Retired judge has found success in writing suspenseful crime novels
Galveston author Susan P. Baker has won awards, accolades and many fans for her eight suspenseful, crime-focused novels. So, it’s something of a surprise the first novel she wrote was a romance.
“I read an article about how much money romance authors made and thought I’d try it,” she said. “I completed the novel and sent it off to editors and agents. One wrote back to say please do not send me anything ever again.”
Baker has a sense of humor about that first novel and the rejection letter. Such candor is typical for Baker, a retired Texas judge, who, over the years, has generously shared her writing expertise and experience with thousands of people at various conferences as well as in writing, critiquing and journaling groups in Galveston.
While that initial rejection put her off the romance genre, it couldn’t dampen her enthusiasm for writing, and in the past three decades, she has built a successful career as the author of suspense novels and murder mysteries. The majority feature strong female protagonists and all are set in Texas locales, including the Hill Country, Houston and Galveston.
Her canon includes the Mavis Davis trilogy “My First Murder,” “The Sweet Scent of Murder” and “Murder and Madness,” which have scores of 4.5-star reviews on Amazon and have been described by newspaper critics “as good as you can get” and having complex plots that “unfold rapidly.” Baker also has been praised for making Mavis Davis a strong and resourceful character.
“Mavis is really my alter ego, but she says and does things I think about but would never do,” she said.
Baker’s books have won many awards. Her thriller “Unaware” won first place in the Suspense section of the 2018 Texas Author’s Annual Book Awards. Another novel, “Death of a Prince,” was a finalist for the prestigious Writers’ League of Texas Violet Crown Award. This novel is the first in her “Lady Lawyer Mysteries” about a pair of mother/daughter attorneys who are legal and sparring partners. She’s editing the second in the series and plans to call it “Death of a Rancher’s Daughter.”
“It is important to me that my books have a legal aspect,” Baker said. “Also, they all have a message, but it is up to you to work out what that message is.”
While many authors balk at choosing a favorite title, Baker said her novel “Ledbetter Street” holds a special place in her heart because it focuses on women’s stories. Set in Galveston and described as a novel of second chances, it tells the story of a woman trying to regain custody of her autistic son along with the relationships she has with friends and neighbors.
It was June 1989 when St. Martin’s Press published Baker’s novel “My First Murder.” Over the years, she worked with many publishing houses and literary agents, but she became disillusioned with how long it took for traditional publishers to get books to market. Baker now self-publishes and sells her books on her eponymous website susanpbaker.com and Amazon.
“There is another author called Susan Baker and sometimes Amazon mixes us up,” she said. “It’s funny because she writes about health and wellness, whereas my books are about murder, which is pretty unhealthy.”
Baker was born in Houston, but her family moved to Galveston when she was a toddler. Although she has lived in other places, including Mexico and Japan, she always returns to her beloved island explaining it “must be the sand between my toes.”
A graduate of Ball High School and the University of Houston, Baker has always been compelled to write, she said. As a young girl, she loved creative writing and was a voracious reader, although her mother didn’t approve of her book choices because Baker favored true crime stories and pulpy Mike Shayne murder mysteries.
Baker, now a grandmother to eight, came of age in the 1960s when women were expected to be wives and mothers and perhaps have a short career as a secretary or teacher. At first, she followed the script by marrying and having two children.
“My first husband was stationed in Okinawa in Japan,” she said. “Wives were not supposed to work, but money was tight and local workers were striking. So, I got a job in a warehouse. After 10 days of that, I thought I was better off being poor at home.”
This experience also made her realize she would continue to have dead-end jobs unless she went to college, she said. For the next few years, Baker juggled motherhood with studying to be a lawyer and then juggled study, motherhood and work as a probation officer. All the while, she was writing novels.
Her career choice of attorney was inspired by her father, Judge Andrew Baker.
“Daddy was known as ‘the poor man’s lawyer,’” she said. “I thought it would be a good helping profession.”
Baker’s determination, work ethic and professionalism resulted in her being elected Galveston County’s first female judge. She served 12 years on the bench, hearing everything from murder to divorce cases. Then she served another dozen years as a visiting judge.
Raised a Unitarian, Baker’s desire to help others has been a strong thread throughout her august legal career, she said. In addition to her duties as a judge, she introduced a number of mediation and advocacy programs to help neglected and abused children. Many of those programs are in action today. She also was instrumental in improving safety at Galveston’s old courthouse with metal detectors and other security measures.
Her career as a judge inspired her to write two non-fiction books “Murdered Judges of the 20th Century” and “Heart of Divorce,” a how-to guide. She has woven different cases and people into her fiction.
A proponent of comprehensive research, writing each day, and honing your craft, Baker wrote all 10 of her books while working. She would wake at 5 a.m. each day to write and set herself the goal of writing 20 pages each weekend.
Now retired, her schedule is less punishing, and she has more time to market and sell her books while working on new novels. At the moment, she has three on the go and all have a legal aspect.
“People like to see justice being done and I think that we are all fascinated by human nature and trying to understand how other people think and why they do what they do,” she said.
Baker will sign books at the Galveston Island Book Festival from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Oct. 12 at the Galveston Convention Center on the seawall. The event is free.