Thursday, March 24, 2011

Selena's first day at the DEA

Hola, it's me again, Selena. Johnny asked me about my early days with the Drug Enforcement Administration in Chicago, since he's working on the third mystery in his series and needed some material. So I shared this:

On my first day working in the DEA office in Chicago, I wore a black blouse with a scoop neckline to show my best pearls, a stylish gray suit with a black belt and coral Christian Dior high heels, with my freshly oiled P226 SIG Sauer holstered on my hip. A girl’s gotta have accessories.

When my supervisor, Del Bragg, called me to his cubicle, I was SO ready to break down doors and snap on cuffs like they’d shown me in the Academy.

“There’s something important I need you to do,” Bragg said in a somber voice.

“I’m ready, sir,” I said, straightening. My silver hoop earrings jangled.

“Good. Follow me.”

He pushed away from the desk, brushed past me and marched past the other cubicles to the entryway, heading for the elevator. I followed him, chin and spirits high. At last I was on my way to be fitted with a jump suit and body armor so I could be assigned to a Task Force. It might even be Team Five-One-Six, suiting up in the corner and snapping 9 millimeter magazines into their service pistols for an op near New Comisky Park, or so I'd overheard. Surely they’d need my Spanish, sin duda.

Bragg stopped short at the secretary’s station and planted his hairy knuckles on her desk.
“Laura, I want the files purged this week,” he said brusquely. He issued orders that the bottle-blonde woman – wearing too much mascara, if you ask me -- jotted down on a memo pad. When Bragg looked at the ceiling once to recall an instruction, Laura glanced at me, rolled her eyes and primped her lipsticked mouth with a here-we-go-again face. I shrugged in simpatía. Bragg finished his list and said “Got it?”

“Got it, sir,” Laura said.

“Good,” Bragg said. “I know you and Selena will work well together. Hop to it, girls.”

He spun around, tapped me on the fanny and bustled out the door.

The air rushed out of my lungs. My Spanish blood boiled.

Just then Team Five-One-Six hurried past me, strapping on holsters, pulling on baseball caps, shouldering Kevlar vests. ‘Scuse me. Heads up. You trust dis informer, Rocko? Sure, I flipped him. They were heading for street work.
Without me.
Laura tore the top sheet from the pad. “We’d better get going, dear.”

I squeezed my fists, regaining control. “Be right with you.” I said something else in Español under my breath that I shouldn’t share here.

I returned to my desk, the Christian Dior heels sounding like sharp reports from my pistol. I locked away the SIG; no need for my piece while sorting through old files. I shrugged off my jacket, rolled up my sleeves, and spent the rest of the day on my hands and knees with cardboard boxes, a shredder, and Hefty trash bags.

Late in the afternoon Bragg checked on our progress.

“Hey, Selena,” he gruffed, pointing to my hip. “Where’s your piece?”

I blew away a strand of hair from my face. “I put it away, sir.”


“In my desk drawer.”

He aimed a finger at me, pistol-style. “The manual says an agent shall have his weapon in his possession at all times. Now go get it. Don’t. You. Ever. Forget. It. Again.”

He said it loudly enough so that others poked their heads above cubicle walls to see what was going on. Cheeks burning, I stood, brushed off my sore knees, and strode to my cubicle ignoring every eye that followed me.

For the rest of the week, I rifled through files with a useless gun knocking at my hip.

Then they parked me in the Money Laundering Unit. I felt insultado, muy avergonzado, after all the training I had. When I complained to my brother Francisco that night, waving my hands in frustration, he said that’s where women belong, in the laundry, and I almost slugged him.

