Sinister Suggestions by Dr. Karen Stephen – Why is my mystery novel set in 1961?

To preview Sinister Suggestions, please enjoy my BOOK TRAILER.

The answer to the “why” of the setting and time period chosen for my third novel Sinister Suggestions is found in Chapter Twelve of my first novel, Degrees of Obsession. This chapter contains the most autobiographical material found in any of my works of fiction. My alter ego, protagonist Dr. Charlie Pederson, describes herself and her best friend Marietta growing up in La Jolla, California in the Fifties:

Marietta and I were on the cusp, so to speak, graduating from high school in 1961. We entered puberty in 1955 along with a generation of kids who spent their formative years crouching in dirty hallways, sweaty fingers laced behind their well-scrubbed necks, waiting for the A-bomb. We graduated at the peak of the SAT scores. Our parents were afraid of Sputniks, and we were afraid of our parents. There were rumors about poodle skirts, but I never laid eyes on one. I felt out of kilter with my own generation. My mother insisted I wear sturdy brown oxfords instead of the saddle shoes and Capezios that graced the dainty feet of my peers.  Of course, irradiating my toes under the shoe store fluoroscope negated the health benefit of good arch support. Actually, looking at the bare bones in my feet was the closest I ever got to obscenity. My political consciousness peaked at having two parakeets named “Ike” and a German shepherd with the same patriotic appellation. My family was not big on original thought.

In Chapter Six, Charlie describes her and, thus, my transition to college at Stanford University in the fall of 1961:

There was a saying that went:  “Nine out of ten California girls are beautiful and the tenth one goes to Stanford.”  I went to Stanford. Now, don’t get me wrong.  I didn’t break mirrors, but there were thousands of drop-dead gorgeous women in California, even in high school.  I was tall and naturally blonde…well, almost.  That brief stint in modeling school had served me well.  I had outgrown my awkward pubescent years and could manage a graceful stride when I put my mind to it.  Any shortfall I had in the looks department had been well compensated in the brain department.  Those top grades paid off.  Twenty-two of my classmates also applied to Stanford, but none of the others was admitted.  The day my letter of acceptance came in the mail, I had more than a few envious friends.  My ego was quickly deflated, however, when I arrived on campus, just another clueless freshman set loose in a seething mass of upperclassmen. I struggled through the maze of registration, jostled by the milling masses at Memorial Auditorium.  I fretted as I watched the IBM cards, each printed with one class opening, disappear into the greedy hands of the students ahead of me in line.  I breathed a sigh of relief when the precious card for Chemistry for Chem Majors fell into my possession. My relief was short-lived, however.  After I collected the rest of my class cards, I realized that two required courses had been assigned to me on the same days at the same hour.  I stared in dismay at the placards overhead that forbade any changes to the pre-assigned sections of either Freshman English or Western Civ. 

In Sinister Suggestions, my alter ego morphs into a new character named Mattie Thorne, a frosh student at Stanford that fall of 1961. She is suffering from amnesia due to unknown trauma from her past or present. Her journey and that of her rescuers, a determined and rebellious group of student staffers working on the campus newspaper, The Stanford Daily (click for archival issue from September 25, 1961), is told in this first book in a series of four murder mysteries entitled The Stanford Daily Mysteries.

In addition, staying true to my goal of blending truth into fiction, I have taken social, political, and lifestyle stories from the pages of the Daily from that 1961-2 academic year, added my own memories from the same period of time, and combined them with the requisite murders demanded by the mystery genre. The world itself was caught between Camelot and catastrophe in 1961 and many of the societal and political issues of that day plague us in the present, such as nuclear threats and sexual violence on college campuses.

Evidence that we had moved past Fonzie and the Happy Days of the 1950s, is shown in this list of a few of the world events that occurred in 1961:

  • UN General Assembly condemns apartheid in South Africa
  • Berlin Wall is built, dividing East and West Germany
  • American-backed Cuban exiles fail in an attempt to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs
  • Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo is assassinated
  • Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin completes the first orbit of Earth by a human

To preview Sinister Suggestions, please enjoy my BOOK TRAILER.


I am thrilled to announce the launch my third novel, SINISTER SUGGESTIONS, the first book in a series entitled THE STANFORD DAILY MYSTERIES. Set at Stanford University in 1961, the actual year I attended there as a freshman, it is a story of renegade student journalists on the Stanford Daily, who expose connections between a professor’s hypnosis experiments and two mysterious deaths, forcing the university to face its culpability in its reckless endangerment of young coeds, who not only endure sexual violence and other trauma on campus but are thrown into an even more dire situation when seeking help–college scandals which continue to dominate our headlines today.  



My second retirement ~ a new suspense novel

At age 74, I am entering into my second retirement after having served for four years as the Mental Health Clinical Director for a large health plan serving the Medicaid population in 14 northern CA counties. It was a challenging and interesting position and I am sad to be leaving behind so many interesting projects and collegial friends.

When I retired the first time after forty years as a practicing clinician, I slipped right into Grammie duty with the birth of my third grandchild. Now that granddaughter is joined by her younger sister as they enter first and third grade as talented, bright, and creative growing-up-too-fast girls. I’m sure in this second retirement there will be many more drives to after school activities and visits to Portland to see my older grandsons, one of whom is now off to college in Seattle and a career in app design and the other starting high school with plethora of musical and drama talents.  But there will also be time for me to explore new horizons and complete and publish my third novel.

This third novel, entitled THE HYPNOSIS EXPERIMENT is already in the works with 40,000 words written and the suspenseful plot unfolding. It’s about Hilgard’s hypnosis experiments at Stanford in 1961–in which I actually participated as a subject as a freshman that year. I remember well my unfortunate experience in having a PTSD reaction to the regression item that was included and my new novel takes off from there. For some unknown reason, a Stanford freshman has completely dissociated and doesn’t even remember that she is a student at the university. She finds a friend in one of the handful of African-American students enrolled in that era and then more support from student staffers at the Stanford Daily. They help her uncover the mystery that caused her memory loss and join her in her fight for her sanity and for her right to continue there as a student. This was an era when psychological research did not have the subject safeguards in place today. I, for example, was simply banned from continuing in the study when the regression item took me back to a terrible year of my childhood. It was also a turbulent political and social era which presaged the very issues and conflicts we face in our world today–sexism, racism, turmoil in Syria and Russia, and a newly built wall in Berlin. It tells the story of those who were destined to become part of the feminist and civil rights movements and those who understood the vital political lessons that our country seems to have now forgotten. This novel will reveal where we were in more ways than one.