Robin Spano's third murder mystery novel, featuring drugs, violence, politics and a big cover-up, was sparked, in part, by a gondola ride in Whistler.
"I love Whistler," Spano, a Lions Bay writer, says. "My cousin and I were up there for a snowboarding weekend and I just fell in love with it. I was sitting in the gondola listening to people talk about their lives. They were using weird slang and I would say, 'Hey, what does that mean?' They were really nice. I forget what the actual terms were, but (the conversation) was just about an eternal party... I thought it would be fun to send a character there."
So, she did. Death's Last Run (ECW Press) features a murder on the slopes of Blackcomb Mountain and the mystery that unfolds when undercover FBI agent, Clare Vengel is sent to investigate it. Released earlier this month, this is the third book in a series featuring the edgy investigator.
"I'm trying to make her grow up," Spano says. "With each book it's a new challenge. It's easier because I know her. It's like with a friend you know: it's easier to figure out how she'll react or whether she'll like someone she meets. The constant challenge is I want her to learn to be a better cop. I want her to grow up. She's in her 20s. I want her to mature like a real person does."
In past books that has meant putting the tomboy in stilettos and dresses. In this novel, though, it added up to something a little different. "I like to put her out of her comfort zone," Spano adds. "She hates mind-altering drugs. She just doesn't like that, but then she (takes LSD) for the assignment in order to penetrate the social group so they wouldn't think she was weird. She smokes joints and drops acid."
The book has a multi-faceted plot that includes everything from a drug-smuggling ring to U.S. politics and hard partying ski bunnies. The story begins with the death of Sacha, a Whistler-based snowboarder with a U.S. senator/presidential hopeful mother, whose body is discovered on Blackcomb. Local police deem the incident a suicide, but when Sacha's powerful mother steps in, the FBI sends Vengel to investigate undercover.
She discovers corrupt cops, a seedy drug underworld and — of course — snowboarding.
Spano travelled up to Whistler several times for research, but said she was trying to capture the feel of the place more than the exact landmarks.
"I haven't had a ton of Whistler readers," she adds. 'I had another (Whistler) writer read it and really enjoy it. Most people say it's really fun. It's almost like going snowboarding. I haven't had anyone say, 'How dare you portray our town that way.'"
(Hey, homicide and drug smuggling is probably a more favourable portrayal than the one depicted in the short-lived Whistler-based reality show Peak Season.) Plus, as Spano reveals, it could've been sleazier.
"Initially instead of drugs, Sacha had been involved in a seedy underground sex club," she says. "I changed it to drug running because I thought it was more extreme from an American politics perspective."
That was the biggest challenge writing this book: interweaving such diverse plots, told from the perspective of different characters. "This one was really challenging for me to write," she says. "It was the hardest out of all of them. Weaving those stories together was probably the biggest challenge. I wanted (Sacha's mother) to go off the rails, but not so much that she couldn't possibly stay in the race. Because it had to relate to Sacha's life in Whistler, every time I changed one thread, I had to change the other."
It might sound complicated, but part of the appeal of the genre for Spano is its loose formula. "There's enough rules and structure, which I like," she says. "I have a science background. I studied physics in school, so I like the structure. It makes me feel more comfortable and confident. I also like the art of writing."
After wrapping up promotion events next month — which will include a few readings in the Lower Mainland — Spano will begin her next novel. While she'll leave her regular characters behind for that endeavor, she promises another Clare Vengel novel is in her future. "I'll come back to her," she says. "When readers say, 'What? You're getting rid of Clare?' I feel bad. I'll do another book."
Pick up Death's Last Run in Whistler at Armchair Books.