Karen Keskinen’s Black Current, the second mystery to feature private investigator Jaymie Zarlin, opens with an arresting scene: Zarlin sees the lifeless body of a teenager, wrapped in the tentacles of the deadly jellyfish he was feeding at the Santa Barbara Aquarium. In this blog post, Keskinen discusses the images that informed the creation of her latest novel.
Wasps of the Sea
Sometimes a single image, even an image that dwells only in the mind, sparks a novel. Black Current was engendered that way.
Where do life guards wear pantyhose and store bottles of vinegar in their stashes of surfboard wax? If you’ve spent time in Australia, as I have, you know the answer. Down Under, nets surrounding popular beaches aren’t just there to keep out the sharks. Perhaps even more fearsome than a Great White is Chironex fleckeri, a species of box jelly. Commonly known as the Sea Wasp, its tentacles can reach ten feet long, deliver stings resulting in excruciating pain, and cause death in under three minutes.
Which brings me back to the image that sparked in my mind: the body of a handsome, athletic young man floating in an aquarium tank. Skye Rasmussen was wrapped in the arms of a blue box jelly, and the two swayed together in a macabre dance. How did Skye end up in that tank? A mystery was born.
The Camino Formerly Known as “Blue Boy”
PI Jaymie Zarlin is a fit woman not all that keen on the collections of squirrel cages commonly called gyms. She relies on the jogging and biking she does around town to help her stay strong. Even so, her favorite mode of locomotion was always Blue Boy, her brother Brodie’s El Camino. In a fit of funk she doesn’t like to remember, Jaymie donated Blue Boy to a local charity, which spun around and sold the El Cam to an aging boomer down in L.A.
Now she wants Blue Boy back. But the boomer has renamed the Camino Dudette, and Jaymie knows she needs to let go—and locomote on.
The Santa Barbara Aquarium
We may not have a facility called the Santa Barbara Aquarium here in our town, but we do have the Ty Warner Sea Center, perched jauntily on a spur pier just off Stearns Wharf. The Sea Center sells Beanie Babies in the gift shop, boasts a collection of glow-in-the-dark jellies, and possesses a wet deck. I’ve monkeyed around with the dimensions and layout to suit my own nefarious purposes, but trust me in this: the Sea Center is remarkably similar to the Santa Barbara Aquarium in Black Current.
Dale, dale, dale: hit, hit, hit. If the image of Skye embraced in Cruella’s arms suggested the book to me, it was the image of a traditional piñata that suggested the theme.
For once, the high-schoolers were paying attention in their ethnic studies class: their attention was piqued when they learned that the seven points of a traditional piñata represent the seven deadly sins. The piñata, which may have been carried by Marco Polo from China to Europe, was brought on to Mexico by the Spanish missionaries. The Mayans already had a similar custom, and the enterprising friars bound the two customs together to teach Christian lessons. The one with the stick, blind-folded, represents Faith: she and the onlookers are rewarded with a shower of goodies when she vanquishes those deadly sins.
The kids in Black Current have a bright idea. They’ll stage their own version of a piñata party. The goodies themselves will actually represent the deadly sins—and the yummy rewards will be no virtues. Dale, dale, dale: who else but Gabi Gutierrez, Jaymie’s sidekick, will have the fortitude to set these wayward kids on the straight and narrow path?
A Rare Flower Indeed
Much of Santa Barbara is frost-free, and plumerias do grow here. The waxy fragrant blooms tend to be cream, yellow, or white. An orange-and-blue plumeria bloom is rare, so rare that it may only exist in the imagination of a tattoo artist—or a writer.
Even so, Jaymie Zarlin finds one of those rarities, squashed and imprinted with the pattern of the sole of a shoe. Where does she find it? And from whence did it come? That would be telling!
Santa Barbarians came together this past spring to hold a rain dance up at the mission. Their antics found no favor with the gods, however: we remain dead center in the red bull’s-eye of California’s drought map. Locals are busy ripping out any remaining lawns, coyotes are chewing at the drip irrigation lines, and the city mothers and fathers are dusting off the abandoned desalinization plant.
Black Current is a story about thirst in a dry land. The characters thirst for love, and for their loved ones who’ve died or moved on. They drown in a dry climate, but even then, they can’t quench their thirst.
The people in Black Current desire one thing above all, and that’s rain: the rain that turns the grasses green overnight, the rain that pours down and sluices the ash from the leaves, cleansing and cooling the hot dry air. But some things don’t come by wishing, or trying, or even praying: they come only through grace.
Karen Keskinen was born in Salinas, California. She has also lived in California’s San Joaquin Valley and in Wellington, New Zealand. She now resides in Santa Barbara where she is a full-time writer. Keskinen is the author of Blood Orange (2013) and Black Current (2014).