Joan Edmiston Hess (1949–2017)

aka: Joan Hadley

A prolific writer from northwestern Arkansas, Joan Edmiston Hess was the author of dozens of mystery novels for adults and young adults. Known for her humor and use of regional flair, she wrote novels that feature a recognizable southern landscape of characters. The books are often narrated by wry, no-nonsense characters who are worldly in their knowledge and experience but also down to earth.

Joan Edmiston was born on January 6, 1949, in Fayetteville (Washington County) to Jack D. Edmiston, a wholesale grocer, and Helen Edmiston, a building contractor. She attended high school in Fayetteville. She received a BA in art from the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville in 1971 and an MA in education from Long Island University in 1974. She married Jeremy Hess in 1973; they divorced in 1986. They had two children, Rebecca and Joshua Hadley.

Hess worked in real estate sales in Fayetteville from 1974 to 1980 and taught art at a private preschool in Fayetteville until 1984, when she became a freelance writer. She wrote articles and stories for Mystery Scene, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and others, and she was included in The Year’s 25 Finest Crime and Mystery Stories in 1997.

Her first novel, Strangled Prose, was published in 1986 by Ballantine. Hess claimed to have written ten unpublished romance novels before switching to mystery. She wrote several series of novels. The “Claire Malloy” series of mysteries centers upon a widow who runs a bookstore in a refurbished train car in the not-quite-Fayetteville town of Farberville, Arkansas, down the hill from the University of Arkansas. Malloy struggles to raise her daughter while solving mysteries and somehow finds the time to sell books. The “Ozarks Murder” series is set in the Ozark Mountains in the fictitious small town of Maggody, Arkansas, and follows the exploits of Police Chief Arly Hanks, who has returned to her hometown to live near her mother after a disastrous marriage in New York. The “Theo Bloomer” mysteries, published under the pseudonym Joan Hadley, follow Bloomer, a retired florist. The Bloomer books are not set in Arkansas. Hess also published short-story collections titled Death of a Romance Writer and Other Stories (Five Star, 2002) and Bigfoot Stole My Wife and Other Stories (Five Star, 2003).

Hess’s work is marked by a sense of humor and playful plot twists. She often alluded to Arkansas locales but fictionalized them for humorous effect. Her Ozarks books are littered with bootleggers, hound dogs, sinful preachers, and other stock Southern characters whom she reinvented by adding humor to their lifestyles.

Hess was a member of the Mystery Writers of America and was the executive secretary and former president of the American Crime Writers League. She was the president and organizer of the Arkansas Mystery Writers Alliance and a member of other mystery and crime writer organizations.

Hess was nominated for an Anthony Award for Strangled Prose in 1986 and was nominated for an Agatha Award for Mischief in Maggody in 1988. A Diet to Die For won the American Mystery Award for best traditional novel of 1989. O Little Town of Maggody was nominated for an Agatha Award and an Anthony Award for best novel of 1993. Her short story “Too Much to Bare” won the Agatha Award in 1991 and the McCavity Award from Mystery Readers International. Another story, “The Last to Know,” was nominated for the Agatha Award and the McCavity Award in 1993.

Hess was a guest lecturer at UA; Missouri State University in Springfield; Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio; the University of Missouri–Kansas City; Hood College in Frederick, Maryland; and Rice University in Houston, Texas. Some of her twenty-first-century novels were Damsels in Distress (2007), Mummy Dearest (2008), Merry Wives of Maggody (2010), Deader Homes and Gardens (2012), and Murder as a Second Language (2013).

Hess died at her home in Austin, Texas, on November 23, 2017.

For additional information:
Kazas, Tom. “The Mystery of Writing.” Arkansas Democrat Sunday Magazine, March 30, 1986, pp. 3, 12.

Library Thing. (accessed August 2, 2023).

C. L. Bledsoe
Ghoti magazine


    For many years I have been a fan, having found a paperback by her in a used bookstore. Raven was publishing these back then. I’d like to pass along my gratitude to her for her well-written books. I haven’t had a complaint and, believe me, I’m picky. The Maggody series are my favorites, and I’ve gone for several days suffering from sore ribs from laughing at some of the antics of Brother Verber and Sister Barbara, especially when they got caught up in the brier bushes on one of their mis-adventures. I have sent an email to the public library showing all of the books that the library hasn’t gotten in, and I hope the librarian makes a class-act effort to catch up. My spirits need uplifting! I will soon be 71, and I doubt there is anyone who reads as many books as I do, especially if that person is employed 35 hours a week (working with seniors, of course). 

    Carolyn C. Shiver