Minneapolis PI Marta Hjelm failed to prevent a preventable murder. Her guilt has brought her right to the edge of burnout and dropout. But a prize specimen from her ancient past—her cheating ex-husband—appears out of nowhere with a gig too good to turn down. One last job, Marta figures, can’t hurt.
But hurt it does, as Marta tries to make sense of a terrorist plot at a major ad agency. In the dead of a long, bitter Minnesota winter, Marta struggles to survive attempts on her life. To understand her conflicted feelings toward an ex who wants her back, and toward the man who healed her when everything was dark. To make peace with the ghost of a victim she should have saved. And to crack open multiple conspiracies that lead to murder and smoking ruin.
Snuggled tight in the heated basement garage, the ad agency’s Lexus started like a charm. I touched the button on the remote door control, and drove up and out into the brutal January night. I turned right, through the back parking lot, and right again, around the end of the building, into the front parking lot, past my frozen Mercury Marquis.
A minute later I was curving north and east at a good clip, toward Wayzata, feeling like a rally driver. The sky was a deep azure, clear as glass and full of the stars you don’t often see in the city.
It was the first time that day I’d felt relatively on top of the situation. Sure, plenty of things were screwed up.
My boyfriend Rick needed calming down and getting home, where he belonged. I’d had to go to work for people I didn’t like, for a cause that gave pause. And my reaction to seeing my ex Terry again made me a little queasy. What’s up with that? I asked myself. But clear them all up—and I had no doubt that I would—and things looked a lot better.
I tooled over a narrow bridge, went left, then right, the lake only a dozen feet away. The headlights caught the glitter of ice on the road. I lightly tapped the brakes, but didn’t feel them catch. No anti-lock kicking in. Doing something wrong, I thought, as my heart accelerated and my gloved hands squeezed the wheel harder.
I feathered the brakes again—a reflexive, fluttery tapping of my right foot, from teen driving days—as I came onto the ice. I was going way too fast. Again, nothing happened. The Lexus kept rolling.
Turning the wheel left, I could feel my heart coming up into my mouth.
The tires refused to find a purchase on the ice and the car began to yaw sideways.
I kept feathering the brakes, then pressed hard. The pedal went to the floor with a forbidding “thunk.”
The road curved left again, but the Lexus kept going straight.
A puny steel-cable guard rail came up fast as a shot and the front of the Lexus sheared through it with a percussive roar.
I was briefly airborne over eight feet of steep shoreline, starting to scream, when the car nosed down.
The frozen lake rushed toward me, brilliant in the headlights, like a wall of dirty, corrugated granite.
Writing from the other side of the gender divide
We’ve all done it—looked at a person of the opposite sex and wondered what in the world makes him/her act the way he/she does.
I had the chance to delve deeper into that mystery when I created Smoking Ruin. The book is written in first-person, from the point of view of a female PI.
My protagonist, Minneapolis PI Marta Hjelm (pronounced “Helm”), is facing a perfect little storm of trouble and danger. She wants to quit PI work and join her boyfriend Rick in his photography business. But he’s not so sure that’s a good idea. A last big job comes her way courtesy of her bad-boy ex-husband—who clearly wants her back. And once she delves deeply into the case—with her primary client murdered in a horrible way—the unknown killer comes after her.
The mystery part of this equation is fairly straightforward, in the manner of detective stories everywhere. But how does a male author like me go about getting into the head of this woman who’s facing terrific personal and professional challenges? Well, most authors put a bit of themselves in each of their characters. And in many respects Marta is me—with a whole lot more guts and gumption. She’s kind of tired and cynical. She’s a snarky observer of social foibles and is often baffled at the illogicalities of the world. She’s nearly middle-aged and out of shape and feeling not very attractive. She’s dogged and loyal—a work horse, not a show horse.
When I was writing Smoking Ruin, I was fortunate to have a technical advisor on the female point-of-view—my wife. But once I wrinkled out those inauthentic moments in the story (“Sorry, hon, a woman would never think that.”), the women who have read the book have uniformly liked, even loved, Marta. With an early version of the book I toyed with the idea of turning Marta into Martin—thinking a male PI might sell better. A female friend who had read the manuscript was appalled. “Don’t you dare!” she snapped at me. “Marta’s not a man!”
I think any good writer should be able to bring off first-person in the opposite gender. Simply create a real human being with the personality and history and character that’s required for the story you intend to tell. That human being can be based on you or someone else you know or a totally fictional creation. Then start tweaking the gender details. If you’re a woman, ask your husband, boyfriend or male friends for technical advice; if you’re a man, ask the women you know.
What’s really important is that you know your character, like your character, and believe in your character. I know I’m awfully fond of Marta Hjelm and I hope readers who pick up a copy of Smoking Ruin will be, too.
Other books by D. R. Martin
Johnny Graphic and the Etheric Bomb, a kids’ ghost adventure; website at johnnygraphicadventures.com
The Karma of King Harald, a canine cozy written under the pen name Richard Audry, to be published in early December; website at richardaudry.com
D. R.’s Goodreads author page is at http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5874298.D_R_Martin
You can contact D.R. at firstname.lastname@example.org.