KRISTEN LEPIONKA is the author of the recently published mystery novel The Last Place You Look, one of the most assured debuts I have ever read. The first in a series featuring Ohio-based PI Roxane Weary, TLPYL has across-the-board appeal — it’s literary small-town crime fiction with strong procedural and psychological components and a hint of noir, but where it really shines is character, and Roxane Weary is definitely one to watch. In her first case since the on-duty death of her lionized cop father, a man with whom she had a particularly complicated relationship, Roxane investigates the cold case disappearance of Sarah Cook, a teenaged girl whose parents were murdered the night she vanished. Her boyfriend Brad was convicted of the crime and has been on death row for 15 years, and his execution is weeks away when Brad’s sister sees a woman she is certain is Sarah and hires Roxane to track her down, find out what happened that night, and clear her brother’s name. Racing against the clock and reckless with anger, grief, and lots of booze, Roxane throws herself into the case, but when she discovers connections between Sarah’s disappearance and one of her father’s cold cases, Brad isn’t the only one whose life is at risk.
Here, we talk about character names, gender and sexuality, and Zombeavers.
KAREN BRISSETTE: I’ve always thought that mysteries would be the most challenging genre for a writer, particularly for a first-timer. There are so many ways it can go lopsided — either as a strong mystery with wooden, serviceable characters, or the reverse — well-defined characters populating a clichéd or transparent mystery, to say nothing of the difficulty of maintaining suspense or coming up with an original puzzle whose solution is neither predictable nor illogical. Yours is very well balanced. Were there any particular aspects you found more demanding or pleasurable to write?
KRISTEN LEPIONKA: Character and backstory are very pleasurable for me. Clue-dropping and pacing — so that reveals take place at just the right moment — are the most challenging for me. It’s almost another layer to the story, because as a writer I’m inviting readers on this journey to solve the mystery alongside the detective, so it’s important to leave clues along the way to make sure the reader doesn’t figure it out too soon and then has to spend 150 pages feeling bored, or, to lay the clues too late, where the reader gets to the last five pages and the big reveal is something that nobody could have figured out along the way.
Do you have a preference when reading toward characterization or story?
I think I favor characterization over plot, just because a story with strong characters is more likely to pull me in than a strong mystery with weak characters. Not that either one is more or less important. But I can get lost in a character’s head even if the story itself is not as compelling — but if the characters are not compelling, I likely won’t be able to get into it at all.
How long has this novel been in the making?
As far as novels go, this one is kind of a baby. I began the first draft in November 2014, completed it six months later, and about six months after that it found a home with Minotaur Books.
Lately, it seems like all the books I enjoy are coming out of Ohio. Is there something in the water there making so many excellent writers? Are you a part of any local writer communities?
Ohio is a pretty fertile ground for writers (James Renner and Dan Chaon come to mind), I think, because the Midwest has intermittent culture and crappy weather for much of the year, which means we all spend a lot of time alone with our imaginations and computers. So maybe that. As far as writing communities go, mine are all based online, not in person, though a few have bridged the gap between both. (Hi Lisa and Hetal!)
Reviewers have compared your writing to Sara Gran, George Pelecanos, and Tana French. Are these among your influences? Are there other books you see being friends with yours?
I am so thrilled to be compared with these three writers. Like, I can’t even tell you. These are absolutely among my influences — Pelecanos’s lean, laconic prose; Gran’s brilliant, off-beat Claire DeWitt; French’s dead-on characterization are all things I admire hugely. I’d like to imagine The Last Place You Look being friends with Dennis Lehane’s Patrick Kenzie series (A Drink Before the War is the book that made me want to write mysteries). And I’m not sure if we’re cool enough to hang with Richard Price, but talk about swoon-worthy characterization.
Is “crime fiction” a fair enough label for your work, or is there a more precise term you prefer? Do you write toward a particular audience, or do you just do your thing and Field of Dreams it?
