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George's newest mystery sends Pittsburgh cops into the country

| Sunday, Sept. 4, 2011

The form e-mail from the Mystery Writers of America announcing the 2010 nominees for the Edgar Awards was of no concern to Kathleen George. The North Side-based writer was busy, but her finger hovered over the delete key. Something caught her eye.

Was that Kathleen George on the list of nominations for the novel "The Odds"?

"I could hardly believe my eyes," she says, adding that she printed the e-mail to show her husband, the writer Hilary Masters. "Then my phone started ringing. It was very real after that."

That George is even writing mysteries is a bit improbable. A theater professor at the University of Pittsburgh, George published a single collection of short stories, "The Man in the Buick," before turning to the mystery genre. Through five novels, she's created a cast of Pittsburgh homicide detectives who are remarkable because they are ordinary. Commander Richard Christie and detectives Greer, Dolan and Potocki aren't athletic specimens or brainy intellectuals. They're the next-door neighbors who happen to be police officers.

"I was just writing people," George says. "I wasn't trying to write a big, fantasy, super-hero kind of thing. Not that I don't get a charge out of those. I can escape as well as anybody with those. But I thought my strength was going to be real human behavior."

In "Hideout," her newest book, the story involves two brothers, Jack and Ryan Rutter, who kill a woman during a hit-and-run accident in the North Side. They flee north to Sugar Lake, a summer community near Meadville, where they hide away in a home they stayed in as children.

What appears to be an unsolvable crime -- the brothers drive a red truck, a witness at the crime scene reports a gray truck -- slowly starts to come into focus by way of dogged, determined police work by George's characters.

Although it's the fifth novel featuring the same cast, George thinks they still have stories to tell.

"It's true that you can wear things out," George says. "I wouldn't want to continue with them if they are worn out. On the other hand, occasionally, someone will tell me there wasn't enough Christie in 'The Odds.' Or they liked 'Afterimage' because there was so much Christie. But then, 'The Odds' was so successful."

George's mystery novels are Pittsburgh-centric. She especially loves setting scenes in the North Side, and West Park is one of her favorite stages. But much of "Hideout" takes place two hours north of the city. When she wanted the Rutters to take refuge in a vacation property, she called a real estate agent, who guided George to Sugar Lake.

"It was much smaller than I make it in the book, but the roads and houses were more important to me," George says.

George also had to figure out the police jurisdictions in Northwest Pennsylvania, where state, local and county police vie for authority. This labyrinth of law enforcement actually played into the story, allowing her to utilize Christie's need to be in control of investigations.

"I wanted to see what Christie would do with all that competition, especially because he's clever," George says, "and he still wants it all for himself."

Another theme that carries over from George's previous books is food-related. On her website, www.kathleengeorge.com , the author has compiled a list of diners and eateries where her characters have dined, and George's own experiences at the establishments. The "Culinary Tour" section features destinations from Del's Italian Restaurant and Bar in Bloomfield to Lindo's, the North Side restaurant famed for its "one-armed bandit" breakfasts.

This theme is not a commentary on police officers and their penchant for quick-stop dining; it's because George herself never misses a meal.

"You know how somebody will say I didn't eat today?" she says. "No way that would ever happen to me. When I wake up, I know what I want to have for breakfast, what I want for lunch and what we're going to have for dinner. We do build a lot of our lives around food."

Additional Information:

Kathleen George book publication party

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Admission: Free

Where: Mystery Lovers Bookshop, Oakmont

Details: 412-828-4877 or www.mysterylovers.com

Additional Information:

Capsule review

Kathleen George is a versatile and clever writer, so it's not surprising she earned an Edgar Award nomination in 2010 for her novel 'The Odds.' Her followup, 'Hideout' is every bit as good as her previous work: plotted with precision, filled with keen observations and, most importantly, it is entertaining. George might be a Pittsburgher, but she should be heralded as one of the better mystery writers in the country.

• Rege Behe

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