Timing is everything. When East Lansing author Charlie McLravy decided to use Sleeping Bear Dunes as a backdrop to his third Burr Lafayette mystery, the timing couldn’t have been better. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Seashore is marking its 50th anniversary this year.
According to McLravy, who is also known as Charles Cutter, he didn’t know about the anniversary at the time he scouted the location with his daughter.
But instead of being able to take advantage of the timing, the pandemic has left him doing Zoom interviews and trying to maximize sales on Amazon.
He said he had planned several in-store events, but those have been shelved for now.
McLravy refers to his series as “brutal in beautiful places.” All three mysteries are set in mystical Michigan locations. His first book, “The Pink Pony,” takes place on Mackinac Island and his second, “The Gray Drake,” on the Ausable River.
The protagonist in all three books is Attorney Burr Lafayette, who not only serves as legal counsel for the accused but also as an amateur private detective to help prove his client’s innocence.
The murder in “Bear Bones” revolves around the time in the ’70s when the federal government was using eminent domain to assemble the property for the Sleeping Bear National Seashore. To say the least, it was a contentious time. McLravy uses that as an opportunity to interject a gripping mystery tale with lots of false leads and red herrings.
The book opens when Helen Lockwood, the co-owner of the Port Oneida Orchards, which is in the way of the Dunes Shore completion, pilots a boat to South Manitou Island. There she goes missing. Her boat, the Achilles, is found the next day with no one aboard. The case is afoot.
For seven years, Lafayette has been acting as Helen and Tommy Lockwood’s attorney in the condemnation fight. One year after Helen goes missing, a federal judge gives Lafayette an ultimatum to find the woman or the case goes to trial.
It would be easy to call Lafayette down on his luck, but it wasn’t bad luck that caused him to be fired from his job at a silk-stocking Detroit Law firm. It was bad judgement in the form of having an affair with the daughter of one of his clients.
As he becomes embroiled in the case, evidence begins to turn up that the woman’s husband, Tommy, may be the killer. Lafayette signs up to defend him for murder.
McLravy said, for him, this is where the hardest part of writing a mystery book takes over.
“You don’t want the reader to know who did it until the very end,” he said
“That’s difficult to work out. You have to give enough clues along the way, so the conclusion makes perfect sense of what happens,” McLravy said.
He likes it when readers tell him, “I never would’ve guessed.”
McLravy is at home along the Lake Michigan shoreline. He has a cottage at Harbor Springs. During his childhood, his parents would spend three weeks each summer sailing Lake Michigan often anchoring off South Manitou.
He still sails, and the love of the lakes comes through in his scenes set on the water.
McLravy even named Lafayette’s leaky boat “Spindrift,” after his parents' boat.
In addition to the murder case, the author has tied in the contentious time of government intrusion on private property for the public good.
“In the end, even Lafayette seems to come around to see the public good.” McLravy said.
Another total coincidence, according to McLravy, is the similarity between Lafayette and the fictional Perry Mason played on television by Raymond Burr and penned by writer Erle Stanley Gardner.
“It must have been in my subconscious,” McLravy said.
Perry Mason and Lafayette have many similarities in addition to a climatic ending. These include an investigator and a Della Street-style administrative assistant who tries to keep him on the straight and narrow. And then there’s this thing about Lafayette’s first name, “Burr.”
It was long after the book was on its way to the publisher that the news of a new Perry Mason series would debut on HBO.
McLravy said his next book is set in Charlevoix against the backdrop of a rock radio station and its murdered owner. In this case, the author will continue to write what he knows. After all, he was the owner of a few radio stations himself.
Since McLravy is a lawyer, like his protagonist, readers often ask if he based Lafayette on himself.
“I didn’t model him on anyone, including myself. My behavior is way better,” he said.
Though he believes, like many writers, you have to “become” the character or they would seem pretty “wooden,” McLravy said.
Fortunately for readers, the only thing wooden in McLravy’s books are the boats, as he continues to deliver taut legal thrillers set in Michigan’s water wonderland.