Local author Mary Daheim (’60) publishes 59th book during time of discovery

Mary Daheim“Before I ever learned to write, I drew picture stories,” said Mary Richardson Daheim (B.A., 1960), now author of 59 mystery and historical romance novels.

Daheim is a Seattle native who lives three miles from the house she grew up in. When asked what keeps her writing after all these years, she replied, “I have to. If I don’t write for a couple of weeks, I get cranky. It’s the only thing I really know how to do…I just love writing.”

From her dining nook, Daheim can see the University of Washington campus where she majored in communication. She was the first female editor of The Daily (the UW student newspaper), although there was one before her when all the men were in the military during World War II.

During her spare time in college – which meant summer, winter and spring breaks – she worked on a first draft of a historical novel, but stashed it away after it was finished. Daheim graduated on a Saturday, moved to Anacortes the next day, and went to work that Monday for the town’s daily newspaper.

Wanting to return to Seattle, she heard about a public relations opening at a phone company. During the interview, she was asked what book she was currently reading and replied that is was The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. She was told later that was the most important question and was the first woman the phone company hired directly into management when she began the new job in December 1960.

“They said, ‘Here’s your job.’ I said, ‘Thank you, how much are you paying me?’” Daheim joked. “It didn’t seem like a big deal to be a first. I suppose I didn’t know any better.”

In December 1965, she married David Daheim (UW M.A. in communications), whose first teaching job was at Peninsula College in Port Angeles. After moving there, she went to work for the Port Angeles Evening News as a reporter and columnist.

In June 1969, the Daheims moved back to Seattle where Dave began teaching at Shoreline Community College. They had three daughters and Daheim had started and finished a second historical novel by 1980. Dave complained about the large pile on top of the refrigerator – 850 pages of the second manuscript – as he was getting sick of looking at it. He told her to move it, dust it, or try to sell it.

The manuscript became her first published novel as a historical romance, after she did something that most sane people wouldn’t have done back in the days when long distance phone calls weren’t common. She found a New York agent who sounded like a good match and called his office, explaining what she’d written. The agent’s assistant was so startled that she said, “Yes, send it.” Daheim wrote seven historical romances before she decided to switch genres.

“I had fun when I wrote those books,” she said, “but it wasn’t what I wanted to write and it wasn’t fair to my readers or to me.”

In 1991, she had her first Bed-and-Breakfast mystery published and then started the Alpine/Emma Lord series, which debuted in 1992. The two series’ have a combined total of 52 published books and counting. The idea for the B&B series came from an overnight mystery auction item she contributed to St. Anne’s School, which all three daughters had attended.

“The item was a hot ticket for four couples, but I was losing a full month of work every year putting the event together,” Daheim said. “I decided to take one of the plots and see if I could sell it as a book. I based the characters on my relatives because they’re all nuts. I made my cousin Judy the B&B owner and gave myself the Renie role as her sidekick.”

AlpineThe second series is set in a logging town that Daheim grew up hearing about, but had never seen because it supposedly had disappeared.

“My whole life I had heard the family talk about the town of Alpine, a mile off Highway 2,” Daheim said. “My grandparents and two sets of great-aunt and great-uncles had moved there in 1916 after two of my uncles (they were cousins, both eight years old at the time) burned down the family barn in Sultan while trying to learn to smoke.”

The men in the family took logging jobs in Alpine. There was never a road into the town and probably never had more than 300 to 400 people living there over the almost twenty years of its existence.

“My relatives told stories about how wonderful life was in the town, even though they had snow on the ground for nine months out of the year,” Daheim said. “They couldn’t get out except by train or climbing a mile up Tonga Ridge. How could it have been heaven on earth? Well, it was to them.”

When the new Cascade railroad tunnel was completed, the mill lost its only customer: the Great Northern Railway. Alpine was evacuated and seemingly lost to time. But Daheim decided to revive the fabled town in her Alpine series, creating the contemporary character of Emma Lord, a single mom who accidentally inherits enough money to buy the weekly newspaper and a used Jaguar.

Tim Raetzloff and unofficial Alpine Mayor, Dave Campbell stand next to the new Alpine sign visible to the passersby on the Amtrak Empire Builder.

Tim Raetzloff and unofficial Alpine Mayor, Dave Campbell stand next to the new Alpine sign visible to the passersby on the Amtrak Empire Builder.

Five years ago, Daheim heard from a man named Tim Raetzloff in Edmonds who had a friend, Pat Burns, living in Georgia. The only thing that kept Burns’ homesickness at bay was reading the Alpine series. After Burns retired and moved back to his home turf, he and Raetzloff went looking for Alpine – and found it. They brought Daheim some bricks from the mill boiler that her father had tended when he and her mother lived there from 1926 to 1929. Discovery of the old town lead to the creation of the Alpine Advocates, a group that is working to uncover more of the artifacts and buildings that seemed to have been lost forever. The goal is to establish a historic marker trail to commemorate the site.

Daheim’s youngest daughter, Maggie, and her husband, Paul, have joined the group. But Daheim didn’t visit Alpine until this past summer, fearing that it wouldn’t be like the place she had created in her books. She wrote on the Alpine Advocates website that, “All I intended was to make sure this little patch on a rugged mountainside would come alive again if only in fiction. The friendships that were formed there a century ago lasted through three generations. Yes, it’s called a ghost town, but maybe Maggie said it best: ‘I’ve visited other ghost towns and they’re creepy, but not Alpine. When I’m there, all I feel is love.’”