By John Clement
The phrase “a skeleton in the closet” entered the lexicon of popular culture in the early 19th century with the rise of the Gothic novel—an enduring genre blend of horror and romanticism that’s as beloved today as it was in Victorian England. Here’s Edgar Allen Poe, in his classic short story The Black Cat, first published August 19, 1843, in The Saturday Evening Post:
“Gentlemen, I delight to have allayed your suspicions,” and here, through the mere frenzy of bravado, I rapped heavily upon that very portion of the brick-work behind which stood the corpse of the wife of my bosom. The wall fell bodily. The corpse, already greatly decayed, stood erect before the eyes of the spectators.
Every family has a skeleton in the closet. If yours doesn’t, that just means you don’t know about it… yet. Author Leigh Perry has taken that notion one step further, creating a new mystery series that is as clever as it is entertaining.
The first book in the Family Skeleton Series, A SKELETON IN THE FAMILY, came out last fall. Can you talk a little bit about the main characters? Is there anything unusual about any of them?
The two main characters are best friends Georgia Thackery and Sid. Georgia is an adjunct English professor and the single mother of a teenage daughter who is house sitting for her parents in a small New England town. Sid is single, an avid reader, and lives in the Thackery attic. Nothing all that unusual.
Wait! Did I mention that Sid is a skeleton? An ambulatory skeleton—or osteo-American, which is what he calls himself.
How did you come up with the idea of a walking, talking, “living” skeleton?
This is sad, but I do not remember. I’ve found my original notes for the idea, which go back a decade, but while I talk about how I’d write Sid if the idea ever sold, I never mentioned where he came from. The best I can recollect is that I was trying to come up with a new idea for a mystery series, and that I liked paranormal mysteries. My pal Charlaine Harris pretty much rules the vampire mystery world, and my other pal Dana Cameron was really getting going with her werewolf mysteries. Witches, wizards, ghosts, zombies—all done. I guess a skeleton was all that was left.
One of the things I love about the world you’ve created is how it dances on the line between total realism and pure fantasy. I grew up on shows like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, which were essentially family dramas but with one fantastical element thrown in to make things fresh and new (and funny). So in the world of the Family Skeleton Series, Dr. Georgia Thackery has a lot to contend with when it comes to living with (and protecting) Sid, just like Darrin did with Samantha, and Major Nelson did with Jeannie. Did you have that in mind when you were coming up with the idea for this series?
You hit the nail right on the head! As I was developing the Family Skeleton idea, I was definitely thinking about Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. Also Topper, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and Nanny and the Professor. I love throwing one fantastic element in, and seeing what hilarity ensues. Two major differences between Darrin & Samantha and Major Nelson & Jeannie is Georgia never tries to stop Sid from using his “powers,” such as they are, and that there will be no romance between Georgia and Sid. (Skelton sex is just icky.)
Readers who might not recognize your name will no doubt be familiar with your alter ego, Toni L.P. Kelner. Can you talk about why you decided to write under a different name for this series?
New series plus new direction equals new name. I think bookstores like a fresh start for a different series, especially when in a different sub-genre. You see, my Toni L.P. Kelner mysteries were all traditional cozy mysteries, with no paranormal elements. I have written a lot of paranormal short stories, particularly for the anthologies I co-edit with Charlaine Harris—our most recent is GAMES CREATURES PLAY—but they were more urban fantasy than mystery.
How would you define the genre of the Family Skeleton series, and how does it compare to your other novels?
The Family Skeleton books are what is affectionately known as woo-woo mysteries, meaning traditional mysteries with just a touch of the paranormal.
This is a bit of a stretch for me, but not too far. My first eight books were in the Laura Fleming Southern Mystery series, and they were all cozies, but without the skeleton. (Well, the characters had skeletons, but they were purely internal.) The next three books make up the “Where are they now?” books, which weren’t quite as cozy—I use cuss words and imply sex, even though it’s off the page—but still fit into that traditional zone.
The big difference in starting any new series is coming up with a new voice, and trying to avoid the tropes I’ve used in previous books. Readers may not realize I’m the same as Toni L.P. Kelner, but I do and I really don’t want to repeat myself.
Let’s talk about the delightful Sid. Is there someone in your life that inspired his creation? (And on a side note, did you have an imaginary friend as a child?)
I was about to say “no,” but just this minute, I thought of somebody: my poodle Pill. I know poodles get a bad rap, but I maintain that many poodles are well-behaved, beautiful, and friendly animals. Pill, however, was not. She was cranky, and honestly kind of funny-looking because her back legs were longer than her front and her snout was much longer than is the norm. (Think of a white possum face.) As for being friendly, the Pill was a one-person dog. Since I was that one person, I didn’t mind so much. Well Sid is white, and kind of funny-looking. Okay, he’s friendlier than the Pill was, but he is just as devoted to Georgia as the Pill was to me. So I’d guess the Pill inspired half of Sid.
The other half would be me myself. I love bad puns just as much as he does, and smile nearly as much of the time. (With him having no lips, he gets to smile 24/7, of course.)
As for an imaginary friend, I shared a very small bedroom with one sister; lived in a house with only one bathroom for six people; and had several dogs at any given time. There was no room for even an imaginary friend. I did, however, have an imaginary boyfriend based on cartoon character Jonny Quest.
Sid is just as “human” if not more so than all the characters in the series, but the invisible force that drives him (and holds him together) is still a bit of a mystery… do you know what that force is? And do you think it will ever be revealed?
Well, some say that Sid was bitten by a radioactive skeleton. Others say it’s the result of a mommy skeleton loving a daddy skeleton very much, or that Sid is a zombie who took his diet a step too far. Those explanations are all as likely as any, and I never intend to reveal anything different.
The second book in the series, THE SKELETON TAKES A BOW, is out this week, and in it Sid finally gets to have his moment in the spotlight: he’s starring in a high school production of Hamlet (as the skull in the famous “Alas, poor Yorick” scene.) I have a feeling this is the beginning of lots of hilarious and (I’m sorry, but it must be said) bone-tingling adventures in store for readers. What’s next for you and/or Sid?
I don’t even have a title yet, but I’m trying to flesh out Sid #3 and looking forward to laying out the bones of the plot and then getting into the meat of the story. Har!
See? I told you the bad jokes came from me.
Leigh Perry is Toni L.P. Kelner in disguise, or maybe vice versa. As Leigh, she writes the Family Skeleton mysteries. As Toni, she’s the co-editor of New York Times best-selling anthologies with Charlaine Harris. She’s also the author of the “Where Are They Now?” mysteries and the Laura Fleming series (all available as e-books and audiobooks), and an Agatha Award winner for short fiction. Leigh/Toni lives just north of Boston with her husband and fellow author Stephen P. Kelner, Jr., their two daughters, and two guinea pigs.
To learn more about Leigh, please visit her website.