Remembering Kate Mattes, a maven of mysteries
At Kate’s Mystery Books in Cambridge, Mattes nurtured the likes of Robert B. Parker, Linda Barnes, and Dennis Lehane, and launched my career, too.
Kate Mattes knew how to throw a party. At the legendary holiday gatherings in her Cambridge store, Kate’s Mystery Books, famous names like Robert B. Parker or Linda Barnes would mingle with fledgling authors under shelves labeled “Strong Women Protagonists.” Readers who had come to meet a traditional mystery author like Jane Langton or Katherine Hall Page would find themselves elbow-to-elbow with a tough guy like Dennis Lehane, only to find the noir master as charming as the librarian waiting patiently to get by to the shrimp plate, all under the watchful gaze of dozens of black cat curios, and, of course, Kate herself.
Although Kate attempted to pace her gatherings, asking authors to come sign their books in shifts, a delightful chaos reigned. Despite the vagaries of New England Decembers, the crowd inevitably spilled out onto the lawn, carrying on the conversations among the fake gravestones that decorated the Victorian house’s front yard. Often, the crush was so tight that despite directions from Kate or one of her many volunteers — “Your books are over by New England Authors” or “under that cat clock” or “by the secret door” (a moveable bookcase opened onto a passage to a back storeroom/office) — signings during the event were aspirational. It didn’t matter; we were there to celebrate.Get HomeFront in your inboxThe Weekender is temporarily HomeFront, your guide to the best ways to stay entertained at home any day of the week.Sign Up
Writers are notorious introverts, and reading is essentially a private experience. But Kate — a large woman in every sense — created a community, supporting and nurturing crime fiction authors as well as fans. Often she helped turn one into the other. I first came to Kate’s as a reader, drawn not simply by her massive selection of cheap used books but also by her expertise. If Kate suggested I read someone I’d never heard of — Barbara Neely, for example — I would. I had a degree in literature when I first wandered into that crowded North Cambridge shop, but Kate educated me in crime fiction.
She also gave me my career. Although I read primarily fiction for fun, I’d been working as a journalist when my third nonfiction book, “The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats,” came out in 2002. Kate told me she’d order some, and I should come sign it at the next holiday party.
“But Kate,” I remember protesting. “It’s not a mystery.”
Kate, in my recollection, chuckled, and with that dry delivery so many of us can recall, squinted up at the black cat tchotchkes that filled every available space, and said, “Believe it or not, Clea, there’s a big crossover between women who love cats and mystery readers.”
I can’t remember if I sold any books that night, or even if I made it over to wherever the pile was. What I do remember was later, helping to clean up. As the last few folks around collected plastic wine glasses and swept crumbs off the stacks of books, Kate made a pronouncement. “Clea,” she told me. “You should write a mystery.”
I don’t know if that was a suggestion or a command — or if she’d finally given me permission to attempt something I’d secretly dreamed about — but the next day I started. When my “Mew is for Murder” came out in 2005, Kate hosted the party, as she did for several other of my books as well, before the store closed for good in 2009.
In the days since her death, I’ve been hearing similar stories from so many. Toni L.P. Kelner (who also writes as Leigh Perry), Leslie Wheeler, Kate Flora, and Hallie Ephron were among the local authors who launched their first mysteries with a Kate’s party. One of the founding mothers of Sisters in Crime — a now-global organization promoting women and other under-recognized writers — Kate also regularly hosted the local branch of the Mystery Writers of America as well. We all knew that the custom built-in shelves had been constructed by Parker, back when the carpentry work paid more than his writing, and we all trusted that in her sometimes scattered fashion, she’d find a way to read and comment, support and promote just about everything her people did.
When Kate closed her store in 2009, we lost that. She and I still met occasionally — Kate was fond of the burgers at R.F. O’Sullivan’s in Somerville — but after she moved to Vermont, where her sister lives, those lunches became less feasible, and we fell out of touch. When Tom Lyons, whose New England Mobile Book Fair took over the tradition of those holiday parties, reached out with the news of Kate’s death, it sparked a string of e-mails and social media posts, a necessarily virtual gathering of writers and readers and other longtime friends in the community and in the organizations she helped nourish. How like her, to bring us all together again to share memories and friendship and, maybe, start some new stories..
Clea Simon is the author of 26 mysteries, most recently “An Incantation of Cats,” and can be reached at www.cleasimon.com.