TUPELO • Last winter, just after his first cozy mystery “Grand Slam Murders” was published, author R.J. Lee did a book-signing for residents at Traceway Retirement Community in Tupelo.
“Grand Slam Murders,” the first of six Bridge to Death Mysteries in Lee’s series, tells the story of four bridge players who are poisoned and the newspaper reporter, Wendy Winchester, who sets out to find the killer.
“I mentioned to (Lee) that we had several bridge players here and that it was a growing group,” said Ashley Chambers, program director for independent living sections at Traceway. “I said maybe he could come and play and pick up some material for his books.”
Lee took Chambers up on her suggestion.
“I came to play and we had such a good time that I’ve been coming to play regularly – almost every week – for almost a year,” said Lee, who lives in Oxford. “You get ideas for dialogue from listening to people talk. I have a T-shirt I wear to some book signings that says, ‘Careful or you’ll end up in my novel.’ And that’s true.”
Lee will be at Traceway Manor on Tuesday at 2 p.m. for a talk and book-signing of his second cozy mystery, “Playing the Devil.” He’ll be at Reed’s bookstore before that from noon to 1:30 for a book-signing.
In “Playing the Devil,” Wendy Winchester once again plays ace detective when a country club member is murdered in a hot tub.
“Every book has the same main characters, the same amateur female sleuth but each one has a new victim, new suspects and a new challenge,” Lee said. “You do not have to be a bridge player to understand the plot or figure out the mystery.”
Lee’s parents taught him to play bridge when he was a teenager growing up in Natchez. He continued to play while in college at The University of the South.
“In a dorm at Sewanee, I found three guys to play with and all three of them were named Steve,” Lee said. “I’ll never be able to work that into a novel because people just wouldn’t believe it.”
At Traceway, Lee plays bridge on Thursdays with a group of ladies – and an occasional gentleman – from 1:15 to 3 p.m. They usually have four tables and play three rounds.
“We play party bridge,” Chambers said. “We don’t get mad at you for talking or laughing – even talking across the table, which you’re not supposed to do.”
Chambers learned to play the card game at 13 when she was on summer vacation with her parents. She plays on Thursdays at Traceway if they need a sub, but mostly she enjoys watching the residents play.
“Katherine Hamer started the bridge group here in 2018,” Chambers said. “She found out as people moved in that they played bridge and she began to build tables. It used to be you couldn’t find four people here to play a game of Go Fish. Now, they’re all playing – Rook, bridge, dominoes, rummy, Mahjong.”
Different Traceway residents host the bridge games each Thursday, just as they would do in their own homes. This past Thursday, Mary Vlach was the hostess.
“The hostess does all the calling to see who’s coming, arrives early to set up the tables and fills in at a table if they need a sub,” said Vlach, 75. “Today, I won’t play because we have enough to fill three tables.”
Vlach said she enjoys playing bridge because it’s good mental exercise.
“It really gets your brain going,” she said. “I played with my husband in the early ‘60s and then our kids came along. I picked it back up three years ago and it was just like an old shoe.”
Jan Wigginton, 68, didn’t learn to play until after she moved to Traceway.
“I’ve just been playing for three years,” she said. “They’re still really good to remember I’m new to the game.”
Liz Rice, 96, is a regular at the Thursday tables.
“My husband was a really good player,” she said. “He was the one who taught me after we married.”
Each week, the players are assigned different tables and different partners, so Lee has had the opportunity to meet several Traceway residents. Some of them show up in his books, thinly disguised, of course.
“You can’t play bridge and not get to know people,” he said. “Over time, friends, family and acquaintances will make it into the novel for something they say. I’ll put them on the acknowledgements page, but I won’t say what they’re being acknowledged for.”