Author Spotlight | Jo A. Hiestand breathes new life into the British mystery genre #mystery #bookser

Jo Hiestand knew as a child she wanted to be a mystery writer. So, she laid down experiences she could use in her novels: camping throughout her Girl Scout years, working summers as a canoeing instructor and camp counselor, singing in a folk group, attending a citizen police academy, learning to fire a gun, riding along with police officers on patrol… Which was all well and good, but she needed to immerse herself in the British countryside and villages for the mysteries she wanted to write. She wanted the ‘feel’ of the locations and perhaps chat up a police bobby to get her questions answered. England beckoned and she accepted.

Jo bee-lined to Derbyshire, feeling it was the ‘home’ of her books. Derbyshire also bestowed the essential English police contacts and transformed the St. Louisan into an Anglophile. The bond was made stronger when a retired Detective-Superintendent of C.I.D. and a working Detective-Sergeant agreed to read her manuscripts for police procedure accuracy and to provide investigation techniques information.

She was fortunate to add a pathologist friend to her list of helpful people. Her friend supplies vital medical information for each book’s plot.

The first few books were eventually written and published, but something still was lacking. A different outlook to complement the main perspective? The genie appeared in 2006 in the form of friend and American police detective Paul Hornung. Paul’s sub-plot ideas stem from his thirty-plus years as a police officer and his love of reading thrillers. But his wish granting didn’t stop there: he also writes first-person chapters as a specific character in their Peak District mystery series. Their first writing collaboration resulted in The Stone Hex. His male street cop’s viewpoint underscores the female detective’s predominant narrative. “Like pie crust pastry,” Paul jokes. “The wealth of shortening transforms mundane flour and water into something incredibly flaky.” He refuses to divulge how flaky Jo was before he came along.

Jo and another friend, fellow mystery author Pam DeVoe, teach a mystery-writing course at a St Louis-area community college, something they’ve been doing for more than half a decade. Jo also speaks to groups on odd British customs, seeing Derbyshire through a writer’s eye, how she overcame obstacles to her book publications, and the origins of Groundhog’s Day—a talk complete with animal fun facts and Groundhog Day carol singing.

Jo has returned nearly a dozen times to England, researching and photographing for her two mystery series: Detective Sergeant Brenna Taylor & Detective Chief Inspector Geoffrey Graham and the CID team solve mysteries when British customs run amuck in the Peak District mysteries; ex-police detective Michael McLaren investigates cold cases on his own in the McLaren mysteries. During each trip to Britain, she explored the rural beauty of Derbyshire and Cumbria and the area around Edinburgh and Balquhidder in Scotland—all for use in her novels. She has also participated in and watched English customs, performed in English folk music clubs, cooked British food, toured English police stations, wandered around castles and manor houses and villages…

She also has been fortunate to have had a book signing at Tutbury Castle in Staffordshire, been interviewed during a live BBC radio broadcast, and been the subject of a half-page article in the Derby Telegraph newspaper.

Jo founded the Greater St. Louis Chapter of Sisters in Crime, serving as its first president. Besides her love of mysteries and early music, she also enjoys her backyard wildlife, photography, reading, and playing the guitar and harpsichord.

Her love of music has carried over into the McLaren Mystery series. In each book, a song is important either to McLaren, the murder victim, or the story. Jo wanted her readers to hear the music that is so essential to the novel, so professional musicians or university music students have recorded the songs. The majority of the music is folk songs, but “Never Leave My Side” features Jo’s lyrics and original music by the song’s singer and pianist. Another original composition by Robert Chamberlin soon followed: a four-movement piece for two pianos (characters/scenes illustrated for Arrested Flight) and an arrangement of “Scarborough Fair” for the book Empty Handed. Musical styles for all the songs range from a cappella quartet and jug band to classic jazz instrumental, a Handel aria, and folk. The music is available for purchase on single-song CDs from Jo’s website.

Jo has employed her love of music, writing, and board games in other ways by co-inventing a mystery-solving game, P.I.R.A.T.E.S., which uses maps, graphics, song lyrics, and other clues to lead the players to the lost treasure.

In 1999 Jo returned to Webster University to major in English. She graduated in 2001 with a BA degree and departmental honors.

Her cat, Tennyson, shares her St. Louis-area home.

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Book Blurb

Year after year, the villagers near Stanton Moor celebrate May Day with bonfires and the laying of rowan branches to seek protection for home and cattle. But the men who gathered this May evening hadn’t come for blessings. They had come for murder.

The dead body is discovered on a lonely moor, decapitated in the fashion of a sacrificial killing of sheep or chickens.

The members of the Derbyshire Constabulary’s Murder Team are called in to investigate, and soon a series of decapitated animals appears on the moor.

As fear over a second murder grips the villagers, the Team discovers this dead man may have had connections with an organization that smuggles illegal products into Britain. That’s bad enough, but the smuggling turns from a mere criminal case to something that hits closer to home for Brenna.

In the midst of the tangle of smugglers, murder, and village secrets, Brenna struggles to keep focused on the case and nab the one person who may be responsible for the trail of villainy that threatens to engulf everyone - cop and villager alike - connected with the moorland murders.


Darkness claimed the valley and now reached out in lengthening, murky fingers to the hilltops. Barely visible above the farthest hill, a sickle-shaped moon rode low in the ashen sky, trapped in the leafy branches of willows growing in clumps around the perimeter of the stone circle. It was a remnant from Druid times, many believed. And even now many avoided the area after sunset, acknowledging in private what they scoffed at in public that the Old Magic still lingered in the stones, that the spirits still inhabited the trees. Especially when night embraced the circle. In another hour the darkness would be complete, having swallowed any distinguishing mark on the moor or in the village lying snug against the winding road beyond the purple expanse. Dark but for the dots of fire that even now pricked the gloom.

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Book Blurb

The watchers that night who saw only blackness and the suggestion of trees massed against an ebony sky claimed later that they knew something would happen. Some probably cursed their ill luck that they hadn’t chosen the right hour to watch; others probably feigned disappointment but secretly rejoiced that they hadn’t seen it. But one watcher, enveloped in fog and superstition, neither rejoiced nor cursed, viewing the spectacle merely as an eyewitness to the centuries-old custom and accepting the dubious honor that added his name to the meager list of Those Who Had Seen. A watcher didn’t see a ghost every night.

The ghost seen this year is tied to the custom of Watching the Church Porch ¾ a sighting of a person’s spirit foreshadows that person’s death within the year.

Frightening, but not unusual. But it is odd, because someone else dies. And in circumstances leaving no doubt the death is murder…by a human hand.

A string of burglaries in the village adds more to the detectives’ load. And questions. Does the village’s former police constable volunteer to help the Team because he really wants to be back in the job, or is he there to hinder their investigation?

It isn’t until another death and a life is threatened that Brenna finally uncovers the ruthless murderer who has devastated so many families.


I opened my mouth to reply when his mobile rang again. He swore more loudly when he checked the name on the display panel, but answered it. A few sharp words later, he rang off. I must’ve looked puzzled, for he said, “All right. It’s a woman. Satisfied?”

“I didn’t say a thing, Mark.”

“Yeah?” He frowned, as though trying to remember what’d happened one minute ago. “Well, now you know, so don’t make a big deal of it.”

“I’m not, but you are.”

“Keep out of it, Bren.”

“You haven’t told me enough for me to be in it, Mark. I haven’t said a word. It’s just that when a phone rings and the person who owns the phone ignores it…”

“Yeah, well, like I said, it was a woman.”