Elissa Grodin: Cozying up to crime
On a college campus in a small New England town, a visiting physics professor is found dead in his bed, just days after his arrival.
Despite being in town only a few days, the man is well known to the members of the college physics department — either by reputation or in actuality — and there is plenty of motive and opportunity among them.
Thus Elissa Grodin has set the stage for her first mystery novel, Physics Can Be Fatal, published last month by Cozy Cat Press. The book is what is known as a cozy mystery, one that focuses on characters and plot, à la Agatha Christie, rather than action and violence.
In fact, the venerable Christie is one of Ms. Grodin's favorite authors.
"I favor the golden age — Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers," Ms. Grodin said in a recent interview. "My mother was a huge mystery buff. She introduced me to Agatha Christie as a teen."
In Physics Can Be Fatal, Ms. Grodin, who lives in Wilton with her husband, actor and commentator Charles Grodin, has drawn on some of her own experiences in telling her story.
No stranger to the academic life — Ms. Grodin lived for a time in London married to a professor, as well as some years at Dartmouth — she placed the story on the campus of the fictional Cushing College in the town of New Guilford and based some of her characters on people she has known.
The backdrop — a college astronomy physics department — rose from her general interest in the subject. "I just love it," she said. "I've always been interested," adding she watches any number of science programs on television.
Her main characters are a young professor named Edwina Goodman with Miss Marple tendencies and detective Will Tenney.
"My protagonist is my total alter-ego," Ms. Grodin said. "I couldn't pass geometry, but she's a theoretical physicist." The Grodins have a 25-year-old son, Nicholas, but if she had a daughter, Edwina is what "I'd want my daughter to be like," she said.
In writing the book — which she revised numerous times — Ms. Grodin said she began with her characters, and then she began to think of the ways they could be interconnected.
"You ponder that for a very long time," she said, "and then the story starts to suggest itself. It helps to think about people you know, how they might have interacted with one another, what might have happened.
"It's fun to think up secret lives for people to have."
She also gave great consideration to her victim, who she said "was very much based on an English academic I knew. I thought about different parts of his life and a handful of people who would have issues with him."
Before long, the characters sprang to life. "The more real they become in your mind, the more of a life of their own they take on."
Ms. Grodin went a step further, and sought input from Max Tegmark, a cosmologist at MIT. He was an inspiration for the book, she said, and his name comes up in the story.
"I had seen him on TV," she said, adding she sent him a note asking if he would read her manuscript and offer a blurb.
"A really great teacher knows how to impart information," she said. "I thought he'd be open to my query."
He responded positively, offering the following: "I think of theoretical physics as detective work. Here's an engaging mystery where the protagonist is a young physicist. When she's not kayaking or trying to figure out the world around her, she helps detective William Tenney solve a puzzling murder of a fellow physicist from Cambridge University."
Henry Schleiff, president of Investigation Discovery at the Discovery Channel, called Ms. Grodin's book "one of the most satisfying plots I have ever untangled — perhaps because the story involves a winning, young physicist and a murdered colleague, interwoven with a cast of characters consumed by such heady ideas as string theory."
Career in writing
Ms. Grodin has written throughout her life. She originally set out to be a critic, writing about books and films. She met her husband when she interviewed him for an article for American Film magazine. When her son Nicholas was young, she shifted to children's books.
"All along I wanted to write adult fiction," she said. "It was just a question of finding the voice."
Appropriately, she added, "It's a mystery why it's come now, why it's finally come together."
Physics Can Be Fatal is just the first of what Ms. Grodin plans as a series of mysteries. The next, which she is currently writing, is Murder at the Film Society, which draws on another area of interest for her: movies.
"It will take place at a film studies department," she said. Her grandfather, Edward Dubinsky, was a vaudevillian who eventually owned several movie theaters in her native Kansas City, Mo. (He later changed his name to Durwood.) Her father, the late Stanley H. Durwood, took over the family business, eventually becoming president of AMC Entertainment. He is generally credited with inventing the multiplex.
"I've loved movies all my life," she said, adding Lindsay Anderson (This Sporting Life, Look Back in Anger) is one of her favorite filmmakers. "This second book will bring all my movie interests together."
For now, Physics Can Be Fatal may be purchased on Amazon in paperback or as an ebook. Ms. Grodin will also have a book signing at the Westport Barnes & Noble (203-221-7955) on Saturday, Nov. 10, from 1 to 3. She will also appear for a talk and book-signing at Wilton Library on Monday, Jan. 7 (wiltonlibrary.org or 203-762-3950).
For information on all Ms. Grodin's books, visit elissagrodin.com.