Category Archives: mystery

Dear Blog Readers,

Portland, Oregon radio host Ed Goldberg interviewed me about The Bones and the Book for Author! Author! and here’s the link: http://www.allclassical.org/author-author/jane-isenberg/

Ed’s a very skilled interviewer, so it was fun chatting with him.

I’m working hard on a new book now, so I post blogs less frequently, but you’ll see another note to a muse soon.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under feminist fiction, Historical mystery, Immigrant story, Jewish fiction, mystery, Uncategorized, Western novel

Dear Myla Goldberg,

The False Friend

The False Friend

Thank you for your stunning novel, The False Friend.  I read it while I was in a neck brace recovering from cervical fractures and craving distraction from my initial failure to sleep very long sitting up. The delayed reaction of thirty-one-year-old Celia to her part in the death of her childhood friend Djuna back in the eighties drew me in at once. Djuna and Celia, leaders of their clique of five eleven-year-old girls, mercilessly criticize and/or exclude the other three

Little Red Riding Hood

Little Red Riding Hood

until the afternoon when Djuna disappears. On the way home from school, all five girls take a forbidden road bordered by a woods, a forest primeval right out of Grimm. In the heat of one of her stormy fights with Celia, Djuna stomps off the road into the thicket. Infuriated, Celia follows while the others wait. Celia returns alone. Djuna is never seen again. Has Djuna gotten into a stranger’s brown car as all the girls, including Celia, attest to the police and parents at the time? Or has she fallen down an abandoned well where Celia left her to die as Celia insists after a kind of epiphany two decades later?

Celia’s shocking revelation took me right back to my own long ago girlhood. Were any surprises lurking there? Had I, like Celia and Djuna, once been

Mean Girls

Mean Girls

what today we think of as a “mean girl?” Had I been a victim of mean girls? Had I been part of a close but volatile best friendship like Celia and Djuna’s when I was eleven? I honestly don’t recall ever picking on another kid, but I do recall being ridiculed one endless summer in sleepover camp. The very first night when I stripped down to my undershirt, I learned that my busty bra-wearing bunkmates had no compassion for late bloomers. They taunted me mercilessly. Somehow, I survived even though, in addition to being flat chested, I was neither pretty nor athletic nor adventuresome like Celia. These traits made her a leader in spite of her mean streak. By eleven I had friends, but none close enough to fight with. Besides, my parents fought so much that I became a chronic peace maker.

Peace Maker

Peace Maker

Like many of my classmates at a Passaic High School reunion I once attended, Celia has changed. As an adult it is her kindness and generosity that make it so hard for her loved ones to believe she might have ever harbored a mean let alone murderous impulse. So at thirty-one, her efforts to confirm her new insight into her role in Djuna’s death drive her to reexamine her relationship with not only her childhood friends, but also with Huck, her boyfriend of ten years, her parents and her brother. Inevitably these efforts change her relationship with her adult self and with those she loves. When she dares to face the implications and repercussions of her actions, even belatedly, she can better appreciate and understand who she has become and that may free her to change. Some of us turn to therapists to help us develop fresh insights into ourselves and bring about changes, but Celia does it pretty much alone in one harrowing week, and your account of it is filled with the suspense of a good mystery or adventure story.

Your novel is so rewarding not only because your story of a woman at a turning point in her life is inherently interesting but because you are a superb writer, reconfiguring

No Bully Zone

No Bully Zone

potent archetypes, themes, and settings to keep us pasted to each page. Like that earlier little girl in the woods en route to grandma’s, Celia and her girlfriends are both vulnerable and powerful, their eleven-year-old bodies suddenly playing host to hormones their tween brains have yet to understand. Without once using the word “bully,” you shed light on that age-old archetype too, making readers see it as complex and often subconscious behavior that it is possible to outgrow. I so appreciate your avoidance of psychobabble!

Instead, your prose approaches the poetic, making us experience with Celia the busy urban intersection where, looking at the curb, she has her revelation: “Downtown Chicago streamed around Celia in a blur of wingtips and pumps.” When you want to make clear the appeal Djuna and Celia had for the girls who sought them out, you tell us: “At any given moment Djuna and Celia were a party the others were desperate to attend, or a traffic accident too spectacular to avoid.” Your novel includes many lengthy descriptive passages detailing Celia’s hometown and the house where she grew up and where her folks still live. Had you not described these so brilliantly that they somehow conjure up the reader’s origins as well, many editors would have insisted that you shorten them. But that would have been a travesty. Celia’s relationship with her past is rooted in remembering and these specifics help her and your readers to understand what she recalls. Your use of description as a memory aid will inspire me as I tackle my next book.

Thank you for another superb novel!

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under Coming of age story, feminist fiction, mystery, Uncategorized

Dear Bruce Holbert,

Lonesome Animals

Lonesome Animals

I want to become a western writer which is, I think, different from a writer of westerns. I’m an urban East Coast transplant to Western Washington with a story I want to tell set in the area around present day Yakima. To tell my tale, I have to learn about Eastern Washington as it was,  imagine how its past figures in its present and then imagine how together, past and present influence people there. Only then will I be able to imagine how area inhabitants will behave in the story I aim to write. All this imagining is easier for me if I get some help from other writers who have experienced Eastern Washington firsthand. So when Seattle Times reviewer Adam Woog listed your new novel Lonesome Animals set in the Okanogan region as one of the best mysteries of 2012  and mentioned that East of the Cascades your own roots tunnel down deep and that your novel’s protagonist is based on your great grandfather, I read your book.

As a timid retired English prof who eschews violence on paper, film, and in real life, I’m an unlikely fan of your grisly story.  But even though, or maybe

Grand Coulee Dam

Grand Coulee Dam

even because, your protagonist, retired Sheriff Russell Strawl, fits my definition of a psychopath, I kept turning the pages. And even though the bleak mountainous Okanogan landscape of the Depression Era where Strawl tracks his quarry is short on tourist attractions except for the Coulee Dam going up, I read on. It was more than just the suspense of a manhunt or even your powerful prose that held me captive. It was the westerness of Strawl, his story, and its setting. This westerness is what kept me up late to finish it in spite of the evisceration, flaying, and filleting of living people that you describe with the predictable frequency of Austen recounting house parties at the manor. I kept trying to figure out what defined this pervasive sense of westerness.

Roy Rogers and Trigger

Roy Rogers and Trigger

Strawl is a far cry from the western hero I grew up watching in the movies, the laconic cowboy in a white hat who outguns the bad guy, rescues the woman, and gallops off into the wide open spaces with her behind him on his white horse. In fact, you announce in your first sentence that this “strong silent man of the West” is a myth. Instead Strawl is a badass whose loveless childhood and violent career have made him a monstrous loner incapable of sustaining family life or any other social life either. His brains and toughness are both feared and venerated even when he hurts innocent people. You explain that men of the vast and still Okanogan country only appear laconic because the silence around them drives them into constant conversation with themselves, so they perceive a greeting or comment as “the jar of another’s words pouring into the torrent of their own.”

When I read that, I thought I might identify with your protagonist because I talk to myself all the time and have since I was a lonely only child. But I’m delighted to be interrupted and have never been accused of being laconic. I don’t identify with Strawl. I don’t even like him. But I admire his smarts and his “western” skill set: horseback riding, camping, shooting, hunting, and easy familiarity with the native flora and fauna.  And because my Yakima-set novel will include several nasty types, and because I’ve never created a protagonist I didn’t like and identify with, Russell Strawl, almost a caricature of a sociopath, is instructive.

Rural swaths of Washington State attract folks who, like him, are looking to lose themselves. But the territory Strawl lives in and polices is changing and its wide openWide Open Spaces spaces are fewer and farther apart. The Coulee River is being damned and the native tribes are retreating to smaller and more remote allotments of land. Religious zealots of all sorts are turning up along with loonies, eccentrics, and survivalists. And these disparate folks mingle with decidedly disastrous results. Strawl adopts an Indian boy who, upon exposure to Catholicism, becomes a self-anointed prophet attracting followers into a mountain encampment that makes Waco, TX look like a Zen spa. Just as the dam subdues the Coulee, cars, trains, and trucks replace horses, and towns form where once there was only a settler or two. Thanks in part to Manifest Destiny, Strawl’s territory, like Huck Finn’s, is “getting civilized.”

Or maybe not so much. In 2003, shortly after I moved here, I heard Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske speak. He was touting the low homicide rate in Seattle compared to the higher rate in the countryside. Extending his arm and pointing, he said, “But out there it’s still the wild, wild West.” Maybe this westerness that I seek to understand and define has more to do with ambivalence towards encroaching “civilization” and the crowds and complexity it brings to those wide open spaces revered by so many early Americans. Maybe the promise of freedom inherent in Manifest Destiny was false. Maybe real westerners see dams and other promises of “progress” as enemies of their freedom which thrives in the wild and resists taming. After reading your gripping and scary story, I have a better idea of what Chief Kerlikowske meant and of how to think about Eastern Washington where urban gang bangers now scrap over turf with skinheads, Aryan Brothers, Native Americans, winery owners, retirees, survivalists, immigrants, farmers, religious folks of all stripes and not many more sheriff’s deputies than policed the vast area in Strawl’s day.  Thanks to Lonesome Animals, I feel better prepared to start writing my own version of a western.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, mystery, Uncategorized, Western novel

Dear Henry James,

The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw

Now I’m grateful to you for writing The Turn of the Screw, but I didn’t really understand it the first time I read your short scary novel.  That was way back in

Haunted Manor House

Haunted Manor House

1959 when I was a freshman at Vassar taking English 105 and your creepy ghost story was on the syllabus. I remember reading of an aging governess who recounts how, when young, she was charged with the care and education of Dora and Miles, two adorable orphaned children living in a manor house in rural England. This desolate place makes Thornfield where Jane Eyre was posted seem a hotbed of mirth and festivity.

In 1959 I immediately identified with the governess who, like me, was young, inexperienced, and away from home. She is also under-appreciated by her handsome, wealthy, sophisticated employer. To her dismay, he literally wants nothing to do with her or her charges and refuses to reveal how their previous governess died. So when the new governess claims to see malevolent ghosts of former servants, I felt really sorry for her. Even though I didn’t believe in ghosts, I trusted her, so I assumed the former caregiver and her consort had returned and wished to frighten away the replacement nanny so they could be alone once again with the children. In other words, like most of my classmates, I was fully convinced that the narrator saw what she said she did.

Ghosts

Ghosts

I’ve always been credulous. When I was six, my father, who usually ranted against all things sugary, told me we were making a visit to a candy factory, and I believed him. I still remember how I screamed and struggled when I found myself in our doctor’s office with an ether-soaked cloth over my face. I awakened at home, my throat sore and my tonsils gone. Two decades later when someone phoned alleging to be a doctoral student in Yale’s school of Psychology surveying people about their sex lives for his dissertation, I carefully and fully answered his many questions.  Only after my husband informed me that there was no Yale School of Psychology and chastised me for my gullibility did I realize I’d been hoodwinked.

I swallowed whole just about everything I read, including the governess’s recollections as recounted in The Turn of the Screw. But when my class met, our professor introduced us to the possibility that the narrator, the governess herself, was unreliable, was maybe even crazy. Who knew? What a revelation! The idea that you, a highly respected author, would deliberately devise a narrator who twisted the truth shocked me as had my realization of my father’s perfidy and the lies of the “doctoral student” asking all those personal questions. After class I hurried back to the dorm and reread your book, noting the clues Professor McGrew mentioned and finding a few on my own. Reading so actively engaged my imagination in a new way. I felt I was inside the novel, not merely observing it unfold. Suddenly your “ghost story” became a psychological thriller and/or a case study of a disturbed young woman living in a time not overly kind to lovelorn working class girls.

The ghost of your governess haunts me still, so I decided to include an unreliable narrator in The Bones and the Book.  Aliza, a long-dead diarist writes her own story in her diary and Rachel Mazursky translates it from Yiddish to English. When she finds missing pages and realizes that Aliza hoped her children would one day read what she wrote, Rachel wonders exactly how honest Aliza’s account of her life really is. This adds a whole other layer to the characters of both the diarist and the translator.

It doesn’t surprise me that The Turn of the Screw has been made into a play, movies, TV dramas, and an opera and that it retains its place on syllabi. It’s a winner and

Turn of the Screw Movie

Turn of the Screw Movie

reading it changed the way I read everything else. Now when I begin to read a new book, I ask myself, “Who’s telling the story? Can I trust her/him?”  Not all readers agree that the governess is delusional and has gone over to the dark side herself, but this interpretation satisfies me and fills me with admiration for your layering and complex characterization. You gave new life to the ghost story. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, British mystery, feminist fiction, mystery, Uncategorized

Dear Robert B. Parker,

Hugger Mugger

Boston-based hunk Spenser is your gift to wise-asses and, as a certified wise-ass myself, I’m grateful. He’s the only noir private eye who can on some

occasions be mistaken for the proverbial teddy bear

Teddy Bear

while at other times come off like a tough Hemingway hero channeling Jon Stewart.

Jon Stewart

In Hugger Mugger, Spenser leaves Boston and Cambridge for horse country in Georgia and tracks down a killer there with the help of the local cops. Upon meeting a room full of perfectly tanned southerners, our tourist from New England confides to the reader, “If I were a skin cancer specialist, I’d move right down here.” But like Stewart, Spenser is more than a smart-ass. He’s a top notch PI and a loyal and loving partner to Susan Silverman, his shrink girlfriend. He’s an intellectual who loves sports, a trusted friend, and a good cook too. In other words, you’ve given mystery lovers, feminists, and foodies of both genders a male protagonist we can root for and admire.

That’s all well and good but, as I mentioned, what I’ve always enjoyed most about Spenser is how snide and ironic he is. Since I was a teenager, I’ve used sarcasm as a shield,

Wise-ass

a sword, and a feather to tickle the ribs of students and friends. But sarcasm has definite limits, especially in the classroom where I spent about forty years teaching English. Although I could use irony to illustrate certain literary works ─How do you suppose Lear/Huck/Holden/Magwich felt on Father’s Day?─ skewering my students on the sharp rapier of my wit was not an option. Besides, many of them hailed from other countries, and my snarky comments didn’t often translate into foreign languages or apply to different cultures. My censored inner wise-ass yearned for an outlet until I gave my menopausal sleuth Bel Barrett an acid-tipped tongue. I thought of her as like Spenser with hot flashes, and I had a lot of fun writing in her sarcastic voice, one very close to my own.

In most of your books, Spenser does his detecting on his familiar home turf along the banks of Boston’s Charles River. There he knows the streets

Boston Map

and alleys, the political players and the police, the cafés, the colleges, and the criminals. There he makes his home near his beloved Susan’s. (A man eager to learn how to behave in an egalitarian relationship with a well-educated and attractive professional woman would do well to use Spenser as a model. ) In Boston Spenser has his trusty sidekick Hawk to watch his back as in Double Deuce, a terrific tale of gangs and guns and friendship. You are a master at creating credible settings and intriguing supporting characters.

Another thing I admire about your books is that they are mostly dialogue. You let Spenser tell his story in the first person and he recounts his conversations with colleagues, clients, and friends. Remember this chat he had in the coffee shop with Becker, the local lawman who is his ally in Hugger Mugger?

“Fella outside sitting in his car with the motor running,” Becker said. “Know about him?”

“Yeah. He’s been assigned by Security South to follow me.”

“And by luck you happened to spot him?” Becker said.

“They could have tailed me with a walrus, “I said, “and been better off.”

Spenser’s wit enlivens what without it would be a quick but colorless exchange in the noir tradition.

Yet another thing I find appealing about Spenser as narrator is that he tells us exactly what every character, no matter how insignificant, is wearing and eating!

Breakfast

These details, often amusingly rendered, make Spenser’s account visible to the reader and help us to judge your fictional characters as we often do real ones, by what they wear and what they eat. Whoever designed the costumes for the long-running TV show based on your Spenser novels had only to turn your explicit descriptions into clothes, shoes, and accessories. And, of course, Spenser’s attention to such details, often enables him to figure out who done it.

