Six By Agatha
Three Queens of Crime Fiction
Select a topic from the list below and click on the author images to see each of their thoughts

Sue Grafton

Grafton is the mastermind behind the "alphabet mysteries" featuring tough-talking cop turned private investigator Kinsey Millhone. The first in the long-running series, A Is for Alibi, was published in 1982. The 21st, U Is for Undertow, will be available in December, 2009.

The Alphabet Series of Books by Sue Grafton:
"A" is for Alibi
"B" is for Burglar
"C" is for Corpse
"D" is for Deadbeat
"E" is for Evidence
"F" is for Fugitive
"G" is for Gumshoe
"H" is for Homicide
"I" is for Innocent
"J" is for Judgment
"K" is for Killer
"L" is for Lawless
"M" is for Malice
"N" is for Noose
"O" is for Outlaw
"P" is for Peril
"Q" is for Quarry
"R" is for Ricochet
"S" is for Silence
"T" is for Trespass
"U" is for Undertow (December, 2009)


On Christie's wide appeal and staying power
Grafton: She was exceedingly clever, and her books are clearly written. She tended to write character stereotypes, but it works because the point of each book is the mystery itself. I'm not sure she did any serious character development of Miss Marple, but the character was so appealing that we were willing to have her be exactly herself. You knew you could count on her to be a bit fluttery but always curious and astute.


On what inspired their famous characters
Grafton: When I started writing the Kinsey Millhone series, I had never done a mystery before. I had to teach myself California criminal law, toxicology, ballistics and police procedure. I read how-to books about writing a mystery novel. I was completely out of my element just about across the board. So, when it came time to create the protagonist, I thought, "I'm going to play the part myself."

Kinsey is my alter ego. I didn't set out to break ground with a female detective character — Kinsey is just my other life. She is the person I might have been had I not married young and had children.

On keeping their characters fresh over time
Grafton: Part of my technique is that Kinsey Millhone thinks that much of her life is none of my business. I don't get to know anything more than she chooses to tell me. So there are many aspects to her nature that I am not privy to yet. Every time I start a book, I look for ways to entice her by thinking up a story I haven't told before.

When I set out to write 26 novels, I made a vow to myself that I would not fall into the trap of writing one book over and over again, which means that I have to be very analytical and critical of the process itself. I keep elaborate charts for each book so that I know what the setup is, the gender of the victim and the killer, the motive for the crime and the nature of the climax. It's human nature that without meaning to we do what's comfortable — which is usually something we've done before. Many times I've come up with a storyline and realized after a while that I like it so much because I've done it before. And, out it goes.

On what their characters have taught them
Grafton: As a writer, I sit at my desk all day. Through Kinsey, I get to have all manner of adventures. I have taken criminal law classes because of her. I did women's self-defense because of her. I learned to shoot because of her. She can only know what I know, which means that in order to keep her credible I have to keep going out and exploring the world, which in turn makes my life more interesting.


On the sensibility female writers bring to the mystery genre
Grafton: In some ways, we female writers have given men permission to take their time to tell a more delicate story, even though their guns are still loaded. But it's also true that times have changed. Elmore Leonard, Tony Hillerman, Michael Connelly and Robert Crais are writing in a different way than male writers did back in the 1940s.

On what writing mystery novels has taught them about human nature
Grafton: There is indeed a lot of wickedness, and most of it is not very imaginative. The crimes I read about in my newspaper from day-to-day are poorly motivated, clumsy, not well thought out and not that productive. The criminals generally are not very smart, and they get caught most of the time.

Fictional crime is completely unlike crime in the real world. In fictional homicide, the conceit is that if you are murdered, it will be for a good reason by somebody who has carefully constructed your demise. The second conceit is that if you are murdered in the fictional world, there is someone who will move heaven and earth to figure out "who dunnit." Part of the popularity of crime fiction is that there is a comfort to it. You feel that there is resolution and justice. In the real world, that's not always the case.

On the future of the mystery genre
Grafton: Wherever the genre is going had better be about good storytelling and believable, complex characters. You can throw in all the technology you like, but that's not going to make a good book. That said, I do I think crime fiction is going to lean increasingly towards the technical details. I just hope that the art of a cracking yarn isn't sacrificed in the process.


On the creative process
Grafton: My process is dense and tortured. I write by trial and error, and it can be excruciating. It takes me a year to put a storyline together. I always fancy that other writers are much smarter than I am, that they just sit down and whip these things out. I hope they suffer as much as I do!

Early on, when the form was new to me it was easier to come up with ideas. Now, since I refuse to repeat myself, I'm competing with work I've done over the last 27 years. My biggest issues are patience, persistence and the willingness to suffer at my desk every day, feeling blocked and unhappy. I'm hard on myself, but when it finally starts to work, it's a wonderful feeling.

On the most unusual thing they've done in the name of research
Grafton: While researching A is for Alibi, I visited some morgues with the idea that at the end of the book Kinsey would slide into one of those drawers that you see on TV where they keep the bodies. I quickly discovered that the morgues I went to didn't have any drawers. But, in the course of my visit, someone made an offhand remark that became part of the setup for C is For Corpse.

