Jean Harrington published the first of her series of mysteries featuring interior designer Deva Dunne in 2012. The fifth, THE DESIGN IS MURDER, was published last month. In it Deva, hired by not one but two clients whose wives have suffered suspicious deaths, continues to stumble across bodies and search for answers, much to the annoyance of her fiancé, a detective in the Naples, Florida, police force.
Tell us about your series Murders by Design and the new book THE DESIGN IS MURDER.
The Murders by Design series are tongue-in-cheek cozy mysteries that take a light-hearted look at murder and mayhem. (I love a good oxymoron.) In the first book, Designed for Death, amateur sleuth Deva Dunne is a young widow struggling to climb out of her sorrow and rebuild her life. So the books, over time, show her change and grow as she strives, with wit and humor, to find happiness again and, incidentally, with the help of Lieutenant Rossi, to solve one murder after another.
In the latest release, THE DESIGN IS MURDER, Deva’s client James Stahlman believes Stew Hawkins moved into the house across the street to terrorize him after he became engaged to Kay, Stew’s ex-wife. But Stew is over it. He’s remarried—and to someone much younger. When just days apart, both women are found dead under mysterious circumstances, Deva thinks there’s something afoot on Whiskey Lane. Could the death of these women be coincidence, or were they the victims of foul play?
You were a professor of English literature at Becker College in Worcester, Massachusetts, for sixteen years. What led you to writing your own books?
After talking about fiction for years and dissecting it in the classroom, I longed to try my hand at writing it. So as soon as I stopped teaching, I began to write. The learning curve was much steeper than I anticipated but exciting and fulfilling. Creating people, fleshing them out, giving them personalities, strengths and weaknesses then setting them loose in a believable time and place is great fun. Kind of like world-building really, and where else but in fiction can I get to do that?
I believe your first two books were historical romances set in Ireland. Why did you decide to start with romances and what prompted you to switch to writing mysteries?
Yes, my first two books, set in seventeenth-century Ireland, were published by a small press and shelved as historical romances. While there is a love story in the books, their primary theme is the search for justice. Though I am now writing contemporary mysteries, the underlying theme—let justice prevail—remains the same.
Why did you decide on a cozy series and not an academic mystery?
Cozy versus academic? I’m not certain I understand the distinction here. But that said, I guess I belong to the Woody Allen school of thought: “A writer’s job is to entertain.” That’s what I try to do in my writing—entertain.
It’s refreshing that your series is not set in a small town or suburb full of lovable eccentrics. Why did you choose Naples, Florida?
Oh, you don’t see Naples as a small town? Interesting. True, it has grown in recent years and swells in population during the winter tourist season, but on the (rare) occasions when I visit Manhattan or Chicago or even Miami and then return to Naples, I’m struck by how small town it feels. It’s an increasingly sophisticated place though, and while the characters reflect that, some of them really are quirky. But they wouldn’t want me to name names!
I like it that the humor in the series comes from the wry viewpoint of Deva and not from over-the-top comic situations. Also that Deva is a competent professional who doesn’t act foolishly for the sake of the plot. Why did you make her an interior designer?
I love this question. As for the humor, yes, the books are not farce; they contain no pratfalls. The humor comes from Deva Dunne’s interior observations and also from her dialogue. Now I have to confess I’m married to a witty, charming Irishman, and a lot of Deva’s best lines come from him. In fact, I sit with a notepad and pen next to my easy chair so I can jot down his witticisms as soon as he spouts them.
As for why Deva’s an interior designer, well, my daughter is one and much of Deva’s character and admirable professionalism are inspired by her. I guess that makes the books a family endeavor.
Carina Press seems to have issued paperback editions only for the first two books in the series and is now only doing e-books and audio books for it. What has that experience been like?
Actually in February, the third book, Killer Kitchens, is coming out in paperback as part of Harlequin’s Worldwide Mystery Library series. The WML is similar to the old Book-of-the-Month Club some of us remember. Also for a few months, Killer Kitchens will be available in paperback on Amazon, as well as in the e-book format. I write for Carina Press, which is the digital division of Harlequin, so the emphasis is on electronic publication, a fascinating and wonderfully convenient method of book distribution. I’m very pleased with my Carina experience and feel I’m part of what is often termed a publishing revolution.
How much input does your editor at Carina Press have in your books?
Omigod, my wonderful developmental editor, Deborah Nemeth, has been my mighty book doctor extraordinaire. I truly think she’s gifted at what she does. For certain, she’s been of great help to me in shaping and polishing the books in this series. Having Deb to work with has been Carina’s gift to me.
You must be gratified by the positive reader comments on Amazon. Do you do a lot of promotional activities and get to meet your readers?
Ha! Another good question. I love reader feedback—most of the time. Nothing human is perfect. That’s something we can only strive for, so I try my best, and from what I’ve heard and read about the books, most people do enjoy them. And since that’s why they were written, that always makes me happy.
As for PR, this is a dilemma for most writers today. How to divide your time—and yourself—into a writer and a publicist. But it has to be done. So I keep my social media voice alive and give talks around the Southwest Florida area whenever possible. In fact, I gave a talk to a women’s group just yesterday. And there are other PR opportunities as well. Here in Naples, for example, we have the David Lawrence Foundation for Mental Health. I was asked if I would offer an auction item at an upcoming gala: Name a character in my next book for the lucky winner. I said I’d be delighted and can hardly wait to learn the name of my new character.
Is there anything you wish you had known when you were starting out as an author? Any advice for new or aspiring authors?
I wish I’d known that the way the story is told is what is hard to come by. Finding one’s own unique voice is the great challenge in writing, at least it was for me. Characterization, plot, conflict, resolution, all play important roles but, until you find your voice, nothing else you do matters much. And what is voice, anyway? This is such a rich subject for discussion, Janet, let’s go on about it over coffee sometime. Or wine!
Do you feel that cozy mysteries, like romances, are sometimes viewed rather patronizingly as books written mainly by women for women? Do you find the term cozy itself annoying?
Yes, yes, and yes! From time to time, I’ve been faced with this rather chauvinistic attitude. When that happens, I usually ask myself if the critic has ever tried writing a cozy mystery. Chances are high he never has so he doesn’t understand the serious purpose and, yes, the skill that goes into writing a light-hearted murder mystery. In other words, a story that is made to seem effortless in its execution. Pun intended.
How long do you plan to continue the Deva Dunne series? Any thoughts of writing another series or in another genre?
THE DESIGN IS MURDER will probably be the last book in the Murders by Design series. I mean, how many dead bodies can Deva stumble over and still remain believable? So I’ve started a new series, one I’m not quite ready to unveil but am having fun bringing to life.
Thank you for your time today.
And thank you so much for this great chance to chat with you.
Jean Harrington is the author of the Naples-set Murders by Design Mystery Series. A former English prof at Becker College in Worcester, Mass., Jean is now living in Florida with her husband John. These days (and nights!) she’s writing for the exploding field of electronic publishing and is awed by its impact on readers and writers alike. All the books in her tongue-in-cheek series are available on Amazon.com, including the latest release, THE DESIGN IS MURDER.
To learn more about Jean, please visit her website.