How many new mystery novels are published a year? A lot, right? Kristen Lepionka is standing out from the crowd. Her debut mystery novel, The Last Place You Look, has a confident voice in the young — but already jaded — bisexual private investigator Roxane Weary. The book also has a distinctly Midwestern vibe, thanks to its setting of Columbus, Ohio.
Roxane is still reeling from the recent death of her cop father. She’s coping with her grief and a recent breakup by working very little and drinking quite a lot. When she gets involved with a client soon to be executed for the death of his girlfriend (body never found) and her parents fifteen years ago, Roxane rouses herself to save an innocent man and solve a case even her father couldn’t.
Ahead of Lepionka’s Chicagoland launch event at our area’s only mystery bookstore, Centuries and Sleuths, on July 29 at 7 p.m., I asked her a few questions about growing up on mystery novels, bringing “own voices” into her work, and writing about the Midwest.
Lori Rader-Day: Roxane’s a bit self-styled as a private investigator. She’s mostly just “good at finding things.” Why do you think she’s a good investigator? What are her strengths? And then, of course, what are her weaknesses?
Kristen Lepionka: Right, she’s not a former cop or ex-military, like many PI characters. She’s a woman with a degree in psychology who has parlayed her natural obsessive curiosity/nosiness into a profession, thanks to a family friend who ran a security firm years ago. She’s a good investigator because this nosiness leads her to being quite observant — Roxane is definitely the type to notice something out of place, even if it’s a small thing.
Her biggest strengths and weaknesses wind up being the same things, really: she’s pathologically unable to let anything go. On a good day, that’s called being determined. On a bad day, it’s called being reckless. Also, she’s good at reading other people, but as perceptive as she is regarding others, she has a bit of a blind spot when it comes to her own emotions.
Lori Rader-Day: I get this question a lot, so maybe you do, too: How did you know you were a mystery writer? (I think people mean, “Why don’t you write books like Certain People instead?”)
Kristen Lepionka: I always, always wanted to write mysteries. They were my first love as a reader, so it felt very natural to me to start making up my own stories in the same vein.
The thing about mysteries is that they’re very plot-driven, maybe more so than other genres because you need to have clues in place so the reader can solve the crime along with the protagonist—and it turned out that I was not naturally good at the whole plot thing. I wrote many, many stories that had the trappings of a mystery, as in set against a backdrop of crime, but no actual plot at all. Even so, I loved writing that tension, and the way people’s true colors come out during moments of extreme stress or acts of violence. Eventually I read enough books to figure out what makes a good story, too.
Lori Rader-Day: Which authors and characters inspired you to write this story?
Kristen Lepionka: I fell in love with the private investigator subgenre of crime fiction by way of Robert B. Parker, Dennis Lehane, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, and Liza Cody. Parker’s PI character Spenser (after whom one of my cats is named!) was the first one I read, and it made me want to write a private investigator of my own. We’re talking about age 12 here — I was a weird kid. There is a huge variety in the types of cases PIs get to investigate, and I wanted to do that too. I love the freedom of it, that Roxane’s cases aren’t restricted by what unit she’s assigned to, the way a cop character would be. There’s also this book called The Girls Are Missing, by Caroline Crane, that I read when I was way too young to be reading such things. It scared the shit out of me, but it stuck with me for a long time and I think there are some threads from that in The Last Place You Look. It’s also about a string of crimes in a so-called idyllic small town, and the resulting “you’re wrong, it could never happen here” sort of attitude of denial that impedes the investigation is something I enjoy exploring as a writer.
Lori Rader-Day: You write from the Midwest, about the Midwest, and you have also written a bisexual protagonist in Roxane. Talk to me about representing both those voices in mystery fiction?
Kristen Lepionka: Well, the Midwest is full of blue dots in an expanse of red—liberal enclaves surrounded by cornfields and cows on all sides. You’re never too far from the actual middle of nowhere. Columbus, Ohio, where I live (and where Roxane lives), calls itself “the biggest small town in America” which, like, is both a good thing and a bad thing. So that can make for some interesting tension, the fact that city mice and country mice are all up in each other’s business on a daily basis. There are types of stories that feel inherently Midwestern, I think.
As you know very well, there are many fabulous Midwestern mysteries and mystery writers, but until pretty recently, nothing’s been set here in Columbus. (We now have the Andy Hayes series by Andrew Welsh-Huggins, which I love.) So I wanted to represent my city, and I also wanted to create a bisexual detective character—there are very, very few good bi representations in the genre, or in fiction in general. Bisexuality is often used to titillate or shock the reader, à la look how edgy this character [or this book] is, or used as a plot device to portray a duplicitous person, et cetera. It’s really harmful. As a person who identifies as bi, I really wanted to write a character I could see myself in. It was important to me that Roxane’s bisexual identity is natural to her character, so in addition to sleeping with men and women, she also has been shaped by the experience of coming out to her family, something that has a big impact on how she sees the world.
Lori Rader-Day: What’s been the best thing about being a debut author so far? What has been the most challenging?
Kristen Lepionka: It’s still a bit shocking that this is happening, to be honest. So my instinct is to say EVERYTHING is the best thing about it so far.
But specifically, it’s amazing to hear from readers who really get it—people who are thrilled to see a bi character in a mystery novel, or who love Roxane’s feminism, etc. That’s who I wrote this for.
I also had the best experience at Gramercy Books, a local indie bookstore: I was just there to buy something, and the cashier asked for my last name to look up my store rewards account. I told her, and she excitedly asked if I was Kristen…and then she showed me her nametag, which had a little space for employees to write in their favorite book of the summer. She’d written in The Last Place You Look. It was completely surreal. I asked her if I could take her picture.
As for the most challenging thing: There are just so many books that hit the shelves every week, so getting readers to even be aware that yours exists is a challenge for any writer. I think that’s probably the biggest thing. But also, I’m an introvert, and naturally shy. (Not all introverts are shy! But I am). So putting myself out there and talking to people is something I have to work at. But I’m discovering that it’s always worth it once I do.
Lori Rader-Day: What’s your next project?
Kristen Lepionka: I’m currently making notes for the third Roxane Weary mystery (book #2 is in copy edits with my publisher right now). I’m also drafting a stand-alone crime novel about—among other things—donuts and female rage.
Kristen Lepionka’s writing has been selected for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Grift, and Black Elephant. She is also the editor of Betty Fedora, a journal that publishes feminist crime fiction and lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her partner and two cats.
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Lori Rader-Day is the Edgar® Award-nominated (and multi-award-winning) author of The Death of Us, Death at Greenway, The Lucky One, Under a Dark Sky, and others. She lives in Chicago, where she co-chairs the mystery readers' event Midwest Mystery Conference and teaches creative writing for Northwestern University's School of Professional Studies.