Vintage Murder by William S. Shepard

My guest today is William S. Shepard. Prize winning mystery writer, William is the creator of a new genre, the diplomatic mystery, whose plots are set in American Embassies overseas. That mirrors Shepard’s own career in the Foreign Service of the United States, during which he served in Singapore, Saigon, Budapest, Athens and Bordeaux, in addition to five Washington tours of duty.

His books explore this rich, insider background into the world of high stakes diplomacy and government. He evokes his last Foreign Service post, Consul General in Bordeaux, in Vintage Murder, the first of the series of four “diplomatic mysteries.” The second, Murder On TheDanube, now also available on Kindle, mines his knowledge of Hungary and the 1956 Revolution. In Murder In Dordogne Robbie Cutler, his main character, is just married, but their honeymoon in the scenic southwest of France is interrupted by murders. The most recent of the series, The Saladin Affair, has Cutler transferred to work for the Secretary of State. Like the author, Cutler arranges trips on Air Force Two – now enlivened by serial Al Qaeda attempts to assassinate the Secretary of State.

Anne - Welcome to my little corner of cyberspace, William. Let’s not waste a precious second of our time together. Tell us about your book.

William - “Vintage Murder” is set in Washington, Bordeaux and Paris. It pits a young American diplomat, Robbie Cutler, against a vicious terrorist group, which is blackmailing the great wine estates of the region. The novel begins at a dinner to celebrate the new vintage, at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., as America’s leading wine critic, while tasting the first wine, is poisoned. Cutler, on home leave from the American Consulate General in Bordeaux, is present at the dinner, and on his return to Bordeaux, finds the murder is front page news. An inquisitive and charming French newspaperwoman, Sylvie Marceau, interviews Robbie about the murder. Soon they are finding excuses to see each other again. Neither one dreams that they will become colleagues in uncovering a terrorist scheme against the most famous Bordeaux wine estates.

It seems that there is an American connection to the blackmailers, as a French winery owner tells Robbie Cutler, the American Consul, that the blackmailer speaks English with an American accent! With the authority of the American Ambassador, Cutler pours through past visa files to see if he can identify possible suspects. At the same time, he and Sylvie tour the wine regions, and uncover several more estate owners who are being blackmailed. Apparently their detective work is getting too productive, as a car bomb set to murder Cutler is set.

The visit of a prominent United States Senator, on the national ticket as nominee for Vice President, visits Bordeaux. Robbie travels with him to Bayonne and Biarritz on the Basque coast. At a dinner in Biarritz the terrorists start to show their hand, and a speech by the Senator in the Basque interior becomes an invitation to assassination. Robbie and Sylvie must discover the plot’s leaders, even as they discover their feelings for each other.

Anne - Is it part of a series?

William - Yes, Vintage Murder is the first in my diplomatic mysteries series. In the second, Murder On The Danube, Robbie has been transferred to the American Embassy in Budapest, Hungary. There, against the background of the Hungarian Revolution against the occupying Soviet Union, a brave group of street fighters defended their nation. Now, years later, a killer is trying to kill the survivors. Robbie Cutler is called to solve the mystery when a prominent American is murdered in the old section of Budapest. His efforts reopen the past – and result in a Russian Mafia contract killer being retained to kill him.

That isn’t the only peril Robbie faces. He is attracted to the young wife of a fellow diplomat, and they start lunching together. A visit from Robbie’s sister Evalyn uncovers that little secret, and she tells him off. Chastened, Robbie is back in touch with Sylvie Marceau. She is now a national television correspondent, and is sent to cover the visit of French President Sarkozy to neighboring Prague. Robbie meets her there, and they are soon engaged to be married. 

The story continues in “Murder In Dordogne,” which will be posted on Kindle in a few months. Robbie and Sylvie are now on their honeymoon in the beautiful, rustic southwest region of France. An old murder interrupts their honeymoon. Robbie decides that he must solve it, and he does – while not focusing on another murder plot, this one aimed at him! Fortunately, his bride is also a skilled amateur sleuth. From now on, they will solve mysteries together! 

Anne - Of all the characters you’ve created, does one hold a special place in your heart? Why?

