Humble P.I.

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

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.

"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.

In Wash, Fold and Die, Mandy is 32, divorced and living alone in Aurora with a cat. "Mandy's age is the one I most enjoyed,"the 68-year-old Dolores offers. "It bothered me that I was writing another age until I met a young woman at a convention who was writing as an elderly sleuth, and she'd certainly never been elderly. Other than that, there's a lot of me in Mandy, I suppose. I'm glad her nosiness doesn't annoy you, because I worry about that. Maybe it comes from having been a reporter."

Dolores left her home state of Oregon to attend the University of Colorado at Boulder's journalism school in the late Fifties. "I say I always wanted to be a writer, but really, I think I wanted to be an actress but just didn't have the guts," she explains. Hiring on to the Rocky Mountain News's women's page in 1960, she first focused on stories about interesting women with unusual careers outside the home, then branched out to interesting people in general.

Her early-Sixties profile of Denver writer Robert Latimer begins with a small child saying, "I'm just standing here looking at the crazy man." Latimer, dashing in the Hemingway mode, was crazy like a fox -- writing and selling thousands of words of freelance copy to earn the then-astonishing sum of $20,000 a year. Not wanting a lonely office to cramp his style, he hung an old RCA microphone around his neck and dictated to himself as he drove around town in a sports car. Dolores found this almost as fascinating as his number-one career tip: Write for trade publications. Not for the glory, but for the pay. One of his trade columns that she still remembers Latimer showing off was titled "Fitting Rooms Increase Corset Sales."

Two years after writing the Latimer piece, with a newborn son at home and no way to find daycare for the graveyard shift she worked at the Rocky, Dolores decided to try writing for the trades. More than a year passed before she made a sale.

"My husband, son and I were in Oklahoma City," she remembers, "and I saw a dry cleaner that looked really different. The conveyor belt went over a bridge to a separate front office. I thought, why not? And I interviewed the guy and actually got two stories, because he had invented a collapsible hanger. When I finished writing, my husband said it didn't make sense. But the editor at American Drycleaner felt differently. He said, 'You sound like you've been in dry cleaning all your life.' I was flattered."

That was the beginning of a lasting relationship, during which the Johnson family indulged their hobby of driving around the U.S. Everywhere they went, Dolores managed to find a cleaner worthy of interviewing. "I try to pick their brains as long as I'm there," she says. What she ended up with -- although she didn't realize it until many years later -- was an accumulation of facts, character traits and plot twists, all ripe for recycling.

It's only in the past five years that the dry cleaners she met have come to populate her novels -- all under assumed names.

Mack, the fiftyish, black amateur actor who runs Mandy Dyer's dry-cleaning plant, came from "an elderly guy I met in California, who thought of dry-cleaning as an art," she says. "He drove clear up from L.A. to Santa Barbara every day just to work at this one particular shop. He wasn't an actor, though -- I just threw that in."

But Mack and his co-workers are true to life in one specific way: They can't stop thinking about other people's dirty laundry. "Well, they do find everything out," Dolores says. "For instance, I just heard the story of this one woman who used to come into the same shop all the time, always very well-dressed. And then she suddenly became very shabby, wearing old clothes. It turned out she had been raped and was dealing with that."  

Indeed, Dolores says, you can find out plenty about a customer just by going through his pockets. A news clipping she's been hoarding for months features a bank robber stupid enough to leave this note in his dry-clean-only suit: "Put the money in the bag and don't say a word or I will kill you."

Twenty years ago, while steeped in the trivia of dry cleaners and their world, Johnson embarked on a parallel obsession: writing mysteries. "My first book, which I worked on for years, was about a murder at a class reunion," she recalls. "I got the idea from going to a class reunion, of course. I didn't know what I was doing. I had the murder on page 110. It was fun for me, but I shouldn't have kept on with it so long." Finally, after ten years of struggle, she joined the first of two mystery writers' critique groups, one of which now consists entirely of successful published writers of the genre known as "cozy."

"I don't know why they're called that," Dolores says, "but it means there's an amateur sleuth, as opposed to a detective-for-hire, and not a lot of gore or police procedure."

Almost immediately, Dolores realized that cozy detectives had gimmicks. "One of the women in the group was an auto mechanic and had worked in Beverly Hills, and she was using all that," she says. "It began to seem as if you needed that type of experience to write a good novel, but all I had done was work for laundry-trade publications, and when I told people, their eyes glazed over. But the group convinced me to try a dry cleaner/detective. And then I remembered I had interviewed a cleaner in Marin County who was struggling with bloodstains and there had been a murder on Mount Tamalpais. I don't know that the two were connected, but I sure started thinking about it."

Knowing that amateur detective novels are usually sold as a series, Dolores came up with Taken to the Cleaners, Hung Up to Die and A Dress to Die For, the first three Mandy Dyer book titles, outlined their plots and sent a package to a New York agent she'd heard was looking for properties. Luckily for her, the agent was a woman whose very reputation depended on a wardrobe of suits that were always immaculately cleaned and pressed.

"She liked my series because, as she told me, her dry cleaner was the most important person in her life," Dolores recalls. In fact, she quickly sold the three-book package, followed by another two-book deal, and officially became a fiction writer.

Typing late into the night, using work habits that are "just not very good at all," Dolores has been cranking out Mandy Dyer books at the rate of about one every eight months. At the mystery-book conventions held for fans, she is often approached by someone yelling, "Oh, the dry-cleaning lady!" Dolores, whose few dry-cleanable garments are the ones she wears when appearing before her readers, is generous with autographs. Sometimes she even gets a fan letter. "One woman chastised me for always dressing Mandy in tans and blacks," she says. "She wanted her in chartreuse next time."

Possibly -- but right now, like the fabric of her next case, Mandy's outfit is a closely guarded secret. Meanwhile, Dolores, ever conscious of the evolving industry facts, continues to file reports for American Drycleaner.

"Yes, dry cleaning by appointment!" begins a recent Dolores Johnson feature titled, yes, "Drycleaning by Appointment," in whose depths she manages to mention Matisse, Diaghilev, the painstaking process of cleaning ancient Navajo rugs and the fact that her subject, Jerry Goldstone of Northridge, California, keeps a gallery of all the brides whose dresses he's cleaned -- at $200 per -- referring to them as "my little girls." Of course, knowing her audience, she's up on the technical details: "His equipment includes a 35-pound washer/extractor, a 50-pound reclaimer, and a 14-cartridge filter with four extra carbon filters so he can have 'plenty of filtration.'" The story ends with a gripping account of a touch-and-go lipstick-stain removal, for which Goldstone asked no payment.

You'd think Goldstone, at the very least, would have written two or three fan letters to Johnson. After all, she's elevated dry cleaning to an art.

But Dolores comes clean. "I seldom hear a word," she says. "It's as if I didn't exist."

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