Sisters in Crime

'In the book I'm working on right now, someone makes a joke about something unlikely and says, 'The day that happens is the day we'll have full trust in our mayoral department,'" says author Morgan Hunt. On Saturday, May 5, Hunt will discuss and sign her new book Sticky Fingers at Mysterious Galaxy Books. "There haven't been a whole lot of other books doing the same thing," Hunt says of her decision to set her mystery series in San Diego. "But there have been a few." In 1992, mystery author Janice Steinberg founded the San Diego chapter of Sisters in Crime, an organization that "combats discrimination against women in the mystery field." Nine member-authors are listed on the website.

More than one writer has incorporated the wildfires of recent years into their story, and the Santa Ana winds often play a central role. Steinberg's sleuth, Public radio reporter Margo Simon, investigates the cause of San Diego canyon fires in Death-Fires Dance. Author Martha C. Lawrence's Ashes of Aries is about a four-year-old boy who goes missing after a wildfire "aided by Santa Ana winds." The first sentence in Hunt's Sticky Fingers reads, "August snapped its suspenders against a proud chest of Santa Ana heat."

Mysterious Galaxy Books staff member Christine Van Such points out that in many other mystery novels, rain and snow can play a major part in the story, often influencing the characters to stay indoors. Of a San Diego-based book, she would expect characters to spend more of their time outside. "You can't do that in 98 percent of the country 98 percent of the time," she adds.

Hunt's sleuth, a database expert and lesbian named Tess Camillo, lives on a fictitious street in Mission Hills with her heterosexual female massage therapist roommate. "She's endearing," Hunt says of the housemate character, "but she's a loopy, ditzy broad, very San Diegan, into alternative therapies, and she goes by her intuition and is often just as right as Tess is." Of her character's sexual orientation, Hunt says, "You can watch the Ellen show and somehow you would pick up that Ellen is a lesbian, but you wouldn't say it's a lesbian talk show. I don't want people to peg [the book] as one that only lesbians would want to read any more than it would be true that only lesbians would want to watch Ellen's show."

Characters that are into surfing or new agey, alternative ideas frequently appear in San Diego--based mystery books. Lawrence's sleuth, Elizabeth Chase, is a psychic private eye. Steinberg's Death in a City of Mystics deals with poisonous herbs mixed into a victim's tea. Alan Russell wrote The Fat Innkeeper, which, according to his website, has sleuth Am Caulfield investigating "the death of a New Age conventioneer while struggling to keep a group of swingers under control." The story takes place at the Hotel California in La Jolla, and the main character, Caulfield, is an "aging ex-surfer."

In an interview on her website, writer Taffy Cannon explains why she set her series in North County: "This series gave me a chance to call on some of the experiences I've had.... For instance, a lot of guys surf here, from ages 6 to what I call the Surf Geezers, fellows upwards of 70.... It's a whole fascinating subculture." Cannon's new book, Blood Matters, begins with a man being murdered in his Rancho Santa Fe mansion.

The most colorful real-life characters, Hunt says, are those who live in Ocean Beach. In Sticky Fingers, she describes the neighborhood as one in which "Bob Marley would have felt most comfortable -- plenty of beach to make sand angels, more co-op grocers than fast-food chains, and more hashish than lattes."

Hunt's character discovers victims' bodies and interviews crime suspects in Balboa Park, the Ocean Beach Pier, Legoland, UCSD, and the Rosecrans cemetery. One thing about Tess that Hunt describes as inherently San Diegan is the joy the character takes in driving. "She'll cruise 85 up the I-5 in her Infiniti FX. [In San Diego], people will drive 75 to 80 if they can get by with it," Hunt says.

Van Such has some recommendations for San Diego settings that mystery writers might want to use. The zoo and Wild Animal Park are her first picks. "There could be something that happened there, like a murder took place or an animal escaped, and they're trying to figure out how. Even the animals at the zoo are characters, like the cockatoo that used to be up at the front and the orangutan that used to get out of his enclosure on a regular basis."

Another good option is San Diego's Comic-Con. Says Van Such, "It's crowded, it's noisy, and you couldn't tell real blood from fake." -- Barbarella

Author Morgan Hunt discusses "Amateur Sleuths Roving San Diego" Saturday, May 5, 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. Mysterious Galaxy Books 7051 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard Clairemont Cost: Free Info: 858-268-4747 or www.mystgalaxy.com

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