If you’re looking to cozy up with a good beach read this summer, Peggy Ehrhart’s latest book, Knitty Gritty Murder: A Knit & Nibble Mystery, follows the adventures of Pamela Paterson, founder of her town’s gregarious knitting club. This time around, Pamela and her fellow sleuths are drawn into the mystery of why a victim’s body was discovered in her own vegetable patch…and why the murder weapon used to dispatch her was a circular knitting needle.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: What or who was the earliest influence that compelled you to dream, “I want to be a writer someday?”
A: When I was in third grade at Our Lady of Peace School, I won a Knights of Columbus essay contest on the theme of “Columbus Rediscovers America.” I had always been a reader, to the point that my mother treated my constant reading as if it was some kind of an affliction, but all that reading had given me an ability to string words together and an interest in doing so. After I won the contest, I became known as “the writer” and it seemed that my destiny was set.
Q: How did a former English professor, blues guitarist and holder of a doctorate in Medieval Literature gravitate to the mystery genre?
A: I never read mysteries until one of my graduate school friends introduced me to them. I discovered that reading a mystery was very relaxing after a day spent with Beowulf or Paradise Lost. I did a lot of scholarly writing in graduate school and beyond, but—mid-life crisis alert!—halfway through my forties I asked myself, Is this all? What do you really want to do? I realized I wanted to write fiction and play in a band. I started taking guitar lessons and, as far as writing fiction was concerned, I figured it would be easier to get published if I tried a popular genre like mysteries rather than something more serious. And I liked mysteries anyway, so that’s what I wrote.
Q: Who are some of the mystery authors you most admire and why?
A: Raymond Chandler, for his stylish prose. And I love the writers from the Golden Age of mystery fiction: P.D. James, Dorothy Sayers, G.K. Chesterton . . . Agatha Christie, of course.
Q: Mysteries come in all lengths, styles and settings. What is it about a cozy mystery that makes it such a cozy escape for its readers?
A: Nobody who reads cozies takes them seriously as crime fiction. The appeal is the world they portray—usually a pleasant small town inhabited by pleasant people with quirks that make them amusing. And most cozy mysteries follow the pattern of the traditional mystery (see: Golden Age of mystery fiction). The main point is the puzzle, not the gore. Who, of many possible suspects, did it, and how will the sleuth figure that out?
Q: With its amateur sleuths and light-hearted plots, the cozy mystery is inherently unrealistic. As a writer, what do you find challenging and satisfying about the form?
A: The challenge is to hide the real clues and distract the reader with red herrings or false clues. The cozy mystery is a subcategory of the traditional mystery, which features multiple suspects, any of whom could be the killer. That’s where the red herrings come in. Usually the killer turns out to be the last person anyone would suspect—until the sleuth identifies that person and points out the carefully hidden real clues. Another challenge is that an amateur sleuth can’t just show up and arrest someone—so once the sleuth has identified the killer, he or she has to find a way to make the killer incriminate himself or herself and thus draw the attention of the police.
Feeling that I’ve met these challenges is highly satisfying!
Q: The protagonist in your Knit and Nibble series, Pamela Paterson, is a middle-aged widow. What governed your choice to not go for someone younger and single?
A: Twenty-somethings generally don’t read this style of mystery. People middle-aged and older do. So I wanted to create a character that readers could identify with—she’s old enough to have had some life experience and she has a daughter in college. But I wanted her to be young enough that a romance subplot would be realistic. (Yes, I know even people in their 70s, 80s, and beyond can fall in love, but I chose to make her 45-ish.) I made her a widow rather than a divorcee because I didn’t want readers to wonder what went wrong in her marriage.
I also wanted her to live in a house in a small town among other suburban people. A single woman could live in a house in a small town, of course, but her backstory is that she and her husband bought the house and restored it when they were first married and, thus, she loves the house and didn’t want to leave it when he died.
Q: How much in this series is drawn from your own life?
A: The town of Arborville is a thinly disguised version of the town where I live and Pamela’s house, which is over one hundred years old, is basically my house. Like her, I knit, I love to cook, and I have never met a garage sale or thrift store that I could resist. My husband, however, is alive and well, thank goodness. I have one child, but he’s a son and he’s been out of college for quite a while. I don’t have a best friend like Bettina Fraser living across the street, but Bettina’s sweet husband Wilfred is based on my husband.
Q: Plotter or pantser?
