As I wrote the fourth and final book of my romance series (pen name Katie O’Boyle), I prepared for my next series, murder mysteries set in Tompkins Falls, NY, the same location as Lakeside Porches, and revolving around troubled Tompkins College. The mysteries would be whodunits and they would fall into the subgenre of academic mysteries. I wanted a pair of sleuths, complementary equals, not a detective and sidekick, to work in tandem to solve the murders. Neither would be a professional crime solver (PI, police detective, for example), and they’d be a married couple.
Having articulated that for myself, I went back to work on the last romance, Waking Up To Love, and found the plot had changed in an important way. It always had a villain, whom I imagined to be a likable character. But now, the more I got to know him, the more devious be became. He turned Kyle and Lyssa’s journey toward true love into a roller coaster ride, a dangerous one. His tricks ultimately inspired Kyle and Lyssa to set aside their squabbles and act as a team, in order to look more closely at what the villain and his buddies were up to. While it wasn’t murder, it was an infraction that negatively impacted the college and destroyed one faculty member’s academic career.
Wait. Two smart people, Kyle and Lyssa, acting as a team, doing what? I’d found my crime-solving duo!
Fresh from Waking Up To Love, Kyle and Lyssa stepped into the role of investigative partners in The Penningtons Investigate. It was clear as I drafted the first book in the series, Planted, that neither Kyle nor Lyssa ever would become a detective. Lyssa thrives on her career as an economics professor at the college, and Kyle embraces his role as CEO of his own computer security business, Pennington Secure Networks. However, circumstances arise that require them to work as a team to solve a murder, because the killing affects them personally and impacts the college in some way.
When I told my loyal beta readers about my concept, they came back with big smiles. “Are they going to be like Nick and Nora? Tommy and Tuppence? Hart to Hart? MacMillan and Wife?” I loved the question! Why not learn from and play off sleuthing duos from series I’d loved and maybe a few I’d never heard of?
I watched old movies, TV series (anyone remember Mr. and Mrs. North?), and updated versions of classics like Partners in Crime. My research took a big step forward when a librarian friend handed me a June 20, 2015, article published in The Guardian: “Perfect partners in crime: Tommy and Tuppence,” which gave me a taste of still more crime-solving duos.
Unlike many couples in crime fiction, Kyle and Lyssa Pennington are equal partners in solving any murder they tackle. Lyssa, the economics professor, is a natural for “following the money story,” which proves to be essential in unraveling each mystery. Similarly, Kyle’s expertise with technology gives them a leg-up with manipulating all available data as they search for patterns and discrepancies. They are different but equal personalities as well. Where Lyssa is sensitive and intuitive, Kyle is logical and capable of intense concentration. They are united in their goals but divergent in their paths to the answers. Neither can determine “whodunit?” without the other’s input.
How do they see themselves? Here’s an abbreviated exchange from an early chapter of Planted, the first book in The Penningtons Investigate. On their lawyer’s advice, Kyle and Lyssa have undertaken a door-to-door canvass of their new neighborhood, apologizing for a shooting in their backyard. Oh, and sleuthing while they’re at it:
“Ready, Mr. Pennington?”
“Ready, Mrs. Pennington.”
“I like being on your team,” Lyssa said with a wink. Script and clipboard at the ready, they crossed Seneca Street to the first house on their block.
. . . after a difficult encounter with their first crotchety neighbor . . .
She put a plus sign in the final column for 50 Seneca Street.
“Ah, a secret code. What does the plus sign mean? Clearly not ‘warm and fuzzy.’”
“Hah. It stands for successful damage repair.”
“Meaning, he doesn’t hate us as new neighbors?”
“Exactly.” She had penned ‘Mr. Jonas’ in the Name column, and ‘Tuttle 20 years?’ in the Notes column.
“Good work, Watson,” Kyle teased.
“What Watson?” Lyssa elbowed him playfully. “Miss Marple, I’d say. Oh, I should add a comment that we’ve invited him for iced tea.”
“But Jane Marple was solo. We’re more like Nick and Nora, don’t you think?”
“Weren’t they sloshed a lot?” Lyssa said with a laugh. “I’m sober, don’t forget.”
“Right. Tommy and Tuppence perhaps?”
“Not sure. I’ll have to reread those.”
The lively banter between Kyle and Lyssa is a device for processing clues and brainstorming next steps and talking through possible murder scenarios, and it’s also a vital source of humor in a series that deals with murder. Readers have picked up on it as a hallmark of the series, and a few have likened the Penningtons to Nick and Nora, which compelled me to reread Dashiell Hammett’s classic The Thin Man. The experience was different as an author, and truly fascinating. Having savored Hammett’s extraordinary whodunit, I can’t imagine Kyle and Lyssa putting away gin the way Nick and Nora do. And I can only aspire to write a plot as clever and baffling as Hammett’s.
With five semesters left in Lyssa’s contract as a Visiting Professor at Tompkins College, there are more murders to come in the Finger Lakes village of Tompkins Falls. Each of the murders will affect both Kyle and Lyssa enough for them to unite as a team to figure out “whodunit?” Solve it they will, using their diverse talents and their trademark humor.
It’s Monday of spring break when Professor Lyssa Pennington’s backyard garden project unearths a loaded revolver. With no record of violence at their address and no related cold case, the Tompkins Falls police have no interest. But the Penningtons and a friend with the State Police believe there’s a body somewhere. Whose? Where? And who pulled the trigger?
Planted is book one in the mystery series, The Penningtons Investigate.
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C.T. Collier was born to solve logic puzzles, wear tweed, and drink Earl Grey tea. Her professional experience in cutthroat high tech and backstabbing higher education gave her endless opportunity to study intrigue. Add to that her longtime love of mysteries, and it’s no wonder she writes academic mysteries that draw inspiration from traditional whodunits. Her setting, Tompkins Falls, is a blend of several Finger Lakes towns, including her hometown, Seneca Falls, NY. Entirely fictional, Tompkins College is no college and every college.