Wednesday, January 18, 2012

8 Famous People You Never Knew Wrote Mysteries

From strippers to TV stars to U.S. presidents, a collection of unlikely mystery authors that just might surprise you.

Mystery novels sometimes take place in star-studded settings: the murder happens in a Hollywood movie studio or backstage in a Shakespearean theatre. Sometimes the victims themselves are rising starlets, news anchormen or notable politicians. But, in several cases, the famous folks have actually written mysteries themselves, trading the limelight for a backbreaking desk chair (or, at least in quite a few cases, their ghostwriters did).

Abraham Lincoln, not long after his lawyer days.
Abraham Lincoln: "The Trailor Murder Mystery"

Much is made of the fact that Franklin Roosevelt once suggested a mystery novel plot (The President's Mystery, which later became a movie), but less well known is the fact that Abraham Lincoln actually penned a mystery short story himself.

Technically a true crime piece, Lincoln's story is a retelling of a murder case which involved the Trailor brothers, whom he defended at trial in 1841. The piece was originally titled "A Remarkable Case of Arrest for Murder," but is known under its present title since Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine reprinted it in 1952.

Lincoln was a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, and that could well have been his motivation for writing out the Trailor brothers' case, which has a real-life twist ending worthy of a master. The story ran on the front page of The Quincy Whig on April 15, 1846, five years after the trial. (Full text here.)

Lee or Rice: Who did the writing?
Gypsy Rose Lee: The G-String Murders

The first striptease artist to become a household name, Gypsy Rose Lee turned her reknowned burlesque gig into an acting career, then added another slash in 1941 when she became a stripper/actress/writer. The G-String Murders is a wise-cracking (what's now know known as snarky) murder story set in the burlesque milieu, where characters have names like Lolita LaVerne and Biff Brannigan, and strippers are found strangled to death by their own skimpy G-Strings.

Lee casts herself as the novel's detective (a trope used to great effect today by mystery writer Kinky Friedman), though some claim the book was actually penned by Craig Rice. Biographers say that written evidence proves Lee wrote at least a large amount of the book, if not all, with Rice only offering advice. The Feminist Press reprinted the book in 2005.

Maybe in Margaritaville?

Jimmy Buffett:
Where Is Joe Merchant?

In between the cheeseburgers and the lost salt shaker searches, the son of a son of a sailor has done more than just pen songs. In fact, Jimmy Buffett has written seven books, including children's stories autobiographical meanderings and a couple of novels.

Where is Joe Merchant?
is a mystery novel with a missing rock star, who may or may not be dead, at its center. It's also crammed full of Buffett-style good-natured goofiness, including a one-armed soldier of fortune, a psychic named Desdemona and a villain with eyeballs tattooed on his eyelids.

A spy in the House.
Hugh Laurie: The Gun Seller

Several years before American households knew him as House (though British TV fans already knew him as Bertie Wooster and Blackadder's King George), Hugh Laurie wrote a corker of a mystery novel. The Gun Seller is further proof (along with playing the piano) that Laurie can do just about anything and do it quite well.

Laurie cites Kyril Bonfilglioli as one of his favorite writers, and the influence shows. The Gun Seller is a witty send-up of the spy genre, with sort of a Wodehouse-meets-James-Bond vibe. Though the book first appeared in 1998, a planned sequel, The Paper Soldier, has yet to appear. Release dates of 2007 and 2009 have come and gone, with Laurie himself admitting that the book is "very, very late." Astute fans believe that The Paper Soldier won't be written until House runs its course.

Total Zone = Totally ghostwritten?
Martina Navratilova: Jordan Myles series

Billie Jean King once said of tennis star Martina Navratolova, "She's the greatest singles, doubles and mixed doubles player who's ever lived." Does that kind of talent translate to mystery writing --or even co-writing, as the case may be? Not necessarily. Navratilova's three books, The Total Zone, Breaking Point, and Killer Instinct, have mixed reviews, but the athlete may have had little to do with the actual writing of them.

