality, it is a Mormon Fort where once and future extra wives were stored away out of sight when polygamy became an issue up north in Salt Lake City. From there they would be trucked off across the flat grass land of the Kaibab Plateau by wagon to St. George, Utah to be married. The wagon tracks can still be seen.
My research into all things Mormon, the Paiutes, and the amazing land of the Vermillion Cliffs for this novel is too vast and, well, novel, to go into now. I will say, given the contentiousness of the Fundamentalists even now, I was careful to change names and identities, particularly in reference to law enforcement. After carefully changing one particular name, imagine my chagrin when a few months after the book’s publication a man with that exact name transferred into the local sheriff’s department. Go figger!
My latest book in the Zack Tolliver, FBI series is LAS CRUCES. The paperback copies arrived just this past month and are with me tonight. Here once again I stumbled upon an incredible story that led to the plot. Las Cruces is an original Mexican land grant just north of Gaviota Gap, one of three viable passes for travelers from Santa Barbara over the Santa Ynez Mountain range. When the stage coach company routing through Gaviota in the 1860s decided to change the location of its transfer station there was fierce competition. These were the years following the great drought that marked the end of the cattle industry in the area, people had limited resources, and station proprietorship offered substantial additional income.
A couple named Corliss, local sheepherders, won the bid. Soon after they were found murdered and their newly built station house burnt down around them. Mrs. Corliss had evidently escaped out the window only to be attacked and dragged still alive back into the house where she was deposited atop her dead husband. The house was then secured from the outside and burnt. Their shepherd was found days later in one of the deep gashing ravines, his head nearly severed from his body.
My research took me to Oregon Territory and deeper into the lives of the Corliss’ where the irony surrounding their deaths appeared almost unbelievable when I found they had been attacked once before in a house and Mrs. Corliss had escaped out a window and saved herself then. My novel, LAS CRUCES, was very difficult to write because fact so very nearly overwhelmed fiction. Where do you go from such a story? I found a way, as you will see as you read it, but I will say the real story deserves a thorough telling in its own time.
This may seem a strange time to talk about THE DARK ROAD, my novella written as a precursor to the series, but it is close to the order of things as they actually happened. A pair of writers in my genre reached out to me in the spring of 2018 suggesting we team up and each write a story describing our series protagonists before they became who they were to become. We’d put them together under a single cover and place the book on Amazon as a free book. The hope and idea was to create interest and leach readers from one series to another.
I found it an interesting idea and agreed and began writing an additional volume between series volumes six and seven. That summer suddenly became very crowded. We got the volume published by late October under the title WESTERN JUSTICE. It performed well for several months. We had agreed to keep the eBook free forever, not to publish a paperback, but when the benefits of the volume seemed to fade for us individually we agreed we might each publish our own novella as a separate book to kick off our own series.
I had written DARK ROAD not just to describe Zack Tolliver’s first assignment to Navajo Land after Quantico and his first meeting with Eagle Feather and Jimmy Chaparral but also as a new mystery in itself. In that sense one might say it was in reality my seventh mystery novel. Thus, to follow Zack’s career one would read it first in the series, but if following this author’s skill development, one should read it seventh. Either way, I think it is a good read.