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.

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.

Nor did her teaching seem to suffer. Many of her Loft students reported that she was the best teacher they'd ever had there, and they repeatedly requested that she offer an advanced class.

But Ellen Hart suffered. "In the fall, I hit a wall. I got severely ill," she says. "It was just too much."

She expanded her vocabulary to include the word "no." She asked for extensions on her Sophie Greenway series, and worried that the publisher would drop her. (They didn't.) She reduced her teaching commitments. She took some time to catch her breath. She says she still is recovering, but being sick has taught her to take it a little slower.

She says this even as she is deep into writing the next novel in the Jane Lawless series. Even as she is about to bop about the country to conventions and bookstores, promoting Wicked Games. Even as students are standing in line to sign up for her next writing class.

It's not unusual, she says in her easy, offhand manner, for her to have three books in her head at once: One she's editing, one she's writing, and one she's sketching out.

There's proof. Next time you're shopping at a south Minneapolis grocery store, keep an eye peeled for her. She's a little on the short side with graying hair that softly frames her round face. She could be browsing the spices in aisle eight, buying apples, or comparing the price of Northern and Charmin. Whatever else she is doing, she surely has murder on her mind.

Ellen Hart will read from her latest work,Wicked Games, at a publication party at Amazon Bookstore (1612 Harmon Place, Minneapolis) from 7 to 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 9. She will also appear at the Loft (66 Malcolm Ave. SE, Minneapolis) on Wednesday, Oct. 21, for a 7:30 p.m. reading, and at Once Upon at Crime (604 W. 26th St., Minneapolis) on Thursday, Sept. 17, at 6:30 p.m.

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