"A dandy locked room murder…The investigation is a dangerous one… [the] solution both surprising and satisfying" — A Suitable Job for a Woman
On a sweltering Virginia day in 1975, reporter Olivia Kerr, her husband Jerry Ryan, his very pregnant sister Maggie and her family decide to have a beach picnic. Olivia invites her colleague Dale Colby and his family to join them. At the last minute, Dale decides to stay home to pursue an important story. But when the beach-goers return, they find Dale lifeless in a pool of blood inside his locked office.
Police detective Holly Schreiner leads the investigation, battling Maggie—and demons of her own.
"A satisfying, fast-paced whodunit that also explores a range of social issues, especially the violence of war and its aftermath." — Cynthia R. Benjamins, Fairfax Journal
“[Maggie Ryan] has been a role model for women since the beginning and I loved watching her merge marriage and children with her talent for solving mysteries!” — Margaret Maron
1. How it happens: Does the author choose the genre or the genre chooses the author?
So many things, large and small, go into decisions that affect our lives! For example, in the 1970s, long before I began writing mysteries, long before the Berlin Wall fell, I was on a two-week tour of Eastern Europe that included a stop in Bucharest where we saw Ibsen's Hedda Gabler performed at the Bulandra theatre. I don't speak Romanian, or Norwegian, but I knew the play in English translation, and the superb acting made it one of the best I've ever seen. The character Hedda, of course, does many cruel, self-centered things, trying to control everyone around her. But what stayed with me most vividly was the opening image. When the lights came up we saw the drawing-room of the house Hedda had always said she wanted, but it was behind a screen of gilded bars, like a birdcage, or a jail. The bars slid away and the play went on, but we remembered through all the action that Hedda was caged, and we understood that her cruel actions arose from her desperation at being trapped.
At first I didn't know why that image had such a deep meaning for me, but as my friends and I worked to advance the women's movement, for access to better jobs, better pay, more control over our reproductive lives, I realized that many of us were still locked in that pretty jail.
I loved reading mysteries, and when I finally had time to try writing one, I was drawn to characters who shared the situations and problems that my friends and I faced. And like the artists at the Bulandra, I found that telling stories can make abstract issues very personal.
2. What makes the mystery genre interesting?
Mysteries combine three things that I find interesting.
First, they are retellings of one of our favorite myths: a disruption to the moral fabric of the world occurs, and a heroic figure, after some exciting trials, defeats the disruptor and restores order. The excitement of the trials brings a touch of adrenaline to many mysteries. Of course many other genres share this structure–– westerns, urban fantasies, much sci-fi, video games, etc. A friend pointed out that even scientific articles often have this framework. The fair maid, Truth, is being held captive by the dragon of Someone Else's False Theory, but here comes the heroic knight (the Author's favorite theory) to rescue Truth and strengthen science.
Second, mysteries are puzzles. Many of us like the intellectual challenge of solving puzzles even if we aren't rescuing fair maidens. So part of the appeal of fair-play, traditional mysteries is related to the appeal of Sudoku puzzles, or my favorite, crossword puzzles.
Third, most of us are also curious about our fellow human beings, their problems and how they cope with them. Crossword puzzles don't satisfy this curiosity, but novels can. My own mysteries usually begin with characters under some kind of stress from the world we all know. They are coping with it at some level, but then a murder occurs and everything comes to a boil. Both heroes and villains are tested psychologically to the limit.
So mysteries are very complex creations, and different authors mix in different amounts of adrenaline, puzzle, and psychology.
3. What are the differences between Maggie Ryan/ Nick O'Connor and Marty Hopkins, and between the two mystery series?
The Maggie Ryan/Nick O'Connor series are traditional fair-play plots with amateur sleuths. The Deputy Hopkins books are police procedurals, where plots are often quests (live private-eye mysteries), but with the additional strengths and frustrations that come from working on a team.
I'm pleased that the Maggie Ryan/Nick O'Connor books are finally available as e-books (Kindle, Nook, and others) as well as in print. Sadly, the Deputy Hopkins books are not.
4. How do you like it? Do you plant red-herrings or honest (hidden or apparent) clues (or a mix of them) in your stories? Is the reader a partner or a spectator?
My books have traditional mystery plots, and the reader sees all the clues pointing to the murderer, but also sees a number of other facts that are important for other characters' stories and often lead to other surprises. In MURDER IN THE DOG DAYS, I found an interesting locked-room plot that I could combine with other stories that interested me.
Mystery readers are intelligent people who bring a wide variety of interests and experiences to the stories I write, and of course I expect them to react differently, to be skeptical of some points and to understand others better than I do. I learn a lot from my readers. I think if I have a hundred readers, then a hundred different stories will result!
5. What is harder to avoid in your mystery stories?
I'm drawn to write about the problems people–– especially women–– faced in the sixties and seventies. Maggie and her friends deal with war, PTS, abortion, homophobia, women’s reproductive rights, fraud, domestic violence, kidnapping, rape, child abuse-- problems that my friends and I worked to solve. Sadly, despite some small steps of progress, most of these injustices are still with us today in slightly different form, and I still join groups trying to improve our situation. We are still working to break out of Hedda's jail!
About the author:
P.M. Carlson taught psychology and statistics at Cornell University before deciding that mystery writing was more fun. She has published twelve mystery novels and over a dozen short stories. Her novels have been nominated for an Edgar Award, a Macavity Award, and twice for Anthony Awards. Two short stories were finalists for Agatha Awards. She edited the Mystery Writers Annual for Mystery Writers of America for several years, and served as president of Sisters in Crime.