Letting Off Steam

updated 08/16/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/16/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

LINDA BARNES HAD JUST RETURNED TO her sprawling condo outside Boston after the first leg of a promotion tour for Snapshot—her latest mystery featuring feisty, redheaded private investigator Carlotta Carlyle—when her 3-year-old son, Sam, laid down the law. "He looked me in the eye and said, 'Mommy, if you do that again, you can't be my mother any more.' " Barnes remembers. "I thought, 'Well, he's not going to have to see a therapist, but I have to make an appointment immediately.' "

Maybe Sam was just suffering from an odd case of sibling rivalry. After all, Snapshot, Barnes explains, was conceived during her "eight-year pregnancy"—a wrenching period when she suffered five miscarriages and a stillbirth before finally giving birth to Sam. The story of a woman obsessed with the suspicious death of her daughter in a Boston hospital, Snapshot "began as my get-even book," says Barnes, who was furious at the doctors who for years had failed to diagnose the cause of her infertility. "But it didn't turn out that way. All of my books have a theme, and in this one I found I needed to talk about obsession; during all those years when I was infertile, I was obsessed with having a child."

These days, Barnes, 44, is happily juggling motherhood and writing. She's savoring critical accolades for Carlotta (a critic for The New York Times called the heroine a "character as well-wrought as plot") and brisk sales of the book, her ninth and the fifth in her Carlotta series. Unlike her fictional alter ego, Barnes isn't a redhead and doesn't drive a cab in her spare time, although at 5'10" she's in the same height range as the 6'1" Carlotta. They also share a passion for blues guitar—as well as a tendency toward righteous indignation. "I identify with Carlotta's anger and rage," says Barnes. "She gets to vent a lot of my feelings, like 'How did the world get so screwed up?' I work out a lot of things through her."

Raised in Detroit, Barnes was the second of three children of Irving Appelblatt, a mechanical engineer, and his wife, Hilda, a first-grade teacher. After winning a national essay contest at 17, Barnes says she decided to pursue acting because she was bad at it and "figured there was a challenge there." While working for a bachelor's degree in fine arts at Boston University, she married MIT student Richard Barnes—after a friend introduced them and Linda was smitten with his baritone and blues guitar. "It was a long time ago in a galaxy far away, but we're still very much in love, playing guitar and singing," Linda says of herself and Richard, 48, a computer-software programmer. "But mostly we do kids' songs now."

Loathe to join the legions of starving actresses in New York City, Barnes began teaching drama at the Chelmsford, Mass., high school. But after Wings, a one-acter she wrote for her students in 1973, went on to win several regional drama awards, she quit to try her hand at mystery writing. The violence in her Detroit neighborhood when she was growing up—she saw a policeman fatally shoot a teenager in her front yard—fueled her interest. So did the suicide of a close friend when Barnes was 23. "I've been trying to solve his death all my life, because it remains inexplicable," she says. "Sometimes I think I write most of my books about his death."

Despite four well-received books featuring amateur sleuth Michael Spraggue, Barnes searched for a new character. "I was reading a lot of detective fiction and not finding sympathetic heroes," she says. "They were either British dilettantes or these California tough guys who slap broads around. And I resented the fact that women were portrayed as people who needed to be rescued." So Barnes created Carlotta from the "capable, caring and competent" women in her life—including a redheaded friend, her sister Carol, 46 (she also has a brother, Steven, 36), and herself. After her first short story featuring Carlotta won a mystery writing award in 1985, Barnes never looked back.

Even the agony of her struggle to conceive is finally losing some of its intensity. It was right after moving to her Boston-area home in 1988 that a neighbor referred Barnes to a doctor, who quickly diagnosed the thyroid deficiency that had made it impossible for her to carry a pregnancy to term. "Without her I would not have my Sam," she says. These days Barnes's biggest problem is finding time to write—she's already working on a new Carlyle mystery, Hardware—but she's not complaining. "There were days when I felt like staying in bed the rest of my life. But I survived, I have a loving son and husband, and Carlotta is coming through for me," she says. "I've declared myself a winner."

MARILYN ACHIRON
S. AVERY BROWN in Boston

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