Go to Homepage   Robin Hathaway: the Doctor is In


Robin Hathaway likes Malice. No, we're not talking about a character flaw here. Malice Domestic is a convention for mystery readers and writers, held every year in Washington, D.C. At the 1997 convention, Hathaway won the Malice Domestic/St. Martin's Press Best First Traditional Mystery Award for her unpublished mystery. And this year, The Doctor Digs a Grave took home Malice Domestic's Agatha Award for Best First Mystery of 1998.

So what's the recipe for a prize-winning puzzle? Learn more about the characters, the setting, and most important, the motive behind The Doctor Digs a Grave

Crescent Blues: Dr. Fenimore, your lead character, is a fascinating combination of some very old fashioned and admirable characteristics -- like his dedication to an older, more patient-centered practice of medicine -- and his rather progressive social views. Was he based on any real-life models? 

Hathaway: I didn't have to look far for a model of Dr. Fenimore. My husband is a cardiologist, also in solo practice, who drives an ancient car and occasionally buys his clothes in thrift shops.  

Dr. Fenimore is a very nice fellow. He is also an honorable physician who takes the Hippocratic oath very seriously. His most distinguishing characteristic is his almost religious respect for the individual -- whether patient, murder victim, or even a murderer. He is old-fashioned in that he prefers to work alone rather than in a group or for an HMO. But his practice of medicine is as up to-date as the most recent issue of Journal of the American Medical Association or The New England Journal of Medicine.  

Dr. Fenimore is sometimes plagued by self-doubt and questions his beliefs. "Should I join them?" he once asked his friend Jennifer, who happens to be an independent bookseller. "The day I join a chain store," she answered. (This was written before You've Got Mail, by the way.) 

I understand that The Doctor Digs a Grave is now out in paperback and a sequel, also featuring Dr. Fenimore, is in the works. Could you tell us a little bit about it?

Hathaway: My sequel is called The Doctor Makes A Dollhouse Call and will be published by St. Martin's in February, 2000. It's the story of two elderly sisters who live in a Victorian house by the sea. They have a dollhouse which is an exact replica of their real house -- down to the last mini-pot in the kitchen. Dolls, resembling each member of the family, also live in the dollhouse. One day a niece-doll is found on the floor of the dining room. At first mice are suspected, a la Beatrix Potter. But when the scene is repeated, followed by the death of the real niece, Dr. Fenimore is called in to investigate. 

Crescent Blues: Was there a particular reason you decided to write from a male point of view, and did you find it difficult? 

Hathaway: I can't account for choosing the male point of view. This character had been floating around in my head for many years, before he actually made it to the page. It never occurred to me to write about a woman. Contrary to some of my feminist friends, I don't believe there is that much difference between the minds of men and women, especially today, when we are all confronted with the same challenges and life styles.  

Women are no longer protected and supported. They are out there, alone and vulnerable, in a cold and hostile world, holding their own. Their thought processes are not going to be too different from their male counterparts. I think the mental gender gap is closing rapidly. As a result, writing about either sex, by either sex, is bound to become easier. 

Crescent Blues: Did you have an ulterior motive in making your hero a doctor-- for example, making it more plausible that he would become involved in a murder case? 

Hathaway: I did think that a doctor would come into contact with unexplained death more often than, say, an architect or a stock broker. Also, being married to one, I knew my research would be much easier. When I needed to know a lethal dose of sleeping pills, all I had to do was turn over in bed and ask. (There's your ulterior motive!) 

Crescent Blues: I noticed that your mystery had a lot of technical medical information, but you made it palatable for the reader. Was this difficult? 

Hathaway: Very. It was the hardest part of the book. I would tell my husband what I had in mind. He would research the problem and give it back to me in medical terminology. I would rewrite it in layman terms and give it back to him. He would check to make sure my changes hadn't interfered with the medical accuracy, and so on.  

We passed some passages back and forth over a dozen times. The goal was to make it easy to read and absorb while still remaining medically accurate. (My husband even suggested that he be made a co-author of the book. But I reminded him that the hero was a clone of him, and that should be enough.) 

Crescent Blues: Did you think when you started that you would want to write more than one book about Dr. Fenimore, and if so, did you do anything differently than you would in a stand-alone book? 

Hathaway: I always planned to write a series and this made me think very carefully about my characters -- not just Fenimore but all his friends and relatives, because I knew (hoped) I would be seeing a lot of them and that they would be around for a long time. I wanted them to wear well. 

Crescent Blues: Is there anything you did in the first book that you wish you'd done differently? 

Hathaway: Yes. I wish I had remembered thatů

Robin Hathaway - Continued