Interview with Mark Reutlinger, author of Oy Vey, Maria! (A Mrs Kaplan Mystery)


Today it gives the Indie Crime Scene great pleasure to interview Mark Reutlinger, whose novel Oy Vey, Maria!, we feature on October 27.

What gave you the idea to write a series about an elderly Jewish widow who becomes an amateur sleuth?

I’ve always enjoyed reading cozy mysteries, and Miss Marple, the best known senior  sleuth, is one of my favorites. I’ve also spent a lot of time at various retirement homes, where both my and my wife’s parents lived at one time. When I got the idea of writing a cozy myself, I thought I could combine the “senior sleuth” protagonist with some of the personalities I’ve encountered at those facilities and some of the customs that would be a part of their lives. I also wanted to present a more nuanced picture of life in a retirement home than we often encounter in stories or the press. At their best, they are not places where old people go to die, but places where senior citizens continue to live.

We first meet Mrs Kaplan in Mrs. Kaplan and the Matzoh Ball of Death. How does she embark on her quest for justice?

In her first adventure, Mrs. Kaplan was forced to become an amateur sleuth when it was she herself who was suspected of murder by the police. She was not the kind of person to let herself be accused of something she didn’t do, so she (and her best friend Ida) set out to clear her name. After that, in subsequent adventures, she developed a reputation for solving mysteries, and she seemed to relish the role.

Your latest novel in the series is Oy Vey Maria, about a Purim play that goes wrong. What can you tell us about the book?

Mrs. Kaplan and the Matzoh Ball of Death centered on Passover, and A Pain in the Tuchis on Yom Kippur, two holidays that probably are at least somewhat familiar to non-Jews. In Oy Vey, Maria! I decided to choose a lesser-known holiday, Purim, which has an interesting biblical story behind it. It was a bit of a challenge to weave a mystery story around it, but when a friend told me about her mother being taken advantage of by her helper at a retirement home, that gave me the idea for the plot of Maria. And since I believe a novel’s title, as well as its cover, is a vital part of attracting readers, I tried to come up with a title that would give a potential reader a bit of a chuckle. 

How important is Jewish culture and food to the stories, and Yiddish?

Very important. I like to read stories that take place in another country and/or culture, from Judge Dee in ancient China to Vish Puri in present-day India. One of the things I wanted to accomplish in my “Mrs. Kaplan” stories was to introduce some Jewish holidays and customs, not to mention Jewish personalities and a bit of Yiddish, to readers who might not be familiar with them. I think the Jewish character of the stories, including the Yiddish, are almost as important as the plot itself. From the reviews the books have received over the years, I know that they are enjoyed both by Jewish readers who recognize themselves, their family, or their friends, and by people who aren’t Jewish but enjoy learning something about another culture, and who sometimes say they recognized a Jewish friend, or perhaps a friend’s grandmother, in the stories.

The next book in the series is called A Pain in the Tuchis. When is that coming out, and what can your readers expect?

A Pain in the Tuchis, which was first published in 2015, is actually the second book in the series, although the current publisher chose to bring it out last. It will be reissued next January 12th. In some ways I think it is the most well-rounded of the stories, as it has a good balance of humor, suspense, and character development, as well as involving several interesting orthodox Jewish laws, such as the prohibitions against autopsies and spreading or listening to gossip. It revolves around Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when we are supposed to acknowledge our sins and vow to atone for them in the coming year. My original working title for it (which my editor at Random House, probably wisely, changed) was “A Bad Day for Murder,” and that expresses the tone of the story. Of all days to commit murder, and of course there are no “good” days, Yom Kippur has to be the worst. 

What led you to write cosy mysteries with a touch of humour?

Like most authors, I write stories that I would like to read if someone else had written them. I especially enjoy reading stories that have a humorous aspect, and writing with humor seems to come naturally. Even the examinations I used to set for my students sometimes had a humorous element, although under the circumstances my audience might not have been the most receptive.

You have also written several other crime novels, one under a pseudonym. Your very first novel, published in 2012, was Made in China, with a premise that sounds prophetic today. What inspired you to write it?

We were building our present house, and my wife and I wanted to use as many materials made in America as possible. That proved to be difficult, as almost everything we found was “made in China,” or sometimes another foreign country. One day I wondered aloud what would happen if someday we got into a dispute with the Chinese government and they stopped sending us those millions of products on which we rely every day. So I decided to write a story in which just that happened and see where it took me. The result was Made in China. And as you say, it is even more relevant today than it was then, given the recent trade and economic tensions between our two countries.

Murder with Strings Attached, published in February this year, deals with murder and the theft of a violin. How important is music to you and how did you research the background to the story?

As a musician, I’m always interested in stories related to music. I play the clarinet, but I didn’t think a story about the theft of a priceless clarinet (if there is such a thing) would work as well as one about a priceless violin. I knew about Stradivarius, of course, but had only vaguely heard of Guarneri. I assumed that was true of most folks, so that a story featuring a Guarneri violin and its background might be more interesting than one about a Strad. I spent some time reading about Guarneri and his violin-making family, and about how one can tell a real Guarneri from a fake. I was able to work some of that into the story, although I was sorry to have to leave a lot of interesting details out, for the sake of keeping the story moving along.

