Mystery Mom: Growing up with a Crime Novelist
Posted by: Biz Hyzy
Editor’s note: Biz Hyzy recently completed an internship for Booklist.
Do mystery writers become hyper-aware of danger because they constantly write about it, or do people with danger-prone imaginations become mystery writers? I’m not sure one precedes another. Instead, I believe both are manifestations of a person’s personality. And, as the daughter of mystery author Julie Hyzy (Home of the Braised, 2014), I can tell you that—at least in my mother’s case—this dark imagination is not limited to writing.
I could describe the wonderful ways my mother, author of the White House Chef series and Manor House series, raised me and my sisters. She was and is supportive, encouraging, and loving. Or I could expose the bizarre—but true!—ways she took care of us, which reflects the mentality of someone constantly plotting fictional crimes.
For example, Mom occasionally administered “Run away from the bad guy” drills. When we strolled from the grocery store to our Honda Odyssey (named Homer, in case that wasn’t indication enough of her career plan), Mom would shout, “Someone is chasing us!” Robyn, Sara, and I would take that as a cue to run to the van, check to make sure no one was hiding in back or underneath—never forget to look underneath!—and lock ourselves in. We saw it both as a game and a routine similar to our school’s fire drills. The plan was to hide in a safe, enclosed space while Mom fought off the attacker, which we had full confidence she could do. We were not allowed to wait for her; she prioritized our safety over her own. This behavior might sound paranoid to some of you, and maybe it is. Okay . . . let’s be honest, it definitely is. But, for us, these moments were fun and—dare I say?—normal.
But Mom wasn’t only worried about planning for public emergencies. She also implemented precautionary habits for the times we were home alone. Our house is set up so that you can see the back wall from the front window, specifically the hallway between the family room and the kitchen. (Even as I write this, I’m thinking, “I shouldn’t describe my house to strangers! They’ll break in!”) As you might suspect, when home alone, these were the two rooms my sisters I spent the most time in—one for games, movies, and books, the other for snacks. Mom worried that someone evil might look through the window, and—seeing unsupervised children—break in and kidnap us. The solution? Crawling. We had to crawl from one room to the next, not even on our hands and knees, but military-style on our bellies and elbows (which is no easy task when carrying a bowl of Lucky Charms). Whenever Mom left, she made us promise to crawl and explained why we should. Again, this seemed totally rational to us, so we did as she asked.
Because of this upbringing, I suspect more often than I should that villains are lurking around street corners. This fancy isn’t enough to scare me from living fully, but because of Mom’s lessons, I nestle my keys between my knuckles when walking alone. That way, if someone attacks, I can punch-stab him or her in the eye. Just in case.
As strange as my childhood was, most of it was fun. Our family can always count on Mom eavesdropping in public; she enjoys hearing strangers’ stories almost as much as she loves writing her own. If she is not in hearing range, she’ll comment on others’ appearances and body language, trying to deduce their story through visual means.
Recently, Mom asked me to tie her to a chair, wrists knotted behind its back and ankles strapped to its legs, because she wanted to know how to free herself for a scene she was writing. I’m afraid I wasn’t a very good assistant as my hands were shaking from laughing so hard. We tried multiple times, testing an assortment of restraints, until she decided on duct tape. Other materials did not work because they were either too flimsy or, like masking tape, became tighter and stronger the more Mom fought them. She needed a sufficient constraint that was still possible to sever. Duct tape, though difficult to rip in such conditions, will eventually stretch until it breaks. (Be sure to look for this scene in her upcoming Grace Against the Clock!)
Just a few weeks ago, I took Donald J. Sobol’s Two-Minute Mysteries off the shelf. My Mom, Dad, and I took turns reading the short whodunits aloud, guessing how Dr. Haledjian caught the culprit. However, the game quickly changed from “Solve the mystery” to “Who can remember the answer first?” Mom and I read the stories so much as children—during different eras, of course—that we had most of the solutions memorized. After only a sentence or two, one of us would say, “The car was parked on the hose!” “A flag can’t wave on a windless day!” or “The candle wax dripped on the wrong side!” My poor Dad was the only one left genuinely guessing. For the record, his sleuthing skills were spot on.
Mom always wanted to write mysteries. Even before she did, she’d envisage criminal scenarios that would eventually make it into her books. With all that action and danger slashing through her imagination, she became extra—but not overly—protective of us. It added a layer of play time to my childhood, and silly as it is, I feel more prepared now. You may call it eccentric, but I call it love.