Thursday, April 29, 2010

On "Scent of the Missing"

HALLIE: Susannah Charleson and her golden retriever Puzzle are a search-and-rescue (SAR) team. I met Susannah at the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference in Corte Madera six years ago, and what I remember vividly is a passage she read aloud at a late-night session. It wasn’t an excerpt from a mystery novel, but piece of nonfiction about an all-night search for a little boy supposed lost in flash flooding and never claimed by his parents.

The happy ending is that today that story is part of her new book “Scent of the Missing.” (Go to the link to see some amazing trailers.)

Susannah, do you remember that reading?

SUSANNAH: The casual decision to read that was lucky. Several authors, including Tony Broadbent and Cornelia Read (also a student attendee that year) were very supportive about the piece, and in a quiet moment, Lee Child told me that this was a direction I should pursue, appreciating, he said, that the work he'd heard was considered, articulate and moving. I will always be grateful to the authors at that conference for the time they took with me.

I put the fiction on hold and began to concentrate on developing a series of canine SAR radio pieces into the longer narrative required for a book. It wasn't easy, especially as some searches are bound by Nondisclosure Agreements (I still can't write about them), and real life has a way of not conforming to the arc of suspense readers have come to look for -- particularly in books involving crime investigation.

HALLIE: How often are you called on, and you and Puzzle set out to find someone missing?

SUSANNAH: It varies. Callouts after tornadoes and flash flooding, of course, but summer drought provokes calls, too. Lakes are low, and more swimmers come to grief on rubble beneath the surface. When the economy is bad, we have more calls for despondents. Beautiful weather in December can create Alzheimer's walkaway calls, because families forget and leave screen doors unlatched during the holiday season, and elderly relatives push through the door and ...go.

HALLIE: How often do you find them...alive?

SUSANNAH: Much canine SAR is about recovery rather than rescue, but we are sent out for potential live finds, and they are wonderful when they happen! We are all reborn a little when that child comes home to his frightened parents.

HALLIE: Is it hard for you and for Puzzle when there's no happy ending?

SUSANNAH: Yes. I think *Scent of the Missing* reflects how long these searches stay with us when the ending is unhappy, or as is sometimes the case, when there's no ending at all.

HALLIE: Where are you going on tour, and how is Puzzle responding to all the attention? Is it spoiling her?

SUSANNAH: The tour is crazy widespread: Toronto, NYC, DC, Philadelphia, Birmingham, Fairhope, Seattle, San Francisco, LA, Boston, Denver, Chicago, Madison WI, Okemos MI, Houston, Austin, Dallas, San Francisco again and then Minneapolis. Puzzle's used to travel but finds the attention a little bewildering. Normally, when she's in her work vest, she's supposed to sit quietly and be "invisible" while on standby; we don't want search dogs tripping search personnel at the command post while we're waiting to go out. So now she's in her vest, and after six years of being polite and "invisible," can't quite understand the sudden interest in her and why she isn't going out to search!

Folks along the tour have offered to hide for Puz in various places, and that helps. I watch the tension roll off her when she's doing what she loves and understands.

HALLIE: Now for a treat! Susannah has given Jungle Red and excerpt from Chapter 1, “Gone”:

Saturday night in a strange town five hundred miles from home. I am sitting in a bar clearly tacked on to our motel as an afterthought. The clientele here are jammed against one another in the gloom, all elbows and ball caps bent down to their drinks—more tired than social. . . .

A half-hour ago, when I walked in with a handful of teammates, every head in the bar briefly turned to regard us, then turned away in perfect synchronization, their eyes meeting and their heads bobbing a nod. We are strangers and out of uniform, but they know who we are and why we are here, and besides, they’ve seen a lot of strangers lately. Now, at the end of the second week of search for a missing local girl, they leave us alone. We find a table, plop down without discussion, and a waitress comes out to take our orders. She calls several of us “honey” and presses a hand to the shoulder of one of us as she turns away.

Either the town hasn’t passed a smoking ordinance, or here at the city limits this place has conveniently ignored the law. We sit beneath a stratus layer of cigarette smoke that curls above us like an atmosphere of drowsy snakes, tinged blue and red and green by the neon signs over the bar. Beside the door, I see a flyer for the missing girl. Her face hovers beneath the smoke. She appears uneasy even in this photograph taken years ago, her smile tentative and her blond, feathered bangs sprayed close as a helmet, her dark eyes tight at the edges, like this picture was something to be survived.

I have looked at her face all day. On telephone poles, in the hands of local volunteers, over the shoulder of a big-city newscaster at noon, six, and ten o’clock. She is the ongoing local headline. She’s the girl no one really knew before her disappearance, and now she’s the girl eager eyewitnesses claim to have known all their lives. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t, but for the most part that’s not our job. We go where law enforcement directs us. We run behind search dogs who will tell us their own truths in any given area: *never here, was here, hers, not hers, blood, hair, bone, here, here, here*.

-- SCENT OF THE MISSING by Susannah Charleson


  1. Hey Susannah, this is so exciting! seems like we've been waiting for this book forever! can't wait to read this-give a kiss to Puzzle while I run out to the bookstore....

  2. What beautiful writing, Susannah. I think I saw you and Puzzle at Crime Bake a few years ago. Congratulations on the book, and I look forward to reading it.


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  4. Yes, it's finally here! I remember before I knew you, and you wrote a gorgeously thoughtful comment on JR, and I thought--wow. Who it THIS???

    And now, I know.

    Congratulations--and see you soon!

    Maybe get Puzzle a tiara? (And one for you, too...)

  5. I'm late getting around today and now I could just kick myself. Your depiction of that scene just blows me away, Susannah. I now have your book on the very top of my BUY IT NEXT!!! list.

    I worked SAR before I retired. The job is tough, especially when it's a recovery instead of a rescue. Working the OKC bombing, I got to know several of the dog teams. The dogs always seemed so sad as time wore on and there were no more live rescues. The same with the teams that came in several years later for the May 9th tornado that struck Oklahoma.

    Thank you for the work you and Puzzle do, and thank you for having such a skilled storyteller's voice to share your tales.

  6. Thank you all for the encouraging words. And yes, it *does* seem like forever. Edith, we did indeed cross paths at CrimeBake 2006, when Puz was a newly-certified youngster. (I actually pitched this book to an agent at that conference!)

    It's been a long, fraught road since the book sold in November 2007- including a pivotal chapter I had to scrap when an old, old, cold case suddenly had new evidence that made it "live" again. Talk about redirecting a narrative arc! It was a real lesson in nonfiction writ in real-time.

    But it's been a lovely journey, and I couldn't have asked for more support from agent, publisher, and friends along the way.

    Puz says hello, here from 32,000 feet on our way to Seattle. She's hoping maybe someone at the hotel will get a little lost for her.

    We're staying at a pet-friendly hotel that, if you couldn't bring your own pet, will loan you a pretty goldfish for the duration of the stay. Now that's creative hospitality! I think there's a little essay in that, or at least a blog entry.

    Hallie, I'm glad you liked the trailer! :)

  7. Wonderful interview. Read the great review of Susannah's book in the Dallas Morning News last Sunday. Wish I could have gone to meet her at the bookstore in Plano yesterday, but I live too far away. Hopefully, my daughter was able to go and get me a book. If not, Amazon here I come.

  8. Susannah, I am so looking forward to reading your book at long last, and send you hugest hugs. When will you be in Boston? I live in New Hampshire now and will drive down to see you.

    Congratulations and much love,


  9. Hi,
    I just started the book. Keep up the good and valuable work.