Three Generations of Women Unite to Find a Killer
A Spotlight on Author Nina Simon
By Neil Nyren
Her interest was not philosophical. She didn’t want to know how she’d arrived on this planet or which of her Greek ancestors had blessed her with wrinkle-proof skin. She wanted to know why she’d collapsed, what was making her feel like a drunkard at the carnival on a Wednesday at 7 a.m., and whether she could still make her 8 a.m. investor meeting.
Unfortunately for Lana, the answer to that last question is no. In Nina Simon’s MOTHER-DAUGHTER MURDER NIGHT, the 57-year-old Los Angeles real estate dynamo has just succumbed to tumors on the brain. The good news is that they’re treatable. The bad news is that the process and recovery will take a very long time, and she will have no choice but to move in with her daughter Beth and 15-year-old granddaughter Jack in the back-of-beyond small Northern California town they call home.
Beth is a geriatric nurse at a local nursing home, and her relationship with Lana can euphemistically be called “strained.” Jack leads kayak trips for tourists, but is starting to feel the call of the wider world. None of the three know what to expect of the months to come, but each suspects their lives are about to change.
They have no idea.
Seventeen weeks in, Jack discovers a body floating in the water, and the police think she knows more than she’s telling. Soon after, a favorite patient of Beth’s dies under circumstances she considers odd. Neither one of them is the kind to sit idly by, and as for Lana, well, “she might be sick, but she wasn’t incapable.” Soon, both separately and together, all three find themselves venturing into ever-more-dangerous territory as they attempt to unravel a twisting story of love, betrayal, greed, power, and family secrets. In the process, each of them will find a new kind of resourcefulness, one they didn’t know they had—even Lana—and a bond that will indeed change their lives forever.
If they survive.
MOTHER-DAUGHTER MURDER NIGHT is an excellent mystery, filled with surprises, intrigue, and incisive character portraits. More than that, however, it is a love letter to family, to the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters, and to strong women everywhere. It won’t just have you racing to the end—it might have you picking up the phone to call someone near to you.
Its genesis was very close to home, says Nina Simon:
“I never expected to write a novel. I’ve been writing all my life—poems, articles, nonfiction books, museum exhibit labels—but not fiction. Then, in late 2020, my hard-driving, LA business mogul mom was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. She had tumors in her brain, lungs, and bones. I quit my nonprofit CEO job, left my family’s little cabin in the Santa Cruz mountains, and headed south to Los Angeles to care for her. While we were lucky to be together in the early days of my mom’s health crisis, it was a stressful, scary time. Our days were full of doctors and drugs, and we desperately needed something to talk about that wasn’t cancer. So, we turned to a lifelong shared love: murder mysteries.
“My mom and I have both always loved reading mysteries. When she got sick, I started pulling out old favorites to share with her again. And then one day I turned to her and said: what if I tried writing a mystery with someone like you as the lead detective? And MOTHER-DAUGHTER MURDER NIGHT was born. It was a shared creative escape, a source of distraction, joy, and hope. We’d brainstorm about characters in hospital waiting rooms. We’d argue in the chemo clinic about the best way to kill someone. I wrote, and my mom read, and gave me notes—lots of notes—and we both got stronger through it.
“As my mom got healthier, and as I piled up the pages, I found myself rekindling my own passion for creative writing. I joined an online writing group, inhaled books and podcasts about the craft of fiction, learned how to self-edit, and honed the book with the help of beta readers. My mom was with me every step of the way, supplying research, personal anecdotes, and encouragement. By the time I finished the third draft, I thought I might have something worth sharing.
“From the first draft, the relationships among the three main characters—pushy grandma Lana, caring single mom Beth, and adventurous teen Jack—have been the beating heart of this book. I hold all these women in my heart.
In many ways, MOTHER-DAUGHTER MURDER NIGHT is a meditation on what it means to be a strong woman across generations, circumstances, and opportunities. I wanted to explore the different ways strength shows up in each of these characters and how these attributes manifest in me, too.
“In many ways, MOTHER-DAUGHTER MURDER NIGHT is a meditation on what it means to be a strong woman across generations, circumstances, and opportunities. I wanted to explore the different ways strength shows up in each of these characters and how these attributes manifest in me, too.
