Kate Devlin deals in secrets, lies, and betrayals. She’s a psychologist, an expert at digging up everyone’s dirt but her own—until she uncovers her opera star father’s murder.
Flashing back to the night he died, Kate sees her father at the Metropolitan Opera dressed to sing in the last act of Carmen, her ten-year-old voice yelling, “I hate you.” Suspicion of her role in his fatal fall compels Kate to investigate.
When her secretive new client disappears, Kate takes on this case as well, partnering with Flynn, an Irish-Apache private eye. As they track the clues, Kate fends off threats to her life and sanity from Dr. Julius Cade—the shady psychiatrist who treated her father for PTSD and now runs a fringe trauma center in San Diego's Anza Borrego Desert.
At the crime scene backstage at the Met, Kate is shaken to discover her father’s betrayals, her mother’s deception, her godfather’s lies, and her part in the intrigues. She relives the trauma of being locked in a prop box, but she still can’t identify the perpetrator's voice.
The two cases merge in the Carrizo Badlands Mud Caves. As Kate penetrates her father’s secret life, she’s caught in a replay of the murder and confronts a paralyzing dilemma. If she unmasks the truth, she risks facing her own guilt.
Publishers Weekly: Booklife Prize Review
"This is an exceptionally clever psych thriller where almost no one is who they seem: there are plenty of suspects. Most compelling, however, is not the identity of the perpetrator, but the motive itself."
Being a psychotherapist is like being a detective, believes author and psychologist Sheila Sharpe. In both arenas, mysteries are solved, trauma uncovered.
Sheila has decades of experience in therapeutic practice. Her appreciation for the drama inherent in that field both fueled and inspired her writing of Locked in a Box, her debut novel. Before writing this psychological thriller, an avid engagement with both the creative and healing arts scripted Sheila’s personal life. A painter and storyteller since early childhood, she majored in art in college and later got an MFA degree in painting and film criticism from UCSD. She also worked as an art teacher and social worker before earning a PhD in clinical psychology and starting her own practice.
Sheila lives in Del Mar with her husband, Michael, who is a professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of California, San Diego.
Your heroine is a therapist. How autobiographical is the novel?
Unlike my protagonist, whose father is the murdered opera star, I was the daughter of a mystery-loving professor and a therapist mother. But my father had been onstage as a boy with his Shakespearean-actor parents, and that family background fed the plot of Locked in a Box.
Was it difficult for you to make the switch from non-fiction to writing fiction?
Yes, indeed! I had to unlearn much of what I’d been honing for years in expository writing. Telling was out. Everything must be vividly shown. Learning to build a fast-paced, suspenseful story with compelling characters seemed as challenging as learning to build a house.
Were there other challenges?
Many. In order to authentically write about some of my heroine’s experiences, I needed to do some scary things, like paragliding and spelunking. But it was getting lost in the Carrizo Badlands Mud Caves that led me to the true meaning of terror.
THE WAYS WE LOVE:
A Developmental Approach to Treating Couples
As a therapist, Sheila Sharpe specializes in treating trauma and working with couples. Her first book, The Ways We Love (Guilford Press, 2000), explores how love relationships develop, why they fail, and how couples can regain intimacy. While writing a suspense novel might seem like a marked departure from that earlier work, the two books share common themes: overcoming trauma and healing broken relationships.
“Therapy sessions can feel like scenes from a thriller,” Sheila says. “When a client is in the act of revealing an old trauma or dark secret, I’m on the edge of my seat.”
Now published in Russian
Stories and Essays
LOCKED IN A BOX
La Jolla, California, 2009
The day I fell out of the sky, I landed inside the enigma of my father’s death.
The wind was too strong for paragliding that afternoon, but fierce winds never stopped a hotshot like me. This day, the tenth of April, always brought trouble. But instead of cocooning in the refuge of home or my hermetically sealed office, I was running towards the edge of Torrey Pines Bluff, high on the thrill of danger.
Would I plummet into the sea three hundred feet below?
I leapt into space, my yellow wing sweeping me way up in the air.
Hallelujah, I can fly!
Turning south, I rode the ridge lift along the sandstone bluffs whiskered with dark green patches of chaparral. No longer Dr. Kate Devlin, the gray-suited psychologist, I was an exotic, yellow-winged bird soaring in the sky. The wind gusted, and a cold blast knocked me sideways. Even in Southern California, April was the cruelest month, and this day—the anniversary of my father’s death—always felt the harshest.
