Serendipity, Synchronicity, and The Tumbleweed Murders

by Meredith Phillips, Editor, Perseverance Press/John Daniel & Co.

Without partnership, the September 2001 publication of The Tumbleweed Murders by Rebecca Rothenberg would never have happened. Becky died in 1998, leaving behind an unfinished manuscript for the fourth in her series of Botanical Mysteries. This book would not have seen the light of day without a remarkable series of coincidences that surpassed serendipity into true synchronicity.

It all began for me in 1990, when I (Perseverance Press) had been publishing one or two mysteries a year for six years, all first-time writers. After some modest successes, including an Edgar nomination for Best First, I began receiving more and more interesting submissions. The best was The Bulrush Murders by Rebecca Rothenberg of Los Angeles. I loved this book and its main character, transplanted easterner and microbiologist Claire Sharples. Her prickly personality, love problems, and application of the scientific method to the solving of a mysterious death made me devour the book in one reading.

However, its setting, California's Central Valley, an area with then few bookstores (and I was afraid, few readers) was problematic. As a small publisher, I depended on local publicity by the author. More important was my case of publishing burnout after ten books, coupled with a family medical problem that necessitated taking a hiatus from publishing. So I regretfully turned down The Bulrush Murders. I was pleased to see it published the next year by a New York publisher, and it was followed in due course by The Dandelion Murders and The Shy Tulip Murders, continuing Claire's journey and taking on a number of fascinating social and political issues along the way.

I only met Becky Rothenberg face to face a couple of times at mystery conventions, and we had a sporadic correspondence. But to meet her was to like her immediately (and I'm sure that to know her was to love her), so I was very saddened to hear the news of her untimely death three years ago.

By then I had started up my publishing business again, this time in partnership with a larger and more experienced independent press run by an old friend, John Daniel of Santa Barbara. A month or so after Becky's death, John attended the LA Times Book Festival and "happened" o run into her well-known agent. She was looking for someone to complete and publish an unfinished botanical mystery. This meant nothing to John, but he just "happened" to mention it to me on the phone later. "Oh my God," I squealed, "I bet that's Rebecca Rothenberg's manuscript. She was at the top of my list of authors I wanted to publish! Get in touch right away!" We did, and the agent suggested two possible writers to complete the work. One was Taffy Cannon.

During my publishing hiatus in the '90s I had done freelance editing for various publishers, including that of Taffy, Lora Roberts, and several other writers I got to know. At the Seattle Bouchercon I attended the publisher's dinner with Lora, and "happened" to be at the same table as Taffy, whom I'd never met. She was witty and interesting about her new Nan Robinson series, and later sent me a Christmas card. It was a funny one, so I replied. In due course, Taffy requested from her editor that I copyedit two of her books, during which we got to know each other a little. I enjoyed her mysteries, one of which was set in the Southern California flower industry. So that qualified her to finish Becky's book, as did a similarity in style. But what I and the agent didn't know was that they had been friends as well as colleagues, and had done book signings and panels together.

Once set in motion, the plan moved ahead by fits and starts, including Becky's agent graciously stepping aside for Taffy's, who then negotiated the legal and financial aspects with the Rothenberg family-and waived her fee). Becky's sister facilitated the search for all the extant manuscript, notes, and related pieces of writing. Without the generosity, cooperation, and altruism of all these people, Taffy's job would have been impossible. I contributed during the year or more that this took by reminding, nudging, cajoling, encouraging, and so on, the various parties.

During the writing, editing, and publishing process others who cared about Becky have come forward, like her former co-lyricist from her songwriting days in Nashville and LA; he remastered old tapes to make a CD of Becky singing her own songs (which was used at her memorial service). Taffy incorporated some of these lyrics into the manuscript wherever needed, as the plot concerns a former country singer from the 1950s, "The Cherokee Rose." He also made a batch of CDs ("Songs From The Tumbleweed Murders") on his own time and at his expense; it is available for a nominal charge via [Becky's and] Taffy's website[s]. Other science and work colleagues of Becky's have helped in supplying information for publicizing the book and letting her old friends know about it.

And what of Claire Sharples, a true individual? In this book she, too, must rely on the kindness of strangers and friends to achieve a partnership she'd thought couldn't happen-in solving crime and in her life. I believe this sense of closure and of reconciliation with her environment will prove satisfying to readers and fans of the series.
I have always regretted not publishing The Bulrush Murders, and not getting to know Becky better, in particular passing up an opportunity to have dinner with her at a conference because I had a previous invitation. Setting in motion The Tumbleweed Murders and seeing it through feels something like atonement. And it would never have happened without the unselfish cooperation and partnership of so many people to whom I'm grateful, most notably Taffy Cannon. (My serendipitous association with her has also resulted in two more books for PP/JD: Guns and Roses [2000] and Open Season on Lawyers [2002]). To take on another writer's voice must be the ultimate act of literary partnership.

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