Q & A With Author Lisa Betz

Lisa Betz

New to me authors are the best! I have just had the opportunity to read Death and a Crocodile by Lisa Betz (my review is coming in the next couple of days) and I wanted to take the opportunity to introduce you to her and her new book.

I have to admit that the book title would probably not have drawn me in. I only became aware of the book because the author reached out to me. I am thrilled that she did because it is a fascinating story. Who would ever think about a lady detective in ancient Rome? Well Lisa Betz did and she's put together a wonderful story that will captivate and entertain you. 

I thought you might enjoy a little bit of background on her and the story in general before you dive in and read her newest book! Here's a little Q&A for your enjoyment.

1. What drew you to set a mystery in first-century Rome? 

My interest in ancient Roman culture stems from many years teaching Bible studies. I have tried to absorb as much as possible about the culture and history of the Roman Empire so I can bring the ancient world to life and make the Bible more relevant to modern Christians. 

I chose the mid-first century because I couldn’t write a light-hearted story with a snarky main character that was set during the Great Fire of Rome, or the persecutions that came after that. I’ve chosen to set the novel during the reign of Emperor Claudius, which means the story takes place a dozen years before Paul first visits the city. 

One of the challenges I faced when researching this time period is a lack of “inside information” about the earliest days of church history. Most of what we know about how the early Christian churches functioned comes from later periods, when persecution was a problem and the Christians had been forced to become selective about who they allowed into their fellowship. I have imagined the church at this stage was open to curious visitors, and had not yet developed the lengthy catechisms that converts were required to complete in later centuries. 

2. How much freedom did women have back then? 

Is it feasible for a female to be a sleuth in that period? The Roman Empire was very much a patriarchal society. That being said, women enjoyed more rights during the Roman Empire than they’ve been allowed in most of the centuries leading up to modern times. For example, women could inherit property, run businesses, initiate lawsuits, and divorce their husbands. A clever and determined woman like Livia could find ways to investigate a mystery, although she would encounter obstacles a male wouldn’t face. 

I knew there would be limits to what a young female sleuth could do without ruining her reputation, so from the start I knew she would need male allies to collect information from places or persons inaccessible to her. She will be collecting those allies as the series progresses. 

I have taken my inspiration for Livia from a host of other female sleuths who solve crimes despite the constraints of their historical eras. A few examples include: Lindsey Davis’s Flavia Albia, Elizabeth Peter’s Amelia Peabody, Margaret Frazers’s Dame Frevisse, and Jane Finnis’s Aureila Marcella. (You might notice that two of the sleuths I mentioned also thwart crime during the Roman Empire. So Livia is in good company.) 

3. What is the significance of the coin shown on the cover of the book? 

When my sleuth’s father is murdered, she finds an old coin on his body that has an image of a crocodile on one side. From the start she’s convinced it’s an important clue, although in the end it doesn’t turn out to mean what she thinks it does. Despite her incorrect assumptions, the coin leads her to important information and plays a part in the final solution. 

This particular coin was minted in about 10 AD. The crocodile chained to a palm tree represents the conquest of Egypt, when Augustus defeated Cleopatra and Mark Antony. If Livia had been paying attention during history lessons, she could have told you it was the decisive victory that ended the civil war and allowed Augustus to become sole leader, which eventually led to him becoming emperor, thus ending the Roman Republic and starting the Roman Empire.

4. What kind of persecution does Livia face for her faith in Christ? 

At this time the Christian church was in it’s infancy. It was operating under the radar of the Roman government. When they noticed it at all, they thought it was a sect of Judaism, which meant the earliest Christians enjoyed the same religious freedoms that were granted to Jews. 

Once the authorities realized Christianity was a new and separate religion things changed. At that point Christianity became a religio illicita, or an unauthorized religion, and therefore open to government persecution. 

Due to the early date, Livia doesn’t face active persecution from the authorities. She does face disapproval from her parents and others. Her parents adhere to a strict notion of traditional and respectable behavior. They would interpret Livia’s adoption of any nonRoman religion as abandoning her heritage, which could bring dishonor to the family and risk the disfavor of the gods. They would insist she give up her new beliefs and ban her from visiting her Christian friends. To avoid this, she’d kept her faith a secret, but sooner or later she’s going to have to admit it and deal with the consequences.

5. One of the issues your heroine faces in the book is an arranged marriage. What could a woman of her day do about that? 

A marriage would typically be arranged between the girl’s father and the groom. According to Roman law, a father couldn’t force his daughter into a marriage if she didn’t consent to it, so theoretically a woman had a say in the matter. But I doubt many girls really had a choice. If a daughter defied her father’s wishes, she might face being disinherited or kicked from the house. Few women could afford to take that risk. 

Livia understands the realities of her society. She daydreams about swaying her father’s choice, but she doesn’t really expect her father will listen to her. When her father dies before finalizing the betrothal, she thinks she’s been given a lucky break. Her brother will take over as her guardian and she’s confident she can talk him into letting her marry the suitor of her choice. 

