Isabel Long Mystery Series, Working the Beat

Why I Write Mysteries

Another find while cleaning out my computer: this post I wrote last June for author Val Penny’s website. Val, who writes the Edinburgh Crime Series, is a fellow mystery writer at darkstroke books. This post has been updated since it was written while I was in the middle of writing Working the Beat, my newest book Isabel Long Mystery Series.

Hey, before I go further, just as the image above suggests, Chasing the Case, no. 1 in the series is available for free for Kindle readers on Sunday and Monday, Feb. 27-28, only.

Who doesn’t love a good mystery? I surely do, whether it’s in a book, a movie or TV show (especially from the UK), and on occasion, real life. And a few years ago, I decided I would create my own, and thus the Isabel Long Mystery Series began.

Let me back up a little. I didn’t start writing mysteries. I was drawn to what I would call literary fiction. I have completed five in that genre, two of which have been published. I have also delved into kids’ books, including one that is bilingual.

But it was after a close friend, Teresa Dovalpage, who is also an author, wrote her first mystery that I told myself to give it a try. And from reading and watching so many mysteries, I believe I figured it out from the get-go.

First, mysteries need someone who solves them. In my case, it’s Isabel Long, who uses the transferable skills of her former profession as a journalist to be a private investigator solving cold cases in the rural area where she lives. (Full disclosure, I have been a journalist for 35 years, and I long decided I could easily be a lawyer, detective, or if I were brave enough, a spy. I officially retired from that profession on Feb. 4.)

Isabel is smart, nosy, and a bit sassy, and people who know me would likely say I channel myself a bit through this character. But that’s where the similarities end. She’s a recent widow, mother of three grown kids and grandmother to a little one. Her personal life changes after she starts working as a part-time bartender at the town’s only bar and she becomes involved with its owner.

I gave Isabel an unusual sidekick, he 92-year-old mystery-loving mother who lives with her. (My real-life mother, now 97, is the inspiration.)

In the first book of this series, Isabel decides to solve a very cold case, one that happened 28 years earlier when a woman in her small town disappeared. It was also her first big story as a rooky reporter.

The setting for the series is the sticks of Western Massachusetts in the U.S., which I know well since I’ve lived there much of my life. The characters are not based on anyone real, but I feel they could easily live there. Many stay around through the series.

One important thing about watching or reading a mystery is that I want to be fooled until nearly the end. Please keep me guessing but don’t make the distractions and dead ends obvious. Give me characters who are complex and interesting. I love when all of that happens. I hope to do the same for my readers.

I will share a secret. Just like Isabel, I don’t start off knowing whodunnit. It’s as much a mystery to me as it is to her and we solve it together — an experience I find extremely satisfying.

As for writing book no. 5 in the series, Working the Beat … a few years ago, I went to a demolition derby at a local country fair. Something clicked inside me when a friend mentioned a derby might be a good place to find a body. That was all I needed to get started. The same goes for Isabel.

Working the Beat had a Jan. 27 release. I am already into the next one, tentatively called Finding the Lead. The lead or lede is a term for the opening sentence or paragraph of a news article, summarizing the most important aspects of the story. If you got to the end of Working the Beat — thank you — you’ll know who hires Isabel next to solve a 50-year-old mystery.


A reminder about the freebie promo. Here’s the link: Chasing the Case on Amazon


Here is the one for Val Penny’s website:

And the one for my books on Amazon: Joan Livingston Books on Amazon





Isabel Long Mystery Series

A Letter from Jack to Isabel

First, a little business. My publisher’s treat to you: Working the Beat is free for Kindle users for two days only, Feb. 12 and 13. After that it costs $3.99, which is not a terribly lot of money, but free is free. Here’s the

I was cleaning out files in my computer in preparation for getting a new one, when I found this piece I haven’t published on my website. I wrote it two years ago for my editor Miriam Drori’s blog series, Letters from Elsewhere. The letter, which I’ve updated, is written by Jack, one of the characters in my Isabel Long Mystery Series. Jack is the owner of the Rooster Bar and Grille, where Isabel works part-time. The two of them have developed a loving relationship. Jack’s a country guy through and through. Isabel will always be a newcomer to that town. She uses her skills as a former longtime journalist to solve cold cases in the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts as a P.I. And that worries the heck out of  Jack. Here I’ll share what he wrote her.

