At night, if the writing has gone well (and sometimes even if it hasn’t), Traci Lambrecht opens a bottle of white wine. She raises a glass to the urn that sits in her living room, surrounded by flowers. It holds her mother’s ashes.
“Cheers, P.J.,” she says, and takes a sip.
P.J. Lambrecht was 70 when she died of heart failure on the winter solstice of 2016. “The darkest day of the year,” her daughter said in a recent interview. “And rightly so.”
Traci lost her mother, her writing partner and her best friend. This was right around the same time that the Lambrechts’ longtime editor left their publisher, Putnam’s, and then Putnam’s let them go, too.
P.J. and Traci wrote together for decades, first publishing a string of Harlequin Romances, and then bursting onto national bestseller lists in 2003 with “Monkeewrench,” a cyber murder mystery they wrote together under the name P.J. Tracy.
“Monkeewrench” won a string of awards, including the Anthony Award for best first novel, the Barry Award for best first mystery novel and a Minnesota Book Award. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly said the book had “an accelerating, unpredictable plot that combines police procedural with techno-geek-speak, an array of well-drawn characters and, most importantly, witty repartee.”
Oh, that witty repartee. It was what the P.J. Tracy books became known for, and it was what was the most fun about the mother-daughter writing sessions.
“We wrote about murder, but we were always laughing,” Traci said.
Over the next 13 years, the pair published seven more Monkeewrench books, which were translated into 17 languages and became immensely popular in Germany and Great Britain.
Next month, the ninth in the series, “The Guilty Dead,” will be published by a new publisher, Crooked Lane. It’s the first book written without that mother-daughter banter, without the hours of collaboration to work out the plot, without the wine-fueled, hysterically funny debriefings. “The Guilty Dead” was written by Traci alone. Or maybe not.
“I felt like P.J. was with me every step of the way,” Traci said. “After someone you’re so close to passes, you just don’t know how you’re going to react. I knew that I could continue writing without her, but I wasn’t sure I’d want to continue the Monkeewrench series. About two weeks after she passed, I said, ‘The only way I’m going to find out is to sit down and write.’”
“The Guilty Dead” just poured out of her. She finished the first draft in record time — five months, as opposed to the full year a Monkeewrench book normally took.
“It was probably grief-fueled inspiration, but it felt like she was very much there,” Traci said. “It was the most intense writing experience I’ve ever had. I was just like a woman possessed. I couldn’t stop writing.”
Once “The Guilty Dead” had been sent off to the publisher, she immediately plunged into the 10th Monkeewrench novel, which she hopes will be published next year. But at the same time, she found herself writing something else. Something different. Something entirely her own.
If you want to go back to the very beginning, you could say that the writing partnership of P.J. and Traci began 48 years ago, when Traci was 3.
Her mother read to her every night, and then they started making up their own bedtime stories.
“P.J. would come up with one line, and I’d come up with the next,” Traci said. “And we’d go back and forth. And when we were finished with a story, we acted them out” with her stuffed animals, Lamby and Teddy.
Those animals — “pathetic, threadbare and loved to pieces” — still watch over her writing space.
When she and her mother began writing together, Traci was living in California, and the two spent hours and hours on the phone hashing out plots and story lines. Eventually, Traci moved to Marine on St. Croix, a rural village west of St. Paul, where she was only 12 miles away from her mom.
Both women wrote best at night. “From 3 p.m. to midnight, I call that the golden hour,” Traci said. “There’s this great feeling of safety in the dark. I feel like I’m in a cocoon.”
“The Guilty Dead,” featuring the same cast of characters as the other Monkeewrench books, will be published on Sept. 11. It’s a story of betrayal — of terrorists and vengeance and long-simmering anger that grows into murderous intent.
Once again, the Monkeewrench gang of computer geniuses teams up with Minneapolis cops Leo Magozzi and Gino Rolseth to solve a murder, but this time they must also work against time to prevent Minneapolis City Hall from being blown up.
It is a darker book than previous Monkeewrench books, said Traci’s longtime agent, Ellen Geiger.
“It could be the times we’re living in,” she said. “Times are bad. Maybe everything is darker these days.”
While Geiger said Traci is a star at Crooked Lane, she is intrigued Traci is working on a non-Monkeewrench novel.
“She can write,” Geiger said. “She could write a fascinating book about a doorknob. I cannot wait to see what comes of that fertile imagination.”
For her part, Traci said she’s not giving up the Monkeewrench books, but she is eager to plunge into her new book, which she envisions as a thriller with a whole different cast of characters.
“I really want to do a stand-alone to re-energize, regroup, explore and build some different writing chops,” she said. “It’s not going to be a straight mystery. I love the thriller genre. I love being scared.”
It hasn’t been hard, she said, to learn to write in a new way, without the endless conversations with her mother and the laughter and the repartee. But it has been lonely.
“I miss her so much,” Traci said. “I often tell people — and this surprises me, I never thought I’d feel this way — but life is kind of boring without her.”
Writing helps with the grief.
“My writing is my enduring tether to her. It’s a joy to sit down and write,” Traci said. “When I’m writing, it’s a very intimate conversation with P.J. It’s my time with P.J. still.”