The Joan Spencer Mysteries: A Violist Investigates

by David M. Bynog

In 1986, with the publication of Murder in C Major, Sara Hoskinson Frommer introduced readers to a new musical heroine: Joan Spencer. Since the success of the first book, five additional mystery novels in the series have followed, with a new volume currently in production. Set in the fictitious town of Oliver, Indiana (no relation to the actual town of Oliver, Indiana), the books follow Joan Spencer, who plays viola and serves as manager of the local civic symphony. After the death of a fellow orchestra member, Joan assists Detective Fred Lundquist in solving the crime. Joan and Fred team up over the course of the series for other crimes, and Joan’s two children—her adult daughter, Rebecca, and her teenage son, Andrew, who lives with Joan—are frequent characters.

Like her protagonist, Frommer also plays viola (previously in the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra) and resides in Indiana. Frommer uses many of own experiences as background for her books including a love of quilting in Buried in Quilts and playing viola in Gilbert and Sullivan pit orchestras for Murder & Sullivan. While readers know Joan Spencer’s story, we instead are focusing on the creator of the books:

DMB: Sara, tell us first about your background as a violist.

SHF: I actually began playing (if you don’t count a few years of piano lessons) the cello. When the University of Hawaii Elementary School in Honolulu, where we lived from 1946–49, began offering orchestra to its sixth graders, the man who demonstrated the instruments did a fine job. But, like many little girls, I wanted to play the flute. When I told my parents, my dad (who probably couldn’t afford a flute) told me to try holding my arms up to the side like that for five minutes. Of course I couldn’t.

Then I remembered the cello. The man called it the lazy man’s instrument because you played it sitting down. (He didn’t mention that the whole orchestra sat down, of course.) So I asked to start on cello.
I played a school cello in that orchestra and later for a few months in Evansville, Indiana. Then we moved to Kewanee, Illinois. There was a good orchestra program going, but for the first time there was no school instrument available—they had eight cellists already. Only two violists, though, and I was begged to make the switch. We couldn’t afford a cello, but we bought my first viola from the Sears, Roebuck catalog for $35 including the case and the bow. Even in 1950, that was a good deal, and that viola wasn’t bad.
The local band director, Mr. Bert, whose wife conducted the school orchestra, was really a violinist and violist who taught at Interlochen during the summer. I bartered for lessons with him and played viola in high school and the Kewanee Civic Orchestra once I was up to that level.

DMB: You ultimately decided not to pursue a full-time career as a musician, though you have had a fulfilling life as a violist.

SHF: When I went to Oberlin, I didn’t attend the conservatory as a music student, where I would have been seriously outclassed, but the college, where I majored in German. For years, I put my fiddle aside. Then, when our first child turned out to be musical, we were living in Bloomington, Indiana, and we started him on a tiny violin. It didn’t take me long to wish I too was back with my instrument. I started viola lessons with his teacher, Donna Bricht, and by the time the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra (BSO) began, I risked joining its viola section. That was forty years ago. I played in the BSO most of those years, though I have finally given it up because of physical problems unrelated to music.
A note to music lovers is that Donna was also Joshua Bell’s very first violin teacher before Mimi Zweig and Josef Gingold at Indiana University. Josh and I had back-to-back lessons when he was about four. I watched that little guy play “Twinkle, Twinkle” solidly and knew he had an ear but had no idea how good he’d turn out to be.

DMB: When did your writing career begin?

SHF: Do we count the stories I made up for my little sister when we were both small? Or the horse story I wrote in a notebook when I was eleven? My first paid writing job was as a newsletter editor in Ann Arbor when we spent a couple of years there. In the late 1970s, back in Indiana, I was hired as a half-time writer for an educational TV agency.

DMB: So, how did you start writing the Joan Spencer novels?

SHF: While writing for money and playing viola in the BSO for love, I was reading mysteries and mulling over the idea of writing one involving such an orchestra. I had an idea for a basic plot in which I’d kill off an oboe player (haven’t all violists had that urge?) But after doing some research, I was stuck.
One day, my husband came home waving an issue of Scientific American with a picture of fugu, the Japanese puffer fish, on the cover. “I’ve found your poison!” he cried. “You can write your mystery.” I read the article, and sure enough, he was right. So I did, and it became Murder in C Major, first published in 1986.

DMB: Your later mysteries have featured wide-ranging topics from quilts to Gilbert & Sullivan to The Indianapolis Violin Competition, among others.

SHF: After Murder in C Major, my plots varied, book by book. But the story had to make sense for my established characters to be involved in, especially Joan.
Death Climbs a Tree began quite differently. I had thought of dropping a victim out of the choir loft in a church, but was afraid that wouldn’t be a long enough drop to do the job. Then I thought of the tree sits that had taken place outside of our town and decided to use that as the means of death. As for the weapon, I will avoid a spoiler, but instead say that I spent several summers in northern Michigan, where I learned about something found nowhere else, and I used that in my southern Indiana woods.

DMB: Fans of the Joan Spencer mysteries can see some similarities between you and Joan. Is Joan based on you?

SHF: Joan Spencer is not me, but we certainly have some things in common. She plays viola about at the level I did. We both live in southern Indiana, but she lives in a little town with a small college, not this one with a big state university. People believe what they want to, no matter what I tell them, but that’s the truth. Putting her in southern Indiana means that the plants and woods and weather match what I know well. Of course I use what I know, in addition to researching what I don’t know.

DMB: Living in Bloomington must offer rewarding musical opportunities as well as ample fodder for musical mysteries.

SHF: Yes, one of the best times I had was doing the research for The Vanishing Violinist, in which Joan attends the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. I wrote a brief feature article for our local newspaper, for which I was given a press pass to the whole event. After asking the Indianapolis host families of competitors questions for the paper, I told them I was writing a mystery too. Was there anything they wouldn’t want to be quoted as
saying? You bet there was! And you bet I used it.
Also, years ago, I was thrilled when William Primrose joined the faculty of the Indiana University School of Music in our town. I finally heard him play in person, but I didn’t understand why he was playing second viola in a string quintet (Mozart, I think). Only later did I learn about his increasing deafness. Years after that, we spent a year in Ann Arbor, and I attended the International Viola Congress nearby. Primrose was there, but didn’t play. Instead, they played us a recording of one of his beautiful solos. Like Beethoven, he had to be turned around to see us applauding.

DMB: So what is next for Joan?

SHF: Work on my most recent novel was delayed owing to an injury. I eventually finished it, revised it, and sent it to my agent, who is working on a new publisher for it. I know what’s next in the story, but for the publication we will all have to wait and see.

Joan Spencer Novels by
Sara Hoskinson Frommer:

Murder in C Major (1986)
Buried in Quilts (1994)
Murder & Sullivan (1997)
The Vanishing Violinist (1999)
Witness in Bishop Hill (2002)
Death Climbs a Tree (2005)

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