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the improper bostonian


On a summer evening, the patio at Union Street in Newton is a pick up scene, filled with young twenty somethings dining al fresco. But upstairs in The Attic, a private function room, the atmosphere is just a little darker. The topic of conversation is murder, violence, and twisted ideas. Mostly, this dinner crowd of about 35 mystery fans wants to know where the ideas for the books come from.

“Logan Airport” answers author Lynne Heitman, who uses her experience as the former American Airlines general manager at Logan Airport for her aviation mysteries.

Hallie Ephron, who has co-written a series of mystery novels featuring g a forensic psychologist sleuth, offers an anecdote about her co-author’s real-life patient, who suffered brain damage during an assault that made her memory and testimony questionable. This was the basis for her first novel, Amnesia.

And Chris Mooney, author of Deviant Ways and World Without End, simply shakes his head. “The honest answer is that I don’t know.”

Seven mystery authors are here at this dinner party, co-hosted by Newtonville Books, writers Linda Barnes, Al Blanchard, Dana Cameron and Gary Braver are also in attendance. The conversation with fans began at cocktail hour at the bar, proceeded through three courses, and ended with coffee, dessert and book signings.

Sitting at a table with the fans during the salad course, Barnes mentions that she’s working on a chapter that will transport her protagonist, Carlotta Carlyle, to South America. One woman from Waltham, Carol Lumm, is so familiar with Barnes’ work that she can instantly guess the reason. “Oh, to search for the family of her ward?”

Later, Lumm explains that she also writes reviews on an AOL mystery message board and is in contact with other fans across the county. “People in other cities are jealous because I get to go to so many events that authors come to. I mean a lot of authors do events in obvious hubs, like Houston in Chicago, but not everywhere. There are a lot of places where people read mysteries that authors just don’t go.”

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The restaurant venue is unique, but these kind of multi-author events go on all over the metropolitan Boston area on a regular basis. Even as a relatively new and unknown mystery author, I’ve done at least two dozen of them, appearing at bookstores, libraries and the occasional bar room.

The mystery community in Boston is strong, both in numbers and in organization.  Ephron, who is president of the local chapter of Sisters In Crime and a mystery reviewer for The Boston Globe, estimates there are about 40 local mystery authors who’ve published books. Through organizations like the Mystery Writers of America and the New England Chapter of Sisters In Crime, these authors sign up to appear at fan events, hoping if not for book sales, at least exposure.

“It’s really important for an author to have personal experience with fan,” says Ephron. “It adds a dimension to the experience if the readers know the author, can hear the voice of someone they already know. And for the author, nothing is more satisfying than meeting a reader face to face.”

Of course, all authors have their stories: of driving an hour and a half to a bookstore where only three fans show up, of a being mistaken for another, better known author etc. But mystery writers are, if nothing else, a practical lot. Many of us get into writing mysteries because we like the structure and concrete research the genre requires. So we soldier on: if the last book didn’t exactly take off, maybe the next one will do better. And despite our jealousies -- and make no mistake, we envy any author who has a better advance, a better promotional budget, or a breakout book -- we still band together.

It is this banding together, along with the intense market competition, that makes the mystery scene in Boston so vibrant.

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In the early 1980s, the mystery community in Boston was still small and relatively inactive. Barnes, who was just launching her career, says that authors weren’t expected to go out and promote themselves by organizing and making personal appearances. “You wrote the book and the publisher handled everything else.”

At the time, Barnes and some other local authors including Charlotte MacLeod, Bill Tapply, Jane Langton, and Jeremiah Healy, formed a loose group that met each month at author Charlotte MacLeod’s house. They brought potluck, offered support, and exchanged information about agents and editors. Once they wrote an installment mystery series for The Boston Herald together. The group had no name until British mystery author P.D. James, visiting the area, anointed them, the Cadavers.

The authors often hung around Kate’s Mystery Books, which had recently opened in a converted Victorian house on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. Owner Kate Mattes was still renovating, and the Spenser author Robert Parker, already an award winner but not yet a household name, helped out by coming in to install the corner shelves where she now stocks the trade paperbacks. “They are a little uneven and wobbly,” jokes Mattes. “It’s good he can earn a living writing.”

