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Murder, They Wrote
by Lisa Albers

As a bookish child, I read every Nancy Drew mystery at least once. I often poached my mother’s mystery novels and stayed up past bedtime to watch Mystery! on PBS. Reading the latest novels of three Seattle-area mystery writers — Elizabeth George, J.A. Jance, and Mary Daheim — took me back to my early reading experiences. I remembered what drew me to the page as a young reader: the opportunity to fully inhabit another world, so carefully crafted by the writer; to come to know the characters as if they are real people; and, most of all, to be captured by questions of crime and motive.

Elizabeth George: The Inspector Lynley Series

Fans of Mystery! already know Elizabeth George’s main character: Inspector Thomas Lynley, Scotland Yard detective and Count of Asherton. “He is a character who is largely motivated through a social conscience that is in itself derived from a great deal of personal guilt,” says George. The result is a flawed but egalitarian character, a man with a temper who nonetheless has a soft spot — and, perhaps, a blind spot — where the people close to him are concerned.

Viewers of the BBC series may love Lynley, but they’re getting only part of his story. The BBC purchased certain rights to George’s work with the intent to boil the plots down to the essential crime narratives. “My novels are psychological suspense novels that have crime in them, not just crime stories,” explains George. “The BBC treatment was adequate, but they were really limiting a great amount of interesting, engaging material.” The BBC will continue the Lynley series, creating crime stories for George’s characters instead of taking her stories and peeling away the psychological material in order to produce just the crime threads. Her contract with the BBC allows her the continued right of approval over the scripts involving her characters.

Her latest book, What Came Before He Shot Her (HarperCollins, 2006, 548 pages), picks up a thread from With No One as Witness, in which Detective Lynley’s wife, Helen Lynley, is murdered, and explores it from the point of view of the child implicated in the murder. It’s a complex, heartbreaking tale rendered in prose that exemplifies the best in the genre.

George has said elsewhere that as an American writing about the U.K., she can see details that natives miss. One of those details is a class system that persists despite claims to the contrary. The novel deals squarely with class, and George’s first British editor told her she’d have to rewrite her book because she hadn’t understood, as the editor saw it, that the British class system was dead. “There is a pernicious sense of caste that is very easy for me to see,” she says. George’s agent herself withdrew the book. “She felt that the changes were as ridiculous as I thought they were, so that got their attention,” she says.

This strong belief in her own vision permeates George’s career. When readers discovered that she’d killed off the Helen Lynley character, many felt betrayed and a controversy ensued. There is a convention in the mystery genre that dictates that one never kill off beloved characters; in fact, a cliché is to introduce fringe characters who can be dispensed with easily, the impact of their loss minimized because the reader is not so heavily invested in them. George believes that the controversy “arose out of the readers’ surprise at the extent of their own emotional reaction to her death.”

George has often said that she’s not governed by what the reader may want to read, and that formula is not her goal. “I have tremendous respect for my reader,” she says. “I’m well aware of the fact that there are readers from all different walks of life who are interested in crime novels. I’ve always written the kinds of books that I like to read. I like to read books that really explore character. I like less well books that are merely all about plot; as a matter of fact, generally speaking, I don’t care for those books at all.”

J.A. Jance: The Ali Reynolds Series

J.A. Jance is a celebrated mystery author, well-known for strong characters whose lives she follows across many stories, such as J.P. Beaumont and Joanna Brady. Her latest protagonist, Ali Reynolds, is headstrong and possesses a clear sense of loyalty to her family and friends. She is that rare literary creature these days: a woman with a stable family circle who gets along with both her parents and her son and is loyal to her friends — to a fault.

Ali Reynolds, a career journalist, was inspired in part by real-life Tucson, Ariz. reporter Patty Weiss, who was let go from her TV station in what many believed was a case of ageism. “She was 50 and had been on the air in Tucson for many years,” says Jance. “I was really upset when they considered her over-the-hill at that age.”

While readers are often drawn to Jance’s series because they can follow their hero across several narratives, Jance says she doesn’t begin with a set plan. “I don’t generally know how a story is going to sort itself out when I start, whether that’s one novel or the series. I begin with a murder, and I know who did it by the time I end the book, just like solving a mystery.”

