Rather than write more academic, administrative or scholarly pieces, college professor-turned-mystery writer Priscilla Paton wanted to write something else.
Something that was fun.
Her brand of fun became crafting mysteries that tackle societal issues, domestic betrayals and concealed misdeeds, stories set among the parks, restaurants, neighborhoods and lakes of the Twin Cities.
The Maine native who has lived much of her life in Minnesota after marrying David Anderson, the soon-to-retire president of St. Olaf College, said in a recent phone interview from Florida, that she likes mysteries with character-driven detectives and lots of plot twists.
“Getting from A to B to C in a rough draft is not an issue,” she said. “The tricky part comes while going from C to D.”
She said she’s conducted a good deal of research into disparate subjects, like arson and real estate, to gain knowledge for her stories.
When asked what she’ll tackle in her next book, Paton said she’s fascinated by family estrangement, betrayal and dyslexia. Although she has started a standalone novel, she admits her detectives Metzger and Jansson “keep butting in.”
“I deserve that, because I’ve left their sex lives and love life unresolved,” she said. “So I’m not sure what form the next book or books will take.”
“I’m in two book clubs in Northfield,” she said. “Readers want smart entertainment with depth and nuance.”
Although she said she leans toward literary fiction, much of her work is doused with social issues, like domestic violence, racism, police brutality and homelessness, and infused with real-life-like news stories.
“For me, writing about crime and topics like domestic violence is a way to engage the real world and to escape it,” she said.
Rather than allow today’s painful news stories to simply drown a reader, Paton said she can use literary devices, like satire and witty repartee, to help her detectives face the foibles, rivalries and awkward encounters of their jobs and the horrors of the murder cases they must solve.
Her latest offering, “When the House Burns,” is the third installment of the “Twin Cities Mysteries,” featuring detectives Erik Jansson and Deb Metzger. Readers who devoured her first two books, “Should Grace Fail” and “Where Privacy Dies,” will remember the mismatched detectives have a prickly rapport but manage successful murder investigations.
“They rub on each other,” Paton said. “They have frisky imaginations, and I work to keep up with them.”
Other central characters include Rafe, who is an inventive conniver, is in his late 20s, and is of British and Bengali heritage.
“He is a scene stealer,” Paton said.
Another important character is Carma, the Real Estate agent.
Paton said she hatched the idea for the novel after a real life crime happened in the Twin Cities and a real estate agent was murdered. She hadn’t intended to write about the housing crisis either until she herself had to move from her longtime home on the east end of the St. Olaf campus, where now new dormitories stand.
Armed with a bachelor of arts degree from Bowdoin College in Maine and a Ph.D. in English Literature from Boston College, Paton said she has kept Northfield out of her mystery novels so far.
“In this book, I believe I mention a college town located 30 minutes south of the Twin Cities,” she said. “I like to stay on the fiction side of fiction.”