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Nashville Scene Criminal Elements

Local mystery writers talk about their work

By Michael Sims

FEBRUARY 14, 2000:  Every city has its real-life crime and crime-fighters, and nowadays many cities have their own literary versions as well. Even Nashville boasts two fictional private eyes: Steven Womack's Harry James Denton and Cecelia Tishy's Kate Banning. Womack has just released his sixth Denton mystery, Dirty Money, published by Ballantine. Nashville's Dowling Press recently published a hardback edition of Tishy's latest, Fall to Pieces, the third outing for Banning; Signet is printing the paperback.

Both writers set their stories mostly in and around Nashville. Womack's detective is a hard-luck private eye who narrates his own cases. Tishy opts for third person to tell her stories about a writer who keeps encountering murder. Both series portray Nashville as a confused town that grew into money and fame before it had time to develop its own identity.

A longtime freelancer, Womack recently joined the faculty of Watkins Institute, where he teaches screenwriting. The Denton novels were preceded by three mysteries set in New Orleans. Tishy teaches in the English Department at Vanderbilt University, where she's known by her real surname, Tichi. She is the author of several books, including High Lonesome, an academic study of country music. Both writers will be making public appearances during the next few weeks; they recently answered questions about themselves and their alter egos.

Where did you first get the ideas for your detectives?

Womack: Harry came from a lot of different places. Some of it was autobiographical; I'd been a journalist for newspapers in New Orleans and St. Louis, and in Nashville I worked for UPI. I had written a novella back in the '80s, called "Murder at Vanderbilt," which didn't sell. Then, in a screenwriting class, I adapted that story as a feature film, and I couldn't sell that. Then, when I got a chance to work with Ballantine, I needed a story that was already pretty much where it needed to be, and I rewrote the feature film as a novel.

Tishy: Kate came alive in Boston; I tried her out in the early '80s. Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky had come on the scene and proven the viability of women not only as detectives but as activists, who could cross a balcony rail in the dark if they needed to. By the time I got to Nashville, because no Kates had found a publisher, I thought I'd swear off. But after I wrote High Lonesome, I missed that connection to the country music scene. So I thought, well, why shouldn't Kate move to Nashville and get drawn into crime cases in the country music industry?

Which mystery writers have influenced you?

Tishy: This is probably heresy. I don't read Agatha Christie; I don't like the British cozies. What hooked me, and sort of pointed the way, I guess, was John D. MacDonald, with the Travis McGee series. What I liked, aside from the strong characters, was that Travis could speak his mind about the chips on his shoulders, the things going on in the culture that worried him. All that Florida environmentalism is there, the developers taking over, all of that.

Womack: Among contemporaries, Sharon McCrumb and James Lee Burke I think are some of the finest writers out there today. A Texas writer, Deborah Crombie, I like. I like Dick Francis, although he's a franchise nowadays.

What do you consider Nashville's particular virtues as a setting for series mysteries?

Tishy: The whole class structure is here. If you want mansions, you go to the mansions. You want really ramshackle, barely-hanging-on neighborhoods that have their own kind of color and texture, there they are. There are all kinds of people, from the suits to the homeless.

Womack: We have this myth of being country music and hillbillies. In fact, this is a terribly sophisticated town full of old money and political power. Country music is the fourth or fifth biggest industry behind insurance and health care--and religious publishing and strip joints. What's fun for me is to get beneath the surface appearances.

How long do you usually spend on a mystery novel?

Tishy: Well, I spend the first hour of the workday, when I can get it, as my mystery time. Mostly, I get no more than a couple of pages, and I'm pleased to get that. For the whole thing, and going back over it and making changes and all of that, I can do a book a year.

Womack: I like to have nine months to a year to turn out a first draft. But because of circumstances I didn't plan on, I wrote Dirty Money in seven weeks. That was binge writing at its best. I'll never do that again.

Where is Kate Banning headed next?

Tishy: In the one I'm working on, I'm So Lonesome I Could Die, a prominent old-family businessman has been found dead at Radnor Lake.

How did the new Denton book come about?

Womack: A friend in Reno, Nev., had been bugging me to come out there and see him. Finally, he said to me in a telephone conversation, "Just set a book out here; you'll have to come out and do the research." I first said, "Yeah, right," and then I thought, "Why not?" And he even suggested the plot of Dirty Money, the true story that the Mustang Ranch [brothel] had been seized by the Feds for taxes, and they continued to run it as a profit-making enterprise--a whole new slant on the concept of getting screwed by Uncle Sam. I just thought the story was so funny and so quirky that I had to do something with it.

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