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Margaret Maron, acclaimed mystery writer, dies at 82
Ms. Maron’s first novel, published in 1981, was the first of 10 to feature Sigrid Harald, a New York City police detective.

by Neil Genzlinger



NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Margaret Maron, whose crime fiction, much of it set in her native North Carolina, racked up mystery-writing awards and a devoted army of fans, died Feb. 23 in hospice care in Raleigh, North Carolina. She was 82.

Vicky Bijur, her longtime agent, said the cause was stroke-related illness.

Maron was known for two series featuring strong female characters. The first, introduced in “One Coffee With” in 1981, was Sigrid Harald, a New York City police detective, who solved crimes and dealt with the obstacles of being a woman in what was at the time a largely male profession.

Then, in 1992, came Deborah Knott, who in the initial novel, “Bootlegger’s Daughter,” was a legal aid lawyer running for a judgeship in North Carolina. By the second book she had become a judge, and as the series, which ultimately stretched to 20 books, went along, Maron explored environmental stress, racial prejudice, domestic abuse and a host of other aspects of modern life in the state.

“She’s old North Carolina and modern North Carolina,” the mystery writer Katy Munger, a fellow North Carolina resident, told The News & Observer of Raleigh in 2016. “You can chart the changes in North Carolina through her books.”

Maron, who wrote more than 30 books in all, said she tried not to veer too far into advocacy when bringing contemporary issues into her stories. But she acknowledged that in recent years she had been finding that more difficult.

“I’ve been saddened by the mean-minded backward path North Carolina has taken in the last few years,” she told The Los Angeles Review of Books in 2017. “Resegregation along economic lines is a reality, as are the efforts to curtail the reproductive rights of women, the redistribution of wealth from the middle class to the 1%, and redistricting to achieve voter suppression. Usually, I content myself with letters to the editor, but sometimes it does spill over into the books.”

Margaret Elizabeth Brown was born Aug. 25, 1938, in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her father, Calvin, was a carpenter, and her mother, Claudia Lee (Stephenson) Brown, was a homemaker.

“From the beginning,” Maron told an audience in Durham County, North Carolina, in 2012, “I loved language, I loved words, I loved the tricks that you could play with them.”

She grew up in Greensboro and Pleasant Grove Township, North Carolina, and graduated from Cleveland High School in Johnston County. Although over the years she took courses at branches of the University of North Carolina, Brooklyn College and the City University of New York, she completed no degree.

While working in a summer secretarial job at the Pentagon, she met Joseph John Maron, a naval officer. They married in 1959. After Joseph Maron served a three-year tour in Italy, they settled in Brooklyn, and Margaret Maron started to write.

She was initially drawn to poetry, but she discovered a hard truth.

“Writing bad poetry is very easy,” she said in the 2012 talk. “Writing good poetry is very hard, and I realized that I couldn’t do it.”




So she turned to writing short stories, with a focus on mysteries, which she had always loved. For a dozen years in the late 1960s and ’70s she had considerable success selling stories to the numerous mystery magazines of the day. When those periodicals started going under, she expanded one of her short stories into book length, changing the main character from male to the female Sigrid Harald along the way.

“My first novel grew out of my experiences working in the art department at Brooklyn College and watching the way the acids and photographic chemicals were mishandled,” she told The Chronicle, the campus newspaper at Duke University, in 2011. “There was a poison cabinet that anybody could get into.”

“And so in the novel,” she continued, “I put potassium dichloride into a professor’s cup of coffee.”

That was “One Coffee With,” the first of the 10 Harald novels. (She wrapped up the series in 2017 with “Take Out.”)

In creating her female detective, Maron sought to break what she saw as a pattern in crime fiction of male crime solvers surrounded by expendable female characters.

“One of the things that really annoyed me,” she told The News & Observer, “was, as soon as the male sleuth fell in love, the woman was either going to be dead at the end of the book or she was going to turn out to be the killer, so that he could dispose of her and in the next book he could lust and love again.”

The Harald books were written in the third person. But the Marons had settled in North Carolina in 1972, and the new series Maron introduced with “Bootlegger’s Daughter” in 1992 was undeniably drawn from her roots, and was written in the first person, with Deborah Knott narrating the action. “Bootlegger’s Daughter” was a breakthrough for Maron, winning the four major accolades in the genre: the Edgar, Anthony, Agatha and Macavity awards.

Among the other books in the Knott series was “Home Fires” (1998), with a plot that involved a series of fires in Black churches.

“Balancing a murder mystery (two bodies are found in one of the torched churches) with some heavy social relevance — plus the bucolic pleasures of a pig roast and the amazement of an old woman easing the pain of a burn victim with a process known as ‘fire-talking’ — calls for some expert, fearless juggling and high-wire walking,” Dick Adler wrote in The Chicago Tribune. “Not to worry: Maron is working at top form, and there’s nobody better.”

In 2013 the Mystery Writers of America gave Maron its Grand Master award, recognizing her body of work.

In addition to her husband, Maron is survived by a son, John; a sister, Edna Brown Reynolds; and two granddaughters.

In the 2017 interview with The Los Angeles Review of Books, Maron recalled realizing, with her first book, the difference between writing a short story and writing a novel: In a novel, the characters have far more depth and can develop in ways the writer doesn’t envision when she starts out.

“Imagine my surprise when the person I thought was the killer refused to do it,” she recounted. “‘I’m not that kind of person,’ she said — and she was right. She wasn’t. Thankfully, another character volunteered.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company










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