Dear Isabel,

I’ve never written a letter to a woman before. But I wanted to get a few things off my chest. Don’t worry, I ain’t breaking up with you, honey. I would lose the best bartender I ever hired if I did that. Yeah, I’m kidding.

The reason I’m writing is that I’m scared to death something bad is going happen to you being a private investigator. In your first case, you got knocked in the head so bad, I had to carry you out of the woods. Remember? Then you broke your collar bone when that ass drove you off the road. I do suspect something really bad almost happened when Gary Beaumont hired you. What really went on at that cliff? I’m guessing you’re holding back some, so I won’t worry about you. You’re right. I’m afraid to hear the whole story.

Then, I heard from my cousin Fred you might have been dealing with crooked cops. Isabel, what am I going to do with you?

You’re on your fifth case. I know your mother helps you out, but she can’t be with you all the time. Besides, she’s 93. What is she supposed to do to save you other than to try talking some sense into you?

Then, there are the characters you meet like that guy Victor Wilson. You and I both know what he’s up to on his property. Then there are those Beaumont brothers. How in the heck did I let you talk me into letting them drink at the Rooster. Oh, yeah, that dumb ass brother Larry saved you when that guy tried to bump you off. I won’t give either of those guys an inch.

We’ve been together since last November, well, except for a couple of months. I don’t want to get into that. I can say I’m one happy man when we’re together, and I’m not just talking about when we’re in bed. You’re different than the other women I’ve been with. Maybe I don’t tell you enough what you mean to me. I guess I’m kinda shy about that since the only other woman I told that to is dead. I don’t have to tell you who that was since she was your first case.

I understand why you are doing these investigations. You want to help people. I have no power to stop you. I just want you to be more careful although I know you’re as stubborn as hell and that what I say isn’t going to stop you from finding out what went wrong in these towns. I just don’t want you to get hurt. I don’t want to lose you cuz I love you.


Isabel Long Mystery Series

A Bar in Every Mystery

One constant in my adult fiction is that each one has a bar. Make that two in my new mystery, Working the Beat, the fifth in the Isabel Long Mystery Series.

The rural hilltowns of Western Massachusetts are the setting for this series. I am talking about populations of about a thousand people. Many of them are one-store, one-school, one-church, and one-bar kind of towns. For many, bars are gathering spots for the locals. That’s certainly true in Conwell, where Isabel Long, the series’ protagonist lives. The local watering hole is called the Rooster Bar and Grille.

Jack Smith owns the Rooster, and Isabel works there Fridays, music night, pouring mostly beer. She and Jack have a relationship much deeper than boss and worker.

And the Rooster’s customers, especially those she calls the True Blue Regulars, are often great sources for Isabel’s cases she’s trying to solve.

Jack Smith runs a friendly bar, but do something stupid and you’re out for six months. Do it again, and you might be banned forever. It took an intervention from Isabel to allow the Beaumont brothers back in, but then again, they did come to her rescue in no. 4 Killing the Story.

Baxter’s is another bar in my series. It’s more of a biker bar, and Dave Baxter, the owner, isn’t so particular who drinks there. In fact, many of the people who got kicked out of the Rooster are customers. Isabel will visit Dave because he knows what’s going on in the town of Caulfield and beyond. Sometimes she meets people of interest there. It’s a little tricky because Dave obviously has the hots for Isabel, but it’s not reciprocal.

One other bar has appeared in my series, Red’s Corner Lounge, in Dillard. This is a seedy little joint that was the setting for a pivotal scene in Killing the Story.

I will confess I’m not a big drinker — one good craft beer will do it for me — or what I would call a bar fly. But I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve spent in bars, raising a glass or bottle, and dancing with my husband when there’s a band. It’s a great place to people watch, a definite hobby of one. And I am fortunate our son, Zack, has a brewery in Shelburne Falls, the village where we live in Western Massachusetts. Floodwater Brewing is a friendly gathering place for the community, with music typically three nights a week. I certainly like going there for a beer and conversation.

Working the Beat is dedicated to Steve and Diane Magargal, the former owners of Liston’s in Worthington, which Hank and I frequented when we used to live in that town. No, the Rooster is not Liston’s, but it certainly was an inspirational place, that and when I tended bar for a long-closed restaurant in the same town.

In this excerpt from Working the Beat, Isabel and Jack are playing cards on what is a dead Friday night at the Rooster because of the Titus Country Fair, which is a popular with Jack’s customers. He didn’t even bother having a band play that night.

Jack shuffles the cards.

“Ready to get beat again?” he jokes.

But before I can answer, I hear two women laughing at the front door, two voices I would recognize anywhere. Cousins Marsha Dunlop and Annette Waters, aka the Floozy and Tough Cookie, are yakking it up.

“Where in the hell is everybody?” Marsha yells.

“At the Titus Country Fair, where else.” Jack puts down the deck. “Can I get you ladies somethin’ to drink?”

Annette snorts.

“Ladies? He sure got us wrong.” She waves her hand. “We’re all set for now. We just came by to see Isabel.”

The two of them move closer, one on either side of me. Both are wearing summer country casual, that is, tank tops and jeans, although Annette’s is a lot tighter than her cousin’s. She’s obviously on the prowl tonight. My keen sense of smell detects they’ve already imbibed in a few beers or something stronger, and maybe a few tokes of weed. Marsha’s bushy mane of hair tickles my shoulder.

“Me? What for?”

“You goin’ to the fair tomorrow?”

“Yeah, I’m taking my mother in the afternoon.” I glance at Jack when he coughs. “And then, I’m going with Jack to the demolition derby. Gotta see you in action, Annette. Heard you’re quite the driver.”

The two women make snorting laughs. Annette will be driving a car she and her son, Abe, fixed up. From what I’ve been told, this is the fifth year the Titus Country Fair has held a demolition derby, which the fair’s board decided correctly would pump up attendance. As Annette told my mother and me when we were at her garage not that long ago, she’s competed in the last two years, the first year on a dare. She was the first woman to compete in the derby. Now, there are a few other like-minded females who enter, although she claims they aren’t up to her driving skills. Her team’s name? Wild Woman. It could be Wild Women since Marsha helps on the sidelines, and yeah, they certainly fit that nickname. But both liked the name Wild Woman better. Ma and I saw the car, painted black with shocking pink lettering on the trunk: “Rough Waters Garage and Junkyard” and “Dear Old Dad Chet Waters.” It definitely looks like something a wild woman would drive.

“Just be careful,” my mother told her.

“Don’t you worry about me, Maria. I’ll just smash whatever car gets in my way,” she responded with a cackle. “This is my third year. I’ve figured things out.”

Now, inside the Rooster, Annette gives my arm a playful punch.

“What’s up?” I ask her.

“Glad to hear you and your mother will be at the fair in the afternoon. Make sure you go to the exhibit hall at around two. You won’t be disappointed.”

“Did you grow something?”

She laughs.

“Sure did, but nothin’ I could show at the fair. This is somethin’ else. Just come. Okay?”

This is unlike Annette to be so coy, but I’ll go along with it. My mother and I’ve grown fond of her ever since I took on her case to prove that her father, Chet, wasn’t too drunk to get out of his shack of a house when it caught fire, that someone had it in for him. It was my second, and it brought me in touch with a rather rough crowd, country style, including the Beaumont brothers, Gary and Larry, notorious drug dealers who still manage to get away with it. But like the Floozy and Tough Cookie, I grew to like the brothers when I got to know them better for my third and fourth cases.

