Femmes Fatales: Rounding up Austin's Women of Mystery

(L-R) Mary Willis Walker, Susan Rogers Cooper, Carolyn Banks, Sharon Kalm, Jan Grape, Jan Maxwell, Nancy Bell

While driving on a lonely stretch of road, I get inspired. I see an abandoned farmhouse and I can't help thinking, "Hey, what a great place to dump a body!" It seems as though Austin is well populated with women who have never committed a felony and yet think that way; Austin has what seems like a disproportionate number of well-known and prolific mystery writers.

In Barbara Strickland's interview with Susan Wade, Wade referred to a community of writers, and part of that community is profiled here. These community members share many common traits: They write series with recurring characters, have been nominated for many of the same awards, get fan mail, belong to the Sisters in Crime and/or the Austin Writer's League. And they spend a lot of time alone.

SUSAN WITTIG ALBERT let me fulfill part of a childhood fantasy -- to meet Carolyn Keene, the writer of all those Nancy Drew books. Albert and her husband Bill have written both Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys stories for the long-running series. As Mary Willis Walker gleefully commented about my conversation with Albert, "Now you've talked to part of Carolyn Keene!"

Aside from being one of the many Carolyn Keenes, Albert also has published five titles in her China Bayles mystery series. China Bayles is a woman-oriented mystery series in which herbs come into play. Titles include: Rueful Death, Rosemary Remembered, Hangman's Root, Witches' Bane, and Thyme of Death, which was nominated for both Anthony and Agatha awards in 1992. A paperback release of Rueful Death is planned for July but the sixth book in the Bayles series, Love Lies Bleeding, will be released in November. Love Lies Bleeding, takes a different turn, with bad herbs (aka heroin and cocaine), the Texas Rangers, cops gone wrong, and China's love life.

The Alberts both write the Robin Paige mystery series, set at the cusp of the Edwardian period and featuring real characters of the era. Both Albert and her husband are fans of the early Edwardian era. "People [then were] beginning to look ahead to a brand-new century. Yet Victorian optimism [was] running down." Titles include Death at Gallows Green and the February '97 release Death at Daisy's Folly, about the love affair between the Prince of Wales and the Countess of Warwick.

Albert has also written two non-fiction books Writing From Life: Telling Your Soul's Story and Work of Her Own: A Woman's Guide to Success Off the Career Track. Albert also plans to teach a writing workshop on "Writing From Life" in May at Austin's Jung Society.

CAROLYN BANKS has five books in a comic mystery series set in the horse world. Privately, she calls it the "she rides/he doesn't" series, the humor coming from a situation that Banks sees often in the horse world: a horse-crazy wife paired with a horse-hating husband. Titles include: Death by Dressage, Murder Well Bred, Groomed for Death, Death on the Diagonal, and A Horse to Die For, released last Christmas.

Banks is currently working on an erotic thriller, tentatively titled His, with the first chapter to be published in a new Harper-Collins Yellow Silk anthology. The erotic thriller is not as much of a departure for Banks as fans of her horse series may think; before her literary horsing around, Banks wrote what she describes as "heavy-duty suspense books." Her first "sort of comic" novel, Mr. Right, had nothing to do with the Ellen DeGeneres movie of the same name. As for the rest, "they just got increasingly darker." Banks even admits "I write creepy stuff." Banks' other works include The Darkroom, The Girls on the Row, and Patchwork.

NANCY BELL is the house mother at the Alpha Chi Omega sorority house by day, a job that gives her plenty of time to write. And write she does -- Bell's well-received first book Biggie and the Poisoned Politician was published in April 1996, and is now being re-released. Biggie is also currently nominated for an Agatha Award as best first novel of 1996. She is, incidentally, a relative by marriage to the Clintons' much-maligned psychic, Jean Houston, and because Biggie and the Poisoned Politician had references to Hope, Arkansas, Houston showed it to her White House friends. They loved it.

Bell's sleuth is Biggie, the East Texas woman whose name was involuntarily changed from "Big Momma" by a grandson who mispronounced it. That grandson, the twelve-year-old J.R., is the narrator of the series, leading one to wonder how a twelve-year-old knows so much about death. Bell's second novel Biggie and the Mangled Mortician is due out this month, while the third novel in the series, Biggie and the Fricasseed Fatman (in which a chicken tycoon gets fried), is likely to be out in 1998.

Nancy Bell will be on the Mystery Writer's Panel at Laguna Gloria Fiesta on the 18th of May, at a signing at Borders Bookstore on May 24, and at Mysteries & More on June 8.

SUSAN ROGERS COOPER is currently working in both the E.G. Pugh and Milt Kovak series. "There's something to be said about growing with the character," said Cooper, who also authors a series featuring stand-up comic Kimmey Kruse. Titles in this series include: Funny as a Dead Comic and Funny as a Dead Relative.

Cooper has published six books featuring her homespun small-town Oklahoma sheriff Milt Kovak. (The 1988 hardback of the first book of that series, The Man in the Green Chevy, now retails at around $750 -- check those bookshelves! -- with the possibility that it may soon be re-released in paperback.) Her E.G. Pugh series features a small-town, amateur-sleuth Texas romance writer with three children, with titles that include: One, Two, What Did Daddy Do? and Hickory, Dickory Stalk. The third book in the Pugh series, Home Again, will be out next month. In this one, Pugh is waiting for her husband and facing the eternal dilemma: "Is he dead or did he desert me?" Yet a fourth E.G. Pugh book about a thwarted suicide is expected next spring.

