Durham writer Katy Munger has authored three different detective series under three different pseudonyms: the Casey Jones series (Katy Munger), the Dead Detective series (Chaz McGee and Katy Munger), and the Hubbert & Lil mystery series (Gallagher Gray).
Although the three series have distinctly different tones, there is a common link: colorful and often comedic characters that come from all walks of life and transcend societal expectations.
From Casey Jones, the wise cracking, wickedly smart femme fatale detective who loathes bullies and has a soft spot for underdogs, to Auntie Lil, the feisty 84-year-old retiree who embarks on a career as an amateur sleuth after a lifetime of work in New York City’s garment industry, these are characters who make their own rules.
And while many detective series are based in big cities like New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, Casey Jones takes place in the South, with most of the books in that series set in Durham or Raleigh.
Joanne Abel first met Munger in the late 1990s at a reading of the Casey Jones series.
“I love how Katy writes about the Triangle and captures the flavor of the different cities,” said the Durham County librarian.
Raised in Raleigh in a chaotic household that included two highly social parents, six siblings and seven basset hounds (“a breed so lazy they hesitate to get up to pee”), her life has been a labyrinthine character study of sorts. With a “constant parade of interesting people from all over the globe ringing the doorbell,” she never knew who would be sitting in the living room when she came home from school.
“It was this incredible constellation of people,” she said and laughed. “I learned early on to look at people, not through them.”
Munger’s mother, Joan Taylor Munger, would often bring home whomever she found interesting; like Sally Rand, the 70 year-old burlesque fan dancer, or Ditmar, from Germany who built an igloo in their backyard. She had a particular fondness for those who were down on their luck.
“Because of all these disparate kind of people walking into the house, I think I developed a sense that we’re all connected in one way or another,” Munger said. “That connection is played out in the very different natures of all my characters and series.”
She's attracted to crime writing because she's fascinated with how the human spirit reveals itself under pressure. She feels like the true test of people's character is how they react in a crisis, and that often it’s the people you don’t expect who will step up to the plate.
While the Casey Jones series tackles the disparities between the have’s and the have-nots, Munger’s latest series, Dead Detective, involves characters that lose everything and get a second chance. Kevin Fahey, the main character in the series, is described as “an alcoholic, a lousy father and husband, and an even worse detective.” Now he’s dead, and exists in a kind of nether world between the living and the deceased, reckoning with past mistakes and seeking redemption.
“The idea of second chances is huge with me,” said Munger, 55. “I think everybody should have the chance to start over. Life is often about not doing what you thought you wanted to do, but then starting over with new dreams and new goals and finding a way to make it work.”
It’s a theme that resonates on a personal level; Munger has a penchant for reinventing herself every four years, and her fictional characters often evolve along with her.
While writing the Casey Jones series, she was involved in local politics and angry about injustice, much like Casey in the Casey Jones series. Weary of the dog-eat-dog atmosphere of the political world, Munger began the Dead Detective series with the intention to reassure readers that “while there are random awful events that happen, there are also random wonderful events that happen.”
At the same time, Munger was finding her North Star in a new career with Progress NC, a watchdog group that advocates for North Carolinians, empowering citizens to affect public policy. Her position as the organization’s media director is in close alignment with her own values of social justice, positive community engagement, and advocacy.
“My job now is to unite people,” she said.
While being both a mystery writer and media director keep Munger busy juggling both real and fictional themes of justice, she handles these potentially heavy topics with a light touch and a sense of humor.
“I think you can get a lot more across to people if you use humor to connect with them,” she said with a smile.