02 April 2024

The Murder of Mr. Ma

SJ Rozan

I'm not 100% sure when I first met SJ Rozan, but think it was while attending a Bouchercon, maybe San Diego in 1994 or '95. The night before the Shamus banquet, I had been invited to join a group, including SJ and her editor, and four or five other writers to go eat Chinese food. After we ate, everyone at the table read their fortune cookies out loud. SJ's read something to effect that she would soon be given a great honour.

The next night, at the banquet she and her book won the Shamus Award for Best First novel. I had to smile, because I had been on the committee reading for that award and knew we had voted to give it to SJ, for her first book, CHINA TRADE. Later that evening when she mentioned what the fortune cookie foretold, I said I'd had hardest time in my life to keep a straight face, knowing that she would indeed be given that award. Then in 1998, at Bouchercon in Philadelphia, when they announced Jan Grape had won the Anthony for Best Short Story, SJ found me and gave me a big hug before I even got to the stage to receive my award.

It has been 30+ years of admiration, affection and friendship as I have watched her growth from a novice into a top best-selling author.  Now she's stepping off into a new and thrilling adventure about the 1920s London along with co-author, John Shen Yen Nee. Here's a tidbit about SJ's latest title, MURDER OF MR. MA.

— Jan Grape

The Murder of Mr. Ma

The Murder of Mr. Ma, the start of a new series co-written by me and John Shen Yen Nee, comes out April 2nd. It's been suggested that it would make a good post if John and I interviewed each other. However, getting John to sit down on a schedule is like trying to nail Jello to the wall. John's strength is also his weakness: his mind is like an explosion in a Roman candle factory, ideas whizzing off in all directions. Since we began working together it's been my job to organize, thin out, augment, and write those ideas into a book.

So instead of searching for my Jello hammer, I shall interview myself.

SJR: That's ridiculous.

SJR: Why? I talk to myself all the time.

SJR: Good point. So if John's so impossible to pin down, how did you manage to write this book?

SJR: The Murder of Mr. Ma, was based on a idea John had been thinking about for awhile. During the pandemic he had time to flesh it out. In fact he fleshed it out to a sixteen page single-spaced outline. Then he went looking for a writer.

 SJR: He set out writer traps -- cups of coffee, reams of paper?

SJR: That might have worked, but no. He called his friend Alex Segura, who recommended that he call Alex's agent, Josh Getzler. Josh is also my agent. When he heard the idea for Mr. Ma he thought I might be the right writer for it. He asked if I'd talk to John. Remember, this was a few months into the pandemic. I was talking to the walls. A stranger with a project? You bet I'd talk to him.

SJR: And the rest was history?

SJR: Lots of history. The Murder of Mr. Ma, is set in London, 1924. It involves the Chinese Labour Corps in France during World War One.

SJR: The what?

SJR: Exactly. The book's detecting duo are Judge Dee, made famous by Robert Van Gulik, and Lao She, an actual Chinese novelist. I was familiar with Judge Dee, and I'd heard of Lao She, but I'd never read him. John started sending me books, and more books. Also, my knowledge of London in the 1920's was vague -- transport, neighborhoods, clothes. I needed yet more books for that.  The learning curve, on my end, was steep.

SJR: But at least John's outline was perfect.

SJR: John's original outline contained not only the kitchen sink, but also all the appliances, cabinets, and original marble counters. We had to make some, er, judicious cuts.

SJR: And then -- ?

SJR: And then, after all that reading and cutting, I was ready to write. I sent John a sample chapter. This was a fraught moment. If the voice of Lao She as it sounded in my head wasn't the voice John hoped for, I was off the project. Not that John said that, but I did, because any writer will tell you once a voice comes to you, it can't be changed.

SJR: You actually hear voices in your head?

SJR: I'm talking to you, aren't I?

SJR: Another good point. But John must have liked it.

SJR: He loved it. We'd hit the same wavelength. And thus the writing began.

SJR: But there was another big roadblock, wasn't there?

SJR: There sure was. One of the features of this book and this series is action. A lot of changes of setting, and kung fu fighting. Neither John nor I are kung fu experts.

SJR: You needed a consultant.

SJR: And we found one! One of those miracle friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend stories, New York style. We were steered to Master Paul Koh of Bo Law Kung Fu in Chinatown. He loved the project and he's been everything we could hope for. His kung fu choreography and his sense of humor are fabulous.

SJR: Okay, all this sounds great. But you speak of this as a new series. I plaintively ask, What about Bill Smith and Lydia Chin?

SJR: Bill and Lydia are fine. The Mayors of New York, narrated by Bill Smith, came out 4 December. A new Lydia-Chin-narrated book is underway.

SJR: You can do two things at once?

SJR: Haven't we just proved that?

SJR: Another --

SJR: Good point.

SJR: While we're talking about your multitudinous personalities, you also teach. Talk about that.

SJR: I love to teach. I have students in NYC who've been with me for years. I also travel to do some workshops, and for years I've done one in Assisi, Italy, as part of Art Workshop International. Now I want to get serious for a minute.

SJR: Oh no.

SJR: Here's the thing. This year's Assisi workshop is June 27 -- July 12. Every year I have people who say, "You know, maybe next year I'll come." But do you remember 2019? All the things we were going to do "next year?" There was no next year. Everything was canceled. Pretty much true of the year after that, too. I want to say: If there's something you want to do, and you have the time and the money, do it now. It doesn't have to be Assisi -- though I hope it is so we can work on your book. But whatever it is, do it. Do it now!

SJR: You make yet another good point.

SJR: You know the great thing about interviewing myself? I'm always right.


  1. Fun interview, and informative too. If the novel is as good and entertaining as the short story published in EQMM, it's certainly worth the attention. It's on my radar!
    Anne van Doorn

  2. It is clear there is a lot to be said for conducting one's own interview!

  3. Fun interview, SJ, and thanks for the heads-up on the new book. It's now on my TBR list.

    Interestingly enough, I never knew about the Chinese labour in WWI (another gap in my woeful history background) until a few weeks ago. Synchronicity is alive and well.

    Last week, I finished Yellowface by R. F. Kuang, and one of the pivotal plot points in that book is the forced Chinese labour for England during World War I.

  4. Great interview - and I'll be interested to read the new book.


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