Suspense writer has two names, but a...


Suspense writer has two names, but a single purpose

Every now and then someone will say to Kathryn Jensen, "Nicole! I loved your latest book." Just as she is about to go "Huh?" she remembers: "Oops, that's right, I'm also Nicole."

It's one of the hazards of a having a nom de plume, but Ms. Jensen, who writes suspense novels for teens under the name Nicole Davidson, isn't complaining. After a dozen years trying to break into print, the Arbutus writer celebrates this month the publication of her sixth novel, "Surprise Party," published by Avon paperbacks.

And while the topic is timely for October -- a Halloween party gone bad -- it's the underlying social messages that mark a Davidson/Jensen novel.

"In 'Surprise Party,' I wanted to put in an anti-drug and anti-drinking message for kids," she says. "But you can't just say, 'This is not good for you.' You need to use entertainment."

And what better entertainment than a story.

"Kids love a story," she says. "And kids need a release from reality. They are very pressured. Yet the undercurrent of the message is important. I've always thought, 'Gee, what a waste of plot form if you don't have something to say to kids.' "

Ms. Jensen, who took her pen name from the first names of her two grown children -- Nicole and David -- often sets her novels in Baltimore or Maryland surroundings.

In "Surprise Party," the lead characters are a Baltimore County drug-sniffing dog and his Baltimore County police officer handler.

"I met some of the officers in the K-9 unit and their dogs at the Wilkens Precinct," she says, "and was able to watch a training session. They were great over there, wonderfully helpful." When Jessica Elfenbein chose to write her doctoral dissertation on the history of the Baltimore Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), she didn't realize what fertile ground she had tapped. But as the University of Delaware graduate student probed archives and interviewed sources, she discovered that the YMCA's history was a wide-angle lens through which to view Baltimore's civic past.

Ms. Elfenbein is eager to add a personal touch to her history by speaking to former residents of local YMCAs about their experiences and memories. (Anyone wishing to contact her about residence in a YMCA dorm may call the YMCA of Greater Baltimore at [410] 837-9622.)

Part of the city's landscape since 1852, the YMCA was originally formed to serve "young men coming to the city to keep them out of trouble with wholesome and religious activities," Ms. Elfenbein says.

At its peak, the YMCA operated numerous branches and clubs throughout the city where men found housing, reading rooms, cafeterias and gyms.

Besides the downtown Central branch and another at Druid Hill originally designed for African Americans, the YMCA maintained outlets for college students, industrial workers, seamen and railroad employees.

Today, the YMCA still provides spiritual guidance and tends to community needs, Ms. Elfenbein says. But with the Druid Hill branch the only remaining YMCA operating within the city, Ms. Elfenbein's doctoral thesis questions whether the organization has abandoned its original mission as it shifts its attention to the suburbs.

Stephanie Shapiro

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