Thank you for your many highly entertaining novels that have also served this smart-ass as models of story-telling.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under feminist fiction, Humorous fiction, mystery, Uncategorized

Dear P.D. James,

Cover Her Face

I’ve recently attended my fiftieth Vassar reunion, an occasion designed to recall memories of 1962 when life waited like an exquisitely wrapped wedding

Reunion!

gift I just knew held something special. At a pre-reunion get-together our hostess got out the obligatory yearbook, and we passed it around, marveling at the fresh-faced girls we’d been. After I relinquished the book, I glanced at my old friends clustered around the coffee table. In that second, I saw us as we’d been five decades ago, our faces yet unmarked by experience, wisdom, or time. Not surprisingly we spent much of the weekend reliving what life was really like for young women in 1962, so it’s no wonder that when I returned home, I sought out my copy of your very first mystery, Cover Her Face, which came out that year.

Wedding Gift

Unwed Mother

You really nailed 1962. In this novel, you dramatize people’s ambivalence about the social changes sweeping England and America. The victim, housemaid Sally Judd, is thought to be an unwed mother and she is not the only woman indulging in premarital sex. Sally’s announcement of her engagement to the son of the landed Maxie family for whom she works heralds class co-mingling of the sort that became more common during the Sixties. Sally herself, described by a former employer as “Pretty, intelligent, ambitious, sly, and insecure” was also something of a drama queen with a penchant for embarrassing the powerful. In the end, it is this leaning that puts her in harm’s way. In fact, it puts her in the path of another woman equally bent on keeping power in the hands of the gentry where it had always been. And so, we end with a young woman dead and an older one going to prison.

The good news for women in Cover Her Face is the realization of loyal and sensible nurse Catherine Bower that she’d rather be single than continue her

Nurse

dubious relationship with the callow Stephen Maxie. For a woman in an English novel to turn away a suitor was still a revolutionary act, more like Brontë’s Jane Eyre than Austen’s Lydia Bennett. But the not very pretty Catherine is a new woman. She has a profession and doesn’t need to tie herself to a loser to live comfortably. And you do reward her with a worthier liaison later on. Cover Her Face is full of well-drawn characters who reflect their time and place very convincingly.

So my post-reunion return to the early 1960s was more than facilitated by revisiting your debut novel. And so was my need to lose myself in a good mystery, a book that would take me far from health concerns, news of our sad world, and my obligations to e-mail and Facebook. In Cover Her Face, you offer a puzzle worthy of Dame Agatha. And to help us solve it, you introduce Scotland Yard’s Detective Chief-Inspector Adam Dalgleish. He is a “tall, dark, and handsome” man who looks before he speaks, views the body and the crime scene before interviewing the family, and is known for his “ruthless” and “unorthodox” approach to bringing criminals to justice. He proved to be a keeper, and I followed his career and personal life with interest in subsequent books. And I followed your career too as you continued to fill your books with issues and characters emblematic of the changing times.

Time to Be in Earnest

Your socially relevant and carefully crafted novels inspire me as I dream up mysteries of my own. And your life as you recall it in Time to Be in Earnest

Working Mom

inspires me as well. For, like me, you were a working mom who came to writing later in life with a healthy respect for genre fiction. And you are still writing today! Bravo, Baroness and thank you!

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under British mystery, feminist fiction, Historical mystery, mystery, Uncategorized

Dear Val McDermid,

The Torment of Others

I’m writing to thank you for The Torment of Others and The Place of Execution,two novels that are examples of what a dexterous and imaginative writer

