Cozy mysteries often have the amateur sleuth working with someone in law enforcement. The “Murder, She Wrote” series is typical of this situation, where the sheriff asks for Jessica’s help in solving the crimes. Or the boyfriend is a police detective who shares all kinds of information that would never be told to the general public.
This bothers me, and I didn’t want to use that cookie cutter device. People in law enforcement are generally pretty smart, and they are careful about disclosing confidential information. But I had to have a reason why the police officer in my series, Chief Chad Cartwright, wouldn’t solve the murders a lot quicker than my amateur sleuth. So I didn’t make him stupid; I made him ignorant because of inexperience. Solving crimes is often more a matter of social relations than forensics. Lilliana Wentworth’s expertise, like Jessica Fletcher’s, is in getting people to tell her things. Cartwright, being young and male, hasn’t developed those skills as fully.
However, I also thought Lilliana needed someone with policing experience she could ask questions of and bounce ideas off of. Since she lives in a retirement community, the obvious answer was to have a retired law enforcement person living there as well. So I cast about in my memory for a police officer I had come in contact with.
Now, I have met several law enforcement people over the years. A relative of mine worked for the New York City Transit Police (later merged with NYPD) and would have us in stitches on holidays with his tales of encounters in the subways of New York. I have a cousin who used to be a member of the Suffolk County Police. And I’ve taken more than one Citizens Police Academy as research for my mystery writing, and also because I find information about criminals and crimes fascinating in general.
But I didn’t use any of those as a model for my retired homicide detective, Willie O’Mara. No, the character that came to mind was a member of the Massachusetts State Police, a “statie” whom I often saw on Route 128 during my morning commute.
This was one imposing cop. He must have been 6’6” tall, with broad shoulders and the proverbial thighs like tree trunks. Not an ounce of fat on him as far as I could tell. He wore jodhpurs and black leather boots that reached almost to his knees, and a campaign hat (the kind Smokey the Bear wears). Every time I passed him my first thought was, “I sure hope he never stops me.”
He also happened to be black. That suited me because I like having diverse characters, and too often, I automatically make all my characters white. But I never talked to this officer, never even heard him speak, so I had no idea as to his personality at all. I had to make that up.
There was one black person I had gotten to know fairly well in Massachusetts. She was the lead computer operator at a company I worked for. She was also from Trinidad-Tobago and had a wonderful sense of humor. She constantly referred to her husband as “the black man,” and then laughed uproariously at her own joke, which if you could see her was obvious. She had the darkest skin of any person I’d ever met, so calling her husband “the black man” as if he were distinguished by his dark skin color was funny. So I decided to incorporate this woman’s sense of humor in my character.
Now he needed a name. Character names are important to me. They have to suit the time in which they were born for one thing. Names go in and out of fashion. For instance, my own name was very unusual when I was growing up. In recent years, I see all kinds of women and girls with Elise as a first or middle name. Because of this, I often go to the Social Security Administration’s database of baby names to search for a name.
I do remember changing Willie’s name several times. I probably started with the SSA database, but it also had to suit his background. I don’t remember how I finally decided on Willie. But as soon as I had a first name, my muse filled in the last name. I guess she thought a cop from Boston should have an Irish surname. Not that Willie is from Boston. As far as I know, he’s never lived anywhere other than Tucson and Rainbow Ranch. But the person I started with was from Boston, and I guess that image stuck with me.
I like Willie, although he hasn’t been as prominent in recent stories as he was in earlier ones. I think I’m going to have to have him play a bigger role in the next African Violet Club Mystery.