Every sub-genre has its peculiar satisfactions—a reality recently borne in on Elaine Viets, who launched a new and darker series in our November issue. Here she reflects on some of the opportunities it offered.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine heralded my return to the dark side in November with a hardboiled short story. “Gotta Go” introduced Angela Richman, a death investigator in mythical Chouteau Country, Missouri, stronghold of the over-privileged and the people who serve them.
Death investigators work for the medical examiner’s office. At a suspicious death, DIs are in charge of the body. The police handle the rest of the crime scene.
AHMM brought good luck. As “Gotta Go” was published, I signed a two-book deal with Thomas & Mercer for the Angela Richman mysteries. Brain Storm, the first mystery in the new death investigator series, will debut at Thriller Fest this July.
After a decade and a half of writing traditional Dead-End Job mysteries and cozy Josie Marcus, Mystery Shopper novels, I was back writing bloody, forensic-heavy mysteries. The death investigator mysteries aren’t too gory—not like Patricia Cornwell “I boiled my dead boyfriend’s head.” This death investigator series is more like the TV show Forensic Files, without the commercials.
I was back home again.
My first series, the Francesca Vierling newspaper mysteries, were hardboiled. When Random House bought Dell and wiped out that division, I switched to the traditional Dead-End Job mysteries, featuring Helen Hawthorne. The Art of Murder, the fifteenth novel in the series, will be published in May 2016. I also wrote ten cozy Josie Marcus, Mystery Shopper mysteries.
I love both series, but wanted to write dark mysteries again. But I didn’t want to do another police procedural, or a private eye with a dead wife or a drinking problem. Other writers had done those and done them well.
But death investigators were a profession many readers didn’t know about. Janet Rudolph, founder of Mystery Readers International agreed. She believes Angela Richman is the only death investigator series.
Last January, I passed the MedicoLegal Death Investigators Training Course for forensic professionals at St. Louis University. I wanted the training—and the contacts—to make the new series accurate.
I’ll still keep the Dead-End Job mysteries. In fact, I’ll need them. Their light-hearted look at Florida will keep everything from becoming too grim. The sun-splashed craziness of South Florida should counteract the intensity of the death investigator series.
Now I that I’m writing dark again, my writing has changed.
My characters can cuss. Angela Richman’s best friend and colleague is Katie, Chouteau County assistant medical examiner Dr. Katherine Kelly Stern. Pathologists tend to be eccentric, and Katie is based on a real pathologist who’d perfected the art of swearing. Her profanity was a mood indicator. I could tell how angry she was by whether she used “fricking,” “freaking,” or the ultimate F-bomb and how often she employed these and other cuss words. Oddly enough, when she swore, the words didn’t sound offensive. Katie cusses with style and grace in Brain Storm.
Body counts. In cozy and traditional mysteries, the murders take place off-stage. Readers aren’t forced to take a blood bath when they read the death investigator mysteries, but they will see crime scenes and forensic procedures. They’ll get a firsthand look at the sights, sounds, even the smells of death.
Real weapons. In cozy mysteries, when Josie Marcus battles killers, she resorts to “domestic violence,” using kitchen tools, gardening equipment, and whatever she can grab for weapons.
Helen Hawthorne in the Dead-End Job mysteries is a little bolder. She’s armed with pepper spray to take down killers, though in Checked Out she did get sprayed with her own weapon.
In Brain Storm, when Angela confronted the killer, she was in an office, surrounded by the standard supplies: waste baskets, chairs, coffee mugs, letter openers. I was prepared to have Angela grab one, when it dawned on me: Wait! This isn’t a cozy.
I can use firepower.
So Angela shot the killer in the head. It felt so good.