She Is Still a Mystery to Me*

Sometimes, fame can bring with it a real loss of privacy. Especially in today’s world of instant communication and social media, it’s very hard for someone who’s ‘in the news’ to have any real secrets or much of a private life.

But some crime writers have managed to do a very good job of keeping their own secrets. If you think about it, that makes sense, since crime writers create mysteries. And it’s interesting to think about some of the mysteries that have surrounded some crime novelists.

One of the most famous such mysteries surrounds Agatha Christie. In December,1926, Christie disappeared for 11 days. She left her home on 3 December, and, despite a massive search, was not discovered until 14 December, when she was found at the Swan Hotel, Harrogate. There’ve been many theories about what happened to her, and where she was during her absence. Christie herself never revealed the truth, and we may never know exactly what happened. Was it a publicity hoax? A bout with deep depression? Amnesia? Something else? It’s hard to say. But it’s fascinating to speculate about it.

In 2009, the novel Cut and Run, by Alix Bosco, was published. It was highly regarded; and, in fact, won the inaugural Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel in 2010. The only problem was, no-one knew who Alix Bosco was. No-one even knew whether Bosco was male or female. The question of Bosco’s identity left a lot of crime fiction fans curious, but Bosco kept that information private. It wasn’t until after that award was presented that we learned who Alix Bosco really is. Auckland writer Greg McGee admitted that he is the pen behind the Alix Bosco name. Under his own name, McGee’s written several scripts and plays, and wanted to keep his crime fiction persona separate. He decided to come forward when his second crime novel, Slaughter Falls, made the short list for the second Ngaio March Award. It’s an interesting story of a very successful use of a pseudonym.

Along similar lines, in 2008, Inger Ash Wolfe’s The Calling was published in Toronto. It was very well-received, and had both critical and commercial success. But no-one knew who Inger Ash Wolfe was. The only clue was that Wolfe was ‘a well-known and well-regarded North American writer.’ There was plenty of speculation as to Wolfe’s identity; guesses included Margaret Atwood and Linda Spalding, among others. In the end, Michael Redhill admitted that he’s Inger Ash Wolfe. As he put it:

‘My goal was to do something separate, and that necessitated it being secret.’ 

For Redhill, it wasn’t a publicity stunt, but a matter of wanting a different ‘self’ for his crime series that led him to keep his real identity secret. And it wasn’t until the 2012 publication of A Door in the River that he admitted the truth publicly.

I know, not crime fiction, but these two stories also made me think of Italian author Elena Ferrante. As you’ll no doubt know, there’s plenty of speculation about her identity, too. It’ll be interesting to see whether we ever discover who she is.

There’s also the interesting story of Carl Constantine Kosak, better known by his pseudonym, K.C. Constantine. He’s the author of the Mario Balzic Rockport mysteries, which take place in Western Pennsylvania. Fiercely protective of his privacy, Kosak even included a proviso in all of his contracts that forbade publishers from revealing his identity. He didn’t do book tours, signings or other appearances. From 1974, when The Blank Page was published, until 2011, Kosak remained very much a mystery. He explains his choices by saying that he was concerned for his family’s privacy and safety. He didn’t want to be stalked, or to have anyone in his family stalked. That never happened, and, in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Kosak said,

‘‘Nobody tracked me down. I decided it was ridiculous to keep up this charade.’’

And so he revealed himself at the 2011 Festival of Mystery in Oakmont (a suburb of Pittsburgh).

Fans of Lilian Jackson Braun will know that she was an even more private person than her creation, journalist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran. There are certain things we know about her, but even her true date of birth wasn’t known until 2005 (her first Cat Who… book was published in 1966). She doesn’t seem to have been deliberately coy; rather, she seems to have genuinely valued her privacy so much that very little about her life was made public.

And that’s the way it is with some crime writers. Their lives are at least as mysterious as their plots are. Which secretive mystery authors intrigue you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by the Lovin’ Spoonful.



Filed under Agatha Christie, Alix Bosco, Elena Ferrante, Greg McGee, Inger Ash Wolfe, K.C. Constantine, Michael Redhill

32 responses to “She Is Still a Mystery to Me*

  1. Ah, yes, I can think of quite a few writers who chose pseudonyms, for instance JK Rowling’s crime fiction alter ego, until it was revealed with quite a bit of a fuss. John Le Carre, Josephine Tey, Nicci French and Michael Stanley (sort of), Pseudonymus Bosch of the children’s series… and of course Anne Perry all had good reasons to hide their real names or make a composite of it.

    • That’s quite true, Marina Sofia. There are a lot of examples of authors who’ve to use pseudonyms, or who’ve otherwise tried to hide their identities. As you say, sometimes they have very good reasons for that. Sometimes it’s just a preference. Always it’s interesting to find out the truth behind it.

  2. Marina came up with the names I was thinking of most notably Anne Perry which must have been a huge shock when the truth came out!

  3. I think Agatha left because she needed to be missed. What do you think?

  4. Col

    I remember Stephen King released some books as Richard Bachman, not sure if it was some sort of publishing experiment, but they didn’t sell in any volume until he was outed.

    • You know, that’s right, Col, he did. I’m glad you filled in that gap. I’m not sure, either, why he did that, but it’s a good example of what I had in mind with this post. Thanks

      • The publishers wanted to use the “Richard Bachman” pseudonym so they wouldn’t saturate the market with Stephen King’s name. King is a prolific writer so he came out with lots of material. I think at some point in the 90’s or early 2000’s he published 3 books in one year!

  5. Interesting that a couple of your examples are men using gender neutral pseudonyms. We often talk about women who use initials rather than forenames, the reason given usually being that men don’t read books they know are written by women. Perhaps the reverse applies too…

    • You know, I hadn’t thought about the gender thing when I was preparing this post, FictionFan, but you have a point there. As you say, we often notice when women do that, but men do use pseudonyms, too. And it does make me whether there are other examples. Hmm…..

  6. Very fantastic and well written post.Its extremely good and very helpful for me.Glade to see find your blog.
    John Pellow Brisbane

  7. I think you and your readers have mentioned all the ones I can think of. It is a fascinating topic, and part of a bigger one – in any written work, does it matter what we know about the author? If what we think we know is incorrect, does that change our reaction? Philosophical questions…

    • And very interesting ones, too, Moira. In a very large sense, does our understanding/knowledge of the author impact our enjoyment of a book? Hmm…..lots to ponder here.

  8. Makes sense that mystery and crime fiction writers would be good at keeping secrets. Great post, Margot.

  9. Agatha was abducted by aliens who were displeased at not being mentioned in her letters about her 1922 Grand Tour of the British Empire (they visited her hotel room one night while she was in Australia). Or, maybe Agatha was upset that husband Archie left the same day she went missing to visit his mistress, Nancy Neele. Just saying. 🙂

  10. kathy d.

    Yes, I was thinking of J.K. Rowling and John Le Carre. I didn’t even know Le Carre was a pseudonym until a few years ago when I read a blog explaining that.
    The issue of women writers using initials rather than a first name is supposedly to not specify the author’s gender so that men would buy and read the books. Unfortunately, there are still men who won’t read books written by women.
    And J.K. Rowling herself. She used initials rather than her name for the Harry Pottery books. I think a main reason was that boys wouldn’t read the books if a woman’s name was on the cover.
    Then there was John Dickson Carr who used variations of his name. And there are writers who use different names for their different series or for a series and then stand-alones, thinking their names are too closely associated with a book or a character.

    • That’s true, Kathy, and it’s certainly a reason for which an author might write under more than one name. Each name is associated with a given character/book/series. And you’ve mentioned a few authors who decided to (or were asked to) use initials. There are a number of reasons people might do that, and it’s interesting to see the variety of authors who have.

  11. kathy d.

    And then there’s the conundrum of the S.J. Bolton and S.J. Watson. S.J. Bolton we readers found out is Sharon Bolton, who later used her full name. But then S.J. Watson wrote a thriller. Who was that? Should we have assumed it was a woman writer ala S.J. Bolton? I certainly Wondered.
    But Watson is a male writer.
    Then there’s the writer who uses the pen name Mallock. Huh?
    Yikes! A reader could get befuddled with all of this incognito writing.
    But then I go back a few hundred years and am reminded of George Eliot, whose real name was Mary Ann Evans, but due to the period and social norms, she couldn’t use her real name.
    And then I think of today’s Fred Vargas, brilliant French artist.
    Her name is Frederique Audoin Rouzeau. But she uses a pseudonum, not sure why.

    • You have a point, Kathy, that those initials can be confusing. And there are plenty of writers who shorten or otherwise change their names. They all have different reasons, and it’s interesting to learn them, I think.

  12. Margot: Michael Redhill added to a mystery when he answered some email questions I sent to him. On why, when his name was mentioned as a potential author, he carefully stated he was not saying anything on the advice of legal counsel he told me:

    I still can’t talk about the circumstances around which I had to get legal advice since it concerns a criminal act by a third party. At the time, I was advised to say “no comment” about anything regarding the series for my own safety. However, I would not have “revealed” myself at that time anyway, for that reason or any other, as I intended, at the time, to keep my authorship of the IAW books to myself permanently.

  13. kathy d.

    Now that Michael Redhill story is a mystery which would make a good book!

  14. There’s also Agatha Christie writing under Mary Westmacott for her romance novels. 🙂

  15. I am glad you mentioned K.C. Constantine. I enjoy his writing and I need to read more of it. It is interesting that he was so concerned about privacy so long before the internet, which makes it almost impossible.

    • I thought about that, too, Tracy. And yet, he seems to have been quite concerned about it. I like his mysteries, too, and it’s nice to know a bit more about him. Still, I can’t blame him for wanting to protect his privacy.

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