Humble P.I.

A local author takes the detective novel to the cleaners.

Mystery writer Dolores Johnson may have made a fatal mistake the first time she decided to invent a gruesome death rather than rely on inspiration from a real dry cleaner.

"The idea," she remembers, "was a body found on a conveyor belt in the morning when the dry-cleaning shop opens. But the more I thought about it, the more I got nervous. Would the belt be able to support the weight of the body? Would it work at all? Finally, I gave up and put the body in the laundry cart instead."

But that corpse haunted her. And then her editor at Dell called. What happened to the hanging body that had inspired the book's original title, Hung Up to Die? A stiff in a laundry cart just didn't have the same panache.

Out, damned spot: Dolores Johnson comes clean about mystery writing.
James Bludworth
Out, damned spot: Dolores Johnson comes clean about mystery writing.

"So I went to see this dry cleaner I know in Aurora," Dolores explains, "and we talked and talked, and finally he hung on the conveyor belt for me and went around several times."

Convinced, Johnson went with the original title and plot, but only after she was sure it could really take place at a dry cleaner's -- in this case, the fictional Dyer Cleaners, home of fictional dry cleaner and amateur detective Mandy Dyer. As she has in all of Dolores Johnson's books, Mandy promises the authorities she'll stay out of the investigation, but she gets drawn into it through sheer curiosity. And in the end, using a combination of stain-removal skills and sharp intuition, she solves the crime herself.

The fourth Mandy Dyer novel, Wash, Fold and Die, comes out next week.

Private eyes in modern literature have long been known to cook, run hotels, train dogs and otherwise get on with their lives, but it took Dolores Johnson to invent an entire series that revolves around dry cleaning. You might think she'd pushed the industry into the glamorous spotlight, but no dry cleaner would agree with you.

"They're way too busy reading technical manuals to bother with fiction," Dolores says modestly. "They're extremely busy people."

Dolores gathered her knowledge of dry cleaning and its attendant personality traits during more than thirty years as a "field editor" for American Drycleaner, the industry's leading trade publication. Long ago, she flirted with assignments at Fast Food and Clean Car, but she found her niche at the dry-cleaning bulletin. It's an arrangement she doesn't expect to end anytime soon. How better to collect details for a not-unpopular detective series? Besides, she insists, if you look long enough, anyone can be fascinating. So why not a dry cleaner?

I have shared this opinion ever since I got stranded hitchhiking in the California desert 25 years ago. In a trash bag at the side of the road, I found several issues of Garage Door Opener Monthly and began to read them in desperation. Three hours later, I was surprised to notice a semi-truck driver patiently waiting for me to accept a ride.

In the years that followed, I have taken up with a number of arcane trade rags -- developing a particular fondness for tractor, beauty salon and medically disgusting publications. My current favorite is Pizza Today, which I am occasionally lucky enough to find at out-of-the-way, non-chain pizza joints, mixed in with the Sports Illustrateds. Pizza Today is not circulated at places like Pizza Hut, I suspect, because it features news on the pitched battle between the Hut and Papa John's -- and Papa John's is winning. Pizza Hut, desperate to rebound, is said to be considering extreme measures, such as giving away free breadsticks! Such tidbits are what make trade magazines compelling. Your reward for plowing through text that no one has tried to make palatable to the general public -- a pleasant challenge, when you get right down to it -- is amazing information of which the general public can only dream.

American Drycleaner, I find, is no exception. A Reader's Digest-sized magazine with art direction solidly entrenched in the late Fifties, it promotes products with vintage names like Kleen-Rite, Qualitex and the Bishomatic. After the briefest perusal, I already know that the big dry-cleaning money is in your leathers and suedes, that OSHA and the EPA are coming down hard on cleaners and their chemicals and that the words "whiter" and "brighter" are a lot more than advertising hooey to some people whose jobs actually depend on them. Oh, and this just in -- the International Fabricare Institute, determined to save us from ourselves, has come out with a "colorful hanger tag" that tells you how to follow the garment-care tag that already hangs inside your garments, where you ignore it.

And another thing: WILD, the official organization of Women in Laundry and Dry-Cleaning, has just announced its first scholarship!

WILD is just the sort of organization that Mandy Dyer would belong to -- but she'd resent the Roberts Rules of Order part and wonder how she, a born artist, ever got roped in with such a bunch of sticks-in-the-mud. Nevertheless, Mandy has a habit of getting mixed up with people, from Betty, the homeless former drunk who works in her shop, to Stan, the handsome homicide cop with whom she has an on-again, off-again romance. She is relentlessly nosy, but in a charming way that reminds the reader that no matter how hard she tries to convince herself that she really ought to leave all these murders up to the professionals, she won't.

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