Robin grew up in downtown Toronto. She loves books, poker, politics, and exploring on the water. She also loves her motorcycle, a 1987 Virago she bought with waitressing tips when she was 21.
Her historical role model is Winston Churchill, more for his independent thinking than his drinking. Her secret dream was to be one of Charlie's Angels, but since real life danger terrifies her, she writes about it instead.
She is married to a man who hates reading and encourages her endlessly. They live in a suburban fishing village just outside of Vancouver.
From author's website
How did your interest in writing develop?
Probably the same way my passion for hot spice and my bad eyesight developed. It’s something inside me. Putting life into fiction makes it feel more logical. I write because it makes my world make sense.
Is the title of your novel a reference to “Dead Poets Society”? If so, is there a special significance or connection?
Yes and no. My publisher hated my working title, “Dead Politicians.” I think the new title works on a couple of levels—like Dead Poets Society, there’s an unconventional professor riling up his students to believe in their capacity to effect change. And there’s the literal meaning: in the book, there’s a secret student society who may have a mandate to kill politicians.
What is the most challenging aspect of writing a mystery novel?
Finding the right balance of plot and character. You want a mystery novel to move fast, and it’s critical that the plot comes together coherently. But nobody cares about the plot unless the characters are worth spending time with.
What inspired you to write a mystery over a different genre?
Rage. Just kidding. The original reason was that although I knew I wanted to write, I didn’t know what I wanted to write about. I had themes and characters dancing madly in my head, but no plot to hang them on. I read a couple of good mystery novels, by Elizabeth George and Jonathan Kellerman, and I thought hmm, these are good writers. Maybe I could give mysteries a try.
What do you think are the key elements for a compelling mystery?
A good hook: I want to be gripped by the plot, or the puzzle part of the story.
Relatability: I like to feel like the mystery I’m reading could happen right around the corner from me, with people I know.
A likeable, flawed protagonist: I love following the main sleuth’s arc through a series. In each book, the protagonist should have a little arc—at least one of the main problems in their life should be highlighted, challenged, and resolved. There should also be open-ended struggles—issues that don’t get resolved. I love the puzzle of mystery writing, but my very favorite part is writing about Clare and her personal challenges. She feels alive to me.
Are there any similarities between you and Clare?
Yes, and my friends and family see them way more loud and clear than I do! We’re both sarcastic, we both drive a motorcycle, and we’re both sensitive once we let our tough guy guard down. But beyond that, Clare is fully and completely her own person.
The novel features a wide variety of characters, each with their own personal demons. Is there a character with whom you felt a special connection or in whom you felt a special interest?
All of them. Lame answer, right? But the cool thing about fiction is that you can take one of your own issues, give it to a character, and amplify it. Amplified, you can study it, and in a perfect world, resolve it.
Take Laura—the ex-wife of the dead mayor. She’s spent most of her life trying to do the right thing in other people’s eyes, but in the past four years, she’s divorced her husband and become a lesbian. She’s still an upstanding socialite, volunteering at all the right places. But she’s starting to find her own voice, lost inside her for so long.
Externally, that’s just absolutely not me. But there was a part of me that felt like the outside world’s judgment mattered—that I should do things differently, that the approval of the morally upstanding set would mean I was doing things right. I don’t think that anymore—I feel free to be whoever I am, as long as I do it kindly and compassionately—because Laura helped me work that out.
What inspired the interest in politics that the novel examines?
I’ve always found politics interesting, since I was a kid. It’s like a soap opera with real world consequences. Most of the time, it’s just posturing—grown men and women slinging mud and angling for position. But the direction of the country hangs on the balance of their mudslinging. In Canada, it’s all academic—we’ll have schools and hospitals and freedom no matter who gets elected, for now. So I find myself watching politicians like my mother-in-law follows Coronation Street. I have my guys I’m rooting for, and I’ll often help out on election campaigns, but really, I just want to know what outrageous things they’ll all do next.
Annabel makes some risky decisions in Dead Politician Society. If you were in her position, do you think you would make the same choices?
No! Annabel’s story was one of those “what if” scenarios. When she answers that email, she crosses into the land of what most of us would never do, but would wonder about. Annabel was sufficiently down on herself that I think her motivation was credible. And I liked her; I wanted her to be okay. But I’d have to be in a really hopeless place in my life to do what she did; I’ve been there, but I hope I never go back.
Matthew grows and changes a lot over the course of the novel. What can you tell us about his journey? What initiated his change? Will he ever completely change his ways?
At the beginning of Dead Politician Society, Matthew doesn’t like himself. He’s dissatisfied with his place in life—he wanted to be Prime Minister, not a professor teaching others to lead. Through the course of the novel, he comes to understand that making a real difference is not about external recognition; helping these kids shine might be an even higher calling. As he comes to accept himself more, he is able to be kinder to the people in his life.
Will he ever change completely? I hope so. He has the capacity to be wonderful, but we don’t always realize our full potential. Maybe I’ll bring him back in a future book, and we can check in with his progress!
Did you know from the start who the murderer would be, or did you discover it along the way? Did it make the novel harder or easier to write?
Once I’d written a few chapters and introduced all the key players, I had a good idea how the murders were going down. Through the whole 1st draft, I kept an open mind in case the right answer changed. Once it gelled, it made writing easier, and on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th run-throughs, it was all about making sure there were enough clues and enough red herrings, and making sure the murderer’s voice came through so that if someone read the book twice, they could say, “Oh yeah, I see it now.” (And the answer wouldn’t feel plucked from left field.)
Have you ever worked in law enforcement? How did you learn so many details about the justice/undercover system?
Never! I don’t know anything about either system, but when I need to check a fact there are some great online resources.
If you were an undercover cop, what would be your ideal assignment? A student, like Clare? A professional poker player? Something else?
I love that question. My ideal assignment would be to follow Clare’s path. I’m writing a series I would love to dive into, if danger was not a factor.
What is a random fact readers probably don’t know about you?
I am terrified of airplane landings. I hold my husband’s hand and grip it really tight until the plane is coasting at a happy taxi land speed.
What authors have inspired you? What about them do you find inspirational?
Elizabeth George and Jonathan Kellerman inspired me to try writing mysteries. Elizabeth George is incredible at coming up with original, interesting stories, and creating multiple interesting point of view characters. Jonathan Kellerman has killer dialogue, he’s an incredible technical writer (no word is out of place), and his stories move at breakneck speed. I’d love to combine their two talents (one day).
Kim Moritsugu is a Canadian writer whose books helped me understand how to write from the inside of a character, to create emotional immediacy. Her characters are funny and warm, and I feel like I’m inside their minds as I move through the story. I only really got what Kim was doing once Dead Politician Society was almost through its edit phase, but I took the lesson with me to the sequel, and I think Death Plays Poker has that one major difference. (I could be wrong!)
Will there be more Clare Vengel mystery novels? What can you tell us about them? Will we see some of the other characters again?
There sure will be more. Cloutier, Roberta, and Kevin all come through with Clare to Death Plays Poker—as well as a new cast of suspects and a couple of new professional contacts for Clare. As the working title might tell you, Clare is undercover as a poker player, trying to find a killer on the pro poker circuit. She hates her new cover role—a trust fund princess who thinks she’ll try her hand at poker—but she loves the assignment, and she has a lot of fun with it.
Do you have any other projects in the works?
I’m working on the 3rd book in the series. The story spans 2 countries and Clare is undercover as a snowboarding slacker. It’s still fun and fast-paced, but Clare comes up against some darker opposition. She’s starting to grow up a lot by this point, developing more confidence and becoming a damn good undercover.
For more about this author, please visit:
Many thanks to Robin Spano for taking the time to give such thoughtful answers! I really enjoyed reading her responses! I especially love the idea that fiction helps us make sense of the real world. Perhaps that's why we all enjoy it so much :-)