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

New York author Sandra Scoppettone penned the first lesbian mystery series published by a mainstream house. She and Hart became friends when Ballantine sent them out together on a publicity tour.

"We'd never met," says Scoppettone. "And the notion of touring with a stranger was more than daunting for me. But the moment I met her any fears were allayed as I found her smart, funny, and simpatico. What more could I want?"

Apparently, fans of one author want to read the other one too. Amazon.com, the online mega-store, reports that customers who purchased Scoppettone's new novel, Gonna Take a Homicidal Journey also bought Hart's Wicked Games, and vice versa.

Both authors have a solid audience of straight readers, as well as gay ones. That's important when it comes to the bottom line, but Hart thinks that's important for another reason too.

"Mysteries are one of the bridges straight society will walk to understanding us better, as we are, as decent human beings with lives," she says. "That's very important, That may seem small, but it's very huge."

But if you're looking for that requisite sex scene that proves her protagonist is really lesbian, you'll be disappointed. Hart says that's not because she's trying to tame her material for a crossover audience. She says such steam wouldn't be appropriate for the type of mystery she writes, which is a traditional English style called a cozy. Cozies feature maximum suspense with minimal gore. The best-known writer of cozies is Agatha Christie. "And you just don't see Miss Marple in the bushes," Hart says.

Hart's work may be reader-friendly, but that doesn't mean she shies away from difficult themes. Rather, she embraces them, weaving multi-layered stories about families, secrets, love, and loyalties. And the closer the loyalty between characters is, the more twisted the plot can become.

A good example is Hart's newest addition to the Jane Lawless series, Wicked Games. In it, Jane finds herself drawn into a labyrinth of secrets. When she agrees to help her father's friend look into the background of her newest renter, children's book author Elliot Beauman, and his all-American family, Jane discovers a trail of corpses. When she tries to spend time with her lover, Julia, a doctor in northern Minnesota, she discovers something else. Trouble is, she doesn't know quite what it is.

Though Wicked Games is her 12th book, Hart feared it was one that wouldn't get published at all. Seal Press, a small feminist organization which had published all seven of the previous Jane Lawless books, decided to focus on the more-profitable nonfiction market and dropped all its fiction authors, including Hart.

"My agent had been telling me for many years that I should get rid of Seal and get a 'real publisher' and I didn't want to--for political reasons, I suppose. And then ultimately Seal made a business decision to dump me," she says, fully appreciating the irony of the situation. "I think they are one of the best small presses in the country, but like every other small press, they are hanging on with their fingernails."

When Hart and her agent took the new manuscript to several other presses, they got good news and bad news.

"We got glowing rejections," says Hart. "They said, 'We love Ellen. Have her write something else. We don't want to pick up a series when another press owns the first seven books.' My agent kept telling me I should write something else. But I suppose my first love is this series. I really love these characters."

Just as it looked like Hart might have to say good-bye to Jane and her zany sidekick, Cordelia, St. Martin's picked it up.

"I was thrilled," Hart says. "I had done a lot of thinking about this particular book. A lot of thinking about my characters, particularly Jane, while I thought I was never going to get a chance to write another of these (Jane Lawless) books. And so I think Wicked Games is more Jane's book than any other. We see into the darker side of her personality."

If there's a shadow that hangs over Hart's own life, it's cast by her own dogged determination.

Mystery fans don't like to wait more than a year to catch up with their favorite sleuths, so for a while, Hart found herself penning two books a year: one in each series. Add to that two national publicity tours, teaching a class in mystery writing at the Loft literary center and the Compleat Scholar program at the University of Minnesota, as well as numerous speaking engagements, and you have one busy author.

Even though she was writing seven days a week, all day long, her books didn't appear to suffer. Instead, they continued to get better. Accomplishing that, says Trone, is a challenge for any writer.

"She has to meet readers expectations and exceed them. People who enjoyed her last book always want one just the same--only better. She's managed to do that and that's why she continues to get nominated for--and win--awards. That's exceptional for a series," she says.

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