Meet Your Region: Michigan

By Elizabeth Heiter

When you tell people you’re from Michigan, it conjures up some instant responses.  If the person you’re talking to has ever lived there, they immediately hold up their hand, point to a spot and tell you that’s where they’re from in “the mitten.”  We’re known for our Great Lakes (and we’re dotted with smaller ones – you can’t drive more than a mile near me without hitting water), as well as our Midwestern attitude (friendly) and weather (don’t like it?  Wait five minutes and it will change).

People know the big cities: Lansing, Detroit, Ann Arbor.  Speak of Detroit and anyone who doesn’t live here gets concerned; they ask things like: “Does it feel like a war zone?  What about the bankruptcy?”  But Detroit is like any big city: pockets with high crime, areas dominated by commuters coming in for the week, and ritzy spots to go for dinner.  And right now, it’s in the middle of a resurgence; restaurants are popping up almost too fast to keep track of and artistic types are flocking there to call it home.  Ann Arbor has a different reputation: an academic city with a lot of diversity.  And over the years, Ann Arbor has kept much of its charm, part college town, part artsy center.

When you speak of Michigan and mystery, there are two institutions that come immediately to mind: The Strand Magazine and Aunt Agatha’s Mystery Bookshop.  Incidentally, the first is based near Detroit and the second out of Ann Arbor.  I interviewed Andrew Gulli, Managing Editor of Strand Magazine, and Robin Agnew, co-owner (with her husband Jamie) of Aunt Agatha’s Mystery Bookshop.  Here’s what they had to say about mysteries and Michigan:

Twenty-four years ago, Aunt Agatha’s opened in downtown Ann Arbor.  Why did you choose Ann Arbor and what kind of readers do you see in this college town?

Robin Agnew: We moved here from Minneapolis.  My parents live(d) in Lansing, and we didn’t especially want to live in Lansing, so we chose Ann Arbor.  As far as the college town aspect, that’s a good thing/bad thing.  Good obviously because Ann Arbor’s vitality is thanks in large part to the University; bad because there’s a certain amount of snobbishness about mysteries as not “real literature” (I could argue that point all day) and so through the years we have been discounted and mostly ignored by local media.  Luckily we do have a good base of local customers and many from out of town who love our store when they visit.  Toledo and Lansing are especially friendly cities to us, as is Windsor, Ontario, but we’ve had customers from everywhere.

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Robin and Jamie Agnew inside Aunt Agatha’s.

When one thinks of the Strand Magazine, they think of London, England, not of Detroit.  What would you say the experience has been publishing a literary magazine in the region you live in?

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Andrew Gulli: Well the interesting thing is that when you speak to people from other parts of the country the first thing that Michigan conjures up are automobiles and the second thing they’ll ask you is, “is the crime really bad there.” So, it has been wonderful to publish a magazine where you can be yourself and not feel certain commercial pressures and competition that occur in big market states. Since Michigan and Detroit are earning comeback status, you see a literary nostalgia for the dark noir times of Detroit. Several editors have come up to me over the past couple of years and have said, ‘Oh, Detroit has such a vibe now, I’d love to get my hands on that breakout book set in Detroit or set during the really tough times.’

Aunt Agatha’s is a unique store, dedicated solely to mysteries of all kinds.  The shelves are overflowing with them.  Can you tell us about how it all started and how it’s grown over the years?

Robin Agnew: When we opened you wouldn’t have believed how sleek we looked and how uncrowded the shelves!   However word got out that we took books for credit (very, very early on for actual cash) and people through the years have basically recycled their books with us.  At this point we are fairly picky as we don’t have a lot of room, but early on we had a lot of meet ups in parking lots to go through a trunkful of books in someone’s car.  Many times we took them all.  Once I met a woman in a parking lot desperate to get rid of a box of books and so I took them off her hands.  Inside the box was a first edition of C is for Corpse (we sold it in a bidding war the next day).  I wish every story ended that way but most of the books we take in are bread and butter reads.  Our bestsellers remain Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Rex Stout, with Agatha being far and away the most popular author in the store.

Stories published in The Strand have won or been nominated for every major mystery award in short story.  Can you tell us how stories are chosen for The Strand and what it is that drew you to the mystery genre?

Andrew Gulli: The process of publishing a story can get complex in that we always want to have a balance in a particular issue. A lot of times we end up getting what we call either the morbid or the funny season, where we end up having 5 stories involving just car chases, or just ghosts, or being overly serious and morbid. We usually have a discussion with the fiction editor and if she likes the story it goes into the magazine. The majority of the stories are commissioned and much as I like to try and introduce new writers, we probably only publish about 5 stories by debut and new authors.

