First of all, I want to thank the gang at Writers Who Kill for giving me a little blog love today. In the cyber-world, you can’t have too many friends. Actually, that’s true in the real world, too, but it’s a lot of Christmas cards to send out.
I’ve been uber-excited to see my third Peri Minneopa Mystery hit the shelves (ebook and paperback). In The Hot Mess, Peri investigates a house fire at Benny Needles’ home. Benny showed up as her client in Freezer Burn. I thought he was just a guest star. Turns out he’s a series regular.
Benny began life in my head as a needy little man, obsessed with Dean Martin to the point of filling his house (and emptying his inheritance) with Dino memorabilia that he bought on eBay. Peri and I found him annoying. Readers loved him and begged for him to return.
Over the next two books, I realized that he has Asperger’s Syndrome, which is on the autism spectrum. As a writer, I had to push his limits, even if as a person I want to protect him. So I set fire to his house after a bunch of teenage boys break in for a late night party. Sadly, one of the boys is found in the ashes.
Then I let Peri step in and pick up the pieces. Not only does she have to fight the authorities to prove the fire was arson, but along the way there are family secrets to discover and family problems to overcome. As usual, she has her boyfriend, Detective Skip Carlton, to lean on, as well as her BFF, Assistant Coroner Blanche Debussy.
To make it all harder for her, Benny is acting as her assistant. He is inept with a side of well-meaning. It’s a fun story with a little for everyone—humor, poignancy, and even romance.
Some of my readers have remarked that they think The Hot Mess is my best book ever. Like I said, readers rule.
Here’s a little excerpt:
Benny scampered up to Peri, a wrinkled brown bag in his hand. He held it out to her, looked at it, and took it back. He spent several seconds smoothing the wrinkles as best he could, then handed it to her at last.
“Thank you,” Peri told him, and reached inside. It was a Dean Martin bobblehead doll, his body bouncing as she held onto his oversized head.
“Do you like it? I figure you can put it on your dashboard. Or maybe on that shelf where the blue moose was.”
The blue ceramic moose had been knocked from her curio shelf by Matt Helm while she was providing a foster home for him. Benny had been caring for the cat, and suggested several times that she needed more Dino stuff in her house. She guessed her gift was his attempt at starting the trend.
“Sounds like a perfect spot,” Skip said.
Benny didn’t seem to hear him. He was examining his ashtray again, fingering all the grooves and tracing the curves. He popped from his reverie to face her.
“Miss Peri, I want to hire you.”
“To do what?”
He rolled his eyes. “To find out what happened to my house. Somebody must’ve killed that guy and tried to burn my house down to hide the body.”
She looked up at Skip, who kissed the top of her head. “I got what I needed. You’re on your own.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said, watching the detective walk to his car and thinking, coward. “The fire chief says—”
“The fire chief is wrong.” He cut her off. “I never bought a can of paint in my life, and I never put anything next to wires or outlets or the stove or matches or, or, or anything hot. My mom taught me better. I may have a lot of stuff in my house, but I know the rules. Somebody set the fire. And you can find out who.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Peri repeated herself, in an attempt to consider what he was saying. “I’m not a fire investigator.”
“But you will talk to the investigator, just like you talk to the police officers and figure things out. I can help you, too, like I did before.”
“You’re finished with your community service hours, and I can’t afford to hire you.”
“Why not? In jail, we found out minimum wage is eight dollars an hour. Charge me eight dollars more than your regular fee, then when I pay you, you pay me my eight dollars.”
“While mathematically correct, it sounds a little crazy,” Peri said.
Phil agreed. “Sounds like you’re paying to work for her.”
“But I have plenty of money,” Benny told them. “And when the insurance pays me, I’ll have even more money.”
Peri saw his hands massaging the ashtray. They worked together, kneading his stress into the glass. Here was a guy who could make it through life as long as there weren’t any problems, but problems wouldn’t leave him alone. She felt her heart soften. “Okay, Ben, I’ll at least look into everything. But you don’t have to help me.”
“Oh, thank you. If you need my help, ask me.” Benny turned back to the Mercedes, where Phil was helping Nancy into the front seat.
“And Benny…” Peri wanted to remind him the insurance money was to pay for fixing the house, not buying more Dean Martin posters. She watched him turn back to her, his face down. He was looking at his ashtray.
“I’ll call you when I know something.” She couldn’t bear to force him into more reality. Not today.
Peri watched Benny hop in behind Phil. The older gentleman said something over his shoulder, and she saw Benny’s head bobbing in agreement, while his body made the motions of stretching a seatbelt across his lap.
Walking to her own car, she thought about Benny’s request. Fire investigations were not even on her menu of services. Still, she could use the money, she wanted to help Benny, and she was curious. Arson to cover the murder made no sense at all, since the fire was in one room and the body was in another. What had happened in Benny’s house that night?
She got into the driver’s seat, adjusted the steering wheel and set Dino the Bobblehead on her dash. Flicking his head once made it bounce in a perky, if chaotic, rhythm.
“I have no idea what I’m doing,” she told the doll. “Ain’t that a kick in the head?”
Gayle Carline was a software engineer for over 20 years until she chewed her way out of the cubicle and became a freelance writer. She quickly became a regular contributor to California Riding Magazine and has been writing a weekly humor column for the Placentia News-Times since 2005.
These days, Gayle’s time is divided between writing mysteries and humor. Her Peri Minneopa Mystery series stars a housecleaner-turned-detective who solves crimes in southern California. She has also released two collections of her column readers' favorite essays. But what she really wants to do is direct…