Every Town Has It’s Secrets: Elaine Viets on Death Grip

by Elaine Viets on 1 June 2021

Death Grip

Elaine Viets introduces us to Death Grip, the fourth Angela Richman mystery, and dive bars.

Death Grip, my new Angela Richman, death investigator mystery, is set in mythical Chouteau County, Missouri, home of the one-percent. That’s where a very rich CEO, who dates beautiful women and gives millions to charity, has a dark secret: he hunts down poor young women, strangles them and buries them deep in the woods. Death investigator Angela Richman is called to the scene of his latest victim, who left behind a clue identifying the killer.

But the killer is protected by armies of lawyers. To catch him, the police need a witness – a victim who escaped and can identify the killer. And this woman is found in a dive bar.

For Death Grip, I did extensive research on dive bars for a critical scene in the book below. Here’s Jace Budewitz, the worried detective, Katie, the outspoken assistant medical examiner, and the novel’s narrator, death investigator Angela Richman, trying to find a witness who can help catch the killer. 

         Jace gives Angela and Katie the list of dive bars and says, ‘There are no fake dives on that list.’

          ‘What’s a fake dive?’ I said.

          ‘A dive bar that doesn’t have any duct tape on the seats is a fake,’ Jace said. ‘So is a bar that serves twelve-dollar “hand-crafted” cocktails or craft beer. Any bar that has “Dive” as part of its name is not a real dive. There’s more, but this list of dive bars has been carefully curated.’

          Katie said, ‘I do believe that’s the first time I’ve heard “dive bar” and “curated” in the same sentence.’  

          ‘So what are we looking for?’ I asked.

          ‘One of the women our killer picked up who escaped. Find out if he hurt her, what he did, what happened that night. Did she feel threatened?’

Katie announced,   ‘Angela and I will start the dive bar crawl tonight.’

          She asked me, ‘Have you ever been to a dive bar?’

          ‘Sure. I did the death investigation of that bartender’s shotgun murder at the Dew Drop Inn. The rundown bar way out by the highway. It was a mess.’

          ‘Shotgun blasts usually are,’ Katie said.

          ‘I mean the bar. It was dirty. All the bar stools had duct-taped seats and stuffing was coming out of the booths.

          ‘Over the bar was a framed photo of a fat guy on a toilet that said, “The Only One Here Who Knows What He’s Doing.”’

          Katie laughed. ‘Yep, that’s an authentic dive bar. But I meant have you ever been to one for a drink?’

          ‘I don’t think so.’

          ‘Okay, I’ll give you a short course in how to go on a dive bar crawl. I grew up in the country, so I’m in my element at these bars.

          ‘First, eat dinner before we go. You’ll lay down a base for the night’s drinking. Plus, you don’t ever want to eat anything at a dive bar. Mostly they sell beef jerky, pickled eggs from a jar – definitely stay away from those little bacteria bombs – and the occasional microwaved Hot Pocket.’

          ‘None of those tempt me,’ I said.

          ‘The only safe things are packets of peanuts (those are usually stale) and bags of chips or pretzels,’ Katie said.         

          ‘I can do without them all.’

          ‘Don’t sit at the bar unless I tell you. Take a table. If the dive doesn’t have table service, you’ll have to order your drink at the bar. For gawd’s sake, Angela, don’t order club soda or wine. The wine usually has a screw cap and tastes like paint thinner. Order a beer.’

          ‘I don’t like beer.’

          ‘I don’t care. You don’t have to drink it. Just set it in front of you. In a dive bar around here, you get two choices: Bud and Bud Light. Don’t get a draft, either. Take a bottle and tell the bartender you don’t want a glass – glasses in dive bars are dirtier than the toilets.’

‘Thanks for that stomach-turning detail,’ I said.

          ‘What are you going to wear tonight?’

          ‘What I’m wearing now. My death investigator pantsuit.’

          Katie nixed that idea. ‘Ditch the nun suit. Got any old jeans?’

          ‘Sure. My riding clothes – jeans and a chambray shirt – but they’re one step above Goodwill rejects.’

          ‘Perfect,’ Katie said. ‘Do you have any cowboy boots?’

          ‘Just my riding boots.’

          ‘Too upscale.’ Katie checked out my sensible lace-up flats. ‘You are not wearing those. Any cheap-looking high heels?’

          ‘I’ve got some red open-toed spike heels.’

          ‘Perfect,’ Katie said. ‘Wear a red belt and dangly earrings and you’ll be good to go. I’m driving my pickup.  We’ll fit in better.  I’ll pick you up at seven o’clock for Claude’s Hideaway in Crawford, Missouri. In the meantime, get some sleep. It’s going to be a long night.’