But as it turned out, esté gracias a Dios, it was training I needed for the dangerous case I took on long after I left the DEA and became an insurance agent, when I got involved in a shocking life insurance scam that – well, that’s the subject of SPECTER, Johnny’s next book, and I’d better not talk about it.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Snoring Scholar review of VIPER

"(VIPER) is the sequel to Desjarlais’s action-packed Bleeder, though it stands on its own. It should come, however, with a warning label across the cover. I wouldn’t have put it down if my family hadn’t demanded my attention (don’t they know I have reading to do?!?). This book had me laughing out loud and thinking I had things all figured out. I was delighted that it had me fooled and that it as written as well as the first. When it comes out, consider it a must-read. Highly recommended."

Thanks, Sarah Reinhard!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Saint Patric in Training

(Here's a short story published in The Rockford Review a while back - seems fitting for St. Patrick's Day. It's a chapter from a novel-in-progress set in the late Roman Empire and featuring Patrick).

Saint Patric in Training
by John Desjarlais

Fiacc the Poet lived by the bank of the River Boyne in a hut of riverbed stones, for the poets know it is always on the edge of water that poetry is revealed to them. For seven years he watched the waters, searching for the Salmon of Knowledge which, when eaten, would give him all that could be known.
It was at the time of the salmon-leap, then, that Finn, leader of the Fighting Fianna warriors, came for hospitality, and by the Brehon codes, Fiacc could not refuse them. The men dipped their nets and in one of them twitched the Salmon of Knowledge. Fiacc said nothing of it, but let Finn roast it and bade him to not eat of it.
When Finn brought it to him, the poet asked: "Did you eat any of it, boy?"
Finn answered, "No, master, but I burned my thumb lifting it from the fire and put my thumb in my mouth. At once I knew why you told me not to eat it."
Then Fiacc gave him the whole fish, and from that time Finn had all the knowledge that comes from the nine hazels that grow by the Wisdom Well.
Fiacc told me himself, but he is no longer here to tell you, Patric. After my fosterage with him, he took service with his teacher Dubhtach, who wears the seven colors of a poet and who sings the twenty-score tales of Erin at the gatherings of the kings at Tara.
Have you not heard of Tara, Patric? It is the hill of the kings where the five avenues of Erin meet in Meathland, where the Stone of Destiny screams whenever a true king steps on it, for under it live the fairy folk, driven into exile there by the first men who invaded Erin. Did the shepherds not tell you this?
Listen: when Finn was yet a lad, he went up to Tara at the Feast of Beltane, the feast that welcomes back the sun from its winter journey. There, the kings of Ireland meet with their druids, and the cattle are driven to their spring pasture between the bonfires for luck. The Brehon law says no one is to raise a quarrel or grudge during the feast. So the kings met in peace, elected the High King for the festival, and sat at table with Goll, head of the Fianna - Finn's Men of the Woods - and Caoilte son of Ronan of the Speckled Shield, and Conall son of Morna of the Sharp Words. And Finn took a place among them.
The High King passed the horn of meetings to him and asked his name.
"I am Finn son of Cuhal,” said he, “who was once head of the Fianna and Fighting Men of Erin, and I come for your friendship."
The king that year was a friend of Finn's father, and so put him at his side as his own foster-son.
Thus the king spoke to Finn and his fighting men: "For three-times-three years now, there has come a man from the north, Ailen of Missh, stolen at birth by the glamoring sprites who live under that mountain, who taught Ailen their music that charms all to sleep who hear it. Each year he comes to Tara, plays the Sleep-Song, and lets out a fire from his mouth to burn all Tara while we sleep. If there is any man of Erin who can keep Tara from being burned by that Ailen, he will receive a rich reward."
But no man answered, for they knew well the power of that sweet and pitiful music which overcame even women in birthpain and men wounded in war.
But Finn said, "I am from that country, and know what to do."
And given leave, he called upon Lugh, the god who casts his brass shield across the sky each day. Lugh gave him his own Shining Spear, made by the three gods of metalwork, saying: "Gobhniu made the head, which will boast to you of all its battles if held to your brow, blocking all other sound. Luchta made the shaft which can never miss, and Creidhne made the rivets which hold it together and so will it hold fast to the wound such that no one can survive its strike."
So that night Finn lay in wait, and when he heard the first strums of that sorrowful music, he held the speartip to his head. Ailen played the harp till all were charmed asleep, but Finn only heard the spearhead's loud boasting. He came out into the open, and when Ailen saw him, he breathed fire. But Finn cast the spear into Ailen's throat, where the fire melted the metal. The molten iron filled Ailen's head, and the head fell off because of the weight. There is yet a round stone on Tara's hill that men say is the fallen head of Ailen.
Why do you laugh, Patric? Some say all these stones you see are fallen warriors, who walk to the stream at night for a drink and kill anyone in their way. That is why you must stay close to your watchfire at night. If you wander, the changelings may meet you, and you will wake up in the morning as a deer and not a man. Even Finn's wife was changed into a doe, when she refused the advances of a druid.
Ah! I see you have heard of this one. I know why. Is it because my sister Brona makes eyes at you? Lucatmael the druid desires her. Surely you knew that? I’ll tell her not to come out here to see you, because some day she will find you changed to a dog or a pig. Lucatmael could do it, for my father has taught it to him. Aye, he has told me from my youth that the wild pigs on Mount Missh are warriors he defeated in battle in order to become the chieftain of the mountain. So do not cross him or his fosterling. Remember, only a druid can change you back, or the kiss of a hag.
Do not make such a face! It is said my father's overking, Niall himself, met three hags in the woods one night while hunting with his two brothers. The crones asked each man for a kiss, but the first brother ran away and the second brother kissed only his hag's warty cheek with his eyes shut. But Niall pulled the third hairy face to his, and the warmth of his kiss flowed over the woman's bent body and she became a beauty with swan-white skin and golden hair. And in the voice of a spring songbird, she told him,

