The End of a Series

Elaine Viets as Death Investigator

In April of 2007, Elaine Viet’s writing career was about to take off. She had over a dozen books in print from the Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper series, the Dead-end job series, and the Francesca Vierling series. Her Murder with Reservations, a Dead-End Job Mystery, was about to come out in hardback, her second hardback book. And Elaine was on her way to the Malice Domestic Conference where she was Toastmaster. She’d been attending Malice for years and was really looking forward to it.

But before she could leave, she had a series of strokes, which she experienced as days of intense headaches. She went to a doctor but her assured her she was too young and fit to be having strokes. She still wanted to go to Malice, but when she asked her husband what a fork was for he took her to the hospital. One doctor told him that she would be dead by morning. But another doctor put her into a chemical coma for three weeks. That saved her, but her complete recovery took years.

Her friends at Malice didn’t forget about her. They took copies of her book and took it on the road with them, promoting it over their own books. They made group phone calls to her. They competed over who could send her the funniest, and the raunchiest, cards. Viets has kept all the cards in a suitcase, because, “everyone should have a suitcase filled with good wishes.”

There were days during her recovery that she couldn’t get anything done. Days with brain fog. She had to learn to do everything over again, how to sit, how to walk, how to throw a ball. Everything.

Through it all, she kept writing the humorous mystery books: nine more Dead-End Job books, seven more Mystery Shopper books, and a book of short stories. She went back to the Malice Domestic conference and in 2017 was the Guest of Honor

But her thinking had changed. Her outlook on life was darker. “I guess because I was darker.” She’d taken a death investigator course when she first started writing mysteries, and now decided to take it again, to brush up. “That was good, because a lot of procedures have changed.”

The profession of Death Investigators was invented in her hometown of St. Louis in 1978. “There weren’t enough pathologists to go out on cases, so they came up with the idea to use people who weren’t doctors, and started a training program. Then is spread all over the U.S.” This is when I first met Elaine: we were both members of the Florida chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, and Elaine gave an unforgettable presentation on what the job of a death investigator consisted of.

The year after she took the course for the second time, she started writing her Death Investigator character, Angela Richman. “It took me six years after the strokes, because I couldn’t bring myself to revisit all of that again,” Viets said. Her first book featuring Angela Richman was Brainstorm. In it Angela suffers a similar series of strokes as Elaine did. But unlike Elaine, Angela has to solve a murder in the middle of her illness. She sold two books and then another two. In the end the series came to eight novels and a novella.

Brainstorm

BRAINSTORM

The doctor who nearly killed Angela Richman was buried today, and the Missouri medical establishment turned out to honor him.

Once of my favorite opening sentences ever. Brain Storm, published just last year, was the first in Viet's death investigator series.

A death investigator looks into any death that falls under the jurisdiction of the medical examiner or coroner, including all suspicious, violent, unexplained and unexpected deaths. The death investigator is responsible for the dead person, while law enforcement is responsible for the scene. It's a strange job: there aren't clear-cut training requirements (what's expected of job applicants varies by state and even county), but the death investigator is required to have a wide breadth of medical and legal knowledge.

Viets has taken the Medicolegal Death Investigators Training Course for forensic professionals, given by St. Louis University's School of Medicine. She's originally from Saint Louis, which is where the Angela Richman death investigator series are set. Brain Storm puts her insider knowledge to good use, as the murders Richman investigates highlight the contrast in rights, privileges, and respect allotted to Chouteau Forest long-standing aristocracy and the newly arriveds and working class (Richman hails from the latter).

Richman's investigations focus on two deaths, one, the murder of the doctor, a man well-connected with the town's elite, who mis-diagnosed her own life-threatening strokes. The other the death of a teenager in a car accident where alcohol, drugs, and texting were involved. Angela also helps her friend Katie investigate a series of "Angel of Death" killings in the hospital.

This first book is Angela Richman's 'creation story' — the story that shows us how she became the death investigator we will follow throughout the series. It's written in a non-linear way, and Angela herself is an unreliable narrator, because of her strokes; she can never really be sure if something she remembers is a hallucination or not.

Cover for Fire and Ashes

FIRE AND ASHES

The second book, FIRE AND ASHES, puts us in different territory. Richman has recovered and is back to work. There's an arsonist lighting fires all over town. And the town's richest financier, a man who became wealthy off the backs of the working poor, has been murdered. Accusing fingers all over town point at his foreign trophy-fiancée, but Richman isn't so sure. 

 

Ice Blonde cover

ICE BLONDE

Viets followed up Fire and Ashes with the novella, Ice Blonde, a compact and wonderful story about an elite teenager who goes missing in the freezing cold right after a party.

