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Monday, April 21, 2008

Mystery Woman

Local author cracks the case

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Elizabeth Hewitt awakens with a strange sensation at the start of the novel Separated at Death (Berkley Prime Crime). What she feels is the close and unfamiliar banding of an engagement ring snug around her finger. She pauses to consider: Settling down with one man had never been tops on her to-do list. Hewitt isn’t the star of a romance novel, however, and the homicide detective/protagonist in the third Elizabeth Hewitt murder-mystery thriller is about to be thrust into more than marriage. Her Milwaukee author, Sheldon Rusch, has spun a web of dangerous marital discord involving unhappy couples, relationship counselors and murder victims decoupled from their heads.

Although he has achieved acclaim in his field, Rusch hasn’t been able to quit his day job at the ad agency. Few authors live on the fruits of their creativity nowadays, unless their books are optioned for movies. But who knows? The Elizabeth Hewitt novels are cinematic enough for a major motion picture. Meanwhile, Rusch’s success has been encouraging. Kirkus Reviews chose his debut, For Edgar (2005), as one of the year’s top 10 murder mysteries. His second in the Hewitt series, The Boy With Perfect Hands (2006), also sold well. And Rusch has picked up a loyal female readership in Germany, Austria and the German cantons of Switzerland. For Edgar, whose murder spree was keyed to the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, has been translated into German under the wonderfully ominous title of Rabenmord (“Raven Murder”).

“Poe is actually more revered over there than here,” Rusch comments. “In Germany he’s a major literary figure and For Edgar set the stage for me there.”

American publishers rejected Rusch’s early novel, Mother of God, before accepting For Edgar. Such is the enthusiasm for Rusch in Germany that Mother is first being published over there later this year, under the title Sondenmord (“Sinful Murders”). Since it was the novel that introduced Elizabeth, a special agent with the Illinois State Police, it counts as a prequel.

“The characters I write tend to be composites of people,” Rusch explains. “Elizabeth isn’t based on anyone in particular. She’s probably more of a female alter ego of myself. A film agent who read the manuscript of For Edgar before it was published thought that I was a woman. That’s what you want to hear! On the other hand, I’ve heard people say Elizabeth acts like a woman but thinks like a man. Maybe that’s as far as I can take her.”

Elizabeth has always been smart, a little cynical, with a very mordant sense of humor. Because the three novels unfold rapidly within a tight time frame of three or four weeks, there is little character development within each story. “Her evolution occurs in between books,” Rusch says. “If a character in a mystery series has steadiness and continuity, it allows the reader to track her thoughts, to figure out the crime alongside the detective—almost like a partner. I will say that at the end of Separated at Death, Elizabeth is at a crossroads. Something very traumatic happens to her at the end of the novel.”

Rusch plans to set Elizabeth aside for a while, as if to let her sort through her experiences. He has already begun work on his next novel, about a true-life crime writer, also female. She investigates a cold case in northern Wisconsin, only to find herself in a town where the graves are shallow and the secrets closely held.

Sheldon Rusch will sign books at Mystery One, 7:00 p.m., April 30; and at Harry W. Schwartz in Mequon, 7:00 p.m., May 21.