Kate Flora here, posing a challenge to my fellow Maine Crime Writers. From time to time, we write about our books, our characters, the stories we’re developing, and the research that we do, but I’ve been thinking that it would be nice, for our regular readers, to take a moment, step back, and introduce them to our series protagonist(s). Since I’m working on a new Thea Kozak mystery right now, I’m going to take a break from Joe Burgess, and talk a little bit about Thea. Here’s what I’ve written about her:
Thea Kozak is a woman in her thirties who has been described as a “tough, yet vulnerable modern heroine.” Her job as a consultant to private schools sends her to schools across the country, and even to international locations, as she advises headmasters and trustees on everything from how to attract the most desirable pool of applicants to what to do when a student who drowns in a campus pool turns out to have been pregnant. Along the way, she lives a realistically complicated life, balancing all the things a real-world professional woman must balance: a demanding workload, a sometimes impossible schedule, complicated co-workers, a difficult family, a relationship with a loving but sometimes overprotective guy who wants her to have his babies, her own ticking biological clock, and an ingrained sense of duty and a need to set things right.
To survive her complicated life, Thea brings a strong, ironic sense of humor, a stubborn refusal to back down without asking hard questions, an unrelenting work ethic, a first-born child’s innate need to be the big kid and the fixer, and a panoply of equally complicated and interesting friends. She also has a zest for life and romance, and driving sense of honor and loyalty, and an old-fashioned desire to do good in the world by helping the helpless and writing wrongs, a character flaw which sometimes allows her to be drawn into places where a more cautious, self-protective woman would not venture. Headstrong, self-assured, and slightly braver than the rest of us, she solves her problems without batting her eyes and turning into a damsel in distress, but she still knows how to be tender.
Someone once asked me if Thea was me. She’s not, but I always wanted a daughter, and I expect that if I’d had one, she’d be like Thea, and make me very proud while causing all sorts of grief and worry.
What about the rest of you?
Kaitlyn Dunnett: My protagonist is Liss MacCrimmon, a former professional Scottish dancer (think Riverdance only Scottish) who blew her knee out during a performance and has, in Kilt Dead, returned to her home town, Moosetookalook, Maine, to finish healing and decide what to do with the rest of her life. She takes over her aunt’s store, Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium while Aunt Margaret makes a trip to Scotland and, since this is a cozy mystery, promptly discovers a body in the stock room.
Liss doesn’t set out to solve crimes. In fact, she does her darndest to avoid getting involved in the investigations, but there is always some pressing reason why she can’t just step aside and let the police handle everything. In the first book, she’s the prime suspect and feels she has to find the real killer before the gung ho state trooper in charge decides to arrest her. In one of the later books, The Corpse Wore Tartan, victim, killer, and lots of suspects are all stranded in a hotel during a blizzard and if some lines of inquiry aren’t followed right away, they may be lost.
Every amateur detective needs a character flaw, and for Liss it’s impulsiveness. This frequently leads her into trouble, and sometimes pushes her close to the dangerous territory of a heroine who is TSTL (too stupid too live). She’s all too aware of this. After all, she’s a mystery reader herself, which is why it was great fun to take her to a small mystery fan convention in Scotched. And of course, Liss has the requisite love interests in a story arc that runs through several books. If you’re a hard-boiled detective fan, Liss’s adventures aren’t for you, but I hope I’ve created her with enough interesting facets to allow her to go on solving small town crimes for a few more years.
Lea Wait: Maggie Summer is my protagonist in the Shadows Antique Print mysteries, and, of course, Maggie’s an antique print dealer. But, since it’s hard to make a living in the antique business, Maggie also has her doctorate and is a professor who teaches American Civilization at Somerset County Community College in New Jersey. Maggie is street smart as well as book smart, loves history and art, can sometimes find hints to the solutions of crimes within her prints, is addicted to diet cola, and is especially sympathetic to young people caught in difficult circumstances. She seldom asks for help, even when she should. Since she’s an antique dealer she’s often on the road: Shadows at the Fair (in which she meets Will Brewer, her fellow antique dealer and significant other) is set in New York State, Shadows on the Ivy and Shadows at the Spring Show are in New Jersey, Shadows on the Coast of Maine and Shadows of a Down East Summer are in Maine, where Will has ties, and the next book in the series will be set on Cape Cod.
