Interview with Susan Dunlap, Murder Mystery Writer

Susan Dunlap is a well known Bay Area mystery writer with multiple series featuring strong female characters. Since my focus was on Berkeley, my interview was narrowed to her series featuring Jill Smith, a fictional police detective for the Berkeley Police Department.

2/10/2020, 12:00 noon
Phone Interview with Susan Dunlap

I noticed that both you and Jill Smith were transplants to Berkeley. How much of the Jill Smith character is you?

When you write in the first person, you show more of yourself than you realize, so let that be a warning.

I knew that old time residents would know things in a way an outsider couldn’t; they’d have history.  There’d be things they just didn’t have to explain.  But readers aren’t Berkeleyans and I wanted to explain it from their perspective.  So, I made Jill Smith a transplant so the reader would experience Berkeley as a she did, using some humor. It helped explain Berkeley in a way that readers would understand.

There are places in Berkeley that I recognized when I went to visit, but there are some places/streets that don’t seem exist.

Is there really a path across the street from Chez Panisse [A Dinner to Die For] ? I get asked that a lot. The answer is No, It doesn’t exist. It’s poetic license.

Being too specific is an unnecessary nuisance for a writer. Too much specific detail could infringe on somebody else’s privacy. I aimed at getting the feel of Berkeley. In my mind, Berkeley is a major character in the Jill Smith Series.

Earthman, in A Dinner to Die For lived in a flop house, would even that be possible today?

No, any flop houses would have been torn down for expensive housing.

Ortmans Ice Cream shop existed as did Fat Apple. What about Wally’s Donut Café?

Wally’s was made up. One of my cop friends was upset with the penchant Jill had for donuts and fast food. She and most of the cops on the force were health conscious.

Police in Berkeley seemed to have a reputation as being more mellow. For instance, men could have beards. What do you attribute that to?

The police force in Berkeley are more highly educated and there were more women on the force in the eighties than there were in other agencies.

I read in one of your interviews that you had attended the Police Civilian Academy, can you expand on that?

Going to the police academy as a civilian outsider was valuable. As the name suggests, non-law enforcement people were invited to attend a civilian police academy. Most of the attendees were representatives from civic and interest groups. Speakers from different areas of law enforcement/justice system would be invited to come in and make presentations. I was the outsider so I could ask the bratty questions no one else would.

What were the most memorable things about it?  The morgue for one. And we participated in officer simulations.  I was especially impressed with the Shoot – Don’t Shoot simulation. There was a video of a crime – or perhaps not a crime – of someone running from a crime scene. We took the role of the cop.  We had to make a decision whether or not to shoot. I was amazed at how quickly cops had to make that decision. Even if the perpetrator is guilty (and dangerous) you had to be aware of what was behind him if you shot. If he ran in front of a hedge, for instance, and we shot and missed, might we kill someone on the other side of the hedge.  All that in a split second.  And, we had to think about what we were using as protection. Standing behind cardboard vs. the protection of a car door.

We also went on ride along with street cops which was helpful in getting the feel of their jobs. On my ride along, we got a call about a missing person, a man with dementia. The city is really good about this.  Every beat officer searched her beat street by street, checking both sides, stopping and going into likely places.  It took hours, but we found him!

That must have been helpful to you in the way you describe Jill Smith’s tracking down of people

Yes, the more specifics you can use the better. Because there’s a lot you can’t be specific about because you don’t know, or it doesn’t suit your plot, So, if you can write about something you do know it enhances the sense of authenticity.

I read a long time ago an article that bemoaned the death of student protests at Berkeley. Do you think the student population/culture has changed?

Back in the 70’s people really believed that they could make a change. Most people don’t believe that now. Plus, housing is so expensive now that students are focusing more of their efforts on just living. The shift and influence of technology has spread from San Francisco to surrounding areas. The focus in Berkeley has shifted from arty to more tech oriented. Students are more serious.

What other ways have you seen Berkeley change since the eighties?

Berkeley, as I wrote about it, doesn’t exist anymore. Berkeley has become more ordinary, more like other cities. For instance, Jill Smith living in a converted porch was a sign of the times. You could live in a converted porch knowing that you had options. You could always move. Money was looser than. I could work half time and pay the bills with a part time salary which gave me time to write. That wouldn’t be possible today.

My friends and I who have lived here a long time talk about that a lot. It’s the influx of the tech market from the bay area that has caused more expensive housing and living costs. People don’t have the time they used to explore their dreams and be creative.  It’s hard for a family to find a two bedroom apartment in Berkeley when landlords can rent it to five students.

In Jill Smith’s day Berkeley’s efforts at helping the homeless then seemed like a good and new idea. Rainbow Village [Too Close to the Edge] was a sanctioned motor home camp in a parking lot on the marina. But after a while problems came up, the homeless population has grown larger and the costs of housing is so high now. Berkeley has tried to solve the problem but they’re running out of things to try.

There have been technology changes since the 1980s, like I noticed Jill stopping by a telephone booth to make a phone call. You can’t find telephone booths around anymore.

(Laughter) The advent of cell phones was a sudden and major problem to the mystery writers then. A lot of plots had characters who’d lost their cell phones and phones without charges. Clues that once were easy to disguise became transparent. It took a while for cellphone to become such a part of life that you automatically considered them. Now you can track someone’s travels through their phone. Databases are more up to date and connected now than they were.

Do you think Berkeley still has vestiges of its personality? For instance, the hidden pathways that go through people’s back yards in the hills seem to me to be part of Berkeley’s charm, landscape affecting behavior?

A friend of mine and I got a map of all the pathways and explored all of them. It’s funny, you can take a path and not know where you’ll end up. In, I think, the 1930’s when housing was laid out in the North Berkeley hills, pathways were created to funnel men to tram stations for their commutes, so that they could leave their cars at home with their wives who could use them during the day for errands and grocery shopping.

People still come to Berkeley drawn by its reputation. There is a sense of individual freedom left over from its arty sensibilities, it’s history of demonstrations, and partly from being a college town. In the summer there is an influx of students from other countries and it’s good to hear all the different languages in the street. 

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