Caroline Todd, half of a mystery-writing duo, dies at 86

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Caroline Todd, half of a mystery-writing duo, dies at 86
Carolina Todd, who wrote under the pen name Charles Todd with her son and published nearly 40 mystery novels, all of them set in rural England just after World War I, died on Aug. 28 at a hospital in Wilmington, Del. She was 86. Todd Family via The New York Times.

by Clay Risen

NEW YORK, NY.- Many mystery writers publish under a pen name. Caroline Todd may have been the only one to use two at the same time, one masking the other.

She was, first of all, half of the duo who wrote under the name Charles Todd. Her son, also named Charles Todd, was the other.

But as with any good mystery story, there’s a twist: Caroline and Charles Todd are pseudonyms too. Caroline Todd was the pen name of Carolyn Watjen; Charles Todd is actually David Watjen.

They wrote two series, both set in various isolated villages around England just after World War I. One centered on Ian Rutledge, a Scotland Yard detective and former British army officer with post-traumatic stress disorder, and the other centered on Bess Crawford, an army nurse turned amateur detective.

The books, nearly 40 in all, won the duo awards, critical acclaim and legions of fans among readers and fellow mystery writers. Several were New York Times bestsellers.

“Everyone respected that their books weren’t fluff, that they were about real history, about real people in a real time,” said Rhys Bowen, a mystery novelist. “They were one of the better mystery writers.”

Reviewing their novel “A Matter of Justice” (2008), in which Rutledge investigates the murder of a reviled businessman, Marilyn Stasio wrote in the Times, “The mother and son who write under the name Charles Todd get it all right: a shocking crime in a bucolic setting; secretive characters who act from complex motives; a confounding puzzle elegantly presented and put before a detective with an intuitive understanding of the dark side of human nature.”

Caroline Todd died Aug. 28 at a hospital in Wilmington, Delaware. She was 86. Her son said the cause was complications of a lung infection. Her death was not widely reported in the mainstream news media at the time.

The idea for the complicated, but quite productive, arrangement between mother and son began almost as a joke. In 1992, the two took a trip to the site of the Battle of King’s Mountain, a Revolutionary War engagement in South Carolina, and they came away fascinated by the story of a British officer who died mysteriously, possibly at the hands of his own men.

“We were driving back, and she said, ‘You know, we ought to try to write a mystery,’” Charles Todd said. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, Mom, sure.’”

Both had writing chops: She had published four Gothic romance novels in the 1970s (under yet another pen name), and he was a management consultant with years of experience in technical writing. But he was busy, and they shelved the thought.

Charles Todd returned to the idea in 1994 when a job change had him on the road, with long stretches of free time, and he decided to take up writing. He suggested that they take turns typing out scenes, without an outline, then send the results to an editor for feedback.

For brevity’s sake, they used a single pen name to submit the book, “A Test of Wills,” in which Rutledge, newly back from World War I, pursues the killer of a country squire. To their surprise, the editor, Ruth Cavin at St. Martin’s Press, decided to publish it. The small first print run, in 1996, immediately sold out, and St. Martin’s offered them a three-book deal.

The Rutledge and Crawford books are about much more than murder and mayhem: They sketch in minute, historically accurate detail how rural Britain struggled to recover from the horrors of World War I, while simultaneously confronting the challenges of modernization.

“I don’t think anyone had written about World War I in the way they did,” mystery novelist Deborah Crombie said.

Mystery writing may be a labor of love, but it is still labor, and Caroline Todd was among the hardest-working writers in the business. More than authors in most genres, mystery writers rely on an avid fan base, a network of bookstores and libraries, and a steady schedule of conferences and festivals to promote their work. Even in her 80s, Caroline Todd was a regular presence on the circuit.

“I remember at one conference seeing her sitting in a chair, with fans sitting around at her feet, listening to her,” her son said. “They loved her.”

Carolyn Linene Teachey was born Nov. 13, 1934, in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her father, James C. Teachey Jr., was a business manager, and her mother, Pearle (Linville) Teachey, was a homemaker.

She wanted to be a writer from an early age; she often recalled sitting on her father’s porch, listening to his stories. When she was 7, she took the largest blank sheet of paper she could find, which happened to be the back of one of her father’s National Geographic maps, and wrote her first short story.

She received a bachelor’s degree in English and history in 1956 from the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina, today the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and a master’s degree in international relations in 1958 from the University of Pennsylvania.

She married John Watjen, a chemical engineer, in 1958; he died in 2014. Along with her son, Todd, who lived in Wilmington, is survived by her sister, Martha Teachey, and her daughter, Linda Watjen.

After “Test of Wills” appeared, mother and son quickly developed a writing system. They would collaborate closely on the first chapter, then take turns writing scenes. Separation mattered, for focus: They did most of their work while in different cities, and if they happened to be in the same house they would work on different floors.

“Neither of us has the kind of mind that works well with organization, and it would stifle creativity anyway,” Caroline Todd said in a 2002 interview with January, a magazine about books. “The practical fact is, what sounds best for the script is what goes in the script, and we don’t much care who writes what, as long as what is written fits and works.”

They traveled to England every year to do research. They loved remote villages, where social classes mixed and everyone knew everyone else — an unexpectedly perfect spot for malice, especially in the social tumult after World War I.

But Caroline Todd also insisted in an interview with that there was nothing niche about their novels.

“We write about ordinary people being driven to the brink of control by a stress in their lives that has no other solution than someone’s death,” she said. “Murder lurks in all of us.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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