Joan Hess was born Joan Edmiston on January 6, 1949, in Fayetteville, Arkansas, the daughter of Jack D. Edmiston, a grocer, and Helen Tidwell Edmiston, a building contractor. She received a bachelor’s degree in art from the University of Alabama in 1971 and a master’s degree in education in 1974 from Long Island University. She returned to Fayetteville, married Jeremy Hess in 1973, and was divorced in 1986. She is the mother of two children. Hess was teaching preschool art and raising her children when she and a friend began to write romances, hoping to make money. The romances were not published, but Hess learned that she enjoyed the creative process. At her agent’s insistence, she turned to mysteries, which she had been reading since childhood.
Hess wrote Strangled Prose (1986), her first Claire Malloy novel, very quickly. Her agent was nervous that too many novels, published too quickly, would hurt sales, so she published her two Theodore Bloomer novels under the name Joan Hadley. Returning to her own name, she began the Hanks series.
Besides her mysteries, Hess has written two young-adult novels, Future Tense (1987) and Red Rover, Red Rover (1988). She has contributed columns, articles, and stories to Mystery Scene, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and Clues. Her short stories have appeared in a number of anthologies including Malice Domestic, Sisters in Crime, and Cat Crimes, and she has edited a number of collections, including Funny Bones (1997), The Year’s Twenty-five Finest Crime and Mystery Stories: Sixth Annual Edition with Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg (1997; reprinted 1999 as Crime After Crime), and Malice Domestic 9 (2000). In 1995, she published To Kill a Husband: A Mystery Jigsaw Puzzle Thriller; the reader is instructed to read the book and then to assemble the thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle to discover the mystery’s solution.
Strangled Prose was nominated for an Anthony Award and was selected best first novel in a poll of Drood Review readers. Mischief in Maggody (1988) was nominated for an Agatha Award. A Diet to Die For won the American Mystery Award for best traditional novel of 1989. In 1993, O Little Town of Maggody was nominated for both Agatha and Anthony awards. Her short story, “Too Much to Bare,” received both Agatha and McCavity awards in 1991; “The Last to Know,” was nominated for both awards in 1993. In 1995, Miracles in Maggody was nominated for the Agatha Award.