By Elaine Viets
We’ve all seen zombie series: a string of novels that are barely alive, dragged by their authors from one publisher to another. Each zombie novel staggers to its feet, but dies quickly. It’s hard to survive without a heart.
The kindest – and smartest – thing to do is end your series before it becomes a zombie.
I’ve written three mystery series:
My first mystery series featured Francesca Vierling, a six-foot tall St. Louis newspaper columnist. After four Francesca novels the publisher wiped out the division.
These novels are hard-boiled. Francesca investigates a transvestite’s murder in Backstab and the death of a RUB, a rich urban biker, in Rubout. In The Pink Flamingo Murders, a ruthless gentrifier comes to a terrible end: stabbed with a pink plastic flamingo. In Doc in the Box, bad doctors get the deaths they deserve.
After the hard-boiled Francesca series ended, I worked dead-end jobs until my agent sold Shop Till You Drop, my first Dead-End Job mystery, to Penguin. This series features Helen Hawthorne, a St. Louis woman on the run in South Florida. I was writing traditional mysteries, cheerfully slaughtering awful bosses and annoying customers. Penguin saved me from being trapped in dead-end jobs. I could quit them to write my mysteries.
In book five, Penguin took the Dead-End Job series from paperback to hardcover. They’d already asked me to write a cozy series featuring mystery shopper Josie Marcus. Josie was supposed to be a three-book series. Dying in Style, the first Josie book, tied with Stephen King’s mystery on the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association list.
I happily wrote two mysteries a year. Suddenly, it was 2015. I turned in book ten of the “three book” Josie Marcus mystery-shopper series. Checked Out, my fourteenth Dead-End Job hardcover, was published.
And I wanted to return to the dark side. After fifteen years of writing traditional, cozy mysteries, I’m starting a dark series featuring Death Investigator Angela Richman. Death investigators work out of the medical examiner’s office. At a death scene, the DI takes charge of the body, photographing it, documenting the wounds, and more. The police investigate the rest of the crime scene.
Why return to this gritty world?
Because I never left. I love cozies, but they’re not all kittens and cupcakes. I prefer relentless Miss Marple, the fluffy knitter who declared “I am Nemesis” and brought killers to justice.
I’d kept writing darkly humorous short stories for anthologies such as Crimes by Moonlight: Mysteries from the Dark Side, edited by Charlaine Harris, and short stories for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. “The Bride Wore Blood” was not for the “Say Yes to the Dress” crowd.
This January I passed the MedicoLegal Death Investigators Training Course for forensic professionals, given by Saint Louis University’s School of Medicine. The intense training made sure I had the most up-to-date forensic information.
Look at the agenda for one morning, as taught by pathologists:
Gunshot wound fatalities, explosion-related deaths, motor vehicle fatalities, and drowning. At lunch, we watched a teen driving and alcohol video. After lunch, we studied alcohol-related deaths, suicide, blunt-trauma fatalities, and more.
My mystery writing colleagues welcomed me back. Fourteen top writers blurbed the Death Investigator proposal.
Diamond Dagger winner Lee Child said, “So happy to see Viets back to doing what she does best—dark, edgy, character-driven crime. Count me delighted.”
Ann Cleeves, author of the Vera Stanhope and Shetland series, said, “I think you’ve got everything here that a reader loves—a hospital drama and thriller, a strong central character. Made much more interesting because the central character is a very unreliable narrator.”
Charlaine Harris, who thoroughly explores the dark side, said, “Elaine Viets has written the exciting first book in a multilayered crime novel series. Angela Richman is not only an investigator but a victim in this complex novel of crime, punishment, and medical malfeasance.”
I asked almost two thousand readers if they’d follow me to the dark side. More than 75 percent said they’d read the new Death Investigator series. Almost half said they’d prefer the new series and more than half said they’d read both.
“I would love to see you tackle something a little darker,” one wrote. “As a male, the new series appeals to me.”
Yes, sir. Death Investigator Angela Richman debuts as a short story in the November Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.
And I’ve signed a two-book contract with Thomas & Mercer for the Angela Richman Death Investigator series. Brain Storm will be out late summer 2016. Fire and Ashes debuts in 2016.
I still enjoy writing about Helen Hawthorne’s lighthearted adventures in South Florida. My 15th Dead-End Job mystery, The Art of Murder, will be out in May 2016.
But Josie Marcus, my cozy mystery series, is now on hiatus. I’ve experimented with all the cozy variations. Josie is in a good place: She’s happy with her new husband. Josie’s teenage daughter, Amelia, is about to become a young woman. Josie’s mother has met a man she loves.
I may bring Josie back some day. But not as a zombie.