“My mother and I each have a lot of Lana in us. Lana is based on my mom in terms of broad biographical strokes, but her toughness and fierce independence live in us both. Lana’s personal struggles—resistance to relying on others, fear of being deemed irrelevant—plague me, too. I think I was able to write this harsh character with a lot of love because I identify with her. My mom is much more caring than Lana (and I hope I am, too), but there’s no question that we are both driven, independent, bossy women, especially when it comes to work.
“While my mom and I were never estranged like Lana and Beth in the book, before my mom’s cancer, we were both busy, independent women. We loved each other, but we rarely needed or depended on each other. My mom’s illness changed that. For both of us, like Lana, cancer took away a major identity marker—for my mom, that of a businesswoman, for me, that of a nonprofit CEO. Like Lana, we both struggled with our relevance and value without our work.
“Which is why Lana’s daughter Beth—the patient, no-nonsense, forgiving nurse—is the true soul of this story. Beth was the most difficult character for me to write. For a long time, I didn’t respect caregivers like Beth. I knew intellectually that it is noble and beautiful to care for others, but, like Lana, I also saw it as boring and weak. Even as I became a caregiver while writing this book, I struggled to embrace that identity in myself. Writing this book, working through many, many drafts, helped me come to love the Beth in me. The more I understood and cherished caregiving, the more I could put that love into Beth’s character as well.
“And then there’s the adventurous, curious teenager, Jack. I have a healthy dose of Jack in me as an outdoorswoman and athlete, but Jack is mostly the spirit of who I hope my daughter Rocket will grow into. While I was researching this story, Rocket spent many hours crouched on the front of my paddleboard helping me explore Elkhorn Slough. Rocket is a creative, intelligent animal lover, and I baked a lot of her into Jack.”
Simon baked a lot more than that into the book:
“When it came to research on the setting and details, I chose to situate this novel in my own backyard in the Monterey Bay because I felt confident I could connect directly with people who could help me get my facts right. A woman I play volleyball with owns a kayak rental shop, and she shared the ins and outs of that business. The former head of a local land trust patiently walked me through exactly how they work. Another friend introduced me to the current manager of the real Roadhouse ranch, who generously took me out on horseback across his land, pointing out every plant and bird. (Incidentally, it’s pretty much impossible to take legible notes while riding a horse.) Several of the historical notes in the book about the ranch—including an ownership dispute between Anglos and Mexicans in the 1800s—stem from primary sources the rancher shared with me. I talked to farmers, country club members, marine biologists, nurses, and doctors. I did consult a few books on flora and fauna of the area to get the spelling right, but most of my research happened in person, with people who were gracious enough to answer questions in exchange for a beer or a hike together.
“I also loved doing research by spending time with my mom and her friends—an extended family of smart, funny, resilient divorced women in Los Angeles. These chosen “aunties” have many wild stories that inform the background of the main character, Lana Rubicon. While the fictional character of Lana has few real friendships, my mom is blessed with a close community of women whose strength infused this story with love.
“And my favorite part of the writing process was the time my mom and I spent chatting about the characters. My mom and I spent many, many hours talking about the three women at the heart of the story before I’d ever written a word. At the time, this made me feel itchy and embarrassed, like we were playing at writing a book instead of actually doing it. But once I sat down to write—especially dialogue-heavy scenes—I knew exactly what these women would say and how they would phrase it.
“I also loved it every time my mom would call and tell me she’d ‘had a Lana moment.’ Inevitably, she’d recount an outrageous story which I’d scribble down furiously…and then she’d tell me I couldn’t use it.”
Simon’s own background informed the book as well. Her bio reads, in part, “She has worn many hats: NASA engineer, slam poet, game designer, museum director, and nonprofit CEO.” How did all this happen? Did any of it influence the direction of her book?
“I’ve always been both left- and right-brained in my interests. As a teenager, my dream job was to design pinball machines. Pinball machines incorporate many of my interests—invention, engineering, storytelling, art, play. Unfortunately, no one makes them anymore. I decided to study electrical engineering in college because I figured I would always love stories, but I might not be able to invent things without more training.
