WHERE COLUMNISTS GO TO DIE

Elaine Viets pens murder mysteries set in a parallel St. Louis from her new home in South Florida

You thought the Florida sun had finally burned South St. Louis from Elaine Viets' soul? She's walking on the beach, thinking of ways to kill people — in a murder-mystery series set in South St. Louis. Think the Orient Express, running down South Grand. Think Humphrey, searching for the Maltese Flamingo.

Think, more literally, of a 6-foot-tall newspaper reporter driving a Jaguar. The prose adventures of Francesca Vierling flow like Bud on tap: Dell is now publicizing Viets' third paperback in three years, the, er, Pink Flamingo Murders. "You need a strong sense of place," she explains. "My New York editor thought St. Louis sounded very exotic. She was particularly fascinated with the native foods, brain sandwiches and gooey-butter cakes."

Ted Drewes figures prominently. Other sites are disguised: Uncle Bill's is Uncle Bob's; there's a state street called North Dakota ("I thought four murders on one street was bad for property values"). Viets was especially careful to ask permission before planting a corpse at the Biker Ball, held every year at the St. Louis Casa Loma Ballroom. Delighted, the owner obligingly showed her the secret staircase and the hidden upper room where the bikers ... get romantic.

"If it's hard-boiled, make it a one-shot thriller. If you're doing a "cozy'" — more tea than gore — "make it a series," Viets advises fans packing the Buder branch library to hear her. "Next, your detective needs a trauma in her past, because wounded people look for answers. If you've been through a bitter divorce, this is fodder." Detectives always have lousy love lives, she adds, but unless they're medieval monks, they do have to have sex. (Viets says she hates writing those scenes between Francesca and her longtime lover, Lyle, keenly aware that her friends, enemies and old boyfriends will read them closely.)

"You are never too old to write a mystery," she reassures the graying crowd, gazing fondly at a Jane Marple perm bobbing above purple polyester. "The average mystery reader is a woman in her 40s. Sue Grafton started her series in the middle of an ugly divorce because she'd begun thinking of ways to kill her husband."

A dapper fellow in a bow tie nods knowingly, looking for a second like the murderer on a Columbo episode.

A young Nero Wolfe leans forward, shirt buttons straining, to stare gimlet-eyed at his back.

There are a million stories in naked South St. Louis.

 
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