On Writing Murder

anything about mystery and crime fiction, from Poe to Christie to Rankin.

a cloudy night sky

Moons & Mystery

Sunshine State Murder series

Are you a moon gazer?

I certainly am. There are few things as beautiful and mysterious as a full moon in a clear sky. But’s it’s also a powerful symbol that I often use in my writing.

In my novel Murder Comes to Elysium, a blood moon rises over Grubber County, Florida. While most of the county gets ready for a moon-gazing party, PI Addie Gorsky tries to ignore it. As she observes, there is enough blood in the world, without the moon getting in on the action. On the night of the blood moon, Addie finds herself in a tight situation. After a close escape, she reflects:

At last, I slipped from the side door and into the night. It felt good, like diving into a cold lake on a hot day, but my relief was short-lived. My eyes traveled upward, to the full moon tinged in red, glaring down like a bloody eye. I hadn’t escaped it after all. The blood moon at China Rose had followed me here.

from Murder Comes to Elysium

Later that night Addie returns to her home base at China Rose, where the moon-gazing party is just wrapping up. After the learned astronomer finally ends his lecture, her thoughts again return to the moon:

The learned astronomer fell silent at last, thank God. His droning voice had worn on my last nerve and on his audience as well, judging from the measly applause. What were all his big words worth after all? The truth of this October night was written in black skies, stars that gleamed like broken glass, and a full moon tinted red—a hunter’s moon. And a hunter’s moon demanded blood.

from Murder Comes to Elysium

On the next clear night, go outside and watch the show that humans have watched for eons. Until then, enjoy this little video, taken on a December night several years ago.

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Furious Hours

Harper Lee’s Furious Hours

portrait of author Harper Lee
Harper Lee

In Furious Hours, Casey Cep has uncovered a little-known event in the life of famed American writer Harper Lee.

Worst Writer’s Block Ever!

After writing To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Harper Lee famously struggled with her second book. While Go Set a Watchman (2015) was initially promoted as a sequel to her first novel, it was obvious to those with even a fleeting knowledge of Lee’s career that it was the first and very rough draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. Apart from those two books, Lee produced a smattering of brief essays, with her last missive an open letter to Oprah Winfrey.

And yet according to friends and family, Little Nelle Harper Lee was always writing, always pecking away at her typewriter. In Furious Hours, Casey Cep reveals that for several years Lee obsessively worked on a true-crime book about an African-American preacher named Willie Maxwell who purportedly murdered five family members for insurance money. With the aid of a clever lawyer and a disinterested society, Maxwell escaped justice for years, fomenting fear in the black community. But the Reverend’s crimes finally caught up with him one June day in 1977.

On that day, Maxwell attended the funeral of his latest victim, his own sixteen-year-old stepdaughter. As the attendees singled past the casket, an aggrieved relative named Robert Burns shot Maxwell dead. Burns was arrested on the spot by the deputies hired to work traffic at the funeral.

The Trial

Upon reading of the case, Harper Lee caught the next train to Alabama for Burns’ murder trial, which she attended faithfully. And in a twist that a mystery writer can only envy, Robert Burns was acquitted–despite the hundreds of witnesses to the deadly act. The acquittal was due in no small part to his defense attorney. The same attorney who had previously defended the Reverend. This story had more legs than a centipede!

On the surface, Lee appears remarkably qualified to tell this story of Southern injustice. Along with her undeniable literary gifts, she was also the daughter of a lawyer who had come to within one semester of obtaining her law degree. After the year-long trial, Lee spent another year or two researching the complicated and intriguing case. With file cases stuffed with interviews and transcripts, months turned into years as she worked and reworked her material.

But her true-crime book never got written. It is telling that when her childhood frenemy Truman Capote dies, Lee finally gives up the project. Had she hoped to write a true-crime book that would rival Capote’s brilliant In Cold Blood? Whatever the answer, Lee took it to the grave. Leaving the rest of us to speculate.

At the end of the day, Cep doesn’t have any definitive answers as to why Lee couldn’t or wouldn’t write the book, though she leaves plenty of breadcrumbs that I’m more than willing to follow.

It’s important to remember that Lee was a daughter of the South and its peculiar and unequal system of justice, a system she evoked so effectively in the courtroom scenes in To Kill a Mockingbird. By setting Mockingbird during the Depression, Lee was able to ignore the civil rights movement, thus endowing her novel with the patina of age. In telling the reverend’s twisted story, she wouldn’t have that luxury.

True Crime or Real Fiction?

In my mystery Murder Comes to Elysium, a cold case from the sixties plays a pivotal role in the action. This fictional murder case bears a resemble to Willie Maxwell’s story in that the accused is a Black man. When writing about a Black man in a white justice system, the writer must deal with all the devils in that system. Most often, it’s not simply a question of guilt of innocence.

To write a fair book, Harper Lee would have had to face the harsh truth of the unequal and unjust nature of Southern justice for people of color. This was something she never did in life–or fiction. Although Lee lived during the heady days of the Civil Rights movement, she had virtually nothing to say about it. As she once famously quipped, “Well, it’s better to be silent than to be a fool.”

Perhaps. But there are always those times when a person must speak, or be damned with silence.

My guess is that the truth required to tell Willie Maxwell’s story was one truth too far for Harper Lee. In the end, she couldn’t risk tarnishing her idealized father or his literary doppelganger Atticus Finch. Both of whom were Southern lawyers, after all—participants in an oppressive system of so-called justice.

In a way, Harper Lee lived a life as shuttered and hidden as that of poor, blighted Boo Radley.

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London street scene

The Mousetrap

St. Martin's Theater

This mouse is a lion!

As every mystery fan knows, Agatha Christie’s murder mystery play The Mousetrap holds the record for  the longest running play in the world. It opened in London’s West End in 1952 and ran continuously until March 16, 2020,with other 28,000 performances! It’s said that records are made to be broken, but this sixty-seven year run will surely stand the test of time!

As a lifelong lover of Christie, I’d long wanted to see The Mousetrap, and a few years ago, I got my chance. Even so, I wasn’t sure the play was still fresh enough to entertain. After that many years, things can get a little creaky. Well, I was wrong–dead wrong!

 Built in 1901, the cozy St. Martin’s Theater is the perfect venue for a classic murder mystery. The interior is somehow both intimate and elegant, an Edwardian feast of burnished woods and heavy burgundy curtains flecked with gold. I overheard a woman complaining about the tight seating, but that is the price of communing with the past–a small price, in my view. But as they say, the play’s the thing, and in this classic who-done-it, Dame Agatha doesn’t disappoint.

A juggling act?

Writing a mystery is a bit like juggling, only instead of balls, you’re juggling suspects. The writer strives to keep as many suspects in play as possible so that the reader–or viewer–is never quite sure who the killer is, until the last possible moment. But as the plot grows in complexity, it becomes more and more difficult to keep everything moving–inevitably balls are dropped or discarded as the suspect pool shrinks.

Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie in 1925

 The Mousetrap is a closed mystery. Because of a severe winter storm, the seven characters–along with the intrepid Detective Sergeant Trotter–are marooned at a guesthouse. One of them is a murderer, but which one? Until the play’s closing moments, any one of the suspects could have been the killer–that’s the equivalent of juggling seven balls over two hours. Believe me, that’s a lot of balls! As a mystery writer, I can only stand back in awe.

The Mousetrap is old-school. And maybe it creaks with the conventions of an earlier time. But all the elements that made Agatha Christie great are in this play. For now, there are plans to reopen for performances, hopefully later this year.

So take my advice, and put it on your bucket list. Then once we’ve kicked the Pandemic’s butt, hop the next plane to London.

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