Donald Bain loomed large in my life—and not just because he stood tall.
The first time we met was in 2009 at the inaugural Murder 203: Connecticut’s Mystery Festival (now defunct). But I’d been reading him voraciously since the age of 12 when I discovered his byline on the very first Murder, She Wrote novel from Berkley, Manhattans & Murder, in December of 1994. That book, and the next few, augmented my obsession with the television show. When Angela Lansbury & Co. signed off the air in 1996, they became something more important: an ongoing connection to those beloved characters and their quaint, if homicidal, coastal town of Cabot Cove, Maine.
I read each new title—twice per year, every year—for the next decade and a half. (Still do.)
So when presented with the opportunity to meet the man himself—who I’d grown to view as a mythical figure of sorts, given the enigmatic nature of his “collaboration” with a certain Jessica Fletcher—I simply couldn’t resist.
Though imposing in stature, Don—accompanied by his partner in life and writing, Renée Paley-Bain—couldn’t have been more welcoming in demeanor. When I tentatively broached the subject of a possible interview, his eyes lit up. “Of course!” he said, and in a way that made it sound like I was doing him the favor. “Email me.” In those few moments, a friendship was born.
In the days following the event, Don and I began an email correspondence that would continue, intermittently, for the next eight years. He proved as good as his word about that interview (and many others), promising to indulge my curiosities—“some of which hint of a delightful whimsy on the part of the questioner”—just as soon as he returned from traveling.
Our paths continued to cross, both in the real world and online, and I found that my admiration became tinged with affection. I’m pretty sure the sentiment was mutual, as most of those encounters would quickly lead to him placing an arm around my shoulder and speaking that old, familiar refrain, “You know, John…” (As liberal as Don was with his wisdom, he was equally attentive and inquisitive.)
One particularly memorable occasion was an evening in May of 2010 when Don and Renée invited my wife and me over for dinner at their beautiful Danbury condo. When we arrived, we were given the grand tour; highlights included the downstairs area that housed their individual offices and ephemera as well as the room where Don displayed first edition copies of each of his works. Fellow mystery writer Jane Cleland and her husband later joined us, and food, drink, and conversation flowed late into the night. I completely reveled in the wonderment of it all.
Though imposing in stature, Don—accompanied by his partner in life and writing, Renée Paley-Bain—couldn’t have been more welcoming in demeanor.
That was also the time I learned that Don—who wrote more than 120 books, both under his own name and anonymously, in genres as diverse as Westerns, comedy, historical romance, and celebrity memoir—was indeed the force behind all but the first of Margaret Truman’s Capital Crimes novels, though his work wouldn’t be officially credited until 2012’s Experiment in Murder. To be trusted with such knowledge at a time when it remained a closely guarded secret was heady.
Then, there was the time in February of 2013 when Don and Renée asked us to have drinks with them following their presentation of Domestic Malice at the Westport Library. As we were saying our goodbyes in the parking lot afterward, Don proceeded to rummage through his trunk and then, with a flourish, presented me with a rarity to add to the collection: a first edition copy of his memoir, Every Midget Has an Uncle Sam Costume—later reissued as Murder HE Wrote: A Successful Writer’s Life.
Or the time in October of 2015 when I journeyed to Byrd’s Books in Bethel for the launch of The Ghost and Mrs. Fletcher—the first MSW title to carry Renée’s byline too, though she’d been quietly collaborating on the series since 2001’s Murder in a Minor Key. Renée was so vibrant that night—and I was honored to celebrate the occasion with her. As the evening drew to a close, we shared a few quiet moments together. She and Don signed my book. Then, almost as an afterthought, I asked Alice, the store’s owner, if she would mind taking our picture. I never imagined what a treasured memory that photo would become. It was the last time I’d see both Don and Renée together; she passed unexpectedly three months later.
Speaking of Renée, I should mention that our relationship, too, evolved over the years. What started with emails pertaining to mundane matters—she often took care of the business of writing so that Don could take care of the business of writing—led to Christmas card exchanges, sporadic phone calls, and even Facebook messaging. As she became increasingly social media savvy, those communications often spiraled into hilarity as we delighted in trying to get the last word in.
Knowing my affinity for all things Murder, She Wrote, Renée would also send me treats in the mail: an original CD single to accompany Nashville Noir (along with a handful of Goo Goo Clusters), an audiobook of The Fine Art of Murder, an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) of The Ghost and Mrs. Fletcher—and always with her and Don’s regards. Regardless of which one of them was initiating the correspondence, you always knew that the sentiment was shared.
When I learned of Renée death, I felt a genuine sadness and sense of personal loss. So I did what I often do when I’m trying to work things out in my own mind: I wrote. Somehow, Don saw that tribute (which he later shared on his website), and in his time of profound sorrow, he called me to express his gratitude and extend an invitation to a forthcoming celebration of life in Renée’s honor.
That gathering, in May of 2016, would be the last time I saw Don. Despite being surrounded by dozens of family members and friends—all of whom were warm and welcoming—he excused himself more than once to check on us, ensuring that we felt comfortable and included. And doesn’t that simple act say something profound?
If the true measure of a man is his character, Don Bain far exceeded the myriad beings he brought to life throughout a prolific, and appropriately storied, career. I didn’t look up to him simply because I had to; I looked up to him because he deserved it.
John Valeri wrote the popular Hartford Books Examiner column for Examiner.com from 2009 – 2016. He can be found online at www.johnbvaleri.com and is featured in the Halloween-themed anthology Tricks and Treats, now available from Books & Boos Press.