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Local Lit: characters with a familiar ring

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Sarajane Avidon says she never read a mystery until after her daughter was born in 1972. "The neighbor asked me over for peach ice cream and I couldn't go. I started crying because I was stuck in the house," she recalls. "She gave me a Dorothy Sayers mystery to distract me."

Avidon has been devouring whodunits ever since, often trading them with her friend Susan Sussman. The two have known each other since 1958, when they met at Northwestern University's summer program for high school students. "Even when we were 16, we knew that she was the actress and I was the writer," says Sussman.

Both made their homes in Chicago. Avidon pursued her stage career, finding work in commercials, movies, and the theater. She was part of an ensemble that won a Jeff Award for a production of Under Milk Wood in 1975. Sussman went on to become a successful author with books like The Dieter and the children's story There's No Such Thing as a Chanukah Bush, Sandy Goldstein.

But a few years ago Avidon was diagnosed with lymphoma and had to undergo chemotherapy treatments, which got Sussman thinking. "I said, 'You're at home sitting around not doing anything,'" she recalls. "'That's pretty much what a writer does. We should write a mystery and set it in the theater.'"

"It was wonderful for me, that I had a project," says Avidon. "I never got up off the couch except for lunch with Sue."

And so began Audition for Murder, a novel about a series of killings during the production of a play in Chicago. The job of sleuth falls to lead actress Morgan Taylor, who must search for clues to exonerate friends who have fallen under suspicion.

"To grab the reader and yank them into the scene and make them care isn't easy," says Sussman. "I would know what I needed for plot purposes and would write that, and then I'd call Sarajane and ask things like, 'Morgan is going to the Goodman. What does she bring with her? Who is sitting there, where are they sitting, and what is she feeling as she goes up onstage to audition?'" Avidon's answers ended up in the book's opening sequence, where Morgan compares crossing a stage to a condemned man's walk to the electric chair. "It's the worst thing in the world," says Avidon.

Although some scenes were lifted from real-life incidents, and the authors admit they have some traits in common with Taylor (including a tendency toward sloppy housekeeping), most of the characters are composites. The egocentric, has-been director, Martin Wexler, is based on a few impresarios Avidon has encountered, but one of the victims, aging actress Lily London, is modeled on a real performer who "had been an ingenue in her day and was for the rest of her life," she says.

"Actor friends of mine call and say, 'I know who that was,' but nobody's been right yet," she says. "Others have said, 'I'll give you five bucks if you kill off so-and-so in your next book.'"

The pair are working on a second book in which Taylor gets a job on a cruise ship. There's plenty of material in the acting life to mine, says Avidon: "Voice-overs, TV, movies, Stratford. Then we could start over, or maybe even put her in a musical."

Avidon and Sussman will perform dramatic readings from Audition for Murder Thursday, April 22, at 5:30 at the Savvy Traveller, 310 S. Michigan (312-913-9800), and Saturday at 3 at Barnes & Noble, 1130 N. State (312-280-8155). Both events are free. --Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.

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