As crime writers go, David Housewright is about as cheerful as they come. And why shouldn’t he be? Two of his books—Curse of the Jade Lily and The Devil and the Diva, co-written with his wife, Renee Valois—have been nominated for Minnesota Book Awards this year, and he has yet another, his 15th, coming out in June.
But it’s more than that.
“Some writers think that all the bad stuff we hear about is just the tip of the iceberg—that things are so much worse than we know. I’m the opposite,” Housewright says. “I don’t think the world is that dark. I think the bad things we hear about are mostly it, and that people are mostly good. I’m probably wrong, but that’s how I see it.”
Even Housewright’s criminals aren’t all bad. They often operate with mixed motives or justify their crimes in ways that almost make them sympathetic characters—until they stab or shoot someone or blow a building up. Likewise, Housewright’s chief protagonist, retired police officer and wisecracking accidental millionaire Rushmore McKenzie, is a man whose sense of justice is in the right place, even if his methods are sometimes questionable and his sense of duty rather fluid. “McKenzie has a cop mentality,” explains Housewright. “He likes to think he’s doing good. When his head hits the pillow at night, he wants to be able to say to himself, ‘I did a horrible thing today, but the world is a better place because of it.’ ”
One of the reasons Housewright’s crime thrillers are so satisfying is that they aren’t just about solving the crime. As McKenzie goes about his business, Housewright weaves in interesting tidbits of local history, drops recognizable landmarks by the dozens, and, without slowing the action, incorporates themes and ideas one rarely encounters in crime thrillers.
“I’ve always maintained that the best crime novels are about a lot more than who killed Mr. Body in the library with the candlestick,” Housewright says. “As a writer, the crime gives you a platform on which to explore this town, these people, this place. And the crime itself comes out of the desperation of the situation.”
In Curse of the Jade Lily, for example, the Jade Lily is a sculpture stolen from a museum that’s trying to get to the level of the Walker Art Center in terms of reputation and prestige. The “curse” is that whoever owns the Jade Lily tends to die, but this lethal legacy doesn’t stop half a dozen different people from trying to claim it as their own. Furthermore, everyone’s claim appears to have at least some legitimacy, so sorting through the lies and subterfuge is a daunting task. McKenzie’s job is to retrieve the Jade Lily and return it to its rightful owner. But who, exactly, is that?
“Curse of the Jade Lily is really about obsession,” says Housewright. “You’ve got all these people who want the Jade Lily for different reasons—and it’s not just about what it’s worth. There are characters doing good things for the wrong reasons, and characters doing the wrong things for good reasons. Those were the elements I wanted to set in motion.”