Robert Dugoni may have written eight books featuring Seattle detective Tracy Crosswhite, but his complex and ever-evolving heroine continues to surprise him. In In Her Tracks, Crosswhite is reassigned to the Seattle police department’s cold case unit. Now the mother of an infant daughter, Crosswhite is intrigued by an unsolved case involving a child abduction. She’s also drawn into an active investigation surrounding a woman’s disappearance on a Pacific Northwest jogging trail. Dugoni, who is also the author of the David Sloane and Charles Jenkins thriller series and numerous standalone novels, discussed growing alongside his character, the enticement of cold cases, and what he’s learned about writing “from the heart.”
The crimes and procedural elements in the Tracy Crosswhite series are fascinating, but my hunch is that readers keep coming back for the main character. What has it been like for you to live with this protagonist through multiple books?
With every new book, I learn more and more about Tracy. She started out as a dogged but isolated woman suffering through depression and guilt around the disappearance of her sister. In writing My Sister’s Grave, I had to get to know her as a woman in a relationship. What’s she like around a person she’s interested in? What does she want in a partner? What can she offer that person? In The Trapped Girl, I learned what she’s like as a young woman in love, as a spouse. In A Steep Price, A Cold Trail, and In Her Tracks, we’re seeing her as the mother of a daughter. Through every step of this journey, she remains a really good, dogged police detective. I think she’ll continue to surprise me, hopefully for many more novels. That’s what keeps the stories fresh and exciting to write.
Do you base Detective Crosswhite on anyone from your own life?
Yes and no. Life and art really do imitate one another. I have four sisters, a wife, and a mother who have all balanced demanding careers and family lives. I worked with a lot of women who were spouses, mothers, and really good attorneys. I paid attention to them and what they dealt with and went through. Then, through my research, I met a sheriff’s department homicide detective and told him the premise for My Sister’s Grave, the first novel in the series. He kind of laughed when I finished explaining and said, “You just described my girlfriend. She’s Seattle’s first female homicide detective.” When I met his girlfriend, Jennifer, I nearly fell over because she was a 5’10” blonde with blue eyes, which is exactly the way I had written Tracy.
Where do you think your interest in crime stories and mysteries comes from? Where do you find inspiration for the crimes you write about?
My father loved to watch movies and I loved to watch movies with him. What he really loved was trying to figure out what was going to happen, who the killer was, and what the twist was. It became a game for us and a great way to spend time with him. As far as inspiration, I read a lot. I talk to people all the time. Sometimes those people will tell me something that sparks my interest, gets me thinking. Sometimes, like in the Charles Jenkins espionage series, it comes from my previous travels to places like Russia, China, and Egypt. There are always stories out there to be found.
How much does the Pacific Northwest setting play a role in the Tracy Crosswhite series?
Settings are characters. Our environment shapes us and how we see the world and the people in it. In the Pacific Northwest, many people are really into the outdoors and outdoor activities. They hike, climb mountains, swim, fish, and hunt. It’s very different from where I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. Tracy’s environment shapes her. Beyond that, the Pacific Northwest is also an incredibly scary place because there are so many different ways to get rid of a body. People ask me if The Trapped Girl is a true story, since it centers around a young woman’s body found in a crab pot. It’s based on an incident that one of my police contacts had to investigate right here in the Pacific Northwest.
What opportunities do you feel that Tracy’s motherhood has given you to develop her character emotionally and psychologically?
I look at my own life and how my priorities changed when I had children. Much of what I wanted became less about me and more about them. I want to see them achieve their dreams. I want to be sure my daughter, my baby girl, is smart, intuitive, and understands that there are bad people in this world and she can’t be naïve. A large percentage of the abducted and murdered are young women. Tracy’s own sister disappeared at 18 years of age, so she is hypersensitive to the fact that her child, her little girl, is now in this big, scary world. It’s going to be really interesting for me to take Tracy through her daughter’s life and explore how those different stages affect Tracy.
Cold cases carry a unique allure for many. What do you think is the source of this interest and what does taking over the Cold Case unit in In Her Tracks mean for Detective Crosswhite?
The allure is simple: the case has not been solved. Detectives have combed through the file, they’ve looked at all the evidence, and they have not been able to solve the crime. This is rare. Most homicides are “grounders” or “easy outs.” The mysteries are rare. So for a reader, it’s a chance to try to figure out what the detectives couldn’t. For Tracy, it goes to her backstory and what she has been through with the disappearance of her sister 20 years ago. She has lived a cold case. She knows what the families of victims are going through. She has empathy because she has been on both sides.
What’s next for the series?
Tracy is going to stay in cold cases and she is going to make some additional enemies, not just her captain, Johnny Nolasco. In my research during Covid—watching some television shows—I’ve learned the importance of not killing off your antagonists. I wish I had kept some of my antagonists alive from my prior novels because good antagonists are what make for good thrillers.
Your writing style is warm, descriptive, and immediately engaging. At what stage in your development as a writer did you feel you’d truly "found" your voice?
Thanks for the kind words. There was a moment in my career when I realized I had to stop writing with my head and start writing with my heart. This realization first came when I was writing the draft of The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell. I carried that thought with me when I first began thinking about Tracy Crosswhite. It’s a scary proposition for a writer to write with his or her heart because there will always be people out there who stomp on it. But when you reach that moment when you let go of the story, when you stop directing the characters, and just let the characters live organically, that’s when you start creating memorable characters that readers will think about long after they close your novel. It took me at least five novels to stop trying to imitate other writers and just tell a story in my own voice and concentrate on the things I do well.