A Place of Execution

can do within the grim parameters of the crime novel. We’re familiar with the metaphor of mystery writer as spider, weaver of a web designed to draw in readers and hold us ensnared until, breathless and sleepless, we turn that last page. Well, in The Torment of Others you’re a super-spider, weaving at least two webs, one super-imposed on the other, forcing your reader to straddle strands to see how she missed that clue cleverly concealed in the first web that landed her hopelessly tangled in the second. There seem to be at least two sadistic killers for clinical psychologist Tony Hill and Deputy Chief Inspector Carol Jordan and her team to unmask and arrest. These psychopaths appear to be torturing and killing prostitutes in two different time frames and require two separate but simultaneous investigations. Tony and Carol are admirable with enough personal quirks to be entirely credible, but the team they work with includes a few folks I wouldn’t want to count on to have my back. In another example of your superb plotting, team members turn out to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Their machinations comprise a third web, just as deceptive to the hapless reader as the others. The resulting riddle makes a thrillingly acrobatic read that left me full of admiration for your plotting, your believable characters, and your descriptive prowess. Bravo super-spider! You got me again.

Spider and Web

Police Dog Tracking in UK

A Place of Executionis another of your novels featuring strands of separate crimes interwoven in overlapping webs of complexity that kept this

Brando in On the Waterfront

reader up way past her bedtime. In one especially grim and exacting scene police dogs search for clues that might lead them to Alison, the missing girl. Years ago that scene led an admiring reader at a conference where you spoke to ask, “How many weeks did you spend researching those police dogs?” I was in that audience and I’ve never forgotten your reply. “Part of an afternoon. I’m a fiction writer. We make stuff up.” Your words were a reminder I needed. I was researching homing pigeons and their breeders in Hoboken for Hot on the Trail, but I’d failed to gain access to the xenophobic pigeon aficionados’ meeting place. Pissed off and emboldened by your declaration, in a Martha meets Marlon meets McDermid moment, I made up a clubhouse.

One more thing. Many of your books include gay and lesbian characters, but in The Torment of Others you make a lesbian the sadistic killer. I was raised to believe that my

Not Resting in Peace

slightest lapse in behavior or personal hygiene would reflect badly on all Jews, further endangering us in a world ever ready to believe the worst of us. And I still have second thoughts about making a member of any historically persecuted group, especially my own, serve as one of my criminals. Your example made it easier for me to create a murderous Jew in The Bones and the Book even as my parents, anxious still, flip over and over in their graves.

Thank you for your exemplary and chilling novels and for your succinct reminder of what fiction writers do.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Walter Mosley,

Devil in a Blue Dress

Thanks for the memories. Really. Your period PI-based mystery Devil in a Blue Dress always takes me back to the Fifties, back to the Twentieth Century to remind me of how precarious life was for blacks before the Civil Rights Movement. Or, as your hero and narrator, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlings, puts it, “…life was hard back then and you just had to take the bad along with the worse if you wanted to survive.” Easy is my tour guide through the black bars of long ago LA and through that city’s prisons, offices, and neighborhoods. Like you, I’m old enough to remember pre-Civil Rights America, and my memories aren’t pretty. So whenever I hear conservative pundits blame America’s current problems on changes wrought in a utopian US by the Sixties, I want to sit them down with a copy of Devil in a Blue Dress. Your novel inspired me to consider writing my own historical mystery belying the sanitized revision of those “good ol’ days” that many “good ol’ boys” recall so fondly.

Levittown House 1948

The story Easy tells is full of sex and violence, but his voice is well, easy, and his personality cool and, dare I say it, sweet. You leave it to Mouse, Easy’s crazy friend and sidekick, to do most of the dirty work. That way when Mouse shoots a killer aiming for Easy in Easy’s living room, Easy is free to worry about whether the dead man’s blood is staining his sofa. In fact, Easy’s domesticity, his love for his modest home with its little yard where he waters his dahlias, is touching. To earn the bungalow that defines the American Dream, Easy served his country admirably, survived, and then worked in a factory. When a racist manager fires him from his factory job, Easy’s not going to let his mortgage go unpaid and risk losing his house. Instead, he turns his free time, his need for mortgage money, and a highly suspect request into a new career as a private investigator. By the end of the book, Easy’s his own boss, in business for himself. Move over Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade!

Tuskagee Airmen WW II

Easy was raised in Texas and migrated to LA after he returned from military service in a black unit overseas. He and his Texas friends are outsiders in LA and in America too. The devil of the title is also an outsider, a mixed race Texas transplant “passing” as white. As the son of a Jewish woman and an African-American man, you are familiar with issues of American identity that affect us all and reflect our own complex history, a history too often revised by vote-seeking politicians. It’s ironic that it’s left to fiction writers like you to give us facts while many of our candidates for public office spin the past into moralizing myths.

