Many know Juneau writer Peggy Barnhill for her “Gimme a Smile” column with the Juneau Empire. Soon, however, she’ll be known by her pen name Greta McKennan as she releases the first of her “A Stitch in Time” mystery series, “Uniformly Dead,” through Kensington Publishing.
Juneau writer pens first mystery novel of series 041917 AE 1 Capital City Weekly Many know Juneau writer Peggy Barnhill for her “Gimme a Smile” column with the Juneau Empire. Soon, however, she’ll be known by her pen name Greta McKennan as she releases the first of her “A Stitch in Time” mystery series, “Uniformly Dead,” through Kensington Publishing.

Cover of Barnhill’s first novel. Courtesy image.

Peggy Barnhill goes by the pen name Greta McKennan for her A Stitch in Time Mystery series. Author photo by Mike Barnhill.

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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Story last updated at 4/18/2017 - 2:36 pm

Juneau writer pens first mystery novel of series

Many know Juneau writer Peggy Barnhill for her “Gimme a Smile” column with the Juneau Empire. Soon, however, she’ll be known by her pen name Greta McKennan as she releases the first of her “A Stitch in Time” mystery series, “Uniformly Dead,” through Kensington Publishing.

“I always wanted a pen name ever since I was a kid, and I had this name all these years and I went, ‘You know, I’m over 50 now and it’s time to start doing all those things I’ve always wanted to do,’” Barnhill said. “Greta” comes from her given name and “McKennan” comes from an ancestor.

The book is about a historical seamstress, Daria Dembrowski, who lives in a small town in Pennsylvania. During a Civil War reenactment, a colonel is impaled by his own bayonet and an antique goes missing from a local museum. Dembrowski must stitch together the clues to prove her brother’s innocence for the theft and to clear a bridal client’s fiancé of the murder charges.

Her first novel falls under the subgenre known as a “cozy mystery.” These types of books generally have shared characteristics — for example, they’re set in a small town, the sleuth is an amateur, and the story isn’t too violent. It also usually has a romance and happy ending, and the overall tone tends to be light, she said.

“You have this ethos of a small town like Juneau. People don’t lock their doors; it’s a peaceful lifestyle, and all of a sudden this terrible thing happens with a murder … the idea is to try to return back to the peaceful existence. There’s always a sense of shock for the characters about how such a thing could happen in a place like this,” Barnhill said.

Other mystery writers like Diane Mott Davidson (culinary mystery series), Mary Stewart (romantic suspense), and M. M. Kaye (stand-alone mysteries) have inspired Barnhill’s work. Outside of that genre, as a child she enjoyed the “Childhood of Famous Americans” series, and writers Louisa May Alcott and Charlotte Bronte.

Dembrowski’s sleuthing adventure is a tale of persistence, but so is Barnhill’s in getting published. In 2010, Barnhill had the initial idea for the book. It began during National Novel Writing Month, which takes place in November and challenges participants to write 50,000 words of a novel in the month. She was shy by 10,000 words, she said, but she went on to finish her draft in February 2011. In the following years, she completed more than 12 intense revisions of the book, submitted to a total of 20 agents, and became a finalist for the Poisoned Pen Press’s “Discover Mystery” contest in 2013. She finally signed to Kensington in June 2016.

The reworking didn’t end there. After she got an agent, they suggested a plot point change. It altered the story, she said, but she thinks the book is better for it. It’s something she took away from the whole experience of working to get her book published: writing isn’t just a solitary activity — sometimes you have to let others become part of the process. You can have a stronger piece because of it.

“There’s a lot in the story that comes from my life or from lives of people that I know,” Barnhill said. Like her protagonist, she too has lived in a large house with roommates and has also worked as a seamstress. “I’m curious to know what people think when they’re reading, going ‘That is so unbelievable it must true,’” she said, referencing a certain scene involving spaghetti near the end of the book.

Barnhill is revising her second novel of the series “Historically Dead,” which she said has been easier since she already well acquainted with her characters and knew what the expectations were for the book. It will be released December 2017. She’s also got plans for a third.

“Uniformly Dead” is available digitally on most platforms like Kindle, Kobo, Apple, etc., and will be released for on-demand-print on May 16; preordering is available through Kensington. To learn more about Barnhill and her series, go to

Excerpt from "Uniformly Dead"

Pete elbowed me gently. “Still playing with dolls, huh?” He leaned in for a closer look. “Sometimes they used dolls to hide valuables during the Civil War,” he mused. “I just read about a doll being used to conceal medicine for Southern troops. Do you suppose Angeline has a secret? I wish she’d let me in on it.”

 “No one touches the equipment!” McCarthy pushed Colonel Windstrom squarely in the chest, sending him reeling back into a display case. The security guard grabbed for him, but the photographer sidestepped him with ease. He snapped a quick photo of Colonel Windstrom lunging at him, then the two men smashed into the wall. The security guard hollered,

“Break it up. Now!”

The room was emptying fast. The woman in the paisley dress hurried past me to the exit.

Jim Laker appeared at my elbow. He extended his arm in a courtly gesture. “Can I offer you an escort away from this chaos?”

I saw Emmett slide out from behind his table, his eyes scanning the gallery. He glowered at the errant photographer.

It looked like McCarthy was getting the worst of the fight. Colonel Windstrom grabbed his shoulders and flung him bodily to the floor.

McCarthy skidded across the shiny linoleum and careened smack into me. I clutched at Jim, but it was no use. I went down like a bowling pin in strappy sandals, my skirt flying up to my hips. I landed hard against the wall, with McCarthy sprawled across my legs.

“God, I’m so sorry,” he gasped. The man was laughing! He scrambled to his feet and reached down a hand. I grudgingly held up my own hand, but he wasn’t even interested in helping me up. He scooped up his camera and snapped a picture of me, sprawled on the floor like some kind of drunk. Then he spun away from me, ducked a blow from the security guard, and took a picture of Angeline. He danced around her, dodging the guard’s lunges and ignoring Colonel Windstrom’s hollering, and took photo after photo of the beautiful doll. I sat on the floor and stared in disbelief.

Jim knelt down beside me. “Are you all right, Daria?” he asked anxiously. “Did he hurt you?” He held out his hand, and I staggered to my feet.

“I’m okay.” I glared at McCarthy, now grappling with Colonel Windstrom as the security guard struggled to part them.

Suddenly the room went black. For an instant, I thought I’d been hit over the head. Then a woman screamed, and a child started wailing. A figure pushed past me, sending me reeling into a display case. My thigh bashed into the sharp corner of the case, and I fought back tears. A string of obscenities erupted from what sounded like Colonel Windstrom. The security guard yelled, “Who turned the lights off? Turn them

back on right now!”

“I’m outta here!” a voice cried, accompanied by running footsteps.

“He’s getting away!” a woman shrieked.

“I’ll get him!” Jim’s deep voice rang out from across the room, and another set of footsteps echoed. The door banged shut just as the light flashed on. Emmett stood in the doorway, his hand on the light switch. He stared in dismay at the wreck of the Civil War exhibit.

A glass-fronted display case lay upended on its side, with shards of glass scattered over the letters that spilled out onto the floor. Portraits dangled sideways on the wall. Colonel McDowell’s uniform lay sprawled on the floor like a casualty of battle. In the corner by the column stood an empty mahogany table. I gasped.

Angeline was gone!