Mystery writer Shelly Reuben is cheerful
and upbeat, not what you’d expect from someone who deals with
liars, arsonists and murderers all day.
The author, from Bay Ridge, whose day job is that of a private investigator specializing in fires, has brought her twin passions together in her fifth book, "Weeping" (Kate’s Mystery Books/ Justin, Charles & Co., 2004).
It is the first in what Reuben hopes will be a series featuring Fritillary Quilter, a young woman whose work as an insurance claims investigator sparks an interest in fires. She teams up with seasoned fire investigator Isaac "Ike" Blessing to unravel the mystery behind a deadly blaze in a Victorian house in Riverdale.
But don’t look for similarities in "Weeping" between the naive, bumbling 25-year-old Fritillary - frequently on the receiving end of one of Ike’s handkerchiefs - and the capable, witty Reuben, who would not divulge her age, saying only that she was old enough to "remember Audrey Hepburn before she became a stamp."
"One of the reasons I hadn’t yet done a female protagonist was I didn’t want to steal my own life," said Reuben. "I never want to put my life in my fiction. You end up needing to live up to a fictional character. It took me a long time to give ’Tilly a legitimate entree into the field."
Reuben has been a licensed private investigator in New York and New Jersey for more than 20 years, and her first-hand experiences have enabled her to heat up the narratives of her previous books with forensic details. "Spent Matches" (Scribner, 1996) is about an investigation of a fire in a museum in Manhattan and "Origin and Cause" (Scribner, 1994) is about a torched pricey, antique car.
"All the forensics [in ’Weeping’] are true," said Reuben. "Everything I write about fires is inspired by a case, but the facts, I change."
In "Weeping," Reuben takes the reader on a tour of the charred remains of the home, and we learn, along with Fritillary, about the house’s construction and how to follow a trail to a fire’s origin and cause.
"It’s so hard to write about fires and make it comprehensible," said Reuben. "To make it worthy of being in fiction, you don’t want to stop the action and write a treatise. You want readers to luxuriate in suspension of disbelief. What they want, and what I want to give them, is the fun of a story, make that technical information buyable as fiction."
In real life, Reuben and her husband, former fire marshal Charlie King, a 23-year veteran of the New York City Fire Department, ran their Bay Ridge home-office Charles G. King Associates Inc., together.
King, who died last July, was part of the inspiration for Ike.
"Whatever nobility I could give the character - to the extent I was capable of in any way projecting even a smidgen of what Charlie had, was based in reality," said Reuben.
But Ike is more of a handsome, father figure to Fritillary than a potential beau.
Named for a butterfly, Fritillary was described by Publisher’s Weekly as "a young New York insurance claims investigator who will either charm or cloy, depending on how you feel about Nancy Drew."
Typically, Reuben takes the barb in stride and with a sense of humor, as she brings to mind why the Nancy Drew series was as big with the Baby Boomers as it was with Generation X.
"I’m taking it as a compliment because I’m a private investigator and she did investigate - although she was an unofficial girl detective. But Nancy had more guts than me, because she would go into caves and dark stairs without a backup. I wouldn’t go into a cave alone," said Reuben.
But unlike a Nancy Drew mystery, the author believes that "Weeping" will appeal to a wider range of fans who appreciate a wholesome read in the mystery genre.
"Adult readers have a right to enjoy a book without putting it down and feeling guilty about enjoying other people’s misery, like most books give you nowadays," she said. "For a while I was going to movies and leaving angry that I spent two whole hours there and what I saw did not make me feel like a good person, or a better person or happier person.
"In my book, a nice lady was murdered and someone cared enough to find out who did it," she said. "The characters in my book, I want them to be morally above the crimes they are investigating. That’s in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie."
Reuben’s affection for time-honored tradition even extends to the way she writes - in long hand.
"It’s not for lack of technical ability that I write them out," she said. "I want to feel a spiritual connection to great writers of the past. And there’s some editing function that happens between thought and when it comes out your hand that doesn’t happen when you type it into the computer - because I’m such a fast typist."
Reuben says that as she continues to come to terms with the loss of her partner in life and work, she will continue the tradition that her husband Charlie started at their company.
"When he was analyzing a fire, it is what it is," said Reuben. "He didn’t tailor a case to what the client wants. We tell the truth."
And if Reuben gets a book deal for another Fritillary mystery, readers will enjoy a reunion between the novice investigator and her mentor Ike as they again pursue the origin and cause of a fire - this time in Coney Island.
"Weeping" (Kate’s Mystery Books, $13.99) by Shelly Reuben is available at A Novel Idea Bookstore [8415 Third Ave. at 84th Street in Bay Ridge (718) 833-5115] and other local bookstores.