I love going into jails. I love watching the police book somebody. I love all of the nitty-gritty details. I'm fascinated by the criminal mind. I never get tired of it. I read the Metro section every day looking for some new crime, though I've discovered that there are none.

On a novel by someone else they wish they'd written
Grafton: Elmore Leonard is my favorite writer of all time. His storytelling just knocks me out. I also love anything by Michael Connelly.

Faye Kellerman

Kellerman is one half of the only married couple to appear simultaneously on the New York Times bestseller list for separately authored books. (Her husband is Jonathan Kellerman.) She's also the mother of four children including playwright and novelist Jesse Kellerman and soon-to-be published author Aliza Kellerman, with whom she edited the upcoming Prism. Blindman's Bluff, the latest in her popular series featuring crime-fighting couple Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus, comes out in August, 2009.

Books by Faye Kellerman:
The Ritual Bath
Sacred and Profane
The Quality of Mercy
Milk and Honey
Day of Atonement
False Prophet
Grievous Sin
Prayers for the Dead
Serpent's Tooth
Moon Music
Jupiter's Bones
The Forgotten
Stone Kiss
Street Dreams
Straight Into Darkness
The Garden of Eden and other Criminal Delights
Double Homicide
Capital Crimes
Blindman's Bluff (August, 2009)


On Christie's wide appeal and staying power
Kellerman: Agatha Christie had a terrific gift for storytelling. Her novels are addictive because her characters are appealing and believable, and her stories are tremendously entertaining.


On what inspired their famous characters
Kellerman: I tried several characters before falling back on the old adage that you should write what you know. Rina Lazarus was developed first. The idea of her as an Orthodox Jewish protagonist came because I'm an observant Jew. I thought that people would be interested to learn about my religion, ethnicity and culture just like I'm interested in learning about other cultures when I read.

Once I had the idea for Rina, I thought it was odd to have this woman non-professional solving a crime, so I brought in Decker as the professional. Then I had an unmarried woman and an unmarried man, so I decided to throw some romance in. As I was writing that first novel, The Ritual Bath, I had no idea if it would be published or not. So, I added a bit of everything — religion, suspense, drama, romance — in the hope that something would interest someone enough to at least take a look at it. And it did.

On keeping their characters fresh over time
Kellerman: If I just worked with one character day in and day out, it might get tiring. But I surround Decker and Rina with other characters — from their blended family to Decker's partner, Marge, to friends and professional colleagues. Drawing these other characters in and out helps me keep Decker and Rina fresh because it allows me an infinite number of challenges and situations in which to test them.

On what their characters have taught them
Kellerman: From Decker in particular, I have learned the power of patience. I was never impetuous or a hothead, but I was often quick to open my mouth before the words came in. Writing police procedurals has taught me the power and the value of listening.


On the sensibility female writers bring to the mystery genre
Kellerman: Female writers may bring more of a willingness for characters to admit flaws. That's not to say that women write detectives who are vulnerable but rather that the characters are perhaps more open and willing to admit a mistake.

My main character, Decker, is a man. As with many men, opening up is difficult for him. But, in his weaker and darker moments he does open up to Rina. Having the two characters to bounce off of each other allows me to show that other side of my male protagonist in a realistic and authentic way.

On what writing mystery novels has taught them about human nature
Kellerman: I think there is a dark side in all of us. That said, the majority of people are good. They make mistakes, but their heart is in the right place. And then there are those anomalies who are truly evil — people like to kill, who like to maim, who like to torture, who have no conscience.

As a writer, I always want to deal with the exceptions, because that's what's interesting. Like Agathie Christie, who often wrote about basically decent people who got themselves into fixes because they were overcome by lust or greed or jealousy, I'm intrigued when so-called "normal" people deviate. I think that's what Miss Marple means when she says that "there is a great deal of wickedness in village life."

On the future of the mystery genre
Kellerman: There is no shortage of crimes, and there are certainly new global fears that have gripped peoples' attention. Moving forward, stories may get more technically complicated, but the basics for the genre remain the same: interesting stories with people that readers care about. As Solomon says in Proverbs, "There is nothing new under the sun." That was true when it was written 2,500 years ago, and it will be true 2,500 years from now. What a good writer can do is put his or her own unique spin on it.


On the creative process
Kellerman: Usually, when I start a book, the ideas are loosely formed. They gel as the writing continues — which is a steady six to nine months. I usually start with a theme in mind — retribution, jealousy or greed, for instance — and take it from there. Some books are easier to write than others, but I have discovered that the actual process of writing begets creativity. Even if the writing doesn't make sense at first, the process of typing and getting the feedback going between my eyes and my fingers helps me be more creative.

For inspiration, I read the paper, watch the news, take walks — just generally look around. It's all brain food. I'm not like the Brontës, who were able to sit in their house and write their fantastic Gothic novels. I need to get out. I need to see things. I need to do things. Anything that stimulates or nourishes my brain will eventually help me down the road, even if it ends up coming out as something else entirely in my writing.