The quality of the shelving would not be crucial. Good timing was in effect. The store opened on a Friday the 13th in May 1983, the same year that Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton came out with their first mysteries. Nationally, the birth of these new and popular female private eye protagonists would transform the genre by attracting an avalanche of new women readers to what was once largely a male bastion. Mystery sales and mystery writing began to take off.

Earlier, New York, L.A. and Miami were what Mattes calls the “crime hotspots,” the incubators for popular mystery fiction. But by the mid-1980s, “Boston rapidly joined that crowd and put its own unique stamp on it,” she says, adding that the many tourists who visit New England for its revolutionary history provide a ready audience for crime set in Boston. The Cadaver authors began making their names.

By the end of the decade, Tapply, author of 21 mysteries in the Brady Coyne series as well as the soon-to-be-released Bitch Creek, recalls going to mystery conferences where everyone began to refer to the era as the golden age of mystery. “Mysteries became popular,” he says. “Publishers published a lot of them and a lot more people started writing them.”

Kate’s Mystery became the hub of Boston’s mystery universe. Mattes befriended authors, gave them marketing advice and hooked them up with bookstores in other states to schedule signings. The store’s central location made it convenient, and its haunted house motif bestowed mystique. “It developed a certain aura,” says Tapply.

As the market boomed nationally, and the number of mystery novels published began to soar, reaching 1000 per year, the competition to break out from the pack increased. Authors began increasingly aware of the need for publicity and organization.

Frustrated by the tiny fraction of reviews and national press they were receiving proportional to their numbers, women in the field had already begun to organize. In 1986, Mattes, who had become a national figure in the mystery world, helped found Sisters in Crime, an organization dedicated to fight the perceived discrimination against women mystery writers.

A New England chapter was formed in the early 1990s and quickly became one of the largest and most active in the country. Focused on promoting published women authors, networking, and helping aspiring mystery writers, the local would have huge impact on the Boston scene.

The organization, which also admits met, holds meetings that address practical issues like how to handle dialogue or find an agent or web designer and often conducts mini-seminars that feature experts in popular topics such as forensics and understanding the criminal mind. But perhaps the most obvious impact comes from the Speakers Bureau that Kate Flora, author of the Thea Kozak mystery series, developed and runs.

After years of community outreach, Flora now fields almost 40 requests a year for local mystery authors to speak on such topics as “The Modern Heroine,” and “Using What you Know to Write a Mystery.” The Speakers Bureau has helped bring published mystery authors to local libraries, state library conferences, bookstores, luncheons, dinner meetings, college clubs, senior citizen homes, book groups and women organizations in the six New England states.

Similarly, the local Mystery Writers of America chapter, which is geared more exclusively to published authors, has become increasingly active in promotion during the last decade. Blanchard, who authors the Steve Asher series, is the current president. He organized the Union Street event in The Attic, as well as earlier events with the Newtonville bookstore. He says he probably plans about 20 author events a year.

It is a testament to just how cooperative mystery authors are, that these two organizations, which technically compete in the same market for membership, often work together, co-hosting events or special projects. These projects include the three-year old New England Crime Bake, which was the first ever mystery conference in the region. It’s a two-day affair, which draws about 200 authors, would-be authors, agents, editors and fans to panel discussions on topics like forensics, the psychology of crime, and how to create a memorable bad guy. Robert parker keynotes this year’s Crime Bake, which takes place November 13 and 14 in Tewksbury.

These organizations have changed the nature of the Boston mystery scene, says Jeremiah Healy, one of the original members of the Cadaver Club and author of the John Francis Cuddy series and a separate series of legal thrillers. The guest of honor this year at the mystery’s world’s biggest bash, Boucheron 2004, Healy is a member of Sisters In Crime, the Mystery Writers of America, and numerous other professional writers’ organizations.

