Friday, February 19, 2010

The Secrets oF Death on Demand: 20 Titles, 20 Revelations

by Carolyn Hart

I was writing a mystery set in a general bookstore when I visited Murder by the Book in Houston, TX, in April 1985. Enchanted by the idea of a mystery bookstore, I created Death on Demand, the finest mystery bookstore south of Atlanta, and the first book in the series is entitled Death on Demand. I placed the store on a fictional sea island reminiscent of Hilton Head, South Carolina, in the nineteen seventies when our family started vacationing there.

Design for Murder was inspired by the annual house and garden tour in Charleston, South Carolina. The fictional town of Chastain is patterned after lovely Beaufort. I specially love the old cemetery in Beaufort.

When talking to my editor, I proposed setting a mystery against the backdrop of a little theater group presenting Arsenic and Old Lace. When I started to write, I decided it was too cumbersome because the play has so many characters. When the manuscript was turned in, the editor objected saying, “You promised me Arsenic and Old Lace.” Faced with rejection of the manuscript, I rewrote the entire book, substituting Arsenic and Old Lace for the fictional play I had created. Something Wicked was accepted and went on to be the recipient of the very first Agatha Award for Best Novel.

Annie Laurance is getting married in Honeymoon with Murder. The editor asked for more emphasis on the wedding. In doing the revisions, Laurel Darling Roethke appeared on the computer screen, brimming with wedding ideas, including a red wedding dress. I laughed as I wrote, remembering a wonderful character actress Billie Burke.

When A Little Class on Murder was published, I created a Blue Book with a 20-question mystery quiz. The first question: Who is the founding genius of the mystery? The last question: Who has Nancy Pickard described as the most endearing pair of new sleuths since Tommy and Tuppence? All 20 questions and their answers may be found at my website:

Deadly Valentine has a true cat subplot. Agatha, the bookstore cat, is furious about the arrival of all-white Dorothy L. On a January day, I sat in an easy chair in the living room. I’d written the first few pages of a story about what happens when love is desperately sought and jealousy ruins lives. I heard the cry of a kitten and hurried outside to find a tiny, terrified black-and-white kitten in the middle of the street. A boy on his bicycle said, “I saw the lady throw her out of the car.” Inside was a large gray, white, and orange cat named Patch. When I told Patch that Sophie would die if she wasn’t kept, Patch said, “Good.” In the book, Agatha’s jealousy and hunger for love underscore that everyone, everywhere, cats included, must have love or perish.

The Christie Caper is a tribute to the writer I most admire and respect. When the manuscript was turned in, the editor suggested making the ending a reprise of the solution to The Orient Express. I responded that I’d rather die. Happily, the editor laughed and said that wasn’t required. The ending of the book in fact is rather odd because I was determined that it should differ from any Christie title and that was a challenge.

Southern Ghost celebrates famous ghosts of South Carolina. I confess to a continuing delight in ghost stories. My fondness for ghosts, especially good-humored ghosts such as George and Marian Kirby in Topper, resulted in the creation of the late Bailey Ruth Raeburn, an impetuous, redheaded ghost who returns to earth to help those in trouble in Ghost at Work and Merry, Merry Ghost.

Mint Julep Murder is a behind the scenes look at the insecurities and vulnerabilities of writers. I especially enjoy writing about Emma Clyde, the self-centered, the-book-comes-first mystery author. Is Emma self-revelatory? Possibly she might be the unvarnished author, but I do try to be a bit kinder and gentler.

Henny Brawley, a recurring character in the series, has a large role in Yankee Doodle Dead. Henny is Carolyn’s tribute to women who were young and brave during World War II, especially the glorious and adventurous WASPs. Henny was one of the 1,800 Women’s Air Force Service Pilots who trained at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Tx, and whose gallant stories can be admired in Those Wonderful Women in Their Flying Machines, the Unknown Heroines of World War II.

I have a wonderful friend who for many years has donated her time to hospice. I think of her with awe and admiration. But, as mystery authors will, one day it occurred to me what might happen if a not-so-nice person volunteered and listened to dying words. The result was White Elephant Dead.

Whenever I picture the aging actress in Sugarplum Dead, I see Agnes Moorehead. Writing the book, I felt it was touch-and-go whether readers would immediately see what I was doing with illusion.

April Fool Dead explores the readiness of ordinary people to take events at face value. Henny Brawley knew her friend could never have planned blackmail. That faith propels Annie to seek the truth behind a clever and heartless murder.

In Engaged to Die, I decided it was time for Annie and Max Darling to disagree, but even though they choose opposite sides, they always believe in each other. Annie and Max are my celebration of the fact that good marriages exist. I have a skeptic’s view of romance, but I believe in love.

Murder Walks the Plank is the only Death on Demand book with a title I dislike. I think the title is flippant and suggests a light story. Instead, this particular book has a plot which is particularly complex and I felt it worked really well. It is one of my favorites.

