Dunlap, Susan 1943–
Dunlap, Susan 1943–
Writer, novelist, and social services professional. Department of Social Services, Baltimore, MD, social worker, 1966-67; Department of Social Services, New York, NY, social worker, 1967; Department of Social Services, Contra Costa County, CA, social worker, 1968-84; full-time writer, 1984—. Teacher of Hatha yoga.
Sisters in Crime (founding member; president, 1990-91).
Anthony Award; Macavity Award.
(Editor, with Robert J. Randisi) Deadly Allies II: Private Eye Writers of America and Sisters in Crime Collaborative Anthology, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1994.
The Celestial Buffet and Other Morsels of Murder, with a separately printed pamphlet titled "A Tail of Two Cities: A Jill Smith Story," Crippen & Landru Publishers (Norfolk, VA), 2001.
Karma and Other Stories, Five Star (Waterville, ME), 2002.
Fast Friends, Severn House (Surrey, England), 2004.
A Single Eye ("Darcy Lott" series), Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 2006.
"VEJAY HASKELL" MYSTERY SERIES
An Equal Opportunity Death, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1984.
The Bohemian Connection, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1985.
The Last Annual Slugfest, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1986.
"JILL SMITH" MYSTERY SERIES
Karma, Dell Publishing (New York, NY), 1981.
As a Favor, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1984.
Not Exactly a Brahmin, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1985.
Too Close to the Edge, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1987.
A Dinner to Die For, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1987.
Diamond in the Buff, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1990.
Death and Taxes, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 1992.
Time Expired, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 1993.
Sudden Exposure, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 1996.
Cop Out, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 1997.
"KIERNAN O'SHAUGHNESSY" MYSTERY SERIES
Pious Deception, Villard Books (New York, NY), 1989.
Rogue Wave, Villard Books (New York, NY), 1991.
High Fall, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 1994.
No Immunity, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 1998.
Contributor to anthologies, including A Woman's Eye, edited by Sara Paretsky, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 1991.
Contributor of short stories to periodicals, including Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.
Susan Dunlap has published mystery novels featuring several popular series characters: amateur detective Vejay Haskell, police detective Jill Smith, and medical examiner turned private investigator Kiernan O'Shaughnessy. Similarities abound between the characters. For instance, all three are, in various ways, symbols of feminist independence. Vejay avoids a serious relationship, and Jill, despite a steady boyfriend, manages to maintain a sense of separation. Kiernan owns a kitchenless duplex, an Irish wolfhound, a big sport utility vehicle, and a little sports car, and employs a former football player as a housekeeper. For all three, career changes put them in a position to become investigators, though neither Jill's promotion nor Kiernan's shift of focus are nearly as extreme as the break Vejay makes with her own past. Sue Trowbridge, on the Interbridge Web site, called Dunlap "a true pioneer in the field of crime novels with female protagonists." A founding member and former president of Sisters in Crime, Dunlap lives in Albany, California, just north of Berkeley, the setting for her Jill Smith series.
Vejay, a former public relations executive, leaves a high-powered job and her husband to become a meter reader for Pacific Gas and Electric in the Russian River Resort north of San Francisco. Her job allows her plenty of access to people's homes and other places off-limits to most amateur sleuths. Her work as a detective begins in An Equal Opportunity Death, when she is accused of murdering a bartender she once dated. To clear herself, Vejay goes into action, bringing to bear the resources at her disposal as a meter reader.
"While the plotting … is sometimes … muddy," a reviewer for Publishers Weekly wrote of the first Vejay Haskell book, "Vejay is an interesting heroine and her mystery … has a pleasantly different twist." Some coincidences in the book, commented a critic in Booklist, "stretch the possibilities … but the beguiling story unfolds quickly and smoothly." Newgate Callendar of the New York Times Book Review wrote of An Equal Opportunity Death that there is "nothing in the least original" about it, yet observed that "the heroine is feistily attractive" and pronounced it a worthwhile read. Kathleen Maio of Wilson Library Bulletin, who called it "not a memorable mystery," concluded that the book "promises better things to come."
The Bohemian Connection takes place during a festival at the Russian River Resort, when Vejay learns that the body of a coworker's niece has been found in a sewer. As the mystery unfolds, she finds a connection between the murder and a drug-and-prostitution ring associated with the festival itself. The story culminates with the dredging of a cesspool, which yields some surprises. A Publishers Weekly contributor observed that Vejay is "not well served in this obvious and unfocused plot," and a Kirkus Reviews writer quoted a comment from the heroine in an appraisal of the book's plot: "It was already more than I wanted to know."
The slugs in The Last Annual Slugfest are not bullets or punches from a boxer, but the kind of slugs one finds in the garden—only, in the Russian River Resort, they are an escargot-like delicacy. The celebration of the Slugfest, an annual slug-tasting festival, is disrupted when one of the judges, Edwina Henderson, is poisoned. As Vejay goes to work on the mystery, she discovers a conflict between Edwina and her niece over the niece's relationship with a mystery man in the past. She also learns of a controversy involving an Indian tribe's claim to the resort's property, a claim that Edwina had intended to publicize. The plot thickens when Vejay discovers that the treaty on which the claim was based is a forgery. A Kirkus Reviews contributor called the novel "overplotted, over-populated, overwrought, and dull," but a reviewer in Publishers Weekly praised the tale's resolution as "a surprise [that] caps off an entertaining story."
Dunlap was featured in a mystery writers' cookbook called Cooking with Malice Domestic, published in 1991. Commenting that "my view of cooking is that its main use is as a cover for poisons," Dunlap presented the recipe for Slug Pizza.
Dunlap's character Jill Smith, formerly a beat cop, has recently been promoted to homicide detective when her own series begins. As with Vejay Haskell, her surroundings are vital to her stories—in this case, the "radical chic" environment of Berkeley, California. Trowbridge called Dunlap "the Bard of Berkeley," saying that the city provides her with endless inspiration for her Jill Smith mysteries. Site of student unrest in the 1960s, Berkeley has become a refuge for wealthy liberals and eccentrics, not to mention quite a few offbeat down-and-outers, homeless people, and a number of hippie leftovers from an earlier era. Surrounding Jill is a police department filled with an assortment of temperaments and ethnicities, including beat officer Connie Pereira, aspiring physical therapist Murakawa, and jealous Sergeant Grayson. To get a feel for the way a police department works, Dunlap told Trowbridge in the Interbridge interview, she participated in a ten-week class on police work, which included a "ride along" program with Berkeley officers. She also called officers with questions that arose as she was writing.
Typical of the Berkeley settings for the "Jill Smith" mysteries is that of Karma. Attending a ceremony featuring a self-styled Buddhist holy man, Jill is shocked when the guru suddenly falls dead before an audience—with a knife in his chest. In As a Favor, the murder victim is more conventional, though her role as a worker in the local welfare department could be indicative of Berkeley's liberal and left-wing politics. In any case, victim Anne Spaulding was a coworker of Jill's ex-husband Nat, who asks Jill to look into the case. Ultimately Jill discovers an intricate welfare scam behind the murder, but not before she has a series of encounters with some of Berkeley's least—and some of its most—wealthy denizens. A Kirkus Reviews critic called As a Favor a "not-very-interesting story." However, a contributor to Publishers Weekly praised it as an "attractive mystery with a clever twist at the end," Library Journal reviewer Jean B. Palmer commented on Dunlap's "lively dialogue, fast pacing, smart characters, and breezy description" of Berkeley.
Not Exactly a Brahmin finds Jill investigating the murder of wealthy philanthropist Ralph Palmerston, a perplexing case because he was admired by virtually everyone who knew him. A Publishers Weekly critic called it "a suspenseful, fast-paced mystery," and a Booklist reviewer referred to it as "an intriguing tale" in spite of somewhat "sketchy" details on police procedure. Maio of Wilson Library Bulletin, while professing to prefer Vejay Haskell to Jill Smith, pronounced Dunlap "one of the Great Hopes of the policewoman procedural novel."
A handicapped activist turns up drowned in Too Close to the Edge, a mystery involving a local gang that steals high-priced designer running shoes. At the book's climax, Jill and the killer battle it out in a helicopter above San Francisco Bay. A Booklist reviewer called this last scene "hair-raising," and a contributor to Kirkus Reviews noted that the book, despite a slow start, is "Dunlap's most accomplished work yet."
Jill is thrust into another mystery with the murder of a chef in A Dinner to Die For. She also has problems in her personal life as she recovers from injuries sustained in Too Close to the Edge. A Booklist reviewer noted the novel's "sparkling good humor," and a Publishers Weekly contributor called it "an appealing mystery with tangy details on the Bay Area's changing environs and characters." Library Journal reviewer Jo Ann Vicarel concluded that Dunlap "gets better with every book."
Involved in a steady relationship, Jill wants to spend more time with her lover, but mysteries such as the one in Diamond in the Buff keep getting in the way of her plans. The nude referred to in the title is a sunbathing dentist, who complains about a neighbor who has allegedly beaten him with a eucalyptus branch. Things get ugly when another man is thrown off his deck to his death. In spite of some unlikely coincidences, wrote a reviewer in Publishers Weekly, the book is a "witty police procedural." A Kirkus Reviews contributor commented on its "lively backdrop" of Berkeley, which along with other facets of the story, "[makes] a mundane puzzle moderately diverting and easy to take."
In Death and Taxes, Jill's lover, Seth Howard, also a policeman, is deep in the middle of filing his taxes when Jill learns that a notorious IRS auditor—"one of the most hated employees of the nation's most-loathed bureaucracy"—has been murdered. Naturally, it is hard for Jill to feel sympathetic for the victim in this case, but she puts her mind to solving the mystery. Although Marilyn Stasio in the New York Times Book Review criticized the abundance of information about taxes when compared with the "airy" details on police procedure, a Booklist contributor pronounced Death and Taxes "every bit as much fun as its predecessors."
As is often the case in "Jill Smith" mysteries, seemingly unrelated activities come together in Time Expired: a hostage situation, the murder of a cantankerous lawyer, and an elaborate scheme involving parking tickets. "Dunlap is a talented writer; her prose is witty, sharp, at times hilarious," observed Suzanne Manczuk in Voice of Youth Advocates, "yet she can be thoughtful and introspective." Library Journal reviewer Rex E. Klett commented that "the plot remains minimal," and a Publishers Weekly contributor observed that "this is no spine-tingler." But, the Publishers Weekly contributor concluded, "a steady buildup of credible clues and Dunlap's psychological insights move her story steadily forward."
Sudden Exposure, Dunlap told Trowbridge, was inspired by a nudity movement in Berkeley. It begins with a conflict between Sam Johnson, an over-the-hill radical activist, and his next-door neighbor, a former Olympic diver named Bryn Wiley. Bryn claims that Sam has been shooting at her car, and things get ugly when someone shoots at Bryn's vehicle and kills a person inside it. Jill begins to investigate and discovers that things are not what they seem in Bryn's neighborhood—one neighbor, in fact, does not even officially exist. This installment in the "Jill Smith" series is, in the view of Booklist reviewer Emily Melton, "a clear winner, thanks to an original plot, plenty of eccentric characters, and Dunlap's trademark breezy style." Doreen Salse of Armchair Detective professed to have never read any of the other "Jill Smith" mysteries prior to Sudden Exposure but concluded: "Her transplanted Easterner musings on the peculiarities of Berkeley aside, Smith's character was interesting enough to make me curious about her other eight adventures."
The mystery in Cop Out hits uncomfortably close to home for Jill. For years she has worked with a private eye named Herman Ott, using him as an informant. Both Jill and Herman are renegades, which has put both at odds with Jill's police department. Therefore, when a much-admired local leader of the arts community is murdered and police suspect Herman, Jill is put into a difficult situation. She believes him to be innocent and sets out to prove her case, but in the process discovers some surprising things about the man she thought she knew. As with the neighbors in Sudden Exposure, no one around her in Cop Out is quite who he or she claims to be. A Kirkus Reviews contributor called the book "solid and laden with local color, but lifeless. Whatever secrets Jill uncovers, Dunlap's real preoccupation is with her heroine's conflicted relationship with her cop life and lover." By contrast, a reviewer for Publishers Weekly wrote: "Smith's problematic romance with the burly and emotionally needy officer Seth Howard is always lively, adding another wrinkle of color to a series marked by its vividly depicted setting and admirably controlled plots."
Like Vejay Haskell, Kiernan O'Shaughnessy made a career change, but hers was not nearly such a radical break with the past. A former medical examiner, she has become a private investigator, and her experience in forensics often helps her solve cases. In the Interbridge interview, Dunlap told Trowbridge that she attends autopsies and researches forensics for the series.
In Pious Deception, Kiernan is called in to investigate the possible suicide of a Phoenix, Arizona, man, Austin Vanderhooven. What makes the suicide seem suspect, besides the fact that the deceased was a parish priest, is the hurried destruction of the body by cremation before an autopsy can be performed. Kiernan becomes personally involved in the case, which brings back hurts from her own past, and she is forced to deal with hostile local citizens in solving the mystery. Joyce Park, on the MysteryGuide Web site, complimented Dunlap on her portrayal of Kiernan as a professional, and wrote, "she's among the few fictional private eyes who insist upon a written contract and evidence of previous police involvement before starting a job." Park also praised Dunlap's portrayal of the Phoenix area and wrote that the characters, at the beginning of the book, are "drawn with a cool, realistic touch." According to a contributor to Publishers Weekly, the beginning of the book is promising, but it turns out to be "overburdened with subplots," an impression echoed in Park's MysteryGuide review. Bill Ott of Booklist, however, wrote that "Dunlap is off to a good start here; watch for Kiernan to develop into an engaging series hero." Dunlap told Sue Trowbridge that Kiernan "doesn't want to deal with what her emotions are. She wants to put that stuff in the back of her mind … to look people in the face and not budge and demand an answer and just charge on with what she's doing. I find that fascinating."
In Rogue Wave, a sailor is washed overboard and drowned, and Kiernan is brought in to examine the corpse. As she begins the investigation, she learns that the boat's captain was responsible years before for a hit-and-run accident that rendered a local artist brain damaged. Marilyn Stasio, in the New York Times Book Review, described Dunlap's technique in Rogue Wave as "research-dissect-describe," and said that the technique "also works on the white-knuckle plot and bare-knuckle action scenes." Clarence Peterson of Chicago Tribune Books called Dunlap's technical expertise "extraordinary," and wrote that she "knows the West Coast … [and] knows how to build suspense." Peter Robertson of Booklist commented that "Rogue Wave quickly draws the reader into a tight, sleek plot.#x0022;
High Fall involves the death of a stuntwoman attempting to re-create a fatal stunt from the film Bad Companions, shot ten years earlier. Kiernan knew the stuntwoman, and now she faces a variety of suspects who had been involved in the unfortunate motion picture. A Kirkus Reviews contributor commented on the "disappointing revelations at the end" but found that this was more than offset by "an engaging series of conversations, so many telling forensic details, and such a sure sense of the leading players." A Library Journal reviewer called it "good entertainment," and wrote: "With slick and sassy prose, Dunlap … moves it all forward."
