In the spring of 1985, I was a failed author. I’d had seven books published, but another seven manuscripts. were stacked, gathering dust, turned down by a raft of publishers. This was the heyday of steamy romance novels. I tried that. No sale. I wrote WWII novels. Escape from Paris, the story of two American sisters in Paris in 1940 who help British airmen flee the Gestapo, is possibly the best suspense novel I ever wrote. Escape from Paris later sold to a small publishing house in England, then to Doubleday in the U.S. and has been reprinted now by Seventh Street Books. But in 1985, it was in the unsold stack of seven.
1985 marked a turning point in mystery publishing for American women. Until then, publishers considered the American mystery to be the hard boiled male (of course) private eye written by men. That mold was broken by Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky, and Sue Grafton. They wrote hard boiled books, but the protagonists were women. Publishers saw their sales and decided American women readers were interested in books by and about American women.
As a writer living in Oklahoma, I didn’t know a sea change was occurring. All I knew was that I’d written book after book and no one was interested. I was teaching at the time and attended a meeting of Mystery Writers of America in Houston. Wonderful Joan Lowery Nixon, a renowned Houston YA writer, had a cocktail party for the MWA members.
I attended though I felt out of place even though I’d had seven books published. There was that stack of seven unsold and nothing on the horizon. Everyone was friendly and kind, as writers generally are. I met Bill Crider who had just sold his first book. As we talked, he asked if I’d been to Murder by the Book. I asked him what that was. He said, “A mystery bookstore.” I’d never heard of a mystery bookstore. The next day I took a cab from the hotel to Murder by the Book. The owner was there, gracious and appealing Martha Farrington. I didn’t introduce myself or mention my previous books. Instead I gloried in the store, row after row of shelves filled with mysteries of all kinds, suspense, thrillers, traditional mysteries, crime novels, British mysteries, and a whole wall of used books. In Oklahoma when we like something we say, “I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven.” That, to me, was Murder by the Book. (Martha has since retired but Murder by the Book continues to be a Houston triumph.)
I returned home, energized by friendly writers talking about the books we loved to read and loved to write and by visiting Murder by the Book. I’d just started a new book (the triumph of hope over experience) set in a bookstore. I made it a mystery bookstore. I wrote the kind of book I love to read, about ordinary people and the passions and heartache that lead to murder and about a young couple, Annie Laurance and Max Darling, who truly love each other. I called the book Death on Demand.
In New York, publishers were looking for books by American women. The book sold to Kate Miciak at Bantam, one of the mystery world’s most fabulous editors. I had written it more in defiance than in hope. The possibility that anyone would publish it seemed remote. It never occurred to me to think in terms of a series. Kate called to talk and asked, “It’s the first in a series, isn’t it?” I immediately said of course it was. I wrote the next and the next and readers read them and I kept going. The 25th in the Death on Demand series – Don’t Go Home – will be reprinted in paperback this spring. Annie Darling tries hard to keep her promise to Max that she will never again put herself in danger but their good friend Gazette Reporter Marian Kenyon faces scandal and heartbreak when an author’s return to the island ends in murder. He knew too much about too many. Choices are made by Annie about the importance of friendship and by Marian about what kind of truth matters.
Writing the Death on Demand books has been a great adventure. I am currently working on Walking on My Grave, which will be – to my amazement and delight – the 26th in the series.