He explains the transformation this way: “(The scene) morphed from about ten of us who used to get together for purely social events, with maybe a little discussion about agents, to a more professionally oriented world, where we get together at MWA meetings at Kate’s to hear about arson-sniffing dogs who can sniff out a propellant or to hear tax advisors tell us about the business of writing. We still socialize, but are a bit more professional in the event that triggers the socialization.”

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Mysteries are booming. After a lull that began in the late 1990s, the genre is once again on the upswing, according to David Jastrow of Simba Information, a market research firm in Connecticut that tracks the publishing industry. He projects mystery book sales of $395.6 million for 2004, an 11.1 percent increase since the beginning of the decade.

Jastrow attributes the growth of the genre to the success of television shows like CSI and Law and Order, as well as the enormous success of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. At Newtonville Books, owner Tim Huggins also sees the increased interest in mysteries sparked by popular crossover books like The DaVinci Code and Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. “A popular film or big book can pull people into the genre, he says. “It moves in waves, stimulates the market.”

The renewed popularity of mysteries has also spawned a foray into local publishing. Susan Oleksiw, author of the Mellingham mystery series, and former editor and co-founder of my first publisher, the now defunct Larcom Press in Beverly, has teamed up with Kate Flora to put out Level Best Books. This new company publishes a yearly anthology of short stories by New England mystery authors and hopes to expand into full-length mysteries.

And Mattes has partnered with Justin, Charles & Co., a new Boston publisher to form the Kate’s Mystery Books imprint, which will have published twelve titles by the end of this year, including the paperback of Tapply’s First Light and Boyos, a first mystery novel by former state trooper and ex-con Richard Marinick, which has recently received a lot of media attention.

In some ways, publishing, “is an extension of bookselling,” says Mattes. The big houses in New York don’t have a chance to ask readers what kind of mysteries they like, but she can. “I get the feedback from customers all the time.”

Sitting behind the register inside the small, homey bookstore, with its well-worn wooden floors and ubiquitous black china cats, Mattes meets everyone in the mystery world, from the published authors to the sales reps to the fans.  Dropping by the bookstore in early August, I just missed a man who pretended to be searching for a character-driven mystery, but really was trying to get up the courage to ask Mattes for a recommendation on an agent.

Mattes doesn’t mind. “I just wish he’d gotten to the point a little sooner.”

She seems to enjoy would-be authors as much as the big name authors, who have become her friends over the years, and she always has a place in her heart for the mystery fans, a number of whom travel from far away states like New York and Pennsylvania for her annual holiday party.

She held her first holiday get together twenty years ago at the request of a customers who wanted signed author copies to give away as gifts. It began with a handful of writers, the Cadavers authors, and has grown each year, so that now, Mattes is afraid to insult an author by inadvertently leaving them out and no longer issues personal invitations. She emails and advertises for authors through the Sisters In Crime and Mystery Writers of America newsletters.

This year, she expects at least 50 authors. “Seems like nobody ever moves out of New England, they just move into it. So we just keep getting more good writers,” she says. After consulting a few of her longtime friends, the star power like Barnes, Parker and Tapply, she fixes the date of the event, which this year is Friday, December 3. The event is so popular that a team of regular volunteers comes to help during the two days of moving books and making space for the hordes of attendees, who will squish themselves into the long, narrow rooms.

Generally, the fan lines form around the big names. New and lesser known authors like myself huddle together catching up on gossip, buying each others latest books, and planning where we will go to dinner afterward.

We know each other from our meetings, from our gigs at libraries, bookstores or restaurants, from our shared frustrations of trying to break out of a crowded literary market. And despite our jealousy, we are an egalitarian lot. No one, no matter how many weeks on the bestsellers list, brandishes success. I’ve yet to meet a snob.

Some attribute this camaraderie to the market itself, which supports more successes than any other genre and allows more hope and less despair. Others think its because we so badly need a support network to face the daily discouragement of selling our stories. But I like the explanation offered by Flora at Sisters in Crime: “Maybe one of the reasons mystery writers are so nice is that we get everything out of our system by killing people on the pages.”

Jan Brogan is the author of Final Copy (Larcom Press)
and of the upcoming mystery A Confidential Source
which will be released by Mysterious Books in April.

 

© Jan Brogan

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