But this isn’t the time to linger. Annette’s expecting an answer.

“My mother and I can do that. We’ll see you there. Promise.”

She nods.

“Good. Hey, we’re heading to the fair now. Horse pull night.”

“Didn’t realize you were such a fan,” I say. “I thought machinery was more your style.”

“She’s too much,” Marsha says as she gives her cousin a chop to the arm.

The Tough Cookie is all grins, which is a refreshing change from her usual scowl, well, except when she’s on the hunt for a man here at the Rooster or some other drinking establishment. Annette’s got her hair pulled into a nice ponytail and she’s wearing earrings, small gold hoops. She sure smells a lot nicer than her cousin. Now, I get it. She’s hot on one of the guys at the horse pull.

“So, who’s the guy you’re rooting for tonight?” I ask.

Ouch, now it’s my turn for a slap to the arm.

“You sure got me all figured out, Isabel,” Annette says with a snort.

The Tough Cookie mentions the name of a Semi-Regular Rooster who has a working farm one town over in Penfield. As I recall, he has a side business installing septic systems.

“Isn’t he married?”

“Was. Anyways don’t forget about tomorrow.”


That’s our son, Zack, on the right, and his brother, Ezra, pouring beer atFloodwater Brewing Co. in Shelburne Falls, Mass.


Here’s where you can get a copy of Working the Beat:


Isabel Long Mystery Series

How Journalism Shapes My Mystery Series

Isabel Long, the protagonist of my mystery series, was a former long-time journalist before she became a private investigator. So was I and Friday, Feb. 4 is my last day as one. However, I don’t plan to become a P.I. I will continue writing about one.

Working the Beat is no. 5 in my Isabel Long mystery series. It was released Jan. 27.

The series is set in the small, rural hilltowns of Western Massachusetts, where I got my start in theIG Working the Beat copy newspaper biz. I was hired as a correspondent — paid by the inch — to cover the hilltown where I lived, Worthington, Massachusetts, population 1,200, for the Daily Hampshire Gazette. I had no previous experience, but that didn’t seem to matter to the editor who hired me.

That experience grew into a 35-year career working for newspapers including The Taos News in New Mexico. My most recent gig was the Pioneer Editor-in-Chief overseeing three daily newspapers in Western Massachusetts — Greenfield Recorder, Daily Hampshire Gazette and Athol Daily News.

But back to the start, I reported first on Worthington and eventually I covered several towns, plus did regional stories. I loved breaking a news story and getting to know what people did. I went to town meetings and reported what interested the community from truck pulls to school events to country fairs. I covered fires and what little crime there was. I did profiles. A few of my stories went national. I even went to the White House.

One of the greatest benefits was listening to the way people talked and writing it down. I believe it has paid off with realistic dialogue in my fiction.

It also gave me insight into how people behave, and certainly I had a total immersion into the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts, which I use as a setting for much of my fiction.

And as an aside, working as reporter broke a 25-year writers block.

Back to Isabel, who also covered the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts until, like me, she moved up to being an editor. She lost her job managing a newspaper when it went corporate. (To set the record straight, that didn’t happen to me.) In Chasing the Case, no. 1 in the series, Isabel decides to revisit her first big story as a rookie reporter — when a woman went missing 28 years earlier from the fictional town of Conwell.

She relies on the skills she used as a journalist for that case and the ones after.  In Working the Beat, Isabel and her mother happened to be at the fair when they are approached by a woman who wants her to investigate the death of her grandson. Years ago, he supposedly fell into a ravine while everybody was watching the demotion derby.

By the way, since Isabel snagged a bunch of cold case files from her newspaper, it was an opportunity for me to write news stories again — although for made-up subjects.

