Bland, Eleanor Taylor 1944–
Eleanor Taylor Bland 1944–
Since she published her first mystery novel, Dead Time, in 1992, Eleanor Taylor Bland has been on a roll, turning out a new “Marti MacAlister” mystery nearly every year. This series, set in the small Illinois city of Lincoln Prairie, features the likeable female African-American police detective Marti and her Polish partner Vik Jessenovik. When asked, Bland responded that the characters are the series’ drawing card, and reviewers tend to agree. They have praised Bland’s novels for the city-reared, spunky, street-wise Marti, who, with her intuitive methods of investigating crimes, is the perfect counterpart to meticulous, small-town detective Vik. Other hallmarks of Bland’s style are her use of several subplots, which often involve the detectives’ families or friends, and a good dose of social criticism. In addition to entertaining readers, Bland educated them about issues that concerned her, such as homelessness, racism, the plight of the poor, and various diseases. On several occasions, reviewers have found the subplots more compelling than the central mystery.
Bland was born on December 31, 1944, in Boston, Massachusetts, and spent her youth in and around the city. At age fourteen she married a sailor and she and her husband settled in the Great Lakes area, where he was stationed, and raised their two sons. The couple eventually divorced and Bland’s life dramatically changed as she adjusted to the life of a single parent. Then during the early 1970s, Bland’s life changed again when she discovered that she had cancer. Although doctors predicted that she had only two years to live, Bland kept her spirits up and after much treatment overcame the disease. This life-threatening episode motivated Bland to accomplish more with her life and put her in the mindset to treasure every day.
One of Bland’s first accomplishments was earning an accounting degree from Southern Illinois University in 1981. Then, while working for Abbot Laboratories until her retirement in 1999, she discovered her vocation as a writer, beginning with short stories that she wrote for specific anthologies, then moving on to novels. As the readers of her novels know well from the values of her characters and the attention she gives family matters in her “Marti MacAlister” books, Bland relished her family life. When asked in an interview with Jon Jordan on the Mystery One website what she does with her spare time, Bland replied, “Grandchildren, grandchildren, grandchildren.” She went on to say that her grandchildren kept her in touch with what it was like to be a child in modern culture.
Amazingly Bland created her heroine while going to graduate school, working full time, and raising an infant grandson. To top that all off, she had only been reading mystery novels for two years prior to attempting to write one. Her hectic schedule affected her creation in the choice of her main character’s line of work: Because she did not have time to ponder how to make a private citizen happen upon corpses, she decided to make her protagonist a detective on the police force of a mid-sized city, which she patterned after Waukegan, Illinois, where she lived. Although some of her close
At a Glance…
Born on December 31, 1944, in Boston, MA; divorced; children: two sons. Education: Southern Illinois University, BA, accounting and education, 1981.
Career: Abbot Laboratories, accountant, 1981-99; author 1992-.
Memberships: Mystery Writers of America; Sisters in Crime.
Awards: Pen Oakland Josephine Miles Award; Chester A Himes Mystery Fiction Award; Most Influential African American of Lake County Award; Gold Pen Award, nominee, 2001.
Address: Agent —c/o St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Ave., Rm. 1715, New York, NY 10010.
friends noted similarities between Bland and her heroine, particularly in her patience and tenacity, Bland did not purposely model Marti after herself. Even so, Bland wanted to create a memorable character in Marti, one reminiscent with people Bland knew. In fact, according to a Voices from the Gaps: Women Writers of Color reviewer, “Bland has chosen a protagonist who is identifiable to readers but not common enough to be boring. MacAlister has her own idiosyncrasies that make her unique.” In addition, Marti reflected contemporary women in her ability to successfully juggle her multitude of responsibilities.
Marti’s guiding principal in Bland’s novels is respect for all life. While many of Marti’s relationships with different sorts of people allowed Bland to explore various social issues, it is the relationships within Marti’s family, those with her mother and her daughter that many readers find interesting and fulfilling. With Marti’s partner Vik, Bland dealt early on with the subject of racism, and after the characters came to accept each other and each other’s heritage, Bland used the duo to promote improvements in multicultural relations in the community. As a Publishers Weekly writer noted in a review of Dead Time, “Bland handles the evolving relationships with sensitivity and humor.”