When the series started Maggie was 38, and a new widow, busy and successful in both her careers, but one of those women who had “forgotten to have children.” As she reassesses her life, she realizes that working with young people at the college is not enough; that she wants to be a mother. Although she and Will become close, their future together is uncertain because Will has no interest in becoming a father. Maggie wants it all. Two careers, a man in her life, a child – and, oh, yes: when someone is in trouble she wants to be able to drop everything to solve a murder which might affect someone she knows. Five books into the series Maggie is just beginning to understand that perhaps she can’t have everything, and that being quite so self-sufficient can create problems in her personal life. But she has trouble trusting – especially trusting men – and so far she’s still charging ahead, making decisions on her own, no matter what the consequences to anyone else in her life.
Barb Ross: The main character in The Death of an Ambitious Woman is Acting Police Chief Ruth Murphy. She’s in her forties, happily married, a mother. She’s extremely self-contained, a natural part of her personality as a “parentified” child (i.e. from a very young age the most responsible person in the household she grew up in) and reinforced during the early years of her career when she was a token woman on a big city police force. Now that she’s a chief, she’s even more isolated, no longer a part of the camaraderie she had with her former partner and colleagues. Of course, her personality poses a writing problem, since she often doesn’t appear to react emotionally to situations, but just because she doesn’t show her feelings doesn’t mean she doesn’t feel them.
Julia Snowden, the protagonist in my new Maine Clambake Mystery series is just turned thirty, a person still figuring out who she is and what she wants in life. She’s the youngest protagonist I’ve written, except in short stories, and sometimes I struggle to make her not act and sound too mature. Like most (all?) people, she has a view of herself in the world that is not entirely accurate, or how other people view her. I’m enjoying writing this younger heroine, who is about my children’s age.
Paul Doiron: I write about a Maine game warden named Mike Bowditch, who is twenty-four years old when we meet him in The Poacher’s Son; twenty-five in the sequel, Trespasser; and twenty-six in my forthcoming novel Bad Little Falls (which will be published on August 7 by Minotaur Books). I had originally planned on continuing this sequence with Mike being a year older in each subsequent book, but it’s begun to feel like an unnecessary constraint on the stories I can tell.
When I was writing The Poacher’s Son, I found myself preoccupied by the question of how a person becomes a hero. I remember a few kids from my childhood who were naturally brave and virtuous, but most of us aren’t born that way. We’re timid and reckless and self-absorbed as children, but if we’re lucky enough to have good role models and work hard on overcoming our flaws, we turn into functioning adults. A few people even become bona fide heroes.
Mike Bowditch is no hero when we meet him: He is impetuous, self-destructive, incapable of intimacy, and tormented by memories of his bullying and emotionally distant father. But he is physically courageous, highly intelligent, observant of the world around him (especially the natural world), and he has a good heart. Most importantly, Mike understands how screwed-up he is, and the thing he wants most out of life is to be a better man. I get letters from readers who are frustrated by the many mistakes Mike makes (one Amazon reviewer memorably expounded on the multitudinous ways in which he considered my rookie warden to be a loser). But I also get emails from readers who tell me how real Mike feels as a character because of his flaws.
As an author, I have to trust that readers will stick around long enough to see Mike making progress from book to book. I try to drop a few clues along the way to show the method behind my madness. I won’t say that Mike Bowditch doesn’t wander into trouble again in Bad Little Falls, but I will say that his mistakes are more personal this time around than professional.
Still, I expect to get a few letters from readers who want to smack him upside the head.
Vicki Doudera: Darby Farr, a Japanese-American Realtor from the tiny island of Hurricane Harbor, Maine, is the protagonist of my mystery series, the latest of which is Deadly Offer.
Darby is smart, athletic, and in her late 20’s when she debuts in A House to Die For. She’s never quite gotten over the death of her parents in a sailing accident that happened off the coast when she was a teen, and in the second book, Killer Listing, she learns there was even more to her parents’ past then she ever realized. In each mystery (there will be at least five) she is not only solving several murders, but also closing real estate deals and grappling with this family history backstory.
What I like best about Darby is her resourcefulness and sense of ethics. She is brave when faced with danger, but not foolhardy, and has a good handle on her own limitations. Even though she is an Aikido expert, she knows that sometimes it is better to get the heck out of there and run. Where she falls short is when it comes to issues of trust. She’s been very much a loner out of necessity, but as the series goes on, she’s beginning to count on others. She’s growing up!
McMorrow is an old friend, 10 books worth. I first met him in the newsroom in Androscoggin, Maine (DEADLINE 1993), where the former New York Times reporter had landed after a dust up in Manhattan. A fortuitous fall from grace for me because I was soon sending McMorrow all over Maine, reporting on stories, getting into all kinds of trouble.
