Murder on Her Mind

Cooking up mayhem comes easily to Minneapolis mystery writer Ellen Hart. Her most recent book, Wicked Games, about a lesbian culinarian and sleuth, is a tangy and tempting stew

According to people who know her, Ellen Hart is a disciplined writer, generous teacher, talented cook, insightful friend, committed partner, and generally one fine human being. The fact that she kills people for a living doesn't seem to convince anyone otherwise.

No, she doesn't really kill them. She imagines the poisonings, hangings, shootings, and bludgeonings that are the cornerstone of every mystery she writes. And mind you, she writes a lot of mysteries. Last month, St. Martin's Press published her 12th book, Wicked Games. The protagonists in her two multivolume series, Jane Lawless (who is a lesbian) and Sophie Greenway (who is not), have seen nearly as much malicious mayhem as Jessica Fletcher.

Long before Hart created either amateur sleuth, she was creating everything from fritatas to fajitas as kitchen manager for a sorority at the University of Minnesota. So it's not surprising that both of her main characters have backgrounds that resemble Hart's culinary experience. Jane is a restaurateur and Sophie is a food critic. Both live and work in the Twin Cities. The sorority even provided the setting for her first book, Hallowed Murder.

"I'd always wanted to write a book but I would look at them and think 'How could they do that?'" Hart says. "I figured it would be a big regret if I didn't try to write something. So I started Hallowed Murder.

"I got about 200 pages into it and realized it was pathetic. So I spent one entire winter doing nothing but reading P.D. James' books, taking them apart and seeing how she developed plot, character, and tension, and how she slipped in clues. Then I started writing again."

All that summer, Hart continued to run the kitchen at the sorority during the day and banged out the chapters of her book at night. She worked on a cheap typewriter on a little table in a bedroom of the house where she and Kathy Krueger, her partner of 21 years, live in south Minneapolis. It is only blocks from where she grew up.

She thought about the story while watching movies, while cooking, while falling asleep. And while Krueger was supportive, Hart says her new avocation took some getting used to.

"It took [Kathy] a while to get over the fact that I was actually killing someone in a book," she says. "That was really tough for her. She's certainly gotten past that now."

Krueger is now among the best resources Hart has. She is often one of Hart's first readers, helps her think through parts of story lines, suggests methods of "doing in" the victims, and accompanies her to scout prospective locations for the fictitious crimes.

But Hart sometimes needs to know specific information: How much vodka does it take to kill a 200-pound man? How would police react if someone told them he'd witnessed a crime without actually seeing it? What islands are in the middle of Pokegama Lake?

"I've learned over the years to cultivate people," she says. "When I meet them at a party, I ask them if it would be OK to call them later if I have questions."

She's made friends with a medical examiner and a cop. She's called upon an architect, an antique dealer, and a even an expert on interventions for alcoholics in order to more accurately portray situations in her books. If there are inaccuracies, no one has found them yet.

Though Hart has cranked out 12 books in 10 years, her work is anything but formulaic. She has collected a matching set of awards: two Lambda Book Awards (and five nominations) and two Minnesota Book Awards. She receives glowing book reviews from gay and straight reviewers alike. And her books are consistently among the best-selling mysteries by local authors at area bookstores.

Mary Trone, former owner of Once Upon A Crime bookstore in Minneapolis, is one of those reviewers who reveres Hart's work. She says a primary reason for Hart's popularity among readers is her characters.

"Her characters are beloved by straight women and lesbians," she says. "When you sit down with one of her books, you really feel like you're going back to spend time with old friends."

Kelley Ragland, Hart's editor at St. Martin's Press, agrees. "Hart writes absorbing, entertaining mystery stories about characters we care about--real, believable, three-dimensional, human characters that we want to read more about," she says. "Jane Lawless is a rich and very real character."

Gay and lesbians characters in mysteries have not always had it so good.

"We've either been the villain or the corpse," says Hart of the roles previously available for gays and lesbians in mysteries.

Hart is one of several authors changing that.

"Ellen wanted to sit down and write books that reflect her world and her values. She's done that right from the beginning," says R.D. Zimmerman, a close friend of Hart's and also a successful mystery writer whose most recent books feature an out gay character. "In her books, we're allowed to see ourselves reflected positively."

Small publishing houses, like Seal Press of Seattle, were among the first to embrace characters who were open about their sexual orientation. Now, it's not uncommon for bigger, more mainstream houses like St. Martin's and Ballantine to publish books with positively portrayed queer protagonists.

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