When plotting Death of the Party, I set the action on a remote sea island for the express purpose of getting to write a book in which I did not have to deal with cell phones. Cell phones are the bane of mystery authors. Long ago a heroine could find a note on her pillow: Meet me in the cemetery by the old willow at half past midnight. The reader would be urging, “Don’t go. Don’t go.” The heroine, of course, hurried to the rendezvous but instead of meeting her lover, there was the dastardly villain. In today’s books, she whips out her cell and punches nine-one-one. In the old days, she had to escape with many a thrilling moment. But in Death of the Party, I created harrowing moments and never had to worry about a cell phone.

In Dead Days of Summer, a young woman is found dead and the bloody murder weapon is in the trunk of Max Darling’s car. When he is arrested, the media descend in force. I wrote this book in part to protest the unfeeling and cruel 24/7 coverage of sensational crimes and the callous disregard of the human beings caught up in a crime.

Double Eagle by Alison Frankel is a charming book about the history of America’s most fabulous gold coin. I heard her interviewed on NPR interview. I read her book and used those gorgeous gold coins in Death Walked In.

In Dare to Die, Buck remembers Iris in first grade and how he and Iris were Yellow Birds. The best readers were Blue Birds. The competent readers were Red Birds. Everyone knew who the Yellow Birds were. That passage is based upon my husband’s memory of his second grade class. He was a Blue Bird, but he never forgot the hapless Yellow Birds. More than a half century later, Buck and Iris were Yellow Birds.

The Death on Demand series has always celebrated wonderful mysteries of the past and present. I especially love mysteries written in the ‘30s and ‘40s where sleuths deal with apparently unrelated events and characters. That was my inspiration for Laughed ‘Til He Died. In a race against time to save an innocent woman, Annie and Max must solve three interlocking puzzles, the pulled-out pant pockets of a murder victim, three guns that appear and disappear, and the disappearance of a teenager who knows too much.


Bill Kirton said...

Great to read a writer who clearly enjoys the business so much (but you're scarily prolific, Carolyn). Your cat character reminded me of a visitor to the only signing trip I ever made to the USA. The store was in Florida and my arrival was advertised widely by one of their customers, an ex-pat Brit who called herself The Krazy Cat Lady. On the day, she duly arrived in her golf buggy which was festooned with cat paraphernalia and a KAT number plate. She also brought food for the bookshop cat. But she did bully her friends into buying the books.

Helen Ginger said...

This was fascinating. I really enjoyed reading the backstory of each book.

Straight From Hel

Mary Kennedy said...

This looks like another winner, Carolyn! I love this series, very exciting that you are up to # 20. Congrats!

Dana Fredsti said...

I love the Death on Demand series. Like Elizabeth Peters' romantic suspense novels, your mysteries inspired and motivated me as a writer, and brought me many hours of enjoyment as a reader. Agatha has always been my favorite character. :-)

Vivian Zabel said...

I'm a big fan of yours, Carolyn. However I'm behind on my reading. I have to get your latest books.

Thanks for the guest blog post.


Mary Kennedy said...

This is a fabulous series!! You have devoted fans everywhere. I remember when I reviewed two of your books for the Examiner, the amount of reader mail was amazing. Congrats, Carolyn!

Katie Hines said...

These mysteries sound really great! I'm always impressed with an author who is able to write and publish, write and publish, write and...

Good luck with the sales on these books. Oh, and I'm glad you stuck to your guns on the ending of one of your books.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Jean, many thanks for posting this great article on Carolyn.

Carolyn Hart said...

Dear Jean and Dear Readers,
I am always touched and grateful for the kindness of readers. No one is more surprised to see the 20th book in the series than I. When I wrote Death on Demand, I hadn't sold a ms. in several years and had decided that if Death on Demand didn't sell, i would quit writing and play tennis. Happily, I'm still writing. Thank you - Carolyn Hart

Pen N. Hand said...

Thanks for the backstory for the Death on Demand stories. My favorite has always been Heni O., but Bailey Ruth is about to take her place.
I own all, but one of your titles and have read them all, some twice.
I make note of the titles, characters, and authors mentioned in Death on Demand, then I look for those to add to my reading pleasure. My goal is to read at least one title from each author.

Question: Somewhere you mention Angles in the Snow in one of the DOD, is this a short story? I mentioned the title to Stuart Kamasaki, thinking he may have written it as one of his Russian series, but he said no.
Thank you. Nash Black (Irene)

Jean Henry Mead said...


We're glad you didn't quit writing to play tennis, and love having you here. I'm looking foward to reading Laughed 'til He Died as well as your next ghostly Bailey Ruth novel.

Jean Henry Mead said...

You're welcome, Mark. I enjoy interviewing and presenting other writers because I learn so much from them. And writers need all the PR we can get. :)

Jean Henry Mead said...

I love your Krazy Cat Lady story, Bill. How about telling us how she "bullied" people into buying your books. :)

Heidiwriter said...

Your series sounds intriguing, Carolyn. I don't think I could write a mystery. What kind of mind-set do you have to have to do murder mysteries?