Sunday, February 28, 2010

How My Mother-in-Law Helped Me With a Murderer by Clea Simon

Clea Simon is the author of the Dulcie Schwartz series that started last year with Shades of Grey and continues this month with Grey Matters. She has also written the Theda Krakow mysteries, Mew is for Murder, Cattery Row, Cries and Whiskers, and Probable Claws, and several nonfiction books. She has excerpts up on her home site at
and blogs at // 
Follow her on Twitter @Clea_Simon/ 

Cats keep coming up in Clea Simon's mysteries. While real cats and real feline health and safety issues figured prominently in her Theda Krakow series, in her new Dulcie Schwartz series, the felines are a bit more fanciful. In fact, Dulcie keeps seeing and hearing the ghost of her late, great cat, who seems to be looking out for her and for her new kitten as her second mystery, Grey Matters, opens. But while writing Grey Matters, it wasn't the supernatural that was bothering Clea. It was the very human question: What would make anyone commit murder?


How My Mother-in-Law Helped Me With a Murderer 
by Clea Simon

My mother-in-law thought the murder made sense. When I outlined how one particular suspect could have done it, she nodded sagely – as only a 93-year-old lifelong reader can – and weighed in. “We’re all capable of horrible things,” she said, “if we’re provoked.”

Now, this was a friendly discussion. My husband and I were taking Sophie out to brunch. But I was in the throes of plotting my new Dulcie Schwartz mystery, Grey Matters, and I was too distracted to simply chat about the family or the strawberry butter for the popovers. And so I had hijacked the conversation, in order to get some feedback.

Grey Matters was still in the planning stage then. My publisher, Severn House, wanted a follow up to Shades of Grey, and I needed to get a synopsis to my editor, and I was having trouble. I had my victim. He’s the kind of smug pretty boy who almost (almost) deserves to get killed. He sure had a lot of enemies. And I had pretty strong ideas about who his ultimate enemy was going to be, but I wasn’t quite sure. And so I brought up the big question:

Have you ever thought about what would drive you to murder?

What would motivate you to kill? Answering that question is one of the major challenges of writing mysteries. After all, I prefer the kind of whodunits where the crime comes from a believable human source. You know, a crime of passion – the murder of a cheating spouse or the accidental thwacking of a lousy roommate – rather than those serial-killer thrillers where someone has a taste for blood. And so I’ve got to spend some time thinking, “what would make /me/ kill?”

It’s fun, in a way. I mean, we all get angry. But it’s also a pretty difficult question to answer. I have never killed anyone. Not even close. So making that leap of faith can be hard.

“She’s upset. She’s emotional…” Sophie was making the case for one of my suspects. I had presented this character as my first choice for murderer. And Sophie, being a loving and supportive woman, was trying to play along. “So maybe she does something. She’d probably regret it afterward.”

She was right – but something was wrong. I knew that the character we were discussing – one of the academics who populate Dulcie Schwartz’s insular little world – was troubled. While I love academia, I do realize that the people who devote themselves to books can be, well, a little removed from reality. Even my heroine, Dulcie, is a bit na├»ve at times. A graduate student, writing her doctoral thesis on an obscure Gothic novel, she thinks she’s very rational. She’s certainly very smart. But she can be a tad blind about the people around her. It’s one of her endearing traits – and one of the reasons the ghost of her late, great cat, Mr. Grey, has chosen to stick around and take care of her. However, she likes this character. Could this character really be the killer?

Sophie was trying, she really was. She knew that I needed to get started writing. But as I spoke to her, I realized that we were both trying too hard. The character I’d pegged – the one I was setting up as a villain – might be troubled, but she was no killer. I needed to look elsewhere until, sure enough, I found the bad apple hiding among my characters.

It took me a while, and it wasn’t until the popovers were long gone that I found my villain. But when I did, I called Sophie and told her my news.

“I can’t wait to read it,” she said. Even though she now knew who the murderer would be. I can’t wait for our next brunch.


Sandra Parshall said...

Clea, you were wise in your choice of a mother-in-law. :-) If you and your husband ever split up, make sure you get custody of his mother!

Vicki Lane said...

I can almost hear the conversation! Sophie is a treasure!

Clea Simon said...

She is a jewel. I cannot wait to print this out and send it to her (no, she is not online.)

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Sophie is indeed a treasure!!

Clea - Thank you for dropping by. I hope you'll do it again!