Radio news anchors are frequently reporting on crime and mayhem to their listening audiences. One New York anchor, and Cheshire resident, has decided to switch roles and become the mastermind behind her own murderous landscape instead of reporting the actions of others.
Kathleen Marple Kalb has a two-book deal to publish a new mystery series featuring the crime sleuth and opera singer Ella Shane, who solves a murder from her vantage point in the floodlights of the stage – and despite the New Haven coroner’s ruling of accidental poisoning.
“A Fatal Finale,” Marple Kalb’s first book, goes on sale April 28 by Kensington Books and is the result of years of her development, dedication and embracing the adage, “applying butt to chair and getting it done.” It takes place in 1899 in New York City’s “Gilded Age.”
Her career as a weekend morning anchor for 1010 WINS radio, covering New York City, Long Island and New Jersey, also provides opportunity for weekday writing. “My boss [Ben Mevorach] is extremely supportive of my writing, as he has been of others at WINS and their projects,” says Marple Kalb. “My WINS colleagues were amazingly helpful with beta readings and endless discussions of my plot twists. And with my son in elementary school, my full-time job as mom picks up when he comes home.”
Her historical mystery is set in New York in the Gilded Age of 1899 and Ella Shane plays “trouser roles” where women played the roles of men. Ella’s crime solving career is launched when the star of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Violette Saint Claire drinks poison during the final act. The troupe is in New Haven for the last stop on its tour.
Throughout the mystery the reader watches as Ella’s keen observations of the people and actions around her lead her to solve the crime. The book focuses on Ella – called “Heller” by her cousin and former boxing champion, Tommy Hurley, for her street-scuffling antics as a child – and her relationships with family, friends and theater cast, and those who come in and out of their dramatic lives.
How did Marple Kalb settle on the name Ella Shane?
“She was always Ella. It was a fairly common name for women in the late 1800s. The name Shane sounds like a stage name, and of course it is, instead of the very obviously Irish O’Shaugnessy, in a time when there was still a lot of very public prejudice against the Irish, and immigrants in general. Her real first name, Ellen, is my original middle name, from my great-grandmother.”
Writing, says Marple Kalb, 51, has always dominated her time and life. As early as age 16 she completed a historical novel that she even managed to have some editors read. She later wrote a mystery based at a Vermont radio station that brought some attention but did not get published. Her interest in the English Renaissance and history in general stretches back to her college days at the University of Pittsburgh. Her interest in history, and desire to accurately represent the story’s timeframe and theatrical experiences, are seen throughout the mystery in Marple Kalb’s meticulous descriptions and explanations of scenes and characters.
“I was very careful throughout to be historically accurate. Ella doesn’t do anything a nice woman of that time wouldn’t do. She is very much a respectable lady and an artist.”
Despite the history and writing pull, it was a broadcast career Marple Kalb pursued after graduation, radio reporting and anchoring first at KDKA in Pittsburgh, then in Vermont, and eventually in Connecticut, where she moved from WSTC and WNLK in Stamford and Norwalk, to WDRC and others in the Hartford region before making the move back to a much larger audience in New York.
“It has always been a casual thing for me to write. But it was when my son [now age 9] went to kindergarten I thought I would try it again. And then I kept it going,” she says.
She started writing a 50,000-word manuscript and then following editor feedback, rewriting and additional research, completed the current 80,000-word version for publication. Finding the time for a writing project means discipline and determination, but also a willingness to embrace research and criticism to hone the storytelling into a publishable outcome.
Turning the hobby to occupation came last year when Marple Kalb was offered the two-book contract (she hopes to eventually pen four books in the series). It was a time of health challenges for both her and her husband. She became known as the lady with the laptop as she toted her computer at their multiple doctor visits.
“I’m so happy to say that’s all behind us now,” she says.
She describes the arduous task of writing and rewriting after building characters and linking the storytelling over and over as her agent and editors made suggestions. She advises aspiring writers to be steeled for many difficult days; before breaking through she often fielded two-to-three rejections a day.
“I suggest people not give up on their writing. They should keep polishing it to make it better,” she says. “You don’t reach the long end unless you actually like hanging out with these characters for a long period of time.”
The decision to give her heroine a career as an opera singer, Marple Kalb says, was a nod to her own interest in the late Beverly Sills, an American opera singer who hailed from New York. Sills was known for her coloratura soprano roles. For her book, however, the opera is merely a medium for Ella Shane’s mystery-solving role. And, she sees her own experience as a radio anchor as somewhat theatrical, having to capture the audience using only her voice
“Also, my agent is a big opera fan, which helps make sure of my accuracy,” she explains. “There’s not a lot of insider baseball about opera. It’s just a tool for my storytelling.”
Deciding to make Ella Shane pursue the theatrical “trouser roles,” she says, was a nod to her own broadcast career where she would sometimes be assigned what were known as “top of the hour” updates, traditionally called “a boy shift.”
Like many writers, Marple Kalb draws on family for some of her inspiration in creating her novel’s characters.
“While I don’t model characters directly on anyone I know, I do borrow qualities or relationship dynamics,” she says. “So, Ella and Tommy are close friends the way I’ve been with some of my on-air partners. Their informal uncle, sportswriter Preston Dare, treats Ella much like my late uncle and grandfather treated me – and he’s a stand-up guy the way they were.”
“I do sometimes borrow a name as a little tip of the cap to a friend or family member. My grandfather and a favorite cousin are named Thomas, and it’s my son’s middle name. Ella’s mother is Malka Steinmetz, known as Molly after her immigration. My husband’s grandmother was Molly. Ella’s doctor, Edith Silver, gets her first name from my husband’s Aunt Edith, who is a psychologist and a pretty awesome lady.”
Her husband is fellow radio broadcaster and University of Connecticut journalism instructor-in-residence Steve Kalb.
And who does Marple Kalb read for literary inspiration?
“I grew up reading Elizabeth Peters, and her Amelia Peabody series, featuring a British couple who solve mysteries in 1890s Egypt, that is still terrific. ‘Crocodile on the Sandbank’ is the first and there are 19 more. The cool thing there, which I hope to get to do with Ella and her crew, is that you get to watch a cast and their relationships evolve over the years.”
Other favorites: “Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum is the gold standard for comic mysteries. Bill Pronzini has an amazing and fun historical series set in 1890s San Francisco. ‘The Bughouse Affair’ is the first one. And I stake out my library waiting for the new series installments from both Faye and Jonathan Kellerman.”
Because she is now in the middle of writing her second Ella Shane novel, she says she’s switched to reading nonfiction (Alison Weir’s biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine) so she does not get influenced by others’ fictional ideas. She has already planned a third mystery in the series with agent Eric Myers of Myers Literary Management and editor John Scognamiglio at Kensington.
As her first novel debuts at book stores and on e-media, Marple Kalb says she is both “excited and scared.”
“This is a great shot for me. My mother is over the moon at my opportunity. My husband is so happy for me to be accomplishing what I’ve wanted to for many years. This is the culmination of years of long, hard work. And I can share my fixation on Ella Shane with my family, friends and the reading public.”
Photographed by Todd Fairchild