“Carmela Lacy is the silliest woman I know, which is saying a good deal.”
That’s the opening line of Mary Stewart’s Airs Above the Ground, which I read for the first time when I was ten, and transitioning from the Hardy Boys to adult novels. My grandmother, who was the only person in my family who encouraged me to read—my parents thought I should be outside playing instead—loaned me her hardcover copy one summer when I was visiting her. I spent the rest of the day in a hammock, caught up in the exciting world of a small traveling carnival in the Austrian Alps, thrilling to the adventures of Vanessa March as she solved a murder mystery that involved the Royal Lippizaner stallions. Once I finished, I spend the rest of the summer tearing through the other books on my grandmother’s shelves—novels by Victoria Holt, Phyllis A. Whitney, Dorothy Eden, and Charlotte Armstrong—all women, all bestsellers, and all mysteries. Most of these novels are no longer in print, and sadly, these wonderful women writers are often ignored when great women mystery writers of the past are talked about.
The books were sold as romantic suspense rather than straight-up mysteries, which I think did the authors a disservice. The covers of the paperback editions from Fawcett Crest that I remember from my teens clearly indicated the books were meant for women; despite the success of other women mystery writers (Mary Roberts Rinehart, Agatha Christie, and Margaret Millar) it seemed the publishers felt these books wouldn’t find an audience unless the romance aspect of the stories were played up. The covers almost always featured a beautiful young woman with long hair in a long billowing dress, with a brooding man and a mysterious house in the background. And while yes, there was some romance involved in the story, the murder mystery was actually front and center (although in the cases of Stewart and Armstrong, the romance aspect sometimes was completely absent, or so negligible the covers were false advertising).
I loved these books and their wonderful titles—Nine Coaches Waiting, On the Night of the Seventh Moon, Lost Island, Listen for the Whisperer, An Afternoon Walk—and the stories were delightfully complex. They almost always involved family dynamics, featured a plucky young heroine whose arrival at the family manor set the cat among the pigeons, at least one love interest who might not be completely trustworthy, and a final chapter in which our plucky heroine was trapped by the true murderer and must outwit the killer until the love interest arrives to save her. That was the formula, created in the nineteenth century, which became the blueprint for every author in the field for decades. Sometimes the authors (Holt, Whitney, Eden) would stray a bit from the formula (one of the most notable exceptions being The Winter People by Phyllis A. Whitney), but for the most part you could pretty much count on all of the above. But despite this formulaic predictability, these women were masters at creating tension, suspense, setting, scene, and three-dimensional characters. The dialogue was crisp and the prose sly, and these books have some of the best opening lines I have ever read (my personal favorite is from Phyllis A. Whitney’s Hunter’s Green: “I have no past, I have no future. All I have is the immediate present.”)
I was a faithful fan of these writers throughout their publishing careers, and always wanted to try my hand at writing one of these. I’d pitched the idea to publishers for years, and was always turned down. So, you can imagine my delight when my current publisher green-lighted my idea to give the romantic suspense novel a gay twist, and I was finally able to justify writing Timothy, which will be released on November 1. I enjoyed myself tremendously while writing it, and I am a little nervous about how it’s going to be received. It’s considerably different, after all, than anything I’ve written before (my two private eye series or young adult mystery/horror), but I’m hopeful that people will enjoy it.
And I have an idea for another one that I’ve already plotted out.
Greg Herren is an award winning author and editor from New Orleans. Since his first novel was published in 2002, he has published nineteen others. He has won the Lambda Literary Award twice (Men’s Mystery for Murder in the Rue Chartres and Anthology for Love, Bourbon Street: Reflections on New Orleans), and been a finalist an additional eight times. He won the Independent Press Moonbeam Gold Medal for Outstanding Young Adult Mystery/Horror for Sleeping Angel in 2011.
(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (http://www.elizabethterrell.com/). To be a part of this series, contact Beth at firstname.lastname@example.org.)