TAMPA — Following in the footsteps of fellow former Tampa Tribune crime reporters Tim Dorsey and Ace Atkins, Vickie Chachere is celebrating the release of her first crime novel.
Unlike Dorsey’s and Atkins’s gritty tales featuring flawed, hard-boiled investigators, however, Chachere and co-author Cindy Pearlman have penned a young-adult novel, “Jex Malone,” featuring a teen sleuth and her band of friends who solve crimes in the tradition of cultural icon Nancy Drew.
Like other generations of girls on the verge of becoming teens, Chachere, director of special projects for the University of South Florida’s communications department in Tampa, said she voraciously consumed any Nancy Drew mystery book she could get her hands on.
“I probably was 8 or 9 when I became a Nancy Drew fan,” she said of the female detective series launched in 1930. “I was intrigued with the idea that a young woman would question the world around her instead of just accepting the answers presented to her. Like many women who pursue challenging careers, the Nancy Drew character influenced the kind of person I became. She told us it’s all right to take charge, be bold and be brave.”
In the spirit of the fictional character with a penchant for crime, Chachere went on to major in journalism at Arizona State University in Phoenix and then landed her dream job as an investigative crime reporter at The Tampa Tribune in 1989.
She subsequently was recruited to cover crime for the Associated Press’ Tampa Bay bureau in 2000.
Chachere recalled it was a heady time for Tampa Bay crime reporters during her stint with AP. Tampa Bay had captured the attention of the national press following a series of unrelated high-profile kidnappings and murders, including the case of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia who was kidnapped from a Sarasota car wash in 2004; 13-year-old Sarah Lunde, who was abducted from her Citrus County home and discovered choked to death in an abandoned fish pond in Ruskin in 2005; and 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford of Homosassa, who was abducted, raped and murdered in 2005.
Long after Chachere left the grim world of crime reporting to become an editorial writer for the Tribune and then chief speech writer for USF President Judy Genshaft, she says the faces of Brucia, Lunde and Lunsford’s friends continued to haunt her.
“These kinds of horrible stories don’t leave you unscathed. They stick with you and you absorb the horror of the victims’ family and friends,” said Chachere. “Their lives had been forever altered, their sense of security ripped away. But nobody ever tells their story.”
Just as Chachere was wondering how to give these young girls the voice they deserved, she received a call from Cindy Pearlman, a classmate from Arizona State whose friendship hasn’t waned over the years.
“We worked together on the campus newspaper every single day for two years,” said Chachere. “We were inseparable.”
Pearlman, an entertainment writer for the Chicago Sun-Times and co-author of 13 nonfiction books, suggested she and Chachere write a young-adult novel after meeting an author of the genre.
Chachere said it was as if Pearlman was reading her mind. “We started talking and realized we could tell the story together.”
Pearlman said the two agreed they wanted to pay homage to Nancy Drew by creating a modern version of the girl sleuth who would use contemporary forensic tools to solve crimes.
Writing under pen names, C.L. Gaber and V.C. Stanley, it took Pearlman and Chachere nine years of writing chapters and sharing them via email to complete and publish the first book featuring the teen sleuth.
“Since we had different writing styles, I’d put in all of the CSI stuff I’d learned when reporting on crime and then she’d layer it with snappy dialogue.” Chachere said.
“We never worked on the book face to face, but we had two eight-hour days on the phone. And, in all that time, we never fought over a single word in the book.”
“My contributions to the book were written on napkins at the airport Starbucks and in my head while I took my German shepherd Cody for walks,” said Pearlman.
The book is targeted to teens of both sexes age 13-18. “Right now there’s a huge, thriving book culture among kids this age,” said Chachere.
She describes the main character, Jex, as a snide, snarky 16-year-old girl who is have difficulty dealing with her parents’ divorce and subsequent move to New Jersey, far from her father, a Los Angeles homicide detective.
While visiting her father in LA for the summer, Jex stumbles upon one of her father’s cold cases, a girl named Patty who had gone missing 13 years before. With the aid of her newfound teen friends, Jex sets out to find out what really happened to Patty.
Using her publishing connections, Pearlman said she attracted the interest of best-selling author and editor Jacquelyn Mitchard of Merit Press, who agreed to publish “Jex Malone,” and signed the authors to continue the series.
“We have plenty of material for a long, long time to come,” said Chachere, adding that the second book will be released next year.
Teens can learn more about the book as well as ask Jex questions, download the first chapter and follow Jex’s Instagram and Twitter pages by visiting www.jexmalone.com. Copies of the book are available through Barnes & Noble Booksellers and Amazon.com.
Young readers will have the chance to meet Chachere and obtain a signed copy of the book when she visits the Temple Terrace Public Library, 202 Bullard Parkway, Temple Terrace, at 2 p.m. July 12.