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Sisters in Crime : Women Mystery Writers, Fans Uncover Clues of Feminine Influence in Cloak and Dagger at West Hollywood Meetings

Times Staff Writer

They call themselves Sisters in Crime, but the dozen women gathered in a West Hollywood bookshop weren’t up to anything more nefarious than promoting the interests of women mystery writers.

The national Sisters in Crime organization was founded three years ago by Sara Paretsky, a successful Chicago-based writer of hard-boiled mysteries. Although women have written some of the greatest mysteries of all time, Paretsky and others believed women mystery writers were being given short shrift, particularly by reviewers for influential publications that have a major impact on sales. The women were also distressed at the violence against women that is a staple of crime stories.

The local group was organized last fall and has about 20 members, its president, Phyllis Zembler Miller, said. Unlike Mystery Writers of America, which limits its regular membership to published writers, Sisters in Crime is open to anyone. As a result, the Los Angeles chapter includes women who have published mysteries, women (including Miller) who want to, booksellers, book reviewers, fans, even men.

Since April the group has been meeting on the first Sunday of the month amid the 25,000 volumes at the Mysterious Bookshop West, 8763 Beverly Blvd. A replica of the Maltese Falcon statuette broods over their gatherings.

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‘Fraternity of Writers’

Member Elizabeth Ward drove up from Newport Beach to attend. “I just wanted to be with a fraternity of writers,” Ward said. “Writing is such an isolated thing.” Ward is the author of three mysteries, the most recent “A Nice Little Beach Town,” published by St. Martins.

The nice little beach town in question is very like Newport Beach, she acknowledged. “I’ve called it a different name so nobody will be hurt, but everyone will recognize it.” In addition to Ward’s book, the shop had copies of a mystery set in another nice little beach town, Michael Katz’s “Last Dance in Redondo Beach.”

Susan Goldstein, a family-law attorney who lives in Hollywood, said she joined because “I have a desire and a need to be around other people who are knowledgeable about and enjoy mysteries. You find when you talk to people who don’t read mysteries, they tend to put them down as not serious literature--especially my boyfriend.”

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As Goldstein spoke, she clutched a prize--a slightly battered first American edition of “The Moonstone.” The Wilkie Collins book, published in 1868, is the first modern detective novel. Goldstein first read it as a child, and it turned her into an aficionado. Goldstein, who happily paid $100 for her treasure, said she has begun writing a mystery of her own, inspired in part by her job. “If you want to find the greatest stories of all time,” she said, “sit in my office for two hours.”

Wide Discussions

Carol Russell Law, who lives in Eagle Rock, is writing a mystery for children featuring a little girl sleuth named Holly Dean. “She has an older brother who is already a P.I.,” Law said. “She’s helping him, but she has all the ideas.” Law joined the group because “it is trying to right some wrongs, as it were, and because I believe in having women write about women.”

The members discuss everything from how to resolve a plot to how to find an agent, which can sometimes be the greater mystery. “It’s so important to have ‘sisters’ who can tell you honestly that something works or doesn’t work in a manuscript or in the publishing world in general,” said Miller, who has written but not yet published a mystery about “a mythical Beverly Hills community center.”

“It’s turned into a support group, a network,” said Wendy Nelson Hornsby, whose second novel, “Half a Mind,” will soon be published by New American Library. Like her first mystery, “No Harm” (which is being reissued in paperback), the new book has a female protagonist named Kate Teague--heroines don’t have names like Wendy, Hornsby said. “She’s a schoolteacher just like me, except she’s richer than I am, taller than I am and thinner than I am.”

Hornsby, who teaches history at Long Beach City College, said the group helps her stay in touch with the far-flung community of mystery writers in the area. “I live in Long Beach. Nobody lives in Long Beach.”

Sought by Collectors

At their meeting Sunday, the sisters heard a talk on collecting mysteries by John Mitchell, who sells used and rare mysteries at his shop in Pasadena. Mitchell said New Mexico writer Tony Hillerman and Sue Grafton, who lives and works in Santa Barbara, are the two contemporary writers most sought by his collectors. He pointed out that a first edition of Grafton’s first Kinsey Millhone mystery, “ ‘A’ Is for Alibi,” published only seven years ago, recently sold for $250. Sheldon MacArthur, who manages the Mysterious Bookshop West, sold the book to one of his collectors, a woman.

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Bookseller Terry Baker, who runs a mystery annex at Small World Books in Venice, is also active in the group.

The sisters take no vow to write only about women. Member Gerry Maddren recently sent the manuscript of “Murder Though It Have No Tongue” off to her agent. The novel features a mother-daughter detective team, with offices in Burbank, where Maddren lives. But she is also at work on a sequel to her first mystery, “The Case of the Johannisberg Riesling,” published by Cliffhanger Press. The book-in-progress, called “The Case of the Cabernet Crossing,” has a male protagonist, a sleuth named Jerry Cool, who, after a wild night in California wine country recounted in the first book, woke up with a hangover and purple feet.

In the course of the evening “Sue Grafton” begins to sound like a ritual incantation. Grafton’s success is the stuff that sisters’ dreams are made of. One who dreams is Kathleen Dougherty, who lives in El Toro and is trying to place a suspense book called “Flashpoint.” So far, she has had only rejections but, she said, “my agent says these are great rejections. They don’t say, ‘Under no circumstance send the work of this writer to us or we’ll never deal with you again.’ ”


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