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Desert AutumnFirst in the series of
Claire Gray mysteries
by Michael Craft

Hardcover published December 2001
St. Martin’s Press, New York
352 pages, ISBN 0-312-28034-3

Desert Autumn is the first in a new series by Michael Craft, author of the popular “Mark Manning” gay murder mysteries. This new series features as its central character a renowned theatrical director, Claire Gray, an unmarried (heterosexual) woman of 54. As Desert Autumn opens, we learn that Claire has accepted a lucrative offer to leave New York and move to southern California, where she will join the faculty of the newly established Desert Arts College, founded by D. Glenn Yeats, a computer-software tycoon.

Shortly after Claire’s arrival, she offers to pick up a fellow faculty member at the Palm Springs airport. Driving him home that morning, Claire enters the house with him, and together they discover the lifeless body of his wife. The police are summoned, and we meet the Riverside County sheriff’s detective in charge of the investigation, Larry Knoll, brother of Claire’s gay neighbor, Grant. Detective Knoll quickly determines that Claire’s lifelong theatrical career has endowed her with a unique perspective on the crime that enables her to make insightful contributions to the case. Classes are scheduled to begin within a week, but Claire is now sidetracked by a sleuthing mission.

At a deeper level, Claire is also grappling with mysteries more personal than the murder of her colleague’s wife. At 54, Claire Gray is “starting over”—in a new career, in a new locale, hoping to resolve some vexing problems of the past that she has all too glibly dismissed. This emotional subplot will carry throughout the series, giving the books their “serial” flavor while each of the stories focuses on a distinct whodunit.

Michael Craft Author’s comments

Those readers who have followed all of my books will readily recognize the name Claire Gray. She was the central character of my first novel, Rehearsing (1993), which was not a mystery, and she later made a cameo appearance in the second Mark Manning installment, Eye Contact (1998). She is alluded to again in Boy Toy (2001), setting the stage for the two series to dovetail.

While the Claire Gray stories are targeted to a broader market than my previous books, there is a firm plot link between the two series—Mark Manning’s nephew, Thad Quatrain, will become a student of Claire’s. Although the Claire Gray books do not have the gay focus of the earlier series, they do indeed contain a strong “gay presence,” primarily through the character of Grant Knoll, Claire’s new friend and neighbor. I’m confident that my previous readers will feel very much at home with Claire as she settles into the gay mecca of Palm Springs and its fashionable surrounding communities.

Contrary to what some may expect, Claire Gray is not just “Mark Manning in a dress.” These two are very different sleuths, very different people. Manning is more conventionally heroic—self-assured and at times a bit smug—while Claire is far more vulnerable. Her name alludes to “darkness and light,” a lifelong inner conflict, a search for meaning and self-definition. On the surface, she is confident and strong-willed, covering an insecurity and confusion that permits commitment to friendship, but not to romance. Though she has a healthy appetite for men, she has never married. By the end of Desert Autumn, as you will see, her prospects improve considerably.

Permit me to address one last question that is sure to arise. Why would I pluck Claire up from the seedy glamour of Broadway and move her three thousand miles southwest, to the Sonoran Desert, to Palm Springs, of all places?

Simple. In recent years, my partner and I have come to know and love the desert communities of the Coachella Valley, and we now have a small vacation home there, visiting as frequently as possible. The area struck me as the perfect locale for a mystery series, with its astounding—and somewhat mystical—natural beauty. I’ve attempted to convey this through the wondering eyes of a newcomer to the desert, Claire Gray, who discovers that this seemingly barren terrain is not forbidding, but enchanting. I hope you will too. Enjoy your visit.

Critical acclaim

“Intuitive and imaginative, Claire Gray is a refreshing and complex sleuth . . . Interesting secondary characters enhance the story and offer glimpses into the world of artists and of the very rich . . . Vivid details of autumn in the desert, from the sunrises to the sunsets, will create a longing for more.”
      — Publishers Weekly

“Claire Gray is an intelligent and surprisingly complex character, and best of all, Craft makes the desert landscape an integral part of the story.”
Booklist Mystery Showcase

“Sure to land squarely on the best-seller charts.”
      — Stewart Weiner, Editor-in-Chief, Palm Springs Life

“Claire Gray delights with her intelligence, wit, and unabashed lust for a studly hunk half her age. Go, Claire!”
      — Whitney Scott, Booklist

“The first book in Craft's new mystery series dazzles, delights, and delivers a mesmerizing puzzle . . . Desert Autumn heralds a welcome new series full of wit, beautiful backdrops, and engaging characters. Michael Craft's mysteries continue to outshine his competition.”
      — Erik Swallow, Out & About, Norfolk

“Michael Craft provides an intense tale with appealing characters that the audience will want back in future novels. Desert Autumn is the first novel in what has the potential of being a great series.”
      — Harriet Klausner, BookBrowser Reviews

“Craft offers a whimsical, challenging mystery with Desert Autumn. The characters, especially Claire, are vibrant, quirky and a joy to know . . . Kept my attention riveted to every page . . . Kudos to Mr. Craft on this superb start towards an unforgettable series.”
      — Tracy Farnsworth, Romance Reader's Connection

“Fans of the Mark Manning series as well as new readers will enjoy this one.”
      — Toby Bromberg, Romantic Times

“A substantial mystery with likable, mature characters.”
      — Brenda Weaks, Mystery News

“A highly readable book. I look forward to the next Claire Gray mystery.”
      — Ginny Welding, Dorothy L Digest

Desert Autmn has deft plotting (I would have sent the wrong person to jail) and wonderful descriptions of the Sonoran Desert, worth reading in their own right.”
      — Ken Furtado, Echo Magazine, Phoenix

Click here to read an excerpt from Desert Autumn.

Click here to read a related interview by Tina Swiech.

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