Behind the book: Success of home repair series is no mystery
by Jennie Bentley
I never planned to write cozy mysteries. Back 10 years ago or so, when I first decided to try my hand at becoming an author, I thought I’d write romance novels. I was young, not too long married (i.e. I was having sex regularly), and someone had told me it was easy to get published in romance.
Needless to say that didn’t work out. I got pregnant, had a couple of kids, and didn’t write for a few years. Instead, we bought a cheap little house in what’s diplomatically called a ‘transitional neighborhood,’ and I became a stay-at-home mom. Because it was our first house and we were poor as the proverbial church mice, I did things like refinish the floors and paint the walls and re-glaze the tub while the kids were napping. And then we sold that house and bought another, and then another, and then another . . . and pretty soon I decided I’d better get a real estate license, because the way we were buying and selling houses, someone was getting rich, but it wasn’t me.
I went back to writing eventually, once my eldest son started school and the youngest got lonely enough to welcome the idea of daycare, but I no longer felt the urge to write romance. There was precious little of that commodity in my own life, with two boys under six underfoot, and with two boys under six underfoot, violence was a bigger part of my daily life than sex, anyway.
So I wrote what I knew, a mystery about a new-minted real estate agent who walks into an empty house and finds a dead body.
In an ironic twist on what happened five years earlier, someone told me that books about realtors are notoriously hard to sell, but I’d learned my lesson from last time, so of course I didn’t listen. Of course, this time the advice was right on.
A Cutthroat Business was not an easy sell, although it got there in the end. On its way to publication, though, one of the many editors who passed on the manuscript, nonetheless liked it well enough to hand it off to a friend at Berkley Prime Crime, who called with a question. Given my background in real estate and renovation, would I be interested in creating a series about a renovator for them? Something to capitalize on the current interest in HGTV and "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." Something with a hot handyman in tight jeans and a low-slung tool belt, and with tips for do-it-yourself projects in the back.
The result was Fatal Fixer-Upper, the first book in the Do-It-Yourself home renovation mystery series. The story introduces Avery Baker, a New York textile designer, who inherits her Aunt Inga’s decrepit Victorian cottage, and who travels to the wilds of Maine to spend the summer renovating it, with the help of local handyman Derek Ellis. (He’s the guy with the tight jeans and the power tools. Just FYI.)
Of course, as anyone who has ever tried to renovate a house knows, the path is seldom smooth. There’s wood rot and leaking pipes and falling bricks and termites . . . and in Avery’s case, there’s also murders current and past, scheming relatives, a missing history professor, a fake Frenchman, a boatload of valuable antiques, two Maine coon cats, ties to Marie Antoinette, and Derek’s perfect—and perfectly annoying—ex-wife.
At the end of the book, with mysteries solved and house sparkling, Avery decides to stay in Maine and continue to renovate houses, thus paving the way for my new release, Spackled and Spooked.
The decision to continue renovating is one I understand. In the nine years since we bought that first little house in the transitional area, we’ve bought—and renovated—nine more. Our current project is a mid-century ranch, just like the one Avery is working on in Spackled and Spooked. Big and rambling, with sprawling rooms, big windows, and a sort of open and airy feel. But while the worst thing I’ve encountered is a complicated plumbing problem, Avery gets unexplained footsteps in the hallway when no one is there, a skeleton in the crawlspace, and murder in the neighborhood. And Avery is on the hunt again, knee-deep not only in drywall and paint, but in murder and mayhem and mysteries old and new.
And it goes on from there. Just like me and my list of projects, which include a couple of cottages, a couple of ranches, a craftsman bungalow, and a brick Tudor, Avery is looking at a list of upcoming projects, as well. Most of them more exciting than mine, I have to admit. Renovation is easier on the page than in the flesh. Avery’s from-Victorian-carriage-house-into-romantic-retreat-for-two is arriving in March 2010, titled Plaster and Poison. After that, there’s a 1783 Colonial on an island off the coast that needs renovating, and a little craftsman cottage in the historic district, that gets a quick flip while the TV cameras are rolling. That’ll take me, and Avery, into 2011 or thereabouts.
By then, I’ll probably be on to another project of my own, too. So many houses, so little time.
Jennie Bentley is the author of the Do-It-Yourself Home Renovation mysteries from Berkley Prime Crime. Book 1, Fatal Fixer-Upper was released in November 2008, and went on to become a bestseller for the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. You can learn more about Jennie and the DIY-series on her website.