I’d like to welcome mystery writer Tracee de Hahn to Mysteristas. Tracee is the author of the Agnes Lüthi mysteries, Swiss Vendetta and A Well-Timed Murder. Trained as an architect, Tracee has an eye for detail. She lives with her husband and Jack Russell Terriers in southwest Virginia, but travels frequently to Switzerland where her novels are set.
KO: Your protagonist, Agnes Lüthi, is a relatable character, and you do such a great job showing her dealing with the loss of her husband while investigating the murders in Swiss Vendetta and A Well-Timed Murder. You’re an expert at balancing the emotional backstory while advancing the plot. Can you tell us how you developed this character? Do you have any advice or tricks you can share for hitting just the right emotional note while keeping the suspense?
TdH: When I read for pleasure, I am drawn to characters who are “regular plus,” meaning they rise to the occasion, as we all hope to if confronted by the dreadful things we put our characters through. This might be considered the baseline for Agnes’s organic development. She would have a family, and a situation in keeping with her life in Switzerland. At that point, plot considerations entered into decisions – if she’s married then what role does her husband play in her life? I didn’t want the complication of a husband because, honestly, I wanted the possibility of a romantic attachment with Julian Vallotton, so….. the husband died.
After I finished the first draft I realized how and why he had died. It was in an even later draft that this information was revealed to Agnes in the story. It was already her story, but including the revelation in Swiss Vendetta certainly elevated her crisis in a spiraling parallel with revelations about the murder investigation in progress. I think the link between personal and plotline/professional crisis can work in many ways, but they need to enhance each other, not detract.
KO: Reading your Agnes Lüthi mysteries reminds me of the best of Agatha Christie. Swiss Vendetta is a locked room mystery, and A Well-Timed Murder has a cast of characters, each with their own secrets and motives, much like a Christie story. Who are some the main influences on your writing?
TdH: Agatha Christie, of course! I am also a devoted fan of Martha Grimes with her Richard Jury mysteries and the great cast of characters she has created. Outside the mystery genre three of my favorite books are James Clavell’s Shogun, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. All books with intricate story lines connecting a great number of characters.
KO: The Agnes Lüthi Mysteries are international mysteries. How important is setting to your mysteries? Any advice for using setting to enhance the mystery or move the plot forward?
TdH: Setting is key to my writing. I’m not sure I know how to separate idea from place. Perhaps because my early training and professional life was that of an architect. Agnes’s story – the location, the characters, her family life – are directly related to life in Switzerland.
Swiss Vendetta grew out of the idea of an isolated château and an ice storm.Place was first, then who would live there, and from that what kind of crime would occur.
A Well-Timed Murder was greatly influenced by two Swiss industries: watchmaking and elite international boarding schools. Again, what kind of crime would happen there, and why.
Plot is a way of saying what happens to people, and in some cases, things only happen to people because of where they are or who they are around. Switzerland is a place of deep roots and, simultaneously, international connections. You find people from all over the world living together (boarding school) or coming together (international watch fairs), but there is not a ‘melting pot’ like in the US. People retain their customs and language of origin. I like the conflict this can create.
When writing about any place no matter how familiar or exotic it may seem, it is critical to be true to the character of that place. While murder may be committed the world over out of rage, or jealousy, or greed, the how likely changes. Gun crimes are practically non-existent in Switzerland, so don’t use a gun unless you have a terribly convincing reason. Place always matters!
KO: I think of your novels as what Lisa Preston called “Cozy Plus.” Do you have a cozy audience in mind when writing?
TdH: I like the idea of cozy plus! Perhaps that is precisely what I have in mind. I’m personally not an edge of my seat, unable to go to sleep reader. I like to sink into a story and get to know a cast of characters without double checking the locks on my doors. On the other hand, my books aren’t necessarily PG. I think it is a shame that cozy can sometimes be deemed off-putting. If you characterize cozy as excluding gratuitous violence or gratuitous bad language then I’m in. This means you may find some sex, or the possibility of sex, and some language. But that isn’t at the heart of the book. When I think about Martha Grimes’s Richard Jury series I see the evolution over two decades from a hint of romance to suggestion of sex, well, maybe more than a suggestion, but nothing explicit. In today’s world, I don’t think people are offended if someone screams Damn! when their hand is trapped in the burning embers of a fire.
KO: What are you working on now? Will we see Agnes again in another outting?
TdH: I’d like to do another Agnes Lüthi sometime but right now I’m at work on a mystery set in Kentucky, where I spent most of my life. In it, a young woman inherits a distillery only to find a dead body among the bourbon barrels the day she takes possession. Earlier you asked about setting, and after years living in Lexington, Kentucky I was thrilled to set my fictional distillery there. Of course, there has been a great deal of ‘required’ research at distilleries throughout the state.
Keep an eye on my web page and on social media for news about this one!
KO: Thanks, Tracee! We will!