Exploring Books

The Name Game

By Mary Ann DeSantis  |  Photography provided by Kensington Books.

Oxford writer combines intrigue, a bridge game, and a cast of characters that reflects the best and worst of the Old South in his latest book.

If anyone can explain what’s in a name, it’s Rob Kuehnle who has a plethora of best-selling books under a variety of pen names. His latest book, “Playing the Devil,” is the second book in his “A Bridge to Death” mystery series, and his newest alias – R.J. Lee – actually pays homage to his late father.

Before getting too confused, though, it is important to know that Kuehnle is the man behind several book series – all under different pen names. There’s Robert Dalby, who wrote seven novels including the Piggly Wiggly series recognized by the Mississippi Library Association; Ashton Lee produced another six books known as the Cherry Cola Book Club series, which ran from 2013 to 2017; and R.J. Lee is the author for the new mystery series.

“My real name, Kuehnle, was hard to pronounce, difficult to spell, and even harder to remember,” he says. “When I got a New York agent, I decided early on to use a pen name.”

When Kuehnle changed publishers from Putnam to Kensington after Dalby’s Piggly Wiggly series ended, the new publisher wanted a more androgynous name that could be exclusively associated with Kensington. He chose Ashton Lee, because he says, “there aren’t many names as Southern and iconic as Lee.”

After he was with Kensington for about nine years, Kuehnle decided to return to his father’s roots and write mysteries as R.J. Lee. “I think I’m a writer because of my father, who wrote detective novels as R. Keene Lee.” he says. “I took a cue from him.”

Kensington is the largest publisher of “cozy” mysteries, a genre made famous by Agatha Christie – an author whom Kuehnle admires greatly. It’s a niche he plans to stick with.

“Cozy mysteries are exploding in this country,” Kuehnle says. “Like the Agatha Christie books, they do not contain graphic violence. It’s the sort of thing people prefer because it’s a lighter read.”

But his books in the “A Bridge to Death” series have enough gruesome details to keep readers enthralled and guessing.

Released in January, “Playing the Devil” revolves around Wendy Winchester, a reporter in the fictional town of Rosalie, Miss., which Kuehnle says is a tweaked version of his native hometown of Natchez. In both his latest book and the first in the series – “Grand Slam Murders” – the protagonist is obsessed with learning how to play bridge. Murders, however, get her sidetracked and her uncanny ability to uncover clues helps her solve the crimes along with her detective boyfriend.

National publications such as Kirkus and Publishers Weekly gave both novels great reviews, and “Grand Slam Murders” has gone into its second printing. Kuehnle had hoped for as much success with “Playing the Devil,” but the COVID-19 pandemic halted his book tour last spring before it really got started.

He plans to complete that tour for “Playing the Devil” later this year. He’s even been known to play bridge at some of the book club meetings where he speaks.

“My parents were bridge players and they taught me as a teenager,” he remembers. “I found three guys – all named Steve – who liked to play in college. It sounds like fiction, but sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.”

Non-bridge players, however, will still enjoy the series because the stories blend the Old South with more progressive characters and attitudes. There are also references to golf, football, and Ole Miss allegiances.

“My writing is greatly influenced by Natchez,” explains Kuehnle, who grew up in the river port city. “It’s impossible to grow up in a town like Natchez and not be. Natchez has its own rules and is not typical Mississippi.”

His books reflect the tensions between Old South socialites and new progressives, and Kuehnle believes those tensions are still around.

“It’s the dichotomy of Natchez,” he says. “In my debut mystery, these battles surface. We have made a lot of progress, but my writing reflects the fact that not everything has been solved.”

After studying creative writing at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., Kuehnle became a library vendor representing publishing companies to pay the bills until his own books were published.

“I’m very grateful to librarians,” he says. “They helped me on my writer’s journey.”

He lived in New Orleans for 30 years before returning to Mississippi in 1999. He now lives in Oxford, where he’s working on the third book in the “A Bridge to Death” series. Called “Cold Reading Murder,” the book is scheduled to be published in March 2021.

“Next year’s book will be my 16th novel in 25 years,” he says. “I’m very grateful for whom I am as a writer and thankful to have this platform to communicate. It carries a great responsibility to do the best I can for readers.”

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