Born in Tillsonburg, Ontario, event rider, therapeutic riding instructor and Equestrian Canada coach Julie Johnson now adds mystery novelist to her resumé.

Writing under the name J. Ivanel Johnson, the New Brunswick-based author’s second novel Just A STALE MATE was published this June and is a prequel to her first mystery, Just A STILL LIFE. The titles are part of Johnson’s ongoing Just (e)State series set at a fictional therapeutic riding centre, and follows homicide detective Philip Steele and his elderly godmother P.J., who helps him solve mysteries. Fans of “Golden Age whodunnits” such as the works of Agatha Christie will enjoy Johnson’s cozy mysteries.

As for setting a series of mysteries in a therapeutic riding centre, Johnson has spent years developing and working with such programs across Canada. While she rode from a young age, at 13 Johnson was diagnosed with a spine condition called spondylolisthesis and began volunteering for SARI Therapeutic Riding in London, ON when she was 14. As an adult she became a certified instructor for therapeutic riding and helped develop a few centres in Ontario. She also became an EC Eventing Coach, running her own stable in the Ottawa Valley from 1988 to 1996. Johnson currently lives on a small farm in the Appalachians of New Brunswick, writing full-time.

We spoke with the former event rider and author about horses and her books.

Horse Canada: What is the inspiration behind your mystery novels?

J. Ivanel Johnson: Just A STILL LIFE was outlined by my grandmother in 1947 and on her death bed in 1992, I promised her I would write it and revise it until it found a publisher. After many changes (including updating it from the 1940s to 1971), Black Rose Writing in Texas offered me a contract at the end of 2021 and also asked for a second novel in the series.

What is your background with horses?

I won’t reiterate the early years of work with horses (plus 4-H and Pony Club – very important!), but I ended up eventing to preliminary level with several golden ‘backyard’ beasts, my most brilliant of which was rescued from the meat truck. I always tried to purchase palominos and duns – our riding stable was even called Goldcreek Farm after them all. If you event a dun/buckskin, get in touch and you can be part of the “Who-DUN-nit Club”!

I also coached to training level, both children and adults, and competed in four countries, including England and Scotland. After 40 years of lots of hard falls (which I’d been repeatedly warned by surgeons not to have!) as well as all that mucking and haying, my back condition – and then my knees – couldn’t take any more. In total, I’ve had three surgeries on my spine and one on my knees, awaiting two more. So, while I can’t ride anymore, I hope to be able to at least hack out again someday.

How did you get started in writing and have horses always figured into your work?

I’ve always written, as did my grandmother (who is the real Ivanel Johnson – I just use her name as my nom de plume). I wrote my first poem when I was four was about a horse, and my first published one by Annick Press was also about a horse (dramatically trapped in a barn fire – but he gets out). I don’t always write about horses and riding, but probably fifty percent of my work features them, or at least stables as a setting.

If anyone is interested in finding out more about my connections to Riding for the Disabled, and how it pertains to Just A STALE MATE, see my guest blog on Elena Hartwell Taylor’s The Mystery of Writing.

What attracted you to write mystery novels?

I’ve read Trixie Belden [YA mystery series] since I was eight. I loved those mysteries because her gang all rode English and the horses were a wonderful part of those books, much better than Nancy Drew’s, I always thought. Then I started reading Agatha Christie and many other authors from the Golden Age and I was forever hooked.

I love the challenge of trying to write a good mystery, leaving not-too-obvious clues, but at the same time playing the game and making sure you have given your reader enough to solve it if they’re paying attention! I’m part of a Facebook group of 10 authors called Cozy Crime Collective – hopefully people will look us up, as we’re all unique cozy mystery authors from all over the English-speaking world, and two others have featured horses in their work.

I also have a short story called Winter’s Warmblood, based on my time as an event coach in Scotland, coming out on September 4 as part of a new cozy mystery e-book anthology called A Warm Mug of Cozy.

What do you want our readers to take away from your books?

I try to add humour as well as suspense, so I strive to entertain in both ways. My characters are eccentric and from a great variety of provinces and even other countries, but also many are diverse – part of marginalized communities like the ones in which I’ve lived and taught, including inner cities, First Nations, and low economic mountain regions. So, I also hope readers of my work will ponder the issues I sometimes raise about those of us who struggle with prejudice, ignorance, or bullying.


For more information about Johnson and her work and other ways to support anti-racism, visit here.  Her novels are available on Amazon  and at other book sellers.