Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine, Spring 1998
I KNOW WHAT YOU'RE THINKING:
By Lisa Williamson
I know what you're thinking.
No, honest. I really know what you're thinking. I'm a psychic detective.
At first blush, it would seem that a mystery series written around a psychic detective would contain some mighty slim volumes. Crime occurs. Psychic detective is summoned. She puts her fingers to her temples, concentrates, divines the murderer. Criminal is arrested. Case closed. End of book.
Fortunately, that is not how Martha Lawrence has approached her highly original series, which features parapsychologist-cum-detective Dr. Elizabeth Chase. Murder in Scorpio, the first in the Chase series, was believable enough and compelling enough (and long enough) to be nominated for an Edgar, Agatha and Anthony. Not a bad beginning for a series.
But you knew that.
Although Lawrence was born in Waukegan, Illinois, she has lived most of her life in California. She grew up in the San Diego area, which she would later choose as her milieu for the Chase books, in a "rambling ranch house" with her "parents, a sister, numerous pets and a ghost."
A ghost? But wait, it gets weirder.
Her parents' house was located in Rancho Santa Fe. Sound familiar? Lawrence says that "if you stand on the terrace of my childhood home, you look right out at the Heaven's Gate mansion." She's pretty sure there's no connection between her ghost and the "doomsday cult," beyond "an evil vortex, perhaps."
But back to the ghost.
Lawrence swears she "was a very serious and insecure young woman." (Visit her web site at www.mlawrence.com, and you might find that hard to believe.) So like many people, when she was confronted with the inexplicable, she chose to ignore it. In this case, the inexplicable was an odd, unsettling feeling Lawrence had in her house, a feeling that no one else in her family would admit to having. But, as so often happens, just because you ignore it, doesn't mean it goes away.
At home in the summer between her sophomore and junior years in college, Lawrence tried to face down her uneasiness. When an apparition--"a beautiful blonde woman with enormous dark eyes filled with fear"--hovered over her bed one night, Lawrence was not so much frightened as elated that at last she had some confirmation of what she'd sensed for so many years.
Later, a historical researcher would look into the history of Lawrence's house and find that earlier inhabitants included the Shaffers, a brother and sister who lost their fortune in the Great Depression. According to the coroner's report, the two faced their misfortune by committing suicide. Lawrence has not yet been able to scare up any pictures of the siblings, but feels sure that if Ms. Shaffer turns out to have been a blonde with large, dark eyes, she did not leave this life willingly.
But, like Dr. Chase, Lawrence has by-and-large led a life more normal than paranormal. Having graduated magna cum laude from University of California with a degree in American Studies, Lawrence moved with her then-husband to New York City, he to get his second law degree, an L.L.M. or masters in tax law, she to work as an editor at Simon & Schuster, a job she was fated for. Lawrence has always known she was a writer, and has been continually encouraged, from age seven, when she was first published, on. She had many dull writing jobs--"horrid copy, deadly dry technical manuals, stilted corporate literature"--but when the chance came to go to NYC, she was able to move into the more rewarding sphere of book publishing.
But then her husband took a job back on the West Coast. She reluctantly went, but happily got a job at Harcourt Brace Publishers in San Diego.
Editing books took its toll, however, since Lawrence identified so closely with the writers. "As an editor I had a terrible case of impostor syndrome. . . . Every rejection letter I wrote felt like a chip off my own soul." Finally she wrote a book of her own.
Why mystery? Because "in a mystery, things are not what they seem. There's more to be discovered if you dig deeper and get beyond appearances."
Why a parapsychologist?
Mainly, it seems, to work out what has happened in Lawrence's own life.
"I write about a very matter-of-fact character who just happens to have heightened sensitivity. . . . One of my major goals in life is to reclaim the word 'psychic' from the realm of charlatans, kooks and weirdos. Lots of people have so-called paranormal experiences but they're afraid to admit it for fear of ridicule. . . . But be warned: psychic ability is like an untrained puppy--it doesn't always come when you call."
Lawrence advises wannabe writers to do what she herself has learned:
"Believe in yourself, trust your own voice. Write what's true for you, not what you think people want to hear. Stop making excuses about why your work's not done. Get your butt in your writing chair and your mind will follow."
And the occasional ghost, evil vortex, unsympathetic editor or writers block?
As Dr. Chase says, ". . . sometimes the only way to escape evil is to turn and face it head-on."