Up Close: Robert Dugoni
Familiar Themes Explored in Dugoni’s New Series Installment
By Josie Brown
Family. Loss. Love.
From the beginning, these issues have been the touchstones in Robert Dugoni’s Tracy Crosswhite crime thrillers.
The seventh in the series, A COLD TRAIL, is no exception. In fact, seven books later, Dugoni’s protagonist—Seattle Homicide Detective Tracy Crosswhite—is married to her childhood friend, attorney Dan O’Leary. She is also the mother of an infant daughter.
Needless to say, the complications in her life mirror those of every working mom.
“Even in this day and age of stay-at-home dads, women deal with issues totally unique from men,” Dugoni says. “For instance, men can’t have children. So when a child is born, that’s going to impact a woman who also has a professional career.”
Dugoni is quite aware that some men don’t sympathize with these realities. “There are stereotypes that both men and women cling to. It makes a woman’s job even more difficult. In Tracy’s instance, she works for a boss who is a chauvinist, as readers saw in My Sister’s Grave.”
Dugoni has good reason to empathize. “I have four sisters,” he says. “They are all professionals. And I’ve had a lot of opportunities to work with women.”
And, like Dugoni, his wife also trained and practiced as an attorney. One real-life anecdote appears in this novel. When Tracy and Dan’s new nanny, Therese, coos this welcome to their infant, “Hello, young one! I’m going to be your daytime mommy, and she’ll be your night-time mommy…” Tracy bursts into tears—
As did Dugoni’s wife, when the same thing happened to her. “When our son was old enough for my wife to go back to work, she was extremely torn between resuming her law career and being a stay-at-home mom. A lot of the relationship between Tracy and Therese comes from observations of my wife and son’s relationship with the real Therese.”
Since then, the real Therese has become a lifelong friend.
“I’ve drawn on personal experience,” Dugoni says. “I’m a father of two. Both my wife and I had careers that needed balance. So do Tracy and Dan. They wanted a child, and theirs is not a situation in which either of them feels burdened. Both were looking forward to it. But children change our lives and our priorities. They make you see the world in a way that you probably hadn’t seen it before. They also change the dynamics between their parents. Suddenly, you’re not just looking out for each other. You have another person there who has needs, wants, and desires—and perhaps is having a bad day. This will impact your spouse, and you personally. There’s a dynamic that everyone who has children goes to, and can relate and understand.”
In doing so, Dugoni sets up the tension between both the personal and professional aspects of Tracy’s life. “Tracy is not James Bond. She’s not Jack Reacher. She’s a person who’s going to develop and change with the circumstances of her environment. I want her to be more than a ‘RoboCop’—a real person, one who is not just dealing with professional issues but also personal matters.”
Like Tracy, Dan hails from Cedar Grove, Washington, a fictional town that Dugoni has placed in the foothills of Washington’s Cascade Mountains. Having inherited his family’s old house there, Dan has convinced Tracy they should hold on to it to use it as a getaway from the city. The perfect time to test this theory is while Tracy is still on maternity leave, and their city home is being renovated.
Tracy is determined to conquer her work-life balance. It’s the best way she can put old ghosts to rest: specifically, that of her sister Sarah’s decades-old disappearance and murder.
“Sadly, Tracy has a really horrific recollection of Cedar Grove,” Dugoni says. “She lost her sister, her home, and her parents. Everything fell apart for her. I knew that would create a whole set of conundrums for Tracy. But Dan has a totally different perspective on Cedar Grove. He left for school, and wasn’t there when Tracy’s sister went missing and was subsequently found.”
At the same time, Tracy knows what the house means to Dan. “She is trying to be a good wife,” Dugoni says. “And she also wants her daughter to have an understanding of where her parents grew up, and how they became who they are as people. So she has these conflicting emotions.”
It doesn’t help either that the smaller the town, the longer the sadness lingers.
“A homicide detective once told me, ‘A crime in a small town is much different from crime in a big city,’” Dugoni says. “’In a small town, crime impacts everyone. They will know the person who was the victim. Even years later, you think, what has that done to the familiar, or to the people who live in the town? Everyone is looking at everybody else.’”
When Tracy goes back to Cedar Grove, it’s not just difficult for her, but for all of those who lived there when the crime happened. “She is a reminder of what happened all those years ago to her sister,” Dugoni says.
But murder, let alone two of them, waits for no one.
Immediately upon Tracy’s arrival, Cedar Grove’s interim police chief, Roy Calloway, implores her to take on the case of a recent arson-murder. The victim is Heather Armstrong, a reporter who was married to the current police chief, Finley.
A couple of decades ago, Finley was a suspect in the murder of his high school sweetheart. The murder happened a year after Sarah’s death. Although decades apart, both victims—Heather and Finlay’s former girlfriend—were killed the same way: head trauma.
