Q&A with Peggy Blair, author of The Beggar's Opera and The Poisoned Pawn

A lawyer for more than 30 years, Peggy Blair is the author of mystery thrillers The Beggar's Opera and its recently released sequel The Poisoned Pawn.

Featuring hard-working Inspector Ricardo Ramirez, head of the Havana Major Crimes Unit, who is haunted and even aided by the "ghosts" of the victims of murders he is investigating, the two novels are set between Cuba and Canada and feature fast-paced plots and more twists and turns than you can shake a stick at.

The author discusses her novels and characters in this Q&A exclusive to The Beat Magazine.

A lot of unfinished business from The Beggar's Opera is dealt with in The Poison Pawn. Was your first novel written with an eye to a sequel?
I had in mind a series, for sure. Writing a sequel to answer the questions people raised about the first book seemed like an obvious way to go about it. I certainly planted enough in the first book to allow me to develop a sequel. For example, the priest found at the Ottawa airport with a laptop full of pornography in The Beggar's Opera becomes a major part of the plot in The Poisoned Pawn.

The title of your second novel is derived from a chess line and there are allusions to chess throughout the story. Are you a chess player?
I played when I was really young, under nine. Nothing since then. I have to look up all the moves I refer to. My nephews are phenomenal chess players at a competitive level and my brother is terrific at it too. I suppose I could ask them for help!

Could you comment on your decision to have the storyline of The Poisoned Pawn split almost evenly between Cuba and Canada? Is this plot device likely to be continued in future books in the series?
It is split that way in Hungry Ghosts, the third in the series as well. But after that, the series will return to Cuba, perhaps with the occasional point of contact with the Canadian characters. It gets hard to come up with plot devices that would keep this ensemble together all the time. Detective Charlie Pike may get his own series someday, though. I love him.

Although this is only the second novel in the series, your protagonist, Inspector Ricardo Ramirez, has already revealed himself as a highly complex character. How would you describe him?
Very complex, as most people are. But he lives in a complicated world, coping with shortages, trying to do his job amidst corruption in a restrictive and highly politicized context, particularly when foreigners are involved. I like to think of him as always balancing on the knife edge of corruption.

Both novels deal with serious issues like institutionalized child abuse, child pornography, mistreatment of native peoples, and corruption in high places. How are these issues important to you as a novelist and lawyer?
I was a lawyer for 30 years. Ten of those were spent as a criminal defence lawyer and prosecutor. The next ten were spent as in human rights and Aboriginal law, mostly defending charges invoking Aboriginal and treaty rights in the criminal courts and negotiating Aboriginal resource rights on the First Nations side. I spent the last six or seven years of my legal career hearing cases of the terrible sexual and physical abuse of Aboriginal children in Indian residential schools. So I guess these are a big part now of how I perceive the world.

Are we to assume you are no longer on the Christmas card lists of the Vatican and the Canadian and Cuban governments?
Well, the Vatican hasn't seen this book yet but a few weeks after I sent it off to my editor, the Pope's butler was charged with leaking information about corruption to the press. So I don't think they'll be surprised by anything in it. I doubt very much that the Canadian government has paid any attention to it, or the Cuban government, for that matter, but the information in it that they might find uncomfortable is already out there in the news every day.

Both novels contain a hint of the supernatural. Why have you included this element?
I thought it made Ramirez more interesting; a bit larger than life. I tried writing his character without them, and he's just not as complicated. Odd that introducing dead people to the story turned out to be what made it come alive. But it also makes it interesting to write. Clearly you can believe in God without believing in ghosts. But can you believe in ghosts if you don't believe in God? So far, Hector Apiro would say you can't but I think some of those discussions that he and Ramirez have in the morgue are really trying to wrestle with some of the really serious questions about life and death and what we believe and fear. The ghosts allow me to create those discussions.

Have you had any feedback from any Cuban readers, expatriate or otherwise?
The book is not available in Cuba so I'll restrict myself to Cuban expatriates. I had one woman tell me she was grateful that someone was telling the truth about what goes on there. Another said she thought it was pretty accurate.

Is your next book already underway? If so, will it mark a clean break from the storyline of the first two?
The third book is already written. Hungry Ghosts is not a sequel but it will certainly carry forward part of the storyline. It takes place a few months later when Ramirez gets pulled into an investigation into the death of a prostitute. It occurred to me that when we have hundreds of missing and murdered Aboriginal prostitutes across the country, we shouldn't assume that they are only being murdered by someone who lives in Canada. It's a global era, after all. And so in Hungry Ghosts, Ramirez's investigation is paralleled by one being undertaken by Detective Charlie Pike, without either investigator realizing what the reader has already figured out: That they are looking for the same killer. The plot is more linear but just as complicated, I think. It's my favourite of the three.

Richard Young is the publisher and managing editor of The Beat Magazine.

[Editor's Note: Richard Young reviews Peggy Blair's The Poisoned Pawn in the SPRING 2013 issue of The Beat Magazine.]

The Arts Project - Gallery