If Kathryn Miller Haines comes off as a brassy dame, maybe it's because she's a lively, fast-talking brunette. Or maybe it's because you've read her first novel, The War Against Miss Winter (Harper). It's a mystery set in Manhattan during World War II; the hero is Rosie Winter, a struggling stage actress who gets herself too deep into the connivances surrounding the murder of her private-dick boss, all while reeling off the patter like a distaff Raymond Chandler.
Sequences like "[t]he coppers showed up twenty minutes later. By then I'd drained the gin, cried myself dry, and paced a permanent trail in the hardwood floor," for instance, persuaded Kirkus Reviews to call the novel "a pitch-perfect rendering of the early Forties." But the fast-paced, light-hearted story set in the theater world also explores deeper questions about artists in society.
For an actor like Rosie, hunting parts while others were overseas fighting fascism, says Haines, the question might have been "What benefit am I giving society?" Rosie, as sensitive as she is gutsy, unravels a mystery in which a stage play is literally a matter of life and death.
Haines, 35, is a San Antonio native who earned her master's in fiction-writing from Pitt. She's associate director of Pitt's Center for American Music -- headquartered in the neo-gothic chambers of the Stephen Foster Memorial, itself best known as a theatrical venue. She also helps run, and performs in, the dinner-theater troupe Mysteries Most Wanted.
After graduation, as she continued writing, Haines read mysteries to improve her plotting. Her fascination with theater and with the World War II American homefront (especially the new roles women played) fed into the creation of Rosie. So did that era's hard-boiled detective novels; such noir-ish revivalists as Road to Perdition author Max Allen Collins; Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs mysteries, about a between-the-wars British nurse/detective; and even the Katherine Hepburn movie Stage Door, Haine's favorite.
Along the way, Haines de-romanticizes the Greatest Generation myth: that everyone on the homefront was just good, cheerfully sacrificing folks. If Haines' vision isn't quite as dark as film noir, it's got plenty of crooks and schemers. Mostly, though, it just recalls what an elderly friend said when Haines asked her about those days. "She told me, 'God, it was just a pain in the ass.'"
Miss Winter was published in June; Haines has completed a sequel, The Winter of Her Discontent, due out next June. Meanwhile, although sales figures aren't yet available, Haines says Harper has already made her an offer for a third and fourth installment of Rosie's adventures.
And as to what Miss Winter taught her about an artist's value, Haines says it's both to provide escapism, when necessary, and to turn a mirror on society. "It's more an indirect battle for the artist to come to terms with, 'What I'm doing does count, and does matter, and is important.'"