She Shall Have Murder
By Kevin Burton Smith

August 2003 - I recently caught up with the elusive D.L. Browne (AKA Diana Killian, Louise Harris, etc.), to ask her about High Rhymes and Misdemeanors, her upcoming novel from Pocket Books. Tracking down the alias-ridden writer turned out to be easier than I suspected, though – she was right there on the living room couch.

Kevin: High Rhymes and Misdemeanors is being published under the nom de plume Diana Killian, and I know you've published under other names as well. What's with all these pseudonyms? You trying to hide something?

D.L.: Nope. I just think it helps readers know what sort of book to expect. As Diana Killian, I write romantic suspense; as D.L. Browne I write poetry and the Mary Kelly detective stories. Also, it helps keep me straight on what I'm doing, which always helps.

Kevin: Why crime? Why murder?

D.L.: Um, because it's the most exciting, most emotional thing a human being can do to another human being? Seriously, the thing about death--murder--is that there's no going back, no retakes – it's final. Murder packs a dramatic punch other crimes can't touch.

Kevin: You mean writing about it, right?

D.L.: Suuuuuuure, whatever...

Kevin: Yikes! So High Rhymes and Misdemeanors isn't your first book to be published?

D.L.: No, but I guess it's the first traditionally published, uh, mainstream novel I've had published in a while – or at least that I will confess to. My first novel, Love's Good Fortune, was published by Harlequin. I've also self-published a couple of novels and two anthologies, so actually, High Rhymes is my eighth book to see print. But who's counting?

Kevin: Uh-huh. Moving right along, then, most of these have been mysteries? Romance?

D.L.: I have eclectic tastes, though I always seem to circle back to murder. Diana Killian's first novel, The Art of Dying, was about a Christian painter who does a good deed and lands in a murder investigation. And I wrote a romance for Harlequin back when I was just out of college. And I've co-edited and contributed to a short story anthology, Down These Wicked Streets, a collection of private eye stories with YOU, MR. SMITH!

Kevin: Well, it's about time you mentioned me!

D.L.: Actually, that collection featured one of my favourite short stories. With a character I'd like to continue with, someday.

Kevin: Well, that's quite a body of work for someone so young.

D.L.: Gosh, thank you, you're really my favourite interviewer. I guess you don't have to sleep on the couch tonight.

Kevin: Well, how old were you when your first story was published?

D.L.: I was nine, okay? I printed it out on my little linograph machine and cradled it tight in my purple ink-stained fingers. But, alas, I was far too young for all that success!

Kevin: So what's the scoop on this latest series with Pocket Books?

D.L.: Well, the Poetic Death series gives me a chance to use a lot of elements that I love-- stuff that is currently out of fashion (like, who decides this stuff anyway?). Secret passages, spooky old houses, weirdo servants – the sort of stuff from books and movies I loved when I was a kid.

Like those old Nancy Drew books? I always adored the titles – you know, The Secret of the Old Clock, The Hidden Staircase, The Sign of the Twisted Candles, the titles were so...enticing. Frankly, I was usually mildly disappointed by the books -- the titles promised more than the books delivered. And I loved those old Sherlock Holmes movies, with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. And even some of the old Bob Hope and Abbott and Costello movies like My Favorite Brunette, Ghost Breakers or Hold That Ghost.

Kevin: So it's almost the trapping of mysteries, more than the mysteries themselves, that you enjoyed?

D.L.: I wouldn't say that. Or would I? I hope I've constructed a reasonably tight mystery, but yes, I'm a sucker for the trappings. Give me a secret passage or a Hound from Hell, and I'm happy.

Kevin: But you're not just bringing readers into a fantasy world of mystery here, you're also hauling them off to England's Lake district, aren't you?

D.L.: That's part of the whole fantasy, I think. The Lake District is simply one of the most romantic places on earth. It's the quintessential England of us (we?) American's collective fantasy, the England we all imagine –quaint little villages, unspoiled calendar-like scenery, traffic- free country lanes, eccentric characters, pints of ale in cozy pubs where you can always find a seat – the things we see in movies and read in books, but that don't really exist anymore in modern day England. Grace herself jokes about watching too much Masterpiece Theatre.

Kevin: Who's Grace?

D.L.: Grace Hollister is the heroine of High Rhymes. She's a thirty-something American high school teacher. She's very, well, not narrow-minded, but let's say, strait-laced, the type of woman who's never turned in a video late in her life, never received a parking ticket, never had an overdue library book, never coloured outside the lines in her life. She thinks her she knows exactly where she's going.

Kevin: Her life is set?

D.L.: Yes.

Kevin: But?

D.L.: Yes. But. She's got this secret thing for Regency Romances. Her chosen field is Romantic Literature, and she's convinced herself hers is an intellectual passion; she's interested in Wordsworth and Southey, but the truth is, she has a real weakness for the "bad boy" romantic poets, Byron and Shelley and Keats.

Kevin: Is this a passion you share?

D.L.: Nah, they're all losers! HAHAHA! Well, they certainly had the most interesting lives. And I must admit I do have a taste for bad boys myself. As perhaps you've noticed.

Actually, I think most women have a little bit of a thing for bad boys, and hopefully will identify with Grace.

Kevin: So, Grace is an American high school teacher?

D.L.: Yep.

Kevin: As were you.

D.L.: Yes, but Grace works at St. Anne's in Los Angeles, a very posh private school for girls, whereas I worked in the public school sector, which is, I think, a much more challenging, and a certainly less sheltered, proposition. Grace, for example, probably never felt the need to carry firearms.

Kevin: I understand romance also rears its ugly little head?

D.L.: Yes, because in the course of her adventures, prim and proper Grace becomes involved with -- of all things – this very dashing, very mysterious ex-jewel thief, (a modern day bad boy) and he's probably the antithesis of everything that Grace would envision in a spouse.

Kevin: But isn't Grace engaged at the time, to someone back in the States?

D.L.: Not engaged but definitely in a relationship, a comfortable, well organized, rational relationship with a math professor at St. Anne's. A relationship with about zero passion. Not that Grace even notices -- her emotional life is almost totally sublimated to her academic life. Real-life romance and passion are just not things she really thinks about.

Which is why, when she actually meets Peter, a man who could have stepped out of one of these romantic novels, it just sort of blows her away. And its not a sensation she particularly enjoys.

Kevin: So you envision this as a series?

D.L.: You know, I didn't originally see this as a series at all – it was just a novel I had started maybe ten years ago, and then tossed in a drawer. But I was interested in getting an agent for what we used to call romantic suspense (now days we have no idea what to call it, but it still sells well), so I pulled what was then called Dangerous to Know out of a drawer -- it was about half-finished -- and I thought, "Boy, this isn't too bad, after all," and I sent it to the agent, she liked it, she shipped it out, and Pocket snapped it right up.

But they were interested in a series, which made for a challenge because for me, the story ended with the last page of the book, with Grace at an emotional and personal crossroads, the question of whether she would remain in England or return to her old life hovering over her.

Kevin: So, the second book in the Poetic Death series is already written?

D.L.: Yes, I've turned in the first draft on the second book, Verse of the Vampyre.

Kevin: Also known as Gracie the Vampire Slayer?

D.L.: It has a ring to it, doesn't it? But no. Though vampire fiction certainly plays a role in it.

Kevin: Why do you call it the Poetic Death series?

D.L.: Oh, that's because each book somehow involves one of the major Romantic poets or writers. In fact, each book starts with the death of one of them – in High Rhymes and Misdemeanors, it's Lord Byron, in Verse of the Vampyre it's Polidori; the next one will be Shelley.

Kevin: You've mentioned movies as being quite an influence on you – what about crime fiction? Do you read mysteries yourself?

D.L.: Yes. In fact, I read and review a lot of contemporary mysteries for I Love a Mystery, an online e-zine/review site. I enjoy that, but my real passion is for the crime fiction written in the thirties and forties, especially that written by women, writers like Lenore Glen Offord, Leslie Ford, Mabel Seeley, and even some of the later writers, Mary Stewart is certainly one of my idols. That's the kind of fiction I want to write.

I think though, there's perhaps a more contemporary tone, a more smart-alecky tone to my fiction – I am a modern girl, after all. Although if you read the classic crime fiction of the thirties and forties – what I like to call Chick Fic – people like the Little Sisters, for example, there was definitely a lot of attitude there, a sort of freshness, complete with smart-mouthed heroines. I think a lot of writers kid themselves that the wise-cracking, self-reliant heroine is some sort of new invention, but the truth is that women writers were doing it way back in the thirties and forties.

In fact, I'm doing a series of essays on my web site about the writers of the thirties and forties who most inspired me. I called that section Chick Fic. I've only scratched the surface, but it's an ongoing project.

Kevin: That isn't the only treat for visitors to your web site, though. I understand you also write a series set in the 1930s.

D.L.: I was actually born in the 1930s! I'm just very well preserved! HAHAHAHA!

Yes, the Mary Kelly series. So far, I've done a short story, and I'm currently doing an online serial. Mary's a young woman in the thirties, a female operative in a small detective agency in Los Angeles. She's struggling to find her footing in a man's world, and she's also an aspiring pulp writer. She's a big admirer of Hammett and Chandler, and while she's writing, she's also having her own little adventures in detection.

Kevin: You're also very involved in an online writing community.

D.L.: I actually run an online writing community called Wicked Company. That began when I made my first foray into self-publishing, and established a discussion/support group for self-publishers.

It's been going for three or so years now, and we've evolved far beyond self-publishing into a more general writers' group that focuses on all aspects of crime fiction. We're a real mix of personalities with a variety of experiences and abilities. It's become a real community, and mostly it's fun. We all learn from each other.

Kevin: Have you always wanted to be a writer?

D.L.: Yes, in fact, the earliest memories my sisters Pam and Laura have of me is of all of us colouring, and me making up stories, elaborate stories of what we were drawing.

Kevin: Where do you think the story-telling came from?

D.L.: I think it's because of my parents – they read to us an awful lot. I think I was just a very imaginative child whose imagination was constantly fed by songs and books and television and movies – it was all just stories to me.

Kevin: I understand writing isn't your only creative endeavor?

D.L.: Yes, actually, I have been singing with my sisters since we were wee bairns.

Kevin: What sort of music do you sing?

D.L.: Celtic folk, I guess you'd call it. With a modern sensibility. Does that sound sufficiently self-important?

Kevin: You sing professionally?

D.L.: We surely do. Professionally we're known as The Browne Sisters and George Cavanaugh (It's a family affair -- George is our cousin).We've recorded five CDs, we're working on a sixth, we've played all sorts of national Celtic festivals, Highland Games, concerts, we're played on Celtic radio stations

In fact, in Verse of the Vampyre, Grace will travel to Scotland, which should be fun, because I grew up in a sort of Scottish-Californian tradition, which may sound surprising at first, until you live here a while, and see how large that community really is. We're able to play festivals all over the state. And actually, across the country – it's a very strong network. We grew up taking highland dancing, hung around pipe bands for years and years, sang old traditional Scottish ballads in the backseat on long drives

And interestingly enough, I have a female Scottish cat burglar character, Catriona Ruthven, who will appear in the third book. Grace sneeringly refers to her as "Catwoman," but I really like this character. Maybe I'll spin her off into her own series one of these days.

Kevin: Your parents sound like they were very supportive.

D.L.: They are. They're an interesting mix, actually, both quite creative people in their own right. Growing up, I remember them both doing all these art things, projects. I think my mom put a lot of her creative energy into nurturing a family, and my dad always wanted to be a writer himself, but he had a family to support so he taught school. I'm constantly nagging him to write more, and actually try to get something published. But yes, they were always supportive, and still are. Even when I bring home strange men from foreign lands

Kevin: Right. So, what was it like to serve time in a Turkish prison?

D.L.: You'll have to wait for the third book, A Docketful of Poesies.

Kevin: Did you really shoot a man in Jackson, just to watch him die?

D.L.: No, but the night's still young, Bucko...

And here's another interview with D.L, this one with Sisters-in-Crime.