Matera, Lia 1952-
MATERA, Lia 1952-
PERSONAL: Born 1952, in Canada; children: a son. Education: Hastings College of Law, graduated 1981.
CAREER: Writer of murder mysteries. Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly, former editor-in-chief; Stanford Law School, teaching fellow, early 1980s.
AWARDS, HONORS: Anthony and Macavity Award nominations, 1990, for The Good Fight; Edgar Award nomination, 1991, for Prior Convictions; Edgar Award and Anthony Award nominations, 1991, for A Radical Departure; Anthony Award and Macavity Award nominations, 1991, for Where Lawyers Fear to Tread; Shamus Award for Best Short Story, 1996, for "Dead Drunk."
MYSTERY NOVELS; "WILLA JANSSON" SERIES
Where Lawyers Fear to Tread, Bantam (New York, NY), 1987.
A Radical Departure, Bantam (New York, NY), 1988.
Hidden Agenda, Bantam (New York, NY), 1988.
Prior Convictions, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1991.
Last Chants, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1996.
Star Witness, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1997.
Havana Twist, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1998.
MYSTERY NOVELS; "LAURA DIPALMA" SERIES
The Smart Money, Bantam (New York, NY), 1988.
The Good Fight, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1990.
A Hard Bargain, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1992.
Face Value, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1994.
Designer Crimes, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1995.
(Editor) Irreconcilable Differences, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1999.
Counsel for the Defense and Other Stories, Five Star (Unity, ME), 2000.
Contributor of short stories to anthologies, including Sisters in Crime, Berkley (New York, NY), 1989; Sisters in Crime 2, Berkley (New York, NY), 1990; Deadly Allies, Bantam (New York, NY), 1992; Mysterious West, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1994; Crimes of the Heart, Berkley (New York, NY), 1995; Women on the Case, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1996; and Guilty as Charged, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1996.
Matera's novels have been published in Germany, Denmark, Norway, Japan, and Finland.
SIDELIGHTS: Lia Matera is a mystery novelist who specializes in stories that carry on the sociopolitical debates of the 1960s. Her strong female characters and radical politics are found in two ongoing series, one featuring Willa Jansson, a leftist attorney, and the other featuring Laura DiPalma, a wealthy lawyer who moonlights as an amateur sleuth. "Lia Matera's novels defy convention," according to an essayist in the St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers. "They might be considered legal thrillers, but their plotting is more akin to that of a traditional mystery. They might be classified as cozies, except for a decidedly sharp satiric edge and for their dissection of social, ethical, and political issues. However one categorizes these mysteries, they are gripping stories with memorable characters."
Where Lawyers Fear to Tread, the first in the series featuring protagonist Willa Jansson, is set in the cloistered community of Malhousie Law School in San Francisco. Willa is a law student and a member of the school's law review. When law review editors and a professor die mysterious deaths, Willa endeavors to find the killer. One of the obstacles that Willa must work against is her distrust of the police, a sentiment instilled in Willa by her politically radical parents. In the course of her investigation, Willa finds that she herself may be in danger. While a reviewer for Booklist felt that Matera's protagonist spent "too much time accusing practically every character of being the killer," the critic did praise the "smooth wit and interplay" of the characters. Kathleen Maio, who reviewed the book for Wilson Library Bulletin, called it "an exceptional debut."
Matera continued her series with the novels A Radical Departure and Hidden Agenda. Hidden Agenda begins with Willa, who attended a legal aid-oriented law school, working at a low-paying job. Willa's boss suddenly dies after ingesting hemlock, and subsequently Willa is mysteriously offered a high-paying job at a prestigious law firm. Forsaking her Marxist parents, Willa accepts the job but is terribly distressed when her new boss is fatally poisoned during a corporate retreat. Though a reviewer for Publishers Weekly felt that the novel "is angry, and devoid of humor or emotions other than hate," a Booklist critic praised the novel as "offbeat and very funny."
Prior Convictions finds Willa resigning from her lucrative job as a corporate lawyer in Los Angeles and moving back to San Francisco. To the delight of her hippie parents, a job as clerk for politically liberal federal court judge Michael J. Shanna awaits Willa in San Francisco. An elaborate string of events is set in motion when a friend, acting on behalf of Rita Dela-court, a 1960s political activist, asks Willa to find out what her estranged husband plans to do if Rita were to seek a divorce. Willa complies, but the phone call causes Judge Shanna to excuse himself from a securities fraud case he is working on. Then Rita, who has turned state's evidence against her fellow revolutionaries and placed her husband Tom Rugieri in prison, is found dead. A critic for Kirkus Reviews, though noting some problems with the novel, wrote, "Matera's wit, grace with language, irreverence toward the legal system, and wry dissection of being a child of children of the Sixties make this a standout . . . work." A Publishers Weekly reviewer declared, "Matera once again demonstrates that she is one of today's best mystery writers."
Last Chants, Matera's 1996 effort, finds lawyer Jansson encountering mythology professor and old family friend Arthur Kenna, who is brandishing a gun on the street. Arthur later explains to Willa that his assistant, Billy Seawuit, has been killed, and that someone is trying to frame him for the murder. Willa must track down the real killer to clear Arthur, but to do so she must learn about shamanism, a religion that was practiced by Billy. In a review for Booklist, Stuart Miller wrote: "Effectively blending the seemingly incongruous elements of high-tech computing and ancient mythology, Matera has produced a first-rate mystery, exhibiting her usual hallmarks of excellent plotting, solid characterizations, and brisk pacing." Marilyn Stasio, commenting in the New York Times Book Review, declared, "It's a treat to watch the normally level-headed Willa crawling around in the woods searching for naked gods." "Matera's skills make an accomplished, compelling mystery of material that could have been a lightweight, New Age yarn," wrote a Publishers Weekly reviewer.
Matera continued the "Willa Jansson" series with Star Witness and Havana Twist. In Star Witness Willa is talked into defending a man who is charged with vehicular homicide. While under hypnosis, the defendant claims that he is innocent because he was not in his car at the time of the crime. He was, in fact, the victim of a UFO abduction. Harriet Klausner, in a review for Under the Covers Book Reviews, wrote that "Matera constructs her usual brilliant who-done-it while subtly weaving a lot of known UFO lore into the story line." Similarly, Patricia Holt, in the San Francisco Chronicle, argued that "one needn't believe in aliens or flying saucers to admire Matera's gift for weaving her by-now incredible knowledge of the field (a bibliography lists thirty books and forty-six videos) into a tight, alien-dunit mystery."
Havana Twist finds Willa traveling to Cuba, searching for her lost mother. "She's missing in Cuba, where she had traveled with a group of fellow communist sympathizers but failed to catch the plane back to San Francisco," as Marc Igler explained in the San Francisco Chronicle. Willa's investigations lead her to interview an imprisoned Cuban poet, speak with a member of the communist politburo, fall in with possible CIA agents, and fear for her life. A Publishers Weekly reviewer found that "the appealing Willa is fun to watch as she reacts with healthy doses of common sense, fear, humble confusion and wit to her various troubles." "Set against the constant hardships of daily life in Cuba . . . Matera weaves a compelling and scary story," according to Stuart Miller in Booklist. Klausner called Matera "an ingenious storyteller" and Havana Twist "an entertaining package."
Matera began a second series of mystery novels in 1988 with The Smart Money, which feature wealthy attorney Laura DiPalma as an amateur sleuth. "Matera creates a highly complex character for her second series," an essayist for the St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers argued. "Laura DiPalma is a tough, aggressive corporate lawyer, who became notorious for defending the murderer of two U.S. senators, and for using the 'TV defense' of insanity due to watching too much violence on television. In The Smart Money, her law firm gives her some time off to start up a branch office in Hillside, her old home town on the northern California coast. She goes back in order to wreak revenge on her ex-husband's law practice and to destroy his private life. Laura's devious plotting falls to pieces when murder enters the picture and she is an obvious suspect."
The third novel in the series, A Hard Bargain finds Laura retired from her law career and living in northern California with Hal, her cousin and lover. Laura and Hal are visited by Laura's former law partner, Sandy Arkelett, who is seeking help in connection with a suicide. The chronically depressed Karen Clausen McGuinn has killed herself, but her husband Ted has left a loaded gun with her each day, and Sandy smells a rat. Ted, an African-American paramedic, is disliked by his in-laws, and he seems to be the likely suspect. Matera probes the personalities of the characters as she drives the story toward a grim ending. The essayist for the St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers believed that "A Hard Bargain is one of her most accomplished and controversial novels. . . . Matera explores how we conduct ourselves in difficult personal relationships in this outstanding novel."
The trials and tribulations of Laura DiPalma are continued by Matera in Face Value. Laura has returned to the practice of law and moved back to San Francisco to start her own practice. Her first client, Margaret Lenin, wants to sue her spiritual guru, Brother Mike Hover, because tapes made by Brother Mike at Lenin's sex-therapy sessions have been popping up in adult video stores. Lenin eventually drops the case, and Laura takes on another client: Brother Mike himself, who is being sued by Arabella de Janeiro, an exotic dancer who has romantic ties to Margaret. The mystery deepens when Laura responds to a late-night phone call from Margaret and finds six dead strippers at Arabella's workplace, The Back Door. A Kirkus Reviews critic commented, "Matera's look at the dehumanizing power of sexual manipulation . . . is so unblinking that you'll look right past the story's coincidences in your hurry to get to the hair-raising finale."
