Essential oils distributor Dorcas Wiley is the boss everyone loves to hate. So when she turns up dead, killed by her own trophy, disgruntled saleswoman Cathy Broderick is the obvious suspect in her murder. Despite opportunity, motive and incriminating evidence, Cathy declares her innocence and enlists her mah jongg pals—Sydney Bonner and her cronies Marianne, Micki and Kat—to help save her from the death penalty.

Hot off a recent and nearly deadly investigation, the women are cautious about putting themselves in peril again. Syd’s spouse isn’t thrilled about another mystery in their lives, either, but he can’t resist the plea of Cathy’s husband. Soon, Syd is leading the way as they tangle with grumpy salespeople, the victim’s estranged husband and boyfriend, a mysterious housekeeper, a litigious customer, an annoyed sheriff and Cathy’s own arrogant lawyer.

The women have their own issues to deal with in their central Florida town of Serendipity Springs. Kat faces a health challenge, Micki fields a mysterious inquiry from her ex, Marianne has a chaotic anniversary and Syd wrestles with her husband over who’s really in charge. But nothing puts everyday life into perspective like the moment when their investigation brings them face to face with danger.

Author Interview

Barbara, thanks for stopping by Island Confidential! To start off, can you tell us about your protagonist?

There are actually four protagonists in this series, four friends who play mah jongg together and just happen to get involved investigating murders. In Bamboozled, Sydney Bonner takes the lead role, as she did in the first book, Craks in a Marriage, although in this second book her husband, Trip, partners up with her to find the real killer. Sydney is a former college dean, now retired. She tends to be the ringleader of her quartet. She speaks her mind and isn’t afraid to take action, when needed. Trip has had difficulty adjusting to retirement; besides golf, he spends his time taking on several projects which eventually involve Syd.

How alike are you and Sydney?

Sydney is the me I would like to be. She is tall where I am short. She speaks her mind and takes control of situations. I see myself doing that as well but not as much as I’d like. She is the deductive one of the group although not until she has done her research, which in this case means tracking down and questioning key suspects. In this book in particular she arrives at the murderer’s identity through a process of elimination using the facts she has garnered in her unofficial investigation with Trip as well as some pretty spot-on speculations.

Do your characters change and evolve throughout consecutive books in the series?

That is the plan, but it will only happen incrementally over several books. Thus far, Kat is the one undergoing the most changes in her life. After years of scrimping and taking care of her late mother, she is now living in luxury thanks to winning millions in a lottery. Although she has purchased a mini-mansion in Serendipity Springs, it is only through Micki’s efforts to help her spend that she is gradually loosening her purse strings. Though the introvert of the group, she has recently begun singing in local lounges, where her more outward persona emerges. In Book 3, Marianne will begin to seek more in her life beyond being wife, grandmother and part of the quartet.

Have you ever thought of killing someone that you know in real life–on the pages of a murder mystery, I mean?

I have with a few former bosses and also a relative but quickly rejected the ideas when I realized the legal implications. However, the feelings of resentment, hurt, humiliation, etc. engendered by those individuals could still be worked into the plot, although I haven’t done so yet. Ironically, the victim in Bamboozled is the boss, but she ended up in that position for other reasons.

How realistic is your setting? Do you take liberties, or are you true to life?

In some ways, Serendipity Springs (my fictional town in central Florida) is very realistic: the climate, the flora and fauna found throughout the area, the newness and relative high economic level of the citizens and some of the layout. The downtown lake and surrounding woods and walking path are similar to real life. Yes, I’ve taken liberties, especially as the series continues. My town is more of a grid, which I needed for a car chase in Bamboozled. Although I mention Orlando, Naples and Ocala, I also have invented some fictional nearby towns and areas. These will remain for reference in future additions to the series.

When the movie or TV series is made, who plays the major parts?

Funny you should ask. As a mechanism to put myself to sleep one night, I went through a mental list of what celebrities should be used as my models for each character. I probably gave too much attention of relative heights, but from my 5’1” world, it was important. Sydney and Micki are about the same height; what distinguishes them are their personalities, both extrovert, but Micki with a little more “flair.” The honor of playing Sydney goes to Sigourney Weaver (6’0”) with gray hair.

Sigourney Weaver. Photo: Gage Skidmore
Sigourney Weaver. Photo: Gage Skidmore

However, there is currently a Pepsi commercial that shows a woman who supposedly drank it in her bell bottom days and now, older, refuses to give her age. I couldn’t decide on any one person for Micki. Instead, she could be played by Christine Baranski (5’10”), Wendie Malick (5’10”), a taller Emmylou Harris (5’5”), or a taller Stacy London (5’7”), mainly for her dark hair with the gray streak. Marianne would be Annie Potts with her current hair color as Memaw in “Young Sheldon” if it were cut short. Kat would be Markie Post (with graying hair) or Emmylou Harris.

Though the new film, “Book Club,” doesn’t exactly feature the types of women I have in mind in this series, it does establish the spirit and gives credence to the idea that women past retirement age can still be vital, fun and sexy, which is what I want potential readers to know about my mahjonggistas. The same goes for my recent discovery of “Grace and Frankie,” which has been providing me with much entertainment and laughter in non-writing moments.

What’s the worst and best advice you’ve heard or received as an author?

A: The best advice comes from two different books on writing, which are part of my essential writing resources, Goal, Motivation and Conflict by Debra Dixon and Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain. The advice in GMC is exactly that: if she sticks to these, the author can successfully plot her book and understand its essence. Swain introduces the reader to the idea of scene and sequel, or stimulus and reaction and tells how a series of scenes are what make up a book. For me, that has meant that good writing is not just exposition; stories must go somewhere, have a reason for being. GMC helps me figure that out and Swain’s book tells me how to do it.

As for worst advice, I think it may have been early on in my writing career when fellow writers debated the benefits of being a pantser (write as you go) or a plotter (outline first, know exactly where you’re going). I had trouble conforming to either until I built up enough confidence in my writing to blend both, depending on what felt comfortable at the moment.

About The Author  

Barbara Barrett started reading mysteries when she was pregnant with her first child to keep her mind off things like her changing body and food cravings. When she’d devoured as many Agatha Christies as she could find, she branched out to English village cozies and Ellery Queen.

Later, to avoid a midlife crisis, she began writing fiction at night when she wasn’t at her day job as a human resources analyst for Iowa State Government. After releasing eleven full-length romance novels and one novella, she returned to the cozy mystery genre, using one of her retirement pastimes, the game of mah jongg, as her inspiration. Not only has it been a great social outlet, it has also helped keep her mind active when not writing.

Bamboozled, the second book in her “Mah Jongg Mystery” series, features four friends who play mah jongg together and share otherwise in each other’s lives. None of the four is based on an actual person. Each is an amalgamation of several mah jongg friends with a lot of Barbara’s imagination thrown in for good measure. The four will continue to appear in future books in the series.

Anticipating the day when she would write her first mystery, she has been a member of the Mystery/Romantic Suspense chapter of Romance Writers of America for over a decade. She credits them with helping her hone her craft.

Barbara is married to the man she met her senior year of college. They have two grown children and eight grandchildren.

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