Local author Sallie Bissell returns to her Mary Crow series
Sallie Bissell describes herself as a “flatland Southerner,” and you can hear it in her voice. But this Nashville native who grew up reading Nancy Drew and the historical fiction of William O. Steele (now her touchstone for a good read), developed an ambition to be a writer at an early age. As an adult, she worked in advertising and ghost-wrote for a children’s series. And then she penned a literary novel that several agents praised but rejected.
So she set out to write a thriller — a formula that worked. Bissell reads from Deadliest of Sins, the just-released seventh book of the best-selling Mary Crow series, at Malaprop’s on Wednesday, April 23.
The author started work on Forest of Harm, the initial book that series, with many of the ingredients already in mind. Having just moved to Asheville, she says, “I was fascinated by the Cherokee culture, which was new to me at the time, and the woods seemed to be a natural canvas to paint a story in which people get into big trouble.”
Bissell soon realized that she needed to raise the stakes even higher. Drawing on what she had learned from her own research and from having a daughter in law school, she decided to make Mary Crow a prosecutor. “That was just perfect,” Bissell says. “She was just kind of in the bad-guy vortex, but she wasn’t [bad].”
Over the course of Mary Crow’s adventures, that bad-guy vortex has proved powerful and dangerous. For example, in Deadliest of Sins, the heroine uncovers a criminal underworld built on murder, abuse and abduction. The novel’s action unfolds on a familiar territory. Set in Asheville, it opens with Mary Crow walking through downtown and taking in the sights, including the St. Lawrence Basilica and Malaprop’s, before going to her office in the Flatiron Building. “It was great fun to write,” Bissell says. “It’s kind of my own love letter to Asheville. For me, Asheville has been a wonderful place to write. It inspires me.” (Worth noting: she leads the Mystery Book Club at Malaprop’s, which meets on second Mondays at 7 p.m.)
Unlike her creator, Mary Crow has not relocated to Asheville for good. She’s on a temporary assignment investigating prosecutorial misconduct in the state’s Western counties (a premise the author insists bears no relation to real life).
Good news: Deadliest of Sins (and the previous book in the series, the well-received Music of Ghosts) does mark a permanent return to Mary Crow after an eight-year break from that character. In that time, Bissell tried writing a science-fiction mystery, and then a couple of funny whodunnits, but her agent told her that people wanted to read about the heroine who made her name. “Then I realized that it was going to be me and Mary Crow,” she says. “I guess I’ll just write Mary Crow until I drop dead.” She has already started work on the next installment in the series.
So how does Bissell comes up with her darker themes? “People ask me that a lot,” she says. “They say, ‘Oh, you seem like such a nice Southern woman. Where do you get all this stuff?’” But then she turns serious: “You don’t, regrettably, have to look too hard to find truly evil people these days.”
The author insists that the “evil people” in her books are essential for keeping the series going. When she starts a novel, “I know what my bad guys want, and I know what Mary Crow is probably going to have to do to keep that from happening.” Bissell relies on that interplay between characters — between Mary Crow and the villains, the victims and the others who populate her world — to keep her stories fresh. “I think the trick is to invent your characters deeply enough, and then let them have at it. You just sit back and watch while the drama transpires on a stage that’s all in your head.”