Thursday, March 7, 2013

Robin Hathaway, 1934-2013

Elizabeth Zelvin

Last Saturday I drove from New York down to Philadelphia to attend the funeral of a beloved sister in crime, Robin Hathaway, who died of cancer at the age of 79. She was the author of two mystery series, both featuring doctors. She admitted that the cardiologist, Dr. Fenimore, was loosely based on her husband. She designed Dr. Jo Banks to be as different from her first protagonist as possible: a young woman who treats her patients in motels and gets around on a motorcycle.

There are a lot of reasons that everybody loved Robin. She was both gentle and uproarious. She didn’t have a mean bone in her body. She was welcoming and generous to fellow writers, including the aspiring, and an inspiration to those of us who didn’t get published till later in life. I remember the first time I met her, at a restaurant dinner following a Sisters in Crime meeting in New York. She was the only published writer present that I had actually heard of, and I was amazed at how unassuming and friendly she was.

When my first novel came out in 2008, I still didn’t know her very well yet. But, unable to make it to my launch party, she sent flowers: a lovely little wrist corsage. At the annual Malice Domestic mystery convention, she always had dinner on the Friday night with her writing and book tour buddies and critique partners, Elena Santangelo and Caroline Todd (the mom half of the bestselling duo known as Charles Todd). On several occasions, I was stuck for a dinner partner, since all of my closest friends were being taken out to dinner by their publisher. Each time, Robin insisted on bringing me along to share the evening with her own best friends. (The trio called themselves the Three Witches.)

Robin wrote her first novel, The Doctor Digs A Grave, at the age of fifty, and sent it out for ten years before it won the Malice Domestic/St Martin’s Best First Novel contest and, a year later, the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. She enjoyed doing research, and her favorite writing advice was, “Get it right!” The story I most loved to hear her tell, with her special brand of deadpan hilarity, was how hard she tried to make one of her later manuscripts less cozy and more gritty, closer to noir. The result: a book that one reviewer said he’d have no hesitation giving to his fourteen-year-old niece.

Robin was currently working on something new: a standalone historical thriller set in the Nazi era intertwined with a present-day story. She loved doing the research, and she told me that the story practically wrote itself, that the words came pouring out of her—not most writers’ usual experience with a first draft. At her funeral, I was happy to hear that her daughters are determined to finish the book and see it published. Her critique partners, already involved in the revision process with Robin, have offered to help.

I’m glad I had a chance to talk with Robin’s daughters and other family members as well as their friends. One young woman who’d grown up with the daughters said that everyone was welcome in their home. She said it had a “revolving door,” with people constantly going in and out, and Robin was a general favorite, the ideal “friends’ mother.” Robin’s brother’s wife, to whose home we all adjourned after the simple service and churchyard burial, said that if she’d been asked to write the requirements of the perfect sister-in-law, she would have described Robin exactly as she was.

I’ll miss her at the New York chapter meetings of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America and at mystery conferences and book events. And I know I’m not the only one. She was loved and will long be remembered.


Dru said...

that was a nice tribute.

Sandra Parshall said...

This is a lovely tribute, Liz. I didn't know her well -- I was on a conference panel with her once -- but I know she was universally liked, and her late-blooming career as a writer was an inspiration to me.

Barb Goffman said...

I agree. Very nice.

Triss said...

Excellent tribute, Liz. I knew Robin, not very deeply but for a long time, and she was exactly the lovely person you describe - sweet, smart, funny. She is already missed.

Leslie Budewitz said...

A lovely tribute, Liz. I never met her, but her first book one the St. Martin's Malice Domestic prize for unpublished mysteries the year mine was nominated, and as soon as I read her book, I understood why she'd won. Love the story about turning a ms. "noir" only to have it called suitable for a teenager!

Catherine said...

Nicely said, Liz. Robin and I were on the board of the New York Chapter of Sisters in Crime together and she was welcoming and warm presence at meetings. Also, as the chair of the MWA-NY Mentor Program, I could depend on Robin to do a great critique of a new writer's manuscript. In fact, if we didn't have enough mentors, Robin could always be depended on to do a second critique.