If you live in the Hudson Valley and enjoy reading true crime novels, then you are undoubtedly familiar with attorney and author Jodé Millman’s Queen City Crimes series that takes place in our very own city of Poughkeepsie. What you may not know is that Millman was personally connected to two of the crimes. 

The first book in the series, The Midnight Call, tells the story of attorney Jessie Martin, who is woken up in the middle of the night by her handsome, charismatic former teacher asking for her help after he admits to killing someone. The second book, Hooker Avenue, follows Martin as she tries to track down a serial killer who has been targeting local prostitutes. In the third book, The Empty Kayak, released on May 30, Martin “investigates a suspicious drowning in the murky, majestic Hudson River.” Are any of these stories ringing a bell? They should because they all happened locally and made national news.

Interview with the author Jodé Millman

Tell us about yourself and your background.

I was born in Poughkeepsie.My family has been here since the late 1800s. My mother, Ellin, was one of the first people to open a screenprinting business in the Hudson Valley, and that was over 45 years ago. She’s 92, and she still goes to work every day. My mother has been an amazing role model for everything I’ve accomplished personally and professionally. She has always been extremely encouraging, especially when I decided to become a lawyer because at that time women didn’t really become lawyers. For example, when I returned to Dutchess County after law school, I was one of six women practicing law in the entire county. 

I spent my last year of law school at NYU because I wanted to specialize in trade regulations, copyright, and entertainment law, which wasn’t offered at Syracuse University College of Law. At the time, I was also a DJ on WPDH-FM, “the home of rock and roll,” and would commute back from NYC to Poughkeepsie for my weekend radio shift. I wanted to go into music entertainment and copyright law, but the music industry was going through a recession. It wasn’t until Michael Jackson’s Thriller album came out in 1982 that the music business was rejuvenated. 

Since there were no entertainment jobs in New York City, I returned to Poughkeepsie, but as a woman it was challenging for me to find a job as a lawyer. Eventually I was hired by the City of Poughkeepsie as an assistant corporation counsel. The position turned out to be really interesting, as I interfaced with the police, fire department, the common counsel, and the mayor. But, since my job was a budget line item, I didn’t know from year to year whether I was going to have a job. After a few years, I became an associate in a civil practice firm, and then I opened my own practice in 1985. 

How/why did you first become interested in writing novels?

My husband was transferred to a position in Ann Arbor, MI, which resulted in my office closing. About that same time, my father suddenly passed away. My father, Sandy, had just released a book entitled Seats NY: 180 Seating Plans to NY Metro Area Theatres, Concert Halls and Sports Stadiums, which was a guide to purchasing Broadway, off-Broadway, and stadium tickets in the NY Metro area, kind of like a Zagat’s guide for Broadway. It was a bestseller for the publishing house, and since my father had passed away, the publishers asked if I would appear on the book tour and write the next Seats guide. It was great for me because I could fly back and forth to New York and become immersed in the theater scene and publishing business. At the same time, I was able to obtain my masters in English literature at Eastern Michigan University and teach law at the University of Detroit Mercy Law School. That opportunity was my transition into the publishing world. 

Why thrillers specifically?

It was a combination of my legal background, my adoration for English literature (and Nancy Drew), and the fact that I had a personal relationship to a particular crime that had occurred. My first book, The Midnight Call, was inspired by one of my former teachers. In 1978, my former junior high school history teacher brutally murdered a student who was trespassing through his yard. He was an outstanding educator, a really charismatic guy. If we were studying China, he would dress up as Genghis Khan; if we studied India, he organized a huge Indian banquet. For our small community, the fact that everyone’s kid had been one of his students made the murder really shocking. When the murder originally happened, I thought it would make a fascinating book. Fast forward to 2006 and I started writing my debut thriller, The Midnight Call.

I also had a personal connection to the crime that inspired the second book, Hooker Avenue. In 1996, my business partner and I purchased an abandoned office building in downtown Poughkeepsie. Every morning when we arrived at work, a group of prostitutes were congregating on our front steps and soliciting our clients. We politely asked them to move along, and gradually they disappeared. In 1998, we learned that a serial killer had been picking these women up on our doorstep. Hooker Avenue was inspired by the mystery surrounding these horrendous disappearances. The novel was released in April of 2022 to great reviews.

For my latest book, The Empty Kayak, I had more of a tenuous link to the local crime, which made international news. The third Queen City Crimes novel is inspired by a mysterious drowning that occurred off Bannerman’s Island just off Beacon. The tale is very Hitchcockian – a young couple is engaged, and the fiancé names his betrothed as the beneficiary of his life insurance policy. His fianceé takes him out to Bannerman’s Island on a kayaking excursion, and on their return to shore, she bludgeons him to death. 

In creating my mysteries, I take my cast of characters and insert them into “what if” scenarios inspired by these true crimes. It’s good and bad because people are familiar with the incidents so there are parameters controlling the narrative. Originally, I had intended The Midnight Call to be a stand alone. But right before I submitted it to the publisher, I added the last line as a cliffhanger. My gut told me the series had legs and readers might be intrigued by mysteries drawn from well-known true crimes.

How does your experience as an attorney influence your writing?

When you’re a lawyer, you’re a technical writer. Your job is to state the facts in a cogent, persuasive manner. That was the first hurdle I had to surmount – making my writing more interesting, less lawyerly. But attorneys are also storytellers – you have to relate your client’s story to a judge and jury. As I mentioned, it’s persuasive, adversarial writing. But when I began writing fiction, I knew nothing about story arcs, pacing, or developing characters. I had to learn the craft of fiction writing, so I attended writer’s conferences, writing classes, and writer’s groups, which were incredibly helpful. 

As I’ve been on my book tours and appearing at local libraries and events, people not only enjoy the books, but they remember the crimes. Sometimes, it’s incredibly moving because people tell me about their connections to the victims, the perpetrators, or their families. It’s not my intention to take advantage of other people’s difficult situations, I view my novels as giving a voice to the victims and their trials. 

What do you love about the Hudson Valley?

I’ve traveled all over the world, and to me the Hudson Valley is one of the most beautiful spots on our planet. We have the gorgeous Hudson River, the majestic Catskill Mountains, and we are close to NYC. You can’t beat the history, the culture, the geography, and the wonderful people who live here. The Hudson Valley offers everything that makes life truly special. •

The Empty Kayak is available on Amazon, at Barnes & Noble, and at Oblong. You can find out about Jode’s book tour on her website at jodemillman.com.