- Associated Press - Monday, January 10, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - Ruth Cavin, a longtime and late-blooming editor at St. Martin's Press who worked on hundreds of mystery novels in a career that began in her 60s and became so revered she was unofficially known as the “First Lady of Mysteries” has died.

Her daughter Nora Cavin said she died Sunday morning at White Plains Hospital in New York. Ruth Cavin was 92 and had continued to work at the St. Martin's division Thomas Dunne Books _ commuting through a car service provided by her publisher _ until diagnosed with lung cancer late last year.

“What would I do if I retire?” Cavin told The Associated Press during an interview in 2001. “I can write very fluently but I don’t have much to say. I can’t afford to travel as much as I like and I don’t want to garden. I can’t garden. I kill plants.”

Her many authors included Laurie R. King, Charles Todd and Steve Hamilton. Sue Grafton once called her a “soul mother to mystery writers,” while Todd marveled that his kindly, white-haired editor liked to loosen up after hours with a Marlboro and a bottle of Budweiser.

Among her honors was an Ellery Queen Award in 1988, given by the Mystery Writers of America to “outstanding people in the mystery-publishing industry.” In her office at St. Martin's was a plaque naming her the “First Lady of Mysteries.” Publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin, an industry veteran and longtime friend of Cavin‘s, called her the “nicest person on the planet.”

Ruth would teach you without it feeling like teaching. Every conversation was with an equal; every relationship was collegial,” Shatzkin wrote Monday on his blog, http://www.idealog.com/blog. “Her respect for other people was universal and deep and entirely genuine.”

Born Ruth Brodie in Pittsburgh, Cavin was the daughter of Jewish immigrants who exposed her at an early age to books, which Cavin would read even before she knew what they meant. She graduated from Carnegie Mellon University (then the Carnegie Institute of Technology) and soon after World War II met and married a young writer at Business Week magazine, Bram Cavin. Through her husband, who died in 2009, she met many in the publishing world. After working in public relations among other professions, she joined publishing full time.

“I felt that finally, at the age of 60, I found what I wanted do,” she told the AP in 2001.

As a reader, Cavin’s early tastes were more for Marcel Proust than for Agatha Christie. But she came to enjoy the diversion of a good thriller and did not care if the characters were not deep or even believable. “Mysteries were fun,” she said.

Her evolution as an editor was also slow. She started with publisher Walker & Co. in 1979 and was assigned the relatively small job of editing mysteries, two British imports a month. She soon started working on mystery titles from the United States and, in 1988, joined Thomas Dunne Books as an editor after meeting Thomas Dunne himself at a mystery awards dinner.

“I thought she was great fun and very smart, and that’s all you really want,” Dunne, who still heads the division, said Monday. “She had health problems all her life: heart problems and cancer. I never heard her complain about anything. Ruth was always positive, always upbeat.”

Prose mattered to Cavin, who likened bad writing to tone-deaf singing, but charcter was the essence. She said the difference between good mysteries and bad ones is the writer trying to do too much or too little. Writers will throw in too many characters or make the guilty party too obvious or defy logic altogether.

“I remember her telling to me that a submission with an intricate or clever plot but false, two-dimensional characters was one she’d pass by,” said her daughter, Nora Cavin. “She felt that given interesting characters, real people who behave authentically _ and sound writing _ a manuscript could be developed into a good book. ‘Plots can be fixed,’ she’d say _ and she insisted that they be. But she found weak characters to be a fatal flaw.”

Ruth Cavin cared to the point where some books seemed to matter more to her than to the writer. She recalled one mystery writer who would agree with her criticisms but never correct the mistakes. Another time, Cavin worked in vain with a writer she met at a mystery conference and who had submitted some sample chapters.

“I wrote him an evaluation and told him to read it and then we could talk about it,” she said. “And he read it and when he saw me later he said, ‘Well, I can see you gave this a lot more thought than I did.’”

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