Today our blog puts the Spotlight on Author Wayne Zurl. He is the author of the Sam Jenkins Smoky Mountain Mysteries series.
Mystery & Thrillers, Crime, Suspense
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Wayne Zurl worked for twenty years as a police officer in New York before retiring to the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. For thirteen of those years he served as a section commander superivsing investigators. Prior to his police career, Zurl served in the US Army during the Vietnam war and continued on in the Reserves.
Before all that, he worked in the fledgling business of computers--when they were seven feet tall. Somewhat disenchanted with the IBM/data processing business, Zurl decided computers were nothing but a passing fad--something that would never replace humans, and he scrapped reentry into that world after returning from his stint with the Army overseas, and collected unemployment insurance until he was offered the only job somewhat compatable with his military background. In 2006 he began writing police stories.
His premier novel, A NEW PROSPECT, won Indie and Eric Hoffer Book Awards for best Mystery and Commercial Fiction respectively. Zurl has also been named as a finalist for a First Horizon Book Award and a Montaigne Medal. He currently has twenty-seven mystery novelettes and seven novels being sold or about to be published as audio books and/or Kindle books.
SPOTLIGHT Questions and Answers with the Author
Congratulations on your book: Honor Among Thieves. What do you have on the drawing board next? Can you tell us the timeline for its release and give us a little tease?
Thanks, James. Later this year my current publisher, Melange Books LLC, will be releasing three anthologies each featuring six of the Sam Jenkins novelette mysteries we’ll talk about later. In order of publication they will be called:
A MURDER IN KNOXVILLE and Other Sam Jenkins Mysteries, THE GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAIN BANK JOB and Other Sam Jenkins Mysteries and GRACELAND ON WHEELS and More Sam Jenkins Mysteries.
In 2018 Melange will publish my eighth full-length novel, A BLEAK PROSPECT. Here’s the summary and a peek at chapter one:
A serial killer dubbed The Riverside Strangler by the Knoxville press corps has murdered eight Internet prostitutes in East Tennessee, the most recent found floating in Prospect’s Crystal Creek.
Chief Sam Jenkins joins a task force led by the county’s chief deputy, Ryan Leary, a cop known for his flamboyant police work and questionable methods.
When investigators hit a stone wall in the case, the killer strikes again—or was it a copycat? The type of victim and location follow the Strangler’s pattern, but some details are significantly different.
During the investigation, Leary is charged in a bizarre and seemingly unrelated case of police brutality and relieved of duty. Sam is faced with assuming command of the task force or turning over responsibility to the FBI.
The outcome of the case and subsequent actions taken by the Prospect City Council affect everyone at Sam’s police department and suggest that life there will never be the same.
Police officers who work in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains occasionally require equipment not often needed by cops in cities or semi-urban neighborhoods.
Crime scene investigator Jackie Shuman and I were standing waist deep in the briskly moving waters of Crystal Creek wearing our police issue rubber waders.
Deputy Medical Examiner Morris Rappaport, his assistant, Earl W. Ogle, four other police officers, and a partially controlled crowd of tourists stood on the bank as Jackie and I approached the fallen tree that snagged a very dead body as it floated downstream adjacent to the Creekside RV Park in Prospect, Tennessee.
“Go easy when you remove her from those branches, Sam,” Morris said. “If she’s been underwater for a few days, you might get surprised.”
From the color of the corpse, it seemed like Morris was giving us sound advice. The once light skinned female, now only partially clothed, looked roughly the color of a blue Italian plum.
“Jackie, block the moving water with your body,” I said. “It’s forcing her into the tangle. I’ll see if I can free her arm from this branch.”
“Times like these, I ask m’self why I didn’t volunteer fer the traffic division.”
I understood his complaint, but ignored it. “Okay, go slow and pull the branch down while I lift the arm.”
“Oh, Lord have mercy.”
It took us almost ten minutes of finessing the body out of the gnarled branches of the dead sweet gum before we could float her to a spot clear of debris. Jackie’s partner, David Sparks, met us on dry land with an aluminum-framed rescue litter. Once we maneuvered the body and secured it onto the litter, we pushed while Sergeant Stan Rose and Officer Junior Huskey pulled her onto the grassy shore.
Several spectators appeared to be getting more curious and began inching their way closer to the action, craning their necks for a better look.
“Junior,” I said, “Help Johnny keep the gawkers back.”
“Glad to, boss.”
Stanley covered the body with a yellow disposable blanket as the doctor set up his work space.
To Shuman and Sparks I said, “Get your stakes out and cordon off the area.” To Stan Rose, “I think you three can move that herd back toward the parking area. Let’s give Mo and Earl a little privacy.”
“Piece of cake,” Stanley said.
All three went about their business.
I stood over the body as Morris and Earl attempted to gain a little preliminary information and prepare her for a trip to the morgue and her post-mortem examination.
“Jesus Christ,” I said, “I count twenty-three stab wounds to the torso alone.”
“Look at the bruises across the carotid arteries,” Mo said. “Strangled. That either killed her or rendered her unconscious. I’m guessing the killer wanted to get air out of the stomach and lungs so she’d sink.”
“Cold and crafty bastard. Only it didn’t work. This is a pretty shallow body of water to think she’d make it down to Davy Jones’ locker.”
Morris nodded. “After the autopsy I should know if there was any forcible sex.”
“That leather miniskirt and one remaining knee-high boot might indicate she worked in the sex trade.” I shrugged. “Or she just liked to look the part.”
“I’ll let you know what I find, Samilah. But offhand, I’ll bet you’ve just joined the lucky investigators looking for the Riverside Strangler.”
I shook my head and blew out a large volume of air. “Just what we need in beautiful downtown Prospect.”
Earl zipped up the black vinyl body bag.
Morris looked up at me, but spoke to the corpse. “Welcome to the peaceful side of the Smokies, young lady.”
* * * *
For almost two years, detectives from the Blount County Sheriff’s Office have been looking for a serial killer the media had tagged The Riverside Strangler. So far, seven bodies were found in publically accessed rivers and streams—all in county patrolled areas, but off the beaten path. These victims were young prostitutes, two male and five female, who posted their services with an on-line classified advertising site. Each had been sexually violated and murdered. Some were strangled manually, as it appeared with our victim and others with a ligature. All were stabbed multiple times, usually, but not always, post-mortem. On four occasions, cheap, but sharp kitchen knives were recovered somewhere near the spot where investigators determined the body was dumped into the water.
All the knives could be easily purchased in most of the discount stores in most of the communities of the state. So far, no fingerprints were ever found and no other trace evidence of the killer had been discovered. In essence, the victims and crime scenes had been sanitized.
Our murdered woman, found in Crystal Creek by a vacationing RV owner taking his son fishing, bore all outward appearances of victim number eight. The last previous body showed up a hundred yards east of a boat launching ramp along Topside Road in the town of Louisville, only eighteen miles from Prospect.
With luck, we’d get a fingerprint match and identify our victim. From there, we’d backtrack and conduct a complete background investigation on her. That was a job at which my operations aide, honorary Detective John Gallagher excelled.
* * * *
Jane Doe number 118, the name Morris Rappaport gave the murdered girl, began her journey to the morgue to patiently await her autopsy. I stripped off my waders and used a clever wire device to hang them upside down to dry from the raised tailgate of Jackie Shuman’s Ford Explorer.
I walked over to where Stan and Junior were assisting PO Johnny Rutledge containing a crowd of almost thirty onlookers who preferred to gape at the scene than go about their business as some of the nine million tourists who visit the Great Smoky Mountains annually should do.
“Stanley,” I said, “have you got your large scale map handy?”
“In the car, bwana.” He pointed to the crowd. “What do you want to do with the huddled masses here?”
“I’ll call the county duty officer and get a couple of deputies to hang around and keep them back while the ETs do their thing. As soon as they get here, I’ll need people to find every spot where someone could have easily accessed the creek and dumped the body.”
“Might be a lot of work,” he suggested.
“Soon as we check the map, we’ll know how much.”
“I’ll call Bettye and see how many 9-1-1 calls we’re getting. You might have to pull in a couple of off-duty guys and send Junior and Johnny back on patrol.”
“Okay, call her while I touch base with the D.O. I’ll ask him to round up a bunch of auxiliaries, too. We’ll send one of our guys out to supervise each group of them and start checking the spots along the creek. If we can’t turn up something, I’ll call Sevier County to check their end of Crystal Creek.”
“We need a bigger department.”
“Back in New York, the squad dick would call in an eight man homicide team and a sergeant to do the dirty work.”
“Yeah, but we’re not in the big departments anymore.”
Stanley had worked for LAPD before following his homesick wife back to Tennessee and landing a job with Prospect PD.
He called Sergeant Bettye Lambert while I spoke to the Sheriff’s duty officer, Lieutenant Ollie McClurg.
Assuming our killer wouldn’t tote a dead victim on his back through a thicket or take a scantily dressed hooker for a hike through the brambles looking for a secluded spot to get romantic, our wisest move was to search out a piece of shoreline accessible by vehicle.
An hour after Stan and I made our phone calls, I had four Prospect cops dressed for woods work and a dozen auxiliary deputies willing to tag along and perhaps get their boots dirty.
I sent out four four-man teams to eleven access points used by fishermen and kayakers.
I left the evidence technicians to finish processing the scene and returned to the PD to wait for their reports, photos and diagrams, the autopsy results, and any clues the search teams might turn up—or not.
My big priority was identifying the victim. If her fingerprints were in the system, our job would be easy. If not, I’d need a forensics artist to sketch a facial likeness to post in the newspapers and on TV news broadcasts.
And on the drawing board, I’m about 10,000 words into a novel based on a famous missing person case. No final title for that one yet.
You have a good following on twitter. Since you started before the social media buzz, what impact has social media relationships had on your current success? How did you build your following in your niche? How much has it changed your book launch process?
I began utilizing Twitter and Facebook as soon as I had something published—not by choice, but by necessity and reluctantly. I think writing is fun; the post-publication social media marketing is too much like work. But, I do it four or five days a week. I’m listed in dozens of Facebook reader/writer publicity groups and have more than 12,000 twitter followers. I’ll probably never be able to attribute an accurate number of book sales to my efforts on these media giants.
However, many of those in my twitter stable are also writers and we engage in that unspoken agreement to “retweet” each other’s promotional messages. I never let a retweet of my promo go by (that I’m notified of) without reciprocating with a retweet of at least one of their messages. Potentially those promotional messages could reach millions of “Tweeps.”
As far as building a Twitter following, it’s just happened on its own. I doubt that I’ve initiated more than a dozen follows, but if someone legitimate (not porn sites or obvious political bots) follows me, I follow back out of courtesy.
My book launches are preceded by a week or two of pre-publication sales. I tweet the hell out of these as well as sending out Facebook messages and a mass email to my subscribers. My publisher has noted sales spikes during these periods. People like to save a few bucks.
Do you do any book signings, interviews, speaking and personal appearances? If so, when and where is the next place where your readers can see you? Where can they keep up with your personal contacts online?
I like to do traditional book signings. Those are what I envisioned as the mainstay of a writer’s marketing obligations before I got into the fiction business. I was wrong about that. eBooks far outsell hardcopies from small publishers. But, I still like to hang out, smile for the people and speak with readers interested in mysteries and what police work was really like.
The next big event I’ve got booked is sponsored by the Maynardville Public Library (north of Knoxville, Tennessee) on September 8th. They call it The Annual Thunder Road Author’s Rally. Thunder Road, of course refers to the 1958 Robert Mitchum movie about moonshiners and alcohol tax agents here in Southern Appalachia. More than fifty regional authors will be attending.
Sometimes the Author’s Guild of Tennessee, of which I’m a board member, organizes book signings at local fairs and festivals. I attend some of those. I also speak for local writer’s organizations and at civic association meetings—Rotary Clubs, etc. People who would like to see what I’m up to can check my website
www.waynezurlbooks.net. Click on the News or Events sections or my Diary (I’m too old to say blog) for the most current postings. Additionally, they can try my author’s page at the Author’s Guild
to read a few of my blog entries and other interesting stuff from my fellow writers.
You have great covers. They carry a theme and your brand with them. How does your book cover creation process work? Do you hand over the basic theme or do you have more of a hands-on approach? Do you get your readers involved in its development?
Thanks again for that compliment. My publisher employs a few well trained cover design artists. So far I’ve worked with three. To give the artist a starting point, each writer is asked to complete a fairly complicated “artwork questionnaire.” From that, the artist takes off and creates a proof cover. That’s when I’m asked for my approval or suggestions for change. The women I’ve worked with are amenable to discussion and so far they’ve created some really good-looking stuff.
I agree with you, James, these covers grab a potential reader’s attention, allude to the story content and should spark interest in reading the summary.
Because of copyright issues, I don’t present the covers to Facebook or Twitter fans until the covers are finalized.
Several of your novelettes have been converted into audio books. What has been the impact on your regular sales? Has the audio books gained a new audience for you?
Eighteen of my novelette mysteries have been produced as audio books while simultaneously being published as eBooks by Mind Wings Audio. The whole premise of these novelette length books was to create one hour “commuter audio books,” similar to those great old radio dramas of the 1940s and ‘50s. I worked for them from 2009 through 2016 when they closed their doors.
Mind Wings had a great marketing scheme and top distributors. They sold thousands of my Sam Jenkins mysteries. Although the audio books, read by professional actors, were their focus, eBooks sold more copies and introduced lots of readers to Sam and the girls and boys of Prospect PD.
You have written several novelettes. Can you tell us if they had an impact on the sales of your novels? Are shorty’s one of your styles of writing or are they created to give readers a sample of your work?
Initially, I had written a couple novelettes for practice during the time I was attempting to sell A NEW PROSPECT to an agent or publisher. I liked doing them because I could knock one out in a couple weeks. However, they weren’t easily sellable—too long for those who wanted short stories and too short for a full-length novel—until I met Mary Gould of Mind Wings. Novelettes were all she wanted because 8,000 to 11,000 words translate to fifty-five to seventy minutes of audio book.
But some of the readers only interested in reading eBooks complained that they were too short, saying I should have spent more time with character introduction and development. I never had that luxury. Most of my stories hit the 11K ceiling. And these “episodes” were supposed to be like part of a radio series. You can’t spend lots of time constantly restating a pedigree for the recurring characters every week. But I still like them and they will be back later this year—some for the first time in print.
I like the idea of Author bundles. You are a part of a Short Story collection called Death of Choice: Eight Tales of Murder, Mayhem, and Mystery. What was the impact on your other sales? What was the main objective of bundling your works with other Mystery authors? How did you put something like that together?
DEATH OF CHOICE wasn’t the first multi-author anthology I contributed to. It was the first offered for free as a way to introduce readers to our work. I did several others that were sold to make money for charities.
DEATH OF CHOICE was the brainchild of my writer friend, Micheal Maxwell, who took care of assembling, formatting and publishing the book.
I don’t really know if it had any impact on the sales of my other books, but it did provide my story, THE FERGUSON SHOOTING with a spot in the marketplace. No other publisher wanted to touch it, claiming it was too controversial during the time when police shootings were hot news. I wanted to teach people what the mechanics of post police shootings are all about without the media sensationalism that generally distorts fact and often deprives a police officer of the untainted due process other citizens are afforded.
I like the idea of bundling a series of novelettes. You have put together a set of your novelettes called From New York to the Smokies: A Collection of Sam Jenkins Mysteries. What was the impact on your other sales? What was your main objective in bundling your novels?
FROM NEW YORK TO THE SMOKIES was born out of a need to use already written novelettes that were destined for the audio / eBook market when Mind Wings Audio went out of business. I had been waiting for contracts on those stories when I learned that the company would cease any new productions. So, I had five stories on my hands (that I thought were pretty good) with no publisher.
I began hitting the Internet looking for people interested in publishing novelettes as eBooks. There weren’t many. Then I found Melange Books and sent them ANGEL OF THE LORD, the story of a serial killer. Nancy Schumacher, the publisher, liked it and asked if I had more and if I would like to see them in print as an anthology. I hit pay dirt. That was my first venture with them. The book sold well and they were interested in other full-length novels in the series as well. We’ve been together for a while now.
Several reviewers have said this is a good book with which to begin reading the Sam Jenkins series because it starts back in New York and ends up with him working cases in Tennessee. One is actually a story of Sam as a teenager. I got the idea from Robert B. Parker who wrote a YA novella called CHASING THE BEAR about a young Spenser. I call my story THE BOAT TO PRISON a YA story with bad language. The other shows Sam as a detective lieutenant handling a problem in his section.
What has been your experience in giving your books away free? Have you been involved in any other type of giveaways and how did that work out? What was your main goal in doing this? Did you run into any obstacles?
I’m half Scottish, giving away free books came as naturally to me as an Arab and a Jew sitting down together for a friendly breakfast of bacon and eggs. For years I was against it. But then I saw enough evidence that it was the way to go if you want to build a big email subscriber list and introduce people to your series. My publisher agreed to offer the first book in the series, A NEW PROSPECT, as a “perma-free” book and see how that premise developed.
So far it’s been magic. I ran a promotional through a company called Free Book Service earlier this year. That accounted for almost 18,000 downloads in only two days. With that came a number 5 ranking of all mysteries offered by Amazon. The spill off resulted in more purchases from satisfied readers. It cost $369.00, but bought Sam Jenkins lots of new fans.
This book is regularly offered for free through my email service. People can get PDF (for tablets or any other device,) ePub (Nook) or mobi (Kindle) versions free at
What is your method of getting reviews for your novels? Do you seek professional reviews, use social media or do you rely on your reading audience to supply them?
I’ve booked into several paid “virtual book tours” where semi-professional reviewers / bloggers agree to read my book and write an honest review. This worked fairly well, but nothing like putting a short message at the back of a free book saying: “If you liked your free copy of A NEW PROSPECT please leave a short review on Amazon.com. Sam Jenkins and I will love you to death.”
Facebook and twitter have accounted for a few reviews and allowed me to meet some very nice readers and bloggers.
Author's Book List
Honor Among Thieves
- A Sam Jenkins Mystery
What does a good cop do when his name and phone number is found in the pocket of a dead mobster from his past? Does he cooperate with the Internal Affairs investigator who wants to charge him with murder, but appears to have an ulterior motive?
Does he launch his own investigation into this murder from another jurisdiction to clear his name and find the real killer? Does learning that two former enemies have put a contract on his life complicate matters?
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A Can of Worms
- A Sam Jenkins Mystery Book 6
Against his better judgment, Police Chief Sam Jenkins hires Dallas Finchum, nephew of local corrupt politicians.
Now, Finchum is accused of a rape that occurred when he attended college three years earlier.
The young man claims his innocence, but while investigating, Jenkins uncovers corruption in the local sheriff’s department, evidence that detectives mishandled the investigation and the loss of the entire case file. Sam meets one of the most distasteful characters of his career, a PI named Telford Bone, who claims to represent young Finchum. Trouble is, no one knows who hired the man.
False accusations, scandal, and extortion threaten to ruin Jenkins’ reputation and marriage unless he drops the investigation.
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A Touch of Morning Calm
- A Sam Jenkins Mystery Book 5
Chief Sam Jenkins runs headlong into Tennessee’s faction of Korean organized crime when a mobster tries to shake down two former call girls attempting to establish a legitimate business. Soon, bodies begin piling up—all with a Korean connection—in Sam’s town of Prospect and nearby Knoxville.
Sorting truth from fiction calls for more than Sam and his officers can handle, so he turns to the women in his life for assistance. His wife, Kate, Sergeant Bettye Lambert and TV news anchor, Rachel Williamson contribute significantly in clearing the convoluted homicides.
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Pigeon River Blues
- A Sam Jenkins Mystery Book 4
Sam Jenkins thinks no good turn goes unpunished when the famous singer he’s assigned to protect decides it’s hate at first sight.
Famous country and western singer C.J. Profitt receives death threats from a group of rightwing zealots. Chief Sam Jenkins gets the job of keeping C.J. safe while she performs at a charity benefit. Problems arise when C.J. says she’s dead against any police involvement.
Jenkins uses friends and professional colleagues to foil a plot destined to kill not only the local girl turned celebrity, but hundreds of innocent people.
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Heroes and Lovers
- A Sam Jenkins Mystery Book 3
TV reporter Rachel Williamson helps Chief Sam Jenkins with a classic fraud investigation. However, the case puts Rachel in jeopardy, and her abduction by a mentally disturbed man changes her life forever.
Eventually Jenkins uncovers a significant clue and leads a team deep into the Smoky Mountains to rescue his friend. But once Rachel is safely home, they discover her problems are far from over.
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A Leprechaun's Lament
- A Sam Jenkins Mystery Book 2
A stipulation of the Patriot Act gives Chief Sam Jenkins an easy job; investigate all the civilians working for the Prospect Police Department. But what looks like a routine chore to the gritty ex-New York detective, turns into a nightmare. Preliminary inquiries reveal that a middle-aged employee didn’t exist prior to 1975.
Murray McGuire spent the second half of his life repairing office equipment for the small city of Prospect, Tennessee, but the police can’t find a trace of the first half.
After uncovering nothing but dead ends during the background investigation and with frustrations running at flood level, Jenkins finds his subject lying face down in a Smoky Mountain creek bed—murdered assassination-style.
By calling in favors from old friends and new acquaintances, the chief uses resources developed during a lifetime in law enforcement to learn the true story of the man everyone called Typewriter Murray.
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A New Prospect
- A Sam Jenkins Mystery Book 1
Sam Jenkins never thought about being a fish out of water during the years he spent solving crimes in New York. But things change, and after retiring to Tennessee, he gets that feeling. Jenkins becomes a cop again and is thrown headlong into a murder investigation and a steaming kettle of fish, down-home style.
In true Jenkins style, Sam turns common police practice on its ear to insure an innocent man doesn’t fall prey to an imperfect system and the guilty party receives appropriate justice.
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From New York to the Smokies
- A Collection of Sam Jenkins Mysteries (A Sam Jenkins Mystery
Five mysteries spanning more than four decades in the life of career police officer Sam Jenkins.
THE BOAT TO PRISON — set in 1963 when a teenaged Jenkins and his friends attempt to foil a plot to kill a Long Island union leader and keep Sam’s shop steward father from doing hard time.
FAVORS drops readers into a New York of 1985 when Lieutenant Sam Jenkins mounts an unofficial investigation to learn why one of his civilian employees isn’t overjoyed about her promotion to police officer and uncovers a history of unreported and unspeakable crimes.
ODE TO WILLIE JOE, ANGEL OF THE LORD, and MASSACRE AT BIG BEAR CREEK brings the reader up to date with three adventures of Chief Jenkins and the officers of Prospect PD, a police department serving a small town in the Great Smoky Mountains of east Tennessee. UFO sightings, a serial killer on the loose, and the most brutal murders and feud between mountain folk since the Hatfields and McCoys pushes Sam to use every trick he’s learned in a lifetime of detective work to resolve these incidents on his “peaceful side of the Smokies.”
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