The sky darkened, the gusts stronger. I sensed a storm coming. Or my thunder-voiced father, Opera’s Greatest Villain—his restless ghost haunting me still. I could hear the rumble of his deep baritone in the roar of the wind. Would I never be free of him? I’d managed to forget almost everything about him, except the dark thrill of his world-renowned voice. A sudden gust slammed into my wing. I could feel it shuddering. The glider began to spin out of control.
Focus. Hands steady on the controls. Increase speed.
Raising the control toggles, I zoomed higher and a strong lift sent me soaring way up. Below, the ocean spread out like a giant sheet of metal. The sky was turning an ominous gray. I glanced overhead. Holy Mother of Shite! A monster cumulus cloud loomed right above my wing, sucking me into the swirling mist. In moments I’d be a rag-doll, tossed around blinded.
To avoid that fate, I plunged into steep spiral turns. The icy air whipped around me, tore at my jacket, numbed my hands. Spiraling faster, I lost my bearings, sky and sea merging, a blur of gray-white light.
Slow your turns. My hands froze on the controls.
Whirling down. Seconds to impact, the crash fatal on water-turned-rock.
Stop the spiral!
Which control, left or right? Total confusion, the slate sea rushing up. On pure instinct, I eased up on the left control toggle and the spiral slowed, slower…stopped, the world still reeling in my head. Water everywhere, and my mouth dry as the desert.
Sinking fast. Gliding close to the water, I angled toward the shore, feet skimming the waves. The surf coming up, I laser-focused on a patch of beach, willed more speed. It would be close. “One, two, three, four,” then my feet hit the wet sand.
I slipped out of my harness and packed my gear, wired on adrenaline. I’d beaten the death spiral. The high fueled my hike halfway up the bluff steps then sudden spasms of shaking forced me to sit. The sea surged below, and I imagined my body crashing, shrouded in yellow, the sharks circling. Blocking out this scene, I checked my watch, I was due back to my office to meet my 4:30 client. Plenty of time. I resumed climbing, ticked at myself for freezing in the spiral. Something more than fear had disabled me. What was it?
One step from the top, a nightmare image shot up from the deep—my father crumpled, his head in a pool of blood on his dressing room floor and I was running away.
The brass elevator doors were almost closed when a pale, manicured hand reached in and gripped one door. I jabbed the Open button, and a tall blonde slipped through the opening. Two beefy men in suits followed, then a busty matron swathed in pink velour. The doors rumbled shut, and I stifled a gasp, my chest a block of cement. Nine hundred pounds of air-sucking flesh packed in a five-by-seven-foot box. I always took the stairs, but today some fool had locked the stairwell. I was a daredevil in the sky but trap me in an elevator and I could die of fright.
“Second floor,” said the suit behind me, spewing garlic-breath. No other requests. I punched two, and then number seven for my floor at the top. The decrepit car creaked into motion like an old arthritic man lurching from his recliner. My pulse rate quickened. I tracked every jerk and gut-rolling sway.
At the second floor, the elevator rattled to a stop and the bodies fled.
The car staggered upward. I stepped back surprised to see the blonde still standing in the corner across from me. Her furtive glance triggered a sense of déjà-vu. Had we met before? I didn’t think so, but I felt an instant visceral dislike. She looked like a snooty fashion plate, her hair precision cut in an asymmetrical bob. A gold blouse shimmered under her tapestry vest and a matching purse hung from her shoulder, an artsy getup from a pricey boutique. Her lips pursed as she eyed my out-of-style pantsuit, and windblown auburn curls.
Picking on Fashion Plate kept me sane on the crawl to the third floor. Then my perceptions warped—the fake walnut walls creeping in, the ceiling pressing down, the floor a magnified chessboard of black and white tiles. I stood stiffly on a white square, and the blonde’s gold sandals gleamed on a black square. She shot a sidelong glance. I countered with a stony stare.
The ding sounded like a gong. Four miles to go.
The blonde’s lily-scented perfume cloyed the air. Sudden quiet. The air-conditioner had stopped wheezing. My heart rate spiked.
Ding. Number four glowed red above the brass.
The box heating up, sweat oozed in my armpits. I shrugged off my jacket. She reached into her bag. A reflection streaked across the polished brass doors. A knife? I froze. She shook out a handkerchief, an emerald-cut diamond winking on her finger. Innocuous. The blonde seemed to intend no harm, but my prickling antennae said otherwise.
