By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Lit Writer
Roxanne Weary drinks too much Crown Royal. She is sometimes reckless and headstrong. She carries complicated grief after her father’s death and fumbles through her difficult love life. She is doing some contract investigative work for a high-end workout apparel company (a hilarious riff on the cult-like reverence of Lululemon devotees) while suffering through a particularly cold, snowy winter in central Ohio. And then she gets a frantic call in the middle of the night from her brother.
This is where you meet the protagonist of Kristen Lepionka’s latest mystery, “The Stories You Tell,” just out this month from Minotaur Books, the third installment in her Roxanne Weary series.
Roxanne is not a former cop, but as the daughter of a policeman, she’s not entirely unfamiliar with the inner-workings of the department. That said, it presents challenges for Lepionka to work through creatively precisely because Roxanne doesn’t have the power of the badge behind her. Nor is Roxanne a hacker. So she uses the channels available to all private citizens.
“The types of information you can find online, public records — it’s straight crazy, actually,” Lepionka told the Current via telephone from her home in Columbus. “When you drill down to the local level, the types of information that’s available … I put that together by doing searches — starting with my own information and exploring from there. I hope that didn’t sound creepy.”
But mystery writers should be a little creepy, right?
While state, county and municipal records can provide a treasure trove of information to any private citizen from the comfort of their own homes, the availability of that information isn’t new to the digital era. Divorces, civil litigation, criminal records, tax liens, homeownership, real estate values and the like have always been there in paper form, easily searchable in the analog days.
But we are living in a different era from dusty old deed book volumes and Raymond Chandler. Back then, the starting point for a detective mystery could simply be that somebody was not at home to receive a vital message. Now? That’s virtually impossible.
Lepionka thoroughly embraces 21st century America to her advantage. Roxanne uses social media as she seeks to unravel the mystery her brother is tangled up in. Plus, Lepionka created a few other modern elements to fill in the story, most notably SpinSpo (the aforementioned Lululemon-like company) and a Columbus-specific dating and messaging app.
“When you’re writing, you can make up whatever technology you want, but I’m not writing fantasy novels. I want it to be something that feels real,” she said.
Roxanne ends up digging for other, deeper truths, though. In an era when we’ve all surrendered our privacy to Facebook and Twitter without even the merest fight, just what constitutes mystery? How does a writer build suspense? Lepionka views it as an opportunity to examine our interior lives.
“It does require thinking about mysteries in a different way. It becomes about finding out what people don’t tell anyone,” she said. “Mysteries are always about a secret. Our secrets have just become different types of secrets. With social media, you may feel like you know someone because you read about them on Twitter or Facebook. Is that the same as knowing a person? It presents a lot of interesting opportunities to explore what it means about human nature — the things we choose to put out there versus the things we keep secret.”