Here’s the start of one with the headline: Death reported at Titus Country Fair

TITUS — A man’s body was found Sunday morning on the rocky hill behind where the demolition derby was held the previous night at the Titus Country Fair, police report.

State police have not released the man’s name, citing notification of next of kin. However, they said he was 21 and lived locally.

The cause of his death also was not released, pending the medical examiner’s report.

The hill overlooking the demolition derby was crowded with spectators Saturday night. The body was discovered the next morning when a crew went to pick up any trash left behind, according to Norman McLeod, the Titus Country Fair’s president.

“One of the guys happened to look over the hill and found him,” McLeod said. “Seems he had been there all night. Too bad. Maybe somebody could’ve helped him if they had found him sooner.”

McLeod said the man’s death is a first for the fair, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary next year. He noted the fair doesn’t allow alcohol to be served or fair-goers to bring it.

“Such a tragedy,” said McLeod, who declined to reveal the man’s name or any details.

The next story came the day after: Police rule death at Titus Country Fair an accident

TITUS — State police have identified the man whose body was found at the Titus Country Fair on Sunday morning as Lucas Page, 21, a Titus resident.

According to police, Page died of a brain injury when he fell down a ravine and his head hit rocky ledge.

Page was found dead Sunday morning when a crew came to clean the hill overlooking the arena, where a demolition derby was held the night before.

“This was an unfortunate case,” Titus Police Chief Byron Lively said. “My officers have been asking around, but we haven’t had any luck finding witnesses. It appears the young man had been drinking even though it’s not allowed and might have fallen to his death.”

Lively said it is unknown when Page fell. If it was during the derby, he said, the people in the crowd likely would have been concentrating on the action below. He cited the noise from the vehicles and the sizable crowd, who was focused on the event, the first year it was held at the fair, and the darkness.

Page is the grandson of Shirley Dawes, a Titus resident.

“He was a good person,” Dawes said in a phone interview. “Something isn’t right here. I’ve got to believe something else happened on that hill afterward.”

So what skills would Isabel find transferable? Certainly, breaking down the elements of a story and figuring out who to contact. Good interview skills are a must. Developing a network of sources for tips is another. And she’s got to be good kind of nosy.

And there are times when a journalist has to be a bit brave. For Isabel, that means talking with somebody who has something to hide — like maybe murdering another person. By the way, she’s really good at that.

IMAGE ABOVE: That’s my first press pass. By the way, I only had to use it twice to prove I was a journalist: at the White House and Cummington Fair.


Isabel Long Mystery Series

Meet Isabel Long’s Sidekick — Her Mother

Many sleuths have a sidekick. When I chose one for Isabel Long, the protagonist in my mystery series, I went for someone unusual — her 93-year-old mother, Maria Ferreira. Yeah, she’s Isabel’s “Watson.” And she’s an important character in the series, including no. 5 Walking the Beat.

Maria Ferreira, or Ma, as Isabel calls her, is a smart and spunky mystery-loving woman. So is the person who inspired her — my own mother, Algerina who is now 97. Being a big reader and a fan of my books, my mother gave her approval when I started the series. Yes, my mother is indeed IG Working the Beat copya character in my Isabel Long Mystery Series.

I also credit my mother for getting me hooked on reading, taking us kids twice a week to the town’s public library to stock up on books.  Thanks, Mom.

Both Isabel and her mother, Maria Ferreira are widows. Maria came to live with her in the tiny town of Conwell in Western Massachusetts because both were tired of living alone. Also, Isabel has the most space of her siblings.

It’s been a bit of an adjustment for Maria moving to the sticks, as she calls it, from the state’s seacoast. But the town has a library that supplies her with those mysteries and smutty romances she likes. And she’s found a whole different culture in country living. She’s also a big fan of Isabel’s guy, Jack, who owns the town’s only bar.

Maria likes to stay up late reading and watching TV. Being Portuguese, she makes family favorites like kale soup.