But then her brother is accused of murder and it looks like her uncle may gain control of the household. If he succeeds, he’ll force Livia to marry the husband of her worst nightmares. The rest of the story is Livia’s attempt to control her destiny by proving her brother is innocent so he can remain her guardian and protect her from her uncle’s schemes.

6. Many of your characters, including the sleuth and her sidekick, are misfits. Explain your reasons behind this choice. 

I have never been good at fitting into the accepted mold of whatever group I was with. I guess that’s why I’ve always been drawn to stories that feature misfits and underdogs. I understand the pain of not being cool or popular, and I respect others (real or fictional) who are brave enough to overcome and succeed despite their underdog status. 

Living with authenticity is one of my core beliefs. In my blog I encourage my readers to appreciate their true selves and risk revealing their real persona to the world. In my novels I intentionally include characters who don’t fit the conventional mold. Then I show the heroic or honorable qualities hiding inside these people whom others see as flawed or useless. 

My heroine is a free spirit who flaunts convention more publicly than I would dare. She needed a sidekick that could keep up with her, so I gave her a streetwise maid who speaks when she should keep her moth shut and lacks the polish of a traditional lady’s maid. She’s the prefect servant for a woman who decides to investigate a murder without any idea how to go about it.

7. You mention a sausage-snatching cat in your book description. Is the cat an important character? 

I’ve always been a cat lover, so I decided to give my sidekick character a cat—specifically a stealthy black cat named Nemesis who lives up to her namesake (the goddess of retribution and justice) by exterminating as many thieving vermin as she can catch. She’s a minor character who tends to appear out of nowhere, often to do something naughty like steal a bite of sausage. She adds a bit of tension or humor to the scenes where she appears. Although Nemesis doesn’t actually assist in finding the criminals, Livia uses the cat to create a distraction when she wants to slip away unnoticed. Who knows which of Nemesis’ feline attributes will prove useful in future stories.

8. Did the Romans actually keep cats as pets? 

What other pets did they have? Cats were probably kept more for their mousing abilities than to be pets, but they were definitely around. I’ve seen several ancient mosaics featuring cats, and also a tombstone of a child holding a cat. One mosaic shows a cat stalking birds at a birdbath, which I think shows the artist’s sense of humor. As with modern society, some homeowners obviously had a sense of humor when it came to art. 

Caged birds were popular pets in Roman times. The Romans also kept dogs, monkeys, and even snakes as pets. The wealthy sometimes collected whole menageries of exotic animals, everything from crocodiles to giraffes to lions.

9. Have you tried any of the unusual ancient recipes you describe in the book? 

A few. I made a pork stew with raisin sauce that was quite delicious. Another thing I’ve experimented with is must cake. In my book, must cake is a favorite of Livia’s aunt. Must is crushed grape pulp and juice, and was a common sweetener. The recipe I tried was adapted from Cato’s writings. It was fairly dense and strongly flavored with cumin, anise, and bay leaf, with only a hint of sweetness. I’m sure the ones Livia purchases at Pansa’s bakery for her aunt are sweeter, flakier, and more subtly flavored. 

Roman cooking in the first century was very different from modern Italian cuisine. Many foods we associate with Italy, such as pasta with red sauce, polenta, and cappuccino were not available to the ancients. Tomatoes and corn, for example, are new world foods, which didn’t arrive in Europe until the sixteenth century. 

Also, ancient Romans favored certain herbs that are no longer typical, such as rue (very bitter and potentially poisonous) and sylphium, which they loved so much they ate it into extinction. Another popular flavoring was a salty sauce made from fermented fish called garum. They used is as a condiment and as a common ingredient in sauces and stews. 

With ingredients like those, many of the recipes handed down to us by the ancients don’t sound very appealing. I’ll leave it to Livia and her friends to enjoy some of the odder recipes without me. 

10. What surprises did you encounter in your research? 

Slavery in the Roman world worked very differently than out modern concepts. Possibly half the population of Rome were slaves, and they faced a broad spectrum of living conditions, from prisoners of war doing forced labor to educated men like doctors, tutors, or architects. Some slaves were set up to run a business and actually had slaves of their own. 

Slaves who served a wealthy household had a good chance of gaining their freedom, either by earning enough money to buy themselves out of slavery, or by being granted their freedom for good service. It was common for wealthy men to free slaves in their wills. In fact, laws were passed to limit how many slaves a man was allowed to free in his will. 

Many freed slaves, known as freedmen, were granted citizen status, a valuable commodity in the Roman world. Citizenship gave legal protections not granted to non-citizens. Thus a poor freedman might enjoy rights denied to a wealthy merchant from a province like Gaul or Syria. And not all freedmen were poor. Some became quite wealthy. Inscriptions show that freedmen sometimes paid for large public buildings. 

Then there were imperial freedmen, which are a class on their own. Many freedmen from the imperial household became civil servants. Men like Narcissus and Pallas, who were freedmen of Claudius, served as his most trusted advisors. They amassed vast fortunes and wielded great power. Another example of a powerful freedman was Antonius Felix, who served as procurator of Judea. 

At the other end of the social spectrum, certain professions, such as actors, gladiators, and prostituted, were considered infamia and had reduced rights even if they were citizens.

11. Is your sleuth anything like you? 

Yes and no. I don’t think I’m assertive enough or nosy enough to be a good sleuth. But I do enjoy solving challenging puzzles an I have an independent streak. Like Livia, I want to be appreciated for the real me, rather than pretending to fit somebody else’s mold. Plus, we’re both fond of cats and have strong opinions about food. 

However, Livia is more determined and energetic than I am. I wanted a heroine who had both the smarts and the gumption to solve crimes even when the men around her were trying to make her stop. She also needed an outgoing personality so she could talk herself out of problems (when she chases after clues without considering the consequences) and into the houses of total strangers (when she needs to ask a few nosy questions). 

Ultimately, she’s a combination of many women I have admired over the years who had boundless energy, a zest for life, and enough drive to make their goals come to pass no matter the odds. My grandmother is one of my role models for her.

12. You started your professional career as an engineer. How did you end up writing mystery novels? 

I wasn’t one of those kids who grew up dreaming about becoming an author. English was never my favorite class, or even my third-favorite. Throughout high school and college I focused on the analytical side of my brain, eventually majoring in mechanical engineering and taking a job at a manufacturing plant. 

And yet, all along I was nurturing my creative side as well: reading tons of books, attending and participating in live theater, writing silly drama for my friends to perform. So you see, stories and storytelling were always a part of my life. I love math and science because they’re predictable and logical, but stories are what grab my full attention. Stories have the power to transport me away from my reality to another world. 

Story’s power to transport me happens when I’m writing as well as when I’m reading a book or watching a movie. That’s what has captured my heart and sustained me through years of learning the craft of writing.

13. How has your engineering background helped you in your writing career? 

During my years as a stay-at-home mom I often wondered if I’d wasted my time and money majoring in engineering. I’d worked at a manufacturing plant for six years, but I hadn’t found it as fulfilling as I’d hoped. For a while I worked as a substitute teacher, where my math and science background was put to good use. I wondered if maybe I should pursue teaching full-time, but I never felt a strong enough passion to start that journey. 

When my youngest went off to college I finally had to face this what-do-I-want-to-do-withmy-life question head-on. Was I supposed to be an engineer? A teacher? A writer? I listened to my heart and chose writing. I made peace with “quitting” my engineering career and I choose to believe that those years weren’t wasted, even though I have moved on to other pursuits.

So, to answer the question, my engineering background taught me to think analytically, to solve problems, and to look for ways to improve things. These are all skills that are useful in writing, especially a mystery where small details are important and clues have to be placed in just the right spot. Sleuths, like engineers, must think logically and enjoy solving challenging puzzles. Writers, like engineers, must look at their work with an eye to find what is working well and what needs to be improved.

14. Where do you see this series going? 

I am hoping that Livia will be solving mysteries for many years. I have a novella and two additional mysteries plotted, with ideas for more. The second novel begins shortly after Livia is married. (You’ll have to read the end of book one to find out who her husband will be.) 

As the second novel progresses, Livia and her husband slowly move from the wary mistrust of strangers to mutual respect. Neither entered marriage expecting to find love, but they will eventually get there. As the series develops, they’ll learn how to become a team when it comes to solving crimes. 

Livia will join a house church near her new home, led by Asyncritus, one of the believers mentioned at the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans. As important events in church history occur, such as the Jerusalem council of Acts fifteen, Livia and her fellow believers will hear about them and figure out how it affects them. It may be that Paul or Peter will make a cameo appearance someday, but I prefer to focus on lesser-known characters. 

One that intrigues me is the mention of believers in the household of Narcissus. Is this the same Narcissus who served as secretary to Emperor Claudius and was one of the most powerful men in the empire? Livia and her husband should know better than to get mixed up with dangerous men like Narcissus, but a good novel is all about conflict, so who knows what may happen.

15. What was your goal in writing this book? 

My primary goal was to create an entertaining story for readers who prefer novels that don’t include sex, violence, or swearing. However, I wasn’t interested in creating a typical Christian historical romance. I have always been drawn to books that were different than what everyone else was reading, and so I wanted to write a story that was a bit unusual. That’s how I ended up writing a mystery set in first-century Rome. It combines the intriguing setting of a far off time and place with the action and suspense of a mystery. 

I also wanted to create a main character with a strong voice, a quirky sense of humor, and a moral worldview that could appeal to readers in both the Christian and secular markets. I like novels where a Christian worldview is shown as a valid option without making a big deal over it. My heroine is far from perfect, and she will have plenty of moral and spiritual challenges to face as she grows in her faith and in her relationships. I hope her struggles will be relevant and encouraging to readers.

Death and a Crocodile is available now!

Here are some great ways to connect with Lisa Betz.


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