Is Time strictly linear, or can it be bent or twisted?
The answer is well beyond my mental capacities, but the idea of time travel has always fascinated me. Today I have the distinct pleasure of interviewing Carol Pouliot, author of the Blackwell & Watson Time-Travel Mysteries featuring 1930s Detective Sergeant Steven Blackwell and present-day journalist and researcher Olivia Watson. Steven and Olivia share the same house in a small New York town—eighty years apart!
Carol and I met last year at Malice Domestic, and I was immediately charmed by her and her series. With two books in the series now published (Doorway to Murder and Threshold of Deceit), Carol is currently working on a third, to be published by Level Best Books in 2020. Threshold of Deceit was released by Level Best in September of 2019.
THRESHOLD OF DECEIT
Book #2 in the Blackwell and Watson Time-Travel Mysteries
On a sunny spring day in 1934, local lothario Frankie Russo is murdered in broad daylight. It seems no one saw anything, but things are not always what they seem in this small New York town.
Tackling the investigation, Detective Steven Blackwell discovers Frankie’s little black book, a coded list of dozens of flings, affairs, and one-night stands—and a solid motive for the widow. Soon, what appeared to be a straight-forward case gets complicated. A witness goes missing, a second body turns up, the victim’s cousin disappears, and an old flame surfaces. Faced with conflicting pieces of evidence, lies, and false alibis, Steven creates a psychological portrait of the killer. He realizes he’s looking for someone wearing a mask. But the killer is not the only one in disguise.
Two months ago, Steven came face-to-face with 21st-century journalist Olivia Watson when time folded over in the house they share—80 years apart. They’ve experimented within the safety of its walls and proven Einstein was right: there is no past, present, or future. All time exists simultaneously. Now Steven and Olivia test the boundaries of time travel, risking the exposure of their secret. Olivia travels to Steven’s time, where she is embraced by the community, unaware of who she really is. She unwittingly falls in with Steven’s main suspect, putting her own life in jeopardy.
Can Olivia outsmart a killer before becoming the next victim? Can Steven and Olivia solve the case of the poisoned philanderer in time to protect her true identity and their time-travel secret?
Now for some questions!
CONNIE: Welcome, Carol! I’ve always loved the concept of time travel. How did you come up with the idea of partners in detection living eighty years apart?
CAROL: First of all, I want to thank you, Connie, for having me here. This is great fun!! To answer your question, I took a strange experience that happened to me forty years ago and re-imagined it. I recreated it in Chapter 1 of Doorway to Murder. Since I never found out what it was that happened to me, I thought time folding over was a fun and interesting explanation. I have always loved mysteries so I put time travel as the core with a mystery wrapped around it.
CONNIE: Do you have a scientific background? How do you explain the Einstein theory in your books?
CAROL: No, I don’t have a scientific background. I was a language teacher for 35 years, as well as a French and Spanish translator. I heard about Einstein’s theory a long time ago and decided it would work well for my series. In the books, Steven and Olivia live in the same house but 80 years apart. One night when she’s sleeping, she rockets awake, knowing she’s no longer alone in the house. She sees a strange man peering in at her from her bedroom doorway. Naturally, she’s terrified. She waits, paralyzed with fear, then watches as he walks through the wall. Her terror changes to the horror that she’s losing her mind, then to curiosity about what’s going on. From Steven’s point of view, he is over-worked, exhausted, and grieving the recent, unexpected, and devastating death of his mother, his closest companion. Eventually Steven and Olivia work out what’s happening to them. In the first three books, I use the doorway to an upstairs bedroom as the device for time travel.
CONNIE: Which was most challenging (or most fun) to write: Olivia’s travels back to 1934 or Steven’s travels forward in time to the present day? What kind of research did you do into the 1930s?
CAROL: It’s a lot more interesting for me to write in a time gone by. I bring Steven into the present day once in a while, but every single thing he encounters is completely unfamiliar. He has no point of reference for any of the conversations he hears. He’s never heard of World War II, rock music, The Beatles, the Kennedy Assassination, the Civil Rights Movement, NASA and the Space Program, the Viet Nam War, Barack Obama, or 9/11. It’s as if people around him are speaking a foreign language. I feel that in order to be realistic, Steven would be commenting on this alien world all the time. And that would get in the way of the mystery. While Olivia wasn’t a history major, she has certainly heard of The Great War, the Depression, the influenza epidemic, prohibition, and FDR. She has looked at her great-grandmother’s photo albums, so the people she sees don’t look completely strange to her. And she’s fascinated by the 1930s—the news, the Golden Age of Travel, Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto and the Thin Man movies.
I use a lot of different sources to research the series. I read the actual magazines and newspapers that were on newsstands during the weeks when my stories take place. I study old photographs, watch movies from the 30s, read books that were written then, go to museums and libraries to examine original items such as menus, yearbooks, appliances, and cars. I have interviewed my father about his memories of 1934. I also draw on my own memories of my grandparents—things they enjoyed, expressions they used. I am constantly aware of anything that can contribute to the authenticity of the stories.