Crime fiction or mystery are fair enough by me. I leave the categorization to the booksellers. I am not detached enough from the story to be able to write for a specific audience. I am trying to write the type of mystery I always wanted to read, and hoping that there are others out there like me who’ve always wanted this kind of story too.
Is there a particular genre you prefer as a reader, mystery or otherwise?
I love books across the crime fiction spectrum and space-time continuum, including the aforementioned Richard Price, also Ed McBain, Chandler, Robert B. Parker*, Ross Macdonald, Margaret Millar, Liza Cody, et cetera. I also love a lot of lit fic, specifically writers like Joan Didion, Tom Drury (whose The Driftless Area is possibly my favorite book ever, or at least the one I always pack to read on airplanes because I never get sick of it), Stacey D’Erasmo. I think all of these writers have a certain sly intelligence in common, which is probably the thing I’m drawn to more than specific genre.
* I have a cat named Spenser, after the Parker series. Because I am hard-core about mysteries. I have another cat named Snapple, because I am hard-core about bottled iced tea, I guess.
Let’s dive into character — Roxane Weary. First of all — fantastic name. Is there a story behind it — some late-night “eureka” moment?
Actually, yes. Or sort of. I wanted to write a character named Roxane because the name feels both feminine and tough to me, so, perfect for a female detective. I was trying to figure out a last name to go with it when I was watching television and saw the actor Jake Weary’s name in the credits — Eureka! I knew that was it. Dear Jake Weary: Thanks!
I had to Google that name, and then got very excited when I saw he’d been in Zombeavers! Best rodent-based horror movie ever.
Better than The Killer Shrews?!
Ohhh — make that “best rodent-based horror movie that I have seen,” with a little Netflix note-to-self addendum. Which came first for you: story, character, title, something else?
Definitely Roxane’s character. Once I had her name, she just sort of formed on her own and I spent some time figuring out what sort of case she’d work. I also had the relationship with Tom, her cop father’s former partner, in mind when I started building the story around her.
Had Roxane been rattling around in your head for a while before you sat down to write this book? Were there any real-life or fictional muses that shaped her character or was she born entirely from your own imagination?
I’ve wanted to write a female private investigator for a long time, so in that sense, yes. But Roxane herself first came to me basically as I began to write this book. There are no specific influences for her character (other than Jake Weary), but I’m sure that every PI mystery I’ve ever read somehow informed the choices I made when writing her. I wanted to play with gender stereotypes, for one thing, and to write a mystery with a natural approach to sexual orientation, et cetera.
Well, you’ve certainly done that. Roxane is bisexual, and to be honest, I was a little apprehensive knowing that going in, because bisexual characters — particularly bisexual women — are so frequently exploited by writers as titillating diversions: women driven by their voracious sexual appetites to multiple steamy bed-hopping interludes that contribute nothing to the story or character. But here it’s neither erotica nor even romantic suspense — Roxane has two significant romantic relationships; one male and one female, but their value to her is fleshed out beyond the physical and emphasizes the emotional role each fulfills in her life. Was this in your mind while developing her — the redemption of the bisexual character?
Oh goodness, yes. Bisexual representation in crime fiction is pretty grim and rarely shown in a main character. Like you said, it’s often used to titillate, used as a plot device, or to show that the character or the author is “edgy” or, the worst, used as a shorthand to express a character’s duplicity. Which is really stereotypical and harmful. As a person who identifies as bi (though I, like Roxane, prefer the term queer), I really wanted to take a stab at writing bi identity in a natural way — it’s part of her life, obviously, but it’s not the theme of the book, nor is it a plot device. I also really wanted to make this aspect of her character about more than who she sleeps with, to make sure she moves through the world as a queer woman does — for example, she experienced coming out and the family tensions that come with that, et cetera.
Are there any other bisexual characters that stand out as noteworthy and realistic? I can only think of Manna Francis’s Administration series, and even that’s mostly M/M, with occasional het dalliances.
I’m not familiar with that series, although I’ll be sure to check it out now. I honestly don’t have any other characters to mention in crime fiction in terms of realistic (although in the second Claire DeWitt mystery by Sara Gran, Claire sleeps with a woman, but it’s a one-night situation and is not really addressed). Outside of crime fiction there are more, especially in YA, but bisexual rep still has a long way to go.
