GLEN RIDGE, NJ — When Lori Robbins sat down to begin writing her second book, she decided the world of ballet would be a good backdrop for a murder mystery. The result, “Murder in First Position,” was released Nov. 24 by Level Best Books and is the first in a series of dance-related mysteries. Telling the story of a ballerina who is accused of the murder of a rival dancer, Robbins used her own experience in ballet as a starting point.
“I’m a former dancer, so I drew on my own experience,” the Glen Ridge resident said in a phone interview with The Glen Ridge Paper on Dec. 5. “Not for the murder part, that’s fictional. I love murder mysteries, and the performing arts are inherently dramatic.”
The main character, Leah Siderova, is nearing the end of her dance career and must clear her name of the crime committed. In what Robbins said is already a competitive field with a short window of time for dancers to be in their prime, murder raises the stakes even higher.
“Dancers have a personal and specific relationship to time that people in other careers don’t have,” she said. “You know your career is limited. The competition is unrelenting; there are only a certain number of spots in any given company. That’s very intense. You’re already in a high-stakes career with very few guarantees.”
Robbins’ knowledge of dance isn’t the only personal experience she used in the book. She is a Brooklyn native who later lived in Manhattan; unsurprisingly, New York City plays a huge role in the story. The plethora of performing arts schools and venues made it an easy choice for a setting.
“Anyone who knows New York will recognize landmarks,” Robbins said. “It’s the center of ballet. The studio I still go to is there (in the book) as a fictionalized version of the real place. And it’s the most dynamic place to set a mystery, with how you imagine getting around and how you might avoid people. Here, the density of the city that would make her anonymous is actually dangerous.”
As anyone who reads a mystery novel knows, the puzzle must be solved by the end. Robbins usually knows where she wants to go with the story when she creates an outline but doesn’t always stick to it.
“I start with the characters,” she said. “Sometimes I’ve realized that the killer fooled even me. The clues were all there, but it didn’t match, so I went back and changed it. I have an outline, but I’m not married to it.”
“Murder in First Position” is the first in a planned series of three novels, but Robbins is hoping to continue the series to five books to match the five ballet positions. The same protagonist will be featured, with supporting characters getting bigger roles and other relationships developing as the series goes on.
“I didn’t want to put her back at square one,” Robbins said about the main character in the upcoming books. “She’s grown a lot. She has other relationships and family dynamics to explore. There’s a narrative arc that’s really important, but it’s still her story.”
Ninety years of Nancy Drew, 133 years of Sherlock Holmes and countless other mystery stories have proved that there is an eternal appetite for crime writing, whether fiction or nonfiction. Robbins thinks that in the current chaotic climate of everyday life, seeing a mystery solved is gratifying.
“At the end, there’s a resolution,” she said. “There’s a sense of justice being served. The world is crazy now, and I think there’s something satisfying about that.”
“Murder in First Position” can be purchased on Amazon, Bookshop.org, Google Books, IndieBound, Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million. A portion of the proceeds from sales will be donated to ballet companies in New Jersey and New York — the New Jersey Ballet, Ballet Academy East and Heart in Motion — to help with COVID-19 recovery. Readers who want to contribute can email Robbins at firstname.lastname@example.org with proof of purchase and the name of one of the studios in the subject line. More information about Robbins’ work can be found at www.lorirobbins.com.
“I think mysteries give us a chance to live vicariously through them,” Robbins said. “It’s about someone who looks like you, an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances. Not everyone will get onstage and perform. But everyone has been worried about a job or a boyfriend or their parents, or been afraid.”