Ruth Cavin, book editor, 92; was 'First Lady of Mysteries'

Ruth Cavin in 2001 with some of the mystery novels she edited. Ruth Cavin in 2001 with some of the mystery novels she edited. (Gino Domenico/Associated Press)
By Hillel Italie
Associated Press / January 12, 2011

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NEW YORK — 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.

Mrs. Cavin, who was 92, died Sunday morning at White Plains Hospital in New York.

She 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?’’ Mrs. Cavin said 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 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 Mrs. 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 yesterday on his blog,

Prose mattered to Mrs. Cavin, but plotting 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, she said.

Mrs. Cavin recalled one mystery writer who would agree with her criticisms but never correct the mistakes. Another time, she worked in vain with a writer she met at a mystery conference who submitted some sample chapters to her.

“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.’ ’’