A corrupt scheme involving private prisons. Mortgage fraud. These are the latest current public controversies to serve as significant plot elements for the twisty whodunit featuring Jane Haddam’s Armenian-American detective, Gregor Demarkian, a brilliant retired FBI agent who now works as a consultant, in his 29th outing, Fighting Chance (Minotaur, Sept.)
Fighting Chance involves a corrupt judge who gives juveniles lengthy sentences in exchange for payoffs from the private company contracted to run Pennsylvania’s prisons—an obscenity borrowed directly from a 2009 federal investigation, which was the subject both of the documentary Kids For Cash, and William Ecenbarger’s Kids for Cash: Two Judges, Thousands of Children, and a $2.6 Million Kickback Scheme (The New Press, 2012).
A second storyline in Fighting Chance involves a neighbor of Gregor’s who’s been threatened with foreclosure despite never having had a mortgage on the property. This development allows Haddam to comment on the consequences of mortgages being bought and sold all over the country by entities having no connection at all to the property owner. During a frustrating encounter with a functionary at the Federal Reserve in Fighting Chance, Gregor vents his frustration at the mortgage mess. Says Haddam, “We have a young man who’s done that thing we’re always talking about, and played by all the rules. He’s never been late on a mortgage paper in his life. He hasn’t dealt with any of the big banks exactly because he’s heard too much about the way they operate. And in spite of all that, he’s gotten letters threatening to send officers to his door.”
Fighting Chance illustrates Haddam’s talent in keeping the long-running series, launched in 1990, fresh. Rather than follow detective fiction tradition and focus on her lead, Gregor, and the ups and downs of his personal life, Haddam makes her readers care about the characters who appear only in one book, often opening a novel with lengthy sections providing the perspectives of half-a-dozen people: one or more of whom will be the victim and one or more of whom will be unmasked as the killer.
Haddam says she spends a great deal of thought planting the clues to the mystery, and it shows: the reveal always demonstrates how artfully she has concealed a murderous intent, or a deception about a credential. This tack avoids making the lives of her continuing characters—Gregor, his now-wife Bennis Hannaford, and their close friend, Father Tibor Kasparian— “sound like ones from a soap opera.”
As much as her crafty fair-play whodunits end with a definitive solution, Haddam herself defies pigeonholing. In addition to being a successful and prolific mystery writer, Haddam, who routinely begins her writing day at 3.30 a.m., producing 800-900 page first drafts, is a relentless blogger; her Hildegarde blog is named for an abbess who was a prominent intellectual in the Middle Ages. Since 2001, “to get me out of the house,” she’s taught Composition and Introduction to Literature at Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury, Conn.
In an isolated cafeteria at the college, deserted over summer break (which feels like a setting for murder in one of her books), Haddam expands on her trademark contrariness. “I give good outrage,” she says, conceding that as a student at Catholic school, she would ask her teachers whether the Virgin Birth made rational sense.
She feels that she comes by her contrarian nature naturally. Her father, an attorney who worked 80-hour weeks, was once expelled for leading a strike aimed at getting softer seats in his school library. She also recalls her father’s belief that “if I couldn’t make my opponent’s argument as well as I could make my own, I didn’t know what I was talking about.”
In a recent blog post, Haddam wrote of participating in two discussion threads on the same day, defending the pro-life point of view in one, and the pro-choice point of view in the other. A Living Chance (2009) exemplifies Haddam’s facility at making characters with differing positions sympathetic and comprehensible, in an investigation of an assault that may connect to a heated local controversy on the teaching of intelligent design.
Longtime fans will have noticed a shift in tone in the Gregor books, which corresponds with the untimely death of Haddam’s husband, Bill DeAndrea, himself an accomplished mystery author, who died in 1996, at the age of 44. “Bill died and I just couldn’t write light anymore,” Haddam says. “The books starting with Skeleton Key (2000), the ones published by Minotaur, are just more serious than the ones that came before. There’s no cute at all—well, there never really was ‘cute’ cute—and there’s a lot less humor. I was a different person after Bill died, after everything we went through while Bill was dying. So the focus in the books got stronger. But I’m just not as light and optimistic about life as I was before Bill’s death. I tend to expect the worst. My characters tend to get the worst.”
Still, Haddam is more than able to poke fun at her own foibles. When asked about the inspirations for the titles of her books, she foregoes any attempt at intellectual pretension. “When I was nine or 10, I wrote titles for Nancy Drew novels—not the novels, just the titles, and I just used some of those.” Even more amusing is how the woman born Orania Papazoglou became Jane Haddam. Under her birth name, Haddam wrote the Patience McKenna series (featuring a crime-solving author, and a crime-solving cat) between 1984 and 1990, before Gregor’s debut in Not A Creature Was Stirring, only to learn that some readers concluded from her name that she was a foreign writer.
She was pondering a name change as she began planning the Gregor books when editor Kate Miciak told her of a survey that determined that the “typical mystery reader turned out to be in her 40s and five foot four. I’m five foot four. So I went to the Barnes & Noble bookstore nearest my house, stood in the mystery section, and saw what was at eye level. That was the H’s. So I chose Haddam, the name of a city in Connecticut.” Now, even many of her friends call her Jane.
Under any name, Haddam is a true renaissance person, with wide-ranging interests, and no respect for sacred cows.
Wanting Sheila Dead (2010), which features a clever concealment of key evidence in plain sight, is centered on America’s Next Superstar, a spot-on, savage, and funny indictment of reality show culture.
On whether J.K. Rowling has staved off the loss of a generation of readers Haddam says, “Nor do I think the popularity of the Harry Potter books is necessarily a hopeful sign… The numbers for the Harry Potter series, although stunning in book sale terms, are abysmal by any other measure. This is not evidence of a nation of readers.”
One group Haddam hasn’t outraged is fans of traditional mysteries, who enjoy learning about human nature against the backdrop of an engrossing murder plot, and pitting their wits against Haddam, and Gregor, her proxy. They can only hope that her ability to craft new crimes for Gregor to solve matches her passion for vigorous debate of vital issues and intolerance of ideologues.
Lenny Picker is a freelance writer in New York City.