I’ve probably read hundreds of mystery novels over the years. My preference is for the lighter or cozy variety, where the details of the murder are downplayed and the focus of the book is more on characterization and the solving of the case.
Now that I’m writing them myself, one of my jobs is to try to get into the heads of my characters who have a murder come into their lives, in order to accurately portray their reaction to the killing and their emotions. But it’s difficult, because you’re always at a distance from the murder in a mystery. After all, it’s just fiction: no one has really died; no one is truly feeling the void left in their life when a loved one is no longer there.
Though I have had people close to me die, their deaths have all been of so-called “natural” causes, and most were in their old age. I’d never know anyone who was the victim of a murder. Until my friend Beth was shot and killed a week ago Tuesday.
When Elizabeth (Beth) Butler decided to enroll in the police academy, I think most folks were probably a bit surprised. Robin and I certainly were. We’d met Beth when she was a UCSC student, living at Kresge College where Robin worked. Kresge is known for its high percentage of hippies, artsy-fartsy types, and vegans—not your typical spawning ground for a cop. Beth fit this mold in many ways, being a potter, a dancer, a gardener, and a fun-loving gal with a free spirit and wicked sense of humor.
Beth the mom
Nevertheless, she was happy as a Santa Cruz police officer. A community studies major at UCSC, she’d long had the drive to be more involved with the residents of our community. She enjoyed getting to use her Spanish and investigation skills on the job, and loved working in a field where you truly get to help people on a day-to-day basis. During ten years with the force, Beth worked as a patrol officer—both on foot and bicycle—as a hostage negotiator, as an agent with the county drug task force, and eventually as the detective in charge of sex crimes investigations.
Were we worried about her, about the dangers associated with being a cop? Of course. But we also took comfort in the fact that in over 100 years no Santa Cruz police officer had ever been killed in the line of duty.
That statistic was horribly erased when on February 26, Detective Butler was shot and killed along with Sgt. Loran Baker, while the two were investigating a sexual assault. Beth was just 38 years old, and leaves behind two young sons, as well as her long-term partner, Peter.
Beth the cop
I’ve been through all sorts of emotions one would expect when a friend is so suddenly and so violently taken away: shock, horror, anger, grief, empathy for her family. But the most prevalent emotion, the most persistent one, has been an underlying feeling of depression.
I don’t mean to say that I’m thinking of Beth 24/7, for I’m not. But her death is a constant presence, just beneath the surface of my consciousness. And while I’m working in the garden, or cooking dinner, or gazing during cocktail hour at the puffy trade-wind clouds lit up with pink hues, I’ll suddenly remember, and think, “Beth will never get to do this again.”
So for the past week I’ve just been blue. Sure, I can laugh, have fun with my friends, enjoy a good book. But the sadness, the senselessness, of Beth’s murder is always there, too.
Last night, it was with some trepidation that I returned to the Martha Grimes mystery I was half-way through. Would it be too hard, too depressing, I wondered, reading about a murder after what happened to Beth?
Thankfully, the emotional part of my brain immediately got the difference—that this was a work of fiction, not reality. But I also know that Beth’s death has affected me in ways that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
I send my love to Peter, Joaquin, Stellan, Louise, Alexis, and all of Beth’s family and friends. She will be sorely missed by us all.