Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Carole Shmurak's Supporting Character: Elaine Dodgson

Every amateur sleuth needs a BFF. Though my detective, Susan Lombardi, is happily married, and her husband Swash is her frequent advisor and moral support, she nonetheless has issues that are best discussed with a female confidante.   For Susan, that is her best friend, Elaine Dodgson.

 Elaine appeared in the first Lombardi mystery, Deadmistress, and she has been there for Susan in every book since. A former actress, now a drama teacher at an elite boarding school for girls, she meets Susan for dinner regularly.  While Elaine is in many ways a sounding board for Susan, she is also instrumental in several of the investigations. Sometimes it is Elaine herself who gets Susan into the case, as she does in Death at Hilliard High:

It all started with a phone call, a simple, innocent phone call. But I should have learned by then that when my friend Elaine Dodgson called, nothing was ever simple. And seldom innocent.
             “Susan, I need a small favor,” she began in her cheerful, melodious voice — a voice that had won her several major roles in off-Broadway shows two decades ago.
            “Sure,” I replied with more certainty than I felt. I stared out of my office window, thinking of some of the favors Elaine had asked for in the past. Helping her return a book she’d stolen from her former headmistress and hiring a private detective to tail her current boyfriend were the ones that came to mind.

            So what is Elaine like?  Glamorous, of course: tall, auburn-haired, with a taste for dramatic clothes and grand entrances. Susan says of her: “No one, not even a former New York actress, should look so good in her mid-fifties.” Once, when I was asked to cast a hypothetical TV show based on my books, Geena Davis was the actress I chose to portray Elaine. 
            As a former actress, she is also prone to extravagant speech. Writing Elaine’s dialogue is one of the easiest parts of writing the books, as she speaks with the voice of one of my own longtime friends, Alice DeLana. In fact, Elaine Dodgson is named after her. (I’ll leave it to the readers of this blog — as dedicated mystery solvers — to puzzle out the relationship between their two names.)
           Susan has some reasons to worry about her friend: Elaine’s sense of drama occasionally leads her into impulsive action. I’ve already mentioned her stealing of the headmistress’s book, which would have been merely a mischievous prank had the headmistress herself not been murdered soon after. Elaine has also become instantly infatuated with a mysterious man, Jon Henninger, supposedly a writer of exposés of the rich and famous, but perhaps a bit of a con man. He has carefully staged a meeting with Elaine and then lied about who he is and where he lives.
            Susan fears Elaine might be an attractive prey for a con man. She is quite wealthy as a result of her divorce from her ex, Warren Dodgson, an attorney who left her for one of the younger associates at his firm. From her days as the wife of one of the Hartford’s most prominent lawyers, Elaine still has a social network that encompasses most of Who’s Who in central Connecticut.  Though Elaine's connections often prove quite useful to Susan in her investigations, they might also serve Jon's more self-serving purposes.
            We learn in Death at Hilliard High that Elaine grew up in the affluent suburbs of Hartford, Connecticut and returned, after a brief stint as an off-Broadway actress, to marry Warren. It's never been specified how many children Elaine and Warren have, and only one, an investment banker named Robby, is ever mentioned by name. Elaine's mother, Annabel Howard, makes a brief appearance in Most Likely to Murder.

“No one in my family is sane,” insisted Elaine. “My mother, bless her, is eighty this year, and she’s still nagging me to get married again. And my children! I love them, of course, but now that they’re happily married, they think I shouldn’t date at all. Just stay home by the fire and read and wait for the grandchildren to arrive.”

At their favorite restaurant, the two women discuss their professional and their personal lives as only old friends can. And of course if Susan is embroiled in a mystery at the time, they discuss the people and the events involved.  Dinners with Elaine allow me to summarize what’s gone before and to reveal where Susan’s current thinking is. And the loyalty and affection that Susan and Elaine so obviously feel for each other enrich the portrayal of both characters.
When Elaine finds herself in a romantic quandary, she turns to Susan, and when Susan needs a fabulous dress for her high school reunion, who better to advise her than Elaine?

Carole B. Shmurak, Professor Emerita at Central Connecticut State University, is the author of eleven books, including Deadmistress, which introduced professor/sleuth Susan Lombardi, Death by Committee, Death at Hilliard High and Most Likely to Murder.   Under the pseudonym Carroll Thomas, she is the co-author of the Matty Trescott young adult novels, one of which (Ring Out Wild Bells) was nominated for the Agatha for best young adult mystery of 2001.

You can find Carole online at: