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Master Mystery Plotter Pieces Puzzling Details

WRITING mysteries becomes itself a mystery for Jane Langton. Before starting a book, she puzzles over details like: How do spiders make webs? (she bred 1,000 spiders in her living room for that). Where could a fictional dead body be hidden in a reservoir? (she got wet that day). How do pipe organs work? (she crawled inside to find out). "I enjoy having some sort of puzzle, to take something I love and play with it," says Ms. Langton in an interview at her farmhouse, built in 1740, in Lincoln, Mass., near Henry David Thoreau's Walden Pond. Thoreau, her favorite writer (she pronounces it the New England way: THOR eau), mentions Langton's house in his journals, she says.

When she began her career 30 years ago, she set out to illustrate children's books. But publishers in New York were less impressed with her pictures than with her stories, and she found herself writing children's stories and murder mysteries. She has written eight children's books and nine murder mysteries since.

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Her most recent book, "Dante's Inferno," is set in the cathedrals and countryside of Florence, Italy. Langton says she chose the spot to fulfill a lifelong dream. As usual, she started by solving her own mysteries: She learned Italian, lived in Florence for two months, and absorbed as much of Italy as she could. "I just sat on street corners and leaned against cars and drew and drew and drew, and had a heavenly time," she says, smiling wistfully.

Yet while she loves pondering puzzles, she is less fond of concocting the murders that come with the territory of mystery writing. Murder is necessary, she suggests, "because it has to be a very serious order to get people's interest whetted. It does seem odd, very odd, and bizarre, and morbid, that there should be a class of writing revolving around death. Someday she will try to write a mystery without murder, she says.

English mystery writer Dorothy Sayers managed to do this, says Langton, in a book called "Gaudy Night," in which a woman scholar's masses and masses of notes compiled during a lifetime were destroyed. "That's worse than killing someone!" Langton says, clenching her fists in frustration. "It was like killing her."

But for now, Langton is busy figuring out how to kill a character with a pipe organ. She sticks to a strict regime, which means working by 8 a.m. She goes through six drafts of a book, which takes roughly a year and a half. She writes, she says, because she loves it.

"I love having this thing on the shelf," she says, plucking an imaginary book from the air, "You can take it down and hold it in your hand. You feel as though your life has not just squeezed by. It's gone into chunks of things that are still there."

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