Hi, friends. If you’re a neighbor of mine and you love books set in places you know very well, you’re in for a treat today. Virgil Alexander has written a second book set in the Gila Valley of Arizona. He’s a history buff, and this bit of desert is one of the great loves of his life. I had a chance to interview him about this new release. Eventually I’ll cut it down into article length, but it’s interesting stuff, so I’m reproducing it in its entirety for you. Enjoy!
Jennifer: I really enjoyed reading SAINTS AND SINNERS. It was a fun follow-up to THE WHAM CURSE, which you published a couple of years ago, with some of the same characters reappearing. Would you talk about the characters that appear in both?
Virgil: The three main characters in both books are Deputies Bren Allred and Manny Sanchez, and San Carlo Tribal Officer Al Victor. Allred and Victor are longtime friends who worked together in the Globe Police Department. Sanchez had just been hired in his first full-time job as a law officer in The Wham Curse.
Victor is a full-blood Apache who grew up near San Carlos and now lives in Bylas, policing the eastern edge of the reservation. He is a veteran of the Middle East war, and served as a military policeman; he was trained by the army in Native American tracking skills and is an expert tracker. After returning home he hired on with the Globe PD. When he married his childhood friend and sweetheart, Bonnie, he went to work for the San Carlos Police and was assigned to Bylas.
Bren graduated from EAC with a double major in agriculture and law enforcement. He still has an interest in the family farm and helps out with some of the work and decision making, but he enjoys police work more. He served a mission for his church, and after finishing his last semester at EAC, took a job at the Globe Police Department. He married a Gila Valley girl he met at ASU, Monica, and after four years he was hired by the Mesa PD and he and Monica lived in east Tempe. He received regular promotions becoming a detective. He and Monica decided to move back to the Gila Valley to raise their family, so he hired on with the Graham County Sheriff.
Manny Sanchez is a highly intelligent and widely read young man of 21 in The Wham Curse, who has just completed his training in the Sheriff’s office and been assigned the rural Klondyke beat, with Bren as his supervisor. He is just learning the ropes, some of them the hard way, when he first appears. He makes good progress through the course of the first book, and continues to gain experience and mature in Saints & Sinners. He and his girlfriend, Jenny, add of touch of romance and humor to the stories, as we see their romance begin to mature in the second book.
Beside the protagonists’ love interests; there are several other recurring characters, their children, the Sheriff and other law officers, ranchers and towns people, and a few odd characters.
Jennifer: One of the great things in this series is the setting. It’s especially interesting to those of us here in the Gila Valley.
Virgil: I have long had a deep interest in the Southwest, especially my native Arizona. My stories have been centered in Eastern Arizona, particularly in the upper Gila Valley, Sulfur Springs Valley, Aravaipa Creek, the eastern portion of the San Carlos Reservation, and the beautiful mountains, desert, and wilderness encompassed in this region. The great farms and ranches and the remoteness from large urban centers has preserved a bit of the old west that you can no longer find in much of the state. This means places from Safford to Superior, Winkleman to Young, and Wilcox to Morenci-Duncan are not only a unique and varied habitat, but kind of a unique brand of civilization as well. It’s a great place to live and a fun place to write about. It’s an easy place to fall in love with, and I am hopelessly smitten.
The scenery, ecology, and history make it a great place to stage any story. But the reason Wham was written in this setting, is that it’s where the Wham Payroll Robbery happened, which was the basis of the story. Saints & Sinners still has my main characters working their part of the mystery in the Gila and Aravaipa Valleys, while other officers work in Phoenix, Tucson, Mexico, and even Spain.
Jennifer: I remember the WHAM CURSE plot as being something tied to the history of the Gila Valley. Is the plot for SAINTS AND SINNERS also a historically based story? Give us a snapshot of the plot—but no spoilers! (And I have to say, this plot had me hooked from the first chapter.)
Virgil: Saints & Sinners does touch on some history as part of the setting, but it is not central to the plot as it was in The Wham Curse. Instead there is a strong involvement with illegal border crossing, drug smuggling, and both the problem with and plight of illegal aliens. I had no idea when I started writing it that immigration would be at the top of the news when the book was released.
The plot for any mystery generally includes a “treasure,” something desirable, which incites violence. In my first book it was literally a trove of stolen gold and silver. In this book it is beautiful and gifted young woman who inadvertently becomes a liability to a ruthless gang. The struggle of the gang to assassinate the girl is opposed by our three rural cops. Like The Wham Curse, Saints & Sinners is a murder mystery, but it also has some elements of thriller, international intrigue, and adventure.
Jennifer: I know you lived in Globe, just a few miles up the road, but what’s your personal connection to the Gila Valley?
For as long as I can remember I’ve had a connection to the Gila Valley, and that has grown through the years. I was born and grew up in the unincorporated community of Central Heights between Globe and Miami. Even as a child I had some ties to the Gila and Sulfur Springs Valleys. My uncle was the farm foreman on the Sierra Bonita Ranch and we would visit fairly frequently, travelling via Safford and Bonita. Both my Uncle John and Uncle Harold married Mattice sisters from Pima, and a cousin still lives in Pima. I was at Camp Snow Flat on Mt. Graham as a Boy Scout during four summer sessions.
When I was sixteen I joined the LDS Church in Miami, which at the time was a part of the St. Joseph Stake of the church, based in Thatcher. So we travelled frequently to Thatcher and Pima for various church functions and meetings. I attended EAC and lived in Mark Allen Hall the first year it was opened, 1964. When I married my high school sweetheart the connection to the Valley grew – her great-grandfather was Christopher Layton and her maternal grandmother was a Randall who lived in Thatcher, her mom was born in Thatcher and her Dad in Franklin. I later taught classes for EAC in the Globe Gila Pueblo Campus, and Miami and San Carlos Learning Centers. I worked for Inspiration Copper at Miami, which was owned in succession by eight different companies, now Freeport McMoran, where I worked in the corporate office (why I now live in Tempe) and spent a great deal of time working in Safford and Morenci. Now my son lives near Solomon with his family.
In short I consider that whole region from Superior to Duncan home.
Jennifer: Your main characters are a trio of cops: a white, a Hispanic and an Apache from the San Carlos Reservation. Is this cross-cultural cooperation something you think happens often?
Virgil: While there is a tendency today (which I don’t agree with) to separate everybody into groups and subgroups by race, ethnicity, or other such things, I know of many situations where people of very diverse backgrounds work together and form friendships similar to those depicted in my books. Particularly the Apache character Al Victor is created from two real people that I have worked closely with. One was a policeman of Navajo descent on whom I based Al’s physical appearance and the other was an Apache instrument technician with whom I worked for about twenty years. Much of Al’s personality, sense of humor, opinions, and character (and even his last name) come from my Apache friend, as do many of the stories and anecdotes about reservation life I use in my books.
Jennifer: In your books you give a real sense of the procedural aspects of the crime solving. What is your background? How do you know so much about how to solve robberies, murders and kidnappings?
Virgil: I come from a family with many law officers from local, county, state, and federal agencies; my dad was a reserve deputy and a member of the search and rescue team. So I grew up hearing a lot of “cop talk.” In the late 1960’s I worked as a grade inspector on Interstate 8 in the Yuma sector where I became friends with several of the local Border Patrolmen. I was an ardent reader from a very early age and read lots of crime and mystery magazines, and loved murder mysteries and spy thrillers, westerns (which often have law officers), science, and history. I do quite a bit of research with my writing as well, and I belong to an organization, Public Safety Writers Association, that provides workshops, articles, conferences, etc. on police and emergency science and issues.
Jennifer: In the first dozen or so pages of SAINTS AND SINNERS, some brutal things happen. However, the rest of the book is quite tame, violence-wise. I’d rate it a PG-13, or even a strong PG. Is that where you’d put it? Who do you see as the main audience for your books?
Virgil: I agree with your assessment; I’m shooting for a “G” anytime I write. This story deals with Mexican drug cartels, who commit up to 45,000 murders per year; telling a related story can’t ignore that fact. I think because of the drug gang connection the book is much harder hitting than my first one, and about as “edgy” as I ever want to write. I write things that I will never regret having my grandchildren read. I have very traditional, family-oriented values and try hard to keep my stories safely in those bounds, so while violence is a part of a murder mystery, I portray it in a realistic, but non-lurid way.
I don’t have any hard evidence of who my readers are. My observation is that the Gila Valley is one of my strongest areas; I’ve made as many direct sales there as I have in metro Phoenix with a much larger population. People in California, Mississippi, Wisconsin, Arkansas, and Virginia have commented to me that they enjoy the descriptions of the “Arizona they used to live in” and can visualize the scenes. I think most of my readers are regular readers of mysteries and the connection to the place adds to their enjoyment.
Jennifer: These days book buyers have lots of options for where to find things to read. Where can your books be purchased? Are any available in local libraries?
Saints & Sinners was released for sale on May 1, so it is just hitting the market. It currently is available at Latter Day Cottage in Mesa & Tucson, and Pickle Barrel Trading Post in Globe; the Barnes & Noble at Metro Center in Phoenix has ordered it. It will soon be at Eastern Arizona Historical Museum in Pima, and Book Worms in Safford. It is also available online at Amazon in both print and Kindle versions; and online in print only at Barnes & Noble and Oak Tree Press.
I maintain a list of bookstores carrying my books, and links to the three online booksellers, as well as a lot of interesting information on my author webpage: http://virgilalexander.weebly.com/
The Tempe Public Library is the only library I am aware of that is currently lending Saints & Sinners, but I expect it to soon be at libraries in Safford, EAC, Miami, and Mesa- libraries now lending The Wham Curse.
Jennifer: Thanks so much for taking time to answer my questions! I really enjoyed the story in Saints and Sinners. I look forward to what you write next!