As part of the Authors at the Teague series, Betty Webb, author of the Lena Jones mysteries, appeared at the Velma Teague Library, discussing what Publishers Weekly calls her, "Mysteries with a social conscience."
Betty said she worked in journalism for twenty years, and they didn't allow her to make things up. She wanted to make things up. While reviewing books for the newspaper, she found herself looking for the mysteries, so she decided she wanted to write mysteries. There was a fellow member of her critique group who was too sweet and too nice, and just couldn't kill people in her writing. She'd put them in a coma, and Betty kept telling her she needed to kill someone. While trying to figure out who she wanted to kill, she and her husband, Paul, went to a Scottsdale Art Show. When she said to Paul, "Someone should kill that gallery owner," he replied, "There's your dead body." She went home and wrote the first chapter of Desert Noir. However, she didn't know why the gallery owner was killed or who solved it. She needed to know who was going to solve the crime. Since it was her first book, Webb was still trying to decide if she would write grizzly books, or lighter, cozy or traditional mysteries in the style of Agatha Christie.
Her character, Lena Jones, came to her in a dream. Lena was found at the age of four, lying at the edge of a Phoenix road, Thomas Road, with a bullet in her head. She was in a coma for months, and when she came out of it, she couldn't remember anything, where she was from, who her parents were, or what happened to her. She had some brain damage, which led to some behavior problems. The behavior problems made her unadoptable, so she grew up in foster care, where she was raped, abused, and malnourished. However, she survived to get a scholarship to Arizona State University where she studied police science. After graduation, she worked for the Scottsdale Police Department, until she was shot on the job. When she was offered a desk job, she decided to open her own detective agency, Desert Investigations, in Scottsdale. After having that dream, Lena became the daughter Betty Webb never had, and she wanted to do a series about her, beginning with Desert Noir, the story about the murder of that Scottsdale gallery owner.
In the Desert series, Lena Jones is looking for her biological parents and her background. Webb said, mystery writers work out their hostilities by killing people in their books, but mystery writers are really sweeter than romance writers who can't take out their frustrations in their writing. She said romance writers are the rough and tough ones.
Betty Webb said she first found out about the problem of polygamy in the American Southwest when she saw an AP story out of Washington. She started to check it out, and took trips to the Utah border because most of the Arizona polygamy colonies are up there, towns such as Colorado City. She met Flora Jessup, a former sister wife who escaped, and now speaks out against polygamy, and helps other girls escape. She wrote Desert Wives, which has been optioned for Lifetime TV, but not filmed yet.
Polygamy is not about religion. If a man takes ten wives, who are not really wives, but concubines, and has ten children with each, he has one hundred illegitimate children. What do illegitimate children get? Welfare checks of $250 a month per child, and the money goes to the Prophet. That's the money that has made Warren Jeffs a millionaire, money from breeding girls for their lifetime. The Prophet moves girls from other households. Warren Jeffs built the compound in Ed Dorado, Texas that has been in the news. All that welfare money goes to Jeffs. Polygamy is about money, which is part of the story of Desert Wives. The families are interbred, which means 65% of the kids are genetically damaged, but the Prophet doesn't care, as long as the girls can breed. At eighteen, the boys are dumped out of the compound, and become the Lost Boys. The can't read or write, and are dumped in Phoenix, Flagstaff and Salt Lake City. In Texas, they work construction until eighteen, but they actually work for script that is redeemable only in compound stores. So, when they're turned out at eighteen, they still have no money. In Desert Wives, Lena masqueraded as a sister wife.
While researching, Betty learned that polygamists are racists who pass out flyers at shows, such as survivalist shows. She checked out publishers of racist materials, and found there is a big market for publishing flyers, books, video games, and recordings. In her next book, Desert Survivors, Webb asks, what kind of person would own a publishing company that published racist material.
