BY ROB CLINE
Mary Vermillion has been a bit of a media darling of late. Murderby Mascot (Alyson Books), the second book of her Mara Gilgannon mystery series,has attracted quite a lot of attention because the seed idea for the plot wasthe saga of former Hawkeye basketball player Pierre Pierce.
While Pierce left the program in disgrace and has landed in jail, Vermillionimagines a different fate for her parallel character—Dave DeVoster, allegedrapist, winds up dead at the feet of a “Herky on Parade” statue.
Vermillion tackled another controversial issue in the first Gilgannonnovel, Death by Discount, in which a murder seems to be connected to abattle over a proposed Wal-Mart in a small town. The author, who livesin Iowa City and teaches at Mt. Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, anticipatesthat the series will continue to be issue driven.
“I would be surprised if I wrote a mystery that didn’t havea social issue in the background,” she said in an interview.
While the story may have been inspired by actual events, Vermillion isquick to point out that her story is not about Pierce or any real-liferesident of Iowa City.
“I wanted to capture the sort of hoopla that surrounded that….I had no desire to personally attack anyone, but wanted to look at thesituation that allows a really good athlete to get away with somethingreally awful.”
Social issues and controversy aside, Vermillion has a clear visionof what her books are fundamentally: “For me, I think of my booksas mysteries first.”
“My favorite kind of thing to read is series mysteries,” shesaid. “In addition to the ‘whodunit’ aspect of the books,every year or two or three you feel like you’re getting a letterfrom an old friend.”
And Vermillion is off to a strong start in her own series. The plots arewell conceived and Mara is an engaging character who is easy to root for.Occasionally, the pacing drags and the novels are heavy on conversationand light on action; a slight shift in that balance would add depth andbreadth to the suspense she generally saves for her books’ denouement.
Further, it remains to be seen how successfully Vermillion can deal withthe “Jessica Fletcher” problem—how will this alternativeradio DJ keep getting involved in murder investigations?
That said, these are books many mystery fans will embrace. Just don’tlook for them in the mystery section of most bookstores. Because Gilgannonis a lesbian—and because the books are published by a GLBT press—theseries is usually shelved in the GLBT section.
That niche marketing may keep the books out of the hands of potentialfans, and the author would love a spot on the mystery shelves.
“I would like to have as many readers as possible and I do thinkreaders who are not gay or lesbian would enjoy my books,” she said.
The sexual orientation of various players and coaches on the fictionalizedHawkeye women’s basketball team is central to Murderby Mascot. Accordingto Vermillion’s research, a program’s reputation as a “lesbianprogram” can seriously damage recruitment efforts and, by extension,the ultimate success of the team. As a result, lesbians in the world ofwomen’s basketball tend to be closeted. That fact struck a chordwith Vermillion.
“In my career, my orientation doesn’t matter. I think it wouldbe so hard to have a career you love so much but your orientation matters,” shesaid. “I guess that’s sort of what drew me to it.”
At their heart, both Death by Discount and Murderby Mascot are aboutthe nature of relationships—gay and straight, platonic and intimate,friends and family—and the powerful emotions that drive those relationships.Vermillion is particularly interested in the vagaries of love.
“One of the things I like about mystery novels is the characters’ relationshipproblems,” she said. “I think that sort of adds a layer andmakes it interesting.”
And she is interested in Mara’s relationship to both her creatorand the reader.
“I tried to create characters that I would enjoy spending a lotof time with. And, of course, that my readers would enjoy as well.”
Vermillion is at work on the third novel in the series, but admitsher busy schedule makes finding time to write difficult. She doeshave a general sense of the plot, however. “It’s going to involvea murder in a sperm bank,” she says.