Dead Write: Vassar Murder Mystery Writers

By Jorge Ribeiro '75

Murder has come a long way at Vassar, from unmentionable to acceptable. Patricia Houck Sprinkle '65, for example, had to read Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers secretly in school and only many years later, realized that they were "scholarly, erudite, brilliant women who wrote mysteries." The Vassar English department "was very elitist," she recalls. "The only literature worth writing was poetry, short stories, and novels to rival James Joyce." By the time Greg Rucka '91 graduated, in contrast, he could tell his adviser that he planned to write mysteries and not be laughed at - though he was advised to "stick to the basics of writing." The trend is noticeable: In the last dozen years, starting with Elizabeth Atwood Taylor '57 and her Murder at Vassar in 1987, Vassar graduates have been turning to murder for fun and profit at an increasing rate.

Vassar's mystery writers cover the gamut in the field, from what are called "cozies" in the trade - puzzles that feature an amateur sleuth and go light on the sex and violence - to hard-core realism. Both Marianne Wesson '70, a Boulder, Colorado-based law professor, and Linda Fairstein '69, a prosecutor who heads the New York City sex crimes unit, used real life experiences as springboards for their writing. All think their Vassar days contributed to their writing success and most put those days directly into their books.

Elizabeth Daniels Squire '47
Elizabeth Daniels Squire '47
"You can write about anything in a mystery," says Elizabeth Daniels Squire '47 (pictured left), explaining the genre's recent appeal. Dyslexic herself, before people used or understood the term, Ms. Squire created an amateur sleuth with a learning problem - Peaches Dann, who is perennially writing a book called How to Survive without a Memory. The theme has hit a chord with readers, many of whom have sent her their memory tricks. A journalist before she turned to mysteries, Squire used knowledge about home renovations and Salvador Dali's palm print gleaned from her nonfiction work and the memory tricks sent to her by her readers as important keys in her mysteries.

"A mystery is like a sonnet," says Squire. "It has a form. People say, 'oh, you must be such a great plotter,' when actually, it is the other way around. The mystery gives you the plot."

Rucka agrees in essence, but takes it farther. "Genre writing can be as good as Hemingway and Faulkner," he says, but quickly notes "There's a lot of garbage out there, too."

Greg Rucka '91
Greg Rucka '91
Rucka (pictured right) tried getting into Vassar's creative writing seminar for three years, finally making it as a senior. Then he got a long list of things he needed to work on from the instructor and called his father to complain. "Is the instructor right?" his father asked in the middle of his tirade. Rucka admitted he was, and his father suggested he get to work.

"I didn't plan on being a writer when I started Vassar," Rucka recalls, an experience true of virtually all the Vassar mystery writers, "but by my senior year realized that's what I'd been doing all along."

Success came quickly. In 1993, Rucka borrowed money to attend his first Bouchercon, the annual mystery writer and fan convention, in Seattle. His editor opened her hotel door and looked at him in surprise.

"Oh, my god! You really are twenty-three!"

Now thirty, Rucka has written four books featuring Atticus Kodiak, professional bodyguard, a series that features simple prose and stark realism.


The other Vassar mystery writers took a little longer realizing that writing mysteries was what they wanted to do. Nancy Means Wright '48 actually wrote her first mystery in the fourth grade, a time when she was reading a lot of Nancy Drew. But it featured the kidnapping of an older brother and her horrified mother threw it away. She majored in English at Vassar and, because a creative thesis wasn't allowed then, did one on Virginia Woolf. Trying to write the next great American novel, she wrote poetry, a mainstream novel, and a teen novel before finally hitting on the mystery. The mother of four children and now in her second marriage, Wright writes about a single mother who is a dairy farmer in

Vermont as well as an amateur sleuth, about as far from Vassar as one can get perhaps. Yet she admits that there's a college in the books that's a loose combination of Middlebury College and Vassar.

Patricia Houck Sprinkle majored in creative writing at Vassar and spent a year after graduating in the Scottish Highlands, writing every day. She published her first poem, first short story, first article and a short play, and never stopped writing. Mysteries were a source of relaxation - until one day her husband looked at their budget and said, "Why don't you write a mystery to pay for some of the ones you buy?"

"I discovered I had, for years, unconsciously been filling a file called 'Mystery Ideas,' " Sprinkle says. "Once I began, I knew this was one of the things I wanted to do." She writes a series based in the South featuring amateur sleuth Sheila Travis.


Marianne Wesson '70
Marianne Wesson '70
Marianne "Mimi" Wesson (pictured left), a member of the faculty of the University of Colorado Law School since 1976, had "always" written, but her writing was academic and legal. Then she represented a California death row inmate who had been convicted of sex crimes. Trying to put his story together, she wrote out a short manuscript that was very much like a short story. When she showed it to a few people, they urged her to write more. A nonfiction device to clarify a case thus ultimately led to a work of fiction - Render up the Body - that astonished her by how quickly it was accepted by both an agent and a publishing house.

Wesson lived in Jewett at Vassar, where she knew Linda Fairstein '69 (pictured below right), the high-profile prosecutor who now has three books to her credit. Fairstein majored in English literature at Vassar but went from there to law school. The urge to write was never left behind, however. Asked to write a nonfiction book about her work, Fairstein instead used it as an opportunity to do what she had always wanted to do: write fiction. Her latest book, Cold Hit, has garnered rave reviews.

Linda Fairstein '69
Linda Fairstein '69
Neither Wesson nor Fairstein left Vassar out of their books. Fairstein named a character after her a roommate but made her protagonist a Wellesley grad because "my class was the class of '69, the last all women's class at Vassar," Fairstein says. "I felt very strongly that my success in law was due to the single sex education I had received at Vassar, so I switched my character to Wellesley because I wanted her to have that same single sex education."

Wesson keeps her Vassar a little closer.

Wesson's protagonist is a Vassar grad who fondly remembers her Vassar days, and Wesson has used her old roommate as a loose model for another character. Wesson also sums up the connection between her writing and her Vassar experience most clearly, in a way with which all the writers would agree:

"I think my Vassar education is woven into every fiber of my life, professional and personal, so it is very hard to talk about specific examples. Vassar gave me a reverence for the written word in reading and writing, and yet also gave me an irreverence for the perceived wisdom of what kinds of writing are worthwhile and what kinds are not."

This reverence for the written word is what propels these writers, although along the way there are other rewards. "I don't solve social problems in my books,"says Squire. "I thought I was just writing mysteries for fun." But she has been invited to speak before learning disabilities and dyslexics groups, which she found immensely rewarding. That sums it up for these writers: they write because it's fun and they revere the written word.

Any other rewards are just icing on the cake. ·

Jorge Ribeiro is a freelance writer and budding mystery writer in Southern California.