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Couple Solve the Mystery of A.E. Maxwell

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

In Time magazine’s recent roundup of the best mysteries of the year, Orange County author A.E. Maxwell’s latest Fiddler novel, “Just Enough Light to Kill,” was among a dozen titles guaranteed to “easily justify the addiction” of crime fiction aficionados.

In citing the fourth in Maxwell’s mystery series featuring the unorthodox Orange County-based crime investigator, however, one significant fact was overlooked.

Despite the singular byline, A.E. Maxwell is actually a plural: the husband-and-wife writing team of Ann and Evan Maxwell.

The failure to mention the Laguna Niguel couple, however, was really not an oversight on Time’s part.

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Few Fiddler fans are aware that the “A.E.” actually stands for Ann and Evan. And that--so far, at least--has been by design since Doubleday published the first Fiddler exploit, “Just Another Day in Paradise,” in 1985.

“There was a feeling among some members of the Doubleday bureaucracy that a male and female authorship for a hard-boiled detective, first-person narrative simply was not a good idea,” said Evan Maxwell, 45. “They thought it would be breaking traditional rules: The Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett literary mystique would somehow suffer if the husband-and-wife aspect were revealed.”

Initially, Maxwell said, “we didn’t resist that in a particularly forceful way.” By the time the Maxwells got around to writing “Just Enough Light to Kill,” however, they were convinced that the husband-and-wife aspect of the authorship wasn’t negative.

“As a matter of fact, it was a plus,” Maxwell said. “The reason being that most books--mystery and other types--are bought by women. Because mysteries deal with crime and often murder, some of them can get fairly violent and exploitative of women either in a sexual way or as just as victims of violence. Many women readers tend to steer away from the hard-boiled end of the genre simply because they don’t want their sensibilities outraged.”

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In talking to readers and booksellers, the Maxwells discovered that the reaction to the joint authorship of the Fiddler series was extremely positive.

Maxwell said: “I’ve had a number of women, particularly women booksellers, tell us they felt more comfortable reading the book and recommending the book to women customers when they discovered that a woman had had a hand in the authorship.”

Last Spring, as Doubleday was readying its promotional campaign for “Just Enough Light to Kill,” the couple made what Evan Maxwell describes as a “forceful pitch” to have the dual authorship of A.E. Maxwell revealed on the book jacket.

It made sense.

“As long as they were disguising the joint authorship, there is no way they can promote: There is no ‘A.E. Maxwell’ to trot out for interviews or television shows,” said Maxwell. Doubleday finally agreed to let Ann and Evan come out of A.E. Maxwell’s closet. Although it was too late to change the book jacket copy on the new novel, the publisher did accompany review copies with a press release spelling out the joint authorship.

The upshot? Since the publication of “Just Enough Light to Kill” in June, the Maxwells have been featured (with two other couples) in a USA Today article on husband-and-wife writing teams and in two regional magazines. Most recently, they appeared on the “Midmorning LA” television show.

Neither Ann nor Evan Maxwell has ever had any qualms about writing under the singular A.E. Maxwell pseudonym. In addition to the four published Fiddler novels, they have used it on one nonfiction book and three other novels they have co-written since 1976.

They believe a double byline on a book is a put-off for many readers.

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“I have seen too many books that had a double byline on the front and it reads like it,” said Ann Maxwell, 44.

In the Maxwells’ case, the Fiddler books are relatively seamless: There’s no telling where Ann begins and Evan leaves off.

“Most of the people who read one of the Fiddlers say, ‘Oh, I know that must have been Ann’s,’ (and) are wrong,” Ann Maxwell said. “I am far more pragmatic than the stereotype of the sex permits. So most people are surprised to know I’m--especially fictionally--quite ruthless in getting from Point A to Point B, whereas Evan has an enjoyment of the senses that is not a part of the male stereotype.”

The Maxwells, who have two college-age children, work in separate offices in their home. (“The reason we have separate offices is our musical tastes don’t match much and we both like to write with music on,” Ann Maxwell said, laughing.)

The couple, who have been married 21 years, follow the same pattern for writing each Fiddler novel.

They begin by sitting down and discussing the characters and the backdrop. In their next Fiddler, tentatively titled “The Art of Survival,” the backdrop will be the Southwestern art gallery circuit that spans Santa Fe, Palm Springs, Beverly Hills and Newport Beach. Their next step is to do a rough plot synopsis. Evan Maxwell then does a first draft on his personal computer. Ann Maxwell said her husband is better at process (how things really happen): how the art circuit works, how police use and abuse information, and how high culture and low life interact.

Ann then takes the floppy disc of Evan’s first draft and does her draft over Evan’s. (“I’m better on characters, emotions and pacing,” she said.) Evan then reads Ann’s version, paying particular attention to the male first-person voice of Fiddler.

“If I have changed anything he feels is not right for a male voice, he’ll change it back,” Ann Maxwell said. “I’ll probably run it through my machine one more time. By then I’ve had a two-week break and I’m essentially just reading it: It’s strictly polish.

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“The writing partnership is a good collaboration for the same reason the marriage works: which is two people who can stand alone choosing to stand together,” said Ann Maxwell, who has also written nine science-fiction novels under her own name in addition to 16 romance novels and one intrigue under the name Elizabeth Lowell.

Evan Maxwell said that as the series has evolved, Fiddler’s ex-wife “and still frequent lover,” Fiora, has become a much more potent force in the stories. “Fiora is very much a modern woman: very self-sufficient and independent. She has a Harvard education. She’s on the fast track in the business world. She’s a very tough, astute individual. The relationship between Fiddler and Fiora is a very contemporary one filled with contemporary problems.”

Evan Mawell, a longtime Los Angeles Times reporter who quit the paper in 1984 to write fiction full time, believes the joint authorship makes the Fiddler-Fiora relationship much more plausible to the reader.

“As Fiora says halfway through ‘Just Enough Light to Kill’ as Fiddler is trying to get her to stay out of the way while he goes off to do his manly thing, ‘I just don’t do bimbos.’ ”

“That,” he added with a laugh, “is one of Ann’s favorite lines.”

The fifth A.E. Maxwell Fiddler novel will be published next May--with the book jacket biography explaining the joint authorship.

“I think,” Ann Maxwell said, “people will be attracted to a book that has a wider world in it than just one point of view from one sex.”

Books & Authors runs every other Saturday in Orange County Life.


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