|Elaine w/Pizza & Gooey Butter Cake|
Elaine Viets writes two national bestselling mystery series. Her Dead-End Job series is a satiric look at a serious subject – the minimum-wage world. Elaine and her character, Helen Hawthorne, work a different low-paying job each book, from telemarketer to hotel maid. Elaine’s second series features St. Louis mystery shopper Josie Marcus. Elaine Viets has won the Agatha, Anthony and Lefty Awards.
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ELAINE VIETS: Living in Two Worlds
Each year, I spend half my writing life in St. Louis, Missouri, and the other half in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. These two cities are in two different states. They could be on other planets.
Josie Marcus, heroine of my Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper mysteries, lives in Maplewood, an old inner ring suburb of St. Louis. Josie is 31, a single mother with an 11-year-old daughter, Amelia.
Josie’s society is deeply connected: Everyone knows everyone, and if they don’t, they know someone who does. Josie’s nosy neighbor, Mrs. Mueller, runs her own private Neighborhood Watch Program. She ratted out a teen-age Josie for smoking, and Josie left a burning bag of dog doo on Mrs. M.’s front porch.
Josie lives in a two-family flat owned by her mother. She is Josie’s backup babysitter. Jane also drives Amelia to school when Josie is working – or solving a mystery. Josie survives on a mystery-shopper’s meager pay thanks to this help from her mother. But Jane has problems of her own. Like many of her readers, Josie belongs to the sandwich generation. She’s caught between caring for her mother and her child.
Helen Hawthorne, my other protagonist, lives nearly twelve hundred miles away in Fort Lauderdale. She’s the star of my Dead-End Job mysteries. Helen is ten years older than Josie and doesn’t have children. Helen has created her own family at the Coronado Tropic Apartments. Margery, her cigarette-smoking landlady, is her surrogate mother. Peggy is a sisterly friend. Helen divorced badly and for a while she dated every druggie, drunk and deadbeat in Florida. Recently, she married Phil Sagemont, a private detective.
Readers have different expectations for these series. They want Josie to be a good mother and a good daughter with old-school values.
Helen’s South Florida is a lot whackier than Josie’s hometown. I can get away with more off-the-wall characters in Fort Lauderdale than I can in St. Louis. Peggy, Helen’s friend, never goes anywhere without her parrot Pete on her shoulder. The poor bird would freeze to death in the St. Louis winters.
I enjoy moving between these two worlds. Right now, I’m promoting my new Josie Marcus mystery shopper novel, “Death on a Platter.” Each book, Josie mystery shops something new. This time, she shopped St. Louis food for a national tour group. This gave me the chance to write about – and eat – local specialties: Gooey butter cake is an artery-clogging concoction oozing butter and sugar. St. Louis’ Kakao Chocolate has sea-salt chocolate caramels and chocolate bark sprinkled with locally ground coffee. I even ate pig ear and snoot sandwiches. Did you know snoot sandwiches have been singled out as the city’s contribution to barbecue? I read that in The Economist magazine. They’re pig noses on a bed of potato salad and white bread, slathered with sweet red barbecue sauce. C&K Barbecue makes tasty snoots in St. Louis.
Both these very different worlds have their own pleasures. Writing a Josie book is like going home. I get to visit my favorite places and old friends.
Helen Hawthorne lives in Fort Lauderdale, my current home. I love the rustle of palm trees and the soft feel of salt-tinged air. I like this fluid society: No one knows what your father did for a living or if your family lineage is important. It’s a good place to start over.
For nine Helen Hawthorne books, it was easy for me to work those dead-end jobs, from hotel maid to telemarketer.
But “Pumped for Murder,” my newest Dead-End Job mystery, grew out of a career crisis.
What was next for Helen Hawthorne?
She was no longer on the run from her awful ex-husband, but she could not go back to her corporate life in St. Louis. She was a Floridian now, living at the Coronado and joining her friends after work for sunset salutes by the pool.
She’d married Phil, the love of her life, in “Half-Price Homicide.”
After a romantic honeymoon in Key Largo, Helen and Phil were back home. I faced a terrible temptation:
Should I kill Phil? His murder would give me at least three books: Helen would have to solve her husband’s murder. Then she’d learn to cope as a widow. Maybe she’d meet another man in the third novel.
But I couldn’t do it. One woman threatened to kill me if anything happened to Phil. I wasn’t sure how serious she was, but I wasn’t taking any chances.
I could also kill off one of Helen’s friends. But I couldn’t. To me, Helen’s friends are real. Losing one would be painful.
The answer was right next door.
Don and I used to live in a condo on Hollywood beach. Our next-door neighbor was a Canadian pilot.
One winter, our Canadian snowbird didn’t arrive. He’d been arrested for flying drugs into the US.
We were stunned. But now I understood why Florida has more private eyes than any state except California. We’re a rootless place. We never know if our neighbors are drug dealers or sun-loving snowbirds.
Also, the warm winters attract retired police officers who open their own Florida detective agencies. They live on their pensions until their new business succeeds.
Thanks to my neighbor who flew snow into Florida, my Dead-End Job series went in a new direction.
Phil and Helen started Coronado Investigations in “Pumped for Murder.” Helen still works those dead-end jobs, but now she’s undercover as a private investigator.
Readers keep asking me: Will Helen and Josie ever meet? Will the two series intersect? After all, Helen does come home to St. Louis to see her sister.
Some writers have characters from one series visit their other series. I can’t do it.
In my mind – where Josie and Helen live – they can’t meet.
It would make my eyes cross.