Sister-in-Law, written under the pseudonym M. R. Morgan, is a darker novel about a call girl who finds herself caught up in a plot to undermine the US President. What prompted you to write that story?

Back when Fifty Shades of Gray caused a sensation and was selling millions of books, I found that editors and agents had been taken by surprise and suddenly wanted more manuscripts like that. I complained to a friend that it didn’t seem fair, since I couldn’t write that kind of story. He asked me how I knew unless I tried, and he challenged me to do just that. I agreed to try, but I didn’t want to write the familiar kind of story in which the so-called “plot” was just an excuse to have a sex scene in every chapter. I decided instead to write a story in which the sexual element was a logical part of a traditional political thriller. I settled on a plot involving sex as the means of bringing down the President. It involved a lot of research (all of it, of course, purely academic). I apparently made it a bit too hot, as my wife made me tone it down from XXX to somewhere just north of R, and my agent advised me to use a pseudonym, so as not to mislead readers who expected a story like “Mrs. Kaplan.” I think it was pretty successful, for a first attempt at the genre.

In future, will you focus on Mrs Kaplan, or continue to write other types of crime novel?

Although I probably will continue the Mrs. Kaplan series, I tend to write whatever inspires me at the time. I have some ideas for a sequel to Murder with Strings Attached, as I think Flo deserves more adventures, and perhaps a sequel to Sister-in-Law.

You are an attorney and Professor of Law Emeritus. How has your professional knowledge affected you when writing stories of fictional crime? 

There have been a few instances in which my background helped me to navigate a tricky legal problem or gave me the idea for including one, such as the matter of the will in A Pain in the Tuchis. But I haven’t relied a lot on legal or law school themes. Some years ago I tried to follow the common advice to “write what you know.” It didn’t work, and the story I tried to write about a law professor as amateur sleuth was not even good enough to submit to a publisher (although I did salvage one chapter many years later, the locker room scene in Made in China). I learned that, at least for me, it was best to “write what you feel,” rather than what you know. When I felt strongly about our dependence on foreign goods and was therefore motivated to write about it in novel form, the result was much better.

You have many interests. How do you make time to write?

When I’m in the middle of writing a novel, it’s more the other way around: How do I find time to get away from the computer and play tennis, bike, play clarinet, etc. I almost have to force myself to get up and do something else. But when I’m not particularly inspired to write, the other interests take precedence. They’re also the best way to avoid writer’s block, getting my mind totally focused on another activity until inspiration returns. 

What writers do you enjoy, from the past or the present?

My favorite writers, of course, tend to write in the genres that I most enjoy and that I write in myself. Donald Westlake’s “Dortmunder” stories are wonderful caper crime tales of elaborate plans that often go awry, and they inspired my caper mystery, Murder with Strings Attached. Agatha Christie, of course, is a favorite, especially Miss Marple. I love to read books that have both humor and insight, and Terry Pratchett’s many excellent stories, especially his “Discworld” series, while very clever and humorous, contain innumerable (sometimes well-disguised) nuggets of worldly wisdom, as well as biting comments on, for example, the British banking and postal systems, racial discrimination, and even the mysteries of life and death.

Do you have a special place to write and a writing routine?

A place, yes. A routine, no. I almost always do my writing in my home office, at a desktop computer. Somehow I can’t seem to concentrate well when out and about and using a small device like an iPad. But I’m not a person who sets a routine and sits down to write at a certain time and place every day, regardless of whether or not I think I have anything to say. So I end up writing in long sessions, at unpredictable times, whenever I’m inspired to do so. And at those times, as I’ve mentioned, most other activities take second place.

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About Mark Reutlinger:

Mark Reutlinger is an attorney and Professor of Law Emeritus at Seattle University. Having written several legal treatises explaining the law during his career, he now writes novels in which the law is frequently broken, including the “Mrs. Kaplan” cozy mystery series (Mrs. Kaplan and the Matzoh Ball of Death, A Pain in the Tuchis, and Oy Vey, Maria!), the political thrillers Made in China and Sister-in-Law: Violation, Seduction, and the President of the United States (the latter under the pseudonym M. R. Morgan), and the caper mystery Murder with Strings Attached. Mark and his wife Analee live in University Place, Washington. His hobbies, apart from reading, include tennis, biking, playing the clarinet (he plays in the Tacoma Concert Band), model railroading, various arts and crafts, and exotic cars. He has no idea where he finds the time for it all.

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  1. Great interview. I enjoyed learning more about Mark and why he writes. I also love his Mrs. Kaplan mysteries! The humor is uplifting and the characters are so enjoyable and endearing.

    1. Thanks, Kathleen. I think we all have different paths to our writing, and it's fun to find out what those are.

  2. Mark,

    Congratulations. Your books sound like a lot of fun. I agree that humor is an important in life and adds another layer to enhance a mystery.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Daniella. I think we all need a good helping of humor in our lives, and especially now.

  3. I enjoyed this interview, Mark. I always like to learn where other authors get their ideas and inspirations. Well done!

    1. Thanks, Liz. I also like to learn about other authors' inspiration. Sometimes it's surprising how a small incident in life can lead to a fully-developed story.

  4. Wonderful interview, Mark. I'm looking forward to reading all of your Mrs. Kaplan books!


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