A male English professor once asked me, why do all you women trade these mystery novels? By “all you women” he meant people like me, female English professors of a certain age. I used to trade with someone during final exams and escape into a mystery between reading student papers. My favorites were by Amanda Cross. How could I resist something called Death in a Tenured Position?
Amanda Cross was the pseudonym for Carolyn Heilbrun, a faculty member at Columbia. She escaped the stress of being a woman in what was then a male dominated profession by writing novels about a female professor stumbling upon and solving crimes.
What my female colleagues and I all had in common were preteen years reading Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, the Dana girls, any of a huge number of mysteries put out by the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Bobbee Anne Mason, who wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on Vladimir Nabokov, studied these novels in a book called The Girl Sleuth (1975) before she turned to writing fiction of her own. In a line that captures how these books led so many of us to become English professors, Mason writes that after all “A scholar is a version of a sleuth.”
My last scholarly book was an edition of letters by the nineteenth century writer Constance Fenimore Woolson. I had to be a sleuth to edit these letters. I had to find them, to puzzle together how they fit chronologically, to search for many of the names now lost to us. When I gave up writing books that required footnotes and turned to writing fiction, mysteries were a logical place for me to begin.
My first amateur sleuth, Susan Warner, is what you would expect from me––a retired English professor. My new one, Deborah Strong, is not far removed. She’s a librarian in a town adjacent to the one I imagined for Susan. Both these amateur sleuths listen, watch, put clues together. Both allow me to draw on my life as an academic, especially the second in both series. My Susan Warner novel Death of the Keynote Speaker is set on New England’s Isles of Shoals. It weaves together the real history of Celia Thaxter’s literary salon on Appledore Island and a notorious murder on Smuttynose Island, with a fictional nineteenth-century writer I named Abigail Brewster. Writing it, I drew on many of those letters by Constance Woolson that I edited. In my forthcoming novel, The Wicked Bible (scheduled for Octorber 2021), Deborah Strong encounters a letter to the imagined Brewster when she’s at a conference on the history of libraries.
I’ve let go of the academic life and learned to edit out the scholarly voice that used to intrude into my drafts. But I can’t let go of the connections to the scholarly research that creep into my fiction. Mine is a life that a good sleuth might have predicted. Reader of girl sleuth mysteries becomes analyzer of literature, and scholarly sleuth becomes writer of whodunits. I’m enjoying the journey.
In 1990, Deborah Madison and Rachel Cummings, both seventeen, are enjoying a bicycle ride on a beautiful September day in New Hampshire. They stop at a local barn that no longer houses cows but still displays a wooden cow’s head that peeks out from a window in the rafters. Sliding open the door, they find Rachel’s boyfriend, Joseph Wheeler, dead on the barn’s floor.
The case lies as cold as Joseph for nearly thirty years until Rachel returns to New Hampshire to attend the funeral of Joseph’s mother. The girls, now women, reopen the cold case and uncover secrets that have festered, as they often do, in small towns. Against a backdrop of cold and snow and freezing rain, Deborah and Rachel rekindle their friendship and confess the guilt each of them has felt about things that happened in the past.
The Barn is a story of friendship lost and recovered, secrets buried and unburied, and the power of forgiveness.
Buy links: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08BZWKTMB
publisher’s link: https://encirclepub.com/product/thebarn/
Sharon L. Dean grew up in Massachusetts where she was immersed in the literature of New England. She earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of New Hampshire, a state she lived and taught in before moving to Oregon. After giving up writing scholarly books that required footnotes, she reinvented herself as a fiction writer. She is the author of three Susan Warner mysteries and of a literary novel titled Leaving Freedom. The Barn, the first novel in a new mystery series, features librarian and reluctant sleuth Deborah Strong as she and her friend solve a thirty-year-old cold case. Set in the depth of New Hampshire’s January, The Barn is a story of friendship lost and recovered, secrets buried and unburied, and the power of forgiveness.
publisher’s link: https://encirclepub.com/product/thebarn/
8 thoughts on “Guest Author ~ Sharon Dean”
Your story resonates with me as another refugee from academia. I loved Amanda Cross/Carolyn Helbrun but haven’t read her in years. Your transition to crime fiction isn’t surprising–we like to get into the weeds and see what’s there while addressing larger issues. I look forward to your series.
We’d be a good team, Leslie. Maybe we can rendezvous when next I make it back to Massachusetts.
These books sound fabulous and I loved your article. I can’t wait to go over to Amazon and buy me one of your books!
Thanks. Sorry for the late reply. I didn’t see the comments yesterday.
Sharon, Your characters are the type I like to read. The ones who use what they see and hear to ferret out the killer. Thanks for joining us today.
Sharon, I enjoyed reading about your literary journey, which has been not dissimilar to mine. Here’s to all of the academics-turned-authors, and wishing you the best with your mysteries. I, for one, am intrigued.
Yes, three cheers for academics who abandoned footnotes.
Excellent post, Sharon! Much of it resonates with my own experience. Like you, I grew up on Nancy Drew, and as an independent scholar rather than a professor, I’ve become aware of the extent to which what a scholar does resembles the work of a sleuth. Like you, I edited a collection of the letters of nineteenth century feminist and abolitionist Lucy Stone and her husband, Henry Browne Blackwell (Loving Warriors), and in the process had to do a lot of research filling in gaps in their story and identifying individuals mentioned. I also worked for many years writing American history textbooks, so not surprisingly, I gave Miranda Lewis, the heroine of my Living History Mystery series, that profession, and made Kathryn Stinson, the protagonist of my current series of Berkshire Hilltown Mysteries, a library curator of prints and photographs, So, for me, as for you with the mysteries you write, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Best of luck with your new series!
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