Monday, October 15, 2012

Why New York Mystery Series Travel

Our guest today is the multi-talented Elizabeth Zelvin, a New York City psychotherapist whose mysteries feature recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler. Death Will Extend Your Vacation is the latest in the series, following Death Will Get You Sober and Death Will Help You Leave Him. Liz is a three-time Agatha Award nominee and a Derringer Award nominee for Best Short Story. Her stories have appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and various anthologies and e-zines.Outrageous Older Woman, her CD of original songs, was released in 2012.  On top of which, Liz is a dear and supportive colleague; I am very happy to call her my friend.

Annamaria Alfieri

I love New York. I’ve lived here all my life—if you count growing up in Queens, which my husband, a Manhattan native, insists doesn’t count. I adore my city with its rainbow population, 24-hour energy, and kaleidoscopically innumerable, bright, and constantly shifting little worlds. But sometimes I hunger for fresh air, quiet, and more green leaves and blue water than Central Park provides. I maintain that “out of town” is an essential part of the New York experience. How do you think those of us who live in the Big Apple stand it but by getting out of it once in a while? I leave exhausted, and I come back refreshed and ready to plunge in again.

As a reader, how do you feel about series that jump around? When you open the latest James Lee Burke, would you feel cheated if you didn’t find yourself in steamy Louisiana? Or if William Kent Krueger took Cork O’Connor out of the Minnesota wilderness and popped him into New Jersey? I know readers who were outraged when a recent book by Nevada Barr took National Parks ranger Anna Pigeon onto the streets of New Orleans.
In today’s market-driven publishing industry, editors can sometimes get a bit narrow-minded about where a mystery series is set. If it’s a South Florida series, by gum, they want every book to take place in South Florida. If it’s a Las Vegas series...well, what’s set in Las Vegas had darn well better stay in Las Vegas. The Big Six publishers in particular are wary of anything that might be labeled “regional” or as appealing only to a “niche” market, in spite of plenty of evidence to the contrary. “No one wants to read about Canada” (cf Louise Penny) or “No one wants to read about Italy” (cf Donna Leon), for example. On the other hand, I’ve heard of a New York series set in the music world being dismissed as “niche” by a prestigious smaller publisher located in another part of the country.

The more popular the author, the more latitude in this regard. For example, Laurie King’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes get to San Francisco; Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott gets to Manhattan. But midlist writers like me are expected to keep a New York series firmly within New York. I didn’t know this going in. I originally envisioned my series about recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler and his friends, world-class codependent Barbara and computer genius Jimmy, alternating between books set in the city (as we New Yorkers call it, as if no other existed) and books set “out of town” (as we characterize all other places from Boston to LA and mountains, lakes, and prairies from sea to shining sea).

My original editor nixed that right away. But I got the last laugh in the long run. Death Will Get You Sober and Death Will Help You Leave Him, the first two published novels made good use of the New York setting. I had fun writing them. But Death Will Extend Your Vacation, my Hamptons mystery—oh, aren’t the Hamptons part of New York City?—came out this year. And while I can’t give details yet, I’ll be signing a contract soon for publication of my novella, Death Will Improve Your Relationship, set at a New Age intentional community in the country that’s known to the locals as Woo-Woo Farm. Writers know the importance of conflict in any story. Hey, take New Yorkers out of the city and put them anywhere else, and you’ve got conflict built right in.


  1. Kudos as always to a New Yorker of many gifts!
    Thelma Straw

  2. Thanks, Pat and Thelma. I'd better add an update on the novella: the contract with BooksBNimble is signed. They're making me change the title, deeming "Relationship" too long a word for a tiny e-book cover. I'm hoping they'll go with my choice of alternate title:
    "Death Will Improve Your Partner." Isn't that what most people who sign up for couples counseling or couples workshops hope for?

  3. Wow! I have never even heard about having travel to solve a mystery. I hope that you will succeed and will try to share this interesting news with my friends as soon as possible.