Interracial Couple

One of those myths you use Easy to debunk is that of the African-American male as Willie Horton, a brutish criminal lusting after white women.

Noose

Easy barely has time to lust after any woman before she comes on to him. By the end of Devil in a Blue Dress, he has not only rescued and bedded the damsel in distress, but also saved a child and a friend. And he’s come to terms with those necessary compromises one makes to survive. He’s still an outsider, but he’s shrewd enough to use his considerable resources to stake out, lay claim to, and hold onto his piece of the American Dream. And reading about how he does this always keeps me turning pages far into the night. And then it leaves me wide awake, thinking about how to make up believable characters who are also outsiders trying to hold onto their own homes and to their own piece of that precious American dream. Thank you for Easy and the gripping and gritty stories you tell about him and about those “good ol’ days.”

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Historical mystery, mystery, Uncategorized

Dear Elizabeth George,

This Body of Death

his Body of Death

This Body of Death is just one of your many absorbing mysteries, but it’s the one I happened to be reading this past December when Colton Harris-Moore, the “barefoot bandit,” was first sentenced. Because you and I both live in western Washington, I know you’re familiar with the exploits of the Camano Island teen who stole cars, airplanes, and boats and burgled numerous homes and shops in several states and the Caribbean. Like the young boys in This Body of Death, Harris-Moore suffered neglect and abuse and by adolescence was a criminal. But he was a thief, not a sadistic killer of smaller children like the British boys whose tragic story, supposedly based on a real case, you weave into your own gripping tale.

Ten-Year-Old Killer

You go beyond the horrifying headlines by forcing the reader to consider what happens to youthful predators after they have served their sentences, grown into men, assumed new identities.  Already claiming remorse, Colin Harris-Moore plans to repay the people he robbed with earnings from a film based on his life story. But how do you repay the parents of a

Taking Medicine

two-year-old you have tortured and killed? How do you come to terms with what you’ve done? Will/can you ever know love? Peace of mind? These are the questions you ask your readers to consider in This Body of Death even while you have us solving a seemingly unconnected murder along with intrepid investigators, Sir Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers. Thus you force us to confront the deadly results of the neglect and abuse of children by their parents and of our failure to recognize and help those children before they become capable of doing harm. We, your readers, are not blameless in your eyes. It takes a superb writer to sweeten this bitter dose of moral censure with intrigue, suspense, and credible characters so that we greedily gulp it down. Dickens and Brontë did it. You do it.

And, like those British writers, you, an American, set your miracles of mystery and morality in England. When I’m engrossed in one of your books, I’m back

Changing of the Guard

in Britain where I’ve visited as a tourist, a student, and a teacher. But I haven’t crossed the pond in well over a decade, so when I need to feed my Anglophilia, I turn to your books. Your Inspector Lynley and his cohort Barbara Havers represent both ends of the still extant British class system, and their colleagues, clients, and suspects fill in the rest. Their England is a place I recognize, diverse and ever changing yet familiar. Your novels feature iconic country cottages and manor houses on one page and urban rooming houses and offices a few chapters later. The details you provide make my armchair tourism possible and the horrific events you recount credible.

Your characters, especially Barbara Havers, are also credible. After watching far too many TV crime shows, I’m used to female detectives like Bones, Beckett, and Benson, beautiful, brilliant women haunted by their dead mothers. So it’s refreshing to meet Barbara who’s neither a knockout nor a neurotic. Instead she’s bright, bedraggled, and brave. She’s loyal but her loyalty doesn’t prevent her from following up on a clue instead of following orders. If chasing down that clue means going without backup, she’s on her way. I’m a committed coward, so I have a lot of respect for Barbara’s guts. And I love her work ethic. She doesn’t give up. Nor does she let her feelings for Lynley, her longtime boss, prevent her from working effectively with him. And when her new female boss, an alcoholic, orders Barbara to improve her fashion statement so she looks “professional,” Barbara reluctantly complies. In the Seventies I had a boss who wasn’t into jeans and peasant blouses and told me and my colleagues to revamp our teaching  wardrobes. No wonder I like reading about a “dowdy” female detective who doesn’t show up at a crime scene sporting stilettoes and mascara.

