Better Supercop than Superbabe: Meet Carla Windermere (Again) by Owen Laukkanen

Owen Laukkanen’s debut, The Professionals, announced itself with authority in 2012, garnering praise from the likes of Lee Child, John Sandford, and Jonathan Kellerman, and landing on more than a few “Best of” lists at the year’s end. Now Owen returns with Criminal Enterprise, in which he expands the role of characters who were secondary in his debut outing. He’s particularly glad he had the chance to do so when it comes to his female lead, Carla Windermere. You see, he didn’t exactly get her right the first time around. I’ll let him explain.

Owen LaukkanenOne of the really fun things about writing a series is having the opportunity to revisit one’s characters, to pry open their lives and explore their personalities a little more with each book. Or in some cases, to write them the way you should have done the first time around.

THE PROFESSIONALS, my first novel, was published a year ago this week. It’s the story of a group of twentysomethings who turn to kidnapping when their college degrees don’t land them any kind of a living. If you’re a regular reader of Elizabeth’s blog, you might remember the column I wrote to mark the book’s release, wherein I explained how circumstance and an utter lack of planning landed me a deal for a series about Minnesota state policeman Kirk Stevens and his FBI counterpart, Special Agent Carla Windermere.

Basically: I’m not one for outlining my novels. I sat down to write The Professionals with an idea about a group of nomadic young kidnappers, and a few chapters into the story their path took them up to Minnesota, where Stevens cottoned on to their scheme. Stevens partnered with Windermere, the kids fled the state, and by the end of the caper I had an unlikely partnership ready to take on their next adventure.

Stevens is a family man. He’s middle aged, kind of paunchy, bad hairline—he’s your average fortysomething desk jockey cop. Wicked sense of humor and a hardass when he has to be, but he’s never going to win any beauty pageants. Windermere, on the other hand…

We first see Windermere through Stevens’s eyes, about eighty pages into The Professionals:

“She was beautiful—she must have been about thirty, tall and slender, her brown skin rich and her hair coal black and ruler straight—but it was her eyes that got him. Deep shimmering pools with startling hazel centers, they seemed to bore deep inside him as he stood rooted in the lobby, watching her approach.”

I mean, I know. I’m working on the fourth Stevens and Windermere novel right now, and I still sometimes cringe when I introduce Windermere to a new batch of readers. Her beauty seems like a yoke to me, like an admission that I’d copped out and created a cliché as opposed to a real (you know what I mean), living, three-dimensional character.

But like I said, I wrote The Professionals without a series in mind. I created Stevens and Windermere as foils for the kidnappers who, I figured, were the main characters in the book. Consequently, you don’t get much about Stevens—and even less about Windermere—as you read through the book. You’re left with this notion of a beautiful, badass FBI agent without much of a backstory to her. Without much substance. You’re left, maybe, wondering if Windermere is another of those kung-fu-fighting-Navy-SEAL-in-a-size-zero-dress types who we’re supposed to believe are “strong female characters” in crime fiction.

Criminal Enterprise by Owen LaukkanenWhich is why I relished the opportunity to write about Windermere again in CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE, the second novel in the Stevens and Windermere series, out this week from Putnam. I wanted the reader to see the world from her eyes, instead of just Stevens’s. I wanted to write her as more than just beautiful. Because I hate those sexed-up cartoon superbabe characters. I can’t stand reading them, and I sure as hell don’t want to write them. I know far too many strong, real-life women to feel comfortable reducing my female characters to fantasy figures.

Criminal Enterprise takes place a year after The Professionals. It finds Stevens and Windermere back in the Twin Cities, having fallen out of contact as the distractions of their day-to-day lives mount. Stevens is working cold cases for the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Windermere, meanwhile, has a bank robbery case: Carter Tomlin, a wealthy accountant, robs a bank to keep up with his mortgage after he loses his job. Then another. Little by little, he realizes he enjoys the adrenaline rush far more than he misses working at the office.

Tomlin’s descent into mayhem drives the story forward. Thematically, Tomlin’s arc is the big one. To me, though, Criminal Enterprise is Windermere’s novel. We see her at home, at the office. We see the world from her eyes, get to know her fears, her insecurities, her goals. She’s lonely after the failure of her relationship, stubborn with her coworkers, independent to a fault. She’s imperfect, ultimately, but I like her that way.

Then again, I’ve always liked Windermere. She’s always, to me, been the most interesting character on the page. I’ll probably always feel a bit silly when I have to tackle the question of her looks, but I’m hoping that now there’s a fully-realized person behind my FBI agent’s appearance, a good, honest cop, oftentimes conflicted, sometimes insecure, sometimes downright petty or mean. She’s a flawed person. Hell, maybe she’s a little bit broken. But I like her that way. I’m comfortable with her. And I’m having a lot of fun putting her back together.

Criminal Enterprise is available from Putnam (ISBN: 978-0399157905).

An alumnus of the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing BFA program, Owen Laukkanen spent three years in the world of professional poker, traveling to high-stakes tournaments across the globe as a writer for www.PokerListings.com. A commercial fisherman when he’s not writing, Laukkanen divides his time between Vancouver and Prince Edward Island, Canada. Laukkanen’s debut thriller, The Professionals, was published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in 2012. To learn more about Owen Laukkanen, visit website or catch up with him on Facebook and Twitter.
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