Clean Mountain Air And Murder Most Foul

It has been a grisly year around here. A Mignon Cosmetics saleswoman was killed in a hit-and-run at Westside Mall. A drug dealer was murdered, and the policeman who had arrested him, offed. The cousin of another cop bought it in a Denver alley. Stagehands were butchered in the Buell and Boulder Theaters, then in the Central City Opera House.

And it's getting worse. At this moment, a secretary is being done in on the Oh-My-God Road, and a bank teller is getting strangled and dumped into a hot tub. Next spring, a Chicano activist gets his over on Denver's north side. "It's a violent place," jokes Legal Aid Society lawyer Manuel Ramos, who should know. He has killed a dozen people in three years and is busy plotting the murders of the activist and others.

Good thing it's only on paper. Denver is a hotbed of mystery writers who are taking advantage of Americans' insatiable appetite for whodunits. "It's a booming category. If you include thrillers and courtroom drama, very often more than half the books on the best-seller list are mysteries," says Daisy Maryles, executive editor of Publishers Weekly. At the Tattered Cover, one of the country's largest independent booksellers, mysteries turn over faster than anything but romances.

Figures are hard to come by, but Tom and Enid Schantz, owners of Rue Morgue in Boulder, one of the country's three largest mystery bookstores, say 1,200 mysteries are published every month, a 50% increase in just five years. Denverites are avid buyers; nearly one in four books they purchase is a mystery, say the Schantzes, who also write a Denver Post book column.

"BEATS DUBUQUE." Why are so many mystery writers here--more than 40 top-selling authors, up from five a decade ago, with dozens more hoping to break into their ranks? "Denver beats Dubuque," answers Shirley Beaird, who opened Denver's Murder by the Book 16 years ago. Well, of course. Mountains are more inspiring than cornfields. Readers like mountains, too.

"Mystery readers are armchair travellers, and they're fascinated with coming to Colorado--if only in the mind," says Diane Mott Davidson, an Evergreen writer who mixes killings with killer recipes. A caterer in a mountain town solves crimes in her six "culinary mysteries," with titles such as The Cereal Murders, Dying for Chocolate, and The Main Corpse.

Regional mysteries are the hottest new category. "Stories that would have been set in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago 20 years ago [today] take place in Denver," says Rex Burns, winner of the Mystery Writers of America's coveted Edgar Allan Poe Award. His books feature a Hispanic detective who mixes with the hookers and drug dealers on Colfax or a yuppie private eye who works for clients in Denver's high-tech office parks.

CHOICE CRIME SCENES. This area has it all: ghost towns and gritty streets, gold mines and trendy bars, mountains and deserts. Some writers take advantage of the whole works. Stephen White, a clinical psychologist, has written four mysteries, including Harm's Way, featuring, of course, a psychologist-sleuth who solves crimes in Telluride, Aspen, and Boulder. "This is a literate community. The quality of bookstores and libraries is good. The educational level is high," he says.

Mystery writers have zeroed in on Colorado since 1977 when Stephen King based The Shining in Estes Park, 70 miles from Denver, and local writer Clive Cussler penned Raise the Titanic, a thriller with a Denver tie-in.

Cussler and other authors, including John Dunning, a rare-book dealer who has written two mysteries about a cop-turned-bookseller, spawned an informal network of mystery writers. "There's this supportive camaraderie. It's a long-standing tradition," says Ramos. In The Last Client of Luis Montez, Ramos thanks Warwick Downing, "ace legal adviser." Downing, a lawyer, writes about a fictional group of federal prosecutors based here, and in Choice of Evils, he credits Dunning. In turn, in The Bookman's Wake, Dunning thanks Downing, "who bullied me for three years."

There's a formal support system, too. Some 50 writers and readers, men as well as women, attend monthly Sisters in Crime talks. Speakers have included a toxicologist and a forensic anthropologist. Murder by the Book throws picnics for authors and fans and brings kids into the store on class trips. Last spring, Rue Morgue, which gives over 100 autograph parties a year, many for local authors, hosted the annual Left Coast Crime Conference. Some 125 writers came, along with 375 fans, agents, and editors looking for authors.

The whodunit bug has inspired celebrity authors, too. When he was in office, former Colorado governor and would-be Presidential candidate Richard Lamm penned 1988 with his running buddy, advertising executive Arnold Grossman, who is now a script- writer. Aspen resident Martina Navratilova authored The Total Zone about--what else--death and tennis. And folksinger Judy Collins wrote Shameless, about rock music, murder, and the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Since she grew up in Denver, Collins knows the area well. I remember when she played Snow White in the 1953 Smiley Junior High play. I played Happy.

TOUGH DAMES. Americans have loved mysteries since 1841, when Poe wrote Murders in the Rue Morgue. The English dominated the genre between the wars, when Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers were in full swing. But Americans ascended in the 1930s and 1940s, with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler introducing the hard-boiled detective. The tough-as-nails female gumshoe, created by Sara Paretsky and others, came along 15 years ago. Now there are the "soft-boileds" for readers who don't like too much violence. They include Boulder author Margaret Coel's The Ghost Walker about a priest-sleuth on a Wyoming Indian reservation.


These days, almost anything is tagged a mystery. Last year, when my novel, The Persian Pickle Club, came out, I thought I'd written a story about friendship and quilting. But because there's a murder in it, it wound up in mystery bookstores. I joked to the Schantzes that I might write a sequel and start a quilting-mystery genre. Turns out there is one, with a half-dozen authors.

In fact, it's hard to think of any subject that authors here aren't using for murder and mayhem. Sleuths include a sculptor, organic gardener, astrologer, greeting card designer, geologist, and dry cleaner, along with the traditional gumshoes, lawyers, and bail bondsmen.

And the odds are, Denver's crime wave won't end soon. The Schantzes have just stocked 40 copies of a hot new book--How to Write a Mystery.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.