Photos: Crime scene newspaper strips (Professor25/Getty Images); red stage curtains (alengo/Getty Images)
Mid-life is Murder in ‘Bury the Lead,’ a New Mom-Com of a Mystery
Read an excerpt from Kate Hilton and Elizabeth Renzetti's Leacockian take on small-town life, local theatre and the lowlights of motherhood / BY Elizabeth Renzetti / February 5th, 2024
What does it mean to blow up your life midway through? Especially if you’re not interested in sports cars, affairs with pretty young things, or any of the other behaviour we associate with men who are losing their hair while gathering anxiety about their mortality?
I blew things up, in life and in fiction, too. The two are definitely related, as I’ll explain. But first, real life. I left my job – my very good job – as a columnist and feature writer at the Globe and Mail in June 2022. Mainly my decision was greeted with shock, and some variation of the question, “Did someone drop you on your head?”
How to explain that I’d been feeling a vague creative itch for years, and it got worse during the pandemic? I’d been doing the same thing for decades, and, like gum on the bedpost, it had lost its flavour. I had lost my flavour. I was inspired by Nell Painter’s brilliant memoir Old in Art School, about switching from academia to painting in her 60s. All around me, my midlife girlfriends were in full blossom: leaving their jobs, going back to university, retraining, learning to weave, to bake, to run a marathon. Nothing could stop us, except that fretful little internal voice that always advised shrinking, and never blossoming.
Change is growth. I’d always known this on a theoretical level, but was too afraid to take the advice myself. When you write fiction, it’s one of the first things you learn. Your protagonist has to change in some way over the course of your book, otherwise your story will have all the vibrancy of a dead slug.
It’s no coincidence the upheaval in my professional leave was mirrored in Bury the Lead, the new mystery novel I co-wrote with my friend, Toronto author Kate Hilton. The protagonist, Cat Conway, is a journalist (like me), and a middle-aged mother (like both Kate and me). When we meet Cat, she’s working at a small-town newspaper, because she’s been fired from her hotshot job in Toronto and has to flee town in disgrace (not like me, thank God).
At the age of 45, Cat is in the midst of a major life transition that I think a lot of women will find familiar. Okay, most of us don’t end up investigating the murder of a famous actor, but otherwise Cat’s dilemmas are ours as well: Who am I in this next phase of life? Is it too late to start over? Why does my teenager hate me but still ask for money?
Kate and I decided to write a mystery in the doldrums of the pandemic. Both of us were struggling, our hearts in our shoes. We wanted to work on a fun project together, a humorous mystery that would also tackle serious issues. We both loved reading mysteries, but neither of us had written one. I’d published a novel, Based on a True Story, and a collection of essays, Shrewed, but I’d never collaborated with another author. Though we had so much fun batting ideas back and forth, I wondered how anyone takes on the novel-writing slog without a partner. There’s something else you learn in midlife – never be afraid to ask for help.
Kate was a bestselling novelist with a gift for transformation: She had started as a lawyer, worked as a fundraiser, and in the past few years she’d retrained to become a psychotherapist. Now, in addition to writing novels like Better Luck Next Time and The Hole in the Middle, she’s launched a therapy practice and a life-coaching program to help women through midlife journeys. She understood, more than I did, that transitions require effort. But if you put in the work, you could reap the rewards.
In our first draft of Bury the Lead, Cat was in her 20s. It seemed like an interesting challenge to explore a millennial’s mindset, but it just didn’t work. Kate and I tried valiantly to bring her to life on the page, but she lay flat. It was only when we had an “aha!” moment, and gave Cat some wrinkles and some years on her odometer, that she sprang to life. Now we recognized her. Now she had critical choices to make, and relationships to reflect on – with her mother, her son, her ex-husband and the fling that got away. Most importantly, she had a new life to build, new colleagues to grow with and a new place to call home, rich territory that we’ll explore in the second Cat Conway mystery, Widows and Orphans, which comes out in 2025. She was starting over, just like Kate and I had. She had mysteries to solve, although she’d already figured out the most important one: Life can indeed begin again, halfway through.
The following excerpt is from Chapter 1 of Bury the Lead, where readers meet thespian Eliot Fraser, a crusty old skirt-chaser, and Quill and Packet reporter Cat Conway, a big-city journalist who lands in the tiny town of Port Ellis after her career blows up and her marriage ends in an acrimonious divorce. When Fraser dies onstage, Cat pivots from puff-piece writer to investigative reporter, on the trail of small-town secrets even as she becomes a suspect.
Eliot Fraser wanted to show me the treasure he kept in his pants.
He beckoned for me to follow him into the depths of his dressing room. Torn between reluctance and curiosity—he was, after all, one of the most famous actors of his generation—I let him lead me to a closet. My feet squelched with every step. I’d cycled to the theatre in the rain, and even though I hadn’t checked in Eliot’s giant mirror, I was pretty sure I looked like the last drowning rat off the ship.
“Here,” he said, removing a heap of dark cloth from a shelf. He fished around inside and pulled out a small glass object. A drinking glass. “Jason Robards himself gave it to me, not long after we set a monkey loose at Sardi’s. I believe the glass may be purloined but”—he put a flirtatious finger to his lips—“that will be our little secret, eh?”
He passed me the glass as gently as if it still contained a cocktail, and Jason Robards was returning any minute for it. Eliot folded the pants against his arm. “Jason also bequeathed these to me after the run ended, though of course I was substantially the slimmer.”
“Long Day’s Journey into Night,” I said. “I’ve read about that production. It was legendary. You were nominated for a Tony.”
His face brightened, as I knew it would. It was a cheap move, and I felt slightly gross using it. Flattery was the grease that made the interview run smoothly, and you only had to use a dab. What amazed me was that even Eliot Fraser—Tony winner, Oscar nominee, star of one of the most beloved films of all time—was as thirsty for praise as a model hawking skin care on Instagram.
“The city lay at my feet like a drunken hoyden,” he said, reaching to take the drinking glass from me. His fingers lingered against mine, and I snatched my hand back. I bent to take my digital recorder from my backpack, and when I looked up I found his eyes— famously blue, still so vivid—locked on the gaping neckline of my shirt.
So the stories were true. Old dog, old tricks.
“New York, such a world of wonders,” he continued as he lowered himself into a chair. “Unlike this … this”—one hand indicated the cluttered dressing room—“mausoleum of morality.”
Did he mean the Port Ellis Playhouse, or the town of Port Ellis itself? Either way, I couldn’t disagree with him. This smug little burg with its pretensions of grandeur had sucked us both back in. It had tempted Eliot with the promise of a leading role in Inherit the Wind (and a fat paycheque). And me? I’d scurried back to Port Ellis six months earlier with the smell of burning bridges in my hair.
Not that I would ever write anything quite so purple for my new employer, the Port Ellis Quill & Packet. I placed my notepad and recorder on the table between us and glanced up at Eliot. He was gazing at himself in the mirror, not in the furtive way that I might, but with the full-blown appreciation of a primatologist studying a fine silverback.
And he was quite a specimen, even at the age of seventy. A full head of white hair framed his face, which was long and bony, but in an appealing way. A way that gets described as leonine, if you’re a man. And those eyes—they were still as bright as they were when he’d starred in the movie that made his career, A Dream or Two. He’d played a dying priest who coached a baseball team composed entirely of adorable urchins, and even though it was schmaltzy as hell I still stopped to watch it every time it came on. Everyone did.
Now those luminous eyes were fixed on me, and I sensed that the stories about his wandering hands were not just Broadway rumours. Time enough to ask about that at the end of our talk. You always save the tough questions for the end. If you get kicked out the door, at least you’ve still got your interview.
Excerpted from Bury the Lead by Kate Hilton and Elizabeth Renzetti. ©2024 Kate Hilton and Elizabeth Renzetti. Published by House of Anansi Press www.houseofanansi.com.
Elizabeth Renzetti’s essay about writing Bury the Lead appeared in the February-March 2024 issue of Zoomer magazine on p.28, titled “Mid-Life is Murder.”