Lila Maclean has successfully navigated four years as a professor at Stonedale University, but not without some detours and bodies along the way. Currently she is on the cusp of earning tenure and her focus is on her research, and its presentation and publication. She hopes to make solid gains with both at the literary conference held at the Tattered Star Ranch. But then dead bodies start turning up and someone has clearly taken the theme, Malice in the Mountains, to heart.
Such is the setting for Cynthia Kuhn’s fourth Lila Maclean Academic Mystery, THE SUBJECT OF MALICE. Within the confines of the story, Lila needs to ace her presentation and secure a publishing contract for her research while attempting to solve the murders of colleagues and deal with the machinations of her nemesis.
Lila has matured in her professional role over the series and in THE SUBJECT OF MALICE, we see her knowledge has grown about the inner workings of Stonedale University.
“She’s getting better at negotiating the dynamics of the position. Being on the tenure track can be tricky, both professionally and socially: she’s had to recognize what she’s willing to do to be successful—particularly where the limits are and when she’s willing to push past them,” Kuhn says.
While always “exploring topics that are related to academia, in THE SUBJECT OF MALICE, I’m focusing on the complexities of publish or perish as well as certain aspects of academic conferences.”
Key to THE SUBJECT OF MALICE is the Malice in the Mountains Conference. “It was surprising how clear the setting was in my mind from the beginning—particularly the part about Tattered Star Ranch having served as the location for westerns and horror films in the past. I’m not sure why it had to be both types of movies, and it would have been easier to focus on just one, but the concept was insistent.”
Kuhn says she starts with an outline and “lately, a synopsis. Once I start drafting though, the book takes on its own momentum and often veers away from that. Usually, I think I know whodunit at the outset, but it’s changed twice in four books, so I’m not ever sure until the entire book is written.”
Even titles have their own criteria. The title, THE SUBJECT OF MALICE came late in the process, Kuhn says. “In addition to reflecting the subject matter, the title has to include something academic, plus something crime-related, in a phrase that makes sense and has a title structure close to the previous books in the series. It’s a lot to juggle.”
Although the first book in the series, The Semester of Our Discontent, was published in 2016, “The idea for the first Lila book arrived during the mid-90s, but I needed to finish grad school, then I started teaching and had kids, and suddenly it was fifteen years later. I wrote the whole time, just not mystery, which was the dream. One day I was discussing the value of outlining with a writing class and had this now-or-never moment—an overwhelming sense that I should go home and outline the novel that day. So I did.”
From here the series was born. Academic mysteries in Kuhn’s experience were often in a series, so it seemed like a natural path for her own efforts. She noted that before she had submitted the first book, she had already drafted the second (The Art of Vanishing).
The most difficult aspect of maintaining a series for Kuhn is “deciding which characters to include in each book.” To keep all the details straight, Kuhn has had to maintain files, in the form of a chart, on each character. The chart is updated throughout the writing of each novel. For the city of Stonedale and Stonedale University, she drew her own maps.
“I’m very visual, so I draw many things in a little notebook that I keep nearby when I’m writing. Sometimes they are locations, but other times, they are scenes or characters or plot structures.”
Besides working on the next Lila Maclean mystery, Cynthia is beta-reading several terrific forthcoming mysteries by writer friends.
Cynthia Kuhn writes the Lila Maclean Academic Mysteries: The Semester of Our Discontent, The Art of Vanishing, The Spirit in Question, and The Subject of Malice. Honors include an Agatha Award for best first novel and Lefty Award nominations for best humorous mystery. She blogs with Chicks on the Case and is a member of International Thriller Writers, Sisters in Crime, and Mystery Writers of America.
To learn more about Cynthia, please visit her website.