Ottawa Citizen

A Twist of the Knife Becky Masterman Penguin AUTHOR OFFERS A TWIST IN CRIME

Female protagonis­t of a certain age proves attractive


When Becky Masterman first pitched her debut crime thriller to the book trade, she ran smack into age discrimina­tion.

Literary agents were prepared to give Masterman a pass for being middle-aged herself. Their problem was with her heroine, a gutsy ex-FBI agent named Brigid Quinn — pushing 60 and therefore beyond the pale.

Now that Brigid’s third fictional adventure, A Twist of the Knife, is arriving in bookshops, Masterman can smile about those early rebuffs.

“It was around 2008 and I thought — what if we take Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and turn her into this 60-year-old female?” Masterman, on the phone from her home in Arizona, says that she originally entitled that first novel One Tough Broad. She had created a character who may have looked like a diminutive whitehaire­d granny but was anything but — not when she had a profane mouth, drank Crown Royal whiskey and vodka martinis, was partial to Pug dogs, enjoyed fabulous sex with her ex-priest husband and was a lethal killing machine.

So what’s not to like? Masterman soon had her answer.

“The first five agents I sent it to said that nobody wants to read about a woman over 40,” she says. Masterman, who at that time still had a full-time job as a forensics editor for medical textbooks, was astonished. “I didn’t feel I’d faded away and I thought there would be a lot of other women out there — members of the boomer generation reaching my age — who didn’t feel they were fading away either and who were still vital in every way.”

Her foray into fiction had been the product of a novel-writing competitio­n between herself and her husband, a retired Episcopali­an priest. He wrote a science fiction fantasy about a plant that takes over people’s minds. She created Brigid.

But when it appeared nobody in the book industry was interested in this kick-ass senior citizen, Masterman put the manuscript away, prepared to chalk the whole thing up to experience. “I thought — you have to respect the market.”

Later everything changed when she was watching the Oscars.

“Helen Mirren was in the audience, and Jack Black was doing some kind of routine on stage. He pointed at her and shouted: ‘Helen Mirren — you are hot!’”

And how did Masterman react to this moment?

“I jumped off the couch and said — ‘yes, this is our time!’”

So she sent the manuscript off again, and within 24 hours it had received 75 responses. The crucial one came from Toronto agent Helen Heller, who promptly signed Masterman up. “I’ve been looking for this character for years,” Heller told her enthusiast­ically.

Published in 2013 under a new title, Rage Against the Dying, the book was a finalist for the Gold Dagger Award for best crime novel of the year. Veteran New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin led the parade of critical raves. Brigid Quinn, she declared, was “the most original new female character to anchor a crime series in years.”

Masterman, who turns 66 in April, now feels vindicated. But there’s no smugness about her late-flowering success.

“I don’t think I had anything to say until I was in my 40s,” she says firmly. She had this career as a profession­al editor but didn’t see herself as a writer until her 12-year-old daughter wanted to be in a children’s play. Masterman became involved in children’s theatre and began writing plays. Then she started wondering if she could make it as a fiction writer.

“I started writing novels that I couldn’t sell. I wrote for a long, long time before I stumbled on Brigid.”

Until then, she hadn’t really considered the mystery field. Now she argues that good crime fiction can touch on “eternal truths.” Her new thriller, A Twist of the Knife, is a cunning variation on the cold-case genre while also managing to hold up a disturbing mirror to society.

“I don’t mean to say that I write polemics or have an agenda,” Masterman stresses. “But I do go into the injustice of our criminal justice system, the people who are wrongly convicted and the kids who run away from home. There are things that crime novels can speak to that can’t easily be addressed in other books.”

It goes without saying that Brigid has little resemblanc­e to Agatha Christie’s gentle spinster sleuth, Miss Marple — but she’s no Superwoman either. In A Twist of the Knife, her own vulnerabil­ities become painfully evident when she receives two summonses to Florida.

One comes from an ex-colleague who seeks her help in overturnin­g the conviction of a death-row inmate for the murder of his wife and three children. The other plunges Brigid into a maelstrom of family discord when her mother’s plea brings her to the bedside of her seriously ill father.

Initially, Masterman was using Brigid’s family issues as “simply a contrivanc­e” to get her to Florida and embark on a tense search for a hidden killer.

“But my editors said — no, make this parent thing a large part of the story, so that it echoes the theme of this man on Death Row being a parent. And it just turned out brilliantl­y, and I’m so grateful to these two women for counsellin­g me the way they do.”

 ?? NEAL KREUSER ?? Becky Masterman has created an unusual and highly original female protagonis­t in Brigid Quinn.
NEAL KREUSER Becky Masterman has created an unusual and highly original female protagonis­t in Brigid Quinn.
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