Getting Close to Murder

Lay Death at Her Door was inspired most directly by The Chill (Ross MacDonald) and Lolita. If you have read all three books, the connection will be obvious. But while I was writing, I also read every novel Ruth Rendell ever wrote. Her influence was profound.

            
 

I love that she gets right next to the drama at the heart of the murder. She even does this in her detective stories, the charming Wexford series. But it’s her standalones that I admire most. Often called howdunnits and whydunnits, books like Lake of Darkness, Going Wrong, A Demon in My View, and A Dark Adapted Eye (what a great title!) take us into the lives of people who kill and are killed.

          
 

I’m not talking about books written from the POV of a murdering psychopath—I don’t read these as a rule. Mostly, Rendell’s books are about people shaped by their environment and experience and propelled by recognizable, even universal, human emotions. When her character is a psychopath, we still experience that character’s humanity and vulnerability.

In the classic detective story, the murder takes place in the past, or off-stage, and the protagonist asks questions and pores over evidence and makes deductions. These actions make good reading—I especially love the reasoning and problem solving process (I used to teach logic).

But we don’t “see” the murder, the life-and-death drama. If it’s truly a whodunit, even if the build-up to murder is there, the ultimate act can’t happen onstage, obviously, or there’d be no mystery. We find out what happened by a confession, or by the detective announcing who is guilty, or by some other form of “tell” rather than by way of full dramatization.

Some of the best detective fiction uses multiple points of view to draw us into the deadly combination of emotion and crucible — though the murder will still be off-stage. Rendell has been a force in this kind of crime novel, as has PD James.

GGG

And that’s my current influence. Sisters in Crime here in Central Texas just celebrated James’s 94th birthday, and as a result I’ve dragged out her books and plan to reread them all.

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So, who loves YA mystery? Take a look at Kim Giarratano’s Grunge Gods and Graveyards! A great read. Tagging Kim! Visit her blog at KimberlyGGiarratano.com.

The Setting in Church Hill

Shortly after Lay Death was released, I did a book talk and signing at The Virginia Shop (Library of Virginia) –a few short blocks from where about half of the action in the book takes place in Richmond. I imagined Kate’s apartment as being on the second floor of a house my brother lived in for several years. Toward the end of the book, she rents a second house, also modeled on a real house in Church Hill.

[Excerpt from chapter four] We arrived mid-morning in the picturesque old part of Richmond called Church Hill, after the church where Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death.”

Street in Church Hill

Herringbone sidewalks in Church Hill, in Richmond, Virginia.

The streets were lined on both sides with cars, but I found a parking space within two doors of my apartment. The herringbone brick sidewalk where we got out was heaved up by the roots of a half-century-old magnolia just coming into bloom, drenching the cool air with intense perfume.

The morning was beautiful, quiet and sunny. The houses on my street stand close together or conjoined, and close to the street, with tiny well-kept front gardens of clipped English box, dogwood, and Chinese holly.

My apartment is the second floor of a small, freestanding brick house shaded by an ancient sycamore tree. We climbed a narrow wooden staircase in an alleyway on the side of the house. Pop barely allowed his fingertips to touch the handrail. He hated my place.

Secondfloor apartment

Kate’s second-floor apartment would look like this.

Later in the book, Kate rents a new place (for reasons which I can’t explain without giving away too much of the story). She comes across the house while walking down Grace Street.

[Excerpt from chapter twenty-two:] I passed the old church. Then, half a block later, I stopped in front of a house with a sign: For Lease.

St. John's in Church Hill Richmond.

St. John’s Episcopal Church (white building, far right) from half a block away on Grace Street.

The house was two-storied, narrow, and very old, probably a total of four rooms and a bathroom, maybe a dormered attic. I stepped back and looked up: Yes, that would be fine. A new place was the answer. I went back out on the street. The building was dark red brick with a narrow black iron balcony on the second floor. I got out my cell and called the number on the sign.

Kate's house in Church Hill

Kate’s “safe house” on Grace Street.

The Idea Behind the Book

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.

The Jefferson Case

I got the bare idea for the opening situation of my novel from a real case—of a man who was exonerated of rape after spending almost two decades in prison.

According to the Innocence Project, more than 300 persons have been exonerated in similar cases since the 1990s. Often these people have been convicted on the basis of eyewitness testimony.

Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. Most of the time, the witness is simply mistaken, especially if the witness is a victim in the crime, and traumatized, and especially if the perpetrator is someone the witness has never seen before or hardly knows. Rarely is the victim blamed or even scrutinized, and rightly so.

Lay Death opens with a scene in which my main character, Kate, learns that a man she accused of rape has been exonerated.  It is my purely fictional premise that she was lying when she testified against him. Such a case would, in reality, be highly unusual. Realism, in murder mysteries, is almost always an illusion! A trick of character, a good plot, and setting.

So Kate has done something unthinkable. At the age of twenty, after witnessing a murder and being beaten and raped, she has deliberately accused an innocent man. And for twenty years she has lived with the knowledge that he was in prison for something he didn’t do—because of her.

View of the Blue Ridge Mountains

The original murder in Lay Death takes place in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains outside Lynchburg, Virginia.

Why would anyone do such a thing? It’s an appalling situation, one that cries out for explanation. I worked out a situation in which a person might lie on the stand to protect herself. Then I invented a plot that would begin with the exoneration and end with the whole truth coming out.

Most of the exonerations I’ve described, including my fictional one, hinge on modern DNA profiling. The fact that I open my story with a forensic result might suggest that my book is a police procedural. It isn’t, at all.

Some people expect that the book will be about Jefferson. It’s not. The poor man was innocent. He had nothing to do with the long-ago crime. The exoneration is the jumping off point for a classic mystery story that turns on character, motivation—and deception.

Lay Death is a mystery in which someone has gotten away with murder. It’s also about a person who is living with a lie. It is the job of the book to drag the murder and the lie out into the light. That’s the job of any murder mystery (according to me): bring wrongdoing to justice.

One more thing: Lay Death is not a detective story, although one implacable detective—Elsa Gabriel—serves as a nemesis. The resolution in Lay Death comes about not because a detective ferrets out the truth, but because the characters who committed the crimes and told the lies self-destruct from within.

In Lay Death, the exoneration of Jules Jefferson comes about through the efforts of what I call the Justice Project–a fictional counterpart of the Innocence Project. You can read about real cases of people being exonerated by DNA profiling at www.innocenceproject.org.

 

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.