Friday, December 19, 2008

Janet Rudolph, Mistress of Mystery

Janet Rudolph is an ebullient presence in the mystery community. She edits Mystery Readers Journal, teaches and writes about crime fiction, and writes and produces mysteries for California’s #1 mystery event company Murder on the Menu. She blogs at Mystery Fanfare. But most of all, she loves, loves, loves mystery fiction and has figured out how to make a living from that passion.

Welcome to Jungle Red Writers!

JRW: How did you become such a crime fiction expert and enthusiast?

I’m hardly an expert, but I’m definitely an enthusiast. My interest began when as a child I read my mother’s old Nancy Drew books and my Dad’s Ellery Queen Mystery Magazines. I soon jumped to more adult mysteries, making the local librarian wonder about my tastes and proclivities.

I’m an eclectic reader, but I’d say mysteries make up 75% of my reading. As far as knowing a lot about mysteries besides reading them, my love of research sent me in many directi
ons to find out more about specific subgenres and the history of mystery. My PhD thesis started out as Jewish women in fiction but morphed into something closer to my interest, religious mystery fiction. Lucky for me there weren’t all that many religious mysteries around at the time, so they didn’t need to be included.

As far as being an enthusiast, in addition to teaching mystery fiction for over 30 years, I’ve been a mystery convention organizer and participant, columnist and reviewer. I guess over time I’ve picked up a thing or t

JRW: How did you start the Mystery Readers Journal, and can you give us a peek at what's coming in future issues?
JR: The Mystery Readers Journal grew out of the publicity newsletters I did for the 1982 Bouchercon. It was quite fun to put together a newsletter in that time of cut and paste.

The first one was more of a newsy flyer. The mystery classes I taught through UC Extension and other local colleges tended to be thematic in content, so when I began the Journal in earnest, I decided to give it a thematic twist. MRJ has covered such topics as Art Mysteries, Music Mysteries, New York Mysteries, Italian Mysteries and so many year. We’re quarterly, and we’re in our 25th year. That’s a lot of themes.

Upcoming issues will focus on San Francisco Mysteries II (too much material for just one issue), Crime for the Holidays, Los Angeles Mysteries, Sports Mysteries, African Mysteries and Theatrical Mysteries. We’re revisiting a few themes, but there’s never a dearth of material.

I always find the Author! Author! section fascinating. Authors are invited to write articles about themselves, their books and the connection to the theme of the issue. This section is like a convention in the pages.

JRW: You just announced the Macavity Awards for '08. As someone with a birds-eye view, what trends are you seeing?

JR: Darker, lots of children in jeopardy, but also great writing and some new daring attempts to break the mold.

JRW: How do you make a living from mysteries?

I found a unique way to make a living from mysteries: Murder on the Menu. I’ve been writing and producing mystery events for over 25 years. Most of my clients are corporate, and I write every mystery event customized to include the theme of the meeting/event, agenda, goals and objectives, jargon and buzzwords and specific guests.

I remember talking to Bruce Taylor, former owner of the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore, about the fact that there was no way to make a living from mysteries, unless you hit it big with a blockbuster mystery novel. I had no desire to write a mystery and bookstores are more a labor of love than present a living wage. So Bruce and I commiserated. I wanted to quit my day job, but I wasn’t sure how to do it. As much as I loved Mystery Readers Journal, it certainly was never going to provide me with a living wage. I really see it as a service to mystery readers, lots of articles, no ads.

Anyway a few months later, Bruce called and asked me to join him on a local talk show radio station that needed someone to talk about mysteries on air. There was an L.A. producer of interactive mystery events who was starting a company in San Francisco, and he needed a few others to field calls about mysteries.

Bruce and I answered questions about Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Raymond Chandler and others. When we walked out of the studio, the producer asked me if I knew anyone who could write a mystery event. He already had three big events scheduled. How L.A., putting the cart before the horse! Well, I was certainly Johnny on the Spot –or Janet on the Spot. I wrote all of his mystery events for two years.

Although a great theatre person, his company folded in two years. I started my own company, Murder on the Menu, and the rest is history. So you might say that with Murder on the Menu, my mystery group, At Homes, mystery conventions, and the Mystery Readers Journal my whole life is a mystery!

JRW: What are your ten favorite mystery novels of all time?

JR: Oh my, a question I’ve been asked before and one I always find hard to answer since I tend to put the book I just read on the list. Here goes, in no particular order:

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P. D. James

Dead Heads by Reginald Hill

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

The Pew Group by Anthony Oliver

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

Dance Hall of the Dead by Tony Hillerman

Wobble to Death by Peter Lovesey

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Anything by Ken Bruen

And here's the Jungle Red Writers Quiz:

Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple?

Miss Marple. So many crimes take place at home and in the village, and it’s through comparisons to similar situations and people’s actions that the solution can be deduced.

Sex or Chocolate?

Chocolate. Did I mention that my company, Murder on the Menu/TeamBuilding Unlimited, does chocolate tastings? My husband was in the Peace Corps in the Ivory Coast for three years, and he experienced chocolate growing and harvesting first hand. Cote d’Ivoire is the number one country for chocolate. Frank is my chocolatier, and I must say that sex and chocolate go hand in hand. Lucky me.

Daniel Craig of Pierce Brosnan?

Daniel Craig, but Roger Moore will always be the real James Bond.

Katharine or Audrey Hepburn?

Hard choice, but being from Philadelphia, it must be Katherine for her performance in The Philadelphia Story. And Stagedoor. Always think of Katharine Hepburn when the “calla lilies are in bloom.” I even planted some in my garden in her honor.

