Incredibly excited to have Laura Lascarso (whose When Everything is Blue was fantastic) with an exclusive guest post and excerpt from her new mystery book, In the Pines. I seriously can’t wait to read this one!
When your high school crush is also your number one suspect, what’s a boy to do?
After the disappearance of Eastview High’s homecoming king, seventeen-year-old Charlie Schiffer must put his detective skills to work to help class heartthrob Dare Chalmers find his missing twin brother. From the gator-filled swamps of Paynes Prairie to the truck-stop strip club Café Risqué, there’s no situation too dicey for this amateur sleuth when he’s on the prowl for clues to this mystery.
Meanwhile, Dare is everything Charlie could want in a boyfriend—charismatic, handsome, polite—but as Charlie’s mother always says, the unlikeliest people can turn out to be criminals. When evidence surfaces revealing his suspects’ hidden motives, Charlie must dig deep to suss out who among them is innocent and who is guilty, even if it means betraying the man he cares for most.
What are the key ingredients to a small-town murder mystery?
This is the question I asked myself at the outset of writing In the Pines, my newest M/M romance-slash-mystery novel. For me, I grew up reading Agatha Christie and Nancy Drew novels and watching Twin Peaks as an adolescent. I was obsessed with that show at the time it aired, and it was only in watching it as an adult that I realized how truly weird it was. (Also, my name is Laura and the murder victim’s name was Laura Palmer, which always kind of freaked me out but was also kind of cool.)
Through consuming my fair share of mysteries over the years, and trying my hand at writing one, there are a few elements that I’ve identified as key ingredients to pulling off a small-town murder mystery.
They are setting, senses, sidekick, and suspicion.
Setting is so critical to a small-town mystery, whether it be murder or something else. The author needs to know this town like the back of her hand—where the good restaurants are, who in town knows the gossip, where do the kids go to make-out. If your detective isn’t from your small town, then you’ve got to bring in a local yocal to give your story some character and flair. My story is set in Gainesville, Florida, so naturally I included a swamp, a strip club and a few raving environmentalists (my MC Charlie being one of them). These are all elements which you will most certainly find in and around Gainesville if you’re there for very long, and I tried to make them not just window dressing, but integral pieces to the plot.
Senses—all five of them must be present. One of the best things about reading mystery and suspense is the not knowing what’s just around the corner. To build suspense, the mystery writer has to really dial in on those key details—strange smells, creepy sounds, the curtain fluttering in the breeze. Every good detective is an observer at heart and the reader wants to know what our sleuth is sensing. My guy Charlie may not be the most friendly or outgoing, but he knows how to use all five of his senses to figure out what the heck is going on.
Sidekick. What’s a good mystery without one? In the case of In the Pines, Charlie has two—a sassy cheerleader named Tameka and his best friend of the canine-persuasion, Boots. The sidekick’s role can be adversarial or ally or both. In the case of Tameka, she serves as Charlie’s sounding board and has access to the gossip and rumors he does not. She also has the clarity of mind to remind Charlie when he’s letting his feelings get in the way of their investigation. Doh, Charlie!
Suspicion. Why, in mysteries, is everyone acting so shady all the time? Because people lie, in fiction and in real life. One of the most enjoyable aspects of writing In the Pines, was getting all of the characters to lie about something, even if it was small and seemingly inconsequential. Flawed characters are my favorite, and this story gave me an opportunity to give everyone a dark side.
And that’s what I’ve learned from writing about murder in a small town. I’ve included an excerpt below from In the Pines, where Charlie first meets Tameka. I wanted her to make an impression on both him and the reader. Hopefully she does. If you like it, I encourage you to check out more.
We assembled at the southernmost point of Newnans Lake, where Hawthorne Road met with 2082, just south of Kate’s Fish Camp. It was just before dawn as people shuffled out of their cars and trucks; several others biked there as well on the Hawthorne bike trail. Cups of coffee were distributed as folks mumbled greetings to each other in the violet wash of predawn. We watched the sun rise over the marsh like blood seeping from a wound and woke a flock of red-winged blackbirds that zigzagged away, chattering their complaints at the sky. If it weren’t for the somber mood, you’d almost think we’d gathered there for an early morning hike.
I thought we’d comb the swamps between 441 and I-75—the two most likely routes out of town—but Mom said this was where they’d determined the cell phone last communicated with the tower before the battery was removed or the phone died.
GPD told us we were looking for Mason’s phone; they probably didn’t want to say we were also potentially searching for a body.
Rangers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission passed out waders and snake boots for members of the search parties, but there were only enough for a fraction of the people who’d come out to help, especially since most of the upperclassmen of Eastview High were there. For those of us who didn’t have protection, FWC suggested we grab a big stick and knock the ground every couple of steps to “scare off the critters.” The word critters made it sound like soft, furry mammals, not venomous snakes or twenty-foot alligators with bone-crushing jaws. Literally half a gator’s length was its mouth.
My mother was with the operations unit, poring over aerial maps on a foldout table, so I joined the nearest group of classmates to form a search party. While we waited for supplies and further instruction from GPD, I overheard two girls talking about Mason’s disappearance.
“Bet he ran off with that stripper from Café Risqué,” one said. I recognized her as Tameka Thomas, a cheerleader from Daniela’s squad.
“Is that what the fight on Friday was about?” said the other girl. My ears perked up at the mention of a fight. According to my mom, Daniela claimed she hadn’t seen Mason since the pep rally, and she certainly didn’t mention an argument between them.
“Mmm-hmm,” Tameka continued. “Mason’s fine as hell, but you know he’s not faithful. Daniela just doesn’t know how to handle him. I’d keep that boy sat-is-fied.” Tameka made a slapping gesture and ground her hips in a motion that made my eyes go wide. The girls at my high school were more sex-crazed than the boys.
“When was the fight?” I asked the girls. They both turned my way and studied me like I was a bug and they were deciding whether to ignore me or squash me.
“Well, if it isn’t old Dick Tracy,” Tameka sneered. My SAT sting had burned a couple of the cheerleaders. They called me Dick for a while whenever they caught me in the halls. Hey, Dick. How’s it going, Dick? Screwed anyone over lately, Dick? One time a whole hive of them swarmed me outside the gymnasium. It was pretty terrifying. “Are you on the case then, Dick?” Tameka asked, hands on her hips, coppery brown eyes studying me acutely.
“If the fight really happened, it could help with the investigation,” I offered as my defense for being nosy. “I just want to help Dare find his brother.”
Tameka pursed her lips and glanced over at her friend, who only shrugged. “Well, not that it’s any of your business, but I saw them fighting outside the wrestling room after cheer practice. I didn’t hear what they were saying because I don’t put my nose where it doesn’t belong, like some people.”
I sincerely doubted that, but instead of arguing with her, I only sighed and waited for her to get in her digs.
“But, then again, a girl’s response to finding out her man’s been cheating is pretty universal, so if I had to take a guess….” Here Tameka paused for effect, curling her upper lip a little and bobbing her head. “I’d guess she was giving him the business for messing around.”
“What does that look like?” I needed more detail.
Tameka smiled at her friend. “Like this.” She stalked up to me and shoved me back by my shoulders so I stumbled a little. Then she stuck her index finger right up in my face and pointed at me accusingly. “You good-for-nothing, lying, cheating dog. You think I’m stupid? Do you think I’m stupid? I saw that text in your phone. I know you were with someone else last night. Who was she? Who the hell was she? Oh no, son, don’t you come at me now acting like you looooove me. You don’t love me. You love yourself, you selfish sonovabitch. I hope you get a disease from that ho Now, get out of my face before I beat you senseless, boy. I can’t even stand to look at you.”
She stuck her flattened palm in my face, spun on her heels, and walked back over to her friend.
“Wow,” I said, reeling from her very visceral performance. My heart was racing and my palms were sweating. “End scene. That was brilliant.” Where had I picked up that expression? Probably the drama department.
“Yeah.” She brushed her manicured nails against her shirt and blew on their tips. They were painted alternating green and white, our school colors, just like Daniela’s. I remembered the jacket Daniela was wearing during the pep rally—Mason’s letterman jacket.
“Was Daniela still wearing Mason’s jacket?” I asked Tameka.
She shook her head. “She took it off and shoved it at him, even though it was cold that day. That’s how I knew she was pissed. She loves that damn jacket.”
It was true. Now that Tameka mentioned it, I rarely saw Daniela without Mason’s jacket, even on warm days. It was like the skin from her kill—proof to all her rivals that Mason Chalmers had been claimed.
At that moment a sheriff’s deputy approached us and gave us all blue nurse’s gloves and several two-gallon Ziploc bags. “If you find anything—and I mean anything—put it in a bag, seal it, and radio in.” He glanced at the lot of us, seemed to have misgivings, and then shoved the walkie-talkie at me. “You’re the group leader,” he said.
I could tell from Tameka’s expression, she didn’t like that. “Because he’s a boy?” she asked, shoulders squared, head tilted like a parrot. I felt the need to correct her that I was a man, not a boy, but I didn’t wish to feed her ire. The deputy looked caught—he wasn’t much older than us. Likely this was his first experience with organizing a search party.
“No, it’s just because—” he started to say.
“You can be leader.” I cut him off and gave Tameka the radio. “You’ve got the biggest mouth anyway.”
Her eyes went wide and her mouth opened a little like she was about to retort. Then she smiled. “All right then, Dick. As team leader, I’m making you the gator getter. You walk ahead with that big stick of yours and scare off the critters.”
I chuckled at her impersonation of the ranger. “My name’s Charlie, by the way.”
She smirked and shoved my shoulder playfully. “Yeah, I know, but you look more like a Dick to me.”