Believing the Lie

Your first mystery was published just a few years before I retired and while I was writing humorous cozies featuring a menopausal sleuth. Your novels enriched my retirement and served as models when I decided to attempt writing the serious historical mystery that became The Bones and the Book. And now I can’t wait to read Believing the Lie.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Tony Hillerman,

Coyote Waits

When my own life feels especially chaotic, I reach for one of your Joe Leaphorn mysteries in the hope of restoring a sense of order to my spinning soul. There is something stabilizing about your “legendary” Lieutenant of the Navajo Tribal Police. Perhaps it’s Leaphorn’s sensible, step-by-step approach to nabbing even the most elusive and nasty killer. It could also be his long and happy marriage. Or maybe it’s his resigned attitude towards the NTP’s bureaucracy, his years of experience, or his reasoned way of working with his younger subordinate, Jim Chee. All I can tell you is that when my own life caroms out of control, Joe Leaphorn is my go-to man. A sexy bad boy he’s not. But Leaphorn uncovers and catches killers without my having to worry about him drinking and smoking himself to death like I do when I read about the PIs in noir crime stories.

The lieutenant may not make my pulse accelerate, but your stories about him do. That’s because Leaphorn and Chee are sleuthing in the stunning terrain of the

Black Mesa, NM

Southwest, a vast haunted land full of secrets. Both officers spend hours each day and sometimes each night too in separate cars driving from a crime scene to the Tribal police station or the courthouse or into the desert to interview a suspect or witness or follow up on a clue.  I first set foot in New Mexico in the early Nineties when my husband and I went to a wedding in Albuquerque. Gaping out our car window, I experienced déjà vu. I’d already explored those Anasazi ruins, the Rio Grande, the mountains, mesas and miles of road in your books. So that day in our rented Chevrolet I was riding shotgun with Leaphorn, keeping an eye out for the skinwalkers, shape changers, and ghosts that the Diné believe still haunt the area. I almost forgot the wedding and we came close to arriving late.

Navajo Hogan

Part of my ongoing fascination with your mysteries comes from how you infuse them with traditional tribal beliefs and customs and how those often conflict and/or contrast with the ways of white people. How you use this tension between insiders and outsiders and between traditionalists and modernists makes the familiar mystery format crackle with new vitality and was very much on my mind when I

Navajo Healing Way Sand Painting

began writing The Bones and the Book. So when readers of early drafts told me, “It’s a good story, but it’s too Jewish,” I took solace in remembering how your agent told you your first novel, The Blessing Way, would be a best seller if you’d only “get rid of the Indian stuff.” In the work of a lesser writer that “Indian stuff” might be arcane and off-putting, but in your novels it’s integral to the story and the characters, so it’s both gripping and accessible. I kept your example in mind as I revised.

There’s at least one more thing I really enjoy about your books. Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are mentor and sidekick, boss and subordinate, Holmes and Watson.

Holmes and Watson

But those prototypical two are doomed to forever replay their roles of genius and stooge. Not so with Leaphorn and Chee. Their responses to each other run the gamut—rivalry, respect, resentment—and vary day by day, year by year, case by case. Leaphorn and Chee gradually and realistically learn to appreciate and exploit one another’s strengths to forge a satisfying and effective partnership that continues to evolve even after, in Coyote Waits, Leaphorn retires. You knew about male bonding before it became a TV and movie cliché.

So when I write mysteries, yours are still among the models I use. I too want to create believable characters who forge recognizable relationships with one another in a setting rich in cultural conundrums that fuel conflict and challenge my detective. And in The Bel Barrett Mysteries as well as later in The Bones and the Book, I’ve dreamed up amateur sleuths who are, at heart, neither sirens nor shrews, but nice, Jewish girls grown up.

Thank you again for your inspiring stories.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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