Joanna Schaffhausen wields a mean scalpel, a skill she developed in her years of studying neuroscience. She has a doctorate in psychology, which reflects her long-standing interest in the brain―how it develops and the many ways it can go wrong. Previously, she worked as a scientific editor in the field of drug development. Prior to that, she was an editorial producer for ABC News, writing for programs such as World News Tonight, Good Morning America, and 20/20. She lives in the Boston area with her husband and daughter.
Q How did you get the idea for the story?
Joanna: The basic structure of the book is an homage to a 1997 mystery novel by Carolyn Hart called Death in Lover’s Lane. In that book, a graduate student journalist is trying to decide among three crime cases to report on for her final project when she ends up dead. Her professor thinks that poking around in one of the cases must have led the student to uncover something that got her murdered. But which one?
Dead and Gone has a similar plot structure. Detective Annalisa Vega is called to the scene of Sam Tran’s untimely death. Sam was a private investigator with three open cases. Annalisa thinks Sam uncovered something in one of the cases that got him killed, but which one? In the end, she has to solve all three cases to determine the true cause of Sam’s death.
Q Can you describe Commander Lynn Zimmer?
Joanna: Lynn Zimmer is Annalisa’s boss on the Chicago police force and one of Annalisa’s few allies. She is a Black woman who has risen through the ranks in a white man’s world, so she doesn’t take crap from anyone. She holds a special place in her heart for Sam Tran because he was a rookie cop at the same time she was, and they partnered up for a while. Zimmer knows Annalisa will get to the bottom of Sam’s death, no matter how ugly the answer may be.
Q The story shows the dangers of being a policewoman and pregnant. Can you explain?
Joanna: Annalisa worries early on in Dead and Gone that she may be pregnant. In real life, it’s pretty possible to be pregnant and be a police detective. In fiction, it’s trickier since fictional cops are always getting kidnapped, shot at, etc. Fortunately, this is a lot less common in real life.
Q Why the Halloween costume angle?
Joanna: It’s fun and creepy. Halloween gives us a chance to be someone we’re not. To hide our real nature, so to speak. For most of us, that’s harmless fun, but for a killer, it’s a chance to move around a group of people with no one knowing who they are really dealing with.
Q There were a couple of different plotlines that you solved at different portions of the book. Can you tell us more?
Joanna: There are five mysteries to solve in the book. First, there is what happened to Sam Tran, the dead PI. Then there are his three open cases: a stalker on a college campus; a cold-case double murder of a couple who was having an affair at a seedy motel; and a missing mom who went to a New Year’s Eve party in 1989 and never came home. On top of this, there is a guy robbing convenience stores dressed in a chicken mask.
It is not possible for all these stories to be resolved at the same time, at the very end of the book. That simply wouldn’t make sense. How could Annalisa figure out the campus stalker at the same time she was dealing with The Chicken Bandit and also solving a couple of cold cases? So the answers have to come at different places in the book, depending on how easy the case was to solve. The final one is actually resolved pretty quickly because, as it turns out, the cops never really tried to solve it before. As for Sam Tran, his death only becomes clear once all the other mysteries are resolved.
Q You have different references in the book, including OCD. What can you tell us about that?
Joanna: Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a kind of anxiety disorder. As someone who lives with an anxiety disorder, I can tell you it’s about feeling worried over the things you can’t control–and there are many things we can’t control! OCD takes the form of intrusive thoughts and feeling compelled to do certain actions to alleviate the obsessive thoughts. As for why it’s in the book, it’s there because some people have OCD and it’s a thing you might encounter in the real world. In this case, our primary victim, Sam Tran, had been treated for OCD.
Q Tell us about the infidelity issue.
Joanna: The double homicide of the couple having an affair at the seedy motel is based on a real case. Like the book, her side was convinced someone from his family had murdered the couple, whereas his family was convinced someone from her side had murdered the couple. The interesting part to me was: what happens to the families when they finally get an answer?
Q How about the Barbie and Mr. Clean reference?
Joanna: I don’t remember a Barbie reference per se. Officer Kent gets called “Officer Ken” by the campus students because he resembles a Ken doll. When you are dealing with minor characters who don’t get a lot of “page space,” sometimes you need a quick way to communicate what they look like, and likening them to a familiar face can be a good shorthand, e.g. a Ken doll or Mr. Clean.
Q Can you describe the relationship between Nick and Annalisa? Why did she go back to him?
