You feel like you’re there – the sensation you have when you enter is one of recognition, of familiarity. Or it can be the exhilaration of experiencing a place for the first time, the excitement of discovery. In mystery fiction that all boils down to what we call “sense of place.” Writers either have it or they don’t. It’s more than just description, naming street names and other specific locations. It’s way more than that. It’s the ability to create the feeling of the place, its personality, the rhythm of it and its people. When you close your eyes you can picture it, smell it, see it. Even if not fully defined, you can imagine the whole of it and the people that inhabit it, the stories that are created there. That is sense of place. And that is a regional writer’s secret weapon. The characters and storyline are even more important, but combine the best of those with an incredible sense of place and you have brilliance. It’s hard to come by.
Regional mysteries are an incredibly popular sub-genre today. Almost everyone enjoys reading about a familiar town or country – it stirs up all those memories and offers a new perspective to a place you may well have taken for granted. My enjoyment of mysteries set in Ireland, for example, has been greatly enhanced by my many visits there – the written dialog rings so clear in my mind after having spent hours listening to the melodic voices of my Irish friends and colleagues.
There are many fine regional writers today. Nevada Barr brings you to a national park in every one of her books – Isle Royale in the middle of Lake Superior, the Dry Tortugas in Florida or Ellis Island in New York. Tony Hillerman offers us the country and people of the Navaho Nation. You could identify S.J. Rozan, who writes of New York City and Japan so clearly that you can see them in your mind’s eye – the crowds, the food smells, the noise – as a regional writer. And Donna Leon describes the essence of Venice so clearly that I’m certain that I’ll recognize every building, every waterway should I ever find myself there. And there are many who try, but don’t quite succeed. The cities are there, the streets are there, recognizable sites and the flora and fauna are there, but they seem as if dropped in based on a checklist, designed so as to guarantee local sales.
Door County’s regional mystery writer is Gail Lukasik. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, she became a dancer with the Cleveland Civic Ballet Company. She’s worked as a choreographer and a freelance writer. She’s best known for her poetry, with poems appearing in over 60 literary journals throughout the past 25 years. Her book of poems, Landscape Toward a Proper Silence was published in 1992. And in 2002 the Illinois Arts Council gave her a literary award for her poem “In Country.” Earning her MA and PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Lukasik has also taught writing and literature there.
In 2006 Gail Lukasik had her first mystery published – Destroying Angels, named for the very white, very poisonous mushroom. Typically found in California and Oregon, perhaps one found its way into the forest in Door County…Lukasik’s protagonist is Chicago native Leigh Girard who has fled to Egg Harbor to heal from a recent mastectomy. Working as a reporter for the Door County Gazette, Leigh investigates a wrongful death claim by Eva Peck, the widow of a restoration craftsman.
Death’s Door, Lukasik’s second book was published this past March. This time Leigh investigates the strangulation murders of young blond women along the Mink River. Soon Leigh finds herself tracked by the killer, someone who has apparently been living on the peninsula for years…waiting. It was great fun seeing Door County through Lukasik’s eyes – I was there in Sister Bay right along with Leigh – if not just a little frightening to think that murder can even take place up here on the peninsula. I’m thinking it’s a little like Cabot Cove, Maine – Jessica Fletcher manages to find a killer under just about every rock. But then again it’s all fiction, right??
My recommendation is that you check out Death’s Door – decide for yourself where Gail Lukasik falls on the scale of regional writers.