Review: A Slow, Cold Death

A Slow Cold Death by Susy Gage

This book was sent to me so I could provide a prepub blurb. What does that mean? Take a look at this…

Yup, that’s my name on the back of the book. You know what? It’s just about as exciting as having my name on the front of a book.

This book was a lot of fun. It’s a murder mystery set in an academic university. I’ve never read a book about the crazy world of PhD researchers, though I know a little bit about it from my friends and family who are academics. The story takes place in a physics department and one of the things I most loved about it was the kooky cast of characters.

Particularly Lou, who was paralyzed in a car accident fairly recently and it comes to light that his accident may not have been so accidental. The details of paralysis were right on and I honestly could have read an entire book of just him and Lori (the main character) going on bike rides together.

I got in touch with the author when I sent her my blurb and she agreed to do a little interview about the book. Hope you enjoy!

1. You are a physics professor (so cool!). What made you want to write a book?
¬†I’ve always loved ¬†to read, but never got to see anyone like me or the people I know in fiction. At the same time, true stories about academic violence and scientific fraud have been big in the news, and are hard to explain. How can you describe a culture that makes it seem logical to kill your entire department because you got a B? I don’t think non-fictional essays can convey these types of things, so I want to show them, in a way that everyone can understand even if they have no interest in the science itself. Science departments can be like cults, with their own bizarre rules and the sense that if you leave, you’ve failed utterly. It’s the atmosphere and milieu of this kind of experience that I’d really love to depict.
2. There are so few books that pull back the curtain on the wacky academic life. What inspired the story itself?
¬†The characters have been hanging around in my head for years‚Ķ the story itself is completely made up, and came together from a variety of things. The idea for the first murder came, strangely enough, from a duck. One morning I saw a dead mallard outside in the drainage pond next to the NASA lab, and thought, “Poor ducky! Did he get caught in a flash flood?” The next moment, my brain provided the skeleton of a plot–What if this duck were a person? It would look like a hiking accident, but it could be murder. The murderer could remain free for many years. But what would be the motive‚Ķ?
The fascination with academic violence goes back to the 1991 Iowa shooting in the physics department there. I was a student then, and my advisor collaborated with one of the victims, who was very well-known in his field. One day he was there, at the pinnacle of his career, and the next day he was gone for reasons that seemed almost silly. The event has haunted me ever since.
 3. I appreciate the portrayal of Lou as a realistic and balanced character who is also a wheelchair user. What kind of research did you do to achieve that?
Quite a lot, from medical journals to personal interviews. I wanted to make sure all of the details were right. Since I’m a human-powered vehicle fanatic, I did get the chance to do the handcycle ride described in the book (it was hard!) Since I’m in a science department, I can get journal articles, and one of my best friends in the university is a neuroscientist–so that helped with those medical details (I know exactly where all the dermatomes are now!)
4. What made you interested in including a paralyzed character in the story?
¬†I had a very dear friend who became a paraplegic in a motorcycle accident, and we spent many hours on the phone talking about what it was like for him and how he got his life back. I told him that from the outside, he appeared heroic to us–he just went back to his daily life, successful and cheerful, seemingly without a hitch. He said it wasn’t like this at all, and when I told him I was writing a book, I asked if he wanted me to try to show that. He was delighted by the idea, to my surprise (I guess I’m always ¬†a little embarrassed about writing fiction)! He insisted I include at least one “pee your pants” scene, since to him anyway, this was the worst part!
There’s another inspiration here I’d like to mention as well. The only survivor of the Iowa shooting was¬†Miya Rodolfo-Sioson, who became a high quad as a result. She moved to California and became a disability rights-acitvist. I heard her speak once, and was profoundly moved on several levels: one, that the repercussions of the Iowa shooting were still with us after so many years; and two, that she could end up a happy, productive, nice person despite that horrible event (there’s a documentary on her life called¬†Miya of the Quiet Strength.¬†She died recently of breast cancer).

Finally, I am passionate about equal rights, and that everyone deserves a chance to make his or her mark on the world. There are very few physical disabilities that can’t be overcome with a clever gadget. One of my students was legally blind, and actually became a microscopist with the aid of a big screen that could blow things up very big and change the colours, contrast, etc. It was downright fun for me to help develop the tools so she could succeed–it’s not hard to open your mind and say YES, this can work, we just need to figure out how. Part of the goal of this book series is to show how things can be done with adaptations of various kinds. For the moment, Lou is mostly a theorist, but in the next few books he’ll be doing all sorts of complex experiments and will have to come up with adaptations mostly on his own (and with Lori, of course).

5. What was the process of getting published like?

Long and a bit arduous, but highly educational. I submitted the manuscript to many large and small publishers and agents, and got a lot of nibbles before a real bite. One of the most important things I learned was to pitch a book, if possible, in person. It was always more effective to see someone face to face at a literary conference or workshop and to talk about the book there. This was very hard for me at first–I’m shy, and I felt like a dilettante or faker. Some people even said things like “Don’t quit your day job!” or “Your day job means you’re not serious about fiction.” There’s also a kind of funny story about small publishers who say they “specialize in science or fiction about science”–I’ve found 3 of them, but only one of them was actually still in business by the time I contacted them! The first time I saw such a description, it was in a Bay Area weekly newspaper that had a long feature. I was really excited and ran home to write up a query letter, but then checked the press’s website and found that they now only did something like “translations of medieval Hungarian poetry.” Really? What? I think things are changing now for small publishers, because of e-books and print on demand. The hardest part is then getting the book seen! (Though it’s also hard through a big publisher–I have a textbook through one of the really big ones, and I think it’s sold a total of 4 copies‚Ķ)

6. Are there plans for more books with these characters?

Absolutely! Lou and Lori are coming back with a whole series of adventures‚Ķ the goal is to showcase a different kind of science in each one. The sequel, Not Easy Being Green, will be about a virus leak from the biosafety containment lab‚Ķ What happens when physicists start playing with HIV in a rabies coat? Nothing good, that’s for sure.

7. What else would you like us to know?
All the science in the books is real. There are even some “bonus” pictures on my website,¬†, that show the types of data expected from the experiments described in the book. There are other bonus sections, too, but I’m still working on them.
Oh, and a funny thing about me? Despite the love of technology, I am a hopeless Luddite. I don’t own a cell phone and live in a cabin in the woods with a goat, chickens, and lots and lots of fruit trees.


¬†How¬†fascinating! It’s very interesting to hear about¬†Miya Rodolfo-Sioson. I have never heard of her, but it is wonderful that she managed to show people that life as a quad does not have to be “worse than death” as some would have us believe.
I’m not surprised you had trouble finding a publisher who specialized in fiction books about science. It¬†occurred¬†to me as I was reading that I haven’t seen any books like that. My father is a microbiologist and science has always interested in, though I didn’t have the aptitude for it in school.
I too am passionate about equal rights and I just want to say “exactly!” to everything you’ve said about it ūüôā¬†
I’m so excited that there will be more books with Lou and Lori. I love them both!
And congratulations, Ms. Gage, on being a published author.
Here is the book…

Kindle:¬† (They don’t seem to be linked yet!)


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