|My sister Deborah with guest author Sara Paretsky at fund-raiser in central Illinois|
This spring my sister had an opportunity to meet, in person, Chicago’s Sara Paretsky, creator of the popular W. I. Warshawski novels, in which a feisty female detective (divorced, loves dogs, hates cooking and housework) negotiates the southwest stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline -- urban neighborhoods, scary alleys and industrial settings -- the works! Warshawski takes risks, confronts danger head-on, and brings wrong-doers to justice. It turns out author Paretsky and her husband honeymooned in the Sleeping Bear area (before or after Lakeshore status? I don’t know), and she loves the whole Leelanau/Grand Traverse area. I wonder if she has any idea of the number of fictional murders that take place in these beautiful surroundings.
I asked some Up North murder mystery writers of my acquaintance what drew them to the genre and how they rationalize the high number of local homicides in their novels. The answers were interesting. Here’s how Robert Underhill, author of the new novel Suttons Bay, responded:
I like puzzles. "Who done it" is a puzzle that has to be answered. Our moral code demands an answer where murder is concerned. A reader is easily convinced of this. Why did Jane decide to become a nurse, is an interesting question, but halfway into a book about the subject one may think, "Maybe I don't need to know that much." A mystery novel fan has to know the who, how and why about a murder. As a kid I read Nancy Drew, and then all of Sherlock, then all of the British classics. It was relaxing, non-demanding reading at bedtime after a busy day.
One day I complained to Trudy [his wife] that I couldn't find a good mystery of the puzzle type I enjoy, and she answered, "So, write one yourself." A project suggested itself: I have enjoyed so many pleasurable hours with a good mystery -- why not try to write at least one book that would provide a reader with my taste a "good read"? It would serve as a sort of payback to all those who had put in the time that I'd benefited from. I set out pleased with the project, but with no promise of success. As it has turned out, I had the pleasure of having a number of people approach me to say that I had accomplished my goal. I also found that I really enjoy writing.
Why Leelanau? Most would say that writing about what you know affords the best chance of creating a convincing fictional world. Aside from Leelanau, I've written a novel set in Chicago - with which I am acquainted, one set in Ann Arbor -- ditto -- and my last book took place in Appalachia, where I once lived.
It should be pretty clear to locals and county visitors from the title of Underhill’s new book, Suttons Bay, that it’s set close to the author’s Leelanau County home.
Elizabeth Buzzelli, author of the popular Emily Kincaid series, shared Underhill’s perspective in part and also gave a surprising and striking response to one of my questions. That is, she doesn’t think murder in northern Michigan is all that unlikely or uncommon! Read on, if you dare!
Ah Pamela, murder is not as rare as you might like to think in our pleasant North Country. The problem was, until recently, a distinct lack of law enforcement, or even collusion by law enforcement. Since moving up here I have been treated to story after story of where the bodies are buried, with the miscreants never brought to justice. I have one story -- which I'm considering as background for a future Emily Kincaid book -- about a mother and son who took in indigents during the winter, murdered them, and buried them in their basement. That site is now a paved-over parking lot in Kalkaska. And stories from a retired psychologist . . . well . . . shall we say, murder is no stranger up here. Winters are long and dull, you know. Now, as to how I got involved in murder. My mother was a voracious mystery book reader. Some of that must have rubbed off on me. And then the nature of murder -- since Cain and Abel, a crime inducing the highest horror. The act inspires not only fear, loathing, and reprehension but seems to reach down into that bottom-of-the-soul place where we all fear we might go--given the right circumstances.
Murder is sin at its worst -- where a person's right to continue living is taken away. To solve a murder, to bring a murderer to justice, is to set civilization back up on its feet, to make the world a good place again. What better task for a writer than to set all of humanity to rights? To scare future murderers with apprehension? And to have a heck of a lot of fun undoing dastardly villains.
Anyone who has ever met Buzzelli or heard her talk about her writing knows how much fun she has concocting her stories and punishing the wicked!
Buzzelli’s novels starring Emily Kincaid and sidekick Deputy Dolly all take place in and around Leetsville, a fictional Up North town. Underhill’s, as he points out, range from Leelanau to Ann Arbor, Chicago, and Appalachia. A local newcomer to the lists of northern mystery writers this spring is Berkley Duck of Leland, whose first novel is entitled The Grapevine. Here’s his take on my questions.
I wanted to try my hand at fiction. I picked the crime novel genre because I enjoy it as a consumer and because generating characters and a story line seemed manageable in this format: a crime occurs, the protagonist gets involved (usually bringing some particular expertise to the task), he (or she) gets help from a sidekick of some sort, there may be a police procedural element, etc. All the writer has to do is fill in the details. Murder because you need a crime (obviously), and you need a crime that, presented properly, causes the reader to catch his or her breath: “Wow! I wasn’t expecting that! What just happened? I liked that character.” And so he or she reads on. Murder resonates with everyone.
The Grapevine is not set in Northern Michigan (although the principal characters find themselves there eventually). Most of the action takes place in a large, unnamed city in the Midwest, a setting dictated in part by the plot but also one with which I was familiar having lived and worked in Indianapolis. Readers like to identify with the story locale, and verisimilitude is important. I have been told by readers of The Grapevine that they recognized places in which the action takes place even though I made them up.
I intend to write another crime novel, and one in which more of the action takes place in northern Michigan. Murder? Of course!
So there you have it, from the horses’ mouths: crime, puzzles, characters, setting, justice.
How does the apparent embezzlement problem in a community symphony organization take a turn toward murder? Why would anyone take a shot at Deputy Dolly’s car while she is visiting an old grave at the Leetsville Cemetery? And what if a psychiatrist, listening to a patient’s description of how he would kill another person, takes as fantasy what is actually a plan? For answers to these questions – and all the others that will occur to you as you turn the pages of these mystery novels – read The Grapevine, by Berkley Duck; Dead Little Dolly, by Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli; and Suttons Bay, by Robert Underhill. All are at Dog Ears Books now, and very soon we will also have for you Aaron Stander’s latest Ray Elkins mystery, Death in a Summer Colony.
Hot Date: A book signing and reception for and with Robert Underhill and his latest mystery novel, Suttons Bay, will be held at Dog Ears Books on Sunday, June 23, from 3 to 5 p.m. Please do not be confused: the book title is Suttons Bay, but the signing will take place at my bookstore in Northport!