by Elaine Viets
My Dead-End Job mysteries are funny and traditional. My Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper mysteries are sweetly cozy. I loved writing both those series. But sometimes, a writer wants more than sweetness and light.
I wanted to go back to the back to the dark side, where I started. My new series featuring death investigator Angela Richman debuts August 2. Death investigators work for the medical examiner. They take charge of the body, photographing it, documenting the wounds, and more. The police investigate the rest of the crime scene.
Why return to this gritty world?
Because I like variety, and know you do, too. My first mystery series featured Francesca Vierling, a six-foot-tall St. Louis newspaper columnist. I wrote four hardboiled Francesca mysteries.
Tough, glamorous Francesca drives an ’86 Jaguar. She investigates the murder of a transvestite in Backstab and the death of a RUB, a rich urban biker, in Rubout. In The Pink Flamingo Murders, Francesca looks into a murder that would horrify anyone fighting to improve a rundown city neighborhood: a ruthless gentrifier is stabbed with a pink plastic flamingo. Got her right in the heart with the bird’s metal legs. In Doc in the Box, bad doctors get the deaths they deserve.
When the publisher wiped out the division that published Francesca, it broke my heart. Francesca was my first series, and like many new mystery writers, I saw myself writing at least two dozen novels about my newspaper columnist.
Now I needed to start a new series. I have a file cabinet of failed proposals, including serial killers and Sherlock Holmes knock-offs. None of them clicked. Meanwhile, I worked dead-end jobs to pay the rent. I was a bookstore clerk, and enjoyed the job. Mostly. But one day, a woman said to me, “I’m looking for a book, and I don’t remember the author, or the title, but I saw it in your store last week.”
“Can you tell me more about the book?” I asked. “Was it fiction, non-fiction?”
“Don’t remember, but the cover was blue,” she said.
“Ma’am, we have hundreds of books with blue covers,” I said.
“Well! Don’t you know your own stock?” the woman said. She was quite annoyed. And I thought – there’s a book in here. A book I can write.
That led to the Dead-End Job series. My character, Helen Hawthorne, works a different low-paying job each novel, and I’ve worked most of them. My bookstore experiences became Murder Between the Covers. In Shop Till You Drop, Helen sells bustiers to bimbos. My 15th Dead-End Job mystery, The Art of Murder, set at a quirky South Florida museum, is just out.
Once the Dead-End Job series was launched, my publisher asked me to write a cozy series featuring a mystery shopper, Josie Marcus. My mother was a mystery shopper, so I was born to write this series. Besides, it would only be for three books.
Josie happily mystery-shops everything from handbags (Dying in Style) to lingerie (An Uplifting Murder). Then I turned in A Dog Gone Murder, where Josie mystery-shops dog day care. Think your pup is romping on the grassy green lawns you see on the Website? Josie says you should tour the day care center in person.
With A Dog Gone Murder, I realized my three-book series was now ten novels.
I enjoyed writing all those mysteries, but I missed the dark side. Even cozies aren’t all kittens and cupcakes. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, the fluffy knitter who relentlessly brought killers to justice, declared, “I am Nemesis.”
But I was thirsting for blood. And hardheaded forensics. To return to the dark side, I took the Medicolegal Death Investigators Training Course for forensic professionals, given by St. Louis University’s School of Medicine. The two-credit college course gave me the latest forensic information. I didn’t want to write a dark series with the same old protagonists: the retired cop learning to live with his heart-wrenching divorce or the private eye who drinks to kill “the big hurt.” Other writers have done those novels, and done them well.
Death investigator Angela Richman is one of a kind. Janet Rudolph, head of Mystery Readers International, believes no other series features death investigators.
Angela lives in mythical Chouteau County, just west of St. Louis. The rich live in the town of Chouteau Forest, a bastion of old money. The workers live in Toonerville. But death doesn’t discriminate between the rich and the poor. Angela works cases for the super-wealthy as well as the poor. She believes the dead can talk, and it’s her job to examine, photograph and document their bodies, so they can tell her when and how they died. The Angela Richman series is dark, but it’s not as gruesome as Patricia Cornwell’s novels. It’s closer to Kathy Reichs’s Tempe Brennan mysteries.
I enjoy Helen Hawthorne’s lighthearted adventures, but hope you’ll join Angela Richman and me when we visit the dark side.
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