A billboard advertising Murder at the Mikvah(Newton Area Photo)
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Message in a Bottleneck

How did a self-published first novel about ritual-bath murder end up plastered on prime Philadelphia billboards?

Ellen Umansky
January 08, 2010
A billboard advertising Murder at the Mikvah(Newton Area Photo)

Just after you cross the Delaware River on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, as you’re traveling one of the most highly trafficked routes into Philadelphia’s Center City, you’ll suddenly find looming above you an enormous billboard featuring a photograph of a lithe, nude woman. She’s shot from behind as she languidly dips into a sea, and she’s advertising Murder at the Mikvah, a new novel from someone billed as “Philadelphia author Sarah Segal.”

Chances are you haven’t heard of Segal or her novel. It’s a pen name for Denise Steen, a 43-year-old mother of two, who self-published the murder mystery, her first book. Self-published books don’t usually get such high-profile publicity, but family connections and a sluggish economy have provided Steen with promotional opportunities that other authors would, well, murder for. Her father, Terry Steen, owns Steen Outdoor Advertising, an 80-year-old family business headquartered in Philadelphia, and at a time when reduced advertising spending has left him with plenty of excess inventory, he’s all too happy to publicize his daughter’s work.

“If there weren’t space available, I wouldn’t be up,” said the affable author, who describes her family’s religious practice as “traditional” and created her pseudonym by combining her Hebrew name and her mother’s maiden name. “My dad is my biggest fan. When I was working on the book, he would always say, ‘When it’s done, you’ll go up on a billboard.’” She’s happy to take the help. “Someone needs a place to stay, you offer them a place to stay,” she said. “For us, we have billboards.”

The company is certainly a family affair. Steen’s grandfather, Herman A. Steen, founded it in 1930, and her father took over in 1967. “I spent many school vacations working at my dad’s office,” Steen said. Her husband, Steve Gorlechen, now serves as vice president of the business, which also employs two of Denise Steen’s sisters and their husbands. “I absolutely believe in billboards,” says Terry Steen. “If you want to reach a mass audience, you use a billboard.” Steen Advertising has “a few thousand” at its disposal across New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, but, he added, while his business has rebounded from the strong hit it took during the downturn, “there’s always an empty board,” he said. “It’s timing.” (This isn’t the first time Terry Steen has mounted a billboard with a message close to his heart: in early 2003, motorists on I-95 were confronted with a giant sign featuring a picture of the Iraqi leader and the words: “Saddam Hussein, Give Peace a Chance, Go Into Exile!”)

With billboards in her blood, it’s no surprise that Denise Steen takes a personal tone when talking about them.“I get moved around a lot,” she says, as if she herself was looming large over the roadways. “At any given time, I might be on various locations on I-76, the Schuylkill Expressway. I’ve been on I-95. I’ve also been on the Atlantic City Expressway. It’s extraordinary, how many people have seen it.”

Before her children were born, Steen worked in marketing, and for a time, as an event planner for the Jewish outreach group Aish HaTorah. “I’ve always gravitated toward writing, whatever job I had, doing the company newsletter, things like that,” she said. “But I never put anything out for public consumption before.” Then when she turned 40, she had an epiphany. “I wanted to write a full book, you know, at least a 300-page manuscript,” she said.

The result, inspired by Steen’s own trips to the ritual bath, clocks in at 459 pages, and is constructed as an old-fashioned whodunit with a Jewish twist. In an affluent suburb of Philadelphia, where the observant Jewish community is growing and the Catholic Church’s influence is diminishing (a suburb much like Steen’s own Lower Merion), two women are attacked late one night at the mikvah, which has been built on the grounds of the former Catholic school. The victims are an elderly mikvah lady, who is a Holocaust survivor, and the 30-something wife of the popular rabbi—neither of whom, it must be said, seem to resemble the lovely young woman who graces the book’s cover. (“Stock photo,” Steen says. “It’s an ocean scene—God’s original mikvah—so I thought that worked.”)

A “reclusive church employee,” as Steen describes him, who lives in the church’s soon-to-be-closed rectory, is the only potential suspect. While her plot can feel contrived and her characters often cliched (there’s the blind priest, the renowned psychiatrist, the young woman harboring a secret), she depicts the Jewish community with vibrancy and no small share of contemporary issues. (Lesbianism, domestic abuse, and divorce all come into play.)

Some reviews have been less than kind. “Was this edited with a hacksaw?” asked one Amazon reader, grousing about the book’s grammatical mistakes. “I should have used a copy editor,” Steen admitted. But she remains sanguine about her literary efforts. “Writing the book was a personal goal of mine,” she said. “Not to write the Great American novel, not to make a million dollars.”

A good thing. Segal had decided from the onset to bypass the traditional route of agents and publishing houses. “I didn’t know how to infiltrate the whole book industry,” she said. “You just hear horror stories, the rejections they get.” She turned instead to the self-publisher iUniverse. (“My rabbi had published a book on parashas with them,” she says. “He had a good experience.”) Since its release last March, Murder at the Mikvah has sold 550 copies, not Grisham numbers, but at a time when publishing houses might throw their muscle behind a title that then sells a thousand copies, not so terrible either.

Steen credits the billboards for nearly all her book sales, and is now at work on her second, tentatively titled Stranger in the Sukkah. But if only her publicity efforts inspired as many sales as it does envy. Go to her author page on Amazon and you’ll see one question posted: “How much did you pay to rent that giant billboard?” Stacia asked. “Very few first-time novelists have access to that kind of budget. Did you rob a bank or do you have a very ‘supportive’ mate?”

Ellen Umansky is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine.

Ellen Umansky is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine.