Friday, September 16, 2011

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

More than 10 years ago, my mom called me up at work one day to ask a book-related question. She wanted to know when Sophie Dunbar’s next mystery was coming out. Dunbar is the author of one of our favorite series—The Eclaire Mysteries. There are four books in this series about Claire Claiborne and her high-society New Orleans beauty salon: Behind Eclaire’s Doors, A Bad Hair Day, Redneck Riviera, and Shiveree. As I thought about my Mom’s words, I realized that it had been a while since we’d read Dunbar’s last book—Fashion Victims, the first book in a new series.

So, while eating lunch at my desk, I browsed all of the usual websites and was surprised at what I found. Or rather what I didn’t find. There were no new books that I’d somehow missed. (Okay, I’m good about staying on top of my favorite authors, but when you have hundreds of “favorite” authors, it can be tricky.) I googled Sophie Dunbar’s name, looking for her website. Nothing. Now I was intrigued. Unfortunately, I was also finished my lunch.

That night I returned to my keyboard to solve the mystery of Sophie Dunbar’s apparent disappearance. I consider myself the Queen of the Internet search, and I was not about to relinquish my crown. (Humble much?) Plus, it would be fun to solve a little “mystery” related to one of my favorite mystery writers. A few minutes later—mystery solved, but with mixed results. I retained my Queen of the Internet crown, but lost a “friend.” And yes, although I’d never met Sophie Dunbar, when I read that the 54-year-old author had died on May 11, 2001, from breast cancer, I truly felt like I’d lost a friend. When I called my Mom to tell her the news, she felt the same.

Sophie Dunbar came back into my life this past summer when my Mom brought the Eclaire Mysteries on vacation with us. She’d lent them to my sister-in-law to read. While that might not seem like such a big deal, I should probably share a few facts about my sister-in-law, and hope she doesn’t disown me when she reads this blog. First, she considers flipping through gossip mags reading. Second, outside of coursework (she’s back in college getting her teaching degree), she probably reads about three books a year—two of those when she’s on vacation with my family. Finally, she once uttered the words: “Why read the book when you can wait a few months and see the movie?” Her words left me speechless. And if you know me, you’d know what a feat that was. My sister-in-law read Behind Eclaire’s Doors in record time, and she loved it. She was still reading the second book when our vacation ended.

When I sat down to write this blog, something made me google Sophie Dunbar again. It was a little depressing at first. Her five books are out of print and only available through Amazon’s Seller Program. Other mentions of her are few and far between. Three lines in an online article by Terry Weingart entitled “In Memory 2001: Mystery Writers Gone but Not Forgotten.” About 10 lines on her author page on But then I read them, and what a 10 lines they are!

I now know my “friend” Sophie Dunbar a little better. For example, her favorite book in the Eclaire Mystery Series was Redneck Riviera. It is the third book published in the series, but it was actually the second book Dunbar wrote. Not happy that she’d changed the setting from the Big Easy to Mississippi, her publisher chose to release A Bad Hair Day instead. In fact, Dunbar had to switch publishing houses before her favorite story would make it into print. (If you read the series in the order the books were published, as my Mom and I originally did, you will note that the timing is a little off.)

The other thing I learned about Sophie Dunbar was more intriguing. As a pregnant, unwed teenager, Sophie Dunbar had given a son up for adoption. Thirty years later, after intensive research and with the help of a female detective who specialized in adoptions, Sophie Dunbar’s son made contact with his birth mother. Mother and son shared their first face-to-face meeting at the 1998 Malice Domestic Mystery Conference in Washington, D.C. When I read these words, a chill went down my spine. How strangely appropriate to unravel such a great mystery at a conference for mystery writers. Immediately, my overactive imagination went into hyper-drive.

What had been going though Sophie Dunbar’s mind when she first laid eyes on her son? Had she been scared? Nervous? Uncertain? Excited? Regretful? Overjoyed? Had Sophie Dunbar known about her breast cancer diagnosis? After all, she would die a mere three years later. Perhaps she’d already been in the fight for her life even while she agreed to meet the baby she’d given away. Of course I will never know the answers to these questions. They will remain a mystery.

What I do know is that I will not forget Sophie Dunbar. Her books will always have room on my bookshelf. Her characters will always have a special place in my heart. If you have not read her Eclaire Mystery series, I urge you to do so. From the pleasure of true love to the pain of infidelity to the power of forgiveness, the connection between Claire and Dan Claiborne is powerful and oh-so-steamy. Their adventures are good for a chuckle and always served with a heaping helping of Southern Charm and a dash of murder. Even better, I can visit Sophie Dunbar’s engaging stories whenever I want, and—as my Mom did this summer and I’m doing today—I can share her work with others who may have missed them the first time around.

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