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Just the Facts (and the Fiction), Ma’am

Just the Facts (and the Fiction), Ma’am
Barbara D’Amato (WCAS72, G73) is a talented writer whose expertise extends far beyond the mystery genre.
Photo by Kris Resellmo
Her characters include a hard-nosed journalist, gritty police officers and a real-life, wrongfully convicted murderer. She has visited a morgue, worn a bullet-proof vest and braved car chases with cops on the streets of Chicago — all for the sake of a story.

Barbara D’Amato (WCAS72, G73) covers a lot of territory as a writer, penning mystery novels, true crime analyses and children’s musical comedies.

Since Ace Books published her first work, 1980’s The Hands of Healing Murder, D’Amato has kept young and old entertained with her wit, suspense and unexpected turns. “I was an avid mystery reader for years,” says the Chicago native, who devoured perhaps 300 whodunits a year when she was younger. Her daily goal remains to “work all day, make dinner and read mysteries at night.”

Since her first book D’Amato, who earned a master’s degree in sociology from Northwestern, has published 17 mysteries, including a continuing series featuring a freelance journalist named Cat Marsala and another with two Chicago cops, Suze Figueroa and Norm Bennis, as protagonists. She has also written several stand-alone works, most recently last summer’s thriller White Male Infant (Tom Doherty Associates), a story about a New York couple who fear their 4-year old adopted son may not be the Russian orphan they had been led to believe.

D’Amato estimates her books sell roughly 15,000 hardcover and 150,000 paperback copies apiece.

As proficient as D’Amato is at mysteries, she has won nearly equal notice through her musicals, which she creates with her husband, Anthony D’Amato, Judd and Mary Leighton Professor of Law at Northwestern. “He writes the music, I write the book of the show, and then we fight about the lyrics,” she says. One children’s comedy, The Magic of Young Houdini, played in Chicago and London.

D’Amato’s range, however, extends beyond fiction. Her painstaking work proved the innnocence of the late John Branion, an Illinois doctor convicted of killing his wife in 1967. “Branion’s second wife, Shirley, read a story about Tony [D’Amato] getting a man out of prison in Mexico and wondered if he could do anything to help John Branion,” D’Amato says. “Tony thought it would be interesting for me to write it up. I spent two years going through autopsy reports and talking to witnesses, and it became obvious that Branion didn’t have the time to commit the murder.”

As a follow-up to her book The Doctor, the Murder, the Mystery: The True Story of the Dr. John Branion Murder Case (Noble Press, 1992), she appeared on Unsolved Mysteries, which produced a segment about the Branion case. “They did much of the filming at a house that was a lot like Dr. Branion’s,” she says. “It was very interesting to find out how they do that kind of thing.”

Nonetheless, D’Amato isn’t likely to write true crime books soon; the “constant sadness” of believing someone in jail is innocent drained her.

D’Amato regularly participates in book signings and mystery conventions, and though her “perfect week” of writing four pages each day doesn’t always happen, she writes and researches stories constantly. “It’s great,” she says. “I get to go around and ask people questions, ride around in squad cars and see parts of the city I’d otherwise have no reason to see.

“It is by turns satisfying and frustrating to write,” D’Amato says. “Of course, there are always narrative problems hanging over your head, but when you solve one of them, it’s great.”
— Michael DePilla (J04)


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