Cooper will be at the Barnes & Noble book-signing in May and at Scholz Garden on May 6th.

JAN GRAPE is the undisputed doyenne of Austin's mystery scene. Her short mystery story, "A Front Row Seat," appears this month in Mickey Spillane Presents: Vengeance Is Hers. Like many of her 15 published stories, "A Front Row Seat" features two female private eyes: Jenny Gordon and C.J. Gunn. "They're my favorite characters. They're my babies."

Along with Dean James, Grape is also co-editing a collection of articles, essays, and interviews of, about, and (mainly) by female mystery writers. Called Deadly Women: The Female Mystery Writer, it is due out in late October. The past treasurer and a founding member of the local Sisters in Crime chapter, Grape and husband Elmer co-own the Mysteries & More bookstore.

Grape has an unusual take on why the Austin mystery scene is so hot. "The music has been so phenomenal here. Why should the writing be any different?" said Grape. "The creativity is in the air."

SHARON KAHN is still working on the manuscript for her already-sold first mystery, Fax Me a Bagel, slated to be published by Scribner's. Bagel is the first book in the planned Ruby the Rabbi's Wife series, featuring -- naturally -- Ruby, a high-tech computer consultant sleuth. Kahn was partly inspired by the longtime best-selling Rabbi mystery series featuring Tuesday the Rabbi Slept Late. (Kahn herself was a rabbi's wife.)

Kahn's series might be better called "Death by Carbohydrates," as Fax Me a Bagel is set both in Texas and the bagel underworld of New York City. The planned second title in the series is The Case of the Loaded Latke. She has also published two children's books: Kacy and the Space Shuttle Secret, for which she was runner-up at the Teddy Awards (co-sponsored by Toad Hall Bookstore and the Austin Writer's League), and Brave Black Women, co-authored with Ruthe Winegarten at UT Press.

JAN MAXWELL is merely a pen name for Austin's author of the Baptist murder mysteries. The real Jan Maxwell prefers to remain anonymous. Whoever she is, the woman behind Maxwell has enough letters after her name to play a good game of scrabble.

The Mystery Writer Known As Jan Maxwell holds a Ph.D. in chemistry and a law degree from the University of Texas. She has an Austin law practice specializing in wills and estate planning. With all of that education and background, Maxwell says, "The family joke is that next I'm going to seminary."

Maxwell's first book was published in paperback in 1995. Written while Maxwell was attending law school, Baptism by Murder features a slimy deacon found floating face-down in front of a small church outside Austin. Likewise, Maxwell describes her fictional town as "floating somewhere along Highway 71." The prime suspect in the Deacon's demise is a preacher known as Elder Lee Littlejohn, who investigates the case out of necessity. The second, unreleased Preacher Littlejohn book, Fire and Brimstone, awaits a publishing date.

Her current project is a techno-thriller mystery screenplay with numerous special effects. It is called Laodicea after the city in Revelation that is neither hot nor cold. Laodicea is about a state agency that has found a way to skim money off the top and the whistle blower the skimmers want to stop. The agency is the Texas Environmental Protection Department, aptly known as T.E.P.D.

A big fan of British mysteries, Maxwell started out reading Sherlock Holmes. "I read all of them when I was just a kid." She also belongs to Sisters in Crime but not to any critique groups. Maxwell speculates that the hot mystery scene in Austin may be related to it being a university town.

BARBARA BURNETT SMITH writes the Jolie Wyatt Mystery Series, also known as the Purple Sage Mystery Series for its fictional Texas setting. Jolie Wyatt is a 40ish single mom with a 15-year-old son and newly married to one Matt Wyatt.

Smith's first book in the series, Writers of the Purple Sage, was nominated for an Agatha award in 1994. The second book, Dust Devils of the Purple Sage, came out in paperback last month. Celebration in Purple Sage, the third title of the series, should follow in paperback afterward, while the fourth, Mistletoe from Purple Sage, is expected to be published this fall. In the upcoming Mistletoe, Jolie has returned to Austin for Christmas. It's a lovely party until someone finds the dead body....

She has nearly completed a new non-series book called Jaguar from Coba for 1998. Smith describes it as "a sort of First Wives Club meets Indiana Jones." She describes Jaguar from Coba as bigger in both scope and volume than her earlier works.

MARY WILLIS WALKER is possibly the best-known Austin mystery writer, being a winner of the prestigious Edgar, Anthony, and Hammett awards. Walker also writes the Molly Cates series, noting the preference for a series because "it really gives you scope for developing a character." Set in Austin, the middle-aged Cates works at a magazine, Lone Star Monthly. Walker describes Cates as "a sort of female Gary Cartwright, but prettier." Walker mischievously explains the impact of the real Gary Cartwright --a writer at Texas Monthly -- on the character by coyly saying, "I wouldn't say I was inspired by him, but I wouldn't say I wasn't."

Her initial book in the Cates series, Red Scream, won the Edgar Award in 1994. The second of the series, Under the Beetle Cellar, won Anthony, Hammett, and McCavity awards in 1995. And Walker's very first book, 1991's Zero at the Bone, is being re-released in paperback this month.

Walker is currently finishing the manuscript for the third book in the Cates series, set for release in 1998, All the Dead Lie Down, which takes place in the Texas Senate amidst heated discussion of the concealed handgun bill. There is also a related plotline where Cates investigates her father's death.

Walker will be participating in the Texas Writers Month book-signing at Barnes & Noble in May.

(The Austin Chronicle wishes to thank Jan Grape for her assistance in this article, and also to acknowledge Mysteries & More bookstore for inspiration.)

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle