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An Interview with Award-Winning Mystery Author Tracy Clark

The author of What You Don't See discusses crime fiction set in Chicago, recommends a few of her favorite mystery authors, and shares what makes her PI protagonist Cass Raines tick.

tracy clark

Tracy Clark is on a thrilling roll. The native Chicagoan earned a wave of praise for Broken Places (2018), Clark's first entry in her Cass Raines mystery series—including being nominated for a 2019 Anthony Award for Best First Novel. In April of 2020, Clark was awarded the Mystery Writers of America's Sue Grafton Memorial Award for Borrowed Time, her second Cass Raines mystery. And now, Clark has delivered What You Don't See, the highly anticipated third entry in the Raines series. Kirkus hails the new release as "a gripping relationship-based procedural that drags you in and spits you out wan but satisfied." Publishers Weekly, in its review, states: "fans of tough capable female PIs will want to see more of Cass." 

Clark draws on real-life people, places, and experiences while crafting her narratives. All three Raines mysteries take place in Chicago, with many of the settings pulled from actual locations found in Clark's neighborhood. We were lucky enough to speak with Clark about her work. In the interview below, the award-winning author discusses the rewards and realities of setting crime fiction in present-day Chicago, recommends a few of her favorite mystery authors, and dives into the mindset of her PI protagonist, Cass Raines. 

Let’s start at the beginning. You trace back your interest in mystery fiction to childhood, when you first read Nancy Drew. What was it about the mysteries you read as a child that so captured your attention?

I always liked puzzles and mazes when I was a kid, and what is a mystery but a big mazey puzzle? You’ve got to figure out whodunnit, how they dunit, and why they dunit, which was a lot of fun then, and now, quite frankly. Clues, red herrings, a little intrigue, some cliffhanger action. What’s not to love? I moved swiftly from Nancy Drew to Chandler, Himes and Hammett. Christie came next, followed by a flood of uber-talented female crime writers who debuted around the early ’80s. Some kids fanned out over sports figures, movie stars, pop singers, but writers were my jam. I wanted to know who they were and how they did what they did. I wanted the stories.

Related: 12 Crime Noir Books That Will Have You Reaching for Your Trench Coat 

How do these writers and the literature that they produce influence your work today? 

They make me work harder, that’s for sure. With such good writing out there, you don’t want to be the schlump who lets the side down. When I sit down to write, I know that Sue Grafton rocked it with Kinsey Millhone, Valerie Wilson Wesley nailed Tamara Hayle and Sara Paretsky shut it down with V.I. Warshawski. It’s intimidating, a little scary. These writers, and so many others, really set the bar high (whiny writer whimper inserted here). Still, I’m shooting for that bar, really going for it, putting the work in, hoping I don’t embarrass myself. 

You’re a native Chicagoan. You live and work in Chicago and all of your Cass Raines mysteries are set in Chicago. Is it important for you to set your mysteries in the Windy City? What are the advantages, the drawbacks to setting a crime fiction narrative in Chicago? And how does your being a native Chicagoan influence your approach to researching and writing? 

I was a new writer with a lot to cover—character development, pacing, dialogue, tension, stakes, conflict, plotting, remembering to add page breaks. I chose to set my stories in Chicago, the city I live in, because I wanted to make it a little easier on myself by not having to drive or fly someplace else and do tons of research. The church in Broken Places is my church. I pass the marina in Borrowed Time twice daily, up Lake Shore Drive and back to the South Side. I’m not saying I’m too lazy to branch out and learn a new city, only that I’m way too lazy to branch out and learn a new city. Besides, there’s not a darn thing wrong with Chicago. I know Chicago. Chicago’s great. We have the seasons. We have the history. We have corrupt politicians. We have decent sports teams. We have hotdogs and pizza. Endless material. I may get bored one day with writing about Chicago and set my sights on a different city. Somewhere warm. Somewhere with palm tree and sun. … and … Nah. Second thought. I’m good.

The newest Cass Raines mystery from Tracy Clark:

What You Don't See

What You Don't See

By Tracy Clark

A Chicago PI teams up with her former partner to protect a celebrity from a deadly stalker in this new installment of Clark's electric mystery series.

Broken Places, your first Raines mystery, involves a police shooting. The realities of cop-community relations in Chicago play a prominent role in your work. How do you approach these issues as a storyteller? What challenges do you face when integrating the realities of police work (in Chicago and beyond) into your narrative?

I wish I could say I made most of that up, but the opening scene in Broken Places, the subsequent interplay between cops and communities of color didn’t originate with me. I used what I saw happening out in the real world and copped some of it, trying hard to make the fiction ring as true as reality. I don’t think I could write crime stories set in Chicago and gloss over, or not address, the tension and distrust, the animosity, the complicated relationship between some police and black and brown communities. It’s real, it’s an issue, one this country needs to solve. Ultimately, though, Broken Places is fiction. It’s about a murdered priest and a female PI charged with solving the crime. Cass Raines’ battle with an incompetent cop is just our jumping off point, and that battle pales in comparison to her fight against demons from her past, with grief, with trauma. When we meet Cass, she’s angry at circumstances beyond her control; she’s angry at her own weaknesses, or what she perceives to be weaknesses. She curses fate and death itself, which we all know is no-win situation. She doesn’t have an easy time.

Related: 9 Perplexing Locked Room Mysteries for the Sleuth at Heart 

One element that I love about the Cass Raines mysteries is that you write in the first-person. We get to know Cass Raines; we see the world through her eyes. Tell us about your protagonist. Who is she? What sets her apart from other fictional sleuths?

Cassandra Raines wouldn’t consider herself anyone special. She’s like many women I know, just out there getting the job done. For Cass, everything doesn’t have to be talked to death or discussed. There’s not a lot of navel-gazing in her world. Her childhood was a bit messy, so as a result, she’s become fiercely independent, self-sustaining, self-assured, pigheaded, snarky, intense, unforgiving often. She’s fiercely loyal, honest, almost to a fault. She holds the people she cares about close, but you can count those people on one hand. Cass has zero-tolerance for BS. She can smell a lie a mile off, and her withering cop stare could likely shrivel a man’s intestines. She’s a flawed, prickly champion of the underdog, who looks out for the little guy, the one who never gets a break, the one who always seems to get trampled by a big guy’s foot. She punches above her weight but doesn’t let that stop her. She’s smart, resourceful, prone to overwork. She’s always first through the door, but the absolute last to share a single feeling. She’s always “fine,” when people ask, even when she clearly isn’t. Her armor is secure, her walls always high. She’s not fearless, but she’s not fearful either. She’s a messy human, or as human as I can make her. 

The thrilling debut of Cass Raines:

Broken Places

Broken Places

By Tracy Clark

Introducing African American PI Cass Raines in this “engrossing and superbly written” series debut from the author of What You Don’t See (Lisa Black, New York Times bestselling author).

In the acknowledgments of Borrowed Time you thank two female detectives of the Chicago PD for their insights into policing and breaking down police work “from a female’s perspective.” Cass Raines is an African-American female investigator who encounters injustice and discrimination on both sides of the law. I wonder what insights these detectives shared with you that were especially revealing? What details were important for you to include? 

These women were gracious enough to share their time so I could poke around in their heads for a while. I wasn’t looking so much for procedural information, though I got some of that too, I wanted to know why they chose the job, how they approached it, what they found most challenging about it? Attitude. Perspective. Mindset. I’d made my main character a female police detective but didn’t have a real feel for how that might play out character-wise. What kind of personality would my character need to have? What kind of commitment would she have had to make? What were the rewards, tradeoffs, negatives, dangers of the job? What keeps a cop going when the job is so intense and when split-second, life-and-death decisions have to be made? I couldn’t even imagine the stress that goes along with all of that. So, I asked my questions and listened, really listened and at the end I had a skin to pour Cass’s voice into. Now Cass walks into a room like a cop might, she sizes up a suspect like a cop might. She thinks like a cop, observes like a cop, banters like a cop. I spend a lot of time trying to make the reader believe that Cass is who she says she is, that she’s 100% authentic. I hope I’ve accomplished that to some degree. 

Related: Bernard Schaffer: My Life as a Mystery Writer and Real-Life Criminal Investigator 

I think you've succeeded wildly. As mentioned, in Broken Places, Raines investigates the murder of a neighborhood priest, Father Ray Heaton. In Borrowed Time, she investigates the death of Tim Ayers, the son of a prominent Chicago family. In both novels, Raines is connected to the case, either directly or through a close friend. How do you go about constructing the cases at the heart of your mysteries? What role does family, community, and personal connection play in your efforts?

The idea for the first book, Broken Places, came to me while sitting in church, my church, the church I used as a set piece in the book. The sermon was kind of dragging on, so I happened to look over at the empty confessional and in my mind I envisioned a foot sticking out of it, a foot attached to the dead body of a priest. How’d the body get there? I turned to the altar, stared at the altar steps, all shiny and clean, and envisioned a widening blood pool, and another body. I lost track of the Mass after that, but I had the beginnings of a story. Book two, Borrowed Time, came together after reading a newspaper article. It was on a topic I didn’t know much about, but that I found interesting. I began to think, well that’s how it’s supposed to work, but what if… After tossing it around for a while, trying on characters, I started writing, and the story blossomed around me.

As for family, Cass has a very complicated relationship with what a family is supposed to be. She lost her mother when she was a kid, her father abandoned her on her grandparents’ doorstep. She has major trust issues. She travels light relationship-wise. She has, however, managed to piece together a little family unit made up of friends that keeps her grounded and in the world. Most people would go all-in for family. Cass is the same.

The award-winning second entry in Clark's Cass Raines mysteries:

tracy clark borrowed time

Borrowed Time

By Tracy Clark

Cassandra Raines looks into a suspicious death as a favor to a friend—and makes some powerful enemies—in the second installment in Clark's celebrated mystery series. 

You write mysteries—award-winning mysteries, in fact. And we’ve established that you’re an avid reader of the genre. Who are some of your favorite mystery authors working today? What other genres/styles do you enjoy? 

Oh, man, this list could go on forever. I read everything. My TBR pile is so high it tilts like the leaning tower of Pisa. My bookshelves are crammed so tight with books I’ve read and enjoyed, and often reread, that I’m afraid the floor will bow under the weight. I so miss Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Robert B. Parker’s unique stamp with his Spenser and Sunny Randall series, but there are so many talented writers out there, especially amazing writers of color who are holding it down—Rachel Howzell Hall. Her Lou Norton series and her new book And Now She’s Gone blow me away. Delia Pitts’ PI series featuring SJ Rook, the latest being Pauper and Prince in Harlem, is awesome. I’m also a big fan of Cheryl Head’s Charlie Mack series and the great work by writers like S.A. Cosby, Gigi Pandian, Sujata Massey, Kellye Garrett, Tori Eldridge, Ed Aymar, Angie Kim, Alex Segura, the great Walter Mosley. There are so many others, I wish I had the space to list them all, but check out Frankie’s List, which lists many diverse writers you may not be familiar with. You can find it on the Sisters in Crime website. Though I tend to go for a gritty PI story first, I also like a good humorous novel and my go-tos for that would be folks like Janet Evanovich and Catriona McPherson, both wickedly funny. I also liked Joan Hess’s Maggody series and read Carlene O’Connor’s Irish Village series. In short, I am not one to turn a book away, unless it’s on something like balloon crafting, papermaking, or learning how to cobble your own shoes. Don’t bring me anything like that, please.

Related: Trouble Is What I Do: 11 Best Walter Mosley Books 

Let's finish with your newest Raines mystery—out now. Could you tell us about What You Don’t See

In What You Don’t See, Cass Raines is recruited by her ex-partner, Detective Ben Mickerson, to assist him in acting as bodyguard to an entitled, highhanded, diva magazine publisher named Vonda Allen, who runs roughshod over her staffers and will never win any prizes for Ms. Congeniality. Ms. Allen has acquired a stalker, one who has been sending her threatening letters written in red ink and bouquets of flowers with no cards attached. Vonda has refused to involve the police, which Cass finds strange, but she reluctantly signs on to protect Allen, who has made it clear she’s paying for protection, not an investigation. But when the threats continue, when the flowers keep coming, and when those around Allen begin to die, Cass is convinced Allen knows who’s more about things than she’s letting on, but is unwilling to give up her secrets, despite the rising death toll. When the attacks hit home for Cass, she drops the security work and sets her sights on finding a killer before the next body falls.

I like the clash between Vonda and Cass in What You Don’t See. Those scenes were so much fun to write. I hope readers will check it out.

Tracy Clark is the award-winning author of the Cass Raines mysteries. Her latest, What You Don't See, is out now.