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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, August 11, 2001

When writers struggle for a clue, mystery editor shows what to do

Associated Press

CAVIN: "First Lady of Mysteries"
NEW YORK — Imagine the least likely suspect in a mystery novel and you might well come up with someone like Ruth Cavin, who has edited hundreds of such thrillers herself.

The 82-year-old Cavin is as pleasant and mild as a storybook schoolmarm. She's a touch forgetful with names but ever alert for a misplaced fact, calling a reporter to correct a minor detail in her official biography.

But in the mystery community, she knows better than anyone where the bodies are buried and who did the burying. Cavin is the unofficial "First Lady of Mysteries," or so says one of several plaques on the walls of her office at St. Martin's Press.

"Ruth Cavin has been soul mother to mystery writers for years," says Sue Grafton, author of the best-selling "letter" novels. "Her support has been invaluable and she's held in the highest regard."

Over the past 13 years at St. Martin's, Cavin has edited Laurie R. King, Charles Todd, Steve Hamilton and many others. She is a warm and respected presence at mystery conventions and, according to friends, quite a presence once the work day has ended.

"When I first laid eyes on her, I thought she was somebody's grandma," said Todd, whose books include "Legacy of the Dead" and "Search the Dark." "And the next thing I knew she was having a Budweiser and smoking a Marlboro."

Cavin points out that she edits other kinds of books — memoirs, cookbooks and what mystery people call "mainstream novels." But out of all those plaques a reputation has been ensured.

"She's widely recognized as the leader in mysteries," says Walter Wager, author of such novels as "Tunnel" and "Sledgehammer" and a former executive vice president of the Mystery Writers of America.

Born Ruth Brodie in Pittsburgh, Cavin is the daughter of Jewish immigrants and grew up in a household spared the worst of the Depression. Her parents exposed her at an early age to books, which Cavin would read even before she knew what they meant.

She graduated from Carnegie Mellon University (then the Carnegie Institute of Technology) and soon after World War II met and married a young writer at Business Week magazine, Bram Cavin. Through her husband, she met many in the publishing world and, after working in public relations among other professions, she joined publishing full time.

"I felt that finally, at the age of 60, I found what I wanted do," she says.

Her evolution as an editor also was slow. She started with publisher Walker & Co. in 1979 and was assigned the relatively small job of editing mysteries, two British imports a month. She soon started working on mysteries from the United States and, in 1988, joined St. Martin's as a senior editor.

Cavin has now read enough mysteries to be expert on any changes in the genre. Mysteries, she explains, simply reflect society. Over the past 30 years, they have come to include gay characters, multi-ethnic characters and single mothers. A recent trend involves characters who have endured child abuse.

"The field is a very interesting one in that so many different kinds of people read mysteries, from the president of the United States down to anybody driving a truck or working in the street," she says.

Cavin's writers speak of her with great affection. Todd praised her for not seeking "to have her own ego built. She does not try to put her imprint on your manuscript yet she has a tremendous understanding of the mechanics of the manuscript."

Laurie R. King, author of such mysteries as "The Beekeeper's Apprentice" and "A Grave Talent," remembered Cavin's help with the award-winning novel "With Child." King had been unhappy with the manuscript and sent it to Cavin for suggestions.

"On Monday morning, she sent me a fax with five suggestions that were precisely what the book needed. It's precisely what you wanted an editor to do — not to go in and change your concept but to see where you're going and help you get there," she said.