After writing four books in the past four year, Lori Rader-Day has quickly become one of the most prolific mystery novelists in Chicago. To date, all of her novels have been set in the Midwest — specifically, Chicago’s North Shore, small-town Wisconsin, and rural Indiana. Her latest, Under a Dark Sky, is about a photographer/insurance drone on vacation in Michigan, where she stumbles into a closed-door murder mystery at a dark-sky preserve. I recently spoke with Lori about all of the above and more.
What drew you to dark-sky parks? Is the one in the book based on somewhere in real-life?
I heard about dark sky parks years ago and knew immediately I had to write a book set in one. Crime writers like settings with potential for darkness, and here was a place designed around darkness. The idea of a space kept dark on purpose made me think about what we’re learning about human nature when granted a semblance of anonymity, such as online behind an avatar. Some people will do things they would never do in the light of day.
As far as I know, Under a Dark Sky is the first novel set in a dark sky park. I used the Headlands International Dark Sky Park in Mackinaw City, Michigan, as the basis for the story’s park.
Of all the Midwestern locations at your disposal, why Michigan this time?
The Headlands was the only dark sky park in the Midwest when I started writing, and the closest dark sky park to Chicago. The park also had done a lot of work packaging up their story for their website, which helped me research the park from afar. I had to start writing the book before I was able to visit, but then later, I did visit in person to make sure I got the details right. That said, I changed a few things about the park, and changed the name. I wasn’t sure the Headlands would want to be a crime scene, even a fictional one. They’ve been really supportive of the book, though, and sell it in their brand new gift shop.
I’ve written about Chicago, where I live, and Indiana, where I’m from. I’ve written about northern Wisconsin, where I spent many summer vacations, and now Michigan—except Michigan is a place I had not spent a lot of time. I relied on my Mitten State friends for ideas, and then of course the research trip. Michigan is a place like Chicago in that the people from there and the people who visit there a lot are passionately devoted to the place. And now I’m one of them.
Your protagonists have had a wide variety of day jobs — professor, motel cleaner, handwriting analyst, and now a photographer. Do these occupations typically stem from your own interests or from the needs of the plot?
Sometimes the job makes the plot. The idea for The Day I Died came from the job of handwriting analyst, for instance. The motel cleaner job in Little Pretty Things might have been something different, perhaps. For Under a Dark Sky, I gave Eden two jobs—the one she’d left behind, a beige, nondescript job in insurance, and then the photography, which isn’t exactly her job. She’s never been paid. But I wanted her alert, someone who would be a good witness to all the things happening around her, but also a bit removed. And what photographer wouldn’t want to take their camera to the Lake Michigan lakeshore? She’s drawn to the place, and then good at noticing the details that the reader needs to notice, too, even in her grief as a widow. She’s still paying attention. I have worked with photographers my entire professional life, so it’s a subject I know a little bit about, too.
On a similar note: so far, your investigators have always been “amateurs,” as opposed to detective or cops. What draws to tell their stories?
I’m interested in all kinds of crime stories, but mostly the aftermath and the effect of the crime on those left behind, the bystanders, the witnesses. I wouldn’t rule out the idea of writing a detective story someday but for now I’m happy writing the kind of story I’m best suited to write—where innocents wander into situations they are not equipped to handle, and then do. I’d love to do a detective story, a spy story, a criminal caper. I want do it all.
Locked-room mysteries are always so much fun. Do you have any favorites?
I’m a big fan of Agatha Christie’s work. So many of hers are set among closed communities, if not actual locked-room situations. Two favorites would be And Then There Were None, which takes place on an island, and then of course Murder on the Orient Express. The funny thing is that I didn’t set out to do a locked-room mystery specifically. I gave Eden Wallace a fear of the dark and sent her to the dark sky park to try to get over her fear—and she froze in place. The confines of her fear gave the story its claustrophobic feel, and I went with it.
Under a Dark Sky
By Lori Rader-Day
Published August 7, 2018
Lori Rader-Day is a three-time Mary Higgins Clark Award nominee, winning the award in 2016 for her second novel, Little Pretty Things. She is the author of Under a Dark Sky, and of The Black Hour, winner of the Anthony Award for Best First Novel, The Day I Died, a finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark, Thriller, Anthony, and Barry Awards. She lives in Chicago, where she is active in Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America and co-chairs the mystery conference Murder and Mayhem in Chicago.
Adam Morgan is the founding editor of the Chicago Review of Books and the Southern Review of Books. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere.