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Interview with Mary Daheim

This author writes bed and breakfast-themed mysteries


It's safe to say Mary Daheim is one of the most prolific novelists writing today.

Since 1991, she has turned out almost 40 books -- an average of more than two per year. After writing a number of historical romances early in her career, she turned to mysteries and hasn't looked back. Currently, she has two active series -- the Bed and Breakfast Mystery Series and the Alpine Series, which is named after a former town in rural Washington.

Daheim's first mystery, Just Desserts, was published by Avon Books in 1991. To her knowledge, she was the first author to set a mystery in a bed and breakfast. "It was a sub-genre just waiting to happen," she said. There are several inn-based mystery series.

A third-generation native of Seattle, where she has lived all her life, Daheim has been married for 33 years and has three daughters. "I've lived in the same house since 1969," she said in a 1998 interview. "We're just kind of boring; we stay here and never leave."

Boring in real life? Perhaps, but not in paperback. One of her 1998 bed and breakfast mysteries, Wed and Buried, found protagonist Judith McMinigle Flynn's son Mike ready to be married. The Hillside Manor B&B is packed with relatives, but Judith's joy is disrupted when she sees a woman wearing a bridal gown tossed off the roof of a nearby hotel. (Sounds like another good reason to stay in a B&B to us.) Judith can't resist the opportunity to serve as an amateur sleuth, despite her policeman-husband's desire to the contrary.

Daheim was gracious enough to spend some time chatting with us about her work as a bed and breakfast mystery novelist.

Do you like to stay in B&Bs?

Yes. My husband and I stay in them, especially on short trips around the northwest. The Judith character is based on my cousin Judy, who does not run a B&B -- she's a nurse -- but she has all the requirements that a B&B owner ought to have and seemed like an ideal person for the kind of protagonist I wanted to create. Of course, the character then evolves as somebody else, but basically it's my cousin Judy. And she likes to stay at B&Bs, too.

Do you remember the first B&B you stayed in?

The very first one I think was in Victoria, British Columbia. Right on the water, it was wonderful. It had its own fireplace, and it was on the street facing the water with a wonderful view. A big old stone house. Because Victoria is all rock, a lot of the earlier homes there are stone.

Are a lot of the events in your mysteries -- other than the murders, I hope -- based on things that happened in your own life?

When you've lived 60 years, you run into just about everything in the world. So many characters in the bed and breakfast series are based on my relatives. Judith, for example, was indeed married to a 400-pound man who blew up at the age of 49 and left her a widow with a son named Mike. She went home to live with her mother, who is the basis for Gertrude. Those things have actually happened. If you've read some of the books, when the cousins are talking about things from the past, like the Christmas nostalgia in Nutty as a Fruitcake, just about all of that is real stuff. It's either stuff handed down to us as kids, or stuff that happened to us as kids.

Do people in the family mind that you've used their characterizations in the novels?

Well, most of them are dead now. Between when I started and now, so many of that generation have gone. There are only about two or three senior relatives left. But, no, they don't mind. They all have wonderful senses of humor and get a kick out of it. My cousin Judy loves it; she thinks it's great. Happily, nobody has complained.

When did you develop an interest in writing?

Even before I could write or read, I would draw pictures telling stories. I always wanted to tell stories. I was an only child, and kind of a sickly one at that, so I spent a lot of time at home in my little room. It sounds dreary, but it wasn't -- I loved it.

When I learned to read and write, I began to put words with the stories. Somewhere along the line, I was doing comic strip type things. I started doing narrative stuff when I was 9 or 10 and wrote my first mystery when I was about 11. I typed it on a steno pad -- my mother was a legal secretary -- and it was 30-odd pages long. I found it when I was cleaning out my folks' house after my mother died, and it actually had the elements. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end, a little romance, red herrings, suspects, all those things. I had read a lot of mystery, especially Mary Roberts Rinehart, so it seemed like a natural thing to do.

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