With He Wasn’t There Again Today (paperback, Kindle), writer Candas Jane Dorsey is presenting the third book in the Epitome Apartments Mystery series. In the following email interview, Dorsey explains what inspired and influenced this new installment, as well as whether there’s more mysteries to come.
Photo Credit: Sima Khorrami
For people who haven’t read any of them, what are the Epitome Apartments Mystery novels about, and when and where are these stories set?
In The Adventures Of Isabel, a nameless, pansexual downsized social worker living in the inner-city Epitome Apartments is sharing her last fish sticks with her cat Bunnywit when a friend asks her to help keep the police focused in the death of the friend’s granddaughter, a street kid. Turns out the death leads to a massive fraud and drug conspiracy.
In the second book, What’s The Matter With Mary Jane?, another friend who has heard of the first adventure asks for help with a suspected stalker, but murder and mayhem are in the cards.
The stories are set in a nameless city that looks something like Edmonton most of the time, but elements, including the Epitome Apartments themselves, have been brought in at will from other places. They are set just pre-pandemic (the last one in 2018), but that’s an accident of being written then, not deliberately.
I wrote these books differently than my usual writing style, and giving myself more freedom in some ways, while asking myself to follow mystery tropes of the kind I loved when reading them. I love the “Dear Reader” narrative voice so I used it. But the books are set in the inner city, often among people that risk being thrown away by the mainstream. I live in the inner city, and I have worked as a child-care worker and social worker (long ago, but in ways that changed my life), and I have been an activist my whole adult life, so the people I write about are not just familiar but also dear to me.
And then, what is He Wasn’t There Again Today about, and when does it take place in relation to the previous installment, What’s The Matter With Mary Jane?
In He Wasn’t There Again Today, our nameless protagonist tugs at the loose ends of the previous book’s situation, and a surprising amount of her reality unravels. At the same time, a homeless man is killed by a group of thugs outside the Epitome, and she involves herself in looking for clues. There is a third plotline as well, and maybe a fourth, depending on how one keeps score. Part of the organizing principle is the question of how often one can be struck by lightning and survive. The answer is: a surprising number of times.
Given that the series has the word “Mystery” in it, I’m guessing He Wasn’t There Again Today is a mystery novel. But I’ve been wrong before.
Some people say “mystery,” some people say “crime.” I have no preference, but I will note that every piece of fiction is in essence a mystery because the people in it are given challenges and problems to solve and we don’t know how it turns out. These problems happen to be crime-adjacent!
If one likes to read mysteries mostly for a shiny perfect plot, however, one might be disappointed, as the tropes inform the story but the people are the most important thing for me. But I have read a metric fuck ton of mysteries in my life so I am steeped in the tropes, and so are my books! (And the occasional Dirk-Gently-couch moment does happen, c.f. my remarks about my clever subconscious.)
He Wasn’t There Again Today is obviously not your first novel. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Today but not on anything else you’ve written?
I love reading in general, and I love mystery / crime novels. I would say that each of the three Epitome Apartment novels put a “post-modern” (that’s a bit of a jest, but not inaccurate in some ways) spin on some traditional mystery / crime tropes, but from very different, non-normative points of view.
How about non-literary influences; was He Wasn’t There Again Today influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Probably we all recognize the traditional mystery tropes by now, a century after Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers were first published. They appear everywhere. What makes these different is the people, who spoke to me with unique (and often smart-assed) voices. But is anything ever really unique when it is part of popular culture?
I use a lot (a lot) of pop culture references (songs, TV lines, quotes from various sources) to title my segments, so the influences come from all over. Some are private jokes but most of them will make sense to anyone who has been swimming in the same cultural soup for the last few decades. Some are almost Easter egg-like in how they allow the reader to look sideways at what is happening in the book. And some are just good jokes.
And what about your Pomeranian, Gracelyn? What influence did they have on He Wasn’t There Again Today?
That’s complicated. The first two novels co-starred a cat, then two cats (well, three, if you count the dead and taxidermied one), with only one brief Pomeranian mention. I am a cat person who has been converted to Poms by the necessity of living with a person allergic to cats. But Poms are the most catlike of dogs in many ways, so same same.
Without spoilers, I can say that book three has a dog who is a lot like one of my former Poms (a rescue dog) but is actually based on a real street dog. And one of the characters is named after that former dog but is nothing like the dog. There are other dog-related scenes I will leave to the reader to find, but as a teaser, I can mention that a Buffy Ste. Marie reference is involved at one point.
So this is a more doggy book, but the cats are still there too.
Now, as we’ve been discussing, He Wasn’t There Again Today is the third book of the Epitome Apartments Mystery series. Is this series an ongoing one, is Today the third and final book of a trilogy…what?
That is a very fine question, and if I knew, I would tell you. I have been discussing this very thing with myself, with my agent, and with Jack David at ECW who is my acquiring editor.
What I do not want to happen is that thing where a series devolves into a list of tick-boxes where the author has to mention everyone’s favorite characters and situations, and it gets harder and harder to tell a real, three-dimensional story. If I can’t find a vision for #4 and onward, they won’t happen. I’m in that slough right now, with a lot of ducks but none of them in a row. So your guess is almost as good as mine.
What I do know is that #3 led to a natural resting point of a sort, so further books will have to take a new direction.
And of course, COVID intervened between then and now, so I have to figure out how I want to deal with the timeline. Book #3 is set the Year of the Apocalyptic Air in Edmonton, when wildfire smoke made the city look…well, very Blade Runner. That was 2018 and as we know, a lot of pandemic and fire has burned through the world since then.
Hollywood loves a good mystery. Do you think He Wasn’t There Again Today — and, by extension, the Epitome Apartments Mystery series — could make for a good movie? Or series of movies? Or maybe a TV show?
Oh, this series would be an awesome Netflix series.
And if Netflix went for that, who would you want them to cast in the main roles?
It is easier to cast the bit parts, honestly. I mean, Tantoo Cardinal [Legends Of The Fall] as Hep is a no-brainer, and I can’t tell you how delighted I’d be to have Tantoo in a film, as I have worked with producers who have worked with her (one degree of separation) and I admire her hugely. And in book #3 I actually have a footnote where the narrator reflects on who would play her in the series, but she realizes that all the people she thinks of are too old.
I think that probably by the time it happens the actress who plays Wednesday [Jenna Ortega] might be ready… Remember, our nameless protagonist is not too young, nor is she old. She needs a mature actress. A decade ago I’d be saying Noomi Rapace, Hilary Swank, etc., but time has been passing while publishing takes its time, so these days.
Tell you what: Get your readers to read the books and then have them tell us who should play our nameless sleuth! I’d love to see some contemporary suggestions.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about He Wasn’t There Again Today and the Epitome Apartments Mystery series?
Well, to start with, everyone should read them with the understanding that there are stealth-bombs of emotion camouflaged in the snappy dialogue. (Which, by the way, is sort of like swearing, non-hetero-normative, non-monogamous Gilmore Girls, if that helps). But really, everyone should just read them, because they should.
Finally, if someone enjoys He Wasn’t There Again Today, and they’ve already read The Adventures Of Isabel and What’s The Matter With Mary Jane?, which of your other novels or short story collections would you suggest they check out next?
An author is the least credible person to make “if you like this you will like…” recommendations. I figure if you like this you will like all my books. But my speculative novel Black Wine and my YA novel The Story Of My Life Ongoing By C.S. Cobb both have things to say about humanity in general and gender in particular, each in their ways (and Story is a mystery of sorts…).