For the Birds: Mystery Series Features Special Twist
It began innocently enough with Donna Andrews' first Meg Langslow mystery, "Murder with Peacocks," which won the Malice Domestic/St. Martin's Press, Agatha, Anthony, Barry, and Romantic Times Awards, and the Left Coast Crime Award for the funniest mystery of 1999.
After trying for years to be published, Andrews knew she finally had a good thing going. "Publishers like themes," she discovered. Birds would be hers. She got a copy of Peterson's Field Guide to Eastern Birds and began her next novel.
And that's when it started -- what she calls "my sad addiction." Punning titles.
"Sometimes the bird comes first and I have to work on a pun," the author says, "and sometimes I think of a pun and then figure out a way to involve that bird in the book."
For her second mystery, she came up with a "remarkable number of puffinized-titles." "Lord of the Puffins." "The Sound and the Puffin." "As I Lay Puffin." "Puffinheit 451." "Puffin and Prejudice." But her publisher settled on "Murder with Puffins" for "series continuity."
Although she was a "little worried that I'd be stuck with a formula -- 'Murder with Large Ungainly Birds of the Year'" -- she couldn't let it end. Seven more Meg Langslow mysteries followed, including "Revenge of the Wrought Iron Flamingos," "Crouching Buzzard, Leaping Loon," "We'll Always Have Parrots," "Owls Well That Ends Well," and "No Nest for the Wicket."
On Friday, July 11, at 2 p.m. at The Country Bookshop in downtown Southern Pines, Andrews will present "The Penguin Who Knew Too Much," now in paperback, and the ninth Meg book, "Cockatiels At Seven."
According to Publishers Weekly's starred review of "The Penguin Who Knew Too Much," "Andrews demonstrated her absolute mastery of the comedic mystery, deftly balancing outrageously funny scenes with well-paced suspense."
The novels' heroine is Meg Langslow, an ornamental blacksmith living in Virginia, coping with a succession of crises brought on by the well-meaning but utterly wacky demands of her friends and family.
"Two things influenced my choice of the rather unusual profession for Meg," Andrews says. "I was working at a 9 to 5 desk job when I began writing 'Murder with Peacocks.' It didn't leave a vast amount of time free for writing, and I could see that if I were a mystery protagonist, I wouldn't have a lot of time for sleuthing.
"So I wanted to give Meg a profession that would allow her a lot more control over her schedule. I liked the idea of making Meg a craftsperson, and then it hit me that if she was a blacksmith, no one would quibble with the notion that she was strong enough and resourceful enough to take care of herself when she goes head to head with the villain. I always hate it when an otherwise strong, competent and independent heroine has to be rescued in the climax of the book by the hero. I wanted Meg to be able to do her share of the rescuing."
For "The Penguin Who Knew Too Much," Andrews says she'd been "wanting to use penguins for a while, but I didn't want to have to take Meg to Antarctica or some other suitable penguin habitat. I know that much of the humor in the Meg books arises from what her family and friends are doing -- and I couldn't find a plausible reason to transport the whole crew to a cold climate." When she was in Omaha for a mystery convention, Andrews visited the Henry Doorly Zoo and saw little blue penguins, and realized she didn't need to take Meg to the penguins -- "I could bring the penguins to her, courtesy of a bankrupt local zoo that needed a temporary home for its penguins. And as long as I had a zoo full of animals needing new homes, why not have a few more of them wash up on Meg's doorstep, and voila! A plot was born."
In the novel, at one time called "Mightier than the Penguins," Meg's father discovers a body buried in her basement while digging a hole so he can install a pond for the penguins he rescued.
In "Cockatiels at Seven," one of Meg's friends dumps her two-year-old son on her "just for a little while." "I'm not sure what most people's definition of 'just a little while' would be -- when it comes to baby-sitting a two-year-old," Andrews says. "I think somewhere between five minutes and a few hours." When she doesn't return after 24 hours, Meg tries to find her, with the toddler in tow.
As for the cockatiels, Andrews thought of the title first and decided to justify it by having a subplot involving the smuggling of tropical birds.
"Only one problem," she discovered. "No one bothers to smuggle cockatiels. They're legal to import and breed so well in captivity that there's no real need to import. But at least I found that out and fixed it before the book came out."
In September, St. Martin's is republishing the first two Meg Langslow mysteries together under the title "A Murder Hatched." The 10th book in the series, "Six Geese A-Slaying" will be out late October.
Andrews also has a second award-winning "technocozy" series featuring Turing Hopper, an Artificial Intelligence Personality, an almost-sentient mainframe computer with a mind like Miss Marple and hardware that hides a suspiciously human heart.
"My editor at Berkley coined the term 'technocozy' to describe the unique nature of the Turing Hopper series," says Andrews. "It's a traditional mystery, but set in the world of people and companies that use technology in a modern urban setting. One thing I like about the books was that they pitted a group of allies who were basically nice, normal people against the rather dark and noire world of cybercrime.
"For me, writing them is not only about seeing good triumph over evil -- it's also about seeing nice and normal triumphing over big, scary, impersonal and nasty."
Donna Andrews was born and raised in Yorktown, Va. She graduated from the University of Virginia with a double major in English and drama, with a concentration on writing. She joined the communications staff of a Fortune 500 financial organization, where for two decades she honed her writing skills on nonfiction. She now lives in Reston, Va.
For information, call The Country Bookshop at (910) 692-3211.
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