Carolyn Hart: Murder on Her Mind

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Of course the cleverest are the ones you'd never suspect. The ones who sit in cozy houses in quiet streets in, say, Oklahoma City, where the only sound is the wind howling down the plain. I'm talking about the septuagenarians with cropped, silvery hair, sweet smiles on their faces and cats purring contentedly in their laps.

You might think that that pleasant face is contemplating a cake in the oven. But what she's really thinking is: Which weapon this time? How best to hide the evidence? And where, when it's done, do I dump the corpse?

Perhaps her father was a pipe organ builder. Her mother a homemaker. Nothing too remarkable. Nothing to draw much attention. She spends much of her childhood in a community library down the street.

What would have driven her to murder in the first place? Maybe it was the war. Maybe the heartbreak tripped something in her head: Something about the abuse of power. The terrible injustice.

Chances are she started in a profession in which she could learn a thing or two about how the world works. As a newspaper reporter at the Oklahoma Daily, say. But, before long, she goes off, gets married, has children, and then the boredom and frustration set in. The first murder goes off like clockwork. She gets a little notice. So she does two or three more after that, but they're smaller fare, kids' stuff.

Seven adult murders follow, but no one pays attention, and the remains sit in boxes in her attic, gathering mold.

The problem is: No one thinks women are very good at this. Men are the ones getting all the work.

Years go by, and, finally, in the late '70s, a few women are given contracts to kill and -- what do you know? -- they hit the big time: There's Marcia Muller. Then Sue Grafton. And Sara Paretsky.

That's when it turns around. By the mid '80s, she has a nice deal for serial murder. It's called Death on Demand. Her specialty? The chump next door. The quiet neighborhood. The people you know.

And now she's got 39 of them finished off, with 2.7 million copies and a mean reputation.

But look at that face and you'd never know.

-- Marie Arana

© 2007 The Washington Post Company