Versions of this story have appeared on various blogs, in the MWA Edgar Awards program guide, and I’ve used it as a speech for library fund-raisers.
My first memory is literally of my mother’s forefinger running beneath the words “Once upon a time, in a faraway land, lived a beautiful princess named Snow White. She had skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as ebony.” I was reading before I got to kindergarten, and long before my first trip to the library.
The library in my home town of Seldovia, Alaska, was one room in the basement of city hall. It was open once a week on Monday nights, from 7pm to 10pm. Because it was so small with so few books, each patron could check out only four books at a time.
We were living on a 75-fish tender named the Celtic when my mother dragged me up the ladder, over a mile of boardwalk and down a flight of rickety wooden steps into a small, musty room lined with bookshelves crammed with books, books with no pictures in them, just words. I gaped around as Mom consulted with our librarian, Susan B. English, and between the two of them they decided to start me on Nancy Drew. The first two books I checked out were The Hidden Staircase and The Clue in the Old Stagecoach. I finished the first one after dinner that evening and smuggled the second into bed with me, along with a flashlight, where I read under the covers until my eyelids could no longer resist the pull of gravity. I finished it the following morning propped up against my cereal bowl.
I was eight years old.
After that? I didn’t read mysteries much. My mother loved crime novels, especially those of British authors, including Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Agatha Christie. I preferred Robert Heinlein and Nevil Shute and Thomas B. Costain. I liked buckle and swash in my reading, not tea and manners.
She didn’t give up, though. It took her twenty-one years of patient persistence for my mother to get me to read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time.
It was a revelation. To this day, The Daughter of Time remains the finest crime novel I have ever read, and one of the finest novels of any kind. In it, a policeman is confined to a hospital bed, literally unable to sit upright, and from that bed he solves a double homicide committed four hundred years before. The crime scene is sixteen generations out of date, there is no surviving forensic evidence, and the chroniclers of the time only prospered through patronage, which could and did influence their reporting.
And yet, Tey’s hero prevails, and this in spite of the fact that he spends the entire first paragraph staring at the ceiling. Yes, really, and in this era of kiss kiss bang bang yet another reason to marvel at the craft of this novel.
The plot is above reproach, perfectly paced and sustaining of tension throughout, an extraordinary accomplishment when you realize that the facts of the case have been known for over four centuries. Tey takes the murder of the Princes in the Tower as her text, and in a completely convincing exercise of revisionist history exonerates Richard III, the man history has judged guilty of the crime.
The characterization is phenomenal, from that intelligent, charming protagonist, Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, to the much-maligned Richard III himself. The cast of secondary characters is equally appealing. There is elegant actress Marta Hallard with “her best lower-register Electra voice;” Marta’s “woolly lamb” Brent Carradine who “said goodnight in a quiet smothered way, and ambled out of the room followed by the sweeping skirts of his topcoat;” Sergeant Williams, “large and pink and scrubbed-looking.” How can you not want to read more about Mrs. Tinker, whose “homely face appeared in the aperture surmounted by her still more homely and historic hat?”
And then there are the dead-on and frequently devastating sidelights that have nothing to do with plot and everything to do with condition and culture, as in Marta’s report of her fellow actor’s “disappearance” from a play in the middle of its performance, or how about this description of the pile of books Grant’s friends have brought him in hospital:
…the public talked about ‘a new Silas Weekly’ or ‘a new
Lavinia Fitch’ exactly as they talked about ‘a new brick’
or ‘a new hairbrush.’…Their interest was not in the book
but in its newness. They knew quite well what the book
would be like.
Reading The Daughter of Time was my epiphany. In that moment, I realized you could do anything in crime fiction, so long as a) there was a mystery, and b) by the end of the book that mystery was solved.
I launched into an extensive remedial reading in the genre, working up from Nancy, Frank and Joe to Travis, Kinsey, and Cadfael. I learned that most detectives are loners, with barely a working relationship between them. I learned that a lot of them aren’t professional police officers or even licensed private investigators, but Flavian imperial agents and Egyptologists and jockeys. I learned that most of these are cordially disliked by their official counterparts on the local police force, but not all. I learned that despite their frequently cynical and world-weary surface they share a rock bottom resolution to fight for the right.
In 1987 my aunt quit a job in Wrangell-St. Elias Park, and I went to help her pack up. It’s a beautiful place, immense snow-capped mountains edging a lush green river valley, and it’s filled with characters, from the Athabascans who have lived there forever to families descended from stampeders to homesteaders who never got over the park being created around their property and who are still bitterly resentful of park rangers telling them to do anything.
That fall, while housesitting for a friend on the island of Hawaii, I finished my second science fiction novel, A Handful of Stars (1991). I had a third planned in the series (which became Red Planet Run, 1995), but I was exhausted from all the research and I wanted a break. I was reading through P.D. James and Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky at the time and I thought, “I wonder if I can write a mystery.”
With the Wrangell-St. Elias Park so fresh in my mind, it seemed the natural setting for the book. All I had to do was remember some of the people my aunt had introduced me to while we were there, and I had a cast of characters. And with the characters, all I had to do was remember some of the incendiary comments made about the Park Service and I had a plot, the murder of a park ranger.
A Cold Day for Murder, the first Kate Shugak novel, was finished in five months. After I sold my first science fiction novels, my editor said, in that endearing way editors do, “What else have you got?” and signed me to a three-book contract. A Cold Day for Murder came out in 1993 and won an Edgar award in 1994.