The Beatrice Interview

Linda Barnes

interviewed by Ron Hogan

Cold Case is Linda Barnes' seventh novel featuring Boston- based private investigator Carlotta Carlyle.

RH: You'd written another mystery series featuring Michael Spraggue before beginning the Carlotta Caryle series. How did you come to create Carlotta?

LB: I started out as a playwright, and quickly realized that I would starve. I thought I'd write a novel. I knew it would be a mystery, but I had no idea it would be a series. My plan was to write a mystery with a male detective, and then say to my publisher, "I have a great idea. I want to write about this woman detective." And they told me that I didn't want to do that, that it would never sell. "You want to do another Michael Spraggue book." I said OK, but I really wanted to do Carlotta for many reasons.

First of all, I had made an unfortunate choice. I had made Michael an amateur sleuth, and I don't think amateur sleuths work in the United States. People want to know why a character's interested in solving a murder, what's going on there. How many deaths can you accidentally stumble upon before it becomes unbelievable? In order to get Michael involved in cases, I had to keep killing off people who were very near and dear to him. He's the depressed detective, and he becomes more depressed in every book. After the second Michael Spraggue book, I wrote a short story auditioning Carlotta. I thought that if I could get the short story published, maybe they would let me write a novel with her.

My agent at the time sold the story ("Lucky Penny") to three different magazines, all of which immediately folded. It became the short story that killed magazines, and I never got paid because it never got published. When I switched agents, I sent my new agent the Carlotta story and told her, "If you have any magazines you really hate, you can send this to them and they'll fold." She sent it to the New Black Mask, which lasted only five issues, but "Lucky Penny" was in #3. It was nominated for every major mystery award, and won the Anthony award.

My editor told me the woman character might be a good idea after all, and I think I wrote the first Carlotta book overnight. I was so happy to have a professional detective and a woman's voice. I had fun with Spraggue; I learned a lot from him. But I love Carlotta better.

RH: Tell me a little bit about Cold Case.

LB: When I started Cold Case, I thought of it as my "family secrets" book. Family secrets resonate with me. I have a family, we have secrets. Some of the secrets are foolish, not worth keeping, but they became invested with a certain power over the years. And when I read a tiny little item in the Boston Globe about a missing writer, I said to myself, "That's what this book is about. Family secrets and a missing writer."

But the more I wrote, the more I became involved with memory. Memory is fascinating to me because I have a sister who's only a few years older than me, and we remember the exact same incidents in totally different ways. My brother is eight years younger than I am, and he'll call me up and say, "Do you remember when Dad came home and said this and this and it changed my life?" and I'll say, "No, I don't remember that." It seems to me that all our memories are very independent, and each one of them is a truth, but not necessarily the truth. I know that memory can be influenced by chemicals, by I began to study different theories about repressed memories.

It seems to me that there must be experiences terrible enough that you would repress them if they happened to you, and that they could later be accessed by a resemblance of another situation to that original situation. I asked around -- I have friends who are psychiatrists and forensic psychiatrists who testify at trials -- to see if it could actually happen. Plausibility is important to me.

RH: The family secrets in this book seem very plausible. And it seems to me that many of the great private detective novels involve cases where the detective is thrust into the role of family therapist, in that he or she must find the source of the trauma.

LB: That's certainly the Ross MacDonald model, where the sins of the father are visited on the children, and I love those novels. Family traumas resonate because all of us have lived in some sort of family environment, and all of us have wondered at times what it would have been like if we hadn't grown up in that particular environment.

I've given Carlotta a family dynamic, even though none of the people in her 'family' are related to her, and there's always a family drama going on around the perimeters of a given book's main case. These characters were created deliberately, to defy convention, because the traditional private investigator walks down these mean streets alone. Carlotta doesn't. She can't go to the abandoned warehouse at midnight. People care about her, she's responsible for them.

RH: You've discussed in other interviews how you and Carlotta influence each other in different ways.

LB: What scares me the most right now is how I'm getting more like Carlotta, but she's not getting more like Linda. And this is causing Linda to do some really stupid things. Recently, I was at a baseball game at Fenway with my kid, and there were a bunch of guys sitting nearby, smoking and swearing... you know, behaving like guys at a ballgame. Much to my chagrin, and to my husband's mortification, I found myself turning around and telling these guys, "Can you clean up your act? I got my kid here." I would never have done that...that was Carlotta talking. So now I'm worried I'm going to start walking down dark streets I have no business walking down. When I start carrying a weapon, then they should lock me up.

I really think of her as a person that I know. When I'm having one of those good days writing, I feel like I can hear her voice. It's not my voice; it's a different voice, and I recognize it, and I'm grateful that she's talking to me. Then there are days when she shuts up and I have to work by myself. But I'm always happy to hear from her.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Sparkle Hayter | Colin harrison

All materials copyright © 1997 Ron Hogan