Writing mysteries is no easy task, especially in modern times. With news bits and fragmented stories vying for everybody’s attention on social media apps, picking up an actual book may seem somewhat foreign to the general population in 2023. “Desert Deadline,” a new mystery penned by award-winning local author Michael Craft, delightfully proves there is nothing quite like reading a real book.
As inventive as it is captivating, “Desert Deadline” gives readers a winning tale about an unlikely crime-solving duo— Dante is white and gay, Jazz is Black and straight. It’s the second outing for Dante and Jazz, in fact. Craft’s first book, “Desert Getaway,” introduced these characters and went on to nab a MWA Edgar Awards nominee for the inaugural Lilian Jackson Braun Award. Craft, who has been publishing gay-themed fiction for more than 30 years, infuses this new page-turner with just as much creativity, sass and intrigue as last year’s tale.
The plot of “Desert Deadline” finds the so-called queen of romance writing on a working visit to the desert. Well, it’s all personal typos henceforth. Things just don’t go well for Maude Movay. The reclusive romance author is on a grueling deadline to finish her multi-million-dollar book deal. She checks into one of Dante’s rentals to pen a treasured blockbuster. She “checks out on a gurney.”
Let the mystery begin.
“The central kernel of this plot was inspired by what I perceive as the growing role of romance in mystery writing,” Craft explains of the book’s premise. “Traditionally and effectively, romance has often been used as a background subplot that provides a throughline for all the books in a mystery series. But now there’s a trend to put the romance front and center, with the mystery merely supporting it, rather than vice versa. This book is my not-so-subtle dig at that development.”Dig away at it he does. Craft aptly captures the vibe of his characters, the urgency at hand, and the Coachella Valley, which becomes another one of his vibrant characters.
“My novels are often lightly cross-pollinated with characters that have appeared, or have at least been referenced, in books from my earlier series.” Craft says. “These background threads help bring a sense of unity to the overall body of my writing. The reader doesn’t need to be familiar with the prior books to understand the current story, but those who do connect the dots are rewarded with little aha-moments along the way.”
In “Desert Deadline,” for instance, readers are introduced to new character in the series, a lawyer named Allison Harper. As the story rolls along, some readers may recognize her from earlier books Craft has written that are not related to this outing.
“As a fiction writer, I find it thrilling to bring back characters in unexpected new settings, where they seem to take on a life of their own,” he says. “They can develop in ways that I would never have imagined. And that’s the kind of creative payback that tells me when a story really clicks.”
Meanwhile, as Dante and Jazz find themselves attempting to solve yet another murder, suddenly another tragedy strikes, one that just hits too close to home. This adds even more intrigue for readers. The duo set out to find Maude’s killer, save a fortune and rescue an innocent child.
“A murder mystery is always a puzzle that the reader is trying to solve before the protagonist does. It’s a tenant of fair play in mystery writing that you always give the reader sufficient clues along the way to figure out the central crime,” Craft says. “The task of the writer is to bury those clues in such a way that the reader doesn’t know it when they encounter it and I think I’ve gotten better at this over the years. In my many of my earlier mysteries, I always kind of carried myself on the back, saying these are very well written and they’re excellent character studies and so on. Even though the whodunit it itself may not be the main point. The point is the puzzle.”
Craft’s process for creating a compelling “puzzle” stand out. He says he’s a “dedicated outliner,” rather than “pulling the plot from the seat of my pants.” He plans everything in advance.
“If you think about how a picture puzzle is constructed on a kitchen table, you start with the big picture, then you cut it up into little pieces, put it in the box, shake it real hard, and then dump it on the table,” he explains. “And you tell the person who’s playing the game, ‘OK, put it together, figure it out.’ I take that exact same approach in writing my mysteries. When I finally sit down to write it, I’ve done a lot of thinking and a lot of research and a lot of outlining and note taking.”
He’s happy that the book, set to release July 10, is coming out this summer. A seasoned author, Craft has written 19 novels, four of which were honored at finalists for Lambda Literary Awards. Originally from the Midwest, Craft now lives in Rancho Mirage. He adds that he’s thrilled to be writing about LGBTQ characters.
“The coming-out story is now less of a mainstay of gay fiction,” he’s quick to add, however. “The Stonewall uprising, considered the birth of the gay-rights movement, was 54 years ago, this month. I came out three months later, in September, during the first week of my sophomore year of college. I recall a gay couple, Chicago friends, both professionals, in the 1980s. They picked an apartment building as their home because it allowed them separate doorbells in the lobby.
“I love writing about these characters,” he adds. “I’ve often said that I didn’t choose mystery writing, mystery writing chose me.”
Learn more about Michael Craft and upcoming book events at michaelcraft.com.
Greg Archer’s features on the entertainment industry have appeared in the USA Today Network, MovieWeb, The Advocate, Palm Springs Life, and other media outlets. His memoir, “Grace Revealed,” chronicles his Polish family’s odyssey during World War II. gregarcher.com.