Wednesday, March 18, 2020

An Interview with Mystery Legend Mary Daheim by E. B. Davis

New year, new murder . . . Emma Lord is on the case when death finds its way back to the wintry mountain town of Alpine.

After a relatively calm and cozy holiday season, neither Emma Lord, editor and publisher of The Alpine Advocate, nor her husband, Sheriff Milo Dodge, are surprised when their new year gets off to a rocky start. A woman’s body has been found in a squalid motel. Her driver’s license shows that Rachel Jane Douglas was in her late thirties and lived in Oakland, California—and the only connection between that town and Alpine is their gold-mining and logging origins. When they discover that Rachel’s room reservation was open-ended, Emma, Milo, and the ever-inquisitive Advocate receptionist, Alison Lindahl, are more than mildly curious. And never mind that the youthful Alison is a bit distracted by the new county extension agent’s virile good looks. She can still sleuth while she stalks her newest crush.

But that’s not all the news that’s unfit to print. There’s something strange about the older couple who have moved into the cabin down the road that was once owned by a murder victim. The elderly wife seems anti-social. There’s got to be a reason, which Emma, Milo, and Alison intend to find out—even if it puts them in deadly danger.

Bitter Alpine is Mary Daheim’s twenty-eighth Emma Lord mystery. The series started all over again, dubbed Emma Lord Returns, with the release of Alpha Alpine in 2017. Of course, this is Mary’s second series. In 1991, she started her first Bed and Breakfast mystery series, featuring Judith and her cousin, Renie, which so far has run thirty-one books.

In Bitter Alpine, Emma Lord is back as is her husband, Sheriff Milo Dodge. A woman has been murdered at the sleazy Alpine Falls motel. Vida gets into a car accident, but the crash location is dubious. The town manager, Milo’s boss, beats up his girlfriend once again, putting Milo in the position of having to arrest his boss, if he could only find him, and it’s been snowing and snowing.

I love both of Mary’s series, and I’ve been one of her readers for decades. Please welcome Mary Daheim to WWK. If you, too, have been reading her books—please stop by and ask Mary how she has done it. She’s one of my heroes.                                                                      E. B. Davis
Have editors asked you to whitewash your characters or town history so they are politically correct?

No, never. And some of them aren’t PC. Alpine is a small town and often the inhabitants can be small-minded.

All of your main characters are in their fifties. Why?

I understood that cozy mystery readership is generally older, and I suspect that’s even more true than it was when I began the series in the early 1990s.

Alpine, Washington, is a remote, former logging town in the Cascade Mountains. Is it real or based on another town? Why did you decide on this setting, and have you ever lived in such a town?

Yes, Alpine did exist between 1910 and 1929 when the town was shut
down after the local parcel was completed. There was never a road into the old town; access was only by train. My parents, grandparents and a lot of other relatives lived there from 1916 to 1929 though not all at the same time.

My grandparents and my great-aunt and great uncle moved from Sultan to Alpine in 1916 after their two 8-year old boys burned down their farm’s barn after trying to learn how to smoke. Much of the farmland was also damaged, but Grandpa Dawson and Great Uncle Tom Murphy had to work and found jobs at Alpine. They weren’t loggers but were assigned what I’d call mid-management jobs.

In 1917 during WW I, Alpine won an award for selling the most victory bonds per capita. I have a copy of the photograph of the whole town proudly standing on the mill deck.  There’s a copy of that photo at the UW’s main library. The Murphys left Alpine in 1920 because their daughter was 18 and they wanted her to go to secretarial school in Seattle. Two years later my grandparents would follow them back here. My mother was the eldest of the six Dawson kids and next in line was her sister who was only a little over a year younger. It was time for them both to go to secretarial school. But later after my mother married my father in 1926, he would quit his job on the Alaskan fishing boats because the season up north lasted at least 5 months. Carl Clemans (Alpine’s founder and the owner of the timber company) offered my father the job of running the mill boiler, a job Dad knew well from running the boilers on the fishing boats. My parents remained in Alpine almost up to the time the timber harvest was completed and the town was shut down.

I heard so many fond tales of Alpine over the years that when an editor I knew from working at Avon Books, who had moved on to Random House/Ballantine, got in touch with me in 1990 or 1991. He’d found out I’d switched to mysteries with the B&B series. He asked if I would write a series for him. I’d never thought about a second series, but somehow Alpine popped into my head. He liked the idea and it was a way that I could try to keep the old town from completely fading away. It has since been named a Historic State Ghost Town.

Do newspapers have an obligation to print every letter that is signed?

That was always my understanding when I worked on small-town daily newspapers years ago, but I have no idea what the Met dailies do. Yes, the Seattle Times still runs a few letters, but they are always quite short and may have been edited. The Times has shrunk so in recent years that my son-in-law Dennis refers to it as The Seattle Pamphlet.

Emma never packs her lunch. Is she too busy or does she want to get out into the community to find out what is happening and to support her advertisers?

Like her author, Emma doesn’t function well in the morning. She’s lucky she can deal with a bowl of cereal. And, like her author, she wouldn’t dream of packing a lunch. I never did that in all the years I worked full time. It wouldn’t be fair to restaurant owners and their employees.

Do people just disappear up in the Cascades, even if near to a community?

