Review by Carolyn Kane
Author Patricia Skalka made a virtual appearance in April to discuss her newly published novel, Death Washes Ashore, with guests of Write On, Door County. This work is the sixth installment in her Dave Cubiak mystery series, and readers who are familiar with Cubiak’s adventures might reasonably have expected his creator to be quite a formidable woman: perhaps a female incarnation of Lou Grant from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
But Skalka is actually a pleasant, soft-spoken woman, and surprisingly, she gave a little shudder when she confessed to her audience that when she began writing the series, she didn’t even like her own hero.
It’s understandable that Skalka and at least some of her readers might have found Cubiak to be a repellent personality – at least initially. He is neither charming nor amiable; he would not sparkle at a cocktail party or a diplomatic reception. The tragedy that has indelibly marked his life was the death of his wife and daughter in a car accident, and as a result, he tends to be moody and sullen.
But Cubiak is a sheriff, not a receptionist or salesperson, and although he does not exude charm and dash, he wins the respect of his fellow characters, Skalka’s readers and ultimately the author herself.
Writers are accustomed to the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” During her presentation, Skalka explained that the inspiration for Death Washes Ashore was twofold.
The first inspiration followed a dramatic storm on the Door peninsula, when a neighbor informed her by email that a boat had washed up on the beach. He added mischievously, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if there was a body under it?” At first Skalka did not take his hint seriously, but nonetheless, a seed had been sown.
The second inspiration came from Skalka’s daughter, who told her about an activity known as “larping”: live-action role-playing. The term “larp” resists a simple definition, but Urban Dictionary provides this explanation: “Larping is when a bunch of nerds get together in a field or pasture and beat each other up with foam-core swords.” A larp shares some characteristics with, for example, a Civil War reenactment or a children’s game of cops and robbers.
According to Wikipedia, larps are performed around the world for a variety of purposes, including psychological research and high school language study, but the usual purpose is just for entertainment. A larp might take place casually in someone’s backyard or as an international event involving thousands of players in a specially designed park reminiscent of Disneyland.
Could such a park be imagined in Door County? Skalka became convinced that a larping venue would be a perfect setting for a Dave Cubiak adventure.
When Death Washes Ashore begins, Cubiak has put his life back in order. He has married again, and his family responsibilities include an eight-year-old son, Joey, and a black lab named Bear. It is Joey who creeps to his father’s bedside in the predawn darkness after a howling storm and announces sleepily, “I think there’s a body on the beach.”
When Cubiak goes out to check, he discovers that the storm has turned the beach into a “junkyard of trash.” The dead man is found beneath a capsized boat, wearing the metallic costume of a medieval knight.
He turns out to be Scott Henley, president of Mythweavers Larp Productions. As is usual in murder mysteries, Henley had no shortage of enemies. One of his mistakes was to locate his larping center near a farming community. Larpers can make a good deal of racket during their simulated battles, which had alarmed the nearby dairy cows and threatened the farmers’ livelihood.
Another problem occurred because of Mythweavers Larp Productions’ chosen theme: the Camelot of King Arthur, Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, who was Arthur’s queen and Lancelot’s great love. Two of the larpers have had a dispute over who should play Guinevere – a situation complicated by the fact that both women had intimate relationships with Henley. Then there is a mysterious thin man and his huge, white dog, who were spotted on the foggy beach at the time when Henley’s body was found.
The list of suspects grows, and so does Cubiak’s determination to identify the killer. He remains undeterred even when somebody tries to burn down the larping center.
Death Washes Ashore contains fewer gruesome episodes than some of Skalka’s earlier works, but many of today’s COVID-19-weary readers may enjoy that relative calm and welcome using their brains to beat Cubiak to the solution. For such readers, Skalka has left an important clue in plain sight. If you think you’re clever enough to spot it, you will enjoy Death Washes Ashore.
Carolyn Kane is a professor emerita of English at Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Missouri, who lives in Door County. She founded a popular writers’ conference for high school students and sponsored an award-winning collegiate magazine. Kane is also the author of Taking Jenny Home, which was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2014.