          I headed home to take my own nap and woke up at six, fixed a quick dinner and extra-strong coffee to wake me up, and dressed according to plan.

           I felt silly teetering along in high heels and old jeans, my long gold earring tinkling, my waist cinched by a red belt. But anything to help get that killer locked up. 

          At seven o’clock, Katie was in my driveway. I climbed into her red pickup and we drove to Crawford, a small town about forty minutes west.

           Claude’s Hideaway was on a back road, hidden away like an embarrassing relative. A sign with a blinking yellow arrow said, ‘Turn Here to Party Hearty! Good Times at Claude’s Just A Country Mile Away!’

          Katie bumped down the rutted road, gravel pinging off the sides of her pickup. It was indeed a country mile away, which meant it was more like two miles, before we saw Claude’s, surrounded by dark woods.

           The gravel parking lot was packed with pickups, and we could hear loud country music. Katie said, ‘That’s Hank Williams Junior singing “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight.”’

           I liked it.

          Claude’s Hideaway was a long, low-slung cinder block building that had once been painted white. A sign proclaimed ‘JELL-O WRESTLING EVERY WEEKEND.’

          As we crunched across the parking lot, I asked Katie, ‘What’s Jell-O wrestling?’ I had visions of someone eating a giant bowl of Jell-O with a fork.

          Katie said, ‘Women in bikinis wrestle each another in a pit of Jell-O.

          ‘Yes, I’m talking about the gelatin dessert. The wrestling match takes place in some sort of blowup kiddie pool for the entertainment of a bunch of drunken dipwads.’

          We were at the door. ‘Let’s hope we’re at the right place and can find one of that creep’s pickups,’ Katie said. ‘I’ll go in first.’

          Katie walked into the dimly lit bar and I followed. The place smelled of mold, Pine-Sol disinfectant and cigarette smoke. I saw maybe thirty men – the heavy drinkers pounding it down at the bar and the rest at about ten tables with mismatched chairs. The men were mostly shaggy-haired, many wearing straw cowboy hats with curved brims and cowboy boots. The fat bartender wiped the bar top with a dirty rag. The few women customers were chubby, cute and flirtatious, dressed in sparkly tops and tight jeans, with heavy make-up.  They were sitting at the tables with the men.

          We walked past the Official Jell-O Wrestling Ring, a roped-off alcove.

‘Next match Saturday night at 9,’ the sign said. ‘Sexy Sally v. Foxy Fran.’ Next to it were two photos of underfed blonds with big breasts, little bikinis, and Farrah Fawcett hair. ‘Tickets: $10 Admission, $10 for a 12-second whip cream squirt.’

           I started reading the Official Rules: ‘No kicking, punching, biting, hair pulling, gouging, head butting, choking etc. All participants must remain on their knees.’

          And finally, to my horror, the last rule said.  ‘If your opponent yells “stop,” passes out, or is injured in any way then the round ends immediately.’

          Katie tugged at my arm. ‘Hey, Angela, where did you go? Sit down!’

          We took a table near the restrooms, which were labeled ‘Pointers’ and ‘Setters.’

           ‘Yep,’ she said, and I heard the satisfaction in her voice. ‘Definitely a dive. That sign over the bar confirms it.’ Over the bar was a plastic sign that said, ‘Our credit manager is Helen Waite. If you want credit, go to Helen Waite!’

          A thin, long-haired blond wearing short-shorts, a t-shirt and tennis shoes showed up at our table. Her name tag said, ‘Jolene.’

          ‘Can I get you ladies a drink?’ she asked.

          ‘Beer,’ I said. ‘Bud, in a bottle. No glass.’

          ‘Same for me,’ Katie said.

          ‘Anything else?’ Jolene asked.

          ‘No, thanks.’

          Reba McEntire was singing ‘The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia’ when Jolene returned with our drinks. Katie put a twenty down on the table for our drinks.

          ‘Can I ask you a question, Jolene?’ Katie asked.

          ‘Sure, hon. I may not answer, but go ahead and ask.’

          Katie brought out a headshot of the rich killer. It had been cropped so he wasn’t wearing a tux. ‘Have you ever seen this man in here?’

          Jolene laughed. ‘Look around you, hon. You see any men like that in here?’

          ‘Not right now,’ Katie said. She put another ten on the table.

          ‘I’ll gladly take your money till the cows come home,’ Jolene said, picking up the bills and giving us a friendly smile. ‘But I’ve never seen that man in here. Thank you for asking, though.’

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