By Susan McBride
Laura Belgrave quietly slipped onto the mystery scene with her debut, IN THE SPIRIT OF MURDER, set in her own backyard of Central Florida in a small town called Indian Run. Her detective protagonist, Claudia Hershey, is a former police officer from Ohio who moved down to the Southeast to better raise her teenaged daughter in a climate that attracted fewer crimes than mosquitoes. When I read the book, I was impressed by Belgrave’s strong sense of character and setting, not to mention a style that was both fluid and sharp. QUIETLY DEAD, the recently released second in the series from Silver Dagger, again features Detective Hershey and a cast of quirky characters, including the local "cat lady" found dead in her bathtub.
Being a bit of a one-woman cat rescue society myself, I wondered what led Belgrave to include such a character in her book.
Laura Belgrave: For whatever reasons, I'd been thinking about the "invisible" people in our neighborhoods and on our city streets. You know who I'm talking about. They're the ones who have obviously fallen on hard times, like the guy at a busy intersection holding up a "Will Work For Food" sign, or the luckless old woman walking down a street, waving her arms and talking to herself. And then I had an image of the proverbial cat woman. We've all seen her. She's the 90-second film clip on the six o'clock news, the perplexed woman who doesn't understand when the animal control people swoop in and take away her thirty-some cats. Well, I wondered: Where'd she come from? What might she have to say if anyone listened anymore? What secrets could she tell? Would anyone care if she died? Would anyone even notice?
(Incidentally, I consulted my own two cats on this. They ignored me totally, too busy grooming Fancy Feast from their chins to give a doodley.)
don't want to leave you with the impression that QUIETLY DEAD is some
kind of morality story. It's not. I'm not that kind of writer. But the
thing is, mysteries often tend to focus either on people with celebrity
or high-profile status, or on lowbrow criminals like prostitutes or drug
dealers. There are shadow people out there who don't fall into either
category, though. They have stories. I wanted to tell one.
SM: Claudia Hershey is a police detective and a single mom who seems to be struggling a bit more with what she wants for herself personally in QUIETLY DEAD. How did you want her to grow and/or change, if at all, in this book?
I can't say I dwell on how to make characters grow or change. It just
happens in the same way it happens to real people. Events affect us. The
passage of time affects us. The cumulative effect has an impact, sometimes
dramatic and sometimes not. Also, as you pointed out, Claudia Hershey
is both a cop and a parent, not to mention someone who'd like to find
the right relationship. All those things would likely involve mini dramas
in the life of a real person. They'd have the same effect on Claudia.
SM: What's the most fun about having a protagonist like Claudia?
I sit behind a keyboard most of the time. What fun is that? But Claudia…now
there's a woman who truly gets to seize the day, and every time she does
I enjoy a vicarious little thrill.
SM: Tell me what kind of emotional rollercoaster it was like to have QUIETLY DEAD come out after IN THE SPIRIT OF MURDER had earned such good reviews? Was it even scarier than the first time around?
I don't think it's been scarier, but
that might be because I'm so accustomed to holding my breath during every
stage of the process that my skin has turned permanently blue.
SM: What do you like about setting your series in a small Central Florida town where wacky characters seem to be a staple?
There are a lot of truly fine Florida
writers. Most of them concentrate on the glitzy coastal areas. I've lived
in Florida for more than twenty-five years and what fascinates me is "the
other Florida," the parts of the state that are all about cows and corn,
and precious little about beaches or tourism. I don't know that people
are wackier there than in the more popularized image of Florida, but I
do think their interests and values and way of life open a door to storytelling
that's not been overly done yet.
SM: How do you research your police procedure to make sure what you're writing is as accurate as possible?
Naturally, I do the same kind of book
and online research that any writer does to get details correct, but I
also consult with law enforcement officials and forensics people who can
give me insights that might not be sufficient in written material alone.
And of course, police procedure is only a small part of the research that's
required. My characters tend to get involved in things I've never done.
It all takes some digging. Eventually, it also takes some discarding,
because no way can a writer ever include as much information in a book
that winds up on notepaper during the research process.
SM: Are you working on Book #3? Can you tell us anything about it?
LB: It's pretty early on--actually, VERY early on -- but it just may be that Claudia will have her hands full settling a dispute in a gated community, which in the last twenty years or so has become a hugely popular residential lifestyle altogether. In fact, in Florida it's almost hard NOT to live in a gated community. I do now, and I can't say I'm much of a fan.
also toying with a thriller, which wouldn’t be a Claudia Hershey book
and would likely not come out for some time.
SM: Do you have any authors you like to read who inspire you?
I don't know that I could ever pin down
any one author as being more inspiring or influential than another. Really,
my reading tastes tend to move across the board. In mysteries, I like
everything from hard-boiled stuff to contemporary cozies. One day I might
be reading John Sanford, Nevada Barr, Janet Evanovich, Barbara D'Amato,
or discovering a new-to-me writer like Eric Wright. But the next day I'll
likely be turning my attention to another genre or mainstream, and staying
up late with Stephen King or Amy Tan or Anne Tyler. Go figure. They all
inspire me in different ways, and maybe in a cumulative kind of way.
SM: What gives you the greatest joy in being an author? What part is most difficult?
The best part of being an author is the
writing process. It's magical. The toughest part? Taking the final product
public: marketing, distribution, author events. It just seems there's
so much to do well after the book itself is finished.
SM: What would you tell an aspiring novelist about this business that you wish you'd known?
LB: You will read your own book so many times before it's actually released that by the time it IS released you won't be able to sit down and read it for pleasure. You will also no longer have any sense of whether it's good or not.
all the while you're pondering those terrible truths. You'll be fretting
over how best to let the world know that the book you can't bring yourself
to read again is something they absolutely DO want to read. But that's
all right because guess what? Something else will be happening, too. Against
your better judgment, against all reason, you'll be starting to feel that
pull -- that compulsion to tell another story, to put words on paper,
to write yet another book. No point in resisting. You're a writer. You
SM: How can readers reach you?
LB: I'm on e-mail with regularity. Just tap onto firstname.lastname@example.org. I also spent a lot of time putting together my web site, so PLEASE do visit. It's at http://www.mysteryorbit.com. Beyond that, I have one of those walk-around faces that looks like it belongs to someone you know. So tap me on the shoulder if you think you see me. If it's me, I'll be happy to make your acquaintance. If it's someone else who just looks like me, hey, maybe you'll make a new friend. You might even get an idea for a mystery of your own!
When Detective Claudia Hershey moved herself and her daughter from Cleveland two years earlier to settle in tiny Indian Run, Florida (population: 8,000), she never imagined she'd find anything but a nice, quiet place in which to raise her daughter. But any sense of peace is shattered when a woman is found dead in her trailer under suspicious circumstances. Wanda Farr, know around town as "the cat lady," apparently drowned in her bathtub, and the chief wants to leave it at that. But Claudia isn't one to let things lie, not when doubts are niggling at her. When shortly after, the body of a man turns up floating in No Name Pond, she doesn't figure they're related until she starts digging and turns up more than she bargained for.
Laura Belgrave is a wonderful writer. Her prose is taut and effective, giving the reader a clear view of Claudia Hershey and the difficult balance of her life as a single mother and the only detective on Indian Run's police force. While the solution to a large part of the puzzle smacked me in the face by mid-book, it didn't stop my enjoyment of QUIETLY DEAD or my desire to figure out the rest of the solution to this very engaging mystery.