Corrections or additions?
This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the January 22, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
The Mystery of a Mystery
Sometimes a reporter has to act like a detective. Take
Pulitzer Prize-winner McLeod Delaney of the Tallahassee Star, the
fictional heroine of Ann Waldron’s new paperback mystery, "The
Princeton Murders." No sooner has she landed the plum celebrity
appointment teaching John McPhee’s "Literature of Fact" seminar
for the fall semester when she is faced with the unthinkable question:
Who is killing Princeton’s great professors of English?
Waldron will read from and sign copies of "The Princeton Murders:
Big Crime on Campus," her mystery novel debut, at Princeton’s
Cloak and Dagger book store, on Saturday, January 25, at 1 p.m.
Published this month by Berkley Prime Crime Books (part of Penguin
Putnam), "The Princeton Murders: Big Crime on Campus," is
the first of three mysteries Waldron has contracted to write, and
all will be set at Princeton.
"My editor originally thought we’d set them at three universities
— one at Princeton, one at Yale, and one at Harvard," says
Waldron in a phone interview from her Princeton home. "But I’ve
lived here since 1975 — I couldn’t possibly do Yale or Harvard
in the same way."
So exacting is Waldron in the "local color" for her mystery,
that area residents will feel right at home. "Big Crime" has
McLeod walking from her rental cottage near (but without a view of)
Carnegie Lake, up to the Frist Campus Center, and out and about town
to Wild Oats, Small World coffee, the Annex, and to student digs on
Yet just how true to life is Waldron’s novel, remains
a mystery of its own. In her front-of-book "Author’s Note,"
Waldron makes an fairly overwrought disclaimer: "Let me say forthwith
that while Princeton University is a very real place . . . the people
portrayed here are entirely products of my imagination. I make them
up, and any resemblance to any living person is wholly coincidental.
Believe me." It’s a disclaimer she repeats to this reporter at
the outset of our interview.
"There are no real people in the book, I made up all the people,"
says Waldron. " — Believe me, the real ones are much more interesting."
It is true that the novel’s token Queer Theorist, deconstructionist,
and Marxist critic — characters who count among "the 99 percent
of Princeton assistant professors who don’t get tenure" —
could be anyone. But what about creative writing professor Mystique
Alcott: novelist, playwright, author of some 30 books including a
fictionalized biography of Greta Garbo? Alcott is enormously fat and
has shoulder-length blonde hair. Professor Gertrude Sergeant, on the
other hand, is rail thin, "almost anorexic looking," with
short straight brown hair, the author of a lot of books with "gender"
in the title. And how about the chair of the balkanized English department,
Dexter Kinkaid? He’s a man with high standards, stiff neck, straight
back, gray crew cut — and an unreconstructed womanizer.
Or you could consider the similarities in biography between protagonist
McLeod Dulaney and Waldron. Both are Southern newspaper journalists
working at Princeton University. But Dulaney accounts some of her
professional and investigative successes to her Southern accent, trim
figure, and prematurely white hair.
And here you’ll encounter Waldron’s most emphatic denials. "I’m
not McLeod Dulaney — and I do not have prematurely white
hair," says Waldron with a note of irony. And it’s true that at
this point in her career, Waldron is much better known for her published
biographies and children’s fiction than for her newspaper career.
And she describes her current foray into the mystery genre as something
of a lark.
"I acquired a taste for detective fiction early in life. My parents,
beside being devout Presbyterians, were readers and they encouraged
us to use the library," says Waldron, who was born and raised
"Mystery was the first adult fiction that I read, at age nine
or ten. After I had read everything in the children’s room, I slipped
into the adult room and checked out books that were by the door —
and they were all mysteries. I thought it was so funny that all adult
fiction was about English country houses and crime."
At this early age Waldron developed a lifelong love of Agatha Christie,
Dorothy Sayers, Reginald Hill, and Colin Dexter, all of whom she still
reads. "And I just discovered a new one," she reports with glee
— Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. Cynthia Harrod-Eagles — I wish that
was my name!"
Because Waldron’s fictional characters also have such entertaining
names, I ask Waldron her own maiden name. "Wood," she replies,
grimly. "Ann Wood. Ann Wood was very plain and I didn’t even have
a middle name. I was mad at my parents for giving me such a plain
Waldron’s first job was with the Atlanta Constitution, where she was
a reporter for two and a half years. It was there that she met her
husband, Martin Waldron, who also became a reporter. She subsequently
worked for the Tribune of Tallahassee, Florida, and the St. Petersburg
Times and began a career writing children’s books." She has written
nine fiction and non-fiction books for children, and has been the
Philadelphia Inquirer’s regular weekly reviewer of children’s books
for 22 years.
In 1975, the Times transferred Martin to New York and
the Waldrons chose Princeton as their commuter home. In 1981, Martin
died, and Ann went to work for Princeton University, initially as
editor of its Campaign Bulletin.
"After my husband died I wanted to do something different and
I switched to biography," says Waldron. "Biography seemed
to be the ideal kind of book for me, since I could use research skills
learned in journalism and bring people to life using some of the techniques
of fiction I had learned."
She has published three highly-regarded biographies: "Close Connections:
Caroline Gordon and the Southern Renaissance," published in 1987
by Putnam and still in print from the University of Tennessee Press;
"Hodding Carter: The Reconstruction of a Racist," Algonquin,
1983, also still in print; and "Eudora: A Writer’s Life,"
Doubleday, 1998, released as an Anchor paperback in 1999.
Nevertheless, she says she still had a lingering desire
to write mysteries. "After the Eudora Welty biography I started
a mystery story. My agent couldn’t sell it so I wrote another one."
"I’m proud of my biographies. They’re serious books. These are
not," she says, referring to her new "Princeton Murders."
The Waldrons raised four children in Princeton, all of whom are grown
and married. Three live in the East and one in the West. Peter Waldron
is director of the Rogers Center for the Arts at Merrimack College
in Massachusetts. Lolly O’Brien is managing editor of the Princeton
Alumni Weekly (married to Richard O’Brien, an editor at Sports Illustrated)
and the mother of two children. Thomas William Waldron, a former reporter
at the Baltimore Sun (married to Stephanie Shapiro, also a Sun reporter)
is a freelance writer, working on a book about the tall ship, Pride
of Baltimore, that sunk in the Caribbean; they are parents of two
boys. Boojie Waldron is married to Roxane Shelly, and lives in Olympia,
Washington, with their two children.
Getting back to the detective work that is a reporter’s bread and
butter, Waldron turns to McLeod Delaney’s Faculty Brunch recipes that
are featured in her new mystery. The recipes include baked grits and
McLeod’s mother’s "Egg Thing."
"I have served that menu for brunch many times in my long and
happy life," says Waldron proudly — forgetting for a moment
that she’s not McLeod Dulaney and that she does not have prematurely
white hair. The perpetrator is unmasked. "Well, you’ve caught
me out," she says with good humor. "But nowadays I think I
serve a little less fat."
— Nicole Plett
Book signing and conversation on "The Princeton Murders."
Saturday, January 25, 1 p.m.
Reading and book signing for "The Princeton Murders." Thursday,
February 13, 7 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
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