In the Cal Claxton Oregon Mysteries, Cal has retreated from L.A. to an old farmhouse on an isolated ridge overlooking the Oregon wine country in the aftermath of his wife’s suicide. His daughter Claire, an uncommonly wise young woman, balked when she heard of his plan of self-exile. She’ll only sign off, she tells him, if he gets a dog and finds a hobby when he moves to Oregon.
This is how Archie, Cal’s beloved tricolor Australian Shepherd came to be and how Cal wound up a fly fisherman in a land of uncommon beauty.
Why give a protagonist a dog and a hobby? Good questions. When I thought about the protagonists in some of the most popular mystery series, like Dave Robicheaux, Harry Bosch, Kinsey Milhone, Elvis Cole, V. I. Warshawski, and Jack Reacher, I realized that pets and hobbies are in short supply. (Okay, there’s Tripod, the three legged raccoon, in the Robicheaux novels and V.I. has a couple of dogs, but they’re bit players.) For the most part, the strengths, idiosyncrasies, and weaknesses of these protagonists are revealed through a single lens—the relentless pursuit of the solution to the crime. Fully realized characters, to be sure, but aside from the odd romantic interlude, we’re told very little about what they do in their down time. This tight focus allows for a fast-paced story, to be sure. A writer who digresses needlessly does so at her peril, the mantra of any good mystery writer being, Every scene shall advance the plot.
So, am I on thin ice here?
Giving Cal a dog seemed essential. Cal loves the solitude and beauty of his lonely perch, but having every scene there transpire in Cal’s head seemed a bit restrictive, particularly since I’m writing in first person. So, I gave him a companion, a creature to look after, to jog with, and even talk to. Yes, we all talk to our animals, don’t we? Also, through their relationship, Cal’s character and humanity are revealed to the reader. There’s much to be learned about a man by the way he treats his dog. Much to my surprise, Archie asserted himself as a character in his own right, becoming a rather astute judge of people, a trait Cal learns to trust.
Cal’s fly fishing provides a kind of meditative relief, a path to healing. In Matters of Doubt, the debut novel, Cal puts it this way: The sun had burned off the marine layer and a light breeze rippled the green water. The tasks of executing a forty-foot cast, retrieving the expended line drifting back at me, and then picking my way upstream before doing it all again mercifully demanded my full attention. This was my yoga, my meditation, and by the time I scrambled up the bank for a break, my mind had cleared considerably.
A refugee from L.A., Cal falls in love with Oregon’s outdoor beauty, too. In Not Dead Enough, which will appear in June, Cal describes driving through the Columbia River Gorge in early morning, a place he has learned to love: We were twenty miles into the Gorge when the sun ignited the horizon in gold and orange light filtered through a low bank of thin clouds. A profusion of sharply etched silhouettes emerged upriver—knife-edged cliffs, blunt headlands serrated with firs, and smooth, humpbacked peaks. In first light, the scene was a study in purple, with the distance of the shapes marked by the depth of their hues. The river materialized almost simultaneously as a smooth, rose colored band that ran through the center of it all.
So, as a man wounded deeply by the mistakes of his past, Cal takes refuge in the Oregon wine country. Is a loyal Australian Shepherd, a love of fly fishing, and a deep reverence for the natural beauty of his surroundings enough for redemption? We shall see.
Warren C. Easley is the author of the Cal Claxton Oregon Mysteries. Coming in June, Not Dead Enough