Of course, I always wanted to have Breakfast at Tiffany’s, so I’m torn. Audrey Hepburn’s Two for the Road and Roman Holiday were the models for my first trip to Europe. Sadly, I didn’t meet Albert Finney, but I had lots of adventures along the way.

First person or third?

Third. Although I appreciate first person, I feel there are so many other ‘places’ to go when a writer uses third person.

Prologue or no prologue?

Tie. Doesn’t matter as long as the book is written well.

Making dinner or making reservations?

Making reservations. I’m a Queen at this. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, there are so many choices.

Three true things about you and one lie; we'll guess which.

1. I had a cat named Dashiell Hammett who after having a hip replacement at 17 and radiation therapy at 18 lived to be 21. Dash was a very special “guy”.
2. I’m a television addict. In our family when you turned ten, you received a ‘big’ present of your choice for your birthday. My sister wanted the World Book Encyclopedia. I wanted a TV for my room. When I passed my doctoral orals, the first thing I did was buy a color TV. I don’t think I was ‘damaged’ by my addiction. I was and still am a great reader. I love my 42 inch plasma TV.
3. I have a second home in Bodega Bay, site of the Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which is what attracted me to Bodega Bay, in the first place.
4. I wrote a mystery novel in 1979 under the pseudonym Janet Berenson entitled Murder on the Menu. It got passing reviews and a star in PW. The premise of the book was death by food, a subject close to my heart.


  1. Welcome Janet! I'm a subscriber, of course, and love the magazine.

    Now let's see--if you really do love TV, and (being a TV reporter, of course, I hope you do) you could do a TV-themed issue some day!

    (That's a very sweet story about what your family got for Christmas when you were ten, and I thnk I believe that, hmm, which one is false...)

    One question--there's buzz that calling a book a "mystery" is to be avoided. "Thriller" is cooler. What do you think about that?

    Thanks again for visitng Jungle Red!

  2. Janet, how lovely to find you visiting Jungle Red. Welcome to one of my favorite people!
    As for your lie... I'm torn between the second home in Bodega Bay, which I've never heard about, OR your writing a culinary mystery in 1979. Hmmmm.
    And you didn't mention that you are the publicity maven for Left Coast Crime in Hawaii this coming March. And doing a great job at it too.

  3. Hey Janet, welcome to Jungle Red! (By the way, I had the nicest event at Janet's house back in 2003, when I was so new to the business, I squeaked. Janet welcomed Libby Hellman, Deborah Wessell and me with a mystery-loving crowd and great food, as I remember. Thanks for that Janet!)

    I'm having trouble with the cat's hip replacement at 17 (though I do love cats), but also "passing reviews" along with a star in PW. So I've got it narrowed down to those two...

  4. Hi Janet,
    Welcome to Jungle Red. What a fascinating journey you've been on. We're all jealous you found such an interesting way to make a living out of mystery.

    I'm going to say you didn't write that mystery with the starred PW review. Only because I think Hallie would have included that in her introduction of you if it were true.

    That's me, sleuthing, by the way.

    Hope to meet up with you at a conference sometime soon!

  5. Hi, Janet. Your story really proves that if you follow your passion, the money/a career will follow. Yay for you!

    When I worked in beer sales promotion, it sure would've been nice to do some murder mystery events for the wholesalers--all we ever did were food-around-the-world parties and luaus. Bleh.

  6. Loved the interview, the Jungle Red questions and the whole aura of the blog. Glad I found you ladies. To make it easier for others to connect, you might consider adding a SHARE tag to your blog. I did it with my blog affiliated with, and my Google Alerts went crazy as a result. So many people connected.

  7. Hi, Hope! Thanks so much..we'll check it out!

    And Janet--can you tell us more about Mystery Readers International?

  8. Answers to a few questions. Hank:I think mystery is more of an umbrella term and covers thriller, cozy, suspense, spy, etc. I like the term crime novel even better than mystery.

    Mystery Readers International is a very loose organization of mystery readers, writers, fans, editors, publishers, booksellers (and others). The Mystery Readers Journal is our official publication. Basically MRI's purpose is to 'enrich the lives of mystery readers.' I think we're doing that. I try to list all the mystery bookstores, reading groups, awards, etc. I've always done this starting with my columns in The Armchair Detective, Mystery Scene and other older periodicals.

    I love the idea of a TV-themed issue of MRJ. We've never done it, although Jim Doherty has done many TV detective columns over the years. Great theme!

    Do I get to reveal the truth on the truth or lie questions?

  9. Oh, tell all! And now's the time!

    And thank you, again, for a wonderful visit. Come back soon.

    (If you do TV? There's Kelly Lange. Julie Kramer. Mary Jane Clark. Elsa Klensch. Laura Van Wormer. Me, of course. And I hear David Morrell's newest is all about TV.) You probably know a million more.

    So? Which one is false?

  10. I've never written a mystery nor do I ever plan to write one. If I were to write a mystery, though, I'd use my mother's maiden name, Berenson. If I had written a mystery it would have been around 1979 and have had something to do with food, poison or Murder on the Menu. I actually went to writers' workshops and things like that in the 70's, but mostly as a fan/reader. Anyway, I would never have gotten a starred review in PW!

    Next time you're in town, let me know, and I'd love to host you and all of the Jungle Red Writers at an At Home, a literary salon. Well you heard from Roberta how much fun these events can be!

    Thanks again for including me on this fabulous blog.

  11. Late to the party as usual...but even sorrier that you'll beon your way to Hawaii when I'm in northern California. Bummer!

  12. Janet, thank you so much. When I first met Roberta, the event with you was one of the first things she ever told me about--and she remembers it with much joy and affection.

    Of course, thank you so much, we'd all be delighted. And when you come to Boston? We'll host a fete for you!