Mary Sutton is never afraid to ask a state trooper or police officer for help, which is fortunate, because Sutton has plenty of questions for law enforcement agencies. The Penn Hills resident’s Laurel Highland Mystery series, written under the pen name Liz Milliron, features a Pennsylvania state trooper as one of its two protagonists.
“When I started out, I thought these people really didn’t want to talk to me,” says Sutton, who just published the second novel in the series, Heaven Has No Rage (Level Best). “But I’ve never encountered an officer or any sheriff’s deputies or state police or local police who’ve not taken the time to show me how it works."
The mysteries, featuring public defender Sally Castle, in addition to state trooper Jim Duncan, use Laurel Highlands as a backdrop. Sutton, who is originally from western New York, admits she rarely ventured into that region until 2011, when she visited during a retreat. That unfamiliarity allows her to see the Laurel Highlands with fresh eyes, she thinks. But the thrust of Sutton’s novels is how crime can insert itself into a small community.
When a body is found at Laurel Highlands resort, Duncan is caught up in a web that includes financial improprieties and a steadily increasing body count. Castle’s parallel track — reuniting with a friend who appears to be stalking her — is familiar enough, but Sutton manages to find nuances and threads that seem fresh.
“The tagline on my website is 'big city crime, small town justice,'” she says. “Crime is crime. The motives are the same, whether you are downtown or in the country, it’s the same types of crimes: people want money, people want revenge, people want power. There are people who think those crimes don’t happen in small towns. Small towns have this idea of 'I’m really safe.’”
Sutton’s full-time job is writing technical documents — “the instructions nobody reads when they log into an application,” she says — for a software company. That work entails a certain discipline that meshes with her fictional aspirations.
“Certainly being a writer in my day job has helped,” Sutton says. “I have to be logical, whether I’m writing a mystery or writing a procedure for a help desk, you have to be logical, you have to be able to follow it, you have to make sure the reader is not going to be confused. … And it’s certainly taught me a lot about hitting deadlines.”