Rebecca Rothenberg; Writer of Mysteries


Rebecca Rothenberg, a researcher and musician who combined her love of plants and mystery stories to write a series of novels about a microbiologist sleuth in the San Joaquin Valley, has died. She was 50.

Rothenberg died Tuesday at St. Joseph's Hospital in Burbank of a brain tumor, her father, Herbert Rothenberg, said Thursday.

A native of upstate New York who was educated at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, Rothenberg began her eclectic career as an aspiring pop music songwriter in Nashville, and then moved to Los Angeles.

She later earned a degree in epidemiology and the sociology of medicine at UCLA and worked as an epidemiological computer programmer at USC, a freelance data analyst in public health, and a research assistant for an economist at Caltech. After her writing began to flourish, she worked for Caltech's public relations office.

But hiking in the San Gabriel Mountains and later in the Sierra, Rothenberg became fascinated with wildflowers that she found so beautiful that they "make you just fall down on the ground." At the same time, she became an avid reader of mysteries by such writers as Dashiell Hammett and Tony Hillerman.

Although Rothenberg never considered herself a writer, she gradually molded what she called her "constellation of obsessions"--California agriculture, minority relations, native plants, biology and mysteries--into a novel, "The Bulrush Murders."

The 1991 book features an MIT-trained microbiologist, Claire Sharples, who moves to the San Joaquin Valley as an agricultural researcher. The protagonist begins her crime-solving adventures after discovering a key botanical clue--bulrush fibers entwined in the spokes of a Latino murder victim's motorcycle.

She chose bulrushes, Rothenberg told The Times in 1992, because "I've never seen anything like them. They're not like East Coast marsh plants. They're a lot more impressive. And I like it also because of the association with Moses," who was hidden as an infant in bulrushes.

When it was published, Times critic Charles Champlin called the novel "a tense and unhackneyed story," rated the book one of the top 10 mysteries of the year and described Rothenberg as "a skilled and notably individual new voice in the mystery field."

Describing the heroine's romantic relationship, Champlin added: "At darker levels, racial tensions, family strife, multiple levels of greed, and hatreds dating from Vietnam days add urgency to Rothenberg's intricate and action-rich plot."

The 1991 book was nominated for the Agatha and the Anthony awards for best first mystery novel.

Using Sharples as her continuing protagonist, Rothenberg also published "The Dandelion Murders" in 1994 and "The Shy Tulip Murders" in 1996.

Her agent, Sandra Dijkstra, said Thursday that Rothenberg was working on a fourth novel when her illness overcame her.

Rothenberg was president of the San Gabriel Mountains chapter of the California Native Plant Society.

In addition to her father and mother, Marjorie, of Great Falls, Va., Rothenberg is survived by two sisters, Martha Rothenberg and Louise "Tish" King.

The family has asked that memorial contributions be made to the San Gabriel Mountains chapter of the California Native Plant Society, 1750 N. Altadena Drive, Pasadena, CA 91107.

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