One night during my career as a police officer, a man with a grudge invaded a woman’s home bent on punishing her for a transgression that occurred more than five years earlier. Her fiancé escaped and alerted police. SWAT officers surrounded the house. Hostage negotiators manned the phone. The call went straight to the woman’s answering machine and the message echoed throughout the house. The suspect never picked up the phone, instead he reached for his shotgun and with a single blast, killed himself and the woman.
I was one of the negotiators.
Policing offers a master’s course in humanity. Over the course of my twenty-two-year career, I witnessed horrors and heroism. It made a profound impression on me and I started writing.
I believe crime fiction is ultimately about redemption, which to attain requires unflinching emotional honesty. I naively expected the transition from cop to writer to be fairly straightforward. But police reports are a recitation of facts while the incidents they describe are populated with people who bleed, and suffer, and sometimes die. As a rookie author, I wanted to exert a level of control over my stories that was impossible to achieve in policing. I relied on what I knew, but sidestepped the muddled emotions I was afraid to confront.
My first two attempts at crafting a police procedural resulted in manuscripts that read more like textbooks than mysteries. Undaunted, I began dissecting books by authors I admired, sussing out the authorial tricks they’d used to breathe life into their prose, and contrasted that against what had killed my own. Then, I did the unthinkable. I created an amateur sleuth.
My debut novel earned an Agatha Award nomination for Best First Novel. Along the way, I learned I had to let my knowledge of law enforcement inform my writing, not overwhelm it. It took two books before I gained the courage to return to my police roots. That book is Shadow Ridge.
Detective Jo Wyatt inhabits a world I know: life is messy, plans sometimes fail, and cops don’t always know the answers. She’s a conscientious officer with ambition. Her foil is Quinn Kirkwood, a female gamer with personal baggage and big problems. I stumbled across this aspect of the story after reading an article describing the misogynistic subculture that thinks nothing of waging terror campaigns against women who embrace video gaming. Quinn finds herself in those crosshairs, but how she arrived there is murky.
Alice Walsenberg is a grieving mother and philanthropist who’s married to the District Attorney. Together, Jo, Quinn, and Alice comprise a triumvirate of driven, intelligent, and flawed women.
Decades later, the woman I couldn’t save occasionally still whispers in my ear. I imagine she exhorts me to be better. Justice is a nebulous concept. It can’t bring a person back, and even when it prevails—as it does in Shadow Ridge—it doesn’t guarantee redemption. Those are the emotional truths crime fiction demands. It too, is non-negotiable.
~Originally published in the Winter 2020 edition of Mystery Scene Magazine.