“Gracious lady” writes a gritty mystery

By Nancy Thompson, edited by Jeanne Bonaca

Jeanne Bonaca doesn’t seem the type to write a gritty murder mystery featuring illegal immigrants and drug lords and other unsavory characters. But Ms. Bonaca, a Vassar-educated professor emerita at the University of Hartford who is well known for her translations of Italian poetry has done just that.

She grew up in West Hartford, where her family, the Robertsons, was active and respected members of the community. She graduated from the Chaffee School in Windsor, one of 30 young women in her class.
“It wasn’t a typical high school experience, but it changed the lives of those of us who went there,” she said. From Chaffee, she majored in English at Vassar College, which was a women’s college at the time. Ms. Bonaca still marvels at the way those two schools changed her life. “For sure I wouldn’t have done what I did later in life if not for those two schools,” she said. “It was a very unique experience to see women in every role and in leadership positions.”

She took classes at Middlebury College during the summers and earned a master’s degree in Italian at the University of Florence in Italy. After she was married and together with her husband, Mario, and had raised two children in   Lynchburg, Va., she and her family moved to Glastonbury in 1979. She taught English at Hartford College for Women for  22 years, retiring from the University of Hartford which had merged with the college in 1991.

At the college, Ms. Bonaca was mentored by Oliver Butterworth, a noted children’s author. He offered to turn over some of his courses to her so she could become a full-time faculty member.  “I was completely happy there,” Ms. Bonaca said. While teaching, she published “The Light of Memory,”a book of poetry translated from Italian. The poems had been written by an Italian poet who had been blinded in a mid-life accident.

In addition to teaching and translating and traveling, Ms. Bonaca was doing a lot of traveling in Italy and in the American Southwest. It was during some of her trips to the Southwest that she started talking with people there and learning what happens to women and children after they cross from Mexico into the U.S.

“The women I spoke to first talked mostly about jobs,” she said. “but one woman opened up to me and talked about how she felt caught between the past and the present, not knowing whether to be proud of her past or to hide it.”

Gradually Ms. Bonaca was able to talk to other women on a personal level, and their stories of triumph and heartbreak stayed with her over the years, and when she retired from teaching, she knew what she would do next.

“I wanted to write my book,” Ms. Bonaca said. “I knew the women the Southwest, the immigrants. It took five years. They were quite open with me.”

She started to do research. She went to the Glastonbury Police Department and did a ride-along with one of the local officers. She talked with a border patrol agent and with many Latinas. “I learned things I never knew before,” she said. She knew she wanted to write a novel about immigrants in the Southwest, calling it “an important issue for our times.”

The result is “The Lady in Blue: A Maria Chavez Mystery.” Maria Chavez is a detective in a fictional city in the Southwest who investigates some tragic deaths in the barrio. In the process, she is drawn into the world of illegal drugs, vicious dogfighting, and murder. Without revealing too much, Det, Chavez herself was once a victim of such violence, and as the story unfolds, she slowly learns about her own past. As Ms. Bonaca did while doing research for the book, readers too ” will learn things they never did before.”

Marc Zifcak is a police officer who helped Ms. Bonaca learn about police procedure. “Jeanne was referred to me by a fellow police officer nearly eight years ago,” he said. “I was a major crimes police detective at the time. She was looking for a subject matter expert in criminal investigations and police work. We consulted on procedure for her current book and have remained in contact to this day.” He said he was impressed with her desire for accuracy and for the way she portrayed law enforcement officers.

” She was looking for more than just an acceptable representation of the job,” he said. “Knowing the nature of the subject matter, she took great pains to treat law enforcement professionals with respect, recognizing their pivotal position in the larger issue of immigration and crime.this book was a labor of love for Jeanne . Working with her on it, it was clear to me that although it is a work of fiction, she really sought to communicate to the readers a sense of the real problems faced by real people in the real world through her book.”

Mary Lawrence has known Ms. Bonaca for more than 20 years, first as a student, then as a close friend. She said she’s impressed by the way Ms. Bonaca embraces a wide range of stories. “She fearlessly plunges into new subject matter and patiently researches her story,” Ms. Lawrence said. “She is a tenacious investigator – a born detective who excels in finding the sources she needs so that she can her story accurately and authentically. What impresses me most about the book is that is an absolute page turner. I marvel at how Jeanne was able to sustain the momentum throughout the book and at the way in which she organized so many characters into a gripping story.

Bill Cronin, a neighbor of the Bonacas for many years, peaked “The Lady in Blue.”  “Aside from having every quality a good mystery should have, including rare character development, Lady speaks truth to those with extremist one-dimensional opinions about immigration,” he said. “She is a writer who tells a revealing and wonderful narrative, whether writing or speaking.”

Alexandrina Sergio is a published poet who knew Ms. Bonaca for years only through her poetry translations. “I had long admired Jeanne for the artistry and skill of her translations of Italian poetry, and when we finally met through mutual friends, the conversation always leaped to the writing that engages us both and the books we both love to read – lots of crime fiction,” she said. “I was excited and honored when Jeanne ask me to be one of her ‘first readers’ for “The Lady in Blue,”  and in this capacity, I discovered that Jeanne has great respect both for her readers and her subject matter. She will not betray either, and so the book and so the book evolved through several iterations, each one refining matters of consistency, characterization, and authenticity. Jeanne has researched her subject matter thoroughly and first-hand.”

“It’s what we are reading in headlines right now: borderland politics, international drug trafficking and illegal immigration, along with the enduring themes of loyalty and love and the legacy of childhood trauma. We see these things through the eyes of the innocent, the ruthless, the hopeless, and those who are charged with making things right. “The Lady in Blue” is not just a good read, it’s an important read.

“I am taken by my friend’s ability to write a crime novel that is as well, a fine literary work. She writes beautifully, and perhaps someday I ‘ll ask her more about her sources. For a gracious lady who makes a great cup of espresso, she knows a lot of gritty stuff.”

“The Lady in Blue: A Maria Chavez Mystery” is available in paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon.com.