Designer Crimes pits Laura DiPalma against Connie Gold, a district attorney and Laura's archenemy. The book opens with a flash-forward prologue describing Laura's arrest, and then the first chapter reverts back in time to a meeting between Laura and another lawyer, Jocelyn Kinsley. Laura is seeking to enlist Jocelyn to file a slander suit against a former employer when Kinsley is mowed down by a masked man. Before Kinsley dies, she utters the words "designer crimes," and Laura must discover the meaning behind the words to save her own skin. Pat Dowell of the Washington Post Book World called Designer Crimes a "sizzling" novel "clenched in a no-holds-barred struggle of murderous dimensions."
In addition to her mystery novels, Matera has also edited the anthology Irreconcilable Differences, a collection of stories featuring characters involved in divorce, family problems, or disputes with coworkers or friends. David Pitt, reviewing the anthology for Booklist, praised the authors represented as "a who's-who of contemporary mystery fiction" and concluded that the book is "a can't-miss collection." A Publishers Weekly reviewer found the stories to be "satisfyingly twisted plots based on the differences that can spark violence between spouses, neighbors, partners and even old friends," while Klausner concluded that Irreconcilable Differences was "a remarkable anthology."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
American Libraries, May, 2002, Bill Ott, "Cuba in Crime Fiction," p. 86.
Armchair Detective, summer, 1991, p. 357; winter, 1992, p. 39.
Booklist, August, 1987, p. 1721; November 15, 1988, p. 543; January 1, 1990, p. 894; March 15, 1991, p. 1457; April 15, 1992, p. 1507; February 15, 1994, p. 1064; June 1, 1995, pp. 1735, 1741; April 15, 1996, p. 1423; April 15, 1997, p. 1410; April 15, 1998, Stuart Miller, review of Havana Twist, p. 1383; December 1, 1999, David Pitt, review of Irreconcilable Differences, p. 687.
Chicago Tribune, June 15, 1997.
Dallas Morning News, May 29, 1998.
Entertainment Weekly, June 21, 1996, p. 59.
Houston Chronicle, June 7, 1998.
Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 1989, p. 1637; January 15, 1991, p. 79; March 15, 1992, p. 358; December 1, 1993, p. 1491; April 15, 1995, p. 512; May 1, 1996, p. 645.
Library Journal, January, 1995, p. 176; April 1, 1995, p. 129; April 1, 1996, p. 148; June 1, 1996, p. 157; May 1, 1998, Rex E. Klett, review of Havana Twist, p. 142.
New York Times Book Review, January 21, 1990, p. 35; March 24, 1991, p. 37; June 9, 1991, p. 22; May 24, 1992, p. 25; February 20, 1994, p. 18; June 18, 1995, p. 31; June 23, 1996, p. 28; June 29, 1997; May 17, 1998.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 31, 1998.
Publishers Weekly, July 3, 1987, p. 58; October 28, 1988, p. 74; November 17, 1989, p. 44; February 1, 1991, p. 68; April 19, 1991, p. 64; March 30, 1992, p. 92; April 6, 1992, p. 59; December 20, 1993, p. 53-54; April 10, 1995, p. 56; April 15, 1996, p. 53; April 14, 1997, p. 59; April 6, 1998, review of Havana Twist, p. 63; November 29, 1999, review of Irreconcilable Differences, p. 56.
Rapport, no. 2, 1994, p. 21.
St. Petersburg Times, June 14, 1998.
San Francisco Chronicle, July 7, 1997, Patricia Holt, "Aliens Made Me Do It: Mystery's Unusual Defense Strategy," p. E5; April 30, 1998, Marc Igler, "Searching for Mother in Cuba Leads to Political 'Twist': Dark View of Country in Matera Mystery," p. E6.
San Francisco Examiner, July 1, 1997.
San Jose Mercury News, June 15, 1997.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), May 3, 1992, p. 6; February 6, 1994, p. 6; June 4, 1995, p. 6.
Wall Street Journal, April 10, 1991, p. A20.
Washington Post Book World, April 21, 1991, p. 10; June 18, 1995, p. 11; June 22, 1997.
Wilson Library Bulletin, October, 1987, p. 101; February, 1989, pp. 88-89.
Women's Review of Books, July, 1991, p. 32.
Feminist Mystery Corner, http://www.feminist.org/ (February 5, 1998).
Under the Covers Book Reviews Web site, http://www.silcom.com/~manatee/utc.html/ (May 8, 1997), Harriet Klausner, review of Star Witness; (March 20, 1998), Harriet Klausner, review of Havana Twist; (December 30, 1999), Harriet Klausner, review of Irreconcilable Differences.*