“Even at a technical university (WPI), I was living a creative life. I studied electrical engineering by day and performed as a slam poet by night. My final semester at college, I got an internship at NASA. I secured a position with the overseeing scientist on my project for post-graduation. And then I went on poetry tour before the job started. But when I came back from the road to that full-time gig at NASA, I wasn’t happy. I was all alone, solving devilish problems for a tiny piece of a complicated project in a windowless lab. On the weekends, I volunteered at a children’s museum, fixing exhibits and making up puppet shows about advanced mathematical concepts. And then I made the phone call no Jewish mother wants to receive—telling my mom I was quitting my job at NASA to design interactive museum exhibits and programs instead. I spent the next 15 years working in museums like the Boston Science Museum, the International Spy Museum, and the Tech Museum. I eventually became director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, which I led with love for eight years. In museums, I found a version of the pinball machines of my youth: creating three-dimensional, interactive stories for diverse communities to enjoy.
“I’ve spent my whole career working in nonprofits, and I knew I wanted to bring some of that expertise into the murder mystery. But I’m not ready yet to write directly about museums. Instead, I decided to focus on a nonprofit sector that matters a lot to me—the environment—where I felt freer to imagine, satirize, and invent.
“I’ve always been interested in public land: who controls it, protects it, and uses it. The land trust in MOTHER-DAUGHTER MURDER NIGHT was inspired by incredible environmental organizations I’ve met through nonprofit consulting work, as well as personal experiences I’ve had navigating the complexities and contradictions of nonprofit work in general. People working to make the world a better place are not all angels. Nonprofit workers occupy strange and sometimes uncomfortable positions as brokers between very rich people and their generous impulses, and I wanted to explore that as it relates to land, family, and power.”
What about the complexities and contradictions of finding someone to buy your first novel?
“My story was a lucky one. In short, I found an incredible agent who helped me hone the story. She in turn sold the book to an outstanding editor. It happened much faster than I could have ever imagined.
“But the thing is—I didn’t have any expectations of what to imagine. I didn’t go into this hoping to publish a novel. I went into it hoping it would provide my mom and me with some pleasure during a terrible time. It was only when I finished the draft and my mom was in better health that we both had energy and interest to attempt pursuing publication.
“I didn’t have any publishing contacts or prior knowledge going into this process. I just learned what I could online and started cold querying. My mom was a great partner to me in agent research, and we kept talking through the querying process. It felt like an extension of the project we’d already been sharing.
“I was lucky enough to have a few agent offers within a couple months. I signed with Stefanie Lieberman, who, ably assisted by Molly Steinblatt and Adam Hobbins, proceeded to give me a crash course in how to make my story punchier, juicier, and more nuanced. After seven months of edits, Stefanie deemed the book ready to go on submission. We sold it in a pre-empt to Liz Stein at William Morrow ten days later, on my 41st birthday. I will never, ever forget how that felt—especially when I called my mom and shared the good news with her.
“I don’t have expectations for what happens next or where the book will go. My only dream—which, amazingly, looks very likely to be granted—is that my mom will be alive to see the book get published. She’s doing much better than any of us could have imagined when this whole thing started, and that, to me, matters more than anything else.”
As for what’s next: “I’ve started a couple new novel-length projects, but I’m also taking time now to strengthen my craft. I’m still new to writing fiction, and I’m trying to learn more by taking classes, reading widely, and experimenting with storytelling forms. I’m one of those people who loves to push myself creatively and explore new things. I plan to keep writing novels at the intersection of strong women and crime fiction. Beyond that, your guess is as good as mine.”
My guess is, we’ll be happy to follow Nina Simon wherever she goes.
Neil Nyren is the former EVP, associate publisher, and editor in chief of G.P. Putnam’s Sons and the winner of the 2017 Ellery Queen Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Among the writers of crime and suspense he has edited are Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, John Sandford, C. J. Box, Robert Crais, Carl Hiaasen, Daniel Silva, Jack Higgins, Frederick Forsyth, Ken Follett, Jonathan Kellerman, Ed McBain, and Ace Atkins. He now writes about crime fiction and publishing for CrimeReads, BookTrib, The Big Thrill, and The Third Degree, among others, and is a contributing writer to the Anthony/Agatha/Macavity-winning How to Write a Mystery.
He is currently writing a monthly publishing column for the MWA newsletter The Third Degree, as well as a regular ITW-sponsored series on debut thriller authors for BookTrib.com and is an editor at large for CrimeReads.
This column originally ran on Booktrib, where writers and readers meet.
A Spotlight on Author Nina Simon