J Ivanel Johnson guest post
Author Guest Post + Book and Author Info
Just a STALE MATE by J Ivanel Johnson
“Thoroughly enjoyed this clever mystery… the characters are charming, diverse, and well-developed, and the story keeps you turning those pages!” –Sherry Hobbs, author of MAC and Bird of Passage
When P.J. Whistler leaves her Appalachian village of Victoria, New Brunswick in the summer of 1969 to visit her godson’s family in south-western Ontario, she isn’t prepared for her keen observational skills to be in demand for solving a murder.
But when her godson, homicide consultant Inspector Philip Steele, and his mother Lary, who is now running their family farm, the “JUST (e)STATE”, as one of the first therapeutic riding schools in North America, ask P.J. to help with the investigation of a young man who fell to his death from a railway trestle, she is happy to oblige.
The many suspects, from as far as Yorkshire, who are staying at the rural retreat outside Sandytown all seem to have a motive. Or, at least a secret. And what of the constant Dickens references behind which they all hide? Will Phil and P.J., along with Detective Trevor Ames (closeting a secret of his own), be able to ‘unearth’ the killer? Or, is what’s buried on the retreat’s property destined to remain there forever?
View a thrilling 2-minute book trailer for Just A STALE MATE
“It is Ability, Not Disability, That Counts”
by J Ivanel Johnson
This article is a tip of the dressage top hat to my maternal grandmother, Dorothy McKenzie, who gave me my first English saddle (seen in one of the photos below) and to her daughter Joy. Both were dedicated teachers, the former teaching Special Education most of her career; both encouraged me always in my work with Therapeutic Riding, Teaching, AND with my Creative Writing.
Having developed spondylolisthesis in my early years (probably from too many falls off my run-away Shetland), I have always been “spurred” on to ignore the spinal condition (and the 3 corrective surgeries thus far) and to live a life of doing things I probably shouldn’t have.
(See photo of Harvest Gold and me, for instance, at Elena’s post from last autumn: click the link here )
I also like to “stirrup” trouble—if not in real life, then in my fiction. That’s why I write murder-mysteries.
And as you may have gathered from that first paragraph, I love word-play. In the equestrian world especially, there are so many double entendres. A “cozy” short story mystery I wrote recently called “Winter’s Warmblood” (soon to be published in the A Warm Mug of Cozy anthology) features many of these. For instance, a “coffin” is a bone in the hoof, but also a standard cross-country jump for competitive 3-Day Event riders, of which I was once. Then there’s “throat-lash”, “stifle,” “cannon,” “wither,” and even “warmblood” itself, all lending to the inspiration for (un)stable-set murder. Irresistible!
But while my whodunnits are considered light reading, primarily puzzles for the reader to solve with literary (and other!) clues, ALL my writing features the trials and tribulations of culturally-diverse characters and those from marginalized communities such as the disabled. Or (dis)Abled, as I like to write it. Because I’ve always owned and loved horses—my mother tells me that my first “sentence’” was ‘Mommy, Mommy, horsie cold’, when my rocking horse’s blanket slid to the floor— I ventured off for a month’s grueling course work to Cheff Center in Michigan in 1984 when I had just turned 20.
The goal, especially since I’d been volunteering for years at SARI (Special Ability Riding Institute) in London, Ontario, was to become qualified as a North American Riding for the Handicapped Association instructor, which I proudly managed while there. (NARHA is now called PATH – Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship). Cheff Center began in 1969 when my latest novel, the 2023 Maxy Award Runner-Up for Mystery/Crime Just A STALE MATE (released TODAY, June 8th!) is set.
Still a major going-concern today, it was founded by the invincible Lida McGowan. I then went on to become certified as an able-bodied riding instructor in my Canadian homeland, through the regular sports-coaching certification program, the NCCP. However, my wonderful first palomino Pal O’Mine, while gifted in many areas, was not up to the level of dressage needed for the Instructor Exams. (Read or watch Disney’s The Horsemasters, if you want a comparable environment. Although we didn’t have time to sing ditties like Annette Funicello!) So the woman who helped found CanTRA (Canadian Therapeutic Riding Assoc.), as well as several stables with riding for the disabled programs in the Ottawa area, kindly loaned me her dream dressage horse Finale for the flatwork portion.
Another indomitable force, Lelia Sponsel had always been an avid horsewoman and a Special Education teacher like my grandmother, emigrating to Canada from Germany in 1966. Thus, in Just A STALE MATE, I have melded Lida McGowan and Lelia Sponsel into the character “Lila Sponwin” as a tribute to both women and what they have done for therapeutic riding in North America.
If you aren’t familiar with the countless benefits of riding for the mentally and physically challenged, I encourage you to look these up online. They are numerous and often, seemingly, quite miraculous, as illustrated in my latest novel. In 2002 I was also certified as an EAGALA instructor. This is Equine-Assisted Growth and Learning, in which psychotherapy and horses are utilized to help those dealing with any type of trauma or condition they feel is making them ‘dysfunctional’.
If you have a look at Elena’s interview with me from last September, you’ll see that I’ve also written (still unpublished) a full-length creative non-fiction about my busy equestrian years called Green Broke. That’s another fun play on words considering the term is what many in the industry call a recently-backed young horse, but is also sadly how (dis)Abled people are often considered: “broken” and “naïve.”
I’m on a mission to try and change that image with my writing, although I admit to falling into the stereotypical “trap” in Just A STALE MATE. But one of the chapters in Green Broke is the true story of my argument with Princess Anne’s husband Captain Mark Phillips at a horse trials competition. (He “stole” my breakfast sandwich!). This was turned into the short story “Iron Bone” which appears in the PrixAurora-nominated anthology Nothing Without Us (Renaissance Press, Ottawa). That entire anthology is written by (dis)Abled authors whose protagonists are also (dis)Abled. So—the heroes, not the sidekicks or the victims. Princess Anne, incidentally, has been the long-time President of the Riding for the Disabled Assoc. in the UK, where I also taught/coached for some years. I even slept in Princess Anne’s cow pasture one spring night– yes, among the “patties’”and all.
My work in this field (ha-ha!) has connected me with other Royals as well. For a short time in North Yorkshire I was employed by a baroness, a member of the House of Lords for 53 years, the longest reign of any female peer. Lady Swinton was a champion for sports-oriented rehabilitation for the disabled—therapeutic riding especially. When she was just 22 she became a paraplegic due to a riding accident, but went on to compete in several Paralympic Games in other sports and encouraged countless others to do the same. She was truly a marvel and I’m sad that she just died a few months ago. Find out more about her by clicking the link here.
Another “royal” who is actually a neighbour in our Appalachian community in New Brunswick, is Secretariat’s great jockey, Ron Turcotte. I had the pleasure of meeting him a few years ago during filming for a popular Canadian television show, Still Standing (another ironic title, as Ron is a paraplegic and I can barely walk now, being too crippled with back and leg problems of recent years). Learn more about Ron by clicking the link here.
Thus, constantly being surrounded by all these inspirational figures, is it any wonder I’m motivated to write stories, many often featuring amalgamated or slightly-fictionalized versions, as a tribute to them all? And if I have to bump one or two of them off from time to time, to offer my readers the opportunity to solve the mystery of their deaths, well—that just means they’ll be all the more remembered. That’s surely a “cinch,” isn’t it?
J Ivanel Johnson
J Ivanel Johnson is the pen name for an award-winning author/poet, playwright and composer living with (dis)Ability, who now resides in the Appalachian range of Northwestern New Brunswick, where she and her husband and mother manage near-to- self-sufficiently on their small farm overlooking inspirational views of nature.
Elena Taylor/Elena Hartwell
Silver Falchion Award Finalist, Best Investigator 2020
Foreword INDIE Award Finalist, Best Mystery 2020
The Foundation of Plot, a Wait, Wait, Don’t Query (Yet!) guidebook.