Today I am attending the funeral of Llewellyn/Midnight Ink/Flux chairman, (and heart of the company) Carl Llewellyn Weschcke. Wonderful timing that I had this guest post lined up already. This came to me from our good friend Ben LeRoy. And after reading this, it's a book I am adding to my TBR pile!
She called it first. Harper Lee. When Truman Capote asked her to go to Kansas with him, to start the adventure that would become In Cold Blood, she said of his invitation, “It was the deep calling the deep.” Surprisingly, this Southern-friend woman, with what we mistakenly think of as gentle, Magnolia-wafting sensibilities, loved true crime and mystery as much as the next person. Which is a lot of us. (Which was me, at ten years old, trying to check out In Cold Blood and The Boston Strangler from the local library, only to be refused by the librarian; she directed me to “age appropriate” Lois Duncan and Phyllis A. Whitney instead!)
So I was amazed that in all the recent press over her “newly-discovered” novel Go Set a Watchman, relatively few reviewers seemed to know of a true crime book she evidently had been working on, starting in the late 1970s, when Lee was in her early 50s. It was to be called The Reverend, and was about an Alabama minister, Willie Maxwell, whose several wives and other family members started dying. Frequently. And mysteriously. But things weren’t so mysterious, once it was discovered that sizable life-insurance policies had been taken out on the victims, five in all. The files of the case, and the idea of the book itself, had been brought to Harper Lee by a lawyer named Tom Radney, who had defended both the suspect and – in a bizarre twist that could only happen in the deep South – the man who shot him dead. Lee reportedly spent months in Alexander City, the Alabama town where the murders had all occurred, doing research and interviewing the locals, much like she and Capote had done for In Cold Blood. The years dragged on and no book resulted, although Lee showed Radney a few early pages and repeatedly told him the book was close to being finished. With such juicy material, and in such poetic hands, one can only imagine the book that might have resulted, and regret that it didn’t. (Last March, an excellent article in The New Yorker, by Casey N. Cep, detailed even more of the twist and turns behind The Reverend, including the mystery of the still-missing files loaned to Harper Lee.)
Years ago, long before anyone thought Harper Lee would have another best-seller on her hands, I came across the story of The Reverend, while researching my own novel about Harper Lee and Truman Capote, called Capote in Kansas: A Ghost Story. It was considered a “literary novel,” but in my mind, was every bit a “mystery” as much as the newest Deborah Crombie or Louise Penny. (Just consider this: Amazon’s Kindle categorizes To Kill a Mockingbird under “Mysteries and Thrillers.”!) In my “fantasia,” an aging Harper Lee begins receiving mysterious packages in the mail, and has to find out who is sending them, and why. Along the way, I take on the true crime of the Clutter family killing, the mystery of who really wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, why Harper Lee never wrote again, and why she and Capote became such enemies.
Labeling. Genre. Novel or mystery or thriller. I’m sure it’s a discussion that’s come up in “Dead Guy” many times before, but it’s of interest to me now because it’s a world where I’m about to make my “debut,” despite having published two previous books, the Capote novel and a memoir called The History of Swimming. (That had a mystery, a real one: my twin brother disappeared. What happened to him?)
My new book is called Dig Two Graves – after the Confucius quote: “When first you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” About the only thing I can safely say is it’s not a cozy. Two fingernails get pulled out in it. Not very cozy. The hero, Ethan Holt, teaches classics at a New England college, something like a Bennington or Williams; in his earlier years, he’d been an Olympic Decathlon winner. One of those Ivy League athlete/scholar types. He’s jokingly nicknamed “Hercules” – and when his 12-year-old daughter is kidnapped, he’s forced to perform modern day versions of the 12 Labors of Hercules, to get her back. He has to ramp up his old super-human muscle memory to perform them, but he has to solve them first: bizarre, rhyming riddles, instead of ransom demands. (A bit like another favorite mystery writer and series, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. Just how many crazed criminals are running around Cambridge, at any given time? Evidently, quite a lot.)
My agent and I spent a long time deciding how to pitch the book. Of course, “thriller” was immediately sexy. Who doesn’t want to be thrilled? But to quote one of the book’s earliest readers – when it was about 150 pages longer than it is now – it wasn’t “thrilling. Not yet.” Mystery did the trick, but was that distinctive enough? What about that kitchen drawer catch-all “novel of suspense?” Or was that too pretentious, like we just couldn’t decide what it was? Would what it was marketed as make a difference in sales? Our first round of submissions was a bit like Goldilocks and the Three Bears: too literary and not bloody enough for some mystery presses; too genre-based for some “literary” presses.
Thankfully, it was “just right” for Ben LeRoy and his invaluable Tyrus Books. In our very first phone conversation, he told me he didn’t care about police procedure, because I “got the human condition.” He had me at “human.” That’s what the book was, no matter what label we put on it: about a man who is at the absolute breaking point, who will do whatever it takes – whatever – to get his daughter back. I wanted to put his blood on the page. I wanted to show his heart and soul and brain – on kidnapping.
My favorite books have always had that inherent element of suspense, whether they were categorized as mysteries or not. The “human condition” is a mystery. I want to know what happens next. I want something to make me turn the page. Who is doing what to whom – and why? Bizarrely, I learned my most valuable lessons as a “suspense” writer during the seven or eight years I was a writer at Good Morning America. One of my jobs there was writing “continuity”: those teasers that come after each segment, to get you to come back after the commercial break. I did it by posing questions: what happens next? How can flossing add 6.4 extra years to your life? (True.) Who gets that final rose – and what really happened inside the “fantasy suite”? Something you had to have the answer to – and you could find it out, on the other side of the commercial break. Perhaps not the most conventional way of learning how to write a mystery, but it’s the way I learned.
So in a way, as I get ready to enter the world of Bouchercon and Thrillerfest, of Mystery Writers of America, I’m still just writing the way I always have: I’m coming up with a question that needs to be answered. Who is doing what to whom – and why? Another book title comes to mind, Dominick Dunne’s Another City, Not My Own. It’s his fictionalized account, from his alter ego Gus Bailey, of his time in L.A. covering the OJ Simpson trial. I’d like to make the mystery/thriller/suspense world my new city. I’m not done with the characters I introduced in Dig Two Graves yet.
Maybe I’ll do three graves next.
Maybe I’ll be the real-life sleuth to track down those missing legal files that lawyer Tom Radney gave Harper Lee, way back when, about “the reverend,” and turn them into a book myself. Only that one will have six graves.
Kim Powers’ novel, Dig Two Graves is available now from Tyrus Books.