Edith here, so happy to host my good friend (and many-time Agatha finalist) Annette Dashfy on the blog once again. Under the Radar is her latest Zoe Chambers mystery and she’s here to tell us about a research road trip she took – and to give away a signed book! But first, let’s hear about the story.
Paramedic and deputy coroner Zoe Chambers responds to a shooting and discovers her longtime friend, Horace Pavelka, has gunned down a man who’d bullied him mercilessly for decades. Ruled self-defense, no charges are filed. When another of his tormentors turns up dead in Horace’s kitchen, Police Chief Pete Adams questions the man’s innocence in both cases…especially after Horace and his girlfriend go into hiding.
While fighting to clear her friend, Zoe is handed the opportunity to finally learn what really happened to her long-lost sibling. What starts out as a quick road trip on a quest for answers leads her to an unfamiliar city in the middle of a November blizzard, where she finds way more trouble than she bargained for. Pete’s own search for Zoe and a missing murderer ultimately traps him in a web of deception. Face-to-face with one of the most cunning and deadly killers of his law enforcement career, Pete realizes too late that this confrontation may well be his last.
My Zoe Chambers Mysteries have mostly been set in “Monongahela County,” Pennsylvania, a fictionalized version of Washington County where I’ve lived my entire life. Zoe, like me, has grown up in the farm country and small towns of the area. I took her out of her comfort zone for the fifth book in the series, No Way Home, when I had her travel to New Mexico. In Under The Radar, she once again hits the road for unfamiliar territory—although not as far or unfamiliar as the American Southwest.
This time, Zoe, her cousin Patsy, and friend/investigative journalist Lauren pile into a behemoth rented SUV with Zoe’s mother Kimberly for the road trip from hell. And that’s before they even get to Erie where an early winter blizzard is whipping in from Canada.
Writing this journey and unlikely travel team was some of the most fun I’ve had sitting at a computer. Kimberly is always a hoot. Self-involved, overbearing, and—as a resident of Florida—never quite prepared for winter, Zoe’s mother can be exasperating to those around her. But now, as the domineering mother of the bride, she takes the concept of control freak to a whole new level.
The trip is only supposed to be a quick run to Clarion, a very real town about three hours north and east of Monongahela County. Zoe, with Lauren’s help, is trying to locate information on her missing half-brother when Kimberly shows up unannounced with cousin Patsy grudgingly in tow. Kimberly, while loathing the idea of her late husband having a child prior to their marriage, insists they settle this once and for all by simply driving to Clarion, the last known location for the missing sibling’s mother. Besides, Kimberly can plan Zoe’s wedding on the way.
Of course, it’s never that easy. Answers lead to more questions, and ultimately to a name and an address. In Erie. Except Kimberly has quickly tired of the mission—and the cold—and wants to return to Monongahela County and her scheduled flight back to sunny Florida. Instead, Zoe and friends head north. To Erie, and straight into the heart of a blizzard. And into the hands of a killer.
Lauren stood and approached Kimberly. “There’s another option.”
Hurricane Kimberly turned her gale-force bluster on the reporter. “And what might that be?”
“We split up.” Lauren pointed at Kimberly and Patsy. “You two head home. Zoe and I’ll rent a car and go on to Erie to find her brother.”
“That’s the stupidest idea yet.”
“Why?” Lauren demanded. “Because it’s not yours?”
The room fell silent, all the air sucked out of the eye of the hurricane. Zoe waited for Kimberly to flatten Lauren verbally if not physically.
For what felt like an eternity, the only sound was the soft tick of ice crystals tapping on the window. When Kimberly again spoke, her voice was quieter. “No. Because I was always taught you leave the dance with whomever brought you. We all came together. We stay together.” She looked at Zoe. “If you insist on continuing this wild goose chase…” Kimberly stood taller and lifted her chin. “I’ll reschedule my flight.”
Zoe stared at her mother. Who was this woman?
Why Erie? Because it’s one of my favorite places to visit, although preferably in the summer. Lake-effect snowstorms are the stuff of legends. The story is set in November, a time of year when my area is usually cold and very gray. And wet. Snow is definitely possible, even likely, but most of the time, we get a lot of rain. The trees have largely been stripped of leaves. It’s just…bleak. But east, in the Laurel Highlands (where, by the way, Vance Township Police Chief Pete Adams is searching for a missing couple wanted for questioning about a murder), and north toward the lake, larger accumulations are a regular occurrence.
It was fun getting Zoe and Pete out of familiar territory. Research wasn’t an issue since I already knew both areas well.
Kimberly? She didn’t have so much fun. But we do see another side of her—one I always knew was there, but readers, Zoe, and maybe even Kimberly herself did not.
Readers: Have you ever taken a road trip? And if so, what unexpected bumps along the road created unforgettable memories?
Annette Dashofy is the USA Today best-selling author of the Zoe Chambers mystery series about a paramedic and deputy coroner in rural Pennsylvania’s tight-knit Vance Township. Annette has garnered five Agatha nominations including her current nomination for Best Contemporary Novel for FAIR GAME. She is the vice president of the Pittsburgh chapter of Sisters in Crime Chapter and is on the board of directors of Pennwriters. UNDER THE RADAR is the ninth in her series.