Dorset in the Dark begins with a crazed woman slumped over on a park bench. Later we learn she’s been drugged. Her ten-year-old daughter, Dorset is missing.
But this post is not about the events of the mystery. It is about Dorset and what drew me to her when she first appeared knocking on my door—figuratively speaking, of course, since Dorset is a character.
This is the first time she appears. It’s written in the third person, told through the eyes of Dorset’s friend, Jerry:
… he looked at Dorset. She sat next to her mother. Dorset wore her blue coat with the fluffy collar and the beat-up baseball cap she always pushed down low on her head. He didn’t remember which team, although Kenny told him millions of times. Dorset was an artist, just like Jerry. Only she went to a special place for artists after school, where they did drawing with a model. He knew because on their last visit she told him so. It sounded scary because of all the people. Jerry’s art wasn’t that sort. Today Dorset had her sketchbook with her. Jerry had seen it before. She drew shapes using a pencil, only she called it a charcoal, and the shapes told stories. He liked drawing and all, but he wasn’t into it. He couldn’t make his hand do what he wanted it to do. Dorset could, though, and she said one day she’d teach him how, but Jerry told her he wasn’t interested. He liked to look at the ground and find things and put them together until they made his heart swell and he forgot everything else, about his mother leaving and how they couldn’t talk about her even though he thought he’d seen her walking on the street about a million times.”
I often have young characters in my novels. For me, they are echoes of the lost child. Take Tessa, for instance, a character I’m pretty sure you haven’t met yet. She’s Rosa’s adopted daughter in the Serafina Florio historical mystery series. Born with a caul, she was saved at birth by Serafina, a midwife turned sleuth. Tessa appears in many of the Serafina novels. She is watchful, on the fringe, seldom taking a major role. But when she speaks, she often advances the plot. She has a knowledge of the world far beyond her years.
So does Dorset. Her syntax is not like the ten-year-olds I’ve met. This is her first monologue:
First off, my name. It’s Dorset, and it’s weird, just like me, the only Dorset Clauson in the history of Packard Collegiate, or the bald universe, for that matter. That’s what Dad would say. When I asked him once why they named me Dorset, he gave me his hunched-shoulders smile and said, “Because there’s no one else like you in the bald universe”—his words. Which didn’t make much sense at the time. That’s when I was little. When I got old enough to understand deep things, Mom told me I was conceived in Dorset, England. A state of mind, she called it, a place out of time, a certainty of peace and love and fulfillment. Kids get my name mixed up lots, but I don’t care, except when they call me Dorsie or Dorse, which I hate.
Two other things you should know about me: I love to draw and I love to play baseball. Not so good for a girl, the baseball part. That’s what Mom says, but Dad was fine with it. When I was just a kid—I’m talking four or five—Dad got me a mitt and took me to the park and told me to throw the daylights out of it. He showed me how to wind up. He showed me how to hit a tin can off the fence. “Throw fast in life, kid.” That was Dad. And he meant fast. So we practiced the daylights out of the ball, his words, and I did and that’s why they let me play on the Packers Little League team, much to my siblings’ disgust. More on them later.
On my ninth birthday, just when everything was looking good, Dad died. It was sudden, like now you see him, now you don’t. His heart, Mom said. I didn’t believe her at first when she told me. Part of me still doesn’t believe it. Sometimes I see his shadow on the wall, late at night when everyone else is asleep, or I see part of his shirt disappearing into the den, and before I can open my mouth to yell his name, he disappears to wherever he’s going, maybe around some corner I can’t see. We had one long conversation, me and Dad—that’s what Mom says, and then she says don’t ever let it be over, so I talk to him still.
The day he died, I got out of taking the AP Math test, although that really wasn’t such a good thing because, A, I’d studied for it, and, B, I had to take it two weeks later anyway, just me sitting after school in Mrs. Tibbet’s stuffy office while slopes and missing coordinates rusted in my head and the laughter of the other kids sitting in Elaine’s drifted in from the open window. That was on my first day back after the funeral, when I hadn’t studied all that much, but still I did manage to squeeze out a B minus. Mom tells me I’m way too bright for my own good, but I don’t feel smart, especially at dinner when I have to listen to the two of them, the stuck-up slugs I call them, my boring half siblings, going on about how I get to do stuff they never could do at my age, including playing shortstop and getting an iPhone when I was eight, and how one of these days she, Mom, would pay the price for spoiling me into sloth and wantonness. They use words they think I don’t understand. More on them later, but you should know they’re two gross miserables, especially now that Dad’s not sitting at the table. Or sitting anywhere, as far as I can tell, although April, she’s my best friend, tells me all I have to do is think of him and he’ll be there. April’s much smarter than anyone I know. She’s a saint. That’s what Mom says, and gets that grownup look in her eye and shakes her head when I ask what she means. And besides, April has perfect features. Unlike me—I was born with the Lenox nose. Nothing I can do about it until I’m older. Good job I’m tall for my age. Mom, again. But she doesn’t count: she loves my nose, maybe because it’s almost like hers.
I won’t tell you what happens to Dorset. That would spoil the story for those who want to read the book. But like all characters, Dorset is immortal.
In my head my lost children are friends. I can see Dorset and Tessa now, swinging their legs back and forth as they sit together on a park bench in nineteenth-century Sicily or maybe twenty-first century Brooklyn, the two of them deep in conversation, talking about leaving on a boat for America or the score of the latest Yankees game.
Dorset in the Dark is available on Amazon.
Photograph: Cover, Dorset in the Dark. Cover design, Avalon Graphics