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Case Closed
Mark Andresen

Case Closed

Colorado is booming, and so are its mystery authors, although nobody seems to have a solid clue as to what causes detective fiction to thrive in the Rockies.

"It's the air," claims Boulder wordsmith Margaret Coel. A general growth in the state's population has something to do with it, along with a networking community bolstered by strong membership in such groups as Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, notes Rex Burns, a weathered veteran who might as well be Colorado's gumshoe laureate.

"When I started this ten years ago, there were really just two other authors out there -- Rex Burns and Diane Davidson," notes success story Stephen White, whose novels featuring psychologist-sleuth Alan Gregory have hit the bestseller lists. And now? "I have a bookshelf of Colorado writers that's four feet long."

Perhaps more to the point, Coel adds, "We have incredible support among authors here. And we're all good friends."

Whatever the case, Coel, White, Burns and seven of their Colorado colleagues, including Lyons septuagenarian Ann Ripley (a former reporter), dry-cleaning expert Dolores Johnson and such newcomers as birdwatching enthusiast Christine Goff and fledgling novelist Truly Donovan will gather Thursday night to gab and sign books en masse at a Mystery Authors' Night at the Westminster Barnes & Noble store. No mystery there -- these folks are all hot commodities here and, in some cases, across the nation.

There is, by the way, no definitive face to Colorado mysteries -- the characters and premises are as varied as the state's population. There's plenty of room for Ripley's green-thumb protagonist Louise Eldridge to rub elbows with Burns's classic P.I. Gabe Wager, or for Johnson's laundress Mandy Dyer to solve crimes alongside Coel's Father O'Malley. Sometimes the authors draw on personal experience, but there's always a line where the imagination kicks in. White's years as a clinical psychologist provide the setting for his books, but not the plots, and Coel was a historian interested in Arapaho culture before she ever penned a mystery novel. Burns's most recent Wager yarn, The Leaning Land, is based on the militia-perpetrated murder of a federal officer in the Four Corners area. "But the plot antedated the actual occurrence there," Burns says, referring to the 1998 shooting of Cortez law officer Dale Claxton.

Colorado mystery authors also seem untouched by sensationalistic national trends. "It used to be you could write a murder mystery where there was just one murder," Ripley says, though she sheepishly admits to allowing two murders in a recent book.

"The novels that win the awards these days tend toward graphic violence," Coel says. "But this, too, shall probably pass. A lot of my readers say, 'We can't wait for your next book -- they're interesting to read.' Besides, they know Father O'Malley's not going to be beating somebody up."

Most important, mystery authors in Colorado share a camaraderie that's less apparent in other parts of the country, where authors are more likely to spar than to cheer one another on. On the whole, the state's detective-fiction legions constitute a mutual-admiration society without equal. "Some writers here have been in the business a long time," Ripley notes. "They've been through all the ups and downs of publishing. I'm a neophyte, but I like the people who stick to it and brave the down times."

And is there a downside? A small one, laments White, who still remains a subtle cheerleader for great writing in detective fiction, though he admits he's reading less: "Ten years ago, I was one of those readers who never figured out a book until the end; it was always such a wonderful surprise. But now I always figure them out."


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