An uneventful crawl to the fifth floor, but passing the sixth floor, the elevator slowed and began shuddering. As the car jolted to a stop, I begged the doors to open. Dead silence.
“I think we’re stuck,” the blonde said..
The lights went out. Pitch dark. I throttled the scream rising in my throat.
Inside a black box, my heart pounding. Gypsy music pulsates, clicking castanets. Cymbals crash. Footsteps circling. A menacing voice whispers, “Katie, Katie, you can’t hide from me.” The scrape of metal, the hasp latches. I’m locked in! I beat on the lid. All sides closing in…
“Are you all right? You’re gasping.”
Her voice brought me back to the present, my throat too constricted to speak. The dark felt alive, strangling. I started the drill to abort panic. Slow breathing. Imagine the wide-open sea.
“Are you hyperventilating?” she asked. “I have a paper bag in my purse.” Sounds of crinkling paper. “You might want to breathe into it, get a little carbon dioxide.”
“I’m fine now.” The cloak of darkness was not enough. I wanted to sink through the floor.
“Would you like some water? I have a bottle in my purse.”
My throat was so dry. “Yes, thanks. Do you have dinner in your bag as well?”
Her low chuckle, then the bottle arrived in my hand. I gulped the warm water.
“Are you claustrophobic?” she asked.
“So it would seem.”
“I hyperventilate from anxiety, too,” she said, as if we were in a Woody Allen movie.
This was getting weird. I groped along the wall searching for the control panel.
“I already pressed all the buttons,” she said, sensing my purpose. “Nothing lights up. There’s no emergency line, and my cell died on the way here.”
I felt inside my jacket pockets—keys, wallet, but no cell. I’d left it in the car. Sounds like rats scuttling. What was she doing? I peered into the dark, the blackness more opaque than my closed eyelids at night. Jingling noises. She was digging through her magic bag.
I leaned back in my corner, the flashback cycling in my mind—the footsteps, the creepy voice, an orchestra playing. Since my father’s death I’d been claustrophobic and had nightmares of suffocating, symptoms that no type of therapy had been able to cure. Severe childhood asthma was considered the cause, but this wasn’t a flashback to an asthma attack. Someone had locked me in a box. I didn’t recognize the voice, but the music was familiar—the rhythmic beat, the castanets. I hated that foot-tapping music. What the hell was it? Dizziness hit, and I grabbed the railing.
“Would you like a mint?” Her sticky fingers touched mine on the railing.
I dropped my hand. “No, thank you.” My tone sounded sharp.
Her sandals clicked on the tile as she drew back. I regretted my rebuff. She couldn’t know her offerings just aggravated my shame. I felt so vulnerable in this situation I was bristling like a porcupine. Trained as a singer the first ten years of my life, I still had my musician’s ear and the cadence of her voice struck a chord deep in my aural memory.
I heard her sniffing. “It’s so stuffy in here. I can hardly breathe.”
Her plaintive tone awakened my take-charge self. “This is an old elevator. We might be able to open the inner doors and determine where we are.”
We felt our way to the brass panels, hooked fingertips into the crack, and pulled. It took five tries to open them. The minor success empowered me, and the dark seemed less dense. Light was leaking in. I ran my hands up the rough concrete wall and hit smooth metal at chin level.
“I feel the bottom of the seventh-floor doors,” I said. “Let’s try to open them.”
Again, we pulled, grunting with the awkward effort. The doors wouldn’t budge.
“My nails are broken and my fingers hurt,” she whined.
What a wuss she was. “Let’s try one more—”
“I suggest we bang on the doors and yell for help,” she said.
“Act like helpless women?”
I faced the door and squeaked, “Help.” She started laughing, then the motor sputtered. The lights came on. The car lurched up a few feet an bumped to a stop. The doors opened.
“You see, it worked,” she said, as we rushed into the refrigerated foyer.
We stood blinking at each other under the harsh glare of the ceiling fluorescents.
“I’m Kate Devlin.” I offered my hand.
“Yes, I know.” Smug smile. “I’m Elise Devereaux, your 4:30 appointment.”
I stared at her, speechless. This possibility hadn’t occurred to me. Clients never came to my office a half-hour early. Fashion Plate knew who I was all along and had never let on. A remarkable performance. She grasped my hand, and a familiar dread rooted me—the sensation of walls closing in. The elevator doors clanged shut.