Aug. 31 2016 11:02 AM

Susan Elizabeth Phillips scores with sports romance

In “First Star I See Tonight,” Chicago detective Piper Dove gets an assignment to follow former local football star Cooper Graham. She finds herself butting heads with the pigheaded pigskin star — but she also finds herself in bed with him.

Normally, you’d save that suspense for the reader to discover. But in a Susan Elizabeth Phillips romantic novel, you pretty much know that “will they/won’t they” will end up at “they will” sooner or later.

About her 24 books, Phillips, in a phone interview from her suburban Chicago home, said, “there is always a strong central love story.”

“First Star I See Tonight,” the author’s latest novel, is the eighth book in her successful Chicago Stars football series. What is unusual in this series is that each installation works as a stand-alone, with different heroines and heroes for each book. “First Star I See Tonight” pairs a funny yet tough private detective with a handsome retired football star who owns a wildly successful night club in Chicago.

Piper is reminiscent of Sarah Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, but with a penchant for using men to get what she wants. Cooper, at first blush, is a throwback to the New York Jets’ “Broadway” Joe Namath. When Dove’s stalking fails, she ends up working for Graham in his club as an employee theft expert.

One of the few carry-overs from Phillips’ previous Chicago Stars books is Cooper’s agent, Heath Champion, who actually ends up negotiating a continuation of the on-again/off-again romance between Graham and Dove.

Phillips comes to Lansing next week for a book signing and author talk at Schuler Books & Music’s Eastwood Towne Center location. A native of Ohio, Phillips has vacationed and traveled extensively in Michigan. She even set one of her books, “This Heart of Mine,” in northwest Michigan.

“I love the state, and I love the Midwest,” she said.

The author makes no excuses for the heavy love scenes that are a staple of her books.

“Compared to the rest of the books on the market, mine are tame,” she said, adding that her love scenes must be “central” to the plot or character.

“I also love writing funny love scenes,” she said.

Phillips, who has been writing since the early ‘80s, said her degree in theater from Ohio University helps her write convincing dialogue.

“I am an actor looking for parts to play,” she said. “I like digging deeper into the character. Not all men are knights in shining armor — and neither are the women. In ‘First Star,’ Piper has a lot of hang-ups.”

Phillips describes her settings as “a fairly benevolent world where the couple always gets together and there’s always going to be a happy ending.”

That’s not to say the journey isn’t filled with angst and confusion. She could easily end her books with romantic cliffhangers, but Phillips isn’t one to tease her devoted readers. Her widely read books have been translated into 30 languages. (German readers are “huge readers” of the Chicago Stars series, she said, noting that they love stories about American football.)

The vast majority of her readers are women, but she said some men have been attracted to her sports-centric series.

“They will be with their spouse or girlfriend when she’s reading my book,” she said. “They’ll laugh, and the men will ask what’s so funny. Pretty soon they are reading the book. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that story.”

She confesses, however, that she is not particularly fond of football and watches very little of it. Nevertheless, in “First Star I See Tonight,” she has nailed the fawning football fans, hot models and trendy socialites who glom onto popular athletes.

When she wrote her first Chicago Stars book, she encountered some doubters in the publishing industry who said that you couldn’t mix sports and romance. But the best-selling author found a profitable niche. She recalls one book signing in Spain where the local American football team — mostly Americans — lined up greet her.

“It was the funniest damn thing,” she said, “really cute.”

Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Author talk and book signing
7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 7
Schuler Books & Music (Eastwood Towne Center location)
2820 Towne Center Blvd., Lansing
(517) 316-7495,