The three-book series is co-written by Liz Nickles (also author of some lackluster women's fiction). The main character, Jordan Myles, is a tennis champ-turned-sports therapist who becomes embroiled in murder cases, always in a tennis milieu. Some critics have speculated that Navratilova's contribution may be in name only, especially as some glaring tennis-related errors have slipped through. One reader has questioned whether Navratilova even read the final draft of The Total Zone at all.

Smaller than a breadbox.
Steve Allen: The Talk Show Murders (and more)

When Steve Allen died in 2000, a lot of people were surprised to find that the multi-talented actor, composer, and possible inventor of the expression "Is it bigger than a breadbox?" had more than forty books to his credit. In addition to poetry, short stories, grumblings about the ignorance of the masses, and other books, Allen wrote a whopping ten mysteries.

Allen couldn't have picked a more charismatic main character: himself. Like Gypsy Rose Lee, Allen solves fictitious mysteries --along with wife Jayne Meadows-- while otherwise doing things the real-life Steve Allen would do. Murder in Vegas, for example, finds Allen and Meadows doing some sleuthing in between Allen's nightclub shows.

Not brought to you by Smucker's.
Willard Scott: Murder Under Blue Skies (and sequel)

The Today Show's former weatherman, one of the original Ronald McDonalds, and voice of Smuckers Willard Scott is also the co-author of a pair of meteorological mysteries. It's uncertain how much actual writing Scott may have done, but considering that his co-author is writer  Bill Crider, he of the five pages-worth of titles on Amazon (and blogging phenomenon), it's a good bet that Scott's contributions were largely related to checking the weather.

Just as he replaced Scott on The Today Show, Al Roker has also picked up the mantle of weatherman-who-also-writes-mysteries. Roker is on his third of the Billy Blessing books, featuring a chef who does talk show cooking segments. Roker's partner in crime is New Orleans mystery writer Dick Lochte.

Is there anything Asimov didn't write?
Isaac Asimov: Murder at the ABA, Black Widowers mysteries, many more

Nothing produced by Asimov should be shocking, really. We're talking about the man the OED credits with inventing the term robotics, after all. Even though he wrote some of the best-known science fiction works in the genre plus a whole slew of non-fiction works on topics from Shakespeare to quasars, (and is even a doll), Asimov still seems to surprise people with his mystery novels.

Asimov wrote a staggering 120 mystery stories, some of which had a sci-fi bent, but more than half featuring the Black Widowers club. The Black Widowers mysteries are masterpieces of puzzle-type mysteries, involving real deduction, brain teasers, and often word play. He also wrote full-length mystery novels, including Murder at the ABA, which includes Asimov himself as a character, and a detective based on none other than Harlan Ellison.

Famous names appear on book jackets outside the mystery genre, too. What are some that you've encountered?


  1. OK, what fun! I knew 5 of the 8. And what about Al Roker? What is it with the weathermen? He has a series too.
    This would make a great readers' advisory tool for the library.

    1. Hi Sally. Glad you liked the article. You may have overlooked that Roker gets a mention in the second paragraph of Willard Scott's segment.

  2. Great list! Totally putting the Hugh Laurie on my TBR list. I'm going to link to this tomorrow in my Friday Round-Up on my blog, giving you full credit, of course!

  3. Wow, who knew that Martina Navratilova had written mysteries? And that Hugh Laurie book looks very interesting. Might have to give that one a go...

    1. It's a fun one. I hope he actually writes the sequel one of these days.

  4. My favorite is Not Shelved because it remains me of the many boxes on the floor and in boxes in my small office. I’d hang it over my computer.

    Where are the pictures of ebooks?

    1. Hi, Louis. I'm guessing that you meant to post a comment on my book paintings post. Not sure how that happened, but I'm pleased you stopped by!

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