Sweet After Death by Valentina Giambanco is a riveting police procedural with a fascinating look at small town life. The opening bone-chilling scene has a brutal murder that sets the stage for the rest of the novel.
Seattle detectives Alice Madison and Kevin Brown along with crime scene investigator Amy Sorensen are sent to the town of Ludlow to help the very small police force investigate the killing of a well-respected doctor. The brutality of the cold winter weather matches the horrific way the doctor was killed. Ludlow is located a few hours from Seattle within the mountainous backdrop. But as the inquiry takes hold events seem to spiral out of the Seattle investigator’s control. During the Memorial Service, the killer strikes again, murdering another town’s member and having the three Seattle police officers under siege. As they become targets, Madison and her team realize they must find the murderer before he or she strikes again.
The investigation leads to a survivalist, Jeb Tanner, living in the woods with his twelve children. He has them taking turns between being the hunter and the prey with the loser locked in a hut. They are terrified of him, fearful of his wrath. One of the youngsters, Samuel, has a compelling story that seems very similar to what Madison went through as a child. He wonders what happened to his mother and older brother and puts his faith in Madison, hoping she will help out. The comparisons and insights with her past are some of the most interesting aspects of the plot.
This story involving lies and deceptions fosters an intriguing mystery. The author uses the environment to create a creepy atmosphere that includes the mountains and forests surrounding the town.
Elise Cooper: Why Seattle?
Valentina Giambanco: In 1991, I went to Seattle and fell in love with this city and decided to set my first novel here. It and the surrounding areas have a perfect landscape for crime writing. Washington State has cities, a wilderness, that are close by. I had a huge range of options for what my characters can do. I always think of the environment when writing a story. For this book, I knew I wanted to have a remote isolated small town surrounded by the mountains. The trick was to get my Seattle detectives there. The actual town is a combination of Friday Harbor in Washington State and Banff, a Canadian national park town.
EC: So how did you get the detectives to Ludlow?
VG: They were called in by the Police Chief for support. It was the county’s first murder and they needed their expertise. I made sure the conflict between the city and town law enforcement was superficial. I wanted them to get along and help each other.
EC: Can you explain this powerful quote about losing a parent, “when the awful silence, when everybody goes back to their own homes and you are left alone with your pain”?
VG: We bring how we feel and what we know to a story. After my father died we had the wake with lots of people around, but then they went. As much as people want to help some things are felt so deeply that those left behind are alone, having to deal with stuff on their own. Usually there is a lot of silence.
EC: How would you describe Madison?
VG: One of my great inspirations is in Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs where he describes a character as “a winter sunset of a girl.” I think this gives us a sense of what she is like as a person. This is how I see Madison, similar to winter: very resilient, stubborn, and having an affinity with the wilderness.
EC: I see winter as cold and gloomy, you don’t?
VG: I am a big fan of winter. I see it as sunshine in the snow.
EC: How would you describe Sorenson?
VG: I do want readers to associate her with the police business. We know she has a family and children, but I do not want the story to be about her private life. I want the emphasis on the cases. She is an expert at what she does but those who work with her find her witty, having a fantastic laugh, and someone who is not fond of authority.
EC: There is a sub-plot about a survivalist?
VG: I am fascinated by people who lead this kind of life. They barricade themselves on their land and bring up their children in an isolated environment. They are inaccessible to others of their own age, the Internet, and television. I always wondered what are their hopes, dreams, and fears. I think the child Sam, and Madison, are related because of her own experiences.
EC: Hunting plays an important part of the sub-plot?
VG: Living in the wilderness makes it very important. Alice as a girl was kidnapped by a hunter. He blurred hunting for animals and people, something Sam’s father does as well. The hunter Alice had to deal with roamed the mountains and national parks to find groups of people to pursue.
EC: Can you tell us about your next books?
VG: The very next one will be a stand-alone, set in London and with new characters. It is not a psychological thriller, but a ‘thriller thriller.’ I enjoy writing a stand-alone because I can kill more people and make the plot more unpredictable. I will continue writing the Alice Madison books with Brown and Sorenson. She is assessing her relationship and is attempting to define what is happening. BTW: The Madison series has been optioned for TV, an eight-part series for each book.
Valentina Giambanco was born in Italy. She started working in films as an editor’s apprentice in a 35mm cutting room and since then has worked on many award-winning UK and US pictures: from small independent projects to large studio productions. Valentina lives in London.
Her books were originally published under the name of V.M. Giambanco