East Lansing author Charles Cutter’s five Burr Lafayette legal thrillers all start with malicious murders and keep readers hooked with twists and turns to the very end. His most recent mystery, “Under the Ashes,” has an unusual murder weapon — poisonous mushrooms. Or so it seems.
In the book, Cutter — a pseudonym for Charles McLravy, which he said no one could spell — returns to his favorite locale, northwest Michigan. Readers will find familiarity in the restaurants and venues Lafayette frequents. For instance, when he’s not at his office in East Lansing’s old Masonic Temple, he can be found hanging out at El Azteco and Beggar’s Banquet, where he enjoys the five-alarm chili and several Labatt Blues on tap.
At the start of the novel, a popular radio DJ, Nick Fagan, dies mysteriously after eating his favorite dish, veal morel. The book’s title is derived from where morels are most often found: under ash trees.
“I try and make my books very local and unique to this part of the world,” Cutter said. “The morel has a special cache in Michigan. It’s scarce, hard to find and just delicious.”
It’s that scarcity that brings Fagan to pick his own morels to eat at the restaurant that fateful night.
Since Fagan’s spouse, Molly, was last seen in the restaurant’s kitchen fooling around with her husband’s main course, she’s the most likely suspect and is charged with murder. Her charges are dismissed after the first court hearing finds a lack of evidence, but when she seeks to collect her late husband’s $1 million life insurance policy, she’s put on trial again. Everyone believes she did it, including her attorney, Lafayette, at varying times. Everything points to Molly, but it’s up to Lafayette to find the real killer.
Readers will marvel at how Cutter, a retired attorney, is able to ramp up the drama to a spectacular courtroom finale, continuing in the tradition of TV criminal defense lawyer Perry Mason.
Cutter spent an extraordinary amount of time researching poisonous mushrooms to get the science just right. He even turned to a retired mycologist in Harbor Springs, who also has a fictional role in the book. Without going into grand detail, as he does in the novel, the reader learns the false morel is not the real killer.
Cutter has also written a few salacious moments into the novel, such as Lafayette and his on-again-off-again paramour taking to the high seas for a “sailing lesson.”
“I was getting more requests to get more sex in my books,” he said. Check that off the list.
He also saw fit to make Lafayette a more flawed character than he already was. He ramped up Lafayette’s propensity to drink, leaving the character well on his way to confirming his alcoholism.
Cutter said the hardest part about publishing his fifth novel was rewriting.
“I was happy with my first draft, but I wasn’t getting a lot of positive feedback, and my publisher sent me a 12-page evaluation,” he said. “It was really deflating and had a lot of criticism. I got it right before the Fourth of July and stewed about it for two months before getting to work.”
The old saying “write what you know” comes into play, since Cutter, in his other life, owned radio stations in Michigan during what he calls their heyday — a time when you could buy them for cheap and turn them into powerhouses by moving towers closer to big markets.
“I got out of it altogether with the advent of the internet,” he said. “Prior to the internet, radio was part of the social fabric, and it was the way popular culture was discovered and spread.”
His next legal thriller is tentatively titled “The Lady’s Slipper,” inspired by the gorgeous, endangered Michigan orchid. It revolves around a murder and a rapacious land developer who wants to build where the slippers grow. The book will also see Lafayette coming to grips with his drinking problem and his romantic relationship.
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