Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Memories of Margaret (Maron) by Mike Ripley


Margaret Maron 1938-2021

I first encountered Margaret Maron in 1989 when I naively applied to become an associate member of the Mystery Writers of America (not realising you were expected to be published there to qualify). I must have included some biographical background - at the time I was involved in exporting British beer to the US - as Margaret wrote to me asking if I would mind answering a few technical questions for her husband Joe, a keen (and very talented) home brewer.

It sounded like the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and it was.

When I learned she was due to attend the 1990 Bouchercon in London, I hastened round to Murder One and stocked up on Margaret’s ‘Sigrid Harald’ mysteries, then published here by Headline.

Debuting with One Coffee With in 1982, New York police detective Harald was to feature in nine novels and the series drew praise from veteran British critic Anthony Lejeune as examples of  the ‘cleanly, even classically, drawn detective problem and  neatly turned solution.’ I found they offered not just a good murder mysteries, but interesting character studies as Sigrid, whilst certainly not a strident feminist, was having to make her way in the very male world of police work.

Just as, in fact, Margaret Maron was having to make her way in the male-dominated world of American  crime-writing, hence her involvement in the formation and success of the Sisters In Crime organisation, one of the subjects she was to speak on at the London Bouchercon.

Mike Ripley & Margaret Maron

In London, we finally met. I arranged  a private tour of the House of Commons for her and she gave me a t-shirt, which I still have, to induct me as an associate Sister In Crime - an honour I think only Robert Barnard and I held at the time.

It was the start of a friendship which was to span more than thirty years.

Margaret Brown Maron was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, growing up on her mother’s family farm. Aged 20, she was working in the Pentagon for the Joint Chiefs of Staff when she met young US naval officer Joseph Maron. They married and relocated to Italy on a three-year tour of duty. When they returned to the US it was to Joe’s home town of Brooklyn, which was to provide much of the background for her Sigrid Harald stories.

Margaret Maron

Margaret Maron in 1960

In 1972, the Marons with their young son John, moved to Willow Spring, North Carolina where Margaret was to write all her novels and many short stories including her most successful series featuring Judge Debora Knott, beginning with Bootlegger’s Daughter in 1992. In this, she pioneered the ‘regional mystery’ taking the action away from the ‘mean streets’ of urban settings.

Her twenty Deborah Knott books were to win her a staggering number of Agatha and Macavity awards, as well as an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America, of which she served as President and was made a Grand Master in 2013. Her early involvement in the Sisters In Crime movement resulted in her becoming its third president and in 2016 she received an honorary doctorate from the University of North Carolina. 

Over the years I would receive, every Christmas,  a new Margaret Maron book, invariably accompanied by a parcel of salted pecan nuts from her garden, which was home to a ridiculous number of plastic pink flamingos, the result of a prank by fellow mystery writers which got laughably out of hand.

My wife and I hosted Margaret and Joe and their son and his wife whenever they visited England and in 2004, as I was recovering from a stroke, the Marons invited our entire family over to stay with them and I was invited to speak to the North Carolina Mystery Writers as Margaret’s guest of honour.

 My daughter Felicity (‘Fliss’) had already been immortalised as a character in Margaret’s novel Uncommon Clay, which she suitable inscribed.

As I was unable to attend the 2015 Bouchercon, held in Raleigh, North Carolina, I arranged a surprise presentation to her which was carried out by undercover agent and roving Shots reporter Ali Karim.

As I was unable to attend the 2015 Bouchercon, held in Raleigh, North Carolina, I arranged a surprise presentation to her which was carried out by undercover agent and roving Shots reporter Ali Karim.

Margaret died on 23rd February after complications following a stroke she suffered in December. My last contact with her, at Christmas, was to send her an advance proof of my forthcoming novel which is dedicated to her and her husband Joe and which opens on Harkers Island, North Carolina, where, in 2004, we sat out a hurricane together.

Her passing is a great loss to so many; her family, other authors and of course readers.  She will be sorely missed.

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