Novelist Glenda Ruby Conjures Up A “Death at Olana”
By Marilyn Bethany
The fictional character of Lindsey Brooks, an expert on antiques, fell into sleuthing early in her career at the behest of an acquaintance in law enforcement who understood what convenient containers antiques can be for smuggling contraband. In addition to running an international auction house, Miss Brooks has, over the years, occasionally partnered with the authorities, sharing her insider’s instinct for suspicious deals, as well as for spotting false bottoms, hidden drawers, and hollow legs. Now retired to a riverfront house in the Hudson Valley, she finds herself re-enlisted by the local sheriff to help solve a crime that was committed perilously close to home.
Thus begins Death at Olana, a novel by Glenda Ruby (below), a New York marketing executive. Ruby and her partner Ros Daly have lived part time for the past 30 years in a riverfront house that is a veritable stone’s throw from Olana, the c.1870 quasi-Persian pile built by Hudson River School painter Frederic Church.
RI: Death at Olana is your first published novel. What compelled you to start a new career writing fiction just when so many of your contemporaries are happily kicking back?
GR: I’ve always written fiction… short stories or casuals, mostly. Also poetry, back in the days when men were men and tables were round. But it’s the classic mysteries of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, P.D. James, and Ruth Rendell that have captured my imagination since childhood. Not just the meticulously planned plots, the cleverly placed clues, but the wit and irony we find in Poirot, Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, Tommy and Tuppence, Adam Dalgliesh, and Inspector Wexford. Even Kate Atkinson, who also writes brilliant, serious fiction, is unable to resist creating a hapless detective, Jackson Brodie. All of these characters exist in and grapple with the human condition. That is what I am writing about, really. I have always wanted to try my hand at mystery writing, and I find it is great fun.
RI: It shows in the work! Your book is filled with amusing insights into a familiar social dynamic hereabouts: the inevitable tensions that arise between administrators, staff, board members, and donors at not-for-profits. Have you personal experience sitting on such boards?
GR: Years ago, when we first moved here, I had no time to devote to boards, and I suspect the moment has passed. We have always, of course, supported fund-raising by attending galas, dinners, fetes, parties, etc. I have offered my marketing expertise on a pro bono basis several times but have no takers, as yet. I had a great idea to change the name of the Thomas Cole House to the Thomas Cool House, but that seemed not to fly…
RI: Every sleuth needs a Watson and yours is, to my mind, a paragon: Bennett, Lindsey’s post-modern butler, combines the usual duties of driving, mixology, etc. with stepping in as madam’s date for cocktail and dinner parties, as well her companion at table when she’s dining in alone. Not quite a husband (Bennett keeps his place), he’s no forelock-tugging Carson or Jeeves either. What a dreamboat! How did you come up with the divine Bennett?
GR: Who among us has not wanted a handsome butler even if he isn’t named Rhett?!??!
RI: Your novel is more Agatha Christie than John le Carré. Can you tell us a little about how these genres are faring in the fraught publishing industry right now?
GR: It’s complicated. Publishers seem to feel The Thriller is the genre of the moment. It is very important to have a high body count in the first few pages, blow ‘em up, slash ‘em, etc. Gore is good, dismemberment gets remembered, but keep the writing simple. Without naming names, most best-sellers today are written at a 6th-grade level. Christie and the others I mentioned are not interested in lurid writing. John le Carré, whose niche is espionage, sells well but not as well as, say, David Baldacci; that is because le Carré’s books are, in fact, literature, and fewer people are comfortable reading literature. Christie is the largest selling author after Shakespeare and still sells 5 million books each year. In 2002, her publisher did a relaunch and books first published 50 years ago went back on the best-seller lists. She, of course, has been criticized for not writing particularly well; she has a very straightforward style—this is offset, however, by the intricacy of her plots and the psychology of the characters.
RI: In addition to its mordant humor, your novel delights with its erudition, not just about Frederic Church and art history in general, but about the region. The travelogue you provide of the Amtrak route between Hudson and Penn Station—one of the best train rides of all time—is priceless. Is it incumbent on authors of this type of mystery to keep us engaged above and beyond the central question of who-done-it?
GR: I think the mise en scene is important in any genre. Christie and Sayers write about an England that probably never existed but that one nonetheless likes to remember fondly. The rich history of our Valley is fascinating. And there is always more to know. We who live here are thrilled to learn about the area because we love it so. And you must admit the inhabitants—past and present—are colorful, to say the very least.
RI: (At left, the porch where plots thicken for both the author and her protagonist.) I understand you are working on a second novel. Please say it’s about another historic house in the region. Murder at Hyde Park, perhaps? The private life of the Roosevelts (that mother! that marriage!) is such a rich vein.
GR: A Murderous Summer at Bard. So far, three people have died but I’m only half-way through. Things may get worse. The third novel, busily gestating, involves pirates and buried treasure, always a crowd-pleaser.
Death at Olana, by Glenda Ruby, published by Greendale Books, is available at Olana; Thomas Cole National Historic Site; The Hudson Train station; Spotty Dog, Hudson; Oblong Books, Rhinebeck and Millerton; Rural Residence, Hudson, and online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Paperback, $20; Kindle edition, $9.95