"I am Eriu, the Spirit of this land,
Erin Herself, espoused to you by the union of our breaths.
The sovereignty will be given to you."

Thus did Niall become king of the clan, to rule Ulster.
Oh, now I have offended you. It was in Niall’s Hosting of Ships that you were taken from your homeland. As always, I have spoken too much. Please, do not leave. I have told enough stories for one day. Patric, please stay. Tell me again of your druid and king, Christos, who the Romans hung on a tree. In Erin, there is a curse put on anyone hung from an oak. My father says: Gosact, it is just like the Romans to kill the Wise Ones among conquered people, to keep them under their heel and crush their hope. What do you say?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

new Amazon RELICS review

"A clever historical novel. This book reminds me so much of Voltaire's "Candide" with the innocent hero on a quest; the beguiling, yet more clever, heroine; and various other priests, servants, and noblemen who appear to guide or mislead the young man. Like Voltaire, whose tale was designed more to satirize his contemporaries, Desjarlais too has much to say about the world today in the guise of an epic. His observations on religious disputes are particularly apt."

Patricia Rockwell, author of "Sounds of Murder"

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Kaye George interview

In case you missed the Kaye George interview (at March 2:

A former producer with Wisconsin Public Radio, Desjarlais teaches journalism and English at Kishwaukee College in Malta, Ill. In the Small World Department, Malta is not that far from my hometown of Moline. Welcome to my Travels, currently located in Taylor, Texas, John.

His two mysteries, VIPER and BLEEDER, are both published by Sophia Institute Press, a publishing house devoted to Catholic fiction. BLEEDER came out in 2009 and VIPER is scheduled for late spring 2011.

KAYE: There's a lot that fascinates me about this series. First, there's the sleuth, a female Mexican-American insurance agent, formerly with the DEA. Can you tell us a bit about Selena De La Cruz (pictured here)?