Desert Run came about because Webb lives near Papago Buttes, where there was a prisoner of war camp for Germans during World War II. On Dec. 24, 1944, twenty-five Germans dug a tunnel under the stockade to escape with a collapsed boat. Why a boat? Because their map showed rivers, which are actually dry river beds in Arizona. They were all members of U-boat crews, who thought they would sail out Cross Cut Canal.. When they discovered the canals were dry, they abandoned the boat, and spread out through the desert. They eventually all surrendered.
Betty Webb calls Desert Run her Glendale, AZ book. In her story, after the war, several of the German men came back, and moved to Glendale. One is still alive in the book, and Lena makes a trip to interview him. She's early one day, and goes through Glendale's antique stores. She's been living in a furnished apartment, and has never taken interest in her home, which is common with foster children. But, in one store, she sees a lunch pail with Roy Rogers, and buys it. She finds a Lone Ranger and Tonto bedspread, and by the time she leaves, she bought an apartment full of 50's and 60's cowboy furniture.
All of Webb's books start with a body because she said she likes to kill people. In Desert Run, Lena finds the body of a ninety-four year old man, a former prisoner. This is Lena's first cold case, a contemporary murder tied back to a murder during the WWII escape.
Desert Cut is Webb's new book, which has already gone through its first printing. Everyone knows about the illegal immigration problem in the United States. But, there's also a serious problem with legal immigration. Americans have big hearts, and they, and church groups, bring in people who have been displaced by war or famine. However, we've brought in groups that have beliefs that little girls are of less value than goats, and some of the beliefs are terrible. Some of their practices should not be continued in the U.S., but the groups that brought them in might not have known enough about the culture when they brought them. Now, some bulletins published even say it's not child abuse, it's cultural. Betty Webb said she first heard about it from an article about a court case in Atlanta, Georgia. There are severe child abuses against little girls, usually between the ages of 2 and 9, with the biggest group under seven. They call it a "rite of passage," and it's done with anesthesia, with antiseptic aftercare. The purpose is to make a girl a faithful wife.
Webb said her publishers were leery about the subject, but Desert Cut was published on Feb. 15, and the first edition has sold out. It received a starred review in Booklist, a magazine for librarians. Webb said, "Reach librarians, and you reach the world." You reach people once librarians find out about an issue. Then you'll get the word out.
For her research, she talked to people online who were fighting against the custom. Two Somali women, who were fighting against it, were found dead, deaths labeled "accidental." She said the custom is popular in African and Mideastern countries. Webb said France has had a large number of problems, and they've been arresting people, and prosecuting.
The next Lena Jones mystery, "son of Desert Wives," will come out in Fall 2009, Desert Lost. It's about the lost boys and urban polygamy, polygamy in the Phoenix area and the Valley.
Webb started another book at the time she was writing Desert Cut, because that one was so traumatic. She started a warmer, lighter mystery, which will be published this November. Webb volunteers at the Phoenix Zoo, and she loves zoos. The first book in her zoo series is The Anteater of Death, again from Poisoned Pen Press. Betty said there's an anteater named Jezebel at the zoo, and she's a Code Red animal. Code Red means, if it escapes, its shot on sight. Why is an anteater dangerous? When it stands on its hind legs, and balances on the tail that is as strong as a kangaroo's, it has four inch long claws that can dismember a jaguar. When a body is found in the anteater's enclosure, torn apart, the zookeeper, a woman named Teddy, thinks the anteater was framed. The zoo is on the California coast, and Teddy lives on a houseboat. The first and last chapter of every book in the series will be told from an animal's point of view. However, Webb isn't trying to make the animal anthropomorphic. The books will be about animals that the reader wouldn't normally associate with death.
Betty Webb said she wrote her first mystery at 56. There are no big issues in her new series. Webb likes big issues, so she'll continue to write the Lena Jones books, and her heart is with Lena Jones, the daughter she never had.
In a couple weeks, I'll have autographed Lena Jones books to offer as prizes on my blog. Watch for the chance to win two of these dramatic books.
Betty Webb's website is www.bettywebb-mystery.com
Desert Cut by Betty Webb. Poisoned Pen Press, ©2008. ISBN 978-1590584910 (hardcover), 277p.