Saturday, October 14, 2006

Pg. 69: "A Shot To Die For"

According to the Chicago Tribune, "Libby Fischer Hellmann has joined an elite club: Chicago mystery writers who not only inhabit the environment but also give it a unique flavor."

A Shot To Die For is the most recent novel in Hellmann's series featuring amateur sleuth/video producer Ellie Foreman.

Libby graciously agreed to subject the novel to the "page 69 test." Here she supplies the text of the page, then reports on how representative it is of the book:
Page 69

I sighed and opened the car door. “We had a deal, young lady.”

“We did?”

“You were going to go on the internet and find out what you need to give the DMV to get your learner’s.”

She made a brushing aside gesture with her hand. “I already know. I need –”

“But I don’t. And I need to see a list.”

She got out of the car, shooting me one of those disdainful scowls teenage girls use primarily on their mothers. She favored her father with a dazzling smile. “Bye, Dad. Thanks.”

Barry waved and slid into the driver’s seat. As he backed out of the driveway, still grinning, I tried not to think about the fact she’d inherited half her genetic code from him. Otherwise, I might have to shoot myself. Or her.

Back in the kitchen, Rachel opened the refrigerator door and grabbed a can of pop. “Oh, by the way,” she said as she popped the top. “I got a job.”

I got out salt and pepper. “No kidding! That’s great! Where?”

“It’s a babysitting job.”

“Who for?” I unwrapped the meat and tossed the plastic wrap in the trash.

“Julia Hauldren.”

I froze.

“You know. The Julia who’s going out with Dad.”

I forced myself not to react. After a moment, I said slowly, “she wants to hire you?”

“Yeah. Kind of like a girl-Friday. You know, take care of her kids while she’s at the store or doing errands. Go to the playground. The beach. That kind of thing.”

“How much time does she want from you?”

“She said two or three hours a day.” Rachel flashed me a grin. “Pretty cool, huh?”

Page 69 from A Shot To Die For is the tail end of a wry scene in which Rachel, Ellie’s 15 year old daughter, who’s learning how to drive thanks to her father Barry’s tutelage, has almost run Ellie over. Ellie and Barry are divorced.

Actually, it turns out this page is a good example of what I try to do in my novels. Most people who read mystery/thrillers know the primary drivers are plot and suspense. But there’s precious little of that in this section. Instead, this page delves into character and how Ellie deals with conflict, specifically in her relationships with her daughter and her ex-husband. Not only does the passage hint at the triangle a family forms after a divorce, but it also alludes to the jealousies that can crop up when one of the divorced partners moves on. Threaded through those conflicts, too, is the worry many mothers share: is my child making good decisions? Hopefully, the reader gets the sense that Ellie is still emotionally fragile, and that exploring these conflicts and issues isn’t easy for her.

While I love the puzzle aspect of mysteries, and the gut-wrenching suspense of thrillers, I also believe it’s possible – in fact -- it’s critical to create layered, complex characters within those stories. I love to write about characters who are faced with emotional challenges. At the same time, though, I never want anyone to throw my book against the wall and say “that could never happen” – whether it’s plot development or a character’s act. Thus, not only do I take pains to make the plot unfold credibly, but I take even more time to create characters who grapple with the same things we all do in a natural, authentic way.

This trick, of course, is balance. Hopefully, in scenes like this, the reader gets a sense of a character’s internal journey without disrupting the external challenge of investigating and solving a crime.
Many thanks to Libby for the input.

Previous novels in the "Ellie Foreman" series include An Eye For Murder, A Picture of Guilt, and An Image of Death.

Publishers Weekly called An Eye For Murder a “masterful blend of politics, history, and suspense” and it was nominated for an Anthony Award for Best First Novel.

A Picture of Guilt won the Reader’s Choice award for Best Traditional Series at the 2004 Love is Murder conference.

The Chicago Sun-Times “recommends [An Image of Death] highly, even if you don’t live in Illinois.”

The Sun Times also praised A Shot To Die For, saying “Hellmann reaches next level with latest mystery novel,” and it won the 2005 Readers Choice Award at the Love is Murder conference.

Click here to find excerpts from all four novels.

Libby blogs over at The Outfit. In a recent post ("The Prodigal Wordsmith: Coming Back to Words," October 7) she writes about the differences in creating--and appreciating--movies and novels.

Previous "page 69 tests":
Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm
Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan
Elaine Flinn, Deadly Collection
Louise Welsh, The Bullet Trick
Gregg Hurwitz, Last Shot
Martha Powers, Death Angel
N.M. Kelby, Whale Season
Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
Dominic Smith, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre
Simon Blackburn, Lust
Linda L. Richards, Calculated Loss
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

--Marshal Zeringue