The third novel in the Ali Reynolds series, Hand of Evil (Simon & Schuster, 2007, 368 pages), arose out of one central question: How much do you owe someone who gives you a hand up along the way? Ali Reynolds owes her career as a journalist in part to the gift of a full college scholarship given to her by the mother of a woman who, later in life, comes to her for help.

“It’s the same kind of scholarship that I received that made it possible for me to attend school,” says Jance. Without the scholarship, which paid for Jance’s tuition at the University of Arizona, she would not have been able to go. Even with the scholarship, Jance worked to afford room, board and books, taking jobs as an usher at university events and in a dorm co-op.

However, the scholarship itself came under terrible circumstances. It’s a story that Jance relates with great emotion even though the events occurred 35 years ago. A high school classmate of Jance’s was pregnant and wished to graduate with her class against the wishes of school administrators who were holding her back even though her grades and credits put her on track to graduate. Her husband and the father of her child would graduate, but she would not. In protest, Jance and a friend circulated a petition supporting the girl’s right to walk with her classmates. The school awarded Jance the scholarship on one condition: that she stop petitioning. It was her only route to an education, and she took it. All these years later, she still feels as if her schooling was gained at that girl’s expense.

“Those long-term things are part of your life,” says Jance, recovering from tears during our interview. “My history with that scholarship is in the background of Ali Reynolds’ scholarship. Until you asked me [what opportunities for women like that mean to me personally], I hadn’t put it together.” She also recalls how one of the first murderers she created in fiction had come out of her own background, but she hadn’t realized it consciously until years after the book was published. “Writing is sort of magical that way,” she says.

Mary Daheim: The Bed-and-Breakfast Series

Mary Daheim began writing mystery stories for school fund-raising events hosted by a real bed-and-breakfast on Queen Anne Hill. Why not try to publish these stories as novels, she thought, and 22 books later, her protagonist, Judith Flynn, is still solving mysteries while running a B&B.

Judith is based on Daheim’s real-life cousin of the same first name. Cousin Judy doesn’t run a B&B, however; she’s a nurse by trade. “She has wonderful people skills,” says Daheim. “She’s someone who’s never met a stranger.” Does Judy mind being portrayed in her cousin’s fiction? “She’s very happy about it. She thinks it’s fun. At times, she will go with me on signings for the B&B series.”

Daheim’s latest installment, Scots on the Rocks (HarperLUXE, 2007, 506 large print pages), grew out of her fascination with the murder of Mary, Queen of Scots’ husband. “I was casting about for the next B&B setting and I thought, this is the perfect plot; it’s never been solved,” says Daheim. She peopled the book with characters based on individuals from the queen’s life even if they were not in Scotland at the time of his death, such as Catherine de’ Medici and Philip II of Spain.

The experiment proved interesting — and challenging — for Daheim, as she attempted to bend historical facts to her will and try to understand events that have been retold differently depending on the politics of the teller. “Many of the books that were published about that era were very anti-Catholic, but then I read Antonia Fraser’s book, which practically canonized Mary,” says Daheim. “However, when I got to the end of Scots on the Rocks, I ended up not liking her very well. When you put her into a milieu with others, she doesn’t do well; she had very poor judgment.”

Like Jance, Daheim usually does not know when she begins a draft how the novel will end. Sometimes who she thinks is the killer can change through the course of a novel, as happened with her second book, Fowl Prey. “I realized that the person I had picked out had no reason to have killed the victim. As the book went along, this person wasn’t the type who would kill somebody, so what was I going to do? It turned out that I’d set up another character, even set up a phony alibi for that person, and I realized that person should have been the killer all along.”

Daheim’s signature is either a pun or a play on words in the title: Bantam of the Opera, Snow Place to Die, Suture Self, A Streetcar Named Expire. The practice began in earnest with Fowl Prey, after which, says Daheim, she was stuck. Her next book may be, well, one for the books, with a title that she and her husband — David Daheim, UW professor emeritus — came up with together: Viagara Falls. “My editor loved it, much to my horror,” she says.

The Mystery Writers Association of America keeps a list of the top 10 mystery novels of all time. Perusing it, I found many of the authors whose books I had poached from my mother’s shelves, such as Mary Higgins Clark, Daphne du Maurier, and W. Somerset Maugham. Find the complete list here at www.mysterywriters.org/pages/resources/Top100.pdf.

Lisa Albers is a freelance writer and poet who lives in Seattle.

©2008 Caliope Publishing Company

 

 

 

 
 

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