Joanna: Annalisa and Nick had a quickie marriage years ago when they were very young. It ended because Nick was cheating, and Annalisa hadn’t really wanted to get married to him in the first place. Now, years later, they are a much better match. Nick has matured and Annalisa has lost her fantasy about what a “perfect” marriage should look like. She had thought that her first love, Colin, was going to marry her. After it fell through and he ghosted her, she grabbed on to Nick. He is the kind of guy who is charming and wanted to fix her emotions. He knew she was looking for love and he decided to be that guy. Because of his unstable upbringing he was also looking for an instant family. They got married for all the wrong reasons. Neither had been honest with each other about their past. Now, they are much more honest with each other and are a better match. It’s harder to manage an honest relationship, but more rewarding too. They are both in law enforcement, so they understand the demands of the job, and Nick backs Annalisa when most of the other cops have abandoned her. Also, they make each other laugh, which goes a long way to explaining their connection.
Q Why did you have Nick have a teenage daughter and will she be prevalent in future books?
Joanna: Nick played around on Annalisa so much during their marriage that it’s not inconceivable for him to have fathered a kid somewhere along the way. Cassidy is a minor character in Dead and Gone but she has a much larger role in the next book.
Q Can you describe the relationship between Quinn and her Aunt Vega?
Joanna: They were close when Quinn was younger, but college-age Quinn is not pleased that Annalisa’s actions in earlier books blew apart the Vega family. Annalisa’s battle with the Lovelorn Killer made her locally famous, and Quinn doesn’t like everyone thinking Annalisa is so fabulous when, to Quinn, Annalisa’s strict moral code caused a lot of anguish in her family. However, Quinn quickly gets in over her head with the campus stalker and finds she doesn’t mind having a badass cop on her side.
Q How has the relationship changed over the course of the books between Anna and her family?
Joanna: The overarching theme of the Annalisa books is about losing the dream of a “perfect” family and accepting the messy one that exists in its place. For Annalisa, this applies both to her actual family and her family on the Chicago police force. Sometimes family members screw up in truly epic fashion. Can you forgive them, and what does that forgiveness look like? Annalisa is still figuring out the answers to those questions.
Q What’s next?
Joanna: The next Annalisa Vega book, All the Way Gone, comes out in August 2024. Annalisa takes on the case of a desperate college professor who has written a book called The Good Sociopath, centered on local hotshot neurosurgeon, Craig Canning. Canning saves lives even though he doesn’t really care about them, which makes him a “good” sociopath. Only when a young woman dies mysteriously in Canning’s apartment building, the professor worries Canning did it. Annalisa must figure out if Canning is good sociopath after all. The more Annalisa probes, the more she becomes convinced it’s a fiendishly clever murder, one only a brilliant psychopath could pull off. She draws deeper into a battle of wits with Canning, so determined to prove his guilt that she forgets the most important warning—that sociopaths only care about winning at all costs. When Annalisa finally peels back the layers of deceit to reveal the horrifying truth of the girl’s death, she may be too late to save herself.
Dead and Gone by Joanna Schaffhausen brings back popular police detective Annalisa Vega. In this latest installment there are not one but five crimes to solve. Because she is such an excellent author, readers do not get confused at all as to what is happening, and which crime is being focused on in a particular chapter.
The plot has Annalisa Vega being pulled in by her boss, Commander Zimmer, to investigate the death of a former police detective, Sam Tran, who was also Zimmer’s former partner. After retiring from the police force, Tran became a private investigator. Vega decides that the best leads to solve the murder is to investigate his three open case files. Charlotte Osteen has been missing since New Year’s Eve 1989 and her daughter hoped Sam could find out what happened to her and bring closure. Brad Morrison hired Tran to track down the Queen of Hearts killer who bashed Brad’s wife, Kathy, and her lover, Stephen Powell, to death in a motel 22 years ago as they were having an affair. And the third case gets personal for Vega when she finds out that her older brother Vinny asked him to find out who was stalking his daughter Quinn, Annalisa’s niece, while she was attending college. At the same time, her romantic partner, Nick, who is also on the force and acting as her work partner, is working the case of the Chicken Bandit, who’s been holding up local convenience stores and getting more violent with each new robbery.
In addition, she must come to grips with the upheaval in her personal life. She may never live down with her family and fellow cops that she took down her own corrupt father, a highly respected police veteran, all while doing her job. She is also trying to figure out how she feels about her partner/lover Nick Carelli, to whom she was once married.
This story has a feisty detective, family drama, and a lot of suspense and twists. Vega is a compelling character and the author balances well the casework, with her private life.