No Immunity brings on a chance for Kiernan's ex-football-player housekeeper, Brad Tchernack, to do some investigating of his own. Kiernan is called away to Nevada by Jeff, a friend from medical school, who needs to know the cause of death of a woman with symptoms of Lassa fever. While she is away, Brad gets involved in the search for a missing oil man with two deaf youngsters from Panama who are showing the same Lassa fever symptoms. While Kiernan is on the run from an accusing Nevada sheriff, another private eye and a second body complicate her detective work. A Publishers Weekly contributor called the plot "fragmented and hard to follow." However, Stephanie Zvirin of Booklist wrote: "Dunlap delivers plenty of high-octane action" in this book, and readers who love the "Kiernan O'Shaughnessy" series won't be disappointed.
With A Single Eye, Dunlap introduces another series character: stuntwoman, Zen practitioner, and amateur detective Darcy Lott. Though Darcy is a skilled stunt professional and is physically and mentally strong, she has a distinct weakness in her fear of being alone in forests and woodlands. She is horrified during a stunt shoot that goes wrong, severely injuring a young colleague and sending Darcy herself into a terrifying plunge into a forested area. To confront this phobia, her Zen master sends her on a retreat to a Zen monastery in the California redwood forests. Darcy is also to deliver a message to the master, Leo Garson-roshi. When she arrives at the monastery, however, she finds not peace and meditation, but stress and secrets. The memory of Aeneas, a highly adept Zen student who disappeared at a retreat six years previously, has been revived when five other students from the prior retreat arrive to participate in the current one. When Garson-roshi is nearly killed by poisoned cocoa, Darcy realizes that the stakes are dangerous and deadly. Before she is through, she will have to face greed, murder, and the deepening mystery of the vanished Aeneas. "Though the whodunit is overlong and predictable, Dunlap deftly explores the conflicts between Darcy's appetite for answers and her deference to Garson-roshi," noted a Kirkus Reviews critic. Booklist reviewer Barbara Bibel called Lott "an engaging new female detective," while a Publishers Weekly contributor named her a "brilliant but vulnerable heroine."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Heising, Willetta L., Detecting Women, Purple Moon Press (Dearborn, MI), 1996.
Muller, Marcia, and Bill Pronzini, editors, The Web She Weaves, William Morrow (New York, NY), 1983.
Nichols, Victoria, and Susan Thompson, Silk Stalkings, Black Lizard (Berkeley, CA), 1988.
St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1991.
Writers Directory, 15th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Armchair Detective, winter, 1987, review of Not Exactly a Brahmin, p. 93; spring, 1992, review of Karma, p. 237; spring, 1996, Doreen Salse, review of Sudden Exposure, p. 238.
Booklist, June 1, 1984, review of An Equal Opportunity Death, p. 1378; December 15, 1985, review of Not Exactly a Brahmin, p. 608; March 15, 1987, review of Too Close to the Edge, p. 1096; October 15, 1987, review of A Dinner to Die For, p. 363; August, 1989, Bill Ott, review of Pious Deception, p. 1948; July, 1991, Peter Robertson, review of Rogue Wave, p. 2033; March 15, 1992, review of Death and Taxes, p. 1339; May 15, 1993, review of Time Expired, p. 1676; April 15, 1994, review of Deadly Allies II: Private Eye Writers of America and Sisters in Crime Collaborative Anthology, p. 1518; September 15, 1994, Wes Lukowsky, review of High Fall, p. 116; February 15, 1996, Emily Melton, review of Sudden Exposure, p. 994; May 1, 1997, Emily Melton, review of Cop Out, p. 1481; April 15, 1998, Stephanie Zvirin, review of No Immunity, p. 1380; September 15, 2006, Barbara Bibel, review of A Single Eye, p. 31.
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 1984, review of An Equal Opportunity Death, p. 428; August 15, 1984, review of As a Favor, p. 779; May 15, 1985, review of The Bohemian Connection, p. 449; November 15, 1985, review of Not Exactly a Brahmin, p. 1225; July 1, 1986, review of The Last Annual Slugfest, p. 977; March 15, 1987, review of Too Close to the Edge, p. 423; June 1, 1989, review of Pious Deception, p. 797; February 15, 1990, review of Diamond in the Buff, p. 223; March 15, 1992, review of Death and Taxes, p. 355; March 15, 1993, review of Time Expired, p. 333; June 15, 1994, review of High Fall, p. 807; January 1, 1996, review of Sudden Exposure, p. 25; March 1, 1997, review of Cop Out, p. 336; April 1, 1998, review of No Immunity, p. 450; June 15, 2002, review of Karma and Other Stories, p. 840; September 15, 2004, review of Fast Friends, p. 892; September 15, 2006, review of A Single Eye, p. 931.
Library Journal, October 1, 1984, Jean B. Palmer, review of As a Favor, p. 1865; November 1, 1987, Jo Ann Vicarel, review of A Dinner to Die For, p. 124; May 1, 1993, Rex E. Klett, review of Time Expired, p. 121; August, 1994, Rex E. Klett, review of High Fall, p. 137; September 1, 1995, review of High Fall, p. 236; March 1, 1997, Rex E. Klett, review of Cop Out, p. 107.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 8, 1989, review of Pious Deception, p. 10.
New York Times Book Review, October 14, 1984, Newgate Callendar, review of An Equal Opportunity Death, p. 46; February 9, 1986, Newgate Callendar, review of Not Exactly a Brahmin, p. 27; September 10, 1989, Marilyn Stasio, review of Pious Deception, p. 28; July 21, 1991, Marilyn Stasio, review of Rogue Wave, p. 25; May 10, 1992, Marilyn Stasio, review of Death and Taxes, p. 23; March 28, 1993, review of Death and Taxes, p. 24; September 18, 1994, Marilyn Stasio, review of High Fall, p. 34.
Publishers Weekly, May 4, 1984, review of An Equal Opportunity Death, p. 52; August 17, 1984, review of As a Favor, p. 48; May 3, 1985, review of The Bohemian Connection, p. 67; October 18, 1985, review of Not Exactly a Brahmin, p. 50; June 13, 1986, Sybil Steinberg, review of The Last Annual Slugfest, p. 72; January 16, 1987, Sybil Steinberg, review of Too Close to the Edge, p. 64; October 23, 1987, Sybil Steinberg, review of A Dinner to Die For, p. 48; June 23, 1989, Sybil Steinberg, review of Pious Deception, p. 51; January 12, 1990, Sybil Steinberg, review of Diamond in the Buff, p. 50; August 2, 1991, review of A Woman's Eye, p. 65; February 24, 1992, review of Death and Taxes, p. 46; March 29, 1993, review of Time Expired, p. 38; August 1, 1994, review of High Fall, p. 74; December 18, 1995, review of Sudden Exposure, p. 43; February 17, 1997, review of Cop Out, p. 213; March 16, 1998, review of No Immunity, p. 58; September 25, 2006, review of A Single Eye, p. 48.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), April 5, 1992, review of Death and Taxes, p. 5; July 19, 1992, Clarence Peterson, review of Rogue Wave, p. 8.
Voice of Youth Advocates, October, 1993, Suzanne Manczuk, review of Time Expired, p. 215.
Washington Post Book World, July 15, 1984, Jean M. White, review of An Equal Opportunity Death, p. 10.
Wilson Library Bulletin, November, 1984, Kathleen Maio, review of An Equal Opportunity Death, p. 212; February, 1986, Kathleen Maio, review of Not Exactly a Brahmin, p. 49; November, 1989, Kathleen Maio, review of Pious Deception, p. 102.
Interbridge,http://www.interbridge.com/ (February 6, 2007), Sue Trowbridge, interview with Susan Dunlap.
MysteryGuide, http://www.mysteryguide.com/ (February 6, 2007), Joyce Park, review of Pious Deception.