FACETIME- Cole case: Mystery writer not <i>Dead in the Water</i>

Meredith Cole

Mystery writer Meredith Cole's concedes that her upbringing wasn't exactly traditional, and neither are her two books. "In 1971, my parents moved here to start a commune," says Cole. The 120-acre Springtree Community south of Scottsville still exists, she says.

When she graduated from what was then called the Tandem School nearly 20 years ago and left to go to Smith College, Cole envisioned a career writing and directing films. She returned to Charlottesville last year with a husband, a son–- and two murder mysteries. 

"She had never killed so many people in so many different ways..." reads the opening line of her first, Posed for Murder. The book won for best first traditional mystery in the Malice Domestic Contest (that's what it's really called). That prize came with a publishing contract with the prestigious St. Martin's publishing house. and her second book, Dead in the Water, came out in May.

Although Cole's genre is called traditional mystery, her amateur sleuth, Lydia McKenzie, is anything but ordinary. McKenzie is a murder-solving art photographer who wears great clothes, has boyfriend troubles, and bides her time at a day job with a detective agency.

In Dead in the Water, a prostitute that McKenzie has photographed ends up a floater in the East River, an incident inspired by Cole's life in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.

"My husband and I moved to Williamsburg in '99," she says. "It was a very adventurous, artistic place."

Lots of abandoned industrial space was turning Williamsburg into an affordable New York address. But real dangers and headline-grabbing tragedies lurked.

"Before we left, a serial killer was killing prostitutes," she explains. "The second thing was the death of Spaulding Gray. He washed up in a park that I frequented." 

Virginia Festival of the Book director Nancy Damon, who describes Cole's books as "edgy," says she liked the window into the lives of younger professionals. "She represents a new sort of hip generation," says Damon. 

Before becoming a mystery writer, Cole, now 40, wrote and directed a couple of feature films and some promos that appeared in such places as the Food Network and the Learning Channel. But her pregnancy gestated a career change.

"I had to decide whether to keep making film, and that's hard to do with small children," says Cole, remarking that screen-writing and novel-writing aren't very far apart. "A screenplay has a three-act structure," she notes. "A mystery follows a similar structure."

Even with critical acclaim and a well-known publisher like St. Martin's, the uber-competitive 21st century publishing world has Cole taking charge of promoting her books. She's done signings in New York, Reston, Gaithersburg, and Raleigh. Locally, she launched her latest work at WriterHouse, where she has taught mystery writing and screenwriting. This fall, she's teaching in UVA's continuing education department.

Although she's moved to another trendy neighborhood– Charlottesville's Belmont– Cole says she intends to keep her series set in Brooklyn. And in writing about murderers, Cole has has learned that fiction can't always follow reality.

"Unfortunately," she says, "most criminals are really stupid, and you can't use them in mysteries because it would be over in five minutes."