Aunt Agatha’s is well known in the mystery community across the country; you even won a Raven Award in 2014 from Mystery Writers of America.  Can you share what you love about the mystery genre?

Robin Agnew: Everything!  I read mysteries nonstop, I review for Mystery Scene and write a newsletter, so I’m reading 10 or 12 books a month at least.  Since I first picked up a Nancy Drew book as a kid I’ve really never looked back.  I think like many other mystery readers, I love a series with characters I enjoy and want to follow.  But technically speaking, I guess I love the narrative element inherent in mystery fiction (seems that element is a bit lacking in contemporary literary type fiction) and I still love the puzzle aspect.   But mysteries are also such great recorders of social mores and behaviors.  What’s not to love?

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Mystery writers Con Lehane and Allison Leotta bookending Robin Agnew.

The Strand is also known for resurrecting previously unpublished stories from literary legends like John Steinbeck, Mark Twain and H.G. Wells.  In many ways, this seems like a wonderful homage to the original time period of The Strand.  Was this always part of your plan when you revived the magazine?  If not, how did it begin?

Andrew Gulli: Oddly enough it began in 2009 when I read that boutique publishing company named Harper Studio (now defunct) were coming out with a collection of short stories by Mark Twain that had never been published before. I negotiated to publish one of the stories before the book came out and that was such a huge success that I decided to turn it into a regular feature.

How has Ann Arbor (and Michigan in general) changed over the twenty-four years Aunt Agatha’s has been in business?  And what do you credit for the strength of your store through all of those changes?

Robin Agnew: Ann Arbor continues to grow, and when we first opened the store downtown was a good bit funkier, for want of a better word.  I think the more unique, specifically local stores have now moved to the Kerrytown area while downtown proper is going upscale as lots of buildings are bought by out of town landlords and rents are going up.  Part of our good fortune was early on not being able to afford a spot on a busier street (Main or Liberty) and so we’ve ended up on 4th Ave. where the rent is reasonable and we’re still close to the action.  Obviously we’re a destination store in many ways – you’re not going to find much if you don’t love mysteries, I guess, but since I think everyone should be a mystery lover, we have plenty of great reading to offer almost every type of reader.

During the time The Strand was reborn near Detroit, the city has undergone many ups and downs.  Can you tell us how you think the rebirth of the city has impacted artists and writers?

Andrew Gulli: My memories of Detroit 15 years ago are very different from what I’ll see today if I’m visiting Downtown for a concert or seeing friends. Now Detroit has become a hub for young professionals, artists, singers, and authors, and they’re moving here because housing is very reasonable and a big city is an eco-system to share new ideas, thoughts, and incubates creativity.

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Detroit Public Library (Noel Night)

What do you think is unique about Ann Arbor (or Michigan) that mystery authors have captured (or need to capture) in their books?  Can you share some of your favorite Michigan-set mysteries?

Robin Agnew: There are some really spectacular Michigan authors – Elmore Leonard, Loren Estleman, and Steve Hamilton are the top 3 for us. I guess people would be surprised that we sell far more Estleman and Hamilton books than Elmore Leonard ones.  Estleman’s prose and his capturing of the feel of Detroit through every decade and type of neighborhood is remarkable,  He’s also of course a great private eye writer and I couldn’t recommend his first Amos Walker novel, MOTOR CITY BLUE, more highly.  We’ve been lucky enough to know Loren practically since we opened and have hosted him many, many times.  Steve Hamilton we met before A COLD DAY IN PARADISE was published, and he’s one of our rock stars – his books set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are the whole package – setting, character, lean writing – again, start at the beginning, though a personal favorite of mine is BLOOD IS THE SKY.  

What are some of your favorite depictions of Detroit (or Michigan) in mysteries?  And what about some of your favorite Michigan authors?

Andrew Gulli: I think the king of depicting Detroit was Elmore Leonard—at the times when things were dark, he saw the humor through all the darkness and that’s why his books were very popular and he was always able to point out landmarks which locals such as myself could recognize. I think Steve Hamilton is a very talented author and I’m happy to see him do well. I also think Joyce Carol Oates is that author who will just keep on producing works that are both literary yet popular.

Critically acclaimed author ELIZABETH HEITER likes her suspense to feature strong heroines, chilling villains, psychological twists, and a little bit (or a lot!) of romance. Her research has taken her into the minds of serial killers, through murder investigations, and onto the FBI Academy’s shooting range.

To learn more about Elizabeth Heiter’s newest book, click on the cover below:

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