Story Behind the Story: Denied by Mary Keliikoa

Writers of mysteries have to calculate a lot of odds. What are the chances a clue introduced early will be too big and lead to an unsurprising reveal? What are the probabilities of success for the novel if a secondary character isn’t appealing enough? And there’s always the risk of not walking the line deftly enough between revealing too much information and providing too little information. Mary Keliikoa tackles all in her latest novel, working from a solid framework while adapting new ideas on the fly. 

What’s the theme behind your story? 

The theme is really about how people are not always who we believe them to be. In Denied, Kelly Pruett finds she has a bit of a misperception about her father, and Kelly’s client, after a falling out with her own father, will find some truths about him as well. In fact, thinking about it, the entire book is filled with characters who present differently than who they might be—which is the foundation of a mystery, right?

What’s the logline?

The search for a missing father and the truth puts PI Kelly Pruett into a high-risk game of chance with a killer willing to gamble everything to win. 

What were you thinking about or what was happening when the idea occurred to you? 

Mary Keliikoa didn’t change her framework while writing her latest mystery, but left herself room to write by the seat of her pants.

That’s hard to pinpoint exactly, but I’ve always loved the iconic feel of Portland Meadows, which is a horse racing track. It had been around for decades, and I thought the idea of it being a place for pooling lots of different characters around gambling and debt and what we do when we get into trouble around those things, started niggling in my mind. From there, the story just started coming in. What happens if you do have debt, and what other areas in your world will you leverage to get out of it.  

How did the original idea change as you went along?

The original idea really did not change. I knew pretty much from the beginning how I wanted it to go—what the motivations were and the twists. 

How did you conceive of your characters for this story and how did they change?

Denied is book 2 in a series, so many of the characters were developed in book 1. But as for the character specific to Denied, they tended to show up! For instance, when I was writing the scene where Kelly is checking out Vince’s house to see when he might have last been there, Vince’s girlfriend showed up. I hadn’t necessarily intended for her to show, but she did with all of her characteristics intact. I tend to fall on the side of pantster—writing the story without having a plot set in place—and that is definitely the fun of that. My brain works best when my fingers are moving, and it’s a surprise sometimes just as much for me as my readers when certain people decide they want to join the party.

Are you pleased with the results, or do you wish you had done anything differently in the story? Why or why not?

Denied is my favorite of the series, and it’s because it really dives into a subject that I care about—healing relationships with parent and child. There is nothing I would change in the book and I feel that it has a lot of heart.  

Who would play your leads in the movie if (when!) you make a deal?  

I like Reese Witherspoon for Kelly Pruett, Mark Ruffalo for Jeff, her ex, maybe a younger version of Ellen Burstyn for Arlene, and Chris Hemsworth for Kyle. And Floyd could be played by any lovable basset hound!

What else do you want readers to know?

Just that I think you’ll really enjoy Kelly’s journey. She’s very much trying to make her way in the world as a single mom of a deaf daughter, and stepping outside of her father’s shadow. He was a great investigator, and she is always trying to measure up. But in this book, she has a little help from her sidekick basset hound, Floyd, and her love interest. And she finds out some big truths about what family means. If you enjoy Sue Grafton or Janet Evanovich, I think you’ll enjoy Denied!


Mary Keliikoa is the author of the Lefty- and Agatha award-nominated PI Kelly Pruett mystery series and the upcoming Misty Pines mystery series, featuring Sheriff Jax Turner, slated for release in September 2022. Her short stories have appeared in Woman’s World and in the anthology Peace, Love and Crime: Crime Fiction Inspired by Music of the ‘60s. A Pacific Northwest native, she has spent a part of her life working around lawyers. Combining her love of the legal scene and books, she creates a twisting mystery where justice prevails.

When not in Washington, you can find Mary on the beach in Hawaii where she and her husband recharge. But even under the palm trees and blazing sun, she’s plotting her next murder—novel, that is.

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