“Tracy is conflicted,” Dugoni says. “She has a baby at home. She and Dan are trying out a new nanny. But a man she’s known all her life is asking for her help for another friend. So once again, it’s her strong sense of justice that drives Tracy to say yes to Roy’s request.”
As with most law enforcement officers, Tracy feels failure is not an option. “When she takes on a case, she believes her role is to find justice for the victims and their family members,” Dugoni says. “She’s been there. She’s been a family member who has lost someone to a horrific crime. So she has a very strong desire to right things—to make them better.”
In law enforcement, this can be a plus and a minus.
“Police officers will tell you that nine out of ten cases are a ‘grounder’—a case where they know who the killer is, and their job is to seek the evidence to prove it.
“But it’s that one-in-ten case that haunts them. They feel it’s their responsibility to get justice, not only for society but for the family,” Dugoni says. “This plays on Tracy in terms of her personal life, too—more so now because she has a daughter. She can’t just go home and forget about her cases.”
When in the process of writing a novel, Dugoni forgoes creating an outline. “I just follow the plot, wherever it goes,” he says. As far as the Tracy Crosswhite novels are concerned, Dugoni feels it’s important to answer one question: “Can you go back home again?”
Tracy and Dan’s marriage works well in the series, both as a character and a plot device.
In fact, in this mystery, Dan’s role proves pivotal when he uses a Washington state law that allows him to call witnesses in a case where typically none would be needed, let alone allowed.
It creates a Perry Mason moment. “Readers need to admire the fact that the protagonist is very good at what they do. Regarding Dan, he has what appears to be a landlord-tenant case. Still, the people Dan wants on the stand are tangential to the dispute.”
And, if Dan is right, to the murder as well.
“The judge knows something else is afoot here, and he’s giving Dan some rope because it’s so freakin’ interesting and it goes so far beyond the traditional landlord-tenant dispute,” Dugoni says. “He wants to find out as much as the reader does: ‘Where exactly is Dan going with this? What exactly is it going to prove?’ There has to be the feeling that no matter what transpires, no matter what happens, they’re in good hands; that Dan and Tracy will figure a way around it.”
Dugoni points out that, in real life, nobody ever confesses on the stand. “But you can get enough information out. Even if justice is not served, everyone in the room knows the truth.”
Because Tracy is investigating several unexplained murders, Dugoni writes scenes in which the reader goes into the minds of the victims at the moment of their death.
“It’s much more personal,” Dugoni says. He likens it to a prologue: “It takes the reader up to a very specific time—a heightened point of tension. The reader will know a little bit more than Tracy, but they don’t know what happened. I want the reader to step into the shoes, empathize with the victim, and experience the horror firsthand. Living a story is much different than having someone just tell it to you. It’s much more tension- and stress-filled.”
Then, as Tracy begins her investigation, the reader sees what that scene was about.
According to Dugoni, suspense is key to a thriller’s success. “It’s about getting the reader to turn the page. The best way to do that is to make them want to find out what’s going to happen. You can do it in all kinds of ways: relationship tension, personal tension, professional tension—whatever. But those are the things that make a reader turn the page to find out what’s going to happen.”
Great insights into both the writer and the character.
Before writing A COLD TRAIL, Dugoni experienced the loss of a very dear pal: Scott Tompkins, a law enforcement officer who he revered and had used as a logistical source for his books since the first Tracy Crosswhite novel.
“A prince of a guy,” Dugoni says. “I told him about My Sister’s Grave, and he said, ‘You should really meet my (at the time) girlfriend. She’s one of Seattle’s first female homicide detectives.’”
Dugoni followed up and became close friends with both detectives.
While Dugoni was returning from a vacation, he got word from Jen that Scott had passed away: stricken with pancreatitis. He was only forty-eight years old.
Dugoni was devastated by the news. And although he had kept meticulous notes of all his interviews with Scott, after his friend’s death, Dugoni found it difficult to delve into the police procedures needed for the story.
It was one of the reasons Dugoni brings Tracy back home to Cedar Grove for this book. “In this case, she’s used almost like a private detective since she has taken it on outside of her duties as a Seattle homicide detective.”
Needless to say, the last thing Dugoni wanted was to bother Jen with his questions while she was grieving. “I told her: ‘You know, I don’t want to burden you. If it’s too difficult because you and Scott used to help me together, I don’t want to make you do it.’ What she said to me—which is very heartwarming—was: ‘I love doing this with you! I love reading your books. It’s always so wonderful to play Tracy Crosswhite and tell you this is what I’d do. So, now it’s not just a great distraction, but also a great memory as to what Scott and I used to do together.’”
Josie Brown is the author of THE CANDIDATE, a political thriller. Her most recent mystery is the eighteenth novel in her Housewife Assassin series, “Horrorscope.”
You can find her interview with Robert Dugoni on her Author Provocateur podcast, here, Podbean and SoundCloud. Also on Apple Podcast.
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