CONNIE: The thirties was a pivotal time in the U.S.—the Great Depression, the Dillinger gang, the rise of Nazism in Germany. What does this historical background contribute to your stories?
CAROL: Incorporating real, historic events into a time-travel mystery balances the unreal, imaginary time-travel elements. I also hope they make my stories more compelling. When I was writing Threshold of Deceit, I went to the New York State Library to read the newspapers from the week in April 1934 when the story takes place. I was thrilled to discover that was the week U.S. federal agents ramped up the hunt for Dillinger. I was able to enhance conversations among the police officers to reflect the kinds of discussions real cops would have had about that. I had my characters make the same comments that cops would have made about “the Feds” and “Public Enemy Number 1.”
Also, it has been challenging to find opportunities where I can foreshadow World War II in conversations that Steven has with his father, who is high up in the Department of the Navy in Washington, DC. Incorporating references of things to come in Olivia’s private thoughts adds layers of emotion to a scene as well. As Olivia gets to know the people in town, she knows they still face several more years struggling with the Great Depression. When she meets a young man, she knows the odds are against him being alive ten years from now, or that he may return home from World War II damaged in any number of ways. It’s like she can see the locomotive barreling down the tracks, but there’s nothing she can do to stop it. She has a hard time with this.
CONNIE: Olivia and Steven have very different personalities. How do their differences complement each other and/or cause conflict?
CAROL: They definitely balance each other. She’s very free-spirited, while he has always lived by the rules. He loosens up with her and because of her. As they spend more time together and Olivia gets to know Steven better, she begins to understand the way society thinks in 1934. She learns how women and men act toward each other. So that she doesn’t hurt Steven’s feelings, she chooses to act more cautiously and in a more conservative way than she normally would. She doesn’t see this as a sell-out of who she is, but rather as a compromise in their friendship and a gesture of respect for the man he is.
CONNIE: In Doorway to Murder, Olivia and Steven must come to terms with an eighty-year time gap and the reality of time travel. How does their relationship change in Threshold of Deceit?
CAROL: When Threshold of Deceit begins, Steven and Olivia have known each other for two months, but they’ve spent nearly every evening together during that time. At first, their interest was driven by pure curiosity—about the other person as someone living in a different century and about the mysteries of time travel. They experimented to see what they were able to do and how far they could take their new-found ability.
In this relatively short time, they’ve grown to know each other quite well. They’ve shared stories from their past and personal feelings. Olivia generally pushes hard-to-deal-with emotions into a closet and slams the door, but she feels safe opening up to Steven. He’s never confided in anyone but his recently deceased mother, but he finds himself comfortable with Olivia and reveals some private thoughts and feelings.
In Threshold of Deceit, for the first time, Olivia leaves the house for several days in Steven’s time. The reader gets to see how Olivia being out-and-about in town and interacting with the community affects both of them and their feelings for each other.
CONNIE: Olivia and Steven are obviously attracted to each other. Without giving away spoilers, will they ever get together?
CAROL: So far, they’ve kept their feelings for each other to themselves. They both realize that a relationship would be impossible.
CONNIE: The crimes they solve have been committed in the thirties. Will Steven ever help Olivia solve a present-day crime?
CAROL: No, I don’t have any plans for Steven to solve a crime in the present day. However, the 5th book is a Toulouse-Lautrec mystery. Steven and Olivia will travel back to la Belle Epoque. Steven will be called on to solve a murder in Paris in the late 19th century.
CONNIE: I’d love to know a bit about your process of writing. For example, do you plan out your plots in advance? Do your characters ever surprise you?
CAROL: I can speak to the first two books in the series at this point. In both cases, I had a tight plan for the first 60% of the book and a loose outline for the remainder. I knew who the killer was and why. I like to let the book take off and evolve organically. I create a detailed dossier on every character. I put them in a situation and in a setting and enjoy letting them take over. It turns out that, for me at least, if I remain true to the people I’ve created, I’m in for some fun surprises along the way. In both books, I ended up changing who the killer was at the end of writing the rough draft. It turns out I had been wrong about who it was.
CONNIE: Finally, what’s next for Olivia and Steven? What next for you?
CAROL: Steven and Olivia have some fun adventures in store. In book #3, Death Rang the Bell, Olivia attends a Halloween party in Steven’s time and ends up being the sole witness to a murder. Book #4 will be a Christmas mystery. And book #5, as I mentioned above, is a Toulouse-Lautrec mystery, which takes place in Paris in the late 1800s.
I envision seven books in the series. I know how Steven’s and Olivia’s story ends. However, having said that, if the series takes off and readers want more, I know how I can extend it a bit longer. Right now, I’m simply enjoying every minute I get to sit at my computer and tell their story. I hope people enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it
Carol, thank you so much for telling us about your books and yourself. Best of luck with Threshold of Deceit!