TO EARN THE APPELLATION “TEXAS WRITER,” must an author use Texas as a subject as well as a residence? The phrase evokes the likes of Larry McMurtry, but plenty of other Texans have won acclaim for books set elsewhere. Historical novelist Karleen Koen of Houston weaves tapestries of eighteenth-century Europe. The science fiction of Austinite Bruce Sterling largely avoids not just Texas but all of planet Earth. And mystery writers in particular range far afield. Robin Paige of San Marcos—the pen name of spouses Bill and Susan Wittig Albert—recreates Victorian England, and Lynda S. Robinson of San Antonio evokes ancient Egypt.
Then there is Deborah Crombie, arguably Texas’ finest writer of classic mysteries, who so convincingly portrays modern Britain that it’s hard to believe she calls McKinney home. The 45-year-old, who just published her fifth novel, Dreaming of the Bones (Scribner’s, $22), says Texans who don’t write Texan “do seem to get short shrift.” Yet in her case, that oversight is limited to the state itself: Crombie has fans around the country and the world, including critics and editors (she has been nominated for the mystery genre’s prestigious Agatha and Macavity awards).
Because her upbringing was, in some ways, stereotypically Texan, Crombie could have drawn on her roots; for example, she rode horses on her parents’ land in Richardson. But, she says, “Although I grew up in Texas, I had nothing to say about it. I wanted to write about what I loved.” And what Crombie loved was England. “I’ve been an Anglophile ever since reading Winnie the Pooh, ” she recalls. “Later I devoured English novels—romantic suspense by Mary Stewart, family sagas by Delderfield and Galsworthy, and of course, British mysteries.” After graduating from Sherman’s Austin College in 1977, she moved with her first husband to Edinburgh, Scotland, and later Chester, England, and she spent her days exploring the cities. She returned to the U.S. in 1981, and several years later, she says, “set out to write a very traditional mystery, with a closed circle of suspects. And I insisted on fair play—the reader should have every clue the detective has.” Her characters are blessedly unwacky, and her plots eschew serial killers and other hackneyed themes: “I’m more interested in the psychological than the psychotic.”
That interest is reflected in Dreaming of the Bones, a moody, compelling tale in which Crombie takes a mystery chestnut—the unquestioned suicide—and runs with it. The story interleaves modern London, sixties Cambridge, and the World War I generation of poet Rupert Brooke and demonstrates her insistence on meticulous research. To avoid stray Americanisms, she relies on British reference books and overseas friends who read her early drafts.
“I live in England in my head,” Crombie confesses, but her feet are firmly planted in McKinney, where she lives in a 1905 house with her teenage daughter and her second husband (fittingly, a policeman). “Here in Texas,” she says, “I’m homesick for Britain. When I was there, I was homesick for Texas. I’m never completely happy either place.” Readers on both sides of the Atlantic, however, are.