Friday, August 15, 2008

Desperately Seeking

Peggy Ehrhart is a former English professor who now writes mysteries and plays blues guitar. Sweet Man Is Gone, featuring sexy blues-singer sleuth Maxx Maxwell, is just out from Five Star/Gale/Cengage. Visit her at .

Agatha Christie was in her thirties when she hatched Miss Marple. But other than Christie, I doubt whether any female mystery writer has created a female sleuth who is older than the writer herself. My sleuth is thinner, blonder, and younger than I am, and I like it that way.

Sure, writing can be an exercise in vicarious living--and genre fiction more than most. Robin Hathaway once said that she loves writing her Jo Banks novels because when else can she be a thirty-something again, and a motorcycle-rider at that?

My sleuth, Maxx Maxwell, is a thirty-five-year old singer in a blues band. She lives in a funky apartment in Hackensack, New Jersey, modeled on my first apartment, one room and a kitchen in San Francisco. She rehearses and plays gigs with her band in scruffy rehearsal studios and sleazy bars in New York City. And she has a hopeless weakness for guitar players, especially her unfaithful ex, Sandy.

I wouldn’t trade my comfortable house in suburban New Jersey or my sweet, loyal husband for anything--not even to be thirty-five again. And I certainly wouldn’t want to be the broken-hearted relic of a failed romance. So what, aside from the vicarious thrill of feeling young again, leads us to lop decades off the ages of our sleuths?

Young people are at a stage of life when the big questions are still to be answered, the questions about love and work, and the all-important “Who am I?” Questions like this can provide rich and interesting subplots in our stories--and even explain how our sleuths happen to find themselves in crime-solving situations in the first place.

One of my favorite movies of all time is Desperately Seeking Susan. I think I had it in mind subliminally as I wrote Sweet Man Is Gone.

The NPR program “What’s the Word?” featured an interesting commentary on Desperately Seeking Susan the other night. The speaker, a professor of film studies, pointed to the contrasting worlds in the film: stodgy northern New Jersey and hip lower Manhattan. And she saw desperation as a key theme. But, she said, there’s desperation and then there’s desperation. The desperation of the Rosanna Arquette character, the New Jersey housewife, was the desperation that comes from fearing one has made all the choices one is going to make in life. The result might be settled middle-class comfort, but if something seems missing, it may be too late to rectify the lack.

The desperation experienced by the young is a different kind, no less painful, in fact maybe more so. It’s the desperation of knowing one is in the very act of making the choices that will shape one’s future, the sense that one is standing at a crossroads; once one path is chosen the other will forever be left behind. Sometimes the necessity of making crucial choices like this results in paralysis--or a frantic and even self-destructive lifestyle designed to distract one from the ever-present nagging voice that demands commitment to something.

But all this is great fodder for the novelist--and a good reason to ignore the passing of time and keep one’s sleuth young forever.

Peggy Ehrhart


  1. Hi Peggy,

    I am reading Sweet Man Is Gone now and enjoying it very much!

    I love Maxx's picture that accompanies this post.


  2. Hey, Peggy: Thanks for blogging with us today! Question: How did you get that photo of my legs to use on the cover of "Sweet Man"? :-) Maggie

  3. Thanks very much for hosting my guest blog!
    Yes, the legs. . .
    I waited three days to actually see that cover, dying all the while because I'd heard horror stories about people ending up with covers that didn't suit their projects. The press sent me an email with an attachment containing the cover, but my computer couldn't deal with the attachment and my faithful hubby (Mr. Computer Fix-It) was on a business trip. He was able to open it at his hotel but not at long distance on my computer. So he described it . . . and he said it was nice. But I wasn't totally at peace till I had a print-out in front of me.
    Then I was convinced my mom wouldn't approve (she does) though my dad weighed in early, saying he thought it was great.