News & Politics

Deadly Divas

Women on a killing spree: These writers are finding that Washington loves a good mystery.

Women in dark glasses and pink trench coats are roaming Washington thinking about murder. Don’t worry—their mayhem is confined to their books.

Washington, says Alexandria mystery writer Ellen Byerrum, “has great bones. It’s too delicious not to set a murder or two in.”

The area’s deadly divas—including authors in the Chesapeake Bay chapter of Sisters in Crime and the Mid-Atlantic chapter of Mystery Writers of America—count on one another not only for support but also for education in the ways of crime.

Where else but at their monthly meetings could they have learned from FBI and CIA investigators, a falconry expert, and a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative journalist? They've talked about the assault power of a red-tailed hawk, the cunning of Colombian drug runners, how to find a missing person—even how to make a character go missing.

Donna Andrews, author of two mystery series, found out the hard way that police don’t always take kindly to sleuthing. While she was taking snapshots near a Metro stop, three police cars pulled up, and the cops began questioning her. She was allowed to leave after she deleted the shots from her digital camera; it turned out a defense agency was in an unmarked building nearby.

The women arrived at mystery writing from very different backgrounds. Byerrum, a reporter for the DC-based publisher BNA, is a playwright and novelist whose fashion-reporter sleuth, Lacey Smithsonian, favors 1940s suits, just as Byerrum does. Her latest book is Raiders of the Lost Corset.

In her zeal for realism, Byerrum has obtained a private investigator’s registration, although she admits she had trouble with basics such as getting the license number of a car she was tailing.

Under the name Nora Charles, Noreen Wald writes a series about a senior-citizen sleuth in southern Florida; the latest is Hurricane Homicide. In previous lives, Wald was a winning game-show contestant, a game-show developer, a private-school admissions director, and a lecturer on the Queen Elizabeth 2. She also teaches mystery writing at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.

Chassie West of Columbia, a self-described “police-radio junkie,” uses DC cops as sources for her locally set series about a female African-American sleuth; the latest is Bark M for Murder.

Rockville’s Lisa M. Tillman is a former TV producer for the History Channel and Court TV; in that job, she says, “I came into contact with interesting people and stories I couldn’t make up if I tried.” The victim in her book, Blood Relations, is the daughter of a famous American political family.

Many of Donna Andrews’s books, such as Access Denied, are set in the local tech world, and her characters eat at spots like the former Daks, on Columbia Pike in Falls Church.

Short-mystery writer Carla Coupe uses her knowledge of the local belly-dance scene—she’s been an “ardent amateur” for 25 years—in a series she's working on about a belly dancer/sleuth in a community based on the Wheaton/Silver Spring area, where Coupe grew up.

Marcia Talley uses Annapolis in her books with sleuth Hannah Ives—like Talley, a breast-cancer survivor. Settings include the Naval Academy, where Talley’s husband used to work, and such restaurants as Galway Bay with its hostess of nearly 50 years, Miss Peggy. Her latest is Through the Darkness.

Talley auctions off for charity the right to become a character in her books; Jim Cheevers, a curator at the Naval Academy Museum, lends his name to a lawyer in her latest.

Washington’s women of mystery find muses all over town: Byerrum writes at the library in Old Town and does research at places such as the Capitol Hill theatrical-supply store Backstage. Andrews lets ideas percolate while she gardens at her home in Reston. Tillman hones her drafts everywhere from Starbucks to her kids’ karate classes.

“Washington is all about mystery,” Tillman says. “Political intrigue, cloak and dagger—things not being as they appear.”


Karen Kullgren ( has been an avid reader of female-penned mysteries since her Nancy Drew days.