Four of the books we'll be discussing Oct. 28
P.M. Carlson's mysteries have been finalists for the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, and Agatha Awards.
MURDER MISREAD, Maggie Ryan 1977
MURDER MISREAD (Maggie Ryan 1977)
Maggie Ryan returns to her alma mater as a consultant to help Charlie Fielding with the statistical analysis of his reading research. Charlie, professor and film buff, wants to help children learn to read, and begins by studying the eye movements of adult readers. Maggie finds the research interesting, and she’s also happy because Charlie’s department offers good daycare for her two children, and because her actor husband Nick O’Connor is working at a summer stock theatre not far away. But the happy summer plan is disrupted when Charlie’s popular colleague and rival, Professor Tal Chandler, is found shot in a gorge near campus.
It looks like suicide. But why is the gun in the left-handed man’s right hand? And why do the town homicide detectives run up against resistance when they try to interview Charlie and other department members?
Maggie teams up with Tal’s grieving widow, French professor Anne Chandler, to get some questions answered.
MURDER MISREAD: 2-minute video chat
Personal comments on the background of MURDER MISREAD
MURDER MISREAD is the seventh novel in my first mystery series, featuring Maggie Ryan and Nick O'Connor and set in the 1960's and 1970's. The books are being reissued by The Mystery Company/Crum Creek Press in both trade paperback and e-book form. The first, AUDITION FOR MURDER, is set at Maggie's undergraduate college during the Vietnam war, where a murderer stalks the campus theatre production of Hamlet. In the second, MURDER IS ACADEMIC, she begins her graduate studies and finds the academic ivory tower is no protection from a violent world. The third, MURDER IS PATHOLOGICAL, is set in a neurology research lab at Maggie's university. In it, Maggie (the project statistician) and friends Monica Bauer and Nick O'Connor must defend an important brain-tumor research project threatened by vandalism and murder. In the fourth, MURDER UNRENOVATED, Nick and Maggie are married and hope to buy a nice old house in Brooklyn. It's perfect except for a stubborn tenant who refuses to move out. And then there's the corpse on the top floor. . .
In the fifth book, REHEARSAL FOR MURDER, actor Nick is hopeful about his role in a new British musical. But cast members clash, and there are problems on the home front too. Nick and Maggie both adore their five-month-old daughter, but the baby demands so much attention they hardly have time for each other-- nor for figuring out who gunned down the bitchy leading lady in Nick's show. The sixth book, MURDER IN THE DOG DAYS, takes Nick and Maggie and daughter to visit Maggie's brother Jerry and his reporter wife. When another reporter is found bloody and dead in his locked office, police detective Holly Schreiner, a Vietnam vet, battles Maggie–– and demons of her own.
Rereading these books as we prepared them for publication, I was struck at how fresh the 1960's-1970's problems seem today, forty-some years later. War, discrimination, drugs, getting a job, getting a degree, building relationships, coping with death-- some details are different, but the problems still loom over us.
And so does the problem that has fascinated mystery readers and writers from the beginning-- what drives some people to murder?
Book club members and other interested readers can find discussion questions for the first two books by clicking on them in the column to the right, "Mysteries & Discussion Questions."
And there are links below to two-minute videos with my personal takes on the books.
AUDITION FOR MURDER: 2-minute video chat
Personal comments on the background of AUDITION FOR MURDER
MURDER IS ACADEMIC: 2-minute video chat
Personal comments on the background of MURDER IS ACADEMIC
Detectives in murder mysteries are a very unlikely group -- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's drug addict in a deerstalker hat, Agatha Christie's old lady in an English village, Sara Paretsky's tough woman private detective on the streets of Chicago, and so forth.
But when I began writing mysteries it was crystal clear to me who the least likely detective was. From my own experience, I knew it was a working mother with kids.
We working moms are amazing people who somehow juggle half a dozen full-time responsibilities and still (usually) have time for that all-important hug. But we’re much too busy and frazzled to take on extras. As one mother told me, “When my kids were little, if a body had turned up on the kitchen floor, I would have just put it down the disposal. Who needs more hassle?”
The Maggie Ryan series began with wondering about what kind of woman might become a mom who would accept that extra hassle. Maggie Ryan was still in college in the first books, but I always knew she'd be a mother who would love the challenge of making the world a little better for her kids.
The Marty Hopkins series began a little later, as more working moms went into law enforcement. The rest of us pay them to seek out trouble and fix it for us. It’s a tough job, often dangerous, and we aren’t always comfortable seeing women do it.
Writing about Deputy Sheriff Marty Hopkins, I’m intrigued by the conflicts she faces. Cops work for justice, especially as embodied in the law. The law is admirable for regulating problems between equals and has saved us from many bloodbaths. As a deputy sheriff, Marty’s job is to enforce the law and keep the peace.
But Marty is a mother too, so, like Maggie, she knows that lots of problems involve inequality - small powerless children making demands, and big powerful men making demands. Rules based on equality are only occasionally helpful in mothering. Responsibility and caring are usually more relevant than strict justice. And as in families, real-world problems often pit the weak against the strong.
So Marty has to chase the killers, deal with redneck colleagues who think women can’t do the job, take care of her family, and juggle the conflicting standards of how to resolve complicated problems. It’s been fascinating to write books about both of these detective-mothers. I hope you enjoy them too.
Mysteries are terrific entertainment. But WHY are they entertaining? I think the best mysteries grab us because they are retellings of psychologically important myths about the big questions–– death, evil, crime. Think about loner heroes like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. The detective faces horrors in the search for the holy grail of truth.
My books Gravestone, Bloodstream, Deathwind and Crossfire use these basic stories too. From Freud and Jung on, depth psychologists have been interested in myths and stories as tools to help us understand ourselves. In my books, Marty Hopkins battles with evil and quests for truth, just like Sam Spade. Doing her job, she works out puzzles and faces danger in the same heroic way. But she’s also a mother, so she resonates to other aspects of the stories that are relevant to her life, and learns from them. For example, in Crossfire, a vengeful murderer hides his tracks while Marty's new boss and her ex-boss are battling, both demanding her loyalty. She must call upon the wisdom and skills of Athene, protector of the community, to resolve both problems.
As a psychologist I’m interested in how people overcome unhappy backgrounds. Many of my characters are people who are already dealing with problems. The murder brings everything to a boil and often forces them to a new level of understanding. I have great admiration for the way most of us cope with major problems, so even though I write about some horrible crimes, there’s an upbeat note to my books as well.
Of course there are shoot-outs and chase scenes, too! But I think the stories gain excitement by building on psychologically meaningful myths. So in these mysteries, Marty Hopkins catches the murderers, and in the process learns something important for her life, and for mine, and who knows? Maybe even for yours.
If you like historical mysteries, you might enjoy RENOWNED BE THY GRAVE (Crippen & Landru), the collected short stories about Bridget Mooney, a nineteenth-century guttersnipe and would-be actress who meets famous people such as Ulysses Grant, Lillie Langtry, and Jesse James.
Copyright © 2012 by P.M. Carlson
Thanks for website assistance to John Merchant, Ulrike Carlson and Jim McElroy