Sue Henry: Master of Mysteries & Minnie Winnies
By E. Adam Porter
Sue Henry believes herself to be a very lucky lady. Who can argue? When not working on her next novel at her home in Anchorage, Alaska or gallivanting around the Great White North, the award-winning mystery novelist climbs in her RV and cruises down the Alaska Highway to the Lower 48, seeking the adventure and inspiration that will become her next bestseller.
Henry’s first novel in what would become the acclaimed Jessie Arnold mystery series, Murder on the Iditarod Trail, won both the Anthony and Macavity Awards. Because the best authors write what they know, it’s hardly surprising that, in 2004, a certain sixty-something supporting character was given her own series. Fans of wanderlusting Maxie McNabb, not to mention her faithful daschund sidekick, Stretch, rejoiced.
Maxie is sharp, intuitive and fiercely independent. She and her canine compatriot investigate both the Last Frontier and the Lower 48 in Maxie’s Minnie Winnie. They don’t exactly poke around looking for trouble, but always seem to end up in one sticky situation after another. In the meantime, readers are taken on an interesting and immersive tour of prime RV destinations in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and, of course, Alaska.
Henry’s Maxie is hardly the stereotypical uber-brilliant super-sleuth, the detached savant that somehow manages to move above the law and beyond the reach of the bad guys. She is, instead, real, reachable and fallible. She makes mistakes and miscalculations, assumptions that any of us regular folks might in similar circumstances. It is Maxie’s indomitable will and dogged determination that win the day, not any dubious onset of Holmesian genius.
Maxie certainly has no trouble speaking her mind, particularly when confronted with the stigma that a single lady – especially one of her vintage – should never just take off and explore on her own. Perfectly aware of her limitations, Maxie thoroughly enjoys the individual freedom RV travel offers, trusting her own judgment and the shotgun in the Winnebago’s hidden storage compartment.
It is clear when speaking to Henry, that, at least in this, Maxie is talking with Sue’s voice. “I have had a terrific time traveling on my own. I’ve taken solo trips back and forth from Alaska to the Lower 48 and went cross-country once for RVIA and Winnebago.” She pauses, “You learn a lot driving by yourself. You pay more attention, so you end up with a distinct impression of each state you travel through…and you learn to appreciate truckers.”
The rich and definitive sense of place in her novels is no accident. “I want my eyes and hands on when I do research. I spend time in the locations, hang about and talk to people.” One of her favorite questions: “How did you come to be here?”
To answer to that, her subject must tell a bit of her own story. This gives Sue a better sense not only of the history of the place, but of its spirit. Both are gradually revealed as the stories unfold. As a reader you are drawn to these places; and, because Henry has been there before you, her descriptions read like a firsthand travel guide for RVers.
For instance, Maxie McNabb makes the following observation in The Serpent’s Trail:
“Highway 70 is a comfortable two lanes each direction. Easy to drive and to allow other drivers to pass a motor home – as many of them think they must, even if one is traveling as fast as they want to go. I can understand their wish to be able to see the road and possible obstacles ahead, but often they cut back in too close for safety, and do not consider how much farther it takes a heavier motor home to slow down or stop.”
Anyone who has driven anywhere in a coach can attest to this, those who tow fivers perhaps even more so. It is that level of “been there, done that” realism that allows RVers to connect so easily and completely to Henry’s writing. If you are heading into a location that happens to be a setting of one of Henry’s mysteries, reading along is like having Maxie riding shotgun, giving you a local’s point of view.
Henry’s vivid style of writing down-to-earth, approachable heroes and motivated, plausible villains developed over a lifetime of reading and storytelling. “My mother was a librarian, so we had a house full of books. She also subscribed to Ladies Home Journal. I actually submitted an article one time when I was a child.” Sue laughs, “They sent me such a wonderfully polite refusal. My first rejection letter, and it was so nice I took all kinds of encouragement from it. It’s now framed, hanging in my office.”
Henry moved to Alaska for a job in adult education administration. Her work took her flying hither and yon across rugged, beautiful and historical Alaska. She particularly fell in love with remote, end-of-the-road Homer, where she first heard the frequent local refrain and bumper sticker: “We’re here, because we’re not all there.”
The natural intrigue and adventure of Alaska birthed inspiration, and Henry’s first intrepid sleuth, Jessie Arnold, came to life. In Henry’s debut novel, the competitive musher gets mixed up in a murder mystery at the world’s premier cross-country dog sled race, the Iditarod. Fans gravitated toward this unique, likable character and soon Sue was traipsing across the Last Frontier for another reason: research.
“I’ve been up and down the entire Alaska Highway multiple times. Absolutely gorgeous – everyone should make that trip.” But one of Sue’s favorite travel adventures was during her research along the Gold Rush trail for another “Jessie” mystery, Termination Dust. “I was traveling between Skagway and Dawson and had never been over Top of the World Highway before. There are mountains for hundreds of miles. Incredible.”
And what’s next for Sue? “I’m working on a book set in Alaska’s Prince William Sound … I know everyone has it one their list. But, if you’ve never been to Alaska, just come on up the highway. It really is like no place else.”