Photo Content from Tracy Clark
Tracy Clark is the 2019 Sue Grafton Memorial Award-winning author of the highly acclaimed Chicago Mystery Series featuring hard-driving, Black, ex-homicide cop turned PI Cassandra Raines. In RUNNER, Cass searches for a runaway teen—and unearths a twisted world full of misdirection and lies. The full synopsis is below my signature.
Tracy is also an Anthony and Lefty Award finalist, and her books have been shortlisted for the American Library Association's RUSA Reading List, named a CrimeReads Best New PI Book of 2018, a Midwest Connections Pick, and a Library Journal Best Books of the Year selection. A native of Chicago, she works as an editor in the newspaper industry and roots for the Cubs, Sox, Bulls, Bears, and Blackhawks equally. She is a board member-at large of Sisters in Crime, Chicagoland, a member of International Thriller Writers, and a Mystery Writers of America Midwest board member. She is currently a finalist for the Left Coast Crime Fiction "Lefty" Award for Best Mystery of the Year.
Greatest thing you learned in school
I learned a reader and a thinker beats a bully hands-down every single time. Knowledge is power, ignorance and hate are twin poisons.
Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
The most rewarding thing is the accomplishment itself. Writing is difficult. Getting published is even more difficult. It’s a fair amount of raw determination, sweat equity, dedication to craft and pure luck. It’s finding the right publisher, the right agent, the right editor who believes in your work as much as you do, and will fight for it just as ferociously as you will. The reward comes in knowing you didn’t give up when the rejection letters started to flood in. You followed through, you went back and taught yourself a little bit more. You persisted. Then when your first book arrives in a box at your front door, you can run your hand along that book’s cover and recall all the work that went into getting to that point. You’ve more than earned that quiet smile of victory, that calm exhale.
What inspired you to pen your first novel?
All the books I’d ever read inspired me to be brave and step out there and try to write my own book. I am a great fan of crime fiction. I’m particularly drawn to the PI archetype. I wanted to try my hand at writing something as good as some of my favorite authors – Grafton, Muller, Paretsky, Wilson Wesley, Taylor Bland, Christie, Hammett, Chandler, Mosley. If you’re going to write, why not shoot for the moon? I’m still shooting.
Tell us your latest news.
I’ve just signed a two-book deal with Thomas & Mercer. They will publish my first two standalones. HIDE, the first book up, will publish in December 2022. I have no idea about the second book yet, but I’ve got time to figure it out.
Can you tell us when you started RUNNER, how that came about?
RUNNER is book four in my Chicago Mystery Series. I started it right after I turned in the third book, WHAT YOU DON’T SEE. I had a deadline. This is when the panic sets in. I don’t think I’m the only writer who feels this panic, this worry that you’ll never come up with another idea for a book. Fortunately, this fear is irrational. You will. You do. The stories will come.
What do you hope for readers to be thinking when they read your novel?
I would like readers to enjoy the books. I hope they find them fun and that they love Cass Raines, my main character, and her circle of friends, as much as I do. The books are set in Chicago, so I also hope that readers will learn a little bit about my city and the real people who live there.
What part of your characters did you enjoy writing the most?
I enjoy writing character flaws more than anything else. No one wants to read about perfect people. I like giving each character, main or secondary, something to wrestle with and overcome. Book people are not real people, but I like to make them feel real.
What chapter was the most memorable to write and why?
My favorite chapter in RUNNER, and thus the most memorable personally, was the last chapter. I love a good action scene. I spend an awful lot of time on them, breaking them down to almost elemental levels. Character motivation plays here, too. Every character wants something they fight to get. It’s in the denouement where that battle for want and need hits its peak. What fun!
If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
I would love to introduce Cass to Sunny Randall, Robert B. Parker’s Boston female PI. I think the two would have so much in common, and I would love to see how they tag-teamed their way through a difficult case, each one flying by the seat of their pants.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received from another author?
The advice came from Eleanor Taylor Bland, who I was lucky enough to count as a mentor and a friend. Simple advice. KEEP WRITING! Writing’s a lonely profession. It’s easy to get discouraged and want to give up. It’s easier to put a manuscript down and walk away than it is to finish it and then to revise it. For those down times, for those times when you have no idea what you’re doing or whether what you’re writing is even good – KEEP WRITING!
What is something you think everyone should do at least once in their lives?
Dance like no one’s watching while everyone’s watching.
Best date you've ever had?
I’ll never tell.
If you could go back in time to one point in your life, where would you go?
I think I’d go back to age ten. I hadn’t yet lost all the people I’ve lost since—family, friends.
Which incident in your life that totally changed the way you think today?
I don’t think I can point to one specific incident that changed how I think today. I believe the biggest influence on how I think would have to be my education. Education teaches you how to think and how to reason, how to evaluate information out in the real world. It broadens you, grounds you, and gives you the tools to take part in intelligent discourse with those who think differently, believe differently. It opens the universe to you on so many levels. Education can heal the world. Ignorance is weakness. It’s a dark hole.
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be?
I’ve always wanted to see the Great Pyramids of Egypt. Haven’t made it yet. One day, though.
What do you usually think about right before falling asleep?
I think about my next morning’s writing session. I sort of set in my brain where I need to pick up the action when I get back to my writing desk at 5:30 AM. Once I do that, I can fall asleep.
When I found out Santa Claus wasn’t real. The world felt a little less magical after that.
Which would you choose, true love with a guarantee of a heart break or have never loved before?
Ah, the old It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all thing. You have to choose love. Love is life. Love teaches and heals and moves you through life as a whole human being.
TEN FAVORITE READS EVER
- “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee
- “Murder on the Orient Express,” Agatha Christie
- “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens
- “Bleak House,” Charles Dickens
- “Indemnity Only,” Sara Paretsky
- “A is for Alibi,” Sue Grafton
- “Dead Time,” Eleanor Taylor Bland
- “Past Imperfect,” Margaret Maron
- “The Cheshire Cat’s Eyes,” Marcia Muller
- “When Death Comes Stealing,” Valerie Wilson Wesley
This is one of my favorite scenes from RUNNER. I love them all, but this one was so fun to write. The setting is an actual place here in Chicago. It’s an old bread company, like in the book, and like this scene indicates, it has long been abandoned and left to rot. I’m always scoping the city out for good places to highlight. There is more of a lead-up to this chase and confrontation, but here’s a little taste.
Barb shouted frantically from the bus. “Cass! Leave him! What are you doing?”
Scoot ran flat-out, slipping some on the ice and snow, but not stopping or slowing. He was a kid, nimble, surefooted. If he took a tumble, he’d likely spring back up and keep on going. I was of a certain age, four years from the big 4-0, if I hit the ice, I was going to break something and end up in the emergency room.
He checked for me, and found me there, my arms pumping, my legs too, me praying the whole time I didn’t catch a bad patch of ice and ruin the next six months of my life.
“Stop!” I yelled.
Scoot ignored the command. He gave up the sidewalk and darted out into the street between cars in oncoming traffic. I skidded to a stop before leaving the curb, waiting for cars to pass, then stepped off again, having lost ground. Getting hit by a car was also not in my plan. That meant broken bones, maybe traction, months of PT, and that’s if the darn thing didn’t kill me right from the jump.
I ran across the street, brushing the back of a car’s bumper as I passed it. “Scoot!” I plastered my eyes to his back, using it as my focal point. How long was he going to hold onto the box of doughnuts? You would think it would slow him down. Just then I remembered I had left my bag on the bus. I had no cellphone, no ID, nothing. I should stop running. I should let the kid go, find him another way. I had no idea where he was leading me. A sane person would break off and go back. I dug in and sped up.
Up ahead, well ahead, Scoot suddenly stopped and turned, breathing hard, his eyes cutting, angry. “What is your problem, bitch?”
I pulled up to a much-needed stop, too. I was winded, sweating under my fleece and outer jacket, my vision blurred from the run. I hadn’t been on my bike since the weather turned months ago, and I was now feeling the effects of too little exercise. That and the mid-thirties thing.
I leaned over, my hands on my knees, trying not to pass out. It took a few seconds. I straightened, pointed at him. “First, don’t call me bitch. Second, what’s your problem? Where is she? I swear, kid, if there’s one hair out of place on her head…” I gulped in cold air, needing more of it, even though it hit my lungs like nail spikes shot out of a gun. “I’m going to beat the living crap out of you.”
He smirked at me. “Doesn’t look like you’re so much.” He hoisted the box of doughnuts higher under his arm. “Plus, I get nothing for helping you. I can’t spend nothing. I can’t eat nothing. Nothing gets me no place warm.” He turned, flicked me a look, then took off again. “Bitch!”
I wasn’t ready, not by half, but I started up again, digging in the best I could the word bitch still ringing in my ears. When I caught Scoot, we were going to have a conversation about respect, and by conversation, I meant something else entirely.
We ran for blocks, Scoot never once in danger of being caught. The only thing I could hope for was not to lose sight of him. Maybe he was leading me to Ramona, maybe he was luring me into an ambush. Again, all I had to do was slow down and stop, but something in me just would not let me do it.
We were heading back toward Garfield Parkway, toward where Marian had parked the bus the night before. I saw Scoot zip into the alley behind the old Sunshine Bread Company. The tall yellow building, standing monster-like in the dark, had been shuttered and boarded up for years, since Sunshine rolled the last loaf of white bread off the conveyor belt. The pleasant smell of fresh-baked bread used to scent the whole neighborhood and jobs were plentiful, then people started watching their carbs, wrapping their sandwiches in lettuce leaves, and Sunshine went bust. I stumbled up to the building winded in time to see Scoot peel a plywood sheet away from the back door and slip inside.
It was a big building, maybe a dozen floors. An entire company ran out of it for decades, plant workers and office personnel, working their entire careers sometimes right here, putting in the hours, manning the ovens, keeping the personnel files straight, some big pooh-bah at the top hiring and firing. I studied the layout. Dark out here, dark in there. Ramona missing, Scoot with the bitch and the box of doughnuts, and information I needed.
I’m taking good care of her, that’s what he said. Maybe he was just messing with me? I eyed the ground-floor windows, the door Scoot had gone through. The board-up company hadn’t bothered to go beyond the first floor, the tall windows above were intact, uncovered. I looked for movement behind them, maybe a flicker of light, but saw nothing. What would I be walking into?
“Leave it, Cass. Turn around. Leave it. Come at it another way. Only a fool would go into that building.”
I looked up to the roof at the battered Sunshine Bread Company sign, then back at the back door, the darkened windows. He’s taking care of her. There ain’t no babies out here … at least not for long. I slipped through the pried away board and slipped through the back door into a blanket of near darkness and an overwhelming stench of rotting garbage, must and decay, like something living crawled in here to keep warm, and then died. I blinked, held my spot for a time, waiting for my eyes to adjust, as slowly a short flight of stairs leading up materialized. There was something else mixed in with the smell of the must and decay and emptiness. I could have sworn I smelled bread. It was impossible, of course, or could the smell have gotten baked into the walls all those many years ago?
At the top of the stairs, through a glass door, I found myself in a long, wide room with crusted, decaying, paint-peeled pillars running down both sides. Everything else was gone. The Sunshine people had made a thorough job of clearing out.
Except for the sound my feet made on the concrete floor as I crept along, there was just the faint clicking sound of rat feet along the walls. I cringed and stayed well away. I got a whiff of charred wood, then. Squatters, maybe, or maybe Scoot and his crew? Glass cracked under my feet as I made my way through what looked like a back lobby, the floor black-and-white tiles dusted over by years of grime, dirt and rodent feces.
I moved fast, then, my eyes and ears open, figuring a fast target would be more difficult to get a bead on. Quickly, through the lobby, through the ground floor to the front of the building where there was trash strewn everywhere—balled up McDonald’s bags, beer cans, whiskey bottles, old clothes, broken chairs and upturned buckets, which explained the rats. Squatters. I’d walked through hundreds of places like this while on the job. I knew it would take weeks before I stopped itching and got the smell of must and urine, the sound of rat feet, out of my nose and head.
I found a staircase leading up to the second floor, wide, with an ornate wooden railing that must have been impressive back in the day. Welcome to Sunshine Bread Company. This way, please.
I kept my back to the wall as I made my way up, my eyes on alert, hands up, ready to deflect anything that might come at me. Still no sign of Scoot. The stairs ended at a long hallway with heavy wooden doors with numbers on them—201, 202, 203. Offices. Mr. So-and-So in packaging, Ms. So-and-So in human resources. All gone now.
The smell of burning wood was stronger up here, and it seemed to be coming from somewhere way down the hall. Halfway there, hands still up, hyperalert, scanning, I heard a scraping sound, and stopped. Metal on metal, or something like that? I followed it to a set of wide double doors, above them, Meeting Room A stenciled in flaked gold. I pressed my ear to the wood, hearing nothing at first, then the scraping again. It was coming from inside. I eased the doors open and went in, high windows to the left, the moon offering some light, a wide space, empty, dusty. The edges of the room were cloaked in darkness and shadow, the moon’s glow not reaching that far in. In the center of the room, sat a fifty-gallon drum, a glow emanating from it. The source of the wood smell, someone’s heat source. No clue to the scraping noise, though; I didn’t hear it now, anyway.
Halfway to the drum, I felt a subtle shift in the air, an energy that wasn’t mine. I wasn’t alone. Startled, flat-footed, I reeled just in time to see a kid rush toward me, a baseball bat raised high, aiming for my head.
Former homicide cop turned private investigator Cass Raines gets the job done in this page-turning Chicago-set novel from award-winning author Tracy Clark. For mystery/suspense fans as well as fans of Laura Lippman.
Chicago in the dead of winter can be brutal, especially when you’re scouring the frigid streets for a missing girl. Fifteen-year-old Ramona Titus has run away from her foster home. Her biological mother, Leesa Evans, is a recovering addict who admits she failed Ramona often in the past. But now she’s clean. And she’s determined to make up for her mistakes—if Cass can only help her find her daughter.
Cass visits Ramona’s foster mother, Deloris Poole, who is also desperate to bring the girl home. Ramona came to Deloris six months ago, angry and distrustful, but was slowly opening up. The police are on the search, but Cass has sources closer to the streets, and a network of savvy allies. Yet it seems Ramona doesn’t want to be found. And Cass soon begins to understand why.
Ramona is holding secrets dark enough to kill for, and anyone who helps her may be fair game. And if Ramona can’t run fast enough and hide well enough to keep the truth safe, she and Cass may both be out of time.
Praise for RUNNER
“Exceptional…The action builds to an exciting showdown. Those who like their crime novels with a social conscience will be amply rewarded.” —Publishers Weekly, STARRED review