The Dark Protagonist


Without even thinking about it, I took a huge risk when I started writing Lay Death at Her Door. I knew what the story would be—both the underlying secret story to be discovered at the end of the mystery and the chain of events that would lead to that final exposure. So far so good. I knew I had a good mystery in hand.

The author's dog sleeping at her feetBut then I made a fateful decision, and I remember very clearly the moment that I made it. I was sitting as I am now in my study very early in the morning, the house silent except for my dog snoring at my feet and—oh, come to think of it, this is how my book opens:

It is the end of August, and although the days are still hot, the early mornings have the chill of an advancing season. I’m wrapped in a warm shawl, sitting at my desk in the attic of this lovely old house deep in the country, ten miles outside of Lynchburg, Virginia. The window in front of me looks out to the mountains, but sunrise is another hour away, so all I see is my face reflected in the lamplight.  The only sound is the faint ticking of the keys of my laptop.

The fateful decision was to tell the story from the point of view of the main actor in the underlying story. In Lay Death, the backstory is that a man was murdered and a woman was been beaten and raped. The woman accused an innocent man of the crime, and her testimony sent him to prison for life. The book opens when new evidence exonerates the man after twenty years.

I decided to take the point of view of the woman who accused him. Her name is Kate, and she’s done something terrible. She had a reason, of course. She felt she had to lie to protect herself, and the result was that she lived the next twenty years of her life with the knowledge that she put a man in prison for something he didn’t do.

There’s another big player out there—the real killer. But this underlying drama is all about Kate. She’s the character on whom the whole story turns. Her decisions created the crucible, her secret choices created the egregious injustice which this mystery sets right.

The books opens with a scene in which Kate discovers that, twenty years after the original crime, DNA profiling has exonerated the man she accused. The crime has lain apparently solved for two decades. She has lived safely all those years, except for the noise of her own conscience.

Lay Death at Her Door is not a police procedural or a detective story. Realistically, the case might well have shifted quietly from solved to cold and unsolved. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable and hundreds of convictions have been reversed in recent years on DNA evidence. Rarely is the mistaken witness blamed. And not too often are these old cases solved.

Add to Kate’s horrific past the fact that after the exoneration she flies under the protection of rape shield laws and a righteous culture that protects victims of crime. Her name does not even appear in media coverage of the exoneration. The possibility is strong that she could just weather the overturned conviction and remain safe in her secrets.

In the course of the book two forces drive us to the truth. One is Kate herself. Her character—the woman who created the original situation—has not changed. She is what she is. It is not a criminal justice system that brings her to justice. It is her essential nature. Like a tragic heroine, she staggers and ultimately falls because her own flaws.

The other force for truth is a nemesis—a detective from the original homicide investigation who never did believe Kate’s story. Elsa Gabriel cannot solve the crime without Kate slipping up, but she is there to catch the least error and bring it home.

So to me, in retrospect, now that story has been told and written and published, the choice to write from Kate’s point of view makes sense. There is no other way to tell the whole story, to understand how it came to be every step of the way except from through Kate herself.

With my eye on that, I didn’t think about the risk. We like to read about main characters we can identify with. They are supposed to be likable, relatable, everyman, not tragic heroes. We even tend to think about tragic heroes as admirable, though in fact many of them in literature have been bold and lawless. No one will admire my Kate. She is a dark protagonist.

But a tragedy has to be told with the main character in the leading role. The  protagonist has to be the agent, the main actor, the character who acts and is not simply acted upon, who has created a huge injustice and then, being the same person, brings justice down inevitably upon herself.