I had a pretty clear idea of the type of mystery I wanted to write: the kind that reaches deep into the past. I wanted to explore the way a horrific hidden act can “rot out the center” of a life (to quote Kate Cranbrook).
To me, part of the satisfaction of the mystery genre lies in the rooting out and setting right of injustice. The more long-standing and deeply hidden the crime, the better the pay-off when the wrong is set right. So I wanted a crime with a long shadow.
I didn’t want a cold case. To me, that would suggest a police procedural, and I don’t write police procedurals (though I love them). I didn’t even intend to write a detective story (though I love those, too). I had in mind something more like a crime novel, which I conceived as nothing less than a tragedy.
I began with the idea of a very old, closed case that comes unsolved. How could this happen? The answer had been in the news for several years by the time I started writing Lay Death. Since the early two thousands, literally hundreds of cases have come unsolved because of advances in DNA profiling.
Rape kits have been around since the 1970s and were in fairly wide use by the 1980s. Starting in the 1990s, and especially since the turn of the century, advances in forensic science have made it possible to test old, stored evidence and, in some cases, prove the innocence of people convicted of crimes they didn’t commit.
In Lay Death, a man who has been in prison for more than twenty years for rape and murder is exonerated by new evidence. The old, unsolved murder was not a cold case but a recently unsolved case. Which introduced the question how the man had been wrongly convicted in the first place, and this, I thought, had interesting possibilities.
There’s no mystery how people get wrongly convicted in real life. They’re in the wrong place at the wrong time and often they are IDed by eyewitnesses who may be frightened, over-excited, biased—anyway, wrong for the many reasons eyewitnesses often are wrong.
But here’s where I made the leap into the realm of fiction. In Lay Death at Her Door, I started with the idea that the eyewitness who accused the wrong man had lied. It’s a shocking idea. Imagine deliberately putting away an innocent person for a serious crime.
Not that it hasn’t ever happened—it surely has—but it would be a very unusual situation, and it certainly is not expected in a case where the witness and the accused have no obvious personal quarrel. Rarely, in real life, would a discredited eyewitness, especially a victim with no known connection the accused, be suspected of deliberately lying.
My problem, from that point, was to dream up a story for victim/witness Kate, that would explain how she got into a situation where it was believable that she would, at the crucial moment, choose the lie. And the perjury once committed would be hard to retract. The path of her life would be set.