By Elaine Viets
I’m going back to the dark side. After fifteen years of writing traditional, cozy mysteries, I’m starting a dark series featuring death investigator Angela Richman.
Death investigators work out of the medical examiner’s office. At a death scene, the DI takes charge of the body, photographing it, documenting the wounds, and more. The police investigate the rest of the crime scene.
Why return to this gritty world?
Because I never left. My first mystery series featured Francesca Vierling, a six-foot St. Louis newspaper columnist who drove an ’86 Jaguar. I wrote four Francesca paperbacks for Dell, before Bantam, Doubleday Dell wiped out the division.
These novels were hard-boiled. Francesca investigates a transvestite’s murder in Backstab and the death of a RUB, a rich urban biker, in Rubout. In The Pink Flamingo Murders, a ruthless gentrifier came to a horrifying end: stabbed with a pink plastic flamingo. The stiletto-like legs went straight to her heart. In Doc in the Box,bad doctors get the deaths they deserved.
The publisher ended the Francesca series, but readers still buy it. This May, a New Yorker with lymphoma told me she gave Doc in the Box to her oncologist as a gift—or a warning.
After Dell ended the hard-boiled Francesca series, I worked dead-end jobs until my agent sold Shop Till You Drop, my first Dead-End Job mystery, to Penguin. This series featured Helen Hawthorne, a St. Louis woman on the run in South Florida. I was back writing traditional mysteries, cheerfully slaughtering awful bosses and annoying customers. Penguin saved me from being trapped in dead-end jobs. Now they were research. I could quit them to write my mysteries.
In book five, Penguin took the Dead-End Job series from paperback to hardcover. They’d already asked me to write a cozy series featuring mystery shopper Josie Marcus, which was supposed to last two or three books.
I happily wrote two mysteries a year. Suddenly, it was 2015. I turned in book ten of the “three book” mystery-shopper series. Checked Out, my fourteenth Dead-End Job hardcover, was published.
I love cozies, but they’re not all kittens and cupcakes. I prefer relentless Miss Marple, the fluffy knitter who declared “I am Nemesis” and brought killers to justice. Penguin gave me the freedom to write what Publishers Weekly called “wry social commentary.”
I’d kept writing darkly humorous short stories for anthologies such as Crimes by Moonlight: Mysteries from the Dark Side, edited by Charlaine Harris, and short stories for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. My latest story, “The Bride Wore Blood,” was not for the “Say Yes to the Dress” crowd.
But I wanted to go darker again. After all, I still had that ’86 Jag. This January I took the MedicoLegal Death Investigators Training Course, given by Saint Louis University’s School of Medicine for forensic professionals.
The intense training made sure I had the most up-to-date forensic information. Look at the agenda for one morning, as taught by pathologists:
Gunshot wound fatalities, explosion-related deaths, motor vehicle fatalities, and drowning. At lunch, we watched a teen driving and alcohol video. After lunch, we studied alcohol-related deaths, suicide, blunt-trauma fatalities, and more.
How would my mystery writing colleagues take my return?
They welcomed me back. Fourteen top writers blurbed the Death Investigator proposal.
Diamond Dagger winner Lee Child said, “So happy to see Viets back to doing what she does best—dark, edgy, character-driven crime. Count me delighted.”
Ann Cleeves, author of the Vera Stanhope and Shetland series, said, “I think you’ve got everything here that a reader loves—a hospital drama and thriller, a strong central character. Made much more interesting because the central character is a very unreliable narrator.”
Charlaine Harris, who thoroughly explores the dark side, said, “Elaine Viets has written the exciting first book in a multilayered crime novel series. Angela Richman is not only an investigator but a victim in this complex novel of crime, punishment, and medical malfeasance.”
What about readers? Would they follow me back into the dark?
I surveyed more than a thousand readers. The majority—more than 75 percent—said they would read the new Death Investigator series. Almost half would prefer the new series and more than half said they would read both the Dead-End Job mysteries and the new series.
“I would love to see you tackle something a little darker,” one wrote. “As a male, the new series appeals to me.”
“Great choice,” said another. “I met many Death Investigators at the ME’s office while I worked there. They were all characters but were dedicated to the victim and family.”
Right now, I’m working on my 15th Dead-End Job mystery, The Art of Murder. I enjoy Helen Hawthorne’s lighthearted adventures in South Florida. Meanwhile, my agent is looking for a publishing home for my new Death Investigator series. The Jaguar just had a tune-up.
I want the best of both worlds: light and dark.