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Elaine Viets: Murders She Wrote

By Eileen P. Duggan

From St. Louis Journalism Review, June 2008

Elaine Viets at home with her cat and “writing partner.”

Since Elaine Viets was fired from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1996, her life has been a series of one dead-end job after another.

But she’s not complaining. The jobs have made her a best-selling, award-winning mystery writer nesting in a Fort Lauderdale condo with a view of the ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway.

The former Post columnist recently published her seventh Dead-End Job Mystery, Clubbed to Death, set in a South Florida country club. The book was reviewed in the May 18, 2008 New York Times Sunday Book Review.

Viets’ quirky columns featuring South St. Louis living were a longtime reader favorite. She had the opportunity in 1994 to move temporarily to Washington, D.C., with her husband, Don Crinklaw. She wrote her column from Washington for about 18 months until then-managing editor Foster Davis ended the arrangement.

Viets said she was “spectacularly fired”; the late Davis insisted she had voluntarily resigned by reporting to the Washington bureau instead of the St. Louis newsroom on Jan 2, 1996. Negotiations ensued, and a freelance arrangement followed, but essentially Viets was out of a job. She and Crinklaw later landed in Florida.

Viets turned her satiric observations to fiction, churning out the Dead-End Job series as well as a number of short stories. She has started another series, Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper, set in Viets’ hometown of St. Louis. The Mystery Shopper’s 2005 debut, Dying in Style, tied with Stephen King on the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association bestseller list. The third book in the series, Accessory to Murder, is now on the shelves.

In each of the Dead-End Job books, Viets’ protagonist, Helen Hawthorne, works a different low-paying job. To research the books, Viets herself took on the jobs, including bookstore clerk, hotel maid, wedding salon assistant and telemarketer. She applied for the jobs just like any other applicant, she said.

“South Florida is a rootless society,” Viets said, “and a worker who speaks English and shows up on time is considered a real find.”

Most of the employers knew she was researching a book, and some were even helpful. For Murder Between the Covers, Viets worked for more than a year at a Barnes & Noble store, where the staff would tell her stories for inspiration, she said. The store still gives her a signing with each new book, and the staff recommends her work to mystery readers, she said.

When Viets worked at Zola Keller’s fashionable salon for Just Murdered, the owner was aware and very helpful.

For Clubbed to Death, Viets worked at a country club for seven months, long enough to “pay off a Visa bill,” she said.

“The telemarketing companies I worked at for Dying to Call You didn’t know and didn’t care,” Viets said.

She has won an Agatha Award and an Anthony Award for her short stories; she snagged a Lefty Award for the funniest novel of 2007 for her sixth Dead-End Job book, Murder With Reservations. The Lefty is an engraved pickaxe, a lethal weapon Viets can cherish.

Her steamrolling success was sidetracked in April 2007, when Viets suffered a stroke. She was about to embark on a 10-city tour to promote Murder with Reservations.

“The stroke and coma were terrifying, but one good thing came out of it,” she said. “I was deeply touched when the mystery writing community pitched in to help sell my new mystery while I was in a coma. More than 200 authors coast-to-coast, including St. Louis writers Eileen Dreyer and Susan McBride, helped me sell ‘Reservations.’”

The authors promoted Viets’ book in the stores where she couldn’t appear.

Her recovery has been quick in her doctors’ eyes, but too slow for her, she said. She’s talking, walking with a cane, doing physical therapy, and, now, touring for the new book.

On the non-fiction side, Viets continues to do monthly commentaries for KWMU-FM Radio. She blogs on Wednesdays for The Lipstick Chronicles (http://www.thelipstickchronicles.typepad.com/) with several other writers. Otherwise, fiction is now the name of the game for the former journalist.

It turns out getting fired from the Post was a good career move for Elaine Viets.

“I have a lot of freedom in my new life,” she said.

* * *

Update: Elaine Viets has published two more Dead End Job Mysteries, Killer Cuts in 2009 and Half-Price Homicide in 2010.

Visit Elaine Viets’ website at http://www.elaineviets.com/.

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