It happens, especially with people who go off by themselves. Bad idea. When my father was a teen-ager, he and his chums went hiking up by Mt. Rainier. One of the boys went over to study a crevasse—and fell into it. He was probably killed on impact, but there is no way to retrieve someone when the crevasse is maybe thousands of feet deep. And yes, there are so-called Mountain Men who are recluses around in the Cascades and probably over in the Olympics on the peninsula. I did my research on the subject and they don’t like company. Those human skulls in their living places do exist. Craig Laurentis isn’t that type. At least I hope not. As Emma discovered when she met him, he’s not entirely anti-social. He apparently just doesn’t care much for civilization.

The newspaper’s employees bring in pastries daily. How did this tradition start?

I really don’t know. Early on, there are no pastries. But I suspect it was started at the urging of Ed Bronsky.

There are a number of off-kilter people who live in Alpine, like UFO spotter Averill Fairbanks. Does Alpine produce kooks or does it attract kooks?

Having lived in small towns, I can say they do attract their share of weirdos. Or maybe because the population is so much smaller than in a city, they just stand out more.

Have you ever found a wife who was in charge of the remote?

No. I didn’t even know how to work it until after Dave, my husband, died.

Vida seems to be a crazy hat lady instead of a crazy cat lady. Why does she have over 400 hats?

You’d have to ask Vida that. I stole her first name from a woman in Snohomish who, along with her husband, owned the local weekly newspaper, but the crazy hats were my own invention. My family had stayed friends with Carl Clemans and his family who had settled in Snohomish after leaving Alpine. I also stole Old and Young Doc Dewey from Snohomish’s Old and Young Doc Touhy. About five years ago I was doing a book event in Everett, which is about 25 miles west of Snohomish. After I finished, a woman about my own age came up to me and said she was Ann Touhy, the widow of Young Doc Touhy. It turned out that we had both been widowed about the same time. She told me that the real Vida had indeed worn crazy hats. Ann knew that because she was Vida Dobbs’s daughter. Sometimes I wonder if I can tell fact from fiction.

Three murders resulted after a dispute over a goat. How does that happen?

Don’t ask me. Emma never did find out all the facts behind the feud.

Are small town newspapers still viable?

I actually think they are. Small town residents aren’t going to get a lot of local info from the internet. I suspect they’re in better shape financially than many of the met dailies.

Who are the Muckleshoots?
They’re one of our local Salish tribes. The first inhabitants of Seattle (my cousin Judy is a descendant of them on her father’s side, and her name is enshrined as a descendant at the West Seattle landing place where the first white settlers arrived) made friends with the local native chief. He was very kind to them, and they wanted to name the city in his honor. He said that was fine, but they’d have to pay him for it. No one seems to be sure how much they paid, but it wasn’t cheap.

He’s honored all over the place here with statues, plaques, etc. The local tribes were allowed to keep their own reservations. Gambling is illegal in this state (except for a state lottery), but tribal grounds were somehow exempted. Several decades ago, almost all of the tribes decided to build gambling casinos, resort hotels, shopping malls and whatever else could make money. I ought to know. I’ve spent my share of time in the Tulalip Resort Hotel & Casino up north near Marysville. I’ve also gone to some of their other casinos (the Snoqualmie is near the pass up through the Cascades and the view alone is worth the visit), but I like the Tulalip best. I’m Catholic and so are most of the Tulalips. When I’ve stayed overnight on a weekend I go to their parish church which dates from around 1910. The church is set high on a hill overlooking Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula. Really a spectacular view. I’ve only been to the Muckleshoots’ casino once (it’s by the town of Auburn east of Tacoma) and had no luck at all. Chief Seattle is buried over on the Kitsap Peninsula, part of which belongs to his tribe. His grave is just about opposite to the entrance to the Clearwater Casino.

Do Milo and Emma keep their finances separately from one another?

At one point after Milo & Emma get together, she’s fussing over her bills and he tells her to hand them all over to him. She can’t balance a checkbook (nor can her author) and he says he’ll pay all of them from now on. Emma doesn’t argue. She also admits she doesn’t know how much money Milo makes and doesn’t want to know. Leo tells her she could look it up, but she says she doesn’t care—she didn’t marry him for his money.

Will we ever find out if Rachel was the birth daughter of Kay and Jack?

I honestly don’t know. I suppose we might.

What’s next for Emma and Milo?

I have no idea. I try to keep whichever series I’m NOT working on at bay so I can focus on the one I’m writing. And by the way, you ask very good questions. Thanks so much for getting in touch with me!

It’s been a blast, Mary. Thanks so much for an interview. We’ll do it again!



  1. Fun interview about an area of the country I still have to visit.

  2. What a great interview. Definitely buying Bitter Alpine to get me through the dog days of summer - and I'm looking forward to meeting Emma and Milo.

  3. Thanks for introducing me to a new (to me) author. And one with lots of books I can go back & read!


  4. Enjoyable interview. Mary, you impress me with all you accomplish.

  5. What a fun interview - thank you, Mary and EB! I'm looking forward to my next visit to Alpine.

  6. I had a wonderful time interviewing Mary--she's been an inspiration. Thanks so much, Mary!

  7. Such a great interview! I've lived here in Burien and Auburn Washington my entire live and had no idea the Alpine of her books was based on a real place.