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Senior Women Sleuths, Part Three

by Joanne Brickman

<< Part Two

An Unusual Collaboration:
Contemporary Nancy Pickard and the Late Virginia Rich

Few contemporary mystery writers have been so highly acclaimed or so active in their genre as Nancy Pickard.  In addition to her many awards for short stories, this past president of Sisters in Crime has received the Anthony, Macavity and Agatha awards for five of the ten novels in her popular Jenny Cain series.

Virginia Rich didn't start writing mysteries until she was in her early 60s and was almost 70 before she was first published in 1982.  Yet, before she died in the mid-1980s, she accomplished several feats that have had significant consequence on today's mystery novelists.  She created a female American sleuth before such a heroine was as popular as she is today.  (And a SENIOR sleuth, at that!)  She wrote about an amateur crime solver when private eyes were all the rage.  She set her first story in small town mid-America when that just "wasn't done."   And, as Pickard puts it, she was the creator of the "culinary mystery."

Rich wrote three books, "The Cooking School Murders" (1982), "The Baked Bean Supper Murders" (1983), and "The Nantucket Diet Murders" (1985), before her death.  Her unfinished manuscript, "The 27-Ingredient Chili Con Carne Murders," was continued by Pickard and published in 1993.

Pickard explains how the unusual opportunity to continue someone else's work came about in the foreword of her second Eugenia Potter, "The Blue Corn Murders."

 She says the collaboration "began as a result of an amazing sequence of events that began in 1983.  In that year, I read a first mystery novel  called "The Cooking School Murders" by Virginia Rich.  I loved it.  My own first novel  ("Generous Death") was being published that year, and I felt a desire to write a fan letter to Mrs. Rich, who was, like me, a mystery writer married to a cattle rancher.  (I suspected there could not be more than two of us in the world!)

"I received a charming note in which she mentioned that she was already working on the 4th book in her series.  But when I wrote back, her nurse informed me that Mrs. Rich was too ill to correspond.  Soon after that, Virginia Rich died.  I was shocked and saddened, as were the thousands of readers of her books.

"After her death, her husband, Ray Rich, came across a bittersweet  discovery; boxes full of her notes, written on yellow legal pads, and  newspaper clippings, all related to books his wife had hoped to write one day.  There were even a few first drafts of chapters.  Mr. Rich approached my editor at Delacorte Press asking if the series might be continued by other writers.  That editor approached my agent who subsequently asked me, "How would you like to complete a book called "The 27-Ingredient Chili Con Carne Murders."

"It felt like fate to me.

"The Blue Corn Murders," is the second collaboration between Virginia Rich and me, and a third is in the works.  I would to thank everyone concerned with these labors of love.  Above all, I thank Ray Rich and Virginia Rich.

"Working alone at her ranch without the network of writers to support her that we have now, Virginia Rich became a trendsetter simply by writing what was closet to her heart.  I wish I could have met her to say thank you from all of us who have followed in her footsteps."

As evidenced in the "The Blue Corn Murders" preface, Pickard is very fond of Mrs. Rich's style.  During a delightful interview in the wonderful Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Phoenix, Pickard shared more about Virginia Rich.

"In the notes I got, I discovered a lot of things about her.  For one thing, my impression was that she was an enormously thoughtful woman, and that she was genuinely loved by the people who knew her.

But what really impressed me is that she was a one-woman Sisters In Crime before we ever thought of it.  Here she was, alone on her ranch in Arizona, calling radio stations all over the county to promote her book, sending out postcards pre-printed with recipes announcing that her new book was coming out.  And she was doing these things way back then all by herself.  And she was doing this stuff while she was in very bad health."

Pickard also shared a revelation about the development of  "The 27-Ingredient Chili Con Carne Murders."

"I inherited 30 pages of copy," she said.  "That included several scenes, and there was a complete outline of a story.  I wrote that book exactly the way Mrs. Rich had outlined it, using her scenes.  And it was awful.  I had to throw it entirely away.

"What had gone wrong  was that I was trying to write her book instead of just trying to capture her character.  And her plot was a little dated by the time I got to it.  She would have agreed.

"So having written that entire book, and being unhappy with it, I set it to one side and started on page one again.  What I did was keep two or three of her major characters and just made up my own plot.  I kept Virginia Rich's recipes and, whenever possible, would take paragraphs from the 30 pages she had written and use those.  There were paragraphs that had to do with food and setting that I was able to use almost verbatim.  They are my favorite parts of the book!"

Pickard also shared the fact that the idea for "Blue Corn Murders" did not originate from Rich's notes.  Rather, it sprang out of a hiking and exploration she participated in sponsored by the Crow Canyon Archeological Center near Cortez, CO.

"That trip inspired this novel," she said.  "After I had so much trouble with that first book, I thought what I needed to do was just try to capture Mrs. Potter.

"There were 19 other people on the trip of ages ranging from early 40s up to close to 80.  Four people were far and away the most vigorous -- the ones whose backs we were always looking at because they were so far ahead of us.  They were the oldest people in the group.

"This got me to thinking about Mrs. Potter and how she could -- and probably should -- become more vigorous.  When Mrs. Rich was writing in the early 1980s, the perception of women in their early 60s was different.  And even though Mrs. Rich herself was 63 when she started writing books, she was already ill, so she had a different perception of a 63-year-old than you or I would.

"So when I was seeing women who were older than that and in much better shape than Mrs. Potter, I thought that to keep her up to the times, I should have her getting younger instead of older.  It was an interesting challenge."

There's one more Mrs. Potter coming, "The Secret Ingredient Murders," but says Pickard, "this will probably be the last." However, Pickard recently introduced a new protagonist, true crime writer Marie Lightfoot.  She debuts in "The Whole Truth," a chilling thriller which is a fascinating combination of two books in one, a true crime novel being written by Lightfoot and a real-time story relating the events that comprise her book.  Pickard told us she is well into the next Marie Lightfoot novel, adding mischievously that, while Marie is her third protagonist, she may not be her last.

We certainly hope not.



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