By Lesley A. Diehl
When I wrote the first book in my Big Lake murder mystery series (set in rural Florida, land of cattle, cowboys, alligators and swamps) and published it with a small press, I created a character I called Toby Sands and made him the partner of my protagonist’s love interest, Detective Stanton Lewis. Where Lewis was tall, handsome, and smart, Toby was short, fat, lazy and always looking for shortcuts he thought would either bring in some cash or make him look cleverer than Lewis. That never happened. Toby was doomed to fail at whatever he did unless it was napping in his police car under the shade of a palm tree. If these qualities weren’t bad enough, Toby also liked to chew tobacco. He was so addicted that confined spaces reeked of his chaw, and the other police officers complained so often about the stench that his boss, the captain of the force, assigned him an office by himself, the smallest one, the one in which the air conditioners worked only sometimes. Did I say? Toby also liked to drink…on the job. Toby was a phenomenal failure with a false sense of his abilities.
In this first book of the series, Dumpster Dying, Toby tries out schemes with local criminals—informant to drug traffickers, gofer for a kidnapper and clean-up man to a killer. He gets caught and tossed off the police force. While waiting for his trial, Toby moves to a shack in the swamps and grows a beard but continues his messy habit of chewing. His white beard takes on the color and odor of tobacco. Toby had become even more pathetic, yet I found it impossible to toss him out of my next book. I decided he was too wonderful (as in horrifyingly fascinating) a character to dump, so I put him to use as a police informant, earning his way out of a jail sentence by helping Detective Lewis track down the killer of a barbeque cook-off contestant. Grilled, Chilled and Killed might have offered Toby redemption if he accomplished what he was assigned. Instead he almost destroyed Lewis’ case by tampering with evidence and, to make money on the side, participating in a kidnapping scheme arranged by an international criminal. Toby may have gone big time, but his abilities hadn’t, and he faltered in both of these endeavors, his downfall helped by the story’s protagonist who was aided by a feral pig. End of Toby? No, not yet. It was time for a third dose of bad boy Toby.
I brought Toby back for two books when some might argue I should have killed him off. I did not because, although he is a bad boy, he has staying power in terms of being a character readers seem to love to revile. Like me, I think readers feel a bit sorry for Toby. Rehabilitation is always an option.
In Scream Muddy Murder, the third and newest book in the series, Toby has fallen for a woman who is Toby’s match in surprising ways. She is tall, wears her hair in a teased, seventies style, and she’s the daughter of the preacher who has set up a revival tent south on the Big Lake. Toby has become her project. She brings him to God and to employment in her father’s revival business. Best of all, God and the love of this woman convince Toby to give up booze and chewing tobacco and take up praying and bathing. The series protagonist, Emily Rhodes, can’t believe Toby has changed for good, and perhaps the reader shouldn’t either, but for a time, Toby is clean, sober and in love. This is the transformation I saved Toby for. Now it’s up to him to hold onto it.
In many of my books, I’ve let other “bad darlings” sail off to foreign ports or fly off to an uncertain fate in South America. What’s wonderful about not killing them is that I can bring them back for another dose of their badness and perhaps a final measure of justice at the hands of one of my sassy country gals.
Many argue that a mystery is really the killer’s story, not the protagonist’s. I don’t completely buy this, but I do believe that if protagonists can grow and develop, then so should almost despicable bad guys like Toby. Jail or death for a killer might be the kind of justice warranted for a stone-cold murderer, but for someone like Toby who’s dabbles ineffectively in crime, the writer might consider a reprieve…at least for a while. If Toby engages in any more bad behavior, I might have to send him to prison, but I can always parole him and return him to society. But will he be reformed? There are some things Toby will find hard to give up: his tobacco, his cheap whiskey and his delusional sense of his own capabilities. Toby is a continuing thorn in my other characters’ sides, but his presence creates tension and conflict and, most importantly, my brand of swamp humor. I’ll keep him.
Buy link for Dumpster Dying
Buy link for Grilled, Chilled and Killed
Buy link for Scream Muddy Murder
For more about Lesley’s books go to her website www.lesleyadiehl.com
Lesley retired from her life as a professor of psychology and reclaimed her country roots by moving to a small cottage in the Butternut River Valley in Upstate New York. In the winter she migrates to old Florida—cowboys, scrub palmetto, and open fields of grazing cattle, a place where spurs still jingle in the post office, and gators make golf a contact sport. Back north, the shy ghost inhabiting the cottage serves as her literary muse. When not writing, she gardens, cooks and renovates the 1874 cottage with the help of her husband, two cats and, of course, Fred the ghost, who gives artistic direction to their work. She’s presently interviewing for a coyote to serve as her muse for her books and stories set in rural Florida.
She is the author of a number of mystery series and mysteries as well as short stories, most featuring her quirky sense of humor and a few characters drawn from her peculiar family.