“I killed Mickey Rooney once in a TV show,” Melodie Johnson Howe said, laughing about her past life as an actress. The author of the Diana Poole mystery stories was also in Coogan’s Bluff and Ride to Hangman’s Tree back in the 1960s, and her curious-as-a-cat detective roams from home to auditions, echoing in some ways what was once Howe’s life. Howe reaches into that past to pull up realistic but surreal scenes, like Poole fishing for a gun in her most recent book, Hold a Scorpion, and realizing she knows how to load it because she’d done it before on set.
Of her current craft, “I learned to write by writing short stories,” said Howe, “and I created one with an actress/sleuth called Diana Poole, and [the detective fiction magazine] Ellery Queen bought it.” But even before dreaming up Poole, the Montecito resident was nominated for the mystery world’s most prestigious awards — the Edgar, the Anthony, and the Agatha — for her first book, The Mother Shadow, which came out in 1989. Following that one with a second, Beauty Dies, featuring her Archie Goodwin–like hero Maggie Hill, Howe then wrote about a dozen shorter stories for Ellery Queen, by the end of which the coolly dynamic Poole was fully formed.
The action in Scorpion takes place along and around Malibu and the Pacific Coast Highway, and it’s a shoot-’em-up good time, with plot twists and seamy characters that stay true to their time and place. “It’s so hard writing mysteries,” Howe mock-wailed of pacing and red herrings. “You can’t let them in on the real McGuffin!” She’ll be staying mum at book-signings for Hold a Scorpion, which drops October 25, at Chaucer’s Books (3321 State St.) on Thursday, October 27, at 7 p.m. and at Tecolote Book Shop (1470 E. Valley Rd.) on Friday, October 28, at 5 p.m.