A: Plotter—always have been. And that turned out to be a good thing when I was approached by Kensington to write a cozy series. I got the contract for the Knit & Nibble books on the basis of a detailed outline and some sample chapters. And my editor still likes to see a detailed outline before I start a new book. I can’t imagine how a person could write a tightly plotted mystery without working out ahead of time who did it, how, and why, and identifying the other suspects and their possible motives.
Q: Your colorful and well-stitched storylines revolve around a knitting club in charming Arborville, New Jersey. What do the knitting club and the ongoing group of characters add to the books?
A: The members of the knitting club are a varied group, from the oldest, Nell Bascomb, who is in her 80s, to the two youngest, Holly Perkins and Karen Dowling, in their 20s and new to Arborville. There’s also a man, Roland DeCamp, a high-strung corporate lawyer who took up knitting because his doctor told him he had to learn to relax. Then there’s Pamela, and her best friend Bettina, who’s about a decade older than Pamela. The knitting club meets three times in every book, and the topic of conversation as they knit is often whatever murder has once again upset the normal routines of idyllic Arborville. But Nell doesn’t approve of discussing these crimes, so often there’s a bit of back and forth about that. And Roland is always complaining about his high taxes—he’s politically conservative—while Nell is an old-time liberal. So they argue, too. The books usually end with a meeting of the knitting club, and that gives Pamela a chance to explain how she figured out who the killer was.Also the books are Knit AND Nibble—the members take turns hosting the group and each week’s host serves a dessert with coffee and tea. Each book includes a recipe and a knitting project, and often the recipe is for something served at a meeting of the knitting club. I post photos of the finished Knit and the finished Nibble on my website.
Q: Do you think Knit and Nibble would lend itself to a television show along the lines of the amateur sleuthing found in Father Brown, Hart to Hart or Murder, She Wrote? Why or why not?
A: I’d love that! And I think it would lend itself. A big part of those shows, to me anyway, is the home décor and the gardens—like Martha Stewart with murders, and the eccentric people. And Knit & Nibble has those things.
Q: Given that you write cozies, how do you handle the violence of murder?
A: The reader never sees it happen, and sometimes doesn’t even see the body. And, most important (I think), the methods used by the killers are often totally preposterous—so no reader is going to have nightmares thinking this could happen to them. Stabbed with a knitting needle? Clunked on the head with a rock and hidden under a festival booth with a knitted aardvark on your chest? Garroted with a circular knitting needle?
Q: Does the series require mystery fans to read the books in the original order in which you penned them or can they jump around?
A: They can jump around. In each book I try to fill in background on the characters so someone starting with that book isn’t at a loss. On the other hand, there’s an ongoing (and very slow-moving) romance subplot that unfolds from book to book.
Q: You also have a mystery series about a blues singer named Maxx Maxwell. Tell us about her.
A: If I could sing I’d have taken up singing rather than guitar. Maxx (real name: Elizabeth) is my younger, blonder, more talented, and more adventurous alter-ego. The Maxx Maxwell mystery series only consists of two books and was published by a small press, Five Star, that accepts what are called “unagented submissions.” The first book was Sweet Man Is Gone and the second was Got No Friend Anyhow. The titles are taken from blues songs. After the second came out I set my sights on creating a project that would attract an agent and, thus, a larger press. And then Five Star dropped the mystery line anyway.Though they are set in the gritty world of NYC bars and clubs and the characters are struggling musicians, the books are actually traditional mysteries and rather cozy. Nothing very scary happens and the plots feature multiple suspects, clues, and red herrings, and a surprise at the end when the real killer is revealed. But one thing I learned while trying to interest an agent in the first one is that readers of cozies really like the “Martha Stewart with murders” aspect of the form and don’t want to enter a world where the tables are sticky with spilled beer and the smell of marijuana drifts from the restroom. The books are out of print now but available on Amazon in the Kindle format.
Q: Best advice to aspiring writers?
A: Understand your genre. Figure out what kind of books you want to write and then read a whole lot of books in that genre and study what makes them work. Outlining is helpful. And never give up. And don’t wait to write until you feel inspired. Just sit down and do it, even for half an hour a day. And there is no such thing as writers block.
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: Just now I’m writing a Knit & Nibble novella to be included in Kensington’s 2022 Christmas anthology, Christmas Scarf Murder, and I recently signed a contract to write two more full-length Knit & Nibbles.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: Thanks very much for inviting me to be a guest on You Read It Here First.