On the most unusual thing they've done in the name of research
Kellerman: I visited a bee farm while I was writing Milk and Honey. For Moon Music, I had wanted to get into the Nevada Test Site as part of my research on the inception of the United States nuclear program, but I wasn't able to. I had to do it by maps instead.

On a novel by someone else they wish they'd written
Kellerman: One of my all-time favorite books is Double Indemnity by James M. Cain. It's a perfect little novel.

Tess Gerritsen

A physician by training, Gerritsen is the author of more than 20 romantic suspense novels and medical thrillers. Best known for her Boston-based bone chillers featuring homicide detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Dr. Maura Isles, she's currently at work on her eighth novel in the series, set for publication in 2010.

Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles Books by Tess Gerritsen:
The Surgeon
The Apprentice
The Sinner
Body Double
The Mephisto Club
The Keepsake

Medical Thriller by Tess Gerritsen:
Life Support
The Bone Garden


On Christie's wide appeal and staying power
Gerritsen: Christie chose as her heroes and heroines quite ordinary people — underdogs, so to speak — whom we as readers often underestimate at first glance. Like Susan Boyle, the woman who recently became a worldwide sensation with her performance on Britain's Got Talent, these ordinary-seeming characters walk onto the stage and are quietly brilliant. It makes us all feel that we can be sleuths. We can't be James Bond, but we can be Miss Marple.


On what inspired their famous characters
Gerritsen: Jane Rizzoli reflects almost every female cop I've ever met — she's tough, assertive and, in her own way, aggressive. She's a complete contrast to Maura Isles, who is a physician and a pathologist. I modeled Maura on myself, and I often pull biographical details for her from my own life — such as what kind of car she drives or the wine she drinks. Like me, she's a strong believer in science and in logical explanations for things.

As time has gone by, both characters have diverged from where they started. Jane has become a little softer and more vulnerable. Maura has become more troubled as her romantic life has gotten more complicated.

On keeping their characters fresh over time
Gerritsen: Once your character is completely happy and satisfied, the series is over. Likewise, if your character stays the same over 20 books, she becomes cardboard. I always have a little bit of a crisis going on, something to keep my characters a little off balance to make sure they're still growing and evolving.

On what their characters have taught them
Gerritsen: My characters have taught me that people can indeed change. Jane and Maura have both grown and evolved as the series has progressed, because of what has happened in their lives. Jane, who started off bitter and unlikable, has found happiness with marriage and motherhood. With her new happiness has come a mellowing. Maura, in contrast, has not been lucky in her relationships, and she has become far more reclusive and moody.


On the sensibility female writers bring to the mystery genre
Gerritsen: Women writers pay more attention to their female characters' lives outside of police work. In Vanish, my main sleuth, Detective Jane Rizzoli, has just given birth and is having problems breastfeeding while she's investigating a murder. I don't think that's something Dashiell Hammett would have written about! You have a woman who's very competent as a policewoman and confident in her skills, but who feels totally inadequate as a mother. Thanks to female writers, the issues that women have to juggle in their professional and personal lives are now coming into the genre.

On what writing mystery novels has taught them about human nature
Gerritsen: There is a percentage of humanity that is predatory, and it's pretty constant across cultures. Those are the people we have to somehow keep under control or keep an eye on. We're baffled by them and afraid of them, and we're always fascinated by what we fear. It's the reason that when we go to the aquarium, we always want to look at the shark. The great appeal of the mystery genre is that it plays on those fears.

On the future of the mystery genre
Gerritsen: I think we've overdone the gore and the gruesomeness. Too much blood has been splashed across the pages. I enjoy mysteries that are more literary and more historical. I think historical novels, in general, seem to be making something of a comeback.


On the creative process
Gerritsen: The best ideas are the ones I feel on an emotional level — I call it the punch in the gut. When that happens, I just know it's going to be a book. I remember the exact moment that Vanish was born. I was reading an article in The Boston Globe about a young woman who was found dead in the bathtub, zipped into a body bag and sent to the morgue. A couple of hours later, she woke up.

When I read the story, I knew had to write about it. I did a search using the terms "mistaken for dead," and to my horror and fascination I found case after case of it. So, I started off with the idea of "body wakes up in morgue." I wasn't sure where to go with it, but my process is to keep writing and see what happens. Once I get an idea, it obsesses me until the story is written.

On the most unusual thing they've done in the name of research
Gerritsen: Research is probably the most fun part of writing, because I get a chance to do things I normally wouldn't do. Recently I was invited by an Egyptologist to attend the CT scanning of a mummy. I helped them load the mummy from the museum into the van and to the hospital. We got some interesting looks as we wheeled him through the lobby on a patient gurney! It was fascinating to see on the CT scan the evidence of everything that was done to this person 2,000 years ago. I used it all in my novel The Keepsake.

On a novel by someone else they wish they'd written
Gerritsen: There are so many. But the one that continually sticks out in my mind as a work of genius is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.

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