Friday, May 5, 2017

Women on writing: turning to crime for a fresh start

What in the world would make three law-abiding Texas women turn to crime – writing, that is, audiences at the 2017 Dallas Book Festival wanted to know about authors Kathleen Kent, Melissa Lenhardt, and Lisa Sandlin.

(l-r) Sandlin, Lenhardt & Kent
In two cases, crime writing was something of a second act. Dallasite Kent hit the New York Times bestseller list as a writer of historical fiction with her debut novel, The Heretic’s Daughter, a based-on-real-life narrative about the Salem witch trials, and followed it with more historical novels before making a sharp turn with her latest, The Dime, a contemporary mystery set in Texas. Sandlin made her mark as a writer of literary short fiction (In the River Province: Stories, and others), then made the jump to crime with The Do-Right. Anomalous Lenhardt alternates her own genre of “feminist Western” (the Sawbones series) with mysteries set in contemporary Texas (the Jack McBride mystery series).

But what, besides Texas settings and strong women characters, do the books of Kent, Lenhardt and Sandlin have in common? And why did the authors choose murder and mayhem to showcase their writing?

“All of us love strong women protagonists,” Kent said. And “crime gives you a chance to push people to their limits of depravity, but also to the limits of human courage.”

Also part of the why, for the two most literary members of this deadly trio, the answer was a challenge and an unexpected brush with the noir genre.

It started, Kent said, “with someone I know calling for Dallas authors to contribute to an anthology called Dallas Noir,” from Akashic Books, publisher of noir series set across the world, and featuring authors from each city or country.

Despite being steeped in the nefarious deeds of earlier centuries, Kent has never written contemporary mysteries, but asked if she could, “like any good fiction writer, I said yes.” Her agent pronounced her short story contribution, “Coincidences Can Kill You,” as potential for a novel, and the character of Brooklyn to Dallas detective Betty Rhyzyk was born.

As Kent credits her mother with remarking about an ancestor hanged as a witch in Salem, “There are no witches, only ferocious women.

“I’ve got the same story as Kathleen,” Beaumont, Texas, born Sandlin said: another call from Akhasic Books, this time widening its net for the whole state of Texas with Lone Star Noir.

“I thought I had to have a detective (so) I came up with a private investigator who was the opposite of Sam Spade.” She soon decided that the neophyte PI’s secretary, Delpha Wade, was the stronger character of the anthology story, “Phelan’s First Case,” “and that became the core of the book.” Who needs a detective when he’s got a tough but tender secretary who’s more than decoration, and just released from a long prison stretch for killing her rapist.

Along the way, Sandlin exercises her literary talents and quirky sense of humor for a decidedly un-Spadeish crime story. “I have a gunfight with no bullets, parrots and pirates, but not in the same scene,” as well as a victim whose family is holding his artificial leg hostage.

Lenhardt’s start in crime came from an inspiration as literary as either Kent or Sandlin – with a twist. A self-proclaimed “romantic at heart,” she began her first-published novel, Stillwater, “as a retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion,” until in walked agent Jack McBride. As a big city ex-FBI agent, McBride finds himself baffled in the small Texas town of Stillwater (which strangely resembles Lenhardt’s hometown of Winnsboro, Texas) until local Ellie Martin takes him under her wing, and into her bed.

Far from ending with a kiss and a fadeout, to Lenhardt’s mind, the conflict only starts once the relationship has begun, and continues with Jack and Ellie’s second fling at crime, The Fisher King.

And although Stillwater was her first book to be published, she had already written the first volume of her Western series, Sawbones, with two more historicals due out later this year. “But no, I’m not through with Jack McBride.”

(Next: writing craft, agent tips, and results of the dreaded gong show, from the upcoming DFW Writers Conference)

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