In this first novel by Barbara J. Ferrenz, the writer's dilemma is laid bare for all to see. How does one spend many hours and lonely nights writing erotic horror (sex and murder!) and still maintain a marriage and all the family relationships expected of a suburban wife and mother? How does one travel to convention after convention, willfully (or seemingly) neglecting those relationships to hang with a group of strange but like-minded people? How does one click from one persona (mild-mannered wife and mother) to another (sexy make-up and leather-clad vamp) without losing something along the way? Substitute your own situation here, if you are a writer!
Mary Kate Flaherty is, on the surface, a typical mom. Two kids and a loving husband, a house in the suburbs of Baltimore, a job she loves. But digging deeper finds a husband and sons all too easily annoyed at her long absences either when writing or when attending conventions to sell the books which bring in a needed second income. Frustrated with her family's increasing annoyance and her neighbors' irrational disdain, Mary Kate has no choice but to become Theodora Zed, vampire novelist, to further her career. Indeed, Theodora is her escape hatch from the frustrations, allowing her to bond with a batch of fellow horror writers including Conner Drake—who clearly would love to be more than a friend.
But when a vocal critic of her novels turns up dead at a convention and her shoe is found next to the body, Mary Kate/Theodora is propelled into a real-life nightmare. Is she being framed or stalked? And who among her friends stands to gain something by her death or arrest? And what of the religious movement against writers of horror "smut"? The bodies start piling up as the "vampire" killer follows her to other conventions, drawing tighter the noose of suspicion around her neck. At home, the situation degenerates rapidly as her family openly rebels against Mary Kate's choices. Her only defender is Conner—or is he a suspect, too? When the murderer follows her home, all bets are off as Mary Kate has to call on her Theodora persona to solve the crimes, protect her family, and reassert her values.
This is a novel that will make writers, especially horror writers, nod with agreement and frustration over and over. Ferrenz draws a dead-on snapshot of convention social politics, both at the bar and on panels, touching on the friendships and the inevitable jealousy that surround careers on the way up and on the way down. Writers do suffer the slings and arrows of critics and friends/enemies, and sometimes their families, to continue doing what they must do—which is create even if misunderstood. Mary Kate is a bit too naive, missing clues and plot twists obvious to the reader, and too meek, allowing herself to be shamed by her critics. Still, she rings true for all that because any of us who write material that's not everyone's "cup of tea" have been stung by someone's critical stare or cutting comment. (Though since her identity is hidden behind a pseudonym, you wouldn't expect her neighbors to know what she does—a slight weakness which would have been cured by having her write under her own name.)
Ultimately this fast-moving mystery satisfies a little more due to the honest look into the horror writer's world, the convention subculture, and the family-career crisis we can all relate to on some level. As in Michael Slade's more vicious Bed of Nails, Ferrenz is able to draw on personal con experience to flavor a book that's also delicious in other ways. I'd buy both Theodora and Mary Kate a drink, and I suspect most other writers would, too. She might well make an interesting amateur sleuth to follow on future cases, but she'll have to develop a thicker skin. As a horror writer, though, that's guaranteed. A very strong debut and especially resonant with those of us who straddle two worlds willingly, but sometimes wish we didn't.