Fowler, Earlene 1954-
Fowler, Earlene 1954-
Born August 23, 1954, in Lynwood, CA; daughter of Earl J. (a sheet metal machinist) and Mary (a homemaker and secretary) Worley; married Allen W. Fowler (a process engineer), September 8, 1973. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Christian. Hobbies and other interests: Quilts, folk art, horses, oral history, country/ western music, cowboy boots.
Writer, c. 1994—.
Sisters in Crime, Women Writing the West, American Crime Writers League.
Agatha Award nomination for best novel, 1994, Fool's Puzzle, 1996, for Kansas Troubles, 1997, for Goose in the Pond,, 1998, for Dove in the Wind, 2002, for Arkansas Traveler; Agatha Award, 1999, for Mariner's Compass.
"BENNI HARPER" MYSTERIES
Fool's Puzzle, Berkley Publishing (New York, NY), 1994.
Irish Chain, Berkley Publishing (New York, NY), 1995.
Kansas Troubles, Berkley Publishing (New York, NY), 1996.
Goose in the Pond, Berkley Publishing (New York, NY), 1997.
Dove in the Window, Berkley Publishing (New York, NY), 1998.
Mariner's Compass, Berkley Publishing (New York, NY), 1999.
Seven Sisters, Berkley Publishing (New York, NY), 2000.
Arkansas Traveler, Berkley Publishing (New York, NY), 2001.
Steps to the Altar, Berkley Publishing (New York, NY), 2002.
Sunshine and Shadow, Berkley Prime Crime (New York, NY), 2003.
(With Margrit Hall) Benni Harper's Quilt Album: A Scrapbook of Quilt Projects, Photos & Never-Before-Told Stories, C&T (Lafayette, CA), 2004.
Broken Dishes, Berkley Prime Crime (New York, NY), 2004.
Delectable Mountains, Berkley Prime Crime (New York, NY), 2005.
The Saddlemaker's Wife (novel), Berkley Prime Crime (New York, NY), 2006.
Earlene Fowler's mysteries all take their titles from quilting patterns, reflecting the author's interest in folk art and quilting. Her protagonist, Benni Harper, shares those interests. In the first volume of the series, Fool's Puzzle, readers meet Benni, a recently widowed woman who works as the curator of a folk-art museum in San Celina, California. The night before a quilt exhibit is to open at the museum, a local artist is found murdered on the premises, and Benni sees her own cousin leaving the scene of the crime. Her efforts to protect her relative put her in opposition with Gabe Ortiz, the local police chief. Soon, she discovers a possible link between her husband's death several months before and the current mystery. A writer for Kirkus Reviews recommended the book, commenting that, although Benni is grieving and subdued throughout most of the story, "underneath the sadness … she's loose, friendly, and bright."
In the second novel of the series, Irish Chain, Benni and Gabe have moved from an antagonistic relationship to a budding romance, and in the third entry, Kansas Troubles, they are on their honeymoon. Traveling to Kansas to visit Gabe's family, they naturally become entangled in another mystery. Benni's determination to solve it despite Gabe's protests causes a rift between the newlyweds, but the breach is healed by the time they discover another dead body in Goose in the Pond. This time, the victim is the local library storyteller, her corpse found dressed in a Mother Goose costume. Booklist contributor GraceAnne DeCandido noted that Goose in the Pond is packed full of plot twists and subplots, and added: "The dialogue is often engaging, and the local California color more so." Fowler's ability to depict small communities and their members in an engaging style is frequently pointed out by reviewers as one of her strengths. Discussing Seven Sisters—a mystery in which deaths from the past are linked to a modern tragedy—a Publishers Weekly contributor praised it as "a compelling story of families torn apart by divided loyalties," capped by a "stunning climax."
Fowler has continued to produce numerous new adventures for her heroine Benni. In Arkansas Traveler, Benni returns to her small hometown of Sugartree, Arkansas, where racial strife is rampant, from the mayor's race between Benni's black friend and a rich white incumbent to the congregations of two Baptist churches—one predominantly black and the other white—embroiled in a fight over whether or not they should merge. Along with Benni is her husband, Gabe, and her friend Elvia, whose Hispanic heritage also heightens the tension that Benni feels. Before long, someone is murdered, an innocent young man is accused of the crime, and Benni sets out to find the real killer. A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that the author "delivers cozy entertainment without resorting to unrealistically syrupy solutions."
In Steps to the Altar, Benni finds her relationship with Gabe in jeopardy when his old female police partner from Los Angeles arrives on the scene and appears to have more than just a friendly visit in mind. Finding herself alone in their new home, Benni becomes involved in a fifty-year-old case involving the local historical society and a missing woman who disappeared in the 1950s leaving behind her dead husband. Furthermore, as Gabe is entranced by his old partner, Benni finds herself immersed in a new relationship with a local sheriff's detective named Hudson Ford. A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that the novel has "plenty of passion, snappy dialogue and a whiz-bang plot."
Sunshine and Shadow features two stories, one focusing on Benni in the 1970s when she was married to Jack Harper and lived on a ranch, and the second in 1995, which finds her marriage to Gabe back on solid ground. When an old police department friend of Gabe's arrives in town to conduct a secretive investigation, he is stabbed to death and Benni starts to receive threatening phone calls and hate mail. As Benni sets out to solve the murder, the past and present stories are bound together by a crazy quilt on display that reminds Benni of her past life with Jack. In a review in Booklist, GraceAnne A. DeCandido wrote: "The many plotlines converge in a warmhearted spiral." A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that "readers will relish the author's appealing picture of ranch life and small-town affairs."
In the eleventh mystery in the series, Broken Dishes, Benni is helping some friends with the publicity for their dude ranch when a murder threatens business. Benni is soon on the case to save the ranch's reputation. In a review in Booklist, GraceAnne A. DeCandido noted that the heroine's "warmhearted openness and her deep faith make her an engaging companion." Benni is back home in San Celina for her next adventure, Delectable Mountains. When she finds the body of the church's handyman in the sanctuary, she sets out to solve the crime, once again ignoring her husband's warnings to let the police handle the case. When a violin turns up missing from the museum, Benni soon finds that the murder and the missing instrument are connected. GraceAnne A. DeCandido, writing in Booklist, noted that the mystery is "combined with ruminations on … the value of faith, the complexities of memory and marital fidelity." A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote: "A heart-hammering hostage situation leads to a highly unexpected ending."
The Saddlemaker's Wife is Fowler's first book not to feature Benni Harper. This time, Fowler tells the story of Ruby McGavin, who learns that her recently deceased husband, Lucas, had kept much of his real past secret. Shortly after her husband's death, Ruby finds that, contrary to what he had told Ruby, Lucas's family is alive. They contact her about family land she has inherited from him. During the process of selling the land back to her husband's family, Ruby finds herself becoming close to Lucas's younger brother, a former lawyer and now a saddlemaker. She also discovers that Lucas's family has many secrets of its own. "Fowler … takes the reader along on an emotionally powerful ride," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor, who also commented that the novel may be Fowler's "breakout book."
Fowler told CA: "I became interested in writing when I was twenty-seven years old and took a creative writing class at Citrus College in Glendora, California. I'd always loved to read and just thought I'd try my hand at writing. After that I took about nine or ten creative writing classes at various Southern California community colleges and read every how-to-write book in every library I could find. I still love reading more than writing and if I had to choose between the two, I'd never give up reading.
"I have read mysteries all my life, but when I started writing in my late twenties, for some reason, it didn't occur to me to write a mystery. I also read a lot of literary fiction, especially short stories, so that seemed to be the area that attracted me. I attempted to write mystery short stories, but could never get the hang of a plotoriented story, so I continued writing character-oriented stories with no publishing success.
"I think, looking back now, that I felt short stories were an emotionally easier way to start writing. I discovered, after writing my first novel, that committing to a character for twenty-five or thirty pages is not nearly as exhausting or terrifying as staying with him or her for four hundred. I suppose it's like the difference between dating and being married. With short stories, I always had that thrill of a new character or situation to keep me interested. When I get to the halfway point in a novel, I'm often ready to commit mass ‘charactericide’ on everyone. Like being in a long marriage, however, writing a novel brought me a deeper satisfaction than any of my short stories. In the stories, I always had a point to make, and I think that is really why anyone writes a short story. In a novel, if it is going well, the characters live and become a part of your life permanently.
"When I decided to write a mystery, I promised myself one thing. I was going to put everything in it that I liked; otherwise, it would bore me. I firmly believe if the writing bores the writer, it's certainly going to bore the reader. Though I was born and raised in a primarily Latino community in southern California, I was very influenced by farm women my whole life. Both my grandmothers were raised on farms, as were my mother and my mother-in-law. The decision to name my books after quilt patterns was natural, because my Arkansas grandmother and great-grandmother were both avid quilters, and my Kansas grandmother was a talented needlewoman. Folk art and crafts are a strong part of my personal history and would naturally find their way into my writing. The western influence comes from my father. He was born in Colorado and spent most of his young years wandering the West with his parents, who were migrant workers. My books are a combination of the Wild West and the crazy South and a little ‘anything goes’ California thrown in. Hopefully, they aren't boring.
"My biggest influences have always been the Southern writers—Eudora Welty, Harper Lee, Flannery O'Connor, Lee Smith, Bobbie Ann Mason, James Lee Burke. I think of the South as my spiritual home because though I am a native Southern Californian, I was raised by an Arkansas mother. I love the roundabout way that Southerners tell a story, the tangents they go off on and I think that definitely reflects in my writing and even the way I speak. I love it when I talk to a Southerner because I don't have to hurry my story in the way I feel compelled to do when talking to a West or East Coaster.
"I prefer to write in the morning, though not really early. I like it quiet, no radio or television. And it actually helps me to be in a boring room, one without a view. If I had a beautiful view, I think I wouldn't retreat into my imagination and create the places and people I do. I've been told that I write well about small town life which is funny because I grew up in the city. I suppose it is my desire for community I'm writing about, the idealistic community I want to exist in a small town. I know it's somewhat of a fantasy, but I think it's one many readers share.
"My favorite book is the same one that my fans seem to like best—Mariner's Compass. The prologue that I wrote for it was truly a gift. It was one of the easiest things I've ever written. It was a painful, but fun book to write. The subject of lost mothers was hard, but using all the unique places in San Luis Obispo County in a scavenger hunt was fun. And it was a murder mystery without a murder, which I enjoyed pulling off.
"The most humbling thing that many readers have told me is that my books have helped them through a hard time in their life like a rough patch in their marriage, or an illness like cancer or a death of someone they love. It always reminds me of the power of words and how we can use them to hurt or to comfort, our choice. I know books have helped me through some very, very hard moments in my life and I've always been grateful to those authors for giving me that relief when I so needed it. I'm thankful that God has allowed me to pass that same comfort on to others."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Armchair Detective, winter, 1995, review of Fool's Puzzle, p. 40.
Booklist, May 15, 1994, review of Fool's Puzzle, pp. 1666, 1671; April 15, 1997, GraceAnne DeCandido, review of Goose in the Pond, p. 1403; April 15, 1998, John Rowen, review of Dove in the Window, p. 1382; March 15, 1999, review of Mariner's Compass, p. 417; April 15, 1999, John Rowen, review of Mariner's Compass, p. 1472; March 15, 2000, John Rowen, review of Seven Sisters, p. 1332; May 1, 2003, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Sunshine and Shadow, p. 1542; May 1, 2004, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Broken Dishes, p. 1508; May 1, 2005, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Delectable Mountains, p. 1522.
Bookwatch, March, 1996, review of Irish Chain, p. 4; July, 1996, review of Kansas Troubles, p. 8.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1994, review of Fool's Puzzle, p. 343; February 15, 1995, review of Irish Chain, p. 183; April 1, 1996, review of Kansas Troubles, p. 493; April 1, 1997, review of Goose in the Pond, p. 505; April 1, 1998, review of Dove in the Window, p. 448; March 15, 2000, review of Seven Sisters, p. 342; March 1, 2002, review of Steps to the Altar, p. 291.
Library Journal, May 1, 1994, review of Fool's Puzzle, p. 142; October 15, 1994, review of Fool's Puzzle, p. 112; May 1, 1999, Rex E. Klett, review of Mariner's Compass, p. 117; May 1, 2004, Rex E. Klett, review of Broken Dishes, p. 144.
Publishers Weekly, March 28, 1994, review of Fool's Puzzle, p. 86; February 13, 1995, review of Irish Chain, p. 67; May 6, 1996, review of Kansas Troubles, p. 73; March 24, 1997, review of Goose in the Pond, p. 62; March 23, 1998, review of Dove in the Window, p. 81; April 19, 1999, review of Mariner's Compass, p. 65; March 13, 2000, review of Seven Sisters, p. 65; March 12, 2001, review of Arkansas Traveler, p. 66; March 25, 2002, review of Steps to the Altar, p. 45; April 14, 2003, review of Sunshine and Shadow, p. 52; April 18, 2005, review of Delectable Mountains, p. 46; March 20, 2006, review of The Saddlemaker's Wife, p. 39.
Earlene Fowler Home Page,http://www.earlenefowler.com (May 22, 2006).
Mystery Reader,http://www.themysteryreader.com/ (May 22, 2006), Jeri Wright, review of Mariner's Compass.