Jack is the quintessential reporter on steroids. He doesn’t stop digging until he’s unearthed the truth, way beyond what will ever appear in print. He’s dogged, tough, reckless (especially in the early books), and a defender of the downtrodden, the underdog, the bullied. He questions authority, then smacks it upside the head (as they say in Maine). Jack’s also funny, with a wisecracking sense of humor that has cost him over the years. I very much enjoy his company.
Three years ago I introduced my second series hero, a Portland, Maine, boat bum named Brandon Blake. Blake is a young guy who carries baggage way beyond his years. An only child, he was orphaned when he was 3 when his mother was lost in the sinking of a sailboat off the coast of North Carolina. Brandon was raised on the shore of Portland harbor, homeschooled by his alcoholic grandmother. Alone most of the time, he immersed himself in books and boats. And in his search for structure and order, he decided he’d like to be a cop. Work in a world where there are hard and fast rules. You break the law, I catch you. I catch you and you are punished.
Of course law enforcement isn’t quite that simple. Hired on at Portland P.D. after he took on a cop killer (PORT CITY SHAKEDOWN), Blake is learning the ropes on the meaner streets of Portland (and yes, there are some). His mentors are working with him as makes his way as a rookie patrolman (PORT CITY BLACK AND WHITE), and is tested by friend and foe alike.
James Hayman: Like me, Detective Mike McCabe is a native New Yorker and a bit of a fish out of water anywhere in Maine except for the streets of Portland. Still it doesn’t stop him from going after the bad guys. Tracking a killer through the darkness of the Maine woods in The Cutting, McCabe hears something crashing through the underbrush. It was ” a mostly quiet night An owl hooted. Something bigger crashed through the woods. A deer? McCabe wasn’t sure if deer crashed around in the middle of the night. Maybe a bear? He didn’t know much about their habits either. A city kid, he’d rather chase bad guys through Manhattan alleyways anytime than through these woods.”
In The Chill of Night, McCabe, wearing tassled loafers on his feet instead of sturdy waterproof boots, finds himself walking through deep snow, behind a uniformed cop he’s reprimanded for incompetence. They’re heading toward a suspect’s cottage. “He felt wet snow slipping into his shoes. Within seconds his socks and feet were soaked. There was no way he was going to complain about it He’d sooner get frostbite, even lose a toe or two , than give an a****hole like Bowman the satisfaction of hearing him whine…McCabe slipped a couple of times and landed on his ass once. He got up and kept going.”
What keeps McCabe going is his determination to do his job and do it right. McCabe is a cop through and through. Once, in The Cutting, when he’s depressed about not making enough money to save for his daughter Casey’s college education, he thinks about resigning from the Department to get a better paying job. “Snap out of it, he told himself, Suck it up and deal. He was still a cop. It was a calling McCabe believed in. Go out on the streets and get the bad guys, as many as you could. Then put them away for as long as you could. Simple and honorable. He liked it that way. It was why he dropped out of film school, why he gave up his dream of someday being a (movie) director for the simpler dream of being a cop”
There’s a lot of me in McCabe. We’re both New Yorkers. We both love good Scotch whiskey, old movie trivia and the New York Giants. And we both live with and love women who are talented artists.
There are also quite a few differences. McCabe’s a lot braver than me. He’s a better shot. He likes boxing. He doesn’t throw up at autopsies. And he’s far more likely to take risks. McCabe’s favorite Portland bar, Tallulah’s, is, sadly, a figment of my imagination. My favorite Portland bars are all very real.
Sarah Graves: The “Home Repair is Homicide” series stars Jacobia “Jake” Tiptree, an ex-money manager whose Manhattan clients were all so evil, their limousines should’ve been flying the Jolly Roger. She left the big city to fix up an old house in Eastport, Maine, but now finds herself regularly distracted by another hobby: snooping into murders. Jake tries very hard to be a nice, sensible person, but her mother was murdered when she was three, her dad fled after being accused of the crime, and she was taken in by a passel of rural relatives who had all the calm, benevolent parenting abilities of a sackful of feral cats. After running away from home, she basically raised herself on the streets of lower Manhattan, and topped all that off by marrying Victor, a brain surgeon whose idea of monagamy was serial monagamy. Now he’s dead, but that doesn’t stop him from showing up every so often since heaven forbid he shouldn’t get to go on telling everyone what to do and how to do it.
On the plus side, Jake has acquired a new, much better (!) husband, and her son Sam is finally sober (for now). Her best friend Ellie White is the kind of nice normal woman Jake aspires to be, but with a heart of pure don’t-mess-with-me. She’s surrounded by downeast Mainers even quirkier than she is, and — possibly as a result — over the years, Jake has mellowed.
Well, sort of.