William - Robbie’s Uncle Seth Cutler (his great uncle, actually) is the surprise favorite of many readers. He is a nationally prominent man, a former Time Magazine” Man Of The Year,” who was an intelligence operative during World War Two, then became a school headmaster in New England. He led the fight for equal education for minorities and for young women nationally from his school. Uncle Seth kept his intelligence connections, and many of his former students are prominent in both political parties. When Robbie needs to know what is really going on in Washington, Uncle Seth can let him know, by coded messages. It is the murder of Uncle Seth’s fiancĂ©e during the war that Robbie solves in “Murder In Dordogne.”

Anne - What activity consumes your time when you are away from the keyboard?

William - I teach courses on American history, writing, and French wines at Chesapeake College, our community college here on the Maryland Eastern Shore.

Anne - Have you experienced writer’s block?

William - Yes, once. I was nearly through writing Murder On The Danube. Robbie Cutler is pouring over the past, to discover what happened during the Hungarian Revolution. If he knew that, then he would understand why a killer is trying to murder surviving members of the resistance group now. Then I was informed that those records are still a state secret, and are never made public! That stopped me cold for three months. But I guess it is true that the brain keeps working when one is asleep, for one night I awoke, with the idea for solving the difficulty. It has to do with Edgar Allan Poe and “The Purloined Letter", which you’ll recall involves a letter being hidden – in plain sight! That was the insight that I needed to finish the book.

Anne - Would you share an excerpt from Southeast Asian Quartet: “Disappearance from Moonlight Cottage” with us? 

William – My pleasure.

The facts of Jim Thompson’s disappearance from Moonlight Cottage, in the
Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, on that Easter Sunday in 1967 were well known. They had been sifted finely over the years for clues and meaning. For how could the most famous American living in Thailand, a trained jungle survivor, intelligent and in good physical condition, simply vanish?
And yet, and yet ... that is what had happened. A few days after his 61st birthday, at the suggestion of his friend, Mrs. Connie Mangskau, Thompson had agreed to spend a few days on vacation in the Cameron Highlands, so named because this hill station, at an elevation of several thousand feet, provided a welcome contrast to the sweltering heat and humidity of Malaysia and Singapore. Moonlight Cottage was owned by Dr. T.G. Ling, a distinguished Chinese physician, and his wife Helen, an American who ran a highly successful antiques shop in Singapore. Jim Thompson and Mrs. Mangskau looked forward to a pleasant Easter weekend relaxing in the refreshing hill climate. The Lings were gracious hosts, and Moonlight Cottage was an American ideal of luxurious but unpretentious and comfortable British living. There was a family staff led by Mohammed the cook to look after them.
On Easter Sunday, all went to services at the small Church of England in Tanah Rata. Thompson walked alone to the foot of the hill by their cottage, and was picked up by the Lings in their car. They attended services, and then bought some newspapers, and returned to Moonlight Cottage to get their picnic baskets. Upon their return, as planned, all went for naps, the Lings to their room, and Mrs. Mangskau to her room, which adjoined the Lings. Thompson, when they saw him last, was in the cottage’s living room, preparing they thought to go to his own room in the back of the cottage, to have his nap.
When the Lings and Mrs. Mangskau got up from their naps, Thompson was not in the cottage. Furthermore, his bed had not been slept in. The Lings recalled having heard through their open window the sound of an aluminum chair being moved on the porch, and a while later, they had heard footsteps – the heavier steps of a European.
But no trace of Jim Thompson was ever found.
It is time for the mystery to be solved.

Anne – Thank  you! Where can readers find you online?

William – At my website and on Facebook.

Readers, as always, your comments are welcome and appreciated. Become a follower to ensure you receive every author interview, announcement and/or blog post. J Happy reading!

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Trev said...

Thanks for doing the interview :)

Anne K. Albert said...

One of my favorite things about blogging is the people I meet. Thank you for dropping by, Trev. I'm sure William appreciates it as much as I do!

Marja said...

Great interview! Your series sounds most interesting, and I know I'll have to look into it. Thanks for sharing.

William said...

I appreciate your nice comments. Actually, my family's favorite book in the series is the next one, Murder In Dordogne. The diplomatic sleuth and his girl friend are now on their honeymoon. Towards th end of the story he does his Hercule Poirot number, solving the crime, then his bride calmly tells him about a murder plot that he never suspected!! Should be out on Kindle in a month or two. William S. Shepard