A life of crime: East Bay mystery maven gathers Jewish authors for festival talk

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Classic or golden age–style mystery novels traditionally include one or more of the following: an outrageous murder, a rogue detective and some exciting — though perhaps formulaic — plot twists.

Despite these recurrences, mystery writers have found ways to reinvent and reinvigorate the genre for centuries. Case in point: the three Jewish mystery authors to be featured in the program “Mystery Mavens aka East Bay Crime” during the Contra Costa Jewish Book and Arts Festival on Nov. 15.

The authors — Sharon Newman, Ona Russell and Rita Lakin — each write mysteries set in different time periods.

Toby (left) and Bill Gottfried

Newman created the Catherine LeVendeur mysteries set in 12th-century France, while Russell authored “The Natural Selection,” about a Jewish detective who’s involved with a murder investigation during the Scopes Monkey Trial in the early 1900s.

And Lakin, a Marin resident, writes the “Getting Old” series, with titles such as “Getting Old is to Die For” and “Getting Old is the Best Revenge,” which are set in present-day Miami and follow a group of retirement home dwellers who solve crimes.

Walnut Creek resident Toby Gottfried handpicked the authors and will moderate the panel. She volunteered for the Jewish Book and Arts Festival because she knows many mystery authors who use Jewish themes in their stories, Gottfried says.

On the surface, Gottfried seems like an odd choice for moderator of a mystery book panel.

She’s not a mystery writer, or even a novelist — she is, in fact, a molecular genetics researcher who attended both Cornell and Yale universities. Her husband, Bill, is a clinician and former Fulbright Scholar.

The two met in an unlikely fashion — in 1959, they were both aboard a ship about set sail from Israel to the U.S.

For Toby, the summer trip to Israel had been a college graduation present from her parents; for Bill, the journey had been a hiking excursion with a fellow medical student.

As the boat left the dock in Haifa, both stood at the railing, waving farewell to their friends. They were engaged three months later and married six months after that.

The mystery genre came calling in 1964 when the couple was abroad once again, this time to research and work in England.

They arrived in London and became interested in British golden age mysteries — whodunits by Agatha Christie and the like from the early 1900s.

“I read everything and loved it,” Toby exclaims. “I was absolutely hooked.”

After they returned to the U.S. in the late 1960s, the Gottfrieds  moved to Walnut Creek after Bill was offered a job in the pediatrics department at Kaiser Permanente.

There they nurtured their growing interest in the mystery novel genre, both historical and modern, while raising their two young sons (though the boys grew to be more interested in science fiction than thrillers).

In 1991, along with five other Bay Area mystery enthusiasts, the Gottfrieds founded Left Coast Crime, a small group that hosts regional mystery conferences and meets weekly to discuss their favorite novels and authors.

The yearly Left Coast Crime conferences feature bigwigs in the world of mystery writing. The first conference in 1991 took place in San Francisco, with subsequent events in cities throughout the West and Southwest. The events have included mystery authors such as Faye and Jonathan Kellerman, Sue Grafton and Tony Hillerman.

In addition to moderating their own conferences, the Gottfrieds also jet off to England once a year for Crimefest (which honors British mystery writers) and Bouchercon, a roving conference devoted to Berkeley author Anthony Boucher.

After all the years the Gottfrieds have spent involved with mystery books and conferences, one might assume they attempted to give novel writing a shot at some point.

“We tried to write a mystery and decided it was hopeless,” Toby chuckles. “We decided we are going to stick to reading. We do it a tremendous amount.”

“Mystery Mavens aka East Bay Crime”
will take place from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 15. Tickets are $15. For details, visit www.jfed.org/book09. For more information on Left Coast Crime, visit www.leftcoastcrime.org.