Up Close: Luanne Rice

Sisters, Secrets, and Ties That Bind

By K. L. Romo

Two sisters, part of a pact of “blood-sister” best friends—the Compass Rose. One of them is murdered. In LAST DAY, prolific author Luanne Rice explores how secrets can lurk just under the surface of seemingly perfect lives, shocking friends and family who are certain they know a person inside and out.

Beth Lathrop is dead. After the police break down the door, her sister Kate finds her pregnant body lying on its side in bed, broken and strangled. Beth meant everything to Kate, and now she’s gone.

Twenty-three years earlier, a robbery took place at the family art gallery. To steal Ben Morrison’s priceless painting, Moonlight, the thieves bound and gagged the sisters and their mother in the basement. The girls watched their mother choke to death while the three were tied together, their lives torn apart.

And now the frame around Moonlight on Beth’s bedroom wall is empty.

Detective Conor Reid was the state trooper who worked the gallery murder all those years ago. He vowed to himself to protect the girls and is still haunted by the image of them bound to their dead mother. Now he’s failed—Beth was murdered. Conor struggles to reconstruct Beth’s last day, trying to assemble a puzzle that seems to be missing pieces. Could the killer be hiding in plain sight?

Rice tells The Big Thrill about the true story that inspired LAST DAY and explains how secrets can either hold families and friends together or tear them apart.

At the Jane Rotrosen Agency’s GrillerFest 2019 in New York City. From left: Rice’s agent, Andrea Cirillo; Rice; Don Cleary; agent Meg Ruley; and agency founder Jane Rotrosen Berkey.

What inspired LAST DAY?

Years ago, my then-husband was sailing from Maine to Connecticut with a group of friends, and while on board, one of the guys learned his wife had been murdered. Suspicion fell on the friend, but because his alibi seemed so strong (if he was miles at sea on a sailboat, how could he have murdered his wife in Connecticut?), it took years for the state to bring charges. When they finally did, my husband and stepdaughter became witnesses.

The details of the case were riveting—the friend had left his wife’s body in an air-conditioned bedroom to confuse the medical examiner regarding time of death, and a child had lifted the receiver of an extension phone and heard him talking to a ringing line while pretending to talk to his wife—but what struck me most was how the murder changed everyone forever. Loss and sorrow, anger and fear, of course—but also the fact that so many secrets and dark emotions were revealed. Not just on the part of the murderer, but those of many people involved with the case.

Luanne Rice
Photo credit: Kristina Loggia

Is there a message you’d like readers to take away from LAST DAY?

Things are not always (ever?) what they seem. From the outside, Beth and Pete seem to have a perfect marriage. They live in a big house in a seaside Connecticut town, have a beautiful daughter and a successful and respected art gallery. Over the years, they’ve learned how to play their parts—to look like the happiest couple in town. After Beth’s death, her sister and friends berate themselves for missing the signs, for not realizing that she’d been in an emotionally abusive relationship with Pete.

We can miss the signs so easily—we see what we want to see, or what our sisters or friends want us to see. It’s so much easier than looking more deeply, seeing things that make us feel uncomfortable.

LAST DAY takes place at the Connecticut coastline and includes details about sailing, flying, and art collection. Did you write from personal experience in these areas?

I based the town of Black Hall on Old Lyme, Connecticut. It’s the birthplace of American Impressionism, and my mother was a painter here. I majored in the history of art at Connecticut College, so I’ve always been interested in art and artists. Writing LAST DAY gave me the chance to learn about the workings of a gallery, to imagine the obsessions and passions of an art thief.

I grew up on the water, loving boats. As a student, I went to sea on an oceanographic vessel—a 100-foot schooner—to study whales. My sister and her husband invite me to sail in Fishers Island Sound with them many summer nights. Kate’s inspiration to be a pilot was her grandmother who flew in World War II. That idea came from my own life—my dad was a navigator-bombardier during the war, and his stories have never left me.

Rice (left) with Thomas & Mercer Senior Editor Liz Pearsons and author Daniel Judson after the Thomas & Mercer party at ThrillerFest 2019 in New York City.

Frequent themes in your books are love, family, the sea, and the environment. What is the theme for LAST DAY?

Family and friendship, the way secrets can hold people together and tear them apart.

You’re an avid environmentalist and a creative affiliate of the Safina Center. Your past books have included humanitarian issues, such as the plight of undocumented immigrants in The Lemon Orchard and teen depression and mental health issues in The Beautiful Lost. How do you use your writing to affect understanding and change?

My writing always starts with a single character, and she comes to me as if she’s a real person, with a story she wants to tell. She’s going through—or has been through—something that has shaped her as a person, informs her view of the world. Frequently, though unintentionally, her experiences and concerns mirror my own. I never set out to write a book with a message, or to bring an issue to light, but I care about the ways my characters suffer—and through writing about them, I often learn more about myself.

LAST DAY—and the novel I am writing right now—has shades of domestic violence. Emotional and verbal abuse can be deadly and leave scars—although hidden to the outside world—that are just as damaging as black eyes and broken bones. If one woman reads my book and knows she is not alone, that what she is suffering is real (not all in her head, as abusers often tell their victims), then I’ll be very glad.

Do you have advice for writers trying to reach their writing and publishing goals?

Write every day. Read as much as you can. Get a copy of The Elements of Style by Strunk & White. Eavesdrop everywhere you go. Don’t dream of being a writer—write. Write.

As for achieving publishing goals: write.

In 2014, Rice was honored with a Connecticut Governor’s Arts Award for excellence and lifetime achievement. She’s pictured here onstage at Yale University with fellow recipient, actor Christopher Plummer.

What types of books do you like to read for pure pleasure?

Mysteries and thrillers. Right now, I’m reading Bad Little Falls by Paul Doiron.

When you read for pleasure, do you prefer print books, eBooks, or audio books?

I love to hold print books in my hands, turn the pages, feel the weight.

What is an interesting fact about you that readers may not know?

My first publication was a poem, when I was 11. It was in the poetry column of the Hartford Courant, and when I saw it in the paper, I thought it had magically appeared. Eventually, I learned my mother had sent it in. It was about a winter scene in Connecticut, and I’m still setting my work in Connecticut.

 

K. L. Romo
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