Bland mined her experiences and longtime memories for plot ideas as well. “I always have at least three books floating around in my head,” she told Jordan on the Mystery One website. “I can go back to impressions, events that happened ten, fifteen years ago. Eventually things begin surfacing. Whatever floats to the top and grabs my attention first is it. One of the things I do deliberately though, is give Marti and Vik as little as possible to go on when they are solving a homicide.” For example, in Whispers in the Dark the detectives only had several dismembered arms with hands as clues.
In 1999 Bland retired from her day job and the following year illness prevented her from writing. Yet in 2001 she hit a rhythm, rising at 6:30 each morning and writing at her computer sporadically throughout the day. As she told Jordan, “When I do this consistently, the output is about three to eight pages a day—however, this is interspersed with what I call down time. I am very right brained and need to allow time for subconscious process.” Rather than rewrite entire drafts of a manuscript, Bland revises as she writes the first draft, working intuitively.
Bland once recounted how surprised she was after the publication of her debut novel when a co-worker came to compliment her, but after nine more installments in the series, Bland has gotten used to the praise from fans and reviewers both. Writing about Gone Quiet, a Publishers Weekly critic praised Bland’s “deft use of detail and keen insight,” while Booklist’s Stuart Miller judged that Bland “more than lived up to the promise of her earlier novels.” She continued this trend in Done Wrong, which Booklist’s Emily Melton described as possessing a “tightly woven plot, fine writing, and plenty of action.” Miller applauded several later novels as well, including Keep Still, which he dubbed a “stellar installment in an excellent series,” and Tell No Tales, with its “most complicated plotline yet, [which] she delivers with verve.” About the series as a whole, Miller found Marti to be “one of the most interesting characters in contemporary mystery fiction,” an opinion that a group of loyal fans shared.
Even after the tenth book in the series, Bland told Jordan, “I am in no way bored.” In fact, Marti seems to have taken on a life of her own, and fans of the series often contacted Bland via email or at author talks, asking questions about what will happen to the various major or secondary characters. Bland enjoyed talking to her readers at book signings and fan conferences. She keeps an ongoing correspondence by email with several fans and sometimes even uses suggestions readers make. But no matter how she gets her ideas, Bland is always deeply involved in Marti’s life, and vice versa.
Dead Time, St. Martin’s Press, 1992.
Slow Burn, St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
Gone Quiet, St. Martin’s Press, 1994.
Done Wrong, St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
Keep Still, St. Martin’s Press, 1996.
See No Evil St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
Tell No Tales, St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
Scream in Silence, St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
Whispers in the Dark, St. Martin’s Press, 2001.
Windy City Dying, St. Martin’s Press, 2002.
Contemporary Authors, Volume 166, Gale Research, 1999.
Klein, Kathleen Gregory, ed., Diversity and Detective Fiction, Bowling Green State Popular Press, 1999.
Booklist, September 1,1993, p. 39; June 1,1994, p. 1775; June 1, 1995, p. 1733; July 1996, p. 1806; December 15, 1997, p. 685; January 1, 1999, p. 836; September 15, 2001, p. 197.
Crisis Magazine, September-October, 2001, pp. 62-64.
Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 1993, p. 751; May 15, 1994, p. 662.
Library Journal, February 1, 1992, p. 129; August 1993, p. 158; January 1998, p. 147; January p. 164; April 15, 1999, p. 176; March 1,2000 p. 128; December 2002, pp. 183-184.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 10, 1994, p. 8.
Publishers Weekly, February 3,1992, p. 66; June 14, 1994, p. 53; May 15, 1995, p. 58; May 27, 1996, p. 69; December 22, 1997, p. 42; January 25, 1999, p. 75; January 17, 2000, p. 47; October 1, 2001, p. 41; December 2, 2002, p. 37.
Scene & Herald (Illinois), April 1, 1998, p. B7.
Washington Post Book World, July 16, 1995, p. 6; August 18, 1996, p. 8.
“Eleanor Taylor Bland,” Voices from the Gaps: Women Writers of Color, www.voices.cla.umn.edu/authors (January 23, 2003).
“Eleanor Taylor Bland Interview,” Mystery One Bookstore, www.mysteryone.com/EleanorTaylorBland-Interview.htm (January 23, 2003).
—Jeanne M. Lesinski
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