Obituary: Dorothy Salisbury Davis / Suspense novelist eschewed violence but was fond of villains she created

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Dorothy Salisbury Davis, an award-winning mystery author whose fascination with motivation, morality and manners — more than violence — powered the intricate plots of the suspense novels she wrote over a half-century, died Sunday at her home in Palisades, N.Y. She was 98.

Laurie Ferguson, her executor, confirmed the death.

The Mystery Writers of America gave Ms. Davis a lifetime achievement award, and she came to be regarded as a grande dame among crime writers. In 1986 she helped found Sisters in Crime, an organization of female mystery writers formed to reverse what they saw as a tendency by many publications to disproportionately review male authors.

She geared her books toward women by creating “a mystery of manners,” she said in an interview with The New York Herald Tribune in 1959.

“Men,” she said, “seem to find excitement in a sequence of violent action. Whereas women like to read about gentlemen, which they don’t find in paperback fiction, and possibly not in real life either.”

Human nature at its most basic gripped Ms. Davis. In an interview Wednesday, Sara Paretsky, a mystery writer who was inspired by Ms. Davis, called her “a deep explorer of the dark side of the human mind, but a side that we all have.”

Some of Ms. Davis’ books start with a murder, then probe her characters’ behavior and motivations.

“My detectives turn out to be straight men to a lot of character actors,” she told “The St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers.” “I am fonder of my villains.”

Ms. Davis scored her first big success in 1951 with her third novel, “A Gentle Murderer.” The murderer of the title, Tim Brandon, a truly gentle man, confesses his crime to a priest, who then helps the police track him down to prevent further violence. “Miss Davis has written far more than a detective story,” Margery H. Oakes wrote in The New York Times. “This is the subtly ironic story of a man’s destructive quest for absolute beauty and goodness, told with compassion and skill.”

Ms. Davis wrote 17 crime novels, three historical novels and many short stories, the most recent in 2007. Throughout her career, critics lauded her sharp, economical phrasing. In her 1963 book, “Black Sheep, White Lamb,” she wrote of a woman who “pecked over her obsessions like a crow at a corpse.”

She wrote mainly stand-alone novels and stories, but developed a few stock characters. One, Julie Hayes, was a wacky young lady who set up a fortunetelling shop in Times Square as a way to reinvent her life. In reviewing the first of the four “Julie” books, “A Death in the Life” (1976), in The Times, Anatole Broyard wrote, “Mrs. Davis is one of that disappearing breed of novelists who still believes in likable women.”

When Ms. Davis found her birth certificate late in life, she learned she had been born on April 25, 1916. She had been adopted by a farm couple in Rhinelander, Wis., and was given the name Dorothy Margaret Salisbury.

She spent her early childhood in Rhinelander and in Chicago. The family later became tenant farmers about 40 miles north of Chicago.

Ms. Davis studied literature at Barat College in Lake Forest, Ill., and graduated in 1938. In the depths of the Depression, she got a job as a magician’s assistant. She hated the job but mined the experience in her books, hardly ever portraying a magician in a positive light. She later worked in public relations for a meatpacking company.

Open Road Media made 22 of Ms. Davis’ works available as e-books. When told of this, she asked, “What’s an e-book?”



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