Novel traces determination of fictional Annapolis sleuth, South County-based writer

First mystery leads to publishing contract

August 05, 1999|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In times less politically correct than our own, we'd have described Hannah Ives as one "tough cookie."

A breast cancer survivor estranged from her only daughter, fired from her job, forced to sit by as her husband, a Naval Academy professor, is embroiled in a very public controversy, yet still possessing the wherewithal to head down to South County and solve an 8-year-old murder.

Hannah, you may have guessed, is a fictional character. But her creator, Marcia Talley of the Gingerville community just south of Annapolis, is an equally feisty soul; a Naval Academy systems librarian and breast cancer survivor who, at 56, is poised to see her first novel hit bookstore shelves Tuesday.

"Sing It To Her Bones," Talley's mystery introducing the intrepid Hannah Ives, won the Malice Domestic 1998 Grant for Best Unpublished Mystery. That award proved to be the literary turning point for an author who has been creating and solving her own mysteries since the 8th grade.

"Once I won it, I actually had agents calling me, which was quite a switch," says a delighted Talley, who is at work on her second Hannah Ives novel, part of a three-book deal she signed recently with Dell Publishing.

Her first effort has also been selected as a "Featured Alternate" by the Mystery Guild, the national book club for devotees of the whodunit genre.

It's no wonder Talley has caught the eye of mystery mavens, for she demonstrates both a penchant for storytelling and a flair for character development.

Trying to cope with a heap of personal crises, Hannah leaves her Annapolis home for rest and relaxation down in rural Pearson's Corner. There, in the murky water of an abandoned well, she discovers the remains of Katie Dunbar, dead of a gunshot wound inflicted eight years before, on the night of her high school homecoming dance.

Confronting a batch of suspects who clearly know more about that murderous night than they're letting on, Hannah puts her deductive powers, quick wits and knowledge of sailing to work to unravel the mystery.

Though the story was inspired by a homicide in the Kentucky hometown of Barry Talley, the author's husband and longtime director of musical activities at the Naval Academy, local mystery buffs will find plenty to identify with. Hannah lives on Prince George St. in downtown Annapolis and spends time waiting for the Rowe Boulevard stoplight to change just like the rest of us. Galesville residents might recognize bits of their hometown in fictional Pearson's Corner.

"I like conveying that small-town atmosphere where residents who are a little set in their ways get their lives overturned by an outsider," the author says.

Talley also had the background to write about Hannah's fight with cancer. She faced down the disease in the early 1980s. "Most books and films play up the maudlin aspects of cancer," she says. "I wanted to write a book about a woman who's been changed by it, but not defined by it."

Hannah's difficulties with daughter Emily, though, is a case of life not imitating art, for Talley's daughters Laura, a Washington lawyer, and Sarah, a teacher in Howard County, are very much in her life. She acknowledges them for helping her chart Hannah's troublesome relationship with her daughter.

Meanwhile, with the publication of "Sing It To Her Bones," Talley feels as though she's gained a new family member.

"The reality set in when I went on and the cover of my book came up," she laughs. "It's like having a new baby and not having to feed it at 2 in the morning."

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