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PUBLICATIONS Inside Illinois Vol. 20, No. 7, Oct. 5, 2000

Dorothy and Sid Rosen: Plotting murder together keeps them young

Becky Mabry, Assistant Editor
(217) 244-1072; mabry@illinois.edu

Photo by Bill Wiegand
A step back in time Sid and Dorthy Rosen are having a great time researching and writing their ongoing mystery series starring Belle Appleman, a Jewish immigrant who lives in Boston's West End during the 1930s.

Some octogenarians play bridge. Some cruise the Bahamas. And others study genealogy.

Dorothy and Sid Rosen connive and plot murders.

And the readers of their two published mysteries are glad they do. "Death and Blintzes" and "Death and Strudel" feature a Jewish heroine who tacks belt loops onto pants for a living in a Depression-era clothing factory set in the West End of Boston.

The drudgery of her work is overshadowed, however, by the excitement of murder mysteries that need to be solved.

For the Rosens, writing these books is a shared enterprise that keeps them at the computer, plotting, researching Boston and Depression-era history, and remembering much of their own lives as young adults.

Sid Rosen, a UI professor emeritus of astronomy, grew up Jewish in Boston’s West End, and his father worked in the garment industry. Dorothy grew up in Hartford, Conn. The two of them spent their late teens and early 20s struggling with the poverty that visited so many households during the Depression. They met on a blind date in college in the late 30s and dated until after World War II, when they married.

The authors have been married 56 years and live in Champaign in a home that they built soon after he came to the UI in 1958 to teach physical science. Sid has a doctorate in the history of science from Harvard University. Dorothy has a degree in composition from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and a UI master’s in English as an international language.

She started writing mysteries first. Her hero was a college professor, based on you-know-who. Several chapters into it she decided the professor was too boring, but he had a devilish aunt that she loved. She made the aunt younger and Belle Appleman, the heroine was born.

Sid joined her effort after Dorothy went to him many times with technical questions, such as how long does it take blood to clot? He was good at plotting too, she said, so they began to devote their days to the joint task of writing books.

They work in their office mornings and afternoons, Monday through Friday. They take a break mid-day for a 20-minute swim at IMPE and a brown-bag lunch with former colleagues of Sid’s from the astronomy department. They like to keep the work schedule, and say that the greatest benefit of their writing effort is that it keeps them physically and mentally active and alert.

Plus, it gives them the chance to revisit the music, politics, news and fashions of the 1930s.

"For both of us, the ’30s was a unique period in American history," Dorothy said. "I suppose you could sum it all up in the term the Depression. That colored everything, every phase of life because most people were poor. We were poor. America didn’t have much of a middle class. We knew that there were ultra-rich because we went to the movies and saw them pictured there, but most everyone was poor. The big escape – and our heroine uses it a lot – was the movies."

"Belle Appleman sees everyone through the eyes of Hollywood," Sid said. "She’ll meet a man and think he’s a regular Nelson Eddie. Or she bats her eyelashes in a Mae West flutter or she has a Bette Davis voice. One reviewer said that he felt that our heroine went through life as if in a movie of her own."

Their books have gotten very good reviews. The latest one, "Death and Strudel," was just released about two weeks ago.

Their first mystery, "Death and Blintzes," caught the attention of UI journalism graduate Gene Shalit, and the two were invited to appear on the "Today" show with Shalit in 1985. That resulted in an invitation from the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) to be part of an advertisement for the over-50 group. So Sid and Dorothy agreed and were flown to Hollywood where they took part in a commercial.

There was a long delay between the first book coming out in 1985 and the second, but that’s mostly because of internal problems at the publishing houses. Dorothy and Sid have finished their third book, "Death and Chicken Soup," but haven’t submitted it to a publisher yet.

"Each book is better, we think, than the one before," Dorothy said.

Belle is a member of their family now. She’s a first-generation immigrant who struggles to speak English correctly, and she’s recovering from the death of her husband, a pharmacist who died young. She’s a character rich with history and personality, Dorothy said. Often she comes up in their conversations – "What would Belle think about that?" "What would Belle do about that?"

The couple has no visions of making a vast sum of money from their books. In fact, money is not a motivator at all. Mostly, the two enjoy the daily challenges of sitting down and writing. Their goal is to see the next one in print.

"I think you can say as much about human nature in a mystery as in any other kind of fiction," Dorothy said. "Because it isn’t really the mystery that’s the intriguing part, it’s the people, the characters."

"People who’ve written critiques of our books on Amazon.com have indicated what charms them is bringing back the old West End of Boston and the period," Sid said. "One person said this is something we should all remember, and yet we tend to forget that it happened."

It’s fun to take on the challenge of crafting a book, the couple agreed.

"It’s great," Dorothy said. "It’s the most fun I know of. I mean, how else can you sit down and be in another world?"

"Oh yeah," Sid agreed. "It’s like inventing a new world in which you play a part. And you can control the part you play."

Other books by Sid and Dorothy Rosen
Sidney Rosen wrote the popular children’s book "Galileo and the Magic Numbers," published in 1958 and which still remains in print and in libraries all over the country. His second children’s book, "Dr. Paracelsus," about the father of chemotherapy, was published in 1959 and was runner-up for the prestigious Newbery Medal. Other children’s books include "The Harmonious World of Johann Kepler," a famous astronomer, and "The Wizard of Dome," a biography of architect R. Buckminster Fuller. That book was awarded the Clara Ingram Judson memorial award for the most distinguished book for young people in 1970.
Rosen also has a series of children’s science books that have been widely displayed in libraries around the country and Asia, such as "Where Does The Moon Go?," "How Far Is A Star?," and "Can You Find A Planet?"
As a team, the two wrote a series of historical novels for 10- to 12-year-olds, including "The Magician’s Apprentice" and "The Baghdad Mission." Dorothy also wrote a biography of Mary Lyon, the founder of Mount Holyoke College.


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