How a Nice Southern Girl Ended Up Writing about a UFO

Frankie Y. Bailey 2Frankie Bailey has five books and two published short stories in a mystery series featuring crime historian Lizzie Stuart. The Red Queen Dies, the first book in a near-future police procedural series featuring Detective Hannah McCabe, came out in September, 2013. The second book in the series, What the Fly Saw is due out in March 2015. Frankie is a former executive vice president of Mystery Writers of America and a past president of Sisters in Crime.
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Although being a criminal justice professor and a mystery writer might seem to go together like peanut butter and strawberry jam, I occasionally have to explain why I write mysteries to people who don’t read crime fiction. Mystery readers “get it” – but those readers who have been following my Lizzie Stuart series may be wondering about my new series. Lizzie Stuart is a crime historian. When I first started to write the series, I drew on my own research. I still do, but now Lizzie has taken on a life of her own. Fourteen years after the first book, she is the director of the Institute for the Study of Southern Crime and Culture. In my short story in the July 2014 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, she receives a 1930s black velvet coat with a claret hood from an anonymous donor. I came across the real-life image of that coat when I was doing research for a nonfiction book about dress, appearance, and criminal justice. Lizzie is African American. Hannah McCabe, my protagonist in my second series, is biracial. McCabe is a police detective in Albany, New York. But this new series has a twist. The Red Queen Dies opens in October 2019 with a news anchor reminding viewers of the approaching anniversary of the UFO sighting that occurred in 2012.

Mentally, I found it a leap through time and space from Lizzie, who is still back in 2004, to Hannah, who in her second book, What the Fly Saw, is in the year 2020. I asked myself why I sailed right past the present into the future. I pulled the idea for my new series out of the air after a conversation with Marcia Markland (now my editor at St. Martin’s). Actually, Sean Connery deserves some of What the Fly Sawthe credit. I was thinking about his movie, Outland, in which he plays a marshal – High Noon on a space station. In the e-mail I sent to Marcia, the third series idea on my list was “near-future police procedural set in Albany, New York”. That was the idea Marcia loved. I thought it might be fun to try. But to write the series, I not only had characters to create, I had a world to build.

As I pondered, I glanced up and saw my copy of Alice in Wonderland on a bookshelf. And I realized I could have a Broadway actress who had played Alice as a child and the Red Queen as an adult come to Albany to work on a play. Her play would be based on the true story of Henrietta Irving – the young actress who tried to kill John Wilkes Booth during a drunken lovers’ quarrel while they were performing in Albany. I decided my fictional actress, British-born Vivian Jessup, would become the third victim of a possible serial killer. Suddenly, I was writing a police procedural with an Alice in Wonderland theme, set in the near future, but drawing on Albany’s history and the several chilling coincidences that forever link the city to the Lincoln assassination.

As I envisioned that first book and the series, I knew I wanted to be far enough in the future so that the social, political, and environmental issues we are dealing with now would have assumed greater urgency. Yet, I didn’t want to be so future-forward that I would be writing science fiction rather than a mystery novel. But after reading some comments from near-future writers, I began to understand the pitfalls of setting a series so close to the present. The present becomes the future more quickly than writers can write and publish. Things happen. The things that happen can be especially problematic if you are writing about a real place. Several writers argued the wisdom of adding a “twist” that would establish the fact that the series exists in a “parallel” or “alternate” universe. That was how I came to open The Red Queen Dies with a news anchor updating viewers on the plans underway in Las Vegas for the annual celebration of the sighting of a black boomerang-shaped UFO that sent NORAD fighter jets scrambling. The UFO disappeared in a burst of light and has never been seen again, but the effects of that sighting can still be felt. Some people celebrate the anniversary; others anticipate it with dread. And people go on about their daily lives.

The Red Queen DiesI have always assumed Lizzie Stuart exists in my world – or, at least, in a fictional version of my world, in the recent past. But if Lizzie should ever meet Hannah, Lizzie will have crossed over into Hannah’s parallel world, which is much like our own but has its own historical timeline. When I started thinking about fictional time and space, my worlds collided and I understood what I have been doing. Without giving it a great deal of thought, I have been building a universe inside my head that links all my fiction. My two protagonists are linked in ways of which neither is aware. They may never meet. But I know the story, and I hope that will make my story-telling richer.

So that’s how a nice Southern girl – who was all about history – ended up writing a near-future police procedural series. In the next book in the series, What the Fly Saw (due out in March), a funeral director is killed with his own bow and arrow. McCabe not only has an unusual murder to solve and a political minefield to navigate – she still needs to find a name for the family’s rescue dog (who arrived in The Red Queen Dies).

Here’s a photo of “The Egg,” the Center for the Performing Arts at the Empire State Plaza here in Albany. Driving toward the Plaza one day, I looked up and thought as I always do that it looks more like a moored spaceship than an egg. And that was how the idea of a UFO appearing over the Mojave was born.


The Egg, Albany, NY

The Egg, Albany, NY