You’re certainly laying the groundwork for thoughtful treatments of bisexuality here, but even more fundamentally, Roxane reads like a real woman instead of a character; fully formed and multilayered without coming across as contrived. She’s competent, but flawed, self-destructive, practical, damaged, unsentimental but not emotionless, and it’s refreshing to see a female sleuth written with so much depth. A modern trend in the mystery genre seems to be overcompensating for the shabby way women have fared in genre history, reduced to dames or helpless victims, and too many female characters are written as glossy superhumans who solve their cases effortlessly, steamroll men in their path, kick ass and look glamorous while doing it, which is not without appeal, but lacks authenticity.
You get it so much. This is exactly what I was thinking while writing this. Women in mystery fiction have had it rough.
Are there female sleuths you admire?
I love Tana French’s Antoinette Conway. She’s a total badass, but in this believable, relatable way. She gives zero fucks what people think of her — and they don’t usually think too highly of her, which is an interesting choice that French made. (I think we more often see “badass, no-fucks-given” type of characters that everyone wants to sleep with.)
The list of female sleuths I admire or who’ve inspired me is really too long to print, but I’ll also shout out to Liza Cody’s Anna Lee, Lynn S. Hightower’s Sonora Blair, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, S. J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin, and Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski for being the female detectives that first got me interested in writing one of my own.
That’s a really good point about Conway, and I think the fact that so many of the men in her squad either ignore or harass her gives her a sympathetic quality she wouldn’t otherwise have — her isolation from her colleagues makes her vulnerable, no matter how few fucks she appears to give about it.
You’re right — she is vulnerable, in a different way than we usually get to see female characters being vulnerable.
And I think all of this ties back to authenticity, as problematic a word as that has become. I have this film-nerd friend who’s always trying to convince me that it’s not cool when Jason Statham kicks in a door (but it is), and the only worthwhile action movies are those featuring more mature stars — the Harrison Fords and Liam Neesons of the biz, because when they fight, it involves real effort, and the struggle makes the character more credible and sympathetic. Roxane’s struggles aren’t physical, but she’s grieving, drinking, hung over, and as capable as she is, she gets in her own way, occasionally jeopardizing her investigation, and this balance between her skills and her mistakes humanizes her and the struggle adds to her credibility. Are there specific challenges to writing such a nuanced character? Was it hard to write her into her mistakes?
I adore Liam Neeson as an action hero. And I so agree that seeing a hero with physical vulnerabilities during a fight is much more interesting.
Roxane is super smart and observant — which are good qualities for a detective. But she’s also impatient and impulsive, which are not. I like to play around in the intersection of those two things. Being smart leads her to figure out things others might not see. But being impulsive makes her act too soon or in the wrong way. The challenge is in making her fumbling relatable and believable, without fumbling so much that she seems inept. It is hard to write her into mistakes because, well, I care about her and I don’t want her to get hurt — but I do what I have to do. I also know that it wouldn’t feel like her if everything played out smoothly.
Do you think that characters with damage are more relatable, or are better at this particular kind of job?
I don’t know about relatable, but I definitely find them more interesting (to write and to read). And yes, I think damaged characters are better at solving mysteries because, as a result of the various ways their lives have gone wrong, they’re able to see things differently, especially when it comes to the dark side of human nature.
Did you ever have to restrain yourself from making it too easy for her?
Hopefully this doesn’t make me a sadist, but no. I wanted her to have a tough path. Or rather, I knew she had to.
Did you flesh out Roxane’s past, both personal and professional, with cases and experiences that didn’t make it to the book?
Yes, especially in terms of her personal life. In an early draft, there was a much longer flashback to the days after her father died, which of course wound up being cut, but which was very helpful to me to have in terms of figuring out her mindset. I also worked into her background and how she wound up becoming a PI when all her dad wanted for her was to become a dental hygienist.