JOHN: Selena is a thirty-something second-generation Mexican-American woman with midnight hair and a café-con-leche complexion from a family with three brothers, one of whom was her fraternal twin. Her Papa was an executive with the Mexican oil company PEMEX before taking a position at the Mexican Consulate in Chicago where Selena was born and raised in the Pilsen neighborhood. She can be feisty and tomboyish, a tough competitor (given her brothers) and, like many Latinas, is struggling to come to terms with living in two cultural worlds (Old World expectations versus New World aspirations) and also living in a man’s world. She speaks Mexican Spanish well, graduated from Loyola with a finance degree (Papa insisted) and went to work with the DEA over her Mami’s objections shortly after her twin brother was killed in a car accident in Germany where he was stationed with the Army (drugs were involved). She inherited his chili-pepper red 1969 Dodge Charger and she knows how to maintain it and race it. She is fond of expensive shoes (seized drug money paid for the high-end brands); she is handy with a P226 SIG Sauer pistol and was excellent in undercover work until she was compelled to leave under a cloud. She took a new name, De La Cruz, and an insurance franchise in rural Illinois in order to start afresh. But her DEA past comes back to haunt her in VIPER.

KAYE: I can't help but notice her unusual last name. And how did you get the idea to write not only a female, but a Mexican-American?

JOHN: “De La Cruz” is really from St. John of the Cross, a medieval Spanish Carmelite mystic and poet whose writings Selena admires. Her real last name was Perez (and, of course, she had many names working undercover). Selena was a minor character in my first mystery, BLEEDER. Taking place in rural Illinois, that story considered the issue of Latino immigration (as a backdrop) and I needed a positive, educated Latin character who would be seen as a counter-balance of sorts to the many day-laborers, legal and otherwise, who were a poor and distrusted underclass. My protagonist, Reed Stubblefield, had been disabled in a school shooting and so I decided to have the local insurance agent be with his company and handle his claims. Once Selena walked on stage in those cherry heels, with that attitude, and driving that kick-butt car, I knew she had a story of her own. She played a larger role in BLEEDER than I’d anticipated.

When developing an idea for the sequel, I went with a premise about the Catholic custom on All Souls’ Day where a ledger called “The Book of the Dead” is placed in church where families record the names of relatives who died that year so they can be remembered and respected. I learned that Mexicans celebrate a holiday concurrently called “The Day of the Dead” where families respect their departed relatives with home altars and cemetery picnics, among other things. And then I realized that, in blending these ideas, Selena’s name would be found in her church’s “Book of the Dead” – and the problem, of course, is that she isn’t dead. But someone wants her to be. It was clear then that Selena would take the lead in the sequel, with Reed as a minor character this time.

KAYE: The second intriguing factor is your publisher. How did you convince a Catholic publishing house to take on a book involving drug dealing, serial killing, and just generally sordid topics? I suspect this isn't the usual fare at Sophia.

JOHN: Sophia Press had been known a long time for re-issuing older classics of Catholic literature and philosophy (like Thomas Aquinas). However, partly in answer to Pope John Paul II’s call to engage the culture and get real with art (he was, you may recall, a fine playwright and a good poet), Sophia hired an editor whose job it was to find stylish genre fiction that told the full truth about our humanity, in both its nobility and fallenness. She had a particular interest in mysteries, a genre that explores the best and the worst of our human nature and is concerned with justice. We met at a writers’ conference and BLEEDER, which had been looking for a secular home for a few years through an agent, intrigued her. My agent had recently retired, and so I was shopping the book on my own. BLEEDER had a distinctive Catholic coloring (it HAD to, given the stigmatic issue) but was never preachy, and the hero was a lapsed Presbyterian with Aristotle as his ‘mentor’, to boot. She asked for the manuscript and offered a contract within a few days. BLEEDER’s underlying theme about the higher mystery of undeserved suffering made it attractive to Sophia, and VIPER’s rich backdrop of Mexican Catholicism and Aztec mythology suited them, too. It helped that the murder elements were not sensational or gory or gratuitously violent.

KAYE: Do you have more books planned in this series? Do you think you will stay with your present publisher?

JOHN: I’m working on the third book in this series now. I expect to stay with this publisher for the series.

KAYE: I see mentions, in your summaries and reviews, of Aztec mysticism. Is this novel straight mystery, or is there some paranormal business included?

JOHN: Not ‘paranormal’ in any way, as understood in the publishing biz today – y’know, ghosts, vampires, werewolves and such. But Catholics are all about ‘higher mysteries’ and they affirm ‘the seen and the unseen,’ and all of it is ‘natural,’ that is, part of the created order. The ‘supernatural’ is actually ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ because it is part of the universe God made. But perhaps I quibble too much with the definition. Scratch a professor, get a lecture.

VIPER is part mystery and part thriller because there are crimes to be solved (a quality of ‘mystery’) but also a “ticking clock” to be beaten (a characteristic of ‘thriller’). The “clock” is that “Book of the Dead” in the church, where there’s a list of eight Latino names with Selena’s name written last. All the names are of drug dealers who are being killed one at a time in order. Police and DEA officials believe it is a hit list of “The Snake,” a dangerous dealer Selena helped put in prison years ago who is now out and systematically killing anyone who ever crossed him. Just before each killing, a mysterious “Blue Lady” appears to a local girl visionary to announce the death. Many in the Mexican community believe it is Our Lady of Guadalupe (the patroness of Mexico), but others believe it is the Aztec goddess of death (see, Catholics wouldn’t call a Marian apparition ‘paranormal,’ but again I quibble with the term). And we see our killer from time to time in the story, in first person, tending poisonous snakes and offering devotion to Aztec deities (snakes were very important in Aztec myth and religion). Modern Mexicans are becoming more aware of their Aztec (and Toltec and Mixtec etc) heritage; it is a growing part of their self-identity as they seek to acculturate into American society without becoming assimilated.

KAYE: Are your characters mostly devout Catholics? How much religion is included, if any?

JOHN: No, not many main characters are practicing, devout Catholics. In BLEEDER, my protagonist is a lapsed Presbyterian, a secularized Aristotle scholar who wants little to do with religion of any sort. Still, he enters a cautious friendship with the local parish priest, an amiable Aquinas scholar – who dies on Good Friday in front of horrified parishioners. My hero becomes a prime ‘person of interest’ in the case as a result. He interacts with a diocesan investigator and other clerics. Selena is a ‘cradle Catholic’ like so many in the Mexican community. It’s more of a cultural thing. Catholicism is a bit more forward in VIPER, since my heroine Selena is Mexican and for most Mexicans that means being Catholic, if only in a cultural manner. Selena has prayer cards, framed images of saints and small statues (what Mexicans call virgencitas y santos) around the house, and she goes to Mass with her family out of duty. She's not very devout, but like with other Mexicans it is a very rich part of their identity, and their distinct customs add a great deal of color to the story. The secondary ‘mystery’ of the story is whether or not the “Blue Lady” is Our Lady of Guadalupe or the Aztec goddess of Death or someone else. I don’t think anyone will be put off by all this, but instead will rather enjoy the rich tapestry of Mexican custom and Catholicism blended with Aztec mythology that forms a backdrop to the story, and informs my main character, Selena – who isn’t quite sure what to make of it all.

I don’t think readers mind ‘religion’ in their mysteries – Dan Brown proved that. My issue is this: Let’s get the ‘religion’ right and be honest with the material. Brown had everything wrong. I think you can have a mystery that has a distinct Catholic coloring that respects that tradition, genuinely informs the story, and has an appeal for everybody. Consider Andrew Greeley’s work, or Ellis Peters, or Ralph MacInerny. The same thing could be said about mysteries with a Jewish flavor, like Harry Kemmelman’s Rabbi Small series.

KAYE: Can you give links to your webpage and places to buy your books?

JOHN: Gladly. Readers can find me at and my blog and email me at
VIPER isn’t out yet, but it will be available through and can be ordered through bookstores sometime later this Spring. BLEEDER and RELICS and THE THRONE OF TARA are at Amazon, too: