Booklist Review, April 2003
"Francis, known for her mysteries for young adults, has written her first for adults. The story introduces Kate Hasworth, a recently licensed private detective in Key West. As a newcomer to the community, she faces a complicated case involving a prominent family. Alexa Chitting, owner of a prosperous marina, lies dead in her office. Someone killed her before she had a chance to sign a new will leaving her fortune to the Key West PRESERVATION Society Instead of her family and friends. The list of suspects includes her husband, lover, daughter, son-in-law, and secretary. The mayor and the housing-development director may be involved, too. Sorting out family entanglements and political corruption will give Katie a chance to establish herself as a detective if she can survive to solve the crime. Most Key West mysteries lean toward the hard-boiled, but this one gives cozy fans a chance to enjoy Margaritaville, too."—Barbara Bibel.
"Francis's stylish, fast-moving mystery set in Key West includes local lore and history without overburdening a smoothly written and suspenseful tale.”
Crime Scene Magazine
"It's a classic whodunit filled with fun and suspense all set against the tropical backdrop of the Florida Keys. Francis has a nice easy-going style of writing that keeps the reader turning the pages."
Des Moines Register
"Mention the Keys and people think of warm temperatures, but in this mystery, a cold front has cast an ominous chill over Key West. Francis provides a cultural portrait of the city as well as a classic murder mystery."
"With Francis's clever blending of clue conversation, and superb characterization, CONCH SHELL MURDER is a writing triumph. Take the phone off the hook; you'll want to speed through the book uninterrupted."
The sleeve of Alexa Chitting's black caftan caught on the conch shell sitting on her polished desk, but she shook it free and crossed the white carpeting of the third floor office at Chitting Marina like a dowager queen balancing a crown on her sable hair. Her nails gleamed scarlet against the satin drapery she pushed aside in order to see into the January night where murky moonlight honed masts and riggings into black skeletons.
At her orders, her office had been carpeted and soundproofed against the roar of motors, the cry of dockmasters, the babble of wealthy seafarers on the move. But tonight, Alexa fought a feeling of foreboding, sensed something disconcerting in the silence as her gaze probed the rows of sleek sailing vessels and motor yachts rocking in their slips.
When she heard footsteps grate against the pine of the balcony outside her door, she called out.
She bristled, well aware of her autocratic tone. All the dockmasters respected her predilection for privacy when she worked late. All had orders never to disturb her. Could there be an emergency? Her cavalier attitude softened a bit. Tyler? Po? It didn't surprise her that she thought of her lover before her husband. She doubted it would have surprised Po, either. Or Tyler.
“Who is it?” She moved from the window to the door. Nobody replied. How dare this intruder ignore her!
Her breath snagged in her throat as she peered through the peephole, seeing a yellow and black wasp-shaped hood, which hid the face of someone wearing a dockmaster's uniform. The black sweatshirt bore the familiar white-lettered words” CHITTING MARINA Key West. White pants gleamed in the moonlight filtering between the wrought-iron balcony rails. Alexa screamed as she turned and ran toward her desk phone. Before she could grasp the receiver and dial Marina Security, a key clicked in the lock and the door opened, admitting a chilling blast of sea air along with the sound of waves lapping against boat hulls. Then the door closed.
“Stop!” The command was a muffled hiss. “Don't move.”
What sort of an intrusion was this! Thrusting her chin up, Alexa steeled herself to keep in control. She turned to face the intruder, but her voice quavered as she looked at the gun held in a black-gloved hand.
“Who are you? What do you want?” Fright left a bitterness at the base of her tongue.
“Money. Open the safe.”
The intruder spoke in a frog-like croak, and Alexa could discern neither sex nor ethnicity. Taking a chance, she reached for the telephone, but her captor pounced on the instrument, jerking the wire from the wall without lowering the gun.
“Open the safe or you die. It's the will-o-the-wasp. Do it!”
“There's no money here. A courier takes all cash to the bank at five.”
“Open the safe.”
The intruder stepped so close to Alexa she could smell an acrid body odor. Was this a Chitting employee? Or had a thief stolen a master key from the dockmaster's office? Through the holes in the wasp mask she saw dark eyes blazing like lasers.
“Move!” A nudge with the gun barrel enforced the command.
Hairs at her nape rose as she faced the wall safe, reached for the knob with shaking fingers. The cold steel turned smoothly and easily, and she heard the tumblers fall into place. The door opened.
“Hand over the cash.”
A robber! How could she be at the mercy of this unsavory person! An addict needing a fix? The Keys abounded with them. Crack cocaine made users both desperate and dangerous. Where had this one procured the uniform? She would check the supply department tomorrow. Deftly she pulled out a small bundle of bills secured with a red rubber hand, hoping her foe wouldn't find the fat envelope of cash she had shoved to the back of the green felt compartment.
“Give it to me.”
She noticed a slight tremble in the intruder's gun hand. He was scared—unsure. Maybe she could overpower him. Why should she acquiesce to a hophead! She extended the packet of bills, but when the thief reached out, she dropped it and chopped at his wrist. The gun flew through the air then thudded onto the carpet.
They both made a dive for the gun. Alexa's perspiring fingers clutched the cold barrel, but her grip slipped. She felt the pistol wrested from her grasp. In seconds the intruder would again be in control. Seizing the fleeting chance for escape, she jumped up, ignored the ripping of her caftan as she stepped on its hem, and rushed into the bathroom, slamming and locking the door.
“Now get out of here! Take the money and go.
“The thief pounded on the door. “Open up!”
Alexa sucked in air, her heart pounding. The thief had the money. The phone was out. He knew she couldn't identify him. Why didn't he go? She cowered behind the toilet, waiting for a shot to shatter the fragile door lock. Was he a rapist?
No shot came. Instead she heard a scraping and saw the door handle. He was using a plastic card to spring the lock. She still cowered behind the toilet on aching knees when the door opened.
“Get up or you're dead!”
The threat reverberated against her eardrums, and as she tried to pull herself to her feet, once again she saw the gun hand tremble. What if the gun fired accidentally? She'd been a fool to take a stand. The few dollars lost meant nothing to her. Only in the dark recesses of her mind did she admit that the gunman wanted more than money.
“Go to your desk and sit down.”
Gripping the cold porcelain of the toilet, she heaved herself to her feet and limped toward her leather-padded swivel chair. She felt all of her sixty years. Why wasn't this person leaving? He had his money. Or was it a she who had her money? She still couldn't be sure. She sat at her desk, gasping as the intruder raised the gun.
“Wait! What are you doing?” Alexa braced her palms on her desk blotter, trying to help herself stand.
“I'm going to kill you.”
“But why?” Her voice escalated with fear. “You've got money for the crack house. Take it and go. Better a robbery rap than a murder rap. Think of the consequences, you fool!”
The thief raised the gun, pulled the trigger, but the shot went wild. Alexa turned, seeing the faint outline of a bullet hole in the corner of the Oriental carpet hanging on the wall behind her desk. The man was crazed. As if by reflex, Alexa grabbed the conch shell on her desk, hurled it at the gun. Smart move. The gun clattered against the desktop. She wanted to snatch it up, but her body ignored her mental command. She could only stare as fear immobilized her.
This time the intruder knocked the gun from her reach and grabbed the conch shell. He eyed its pink and coral spiral for a moment, then stepped behind her desk. With the heel of his hand, he shoved on her chest, slamming her into her chair.
“Take your money and go.” Alexa whimpered, hating being forced to beg for anything—even her life. Begging had never been the Chitting style. She tried to divert her attacker's attention by telling him about the money still inside the safe. But it was too late.
With fingers curled inside the conch and thumb gripping one end, the thief slammed the shell's protrusions against Alexa's temple and forehead. She felt blood trickle into her eyes, her mouth, and as a rusty taste coated her tongue, she saw her desk blotter flecked with red stains that quickly darkened to brown. Excruciating pain exploded in her head, expanding from a central core and radiating in all directions. She raised her hands to protect herself, but the blows rained faster and harder until all fight left her.
She slumped, her head a pulpy melon dangling wetly over the chair arm and dripping blood onto the pristine carpet.
Copyright ©2005 by Dorothy Francis
Q. Why did you write Conch Shell Murder?
A. I wrote it for the reason I write all fiction—to entertain readers. That is the main purpose of fiction.
Q: Why did you choose to set CONCH SHELL MURDER in Key West?
A: Because I live near Key West during the winter and that makes it easy to do primary research, to study the island, to create characters indigenous to the ecenes I create. Many people have visited Key West and find they can return vicariously through reading CONCH SHELL MURDER.
Q: People say they love the characters in CONCH SHELL MRUDER and that they remember them long after they finish the book. Why do think this is true?
A: Because I've created larger-than-life characters. The reader relates to them because they are plausible and interesting and also because they do things the reader may want to do but doesn't have the nerve to do.
Q: Give me an example.
A: Consider Katie Hassworth, the protagonist, the detective. Readers identify with her because many of them have wanted to quit a job and do something different. The fact that she witnessed a classroom murder and a suicide makes her larger-than-life in their eyes. They're on her side from the start.
The victim, Alexa Chitting, is larger-than-life because she's a woman, a woman in charge of a successful and lucrative business. Many readers would enjoy being in such a position. She's so autocratic she fascinates readers as the character they love to hate.
What character could be more larger-than-life than Rex Layton who charms Key Westers—and Katie—with his ability to lead citizens to make their city the best it can be?
Then there's Elizabeth Wright who's larger-than-life in her scheeming nastiness to promote herself, abscound with a fortune and with Rex.
Q: Then, even in a mystery, you think characters are more important than plot?
A: No. A mystery has to be a careful combination of characters and plot. Characters would go nowhere without a plot to guide them. A plot would go nowhere without characters to bring it to life.
Q: Where do you get your ideas?
A: My best ideas come from my own life and from my environment. And no, I've never murdered anyone or even contemplated such action. But my husband and I have both been public school teachers and I can imagine to the terror of a teacher faced with an armed and dangerous student in the classroom. I can relate to the awe of a newcomer seeing Key West for the first time and wanting to stay forever. Working from those beginnings, I ask myself 'what-if' questions. What if Katie wants to help find the drug dealer who caused her student to lose control? What if her success encourages her to stay in Key West and work as a private detective? What if her first case involves the murder of her landlady?
Q. How long does it take you to write a book?
A. I allow at least six months, including research time, including life happenings that interfere, including time away from my computer for doing book signings and giving speeches.
Q: Do you have an agent?
A. Yes. Years ago when I was writing mostly for children, I thought an agent was unnecessary. Sometimes I worked with one and other times I didn't. But now that I've changed my major focus to writing for adults, I think an agent is essential for helping a writer find an editor who really likes her work and for finding a publisher willing to publish it. Most agents keep telling writers that today's market is very tough. True. Agents have been saying that for decades. New writers should not let that discourage them. There's always room for a well-written story.
Q: What advice do you have for beginning writers?
A. Read, or at least scan, one book a week Treat your writing as a business. Set aside a time and a place for writing. Sit down at that chosen time and place and write.And don't give up your day job.