She’s also got a lead foot when she’s driving, or as Isabel says, it’s like her mother is driving the getaway car in a bank robbery. Although in Working the Beat, she admits she’s about ready to give up driving for good. She’ll let Isabel do the driving.

Isabel often takes her mother when she interviews potential clients and even persons of interest, if there’s no danger involved. She counts on Ma’s observations.

And Ma encourages Isabel to continue being a private investigator. Actually, she is just as excited as Isabel about finding new cases to solve. Isabel says she inherited her mother’s nosy gene, which came in handy when she was a journalist. Now, it will help her as a P.I.

Here is an excerpt from Working the Beat. Isabel and her mother are at the Titus Country Fair, when Isabel is approached by Shirley Dawes, who wants her to investigate the death of her grandson.
After a brief discussion, they made plans to meet Shirley at her home.

“What’s your opinion, Ma?”

“I like her. She’s a little rough around the edges like a lot of the people we meet here,” she says. “But it’s about time we found a new case. It was getting a little boring.”

I smile. My 93-year-old mother is game for a new mystery to solve.


She nods.

“I have to say the woman’s timing is right on, finding you here at the fair and you going to that demolition derby tonight. Maybe somebody there remembers where they found her grandson’s body.”

“It’ll be too dark tonight for photos. But I could come back tomorrow. You, too, if you want.”

“One day at the fair’s enough for me. You can go without me.” She smiles. “But maybe you could bring me back something to eat.”

“That works.”

Then, I have one of those ah-ha moments. Ma spots it, too.

“What?” she asks.

“I just recalled something. Remember those cold case folders I snagged from the newsroom?”

“You think this case could be in one of them?”

“There’s a good chance.”

After a chain bought the Daily Star, those in charge of the newspaper told me I had to reapply for the position of editor-in-chief. It turned out everyone had to do the same, but the request bugged the hell out of me, so I quit instead. I mean I worked for that paper, starting as a freelance correspondent before I clawed my way to the top, where I was the boss for fifteen years. On that last day, the then-publisher — yeah, he lost his job, too, but later — walked me to my desk and kept watch while I emptied the drawers of my personal stuff, plus a bunch of folders I had been keeping. They contained clippings, records, and notes for stories that had unanswered questions although I didn’t tell the publisher that when he perked up and noticed. My first case, the disappearance of Adela Collins twenty-nine years ago, was in one of the folders. None of my other cases were. But I could have held onto the one for Lucas Page.

And now that I’ve talked with Shirley, I recall more details about our previous meeting. The woman wasn’t content to talk with the reporter who covered her grandson’s death. She insisted on meeting the person in charge, the paper’s receptionist told me over the phone. So, I went to the front of the newsroom, introduced myself, and when I recognized she was feeling a bit out of place, I escorted her to my office. I heard her out. It was the same old story I heard from my other cases. The local cops didn’t try very hard. Maybe the newspaper could do better. I recall the disappointment that fell over her face when I told her we couldn’t, and I felt badly about it. Of course, I’m not about to bash the local cops who do their best to keep law and order in their small towns, typically dealing with domestic abuse, petty crime like break-ins, and accidents. Murder isn’t exactly their forte. They call on the state cops for that.

I come to attention when my mother calls my name.

“You there, Isabel, or are you off somewhere else?”

I laugh. Jack says the same thing.

“Uh-huh, I was thinking. It could very well be that one of those folders contains information about her grandson’s case, but I won’t know until we get home. I gesture toward the trailer selling Polish food. “How about I get you a kielbasa sandwich to go? I saw you checking it out earlier. Okay? I’ll go stand in line.” I point toward an empty bench. “You can wait there for me. I shouldn’t take too long. Anyway we gotta get home soon. I’ve got a hot date tonight with Jack.”

My mother smiles.

“I hope he doesn’t mind if you do a little snooping.”

“Oh, I believe Jack’s getting used to it.”


That’s a photo of my mother, Algerina, taken about five years ago.


You can find Working the Beat here: