Coincidence and Character

As a journalist, Betty Webb interviewed U.S. presidents, astronauts who walked on the moon, and Nobel Prize-winners, as well as the homeless, the dying, and polygamy runaways. The dark Lena Jones mysteries, based on stories she covered as a reporter, include this year’s Desert Wind, given a starred review by Publishers Weekly; Desert Lost (“One of the Top Five Mysteries of 2009”, Library Journal); Desert Noir (“A mystery with a social conscience,” Publishers Weekly); and Desert Wives, (“Eye-popping,” New York Times). Betty’s humorous Gunn Zoo series debuted with the prize-winning The Anteater of Death, followed by The Koala of Death. A long-time book reviewer at Mystery Scene Magazine, Betty is a member of National Federation of Press Women, Mystery Writers of America, Women Writing the West, and the National Organization of Zoo Keepers.

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A mystery writer is warned against using too much coincidence in a plot, and I’ve always been on guard against that dangerous form of deus ex machina. Not so in life. There, I embrace coincidence, and accept it as the Universe’s way of telling me something. For instance…

During the first stop on my recent book tour, I arrived almost an hour early at the strip mall where Clues Unlimited, in Tucson AZ, is located. Instead of waiting in my car, I decided to visit The Egg Connection at the other end of the mall and have an early lunch.

Some background. My new book is Desert Wind, a Lena Jones mystery which – among other things – discusses uranium mining at the Grand Canyon, and draws a parallel to the 1952 through 1992 testing of A-bombs in Nevada and the many deaths connected to the subsequent nuclear fallout. The ghost of John Wayne, who once filmed a movie in one of the contaminated areas, plays a recurring character in Desert Wind, but rather than being his standard rough-and-tough-cowboy character, Wayne serves as the book’s Greek chorus.

Now back to the Egg Connection. When I walked into the restaurant, I received a happy shock. Instead of the usual eggery décor (ferns, etc.), I found myself surrounded by John Wayne memorabilia. Dozens of Wayne film posters. Saddle blankets. Bridles. Spurs. A replica of the Oscar which Wayne won for “True Grit.” Grinning, I took a seat at a table beneath a street sign bearing the name, “John Wayne Boulevard.”

An omen? If so, not the obvious one.

I asked my waiter – a young man of around 20 – who the John Wayne fan was, and he replied that his father had seen every film Wayne ever made. After giving the waiter my order for what turned to be the best Eggs Hollandaise I’ve ever eaten, I told him I was an author doing a signing nearby, and handed him a Desert Wind bookmark and flyer. “Give these to your dad,” I said, “He might enjoy the book.”  The waiter murmured something about maybe getting his father a birthday present, then went off to turn in my order.

And that was that, I thought.

But an hour later, at Clues Unlimited, while I was discussing the research I’d done for Desert Wind, the young waiter from the John Wayne eggery walked in. He listened for a while, then bought a copy of my book. After my talk was over, he asked if I’d personalize it for his father. I was happy to. The rest of the crowd left as soon as their books were signed, but not this kid. He stayed, and in a shy voice, said, “Would you mind telling me how you became a writer? I’ve been thinking, well, that maybe I could be one, too.”

As it turned out, he was a voracious reader who had read everything from Agee to Zola, and had been writing in secret for years. But even though a well-known bookstore sat in the same strip mall as his parents’ restaurant, for some reason he’d never been in there. Not only that, he confessed he’d never met a “real live writer” before.

So we talked. For the next half hour we discussed formal creative writing programs (the University of Arizona has an excellent one), workshops, retreats, and various methods of publishing. I told him everything I could think of at the time, then gave him my email address, saying he could email me whenever he had a question.

“But I have a million questions!” he said.

“No problem,” I answered. “When I first started out, I had a million questions, too, but I didn’t know any writers. Now you do. And by the way, lots of other ‘real live writers’ give talks at Clues Unlimited. We writers tend to be a friendly bunch, and most of them will be happy to help you, too.”

After shaking hands and promising to keep in touch, I left Clues Unlimited and continued on my tour.

Coincidence?  Maybe.

But John Wayne – who was a great believer in Fate — wouldn’t have thought so.

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To read the first chapter of Desert Wind – which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly — log onto