August 21, 2005
Libby Fischer Hellmann grew up in Washington, D.C., but she has embraced her adopted home of Chicago with the passion of a convert. "They're going to have to take me out of here feet first," she declares. "Maybe it's not quite as glamorous or glitzy as New York or L.A., but Chicago is a real city."
Of course it has long been a fertile ground for crime novelists. "With all the layers of politics, scandal, corruption and graft," she says, "there's no better place than here for mystery authors. Chicago is a city with real crimes that drive human passions."
This rich tradition has influenced many local crime writers over the years, including such acclaimed veterans as Scott Turow, Sara Paretsky and Barbara D'Amato, as well as some excellent newcomers such as J.A. Konrath and David Ellis.
Hellmann, who lives in Northbrook and whose day job is as a producer of videos for executive training programs, belongs to the latter group, but if she keeps turning out novels like her latest, she's going to join the ranks of the best Chicago mystery writers. Her fourth novel, A Shot to Die For (simultaneously published as a $24.95 Poisoned Pen Press hardcover and a $6.99 Berkley paperback), is yet another fine entry in an excellent series featuring Ellie Foreman, documentary filmmaker.
When asked about the obvious similarities between herself and her character, Hellmann allows that while they have much the same job, live in the northern suburbs and have teenage daughters, "we're actually nothing alike. She's braver than I am. And I never stumble over dead bodies," something Foreman does at least once a book. "I live the safest and most protected life I possibly can," Hellman says, laughing.
Foreman, however, lives life closer to the edge. As A Shot to Die For begins, she witnesses a sniper shooting at a roadside rest stop. Asked by the victim's family to help them understand what happened, Foreman finds herself in the middle of a puzzling case that somehow relates to her current job making a video at the old Playboy Club in Lake Geneva.
Not content merely to be a bystander, Foreman pokes deeper into the mystery and uncovers long-buried secrets that racked the community years before and are still affecting the lives of people today.
The character of Ellie Foreman makes up a large part of the appeal of Hellmann's fiction. She is a complex woman who's had a hard life and made a lot of mistakes, but she's a good person. Despite the improbability of her efforts as an amateur sleuth, her character still feels genuine. This makes it easy for readers to empathize with her.
That is what Hellmann hoped for when creating Foreman. "I wanted her to be an everywoman, an intelligent person who's trying to do the best she can. Like the rest of us, she just wants to raise her child and make ends meet, but hopefully keep a sense of humor about life."
That can be difficult when so many bad things are happening all around you. This time Foreman's burden is eased a bit, for the tone of A Shot to Die For is lighter than that of the other books in the series. The latest book is closer to a "cozy" whodunit, with only a modest amount of violence.
Hellmann says the change was deliberate. "I like the darker stuff in my fiction," she confesses. "But this time, I wanted to try a more traditional approach. I don't want to be pinned down as writing a certain kind of book. In the past I've focused on writing suspense, but this time I wanted to write a traditional whodunit."
For her next book, however, Hellmann is again changing gears. "It will be a PI novel, a spin-off from the Ellie Foreman series featuring Georgia Davis, who was a cop in An Image of Death. This one will definitely be darker and more hard-boiled. I'm about two-thirds of the way done and it's going great."
Tackling powerful themes is nothing new for Hellmann. Her books have dealt with everything from Arab terrorists to the Russian mafiya. "I've always enjoyed grappling with issues and talking about what's going on in the world. These books allow me to do this."
It is that aspect of the mystery novel that draws in so many readers. "People doing bad things is part of real life," Hellmann says. "In a mystery novel, though, the villains are caught and justice is served. Order is restored to chaos."