My guest today is SUSAN C. SHEA, who graciously agreed to introduce us to her third Dani O’Rourke Mystery, Mixed Up with Murder. Susan also shares a real-life “Day Job” story to rival the best fiction!
Dani is a fundraiser for a fictional San Francisco art museum, off to do a consulting job at a small liberal arts college outside of Boston. The springtime air is perfumed and all is bucolic except that the college officer who had doubts about a gift the school is about to receive drowns on the local golf course before he can share his concerns with Dani. An accident? The college president fervently hopes so, as does the donor, a slick Silicon Valley venture capitalist with a remarkable art collection he seems in an awful hurry to give to his alma mater.
In this book, I took special pleasure in creating a few characters reminiscent of my days in higher ed, particularly an academic dean. In a way, I feel for deans. They were once faculty, complaining about administrators. Now, they’re administrators. The faculty despise them as traitors and the other administrators look on them as 90-pound weaklings in the vicious game of campus politics. I never wanted to kill one of them, but I admit it was fun to give my fictional dean a pinky ring and a pompous style!
I’ll tell you a true and tragic story to illustrate your theme. I was the PR chief at Mills College in Oakland when, one quiet summer morning around 4:30, I got a call from the on-duty news director at KTVU-TV. He was sending a camera crew over to the campus to meet me. I had no idea what was up because Campus Security didn’t follow procedure and call me or the president after he called the police, whose scanner the TV station monitored. A naked man had been discovered on the ground outside a (women’s) dorm. Dead.
I threw on some clothes and drove from Marin to Mills in record time to find the Channel 2 crew and crews from KGO and KRON outside my office building, furious at me for not having information and unable to get around to the back of the building in question to get good shots as backdrop for their reporters, who were all on their way. I begged: I know nothing. Give me 20 minutes and I promise I will brief you on or off camera and try to get you to a close perimeter. They were good guys. One crazy cameraman I had known for a few years made coffee in my office and they perched, with their cameras, on the chairs in the conference room.
Indeed the poor man was dead. He was also naked. The Campus Security chief was almost as angry as me that his on-duty officer panicked and forgot procedure. But we sorted out enough to go live 20 minutes later with the basics. NAKED MAN FOUND DEAD AT WOMEN’S COLLEGE was the headline in the local papers that afternoon and the next morning.
The next day, the police released his name, which the wires carried. That’s when I found out it was an international story and fielded more than 100 calls. The deceased was a well-known choreographer who had just arrived from Europe a couple hours before to teach in a Mills summer dance workshop. Jet-lagged, the poor man took two sleeping pills, went to bed without jammies, and got up, probably to pee, took a wrong turn, stumbled and fell out the French balcony window of his room, and landed on his head. At least, that’s the best reconstruction that the coroner, the police, and his company dancers could come up with.
Dani O’Rourke’s experience at Lynthorpe College in Mixed Up with Murder gets even harder than what I experienced that week at Mills because there is murder, not mischance, at the heart of the puzzle. But the intimacy of a tragedy on a small campus has stuck with me all these years, and I think it shows in the scenes I wrote for this book.
SUSAN C SHEA spent more than two decades accumulating story material before creating her mystery series featuring a professional fundraiser for a fictional museum in San Francisco: MURDER IN THE ABSTRACT, THE KING’S JAR, and MIXED UP WITH MURDER (Feb. 2016). A new, three-volume set will be released in early 2016. Currently the secretary of the national Sisters in Crime board, she’s a member of Mystery Writers of America. www.susancshea.com