Man, that father-daughter relationship bristles on the page. And his absence affects so many of the characters — this unromanticized mythology of a larger-than-life figure serving as Roxane’s professional ideal and personal cautionary tale as she’s trying to live up to his expectations while falling into his faults. Was Roxane’s father always meant to be such a big part of her story, or did he become a bigger part of the story as you were writing?
Frank Weary was part of Roxane’s story from the beginning. I wanted to explore her mindset in that place of losing a father with whom she had a pretty rocky relationship, which complicates grief because in addition to the sudden absence of a major influence in her life, she’s still sorting through the fact that the option of repairing their issues is off the table now. Meaning that she’ll be a woman who had a difficult relationship with her dad, forever. She also struggles a lot with how similar she is to him — it’s one of the last things he says to her in the final conversation before he dies, and as if she needed more of a reminder, other people tell her this as well — and Roxane isn’t so sure it’s a compliment. So a lot of Roxane’s characteristics have always been tied to this relationship. However, the overlap of her case and one of Frank’s old cases is something that I developed in a later draft of the story.
I love that one of the ways she distances herself from her father while still following in his footsteps is to become a PI instead of working for the police. It’s also something of a literary novelty — there are some big-name female PIs in literature, but fewer overall. Do you think that there’s more opportunity for character development with a private investigator than a detective?
Yes, I do. Cop characters are fascinating to write in their own way, but that’s a more disciplined type of character — and the idea of the Lethal Weapon–esque “rogue cop” isn’t exactly believable. But a PI doesn’t have to answer to the bureaucracy of the police department or the rules of the court system, so she can be more unorthodox in her methods. It also creates the interesting tension of figuring out just how far is “too far,” and having to deal with the consequences of a bad call in a way that’s much more personal.
That’s definitely true, and it’s why PIs are always so gloomy. And boozy. But yeah, PIs get to be more independent, and having fewer available resources at their disposal necessitates a more creative investigative approach, which must be fun to write, plus there’s more variety in the casework. In old Law & Orders, you accept the illusion that New York has exactly two detectives, responsible for investigating every crime regardless of nature or jurisdiction. For a PI it’s different, more fluid, particularly for a PI in a less urban area, and we learn about Roxane solving the crime of “Who is stealing these auto parts?” and then she’s suddenly hip deep in a case of murder and disappearances and conspiracies.
I did want to be realistic with her cases — not everything that needs to be found is going to be the crime of the century (although those are not the kind of cases one wishes to write books about).
Did you want to be a PI growing up?
I did! I still do, kind of, except I’m a writer now, which is better.
Do you have ties to that world or did you research extensively for this book?
Research, research, research. In addition to reading fiction and nonfiction on the subject, I’ve gone on two police ride-alongs, and I’ve taken some assorted classes and workshops to learn the ins and outs of things like handguns and lock-picking. And, like any mystery writer, I have years’ worth of truly alarming search history in my web browser.
Did you discover anything particularly juicy in your research? Any “stranger than fiction” anecdotes, fun facts, or aspects of the job that are either more dramatic or more mundane than a civilian would expect?
It’s hard to answer this without sounding like a silly tourist through this extremely intense, important job that police officers do. But I found so much of it to be eye-opening. Some things are very mundane (paperwork; there’s just as much of it as Law & Order claims) but the job escalates from boring to high-speed-chase level adrenaline incredibly fast, so there is much more shifting of gears than I would have guessed.
Are there any significant new trends you’ve observed in investigative procedure, either real-world or fictional that you predict we’ll see more of in the future?
I’ve noticed a lot of PIs relying on the skills of computer hackers to find out information otherwise not obtainable. To be honest, I don’t love this trend. But as our world becomes a more and more techy place, it’s only natural that more and more detective work will need to take place online.
What’s next for Roxane Weary?
Her next big case starts out as a small-time thing — trying to catch a cheating fiancée. But it quickly turns into more when her target ends up dead, exposing ties to a local businessman-turned-loan shark and a prominent, old-money family with even older family secrets. Also, whiskey.