ROCKFORD, Illinois — Tracy Clark’s first published mystery story started one day during a moment when her mind slipped away from a homily at St. Philip Neri Church in Chicago.
“I looked at the confessional, and I thought, ‘You could put a body in there.'”
When that passing thought eventually coalesced with a character she’d been imagining since she was about 12, “Broken Promises” was born. In that first novel, Cass Raines was the private detective who wanted to solve the murder of her favorite priest in a Chicago parish much like Clark’s own.
It also led her to numerous awards in the crime fiction arena, including the Sue Grafton Memorial Award.
Her latest book, “Runner,” which continues the Cass Raines series, came out in June of this year.
Clark went to grade school at St. Philip Neri, to high school across the street at Aquinas Dominican and earned her undergraduate degree at the now-closed Mundelein College. She also earned a master’s degree at the University of Illinois Chicago. Her years of Catholic schooling come through in the novels.
Cass, a former cop, also attended Catholic schools and had planned to become an English teacher like her late mother. But the classroom didn’t draw her like the streets did, so she began her career in the Chicago Police Department. A shooting that opens the first book points her to private investigations.
Clark doesn’t think of herself as a Catholic writer, but said, “It sort of permeates everything I do.” Cass, too, “has this (Catholic) foundation, how she lives her life based on that foundation. She is sort of struggling with this concept of forgiveness, of her father, the relationship she has with her father.”
Cass’ father has been absent from her life for many years, although he reappears in the novels.
“We’re four books in and she’s still struggling with (forgiving him). She has to find a way to use this foundation … to forgive, to animate her life with this thing,” forgiveness, Clark told The Observer, newspaper of the Diocese of Rockford. “We’ll see how she struggles.”
In the novels, Cass remains friends with some of her schoolmates. One of them, Barb, is now a religious sister who in “Runner” serves Chicago’s homeless population by driving the “love bus” through the South Side distributing food, clothes and medicine.
Cass and Sister Barb have a buddy, “Whip,” who ended up doing time in prison, but is working hard to get his life together.
In “Runner,” a mother, Leesa, is facing tough times, in part due to her addiction problems. Leesa hires Cass to find her daughter, Ramona, who has run away from her latest foster home. The investigation, taking place in frigid winter, even takes her out of the city into farm lands and small towns southwest of Chicago.
“I don’t think people really realize how big of an issue this is,” Clark said of homelessness among young people. “We have no idea how much danger there is and how critical it is to get them off the streets.”
The issue roused Clark’s interest, and she began researching “runaways and their plights and what sort of services were out there. I just sort of created a plot around it.”
Clark is an avowed “pantser,” a writer who starts a work without a plot or outline and writes “by the seat of her pants.”
“As a pantser, I wish I could outline,” she said. “I have no idea what will happen in chapter seven when I’m in chapter one. … I just sort of blaze through the first draft. I just go through as fast as I can and the real work begins with draft two or three.”
Her writing day starts as early at 5:30 a.m. so she can fit it in around her day job with Tribune Publications, where she has worked for 27 years. “I enjoy it,” she said. “I love the people I work with and for.”
But she’s always been drawn to writing novels, especially mysteries. She grew up like many youngsters, devouring popular mysteries stories from Agatha Christie and others. But she started early on imagining a main character who was like her and dreaming of writing stories about that character one day.
Years before the first Cass Raines novel was published, she started going to writers’ conferences to learn the craft. She also met Eleanor Taylor Bland, one of the first major Black American crime fiction writers.
Bland noticed Clark and encouraged her.
“She was a very, very nice, very generous person,” Clark said. “She was an excellent writer, and almost as important, she was a great champion of writers of color. That is as big a legacy as her writing is.”
Clark has picked up that torch and has become a mentor for new writers, too, encouraging both writers of color and those who are not, working with organizations such as Crime Writers of Color and Sisters in Crime, to help the aspiring authors she meets.
She credits her ability to balance her day job, her writing and her volunteering to the sisters — mostly Dominicans — who taught her.
“I think the work ethic worked really well for me. Nuns gave you zero slack whether your homework was in, or you were late,” she said. “You were expected to be present in class, be respectful in class, all that (along with teaching you) with religious education, the Bible, right and wrong, moral and immoral. You sort of got that indoctrination — you were responsible for yourself. … This is your work.”
“I think all of that prepared me not only for my writing career, but for my professional (career),” Clark added. “Nobody is standing here in my room. I have to do this. I think I learned that back in second grade.”
In “Runner,” Clark introduces a new Catholic character, Sister Marian.
“I think every Catholic kid knows a Sister Marian. In every school they’ve been in, there’s been a nun like her … that person who wasn’t going to take any flack,” Clark said, adding she thinks she’ll expand the character in future books.
“I had a nun in high school who scared me, this nun who everybody didn’t understand … sort of knew which kids to pick. She nominated me for an award I won before graduation. … They move you ahead, move you to the next point,” Clark said. In high school, though, “she stressed me out no end. She can see your soul.”
Even before “Runner” hit book store shelves and online retailers in June, Clark was working on a stand-alone novel slated for release in December 2022.
She expects to get back to Cass and her companions down the road, but right now she isn’t sure when she’ll get there. Or, as a pantser, where that road will take her.
Boehlefeld is the retired features and multimedia editor of The Observer, newspaper of the Diocese of Rockford.