Imagine Miss Marple describing the carpool lines at religious school in the afternoon, or Hercule Poirot deducing that a synagogue could never be the venue for community theater on a Friday night.
That gives you an idea of the mystery novels of Joani Ascher, a Maplewood author who has just written the sixth book in her “Vengeance”whodunnit series.
The books all feature amateur sleuth Wally Morris, a grandmother and synagogue regular whose life revolves not only around her small community of Grosvenor (a transparently fictionalized Maplewood), but also around the Jewish calendar.
Like the Rabbi Small mystery series by the late Harry Kemelman, the books offer a portrait of suburban Jewry, in this case of a place where Jews don’t have to be assimilated to be fixtures of the larger community, and where religion comprises just one facet of people’s increasingly complex identities.
As for her own identity, Ascher — speaking to a reporter in the Maplewood Public Library Children’s Room, where she works as an assistant, a few days after the launch party for her sixth volume in the series, Vengeance Acts Up, was held in her home — said it has evolved alongside that of her protagonist.
Ascher said she wanted to create a character that people would like and admire. In the end, she said, she found herself trying to emulate her own heroine. For one thing, she said, “Wally goes every week to shul. She made us start going. How could I write a book about a woman who goes to shul every week and not try to do so myself? But that wasn’t until after our kids had gone. It’s a nice feeling. It’s a good way to start the weekend.”
Now, 11 years after the publication of the first book in the series, Vengeance Tastes Sweet, she herself has become a regular at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, where her children, Ari and Shonna, attended religious school and celebrated becoming b’nei mitzva. Ascher serves as an officer in the synagogue sisterhood, while her husband is secretary of the congregation; both have sat on numerous committees over the last decade. The committee meetings they’ve attended and carpool lines they’ve sat in have made their way into her books.
Ascher said Wally Morris’s philosophy of life and her role in the community is drawn very much from that of the late Rabbi Jehiel Orenstein, who led Beth El for 35 years.
“I was really influenced by Rabbi Orenstein,” she said. “He’d just say things like, ‘When someone is having a problem, don’t leave them alone to deal with it. You have to help however you can.’”
Ascher, like her character, has always had a strong Jewish identity. She grew up in Brooklyn, graduating from Erasmus Hall High School, and attended SUNY Buffalo.
“I basically wear my Jewish identity on my face. It’s in my children’s names. And it’s in my whole outlook, even my language. I say I’m going to make a party. My friends tell me it’s ‘have a party.’ And around here,” she said, indicating the library, “I’m one of the most Jewish people — the food I eat, the food I won’t eat…”
It is perhaps the ethical compass that comes with her background that made it so hard for her to kill someone — if only in a work of fiction. Ascher had written many books — all still unpublished — before starting the “Vengeance” series. “I woke up early one morning and imagined someone walking down Maplewood Avenue near the candy store where there used to be a pay phone, when someone hits him on the head,” she recalled. “It was early morning, and he was a young college student. I started going through the whos and whats and realized I had to kill him. That was very traumatic!”
Avalon, the original publisher of the “Vengeance” series, was recently purchased by Amazon, which released the previous books in e-reader format but decided not to continue publishing the series. The sixth book had already been edited, and Ascher was receiving royalties from the e-versions, so she decided to self-publish. But Vengeance Acts Up will be the final installment in the series.
“Once your own publisher rejects a book, no one will touch it,” she said.
But she won’t stop writing. She’s already halfway through another series, one set in the 1970s with a Jewish protagonist from Brooklyn displaced to Cincinnati, not too far from where Ascher lived after college. “I write what I know. That’s what I know. I had to set it in the 1970s. I haven’t been to Cincinnati since then, and I wanted to set it before cell phones and DNA mapping and all that,” she said. So far it has no takers, but she’s not easily discouraged.
On a recent synagogue tour of local gardens, she was already thinking about another book. “I was going to kill someone off there. During the tour I found a really good place to hide a body,” she said.