I consider Ice Blonde an excellent mentor-text for mystery writers. You can read my breakdown of the book’s perfection here. https://alisonmcmahan.com/news/mentor-text-ice-blonde-elaine-viets

A STAR IS DEAD

One of the great pleasures of the Angela Richman series is how Angela's relationships with her colleagues and friends develop. Mario in A Star is Dead is actually her hairdresser as well as her friend.

“Ageless” Hollywood diva Jessica Gray is finishing the last leg of her one-woman show in St Louis, Missouri, and the nearby town of Chouteau Forest is dazzled. During the show she humiliates three homeless women onstage, fires her entourage – not for the first time – and makes a bitter enemy of the town’s powerful patriarch.

After she collapses at an after-show party and is rushed to the hospital, she ignores the advice of her doctors and discharges herself in order to return to LA. On the way to the airport she suffers a deadly coughing fit. It was poison. When Angela Richman’s friend, Mario, is arrested for the murder and faces the death penalty, she is compelled to investigate.

With so many grudges held against the actress and Mario’s life on the line, the stakes are higher than ever.

Death Grip Cover

DEATH GRIP

The next novel features another murdered teenager, this one a track star found in a muddy creek on a perfect spring day.

Terri Gibbons, the popular Forest High track star who went missing eight months ago, has been found strangled. Could a message found in Terri's shoe hold the key to catching her killer? Chouteau Forest is a town of privilege and secrets, where everyone has something to hide . . . Can Angela overcome the many obstacles in her way to see justice served when the Forest's wealthy residents will go to any lengths to prevent the truth being revealed?

Life Without Parole Cover

 

LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE

In this book Angela’s colleague Detective Jace Budewitz develops a real obsession that complicates their investigation:


Chouteau Forest’s wealthy are being targeted by the Ghost Burglars, who’ve carried out twelve burglaries over two weeks. So far, there’s been no bloodshed . . . until Tom Lockridge is brutally slain inside his marble mansion during the latest raid.

Angela Richman, death investigator for Chouteau County, is called to assess the scene and the body by Detective Jace Budewitz. As they investigate, Jace becomes obsessed with proving the Ghost Burglars weren’t involved in the murder.

Can the burglars be ruled out so easily? Is there more to Cynthia Lockridge, Tom’s wife, seeking solace in the arms of the ambitious local lawyer Wesley Desloge? What about Tom’s long-suffering daughter, or his loose-lipped housekeeper or office manager? Everyone is keeping secrets, but whose erupted into violence that fateful night?

Late for his Own Funeral Cover

LATE FOR HIS OWN FUNERAL

You can’t beat the setup for Late for his Own Funeral: a garish, closed-casket funeral for a man who died in a car crash. The preacher preaches. The golden casket gleams. The mourners mourn.

And then the dead man walks in!

All of Elaine’s setups are priceless. When Elaine first told me the setup for this book I couldn’t wait to read it, and it does not disappoint – starting with that golden coffin!

 

The Dead of Night Cover

THE DEAD OF NIGHT

The Dead of Night, has another great opening: two privileged young people have won the chance to spend Halloween night in a cursed crypt. They are locked in securely. The next morning, when the only entrance to the crypt is opened, they are found dead. A locked room mystery in a crypt. This Angela book stood out for me because more of it took place in St. Louis than in Chouteau forest.

A SCARLET DEATH

The last book of the series, A Scarlet Death, start with the death of a wealthy pillar of the community, who is found strangled on satin bedsheets in his love nest over The Chouteau Forest Chocolate Shoppe, a red-letter A stapled to his chest. Angela’s investigation leads her to discover “sugar babies,” young women and girls who sell themselves to “Sugar Daddies” like the murdered man.

This horrible practice is in sharp contrast to Angela’s own developing love story. I won’t say much about it here; read the books for yourself and enjoy it!

Elaine has won Anthony, Agatha, and Lefty awards. She returned to Malice this year for a well-earned Lifetime Achievement Award. Though she’s brought the Angela Richman series to a happy ending, she is not done writing.

 

A Scarlet Death

After eight “Dark Mysteries,” as Elaine calls the Angela Richman books, she is returning to a Florida setting and to Funny.

“The strokes have been a major influence on my life, for good and bad,” says Elaine. “What really made a huge difference was all the people who helped me, my extremely patient husband, my friends who sold my books, my other friends not in the mystery world who gave me encouragement. Recovering from something like this is a group effort and I was lucky to have a good group. What I went through hasn’t darkened my view of the world long term.”

Elaine writes ‘mysteries for every mood.’ Treat yourself to one today!