A Tribute to Janet LaPierre
(Menlo Park Library Mystery Readers Group, 3/18/15)
by Meredith Phillips
Janet LaPierre died on Thanksgiving Day last year (as did P.D. James). On Nov. 27, 2014, Janet was nearly eighty-one years old and had suffered a stroke two weeks before. This is a tragic loss to the mystery field in general, and to the small company of American women writers who can be spoken of in the same breath as the English greats. Janet wrote about half as many books as James, in many fewer years.
It’s also a personal loss of a friend to our small publishing partnership, whose first book was by Janet. Sixteen years ago she gave us credibility and put us on the map. It was a generous gesture of faith, perhaps partially motivated by our common residence in and love for Northern California. She had long been one of my favorite writers, and we’d met on a few occasions at mystery events when she would forgo her usual reclusive tendency.
Digging through my files for the five books by Janet LaPierre that Perseverance Press published, from 1999 to 2009, I was struck by several things. One was the multitude of review sources and reviews in those earlier days, which unanimously acclaimed Janet’s books and writing ability in the most glowing terms. Another was the big names who endorsed the books with cover blurbs: Laurie King, Deborah Crombie, Ayelet Waldman, Marcia Muller, Cara Black, Susan Dunlap, Nancy Pickard, and so on. This was a writer’s writer, one who was truly respected by her peers.
I don’t know much about Janet’s early life. She wrote the following as a possible biographical entry for one of the books: “I learned to read at age four (from highway signs, according to my mother) and have rarely been seen since without a book in my hand—except, that is, when I’m writing.” I know she grew up and was educated in the Midwest and Arizona. She has said that “when I got to Northern California I knew I was home.” She was an English teacher, married a computer scientist and raised 2 daughters, and began writing once they were in school. She lived in Berkeley for many years, and when she was freer from family duties and constraints, began exploring the north coast: Mendocino and Trinity counties, and the Lost Coast. Sometimes with her husband and always with a succession of dogs, she traveled by a 25-foot fifth-wheel trailer.
She wrote in an author questionnaire: “I tend to wander around Northern Calif., particularly its smaller and more distant places, and just—lurk. Watch the people wherever I’m staying, the things that happen, the conversation in shops and restaurants. I read the local newspaper, visit the library. Shop in the stores, eat in the restaurants and chat with the waitresses. I am quiet and very ordinary-looking, which is a great benefit for a lurker. My stories seem to start from place, and then deal with events that have happened there, or might, and how they are or would be dealt with by the people there.”
Those unfamiliar with the books might be wondering now what Janet wrote about specifically. Her series’ setting was Port Silva, her version of Ft. Bragg, with some Mendocino and Santa Cruz thrown in. As well as the landscape and feeling of the area, described evocatively in much detail, I’d say that her main subject matter was families. Notice how many of her titles contain words pertinent to that: mother, grandmother, baby, children, and family itself. She had an unsentimental, clear-eyed view of that institution. She once wrote, in another biographical sketch: “I was a student, a high-school teacher, always a reader. A wife, and a mother, which taught me a lot: Children are humanity unshaped and unbuttoned, and a playground is a microcosm of the human world without its acquired façade.” Most of her books do contain a youthful major character or two.
In the next book, Keepers, Janet introduced compelling new characters: private investigators Patience and Verity Mackellar, who are mother and daughter. For its time this was an unusual and daring departure, and it won Janet a Shamus nomination from the PWA for Best Paperback Private Eye novel. The Mackellars continued investigating in the next two books, Death Duties and Family Business. The latter, set around the beginning of the Iraq War, contained an infusion of Janet’s own leftish political beliefs (as do all the books in more muted form).
In Janet’s last book she moved to a new stage: Trinity County and the real-life town of Weaverville, and also new protagonists: Rosemary Mendes and her dog, Tank. The golden retriever had been owned by the dead woman whose fate Rosemary is drawn into investigating, although not a PI or cop herself. Run A Crooked Mile and these characters were embraced by Janet’s fans, who hoped as we did that it presaged a new series. Alas, it was not to be. In response to our repeated queries on whether there would be another book, Janet indicated that she was working on several possible projects, but didn’t seem to be able to finish any of them.
Ironically, Hollywood was calling by then, with interest from the Hallmark Channel in Janet’s entire opus. This was complicated by a confusing rights situation for the first five books, which were from two different New York publishers. We at Perseverance were all in favor, owning the rights to the latter five books, but it was difficult to get answers from the editors and agents who had retired years before about the second-through-fifth books. Also, we recently heard from Janet’s German publisher, who’d translated the second-through-fourth books and want to reprint them.
At any rate Janet said, in our last conversation, about the TV possibility, that she didn’t much like the idea of some other entity controlling the rights to her characters and messing around with them. Sue Grafton would agree that she might have been right about that—although watchers of quality television are the poorer for it.